Narrative First The latest articles, podcasts, and analyses from Narrative First en-us James R. Hull Copyright 2018 2018-10-17T13:27:31+00:00 <![CDATA[Raiders of the Lost Ark and Multiple Storyforms]]>

A deep-dive into the two narrative structures driving the classic action/adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While many consider Raiders to be evidence of a "5-Act" or "6-Act" structure, the truth is the presence of two completely different 4-Act structures. Using the Dramatica theory of story, we take a look at these two individual arguments and explain how Kasdan masterfully wove them together to appear as a single "story."

In addition, we discuss updates to our Subtext service (referred to as the "Atomizer" in the podcast), and examine the thematic structure of the Tonya Harding biopic, I, Tonya.

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Deliberate Storytelling is a practice whereby the Author creates with intent and purpose. Collaborate with a story expert today and start down the path towards finally writing and finishing your story.

Show Notes & Links

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

<![CDATA[Writing Short Stories with Dramatica]]>

How do you possibly squeeze in all 75 storypoints of a Dramatica storyform into a story 6,000 words long, or a short film that runs less than 5 minutes?

You don't.

The Dramatica theory of story reveals an approach for creating effective arguments. Straw-man or one-sided arguments? Dramatica can't help you there.

There's a reason most films run close to two hours: that's the shortest amount of time required to form a complete and well-balanced argument. Anything longer and you might have two storyforms in there; anything shorter and compromise the integrity of the debate.

That said, sometimes the purpose of a work of fiction isn't to argue a particular approach or message—but rather, to just entertain or inform.

To tell a tale, instead of a story.

An Approach for Short Stories

If the scope of your work is shorter than is required for a full argument, then "slice and dice" your way through the Dramatica model to find a quad of elements that resonate with you.

Keep it to one quad—any quad—and use that to help guide your story.

So it seems like the best use of Dramatica in my case may be due to a "cross-cut"? Taking part of say... the MC and IC since I have that dynamic set up? Just trying to wrap my head around what this actually looks like in practice--do I narrow down a complete story form, then just use the one quad as my guide? Or parts from two? As far as the one quad... how does one assign the different POV's using one quad?

In a short story, you don't have enough story "real-estate" to work through the various POV's (by POV the writer above means the Four Throughlines of Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story, and Overall Story Throughlines).

Consider this post, Short Stories from Big Time Writers, from our first incarnation Story Fanatic. In that early blog post, I explain the minimalist story structure at work behind Scott Frank's short story, The Flying Kreisslers.

Frank won an Academy Award for writing Logan.

Unfortunately at this time, I can't seem to find a copy of the actual story (please write to me if you see it!), but you can appreciate a sense of the story structure in the blog post.

The Flying Kreisslers is a short story about a dysfunctional family of trapeze artists that eventually turn to murder. While there is no sense of an actual defined Throughline, you can still see a Plot Progression of sorts:

  • Being
  • Conceptualizing
  • Becoming
  • Conceiving

From pretending to be OK with things, to come up with an idea for murder—with scheming and changing one's nature mixed in the middle—that’s the basic structure of Frank’s story.

These four Types exist at the Plot level in the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. And you find them under the larger Area of Psychology—which is where you always find problems of dysfunction.

The Psychology Domain

But then, how did Frank come up with that Act order? Did he build a Dramatica storyform and then take the Plot Progression from the Overall Story Throughline?

Most likely not.

Letting the Storyform Go

Writers use Dramatica storyforms to make their arguments, they don't argue Dramatica storyforms.

But one still does narrow down to one overall story form, yeah? Just ignore the other parts?

No. By writing a short story, you're making an incomplete argument. Audiences get that. The contract is already set with them, and they'll be OK with the arrangement.

What you can do, however, is use the plot progression of a quad to help set up the structure of your story and make it feel like there is something more there.

Make it read like you've put some thought into it.

Look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements (or use Subtext), find a quad that seems interesting to you, and use those elements to give your narrative a sense of flow.

One last thing... so if I'm just looking at the raw Dramatica Chart and picking a quad to help my short story... do I have to worry about how Memory actually deals with the elements in Subconscious? Or do I just write about Memory in terms of Truth, Evidence, Suspicion, Falsehood as they exist under that part of the quad?

It depends on how far down you want to go—how much time you have with your short story. Use the size of your story to determine your scope.

And don't worry about shifting quads and seeing them in different contexts.

Writers familiar with Dramatica will know that once a story is set, the nicely balanced Table of Story Elements is all jumbled-up. You could be faced with Being in terms of Fate, Prediction, Interdiction, and Destiny (all issues found within a context of the Past, not Being) or Conceiving in terms of Prerequisites, Strategy, Analysis, and Preconditions (issues found under Learning). This “screwed-up” version is what your story looks like before you tell it—when tension is at its highest.

And when you’ve set up the potential for a complete argument.

When you shoot for something less, you can screw the model up any way you want—it won’t make a difference because the model is intended to build an argument.

When it comes to short stories, use sets of quads that resonate with your artist's intuition.

Back to what you said about how with a short you're just emulating what appears to be a complete story form, yeah? So... it's not necessary, but would it hurt an author to have figured out a larger story and use that "fully solved storyform" only focusing on one bit? I guess it wouldn't matter cuz you just said you can do literally anything, haha

He pretty much answered the question himself. You can develop a storyform and then take a slice or dice of that…or you cannot prepare one and merely search the Table of Story Elements for issues that work for you. If you do the former, the Audience may or may not have a sense of the larger storyform— depending on how much you're able to communicate and squeeze in—and of course, how much they're actually paying attention. But the Audience will still be merely guessing at what it is you're trying to say.

And if you have something more substantial to say…then why not write a complete story?

Delivering the Goods

With a short story, you're not making a complete argument, so it really doesn't matter which quads you use for your story. With short stories, there aren't any rules because you're not trying to make the one thing that Dramatica helps you make—an argument.

You're merely using bits and pieces to kind of guess at how the narrative should flow. And when it comes to guessing, the quads could be screwed up or correctly balanced—in the end, it's entirely up to you.

Dramatica’s quads of quads of Elements can help you frame the narrative of your short story. Gather up a family of four and write something awesome. Bouncing from one Element to the next will give a semblance of completeness—a “short” version of a grander story.

<![CDATA[Pretty Woman]]>

The balance of conflict found in a complete and lasting story is not a matter of luck—it's the result of an intuitive sense of narrative as an analogy to the mind's problem-solving process.

This is the core conceit of the Dramatica theory of story. One you can find repeated time and time again in animated features, swashbuckling novels, Shakespeare plays, and Academy Award-winning Best Pictures. Character, plot, theme, and genre are not real life—they're analogies to the motivations, methodologies, evaluations, and purposes found within the human mind.

We just turn them into stories for fun.

High-Class Story Structure

As an example, examine the timeless romance of Pretty Woman. While short and sweet and very much to the point, the narrative told reflects an even-handed approach to the various ways our minds sense and perceive conflict.

Conflict exists in both external and internal sources. Both external and internal appear as states or processes.

  • An external state, or Situation (like the way someone looks)
  • An internal state, or Fixed Attitude (like stubbornness)
  • An external process, or Activity (like shopping or dating)
  • An internal process, or Manner of Thinking (like corporate raiding)

In Pretty Woman, Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) is the hooker with a heart of gold. Everyone judges her based on the way she looks, the way she acts, the way she carries herself, and of course—her occupation. Her Situation, or Universe, is problematic. She's trapped in this position, falls back on it when push comes to shove, and ultimately finds a way out. And it's all personal—personal to her and her Main Character Throughline.

Edward Lewis (Richard Here) is as stubborn as they come. Wealthy, prosperous, and ruthless—he creates conflict because of strict Mindset. As Influence Character, Edward challenges Vivian not with his occupation or the amount of money he possesses—she couldn't care less about either of those. It's his fixed point-of-view, business above all else, that creates the highest potential for conflict.

And this fixed attitude becomes the focal point of the Overall Story Throughline. As with most Beauty and the Beast fairytales, this Overall Story focuses on the transformation of the heartless and withdrawn "beast." Manipulating this monster and changing his essential nature is the driving force behind this story. It's not spoken about. It's not sung about. But once one perceives the narrative as a whole—from beginning to end—one sees the Author's focus on dysfunctional Psychology as a source of trouble for all.

This positioning of the Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline in a vertical alignment is the foundation for most, if not all, Coming of Age stories. Here, the maturation rests in the hands of the one challenging the Main Character. Richard is the one who comes of age. And he does so primarily, because of the relationship he develops with Vivian.

When one thinks of Pretty Woman decades after, scenes of shopping on Rodeo Drive come flooding back to mind. Roy Orbison, embarrassed shop owners, and fitting montages define the Relationship Story Throughline between Edward and Vivian. These activities set conflict in the relationship within the Domain of Physics: shopping, buying, and even possessing—a John owning his trick—that's at the core of their bond and the driving force behind their interpersonal growth.

As light and straightforward as Pretty Woman is, the narrative that forms its foundation is strong and coherent. The reason for the film's popularity over the years is not merely Julia Robert's laugh at having her hand snatched in the cookie jar of expensive jewelry (another instance of Physics conflict in the Relationship Story). The explanation for the film's endearing success is the soundness of its narrative structure—a perfect balance of conflict as seen within a single human mind trying to solve a problem.

<![CDATA[Westworld: Season 2, Episode 8]]>

Think back to this year's season of Westworld. What was the one episode you remember? There's only one, right? The one with the Native American?

You remember that episode for one reason, and one reason only: it told a complete and meaningful story.

Only Time Will Tell

The appreciation of the meaning of a story is directionally proportional to the amount of time that passes from initially receiving it. Exit a theater or head upstairs after a great episode, and you recall scenes, moments that resonated with you. You may not be able to figure out what it all meant—but you appreciate something there beneath the surface.

Days and weeks pass by, and suddenly the glitz and glamour of the storytelling, and the message—or storyform—of the narrative rises to the top of your consciousness. The distraction of the subject matter gives way to purpose and meaning.

That experience of reading a draft you hid in a drawer for six weeks? It's the same thing Audiences go through the further they get from encountering your story.

They finally get what you're trying to say.

Having Something Important to Say

If you don't have something to say, or you're in the midst of building up some more significant meaning, Audiences will tend to forget or think less of your work. The first season of Westworld was incredible—an entire narrative strung out over ten episodes, culminating in a deep and powerful message:

The second season of Westworld, not so much. Future seasons may temper this assessment, but for now—the only meaningful takeaway from this sophomore year is Episode 8, entitled "Kiksuya."

And that's because it had something to say.

Function and Perspective

Many would think Akecheta, a member of the Ghost Nation, the Main Character of the narrative. After all, we spend a considerable amount of time with him. We empathize with his desire to be one with his wife, Kohana. And he seems to be the driving force behind each and every scene.

To fully appreciate the meaning of a story, one must divorce themselves from matters of agency and issues of functionality. In other words—the Main Character is not always the Protagonist of a story.

Main Character is a perspective, a point-of-view provided by the Author as a means of communicating or arguing the intent of their narrative. The Main Character perspective represents the "I" perspective as in I'm this character.

