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Thoughts on Story Structure

February 10, 2017

Now that "alternate facts" are a thing, conversation surrounding narratives and the implications of their construction has begun to rise. Just this week Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of Dramatica and a brilliant narratologist, posted her thoughts on Trump's nomination for Education secretary. And now Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, posts his thoughts on our need for narrative.

That moment when the facts slot into a narrative eventually comes for everyone. It has to; we’re human and what we want is meaning.

For years I have written about why we love stories and how the Dramatica storyform stands alone as the best appreciation of that meaning. The Magic of the Storyform and The Mechanism of Story at Work focus on this idea of a story as an analogy to the human mind trying to solve a problem.

With so many looking to story and how it affects every corner of our lives, it's only a matter of time before Dramatica becomes a household name.

February 8, 2017

Mike and Eleven from *Stranger Things*

I recently finished watching the great Netflix television series Stranger Things last night. I absolutely loved every frame of this show; a sentiment reinforced by my desire to start over with Episode One and binge-watch the entire thing all over again. As with the novel All the Light We Cannot See and the foreign film The Lives of Others, Stranger Things connects with a sophistication that places it in the hallowed Hall of the Heroes.1

What isn't timeless are the countless 80s references and scenes inspired by 80s movies. The bond between Stranger Things and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial exists as most prominent: pre-teen kids shelter someone—or something—wanted by a mysterious government agency. Funny than, that I should complete the series on the heels of our deep Dramatica thematic analysis of E.T. last week.

The Drive to Pursue, the Drive to Avoid

E.T ends in success because the kids help the little alien escape our planet. Stranger Things ends in success because the kids stand up and pursue the monsters behind the Upside Down (both super-dimensionally and dimensionally).

In Dramatica we see the Overall Story Problem of E.T.the inflection point of conflict that motivates each and every scene--as being Pursuit. Keys and the Government pursue E.T. and E.T. pursues a path towards phoning home. Without this drive to pursue there would be no conflict in the movie.

The dynamic opposite to Pursuit is Avoidance. When one identifies the Problem of a Throughline, one simultaneously calls out the Solution of that Throughline. The conflict in E.T finds motivation in Pursuit, yet discovers resolution in Avoidance (running away from or escaping).

The flow from Problem to Solution in the Overall Story Throughline for the first season of Stranger Things moves in the opposite direction. The Government tries to prevent anyone from finding out about 11 or the tear in the space-time continuum while the boys do everything they can to keep anyone from finding out about 11. Without this drive on both sides to prevent and avoid there would be no conflict in the series.

In the next to last episode of the series, the boys find themselves pedalling for safety as members of an unidentified Government Agency chase after them. The scene bears a striking resemblance to the climactic scene in E.T., one so strong that a prediction as to the eventual outcome of that scene seems inevitable: 11 will lift the boys and their bikes into the air.

But she doesn't.

The reason she does the exact opposite thing E.T. did lies in this difference between Overall Story Problems. Mike and the others need Pursuit to resove their conflict—they need someone to stand up and fight against these "bad men." Elliott and his friends need Avoidance—they need someone to lift them up in the air to the accompaniment of one of John William's greatest scores of all time.

Confidence in the Conflict

I love Stranger Things. And I love E.T. The thing with the former is that it brings back all of my love for film and why I dedicated my whole life to great stories. Because they matter. In fact, I recently tweeted about the show:

I love Stranger Things so much. It makes me want to read Stephen King novels, ride a bike, and play D&D.

The key to writing a great, compelling story that outlasts you and everyone else who works with you is finding the conflict that really lies at the heart of your narrative. Like the difference between Luke and Neo, stark differences exist between the Overall Stories of supposedly similar stories. Superficially Stranger Things seems like an updated homage to E.T., but deep down underneath it all the truth reads stranger than fiction.

You just need to start thinking like the flea, instead of the acrobat.

  1. Yes, that's a Dungeons & Dragons reference. ↩︎

February 6, 2017

The complete Dramatica analysis of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is now online and ready for your perusal:

The analysis of *E.T.*

The above photo shows our board from the class and our determination of various story points. The eight initial Dynamic Story Points set the frame of reference and inflection points for the forces applied to the narrative model of the Storymind. Though each appears to be a binary choice, the combination of all eight combine to create a complex web of mechanics that set the story in motion.

Key Takeaways from the Analysis

Unlike most bonded pairs at the center of a narrative, the connection between Elliott and E.T. is a growing relationship not a troublesome one. With that in mind, the Relationship Story Problem of Conscience both drives and gives life to their relationship. Doing the right thing brings them closer together and motivates the development of their Throughline.

As Uncontrolled as their relationship proves to be--particularly when it comes to leaving E.T. at home while Elliot dissects frogs at school--the two find the means to bring it all under Control (Relationship Story Symptom & Relationship Story Response).

