Demystifying the Plot Points of a Complete Story

Understand the reason why stories shift from one Act to another

Season 3 Episode 63

In this episode, we take a look at the key story events that shift a narrative from one contextual Act to the next. In addition, we discuss what the Dramatica theory of story identifies in a story--namely, the subtext of narrative conflict. If you previously thought subtext was something that could never truly be defined--prepare to learn the truth. Using examples from both The Florida Project and Call Me By Your Name, we offer a first look insight into the reason for re-branding our service with the more appropriate name: Subtext.

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Show Notes & Links

Hello and welcome to another edition of The Narrative First podcast. The only podcast where story is king, I'm your host Jim Hull, the voice of Narrative First and this is episode 63 demystifying the major plot points of a complete story.

Welcome back everyone to another round of story structure and story analysis from a Dramatica point of view. If you're listening to this in the order in which it was recorded, you may notice that there was a bit of a delay in the last week. In fact, I will probably be publishing three podcasts in one week in order to catch up. And the reason for that is that I took a deep dive into the Dramatica Theory itself.

Last week, I began writing every single day and I stumbled upon this idea of further exploring the PRCO, SRCA, one, two, three, four and the PASS, those modalities of seen structure that I wrote about in an article entitled writing the perfect scene structure. I believe was it writing the perfect scene? I will leave a link to it in the show notes for sure.

And it was my expansion on an article that Melanie had written a couple years back where she brought up the idea of this quad of different modalities within a certain scene and I became really interested in it again, and I've always been asked. Well, do you have any examples of this in action?

Because last year I had worked with a client who this was the first time writing a screenplay and a story. Actually, I think it was his second time writing a screenplay, but the first time seriously. And I noticed right away that his scenes lacked a certain narrative drive like a lot of them fell flat because they didn't have this idea of PRCO which instinctively most people understand it and most writers probably get it and don't really have this problem.

Although occasionally, they might run into a scene where the scene falls flat and usually the reason for that one of the reasons for that is that it's missing the idea of potential resistance current and outcome.

Just a side note. You might hear a bit of rain in the background. It's actually raining here in sunny Southern California and Valencia. The hills are turning green and I thought it would be great to just have the rain running in the background as if it was the sound of the clicking and clacking of keys as you write that novel of yours or that screenplay of yours that you've been dying to tell I just thought would be a good background but getting back to the potential resistance current and outcome...

I began writing an example of this in practice and stumbled across some really interesting ideas that I hadn't considered before. Ended up writing a 4000 word article and then wanted to go back into the actual model of Dramatica and really find out how it all works and because of that the last week I've been consumed with it.

I know Melanie has described before or maybe--no, it was Melanie--described before how she had to put her whole life on a hard drive and put it aside when she was developing Dramatica at least the more complicated aspects of it and coming from the other side trying to figure not only figure out how it works, but also how they came to the understanding to get it to work is doubly as hard and I did it for a week and pretty much had a mental breakdown at the end. Where everything just shut down and now I'm returning back to my normal life. I discovered some really interesting things and I'm looking forward to sharing those in the weeks to come.

I just thought it was ironic that the year of abundance required me going abundantly into the Dramatica Theory and not creating abundant content in the last week but all for a good purpose. In the end, there will be something much more valuable to come out of it for everybody to enjoy.

Story Driver

Today's topic is the story driver. This was originally called work because it was the work the narrative had to go through in order to reach a resolution. Believe it was changed in version 3 where they changed it to driver which makes more sense and doesn't really obfuscate any of the original meaning that's in there except to say that, when you look at driver, you are merely talking about something that upsets the balance and changes the direction. When you're talkin about the work, it's something that's actually integrated with the rest of the storyform. And a lot of what I will be talking about today will be showing how you can actually ascribe greater meaning to plot points which are essentially what story drivers are when you connect them to the actual story form itself.

If you just take the story point on its own you'll likely find different instances of it and perhaps not find the best example of it. Not only in a story that you are examining but also a story that you are writing on your own. The two films that I'll be talking about today are Star Wars and the Shawshank Redemption. Star Wars is a story with an action driver and the Shawshank Redemption is a story with a decision driver. The reason I like to use Star Wars and this example is that it creates all kinds of confusion and creates all kinds of questions as to what actually starts the story.

