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Thoughts on Story Structure

October 10, 2015

Searching for articles to clean up from my old Story Fanatic site to add to this one I stumbled across an astonishing fact: Apparently I have been writing about story and story structure for ten years now.

Didn't realize it had been that long.

I do remember growing frustrated with writing about animation on my Seward Street and wondering if I might have a thing or two to say about story. You can only blog so long about squash and stretch and how great Disney animator Milt Kahl is before you grow tired of the whole affair.

Story is a completely different beast. It's an unending terribly fascinating ride that I know will not end until I do. Hope that's OK with you.

For laughs, here is my first "in-depth" analysis of Spielberg's take on War of the Worlds. This was my first (all the way back in 2005) and I remember being so nervous about posting my opinion in public.

Today I have no problem speaking my mind.

I could have sworn I wrote something a bit longer than this. If I find it I'll post it.

Is it sad to say that I saw this film in Spielberg's private screening room on the Universal lot...and hated it? The screening room was awesome, but the movie had that Deus Ex Machina ending that I can't stand. The popcorn was good though.

October 9, 2015

In a follow-up to my article on Dramatica and What It Means for Story, someone named JAG came to my rescue with an unbelievably intelligent summary of our favorite story theory. I reproduce it here in its entirety under the assumption that it will eventually be removed from the Hatrack Writers Forum. If you have anything to add to the discussion I encourage you to head over there and sign up--they're a very welcoming group.

Here's JAG (emphasis mine):

Dramatica Theory is an independent construct, wherein the creators represent stories as models of the human mind. More specifically, they are models of the activity of the human mind as it struggles to resolve an inequity, anomaly or breach of some kind. They describe a scenario where one of our prehistoric ancestors encounters a bear on the trail. This is an unstable confrontation. Something has to give. Our ancestor has two basic options: either she can change and the world can stay fixed, or the world can change and she can stay fixed. The core categories are self and world, stasis and change (as also examined by Strickland, 1989).

This is a textbook explanation of Dramatica and is something I used to teach the first day of class when I taught story at the California Institute of the Arts. You can tell JAG pays attention! It's better than anything I could write. He continues:

Another way to explore this drama of confrontation is to consider the difference between primary and secondary control. If our ancestor exerts primary control, the she forces the world to change, i.e. she can drive off the bear. If she exerts secondary control, she can change the situation by changing herself, and run away. Whichever way she sets her mind, she has to manage her internal reactions and her external actions. She may also try to influence the internal reactions and external actions of the bear (e.g. by playing dead). If she manages all of these horizons of activity in a successful manner, and she returns to her band’s campsite intact, her bandmates will want to know what choices she made and why, as well as what the challenges and outcomes were in making these choices. They will want to learn about and enhance the controllability of events (Girotto & Rizzo, 1991). Stories impart knowledge about the structured concerns of challenging events, and thus impart survival value, much as other forms of social learning do (Steadman & Palmer, 1997; Sugiyama, 2001a; 2001b).

This is why we have stories. And why we can't stand it when they diverge from this problem-solving model ... they become pointless and scattershot.

This is a base and rough exposition of how the Dramatica theory of story structure represents story Themes. In addition to Theme, the theory of story structure also describes models of Character, Plot and Genre. Dramatica also encompasses other theories besides the theory of structure, such as theories of storytelling, story-weaving (the art of exposition) and story reception. The overall model is very rich, and in some ways it defies summary, given how involving and how unique it is as a framework for understanding and writing stories. Dramatica suggests that a richer understanding of event structure is possible – one that might help us understand much more about the human need and capacity for stories.

I want to cry tears of joy.

Fight or Flight

A grumpy old man countered the story of bear survival with the argument that the decision is simply one of "fight or flight". JAG came back with another doozy:

"Fight or flight" does not render humans automatons, capable of only running or fighting. At best, that's a childlike interpretation. "Fight or flight" manages the release of hormones from the medulla of the adrenal gland, triggered by sympathetic nerves. These hormones can trigger increases in heart rate and breathing, constricting blood vessels and tightening muscles. And while an abundance of the hormones can facilitate some spontaneous or intuitive behaviors of preferred combat or escape, they don't shut down one's cognitive abilities. **The human mind does not stop thinking or trying to solve problems. **

Characters are either problem-solving or justifying (hiding the problem). Understand this and you'll understand the structure of a story.

