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Thoughts on Story Structure

September 6, 2015

Called to task again for my teaching of linear and holistic thinking in regards to narrative theory, I decided to jot down some thoughts to hopefully clear up any confusion. The topic at hand is the problem-solving style of the Main Character, a concept of narrative science that the Dramatica theory of story seems essential for determining the order of Acts and the touchpoints between the different Throughlines.

When asked how I would categorize my own thinking, I answered that I have a tendency towards more linear thought. Note I said tendency. The problem-solving style of the mind rests in a sliding scale, analog in nature and not a digital switch where one is "more clear" than the other.

To figure out where you might fit in in the scale, you need to break the mind down into four different areas--memories, innermost desires, conscious considerations and impulsive responses. The only one that is hard wired from birth is the impulsive responses--you can think of them as being the operating system for your mind (Mac vs. PC) as it filters and colors your perception of the world. You can nullify the effects of that filter with drugs (as some in the transgender/transsexual community do) but you can't change it. The others can and do change overtime as they're more fluid. For the most part males are hard wired to have linear impulsive responses while females are hard wired for holistic impulsive responses, but this is not a hard and fast rule. There are exceptions as nature is not a computer program, but for me it's pretty clear--my impulsive responses are linear.

When it comes to memories, this is where childhood experiences and your parents fall into place. My mom was predominantly linear and my dad was 200% holistic, so I grew up in a pretty balanced household. My mother had more influence over me, so again linearity wins.

Innermost desires hold your experience, your fears, your joy, your love and your anger. This one is always hard for me to figure out -it always comes across as a bit of a blind spot to me. If I had to guess I would say linear wins over in this area, but only by a little.

And finally there are the conscious considerations. Everyone can consciously choose to solve problems linearly or holistically, so it just comes down to whichever one you have a preference for. For me, it's holistic problem-solving. This is where my dad's influence comes in. The strength of his management consultant business has always been his ability to help clients solve problems holistically, and as a result I've tried to incorporate his success in my own work.

Final tally for me: 3/4 linear, 1/4 holistic and an unsurprising tendency towards linear problem-solving. I wish I was more holistic and who knows, perhaps over time my innermost desires can be moved in that direction. But for now, linearity has its hold over me.

As you can see, the problem-solving style of the mind can vary drastically for each individual. You may ask then, why determine one or the other for the Main Character of a story? Because the Main Character of a story is not a real person, he or she is a construct. Part of the purpose of story is to show the appropriate or best way to solve problems. Linear problem solving works one way, holistic problem solving works another. Changing the problem-solving style of the Main Character halfway through a story screws up the Act order and breaks the integrity of the problem-solving process.

The Main Character acts as our conduit into the conflict at hand. By setting the Main Character's personal problem-solving style to one or the other, the Audience gets to experience the fallout of trying to solve a problem a certain way and determine how best to solve their own problems.

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September 5, 2015

A little motivation for this Labor Day weekend from screenwriter Mark D. Rosenthal:

I believe there is no great screenplay that hasn’t at least been optioned. I believe there is no great screenplay that doesn’t get the writer into the business. Most screenplays are mediocre or just okay. Really great writing always, always gets noticed in Hollywood ... if the writing is great, you always get into the game.

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September 4, 2015

E.T. Under the Stars

No better way to end the summer than spending the night with John Williams under the stars. Doesn't hurt to have a great story along for the ride.

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September 3, 2015

Signposts and Journeys

For anyone confused between whether to use Signposts or Journeys or both when it comes to structuring their story with Dramatica, consider the above. Signposts on the left, Journeys on the right. Two different ways of looking at the same thing.

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September 3, 2015

To train Scheherazade, the researchers had the bot read hundreds of human-authored stories on two popular subjects: bank robberies and date nights at the movies. The program doesn’t understand the stories per se, but it can recognize important events and learn their sequence. For instance, when it reads a bunch of stories referencing movie popcorn, it learns that popcorn is something people like to buy at the movies, and that they do so before the movie starts.

Imagine what might happen if they incorporated a complex schematic of thematic story elements to hold all that important popcorn buying together? They might find they have something more meaningful than cause and effect.

At the moment, the researchers are paying people to write the stories Scheherazade is learning from using simple sentence structures. But eventually, the bot might develop to the point where it can read complex human novels, and remix them into interactive stories.

This is inevitable. Hopefully their brightest will discover Dramatica. Otherwise we might be facing a lot of pointless stories in our future.

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September 2, 2015

From guru Lindsay Doran, a reminder to make sure your Relationship Story Throughline is strong and clear:

“What shocked us,” said Dan Lin, a producer of the Sherlock Holmes films whose team recently watched a Doran presentation, “were Lindsay’s points about what audiences care about most — relationships and the positive resolution of those relationships. We had previously thought what was most important was the lead character winning at the end of the movie.”