There are so many different entry points into what could potentially be the story and it doesn't help that a lot of people refer to the plans as the MacGuffin of the story that it provides ample opportunity for greater exploration.

Everyone knows about the inciting incident, believe it was made popular with Robert McKee and his book story and perhaps before that Sid Fields book screenplay the idea that there is this one event that incites the story. And without it nothing that follows would ever have happened.

Dramatica doesn't have an inciting incident. It has a story driver and this is when the balance is upset in particularly the Objective Story through line. The inciting incident what most people refer to as the starting event of a story is usually the time when the main character through line connects with the Objective Story through line. It's a very subjective account of when a Story begins because they're tying the main characters experience directly into the Objective Story as if it is one and the same.

The dramatica theory of story breaks out the main character through line from the Objective Story through line into the subjective and objective views respectively. The story driver isn't attached to when those two through lines connect or when they both begin, but rather when the Objective Story through line starts when that upsets the balance.

When it comes to Star Wars most people point to Luke's discovery of the message from R2 as the time when the story actually starts and in reality that is when the main character through line connects with the Objective Story through line.

There's a whole bunch of stuff that goes on before that moment. That is actually tied into the rest of the narrative which has meaning and connects all the story points and all the events in the story from the very beginning to the very end.

Why does dramatic do this? The story points in Dramatica aren't there to tell a story or to help you write a story. It's actually interpreting the meaning behind story points, as if what is it that I'm actually trying to say with this story?

And one of the things that you want to get across when you are arguing a point where you're trying to get a message across is this connection between cause and effect what is causing the effects? Are actions forcing decisions or are decisions forcing actions? And in every complete story every complete functioning story the major plot points will all be the same.

Occasionally, you run into a film like Bee movie from Dreamworks an animated film where it mixes action and decision drivers. It has action drivers on the bookends on the either side of the narrative and then in the middle drafts a decision driven story a courtroom drama story that really has nothing to do with the rest of the narrative and it is a broken story in that it doesn't really get across the meaning of what it's trying to communicate. It's silly. It's nonsensical it's fine. But if you're trying to craft something a little more meaningful something with more purpose you'd want to make sure that each and every one of those plot points is actually describing the cause and effect relationship.

That is why you have a story point because you're trying to communicate a message. You don't have a message because you're trying to communicate a storypoint. It's a backwards way of thinking where it's similar to the the Story Continuum problem recently with the the sunrise and sunset. it's not what is a sunrise a time lock option lock its well, what is it you want to say and then you can attach a sunrise to that or a clock to that.

The story driver works by upsetting the balance of things. As I mentioned in my article, plot points and the inciting incident, every problem has its own genesis a moment at which the balance is tipped and the previous sense of oneness is lost. With separation comes the awareness of an inequity and a desire to return back to a state of parity. Every problem has a solution and a story explores that process of trying to attain resolution.

Many point to Luke discovering the plans as the story driver of Star Wars others will look to the stealing of the plans and some even mention the construction of the Death Star and the problem with the last one is you could likely keep going back and back and back until when does the narrative actually start?

When it comes to the stealing of the plans, this is when you want to start getting into the actual context of the narrative that is being told. Stealing is specifically within a context of obtaining. When it comes to physics when you're talkin about conflict arising from physical processes of actually doing things--and that's what Star Wars is all about in the Objective Story in the objective perspective where people are clashing physically, you know, they're doing something that if they stopped doing it then everything would be fine. You have four different contexts with which to explore those activities. You have understanding learning doing and obtaining.

Many understand the difference between understanding and learning but when it comes to doing and obtaining they have difficulty telling the difference between the two. When does doing stop and when does obtaining begin? And when does obtaining stop and then you're actually doing something? I always like to use the example of a bike race or a track meet where the obtaining is the difficulty in actually winning the race, what it takes to actually win the race. The doing is how well did you run the race?

And if you look at the issues underneath you'll see issues of skill and experience coming into play when it comes to how well did you run the race and then issues of self-interest and morality when it comes to winning the race and that's where you get things like in Pixar's Cars where self-interest and morality, it's not as important winning. It's you know, how you play the game. That's where you get into thematic considerations that are found under a context of obtaining.

