Narrative First The latest articles, podcasts, and analyses from Narrative First en-us James R. Hull Copyright 2019 2019-05-23T02:38:40+00:00 <![CDATA[Separating the Relationship from the Individuals in a Relationship]]>

Ask anyone to describe their closest relationship when it’s going well, and they’ll answer with “We’re doing so well together” and “We’re really happy.” Ask them that same question when things are rough, and they’ll reply with “He won’t talk to me” or “I feel like I want something more.” When there is flow, we naturally gravitate towards the relationship; when there are resistances and conflict, we see the individuals.

Is it any wonder, then, that Authors struggle to illustrate the Relationship Story Throughline of their story accurately?

Authors naturally gravitate towards conflict and therefore, write about the individuals. They participate in He said/She said storytelling, penning the grief and struggle each feels as they come together, completely missing the flow of dynamic conflict that exists in the space between them.

Write about the relationship as if it was a character, and you avoid the trappings of the individual and capture the essence of this dynamic flow.

simply saying “the partners want different things in life and so can’t progress” risks becoming so vague it’s not actionable from a writing standpoint (because it doesn’t speak directly enough to the intersection of those differences), which is why it’s hard not to write, “John wants a baby, Sally wants to be free to travel the world, and the incompatibility of those desires starts to split their marriage apart”

Conflicting lines of thought do not describe a relationship. They portray the nature of those opposing views, but they don’t speak of the emergent property arising when two meet.

I know it might sound like splitting hairs, trying to differentiate between the loneliness the relationship feels with the isolation the individuals feel, but there is a qualitative difference.

The best approach to capturing this essence is to write a relationship as if it possesses a consciousness. Speak of the relationship’s feelings and concerns, drive, and purpose. Treat the relationship as if it were a part of life, and you’ll begin to crossover in your understanding of narrative.

The Space Between Things

Think of those with marital difficulties. Can one of those marriages be happy if one or both of the individual within are unsatisfied?


There are many instances where one or both parties feels isolated and alone, yet the driving force between them is healthy, fortified, and happy. It may not be ideal for some—but to many, it’s more important than the individual concerns, which is why it is essential to be able to encapsulate it in a story.

That force between them--that marriage--takes on a life of its own. It is “happy.” And that’s what we would write about if we were Authors.

[a] relationship doesn’t have feelings. I can totally see why two people might feel isolated on their own and yet feel their marriage is strong, but that’s different from “the marriage” being happy.

Narrative functions as an analogy to our mind’s problem-solving process. Each area of the mind expresses its own form of consciousness. Stories replicate this reality through the various Throughlines, giving the Audience the experience of living within that mind.

Witnessing the space between things is an integral part of that experience.

A story is a person. A single mind.

Appreciating this connection between the mind and narratives helps us better understand the function of a Relationship Story Throughline in a narrative.

It also helps us appreciate the reality of our experience.

The Struggle for the Rational Mind

If a story is a model of the mind at work, then the individual Throughlines of that story represent the various perspectives available to that mind.

The Overall Story, or plot, offers a They perspective of the conflict.

The Main Character Throughline presents the first-person personal I point-of-view.

The Influence Character challenges that perspective by delivering the alternate You position.

Finally, the Relationship Story Throughline furnishes the We perspective.

As we began to see in the previous article, the Relationship Story Throughline does not have to be carried out by the Main Character and Influence Character. It certainly makes things more comfortable, but it is not a requirement.

Predominantly Linear thinkers struggle—if outright can’t see—that We do not include I or You. They completely understand the separation between I and They (walk a mile in a man’s shoes) but they labor to do the same within a place of subjectivity (drift a mile in our boat). If We included I, then there would be no need for We.

You and I are a part of We just as much as You and I are a part of They—which is to say, they’re not. The Main Character Player holds the unique and subjective I perspective. This Player also holds an objective view—typically as Protagonist—by performing a function in the Overall Story Throughline. While the Author may draw connections between the subjective and the objective, one can’t be wholly objective when subjectivity exists.

Except in a story.

The Overall Story Throughline provides the objective point-of-view. The Relationship Story Throughline offers the subjective point-of-view of that Overall objective perspective.

It’s easier for Linear thinkers to see the difference between I and They because they think in terms of separation and binary. They struggle to make the same distinction between I and We because they don’t consider in terms of holism and of the connectedness of things.

That’s why you can absolutely have a happy marriage where one of the parties is not pleased. It’s not about the individuals—it’s about that space between them—and that space has nothing to do with whether or not you or I am happy.

The Consciousness of a Narrative

Or is a different way to look at it that we imagine the marriage as a third person and we put ourselves deep inside this strange etheric bubble and say, “if I were a consciousness that suddenly existed inside this marriage, how would I describe it”? In that sense, the RS isn’t so much a perspective on its own but a sort of judgment the author is making about the relationship.

Absolutely, 100% this.

It’s the exact same concept as a sunrise being an Optionlock or a Timelock. A narrative (storyform) is the author’s judgment on everything—objectivity, perspective, and yes—relationships.

That “consciousness existing inside the marriage” is you—the Author.

this struck me in an odd way because in a literal sense there’s no such thing as a relationship as distinct from the two individuals. Relationships can’t “feel” anything (I’m talking outside of Dramatica here.) Only the people involved can feel something. In fact, even when you and I use the exact same word to describe our relationship, we’re not actually feeling the same thing, nor is the space between us feeling anything because it’s literally not there. In this sense, a relationship isn’t an entity but rather an effect: it’s what happens when you and I interact.

I bet if you asked Yoda you might get a different answer. 😁

When people speak of “laws of attraction” or “The Secret,” they’re trying to put words to this sense that there is something between us that doesn’t include You and I. They’re driven to tell this story because they’re trying to give meaning to our relationships that exist outside of the objective Overall Story Throughline. They’re not being deluded or suckered into a scam, they’re buying into it because it reflects how they see the world.

These lines of thought sound like a religion or a cult because they’re doing the same thing religion does for us on the other side in the Overall Story Throughline of our lives—they’re giving us a context for understanding what it all means.

It’s just doing it from a We perspective, which is why it sounds so weird and kooky to the more rationally-minded.

A story, or a narrative, is an attempt to ascribe meaning to our lives. We can’t simultaneously be both within and without ourselves in the same context (I and They), but we can in a story. Personal relationships are an integral part of that understanding. Those who see the individual components of a relationship prefer the objective view of things. Those who see the dynamics between individuals prefer the subjective.

Many fail to see the difference between I and We or You and Us—all you have to do is look to the countless number of relationships that dissolved because someone took the relationship for granted. They literally didn’t see We as being separate and worthy of consideration.

So yes, as far as the Author is concerned, in trying to find and give meaning to our experience, a relationship has a “consciousness.”

And it’s worthy of writing about.

<![CDATA[Re-Imagining the Key Relationship of Any Story]]>

In my twelve years of coaching and educating writers both professional and amateur, one common trait stands out: no one understands relationships. They know conflict and plot. They know character and theme. And they know how to put it all together to create something engaging and compelling for bringing to end. But they’re missing one piece.

Very few appreciate the conflict, plot, and theme that exists between characters.

Since its inception in 1994, the Dramatica theory of story taught that the critical relationship in a complete narrative, the “heart” of a story, was an emotional argument between the Main Character and Influence Character. This Relationship Story Throughline (once labeled the Main vs. Impact Story Throughline) pits the two principal characters against each other within an imagined philosophical battleground. Seen as a shortcut towards introducing groundbreaking concepts to the narrative discussion, this reductive take on the relationship dynamic led many writers astray—and even more to discount the theory altogether.

How could the romance between Indiana Jones and Marion be anything less than the emotional heart-center of Raiders of the Lost Ark? How could the friendship between Doc and Marty in Back to the Future be left out of similar discussions? With the Main vs. Impact litmus test, both of these critical relationships fail to meet what we all introvert know: emotional importance.

This series of articles on The Relationship Story changes all of that. By realigning our appreciation of narrative to original core concepts of Dramatica, and adding in practical experience building out meaningful stories with writers across all genres, we open up new frontiers of understanding story.

The Perspectives of Story

The Relationship Story Throughline is not the relationship between the Main Character and the Influence Character. The Relationship Story Throughline perspective is an emergent property of the consciousness of the Storymind—something not present within the unique aspects of I or You.

Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own.

The Relationship Story Throughline perspective is We.

And We are neither You nor I.

For many, this concept of splitting hairs around notions of subjectivity may appear overly complicated and semantic. For others, it may seem an impossibility to hold a We perspective that does not include self. I’m here to tell you that this complexity is both necessary and possible—particularly if you want to access the real emotional heart of your story.

It might even help you in your own relationships.

The Usual Suspects of Subjectivity

The original Dramatica theory book wasn’t wrong. More often than not this property does turn out to be the dynamic between the Main and Influence Character Players. The mentorship between Ben and Luke in Star Wars. The romance between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. The contentious friendship between Rus and Marty in True Detective: Season One.

While these couples indeed find time to argue, their relationship is not an argument. In fact, their relationship is 1/4 of the story’s argument—1/4 of the premise. Their disagreements and the basis for their point-of-view finds a home in other quarters.

The Four Throughlines of a complete narrative describe the perspectives of the single argument of the story. Characters and the relationships between them exist to hold and convey these points of view to the Audience. This arrangement allows Authors the opportunity to hand-off a perspective from one character to the next.

The classic example lies with the Ghosts in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. One by one, and starting with Marley, the Ghosts relay their common perspective of influence on Scrooge. Looking back over the narrative retrospect, these four Ghosts act as one collective Influence Character.

The same possibility exists within the Relationship Story Throughline perspective.

Handing Off the Heart of a Story

The emotional core of Good Will Hunting dwells in the Therapeutic relationship between Will and Sean. The two share an intimate bond and grow from patient/therapist to close friends. Yet, another relationship exists within the film that shares a similar and meaningful friendship.

Key Relationships in *Good Will Hunting*

The Friendship between Will and Chuckie (Ben Affleck) carries the same thematic elements found in the Therapeutic Relationship. The do-or-die brotherhood that finds them fighting on the basketball court to protect each other also puts them at odds over each other’s personal survival. And their shared acknowledgment that their relationship had purpose resolves their differences—with heartfelt emotion.

The Friendship felt between both couples exists outside of any central plot development. Tangential to the objective concerns of a math genius hiding out as a janitor, these relationships reflect the importance of growth and understanding in the development of friendships.

And that’s why it’s essential to stop thinking of the Relationship Story Throughline in terms of an emotional argument.

The real purpose of the Relationship Story Throughline is to shine a light on the importance of growth between us in the real world—a chance to viscerally feel and understand this dynamic as we work to resolve the inequities in our lives.

Stories offer us an opportunity to appreciate our own conflicts. While we operate in a palpable sense in the real world, and while we have our own subjective personal issues, the subjective dynamics of growth that exist beyond us as individuals is equally as crucial to understanding our experience. Some might even say more important.

The more connected we become, the more essential it becomes for us to appreciate the dynamics at play between us. This newfound understanding of the Relationship Story Throughline of a narrative draws one step closer to understanding the purpose—and intent—of our relationships with one another.

<![CDATA[Missing Link]]>

In the midst of living up to established standards, taking everything and everyone at face value jars the ambitious out of their slumber. Once awakened, the blind now see that the only path towards success lies in living outside of the norm. By trusting in those closest to us and nurturing those friendships, we find companionship along the journey towards being truly great.

Missing Link is an animated film. Yet, in the span of ninety minutes and with only puppets to speak its truth, the film manages to communicate the vast intricacies of the message above.

Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is a man of little reputation. Driven to meet the lofty markers of the adventure-set community, Lionel sets out across the world to prove his mettle. While a film about man’s link to the past and the footsteps he leaves behind, Missing Link centers on the evolution of Lionel himself. By standing up against those he sought to impress and deeming their small thinking intolerable, Mr. Frost shatters the bridge spanning the chasm between his former and current self.

Lionel’s perspective is one of Universe—reputation and status. The Problem of Accurate, of meeting those standards, drives Lionel to show what he can do to reach that Main Character Direction of Proven.

Eventually, Frost moves out of his limiting perspective and into a more abundant mindset—one that sees living outside of tolerances as a personal choice. This Solution of Non-Accurate, of feeling comfortable with calling his male-friend “Susan”—even if it is a lady’s name—encapsulates the path towards a Changed Resolve. Lionel’s Concern of Progress is not his alone to bear, nor one he often considers within the confines of the film. Instead, it is writer/director Chris Butler’s Concern that Lionel evolves that sets the course for this Throughline.

Sasquatch Link (Zac Galifinakis) sees the world differently—if he even takes a moment to consider this world at all. Oblivious to local customs and ignorant of the most basic of manners, Mr. Link is indeed a link to our original selves. Stripped of pomp and affectation, Link behaves as a child of man, reliant only on the essentials of survival—including taking one’s companions at their word.

The piercing hilarity of Link’s character is this Influence Character Issue of Value made manifest in his every move. Tossing the entire rope, hook and all, over the wall Lionel intends to scale. Throwing their whole pack over the same wall following Lionel’s sarcastic response to the first. Being the first to ask about the chicken when everyone was warned over and over again not to ask about the chicken. Link’s point-of-view strips away the justifications of Lionel’s character by pointing out the effects of living an indirect life.

Mr. Link’s impact emanates from a perspective of Mind—a fixed innocent attitude unaware of limiting beliefs brought on by social proof. This Influence Character Problem of Proven upsets the Preconscious, an area of the Mind reserved for impulsive behavior unencumbered by modern notions of civility.

Or tradition.

While firmly situated in the classic Hollywood genre of romantic adventure, Missing Link breaks custom by skipping out on boy gets girl:

The best example of what sets Missing Link apart is the film’s conclusion. That the yetis, whom Mr. Link believes he’s related to, don’t want anything to do with him is certainly a twist, but even more striking is the way Adelina, Lionel’s former flame, rejects what would be the climactic, movie-ending kiss. Instead, she tells him that she thinks she can do better and sets off for an adventure of her own.

More than a pure pandering to the current social climate, Adelina’s refusal resonates objectively with Lionel’s subjective dismissal of the old boy’s club.

Stories resonate when they deliver an experience impossible to achieve in our own lives—the ability to be both within, and without. Lionel’s personal Solution of Non-Accurate matches Adelina’s Overall Story Solution of Non-Accurate. By juxtaposing both within the context of a single film, Butler gives meaning to the Story Goal of Being:

“This is a story about characters who are looking for where they belong, trying to find where they belong; the search for Shangri-La really is that search for their own personal utopia,” Butler explained.

And that search is not one undertaken alone. Trust, both shattered and new, drives the interpersonal relationships of Missing Link. The lack of trust in the remnants of the romantic relationship finds Adelina pulling a gun on Frost. The burgeoning friendship between man and beast seeks greater trust to grow in strength.

The Relationships in *Missing Link*

Reliance on social proof and measures of standards end when confronted with a heart driven to trust. The Storymind of Missing Link finds its complimentary Storyheart in the Relationship Story Problem of Trust. Whether dissolving or building, this heart-center grows within the context of Physics, of physical activities both treacherous and hilarious. The simple act of going on an adventure together, a Relationship Story Concern of Doing, transforms the ways we relate to one another. In the case of Missing Link, romantic adventure becomes more than a genre classification—it defines a greater appreciation of what lies between us.

<![CDATA[Separating Subject Matter from Story Structure]]>

Many Authors fall into the trap of confusing what they're writing about with what they write. The Dramatica theory of story compounds this delusion with terminology and concepts that play into common narrative themes of Destiny or Trust or Faith. Subject matter is what an Author writes about; story structure is what an Author writes.

Novelist Sebastien de Castell on writing with Dramatica:

I've been wrestling with this problem for a while now – of feeling like using a storyform meant having to dump something that was actually important to me as a writer, but with that lens of asking "can I treat the original idea as subject matter and the Dramatica element as the root of the conflict within that subject matter, in other words, the layer underneath," makes the whole process feel a lot more logical to me.

One of the most common mistakes writers make when working with the Dramatica theory of story is mistaking the Storyform for Subject Matter. They'll see an Overall Story Concern of Obtaining and think the characters in their story are personally concerned with obtaining something.

They're not.

These same writers will see a Relationship Story Issue of Value and mistakingly assume that the principal characters in their story will be arguing the relative importance of things.

They won't.

The Storyform is a reflection of the Author's premise—not an indication of what appears on the page. This is why I named my service Subtext. The Dramatica storyform is the premise, or Narrative Argument of your story, broken out into several different Storypoints. It's not what your characters say or do or think—it's what fuels their every move.

Conflating Storyform with Subject Matter results in a Mad-Libs approach to storytelling, a strategy that robs Dramatica of its usefulness by misrepresenting key thematic elements within a narrative.

The productive Author finds a way to dig past the superficiality of Subject Matter to the real source of conflict.

An Approach to Subject Matter Blindness

Novelist Sebastien de Castell is an accomplished and prolific Author. Having written nine novels across two critically-acclaimed series, Sebastien claims a certain level of authority in the area of turning premise to prose.

He also turns to Dramatica and Subtext to help improve the quality of his storytelling.

Sebastien's recent revelation about the role the storyform plays in supporting the intended subject matter of his novels deserves publication:

I was thinking about a frequent problem I run into when trying to construct a storyform for a novel. Often two or three of the domains and concerns will work, but somewhere there's an element that just doesn't fit. For example, I might end up with a storyform where everything makes sense except that my Influence Character, whose problem is so clearly the inability to trust people, ends up with the model determining her problem is in Proven.

Now, I've always hated the process of trying to then massage the language around "trust" into "proven" somehow just to feel like the storyform is consistent, so that's often led me to abandon the storyform itself because the alternative is to actually just accept that if you want to follow the Dramatica model, then you need to drop the notion that this character's underlying problem is in her ability to trust and just accept that it has to be in "proven" somehow.

But I was thinking about something you often say when I'm bringing up a throughline problem where you'll say, "no, 'Love' is the subject matter, what's the thing that creates problems to do with love."

So applying that to something like an IC throughline problem, I was thinking that one solution is for me as the writer to turn "trust" from the problem to being the subject matter. In other words, Trust is still the big deal to her (in the same way that "love" or "space ships" might be the "big deal" to a character), but to then root that problem she has with Trust into the Dramatica element produced by the storyform (in this example, proven). Thus it becomes "Throughout the IC's life, she's constantly been exposed to absolute proof that you can't trust people. Her mother proved untrustworthy, her first husband proved himself a liar . . . etc."

So in that context, I still get to deal with Trust by "rooting" the source of the conflict around Trust in something deeper, in this case, Proven.

In essence what I'm saying is, maybe a way to solve the problem of having what appears to be an inconsistency in a storyform element (when everything else lines up and makes sense but one piece that is nonetheless crucial from the standpoint of the Author) is to go one layer deeper: to treat the Dramatica-selected element as the root of that other thing that initially felt like the problem and may well be the thing the characters are constantly treating/talking about as the problem.

Writing about love is Subject Matter. So is writing about trust, or destiny, or greed, or truth, or prejudice. What lies at the root of these topics is the real source of conflict within a Storyform.

Rooting Out Your Story's Conflict

Subtext provides an easy interface for Authors to quickly root out their story's real source of conflict:

Searching for Love in Subtext

Notice the smaller sub-headings listed beneath each item. These represent an actual Source of Conflict—the root of a potential story's problem as described by Sebastien above.

With access to a database of hundreds of thousands of narrative Illustrations (a collection that grows by the day), Subtext helps pinpoint the problem beyond simple Subject Matter.

Writing about Trust could find the Author writing about an actual Problem of Trust, or it could see him writing about Faith or Doubt. The right answer lies in the Author's intended purpose for writing his story—the premise of the piece:

Trust as Subject Matter

Here, we see what selecting Doubt as the root of our story about Trust does to the final premise or intended purpose of our work:

Doubt as a Source of Conflict

  • "Keep cross-examining and you can change minds."

  • "Stop focusing on the criticism of others, and you can be considered old enough to take care of yourself."

Both possible stories turn to trust as Subject Matter (or, in this case, lacking Trust) but find varying levels of Doubt as the actual engine of conflict fueling each and every scene.

And here we see the effect of rooting out Faith as the real source of conflict for our story:

Faith as a Source of Conflict

  • "Keep pursuing what you want, and you can become married."

  • "Peace of mind awaits those who stop believing, even if it means failing to experience romance."

Again, Trust in these stories sits at the center of the character's experience—but what truly drives conflict is an imbalance of Faith in another.

Four different stories about Trust, each not about Trust in their own way.

Knowing what to write next is a function of knowing what you're genuinely writing.

Subject Matter colors scene and scenery, the virtual backdrop of our story's intended purpose. The Dramatica storyform, as clarified in premise, reveals the foundation of narrative structure.

<![CDATA[How a Steadfast Character Changes the World]]>

Most believe the Main Character of a story needs to change herself. Riddled with elementary school level renditions of narrative structure, the modern Author often grafts a meaningless change of character onto their story. The result is a work that means nothing—a duplicitous offering that leaves an Audience feeling their time wasted and misspent.

This is not a problem in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

In fact, Cuarón delivers a unique work of art so subtle in execution, that even self-proclaimed story experts find themselves playing catch-up.

A complete narrative consists of one of two paths: the Changed Resolve story and the Steadfast Resolve story. The Resolve is about the Main Character of the piece, and setting it shifts the entire focus of the narrative. Choosing to write about a Changed Resolve or a Steadfast Resolve alters the narrative structure of the story.

The Changed Resolve Story

Almost everyone understands the Changed Resolve story. Star Wars, The Matrix, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Casablanca—each one of these films tells the story of a Main Character who adopts an alternate approach to solving problems. They Change their Resolve.

Luke trusts in the force instead of testing himself all the time. Miles chooses who he wants to be, instead of living up to others‘ expectations. Ric frees himself up to express his true feelings for Ilsa, instead of drowning them in a bottle. Each character supplants their Problem with a Solution.

With Luke, the Main Character Solution of Trust overrides his Main Character Problem of Test. He turns off his targeting computer and trusts in the Force.

Miles turns to a Main Character Solution of Determination to replace his Main Character Problem of Expectation. He reaches out and touches Kingpin’s shoulder with a confident “Hey”—signaling his choice of self.

In Casablanca, Ric grows into a Main Character Solution of Uncontrolled by selling off the club and setting up a life on the lamb. This new motivation replaces his Main Character Problem of Control.

Most writers understand the Changed Resolve story because it is clear how the Main Character’s decision ties into and ultimately resolves the Overall Story Throughline of —the plot that pertains to everyone.

Syncing Up Resolve with Outcome

Luke’s turn to the Force shows the Rebels how you can beat the Empire. Miles’ choice to be the Spider-Man in this universe frees the others to return to theirs. And Ric’s selfless sacrifice makes it possible for Ilsa and Victor to escape the clutches of the Nazis.

These Main Characters save the day because their personal problem matches the problem in the Overall Story.

The Empire and the Rebels continuously challenge one another, in much the same way that Luke tests himself. Their Overall Story Problem of Test, therefore, needs a Main Character Solution of Trust to save the day.