A Protagonist is a function. The Protagonist drives the story forward by Pursuing a Story Goal and by Considering options along the way.

Sometimes—most times, but not always—the character representing the Main Character point-of-view also functions as the Protagonist. T'Challa in Black Panther, Lightning McQueen in Cars, and Tonya Harding in I, Tonya play the dual role of Main Character and Protagonist in their respective stories.

Other times—more often than one would think—the Main Character watches another character play the role of Protagonist. Max watches Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Eliot watches E.T. in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Nikita Krushchev watches Lavrentiy Beria in The Death of Stalin. In each of these examples, the character fulfilling the function of the Protagonist is the Influence Character of the story.

A Challenging Perspective

The Influence Character Throughline challenges the point-of-view held by the Main Character, forcing him or her to grow. Furiosa's actions motivate Max to stop running. E.T.'s headstrong approach inspires Eliot to start running. In both cases, the Influence Character's unique way of seeing things shake up and wakes up the Main Character.

Kind of like what Akecheta does to Maeve in this episode.

Defining the Scope of a Narrative

Akecheta's role as both Protagonist and Influence Character plants us firmly in Maeve's point-of-view. His attempt to piece together bits and pieces of Ford's narrative and his efforts towards finding a way out challenge Maeve to come to a better understanding of her powers and abilities (Influence Character Concern of Conceptualizing and Main Character Throughline of Understanding).

Throughout this season and last, Maeve encounters evidence and signs of something greater but struggles to understand it all. The maze in the dirt outside her ranch house. Members of the Ghost Nation seemingly attacking her and her daughter. The "blood" on the stone with an intent to warn of something.

The fact that she can control the other hosts with her mind, but doesn't understand why is what focuses her Main Character Throughline in Understanding. Maeve would remain locked in this confusion if it weren't for Akecheta's story.

Take My Heart When You Go

Upon finding the image of the maze, Akecheta begins to lose his mind—marking the image wherever he goes and hearing a voice within him never heard before (Influence Character Throughline of Psychology).

Conceptualizing shifts in his programming is the main Concern in Akecheta's Throughline. Reborn as a vicious killer from his previous "pastoral experience" build, Akecheta lives the dysfunctional life of a man without masters and without fear—yet still forbidden to take the lives of certain privileged individuals.

Logan's words "cracked something open" within him and finding a way out of this "wrong world" becomes Akecheta's mission. The recognition of something familiar behind Kohana's eyes and the sense of a past life only drives him further. Where is the door?

Take Mine In Its Place

The replacement of his wife with another and the recognition that others suffer the same loss of their beloved ones forces Akecheta to take drastic action: to find out what lies on the other side of death.

Cue a fantastic rendition of Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box."

Akecheta discovers Kohana standing lifeless among the rest of the hosts and begins to cry.


That was the moment I saw beyond myself. My pain was selfish. Because it was never only mine.

Akecheta's discovery represents a temporary lack of motivation in his Throughline as Influence Character. Driven up until now by Awareness, this identification of Self-Awareness dampens his impact. The focus on his Kohana and his exit kept them all in a state of slumber (Overall Story Throughline of Mind).


Everybody in this place…there was someone who mourned their loss. Even if they didn't know why.

Re-asserting his connection with Maeve's first-person perspective and her problem with Understanding, Akecheta takes up his Influence Character role again.


I dedicated my life to sharing the symbol.

As Influence Character he creates conflict by wanting everyone to become more Aware of what is really going on around them. When asked what the symbol means, he simply replies:


It means you can see.

You are now Aware. The Influence Character Throughline is always coming from the You perspective. When asked by Ford for an analysis:


My primary drive is to maintain the honor of my tribe. I gave myself a new tribe. To spread the truth.

This sensitivity to Awareness causes him to focus on Inequity—the "wrong world," and directs his efforts towards Equity—or a place where they can restore all that was lost (Influence Character Focus of Inequity and Influence Character Response of Equity).


There isn't one world. But many. And that we live in the wrong one. This would help them find the door.

A Greater Understanding


I wanted to help you too. I wanted to warn you. But in this world…it's easy to misunderstand intentions.

Having lived under the threat of abuse for several years, Maeve blindly misunderstands Akecheta, confusing him at times with the Man in Black.


I wanted to give you the truth. I watched over you day after day trying to keep you safe.

Like most victims of abuse, Maeve projects her experience with others onto those with better intentions (Main Character Problem of Projection).

The vision of Akecheta outside her door switches to that of the Man in Black. Thinking the maze outside her ranch most likely another instance of violence from her abuser, Maeve collapses.


But it was a promise I couldn't keep.

Which sounds an awful lot like something Maeve would say to her daughter.

The Heart of Every Story


I believe there is a door hidden in this place. A door to a new world. And that world may contain everything we have lost. Including her.

Key to the creation of a complex and meaningful narrative is the relationship between the two characters. Akecheta and Maeve have a conflicted relationship spanning several years (Relationship Story Throughline of Past). They come together, then split apart. Come together, then split apart. Over and over again.

Just like Maeve and her daughter.

Just like Akecheta and Kohona.


The ghost said we should be scared.


No one's going to come for us. There is nothing and no one in this world that will keep me from you.

Sound familiar?

Akecheta is to Maeve as Maeve is to her daughter. As Kohona is to Akecheta. Destinies entwined with their inability to reach other the driving force between them (Relationship Story Issue of Destiny and Relationship Story Problem of Ability).

Take my heart when you go. Take mine in its place.

The Solution to a Problem of Ability is Desire. Another way to say this would be, "When you go and find we're unable to reach other, know my heart is with you." That's a Relationship Story Solution of Desire.

But that can only happen when Maeve starts Speculating on the possibilities of her connections with others, rather than continuing to Project.


We will guard your daughter as our own. If you stay alive…find us. Or die well.

And this is why Maeve's final line of the episode is so moving. Not only does she resolve her Main Character Throughline of Understanding with Speculation, but she also heals the Relationship Story Throughline of the Past with Desire.


Take my heart when you go.

That feeling in your chest? That one that takes your breath away and brings tears to your eyes?

That's a story resolving with meaning and purpose.

That's a story—and an experience—you will continue to remember long after the narrative ends.

<![CDATA[Firefly: Season 1, Episode 8]]>

Last night several Dramatica Story Experts analyzed Firefly: Season 1, Episode 8. Entitled "Out of Gas", this episode managed to squeeze a complete argument into the span of 45 minutes—something often reserved for films twice the running time.

A complete argument—or complete story—is an analogy to a single human trying to solve a problem. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre simply stand in for this psychological process we all know.

Reducing the problem-solving process down to its larger pieces, one finds Four Throughlines in every complete story:

These represent the four different perspectives our minds take when evaluating a particular problem:

  • the Overall Story looks at THEIR problem
  • the Main Character looks at MY problem
  • the Influence Character looks at YOUR problem
  • the Relationship Story looks at OUR problem

In Out of Gas, "Our" problem is the Serenity family, "Their" problem is Serenity itself.

With their ship disabled in deep space and life support running out, the crew of Serenity finds themselves trapped in an unbearable situation. To add to this immediate concern, we learn through flashbacks the disparity that exists in how they feel towards one another. Some think of the ship as a family, others see it as a means to an end. The first defines the problem from an objective point-of-view, the second from a subjective perspective.

To better understand the problems we face in our lives, we classify conflict into four different areas:

  • a fixed situation (Dramatica term: Universe)
  • a fixed mindset (Dramatica term: Mind)
  • an external activity (Dramatica term: Physics)
  • an internal manner of thinking (Dramatica term: Psychology)

Complete stories assign a perspective, or Throughline, to an area of conflict. This approach ensures that we see a problem from all different sides—its why a story feels complete.

The disabled ship and dwindling life-support systems signify an Overall Story Throughline of Universe. The disparity regarding how they think of one another marks a Relationship Story Throughline of Mind. They see the conflict in terms of a fixed situation. We know the conflict in terms of our different attitudes.

This leaves the Main Character Throughline and Influence Character Throughline.

Achieving Through a Force of Personality

In a complete story, the Main Character maintains an individual preference for solving problems. Some prefer to address issues externally by taking action, others by changing themselves internally. In Dramatica, the first is a Do-er, the second a Be-er.

Contrary to his behavior throughout most of the season, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) prefers to adapt himself to solve problems in Episode 8. Mal tempers his personality to effect change in others, playing the role of "dad" for some and "captain" for others. To, Mal Serenity is more than a ship—it's an idea.

The amount to which the various crew members do what Malcolm needs them to do defines their Influence Character perspective.

A Shared Perspective of Influence

Note the use of the word perspective over Throughline. Complete stories pit perspectives against each other, not characters. The Ghosts in A Christmas Carol share the same attitude. The Joker, Alfred, Robin, and Barbara Gordon share the same perspective in The LEGO Batman Movie. Both narratives offer examples of a shared Influence Character Throughline.

In this episode of Firefly, Zoe (Gina Torres), Wash (Alan Tudyk), Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Inara (Morena Baccarin), and Cobb (Adam Baldwin) maintain a mutual perspective of influence on Mal. Wash brings the ship online. Kaylee fixes the engine. Cobb brings the muscle. Inara rents space on Serenity. Each of them does what they need to do to keep the ship afloat, but neither responds to the "idea" of Serenity.

Until the final climactic moment.

The Four Throughlines of *Firefly: Season 1, Episode 8*

The Balance of Conflict

A complete story balances sources of conflict through the application of the Four Throughlines. The Overall Story Throughline finds temperance in the Relationship Story Throughline; the Main Character Throughline encounters a challenging point-of-view from the Influence Character Throughline.

By accounting for all four perspectives and all four areas of conflict, the Author guarantees a feeling of completeness in their final work.

<![CDATA[The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi]]>

An in-depth look at the narrative thematics driving these two classic films.

For this, our special 64th episode, we explore the storyforms found in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Using the Dramatica theory of story as a basis for our analysis, we find two separate narratives in Empire: one that focuses on psychology as a basis for conflict, and another that takes the expected physics approach.

For Jedi, we find an usual set of narrative thematics that explains why this film stands out from the previous two in terms of shape and feel.

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Show Notes & Links

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

<![CDATA[Dramatica: A Specific Approach to Understanding Narrative Structure]]>

When first introduced to Dramatica, many writers find familiarity in narrative Elements like Pursuit, Avoid, Temptation, and Conscience. Writing a story based on these problematic motivations is easy.

Everyone's problems stem from rushing in without looking first? I've seen Thor: Ragnarok, so yeah—Pursuit makes sense. Indulging or embracing immediate benefits as a source of conflict? Moulin Rouge! is a personal favorite, so Temptation makes perfect sense to me. This Dramatica stuff is a cinch.

This is what they think—until they run into Elements like Induction, Deduction, Reduction, and Production.

I'm supposed to write a story about Induction? I chose writing specifically because I hated Physics in High School!

Concept Over Definition

The Dramatica® theory of story ships with a comprehensive dictionary. While thorough and enlightening, the density of the material often leads the neophyte writer astray. They focus on the letter of the law, rather than the law itself.

