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Thoughts on Story Structure

May 27, 2017

Over on Medium, Jon Westerberg tells us Storytelling is the Number One Skill You Want to Improve:

I think that storytelling is the greatest technology that humans have ever created. Storytelling is the basis for almost everything in our society, and the way we interact, build, communicate, live and dream all derives from it.

Couldn't agree more.

And we would go further to say that Dramatica is the greatest combination of both technology and theoretical story structure humans have ever created.

In the last week we helped two companies align storytelling with their core values. The first--a company that sees close to a billion dollars in revenue annually--was pleased to hear that our concept for their big budget animated feature synchronized perfectly with their company-wide marketing campaign. Instead of simply helping them tell a story, we helped them craft a structure that propagated one of their core values.

A complete story is an argument. When one of the principal characters resolves their own issues by completely changing their world paradigm, the Author makes the argument that changing this position resolves even bigger issues in the world around them. Instead of marketing an idea through imagery, a story markets values by showing the results of taking that new position.

With the other project, we managed to weave the company's mission into both the pilot episode and entire series of a proposed animated television series. By developing two similar, yet vastly complex arguments, into one work, the production company can move forward with the confidence that the end result will be more than simple diversionary entertainment.

Storytelling should be the number one skill you want to improve--understanding the psychological structures behind effective storytelling accelerates and deepens that skill set far beyond simply making it "relatable." Making it truly relatable requires aligning structure with the psychological processes that dictate problem-solving within our own minds.

Dramatica--and specifically Narrative First--provide the tools and know-how to make that alignment an easy and fun process.

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May 22, 2017

Malcom Solves Problems by Working the Balance of Things

Over the weekend, we removed the plastic wrap off FIVE of our premiere articles within our Vault:

The first three cover the Dramatica concept of the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style. For those new to the theory, the MC Problem-Solving Style (originally the Main Character's Mental Sex) sets the base-operating system for the story engine of a narrative. Linear problem-solvers seek solutions to problems by looking to cause and effect. Holistic problem-solvers seek solution to problems by looking to the relationships between things and shifting the balance to draw out change.

This difference requires Authors to make a choice as to how their Main Character functions as it explicitly sets the order of thematic material considered in each and every Act.

Why Act Order is More Important Than Time Spent explains why this order is infinitely more helpful (and useful) than the actual time spent within each Act. Think you need to "turn" the First Act after 25 pages in a screenplay and the Second after 75 or so? Think again: the actual substance of those Acts supersedes any of these considerations.

Finally, Thinking of Your Audience First takes an initial look at Dramatica's Audience Appreciations. We provide this article within the context of history. The more recent series of articles The Audience Appreciations of Story dive into these illusive concepts with far greater confidence and accuracy.

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May 17, 2017

Joe and Lee work things out

The "Inciting Incident" is a nebulous term and therefore insufficient in matters of story structure and analysis. Some see it as the event that starts the story while others see it as the "Call to Adventure". Even Hero's Journey advocates find it less than useful:

The Inciting Incident is a confusing term and, in general, not very helpful. Within the context of the Hero's Journey, it could represent a few points of action…Perhaps the Inciting Incident is useful in [infantile] three, four or five act structures, but amidst the complex Hero's Journey, it is less useful.

Ignoring the ridiculous comparison between the Hero's Journey and other "infantile" understandings of narrative structure, one witnesses a lack of agreement over the function an Inciting Incident actually performs.

The Call to Adventure

From a Dramatica point-of-view, the Call to Adventure is simply the moment where the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines meet for the first time. R2D2's delivery of Ben's message in Star Wars weaves in Luke's constant need to find ways to test himself against the larger world's concern of finding someone skilled enough to help fight the evil Empire. The revelation that brother Joe listed Lee (Casey Affleck) as guardian to son Patrick in Manchester by the Sea pits the empty black hole of wanting anything within Lee against the bigger picture concern of a dying man's wishes.

This functions as a sufficient definition of Inciting Incident--if it weren't for the fact that these stories don't start with those moments.

The First Story Driver

Instead of relying on amorphous "Inciting" moments, the Dramatica theory of story looks to the initial creation of the central inequity within the Overall Story Throughline. Dramatica refers to this initial event--whether it be an Action or a Decision--as the first Story Driver. This moment marks the dividing line between the world at peace and the world embroiled in conflict--the world that needs a story to make meaning of the efforts to resolve that conflict.

Death Vader's illegal boarding of Princess Leia's ship is the initial Story Driver of Star Wars. Sure, the Rebels and Empire were at odds before the story began, but it was an equitable conflict--like the Cold War between the US and Russia. His blatant display of hubris upsets that tender balance and motivates everyone to search out a way to fight back.

Joe's diagnosis—shown out of temporal sequence within the movie—is the initial Story Driver of Manchester by the Sea. Lee's personal problems start sometime later, yet it is this dire set of circumstances that forces Joe, his wife, his attorney, and his friends to begin the process of making key decisions in the planning of Patrick's future.