Same thing in Spider-Verse. Kingpin and the Spiders clash because that is what is expected of them—just like Miles’ Issue with great expectations. Their Overall Story Problem of Expectation requires a Main Character Solution of Determination.

The Nazis exert significant control over the citizens of Casablanca—the same kind of control Rick shrouds over his emotions. That Overall Story Problem of Control can only be resolved with a Main Character Solution of Uncontrolled.

The Changed Resolve story is easier to understand because the Main Character changes into the exact thing needed to solve the big world Overall Story Problem.

But this isn’t the only way to solve problems in the outside world. Sometimes, treating the symptoms is all that is needed to affect meaningful change.

Our Blindness to Problems

When we justify behavior, we do so by making ourselves blind to motivation. This buried Element is reflected in the Dramatica model by the Problem Elements found at the base of each Throughline. It’s a problem because we can’t see it.

Instead, we focus our attention elsewhere—on the symptoms of the Problem. We fix what we assume is the real problem.

In Dramatica, this point of attention is the Focus of that Throughline. Where we direct our efforts to resolve that symptom is called the Direction Element.

The Steadfast character of a story represents that aspect of the mind given to work through the Focus and Direction. You don’t need to attack the Problem directly to resolve conflict. Sometimes all that is required is the regular treatment of the symptoms.

How a Steadfast Story Works

In a Steadfast Resolve story, the focus is on the work needed to treat the symptoms of the problem. Instead of driving attention towards the dilemma surrounding a change of heart, the Steadfast story sheds light on what it feels like when you’re on the right path. The first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Hacksaw Ridge, and yes, Roma, all feature Main Characters who stay resolute to the very end.

“Midge” Maisel’s hyper-focus on what’s wrong drives her to be better and better with each performance. Dawson Doss’s refusal to give up control over his beliefs guides him towards the freedom needed to save a hundred men. And Cleo’s denial of the stark realities around her free the young woman up to see life on her own terms.

In each of these examples, it is the Main Character’s Focus and Direction that ties into the Overall Story plot of their own stories.

Maisel’s Main Character Focus of Non-Accurate in her personal life—falling off the wagon with her body measurements and not living up to the standards of being a perfect housewife—find resonance in the Overall Story Focus of Non-Accurate. Here, it is the bombing on stage, not at home, that consumes most of the character’s lives. Getting better and better with each performance requires a Main Character with a Main Character Direction of Accurate—a Main Character who treats the symptoms of her life by working towards that standard, by reaching that higher mark.

Note the contrast between the above explanation and those of Changed Resolve characters. The Steadfast Resolve requires more real estate to explain because it describes something more than a simple flipping of the switch. Steadfast focuses on resistance and flow, rather than potential and result.

In Hacksaw Ridge, Doss’s Main Character Focus of Control dovetails nicely with the Overall Story Focus of Control. This is the story of a military operation in the Pacific during World War II. Discipline and regulation and the loss of control incurred by a soldier unwilling to follow orders increase resistance. Doss directs his efforts towards thinking freely. This Main Character Direction of Uncontrolled is the only thing that would have freed up resistance and allowed true bravery to flow through the battlefield on that day. His personal freedom freed up others to behave unregulated and fulfilled the story’s need for an Overall Story Direction of Uncontrolled.

As complex and sophisticated as these two examples are of the Steadfast dynamic, Cleo’s story in Roma takes it to another level.

The Strength of Character

The alignment of Throughlines in Roma creates a storyform that sees Actuality as the shared Focus Element and Perception as the shared Direction Element.

The easiest way to understand the difference between these two Elements is to think of the M. Knight Shyamalan classic The Sixth Sense. Without giving too much away, the Main Character of that film perceives the world in a certain way. His problems resolve once he sees what is actually going on—the actual reality of his situation. The Sixth Sense operates on a Problem of Perception and a Solution of Actuality.

Roma is a bit more down to Earth.

With Chaos driving conflict, the stark reality of the character’s situation seems untenable. How will the family survive without its patriarch? How will a young pregnant woman survive her abandonment? How will those innocents who encounter violence in the hospitals and on the street manage to cope?

These questions point to a Focus of Actuality.

You’ll note that I listed examples from both the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline.

This is the inflection point where the two meet.

How will the family survive without its patriarch? That’s an Overall Story Focus of Actuality.

How will a young pregnant woman survive her abandonment? That’s the Main Character Focus of Actuality.

And this is where Cleo’s steadfastness gives her employer Sofia—and the entire audience-the keys to working through these stark realities.

She sees the world the way she wants to view it.

Cleo directs her efforts towards Perception. And her life is better for it.

And so is ours.

Subtle Indications of Resistance and Flow

The Steadfast story argues the integrity of a particular approach just as powerful as its Changed story cousin. The argument can be as strong and in-your-face as it is in Hacksaw Ridge, or it can be subtle and sophisticated as it is in Roma.

The Steadfast Main Character does not share the same Problem as witnessed in the Overall Story. That responsibility of Change is left up to the Influence Character. One character changes her approach, the other remains steadfast.

The family dynamic in Roma allows us to see the effects of Chaos on a micro level. The father’s trips to the city and absentee lifestyle challenge the mother’s ability to care for her children and return some kind of Structure back to their lives.

Cleo is the answer to Sofia’s problems. Not so much in the way of her duties as nanny and caregiver, but more so in the way Cleo approaches her life.

By showing Sofia the flow possible when one alters their perception of reality rather than reality itself, Cleo clears the way for higher order. Her steadfastness treats the symptoms of Chaos, bringing success to a family trying to piece itself back together.

The Steadfast story focuses on the work, the Changed story on the dilemma.

The only dilemma left up to the Author is choosing which one tells her story best.

Then all that’s left is the work.

<![CDATA[How to Illustrate Effective Narrative Conflict]]>

One of the more powerful features of Subtext is the ability to convert complex theoretical concepts into actionable writing prompts quickly. Prerequisites become “taking baby steps,” and Preconscious becomes “responding inappropriately to something.” When combined with the focal point of a Throughline, either a single character or a group of characters, these illustrations transform into the essential beats of a story.

Narrative elements vary widely between too much and not enough. An over-abundance of Pursuit finds characters chasing for the pure thrill of the chase. A lack of Pursuit might find those sane characters missing out on opportunities right in front of them.

Illustrating and cataloging the vast spectrum of these Elements is an important, but time-consuming, task. Submissions must be vetted by those well-versed in narrative theory, lest they reduce the effectiveness of the model with gross inaccuracies. “Being stuck in the past” is a great illustration of the narrative Element of Past. “Mistakes of the past” is not.

Descriptive of a Process

The most important thing to think about when generating a new Illustration for Subtext is process. The Storybeats created by these Illustrations do not merely describe the conflict in a story, they must indicate a process that creates conflict within a story.

Motion through the narrative is everything.

This is the response many writers receive when they first submit Illustrations for Subtext:

Descriptive of conflict, not a process of conflict.

A complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to resolve an Inequity. The Storybeat is one moment of consideration along that mental process of resolution. Think of it as a self-contained function within a software application; narrative energy goes in, the function computes and processes the current state, and the result is a return of power—a gentle push or nudge towards the next moment of consideration.

It is essential that these Illustrations are written as a mechanism. If written otherwise, they end up blocking and shutting off the flow of energy through a narrative.

They break the story.

For example, the Past is a crucial Element of telling a story. We see it in the injustice being served in The Prestige and we see it with Bernard Lowe’s dysfunctional history during the first season of Westworld.

A careless Illustration might lead one to list mere descriptions of conflict for these two stories:

  • The Past In The Prestige: an unfortunate tragedy
  • The Past In Westworld: Season One: an unknown personal history

The Storymind encounters these instances of “conflict” and comes to a dead stop. If it were a computer program, the code of this story would break, and return to the command line with little applause.

Storybeats are objects of functionality within the mind. They need to process a Current to operate as an effective mechanism. They’re not part of a machine—they’re a machine within a machine.

A better way to process the above stories:

  • The Past In The Prestige: seeking revenge for what happened
  • The Past In Westworld: Season One: uncovering one’s hidden past

Note how the last set inspires the imagination and encourages the mind to visualize an endless amount of possible scenes. The former set lies dormant, a dictionary definition no more useful than the next.

The -ing Concept

The key to understanding useful Illustrations lies in applying -ing to the end of the narrative Element in question. It’s not the Past that creates conflict, but rather Past-ing. Mistakes of the past are not transitory—they’re lifeless, dead. Uncovering one’s hidden history illustrates a process of Pasting, of engaging in what was, that creates inequity within the mind of the story.

It always, always, goes back to the Storymind concept. A complete story is an analogy to a single mind working through a problem. These Illustrations stand in for moments along that process of consideration. That’s why adding -ing to the end of the Elements works so well.

It’s not Change that creates conflict, but instead Changing—constantly adapting or altering that upsets the balance. It’s not Proven that creates conflict, but rather Proven-ing, of constantly evaluating in terms of what has shown to work, that impacts the Storymind and encourages further exploration.

Many Elements arrive with their procedural nature already intact—Obtaining, Learning, Becoming, Understanding. Note how easily writers new to this process take to these Elements and contrast that with the difficulty they encounter with something like Memory. It’s not memories that create conflict, but rather memory-ing (or remembering) that challenges the Storymind in a different direction.

This is why “observing change” doesn’t work for an Illustration of Progress. Nor does “deepening evil.” The imbalance created by Progress-ing, whether forward or backward, is not accurately reflected in merely seeing the progression, or in recognizing greater evil. It’s engaging in the process of progress that tips the cart of consideration.

Growth by Learning

Every Sunday, Subtext emails subscribers a list of new Illustrations added during the previous week. This email also includes a list of the rejections (anonymous, of course) with the understanding that the individual stands to gain much from the experiences of the group.

Previous rejections of the Past might include:

  • mistakes of the past
  • is a long lost lover
  • having an intimidating reputation

This last one is interesting—as it actually works as an Illustration of the Present—another narrative Element close in nature to the Past, but different enough to warrant an alternate location. In those cases, we’ll reject the idea for the Past and instead, add it as an Illustration of the Present.

This process intends to create a vast wealth of meaningful Storytelling Illustrations that develop the collective intelligence and understanding of storytellers everywhere. The more one contributes, the more one grows in their appreciation of narrative conflict. By working together and collaborating on this universal store, we ensure the integrity and impact of future stories and improve the overall quality of storytelling.

<![CDATA[The Narrative Structure of Christopher Nolan's Memento]]>

Everyone loves out-of-sequence storytelling. Pulp Fiction, Arrival, and The Usual Suspects top the list of films that ignore the exact chronological order of events. Authors develop the narrative structure of these films the same way they do when working a more linear approach. While seemingly complex and unknowable, the path to a structure is clear: Know what it is you want to say with your story.

Even for something as delightfully complex and sophisticated as Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

Weaving and Storytelling

Recently, I received an email regarding the plot-defying antics of films like Memento or Pulp Fiction:

I was reading around on the forums and periodically the distinction between storyforming and storytelling (or weaving) comes up in regards to the sequence of events. Would it be correct to say that from the standpoint of a storyform the events are always chronological?

The storyform the writer refers to is the hidden code of the premise (previously referred to here as the Narrative Argument). Defined by the Dramatica theory of story, this code is a collection of seventy-five Storypoints that meld Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre into a single argument.

Storyforming sits apart from Storytelling. The Storypoints of narrative structure and their specific Encoding—whether an Element of Avoid is about running away or about preventing another—are a part of the Storyforming process.

How those specific encodings are presented is part of the Storytelling process. Storyweaving, a particular stage within Storytelling, is the process of laying those Storypoints down in preparation of delivery to the Audience.

For example, if I have a story that’s jumping around between the present and the past:

A - In 2019 at 1pm I face off with a burglar

B - In 1990 I’m failing a homework assignment

C - In 2019 at 2pm the burglar is beating me up

D - In 1994 I’m running away from a problem

E - In 2019 at 3pm I valiantly get back up and chase down the burglar.

Does this mean in all cases that from the Storyform’s standpoint the sequence is B-D-A-C-E?

And the answer is yes. B-D-A-B-C convey the order of Storybeats within the storyform.

The storyform represents the chronological order of events regardless of presentation. The storyform structures the Author's premise.

If B-D-A-C-E tells a complete story, then A-B-C-D-E represents the Storyweaving for that narrative.

The premise, or Narrative Argument, is clear to the Audience If they can decipher this original order by the end of the story (consciously, or subconsciously). Can the Audience understand what it all meant, and what the Author was seeking to prove?

Meaning determines the narrative structure.

The Meaning of Story Structure

For the longest time, people thought stories were merely cultural myths—heroic journeys of personal and possibly spiritual transformation. These were written down and collected into a paradigm of narrative known as the Hero’s Journey. Eventually, there was even a Heroine’s Journey.

In the early 2000s, mythos gave way to pattern matching with the introduction of the Save the Cat! paradigm. No longer tied to our old need for spiritual growth, Authors were free to concentrate on Dark Night of the Soul moments solely. The Bad Guys Closing In became just as important, if not more so, then Returning Home with an Elixir. Meaning became something repeatable—easily identified by what worked before in generations past.

The Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat! suffer from the same indisputable deficiency: their framework is based on recognizing commonalities, rather than identifying the Author’s intent. Purpose requires an order of sequencing that supports that purpose. A story of Triumph demands a structure utterly different than a Tragedy.

Enter the Dramatica theory of story.

Dramatica looks to the Author’s intent first. By identifying the critical components of the premise, Dramatica supplies all the necessary information required to make that argument successfully.

What is the actual Source of Conflict in the story? What are the various points-of-view engaged with this Problem? Were they right to alter their approach, or did it end in abject failure?

With Dramatica—and my app built on the fundamental foundations of the theory, Subtext—Authors can now account for the meaning they want to convey to their Audience.

The message is now part of the structure.

A Better Appreciation of Narrative Structure

So, does that mean the message behind Memento is one of confusion?

No—but it does mean that Christopher Nolan used sophisticated editing techniques to amplify and support the narrative structure of that film.

The narrative argument of Memento is this:

While tragic to the individual, you can devise a way to alleviate personal guilt by focusing on everything external to yourself.

Probably not what you expected, but if you think back over the entire experience of watching Memento, you would be hard pressed to find a more accurate objective interpretation of the meaning behind the film’s events. Leonard succeeds by imagining a new John G.—someone else he can focus his compulsion for revenge upon. While personally tragic, this outward attention keeps the loop going.

The complexity of this argument demands a unique set of dynamic Storypoints that eventually end in a Main Character Problem of Ability. The Main Character Problem is an Appreciation of narrative structure that focuses on the specific Element driving the central character forward into the story.

A lack of Ability—or disability, in Leonard Shelby’s case, needs to be at the heart of what is driving the Main Character for Memento to communicate the above narrative argument or premise.

No one ever said writing a story was easy. 😁

Of Story and Argument

Character is Theme. Theme is Plot. Plot is Character. The four pillars of a story all work together to convey a particular Narrative Argument. Once you understand the existence of a connection between argument and the particulars of the story, you begin to wonder which came first—the story or the argument?


Both go hand-in-hand. One does not exist with the other. Balance in all things.

Leonard’s disability, his short term memory loss, is both the story and the argument of Memento.

Guilt is a state of mind. And while our minds eventually lead us to a place where we can forgive ourselves, the ego is strong. The only way to maintain that denial of personal accountability is to actively stay focused on the external—while keeping blind to the internal.

It’s always someone else’s fault.

Short term memory loss is more than an amusing story concept, then—it’s essential to the idea of the argument. Allowing the Audience to experience the act of staying blind to ourselves reinforces the message and drives home the sense of personal tragedy.

The Purpose of the Main Character

The Main Character Throughline is not about a character—it’s about a perspective.

For an argument to be successful, it needs to approach its message from all sides. You can’t merely argue one side of a debate in hopes that it maintain the test of further scrutiny.

One side essential to explore within an argument is the personal point-of-view—the role and responsibility of the individual within the context of the narrative. This Main Character point-of-view brings the audience into the discussion. It allows them to become a part of the message by positioning them in that personal point of view. The experience becomes less a lecture and more an appreciation of the totality of the message.

The Inherent Structure of a Narrative

The complex and sophisticated Storyweaving found in Memento is more than a hook—its essential towards communicating Nolan’s argument. That sense of memory loss—of being able to forget and not being able to ignore—is woven tightly into the very fabric of the narrative.

The mind naturally seeks meaning. It wants to unravel the threads of a story because the mind wants to appreciate the Author’s unique point-of-view.

Knowing what that point-of-view is—what you’re actually saying and arguing with your story—then becomes paramount.

That argument has a structure to it.

That argument has a storyform.

How it’s wrapped up and woven together for the Audience is an entirely different thing.

The presentation is not the storyform.

As we experience Memento and begin to unravel the individual threads, we begin to piece back together the original structure inherent in the narrative. We begin to understand where the Author Christopher Nolan is coming from and we have a better idea of how to alleviate our own feelings of guilt.

Even if it means keeping ourselves blind to the truth.

Blinding ourselves along the way.

<![CDATA[The Highwaymen]]>

Watching The Highwaymen feels like watching The Shawshank Redemption mixed with Road to Perdition—minus the meaningful story. William Sadler is there. The muted grays and desaturated landscapes are there. Even Thomas Newman is there, wielding the baton that transports us with sweeping Depression-era motifs. Yet despite all this, we still leave the experience wondering what it all meant.

Woody Harrelson, as former Texas Ranger Marney Gault is excellent—there’s nothing better than Woody in a passenger seat verbally sparring with the Main Character driving both car and story. This time it’s Kevin Costner, not Matthew McConaughey, behind the wheel. Regardless of his work playing Wyatt Earp, Costner portraying legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer is no small feat—particularly, when his character is given so little to work with in the film.

The Main Character

Hamer is a complete mystery. As Protagonist, he performs his functions within the Overall Story Throughline well. He pursues Bonnie and Clyde, while also considering the duo’s next rest stop. But as the closest thing to the Main Character within The Highwaymen, Hamer is an empty vessel.

There is a significant difference between the objective requirements of Plot and the subjective perspectives afforded by characters. The plot of a story takes care of the objective nature of the conflict, or how They see things. The Main Character shows us how I see conflict—a decidedly subjective point-of-view. The juxtaposition between the two is essential as this is where we, as the Audience, appreciate the meaning.

Without it, we are lost.

Halfway through the film, we discover 16 bullets remain lodged in Hamer’s body. Why wait so long to reveal personal issues that would bring us closer to his experience? We know how those bullets got there and learn later why (Hamer is a bit uncompromising when it comes to justice), but we never learn what it feels like to deal with that emotional weight. Hamer, and subsequently the story, never let us in.

Without someone to empathize with, the film becomes merely a history lesson.

Gault’s paradigm shift from hesitation to confrontation is excellent, but procedural at best. Without that clear emotional attachment to a personally held point-of-view, the switch is mechanical—an effect of what stories are supposed to do, rather than what this story should do.

The Highwaymen is a missed opportunity. Great subject matter. Great cast. Great composer and a great screenwriter. Unfortunately, the experience lacks the emotional connection needed to make this anything more than a very slick documentary.

<![CDATA[King's Canyon: Another Incomplete Blacklist Script]]>

Once the screenplay for King’s Canyon kicks in, it’s hard to put down. A unique flashback structure builds tension and suspense as it unravels the real-life story of David Steeves—a USAF who mysteriously emerged from the High Sierras months after being lost in 1957. The script culminates in a visually stunning climax that juxtaposes the present with the past and leaves one with a better appreciation of the man.

But it also leaves you wondering what it all meant.

While the intended premise is something along the lines of Stick to your own truth, regardless of the cost, the screenplay does little to effectively argue this point—which is why it’s on the Blacklist and not in production.

The Reason for the Blacklist

The Blacklist is a collection of unproduced screenplays that professional readers deem a cut above the rest. Frustrated with the Hollywood executive’s tendency to overlook greatness, the Blacklisters took matters into their own hands and provided a forum for missed opportunities. The impression one gets from such a venture is that the Blacklist knows better.

Unfortunately, there is a difference between the great and the genuinely outstanding.

Twice now, we have shown through structural analysis that the reason a script lies dormant on the Blacklist is not because of politics or personal taste, but rather a deficiency in the narrative structure of the piece itself.

Everyone possesses the innate instinct for storytelling. Regardless of a person's position or situation of affluence, each and everyone knows how a story works. And they know this with certainty because the same process that drives the narrative of a functioning story drives their every action.

A story is merely a model of the human mind at work. The degree to which a screenplay honors this process reflects the level to which it will connect with an Audience. It can be challenging to communicate with a dysfunctional mind in real life—a story is no different.

Dysfunctional stories exhibit similar personality defects. In both Kings Canyon and our previous analysis Get Home Safe, the tendency towards arguing one’s point-of-view without providing an equally valid counter-argument leads one to disengage from the conversation emotionally. The experience is somewhat similar to encountering propaganda—we know we’re not being told the whole truth, and we begin to distrust the storyteller.

Now, a story can be engaging and well-written and still be dysfunctional—there are plenty of fascinating and charismatic psyches out there that draw attention and a loyal fan base (think Osho from Wild Wild Country fame). But the reason those ventures and the people behind them eventually die out or fall into obscurity is that they failed to engage the totality of the human mind.

King’s Canyon is a marvelous piece of propaganda worthy of the period it is set in. The 1950s found both sides of the planet engaging in the fabrication of heroes to bolster nationalism and further paranoia. Propaganda works because it doesn’t tell the whole story, it manipulates an Audience into filling the blanks on their own. One feels a certain amount of pride in Dave’s story—the same kind of patriotic pride that manipulated him into oblivion.

Propaganda manipulates an Audience into thinking a certain way, a story argues its points in its entirety, then leaves the thinking up to the Audience.

Telling a Complete Story

For an Audience member to assume the mind of a story, the narrative must portray four different perspectives. Working as analogies for our mind’s ability to shift point-of-view, these Throughlines manufacture and support the premise.

Presented together in the single context of a story, these four Throughlines offer a complete account of conflict without equivocation and without an intent towards propaganda.

What Works

King’s Canyon successfully fulfills the requirement for the objective perspective with the lost hero returning from the dead. It resolves when that hero returns to the dead—both figuratively and literally.

Objectively speaking, Post columnist Blair is the Protagonist, and Steeves is the Antagonist. The Protagonist pursues and considers; the Antagonist prevents or avoids and reconsiders. Blair pursues a course of action to resolve what happened in those woods, while Steeves avoids it.

This is why Steeves feels like a potential bad guy for most of the story, and why we as the Audience question his integrity. It’s not merely an effect of the clever Storyweaving technique of regressively rolling back through flashbacks, we suspect him because Steve plays the function of the Antagonist—a role commonly performed by a Villain.

Blair fails to rectify Steeve’s account and pulls the story. Steeves loses everything, his job, his wife, and his daughter. His actions are later exonerated when a Boy Scout troop discovers his crashed plane 10 years after his death.

This much, King’s Canyon gets correct. The screenplay masterfully takes advantage of the dynamic between Protagonist and Antagonist by playing against type—we’re rooting for the bad guy, while simultaneously doubting the good guy.

