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Thoughts on Story Structure

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.

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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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October 1, 2015

Craig Mazin, professional screenwriter and hater of all script consultants and screenwriting gurus, is hosting a panel on "thematic structure". Which is hilariously ironic considering all the venom he has spewed towards anyone who teaches writing and gets paid for it:

Are you getting stuck in the middle or end of a script? Craig Mazin, writer of Identity Thief and co-host of the popular Scriptnotes podcast, introduces a new way of thinking of structure. He'll discuss how to build your plot as a function of character and theme, why beginnings are endings and endings are beginnings, and how he answer to solving your plot is to stop thinking about plot. After this panel, you'll never get lost in a script again!

Sounds exactly like every other story "guru"/script consultant. Craig quickly clears that up on his Twitter page:

The idea of the talk is simple: learn structure from the writer's point of view, not the film analyst.

That actually makes me feel ten times better. I'm a writer too ... So now I don't have to feel so guilty about teaching workshops or consulting when Craig and John go off on consultants in their podcast. I wonder how many other guru/consultants are writers?

You've got a main character, good. You've got an idea. Good. SO WHAT NOW? The talk is all about creating a structure by thinking about your hero and your theme.

That sounds wonderful. Anyone into Dramatica would recognize a familiar approach to structuring a story.

I use a few popular films to demonstrate. Let me make your life easier... for no money! Well, none for me, at least.

Dang it. He one-ups me with that last bit. Just when I was feeling good about myself. Well, when I get Hangover money I'll start doing my workshops for free. Promise.

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September 29, 2015

Looking for an iOS version of Dramatica?

So am I.

There is so much you could do with a touch version of this program that would make it easier for writers to understand how Dramatica works and why they can't make certain choices. Imagine trying to drag the MC Domain of a Do-er down into Fixed Attitude or Manipulation only to have it snap back into place in Situation or Activity ... Or dragging and dropping characters into the Build Characters window ... Or being able to rotate around the model in 3D ... Ugh, if only there was an extra me I would do it in a second!

Earlier this year I wrote about my mobile screenwriting process with Dramatica and my iPhone. I'm still following it to this day with great success. And until they perfect cloning technology it looks like I'll be using it for awhile.

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September 28, 2015

Mike Wollaeger, Dramatica Story Expert and all-around nice guy, had some excellent advice for writers new to Dramatica:

The first time I used Dramatica to storyform a screenplay I was writing, I misunderstood about 90% of everything I was doing. Repetition and throwing yourself headfirst into testing out your understanding (and dealing with the subsequent fallout) is about the best way to move forward.

This is the same experience I had. I didn't understand how a story could be about anything else but Obtaining. Of course every story is about achieving something, what else could it be? Subsequently, I've discovered the difference between the energy to resolve a goal and the actual type of Goal, but absolutely, you have to go into Dramatica knowing you're not going to get it the first couple of years.

It's been almost 20 years for me and I'm just now understanding the Relationship Throughline. Your mileage may vary.

If I could do it again, I would do the impossible, which is focus on fewer things in the theory until I had them down cold. I would be sure to be able to cleave apart the MC and the Protagonist. Even if, especially if, they are played by the same person. I would aim to distinguish Do-ers from Be-ers. I would try to break stories down into their Four Throughlines. I would learn how to identify Story Goals, so I could determine Success & Failure.

This is a fantastic list and really should be the only things newbies see when they first dive into Dramatica. Learn these and then move on to the more complicated stuff.

The tricky part here is that it's hard to know if you've done it right if this is all you focus on. If you try to carry a story all the way to the bottom, then the model starts to fight back if you've got something wrong. At the high levels, there is no feedback yet.

Perfect advice. Not sure why I didn't see this before but you can be sure I will take this approach with new writers in the future.

He left the best advice for last:

Also, bear in mind that Dramatica will help your story, but it will not help you write. So keep writing, daily, while you learn Dramatica.

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September 27, 2015

He [David Fincher], along with Mike De Luca and Brad Pitt and Morgan and Kevin Spacey, fought-fought-fought to save that ending, and they are the reason that that ending was maintained and is the ending that’s in the movie. Without them, no one was going to listen to me, the lowly screenwriter — that’s just the way it goes.

Because who would know better whether or not an ending works well thematically with everything that came before it then the guy who has spent the past couple of years going over it with a fine tooth comb.

The ending of Se7en had to be what it was because everything prior led up to that moment. Pity's character was a hot head and it was Morgan's character who constantly kept him in check. It was only once Morgan finally had his moment of impulsiveness (the slapping of John Doe) that Pitt's character was finally allowed off his chain. Those moments meant something. As despicable as Doe's actions were, they weren't a threat as long as more level-headed men were around.

Once that departed, so did any sense of humanity.