Having myself encountered a grizzly bear in the wild, "fight or flight" caused a hyper alertness and awareness and with regard to cognition, it sharpened my thinking process. Hundreds of scenarios played through my head simultaneously. At no point did I become a mindless drone, incapable of thought. I was always problem solving, doing so at a heightened level. Side note: when hiking off the beaten path in Yellowstone National Park, always, always carry bear spray.

Comedy too? This JAG is great!

He ends the entire discussion with a wonderful and salient point:

I can't provide the acknowledgement you're looking for on behalf of Dramatica's creators to Stanislavski, deserved or not. And, truly, I'm not interested in any of that. It won't make me a better writer. However, I believe an appreciation and understanding of the Dramatica theory will.

October 8, 2015

Everyone is up-in-arms over Sorkin's latest take on a Silicon Valley megalomaniac who changed the world:

This time, Sorkin’s subject [Steve Jobs] isn’t around to argue the point — an observation Apple designer Jony Ive made at the Vanity Fair Summit in San Francisco this week, decrying those who would “hijack” Jobs’s legacy.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Dramatica.1 Real life is meaningless; stories are meaningful. You can't give an audience the satisfaction and emotional fulfillment they expect from a great story without twisting the truth of what happened.

This is why people love stories and why they keep coming back to them time and time again--because you can get something from them that you can't in real life: meaning.

The Four Perspectives

You need the four different perspectives--or Throughlines--to see the conflict in all the various contexts. You need to see it personally (Main Character), personal but separate (Influence Character), in a subjective relationship (Relationship Story) and in an objective relationship (Overall Story). You need to see all of these in order to keep yourself from remaining blind to what might be really going on from a different perspective.

This is most likely the source of the film's backlash--friends and coworkers who had a certain perspective on Jobs; friends and coworkers uncomfortable with a story showing something they were perhaps blind to in real life.

Sorkin professes pure motives. “I hope the impression left is one of an intensely complicated and brilliant man — deeply flawed, but who, nonetheless, dreamed big and galvanized others to great effect,” he said in promotional materials. “Ultimately, I hope viewers will find him to be human — and someone who probably could have been happier if he didn’t think that kindness and genius were binary.”

  1. Or anyone who has attended one of my classes or taken one of my workshops↩︎

October 7, 2015

Funny observation I had tonight before slipping odd to bed ...

Twenty years of Dramatica theory and I still make mistakes. Need proof? Listen to a Dramatica Users Group podcast and wait for the silence from me when it comes to figuring out the Story Driver. Huge blind spot for me. Better yet, check out the Ida podcast and listen to me insert a giant Shaquille O'Neal shoe in my mouth when it comes to the Main Character's Resolve. Tldr: I need help too.

And when I need help, I turn to Dramatica's co-creator Chris Huntley. I have an entire folder in my Dropbox devoted to Chris's responses to my email questions. Questions about the Plot Sequence Report and questions about the differences between a Situation and an Activity and yes, questions about the Story Driver.

But a strange thing happens sometimes when I ask these questions. More often than not, the moment I hit Send on that email, the answer comes rushing to me. Usually it would be followed by a quick flush of embarrassment for even ever asking the question and a wish that I could somehow take the email back.

I think that taking the time to formulate a question about Dramatica theory necessarily sets into motion the mental facilities needed to answer your own question. The simple act of making the confusion you have towards certain terminology or an aspect of the theory a physical reality--with words and commas and a question mark at the end--organizes your thoughts on a path towards understanding. It helps you figure it out on your own, the same way outlining and organizing your Acts individually by Throughline before writing helps you figure out the meaning of your story way ahead of time.

So if you're ever struggling with a bit of Dramatica, take the time to write me a well thought-out email. And make sure you hit that Send button. The moment you do, the answer will come to you and you'll know story a little bit better.