Doing deals with the wisdom how smart it is to do something. Um, how enlightened you may be in the things that you do and the skill and experience with which you do them. Star Wars explores the latter it explores doing. Stealing the plans, and blowing up the Death Star do not accurately describe the actual source of conflict in the story of Star Wars in the first film. Rather it is the actual doing of actually rebelling against an Empire that carries the meaning of the story.

When it comes to the story points of a particular narrative in a storyform, all of them work together to tell one meaning, they're all connected-- all shining a light on the inequities that seek resolution, but most importantly they all work together.

So the initial stealing of the plans would work as a story driver if the story focused on problems of obtaining, it would be perfect. Unfortunately, there isn't a narrative element underneath the context of obtaining that accurately describes the problems in Star Wars as much as an element of test.

I've written an article before about the difference between Luke Skywalker and Neo it's a great example because everybody points to those as examples of the hero's journey all the time perfect examples of the hero's journey, they couldn't be more different when it comes to the actual narrative when it comes to the actual story structure.

Luke's problem is testing and Neo's problem is disbelief and it's easy to see that I leave a link in the show notes, but Luke doesn't have a problem with disbelief of believing in himself. He could totally believe in himself. No problem. And Neo doesn't have problems trusting other people. He's totally cool at that.

The problem with Neo is he doesn't believe in himself. And so he has to have faith and the problem with Luke is he needs to stop testing himself stop challenging everything and just trust for once.

Now those two are very similar in the same way that you have similar contexts in different through lines where for instance in mind, you have a context of memory in the universe domain is a context of past. They're very similar, but they're different. They have similar areas. It's like the things that that happened but one is an external things that actually happened and one is the internal memory of what actually happened same thing with tests and disbelief or trust and faith, but test and Trust more accurately describe what is going on in Star Wars. And after the update section, I will come back and describe what those differences are.

Subtext Updates

This week in the update section. I finished putting up the major story forms for the films that were nominated for best picture this year. This includes the Florida project. Sean Baker's amazing film about Walt Disney World and the children that live around it and call me by your name which won best Oscar screenplay for adaptation. Or is it best screenplay Oscar best whatever the combination James Ivory won for adapting the original novel.

When it comes to the Florida project, this has a very interesting story and I'll leave a link to an article I just finished about rethinking my Florida project analysis when I first watched the film. I liked it. It was not very enjoyable as far as realizing what's actually going on down there which I believe was the purpose of the film but I didn't feel as if there was a story form to it. And this happens a lot of times when I try and figure out a story form while I'm watching something for the first time always ends in failure and I always need to stop doing that but it's really hard when all you think about day in and day out is Dramatica.

But the Florida project is a film that stuck with me for weeks after I had written that analysis talkin about it on the discussed dramatica forums and then a conversation I had with Dramatica Story Expert John Gentry after our user group meeting for the accountant convinced me that I needed to go back into it again and see if perhaps there was something there I missed. I actually felt that I was wrong about it about a week after when I was writing the analysis putting it all together and I came across the Wikipedia article where they discussed the last shot and how it was shot and I started to think. Oh, you know what? I think I had it wrong, but I'm an authority figure and I know all there is to know about Dramatica so I'm just gonna put it down. Well, it turns out that that initial inkling was true. When I went back in to reanalyze and relook at what message was being conveyed there was a really really strong story form that speaks to what Dramatica really is what the theory really conveys.

When you read a screenwriting book, you read a book about writing they talk about subtext and knowing the subtext of your scene and what's really going on with the actors what's going on between them the subtext of the scene is much more important than the scene itself. It's what actually propels it to go forward. And it's always this thing that's unspoken. It's the unspoken thing. You're not really sure what it is. But you know when it's there it's there and wow, that was a great scene because really what he was thinking was this. Well dramatica actually defines that unspoken word. It actually sets in stone in 75 story points the current story form. It actually tells you what that subtext is all about and no more is this obvious than in the Florida project because the story form that is there is never discussed in the film. It's done at such a level at such a sophisticated level of subtlety that you get it from like Willem dafoe's performance, you know when you watch it, he's saying a lot but he doesn't say a lot. He seems like a completely different person. He actually became that person and a lot of it has to do with the subtext that's driving each and every scene. That's why it feels so real so rich because it's actually communicating something very meaningful. There's actually a purpose to everything that's going on and that purpose the subtext that drives everything is defined by the Dramatica story form.

