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Thoughts on Story Structure

September 22, 2015

Many find themselves uncomfortable when faced with the task of unlearning what they have learned. Entrenched in their own beliefs and bias, they refuse to take the time to investigate closely new understandings of narrative. The result is often a sad and disappointing attempt at discounting what is undeniably a breakthrough advance.

So many mistakes, misunderstandings and half-truths concerning the Dramatica theory of story in this post from the Hatrack Writers Forum. The usual "I don't like to be told what to do" defense masking for a failure to truly investigate the complex concepts of the theory. You know you're in trouble when Aristotle's Poetics is sighted as a superior text.

What Dramatica Sees

Dramatica is an incomplete model of the narrative form. The model makes the assumption problems can be and are meant to be solved.

This is half-true. Yes, one of the givens from Dramatica is the idea that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Whether or not that problem is actually solved, however, is determined by the story's dynamics. Some problems are solved (as in Mad Max: Fury Road, Lord of the Flies and Romeo and Juliet), others are not (Rain Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Hamlet).

That is but one narrative type ... other types ... include puzzle, revelation, the joke, and a non-story story type he labels "plotless," though such stories are not plotless, only their structural features are experimental and unconventional, making them challenging to comprehend.

We could quibble over the meaning of plot, but yes--if your purpose in writing a story is to write something challenging to comprehend, then Dramatica theory is not for you. Dramatica helps writers communicate meaning to audience with clarity and purpose. Experimental narrative types, like those sampled in films like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, are best left to other understandings of story.

The Reason for New Terminology

Dramatica Theory also assumes name spaces which are mere deviations, derivative, that is, of ancient labels and concepts. "Impact character," for example, is derived from an older theory, unnamed, from "influence character."

Not sure why this is a bad thing. New terminology needed to be created in order to more accurately describe the forces and points-of-view present in a complete story. As for the last bit, citing unnamed sources is a difficult tactic to counter.

An influence character influences a narrative's action, positively or negatively, or both, and is not limited to personas, could be setting features and objects as well as events.

This is beginning to look like an argument of semantics--one of the prime reasons for Dramatica's newly imagined and "rebranded" definitions. Old definitions are vague and deficient and require updating if any progress is to be made in our collective understanding of story.

An Influence Character, by Dramatica's definition is that character, or more accurately that point-of-view, that challenges the Main Character to address their personal problems. This point-of-view cannot be held within a feature or object or even an event as one of its primary features is the ability to change over time (Act by Act). The Influence Character's point-of-view must be able to shift in order to better challenge the Main Character's further avoidance of his or her own personal issues.

So no, the Influence Character of a story cannot be a mountain, a lake or a rock. It needs to have a point-of-view.

It is apparent this person is confusing Antagonist for Influence Character. An Antagonist, by Dramatica's clear definition, is an objective character role--a function--whose sole purpose is to prevent the Protagonist from achieving the Goal of the story. The Influence Character is a point-of-view whose purpose is to challenge the Main Character's personal issues. Sometimes these two can be found in the same player (as with the Joker in The Dark Knight) but usually are found in separate players (Ben Kenobi is the Influence Character in Star Wars, the Empire is the Antagonist; Boo Radley is the Influence Character in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bob Ewell is the Antagonist).

Here you can see the reason for new terminology. Reading the original post one gets the idea that the contributor lacks focus in the concepts he or she presents. Definitions are all over the place and seemed to be jumbled up with competing contexts of narrative. This may explain the hostility towards Dramatica as the theory's purpose is to bring clarity and greater understanding to narrative, not continue the confusion proffered for centuries.

The Difference between Objective and Subjective

Two other character types contained therein are objective and subjective characters. "Objective character" describes an observer persona, though "objective" is also a type of attitude: a shared unbiased value and belief perspective. "Subjective character" is an observed subject persona, though likewise is also a type of attitude: a personal, subject-to-bias value and belief perspective.

Here the author stamps his own erroneous interpretation onto Dramatica's elegant concepts. As mentioned previously, Dramatica sees the Antagonist and Protagonist of a story as Objective Characters. Objective because we stand back and look at them removed from the conflict; we don't assume their position. These two only represent a small fraction of the total amount of Objective Characters one may find in a story, yet they are the most important. The Antagonist and Protagonist represent the drive towards resolving and not resolving a story's central problem.