Another thing it gets right is the connection between the ending and the premise. The Overall Story ends in failure, yet Steeves was right to stick to his guns. This combination of Failure and Good forms the foundation for a Personal Triumph story. Stick to your own truth, regardless of the cost is a premise arguing for the appropriateness of a personal triumph.

But how much do we honestly feel this personal aspect of triumph in King’s Canyon?

Drawing the Audience In

Part of what doesn’t work in King's Canyon lies in the portrayal of the Main Character—Steeves himself is unapproachable.

The Main Character Throughline represents our eyes and ears into a story. That “I” perspective suggests that we the Audience know everything that I, the Main Character knows.

This is why Red (Morgan Freeman) is the Main Character of The Shawshank Redemption, and not Andy (Tim Robbins). We couldn’t possibly doubt Andy’s account the night his wife was murdered if we were actually in his shoes. And we couldn’t possibly awake to find Andy gone if we were him. There would be no surprise.

Same thing with King’s Canyon. As an Audience member in Steeve’s shoes, we’re keeping a secret we don’t know, but should know. Truth by its very definition is subjective, and as the holders of that subjectivity, we should know the answer.

The result is a distancing effect—a removal of empathy between us and the story. It’s exciting and fascinating what Steeves went through, but in the end, we really don’t care about him. In fact, it would have been better if King’s Canyon took a cue from Shawshank and made Blair the Main Character. Of course, that presupposes that Blair posses some challenging counter-argument to Steeve’s personal truth.

And he doesn’t.

The Alternate Approach

The Main Character Throughline needs to face a challenging alternate perspective to grow—change does not happen in a vacuum. While there are several candidates for this role in King’s Canyon, no one presents a consistent and compelling reason for Steeves to change his approach.

If sticking to your truth regardless of the costs is his point-of-view, then the challenging perspective would be something along the lines of Tell whatever lie you need to keep those you love close. Better yet, would be someone who has shown that fate is the deciding factor in our lives, not the truth. Someone who perhaps went through similar experiences like Steeves, but lived to tell of them because the wind blew in the right direction.

Someone like Blair.

Undoubtedly Blair, a former WWII pilot, experienced missions where personal integrity was challenged by the chaotic nature of violent conflict. Would it not be fair to show weakness in his situation as an American hero to effectively challenge Steeve’s position? How did he overcome it, what lies did he tell, and what would that mean for Steeve’s sense of personal integrity?

Unfortunately, Blair is a cardboard standee. He performs his function as a Protagonist and exits quietly—leaving us grasping for meaning elsewhere.

Steeve’s wife Rita is the natural go-to for this kind of story, yet she fails to provide anything except hurt for a past betrayal. The military itself could give another challenge with their love of Steeve’s story, but it would be difficult to separate their concerns from that of the Overall Story.

Steeve’s friend Henry is the only one who remotely approaches the kind alternate approach needed:


I’m just supposed to hang out to dry while strangers make up their minds about me?


No. You go back to your job. You keep your head up and your mouth shut. You ignore the press and take care of your family.


Rita will never take me back like this. And Leisa... What’ll she grow up thinking?


I’ll never have this-- what you’ve got here.

Unfortunately, this is one page in almost 120 and besides, Henry never fundamentally changes this point-of-view.

In fact, the most significant deficiency in this screenplay is the lack of a meaningful change of perspective.

The Reason for Change

The most important dynamic in any narrative is the relationship between the two alternate perspectives. One point-of-view must give away to the other to prove a premise. In Star Wars, the value of trusting in something outside of yourself is proven by Luke adopting Ben’s perspective. In The Dark Knight, the value of the ends justifying the means is proven by Batman taking the Joker’s perspective.

One perspective remains Steadfast, the other Changed.

Steeves is most assuredly Steadfast in his approach from beginning to end, leaving the burden of change to another.

Blair doesn’t change. The military doesn’t turn. Neither does Rita. Sure, she packs up and leaves, but the change required here is a meaningful change of approach—how has she somehow adopted Steeve’s perspective?

And here is where we tread into propaganda territory.

By leaving out this Changed perspective, the narrative manipulates us into fulfilling that role. We are coerced into seeing Steeves as nothing else but an American hero. Our chest swells, and we jut our chins out in defiance because now we believe that you must stick to your own truth, regardless of the cost.

We haven’t come to this conclusion on our own by listening to a complete and coherent argument, we’ve been directly manipulated into becoming a part of Steeves story—complete with all the emotional trappings of nationalistic pride.

Going Above and Beyond

King’s Canyon lies in stasis because it fails to tell a complete story. The population is savvy enough nowadays to know when they’re not being told the whole story. They might not directly refer to it as propaganda, but the instinctual response to being told a half-truth remains the same.

To truly stand out from the crowd, a story must honor the psychology of its Audience. The narrative must present a complete argument and allow the receiver to come to the inevitable conclusion of accepting the premise on their own terms. Elevating a story to this level doesn’t require much, but it does call for greater focus and purpose. Getting on the Blacklist is a fantastic achievement—finding a way to move beyond it is the difference between the great and the truly outstanding.

<![CDATA[Unveiling the Narrative Elements of Story Structure]]>

The Dramatica theory of story is a complex and sophisticated model of story. Instead of wasting the Author’s time with notions of heroic journeys or requirements to save a cat in an attempt to gather likability, Dramatica seeks to concretize the Author’s purpose—and then graft that intention into the very fabric of the narrative structure.

Elixirs. Bellies of whales. Dark nights of the soul. All pointless and worthless when it comes to breaking down the essential ingredients of a complete story.

One man’s Plot Point is another man’s Refusal of the Call. Gobbledygook to entertain and disinform the masses.

A better approach lies in identifying the Sources of Conflict within the narrative, determining their leverage points, then drafting a narrative structure that works through these essential Elements.

This is where Dramatica comes in.

And it’s where our service built on the theory—Subtext—assists Authors in writing complete and meaningful stories.

Identify the Source of Conflict. Then build your unique narrative outline around that Element.

No two stories are the same because the meaning at the heart of it all is always different.

Unless, of course, you’re thinking of The Lion King and Black Panther. Those films say the same thing because they’re built on top of the same narrative Element: Avoidance.

The Sliding Scale within an Element

At first, you may think—Avoidance? That’s too narrow a definition of conflict. To which I would respond: your experience with subjective and insufficient story paradigms (like Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat) has clouded your perception of reality.

There are a million different ways to encode Avoidance. Running away. Making an effort to stop someone. Preventing someone. Shirking one’s duties—there’s Lion King and Black Panther again. In fact, the reason why so many rightly point out the similarities between the two films, yet fail to bring Mad Max: Fury Road into the discussion (even though it too argued the same problem about running away) is because the specific Storytelling attached to the narrative Element of Avoid in these two films is exactly the same.

But what about the example of "preventing someone"—how is that an example of Avoid?

The Sliding Scale within a Narrative Element

The narrative Elements defined by Dramatica are less destination and more process. In fact, every Element found within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements is a function, a processing instance similar to functions found within object-oriented programming.

It is the process of avoiding that is creating conflict here—not merely Avoid.

With that in mind, it becomes easier to see that there exists a sliding scale within each of these processes that range from too much of an element to very little, or a lack of that Element.

Avoidance is running away.

A lack of Avoidance is inserting yourself where you’re not wanted.

Too much Avoidance, or an abundance of Avoidance, is preventing something or stopping something from happening.

Multiply this by the hundreds of Storypoints found in the current model and one quickly understands the complexity and sophistication possible within a single narrative.

Elements and their Opposites

Several narrative Elements read as simple opposites. Control and Uncontrolled. Acceptance and Non-Acceptance. Accurate and Non-Accurate.

Faced with these seemingly either/or instances, many Authors wonder where the sliding scale exists. How is a lack of Control not the same thing as Uncontrolled?

First things first. Uncontrolled is the closest Chris and Melanie could come to labeling this narrative Element with the elements around it. In truth, Uncontrolled is meant to embody free or frenzied. Something more out-of-control—

—but again, you see how easy it is to fall back on the opposite, or negative definitions.

The English language was designed by Linear Problem-Solvers (males). Its spatial interpretation of imbalance can only approximate force and direction. Our vocabulary of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs is more comfortable identifying the parts and substance.

We're not so comfortable identifying those places in-between.

This reality is reflected in the model. The top half of the model is definite—it’s where the Linear male mind finds shelter. Universe. Physics. Obtaining and Doing. Knowledge and Actuality.


The bottom half is alien: Mind and Psychology. Unproven and Thought.


We just don’t have a word that accurately describes this inflection point that isn’t merely a negative, or opposite word. Linear thinkers are comfortable with opposites—on or off, black or white, Control or Uncontrolled. Our foundation is holding us back from a greater appreciation of the totality of conflict.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that understanding the nature of the Elements is more critical than the label applied to the Elements directly.

The Ends of the Narrative Element Scale

A lack of Control is not Uncontrolled—it identifies a source of conflict emanating from someone not controlling things. And sometimes control is needed. Herding cats for performance requires a fair amount of constraint, and so does a stage mom when she attends a beauty contest involving her children.

These are not examples of Uncontrolled.

The clearest example of this sliding scale is found between Faith and Disbelief.

A lack of Faith in God does not automatically mean one actively disbelieves in the existence of the Almighty. It merely means they don’t have that belief. They’re agnostic.

Atheists actively disbelieve. God does not exist, and they’re adamantly opposed to that belief. They’re motivated by Disbelief.

Of course, you could argue they possess an overwhelming Faith in the absence of God—which is why it is essential for the Author to set the context for their narrative. Within the context of looking at the existence of God, believers have Faith, non-believers lack Faith, and atheists Disbelieve.

A Look at Equity and Inequity

Two other Elements that seemingly describe opposites are Equity and Inequity. If you don’t have Equity, there must be Inequity, right?


A lack of Equity focuses on the absence of balance or fairness. Inequity describes something unjust or way out of balance for the situation.

Again, context is everything.

Identifying the difference between the two becomes even more challenging when trying to assess which side of the scale is a Problem, and which one is the Solution.

If you can reverse appreciations, how do you know which is the problem and the solution? It seems like you could encode them identically.

Context—the focus of attention in the narrative—is everything.

A lack of Equity is not the same thing as too much Inequity.

Drawing an axis line from the far end of Equity, through the middle of the quad, and extending it out to the far end of Inequity, we begin to develop a more comprehensive understanding of conflict:

  • lack of Equity == favoritism
  • Equity == don't rock the boat
  • too much Equity == participation trophies
  • too much Inequity == slavery
  • Inequity == a splinter in your mind
  • lack of Inequity == I'm ok means you're ok

An Author focusing on the problems of favoritism is not writing about the difficulties of Inequity. In fact, Inequity is how you resolve a lack of balance here. Purposefully treating one child way better than the other resolves circumstances where there was a feeling that things weren’t fair.

Equity is balance. Inequity is imbalance.

They’re not opposites when it comes to narrative, but unfortunately, this is the English language, and these are the constraints Authors need to appreciate.

How else can they be Uncontrolled in their writing?

I mean, Free.

<![CDATA[Understanding How Character Arc Works]]>

Writers first stumble upon this concept of the character arc in high school. Whether in a creative writing class or a snarky YouTube video, the aspiring Author assumes that for a story to "work," she must showcase the central character changing. Great transformation becomes the focus of her writing endeavors, and anything less—regardless of how it resonates with her intuition—falls by the wayside.

Great writing falls victim once again to insufficient and remedial understandings of a narrative.

When it comes to matters of Resolve and the principal characters of a story, many writers see evidence of change in everyone. And to many, this intuitively feels correct. Stories are about people learning from one another, and so it only makes sense that the central characters of a piece should somehow both change. These misguided writers wonder if perhaps there is some greater meaning to be found when two characters meet each other halfway.

There isn’t.

One, these characters aren’t both changing their Resolve.

And Two, characters aren’t people.

They’re perspectives.

Resolve and Meaning

The Dramatica theory of story establishes a functional narrative as a model of the human mind at work. Problems and the justifications that led to them unravel through the process of Scenes, Sequences, and Acts. Key to manufacturing this model are two opposing views that cannot be held at the same time and from the same perspective.

In short, an inequity.

The meaning of a narrative—what it hopes to communicate—is the appropriateness of one point-of-view over the other. This is the foundation for the premise of a story.

And this is why the Main Character Resolve exists as an essential Storypoint—and why at the end of a story one perspective Remains Steadfast, and the other is Changed.

If both changes, like many assume and believe, is possible, there is no Narrative Argument. No premise. No purpose.

The Audience checks out.

Perspectives, not People

Many writers confuse their characters for real people.

They’re not.

The characters that populate a story are Players—vessels that maintain a particular perspective.

Once we start adopting this more objective view of narrative, the light afforded us by Dramatica, the easier it is for us to construct meaningful narratives.

The easier it is for us to make sure our stories aren’t broken.

Stories as Models of Psychology

This question of Resolve and perspective appears when one sees a Steadfast character overcome their fears, seemingly “changing” in the process.

Boo, the young girl in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., is an excellent example of this in action. She eventually grows to a point where she defeats her personal monster and demon, Randall (Steve Buscemi), seemingly transforming in the process.

Boo and her monster, Randall

While it may seem to us that she changes and grows as a person, the central narrative storyform for Monsters, Inc. does not feature her emotional change as an integral part of its meaning.

It's not a part of the premise, and therefore, not an actual change.

The storyform is a model of human psychology at work. And from that point of view Boo is a perspective, not a person. Overcoming her fears was not the substance, or meaning, of the narrative. Instead, Boo growing beyond her fears is integral to the storyform because of the Steadfastness of her point-of-view.

Remember that Boo’s role in this narrative is to challenge the monster world’s preconception of the terrifying nature of a human. Humans are an unknown, and it’s Boo’s steadfastness in staying an unknown and staying surprising to a monster that eventually breaks Sully (John Goodman) out of his own prejudices. Boo dislodges his justifications because she doesn't fall into those tried and true preconceptions of what it means to be a human.

Sully and his monster, Boo

When seen as perspectives from a consistent point of view, not characters, one sees Boo’s “change” as an example of Steadfast Resolve. Not steadfast in terms of her as a person or as a character, but as a perspective that influences and challenges another to Change.

For her perspective to change, she would have to exemplify and show Sully that the monsters were right in believing humans dangerous. She would need to adapt to his worldview.

And that would be an entirely different story.

On Substories and Evidence

If growing beyond her fears and changing perspective was essential to the Author, then there would be more scenes supporting a second narrative. Boo's fear of monsters like Randall would need an alternate challenging perspective to motivate her to move beyond her preconceptions. Stories can contain multiple narratives—it's merely a matter of intent and purpose.

Unfortunately, there just isn't enough information in Monsters, Inc. to warrant further investigation into a secondary narrative. Even sub-stories, narratives with incomplete or insufficient data, find more significant evidence than what is seen in this film. Think of Han Solo's sub-story in the original Star Wars or Nemo's aquarium episode in Finding Nemo. These sub-stories drew their characters out of justifications by echoing the structure of a functional narrative.

Boo's personal issue with her fear of monsters did not, and therefore slips under the wake formulated by the central narrative of Monsters, Inc. Sully grows by Changing his Resolve, Boo grows by Remaining Steadfast in her Resolve. The completeness of this dichotomy and its correlation with the premise is what we take away from the film.

It's not our fear of monsters that needs to change, it's our belief that we are not the monsters that needs to change.

<![CDATA[Can You Ever Forgive Me?]]>

Can You Ever Forgive Me? for tricking you into thinking a 98% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes translates into a full and complete story? While the essential pieces are in place to formulate greater meaning with this film, some are painted with such a light stroke as to be almost invisible. Films that break the 90th percentile usually translate into a significant and compelling argument. Can You bucks this trend with its emphasis on character over purpose.

If anything, the film is further evidence that Narrative First and Subtext need an approach with varying shades of completeness—rather than the current system of Complete or Incomplete.

The Character Study

Can You is akin to The Wife in that the focus lies heavily on one throughline—the Main Character Throughline. In contrast, complete stories balance out the personal concerns of the Main Character with the interests of competing alternate perspectives. These different point-of-views add color to the Main Character’s experience by showing what conflict looks like from other angles.

The Influence Character Throughline challenges the Main Character’s approach to resolving conflict.

The Relationship Story Throughline steps back to examine the dynamic of conflict that exists between both Main Character and Influence Character.

And the Overall Story Throughline wraps them all up in a package that is decidedly objective and impersonal when it comes to conflict.

Can You is not so bad as to entirely skip these perspectives—but it does dial them back in such a way that reduces the overall effect and potential of the narrative.

The end result of all this is the feeling that something is missing, some essential piece that would make the film feel more complete. We’re only told one side of the argument, and as a consequence, we’re not really sure what the film is trying to say.

We know homeless and homosexual bon vivant Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) is the right man to influence and challenge Lee’s insecurities. His confidence and impulse to connect at a moment’s notice compliments and impacts her reclusive nature. Yet, the friendship that grows between them is stunted and somewhat awkwardly developed. We know they’re both gay, we know this shared struggle brings them together, yet for some reason, it remains an untold and unaddressed secret within the narrative.

A more in-depth look at the narrative dynamics and thematics helps shed light on what could have been improved.

The Emphasis on Main Character

The foundation for the argument being made in Can You lies within the Main Character Throughline of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy). Her focus on Tom Clancy’s millions and the insecurities she feels towards her personal and professional relationships lock in the Main Character Issue of Security and a Main Character Focus of Results.

Lee’s Main Character Concern of Progress, of how her life continues to get more and more complicated, works nicely with her Main Character Throughline of Universe. Lee likes her “universe” the way it is and will do whatever it takes to stay isolated.

All four of these Narrative Elements—Results, Security, Progress, and Universe—fully illustrate a Main Character perspective and define the Source of Conflict for Lee. We know precisely the kind of inequities she deals with, and we have an idea of what would be needed to resolve her issues.

Lee is a woman with a massive chip on her shoulder. Though we don’t find out why until much later in the story, she isolates herself because of the painful after-effects of her previous relationship.

This dynamic and focus of attention within the narrative sets the Main Character Growth of Stop and a Main Character Problem of Effect. Lee is driven to do what she does because she doesn’t want to get hurt again. She’s focusing on avoiding potential effects, instead of pursuing the real cause of her problems—herself.

By the end of the story, Lee reaches that Main Character Solution of Cause. Her heartfelt mea culpa at her arraignment confirms this Changed Main Character Resolve with the realization that she is her own worst enemy.

Feint Whispers of Narrative

With such a clear personal Throughline set in place, the mind of an Audience member naturally seeks out alternate perspectives.

The Influence Character Throughline needed to challenge Lee’s issues must consist of a fixed attitude, a tendency towards impulsive actions, and bemused confidence unheard of in the Main Character.

Sounds precisely like Jack Hock, doesn’t it?

The Relationship Story Throughline needs to focus on a dysfunctional relationship where unfulfilled expectations drive most of their conflict.

Sounds like what happens when Lee leaves Jack in charge of taking care of her cat, doesn’t it?

Yet, these two perspectives fail to explain themselves throughout the narrative adequately. They come across weak and unrealized in comparison to Lee’s personal Throughline.

Hinting at Something Greater

Jack’s primary source of influence over Lee must extend from Theory—from theoretical constructs that challenge Lee’s preconceptions. This would fulfill the narrative’s need for an Influence Character Problem of Theory. Strong evidence supporting this important narrative Element does not exist within the film, yet you could easily see something like this being added to the story.

Likewise, the relationship between Lee and Jack should explore an imbalance of ability. This would honor the narrative’s need for a Relationship Story Issue of Ability. Both are silenced writers. Both are unable to engage in protracted and prolonged relationships. Why not explore this shared struggle more deeply? It would certainly give greater meaning to their criminal antics swindling bookshops.

And about those illegal activities.

The last perspective needed to bring it all together is the Overall Story Throughline. With all the above set in place, the Overall Story must also explore conflict brought about by an imbalance of Effect—an Overall Story Problem of Effect. Save for the occasional owner driven to effuse some response from a prospective buyer, this Element goes mostly unnoticed—

—except as evidenced by the actions of Lee the Protagonist. She likes the effect her illegal writing has on people and thus, continues to pursue greater and greater criminal activities.

So we see Effect as a Problem for the Main Character subjectively, and we see Effect as a Problem for the Protagonist objectively, and that’s pretty much it.

And that’s why it feels like a character study.

Separating Main Character from Protagonist

Some writers find it strange to separate Main Character from Protagonist. Many conflate their meanings and claim semantics. The struggle only increases when both suffer from the same narrative Element, as is the case in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Yet, a greater understanding of narrative exists at the intersection between the two.

The Main Character perspective is the subjective and personal point of view of the conflict.

The Protagonist is the objective force of initiative driving resolution towards the Story Goal.

More often than not in Western culture, a single Player holds both the role of the Protagonist and the perspective of the Main Character. Lee is one of those Players.

The fact that she is not the only Player in the story points to the problem encountered with conflating these two aspects of narrative.

Building the Character Study

When you focus so heavily on a single Player to the point where all the conflict in the story—both objective and subjective—centers on this one person, you have a character study.

Now, that’s great for actors—but for most Audience members they want something more. They want to be told a story.

And the first step to telling that story is ensuring that conflict is fully explored from all angles.

A Missed Opportunity

The similarities between Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Wife are striking. The focus on the Main Character Throughline to the detriment of others centralizes conflict in a somewhat narrow lane. Both performances excel because of this localized attention, yet the film itself misses an opportunity to say something more.

Can You and The Wife speak of the trials and tribulations of a female writer hiding behind a facade of lies. For those familiar with this struggle, the experience is one of grand familiarity. For those of us on the outside, the way out seems clear, the forces of resistance inconsequential.

An argument firmly implants the meaning of such an experience in the mind of the receiver. A complete argument—one that thoroughly explores all four perspectives—accounts for every possibility and leaves no place for the denier to hide. With a full story, one must confront the realities of not being able to live up to one’s potential because of gender and recognize the kind of change needed to resolve a very real imbalance.

Complete stories change people’s minds. Character studies do not. While they might provide ample opportunity for moving performances and heart-breaking relatable moments, the character study does nothing to advance the minds of those who—facing a weak argument—cast off the accounts of inequity as non-existent and inconsequential.

Complete stories make a difference.

<![CDATA[Why Your Script is on the Blacklist]]>

In January, I announced a new feature for the Writers Room in Subtext: script analysis. For those who don’t know, The Writers Room is a weekly masterclass in narrative theory, held exclusively for subscribers to the service, and hosted by me (Jim Hull. I built Subtext, and I write everything you read on Narrative First).

Speaking with a client who found great inspiration in reading yet-to-be-produced screenplays, I thought it might be interesting to do the same in a class setting. By examining these scripts through the lens of Narrative First and the Dramatica theory of story, writers everywhere could benefit from a greater understanding of why these stories deserve special recognition.

Unless, of course, they didn’t have a story to begin with.

Shuttering the Unicorns

The Blacklist is a yearly collection of speculative screenplays identified by professional readers as being great. This greatness, unrecognized by the producers and studio heads who passed on the script, demands further attention and a second chance. After all, everyone knows that those in charge really don’t know what they’re doing, right?