Se7en should always remains shining example of why it is important to have a purposeful complete narrative first. And why it is important to fight every step of the way for that story.

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September 25, 2015

Produced screenwriter and former Sony Studios story analyst Ken Miyamoto has this to say about Dramatica in a Quora answer:

Film Theorists have one thing going for them... hindsight.  They can look at a film or screenplay and pretty much dissect it any way they'd like, in order to fit it in whatever formula or directive they are preaching. 

Ken is way off track here. Chris and Melanie developed Dramatica without looking at screenplays or films. They spent several years asking the right kinds of questions: If a character has a problem, why don't they solve it? and If someone doesn't want to solve their personal problems, how do they go about hiding it from themselves?

Only then, after all the research and theory development into why stories exist, did they then measure their concepts up against films (and novels and plays--story is story regardless of medium). Turns out what they discovered pans it: a complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem.

Yet despite all of the theories that exist in regards to Nostradamus, no one has been able to really apply them and predict an upcoming event.  Only in hindsight can they attempt to prove their point. 

The property I sold in 2009 to Dreamworks Animation was developed with Dramatica. Based on choices I made regarding Main Character Thematics and Story Dynamics it absolutely predicted the order in which I needed to approach my story. It even told me things about my story I didn't even know. "Save the Cat!" and McKee don't even come close to being able to do the same thing. Presenting them in the same context only speaks of someone who simply doesn't get it.

So yes, Dramatica is good food for thought. But like every meal consumed, it provides the energy and nourishment necessary to excel and proliferate. Dramatica offers writers clear and demonstrable potential.

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September 24, 2015

With Mercury in retrograde it's no wonder so many people find difficulty maintaining their relationships1 ... of course, here we mean the relationship between the Main and Influence Character--that bit of a story Dramatica refers to as the Relationship Throughline:

The relationship throughline explores the conflicts inherent in the relationship. The relationship may be well established or new. It may be growing or falling apart. It may be there by mutual agreement, by unilateral choice, or imposed by outside forces. It may end in disaster or blossom into something new. The relationship is exciting in its possibilities.

Many writers new to the theory think this Relationship Throughline is an area where the two principal characters argue over the best way to solve the main story's problem. Rookie move. Taking that approach collapses the breadth of a story and completely undermines the thematic significance of pitting a small intimate relationship against the greater conflict experienced by everyone. In other words, don't do it.

Bob and Helen

In fact, you can write a Relationship Throughline where the two principals barely share any scene time together. In Pixar's The Incredibles Bob the husband is the Main Character and his wife Helen is the Influence Character. Their relationship as husband and wife comes into conflict over Bob's "cheating" activities. His going out and engaging in superhero antics creates a strain on their relationship and in their marriage. It is the stuff he is Doing (their Relationship Throughline Concern), and the things they have agreed not to do, that is the source of the trouble in the relationship.

Many writers confuse the relationship throughline for the characters in it. Though the characters are party to the relationship, the RS is not about the characters as individuals. The RS is about the relationship. This means the RS Problem is about the source of conflict in the relationship. The RS Concern is about the source of general concern in the relationship. The same is true for all other story points in the relationship throughline. Though you may choose to reveal the RS through your characters' actions and words, the RS is always about the relationship.

The argument between Bob and Helen isn't about the best way to stop Syndrome, but it is thematically tied to it. It isn't an argument between one way of solving the main story's problem and another way of solving it, but rather a clash of perspectives that by their nature (opposing sides) creates conflict in the space between them. That space is their relationship--their marriage--and it's an essential component of the story.

The Relationship Throughline is not about two characters consistently making an argument over how to approach the big story problem. It's not about the individuals or their individual takes on the relationship. The Relationship Throughline is about the relationship itself. The sooner Authors recognize the dramatic potential of this Throughline, the sooner we can reap the rewards of emotionally fulfilling storytelling.


  1. No I don't think the optical illusion that is a planet moving backwards has any effect whatsoever on anything. ↩︎

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September 23, 2015

During my writing time this morning my Main Character did something quite unexpected: she took control of my screenplay 2015-02 and moved it in a different direction. Usually this kind of abrupt change is met with anxiety and concern; will this shift upset the tender balance of thematics I have so painstakingly constructed? Or will it turn out to be the best decision for the story I am trying to write?

Thankfully I have Dramatica on my side. As long as I can gently nudge this surprise move to somehow expose the thematics locked away in the Storyform every other scene has followed, the story should hold together. I can indulge these fantasies of my characters, allow them to grow in ways I never expected, and rest comfortably knowing the story will still make sense in the end.

The Storyform provides a thematic schematic of your story letting you know what will happen and in what order. Your only responsibility is to enjoy the writing process. Dramatica makes it possible for those happy accidents to occur without you losing sight of your story.

Freedom with purpose, that's what writing with Dramatica is like.

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