The Dramatica theory of story doesn't consider a narrative complete or functional unless it has this subjective Relationship Throughline to act as a counter-balance to the Overall Story Throughline. Although you wouldn't know it to look at it, the theory does cover the Relationship Throughline quite extensively. As Dramatica Story Expert Mark Haslett explains in an ancient AOL chat class:

There can be success in the Subjective Story as there is in the Obj. Story. People just don’t think in those terms often ... There are actually appreciations in the software which we offer to describe the dynamics of the Objective Story which also exist for the subjective story, yet are not available to choose from. This is really due to our developing understanding of the theory and in the future they will be available also ... If the relationship between the Main and Obstacle character turns out “positively” or in a way they would agree was successful that would be something like the SS appreciation for Outcome.1

Hopefully someday we will get some controls to dial in the Relationship Throughline dynamics. It's only been 18 years since Mark wrote that, so I'm sure it won't be that much longer now.

I always think of the Relationship Throughline as if it is growing towards something positive, or dissolving away to something negative. Relationships are about analog dynamics, not digital switches (like the Overall Story), so you always want to think of the direction things are headed. A good analogy is to think of this part of a story as driven by knobs, not toggles. If the two central characters resolve positively then the Relationship Throughline Solution comes into play. If they don't, the Relationship Story Problem will persist between them.

The King's Speech - Together

Back to Duran:

Audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory but the moment afterwards when the winners shares that victory with someone they love.

A little gooey and a bit too prescriptive (not everyone likes a happy ending), but again--points for the Relationship Throughline.


  1. By Obstacle Character Mark means Influence Character and by Subjective Story he means Relationship Throughline story. These were old terms--befitting of an AOL Chat Class from 1997. ↩︎

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September 1, 2015

The quick version of the story is Brad Bird almost directed Episode 7 but because he was busy with Tomorrowland he suggested that LucasFilm and Disney have a filmmaker he trusted prep the film for him, that filmmaker being Colin Trevorrow.

Guess I'm the only one who didn't know this. I wonder why Trevorrow reminded Bird of himself.

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September 1, 2015

Blasted through the first half of the 2nd Signpost rewrite for my Main Character! Some thematic appreciations are easier to write than others ... Or it could just be that it took me forever to get things set up in the first Act. Either way, feeling good about the draft changes. The story is just opening up in a way I didn't expect.

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September 1, 2015

A study shows that writing fiction can help keep you sane:

There isn’t a job on earth that doesn’t have its frustrating moments. And even if you’re completely satisfied with your professional life you’re only just in the majority. Statistically speaking, only a little over 50 percent of us are actually satisfied with our jobs. Can fiction writing help you deal with the difficult parts of your job?

In the past I've definitely found that to be the case. I once wrote an entire screenplay in six weeks because I was so frustrated.

What I really like about this article is the idea that you don't have to take writing so seriously:

for anybody looking to benefit from writing fiction there is no obligation to take it seriously at all. It can be something completely separate from your professional existence, something which you need never show to anybody else. It can be something done without judgement or criticism, purely for your own mental benefit.

So much of what I write is geared towards the end product. Something to be sold. I can only imagine the freedom that comes without giving attention to constant criticism.

Write something down. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to make sense. The creativity of taking yourself out of the world as it is and dropping yourself into another one can have mental benefits, and it’s up to you to experience them.

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August 31, 2015

For some reason I felt compelled to check the animation gossip site CartoonBrew today and I really wished I hadn't. An ex-student of mine referred to my class as "fucking bullshit" in an article on gender inequality in the animation industry. After all the time and effort I put into that class (and the extra hours spent staying after), I can't tell you how disheartening it is to have my work falsely portrayed as something misogynistic and detrimental to women.

I made it very clear to Sabrina and to other students in my Story class at CalArts that what I was teaching had nothing to do with "masculine" story elements or "feminine" story elements. I did use "male" and "female" to describe the difference between the terms "linear" and "holistic", but stated over and over again that this was a gross generalization intended to make it easier for early 20-somethings to understand a very complex theory of story.

Apparently I didn't say it enough.

The fact that she says it was "a little hard to describe" only makes it clear to me that I didn't do a good enough job explaining myself. Never once did I claim that linear storytelling and big external stakes were "for men", while relationships and emotional storylines were "for women". That's a ludicrous assumption. And it's disingenuous for someone to describe my class that way.

You can learn more about what Sabrina refers to as "fucking bullshit" on my site Narrative First. Of interest might be my article Female Main Characters Who Think Like Female Main Characters where I explain the difference between Main Characters who solve problems linearly and Main Characters who solve problems holistically. The title of the article is intended to be clickbait, but if you actually take the time to read it you will see that it has nothing to do with "masculine" or "feminine" story elements.

Instead, you will find that the article--and my classes at CalArts--were teaching a theoretical concept of narrative known as the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style (Dramatica). This concept has nothing to do with gender bias, nothing to do with sexual preference, and nothing to do with masculine or feminine. It simply describes a technique of problem-solving present within the Main Character of a story.

Hopefully this clears up any confusion.

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