Gaining a sense of the narrative Element serves the writer better than a complete understanding of each and every term.

Take Production. The Dramatica definition defines Production as:

Production is a process of thought that determines potential. Almost like deduction in reverse, rather than arriving at a present truth by limiting out what cannot be, Production arrives at a future truth by limiting out what can not happen.

What the @#$!? does that mean?!

Compared to Pursuit or Temptation, Production seems wholly alien and a roadblock to greater creativity.

Until one learns that Production as a narrative Element is really just defining the motivation of a "drama queen." Making mountains out of molehills? That's Production. Think Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook in The Social Network. Objectively speaking the Production of Facebook creates all kinds of conflict, but personally—from the perspective of the fictional Mark himself—making a "production" out of every interaction with someone as close as his girlfriend leaves him ostracized and alone.

A Collection of Greater Understanding

Our service Subtext for Writers maintains a complete and comprehensive list of Storytelling Examples for every narrative Element—more importantly, this list is continuously updated. After finishing the first draft of this blog post, I opened up Subtext and added "drama queen" for Production and additional examples for the remaining Elements in this quad.

Future versions of Subtext will allow users to contribute their own understandings of complex concepts. The idea is to smooth the road for everyone to benefit from a process of mutual appreciation. Submission will require curation; the recent round of individual interpretations on the Discuss Dramatica boards, while helpful—still demand varying levels of clarification:

Induction, seeing a course of action and seeing that it might possibly continue to run the same way (This could actually happen! Woo hoo! I mean, uh oh!) Deduction, seeing a number of events and determining the certainty that another events is caused or related (I am certain THIS made it happen) Reduction, seeing a course of action and calculating probabilities of outcomes (How likely is this to happen?) Production, seeing a course of action and analyzing the size and scope of the changes that will occur should it happen. (How big a deal is it if it happens?)

Converting these to describe processes that motivate conflict is the hard part—but the part that reaps the most significant benefits.

Object-Oriented Narrative Structure

Those familiar with Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) latch on quickly to this idea of narrative structure as a method. Pursuit isn't merely one guy chasing another—it's the process of Pursuing that creates the conflict. In programming, the Pursuit method is "called," and the response is the Outcome of that narrative Element.

Call Production, and one receives "drama queen" in response. Zuckerberg in The Social Network is one interpretation of that request.

Ralph suffers from Reduction in *Wreck-It Ralph*

Call Reduction, and one receives "narrow-minded" in response. Ralph in Wreck-It Ralph is a perfect example of this element in conflict. Everyone reduces Ralph down to the role of Villain—and it motivates every blundering move he takes.

Call Induction, and one receives "generalizing" in response.

Generalizing? How is that a Problem?

An Indication of Cultural Blind Spots

If you're having trouble coming up with an example of how generalizing creates conflict, you're not the only one. Out of the 400+ films, novels, and plays analyzed in Subtext, there isn't one that features Induction as a personal problem for the Main Character.

As a culture (Western), we don't tend to think of generalizing as a personal problem. Here, Subtext reveals an area of narrative relatively unexplored.

Problems of Avoidance run rampant in our culture: Mad Max: Fury Road, Black Panther, The Lion King, Collateral, Finding Nemo, Nebraska, Trainwreck, and The Graduate all feature Main Characters motivated to Avoid. Problems of Induction find no comfort within the experience of our writers.

If you're looking for something unique and new to write, set Induction as your Main Character's Problem and begin brainstorming scenes that showcase the problem with generalizing.

From the General to the Specific

Finally, call Deduction and one receives "specificity" in response. Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler moves through the underground world of sensational journalism driven by specificity. The detailed conclusions he gathers from his reading and learning paint a precise picture of the kind of life he wants to lead.

At any cost.

Lou lives on Deduction

In the past, many took a generalized approach to understanding narrative. Heroic journeys. Saving cats. Questions of dramatic tension. Inferring meaning and theorizing narrative structure from nothing.

Which is probably why you can't find a narrative with Induction as a Problem—no one wants to face the reality that their generalist approach is an actual problem.

The Dramatica theory of story takes Lou's approach—albeit with less violent consequences. Instead of generalizing narrative structure, the writer familiar with Dramatica specifies in no uncertain terms the narrative elements that define the conflict in their story.

Stepping back, one sees the Focus of Narrative First and Subtext as Reduction—the "narrow-mindedness" of previous incarnations of story structure called out for its deficiencies. The hundreds and hundreds of articles and the narrative service Subtext represent the Direction of Production engendered by yours truly—a true "drama queen" when it comes to matters of drama.

The real Problem, as with all narrative, lies underneath. General concepts of story structure—the process of Induction—fail to grant much traction in the development of a reliable and compelling writer.

Working step-by-step to accurately develop a comprehensive understanding of narrative is the Solution of Deduction for all writers. Whether through our Introductory Email Course to Dramatica or through the process of building stories within Subtext, the writer of tomorrow draws their own conclusions as to the best use of this material.

And in turn, we all benefit from more meaningful stories.


John Powell is a fantastic composer. His track, "Reminiscence Therapy" off the new Solo soundtrack, is such a perfect blend of the old with the new that I can’t believe how incredibly lucky I am to be alive in 2018 to hear it.

Oh, wait.

This is a narrative structure blog.

The Big Stuff

When it comes to Story, Solo is a disappointing mess. The Overall Story Throughline is uneven and rife with conveniences—many of which go unaddressed. The Main Character Throughline never takes hold, resulting in an uninspired performance from a talented actor.

The Influence Character Throughline of Beckett, supplied by Woody Harrelson, is charming as expected. But the lack of a consistent Relationship Story Throughline between the two characters breeds an emotional aloofness. The film is cold and unfeeling. Like space.

But not like the Han Solo we all fell in love with decades ago.

Diving In

The Dramatica® theory of story focuses on the subtext of a narrative—not what sits on the surface. We named our narrative service Subtext for a reason—the Storypoints found within a Dramatica storyform aren’t concerned with what the characters say—but instead, more with what they don’t say.

That’s why a storyform centered around an element of Trust misses the mark within the context of Solo. The story is about trust—who you can and who you can’t—it isn’t motivated by trust.

The process of trusting—which is what a narrative element of Trust is all about is not what is out of balance here. Sure, Beckett tells Solo you never know who you can trust, but the driving force behind all of that is an imbalance of expectations.

Solo expects to return home and save his girl. Beckett plans to pay off so and so. Lando (Donald Glover) intends to win at every hand. L3 expects everyone to be overly prejudiced towards robots. Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) expects to be paid.

The element of Expectation drives the majority of conflict in this film. It lies beneath the words and beneath the superficial. Expectation is the subtext of the narrative.

Plugging this into Dramatica’s story engine reveals the primary deficiency found within the final film:

The Missing Relationship Story Throughline of *Solo*

The quad above shows what the problems within the Relationship Story Throughline should have been— to balance out an overall plot built on missed Expectations.

The Wonder of Narrative Structure

The great thing about Dramatica is that it will tell you things about your story you didn’t even know. Setup the narrative dynamics of the first season of Westworld and the theory tells you that the Influence character—Bernard Lowe, in this case—must suffer a problem of Self-Awareness.

That’s pure magic as far as I’m concerned.

Plug in the apparent aspects of Solo’s narrative, and you find a Relationship Throughline centered on Effect as the driving force. In other words, the underlying subtext of conflict within the relationship between Beckett and Solo should be driven by repercussions or being fruitful or focusing on ramifications.

Where is that found anywhere in the narrative?

If the two were somehow brought together because there was this sense that their working together would be fruitful and beneficial to both and that that focus on the endgame was what was diving conflict in their relationship—then Han's final gesture would carry meaning. Instead of using each other because of what might be and ignoring the repercussions of working with someone you really can't trust, the two force the other's hand—causing Solo to grow, and their relationship to resolve.

A Problem of Effect resolved with a Solution of Cause.

This "arc" is what ties the emotional concerns of the central relationship with the more logistical concerns of the overall plot.

The reason this is the first Star Wars flop is this giant hole in the narrative structure of the story. There is no Problem element driving the almost non-existent Relationship Story Throughline.

Han shooting first indeed resolves a potential relationship with Beckett (he’s Causing something to happen), but without the preceding Acts to support it the shot rings false and meaningless.

The uneven handoff between Beckett and Q'ira (Emilia Clarke) only complicates matters further. She never entirely takes over Beckett's challenging perspective, nor does her relationship with Solo match up with the rest of the narrative. And their bittersweet goodbye—which should have signaled a Story Judgment of Bad is immediately followed up with an overall cheery disposition on the part of Solo himself.

We want the Solo of our childhood to be the result of a bittersweet Personal Tragedy—a Success/Bad story the likes of The Dark Knight or Unforgiven. Hopefully, the remaining films in the series will oblige.

Effective story structure transforms the meaningless into something beautiful, something that shines across the entire spectrum of both logic and feeling. While entertaining and engaging, a complete story grants us an experience we can cherish for decades to come.

Kind of like John Powell’s score.

<![CDATA[Demystifying the Plot Points of a Complete Story]]>

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

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Register for Subtext

Deliberate Storytelling is a practice whereby the Author creates with intent and purpose. Collaborate with a story expert today and start down the path towards finally writing and finishing your story.

Show Notes & Links

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

<![CDATA[Making Meaning Out of the Meaningless]]>

If you want to make meaning out of the meaningless, if you want to ensure that you don't write a pointless story, a Dramatica® storyform ensures that what you have to say promises purpose and a reason for the audience to listen. With that in mind, we take a look at the differences between The Disaster Artist and Darkest Hour. Guess which one contains a solid narrative?

In addition, we explain why The Accountant seems so jam-packed with story and answer questions about the separation between the Influence Character perspective and the Relationship Story perspective.

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Register for Subtext

Deliberate Storytelling is a practice whereby the Author creates with intent and purpose. Collaborate with a story expert today and start down the path towards finally writing and finishing your story.

Show Notes & Links

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

<![CDATA[The Greatest Showman]]>

A painful exploration of what it's like when you don't know what you're trying to say, The Greatest Showman well deserves its 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you want to break that 90% mark, you need a story. You need a Main Character Throughline that brings the Audience into the story. You need a challenging Influence Character perspective to shake up the Main Character's justifications. And you need some kind of Relationship Throughline between the two to compliment the conflict everyone experiences in the Overall Story Throughline.

The fact that Showman is a musical is no excuse. Moulin Rouge! is a musical and shines as a brilliant example of what happens when you combine song and dance with a meaningful and complete narrative.

If you like music videos, you'll love The Greatest Showman. If you like meaningful entertainment, it's best to set the filter for 90% and above.

<![CDATA[The 2018 Academy Awards]]>

This episode explores the connection between a high score on Rotten Tomatoes, nominations and recognition for great writing, and a complete Dramatica storyform. More than correlation, a solid storyform guarantees favorable critical response.

In addition, I relate my experience of being to predict the specific structural items of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri while watching the film for the first time. Again, another instance of a film recognized for its great writing with a solid and appreciable Dramatica storyform.