October 6, 2015

From writer Mike Matthews, a client of mine whose story I have been consulting on:

Everything is starting to tighten up and synchronize, which is very cool.

This is the fun part. Starting out with Dramatica can be overwhelming at first, four Throughlines, Problems, Solutions, Symptoms and Responses in each, Benchmarks and Critical Flaws and on and on ... at times it feels a bit like spinning your wheels. Until you come to the end of the work and you begin to see connections between the Throughlines that the theory was telling you all along.

That's when the real creativity starts and the sparks fly.

This is what drew me to Dramatica in the first place. It would be very hard/lucky/basically impossible to create a story as thematically and symbolically consistent and resonant on intuition/experience/skill alone. And I think that's what has happened with many timeless stories that just stick in people's heads "for some reason."

Exactly what I have been saying all along. Dramatica quantifies writer's intuition in a complex and elegant theoretical model. The theory has always been there; it just took a bit of work to put it down in words. And courage on our part to listen to it.

October 5, 2015

Time to point out something I used to do all the time when I was first learning Dramatica. I would see Main Character Problem: Non-Accurate and think, Oh, that makes perfect sense. I can totally see conflict there. Mike acts outside of tolerances. Satisfied with this in-depth understanding of my story, I would confidently head into my first draft …

… only to find that I wasn’t any further than if I had started on my own. All the richness Dramatica was offering to me was completely left off the table because I forgot to serve the entire meal. What does Mike’s acting outside of toleraces involve and how is that personally causing problems for himself? And the answer has to be specific. The more specific the richer the story will be.

Each item in a Dramatica storyform consists of three parts:

  1. The Appreciation (or Story Point)
  2. The Domain, Type, Variation or Element (or Gist)
  3. The Contextual Conflict provided by 1. and 2.

Stopping with #2, like I did above, is lazy writing; it is that kind of storytelling-by-numbers that everyone worries Dramatica is all about. The real leap forward—the real magic—happens when you move beyond simply copying down what Dramatica offers and think of what that piece of the storyform is telling you. It is not enough to say Mike’s Problem is Non-Accurate. You have to image and write down what specific conflict arises from this Problem.

So instead of jotting down in my notes Mike acts outside of tolerances, I could write Mike’s counter-culture nature, a backlash against his strict conservative upbringing, comes off phony and inauthentic—effectively ostracizing him from the few friends he has, leading him to spend several painful nights alone. A bit of a run-on sentence, but you can see how this generates a wealth of scene ideas and vivid specific imagery. Picture a sad sack trying his hardest to be different and ending up sad and alone on a Friday night.

Don’t be lazy and assume the implied conflict presented by Dramatica's Storyform enough to get you going in your story. You have to take the time to illustrate that conflict and explore the meaning behind the story point. That will elevate your story to a higher plane.

October 4, 2015

Get a hold of three or four terrific original scripts. You decide which ones. Read them; analyze them if you want, or just let them wash over you. Notice their format: it’s standard in the industry, no exceptions. Then throw away or erase from memory all the books, articles, and lessons that reference or espouse three-act structures, five- and seven-act structures, “inciting events,” “character arcs,” “redemption,” Joseph Campbell’s name, plot graphs and charts, or supposed “tricks of the trade.” Forget the mumbo jumbo and just write the damn script and finish it in 120 pages or less. If you’re sufficiently talented, original, and inspired, nothing else is necessary. If you’re not, nothing else will help. If it turns out that you lack one or all of those elements, write another script. Maybe another. Give up when you can’t take it anymore. The time saved by not reading all those how-to books should be enough to carry you through the first several scripts at least, with time to spare. Sound cruel? Ask any screenwriter. TONY BILL

Geez, OK. I get it. I'll stop trying to improve my understanding of narrative and cease building a strong foundation from which to write better and more meaningful stories.

I'll bury my head in the sand and write worthless crap like everyone else.

October 3, 2015

October is Influence Character Month here at Narrative First because what could be more scary than an alternative perspective designed to challenge your own personal justifications and make you question why you do the things you do? After all, that is the reason for an Influence Character in a complete story—to frighten and influence the Main Character into shaking things up.

