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Thoughts on Story Structure

January 17, 2017

The only thing that matters more to us more than a great story is publishing an accurate analysis of a great story. Here at Narrative First we would rather be told we were wrong than continue to provide a false and potentially misguided account of the narrative structure behind a work.

Our analysis of Guardians of the Galaxy always remained troublesome.

Gamora's Throughline peters out and dies leaving little explanation why Quill actually changed his point-of-view...To further weaken the film's structure, the Relationship Throughline between Quill and Gamora occupies but one scene over the span of 122 minutes--hardly the stuff of a well-developed thoroughly realized narrative.

The film was a huge and massive success and to suggest that perhaps there was something broken or deficient about the structure proved difficult to back up. We took umbrage with the apparent lack of a consistent and impactful Influence Character Throughline and felt the lack of a true Relationship Story Throughline--but that didn't seem to bother the rest of the world. Our dual ratings of Structure and Entertainment furthered the confusion for those who felt the film functioned appropriately on all levels.

Enter novelist Sebastien de Castell, writer of the popular Traitor's Blade series and his counter-argument for why Guardians of the Galaxy proved so successful:

The main structural criticism you cite with the film is the weak IC and RS throughlines because the only relationship that seems to be going on between Peter and another character is with Gamora—a sort of unfulfilled romance that is, at best, weak sauce. I agree completely. However when I ask myself what relationship in at the heart of the story, it’s the relationship of the team - not something between two individuals. Each of three characters—Gamora, Drax, and Rocket—represent the IC and are trying to force Peter to stop trying to make them into a team.

Despite how Peter starts the story—pretending to be a lone wolf out for himself, he’s actually desperate to have a family again because he’s never gotten over the death of his mother. That’s why the moment he connects with the other characters (in the prison complex), he immediately tries to get them to work as a team—first to save Gamora, then to escape the prison itself.

Throughout the movie, Gamora (“You’re too self-centered to care about others, Peter”), Rocket (“Everyone’s out for themselves”), and Drax (“I don’t care about anything except avenging my dead family”) handoff the role of IC as they push back against Peter’s steadfast desire to believe they can be a team together and do something good for the galaxy. Sometimes they do it with statements, sometimes with actions (Rocket and Drax getting into a drunken fight.)

The one person who starts to have faith in Peter’s position is Groot. When Groot sacrifices himself to save the others as the ship is crashing, he’s presaging the climactic moment during which all four throughlines converge: Peter grabs the gem out of the air, knowing it means death for him, but Gamora, Drax and Rocket complete the IC throughline when they change to Peter’s way of thinking. All three take Peter’s hand—that’s the act that signals both their acceptance of his approach and the coming together of the team.

By doing so, they complete the RS, because there’s no question anymore that this is a team. Finally, in that same instant, the OS is completed (stone is destroyed, preventing Ronan from destroying Xandar) and Peter’s MC story completes because he’s finally got his new family (we even see him thinking back to his mom before she died.)

So my argument is that if we accept the ‘team’ itself as the IC, the whole structure actually does fit perfectly into the Dramatica storyform model and explains why the film isn’t just fun fluff but actually feels genuinely satisfying to the audience.

Besides finding an opportunity to use "presaging" in a sentence, Sebastien nails the thematic undertones of the film.

It will take another viewing of the film to nail down the exact storyform, but right off the bat it would seem that Peter's Avoidance is really a function of his Main Character Symptom rather than an actual Problem. This would signify an Overall Story Problem and Influence Character Problem(or collective Influence Character Problems) of Oppose and a corresponding Solution of Support--both story points that support Sebastien's wonderful explanation above.

Attitude would take over as the Overall Story Issue which sounds five-thousand times better, especially in a comedy action/adventure like Guardians.

As always, if you read something here you don't quite agree with or see differently please feel free to contact us. The right storyform is infinitely more important than our storyform...