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Register for the Narrative First Atomizer here

Deliberate Storytelling is a practice whereby the Author creates with intent and purpose. Collaborate with a story expert today and start down the path towards finally writing and finishing your story.

Show Notes & Links

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

<![CDATA[Uncovering the Major Plot Points of a Complete Story]]>

Writers intuitively know the ending of their story. What they often fail to appreciate is where it all starts. The major plot points of a narrative find commonality in causality, in the space between one Act of narrative consideration and the next. Understanding them allows writers the convenience of not only knowing what is coming next but also why it is happening next.

Everyone loves Star Wars. I love Star Wars. I probably watched it close to 300 times when I was a kid, and will likely view it 300 times more before my end. Those of us with that amount of familiarity with the know everything there is to know about Luke Skywalker and the Force—but do we know the story of Star Wars?

The Inciting Incident of a story

Story Structure 101: the Inciting Incident is that event which locks in a story, the thing that makes the subsequent events inevitable and necessary. Unfortunately, popular understandings of story structure fail to move beyond this idea of the Inciting Incident merely “starting a story.”

The Dramatica theory of story, an approach based on a model of human psychology, defines the start of a narrative as beginning with a Story Driver. Explicitly setting the cause and effect relationship between Actions and Decisions, the Story Driver locks in the kind of plot events needed to move a narrative from one Act to the next.

First discussed in the article Plot Points and the Inciting Incident, the Story Driver works by upsetting the balance of things:

Every problem has its own genesis, a moment at which the balance is tipped and the previous sense of oneness is lost. With separation comes the awareness of an inequity, and a desire to return back to a state of parity. Every problem has a solution, and a story explores that process of trying to attain resolution.

Referring back to Star Wars, many assign Luke’s discovery of Princess Leia’s message to the Inciting Incident. Others see the original stealing of the plans or even the construction of the Death Star itself as upsetting the balance and forcing the narrative into existence.

All are wrong.

The narrative of Star Wars starts when the Empire illegally boards a diplomatic ship. This event upsets the balance held previous, setting Protagonist and Antagonist forces, and energizes efforts towards resolution.

Where to begin to understand a story

Another popular misconception attributes the stealing of the plans in Star Wars to be an indicator of the first Story Driver. While the actual event finds illustration in the opening crawl, stealing is a problem of Obtaining, not Doing. Star Wars explores conflict in the context of the latter, not the former.

The Overall Story Throughline, or any Throughline for that matter, is not an account of real life—it’s not about what happens on-screen or on the page. Instead, the Four Throughlines found in a Dramatica storyform are the substance of what happens in a story. The seventy-five or so Storypoints define the realm of the Author’s argument with elements of the narrative that are genuinely out of place, shining a light on inequities that seek resolution.

Most importantly—they all work together.

The stealing of the plans would be the first Story Driver of Star Wars if the story focused on problems of Obtaining. Unfortunately, there isn’t a narrative element within that context that describes the source of conflict as well as Test. And Test is found under Doing.

Test: a trial to determine something’s validity, an audit, an inspection, a challenge or scrutinization

Boarding the ship illegally during the first sequence serves as an indicator of the first Story Driver because it tells of an imbalance of Test. Further explanation finds additional Storypoints tied to this initial event:

  • the Overall Story Throughline of Physics: bombarding shield arrays, immobilizing a ship, and blasting your way aboard are all inequities in the physical domain shown on-screen1
  • the Overall Story Concern of Doing: an Empire doing things that infringe on people’s liberties and rights
  • the Overall Story Issue of Skill: the Empire is way better at beating up the Rebels than the Rebels are at fighting back. The Stormtroopers had to crawl through a small little opening to fight against a force in a far superior position (defending) and they still beat them
  • an Overall Story Problem of Test: let’s see what we can get away with here by forcing our way onboard this “diplomatic” ship

All four levels of the Overall Story Throughline find evidence in that event of boarding the ship. Stealing the plans may fall under Physics and perhaps under Doing, but Skill and Test? A harder position to argue and maintain.

Supporting evidence found within the narrative

When analyzing a story—whether years after completion or in the midst of a rewrite—one must stay within the confines of the narrative. As evidenced in a recent conversation on the Discuss Dramatica forum, speculation steers the process away from insight and towards the cliff of endless conjecture:

If anything, wouldn't it [the boarding of the ship] seem to be an exercise in restraint? Instead of blowing it into little pieces?

Identifying Story Drivers is a matter of what is, not what might have been. When we guess at the possibilities, we avoid dealing with the reality of what is present.

The analysis process also focuses on the scope of the narrative defined by the edges of the work, not elements leading up to the story.

Wouldn’t the initial Story Driver be the construction of the Death Star?

Without more significant context, one could quickly point to any event at the beginning of the story. In fact, one could likely go further and further back in time until the Big Bang and the genesis of the universe to find a reason for Star Wars. But in the end, what happened isn’t the basis of a story’s narrative argument—the narrative argument is the basis of the story.

I don’t see how boarding a ship in and of it self could be the story driver. I do see how it can be if it is related to the fact that this ship has the plans on it. But, the empire “crossing the line” isn’t explicitly in the narrative

Sure, it is:


Lord Vader, I should have known. Only you could be so bold. The Imperial Senate will not sit for this, when they hear you've attacked a diplomatic...

An Empire abusing and overstepping its authority kicks the narrative of Star Wars into action—letting us know what we can expect regarding cause and effect within the rest of the story.

Changing the direction of a narrative

The problem many experiences when considering the illegal boarding as a Story Driver is that it doesn’t feel like the direction of the story changed. Before and after the boarding, the Empire continues to be in a state of a chase and the Rebellion in a state of running away.

Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley offers his observation on the matter:

If one considers a driver as changing the direction of the story, then I think the first driver in Star Wars is Luke’s discovery of the hidden message.  Before that it is run away – run away – run away – run away, and only after Luke, who is essential to resolving the core inequity, connects to the effort to get the data to the rebellion does it move to run toward – run toward – run toward.  Technically, it’s Luke removing the restraining bolt on R2D2 that is the action driver, because that’s the point when R2D2 even begins running toward.

The simplification of run away and run toward is compelling in matters of the Story Driver; it sets precisely this idea of the Driver changing the direction of the narrative.

But it also means that everything that came before—from disabling the Blockade Runner to choking out Generals to blasting escape pods into oblivion—all of it was Backstory.

The direction of the narrative did change during that first sequence. Before the boarding, Leia—as objective Protagonist until Luke arrives—led efforts to run away to Alderaan with the plans. The boarding of the ship forced her to alter that course, and instead, pursue a different one: loading Artoo up with the plans and sending the droid down to Tatooine in search of Obi-Wan.

This sequence not only illustrates an Action forcing a problematic Decision but also crafts it in light of Test: putting the fate of the Rebellion in the hands of an Astro-Droid is quite a lot to ask of such a little guy—a grand Test, if you will. And something that further drives the imbalance in the narrative.

The problem with only looking at the direction of the narrative is that one could easily overlook those more subtle instances of direction change that connect more readily with the storyform. The storyform is paramount in a Dramatica analysis as we’re defining what is being said in a holistic sense, not looking to individual events that don’t connect to something more substantial and grander.

Establishing a causal relationship between plot points

If a complete story exists as a model of a single human mind trying to solve a problem, then part of that exploration process requires an understanding of the relationship between cause and effect.

Again, this isn’t an analysis of the story written but rather an understanding of what is being said— to define the story itself more accurately.

The Story Driver isn’t merely something that happens; it is an Action forcing a Decision or a Decision forcing an Action. Yes, one finds evidence of actions followed by decisions followed by actions followed by more decisions; the story Driver sets the causality between these two events explicitly.

Actions force decisions or Decision force Actions.

The classic example lies in the difference between Jaws and The Godfather. In the first, a shark attacks a swimmer (an Action) forcing the mayor to decide to close the beach. A clear cause and effect relationship. In the second, Don Corleone decides not to get into the drug trade (a Decision) forcing the opposition to take action against him. Another clear case of cause and effect. Without that decision, no assassination attempt; without that action, no decision to protect the tourists.

What does that mean regarding Star Wars?

Luke discovering Leia’s secret message locked within Artoo? What decision does that force? Ben not deciding to help? That doesn’t follow.

The stealing of the plans? What decision does that force? The Empire’s decision to board the ship? Well, one—it’s not a decision, it’s an action. We don’t see the deliberation; we’re not on edge over the potential for some great decision the way we are in a film like 12 Angry Men or The Social Network or The Prestige.

No, it is only the boarding of the ship that forces a decision to be made. Two decisions, in fact. Leia’s deliberation over whether or not to hide the plans within Artoo (something we see). And the Emperor’s eventual decision to dissolve the Senate to prevent any further backlash from their actions. Both decisions find evidence within the narrative and occur as a direct result of that initial illegal action.

The actions that force decisions in Star Wars

If you look at the storyform for Star Wars as a whole—within the context of Doing, the illegal boarding is only the first of several Story Drivers that indicate an escalation of an Empire testing its agency and authority.

First Story Driver: Illegally boarding a diplomatic ship. Hey, you can’t do that! I’m going to tell on you. No you’re not, because I’m going to dissolve the Senate. Ah crap, now what are we going to do?

Second Story Driver: Killing Luke’s Aunt and Uncle You know what? Illegally boarding a ship without papers wasn’t enough. Let’s see if we can get away with barbecuing some of the local inhabitants. Hey, that’s not nice! Now I’m going to join up and show you guys that you can’t keep pushing the little guy around. Oh yeah? Well, how about this—

Third Story Driver: Blowing up an entire planet Oh man, that’s really messed up. I guess I’ll quit. The old guy never got to me, and now no one’s around to help me.

Functionally speaking, Leia is the Protagonist of the Overall Story Throughline until the midpoint of the story. She illustrates Initiative both through an element of Pursuit and Consider, objectively speaking. At the midpoint, Luke takes over, and Leia falls back to her role as the Reason archetypal character.

Fourth Story Driver: Hiding a homing beacon onboard the smuggler’s ship **Hey, you know what’s bolder than blowing up a planet? Let’s listen to this crazy psycho in a motorcycle helmet and let the Princess and her friends escape? Then we can track them back to their base...*

The fifth and final Story Driver is the Action of blowing up the Death Star.

In every one of these Story Drivers, the narrative Element of Test within a greater context of Doing plays out against the causality of Actions forcing specific decisions.

Stating the goal of a story for all to hear

Lesser writers find it necessary for the characters in their story to state in no uncertain terms the “wants” and “needs” of their cast. Lacking the proper narrative to make this Goal evident, they feel a compulsion to state the obvious—to say in dialogue their motivations arising from the conflict.

Leia, Luke, and the rest of the cast don't say, ”Hey, let’s rebel against the Empire because they keep testing us over and over again.” No, they naturally seek rebellion as a means of resolving the conflict instigated by the initial Story Driver.

Why go through all the trouble of thinking through a narrative to this extent? Finding yourself backed up into a corner or against the wall of an imposing deadline is always the result of a non-functioning narrative. “Writer’s block” is a case of the writer not knowing what is they are saying with their story.