All of story exists in the differential between the internal and the external. You can either accept the Situation as presented to you the way E.T. does OR you can rally against it like Elliott and focus inward, allowing your Attitude to bring trouble and conflict to your personal Throughline.

E.T.'s Domain lies in a problematic Situation, Elliott's in a problematic Fixed Attitude. Elliott's preoccupation with his dad's absense and the separation anxiety he feels works in sharp contrast to the same separation anxiety E.T. feels. One sets out to resolve it externally, the other internally.

Elliott eventually learns to accept the Situation and let go, thereby adopting E.T.'s approach and satisfying the Main Character Resolve story point of Change. By showing how the adoption of one approach over the other results in success, the Author makes the argument as to the best way to go about resolving problems.

Believe it or not, this is why E.T. persists as one of the most beloved films of all time. The narrative makes a compelling emotional argument that we all relate to and understand.

February 4, 2017

In Dramatica, the Protagonist is defined as the character who drives the story towards resolution. When this character is not the the Main Character, they often are the Influence Character (the one challenging the Main Character to reconsider their justifications).

This question popped up on Discuss Dramatica this week and I thought it would be great to keep a list of all of them in one place. So here we go:

Influence Character as Protagonist Movies

  • Inside Man with Denzel Washington
  • Terminator Reese is Pro, Sarah is MC
  • The Lives of Others (the writer is the IC/Protagonist)
  • The Yellow Birds - a great film I just saw at Sundance based on the book and starring young Han Solo as new recruit in Iraq. Very Platoon like (mom, CID officer are co-protagonists)
  • Come to think of it, Platoon is probably the same - (Barnes/Tom Berenger is IC/Protagonist)
  • The Bucket List (Freeman is IC Pro)
  • Brokeback Mountain (Jack is IC Pro)
  • Casablanca is almost IC Pro (depending on how you see Ilsa & Laszlo's combined influence on Rick)
  • Eastern Promises pretty sure Viggo is IC Pro
  • Election Witherspoon is IC Pro
  • The Fugitive - Tommy Lee Jones is IC Pro (though you can also see he & Harrison as co-Pros)
  • How to Train Your Dragon - Stoick is IC Pro
  • Sideways Jack is IC Pro
  • Mad Max: Fury Road Furiosa is IC Pro
  • The Shawshank Redemption Andy is IC Pro
  • The Great Gatsby Gatsby is IC Pro
  • The Insider Bergman is IC Pro
  • Fight Club Tyler is IC Pro (though...)
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Rey is IC Pro (MC in series no doubt)
  • Witness John is IC Pro
  • The Princess Bride - Westley is IC Pro
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial - E.T. is IC Pro
  • her - Samantha is IC Pro

If you can think of any others, please drop us a line on our contact page.

February 4, 2017

In case you haven't noticed, Narrative First is now super blazingly-fast! We finally updated our servers to the latest and greatest and love how fast everything is now. No more need to cache anything. What you see is live and fresh!

Thanks to Arcustech, makers of fine fast servers.

January 26, 2017

Inigo Montoya in *The Princess Bride*

Inconceivable! that an analysis of William Goldman and Rob Reiner's masterpiece The Princess Bride lingered for so long. How many of us watched the film on VHS over and over again memorizing every line? Writers familiar with Dramatica know that compulsory repeated viewings indicate a strong narrative structure. Wouldn't this suggest The Princess Bride as a strong candidate for analysis?

Writer and eventual Dramatica Story Expert Mike Lucas thought so. Mike felt he had the requisite experience needed to analyze the film and had advice for those looking to do the same:

  1. Watch it 10-15 times as a kid.
  2. Have your sisters watch it EVERY SINGLE DAY for an entire summer, until the VHS tape dies. While you are in earshot, absorbing the narrative subconsciously.
  3. Wait 20 years or so to let it really gel.
  4. Now the story is so much a part of you, you can determine its storyform with ease!

Mike might be onto something...he completed this official Dramatica analysis of The Princess Bride in one week! Typically, I afford students in the Dramatica Mentorship Program at least two months to finish the first pass of a comprehensive analysis--I couldn't believe my eyes when Mike contacted me a week later with this full analysis.

We're not just talking your basic storyform here--Mike went through and defined elaborate examples for each and every story point. A truly remarkable effort.

Comedy Wrapped Up in the Encoding

The most compelling takeaway, from a Dramatica point of view, is how many of the story points ended up woven into the narrative and how many of them were encoded in a funny or sarcastic way. It's almost as if Goldman and Reiner had a copy of Dramatica before it was released to the public.