January 13, 2017

Need to figure out how to create an effective and compelling backstory? Read Melanie's explanation on Justification:

We all share the same basic psychology but how it gets “wound up” by experience determines how we see the world. Eventually we reach a point where we’ve had enough experience to arrive at a conclusion that things are always “that way” and to stop considering the issue. And that is how everything from “winning drive” to “prejudice” is formed – not by ill intents or a dull mind but by the fact that no two life experiences are the same.

The "wound up" determines the "wound" of your Main Character. Their justifications protect while simultaneously defending them against further emotional injury. Until, that is, something or someone shows up to shake things up:

Stories begin at that moment – when the Main Character’s long-held subconscious belief system, world view, philosophy, or template for behavior comes into conflict with the world around him or her. And the story’s structure is all about how an Influence Character repeatedly brings this conflict to the surface in one context after another until there is so much evidence that the Main Character’s view is incorrect, that he or she must make a choice in a leap of faith: Do I stick with my long-held beliefs, even though they don’t seem to be solving the problem, or do I switch to a new point of view that seems to explain things, yet has never been tried?

Stay around to the end of Melanie's article on What Drives a Main Character to see why psychotherapy differs from narrative and why characters are never "real" people.

January 13, 2017

You can now download the Story Engine Settings reports for the 2016 Story Embroidery class.

For those unfamiliar, every December the Dramatica Users Group gets together to create a complete story completely from scratch. Chris Huntley, co-creator of the theory, spins a random storyform from the 32,768 possible and then, in round-robin style, everyone around the table takes a story point and illustrates it.

The only rule is that one must honor the ideas and concepts submitted by the others in the group.

The result is an often-hilarious, surprisingly coherent, fully functional narrative—all in the course of a couple hours.

If you would like to follow along, open up these two separate Story Engine Settings reports:

And watch the video below. Enjoy!

January 10, 2017

I love this analogy from Melanie concerning the difference between a Main Character who changes their Resolve (think Marlin in Finding Nemo or Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) in Captain Fantastic ) and a Main Character who has their Resolve changed over time (think Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) in Blue Jasmine or Elliot in E.T.):

Sometimes, in geology, this force gradually raises or lowers land in two adjacent plates. Other times it builds up pressure until things snap all at once in an earthquake. So too in story psychology, people are sometimes slowly changed by the gradual application of pressure as the main character’s justifications gradually unwind through experience. Other times the pressure applied structure just builds up until the character snaps in Leap Of Faith – that single “moment of truth” at the climax in which a character must decide either to change his ways (or outlook) or stick by his guns believing his current approach is stronger than the pressure bought to bear against him, believing he just has to outlast the forces against him to ultimately triumph.

Follow the link to The Tectonic Plates of Story Structure for a great visual as well.

January 9, 2017

Catching up on all things story after several weeks away, I found this gem from Melanie1

Narrative is not an artificial construct imposed on fiction nor on the real world, but it is a description of the ways of the mind beneath the level of subject matter. In a sense, narrative describes the operating system of the mind before a program is loaded.

So many of the writers I work with think of story as if it is something that actually happens to real-life characters. Story is an analogy to the way we think. Worrying about every character's "want" or "need" regardless of their connection to that analogous process deep within the structure reveals itself to be a tremendous waste of time.

This is why story structure was not previously decipherable – you can’t explain a nonlinear system with a linear paradigm.

Every single other story paradigm or collection of journey beats treats story as a linear process that starts in one place and transforms the character into a hero or cat-saver by the end. Dramatica takes a different approach in considering that all elements of a narrative work together in a holistic, non-linear fashion.

This isn't to say that something like the Hero's Journey or Save the Cat! isn't helpful for some; they simply don't define the totality of story.

In closing, suffice it to say that through narrative, we are able to look into the structure and dynamics of the group mind and see the structure and dynamics within ourselves. And, as a result, narrative holds the key to understanding why we think and feel as we do, and provides the methods and techniques that can solve both our external problems and internal inequities.