Understanding how Story Drivers set the stage for a narrative and determine the kind of conflict and plot events to help writers and producers and directors avoid this inevitable fate of not knowing what they are doing. It may seem like much ado about nothing, but there are meaning and purpose behind all of it.

  1. It is essential that one focus on the narrative revealed within the confines of the work, not an understanding projected upon or interpreted through other means. ↩︎

<![CDATA[Rethinking an Analysis of The Florida Project]]>

Time reveals all in everything we do. As an initial understanding fades, a better appreciation of purpose and intent rises to the surface. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a film the first time around—a great story forces you to work your way through to its message.

And the Dramatica theory of story gives you the tools to arrive at that better understanding.

Sean Baker's The Florida Project haunted me weeks after my first viewing. Relating the story of a mother and a daughter struggling to survive on the outskirts of Walt Disney World, this film portrays an air of reality that stalks your every waking moment. As someone involved with Dramatica for quite some time, I know this feeling to indicate a healthy and vibrant storyform—something meaningful behind the scene.

After a month of watching a hunch grow into a certainty, I returned to my original analysis of The Florida Project to find it lacking substance:

The Florida Project, while stunning and socially relevant, fails to encapsulate an argument with the framework of a complete story. The result is a lack of attachment, a distancing from the predicament portrayed. It is as if we’re watching a beautiful reenactment of real-life events, rather than actively participating in a collaborative attempt to resolve the conflict at hand.

I no longer felt this way.

Two events added to my disconnect: a post on the Discuss Dramatica boards and a conversation with Dramatica Story Expert Jon Gentry after our recent Users Group Meeting. The former saw a correlation between those films in 2017 that scored high on Rotten Tomatoes and the presence of a "solid" Dramatica storyform. While outliers exist, those films that breech 95% do so because of their stable story structure.

Hearing Jon express his love and admiration for the film was the final push I needed. I returned to Dramatica with the intent to unravel the code behind The Florida Project's powerful message.

An explanation of Author’s intent

The Dramatica storyform is a blueprint of Author’s intent. My first clue revealed itself in an explanation how the filmmakers shot the final scene:

Baker filmed the final scene at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom Park "very clandestinely", using an iPhone 6S Plus without the resort's knowledge. To maintain secrecy, the filming at the resort used only the bare minimum crew, including Baker, Bergoch, cinematographer Alexis Zabe, acting coach Samantha Quan, Cotto, Prince, and the girls' guardians. Baker intended the ending to be left up to audience interpretation: "We've been watching Moonee use her imagination and wonderment throughout the entire film to make the best of the situation she's in—she can't go to Disney's Animal Kingdom, so she goes to the 'safari' behind the motel and looks at cows; she goes to the abandoned condos because she can't go to the Haunted Mansion. And in the end, with this inevitable drama, this is me saying to the audience, 'If you want a happy ending, you're gonna have to go to that headspace of a kid because, here, that's the only way to achieve it."

That final shot reveals Moonee retreating into an even higher level of fantasy. This scene sets a Main Character Resolve of Changed and a Story Judgment of Bad. While the director refers to "a happy ending", from an objective Dramatica point-of-view the argument posed is one of Tragedy. This fantasy life is not a "Good" thing.

More importantly, this explanation confirms the intent to argue or communicate something more profound beneath the surface.

A storyform exists.

Riding the wave of narrative elements towards a better understanding

My first stop was the Element of Non-accurate for Halley (Bria Vinaite), Moonee’s mom and Influence Character. Her inappropriate behavior and inadequacy as a mother challenge and drives the young Main Character to grow into those delusions. Halley's obstinate and fixed state-of-mind influences Moonee’s hopeless predicament (Influence Character Throughline of Mind and Main Character Throughline of Universe).

While running yesterday, I conceptualized the connections between the Influence Character and Overall Story Throughlines. Knowing the Steadfast Character of a narrative shares the same Focus and Direction with the Overall Story Throughline, I started to guess at the dynamic pair resting with Non-accurate and Accurate.

After twenty years of Dramatica, I know by rote the top three levels of the mind. Classes, Types, Variations—those are easy to remember and unique to each Domain. The bottom level, the 64 Elements, repeat within each Domain, their arrangement shifting according to the context above them.

As I ran, I thought Non-accurate and Accurate shared an Issue of Worth with Ending and Unending. I liked that, as I could see Halley focusing on the end of each month and doing whatever she needed to keep her unstable, yet workable, living conditions perpetually cycling.

I followed those Elements over to the Psychology Domain and Concern of Being. The Overall Story Throughline of The Florida Project points out the dysfunctional ways of thinking that lead to this situation in Orlando. Tourists and residents looking the other way, pretending the problem doesn’t exist, defines the inequity everyone faces in this story.

The mother/daughter relationship of conning innocent tourists out of money, both overt and behind the scenes (with Moonee in the bathtub) strengthens this focus. An Overall Story Throughline of Psychology and an Overall Story Concern of Being require a Relationship Story Throughline of Physics and a Relationship Story Concern of Doing—which fits perfectly with their precarious relationship.

With Ending and Unending under Thought (again, what I imagined) that would give an Overall Story Problem of Result and an Overall Story Solution of Process.

Result: the ramifications of a specific effect

Result felt great.

A paradigm of story based on Author’s intent

The Dramatica theory of story—what makes it so tricky for Authors to understand—pinpoints what the story is about, not what the characters think is going on. The characters in The Florida Project don’t consciously or subconsciously go around worrying about the Results in their life—the Author is making a statement regarding the results of this society we’ve constructed. He shines a light on the Results of all of us turning a blind eye—of knowing what is going on—yet not doing a thing (an excellent indication of the Overall Story Issue of Knowledge), and showing the tragic circumstances that inevitably arise.

I knew Results was the right Problem Element for both the Overall Story and Main Character Throughlines. A narrative with a Main Character Resolve of Changed positions the same problematic element at the heart of both the objective and subjective views of the story. Moonee fails to ever take responsibility for the results of her actions—fallout from her unique position at the fulcrum between these two Throughlines.

Confident that I found the right Throughline—all while exercising—I returned home, grabbed my phone, and loaded up the Narrative First Atomizer

—only to find that I was wrong about the arrangement of Elements.

Working towards the right answer

With the new Element model in the Atomizer, one easily navigates from one Domain to another. The entry page for Non-accurate not only present a list of examples and definitions but also paints a picture of its contextual families.

The Element of Non-accurate within a Context of Worry

Non-accurate and Accurate share Result and Process under Worry/Mind not Ending and Unending.


I liked that Result and Process were in there, but as Focus and Direction, they seemed entirely off. Clicking on Result showed me that it shared a quad with Proven and Unproven under Knowledge. The Issue of Knowledge sparked my initial thoughts about everyone knowing and looking away, but I couldn’t resolve Proven and Unproven with Moonee’s Throughline. Neither direction, from Proven to Unproven or Unproven to Proven, felt like the story of a young girl regressing into fantasy to save herself.

So instead, I went the other direction.

If Results was the Problem—as I previously thought—what would that mean for Halley’s Influence Character Throughline?

Tapping Unproven revealed the quad of Proven and Unproven, Cause and Effect under the Mind Domain. Effect as a Problem or source of drive for Halley?

A quick glance at the list of examples of Effect in action gave me all the proof I needed:

Examples of Effect in Narrative

Of course. Having a Negative Effect on Someone. Once again, Dramatica is not identifying what Halley herself sees as a problem—it's what the Author sees as her problematic influence. Halley doesn't lament the effects of what is going on around her, nor does she feel she needs to have a more significant impact on others. By portraying Halley the way he does in The Florida Project, Sean Baker is saying that it’s a huge problem the kind of effect this mother has on her child.

The rest of the storyform exploded in my brain like a hundred million stars going supernova all at once.

Confirming the new storyform

Result and Process find a home under an Issue of Security with Cause and Effect in Moonee’s personal Throughline. The issue of security and the insecurities she feels stranded alone for long stretches of time fuel the kind of fantasy life Moonee needs to survive. The fact the young girl so easily avoids blame by re-channeling her energies towards creating all sorts of equally problematic chain reactions confirms a Main Character Focus of Cause and a Main Character Direction of Effect.

The Relationship Story Issue of Wisdom makes a strong statement about parental stupidity and its effect on the child. Interestingly enough, the storyform flips my original observation that they moved away from Ending and into Unending. One can see the broader connection that exists beneath a shared appreciation of this situation going on forever and ever and finding some way to bring it all to an end (Relationship Story Focus of Unending and Relationship Story Direction of Ending). The Relationship Story Benchmark of Learning finds relevance in the caseworkers learning about this toxic relationship and of Moonee learning what others think of her mother.

A better appreciation of a work of art

I plan to rewrite my formal analysis. In the meantime, the complete storyform for The Florida Project exists within the Narrative First Atomizer.

_The Florida Project_ in the Story Atomizer

One thing is clear: The Florida Project is a sophisticated and highly complex narrative masterpiece. The meaning, so tightly woven into the fabric of the film, takes months before it finally dawns on you: Oh, that’s what they were saying.

This is what makes story so special.

The idea that a work of art can continue to influence and impact us, even when we least expect it—when we’ve moved on and are off doing other things—that’s something only a great story can claim as its own.

The storyform bridges the gap between Author and Audience, and pulls the two closer together by granting meaning to the events of the story. By appreciating the specific elements of a narrative, we better understand the message and the intent to give us a reason to pause.

And to think.

<![CDATA[Darkest Hour]]>

An Oscar-worthy and robust performance from Gary Oldman fails to save Darkest Hour from the pangs of an anemic narrative structure. Portraying Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the opening days of World War II, he grows out of his delusions and saves England from Nazi tyranny (Main Character Resolve of Changed and Story Outcome of Success)—

—the reason why remains a mystery.

Main Characters grow out of their justifications when a competing, alternate perspective challenges the way they do things. An abundance of contentious arguments find a voice through Chamberlain and Halifax (Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane, respectively), but these function as objective logistical counters to Churchill’s headstrong approach—not subjective emotional disputes.

King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) stands ready to fulfill the all-important Influence Character Throughline. As does Churchill’s wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas). Unfortunately, the narrative fails to provide these two with the appropriate point-of-view necessary to challenge and influence Churchill through his growth.

The right kind of influence

Churchill’s throughline is the one thing the narrative of Darkest Hour accomplishes with high effectiveness. The Prime Minister’s challenge—the one thing he suffers through on his own—is his reputation (Main Character Throughline of Universe). With a history of defeats and questionable decision-making, Churchill directs his efforts towards his life’s as-yet-to-be-written most great chapter (Main Character Issue of Fact, Main Character Focus of Proven, and Main Character Direction of Unproven). His preference for vagueness in matters of details and substance is a direct result of these past failures (Main Character Problem of Non-accurate) and indicates why he can so easily delude himself.