Diagnosing the Start of a Story

As you can see, knowing the identity of the Inciting Incident does little for an Author. While masquerading as the beginning of a story, this mixed-up charlatan confuses issues and mixes perspective in its attempt make things easier. Authors need to understand the difference between conflict as seen from the Main Character point-of-view and conflict as seen from the objective Overall Story point-of-view. A term like Inciting Incident blends the two, leading to all kinds of subjective misinterpretations of conflict.

The Main Character Throughline naturally collides with the Overall Story Throughline at some point within a narrative. Knowing when it does, or the nature of it, matters little to the actual meaning of a story.

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May 9, 2017

Recently, I received an email questioning our narrative analysis of Arrival. The writer took issue with my assignment of Be-er to Louise's Main Character Approach, thinking the story featured more instances of her solving problems externally, rather than internally. In fact, this writer listed over 40 different examples to back up his claim.

Unfortunately, each and every one of them described Louise's function as Protagonist in the Overall Story, not the Main Character Throughline.

Main Characters, Protagonists and Perspective

When a single player represents both the Overall Story function of the Protagonist and the first-person perspective of the Main Character, it can be difficult determining what portion of the storyform a certain event holds.

Seeing the Main Character Throughline as a perspective, not a storyline, makes the process easier.

The easiest way to find the part of the story that applies to the Main Character Throughline, and therefore a clue to the Main Character Approach story point, is to look to that personal baggage that the Main Character would take with them into any story—not just this one. Find something unique to the Main Character and the Main Character only, and you'll find this personal baggage.

If you look at Louise and the totality of Arrival, you’ll see that the biggest personal issue for her is the loss of her daughter. She is the only player, the only point-of-view really, that suffers through that loss—and it is those memories of her daughter, those painful memories, that connect us the Audience to the narrative. The Author specifically places within her point-of-view in order to experience a unique understanding of time.

A completed story intertwines the various elements and perspectives into one “piece”, so it can be difficult at times to parse out the different contexts for the Four Throughlines. If you can look to those elements of story that are unique to the Main Character and unique regardless of external “plot” or Overall Story, then you will find the path to the Main Character Throughline.

A Greater Perspective

Realizing that not every Main Character is a Protagonist broadens a writer's mind towards a more comprehensive understanding of narrative; seeing the Main Character as a perspective, not a character, opens up even greater channels and opportunities for storytelling.

Arrival is challenging to analyze because Louise is both Main Character and Protagonist. She not only suffers through the loss of her daughter but also drives the plot forward from Act to Act. Separating her function as the one pursuing and considering a successful resolution for all from her emotional point-of-view ensures an accurate assesment of its central narrative dynamics.

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May 7, 2017

In the end, there are two alien species living on the planet, each in possession of the secret the other seeks, but that they do not know they have and could not communicate if they did.

Melanie takes time out to blow us all away with a greater understanding of the difference between the way the two sexes think in order to better appreciate how Dramatica predicts elements of narrative:

Not to be cryptic, but perhaps the answer you seek cannot be found from the wisest man because the answer is just beyond what men can see. It is also just beyond what women can see, but then it is a different answer. What men seek is the special knowledge that women possess and women seek the special knowledge that men possess.

Personally, I wholeheartedly agree with her dislike of the terminology switch from Mental Sex (Male or Female) to Problem-Solving Style (Linear or Holistic), and hope it switches back in succeeding versions.

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May 5, 2017

Back from the Vault, part three in our four part series on Main Character and Meaning: How Main Characters Approach Problems. Beyond showcasing my turning of the phrase "Main Characters have a myriad of approaches", the article introduces the concept that where the Main Character prefers to solve problems indicates the kind of conflict he or she experiences in the story.

If they prefer to solve problems externally as a Do-er, their personal problems will center on problematic situations or activities. If they prefer to solve problems internally as a Be-er, their personal problems will revolve around manners of thinking and fixed attitudes.

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May 2, 2017

Melanie posits an excellent distinction between the internal order of events within a narrative, and the external revelation of those events:

Plot, then, is really that internal progression of events, while the reader/audience order is more precisely referred to as Exposition.

The timing on this post couldn't be better. In an effort to better serve the writers and producers we work with, we've been fast at work developing a tool that can easily bridge the gap between these two views...

...all the way down to the Scene level view.

For an author, it is important to separate the two. Otherwise it is too easy to overlook a missing step in the logical progression of the story because the steps were put out of order in Exposition.

The response to this new way of working with Dramatica has been overwhelmingly positive and we can't wait to share it with you.

Using this system, you will ensure that everything that happens in your story is not only interestingly revealed, but also makes an unbroken chain of sense.

Without a doubt, this corresponds with our own internal data. Help the writer develop his or her plot so that it makes sense, then guide them to expose that plot through an emotionally meaningful experience.