Every single person in the world can intuit a great story—even a studio executive. Complete stories are models of a single human mind working to resolve an Inequity. We all have the same primary operating system regardless of pay grade. We know when a story is broken because a story functions like us.

Sure, the movie producer’s taste in projects might not be current—but every single one of them wants to make money. They want to be successful, and they want to make great films. There is an excellent chance that the reason they skipped over a particular screenplay was not that they’re shortsighted or stupid—there’s a chance that screenplay just didn’t have a complete story.

Like Get Home Safe.

When Trend is Not Enough

Get Home Safe is very much a product of the time (The screenplay can be found here). The brazen cover letter attached to the start of the script makes no attempt to hide the screenplay’s intent to jump on the TimesUp and MeToo bandwagon. The screenwriter is fed up with being marginalized and has something significant to say about it.

But unlike similarly themed material like The Wife and Can You Ever Forgive Me? Get Home Safe lacks the goods to make a difference.

The model of a story functioning as human psychology requires consideration of conflict from all angles. While the script dutifully covers the objective point-of-view and personal point-of-view, it does leave out the other half of the story.

The screenplay makes a very one-sided argument—and that’s why it was rejected.

Designing a Complete Story

The mind assumes four perspectives while considering conflict:

  • I
  • You
  • We
  • They

These four find a correlation in narratives with the Four Throughlines of a complete story;

  • The Main Character Throughline (I)
  • The Influence Character Throughline (You)
  • The Relationship Story Throughline (We)
  • The Overall Story Throughline (They)

Get Home Safe resolves the two that most everyone with some relative degree of competency can—the Overall Story and Main Character Throughlines. The Overall Story is all about a twenty-something woman trying to get back home safe, while the Main Character Throughline is all about Skylar—a Millennial trying to navigate a world not ready for her progressive thinking.

The challenging alternate point-of-view is woefully absent, as is the relationship that is supposed to build between Skylar and this other person.

Her mom kinda sorta fits this role, but only for a brief moment. The first 30 or 40 pages are spent building this safe space between them, this “treehouse,” but then they never once revisit this safe space. Their relationship is static and sparsely populated throughout the story—not enough to truly experience what “We” work to resolve together.

The Author sets up a high potential for a meaningful relationship but then fails to follow through on that promise with the rest of the story.

The mother’s final change of character, which is supposed to find resonance with Skylar’s “be the mountain” philosophy, is more matter of fact than anything else. Her mom’s adoption of salty New York street talk is supposed to come as the culmination of several scenes of back and forth with Skylar—character development that naturally leads to a meaningful explanation as to why she starts to curse.

But again, a dynamic relationship throughline fails to materialize.

The Definition of an Influential Perspective

The Writers Room class where we discussed this script was phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve ever taught a more productive and thought-invoking class in all my years of teaching narrative theory. The replay of that discussion is available here on Subtext. While I go into greater detail within the class, there is one important concept that I want to make clear.

Several writers in the room felt as if the men in the story acted as a sort of collective Influence Character. The thought was that this male-dominated view of “be what I want you to be” was somehow the determining factor in Skylar’s growth.

That reductive way of thinking is already a part of Skylar’s personal throughline. In other words, she is already dealing with the fallout of that thinking. More of it isn’t going to challenge her, and less of it isn’t going to make it go away altogether.

The Influence Character Throughline perspective of a narrative is meant to challenge the Main Character’s approach with a complete different way of dealing with conflict. It doesn’t merely increase the amount of friction already in place.

This is why her mother is the closest thing resembling an Influence Character. Her mother’s acceptance of her fate at the hands of cancer runs in direct opposition to Skylar’s steadfast “mountain” point-of-view. They’re both facing impossible odds, but they both have very different ways of going about to solve that inequity.

The Influence Character challenges the Main Character with a different way of seeing things. These two approaches battle it out throughout a story until one or the other finally capitulates and adopts the other’s point-of-view.

This is how you develop a meaningful—and producible—screenplay.

Making It Worth Everyone’s Time and Money

It’s ironic that a screenplay that seeks to explore the vulgarity of marginalization marginalizes its own sense of purpose. By failing to balance the story out with essential alternative points-of-view, the effort comes across as merely whining about the current state of affairs.

Get Home Safe suffers from the same affliction all twenty-somethings endure—the inability to look outside of themselves. Stories make a difference when they make a compelling and complete argument. Telling only one side of the story fails to convince and convert because the Audience instinctively knows you’re not giving them the whole picture.

Get Home Safe is on the Blacklist not because of gender politics, but rather because of a deficient narrative structure. The script is written well and is very engaging—but it still lacks the necessary goods to motivate further action. The cover letter is an attempt to make up for the broken story by positioning the Author and Reader into a relationship - one that doesn't exist within the narrative itself.

In short, Get Home Safe reinforces the idea that the reason the Blacklist exists is that there are those within the industry who still don’t recognize the essential components of a complete story.

And until they do—they will always have the treehouse that is the Blacklist.

<![CDATA[The Wife]]>

The Wife is a heart-wrenching exploration of one woman’s sublimation to her perceived notions of patriarchy. Beset by a cynical female mentor early on in her writing life, Joan decides to pursue her art behind closed doors and out-of-sight of potential critics.

This reduction in self, a minimizing based on the probability of failing to break through a glass ceiling, lies at the very heart of Joan’s personal Throughline. This notion leads her to justify keeping fuss down to a minimum because she doubts anyone would ever take her talent seriously. Boiling deep within her, this imbalance of perception must continually be suppressed behind the mask of merely being considered “the wife.”

It also provides ample fodder for eager biographer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater).

Nathaniel has an idea—he thinks Joan wrote all of her husband’s books and he wants to get the exclusive scoop. His constant prodding into the private life of Joan and her husband peels back those layers of justification shrouding her true self, leaving her no other alternative than to grow beyond them.

Joan sheds those weighty husks and emerges reborn. Her proclamation that “I’m a Kingmaker” is a clear indication that she thinks now in terms of potential—her own potential to move the world with her image center stage. No longer willing to reduce herself to a concept, she faces the blank page with a lightened and hopeful heart.

Making an Argument

The Wife is a character study that still manages to form the foundation for a complete narrative. Often, Authors become so enchanted with the central character of a piece that they forget to fill in the blanks that give meaning to character growth. Presumably, the Authors of this film intend to argue that Joan was right in growing out of justifications, and they do a fair job of supporting that case.

Complete stories change people’s minds, character studies do not. The weak argument within the latter opens up space for Oscar-worthy performances at the expense of more significant meaning.

In this respect, The Wife is similar to Can You Ever Forgive Me? in that, it is another character study taking to task the sublimation of a woman’s creative potential. As such, the film excels when it offers Glenn Close ample opportunity to execute stellar and moving close-ups. It lags days later when one considers if the experience was nothing more than a masterclass in Acting.

An Uneven Argument

Structurally speaking, The Wife is an example of an Influence Character somewhat detached from the Relationship Story Throughline. While in theory, this is a perfectly legitimate approach, in practice it can lead to the Audience feeling slightly emotionally disconnected from the argument being made. Glenn Close’s performance supersedes this deficiency in every way—which is why you find her front and center of any awards for the film—but it still leaves the path open for some critical dissent.

Because he plays such a small role within the Relationship Story Throughline, Nathaniel comes across as a storytelling device rather than a character. He pops up once an Act to push Joan’s buttons, then fades away back into the shadows. Their scene within the cafe is beautiful and revealing—but one scene does not a Throughline make. That notion that something might be missing from the film is partly due to this lack of development in their relationship.

Thankfully, the marriage between Joan and her husband steps in to secure the emotional side of the argument, but only temporarily. Their “dalliances” on the side—Joan and Nathaniel, John and the photographer—while short-lived, fulfill that part of the narrative that requires conflict in the physical realm. Their unhappiness leads them to “cheat” by physically encountering another.

Again, these examples do not maintain the kind of development needed to make them wholly meaningful, but they do give the semblance of something greater being said with the story. And they do work nicely in terms of balancing out the more psychological concerns of the central plot.

Specific Storypoints within the Narrative

Nathaniel plays the Protagonist to the Story Goal of the idea of Joan as a ghostwriter. Her husband plays Antagonist. Nathaniel pursues and gets everyone to consider the Story Goal of Conceiving. John avoids and refuses to reconsider for fear of the Story Consequence of Learning the source of his actual success.

While there are other indicators of reductive thinking amongst other husbands and their wives, the real objective focus is on their son David (Max Irons). His impatience and his father’s reluctance to rush into a conversation is a perfect example of the Overall Story Issue of Expediency. Minimizing the son’s anger to merely an after-effect of “getting high” reinforces the already precedent Overall Story Problem of Reduction.

As the principal point-of-view with the Changed Resolve, Joan shares this element of conflict with her Main Character Problem of Reduction. Her recognition that she produces Kings is an indication of her Main Character Solution of Production.

As Influence Character, Nathaniel sees all. His subtle judgments and criticism of the Castleman’s arrangement work well for his Influence Character Problem of Evaluation.

Yet, the husband also steps in to sometimes fulfill this role. His self-hatred and self-criticism towards being an offensive writer help to carry this Element into the narrative along with the Influence Character Issue of Attempt. He is quite literally attempting to do something he cannot do.

Whether or not this is a valid source of influential conflict or merely reasoning for Joan’s justification, John’s grasping for something outside his means resonates nicely with Joan’s Main Character Issue of Doubt.

The Wife is a story of Personal Triumph. This type of ending sees a Story Outcome of Failure meeting a Story Judgment of Good. Nathaniel fails to convince anyone that his approach is the right one, and Joan returns home at peace with the tremendous weight she carried lifted off her shoulders.

The Wife is less a coming-of-age story, and more an act of a rebellion—a refusal to put up with an outdated way of thinking. This dynamic of the genre—the purpose, if you will, of the film—points to a Main Character Growth of Stop. It’s not Joan’s growth into a more positive way of thinking that is important, but rather her growth out of a debilitating and destructive mindset.

<![CDATA[The Problem with Writing a Story about Characters]]>

Some writers struggle with the dual appreciations of Protagonist and Antagonist. Note the use of the word appreciations to describe these two—not characters or players. That’s because the Antagonist of a story is not a real person. Same with the Protagonist. Almost all problems relating to constructing or deconstructing a story lie in thinking of characters as if they’re real people.

They’re not.

A functioning story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Not the Protagonist’s Problem. Or the Antagonist’s Problem. It’s as if the story itself is a real person, with the various characters, plots, themes, and genres within that story depicting the neural pathways and biochemistry of the mind.

A single mind.

A single Storymind.

Stories Are About Problem-Solving

This Storymind concept is the foundation of the Dramatica theory of story—and the foundation of a greater understanding of narrative. For once you start seeing the “characters” in your story as functions and perspectives, you begin to write with greater clarity and purpose.

Your writing becomes less schizophrenic, and less of two minds (or three, or four).

A Discovery of Self

Recently, I received an email from a writer struggling with this notion:

I am having trouble understanding how Dramatica defines the Story Goal, I think. On a Hero's Journey, there's a Call to Action.

This indicates the first misstep.

The Hero’s Journey paradigm is an inside-out understanding of narrative. Its very nature is subjective—meaning the casting of Hero and Elixir and Call to Action, and any number of mythical concepts lie within the eye of the beholder—within the survey of the Author himself.

Subjective viewpoints, by definition, fail to see the entire picture. They contain blind spots and prejudice the viewer into perceiving a world that in reality, doesn’t exist. From their perspective, it is the truth—but it’s not what is truthfully going on within a story.

Dramatica’s Storymind concept is 100% objective. Ideas such as the Protagonist or Antagonist or Main Character or even Story Driver sit in the context of that single mind analogy.

The Author’s prejudices don’t play into the construction of the narrative.

In fact, the struggle most writers encounter with Dramatica is a struggle with self. Their inability to reconcile a particular part of the theory with their own writing often indicates a personal blind spot—an area of narrative they haven't resolved in their own lives.

Dramatica won’t let you hide from yourself.

This can be both illuminating and frightening, depending on your current state of self-awareness. But the end result is always the same—a well considered and structurally sound narrative.

The Protagonist and Antagonist of a story are not real people—they’re functions. Like multiplication or division, they serve a purpose in transforming the potential for conflict into a product. This energy then courses through the electric circuit of a narrative, creating more potential for conflict among the way.

The Downward Spiral of Subjectivity

On a Hero's Journey, there's a Call to Action. This usually stems from a character who desires something, and through actions to acquire this thing, throws the world off balance. Until that character does this action, the main character (usually considered the Protagonist) does not receive a Call to Action, or a reason to begin his Journey.

Call to Actions within Call to Actions within Call to Actions ad infinitum.

Do you see the subjective rabbit hole that is the Hero’s Journey?

When the writer conflates the function of a Protagonist with the subjective point-of-view that is the Main Character, the basis for the narrative drive of a story is as elusive as subjectivity itself.

One ends up building a story on unstable and continually shifting grounds.

The Solid Foundation of Objectivity

A story begins with the introduction of an inequity. This is not unlike the moment we perceive an injustice in our own lives.

As within our mind.

With this inequity introduced, our minds begin a process of problem-solving to remove or resolve that inequity.

As within a story.

The inequity is introduced. Efforts begin to resolve that inequity. And the story ends when the inequity has ceased to become a source of contention.

The analogy of the story/mind connection is more than theoretical—in practice, it alleviates troublesome resistance and confusion during the writing process.

Real Life Has No Meaning

The confusion continues with the Hero's Journey approach:

Mustn't Character Z first act a certain way before the Character A can decide whether Z's actions ought to be prevented/stopped? Wouldn't that mean that Z's desire is that which creates a Story Goal?

The initial inequity creates the drive for resolution. The Story Goal signifies the type of resolution needed to restore balance.

Thinking in terms of Character Z or Character A will always lead to endless circular arguments because the focus is on a story as a slice of life, rather than a slice of a single mind.

Throughout our lives, we live many narratives. Hundreds of thousands upon billions of trillions of narratives regularly considered within our minds—then either resolved or justified away.

A slice of life “real person” approach seeks to collapse hundreds of narratives into a single “story.” The mere premise of trying to capture real life results in work with infinite meanings, all projected onto the story by each and every Audience member.

Now, some artists embrace this approach, who want to leave the intention and purpose of a story up to the Audience to fill in the blanks. And for them, a collection of many incomplete narratives is just the prescription.

Consider The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, or any other compendium of short stories. The experience is fun, yet save for one or two outliers, the purpose behind the experience is a complete wash.

Sure, one could ascribe all kinds of meaning to the individual stories, e.g., this must be what it must feel like to be a filmmaker in Hollywood (being tossed off a bridge when you’re no longer useful). But that process is one of projection, a method of completing the Author’s work for him, rather than entertaining a new way of approaching the world.

Appreciating the Meaning of a Story

Our minds can’t help but seek out what a story means. A complete narrative storyform answers the question of meaning by addressing all sides of the Authors intended message. Leaving the purpose of a story open to interpretation leaves the individual mind stuck in the default state of constant consideration, no better off than where it was before the experience of watching or reading.

Audiences want to be told a complete argument. That’s why the majority of films and television shows that receive high critical praise always feature a complete storyform—some even more than one.

Seeing characters as functions within a single human mind is the most accurate way to deliver that complete narrative. Seeing them as part of a single argument working its way through the human mind guarantees the integrity of that narrative.

Characters are not real people with real problems—they are facets of a single mind with one problem.


Is America racist?

Spike Lee seems to think so. At least, that’s the impression one gets from his latest film, BlacKkKlansman. Of course, Lee doesn’t have any real proof to back up that claim—

— and that’s precisely why this film is so powerful.

The narrative Element of Unproven drives the conflict of KkKlansman. It fuels hatred. It feeds ignorance. It powers an investigation that turns violent.

Unproven describes an understanding suspected to be true but not substantiated enough to call it fact

That watchful eye on what has yet to be verified is the soul of this narrative. The film’s brutal final moments only confirm America’s failure to verify rampant racism.

With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee proves that America is racist by focusing on that which is Unproven.

Understanding the Unproven

I never fully understood the narrative Element of Unproven until I saw this film. Visualizing the unverified as a Source of Conflict always left me searching for answers.

It’s important to understand that Unproven is not merely the negative of Proven. It’s not a lack of proof or false proof. Instead, Unproven defines that motivating force that intuits an imbalance—a singling out, or an itch—that drives one to seek resolution because something is specifically unverified. It’s that knowing without needing evidence to back that knowledge up.

The difference between Proven and Unproven, in the context of a narrative, is akin to the disparity between Cause and Effect. Proven is to Cause as Unproven is to Effect.

With Causes, you can trace a single line back to the root “cause” of a problem. You can see the proof.

When looking to Effects, there is no direct line back to something, yet there is still a problem. Something unproven as of yet. It’s that same feeling one gets when considering the effects of conflict that courses beneath the lifestream of Unproven.

A notion that something is not right.

Witnessing Both the Subjective and Objective

With KkKlansman, Lee expertly plays both sides of Unproven. Externally—and objectively—he explores the covert racism of the Klan and the unwillingness of many to do anything about it. Internally—and subjectively—he explores the naïveté of Colorado’s first black cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington).

Ron’s notion that “Not all cops are bad” seeks to write-off lousy behavior because it is Unproven. It amplifies and magnifies the suffering by relying on the unverified to determine right or wrong.

Only someone driven by the intolerable—someone who sees the disparity and is ready and willing to call others out on their willful blindness—can unseat this deep-seated justification.

With Ron, that point-of-view rests within Patrice (Laura Harrier).

The Influence Character

The Influence Character of a narrative challenges the Main Character to rethink his personal biases. Often coming from a seemingly alien point-of-view—yet always knowing just what to say at the right time—the Influence Character upends the Main Character’s inertia by shining a light on heretofore hidden preconceptions.

Patrice’s point-of-view challenges Ron by always looking to the results of looking the other way: This is what we get, and this is what will happen if we don’t do something. And it’s not merely a point-of-view that rests solely within Patrice. The very moving portrayal of the results of The Birth of a Nation carries this sad fact of reality straight to the heart.

Doing your part and engaging in the process of elevating the conversation becomes the only meaningful response. This is how Patrice is able to challenge and influence Ron to grow beyond his preconceptions. Patrice's point-of-view on valuing Black America works as the fulcrum to dislodge Ron’s limited perspective.

The Relationship Story

When making an argument, it’s not enough to just put two competing points-of-view against each other. Besides witnessing the two approaches at work within the light of an overall context (the Overall Story), the narrative must also explore the relationship that exists between the two opposing forces.

You maintain your personal problems. Your spouse experiences her own. Your marriage carries an entirely different set of conflicts outside of individual concerns. Yes, the personal points-of-view influence and inform the friction within the relationship—but they are not the relationship.

Ron and Patrice strike up an unlikely bond. At the heart of it rests an imbalance of continuation—the idea that they keep running into each other and feel driven to maintain their friendship fuels their interactions.

Ron and Patrice work as a proxy for the relationship that exists between the naive and the vigilant. An imbalance of wisdom between the two results in a cautious bond that starts and stops starts and stops.

It’s only when the vigilant can no longer “hang”—and the two split—that the relationship finally finds its inevitable conclusion.

Dysfunction in Society

BlacKkKlansman is a dysfunctional dark comedy. The twisted psychologies that lead to mail bombs and secret societies blame the assumed results of not taking action as impossible to avoid. An “integrated” America is the outcome they seek to prevent by burning crosses and processing meaningless IDs.

In the end, America fails to change its essential nature. Though they managed to prove one single cop’s tendency towards prejudice, the system and the Klan go unpunished. Burn the evidence, destroy the proof, and learn to deal with the consequences of allowing the unverified to persist deep beneath the surface—

—consequences of failure that erupt into violent action in August of 2017.

Yet, BlacKkKlansman is also a story of Personal Triumph. While the conflict in the overall scheme of things remains unresolved, Ron himself finds relative peace. No longer content to hide behind the phone and his white alter-ego, he calls David Duke and boldly verifies the reality of Ron Stallworth’s true identity: a man who doesn’t have to hide—a man willing to show his true color(s).

Essential Storypoints Supporting the Narrative

The following are critical Storypoints found within the storyform for BlacKkKlansman:

A Personal Triumph consists of two Dynamic Storypoints: a Story Outcome of Failure and a Story Judgment of Good. It’s Good because Ron feels comfortable in his own skin. It’s a Failure because of those scenes at the end in August of 2017.

When an argument seeks to make a case for Failure, the Consequences persist. The Story Goal of BlacKkKlansman is Being, the Story Consequence is Doing. This can be interpreted as the balance between who we are and what we do.

By failing to prove the Klan's hidden influence (an Overall Story Solution of Proven), America gets to keep its identity. Lee contends that if Ron’s investigation, and countless other items of racism, had been brought to the surface and Proven—then America would have to act differently (a Story Goal of Being).

That didn’t happen.

And it continues not to happen.

The “proof” is the video footage of Americans running over other Americans—a genuine Consequence of Doing.

Lee is apparently done with us—as evidenced by the shattering of the relationship between Audience and filmmaker, between the naive and the vigilant. That fantasy sequence at the end shatters expectations, breaking the unbroken bond of trust between Author and Audience.

And it's all on purpose.

Lee can no longer "hang" with us—a Relationship Story Solution of Ending that both supports his narrative argument and leaves us with the task of doing something about it.

It's our turn to prove that there is a problem.

<![CDATA[Writing Characters as Facets of a Single Human Mind]]>

The quickest path to a broken story is thinking of your characters as real people. Infusing the same helpings of motivation and purpose across the spectrum dilutes the message of the story and leaves the Audience wondering what you're trying to tell them. When you think of your story as an analogy to a single mind, you start to see the holistic relationships between all the characters—and you guarantee a more meaningful experience.

Characters are not real people—they’re aspects of the same mind considering a single inequity. The Protagonist represents Initiative. The Antagonist Reticence. Guardian and Contagonist illustrate right and wrong.

In this series on Creating Complex Characters in Complex Times, the function of characters as stand-ins for these thought processes eventually led to the realization that Authors can break free of the constraints of Archetypes. Mixing and matching the base Narrative Elements of these characters increases delight and surprise while maintaining the integrity of the single Storymind analogy.

As mentioned in the previous article Developing Complex Characters that Defy Expectation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse features several examples of these more complex and sophisticated characters. Uncle Aaron and Peter B. Parker split the intrinsic motivations of the Guardian and Contagonist, resulting in two very dysfunctional mentors. They continue with this deviation from tradition with the Reason and Emotion Archetypes.

Intellect and Passion

The dueling forces of intellect and passion within the mind lend the Storymind towards the adoption of two additional Archetypes: Reason and Emotion.

Like the previous grouping of Archetypes—Protagonist, Antagonist, Guardian, and Contagonist—Reason and Emotion breakdown into two primary narrative Elements.

Reason consists of Logic and Control.

Emotion consists of Feeling and Uncontrolled.

Rational thought almost requires directed and constrained thinking. That’s why Logic and Control feel natural together and why these Elements easily form the Reason Archetype.

Passion is boundless—the very act of opening one’s heart-mind and reaching out requires something unconstrained and free. Feeling and Uncontrolled naturally gravitate towards each other and form the Emotion Archetype.