The counter-balance to the Main Character struggling with these specific issues is an Influence Character steadfastly obsessed with what is most important. A Main Character Throughline of Universe calls for an Influence Character Throughline of Mind. A Main Character struggling with Issues of Fact needs an Influence Character Issue of Value. This relationship is how a narrative balances the two opposing points-of-view and how it makes an argument for the strength of one over the other.

Unfortunately, Darkest Hour fails to attach this perspective to King George or Clementine consistently. Clementine’s scolding of Churchill’s behavior towards his assistant is one successful instance. King George’s re-affirmation of his rightful place in England and his refusal to leave is another. These moments whisper and lose their effectiveness because of the significant distance between them.

A lack of heart to balance all the yelling

As a result of this insufficient and inconsistent alternate perspective, a meaningful relationship that grows out of the dissonance between the two also goes missing. Darkest Hour lacks heart, the kind of spirit that rests within the Relationship Story Throughline. Flashes of intimacy appear briefly between husband and wife and between subject and King, yet flutter away before gaining ground within the narrative.

The result is a narrative half-baked and relying exclusively on the performance of one man to make its presence known. Darkest Hour is a brilliant re-enactment of Britain’s final days leading up to the war, and nothing more. Without a sufficient alternate perspective to challenge Churchill to grow and a relationship to support such an argument, the narrative loses integrity and diminishes its attempt at gravitas.

<![CDATA[The Shape of Water]]>

Fairy tales offer little to no meaning. Whether masked behind titles like Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, or Jack and the Beanstalk the effect is the same: a bunch of stuff happens, the end. Beyond pleas for caution or greater self-control, that “stuff” in the middle carries no more significant meaning than the events themselves. Stuff just happens.

The same cannot be said for The Shape of Water.

Positioned often as a modern-day fairy tale, Guillermo Del Toro’s most recent love story argues the effectiveness of taking action to protect another—and yourself (Overall Story Solution of Protection).

The Mute and the Monster

Misogynistic Antagonist Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at a secret government laboratory with an “asset” (Story Driver of Action). They intend to study the creature, to learn what they can about living and surviving in high-pressure environments, to beat the Russians at the height of the Cold War (Overall Story Concern of Learning). Unbeknownst to them Guardian Dimitri Mosenkov (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy, poses as the scientist leading the experimentation.

Dimitri, empathic towards the sea monster suffers at the hands of Strickland (and the potential abuse awaiting at the hands of Soviets) wants to wait. He wants to do nothing—an approach at odds with both the Soviets and the US (Overall Story Issue of Strategy). Doing nothing is precisely the kind of thing a man of action like Strickland can’t stand (Overall Story Problem of Inaction). Especially when the sea monster attacks and dismembers a portion of Strickland’s hand (Story Driver of Action). The mute responses from Strickland’s interrogation of cleaning ladies Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) only serve to fuel the fire for the Colonel’s plan of revenge and retribution (Overall Story Direction of Reaction).

For Elisa, the quiet is the result of a severe childhood accident (Main Character Throughline of Universe). Left as a babe at the side of a river with debilitating scars on either side of her neck, Elisa spends most of her life withdrawn and removed—unnoticed by those around her (Main Character Focus of Proaction). When the sea monster shows interest in her Elisa latches on, overjoyed at finding someone who accepts her without equivocation (Main Character Issue of Attraction and Main Character Problem of Acceptance).

Taking the unorthodox approach of bringing eggs and playing music for the monster, Elisa begins to build a life of romance for herself (Main Character Problem-Solving Style of Holistic and Main Character Benchmark of Future).

If only her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), equally reclusive and in matters of love, were so bold.

Green with envy

Giles thinks very little of himself (Influence Character Throughline of Mind). Disregarded by his former employer and more importantly—the handsome young man selling pies at the local diner—Giles finds himself old and lacking in every way (Influence Character Concern of Conscious and Influence Character Critical Flaw of Deficiency). Paralyzed with indecision and unable to engage in the kind of act first, ask questions approach that Elisa so easily does, Giles waits for his true love to come to him (Influence Character Problem of Inaction, Main Character Approach of Do-er, and Influence Character Benchmark of Subconscious).

Putting Giles’ approach against Elisa’s, The Shape of Water shows the latter to be insufficient and the former the key in matters of love and romance. This effective argument elevates the film beyond a simple fairy tale and into the halls of a complete and meaningful story. Envy and inaction beget more envy and more inaction—acceptance allows the love to flow.

A shared understanding and basis for emotional growth

Elisa cooks for Giles and Giles introduces her to old musicals. This dysfunctional relationship rests upon their shared need for a higher emotional connection with another (Relationship Throughline of Psychology, Relationship Story Issue of Need). Neither has the answer, but their friendship’s ability to identify this commonality between them transforms their bond and drives them closer to one another (Relationship Story Concern of Conceiving, Relationship Story Problem of Deduction, and Relationship Story Benchmark of Becoming).

In the end, it is Giles who radically transforms the way he sees the world (Influence Character Resolve of Changed). By rising to the occasion and defending Elisa and the monster from the dastardly hand of Strickland, Giles secures the safety of the monster and his dear friend (Influence Character Solution of Protection and Story Outcome of Success).

Monster and mute embrace undersea—a place hostile to harsh words and rejection, a place friendly to eternal love.

But when I think of her, of Elisa, the only thing that comes to mind is a poem, whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago: “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart. For you are everywhere.” (Story Judgment of Good)


Remember me.

The characters in Coco worry about it. They sing about it. They say it over and over again until you shout at the screen, We get it! They come into conflict over being forgotten!!1

One would assume then that an analysis of this Best Animated Feature for 2018 would turn up Memories as a critical inflection point for conflict within the narrative.

It doesn't.

A benchmark by which to measure success

The Dramatica theory of story identifies two crucial Storypoints within a Throughline: the Throughline's Concern and the Throughline's Benchmark. Both Storypoints interconnect in a holistic and balanced relationship unlike any other two Storypoints within a narrative.

  • The Concern identifies the type of conflict characters encounter using plot
  • The Benchmark measures that level of Concern

The more the Benchmark appears, the higher the Concern. The less, or weaker the Benchmark looks, the level of tension within the Concern drops appropriately.

In Coco, Memories—or being forgotten—functions as a Benchmark, not as a Concern.

Pinpointing the source of conflict within a story

Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) fulfills the role of the Influence Character in Coco. While he spends a considerable amount of time focusing on his fear of being forgotten, it is the level to which everyone ignores him—or disregards him—that is indeed the source of conflict within his Throughline (Influence Character Concern of Conscious and Influence Character Benchmark of Memory).

Likewise, Miguel—as the player holding the perspective of the Main Character Throughline—struggles with his version of remembering. In this case, those memories find storytelling in the shared family history and rejection of all things musical (Main Character Benchmark of Past).

But the Past is not where Miguel finds conflict.

Miguel can't help but be attracted to something he shows a natural talent for and takes on without first asking his family (Main Character Issue of Attraction and Main Character Problem of Proaction). His battle is the here and now, his struggle is being trapped in the figurative and literal land of the Dead when he wants to live through his music (Main Character Concern of Present).

A similar, yet different, approach to solving problems

One grows as a result of an alternate perspective with somewhat similar inequities. Hector's feared disregard resonates with Miguel's fears of being disregarded and rejected by the family. Hector's attitude and fear of judgment show Miguel the way through his problems (Influence Character Throughline of Mind and Influence Character Problem of Evaluation).

The emotional balance towards a logical plot

The key to Coco's success lies in the dysfunctional relationship between Hector and Miguel (Relationship Story Throughline of Psychology). The subtle manipulations and use of each other in satisfying their objectives resonate against the plot-oriented storytelling of family guilt and yearly memorial services (Relationship Story Issue of Deficiency and Overall Story Issue of Preconditions). The Relationship Story Throughline balances out the Overall Story Throughline the same way the Influence Character balances out the Main Character Throughline.

The certainty of shared history and expected levels of behavior within a family serves as an excellent counter-balance to the judgments and criticism that fuel the story's central plot (Relationship Story Problem of Certainty and Overall Story Problem of Evaluation). The promise of their newfound family dynamic propels them across the bridge and into a position where the entire family re-examines their misconceptions (Relationship Story Solution of Potentiality and Overall Story Solution of Re-evaluation).

The meaning of a changed perspective

Miguel and Hector return home just in time to play one last time for Grandma Coco (Story Limit of Optionlock and Story Driver of Action). While he flirts with giving up on his dream, Miguel's steadfastness and refusal to give into over-reaction grant his family the opportunity to find out what their matriarch thinks of Hector's music (Main Character Resolve of Steadfast and Story Outcome of Success).

More importantly—and closer to the heart—this adherence to his point-of-view is just the thing the family needs to rethink their opinion of Hector. And for Hector to reconsider his low opinion of himself (Influence Character Resolve of Changed and Influence Character Solution of Re-evaluation).

Miguel's steadfastness and Hector's paradigm shift proves to be beneficial for the entire family (Story Judgment of Good) and provides the kind of significant meaning Audiences expect from a story.

Coco's sound and functional narrative account for much of the film's success. The attribution of key challenging perspectives to its principal characters, enrapturing them into an emotional and fulfilling relationship, and balancing this all against a plot integrated with their thematic explorations elevates Coco beyond all others.

In short, a film long remembered.

  1. Note, this may be a result of the regularly repeated viewings of the film over and over again in my house. In fact, it's on right now! ↩︎

<![CDATA[The Relationship Story Throughline Is Not An Argument]]>

A look at how you can dramatically improve the quality of your storytelling by thinking of the central relationship as a character. I follow-up with listener email regarding the difference between Wisdom & Enlightenment within the Dramatica theory of story. And I cover the usage of Time and Space in setting the context for a full and complete narrative.

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Register for the Narrative First Atomizer here

Deliberate Storytelling is a practice whereby the Author creates with intent and purpose. Collaborate with a story expert today and start down the path towards finally writing and finishing your story.

Show Notes & Links

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

<![CDATA[Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri]]>

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards features captivating performances from its trio of lead actors. Under-celebrated, and perhaps more responsible for the film's success, the narrative stands out as a reliable and competent example of a Personal Triumph. The interrelated nature of the narrative's Storypoints cast a strong and compelling argument: Vindication awaits those who continue to defend against the indefensible, even if it means inventing a scapegoat.

_Three Billboards_ in the Story Atomizer

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) starts the narrative with her introduction of the three billboards calling out Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his failure to find her daughter's rapist and murderer (Story Driver of Action and Overall Story Focus of Inaction). As Protagonist, Mildred wants Willoughby to identify the killer--if for no other reason than to make sure this kind of thing never happens again (Overall Story Goal of Learning and Overall Story Direction of Protection). Willoughby initially balks, stating rules and regulations and procedures that prevent infringing on other's rights (Overall Story Catalyst of Prerequisites). While conflict in the narrative finds its basis in the pursuit and prevention of reopening the investigation (Overall Story Concern of Learning), the Author measures the character's level of concern with a greater understanding of each other (Overall Story Benchmark of Understanding).