"Inconceivable!? Funny you should say that: turns out inconceivable, or Conceiving, is the Overall Story Concern:

  • The point of Humperdink’s plot is to get the people of Florin to conceive that Guilder is their enemy.
  • The grandfather wants the boy to conceive of the romantic “kissing” parts of the story as worth reading.
  • Inigo’s plan for vengeance is to ensure Count Rugen (aka the Six-Fingered Man) gets the idea that he was wrong to kill his father.
  • Vizzini encounters conflict in the area of thinking things are “Inconceivable!”: INIGO: You keep using that word—I do not think it means what you think it means.

Even the Overall Story Problem, often hard to find one or two examples of, pops up everywhere:

In the overall story of The Princess Bride, problems occur when people evaluate their situation or circumstances. Usually it’s because their evaluations are wrong, but sometimes even accurate evaluations cause trouble.

  • The boy evaluates the book based on its title and romance moments, thinking he won’t like it. Even after he starts liking it, he still holds onto his evaluation about the “kissing” being lame, until the end.
  • The people of Florin rate Prince Humperdink too highly because of the radiant beauty and goodness of his princess bride, allowing that to colour their assessment of him.
  • Vizzini constantly analyses the man in black’s pursuit poorly. First he’s just a fisherman in eel infested waters, then he will be stopped by the Cliffs of Insanity, then he will be thrown off with the rope, then he will be stopped by his fighters, then he will not stand a chance in the duel of wits ...
  • Buttercup assesses Westley’s chances of surviving as poor, and evaluates (poorly) that he will stand a better chance if she makes a deal and surrenders.
  • The Machine is used to evaluate how much pain people can stand. Westley makes a poor evaluation that he can withstand it.
  • Westley’s accurate examination / analysis of Count Rugen’s hand gets him hit over the head.
  • Humperdink’s excellent tracking (a type of evaluation) causes trouble for Buttercup and Westley
  • Humperdink’s correct assessment that Westley cannot move appears to spell the end for the rescue attempt….

Reiner and Goldman may have had some super secret access to Dramatica, could just be that great writers intuitively understand the idea of a story being an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem.

Note too how Lucas managed to find evidence of the storyform in both the inner story of the Princess Bride and in the outer story with the interaction between the Kid and the Grandfather. This is probably a no-brainer to most, yet the idea that both the Kid and Buttercup share the same Main Character Problem and that both the Grandfather and Westley share the same Influence Character Problem...well, it's pretty inconceivable!

Mike's analysis can be found on the official Dramatica analysis of The Princess Bride page.

January 24, 2017

James Clear's recent article The Beginners Guide to Deliberate Practice started me thinking about what a practice session for Dramatica might be like. Reading about Ben Hogan's golf game and Benjamin Franklin's writing exercises made me want to find something similar for developing our writer's intuition.

He offers some clues:

Mindless activity is the enemy of deliberate practice. The danger of practicing the same thing again and again is that progress becomes assumed. Too often, we assume we are getting better simply because we are gaining experience. In reality, we are merely reinforcing our current habits—not improving them.

But still, how do you practice something you only turn to once in awhile or at the beginning of a project?

Then it occurred to me--I already did create a program of deliberate practice:

The second effective feedback system is coaching. One consistent finding across disciplines is that coaches are often essential for sustaining deliberate practice. In many cases, it is nearly impossible to both perform a task and measure your progress at the same time. Good coaches can track your progress, find small ways to improve, and hold you accountable to delivering your best effort each day.

With the Dramatica Mentorship Program, I coach writers in the deliberate practice of writing and rewriting story encoding for various story points. The centerpiece of this program are the Playground Exercises--tasks that force a writer past mindless writing and using Dramatica as storytelling into an area where they begin to see story points as sources of conflict. By holding each and every writer accountable to truly using Dramatica to its ultimate potential, we develop an instinct for maximizing scene potential.

Writers Who Avoid Conflict

Believe it or not, some writers steer clear of conflict in their pursuit of their craft. Justin Wills, one of our writers under the program, had this to say recently about the practice of the Playgrounds:

this is helpful. one of the issues I am starting to see in my writing is holding back and avoiding conflict, which stifles my creativity and limits my writing. It's like I'm trying to get the right answer and in doing so i keep everything small and on the surface. I can see how these exercises can help me break that "safe" pattern

So many writers think they're writing conflict when really they're only skimming the surface.

I wonder if it stems from people's basic desire in their own lives to avoid it.

A salient and thought-provoking point. Writing is often thought to be a form of self-therapy. Avoiding the identification and acceptance of conflict in one's own work often signals the same behavior in one's personal life.

I feel like if I can get past this it will open my writing way up

Definitely. After coaching writers for two years with these exercises I can tell you that every last student emerges free and clear of superficial and mindless writing.

A Chance to Develop Your Skills

The Dramatica Mentorship Program currently runs $650/month. Starting in February the price will increase to $750/month (and $425/month for the Basic plan). As our clientele grows so too do our operating costs. Those already in the program and previous students can expect their rates to stay the same.

