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Thoughts on Story Structure

October 29, 2015

After twenty years of working with Dramatica, I can say with some certainty that the best part of the experience has been the introduction to stories I never would have encountered on my own.

A brief overview of the 300+ films, novels and plays listed on the Dramatica site as having a storyform reveals some of the worlds greatest narratives. Besides older classics like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet and To Kill A Mockingbird, one finds more modern classics like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Amadeus and The Shawshank Redemption.

But the real discoveries--the gens that I will always be thankful for are the rare and more independent minded fare; those films that fly under the radar and more often than not escape our detection during their initial run. Amazing foreign films like Amélie and The Counterfeiters and my two ultimate personal favorites: A Separation and The Lives of Others. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that without the influence of Dramatica I would have completely missed these masterpieces of cinema.

And for that I will always be eternally grateful to Chris and Melanie for taking the time to piece together this theory of narrative and provide an answer as to why some films persist while others only fade away.

The key rests in each story masterfully portraying the four major Throughlines. As perspectives on the story's central conflict--the Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story and verall Story Throughlines grant a feeling of completeness while insuring the satisfaction of well-engineered and well-considered plot. The interconnectedness of these Throughlines help to maintain consistency within the story's thematics and offer a clear and powerful point of view from Author to Audience.

The worst that can come from an encounter with Dramatica is exposure to these and many other great works of art. For fans of great stories and timeless narratives, the theory offers a reason in and a reason why.

October 29, 2015

Matt Gemmell on staying motivated, even when you hate the thing you love to do:

The Denier is who hauls me out of bed to work out every morning...His techniques can be subtle, when they need to be - he’s all about the next ten minutes, and how much harder can it possibly be to just say no to one little treat, or to cycle just a little bit farther - but deep down, his position is that it’s your own goddamned funeral.

Harder nowadays with all the shiny distraction around but nevertheless, this is the way in to your art. Saying no to everything else.

October 27, 2015

The recent bout of silence? Schopenhauer, on not reading:

The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.

via @m_clem

October 18, 2015

More evidence this week that a storyform refuses to dictate any particular storytelling to an Author. This past Tuesday we analyzed the Austrailian indie horror flick, The Babadook, as we do every month at the Dramatica Users Group meeting. The process involves identifying the four major Throughlines of the story and continues on with figuring out the Character and Plot Dynamics and ends with zeroing in on the deep thematic Issues at the core of each Throughline. The end result is a storyform--a collection of seventy-five story points holistically connected to support and communicate the Author's argument.

Not every story tries to argue meaning. Furious 7 and The Martian exemplify popular narratives that function only as Tales. The Babadook took the more meaningful path. While terrifying and shocking, the story provided the Audience with an allegory regarding deep personal loss and argued a particular approach to resolve it.

Interestingly enough, the storyform we found was remarkably similar to James Cameron's sci-fi action flick Aliens. While the Overall Story was less concerned with the psychological aspects of conflict than The Babadook, the Main Characer suffered the same sort of deep personal Problem. Both Ripley in Aliens and Amelia in The Babadook struggle with a Problem of Desire.

Dramatica defines Desire as:

the motivation to change one's situation or circumstances: On the plus side, Desire primes the character to seek to better its environment or itself. On the minus side, Desire is not always coupled with an ability to achieve that which is Desired. In this case, Desire may no longer be felt as a positive motivator but as a negative lack and may become a measurement of one's limitations and constraints.

Fear and longing--these are motivations to change one's situation or circumstances. Fear belongs to Ripley; her experiences on the Nostromo in the first film prime her to be paralyzed with fear and doubt in the second. Longing belongs to Amelia--the loss of her husband and the seven years of loneliness start her down the path of self-destruction.

Problems of Desire resolve with Solutions of Ability, and both Ripley and Amelia find themselves more able to overcome their own personal demons. Ripley is able to use her motherly instincts to conquer the Alien queen ("Get away from her, you bitch!") and Amelia is finally able to enter her "basement" with confidence and conquer the demon of her lost love.

Two Main Characters with the same exact Problem and the same exact Solution in two completely different films. Who would ever consider comparing Aliens to The Babadook? Yet, their Main Characters deal with the same inequity. At their core, they are the same.

The Dramatica storyform is not a story-by-numbers writing cheat; it is a measured tool for Authors to better understand their story. How writers go about telling their particular storyform is completely up to the individual.

A Holisitic Approach to Resolving Conflict

Note too the difference in how each Main Character above actually resolves their problems with Ability. Ripley kills the Alien queen, Amelia finds a way to manage her nemesis. The latter is exemplary of a holistic approach to resolving problems. In fact, holistic thinkers don't truly solve problems as much as they balance them out with a different approach. The Babadook was written and directed by a female artist (Jennifer Kent). Aliens was written and directed by a male artist (James Cameron). Generally speaking, females prefer holistic problem-solving whereas males prefer linear problem-solving. This makes sense then that Amelia would find a way to manage her problem rather than destroy it--the Linear approach almost always ends in one killing the other. Taking the holistic approach offers us a rare opportunity to see conflict resolution in a different light and gives an explanation as to the sophistication of The Babadook's ending.