The Subjective Characters differ from the Objective Characters because of their ability to grow and shift their point-of-view during a story. The Protagonist of a story will always pursue the Goal; the Main Character may eventually change how they see the world. In Star Wars, Luke the Protagonist never ceased finding a way to fight the empire; Luke the Main Character eventually learned to stop testing himself all the time and instead, trust in something outside of himself. This dichotomy helps provide the meaning of a story.

Also, objective, subjective, and influence characters are not per se fixed for those roles, any can be another at any time, and can be more than one or could be all at the same time.

True, the point-of-view of the Influence Character may be handed off to different players as it is with the Ghosts in A Christmas Carol, but to think this appropriate for all story points sets an Author up for disaster.

This is where Dramatica shines as a powerful tool. By running counter to this popular notion that everything is everything and meaning constantly shifts, Dramatica helps a writer focus the intent of their story. Context creates meaning, if that meaning is constantly shifting then the end result is a meaningless mess.

Audiences crave a consistency of purpose.

Why the Old No Longer Works

The most ancient term for the functions of an influence or impact character is agonist, to mean a contestant that shapes the action such that the agency of a character or setting or event is transformatively influential. Antagonism is at least two forces in congruent opposition such that they are both unequivocally and irrevocably transformed by their direct and indirect interactions.

A prime example of collapsing the function of the Antagonist into the point-of-view of the Influence Character. This is why old outdated understandings of story serve only to confuse and destroy coherent and moving narrative. Modern precise terminology, like that found within Dramatica, grants greater clarity and sophistication of purpose. Mashing two clearly separate narrative concepts into one diminishes the power of both.

This same mistake happens when you find those convinced Protagonist and Main Character are one and the same. They often are, but they don't always have to be. Andy is the Protagonist in The Shawshank Redemption (the one trying to escape the system), but Red is the Main Character (the institutionalized man whose point-of-view we assume). Furiosa is the Protagonist of Mad Max: Fury Road (the one trying to run away), yet it is Max himself who we become personally involved with (we know what goes on inside his head, we never find out what is going on inside hers). And finally, Atticus is the Protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird (the one fighting for justice) while Scout is our way into the story. Atticus fights against prejudice while we as Scout don't even realize we're prejudice ourselves to the boogeyman across the street.

A clear understanding makes these kinds of sophisticated stories possible for everyone.

What?

Dramatica Theory painfully subverts and misses entirely essential implication appeals -- the artfully implied intangible action of moral human condition struggles and crises, which is the more significant and appealing overall feature of a narrative: what a narrative is actually about. The tangible action is mere package for the moral human condition appeal and invariably superficial.

I confess I have no idea what any of this means, but it sounds like a vain attempt to discount Dramatica with nonsense.

Update: Chris Huntley, co-creator of Dramatica, offered this explanation after reading this article:

I think the part that you didn't quite understand is about the values espoused about a story's subject matter -- the real world contextual meaning expressed through story encoding -- rather than the part that Dramatica provides, which is the framework that provides the author a means to evaluate the subject matter objectively and subjectively, linearly and holistically, in an effort to provide a meaningful narrative about the subject matter.

In other words, the author chooses that she wants to say about a subject matter, but she uses Dramatica to provide a comprehensive and understandable framework to argue the point using the narrative form.  For example, I may think that throwing battery acid on dogs is despicable, but Dramatica lets me make a case for WHY it is despicable, and perhaps even points out contexts in which it may not be despicable in order to make the point better.

I have a tendency to assume that everyone is open enough to take the time to really understand what Dramatica is all about and what it offers to story. Thankfully, Chris has explained it enough times to people who don't that he recognized what was being discussed here. Hope his update clears things up about what Dramatica is, and what it isn't.

Storyform vs. Storytelling

Dramatica Theory emphasizes structure over content and expression or discourse mode.

Yes! But only insofar as it explains how narrative works. Dramatica clearly states that it is teaching the ingredients of story; it's up to the Author to combine them into a memorable and lasting meal.

A structure is the skeleton and is troublesome if exposed. The flesh, so to speak, is the meat of the matter and, though dramatic structure (plot) is pertinent and near universal of shape, is not a universal shape and can only fundamentally be defined as the moral human condition, which approaches infinite. They say beauty is only skin deep and ugly goes all the way to the bone; artful narrative goes inside the bone, too, and naturally and appealingly, artfully, sublimely, beautifully drapes the skeletal structure.