So if anybody asks you well, what does Dramatica do it's really simple, it defines the subtext. It defines those unspoken moments about what the story is really all about.

So it's not telling you exactly what to do and what's seen in different sequences. Well, there's a hero's journey, so these are the events that happen in order for a hero to end up becoming a hero. Dramatica is conveying the deeper understandings--or actually, non understandings--the unconscious the subtextual stuff that's going on behind the scenes that's driving each and every character throughout every scene every sequence and every Act. I've found that a really compelling way to describe Dramatica a very simple way to describe it.

I believe I was coming up with it because of call me by your name. Again with that on the discussion boards, I remember I think it was back in November December. Somebody had seen it and said it was great and they tried to discover what the story form was and I never opened that thread because I I can't stand spoilers can't stand them.

I finally had a chance last weekend to watch it and loved it. Thought it was fantastic. And found the story form to be another instance of subtext defined of what's really driving the problems with the characters and the clearest example of this is the story goal of conceiving. And as much as I hate spoilers, obviously, this is a podcast about story structure and story analysis. So I'm about to spoil what the film is all about. Although it might be pretty clear and it's about allowing the main character Elio to conceive of the idea that he's gay and more specifically that it's okay.

That unspoken goal. Is throughout each and every scene from beginning to end its motivating the narrative. It's pushing it forward, but it's never talked about. In fact when the Objective Story is resolved in Michael stuhlbarg amazing performance father of the year when he gives his monologue there at the end and tells everything that that he's been thinking. He doesn't actually come out and say hey. So it's okay. If you're gay, he doesn't actually communicate that but the subtext behind all of it is like can you can you just get the idea that it's okay. I'm allowing you but I'm giving you the freedom. I'm giving you the freedom to be able to accept yourself and allow it but I'm not going to come right out and say it and that's what's so fantastic about the Dramatica theory of story above everything else--is that it actually helps you define what the subtext of your story is.

If you were going to write call me by your name and you weren't James Ivory or you didn't do it instinctively. And you knew you had this idea about this young 17 year old who you wanted to get him to a place where he could actually accept himself. You would know that. Everybody in that story is waiting on edge holding out right at the that's the start Dynamic that's going on there the the typical coming-of-age story for that main character to come into their own and to actually resolve everything by conceiving by Conceiving a different version of themselves a more honest version of themselves. I believe this is a really great way to think about the dramatica theory of story Dramatica defines the subtext of a narrative.

All those story forms are on the narrative first atomizer. I'll leave links to that and also links to the analysis. I'll be cleaning up the Florida project analysis. Probably by the time this podcast is out. I'll have a new version of it. And of course, I'll be writing about call me by your name as well.

Story Driver Discussion Part Two

Back to our discussion about story drivers and specifically the story drivers of Star Wars to connect it with the previous section on upgrades and on the the subtext of Dramatica and what dramatic is all about when it comes to the goal of Star Wars, most people think well, the goal is to destroy the Death Star and that's really not what's driving the entire narrative. The goal is to actually repels to actually find some way to fight against this imposing authority figure.

Again, that's another instance of subtext. They don't come right out and say, oh we need to rebel I want to rebel. Amateur writers look towards wants and needs I need wants and needs.

Looking back through the history of Dramatica and the development of Dramatica, I came across a interview which I believe I think I talked about last week. I'm not sure. Like I said my brain shut down diving into dramatic over the last week. So I'm not sure if I talked about this yet, but a reader or listener in the UK sent me a tape of one of the first interviews with Melanie which is fantastic and there's another guy in there, which I think it was storybuilder and I as I would buy every single screen writing book. I also bought every piece of story software and I know I had this actual program and of course one of the things that you fill in the boxes are the wants and needs. This is a very superficial, I not superficial but it doesn't actually help you with the narrative. I remember my story teacher at calarts the first year handed out 100 questions that you should ask if your character which is what's their favorite food. What's their favorite hobby? And then you would go through all of it get completely exhausted and not know a single thing about the story you're telling it's the same sort of thing.

So wants and needs don't actually describe the narrative. I want to blow up the Death Star. We need to blow up this that's fine. But what's actually driving at the subtext that's underneath it all is finding a way to fight back and that is why the Empire illegally boarding the ship at the very beginning the Blockade Runner Princess Leia's diplomatic ship illegally boarding--that is the very best indication of an event that actually starts the Objective Story drives the narrative in a different direction and connects meaningfully with the other story points within the storyform.