Problem is, many writers find confusion in Dramatica’s explanation of certain Influence Character Throughline story points. Are these appreciations something experienced by the Influence Character themselves, or are they something the Influence Character sees outside of themselves? Do they need to directly impact the Main Character or can they be separate events that indirectly impact the central character of a story?

The Influence Character’s Subjective Viewpoint

We recently covered Understanding the Influence Character’s Signposts, but a little repetition never hurt anyone—especially when it comes to highly complex and sophisiticated story theory. Today, we’ll take a look at the Influence Character’s Symptom. Dramatica defines it as:

The Influence Character concentrates his attention where he thinks his problem lies. Just as in the Main Character, an inequity exists in the Influence Character between himself and his environment which is driving him. The actual nature of this inequity is described by the Influence Character Problem Element. The nature of what is required to restore balance is described by the Influence Character Solution Element. From the subjective view afforded to the Influence Character though, the inequity does not appear to be between himself and the Environment but wholly in one or the other. The Symptom Element describes the nature of how the problem appears to the Influence Character from his subjective point of view.

Notice the lack of reference to direct or indirect impact. It simply doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this alternative perspective sees the problem subjectively as the Influence Character Symptom. Communicate that and the Audience will synthesize the meaning from it.

Influencing the Main Character

With this in mind, the Influence Character Symptom functions both ways: either as a problem the Influence Character experiences themselves or a problem they see in others or other things. It's enough for the storyform that the alternate viewpoint to the Main Character’s point-of-view sees this as symptomatic of what is going on. The Main Character, challenged by this character's take on things, will necessarily reevaluate his or her own strategy. If he thinks this is a problem, and I don't even see it, what does that mean about me? the Main Character will ask themselves internally. You want that kind of impact on the Main Character in your own story.

Note you don't have to make this explicit in your storytelling. The storyform already makes sure that the different Throughlines sync up. That is the whole reason for Dramatica—to keep all those thematics tied together. You can be explicit, but you don't have to make the connections; the audience will make that connection with or without you.

October 2, 2015

Anyone in a creative field can empathize with this piece by programmer Derek Sivers on the need to relax. He found that dialing back his effort by 50% only resulted in a 4% drop off in productivity.

makes me realize that much of my effort apparently wasn’t effort at all, but just ineffective stress added on top of something to make it feel like I’m doing the best I can.

Might be something to think of if you're nearing a deadline, or your starting to stress it about NaNoWriMo.

October 1, 2015

We get mail.

This one came from a recent attendee of my Dramatica Guided Tour Workshop and concerned the movie for analysis that weekend, Dan Gilroy's phenomenal Nightcrawler:

Did we decide that Nightcrawler was Action driven? If so, why? I thought it was Louis' decisions to get a job by any means necessary which drove him to tabloid journalism. Which spurred all the actions afterward and ended on him deciding to kill Rick. If it was action, what was the inciting incident?

We never really saw Louis make the decision to get a job by any means necessary. If we did, and the Author focused on it, then perhaps it could have been an indicator of a Story Driver.

Unfortunately all the major plot points, or Story Drivers, that come after are Action Drivers: something usually happens that forces the news crew to decide whether or not to air the footage.1 Bloom trespasses, alters crime scenes and withholds information--all actions as the story's Protagonist that propel the story into each Act by forcing decisions to be made.

Actions happen, decisions are made.

The final Story Driver, or Concluding Event, is the on-screen murder of his friend.

For a story to feel complete, all the Story Drivers--or main plot points--must be of the same type: either Action or Decision. The driver part of this story point is important as stories are filled with actions followed by decisions followed by actions and so on. Looking over the gestalt of the narrative though, it will become apparent that one forces the other to occur. In this case, Actions rule the day.

To answer your last question regarding the Inciting Incident--or what Dramatica would call the first Story Driver--Bloom happening upon the accident in the 405 near Wilshire starts the whole chain of events. Yet another Action. Without that drive-by, there would be no story.

  1. The conflict in the news room over whether or not to air he footage also explores the Overall Story Issue of Permission). ↩︎


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