This sounds wonderful. What the Author is describing is what Dramatica refers to as the second stage of narrative communication: Storytelling (or Story Encoding). The first stage, or Storyforming process, is the stage the Dramatica Theory focuses on. The Storyform is indeed the skeletal structure of a story and is not the kind of thing any reasonable human being would want to sit through. As I tell everyone I have ever taught or consult with, you don't get points for writing the perfect Dramatica story. The theory is there to help writers strengthen their communication skills and to effectively balance their story with a holistic understanding of the issues at hand. It's not a form of narrative unto itself.

Finally, something we can agree on.

Common Ground

Dramatica Theory best practice may be appreciated as yet another emphasis on structure that accesses fundamentals, that asserts structure matters and is a part of a well-crafted narrative. The structure itself hasn't changed since the first story ever told, only the names and principles and theories and values and beliefs have been variably enumerated over time, and are adaptive and adoptive to an era's culture and technology, and even, yes, language sciences and arts.

And I agree with this as well, though I would say that Dramatica's new terminology and most importantly, its concept of the Four Throughlines, elevates it beyond anything that has come before.

Including Aristotle.

Only Good for Screenplays

Other writers chimed in:

a quick look at the Dramatica website, and the focus seems to be screenplays.

True, but that's only because of the time required to analyze a film compared to the time necessary to accurately analyze a novel. We focus on film because that is where our passion lies. That does not discount the theory's ability to better understand narrative in alternate forms.

Story is story regardless of medium and you can find coherent complete storyforms in plays as well as novels. The aforementioned To Kill a Mockingbird joins Lord of the Flies, Sula, Washington Square and Pride and Prejudice round out Dramatica's collection of novel analyses. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello and Ibsen's A Doll's House offer a collection of play analyses.

One clarification which should make this easier to understand: a work can have more than one Storyform. Like the Sports Storyform and Romance Storyform found in Jerry Maguire, The Lord of the Rings contains many many different storyforms: Frodo and Samwise, Frodo and Gollum, Aragorn and Arwen and so on. Anytime you find two characters with competing points of view that grow over time and challenge each other, you will find a new Storyform. Most films only have time to explore one Storyform, the novel affords a great many more. Though you'll note that the truly great novels only focus on one (Mockingbird and All The Light We Cannot See working as two wonderful examples).

More than Spin

Well, I clicked on the link, started reading the blurb about how much of a paradigm shift Dramatica is and promptly closed the page. To me it appears as a classic case of what the boffins and spin-meisters call re-branding. Lets use all the same literary constructs but update them so they're hip and sound flash, right Dude? Id rather study Aristotle, Freytag, and Egri, just to name a couple.

While Egri identified the two principal characters within story he failed to recognize the most important aspect of them: that one changes their resolve while the other remains steadfast. The resolve of both principal characters is essential towards providing the meaning of the story to the Audience.

Dramatica is more than rebranding, more than name deviation. It is a comprehensive understanding of story without caveat and without exception. Its foundation of the Four Throughlines found in every complete story and its assertion that not every Protagonist is a Main Character clearly delineates it from everything that came before. Take the time to truly understand what it is saying before you discount it; you might find something worthy of applying to your own work.

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September 22, 2015

Paul Jarvis shares his views on landing that big break--something every aspiring screenwriter dreams of:

That’s how creative life works. No secret tricks you just don’t know yet. No hacks that save you so much time that clocks run in reverse in your presence. It sounds about as sexy as golf pants because it’s just lots of work.

Many think Dramatica is a cheat, a way to quickly hack together a formula-driven Hollywood screenplay. Dramatica may help you figure out what to write, but you still actually have to sit down and write the whole thing.

Your Big Break

We just need to do the work that’s in us to do. We just need to keep making what we’re making. To not wait for someone else to tell us it’s ok, or good enough, or launchable, or valid. Yes, it could fail or only be a moderate success, but that’s outside of our control any way.

Sound advice for anyone working in a creative field, particularly writing. No use waiting around for that validation you have no control over.

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September 21, 2015

Been far too long since I've worked on 2015-02--at least a week. Work responsibilities and preparation for last weekend's Dramatica Guided Tour Workshop drained me of all my writing time and energy.

As I recall I was finishing up the Main Character's Third Signpost and was about to wrap it all up with the Fourth. Looking forward to switching gears and doing a pass on the Influence Character Throughline next, if only I can muster up the proper motivation ...

... So difficult getting yourself back in that mindset after being away from it for so long.

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September 20, 2015

Amazing revelation today during the Dramatica Guided Tour Workshop: for the longest time, I've been explaining the Overall Story of The Shawshank Redemption as the story of an innocent man unjustly imprisoned. My reasoning was based on the idea that without Andy stuck in prison, there would be no conflict for everyone.