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May 2, 2017

Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, offers a new way to look at the Story Limit:

In a time lock story, you are rushed. In an option lock story you are pressured (because the undesired situation remains an irritant until you finally find a solution).

With only 10 days to go before his wedding, Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) feels rushed to hook up in Sideways. With only so many people to turn to, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) feels pressured to honor his brother's wishes in Manchester by the Sea.

Everyone loves subjective perspectives on Dramatica's cold and objective storypoints. The popularity of our series of articles Plotting Your Story with Dramatica speaks to this wave of interest.

Melanie's latest take on the Story Limit adds to this recent trend in making Dramatica more palatable to the everyday writer. More importantly, her latest post offers new understandings of a fascinating and groundbreaking theory of narrative.

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April 22, 2017

Whether working with comedians, actors, writers, producers, directors, and everyone else in-between one thing stands out: they all love to second-guess their storyform. They begin with a purpose in mind, but then struggle to force-fit that vision into a narrative that Audiences everywhere embrace. The problem lies in our own ability to deceive ourselves.

The Death Knell of the Student Film

I experienced the same self-doubt during my tenure at the California Institute of the Arts. During the first semester, students would kill themselves developing a solid story for their student films. We would work the story over and over again until it rang true for them and for others in the class. And they would finish the semester confident that they created something meaningful and important to them.

But then they would leave for Christmas Break.

With the excitement of continually problem-solving the structure of their story far behind them, they would return pumped up about starting a new film. Why work to complete a fully developed story when you can start over fresh and face new narrative challenges?

The exact same thing happens daily here at Narrative First.

A Form for Your Story

The Dramatica theory of story helps writers and producers tell the story they want to tell. By carefully answering key dynamic questions revolving around the central character of the narrative and the plot dynamics of the story itself, Dramatica returns a carefully balanced amalgamation of story points. Follow these points and Author's Intent becomes a reality.

Once writers submit their original material for our consultation, we spend a considerable amount of time zeroing in on the exact set of character and plot dynamics needed to accurately portray their story. In addition we help quadrangulate the various thematic issues and concerns involved in the Four Throughlines of their story. Writers enjoy the process and often sign off excited to start writing.

But then inevitably return, just like those CalArts students, with new ideas or new directions to take their story. Once writers find themselves exposed to the power of Dramatica, they begin to develop a tendency to continue to work and rework the storyform and that's because it's much easier to do that than to move forward and encode the various story points.

In addition, one tends to look the other way and ignore other aspects of the storyform that don't quite fit with their current new idea because they focus in one or two key story points that they would like to see different.

Working Together as a Whole

The current Dramatica storyform model contains over seventy-five holistically integrated story points. This integration, by definition, requires that all these points work together as a whole. A writer can't focus on one little bit of the storyform—they need to step back and see it in its entirety.

As the consultant on the project, I have the luxury of only recently coming to the story in question. Unlike the writer who knows their story forwards and backwards and forwards again, I come to the story free of prejudice. I see what is there and can comment and guide a writer to the exact storyform for the story they want to tell. What I can't do is continually bend and warp the storyform the way the Author can, because I'm not actually in their mind.

And unfortunately for the Author, neither is the Audience.

Writers convince themselves a storyform works the same way a character convinces themselves that they don't have a Problem. They subconsciously turn away from the reality of what drives them in order to focus on the apparent symptom of the problems in their story and respond by continually trying to change it. This justification process—the very opposite of actual problem-solving—forms the basis for what many refer to as writer's block.

Thankfully, writers familiar with Dramatica understand this process whereby a character fools themselves into taking one approach because they don't fully realize the true source of the conflict in their lives. By better understanding how this justification works within a story, Authors can flip the script in their own lives and return to the process of solving that problem of the unwritten story.

If you would like to learn more, or have us take a look at your story and help you develop it into a solid and workable bit of narrative please contact us or sign up for popular Dramatica Mentorship Program®. Over 30 writers, producers, and directors signed up over the past year. Add your name to the list and start seeing your story the way your Audience does--not the way it is in your head.

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April 7, 2017

This week's Throughline Thursdays examines the different kinds of conflict found in Peter Weir's 1989 baseball fantasy, Field of Dreams.

Moonlight Graham

Way back when, Google+ was a thing and we here at Narrative First thought it a good idea to relocate all of Dramatica's online discussion to the Dramatica Users Google+ Community. Short-lived as it was, the uptick in participation prompted many interesting conversations—one of them an in-depth analysis of Field of Dreams.

Structured like the Dramatica Users Group meetings, the analysis began with a determination of the Four Throughlines, then moved on to the Character and Plot Dynamics, and finally concluded with a deep dive into Concerns, Issues, and Problems of each individual Throughline.

Eventually the analysis will be ported over to the Discuss Dramatica forums, but until then you can read the entire Online Analysis of Field of Dreams here.

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