Many writers new to Dramatica think they understand how it works. They see a Main Character Concern of The Future and think Yeah, my character is concerned about the way things will be. They see an Influence Character Problem of Ending and think Yes, that Character wants things to stop. Those same writers don't understand that these story points must be sources of conflict; concerns of the Future often lead characters to neglect present day responsibilities, problems of Ending often show up in terminating valuable projects long before they have had a chance to germinate.

A Dramatica "coach", or Mentor, can keep you on track and help you develop your own writer's intuition far beyond your limiting blind spots. They can make you aware of conflict-deficient scenes and offer tools and techniques designed to bring the very best out of you. In short, the Dramatica Mentorship Program provides a haven of deliberate practice for writers who wish to be deliberate with their craft.

January 23, 2017

Super exciting news...Narrative First is now available on Apple News! If you have an iOS device and always wondered what the heck you could possibly use that News app for--well now you know.

*Narrative First* on Apple News

We divided up the channel into four different sections:

  • Main is your everything feed. The place to catch up when you've been gone awhile.
  • Articles contain all the weekly long form posts covering everything from Dramatica theory to brainstorming techniques.
  • Thoughts round up all the short daily blog posts (like this one).
  • Analysis completes the quad by offering up reviews rated by both structural narrative and entertainment.

We use News as an easy-on-the-eyes alternative RSS reader.1 The typography is gentle and the transitions between articles makes it feel like you're reading a newspaper out of Harry Potter.

To read the Narrative First channel and add it to your favorites, open this link on your iOS device.

A *Narrative First* article in Apple News

  1. And Fiery Feeds for those times when we want to do some power reading. ↩︎

January 21, 2017

In Long Beach today for an Abraham Hicks Vortex of Attraction workshop I heard something that sounded quite familiar.

For those who don't know,1 Esther Hicks is an inspirational writer along the lines of a Wayne Dyer and a proponent of the Law of Attraction. Tapping into "infinite intelligence" she offers advice and recommendations for people seeking to attract more of what they want in their life and repelling that which they don't.

Regardless of whether or not you buy into where her intelligence comes from, listening to her lecture is an inspiring experience--particularly for writers and artists. I was invited as a plus one, but was pleasantly surprised at the amount of useful information she gave for those looking to build momentum in their lives...

...especially the advice she gave to an amateur writer asking for suggestions on how to write her book on raising children. The writer knew she wanted to communicate all that she had learned through her experiences with her children but wasn't sure where to start.

Esther recommended she structure each chapter of her book in four stages:

  1. Write about your situation
  2. Write about your response
  3. Write about the action you took
  4. Meditation

Sound familiar?

Now it wasn't clear whether or not the fourth step was a personal meditation on the words written or a fourth and final section elaborating on a suggested meditation for the reader, but the pattern is clear:

Esther described the four base elements of every Dramatica quad.

  1. Situation
  2. Fixed Attitude
  3. Activity
  4. Psychology

The fourth--as with every fourth element in a Dramatica quad--doesn't quite fit in, yet seemingly is the perfect missing piece. In Dramatica, Psychology differs from Fixed Attitude in that it looks at HOW we think rather than WHAT we think. In other words, precisely what meditation seeks to modify.

For those requiring a visual representation, here is the top (and theoretically, extreme bottom) level of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements:

The Dramatica Narrative Quad

Traces of dramatic or narrative structure in real life interest me. Finding evidence here compels me to think more into the event. Esther is someone deeply in tune with her own intuition--and her own intuition listed out the four elements of a narrative quad.

You could feel the level of understanding rise when she mentioned that fourth and final piece--as if completing the quad completed the understanding within each and every one of the storyminds gathered there.

  1. I just learned about her in the past couple of months. ↩︎

January 19, 2017

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

Earlier this month, George Lucas & Co. announced that his vision of a museum dedicated to story would break ground this year in Los Angeles.

That's right...story!

As someone who lives and works thirty minutes from the proposed location, I am beyond excited. A cultural center revolving around the importance of storytelling?? Successfully starting a full-time business around my life's greatest passion was one thing, but having access to every facet of that same passion in one place? My head reels from the possibilities.

Imagine a corner of this center devoted to our favorite theory of story based on human psychology!

The museum, ten years in the making, sounds absolutely incredible:

There will be two screening rooms. Our sense is there will be a cinematheque, so films will be shown every day and that will be a part of the function of the building. There will be artists in residence, a library for research — obviously a great resource for college students, PhD students, high school students. And there will be educational facilities and classrooms that will be used in the furtherance of whatever we might be teaching at that time. Maybe we do a series on digital art, maybe a series on comic art. There’s all sorts of ways this could play out.

Perhaps Narrative First and yours truly will give a lecture there someday...


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