For instance the Objective Story through line of physics, which I mentioned before bombarding Shield arrays immobilizing the ship blasting their way aboard are all inequities in the physical domain. They're all things that are shown on screen and when it comes to a film you only deal with the narrative that's in front of you not anything that came before not anything that came after everything that comes before is the backstory and sets up the actual motivations and the justifications for the narrative to move forward. Blasting their way onto the ship is on screen in your face and immediately informs you that this is going to be an Objective Story through line of problematic activities. In addition it communicates the Objective Story concern of doing an Empire doing things that infringe on people's Liberties and rights. Now do they spend an inordinate amount of time talkin about this and discussing it? No, there's the one line from Princess Leia, which is Lord Vader. I should have known only you could be so bold. The Imperial Senate will not sit for this when they hear you've attacked a diplomatic. So it's there. It's something that actually upsets the balance of things but it's not this isn't a discussion of political ideologies and manipulations. This is a story about what happens when you overstep your bounds and you push people to a place where they need to fight back.

The Objective Story issue of skill is also communicated in this first event. The Empire is way better at beating up on the rebels than the rebels are at fighting back. They have a better position. They're in the defensive position. If you've ever played wargames, you always get a modifier. If you're in the defensive position your huddled in you you have the upper ground. You have the higher ground. They have a better position and they still got their asses kicked that is an instance of skill coming into play where the narrative is portraying the idea. The person who is more skilled is more likely to survive this event. The Stormtroopers had to crawl through a little tiny opening and still made their way aboard it's crazy. And then finally the Objective Story problem of test. Let's see what we can get away with here by forcing our way on board this diplomatic ship.

The Empire abusing and overstepping its authority kicks Star Wars into action and lets us know what we can expect in the story drivers to come. Now Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley had this to say about the story driver for Star Wars because it comes up a lot. If one considers a driver as changing the direction of the story that I think the first driver in Star Wars is Luke's discovery of the hidden message. Before that, it is run away run away run away and only after Luke, who is essential to resolving the core inequity connects it to the effort to get the data to the Rebellion, does it move to run towards run towards run towards?

I love this idea of looking towards the direction of a narrative to determine where the driver is. It's actually changing the course of resolution, but it also means that everything before. From disabling the Blockade Runner to choking out the general to chasing down artoo and C3PO that puts it all back into back story. If the Objective Story didn't actually start until Luke received the message.

Part of this and I understand that Chris knows this I'm just communicating this to everybody else part of this is the handoff of the protagonist role from Princess Leia to Luke. Prior to the restraining bolt Leia is the one that is driving the efforts to rebel, she is the one pursuing and she is the one considering not only does she pursue a course of action to get the plans there. But she's also saying to Vader hey, you know what? You can't do this kind of thing that's consider.

But if you look towards Chris's description of the story driver actually changing the direction of the narrative that same thing happens in that opening sequence prior to the boarding of the ship, she's running away running away running away the boarding of the ship forced her to alter her course of action and now pursue a different plan. She's no longer running away. Now. She's pursuing. Okay. I'm going to what do I do? Look back and forth. I'm going to give this to this little Droid and he's going to take it down there. That sequence not only illustrates an action forcing a decision, which is their decision to put the fate of the rebellion in the hands of this little Droid, but it also casts it in the light of Test. She's putting it in the fate of this little Droid which is a huge Grand test. Well, let me see if this is gonna work. That's putting a lot out there.

It actually describes the imbalance between trust and test because not only is she trusting. But she's testing to see whether or not R2 will be able to get that down there. And also whether or not Ben will respond. Her message is basically a question a test for Ben. So you have that imbalance between the two and that's the great thing about Dramatica as it's always about the balances in imbalances between things, and that's where the story driver comes in because it defines where this imbalance occurs.

The problem with only looking at the direction of narrative at only looking at pursuit or avoid to determine the driver is that you miss those subtle instances of Direction change that actually connect with the story form. So that every single story driver from the very beginning one to the very end actually connects to the other story points in the story like the Objective Story problem. The Objective Story issue the Objective Story concern everything all of them connect to one another in a beautiful holistic telling of the narrative argument.