October 16, 2015

Published novelist Sebastien de Castell explains what he finds most useful about the Dramatica theory of story:

Dramatica is all about the why for me. It forces me to see the various implications of every dramatic choice. When you decide you want to write about a character in a terrible situation, it demands that you address a related fixed mental state in another part of the story. So when you're trying to figure out why you should select one possible dramatic choice over another, the model nudges you towards one that connects with the other choices you've made, even if (at first) it feels like it makes no sense. Why is character x going to have some "emotional death"? Because he/she still things the problem is [symptom] when in fact it's [problem] and they're a change character. That tends to be what I go back to when I feel stuck--those weird little terms in the story engine that half the time don't make sense except when you need them most and then suddenly they give you a couple of options that turn into ideas.

Sebastien goes on to explain in more detail his experience with writing and Dramatica. A must read.

October 15, 2015

Many writers new to Dramatica find it difficult to differentiate between conflict born of problematic Activities and conflict born from a problematic Situation. Is a story about a country at war a situation or an activity? Certainly every soldier, enemy combatant and innocent civilian finds themselves in a deadly situation. But they also suffer killing and stealing and torture--all hallmarks of deadly activities. Where is the line drawn between characters dealing with a deadly situation and characters stuck in a deadly situation? Some might even question the need to differentiate between the two; does it matter?

Dramatica sees a story as an exploration of a single inequity. The different perspectives provided by each Throughline encapsulate and define that inequity, but it is the Domain itself that defines the nature of that inequity. This appraisal of conflict falls into four different areas because this is how we see the world. Situation, Activity, Fixed Attitude and Way of Thinking--we can't see a problem any other way. And so we apply perspectives, or points-of-view, to those Domains because that is how we think. That is how we solve problems.

How it feels for us personally to experience a problem compared to how all of us deal with the same problem describes the difference between the Main Character and Overall Story Throughline. The former describes problem-solving from a personal perspective while the latter describes a dispassionate objective perspective. It is essential that a writer determine the nature of the conflict in their story and the point-of-view from which we see it in order to ascertain how to properly resolve it. Only once we know the problem we are looking at and from what angle are we able to confidently and accurately resolve it.

Defining the Source of Trouble

In The Silence of the Lambs a serial killer is on the loose. Clarice Starling and the FBI mount an investigation into this killer in an effort to stop him before he kills again. Clearly an Overall Story Domain of Activity, right?

We have killings, kidnappings and detective work. Stopping Buffalo Bill seems to be the apparent goal. Yet, one look at the official Dramatica analysis of The Silence of the Lambs reveals that the Overall Story Throughline to be a Situation. How can that be?

Buffalo Bill has killed before, yet no one had an issue with it. They did to a certain extent but it's really not an issue for this story until Bill kidnaps the senator's daughter. Thats when it becomes a problem--which is what a story is all about: the resolution of a single problem. The abduction of the senator's daughter is what everyone is concerned with in the context of this story. The killings previous to the film are essential to Buffalo Bill's character, yet function as backstory for this story. An Overall Story Domain of Situation describes the essence of conflict in The Silence of The Lambs with more accuracy than Activities.

Establish the context of conflict and you'll easily be able to determine the nature of your story's inequity.

October 14, 2015

New in the Narrative First Vault, an interesting post from 2008 about a story point I rarely think about: the Story Limit. Often treated as an afterthought (Is there a deadline? No? Then it must be an Optionlock) the Story Limit serves an important and essential function in a complete story. It grants the necessary time or space for the story to mean something.

Read The Distance to Write a Meaningful Story to learn more.

October 14, 2015

Craig Mod shares a very romanticized view of physical books in his article on the fall of Kindle:

Aside from revamping digital book covers and the library browsing interface, Kindles could remind us of past purchases – books either bought but left unread, or books we read passionately and should reread. And, in doing so, trump the unnetworked isolation of physical books. Thanks to our in-app reading statistics, Kindle knows when we can’t put a book down, when we plunge ourselves into an author’s world far too late into the night, on a weeknight, when the next day is most definitely not a holiday. Kindle knows when we are hypnotised, possessed, gluttonous; knows when we consume an entire feast of words in a single sitting. Knows that others haven’t been so ravenous with a particular story, but we were, and so Kindle can intuit our special relationship with the text. It certainly knows enough to meaningfully resurface books of that ilk. It could be as simple as an email. Kindle could help foster that act of returning, of rereading. It could bring a book back from the periphery of our working library into the core, ‘into the bloodstream’, as Susan Sontag put it. And yet it doesn’t.

While the article tends to bloviate a bit on the wonders of analog books, it does make some strong points. I love my Kindles, buy one every year, and absolutely cherish the ability to buy any book any time. But the innovation simply is not there. It took forever to finally get decent typography and still it forces fully justified text in most of my books. Contrast this with the latest iBooks and you'll see a marked difference.

Readers want to be more fully engaged with the work. I want to be able to read the world's library without fear of being distracted by a tweet or work. Hopefully Amazon will learn to take advantage of throw reality.

October 13, 2015

James Gunn, writer/director of Guardians of the Galaxy was asked on Twitter whether he prioritizes story or character during a first draft. He answers:

I mostly don't think of those as two separate things. The story and plot are manifestations of a character's change.

Lovely. No wonder everyone loved the film as much as they did. His intention was to create a work hat encapsulated the process of a character growing Of course, they would have loved it more had there been a fully developed Relationship Throughline--but really who's complaining? Story is character is plot is story. Anything less is generally not worth watching.

October 13, 2015

A reminder that tonight's Dramatics analysis of The Babadook will be broadcast live here at 7PM Pacific. Feel free to watch online. If you would like to participate contact me and I will add you to the invite list.

If you haven't watched one of our Dramatica Users Group videocasts before, what are you waiting for? Let me in!


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