The Structure of The Shawshank Redemption

As we discussed the film in class it began to dawn on me that the Overall Story doesn't end with Andy's escape, as it should if his incarceration is the source of trouble for everyone. The story ends when the warden kills himself.

A Situation Overall Story calls for a problematic situation; something is stuck and it needs to be unstuck. Remove the warden (and ostensibly the Captain of the Guards) and you remove the conflict. That describes the External Situation everyone in the story is dealing with. Shawshank isn't about Andy's unjust imprisonment, it's about a prison system run by a sadistic warden.

I'll have to change that image in the upper left to feature the warden.

I can't tell you how fortunate I am to be able to teach these classes. My understanding of story and narrative grows with each and every workshop. When it comes to Dramatica I care more about being accurate then I do about being right and this workshop today gave me another opportunity to grow.

Now if only there was some way to edit my YouTube analysis of The Shawshank Redemption to correct my mistake.

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September 20, 2015

A writer’s duty is to register what it is like for him or her to be in the world. ZADIE SMITH

And hearing that somehow lightens the pressure of showing up every day. Say what you say and feel. That's enough.

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September 19, 2015

Finished the first day of The Dramatica Guided Tour Workshop. Smaller class size made it easier to facilitate more one-on-one interactions. Still amazing to me how it always works out to exactly seven hours in length.

Dramatica Table of Story Elements

Today's topics included the fundamentals of Dramatica and inequities, the four Major Throughlines found in every complete story, and an overview of the four Main Character Dynamics (Resolve, Growth, Approach, and Problem-Solving Style) and the four Plot Dynamics (Driver, Limit, Outcome, and Judgment). Using a single film as a common point of reference for these topics (in this case Nightcrawler) works wonderfully and I'm glad I made that change earlier this year.

Looking forward to getting into more of the Dramatica nitty-gritty tomorrow with a focus on the deep thematics in each Throughline.

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September 18, 2015

A common question for those new to Dramatica is how exactly the Influence Character's Signposts work with the Main Character. Their limited understanding usually falls into one of two camps:

A) The Influence Character deals with their Signpost which somehow influences the Main Character OR

B) The Influence Character somehow influences the Main Character to deal with the Influence Character's Signpost.

The confusion arises because of some apparently contradicting definitions within the Dramatica theory book. These complications befuddle would-be writers so greatly that some take to sending identical form letters to separate Dramatica Story Experts--all in an effort to expose the hypocrisy. One response is all that is needed:

The answer you're going to get is "No." Dramatica doesn't have to settle on either one because they're not mutually exclusive -- both a) and b) apply. They're both correct because they both serve the same purpose by providing influence towards the Main Character's throughline.

Now that is an Expert opinion. (Full disclosure: I was the expert).

Responding to a question posing Memory as an example Influence Character Signpost Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley backs my answer up:

Both A and B are correct. It is the presence of Memory that influences the Main Character's in his dealings with his personal issues. Whether it is an attribute of the Impact Character, or attributed to the Impact Character is irrelevant. The reality of one explanation does not cancel out the other.

Even if you do not connect the dots between the MC throughline and the IC throughline, the audience will.

This is something that takes awhile to understand. The Storyform is a construct, a carrier wave meant to relay information to the Audience. It doesn't matter which approach you use as long as the Audience understands the kind of influence impacting the Main Character. Do that and the Audience will be able to synthesize the Throughline and be able to make sense of what you are trying to tell them.

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September 17, 2015

The Apartment

This is what great storytelling looks like. (from The Apartment).

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September 17, 2015

I don't show who a character is, I show what a character wants. They have to want it bad. If they can NEED it that's even better. AARON SORKIN

How can you argue with the man behind the insanely-great looking movie Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs

Well, you don't have to ... but you can elaborate on this popular notion of wants vs. needs:

The reason why want vs. need fails for creative writers is because it is an interpretation of meaning after the fact. Much like the dueling concepts of learning Heroes and teaching Heroes, these interpretations of a story’s events spring forth as the credits roll. The concept functions after the first draft or two as it makes the final message concrete, but is that helpful when staring at a blank page?

In my article The Mechanics of Want vs. Need I discuss where the difference between these two lies in story structure and how to differentiate between the two before you even get started.

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September 16, 2015

There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be. DORIS LESSING

Something so comforting about this. No studio executive notes. No collaboration. Pure story from the mind of one individual.

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Let's write a story together.

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