Superficial Characterization that Gets to the Point

Everyone’s favorite character in Aliens is Hudson (Bill Paxton). Infinitely quotable (“Game over, man. Game over!”), Hicks is the classic Emotion Archetype. From pumping the drop team up for action to reacting like a child (“Why don’t we put her in charge?!”), Hicks can always be counted on to instill a little happiness—and a ton of Emotion—into the Storymind of Aliens. Even the way he goes out is intense and frenetic (“You want some?! Oh, yeah? How about you?!”).

Hudson in *Aliens*

Reason and Emotion Archetypes often take responsibility for adding humor and color to the conversation. In Robert Zemeckis' Contact, the two astronomers working with Jodie Foster’s Character Ellie even go as far as wearing appropriate clothing to signal their Archetypal motivations.

Fisher (Geoffrey Blake) is your classic Poindexter. With wireframe glasses, a nasal voice, and pinstriped shirts, Fisher is primed and ready to argue the rational side of communicating with extra-terrestrials.

Fisher in *Contact*

Willie (Max Martini) is your classic frat-boy slob. With red curly hair, a gravelly voice, and a colorful Hawaiian shirt, Willie (whose name even sounds like Emotion) is set to argue the crazy and far-out fantasies of communicating with beings from another world.

Willie in *Contact*

The characters in these examples are simple. We instantly know where they’re coming from and know what they’ll say, almost before they even open their mouths. Greater complexity and sophistication in characterization occurs when the Author plays against type—when the Author plays against Archetype.

More Complex Realizations of Emotion and Reason

Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage) represents Feeling and Control within the Storymind. His passionate stance towards Nazis and his tendency to light matches just so he can “feel” something indicates a motivation towards Feeling. The way he keeps it all in and contains himself, preferring to direct his attention towards solving the Rubik’s cube implies Control.


Nicolas Cage’s monotone voice and demeanor—the very thing people love about him—is almost a real-world example of the mix between Feeling and Control.

The voices of John Mulaney (Spider-Ham) and Kathryn Hahn (Doc Oc) almost speak to the opposite.

A Reasoned Display of Frenzy

Doc Oc built the machine and is the only one who knows how it indeed works. As scientist “Liv” Octavius, she supplies the intellect needed to make sense of the glitching experiences by all the Spiders. Her frenzied approach of destroying everything that stands in her way runs counter to this reasoned and intelligent approach—making her five-hundred times more captivating to watch.

Doc Oc

Doc Oc mixes both Logic and Uncontrolled.

Spider-Ham functions with the same essential features. Pointing out that just because Ham's hands are wet doesn’t mean he just went to the bathroom and questioning whether or not animals are allowed to talk this world are indications of a tendency towards Logic.


Floating through the air because you smell a delicious pie or getting worked up and out-of-control when someone insults cartoons is clearly an indication of Uncontrolled.

Both Doc Oc and Spider-Ham serve the same function within the Storymind context of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The fact that they sit on either side of the subjective Audience appreciation of “good guy” and “bad guy” little matter to the objective nature of the Storyform. Oc and Ham inject equal parts Feeling with a touch of Uncontrolled.

Handing Off Character Elements

In the end, all that matters to the meaning of the narrative is that Feeling and Uncontrolled, Logic and Control—and all the other Narrative Elements within the story—are explored within the context of the Story Goal. The only "rule" is that these Elements should be examined at least once per Act—thus, the ability of a story to hand-off this driving force from one character to the next.

Remember that a narrative is not a story about real people—a narrative is the story of one person, one mind—actively seeking a resolution to a single inequity. The very purpose of an Act then is to work around the injustice from different angles to see how these Elements work or don’t work in different contexts.

The ability of the story to “hand-off” these Elements from one Player to the next accounts for the reality that a story is a construct—a fabrication. Something imagined. Fictional. The nature and inherent logic of this fictional Storytelling attached to the storyform may make it impossible for the Author to rationalize a particular character’s appearance in various scenes.

For example, scenes and sequences found in the third Signpost of Spider-Man (what many refer to as Act 2b) find little room for Doc Oc to appear. You can only have so many fantastic action scenes as you did in the forest before her schtick becomes monotonous.

What the Authors do to counteract this deficiency is to replace her schtick with another's—namely, Spider-Ham. He grabs the baton of Feeling and Uncontrolled from Oc and runs with it until the end.

The Function of Characters within a Story

The Overall Story Throughline, which is where we find the Story Goal and therefore the character Motivations towards that Goal, is an objective perspective on that single inequity within the Storymind. What problems do they experience because of this imbalance?

Whether they stay within the same Player throughout—like they do with Pursuit and Consider in Miles—or whether they pass the baton from one Player to the next, the Audience appreciates the same thing. The story means the same to them regardless of who carries which Element.

This inherent trait of a story to be able to pass off Elements grants Authors the opportunity to ensure narrative integrity with their work. Their imagination can run wild creating fantastical action sequences and elaborate characterizations, while the structural integrity of the argument they’re making remains solid.

Characters are not real people. Stories are not about real people.

As we've seen in this series of articles on Creating Complex Characters in Complex Times, a story offers each and every one of us the opportunity to step within the mind of another—to experience the inner dialogue and cross-arguments that go on within that mind as it seeks resolution.

With the answer to that problem-solving process firmly in our grasp, we can move forward knowing a little bit more about how best to approach the inequities in our own lives.

<![CDATA[Wanderlust: Season One]]>

Wanderlust the television series (not the movie) is a beautiful example of what happens when you set out to tell a complete story. Spanning six episodes and supported by a fantastic performance from Toni Collette, this BBC series (now on Netflix) makes an argument for acceptance: acceptance of past mistakes and acceptance of one’s current situation.

Just know that in doing so, you might be setting yourself up for an even greater personal failure.

Flirting with Disaster

Joy and Alan (Collette and Steven Mackintosh) are married with adult children. Like many couples in this situation, routine rules the day and a state of unrest kicks into place. Unlike many couples, the two conceive of engaging in an open relationship to somehow rekindle the romance and fill the emptiness they sense between them.

Joy wants excitement. Alan is resolved with the way things are between them. He doesn’t see the point in making a big deal out of anything. Advances made towards each other are met with equal parts rejection, and the two drift apart.

Problems at Home

Granting each other permission to hook up with other people, Joy and Alan set out to redefine what it means to be married.

Their enthusiasm for the good in an open relationship runs up against judgment from the outside. Joy’s first date disapproves and finds it “disgusting.” The school administrator finds it equally distasteful. Even their youngest son Tom (Joe Hurst) finds fault with their dalliances—unsure what love really means if mom and dad are shagging other people.

Joy and Alan try to explain—try to get the rest of the world to see things in a different light. But they are only met with greater and greater resistance. Many do not understand why the two of them would do something like that—why they would risk endangering their marriage?

Judging someone from the outside is easy. Unusual behavior comes across deviant or antisocial because you don’t understand their deep-seated motivations.

A complete story fixes all that.

Repression And Regression

Joy’s initial rejection of Alan seems to find a cause in the recovery from her bike accident. Flashes of scenes from that fateful intersection accompany her withdrawal leading us to believe she just needs more time.

Those flashes, however, start to reveal an even deeper source of conflict for her:

A former patient of hers reached out to her just before committing suicide.

Joy, not wanting to be bothered by him at the moment, ignored the call. This “mistake”—from her point-of-view—multiplied by an incident with her father years prior, set the stage for her justification for repression.

Joy's Repression of Guilt

The foundation for this process in Joy saw its genesis with her mother’s funeral. Moments before attending the memorial, Joy’s father told her “not to make a fuss”—to permanently repress those feelings of grief and loss she felt for her mother.

Not wanting to upset her father, Joy did as asked, but found she needed some sort of outlet—some way to release those emotions. Instead of turning to Alan, who she had just started dating, Joy hooked up with former boyfriend Lawrence—preferring the physical, sexual release over an emotional one that could end up in her “making a fuss.”

Of course, Joy kept that hidden. She buried it so far down below that she couldn’t even see the cause for her emotional distress anymore.

Joy buried it to the point where she needed a therapist—and a story—to bring it all back up to the surface.

Building a Main Character

This point of personal blindness, where the Main Character cannot see the source of their own justifications, is where a story finds its starting position. That process of justification leading up the beginning is what many Authors refer to as Backstory. A complete story follows the Main Character as she unravels the rationale for her behavior. Brick by brick and Act by Act, that wall of justification comes down, eventually revealing the initial source of conflict.

This moment of in-depth personal exposure is the “Leap of Faith” moment for the Main Character. Once the source of this justification is known, the Main Character is faced with two options: take up that justification process again—or change and adopt a new way of approaching the same problem.

Joy chooses the latter—but it takes some time and some experimentation getting there.

Rediscovering You

That time spent proves to be just what Joy and Alan needed to spice things up in their marriage. The two return home from their first extra-marital affair and quickly jump on top of each other. Learning what happened during the other’s encounter ignites a heated process of rediscovering their love for one another.

The only difficulty? Making allowances for each others’ feelings—and the feelings that develop within third parties. To Joy and Alan, the experience starts out as a bit of fun. As things progress, Alan’s partner Claire (Zawe Ashton) develops feelings for him, and things start to get messy.

Dealing with Preconditions

They get even messier when Alan discovers he feels something for Claire as well.

Discovering Us

Discovery sits at the heart of all the relationships in Wanderlust. Tom discovers his best friend Michelle is more than a best friend, while Tom and Jennifer discover they’re probably better off as friends. Joy’s patient Jason (Royce Pierreson) and her daughter Larua (Celeste Doing) learn they’re perfect for each other. Their neighbor Rita (Anastasia Hille) discovers her newfound sexuality with Joy and Alan’s other daughter, Naomi (Emma D'Arcy).

Alan and Claire work things out, while Joy strikes up a relationship of discovery with her old flame Lawrence (Paul Kaye).

Motivating each and every one of these relationships is the sense of possibility. The risk that this could end in disaster pales in comparison to the chance that this could all play out in triumph.

Dysfunctional relationships in *Wanderlust*

Wanderlust is about relationships—and specifically, dysfunctional relationships. Whether motivated by a sense of loss or grief or just because there is a feeling that something is missing, these characters find inspiration in each other—a chance worth taking.

And for most, the risk was worth it.

Tom and Michelle, while getting off to a slow start, will likely develop into an even stronger relationship. Same with Rita and Naomi.

Even Joy and Alan’s respected beaus, Claire and Mark look likely to find comfort in each other at the end.

But when it comes to Jason and Celeste—the future is unclear. Yes, they’re setting out on a trip together, but Jason still can’t let go of his deceased wife. Jason and Celeste’s likelihood of success is a dwindling and lingering one.

And the same can be said for Joy and Alan’s grand experiment.

Coming Home

In the end, Joy returns home to find Alan content and waiting like always, their reinvented relationship secure, and their experiment a success.

Yet, Joy is still not joyful.

That final breath of angst she releases just before the end credits proves that—while this kind of relationship might be suitable for some and better for their marriage itself—it can wreak havoc on the individual.

Joy ends things with Lawrence, not because she wants to, but rather because she realizes they probably aren’t going to make it. And she’s able to make this decision because the story helped her tear down those justifications.

Joy's therapist helped her uncover that deep-seated source of emotional angst—that possibility that she was responsible for her patient’s suicide—and opened up Joy to the possibility of probability.

Instead of being motivated by possibility, Joy now sees the likelihood of things. That’s why she can so easily break it off with Lawrence—

—and why she hesitates in those final frames.

She knows where her relationship with Akan will likely end up.

In Wanderlust Joy chooses the path of change. Repression and the repulsion of her own feelings is no longer an option for her. The second season may very well find her beginning a new process of justification—but it will be centered around an entirely different issue.

Understanding the Storypoints of the Storyform

The dysfunctional psychologies in play within Wanderlust set the stage for an Overall Story Domain of Psychology. Finding inspiration within each other and determining whether or not they should continue their relationships locks in the Overall Story Concern of Conceiving.

Overall, the first season focuses on an Overall Story Issue of Deficiency—each and every relationship is out-of-balance because of this sense that something is missing, or lacking. The very notion that the other suggests a possibility of something better motivates conflict and sets the Overall Story Problem of Possibility.

Joy, too, finds her personal throughline motivated by Possibility—the possibility that she could have done something to save her patient. This Main Character Problem of Possibility blossoms up through a Main Character Issue of Repulsion (push out those bad feelings, don't cry) and funnels out into a Main Character Throughline of Universe. Conflict in the area of Universe describes a character out of sorts with her environment, inequity bred from the physicality of things. Joy's accident and subsequent hospitalization give meaning to this underlying psychological problem for hers.

Joy's Encounter with Her Universe

Sharing the same problematic Element with a Psychology Overall Story means Joy will end the story with a Main Character Resolve of Changed and a Main Character Growth of Start. This is a coming-of-age story for a middle-aged woman. Once she realizes that she and Lawrence will most likely fizzle out, she arcs out of Possibility and into a Main Character Solution of Probability.

But all is not well.

Wanderlust is a story of Personal Tragedy. While the majority of characters within the story find relative amounts of lingering success, Joy ends the story distraught and unsettled. She has grown—but only greater in her own personal sense of inequity. These two endings indicate a Story Outcome of Success and a Story Judgment of Bad.

Looking at the other two Throughlines to balance out the narrative, the Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines, we find Alan set in an Influence Character Throughline of Mind and their marriage in a Relationship Story Throughline of Physics.

Alan's impact in the area of Mind is clear: he seems unfazed by emotional considerations and determined to make things right with Joy. Their extra-marital romps with others and their difficulties with intimacy between them fit effortlessly into a definition of Physical conflict.

Being forced to deal with the realities that their playthings are actual people with actual feelings answers the narrative's requirement for a Relationship Story Issue of Preconditions.

Wanderlust is a brilliant example of a single story told across the span of six episodes. While leaving one feeling unsettled at the end, the meaning behind the narrative is clear: While tragic to the individual, you can start to get an idea of what you want by beginning to recognize what is most unlikely to happen.

<![CDATA[Developing Complex Characters that Defy Expectation]]>

Archetypal Characters are the shorthand of characterization. Protagonist and Antagonist function as both Author and Audience expect, opening up and easing the channels of communication between both. When working with writers across all genres, I always recommend starting out with Archetypes—then slowly moving away from them as the story requires.

Shorthand, it turns out, is short for boring.

Unless you're writing for a particular genre.

In Aliens, both Ripley and the Aliens work as Archetypal Protagonist and Antagonist, respectively, because of the genre. Audiences don’t particularly gravitate towards sci-fi/action because of an expectation of complex characterization. That’s why every Player in the original Star Wars is a solid Archetypal Character. When you want to spend more time exploring fantastic new worlds and engaging in thrilling sequences, you need to write characters that don’t require a lot of explanation.

You need to know up is up, and down is down.

Occasionally you can break that expectation, as was done in Aliens with Bishop and Carter, to increase interest and offer surprise and delight to the Audience. But for the most part, you want to stay with tradition when writing about fantastical worlds.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse breaks all conventions of genres. Not content with merely one Archetypal Swap, the Authors of this film infuse both delight and surprise by drafting two Archetypal Swaps. The result is a film that plays against expectations (yes, irony intended), offering a glimpse into complex characterization within a genre that until now, has provided much of the same.

On the Nature of the Storymind

As mentioned in previous articles in this series on Creating Complex Characters in Complex Times, the one place Spider-Man follows through with convention is with Protagonist Miles and Antagonist Kingpin.

A complete narrative models a single human mind. In Dramatica theory, this reality is known as the Storymind. Characters are not individual people with their own minds, but rather represent various facets of one single mind.

This singular Storymind considers an inequity and works to resolve that imbalance. The introduction of the inequity is known as the first Story Driver (commonly misinterpreted as the Inciting Incident), and the focus of resolution is known as the Story Goal.

Character motivations work in the context of both the initial Story Driver and the Story Goal. Everything is connected within that concept of a single human mind at work.

In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the fundamental inequity is the introduction of the Large Hadron Collider—specifically, turning it on. Powering up the machine opens up a hole in the space-time continuum, and draws elements of other multi-verses to Brooklyn. If the effects of this machine are not reversed, a black hole threatens to open up beneath the city.

Miles Morales pursues this reversal, while simultaneously gathering others to consider the pros and cons of taking on that task. These dual forces of Pursuit and Consider define the classic Protagonist.

Kingpin, on the other hand, seeks to avoid, or prevent, this reversal. Why? Because he wants his wife and son to reconsider their feelings towards him. Reconsider and Avoid define the classic Antagonist and Kingpin fulfills this role as expected.

It’s common for most narratives to stick with this classic arrangement between Archetypal Protagonist and Antagonist. They'll often turn to another pair (as with the example of Bishop and Carter in Aliens) for increased interest and greater complexity.

It's uncommon for most narratives to draft this greater complexity amongst two pairs of characters.

Guardian and Contagonist Not

As explained in Writing Characters Who Break the Mold, a Guardian Archetypal Character exhibits motivations of both Help and Conscience. The Contagonist Archetypal Character offers Temptation and Hinder.

Complex Character Types split away from Archetypal functions by trading narrative Elements among Players.

The first example of this Archetypal Character Swap in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is found between Peter B. Parker and Uncle Aaron.

Peter B. Parker in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse*

Peter eats cheeseburgers first before attacking the Large Hadron Collider. He seduces Liv before finding out he needs to take her a little more seriously. And he takes a timeout in the ballroom to apologize to the wrong Mary Jane.

Peter B. Parker is one-part Temptation, one-part Help.

Uncle Aaron counsels Miles on doing better in school, yet chases the boy down on the streets of Brooklyn. When he discovers Miles’ true identity, Aaron backs off—making it more difficult for Kingpin to follow through on his motivation. Lastly, Aaron’s final words make an appeal for Miles to do the right thing.

Uncle Aaron in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse*

Uncle Aaron is the voice of Conscience, while also Hindering efforts within the story.

The higher interest inherent within these two characters exists because of the dissonance between their narrative Elements. They’re not Archetypal, they’re complex.

But they’re not the only ones.

When Reason and Emotion Split

Another facet of the Storymind as yet unexplored in this series are the opposing forces of Reason and Emotion. Some problems require logic to find appropriate solutions. Others trend toward emotions to help resolve perceived inequities. One is neither better than the other, and both are needed to establish a balance of considerations within the mind.

Initiative and Reticence. Conscience and Temptation. Reason and Emotion. We know the first to be relatively stable across all genres. And we've seen how Aliens and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse play against type when it comes to the second pairing.

In the next article in this series, we explore the balance that exists between logic and emotion and in doing so, reveal an opportunity to play against type that goes all the way back to the original release of The Wizard of Oz.

<![CDATA[The Old Man and the Gun]]>

The Old Man and the Gun is a delightful and effortless film. The combination of Redford’s charm, unobtrusive direction, and mellow score chain together a series of scenes and sequences that tell the rebellious tale of The Over the Hill Gang. However, it’s the narrative structure that runs underneath it all that gives this film meaning and elevates it beyond a simple tale of runaway robbers.

Forest Tucker (Robert Redford) robs banks. In fact, he’s been stealing and breaking out of prison since he was a little kid. Sixteen in all—with the last a very audacious escape attempt from San Quentin involving a sailboat named Rub a Dub Dub.

Now, here’s the thing—is The Old Man and the Gun another attempt by an accomplished and aged actor to draft an allegory of one’s body of work? Is Redford trying to do the same thing that Eastwood did in The Mule? The sailboat, after all, calls to mind Redford’s last one-man film, All Is Lost.

Writer/director David Lowery confirms his intent to pay tribute to Redford's life:

It was always there, and that was the one thing that I knew was gonna be there because we put it, when you turn a camera on and point it at Robert Redford, you instantly get the entirety of who he is as a movie star without having to do anything. That’s just there front and center. So, it was always on my mind, and yet the thing that I focused on the most was how to craft a story around that.

The difference between Mule and Gun is the difference between the poignant and the meaningless. The former lacks a greater narrative—it tells the tale of a drug mule who eventually ends up in prison. The latter describes a complete story—Gun makes an argument why Redford’s character (and possibly Redford himself) lives his life the way he did all those years.

And why he always did it with a smile.

His playful voice really came through, that was something that I remember being really struck by and wanting to lean into because he is so playful. Even when he is doing interviews, doing press, or just hanging out, he has a very playful sense of humor, and I felt like that was something that had disappeared from screens for a while. It had been a while since he’d engaged with that side of himself on screen, so I really wanted to give him a chance to bring that back.

How do we know one is a story, and the other is not?

The Alternative Perspective

A complete story pits two competing points-of-view against each other. Each point-of-view argues the accuracy of its own approach until eventually, one switches over and adopts the other’s perspective.

This switch is what gives the events in a film greater meaning. Did that switch result in success? What is the right thing to do? Does it feel good?

A story makes its argument by showing how that switch in perspective led to success or failure. A complete story goes even further by offering an emotional appraisal of whether that switch was good or bad.

In The Old Man and the Gun, John Hunt (Casey Affleck) offers that alternate point-of-view. In sharp contrast to Redford’s infectious charisma, John lives a life strung out, cynical, and depressed. In fact, John is so caught up in the pointlessness of his career as a detective that he completely misses Forest robbing the bank directly behind him.


I can't figure out if I need to try a whole lot harder or if I should just quit.


So you gonna quit and do what?


I really don't know. Something useful. Something where I don't have to clean up a mess that keeps on making itself every time I turn around.

Two competing perspectives.

Forest keeps going no matter what. No matter how many times he’s been captured, no matter how many times he’s been chased, no matter how many times he’s evaded the police and ended up scot-free, Forest keeps returning to what he does best—living life with a smile.

The brief moment when Forest tries to quit is altogether too short. The smile fades, and his life seems as if it’s over. He doesn’t even have a sense that he should hurry up on his bucket list—the end of all things isn’t a consideration for him.

Contrast that with John who, when we first meet him, looks like he can’t wait for it all to come to an end. John wants to be the guy who catches Forest. He’s tired of showing up to work every day to find the mess he cleaned the day before messy once again. Nothing he does makes a difference, and it’s all because of the system, or because of the people, or society—it’s never about him.

John and Forest meet. They clash. They play their game of cat-and-mouse until finally, they part ways.

John doesn’t catch him. The Feds do. But at that moment, John doesn’t care anymore. Not because he’s fallen into a darker place, but rather because he no longer expects the worse to happen for him. Instead of sleeping another night shift off, John finds himself out in the front yard gardening—an act of hopeful expectation.

The Effect of a Relationship

Typically, the critical relationship in a film consists of these two opposing characters. While the more plot-centric aspects of this relationship find a home in the game between Forest and John, Forest’s relationship with Jewel (Sissy Spacek) accounts for more of the character and thematic aspects.

Merely being in the presence of the other drives Forest and Jewel’s relationship forward. Each has a remarkable effect on the other—a result that goes unquestioned and unchallenged.

Their romance is daring—as daring as the cat-and-mouse antics between Forest and John—and with similar consequences.

By bringing Jewel into the mix, the Author accounts for the more heartfelt and emotional aspects of exploring this kind of relationship.