So really, meditation and self-awareness is the key! Look within for answers without.

  1. Yes, I realize pretty much everything linked here is from Melanie Anne Phillips, one of the co-creators of Dramatica, but hey--until other writers start blogging about their experience with this revolutionary theory you will be hearing a lot from her. ↩︎

January 8, 2017

In the video Dramatica: Past, Present, Future, and Beyond theory co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips mentions the use of Dramatica in the analysis of real world situations.

Late last year we ran a series on Structuring Narratives in the Real World that discussed the various approaches towards using Dramatica to make sense of the senseless.

This is a challenging hurdle to get over. How can our lives be structured into stories if so much of it seems random?

Melanie addresses this in her post on Narrative in a Chaotic World:

True chaos has no predictable pattern.  Narrative is our attempt to find more stable transitory patterns in the ebb and flow – like the Red Spot on Jupiter but rather in terms of behavior – either ours or those around us.  Narrative puts a box around a part of our chaotic world and says that within this box, we can accurately predict the inner workings of things, assuming no force from outside the box disturbs or influences our captive slice of reality.

Combined with the notion that Our Minds Are Narrative-Generating Machines , one can begin to see that we quite easily self-regulate into storytelling.

When the proscribed behavioral plan suggest[ed] by each of our myriad of individual narratives come into conflict, we must rise above a series of independent solutions to create a greater narrative in which each smaller narrative becomes an element.  And then, we must arranges the interactions and contextual specifications of each of the smaller narratives, favoring one at times and another at other times or in other situations in order to co-ordicnate a larger truth to chart the overall course of our lives.

Our narratives craft the meaning we seek.

January 7, 2017

This month I started reading The Voice of Knowledge: A Practical Guide to Inner Peace. The book espouses the wisdom of the Toltecs by contemplating the notion that our lives are simply dreams; the inner monologues--or stories--we tell ourselves alter our perception of reality.

The book dovetails nicely with the Dramatica theory of story, especially this notion of our minds as narrative-generating machines:

Realize that your mind is a narrative-generating machine. That is why narratives exist in the first place: because they mirror the processes of the mind. But the mind is also a repository of topical information – subject matter – and engages in the process of synthesizing two or more old ideas into a new one. The new ideas may or may not fit into the narrative the mind is constructing. And yet the heart is drawn more to the new ideas, just as the mind is drawn more to a balanced and complete structure.

Looking forward to finding more crossovers between the Toltecs and Chris and Melanie.

January 6, 2017

Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, on the personality of a story:

As we get to know people a little better, our initial impression of the “type” of person they are begins to slowly alter, making them a little more of an individual and a little less of a stereotype. To this end, as the first act progresses, you may want to hint at a few attributes or elements of your story’s personality that begin to drift from the norm.

The most interesting--yet most difficult to incorporate--aspect of Dramatica is this idea of structure determining the personality of a narrative. Far more enlightening than the prevailing idea of one journey to rule them all, identifying the flavor of narrative through the conflicts they explore opens up a wellspring of understanding for the conscientious Author.

Genre sits at the top of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements and it is here that you will find the different kinds of personality-types for different narratives.

For instance, The Sixth Sense shares a similar personality type with The Others not because of their subject matter and StoryWeaving reveals, but rather because of their focus on misunderstandings in the Overall Story and blind Fixed Attitudes on the part of their respective Main Characters.

Likewise, the narrative personality of The Bourne Identity differs from Aliens not because the former is a "Thriller" and the latter a "Sci-Fi Action" movie, but rather because Bourne struggles with Memories while Riley struggles with The Past.

The uniqueness of a narrative construct lies in its arrangement of conflict through the Four Throughlines. Our series of articles on Conflict addresses these personality types in detail.

January 5, 2017

Having four kids who cynically break down a film's story the moment we exit the theater is a great reminder that I talk too much about Dramatica. The film in question was Illumination's Sing, and while everyone agreed that it was fun--they all universally felt that there were "too many characters" in it to be a good story.