So as I mentioned that action of the Empire illegally boarding the ship actually forces two decisions: The first is Leia's brief looking back and forth whether or not to actually give the plans to the little guy and the second is the emperor's eventual decision to dissolve the Senate to prevent any further backlash that's actually in the dialogue between all the different Empire commanders where Vader first comes in and chokes out the guy Grand Moff Tarkin comes in and relays the emperor's newest decision obviously in a way to curtail any backlash that was mentioned from Princess Leia those two are actually connected together and they are part of the story.

The Emperor is dissolving the Senate he's testing what he can get away with and he gets away with it. And that's not the only story driver that's connected to the storyform. If you look at all the story points within the story form, you'll see that they're all connected to the Objective Story through line of physics the Objective Story concern of doing the Objective Story issue of skill and the Objective Story problem of test.

The first story driver has them illegally boarding the Diplomatic ship and the rebels saying hey, you can't do that. I'm going to tell on you. No, you're not because now I'm going to dissolve the Senate. Uh crap now, what are we going to do? And then you have the First Act.

The second story driver is them killing Luke's aunt and uncle. You know what? Illegally boarding a ship without papers wasn't enough. Let's see if we can get away with barbecuing some of the local inhabitants. Hey, that's not nice. Now. I'm going to join up.

So the first story driver has the Empire illegally boarding a diplomatic ship. And testing to see what they can get away with who could they can kill what kind of political Arrangements they can dissolve and that's the First Act. The second story driver has them killing Luke's aunt and uncle it's not enough to simply board a ship illegally, which nobody will probably hear about, now let's try and kill some of the local inhabitants and also kill some of the the Jawas poor guys. And see what we can get away with in order to stop them from fighting in order to stop the Rebellion from occurring. And all that does is force Luke to make the decision to join. So another action forcing a decision that connects with test skill doing actually I'm not oh skill is there because it's I was going to say Skill isn't there but these blast marks are too close for Jawas was made to look like it. But again, the Empire Skills at fighting is brought into light. So again tied into the story points of the story form.

The third story driver now that they've illegally boarded a ship and now that they've killed a couple local inhabitants now, they're going to blow up an entire planet. Essentially testing to see how good their death machine is and it works really really well.

What kind of decision does that Force? Well, Leia and more than likely the rest of the rebellion decides to quit. They don't even try. And that's shown with Leia just hanging out in the cell as if she's inert. She's not really doing anything. She's given up the fight and then Luke comes in and takes over and things start up again.

Now what could be worse than blowing up a planet you've tested your death machine, you've tested killing local innocents and you've tested your Authority. Well, let's see. Let's try and hide a beacon aboard this Smuggler's ship. What could be worse than blowing up an entire planet? It's listening to Darth Vader this crazy guy in a motorcycle helmet Let's test out his idea of letting them get away.

And then of course the fifth and final story driver is the blowing up of the Death Star. That's when all the inequities in the Objective Story are resolved. That's when the Rebellion finds a way to fight back. And that's how you meaningfully connect the story drivers of a narrative to the storyform.

Again. The goal of a story is not explicitly stated Luke and Leia are not going around saying hey, let's rebel against the empire because they keep testing us over and over again. It's actually the subtext of each and every scene in there. It's actually what's driving the narrative forward.

Understanding how these story drivers set the stage for narrative and end up determining the kind of conflict and plot events of that story helps writers and producers and directors avoid the inevitable fate of not knowing what the heck they're doing. They can actually craft the structure of Your Story from beginning to end whether it's a single novel a single film television series television season television episode a play, no matter what medium you are working in if you're crafting a narrative tying, the story drivers explicitly to the meaning of the story form to the meaning of the narrative argument that's being made will help ensure a solid and effective story.

That's it for this week's podcast. I know I mentioned covering the story drivers of the Shawshank Redemption, but those got cut for time. I will do that in the next episode. So make sure you listen in on episode 64 if you have any questions about story drivers and how you can tie them more meaningfully to your story. Please write to me at narrative first. I hope you have a great week of writing. And as the rain picks up outside, I want to make sure to tell you to have a great week of writing and I'll see you next time.

Narrative First theme by Alex Hull. Hear more on his Soundcloud, Operation Solace.