When it comes to being happy, the effect another has on our life cannot be understated. The Old Man and the Gun drives home this message, not only with its complete narrative but also through its very existence—one can not enter into a relationship with this film and not feels its effects.

One leaves happy.

The Effects of a Complete Story

This happy effect is why The Old Man and the Gun scores a 92% critical rating, and why The Mule hits a paltry 62%. Not merely because it’s a “happy” story, but rather because it makes an argument for how to be happy.

And it does so with artistry and sophistication.

In a culture rife with apocalyptic and dystopian futures, The Old Man and the Gun is an unexpected delight. We all encounter moments of despair and challenging situations that might lead us to determine that it’s all not worth it.

The Old Man argues that it is—and the only way to keep smiling is to keep going.


Forest’s drive to keep going is evidenced by a Main Character Problem of Unending. His brief attempt at quitting is the complimentary Main Character Solution of Ending.

Forest’s Main Character Resolve is Steadfast, which is why he flirts with this momentary lapse of a drive.

Forest’s ability to live in a dream world where you rob banks with a smile is his Main Character Issue of Fantasy. His need to continually challenge himself is his Main Character Direction of Test.

Being happy? Believe it or not, that’s the Story Goal of this narrative—a Story Goal of Being. Just being, without worrying about the Story Consequences of Doing.

John, the closest thing to an Antagonist, is very much concerned with Doing. With doing the same thing over and over again without seeing any improvement.

John’s feeling that it’s all a waste of time is both the Influence Character Problem of Determination and the Influence Character Issue of Worth—it’s just not worth it to him anymore.

His conversation with his daughter regarding the FBI's takeover of the case begins to open John up to the idea of his Influence Character Solution of Expectation:


Maybe it's a good thing.


How is it a good thing?


Because they aren't as you are. So they won't catch him.


Well, thank you, babe.


And if it was your job, you would definitely catch him. But that's why it's good that you're not. Because if you caught him, you wouldn't get to chase him anymore.


I like how you think.

In the end, John switches to Forest’s point of view as evidenced by the fact that he’s not upset he didn’t catch him. Planting a flower is a symbol of his Influence Character Solution of Expectation and his Changed Influence Character Resolve.

The Relationship Story Throughline is a hand-off between Forest and John and Forest and Jewel.

With Forest and John, we get the cat-and-mouse game and the Relationship Story Concern of Doing. We see a bit of this Doing Concern when Forest and Jewel attempt to rob the jeweler and a bit when it comes to living on the farm, but the majority of the more Plot-centric appreciation of the Concern lies in the relationship between cat and mouse.

The romance that develops between John and Jewel accounts for the Relationship Story Issue of Experience and the Relationship Story Problem of Effect. Less a problem and more a source of drive, the effect each has on each other is inescapable. They can’t help but experience one another and gain greater and greater familiarity. It’s almost like they’ve known each other for a long, long time.

The film reaches the end and Forest is still robbing banks and always smiling. By concluding the narrative with this Story Outcome of Success and this Story Judgment of Good, The Old Man and the Gun makes an excellent case for continuing on no matter what obstacles are thrown your way—it’s the only way to guarantee you’ll go out with a smile.

<![CDATA[Writing Characters Who Break the Mold]]>

In the previous two articles in this series on Creating Complex Characters in Complex Times, characters were seen not as real people, but rather as analogies to the forces at work in a single mind. Eschewing notions of good and evil, this objective appreciation of story as psychology allows Authors to see the Players in their story for the very first time.

When seen objectively, Archetypal Characters represent forces within the mind. The Protagonist showcases our drive towards initiative. The Antagonist, our tendency towards reticence. The Guardian acts as the voice of Conscience, and the Contagonist a source of Temptation.

These Archetypal Characters consist of a perfect arrangement of Narrative Elements. Like-minded drives such as Pursuit and Consider make up the Protagonist, Avoid and Reconsider the Antagonist. The Guardian finds Conscience and Help at his core, while the Contagonist seeks to Hinder and introduce Temptation into the story.

Greater complexity and heightened interest are found by mixing and matching these Elements—by moving against expectation and playing unlike-minded Elements against each other within the same Player.

Aliens and the Story Goal

James Cameron’s Aliens provides an excellent example of this sophistication of characterization in action. While the Protagonist and Antagonist remain Archetypal (Ripley and The Aliens respectively), the Guardian and Contagonist err on the side of greater complexity.

It may seem, at first, that the Story Goal of Aliens is to kill the Aliens. After all, Ripley says as much when Carter (Paul Reiser) offers her the job.

While she does want to eradicate every last one of them, Ripley only wants to do so because she understands the danger they represent for the human race. Her motivations of Pursuit and Consider are always focused on getting out, and making everyone appreciate the severity of the situation.

The Story Goal of this film, then, is to understand what happened to the colonists of LV-426. This involves learning what happened to them and bringing that information back home.

Killing the Aliens is not the Story Goal. While their destruction is a crucial step, achieving it fails to resolve the fundamental inequity set forth at the beginning of the story. The colonists mysteriously disappear, and efforts begin to understand why they vanished.

Ripley pursues a course of action towards this understanding. The Aliens work to prevent it.

Working Against Conscience

Carter (Paul Reiser) is a stooge for the Weyland Corporation. Motivated to bring back alien DNA at all costs he sets the team up—knocking over alien test tubes and hoping to embed some embryos in a host subject for the ride home.

Is Cater the Contagonist, or the Guardian?

Carter in *Aliens*

Subjectively, Carter is a prick—we all universally hate him. But objectively, his shenanigans actually assist the efforts to understand what happened to the colonists. His attempt to impregnate Ripley helps her efforts towards a greater understanding of these Aliens—from an objective point-of-view.

Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is an android. His creepy demeanor reminds Ripley of the consequences of working with a programmed entity. His failure to show up at the appointed time during the climax only exacerbates her distrust.

Is Bishop the Guardian, or the Contagonist?

Bishop in *Aliens*

Subjectively, Bishop is plain weird. Objectively, he displays temperament throughout the chaos—acting as a virtual voice of conscience. Yet, his failure to show up on time hinders Ripley’s ultimate mission.

The Archetypal Element Swap

Carter is neither Guardian nor Contagonist—yet consists of Elements of both. Bishop balances Carter out by taking on the converse Elements.

Carter represents Help and Temptation in the Storymind of Aliens. Disregarding the potential consequences of bringing home alien embryos, Carter assists the efforts to understand what happened to the colonists.

Bishop represents Hinder and Conscience in the Storymind. A constant reminder of what happens when you’re not prepared, Bishop delays and distracts from a greater appreciation of the missing colonists.

The Complex Character

Compare the relative interest level, from the Audiences perspective, of Ripley and the Aliens to Carter and Bishop. We know what Ripley is all about, and we can say the same for the Aliens. No surprise there. It’s clear who is for, and who is against.

When it comes to Bishop and Carter, the dividing line between for and against blurs. The interest level—and surprise factor—increases because we don’t instinctively know what motivates these characters.

In the Dramatica theory of story this process of exchanging Narrative Elements is known as an Archetypal Character Swap. When the natural set of Elements begins to drift apart, that Player’s function within the story becomes less archetypal and more complex. That greater complexity is what drives greater interest within the minds of the Audience.

Breaking the mold is merely an act of breaking the Archetype.

<![CDATA[The Dark Knight Rises]]>

If there ever were a perfect example of the importance of StoryReception, The Dark Knight Rises would beat it. Incomprehensible to the point of silliness in the theaters, the film features a remixed audio track for home release. Instead of wondering what the evil Bane said in practically every scene, we now get to enjoy his witty and piercing quips.

As well as the entire point of the story.

A Second Chance

I originally wrote this film off regarding the presence of a complete story. As an avid fan of Christopher Nolan and his take on the Batman franchise, I approached the movie with great anticipation—only to be disappointed by what I felt was an inconsistent and at times, silly, conclusion.

That was until I watched it at home.

In the theater, I couldn’t understand what was being said at the time. And not only from the villain Bane (Tom Hardy)—which is to be expected. Without lips to help make sense of the dialogue, who could blame me?

No, it was everyone. Bane included.

Add to that a convoluted ticking time-bomb that conveniently appears during the latter half, and I got the sense that Nolan just wanted to get it over with quick.

Oh. And I didn’t get why Wayne didn’t die at the end.

It felt like a cheat—an emotional cheat to make everyone feel good.

All this changed when I watched it at home.

The Dark Knight Rises finally made sense to me.

Storyforming and Storytelling

The Dramatica theory of story breaks the process of communication between Author and Audience into two significant parts: Storyforming and Storytelling.

The Storyforming process is where the Author forms the message of their work. He determines inception points of conflict and crafts them in such a way to hold resonance with each other. This is where the meaning of the story finds its genesis.

The Storytelling process is where the Author communicates that meaning to his Audience. The process itself breaks down into two parts. The first half, Storyweaving, finds the Author determining which scene comes first and how best to present each of them.

This is the place where Christopher Nolan sits at the mixing board and decides how much he wants to garble Bane’s dialogue.

And it’s treacherous territory.

It’s dangerous because the second phase of Storytelling—StoryReception—is the one place in modern storytelling where the Author finds little to no control.

Mess up the Storyweaving (mixing), and you risk losing your Audience.

And there’s not a single thing you can about it. At that point, the message of your story is out of your hands.

The Caveman’s Dilemma

Back in the caveman days, Ugg sat down by the fire at night and told stories. If what he said was unintelligible or misheard, Ugg could quickly and easily clear up any confusion. The advantage claimed by these ancient storytellers is obvious—they could make sure their stories were received correctly because they were present with every telling.

Things have changed a bit.

Not only do our stories find themselves accompanied by incredibly dramatic Hans Zimmer music, but they also see themselves broadcasted along infinitesimally small wires or through the air across the globe a couple thousand or a hundred thousand times a year.

It’s absolutely impossible for today’s Author—even Christopher Nolan—to attend every screening.

Modern StoryReception relies on elements beyond the Author’s grasp. Audio bitrates. Projection bulb amperage. Reclining seats. Even the snap of air-popped popcorn affects the Audience’s ability to receive the message of the story accurately.

That Zimmer score—while beloved by all—can even work against itself in modern theaters—dependent upon its relative level to the rest of the audio soundscape:

“I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it's the right approach for this experiential film,” Christopher Nolan said, speaking for the first time in detail about the use of sound in his new film Interstellar [He was defending the soundtrack].

How can we possibly understand the point of a story, if we can’t even hear what is being said?

Understanding the Message

The experience of seeing The Dark Knight Rises with this improved soundtrack is striking. Suddenly, Wayne’s surprise re-appearance at the end makes complete and total sense:

He’s choosing himself over the city.

Simple and in hindsight, obvious, I know—but I just didn't get that the first time through the film.

Conflict in Rises emanates from an imbalance of Equity. It’s peacetime, yet things are not fair. The 1% do not live in equity with the other 99, and that sense of justice motivates everything from Bane’s terrorist attacks to Talia’s attempt at revenge.

Every single conflict experienced within the Overall Story Throughline of Rises finds its genesis in this narrative Element of Equity.

Inequity, then, becomes the Solution.

The injustice of Wayne’s sacrifice-of dying without anyone knowing his true identity—reignites the passion of Gotham’s citizens to take up the fight on their own.

Matthew Modine’s Foley is the clearest example of this Solution in action. As is the climactic battle in the streets. But the most significant indication of this determining Element is Robin’s decision to quit the force.


Can I change your mind about quitting the force?


No. What you said about structures. About shackles. I can’t take it. The injustice.

(Gestures at gardens.)

I one’s ever going to know who saved an entire city.


They know.

(Off look.)

It was Batman.

He can’t stand the injustice—a clear-cut motivation that sets the stage for the next story.

The Overall Story Solution of Inequity brings about a Story Outcome of Failure.

Yes. Failure.

A Story of Personal Triumph

At first glance, The Dark Knight Rises appears to be nothing less than a Success story. Wayne gets away free and clear, and the bad guys no longer terrorize Gotham.

But the "bad guys" in this film were the Protagonists.

In Dramatica theory, subjective labels like "good" and "bad" are verboten. The objective function of a character is where an Author truly determines who is the Protagonist and Antagonist and consequently, whether or not the story ends in Success or Failure.container

The Protagonist of a narrative pursues while forcing others to consider.

The Antagonist of a narrative avoids or prevents while forcing others to reconsider.

Which one sounds like Talia and which one looks like Batman?

Talia pursues a course of revenge, forcing the city of Gotham to consider the lies fostered upon them by their heroes. Wayne avoids confrontation, then turns to all-out prevention to save the city. He works to get Bane and Talia and most importantly, Selena, to reconsider their actions.

Talia fails, thus a Story Outcome of Failure.

With a failed Story Goal, the Story Consequences comes into play. Here, the Story Consequence of Conceptualizing is one last manipulation play by the likes of Gordon and the Batman--forcing the people of Gotham to re-conceptualize their city.

A Personal Account of Conflict

Bruce Wayne begins The Dark Knight Rises in relative peace. Perhaps not as emotionally balanced as he could be, but enough of a balanced imbalance that he finds himself at to terms with his current situation as a wealthy recluse.

This personal account of Equity as a Problem is what is needed to tie the Main Character Throughline of the film meaningfully into the Overall Story Throughline.

This is why Main Character and Overall Story are even a thing: they give the Audience an opportunity to see a particular source of conflict both from within and without—something they can’t experience in their own lives.

In peacetime, everyone grows soft. If you’re well off, then you don’t think there is a problem. You’re blind to what is really there.

Batman moves at Bane - strikes powerful blows -Bane catches his fist.


Peace has cost you strength. Victory has defeated you.

Bane SMASHES Batman back - kicks him off the catwalk.

So much better when you can actually understand him. (Captions don't hurt, either 😁)

With Wayne, we see his Problem of Equity reflected in his refusal to move on from the death of his girlfriend. His self-imposed punishment of living in exile cut off from the rest of the world, balances out the guilt he feels towards her untimely demise.

As with the Overall Story, the Solution to Wayne’s personal problems is Inequity.

And it’s evidenced in that final surprise appearance:

Wayne chooses himself over the city.

He chooses to live in Inequity with Gotham—and in doing so, finds the emotional relief he didn’t know he needed.

The Rest of the Message

Setting these key Storypoints into Dramatica’s Story Engine, we begin to synthesize the totality of Nolan’s approach.

Robin, Alfred, and Selena work as a collective Influence Character Throughline perspective. This key component of narrative influences and challenges the Main Character to grow beyond his personal justifications.

Robin’s recollections of the orphanage he grew up in finds similarity in Wayne’s own upbringing. Selena’s dubious attitude towards the rich and powerful challenge his sense of entitlement. And Alfred’s pledge and plea to continue the family line encourages Wayne to see that it takes more than balance to carry on.

The Relationship Story Throughline perspective needed to complete the narrative incorporates aspects of that bond with Alfred—as well as touching on the contentious relationship between Wayne and Selena, Wayne and Robin, and even Wayne and Talia.

Here, the emotional aspect of a shared peace runs between those who care about each other—and those who care about those they have lost.

How it rises to the surface is quite another thing.

Alfred's revelation that Rachel wanted nothing to do with him strikes Wayne with a blow just as painful as Talia’s knife. Knowing that Talia possessed the inner strength to scale those walls—not Bane—drives home the truth of Batman's birth in a tumultuous childhood that could never find peace.

It frees Wayne up to stop fighting.

Loud and Clear

Crafting a meaningful story is the Author’s prime responsibility. Delivering it in such a way that it can be clearly understood is a close second.

Film is more than an experience. It’s more than a thrill ride. Film is a vehicle for meaning—a chance to lose our own sense of self so that we can appreciate how best to live our lives, without our own biases, and our own preconceptions getting in the way.

Real life is noisy enough.

Let’s protect the sanctuary that is a great story—and let’s make sure we are heard.

<![CDATA[Understanding the True Motivations of Your Characters]]>

Many look to notions of good and evil to determine the relative morality level of their characters' motivations. The "good guys" are the characters we care about, the "bad guys" are not. Subjective appreciations like this will always steer the Author wrong when it comes to developing integrity within their stories. And Audiences flee when you break that trust.

In the previous article The Definition of a Protagonist and Antagonist, the dual forces of initiative and reticence were revealed as key considerations when developing the Protagonist and Antagonist of a complete story.

The Protagonist represents initiative and is comprised of the narrative elements Pursuit and Consider.

The Antagonist signifies reticence and is comprised of Avoid and Reconsider.

These elements were also defined in the context of the Storymind: a complete story is an analogy to a single human mind working to resolve an inequity.

In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse this inequity is the introduction of the Large Hadron Collider, the machine Kingpin hopes will bring back his family. Removing this machine from the current universe will resolve the inequity of the story and bring balance back to the Storymind.

Miles pursues and considers a means to remove this machine.

Kingpin avoids, or prevents, and reconsiders the means to remove the machine.

Miles is the Protagonist and Kingpin is the Antagonist.

Their conflict exists because they represent motivations at cross-purposes to each other within the mind. One for resolution, one against.

Two other Players serve an essential role on both sides of this conflict: Peter B. Parker the “hobo” Spider-Man, and Miles' Uncle Aaron.

At first glance, it may be easy to cast Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) the “hobo” Spider-Man on Miles’ side and Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) on the side of Kingpin. After all, Uncle Aaron works for Kingpin and Peter eventually mentors Miles.

But there’s something about both those considerations that don’t quite sit right within the Storymind.

Running Against the Grain of the Expected

While at times Peter seems driven to pursue the same Goal as Miles, he does mess things up at times. Eating cheeseburgers and apologizing to the wrong Mary Jane delays the successful resolution of removing the machine.

Peter B. Parker Doing What He Does Best

Same with Aaron on the other side. As The Prowler, Aaron chases Miles down in the street and destroys Aunt May’s house, but when the moment of truth arrives the "bad guy" can’t finish the job of killing his nephew. Aaron wants something better for the boy and actually gets in the way of Kingpin, making it ultimately more accessible to destroy the machine.

What forces then do Peter and Aaron represent in the Storymind?

And why do they seem so wonderfully complex?

The Forces of Conscience and Temptation

Like the little angels and devils that used to sit on the shoulders of Donald Duck back in the day, the forces of Conscience and Temptation influence and challenge the powers of Initiative and Reticence.

Less “doing the right thing” and more thinking about the consequences, the motivation towards Conscience naturally sits on the side of the Protagonist. Goals do not exist without consequences, and the conscience constantly reminds the Storymind of what could happen if the inequity is not resolved.

Temptation, on the other hand, ignores the consequences. Not as forceful or impactful as the clear-cut motivation towards reticence, temptation disrupts the course of action towards resolution—tempting the mind towards other considerations.

Appreciating these dual forces from the context of a mind seeking to resolve an inequity, it is clear that Conscience helps those efforts while Temptation hampers, or hinders efforts.

The Archetypal Force of Conscience

As with the perfect combination of Pursuit and Consider within the Archetypal Character of the Protagonist, the dual motivations towards Conscience and Help combine to form a different Archetypal Character naturally. The Dramatica theory of story refers to this character as the Guardian. Often portrayed as a helpful teach or kind mentor, the Guardian aids the Protagonist in the successful resolution of the inequity.

Morpheus in The Matrix. The enigmatic S.R. Hadden in Contact. Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars. These Guardians act as the voice of Conscience while helping their respective Protagonists resolve the conflict.

The Archetypal Force of Temptation

Death Vader in Star Wars. The charismatic David Drumlin in Contact. Cypher in The Matrix. These troublemakers disrupt the efforts to resolve the conflict by appealing towards the mind to ignore consequences.

They don't stop resolution—they just delay it by getting in the way.

Think of Cypher’s steak dinner or Drumlin’s appeal to Jody Foster’s Ellie to stop wasting her time talking to aliens. These players distract—or Hinder—conflict resolution through Temptation.

Note the balance between Help and Conscience and Hinder and Temptation. Like Pursuit and Consider, Avoid and Reconsider, the Storymind addresses all sides of the argument when in the process of resolving the conflict.

Balance on Both Sides of the Argument

This tendency towards balance within the mind led the creators of the Dramatica theory of story, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, to coin a new name for this Archetypal Character: The Contagonist. One part Temptation, one part Hinder, the Contagonist disrupts efforts towards resolution on both sides of the good guy/bad guy fence.

He doesn't fight for one side or the other because Objective Character Functions couldn't care less about notions of "good" or "evil." An Objective Character Function is objective—it has a function in the story, and it performs that function from beginning to end.

Consider Darth Vader’s Force Choke of Admiral Motti in the first Star Wars. Or the Dark Lord's idea of using a homing beacon onboard the Millennium Falcon, rather than straight capture. These actions and decisions get in the way of the Empire’s clear-cut motivation to prevent a rebellion. Sure, the beacon pays off—but not after a few hapless TIE-Fighter pilots play out their role.

Objectively speaking, Darth is a lone wolf.

The Narrative Elements of a story exist within the context of the Story Goal—not with their “good guy” or “bad guy” affiliation. This is why you find Complex Protagonists and Complex Antagonists in films like Michael Clayton or How to Train Your Dragon.

Karen the Protagonist

Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), a “bad guy,” pursues a successful resolution of the case against uNorth—in favor of uNorth. Michael Clayton (George Clooney), a “good guy,” prevents that resolution.

Karen is the Protagonist of Michael Clayton. Michael is the Antagonist.

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a “good guy,” prevents efforts to train the next generation of dragon killers. His father Stoic (Gerard Butler), as misguided as he is in the eyes of the Author, pursues that successful resolution.

Hiccup is the Antagonist of How to Train Your Dragon. Stoic is the Protagonist.

An Objective Stance

The development of an argument requires the Author to step back and take an objective point-of-view of the play at hand. Who moves forward? Who pulls back? Who gets in the way of resolution, and who helps? Where are the voices of Conscience and Temptation?

Subjective attribution colors and distorts this balanced and considered approach. Notions of good and evil, light and dark, mask the very truth on display. Unable to see a clear picture of the forces at work, the Author breaks the integrity of the argument and loses the Audience’s trust.

There is balance within the mind.

There is balance within the Storymind.

Take this objective perspective of character motivations with the Story Goal the next time you develop a story. The experience will help you gain perspective and balance in your own work.

Building Interest by Embracing the Unexpected

Embracing this approach brings us back around to the discussion surrounding Peter B. Parker and Uncle Aaron. If they both represent alternating halves of the same Archetypal Character, how can you possibly classify their role within a story?

There's no doubt they work within Spider-Man—the scenes involving two are always the most entertaining and the most engaging.

And the reason for that lies in this essence of character that works against the expected perfect alignment of Archetypal Characters.

These two characters approach something much more Complex.

And for that, we refer to them as Complex Characters.


Roma is a mystery.

Not a mystery "Genre" in the narrative structure sense of the word, but rather a mystery as to how writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is able to so deftly communicate narrative structure without being obvious about a single frame.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse literally plasters its central Problem of Expectation on the wall.

Roma prefers to embeds its Overall Story Problem of Chaos in silent observations from its passengers.

Dog crap in the garage. A forest fire on New Year's Eve. The bustle of street vendors and a father on hiatus with his mistress.