The real problem with Sing exists in the under-developed Relationship Story Throughline and mostly absent Influence Character, not the existence of "too many" characters. In fact, it is possible to write a compelling and effective narrative where everyone works on separate--yet common--Story Goals.

Melanie Anne Phillips explains in Writing Stories with a “Collective” Goal:

For example, in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” all the characters are struggling with their relationships and not working toward an apparent common purpose.  There is a goal, however, and it is to find happiness in a relationship.

This type of goal is called a “Collective Goal” since it is not about trying to achieve the same thing, but the same KIND of thing.

In Four Weddings the Collective Goal is Becoming (or Changing One's Nature). In Sing the Collective goal is Being (or Playing A Role). Interesting too that most ensemble movies find their Overall Stories in the Psychology or Manipulation Domain.

One subjective character, one "Protagonist", one Goal stories are fine and dandy; but it sure is nice every now and then to see someone attempt to work an ensemble piece in the middle of a genre dedicated to the commonplace.

January 4, 2017

Truth be told, one of the hardest things for a predominantly linear Author to understand is the mind of a holistic character. We simply don't get this idea of emotional tendency; you either want to do something or you don't--there is no in-between.

In this example of the difference between linear and holistic problem-solving, Melanie Anne Phillips offers us on-off thinkers the emotional experience of dealing with the tides of emotions.

As with most of Melanie's writing, I return to this one often for greater clarity. For some reason, over the holiday break, I started to really get this idea of what it must be like for a holistic character to balance all the varying degrees of motivation that run through their head.

It's worked wonders for my own personal relationship as well. :)

Taking Home the Bread

In this fantastic post, Melanie takes you through the thought process of deciding whether or not to return to the lunch table to pick up some bread she forgot...

That’s good bread, but I’m full. I might take it home, but I’m not convinced it will reheat. Also, I’ve really eaten too many calories in the last few days, I’m two pounds over where I want to be and I have a hair appointment on Wednesday and a dinner date on the weekend with a new friend I want to impress, so maybe I shouldn’t eat anymore. The kids won’t want it, but I could give it to the dog, and if I get hungry myself, I’ll have it there (even though I shouldn’t eat it if I want to lose that two pounds!) So, I guess it’s better to take it than to leave it.

Sounds like a nightmare to me to have to sift through all these different considerations to arrive at a simple decision, but apparently this is the reality.

She explains:

To me there was only a tendency toward bringing the bread home, and barely enough to justify the effort. To Chris it was a binary decision: I wanted to bring it home or not.

Well yeah. Do you want it or not??

I’m thinking, “How does this change the way I feel about the situation?” Chris is thinking, “How can she solve this problem.”

This is where I started to really understand what it must be like...and therefore, how to create that same kind of understanding in the characters I write that aren't exactly like me.

I’m trying to convey about a thousand petty concerns that went into my emotional assessment that it was no longer worth going back for. Chris just hears a bunch of trumped up reasons, none of which are sufficient to change one’s plans.

And that pretty much nails 90% of all the arguments between me and significant other. One woman's problem-solving is another man's justification.

I operated according to an emotional tendency to bring the bread home that was just barely sufficient to generate even the slightest degree of motivation. Chris doesn’t naturally assume motivation has a degree, thinking that as a rule you’re either motivated or you are not.

Read through this a thousand times in year's past, and this is the first time I actually saw the words "emotional tendency".

Now, what does all this mean? When men look at problems, they see a single item that is a specific irritation and seek to correct it. When they look at inequities, they see a number of problems interrelated. Women look at single problems the same way, but sense inequities from a completely emotional standpoint, measuring them on a sliding scale of tendencies to respond in certain ways.

Unbelievably coherent understanding of the difference between our two operating systems and a key insight into applying this reality to our own stories.

Probably time to re-read Melanie's article on the difference between male and female problem-solving.


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