A revolution on the streets of the city. A revolution that ends in a random act of murder. Another lies dead on the street outside of a hospital.

Children carried out to sea.

Roma bears witness to an imbalance of Chaos from without--from an objective point-of-view of the conflict that affects everyone.

But for a story to be complete, it must also extend this exploration of drive into a personal point-of-view.

A troubled child. A theater emptying around her. A shattered cup. Random encounters with fate portending an unknowable and unwanted future. Roma lets us experience an imbalance of Chaos from the perspective of the individual--from Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

Yet, from this personal--and subjective point-of-view, Chaos appears different.

While Cleo objectively contends with Chaos, subjectively she adapts at the drop of a hat. This is strength, and the strength of the message behind Roma.

Beset by the troubled child, she lies down next to him, pretending to be dead with him. Asked to clean the driveway once again, she does so without hesitation. Abandoned by her boyfriend, she carries on. In each of these, Cleo drafts reality on her own terms, not in the machinations of others.

This juxtaposition between the personal and the extra-personal is carried out without fanfare. Without horns blaring.

Unless you count the horns of soldiers marching in the streets--announcing fate without uttering a single word.

The flow of time

Roma turns to time as its basis for structure. This kind of foundation is less about ticking time clocks or deadlines, and more about witnessing the passage of time as a flow from one concern to the next.

Sensing trouble with one of the children, Cleo takes a break from her chores and lies down next to the child--improving the relationship between them without care for cause or effect.

Later, Cleo takes an extended bus ride in search of her boyfriend, Fermin. Her journey through the slums of Mexico seeks no solution, no requirement in support of a particular goal. She aims only to measure the temperature of their relationship.

Cleo’s tendency towards holistic problem-solving, a process that measures the balance between relationships first, requires a narrative structure that sees conflict resolution as a journey--not a destination. The effortless camera pans and unobtrusive framing of the cinematography support and reinforces this path of flow.

Peace of Mind Along the Way

Airliners on their way to their next destination.

A gentle and majestic reminder of the comforts of a schedule.

The tipping point away from Chaos rests in Order. Resolution--meaningful resolution--sees flow changing direction with a newfound focus on Order, a realignment with planning.

A new car. A family adventure. Rearranged bedrooms and clothes that need washing.

Acceptance that an unwanted pregnancy was not part of your plan.

Order doesn’t resolve as many of Roma’s issues as much as it does point the way.

For Cleo. For Sofia. For the family order between them and the children--an order that was always there, and only now just confirmed.

A schedule of emotions forever kept.

Roma is a beautiful mystery. A mystery as deep and profound as the experience of life itself.

Set a time to see it with the ones you love.

A Word about the Storyform

While uploading the storyform for Roma into Subtext, two Storypoints struck me as compelling examples of pure artistry.

The Relationship Story Problem of Self-Aware and the Relationship Story Solution of Aware.

Many would interpret this as a problem of personal self-awareness between Cleo and her employer Sofia--as if this was somehow an indication of the "battleground" of their relationship.

This Main Character vs. Influence Character notion of the Relationship Story Throughline is always deceiving.

Their relationship is the substance of the Relationship Story Throughline.

That Self-Awareness problem in the beginning? That's the idea that I am the employer and you are the employee. While you're a part of this family, you're also a servant--don't forget that.

That's their Relationship being Self-Aware of itself.

The "Solution," or preferably, the direction they move towards to overcome this self-awareness is the narrative Element of Aware.

That beautiful image of them all holding each other--that one you see on bus-stops and billboards that you can't quite make out what it is you're seeing--that's a symbol of their greater Awareness of each other.

The Relationship becomes Aware of something greater than itself.

Again, just more evidence as to the tender and masterful artistry of this narrative.

<![CDATA[The Definition of a Protagonist and Antagonist]]>

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse features a cast of characters who defy the law of physics. Tumbling through the air, smashing through walls, and stopping massive machines with the touch of a hand, amazing superheroes save the day and bring conflict to an end. Yet as individualistic and fantastical as they appear on the surface, underneath it all these characters portray various facets of the same human mind.

Multiple "characters"—one single mind.

A Storymind.

The Storymind Concept

The best way to understand the motivations of a character is to stop thinking of him as a real person. Instead, think of all the characters as different motivations of one real person—that person being the story itself.

A complete story, then, is an analogy to a single human mind trying to resolve an inequity. The various characters represent the different considerations and forces that operate within the psyche as the mind evaluates and re-evaluates its approach to resolving conflict.

This Storymind concept is at the heart of the Dramatica theory of story and foundational in the development of Subtext.

Characters are not real people—they're individual parts of the same person.

Taking this approach ensures a holistic understanding of the forces at work within a narrative.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The dual forces of Protagonist and Antagonist represent the mind’s motivation towards Initiative and Reticence, respectively. The Protagonist pursues; the Antagonist avoids.

In Spider-Verse, Miles Morales is the Protagonist and Kingpin is the Antagonist. Mike pursues, and Kingpin avoids.

At first, the notion that Kingpin avoids anything in this story sounds odd. If anything, Kingpin pursues a course of action to bring back his deceased wife and son.

And that’s when it’s important to realize that these characters are not real people—they’re facets of one single human mind trying to resolve an inequity.

In Spider-Verse, the inequity is a machine that rips a hole in the space-time continuum. The very presence of this machine draws the different Spiders in from alternate universe and threatens to tear open a black hole beneath the city of Brooklyn.

That is the inequity—or Problem—this one Storymind considers, and shares with the Audience.

With that Story Goal in mind, Kingpin’s motivation towards avoidance rings clear. He is motivated to avoid reversing the effects of the Large Hadron Collider. As a “person,” he wants to bring back his family—as a facet of a single mind he avoids or prevents (the active side of avoidance) the successful resolution of the Story Goal.

Just like every functioning Antagonist.

Miles, as Protagonist, pursues that Story Goal.

Miles Morales in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Breaking Down Archetypal Characters

Miles doesn’t just pursue the Goal, he is also motivated and motivates others to consider the pros and cons of destroying the machine. The guilt trip he lays on Peter B. Parker and his disappearing act in Aunt May’s lab sit as evidence of the Storymind in the act of Consideration.

Kingpin balances this motivation with instances of Reconsideration. His refusal to turn off the machine when danger arises and his hope that his family will somehow reconsider their feelings towards him counteract the simple act of thinking with rethinking.

These collection of paired narrative Elements—Pursuit and Consider, Avoid and Reconsider—signal the presence of Archetypal Characters within the Storymind.

The drive to pursue pairs naturally up with a drive to consider. The motivation to avoid, or prevent, typically matches up with a call for reconsideration.

That’s why the concept of a Protagonist is even a thing in our lexicon of language: we recognize a shared purpose of motivations within a mind, brought them together into a single vessel, or “player,” and then labeled him or her the Protagonist of a story.

The Protagonist isn’t the one who changes the most—the Protagonist is a perfect set of motivations that define a clear and shared drive of initiative in the context of the Story Goal—the current inequity under consideration by the Storymind.

Same with the Antagonist. He or she is not “the bad guy,” but rather, the final alignment of forces analogous to the drive towards reticence in the Storymind.

Characters are not required to follow this alignment in every complete story. In fact, higher interest and increased delight occur when an Author mixes and matches these various narrative Elements.

Miles is your pretty standard Protagonist. And Kingpin is your classic Antagonist.

Kingpin in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

But what about Peter B. Parker and Miles’ Uncle Aaron?

What facets of the Storymind do they represent?

And more importantly, why do they appear more interesting as characters when compared to the driving forces of Protagonist and Antagonist as described above?

More on that in our next article in this series on Creating Complex Characters in Complex Times.

<![CDATA[Teen Titans Go to the Movies]]>

You would think an animated film based on a Cartoon Network show would be full of throwaway gags and pat Saturday morning storytelling—

—but with Teen Titans Go to the Movies, you would be wrong.

Taking a cue from The LEGO Batman Movie, Titans explores what it means to be your very best—and to be yourself.

Here, the problem is measuring yourself up against the greats: against Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman. Robin wants his own movie. No longer content with being the sidekick, the boy wonder wants the fame and accolades that come with a giant Hollywood blockbuster.

Conflict driven by the need to compare and measure up is conflict instigated by the narrative Element of Accurate. The justification on Robin’s part for making things more difficult emanates from this feeling that he isn’t “accurate” enough to the assumed and well-understood superhero persona.

Combine this inner conflict of Accurate with a series of externally-driven Accurate conflicts and Teen Titans sets the stage for a meaningful story.

Where the Objective and Subjective Meet

Stories click when the internal conflicts of the Main Character sync up with the external problems found in the Overall Story. The shared dissonance created by experiencing both subjectively and objectively the same problem is where we find meaning.

It’s why we go to the movies.

In Titans, future arch-nemesis Slade (Will Arnett) uses a combination of parlor tricks and “Look out behind you!” warnings as the basis for his MIND-MANIPULATION schemes. Slade’s Doomsday Device sheds light on our collective addiction to superhero movies—quite Accurately—a weakness that features heavily in his plot to take over the world.

The Accurate and funny one-liners from Slade—gags that would play as throwaways in another film—play expertly into the Teen Titans narrative. “I’m not farting. It’s just air escaping from my butt.” That’s an Accurate statement. “What are you guys doing? I’m a giant robot with a sword, you can’t beat me.” That’s an Accurate statement.

“You guys are just losers.”

That’s another Accurate statement—

—but an accurate statement that arrives at the tail end of the narrative, and at the tail end of Robin’s growth.

Tearing Down Justifications

The structure of a complete narrative is one where the Main Characters justifications—their excuse for doing all things they do—is torn down by an alternate perspective. This powerful and impactful point-of-view is often held by a single Player. The fact that it is the perspective, not the Player, that weighs into the narrative makes it possible for this perspective to be handed off from Player to Player.

In Titans, we see evidence of a collective Influence Character—a group of characters who all perform the same function with the narrative.

Robin’s team, the Titans themselves, are ready at a moments notice to remind the boy just how important and valuable the Titans are to the world of superheroes. With a fast beat and a ridiculous flow, the Teen Titans prove to Robin—and to everyone else around them—that they have what it takes. Their rap theme song and their ridiculous Michael Bolton piece (way too reminiscent of the sincere one in Smallfoot shine a light on what they can do to make a difference.

Quite surprisingly, Teen Titans even manages to weave in a meaningful relationship between Robin and his team. It’s nice that they’re friends, but to play into this assumed trust between them and then have that trust break when Robin chooses sides balances out the narrative perfectly.

The Relationship Story Throughline in a narrative isn’t there just because it’s lovely—the conflict in the Relationship Story Throughline balances out the conflict in the Overall Story Throughline.

When every relationship finds conflict in the Accuracy of their statements, it only makes sense and feels right that the most critical relationship should somehow explore an imbalance of Trust.

Finding Resolution

The message of [Teen Titans Go to the Movies] is be yourself (again, LEGO Batman)—even if you’re a loser. Or a misfit. The solution then isn’t to play into Accuracies but rather, be Non-Accurate. Be intolerable.

Be a joke.

We know this works because Titans show us it works. The team is there until the very end, proving their natural talents while simultaneously demonstrating their emotional bond with Robin. Instead of allowing the relationship to dissolve because of misplaced trust, they resolve their difficulties by challenging Robin to weigh in on the importance of their bond.

Teen Titans scores an impressive 91% critical rating because the film effectively communicates a complete argument. While the fart jokes are plentiful, so too are scenes of relevancy and importance. The inner conflict of the Main Character synchronizes with the external conflict of the Overall Story, and the Influence Character perspectives and Relationship Story Throughline balance out and complete the narrative landscape.

Teen Titans is more than just a kids cartoon—it’s an argument for being yourself, no matter how intolerable or off the beaten path yourself might be to everyone else.

Narrative Storypoints

The following are significant Storypoints found within the storyform for Teen Titans Go to the Movies:

The Goal of being yourself is a Story Goal of Being.

The fact that they achieved this Goal is a Story Outcome of Success.

Robin resolving his issues of angst surrounding his popularity, and the fact that he actually ended up with his own movie is a Story Judgment of Good.

Wanting to measure up is a Main Character Problem of Accurate.

Proving how valuable and important they are is an Influence Character Problem of Proven and an Influence Character Issue of Value.

Proving that by being intolerable and crazy is an Overall Story Solution of Non-Accurate.

The superheroes rushing in to save the day drives Robin to decide he wants his own movie. Defeating Slade their own way helps the Titans save the day. Actions drive decisions in this story, indicating a Story Driver of Action.

The unspoken and eventual broken trust between Robin and the team is evidence of a Relationship Story Problem of Trust.

Showing Robin the video and challenging him to weigh in on his feelings towards their relationship is a Relationship Story Solution of Test.

<![CDATA[Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse]]>

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest.

As a veteran of the animation industry for over 20 years, I was constantly blown away by every creative choice they were able to get away with during production. Story. Art design. Animation style. And then, story again.

From top to bottom, the film is a masterpiece of art.

And as a Sienkiewicz fan from back in the day, I can’t fully express in words the joy I felt seeing Kingpin’s nightmarish rage portrayed on-screen the way I imagined it some 30 years ago.

The film, for me, was quite literally a dream come true.

Whether the filmmakers took advantage of the fact that they were under an inescapable deadline that would keep Spider-Man’s copyright in the hands of Sony or they’re just that good—it doesn’t matter. We get to enjoy this rare gift for the rest of our lives.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not just the best animated film of 2018, it’s the Best Picture of 2018–and deserves to with both Oscars at the Academy Awards this year.

While it may be difficult, and ultimately unnecessary, to pinpoint one reason for this triumphant success, the complete story and solid narrative argument at its core can claim the lion's share of responsibility.

After all, without a solid narrative you just have a collection of pretty pictures.

And comic books are much more than that.

A Conversation of Analysis

Instead of the usual deep-dive thematic breakdown found here on Narrative First, we offer this glimpse at the process involved in our analyses.

A screenwriter new to us and the Dramatica theory of story wondered if he could ask us a few questions about the Spider-Man film. Of course, we took the opportunity to make it a learning experience rather than a dictating one, and figured others might enjoy the journey as well.

Writer: Can we break down Into the Spider-Verse?! I have an idea for what it might be.

Jim: I saw SpiderVerse yesterday, and really--there's no point in doing anything anymore. that was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my entire life. They didn't hold back on anything.

Writer: OC in Universe (hopefully obviously) ...

Jim: And by OC do you mean, Obstacle Character or did you mean OS (Overall Story)?

Writer: Sorry, OS

Jim: :) yes for sure

Writer: Plot... Action, Success Good...and Optionlock?

Jim: Those are gimmes!

Writer: I was on the fence about this... but I think Miles MC is Changed?

and Peter/His Dad grow?

Jim: If Miles is Changed, how do you know that?

Writer: my litmus was that he does something at the end he wouldn't have done at the beginning

but... i was on the fence because so did Peter/His Dad

Jim: Actually - question - do you want me to lead you through it or just give straight answers LOL - I always find you learn more drawing it out, but just let me know when you want to hit the buzzer :)

Writer: Lead me through so i still learn, haha

Jim: Well who do you want to start with - Miles, Peter or Dad?

Writer: Miles

Jim: what is the evidence that he is doing differently at the end that he did in the beginning?

Writer: he's able to use his powers on command

Jim: why?

Writer: because he ... stopped testing and started trusting? (jumping the gun, i know)

Jim: lol - without dramatica words

Jim: what was his personal issue?

Writer: He took the leap of faith that Peter kept telling him about, which he found by that resolving conversation through the door with his dad

Jim: both Steadfast and Changed characters take leaps of faith - it just depends on what side of the ledge you're leaping from (or into) - in other words, leap of faith is more a natural result of creating a narrative.

Writer: hmmm... wasn't his problem from the beginning that like, he wanted to do things his way? Despite his father's disapproval?

Writer: So maybe he was steadfast in his way of thinking?

Jim: They spend a lot of time on his personal issues in the beginning...

Jim: I guess what I mean is, by wanting to do things his way - that's the MC's Throughline - how he "does" things - but what is it about how those things are done that is shown to be problematic? What's out of balance? What's giving him angst? (To the exclusion of anyone else's viewpoint)

Writer: what he wants isn't what this parents or teachers want him to do

Jim: which creates grief within him, an imbalance of...

Writer: Desire?

Jim: why is what everyone else a problem for him?

Jim: why does he purposefully fail tests?

Writer: He failed the tests because he wanted to go back to that other school. He was trying to get kicked out.

Jim: And how does that approach tie in with his initial meetings with all the Spiders--why does he turn invisible?

Jim: Why does he first go "electric"?

Writer: every time he uses his powers without being able to control them was out of fear, right?

Jim: right - but you see how the spiders talking about him in the basement creates the same kind of emotional angst that he was getting from his dad in the beginning? that's why he turned invisible...

Writer: they started attacking his abilities

Writer: how he's unable to XYandZ

Writer: and he got upset, went invisible and left.

Writer: So does that make his problem ability? for good or bad? he's Ability-ing throughout the movie?

Jim: was the grief caused by his dad a problem of Ability? was the grief caused by his guidance counselor a problem of Ability? were the Spiders gathering together and whispering about him creating an imbalance of Ability?

Writer: No... but I'm not totally sure what they were creating an imbalance of...

Writer: in english, i guess it was a problem of approval? No one approved of him

Jim: that's good - really good. Approval works great. So then at the end - does he seem still struggling with that - or is he doing things differently? (btw, don't know if you follow me on Twitter, FB, or IG but you might want to turn them off for the next couple of hours since I already have a post in the queue about his problem! LOL)

Writer: I won't look. haha

Writer: at the end, he doesn't need Peter's approval or even care about it. In fact he turns the tables, saying he won't let Spider-Man die

Writer: but... he did kind of get his father's approval through the door, right?

Jim: yes...that triggered it...but you're totally right - he is doing things differently - whether or not they "approve" of what he does - he doing it anyways...

...which would suggest a Changed Main Character Resolve

Writer: So is it more a self of self kinda thing?

Jim: i don't know self of self...??

Writer: like, a confidence thing.. confidence in himself

Writer: forget what everyone thinks of him, he's gonna do it his way

Writer: he doesn't need spider-man's permission to be spider-man, or his father's ... he just goes and does it

Writer: the Spiders were all pointing out what he lacked, right? his deficiencies?

Jim: forget what everyone thinks of him, he's gonna do it his way is ABSOLUTELY the entire thread of the entire narrative - AWESOME!

Jim: yes yes yes awesome job now who then challenges that perspective and does things differently?

Jim: in other words, who is the IC(s)

Writer: Spiders/His Dad

Writer: i would say mainly Peter/His Dad

Writer: so wait, backtracking... you're suggesting his solution is Permission? In the sense of Not needed it?

Writer: er, his Issue, i mean

Jim: I'd hold off on looking to the chart this early - it's enough to identify the terms in your own words. Remember that in reality, each of those terms is really just the same four words seen in different contexts -- so it's REAL EASY to get mixed up and focus in on a term that doesn't mean what you think it means. That's why the top down approach works well.

How do Peter and Miles' dad share the same perspective? 

Writer: Hmm... well they both want Miles to do what they say. Do things their way, in an effort to protect him

Jim: mmmm...but what is their shared perspective? In other words, Miles turns invisible because of approval - what's up with his Dad or Peter?

Writer: I guess it's that they know what's best?

Writer: both of them have "been there done that" and lived through it all before... they know what's likely gonna happen and how to likely solve things. The dad has a problem with his brother because he doesn't approve of his ways (and rightly so, cuz the brother was actually a minion of kingpin who gets himself killed) ... and Peter who can literally predict what Kingpin is gonna say... has handled so many cases already he just calls the critical item a Goober, wasn't it? There's always some Goober he needs.

Writer: So it's like... Experience of Knowledge or both

Writer: Wisdom

Writer: to use a term that's probably wrong ;-)

Jim: and so, does Dad change that perspective? does Peter change that perspective?

Writer: Not really, no. Though they do seem to grow a bit

Writer: they put trust in Miles

Writer: Peter exchanges a kind of touche moment with Miles in the end and concedes.

Jim: right (that might be more of a Relationship Story type of thing) - they both Remain Steadfast in their perspectives...awesome! So now you have all the dynamics down...well, wait - Miles Approach and/or Problem-Solving Style...

Writer: Linear

Writer: approach... and i wanna see Be-er? This element always trips me up

Jim: Take the Author's point-of-view - where are they positioning Mile's personal problem - is it the things he's doing or the things he's being?

Writer: haha again i'm not sure... is it that he's "being" caught up in people's approval/disapproval? or that he's doing things in response to that?

Writer: This and growth are really hard for me to see

Jim: yes - both are connected, so I can see why you would have that problem!

Jim: let's skip it for already identified Universe as the Domain of the Overall Story Throughline...which would put the Relationship in Mind. So...LOL...where do you see Miles' Main Character Throughline - Physics or Psychology?

Writer: I'm thinking because he's grappling with the thought that he either does or doesn't need approval, it's psychology

Writer: (btw, earlier you said every element is really the same 4 repeated. what is that exactly again? that each are really some form of TKAD or PRCO or Uni, Act, Manip, Fixed? What's the 4 core repeated "things"?)

Jim: The four core elements are Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire. Repeated over and over again in every single quad - just arranged differently. This is why the model is complete - it's looking at every possible combination in order to understand where the true source of conflict is coming from within the mind.

Jim: So Miles way of thinking is out of balance? And his conflict centers around Conceptualizing, Being, Becoming, and Conceiving?

Writer: Being

Writer: he is the way he is, and that's creating problems

Writer: ?

Writer: orrrrrr

Writer: from the author's POV... which i know i'm supposed to think... is it a problem of coming up with the idea that he doesn't need approval/permisison

Writer: putting it in Conceiving

Jim: rewind a bit back to his personal problem - the issue of approval - is that a Conceiving issue? what kind of conflict does that approval create for him?

Writer: No... it's more of a Being or Becoming issue... like the first thing i said... Miles is the way Miles is, so

Writer: right? Like... if his angst is about approval... whether or not his dad approves, or his teachers, or peter... or the spiders... it eats at him being concerned with approval... approval of HIM, right?

Writer: like, at the end... he is still doing things his way to a degree. he didn't ask permission to spray paint the classic suit... he just did it and wore it and became a new spider-man

Jim: so is he doing things differently or being things differently?

Writer: doing

Writer: he's still being himself... he didn't change who he is, but he did change how he does things, and doesn't let external forces stop him from being himself.

Jim: So when you're looking at Doing as a Source of Conflict that means specifically how you Do things is a problem. Like if you're a swimmer, you're not taking the right amount of breaths, you're going under too soon when it comes time to change direction, you're jumping the gun, you're not tagging the next swimmer in the relay soon enough - it's the things you're doing that is an actual Problem.

And the resolution is to simply Be.

When you're looking at Being as a Source of Conflict, the pressure is on to be something you're not. You have to act like you're OK with something, pretend that you don't know the answer to questions, and act like you long for something you don't have. But it isn't answering the questions wrong that is difficult, it's the actual act of BEING - of trying to pretend to be something you're not -- that is the focus on conflict within the narrative. The Being is problematic.

And the resolution is to simply Do.

which one of those sounds like what the Authors were exploring with Miles?

Writer: Hahah, i mean you dropped some really obvious clues... The latter.

Jim: So if Miles' Source of Conflict is Being, that would mean for the narrative to be balanced out appropriately, Peter's Source of Impact would be Doing - the things he does would be creating conflict for Miles. Same with Dad.

How do you see that?

Writer: Well for Peter... he already IS Spider-Man, he does all the tricks, knows all the things the bad guy is gonna say and do, knows just how to solve the problem, and aims to set out doing it with or without Miles. Doing it without him because of his knowledge and experience (or... wisdom)

Writer: and for the dad, he knows what it's like to run with the bad crowd.. tag up subways, etc... and that creates conflict for Miles because the things his Dad does either prevents Miles from getting in with that bad crowd... or like, publicly humiliating him for an "I Love You"... they all challenge what Miles is trying to Be

Writer: and both Peter and Miles's Dad come from a place of Wisdom

Jim: they all challenge what Miles is trying to Be

Writer: Yes

Jim: which would suggest an Influence Character Concern of Being

Writer: hmm

Writer: so... then not that?

Jim: hah

Jim: publicly humiliating him to say "i love you" is not an Influence Character Concern that says "you need to do it this way", it says "you need to be this way"

Jim: "doing it this way" would be all about HOW he is actually physically doing it. How he says I LOVE YOU, his skill with actually saying the words and his level of familiarity or experience with saying it

Writer: so is the IC then actually in Psychology?

Jim: What is it about the pot-belly Peter that is so striking? How can he BE the Spider-man? He's more interested in bagels and burgers. He's depressed (Psychology) because he made the wrong choice with MJ. 

It's not the things he DOES that creates conflict - it's how he is - who he is, who he is being.

And he's always taking that Leap of Faith -- which is why letting go of Miles hand is just a reaffirmation of his Steadfast perspective - as is showing up at MJ's house

Writer: Ok cool yeah, I see that. Therefore making the activities Miles does the overall problem... the cheating to fail on his test... tagging stickers all over town.. etc.

Jim: He has to BE the one to stay behind, because Miles can't DO it.

Writer: well when you put it like that, it seems glaringly obvious


comically simple (excuse the pun)

Jim: Yes! Tagging stickers, sneaking out at night, turning invisible but not sure how he is DOING it, unable to turn invisible or shock people on command - those are all personal problems. And when he can't DO--when he can't get up--because he's afraid of approval--he disappears, turns invisible, and doesn't want to be seen.

Writer: so that sounds like not fully understanding his Doing, right? He reaches an impasse when Peter asks him to do those things?

Jim: Peter's Knowledge, what he Thinks of Peter, his own Abilities and talents, and his love and longing for MJ (Desire) that's where Conflict emanates from his perspective.

Miles' sneaking out at night to be with his criminal uncle is a dumb move (Wisdom), his instinctual understanding of the universe makes him stand out (Enlightenment), his tripping over his own shoelaces (Skills), and his age and inexperience (Experience) show where his Conflict comes from.

Yeah. He can't Do what people want him to do. Or doesn't think he can do it. Or doesn't want to do it. He can't do that Leap of Faith.

Writer: so it seems like both of those, respectively, then stem from Peter's Desires and Miles's lack of experience

making those each their issues

i mean, we meet Peter crying in the shower... i feel like Desire is a major source of conflict for him

Jim: yeah for sure

if you look under Experience in Doing, you'll see it's comprised of Accurate, Non-Accurate, Expectation, and Determination - which one of those sound like Miles' problem?

Writer: So the question is... within his problem of lacking Experience... what specifically is causing conflict within that lack of experience?

Jim: theoretically yes....but you don't always have to make that connection - the fact that those Elements are under Experience will make that connection apparent anyways. Hope that makes sense - in other words, you don't have to make the connection between Issue and Problem explicit in the Storytelling - they can be connected or they cannot - one is not a function of the other - one is a smaller divisible part of the whole.

In other words - what's his Problem?

(p.s. you've already identified it....)

Writer: haha... probably ages ago before i started second guessing myself


i'm gonna say expectation

Jim: well, it took a while for you get it, but his Personal Problem is all about his personal problem...

Writer: what's expected of him?

Jim: bingo

that's where you see the approval imbalance

Writer: and then when he "talks" with his dad... he starts to flip.. becoming determined to do things his way

Jim: totally

"i see that spark in you" that's why I do these things is Determination

Writer: so, just to look at Peter... is problem is Ending?

Jim: totally

what is driving him to be a complete slob?

Writer: that he and Mary Jane ended

and he "took it so well"

he's got a problem with that being over

Jim: yes. and where is he at the end as a Steadfast character?

Writer: so .... and this is going to sound like i haven't been paying attention to any of your teachings... haha... Solving for the IC is really like solving for "another MC" with his own personal angst

and it's not so much ME vs. YOU...

Jim: No. It is YOU. Another MC would be another MC (another narrative). The impact from Peter is Being because of Ending...

Be careful trying to create some logical connection between the IC perspective "changing" the MC perspective - they balance each other out. There isn't a direct Linear connection

Writer: ok, i think that's the hangup

but that's kind of what i meant about "another MC" ... like, he's NOT related so directly to the MC

he's another, individual perspective with its own unique problem

Jim: yes - EVERYONE tries to make that connection. Because they think these are real people. They're not - they're perspectives. And they're not individual perspectives - they're I and YOU perspectives which are totally different

Peter, as IC, is all about the Impact created because of that perspective

Writer: ahh yes... because it's all just about one inequity... looking at it from different POVs

Jim: yes!

Writer: man.. that urge to connect them... wtf.

how do i lose that?

Jim: time. and awareness

Jim: Dramatica helps because it forces you to think in terms of perspective, but it takes time to stop seeing them as real people.

Writer: so like... before when we were on Concern... it seemed like "Being" WAS affecting MC

the perspective that MC should or shouldn't BE something

Jim: It was! That's how the Influence Character perspective operates

It's not the Main Character's Concern - it's what the Author is positioning as the Concern as far as the Main Character perspective is concerned

Writer: but it does affect that POV... ok

that makes sense

Jim: And see, when he shows up at the end to confront MJ - that's Ending - that's confirmation of his Steadfast perspective. He's bringing it to an End - that's why his perspective is not's growing into, but he's still about that Ending.

Writer: was he showing up to just apologize and end it? Just make peace? closure?

Jim: all of those work as Ending, so as far as the narrative is concerned. Yes!

Writer: So how exactly does Ending under the IC concerns specifically affect the MC concern to flip from expectation to determination?

Jim: that's EXACTLY what I was saying about making a direct connection between the two! If you could make that connection, you wouldn't need a story...

Writer: Son of a....

Jim: LOL

Writer: leap of faith understanding this eh? Lol

Jim: yes!

oh, and btw - when a film goes to the effort of literally SPRAY-PAINTING the MC Problem across the screen, you might as well take it LOLOL

Great Expectations

Writer: But there is a balancing act with looking at this in equity. Is there something logical in that? Like, we keep having to balance the different perspectives against each other so that each of them work. I know the software starts to limit your choices, but there does still have to be a balance in the in balance

Like, the main character perspective really can’t be determined to be certain elements if it isn’t in balance with the OC and the impact character, etc.

Jim: Yes--that balance is what Dramatica takes care of for you - it's not so much the individual items themselves that matter as much as it is about the RELATIONSHIPS between the items. That's why they created Dramatica - to make it easy to hold those Relationships together in one single context (narrative).

Doing it yourself is inherently impossible - because we can't be both Objective and Subjective at the same time (both within ourselves and without) -- which is why you can't make that connection between the IC's Problem and why the MC flips from Problem to Solution.

That's why we love stories so much and why they fascinate us so much -- they give us an experience IMPOSSIBLE for us to achieve on our own.

Writer: Crazy! So it’s all just about finding the balance within the imbalance. And h doing so, you showcase that the imbalance could reach equilibrium again... without exactly describing how.

And by doing so

Jim: Yes - it gives the Audience that greater appreciation of how to resolve Problems in their own lives - they can literally see "behind the curtain" - to see what to do the next time they run into a similar Problem

Writer: Super awesome! Thanks for explaining all this

Jim: Yes for sure! And thanks for working through with me as well. Helps to put things into words and concretize some of these ideas. Going to put it up in Subtext!

Writer: sweet! Yeah it's super educational.. I think I had originally swapped IC and MC's Domains. Walking through it like we did makes sense. I really just gotta get beaten over the head that these aren't people.. they're not connected... and though each has an impact on the other, they're really totally separate things

looking forward to seeing it on Subtext... mostly just cuz I'll be able to look at the poster all the time ;-)

Writer: ALSO... i had a story question for you. The Relationship Throughline is where all the feels are, right? So... looking at Spider-Man, and searching for WHY we get choked up. There's conflict in the RS in the Fixed Attitude>Preconcious>Worry>Trust.... right? And the MC is the only thing that changes, right? So... how does that work? Do we feel something because we see Steadfast characters display Trust even though they're worried?

Jim: That the Relationship Story Throughline is the only place for "feels" is more of a general statement, rather than a specific reality of things. In truth, you "feel" everywhere depending on the Storytelling - MC, IC, OS - all of them.

The Relationship Story Throughline is just where it feels the most like the "heart" of the story lies.

Again - I would say you're trying to connect the dots too much, instead of letting the storyform exist as a thing on its own. You're trying to interpret and interpretation - or a model of the mind at work - and trying to effuse some meaning out of the model - when the model is the meaning...

Writer: I thought you were gonna say something like that... damnit.

One Last Word on Titles

One additional thought not covered in the above analysis: frequently, the title of a film communicates the Overall Story Throughline of a narrative. Finding Nemo. Star Wars. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The first two describe a film with an Overall Story Throughline of Physics; the last a film with an Overall Story set in the Universe Domain.

Same with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (especially interesting if you consider that the same screenwriters worked on both Cloudy and Spider-Man): The narrative Element of Universe is an actual part of the film’s title.

Just something to look out for when you’re building your own stories, or seeking to find the unique narratives of other films.

<![CDATA[The Mule]]>

A Clint Eastwood film about Clint Eastwood.

While it’s both exciting and sad to match the events on-screen with Eastwood’s personal and professional life, the failure to evoke a compelling Narrative Argument turns the experience into a simple guessing game:

  • Did Eastwood win an award like god character did in 2005? (He did—an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby)
  • Are his films “flowers”—beautiful and temporary in nature? (They are)
  • Which studio executive was Andy Garcia’s Character supposed to represent? 😲

The answers to these questions are nothing more than the substance of an autobiographical analogy. Facts to impress our friends.

Unfortunately, for the filmmakers behind The Mule, no one plays Trivial Pursuit anymore.

The reason for movies

Audiences go to theaters to find something they can’t readily achieve in day-to-day life: meaning.

That meaning is acquired by experiencing a complete argument the way it is experienced within the mind. Characters, plot, theme, and genre? Those are simple stand-ins for what goes on in our own psyche.

A simple way to portray the mind's problem-solving process is to ensure that a film accounts for all points-of-view. Conflict is measured by perspective; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter.

The four perspectives are:

  • I have a problem
  • They have a problem
  • You have a problem
  • We have a problem

And these four perspectives find a correlation in a complete story:

  • The Main Character Throughline (I)
  • The Overall Story Throughline (They)
  • The Influence Character Throughline (You)
  • The Relationship Story Throughline (We)

The Mule accounts for the first two to a certain degree—the last two are entirely missing.

That’s why it’s hard not to laugh towards the tail end of the penultimate arraignment scene—it doesn’t add up to anything.

There were indications of a potential Influence Character with Eastwood's Mexican cartel handler. But the development of that meaningful Relationship—a key to balancing out the logistics of the plot—floundered. Even worse, the relationship mysteriously disappeared with no resolution at all.

The Mule is what it is—a swan song for a well-worn and challenging life.

A tale to hear.

And ultimately, be forgotten.

<![CDATA[Bird Box]]>

Here’s all you need to know about Bird Box:

  • Malkovich is a Trump supporter
  • The door to the house is the border wall
  • The bird box is your iPhone—

—and all the birds inside are Twitter, alerting you when all the “crazies” are around.

I half-expected Tim Robbins to be the one opening the door to the shelter for “the blind”—and laughed when I hear the man speak (it wasn’t him).

Screen Rant's review says it all:

Bird Box is a respectably moody and intelligent psychological thriller, if also a relatively muddled supernatural horror allegory.

Bird Box works as a cautionary tale—nothing more. The film's failure to craft a complete argument exaggerates its image systems—

—leaving one with no other alternative than to quietly roll his eyes when Malkovich proclaims, “Let’s make the end of the world great again!”


Half an Argument

Someone mentioned to me that he felt you could remove an hour from Bird Box and it would be the same film.


This is what happens when you double up on only half of a complete story. You fill the gaps with thematic material already well-established. You end up repeating yourself, instead of circling around and addressing all sides of an argument.

Only then can you make a lasting and robust case for your approach over others.

In Bird Box, we see strong evidence of an Overall Story Throughline perspective and a Main Character Throughline perspective. The end-of-the-world virus that leads to mass suicides supplies the former, while Mallory’s inability to accept her role as mother covers the latter.

The opposing Influence Character Throughline perspective and Relationship Story Throughline perspective are both woefully absent.

Save for one moment where potential Influence Character Tom argues the saving grace of Hope, these important counter-balances lead to what is essentially a one-sided argument.

One that won’t convince the already converted.

The Reason for a Main Character

The Main Character perspective exists to offer the Audience an opportunity to witness the same kind of conflict both from within and from without.

In our real lives, we can’t simultaneously be both within ourselves and without—we can’t see ourselves objectively.

Stories can. And do.

That’s why we love them—stories give us an experience we can’t find in our own lives.

But that point of conflict needs to be the same if we’re ever to acquire any meaning from the story.

Confusing the Source of Conflict

In Bird Box, the Overall Story Throughline Problem is Protection. Like the current political argument over the building of a southern border wall, the motivation to protect and to safeguard against outside enemies creates a massive amount of conflict.

The Solution to Protection is Inaction—to just do nothing. And that’s what Mallory does when she reaches the rapids. Faced with a post-apocalyptic Sophie’s choice, she decides not to decide and allow the raging waters of conflict carry her home.

And both her and the two children survive.

Unfortunately, the problem from Mallory’s Main Character Throughline perspective isn’t Protection, it’s Avoidance.

Faced with the reality of her pregnancy, she puts off wanting to know the gender, works through her water breaking and delays giving the children names—referring to them as “Boy” and “Girl.”

Eventually, she accepts her role as mother and pursues it with strength and confidence—

—it just doesn’t sync up with the issues in the Overall Story Throughline.

As a result, you’re left with a “well that was scary” appraisal of the last two hours.

You’re left with a tale, not a complete argument.

A Muddled Message

The Protection Problem of the Overall Story Throughline dilutes the stronger argument being made about Avoidance. In the attempt to be socially relevant, the film ends up being relevant to some, and irrelevant to others.

Unfortunately, the film sometimes struggles to balance its thriller elements with thought-provoking drama and conversations. As a result, Bird Box's subtext can be messy or unclear, and its larger commentary about the difference between survival and living (not to mention, its religious allusions) can come across as clunky and preachy, rather than organic to the story. Still, its messages are worthy of appreciation, and the movie generally works as a parable about the experience of becoming a mother in a world that seems to grow increasingly dangerous by the day.

Parables don't convince.

Complete arguments do.

The pieces were there to make that familiar argument about not avoiding—the same case made in The Lion King, Black Panther, and Mad Max: Fury Road. You had the Self-interest issues in the Overall Story, the drive for empathy from the Influence Character (Influence Character Problem of Feeling), and semblances of Temptation in the Relationship...

...but by weaving in elements of another narrative, in a work already strapped for time (a series could handle both), Bird Box ends up reinforcing our already entrenched biases.

A complete narrative argument changes the world—

—and makes it possible for us to survive and prosper without relying on the birds to warn us.


Smallfoot is a film that sets up great narrative potentials but in an obvious and blatant way. Failing to follow through on these established inequities—and confusion over the real source of conflict—adds to the sense that something is not quite adding up in the final mix.

Appealing character design and delightful animation balance out the slight deficiencies of story, resulting in a fun experience for family movie night—

—It’s just that the story could have been better.

Subtext on the Surface

The inhabitants of the Yeti world live by the Stones—stones they know for sure, tell the truth about their world. The film holds nothing back in portraying this motivation of Certainty a Problem. While many movies try to weave their sources of Conflict in with sleight of hand and sophistication, Smalllfoot wears its issues on its hairy sleeves.

Even to the point of wrapping an entire song around the Influence Character Issue of Investigation.

The “Wonderful Life” song sequence is a perfect example of the role the Influence Character perspective plays in a narrative. The Influence Character Throughline challenges and influences the Main Character to move beyond his personal justifications.

It’s when it’s put into song, and the players literally sing the definition of their Thematic point-of-view that it comes off as preachy. The Audience feels as if they’re being hit over the head with the message of the film.

Better to use the Co-Dynamic pair to Investigation of Appraisal and Reappraisal to show the relative value of questioning authority while making judgments—rather than coming right out and saying(singing), “looking around you is a good thing!”

Add to that the fact that this world’s problem isn’t Certainty but rather, Proaction—and the film manages to resemble a conversation with someone who is loud and proud about an argument they’re not sure they’re making and aren’t really bringing to completion.


Taking the initiative to establish a fantastical narrative to protect an entire species is an Overall Story Problem of Proaction and an Overall Story Issue of Need. Conflict arises because some feel the need to take steps to protect their world.

Fine. That works great.

But then, the rest of the narrative should focus on the continuing adverse effects of taking preemptive action—not on when others are stuck with a false certainty and “truths” that they hold dear.

It’s not about “tamping those feelings down,” as it would be in a story driven by Certainty—one where Acceptance is the suggested route.

Conflict-driven by Proaction requires constant effort to answer each and every hypothesis or challenge with gentle Deduction—manipulating others to see the inescapable verity of their chosen path.

More about Issues of Need, rather than Issues of Permission.

A Matter of Resolve

The reason this film balances on the precipice of two incomplete narratives is the struggle to reconcile a Main Character Resolve of Steadfast.

For all intents and purposes, it appears as if Migo (Channing Tatum) the Main Character, is just as misguided as the rest of the population and needs to change.

He doesn’t.

In fact, his actual drive of Certainty—his refusal to recant what he’s seen and his ensuing banishment—is the exact point of view that needs to be held onto for the world to change—

—for Percy Patterson the human (James Corden), as Influence Character, to change from someone who preemptively takes action to save his career (just like the Yetis above) to someone who lives knowing that the audience will react favorably regardless of what he does to impress them.

A significant move from Proaction to Reaction.

The above Narrative Argument rests on this dynamic of a Steadfast Main Character Resolve and a Changed Influence Character Resolve.

What It Means to Remain Steadfast

Migo is sure of what he saw and is banished.

Later, the Stonekeeper (Common) reveals the evil Potential of the human race and Migo changes—lying to everyone that what he saw was a yak.

This is great stuff.

A steadfast character who flirts with their Solution and loses their drive? That’s sophisticated story construction.

But then where is Migo’s realignment with his Source of Drive?

When does he return to Certainty?

Migo's apology is sweet and heartfelt—but it leaves him aimless going forward.

Thankfully, his dad is there to help him reset his “true” aim, but there isn’t a sense that Migo takes back that Certainty with...certainty.

Sure, he jumps off the cliff knowing this is what he has to do—but where does it all lead? And how does it tie back into his original Issue of Work? Of being the one who bangs the gong?

How does his Certainty motivate those around him to change?

Theoretically, you don’t need to make that connection—the storyform continues to carry the meaning—but with a film that so boldly proclaims its intentions, this lack burdens the Audience with assimilating some kind of meaningful purpose on their own.

And Audiences don’t attend movies to do homework.

Balancing the Overall Story with a Relationship

Quite surprisingly, Smallfoot crafts an excellent balance between the Overall Story Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline—the balance between those around Migo, both objectively and subjectively.

The overall story throughline is the perspective of the narrative that focuses on the conflict everyone experiences as a result of this motivation towards Certainty/Proaction. The dysfunction that exists in their community plants the narrative’s Overall Story Throughline in Psychology; the anxiety found in generating new ideas creates an Overall Story Concern of Conceiving.

This is where the gentle (and not so gentle) attempts to manipulate the way of thinking amongst everyone creates conflict for Them. Throughlines offer audiences the opportunity to witness conflict from different points of view. The overall story throughline accounts for the perspective of They.

Balancing this objective perspective is the subjective perspective of We—the perspective afforded by the Relationship Story Throughline.

To properly balance out Overall Story conflict found in the Psychology domain, the Relationship Story must focus on problematic activities, as seen in the Physics domain.

And Smallfoot happily takes this approach with the relationship between Migo and Percy.

The comedy found between two species who can’t understand one another and need to learn to communicate correctly illustrates a Relationship Story Throughline of Physics and a Relationship Story Concern of Learning.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers fall into the familiar trap of setting up this great potential for the relationship—then splitting the two apart for a majority of the film.

As an audience member, it’s like finding some rare precious treasure hidden in the attic of your parents' house, only to have someone turn out the lights, leaving you fumbling through the dark trying to find your way out.

You wish you could see their relationship play out—but you’re only left with great unrealized potential.

You’re left wondering how they could have resolved their inability to communicate with one another.

Understanding What You’re Saying

A low critical rating is often the result of an incomplete, or broken, storyform. With Smallfoot’s Rotten Tomatoes rating of 75%, we see evidence of the former. The pieces for a complete argument were there—they just didn’t play out to their final and inevitable resolution.

The result is the semblance of a Cautionary Tale—a statement of how things should be, rather than a convincing argument that this works best.

A storyform codifies the Narrative Argument of a story, but more importantly—a storyform helps Authors ensure the integrity and completeness of their work. It makes tangible what was previously only guessed at or assumed.

With a reliable and consistent storyform, an Author makes sure the Audience isn’t left wondering how it all fits together—or what it was all was supposed to mean.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

For those well-versed in the Dramatica theory of story, the definitive Storypoints of Smallfoot are:

  • Main Character Approach of Do-er
  • Main Character Problem-Solving Style of Linear
  • Story Driver of Action
  • Story Limit of Optionlock
  • Story Outcome of Success
  • Story Judgment of Good
  • Overall Story Throughline of Psychology
  • Overall Story Concern of Conceiving
  • Main Character Problem of Certainty

With those set into the Story Engine, we’re left with one choice...the Main Character Resolve.

Setting it to Steadfast gives us:

  • Overall Story Issue of Need
  • Overall Story Problem of Proaction

Setting it to Changed gives us:

  • Overall Story Issue of Permission
  • Overall Story Problem of Certainty

You can see how the film bounces back and forth between the two, particularly regarding what you’re allowed, and not allowed to do, in the Yeti village (Permission). And in the implied resolution of walking down the mountain to see what happens (Reaction).

Choosing one storyform—and then clarifying the Storypoints essential to that one Narrative Argument—would have resulted in a film with greater clarity and meaning.