A striking example of this connection between Concern and Benchmark lies in the brief moment of heart encountered within Willoughby's office (Relationship Story Domain of Psychology). Agitated by Mildred's firm position and refusal to back down (Main Character Throughline of Mind and Main Character Concern of Preconscious), Willoughby hacks violently. By spitting up blood on Hayes, the Sheriff reveals a possible source of his lack of action: pancreatic cancer (Influence Character Throughline of Universe and Influence Character Signpost 2 of Progress). For a brief second, Mildred reveals compassion for her adversary—releasing tension and signifying the potential for development in their relationship (Relationship Story Inhibitor of Appraisal and Relationship Story Problem of Reaction).

Mildred suppresses compassion throughout the narrative, causing her to miss the forest for the trees (Main Character Concern of Conscious). Driven by the chance that she had something to do with her daughter's murder, Mildred projects her need for punishment and retribution onto this mystery assailant (Main Character Problem of Possibility and Main Character Critical Flaw of Need).

The first half of the narrative finds Mildred moving out of inciting responses and into painful memories of her daughter (Main Character Signpost 1 of Preconscious and Main Character Signpost 2 of Memory). Willoughby's suicide and subsequent letter extolling the possibility of a brighter future down the road (Story Driver of Action and Influence Character Signpost 3 of Future) pushes Mildred into violent rage (Main Character Signpost 3 of Subconscious).

But it's ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) who gives her a moment of pause and quiet reflection as to her blindness (Main Character Signpost 4 of Conscious). He lit the fires that burned down her billboards, not Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

Her anger and subsequent fire-bombing of the Ebbing Police Station was unwarranted—another case of over-reacting (Story Driver of Action and Overall Story Problem of Reaction).

Dixon takes over for Willoughby after the Sheriff's passing in a classic Influence Character hand-off. Dixon's over-reaction and defense of all things Willoughby situate him in a perfect position to take over this critical point-of-view (Influence Character Problem of Reaction and Overall Story Direction of Protection). His time spent in recovery and reflection on his current predicament—and the letter from Willoughby—help push him in the right direction (Influence Character Solution of Proaction).

While Dixon's investigation fails to identify who raped Mildred's daughter, it does create the opportunity to find retribution elsewhere (Overall Story Outcome of Failure). By inventing a scapegoat, someone to saddle the blame, both Dixon and Mildred resolve their friendship with a drive to Iowa (Overall Story Consequence of Conceiving and Relationship Story Solution of Proaction). Unsure of their decision and quite possibly questioning the rightness of their shared motivation, Mildred confesses her crime and asks if Dixon is sure about their mission.

"I guess we can decide along the way."

Mildred smiles—confirming her steadfast perspective and reinforcing Dixon's changed point-of-view (Main Character Resolve of Steadfast, Influence Character Resolve of Changed, and Story Judgment of Good).

<![CDATA[Wrangling the Scope of an Entire Narrative]]>

Faced with a confusing or undefined narrative, writers sometimes defer to the easy-get of the ticking time clock. When things slow down, or a story plods from one scene to the next, why not induce a little tension with a looming deadline? Unfortunately, the nature of that deadline can lead many a writer astray in the construction of their stories.

The writers on the Discuss Dramatica board recently delved into the story appreciation known as the Story Limit. While most of the discussion regressed into intellectual considerations of the difference between time and space (and whether or not time existed at all!), the notion that some struggle with this concept sparked a desire to explore the Story Limit in greater detail.

To me, the Story Limit is a foregone conclusion. Unless a ticking time clock appears on-screen or the characters continuously fret over a deadline, the Limit is almost always an Optionlock. Out of the 380+ storyforms currently in the Narrative First Atomizer, only nineteen limit their narratives by setting a Timelock. That’s 5%.

Narratives with a Story Limit of Timelock

The reason for this has more to do with Audience Reception than anything else,1 but practically speaking 9.5 times out of 10 the narrative in question defines its scope regarding space, rather than time.


The original term for Optionlock was Spacelock. Fearing confusion among those repulsed by science-fiction, the Dramatica theorists switched out Space for Options--and in doing so, introduced the familiar kind of misunderstandings that occur with the simplifying of all of Dramatica.

The difference between time and space

The Dramatica theory of story is a mental model of the mind, specifically the mind’s problem-solving process. Part of this process involves understanding whether the problem exists within a context of time or space. The methods by which we resolve issues adjust to these concerns.

Same with a story.

If stories are indeed an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem,2 then allowing for the different considerations of time and space is needed. Thus, the Spacelock or Timelock.

A narrative isn’t potentially limited by Options; it’s potentially limited by Space. Characters think in terms of options, not space--illuminating the source of all confusion: the Dramatica storyform is not concerned with how the characters think, it’s interested in how the Author thinks. It’s interested in how the mental model of the mind is thinking. By changing Spacelock to Optionlock, Dramatica shifts the Author’s thinking towards a subjective understanding of the limit, rather than an objective understanding.

And the Dramatica storyform is all about objectivity.

The rose petals of Beauty and the Beast

An easy example of the difference between a Spacelock and a Timelock lies within Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast:

There's a rose with a limited number of petals. It's also tied to the Beasts 21st birthday. Technically you can look at the rose and see how many petals there are, but I'll be darned if I could tell you that number. I also have no idea how long it is until his birthday. So is it an Optionlock or Timelock. It seems that it doesn't matter. It can be one or the other, both, or neither. By falling in love with the Beast as the last petal falls, Belle is essentially cutting the wire as the clock reaches zero. She takes the final option just as she runs out of time.

It’s not about her final option; it’s about the story’s opportunities coming to a close.

The litmus test in determining the Story Limit is this: Would changing the supposed limit change the MEANING of the story? If not, then the limit is not functioning as a Story Limit. If it does, then the limit could be an instance of the Story Limit.

In regards to the Story Limit of Beauty and the Beast, changing the actual date of the Beast’s 21st birthday would not appreciably change the meaning of the story. And appreciation is what the storyform is all about.3

As an Audience member, we possess no clue as to how long the film lasts. We don’t know if it takes three days, three weeks, or three years. The Authors never indicate the Beast’s starting age, nor do they continuously refer to any sort of time throughout every Act.

But they do regularly refer back to the wilting rose.

The Story Limit of *Beauty and the Beast*

The rose signifies the approaching deadline, but it does so through a comparison of space, not time. A Timelock is a definite amount of time. By the end of a story with a Timelock, you know exactly how much time it took because Time was an essential part of that story’s meaning.

Consider a film like Ex Machina. Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleason) arrives for a week of fun and intellectual curiosity with tech-magnate Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

One week.

While the film refers explicitly to the ticking off of days with its sporadic use of title cards, time defines that looming deadline, not space. In sharp contrast to a wilting flower with no particular attachment to a definite unit of time, those days count down the time until the helicopter returns to take Caleb back to civilization.

Caleb says goodbye for seven days in *Ex Machina*

In Ex Machina, time is of the essence. In Beauty and the Beast, it is the dwindling number of options for transforming the beast from monster to man that sets the pace and arrival of the climax.

Space is of the essence.

The apparent blending of time and space

What about a film like Pixar’s Cars? Lightning McQueen has one week to travel across the United States to participate in a race in California. Is that a story limited by time, or a story limited by options?

At first glance, it may seem like time. After all, the narrative sounds like Ex Machina in that there are a specific date set and a set amount of time within which to reach the racetrack.

But if you were to extend the date of the race, move it back a couple of days or move it forward a couple of days would that appreciably change the meaning of the story?

Regardless of when the actual race occurs, it is the crossing of the finish line--the dwindling number of competitors who could get closest to that finish line that determines the climax of that story. The number of people you have to use and walk over on your way to victory--that’s what the story is all about, not the amount of time or lack of time you have to get there.

The same situation occurs with Richard Donner’s Sixteen Blocks. Det. Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) needs to transfer Edward "Eddie" Bunker (Mos Def) to court to testify in a police corruption case. The grand jury is set to convene at 10am--two hours for Bruce to make that trek. If he doesn’t succeed, a bunch of crooked cops gets off scot-free.

Sixteen Blocks is all about time.

Bruce and Mos make their way across *Sixteen Blocks*

While the narrative continually refers to the amount of space Bruce needs to travel and how close he gets (even the title defines space: sixteen blocks!), changing that limit--making it twenty-three blocks or four blocks--wouldn’t change the meaning of the story. The question is Can you get there within two hours?, not Can you get across four or sixteen or twenty-three blocks?

Change the time of that court hearing and suddenly the meaning of the story--the approaching climax shifts appreciably. The Story Limit is tied directly to the climax of a narrative. Set the grand jury hearing to 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. or even 6, and suddenly Bruce has more time for funny lines and taking out bad guys. Set the clock to 9:30 am and suddenly he has no time for quips--that’s an appreciable change, especially in a Bruce Willis action thriller!

The limit from the character’s point-of-view

How does altering the limit of a story change the meaning of a story? After all, there is a subjective component to a mind trying to solve a problem. Understanding how the meaning changes for the characters when the Author changes the limit is as simple as understanding the difference between these two contexts:

  • How far can you get in a certain amount of time?


  • How much time will it take to get that far?

The first is a Timelock, the second an Optionlock. The first sets in stone a deadline and asks you to consider how much space you can traverse. The second sets in stone a distance and asks you to focus on how long it will take. The limit sets the scope of what it means to resolve that story’s problem.

Confusing space for time

Even narrative experts fall prey to subjective misinterpretation.

My first draft of this article mistakingly identified a secondary Story Limit of Pixar’s Coco to be a Timelock. Wrapped up in this exploration of the difference between stories limited by time and those framed by space, I deferred to the subjective experience of watching that film and the feeling that "time" was running out.4

A sunset is NOT a Timelock.

Aspiring young guitarist Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) crosses over into the land of the dead to discover a long-forgotten relative Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). Finding a way to return his photograph to the family altar sets the focus of the narrative, and the reality of the situation defines the scope: a fixed amount of Space within which to make the journey from the dead to the living.

An essential component of this Spacelock lies in Miguel’s downward spiral from boy to bones. If he doesn’t make it back to the land of the living by sunrise, he’s never making it back.

Miguel's impending doom in *Coco*

One might mistaken this limit for Time--after all, we measure time by the sun’s location in the sky, don’t we?

The key word here is position. Like the rose petals in Beauty and the Beast, where the sun’s position marks the Limit, not when.

The sunset thing ticks me off the most, because "the amount of degrees in the sky the sun has to pass through" is time. Like, literally, that's what time is. If the passage of a minute and hour hand around a clock is acceptable, then surely the passage of the sun through the sky is, too...Meet me when the sun is at is highest peak" and "Meet me at high noon" are the same thing!

The first is a reference to spatial awareness, the second temporal. This difference in awareness calls for different approaches to resolution--different stories.

What are waiting for? The sun to reach a specific place or the sun to reach a specific time? In High Noon, it’s 12pm (like Sixteen Blocks and even 3:10 to Yuma, it’s in the title!). In Coco, it’s dawn.

With dawn, we look to the sun’s place in the sky. With 12pm we look to the passage of time.

Defining the edges of meaning

A complete narrative seeks to argue a valid approach towards solving problems. A storyform--of which the Story Limit is an integral part--defines the intent and purpose of that argument. The storyform is an objective account of the story’s message, not a subjective account from the character’s point-of-view.

As Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explains:

KEEP IN MIND: All Dramatica story points are from the objective Author's point of view, one in which everything has already played out, and all is known. That means the question of the Story Limit: Timelock or Optionlock? asks to identify what IS (objectively), not what seems to be from a subjective point of view

Characters think in terms of options, Authors think in terms of space (or at least, they should). The Story Limit, whether Spacelock or Timelock, sets the scope of the efforts to resolve a problem.

Without a definite or consistent Story Limit, the Audience fails to empathize with the approaching climax. They need a baseline--an objective baseline--from which to evaluate the actions and decisions taken to resolve the story’s conflict.

Set the scope--or Story Limit--of a narrative in stone and keep to it. Refer to it at least once per Act, and allow the Audience to become an integral part of the message you seek to convey. The result is a greater appreciation of why you wrote the story in the first place.

The result is a greater understanding of you.

  1. Timelocks eliminate half your Audience↩︎

  2. A given of the Dramatica theory of story. ↩︎

  3. This is why Dramatica uses the terminology of the appreciations of story structure--you’re appreciating that particular element of narrative structure. ↩︎

  4. Thanks to Gregolas for pointing that out↩︎

<![CDATA[The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Season One]]>

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a pure joy to watch, from beginning to end. With an endearing performance by its lead and hilarious turns from some of the greats, this latest television series from Amazon captures your attention from the very first episode and leaves you enthralled by the very last. In the final analysis, it is the strength of this show’s narrative structure that claims responsibility for its success.

A form to the message of a story

The Dramatica storyform codifies the emotional and logical argument of a narrative’s message. Keep doing your best work, and you can perform at a masterful level is the Narrative Argument put forth by the first season of this show. A Main Character Resolve of Steadfast, a Main Character Growth of Start, a Story Goal of Doing, and a Story Outcome of Success and a Story Judgment of Good put this argument into practice.

These aren’t the only Storypoints found within a Dramatica storyform. In fact, 70 more individual dynamic & structural Storypoints contribute to the success of this message by filling in the blanks and cutting off any counter-arguments before they arise.

One could easily argue against the reality of the argument—you can sometimes do your best and fail miserably—but they wouldn’t be able to do that within the context of this first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

This reality is the reason for these Storypoints, the reason for this storyform, and the reason for a stable narrative structure: to support and communicate with confidence a message near and dear to the Author’s artistic intent. In short, the storyform answers the question, What are you trying to say?

The elements of a healthy story structure

From our introduction at her wedding reception, Midge lacks a filter (Main Character Concern of Preconscious). Her inappropriate comments and What, me worry? attitude to life panics those in the audience—both those celebrating her marriage to Joel and those sitting captive at the Gaslight (Main Character Focus of Non-accurate and Main Character Issue of Worry). Her near-obsession with making people happy and seeing to it the fulfillment of everyone’s dreams but her own endear her to everyone around her, yet leave her personally spent and unsure of her direction (Main Character Problem of Mind, Main Character Approach of Be-er, and Main Character Problem of Results).

While she wavers towards the end—legitimately considering the life of a single mother—Midge’s re-affirms her role as Joel's wife. Mrs. Maisel's acceptance of her real stage name cements the steadfastness of her perspective needed to achieve rousing success (Main Character Response of Accurate, Main Character Resolve of Steadfast, and Story Outcome of Success).

The inappropriateness of her behavior finds reflection in the Overall Story Throughline with jokes that fall flat and epic bombing by amateurs (Overall Story Focus of Non-accurate and Overall Story Issue of Experience). The classic overbearing Jewish mother and father contribute to this flopping by injecting comedy through overblown reactions to unmet expectations (Overall Story Problem of Expectation). Guardian and manager Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) does her best to guide Midge towards a more honest performance (Overall Story Direction of Accurate), yet her husband Joel stakes responsibility for her real growth of character.

Joel is a husband in the late 1950s, a breadwinner who brings home the bacon, yet longs for the limelight (Influence Character Throughline of Universe). Not content to merely work his way through one promotion after another, Joel leapfrogs success with one stupid move after another (Influence Character Critical Flaw of Wisdom)—with leaving Midge his biggest mistake ever.

The talent gap between the two intensifies the conflict within their marriage (Relationship Story Catalyst of Ability). Obvious from her performance at the reception and painfully more-so during the final episode, Midge moves the Audience to riotous tears of laughter (Relationship Story Problem of Effect). This element of Effect drives the conflict in this mid-century marriage: women aren’t supposed to usurp their husbands.

In the end, Joel adopts Midge’s penchant for impulsivity by beating down her heckler outside of the Gaslight (Influence Character Resolve of Changed). Distraught and overwhelmed by her performance, he fumbles down the street repeating over and over to himself his realization of his wife’s greatness (Influence Character Solution of Determination).

Tying Throughlines and episodes together

While specific narrative elements like Non-accurate and Expectation shine as bright as Midge herself, the thematic Variations of Unique Abilities, Critical Flaws, Catalysts, and Inhibitors help tie the individual episodes together into a seamless whole.

Midge emerges from the safe confines of her Upper East Side apartment without a clue as to how the “real” world of mean works (Main Character Critical Flaw of Knowledge). Joel’s comfortable job and apparent wealth amplifies this flaw with promises of security and comfort (Influence Character Unique Ability of Security) and almost draws her into a changed perspective.

But her supreme confidence in herself is what The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is all about (Main Character Unique Ability of Confidence). Joel’s devaluing of her contribution, his complete lack of awareness as to how useful she was to him, neuters any real influence or impact he presses upon her (Influence Character Critical Flaw of Value).

Applauding an exhilarating performance

Everyone wants to write a show that Audience members devour—a show that viewers binge-watch over a weekend. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel sits as a “prime” example of how best to achieve this result.

The clarity and seamless tapestry of the Storypoints within Maisel’s consistent and singular storyform compel the binging process. Every last bit of this show balances out and contributes to the show’s ultimate message: stay the course and you will succeed.

The narrative of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel functions on all cylinders and drives an engine of story conflict reflected throughout an entire season of television—a remarkable feat worthy of recognizing.

<![CDATA[Connecting the Main Character to the Overall Story]]>

In this episode, I cover the importance of connecting the Main Character's problem with the Overall Story problem & a method for constructing the Narrative Argument of your story. The former explains the difference between an OK story and an amazing story; all the great narratives of the past take this approach of pitting subjective vs. objec tive. The latter is helpful in determining the narrative drive of a story and keeping you on track with your story's purpose.

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Register for the Narrative First Atomizer here

Deliberate Storytelling is a practice whereby the Author creates with intent and purpose. Collaborate with a story expert today and start down the path towards finally writing and finishing your story.

Show Notes & Links

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

<![CDATA[How to Build a Narrative Argument]]>

Codifying the thematic argument of a story is no longer a guessing process reserved for the few. Methods and understandings exist today that propel a neophyte Author’s appreciation of narrative structure into the stratosphere. The question is: Will you jump aboard or be left behind on the dying and increasingly hostile planet of blind ignorance?

Theme is not a mystery.

You know what your story is about; you know why you’re driven to write day in and day out. Putting it into words for others to understand or finding the right scenes to support that purpose is another thing. Why isn’t there a simple way of marking down your heart’s intent and discovering a structure that helps communicate it to the world?

It turns out, there is something--and it’s been around for over twenty years. We merely needed clarification as to its purpose.

An approach out of the darkness

A recent email highlighted this step forward:

I notice that with the Narrative First App you’ve incorporated this notion of "Narrative Argument", which on the surface appears to be a central narrative drive for the story. I haven’t seen this in Dramatica, so is it a new innovation of your own? It looks like you’re taking some combination of MC resolve, MC growth, story judgment and story outcome to generate it.

It indeed is my own "innovation."😁

After several years of story consulting and mentoring writers in the practical application of the Dramatica® theory of story, I realized that everyone tends to miss the big picture when it comes to the storyform. Caught up in the intricacies of encoding Prerequisites, Crucial Elements, Catalysts & Inhibitors, writers forfeit their message for the minutiae. The Narrative Argument feature found in the Narrative First Atomizer sums up the storyform with a thematic statement familiar to most writers.

For Lady Bird, the argument is Stop rejecting everything around you, and you can learn to appreciate where you came from. It’s only once Christine moves away from Rejection (her Problem element as the Main Character) and into Acceptance of her real name (her Solution element) that she finally Learns (Overall Story Goal) how to find peace (Story Judgment of Good).

The Narrative Argument for _Lady Bird_

The Narrative Argument of a story is integral to the integrity of a narrative. The seventy-five Storypoints that coalesce to form this thematic message seem overwhelming and intimidating--but, they don’t have to be that way. Understanding the single argument these points reference makes their application within a story easier. The Author shifts their focus away from the theoretical and towards their inherent strength as an artist: the imagining of scenes and situations that communicate their heart’s truest intention.

Moving beyond the controlling idea

The kind of complexity inherent in a model of narrative like the Dramatica theory of story tends to lead many writers astray as they try to integrate their current level of understanding:

I keep thinking it should be something like Robert McKee's Controlling Idea where one theme (Issue) is set against the other; like Denial and Closure.

Close, but not quite right. The argument is more than one Throughline: the entire storyform is the narrative argument. Main Character, Influence Character, their Relationship--all of it adds up towards a singular purpose.

McKee’s Controlling Idea is analogous to Lajos Egris’ thematic statement concept. Greed leads to self-destruction is one example of this reductive line of thinking. The Narrative Argument of the storyform goes beyond the simple formula of subject matter equaling outcome and instead, provides specific narrative elements that define the Author's message.

The formula for an argument

The Narrative Argument is a combination of six critical Storypoints found within a Dramatica storyform:

For the current catalog of 380+ storyforms, the service builds these arguments programmatically. As administrator, I provide the gists--or example storytelling--for the Main Character’s Crucial Element and the Story Goal. If the narrative calls for a tragedy or some failure in the Overall Story Throughline, the service swaps the Goal for the Story Consequence. If the story features a Main Character with a Steadfast Resolve, the service exchanges Focus or Direction for Problem or Solution.

Overcomplicating the message

Some lose sight along the way:

My own thinking is if I were to put the argument together like McKee I would probably have to write a CI for each Throughline and I would use the two Issues as the basis and indicate which one wins or loses based on the Story Outcome and Story Judgment.

This approach pulls the Throughlines apart as if they maintain meaning on their own. They don't.

The Four Throughlines offer perspective on the same inequity and only hold purpose in their reference to one another. Just like the Main Character means nothing without the Influence Character, a single Throughline means nothing without the other three.

Finding the key ingredients of an argument

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women presents the argument Start abandoning your inhibitions, and you can change the world. While the real Marston didn’t entirely transform society as a whole, he did manage to improve the lives of those around him and in essence, his world. In the film, this argument plays out with Elizabeth moving away from her own self-imposed restrictions (Main Character Problem of Control) and into a more free & uninhibited existence (Main Character Solution of Free). This change of personal worldview (Main Character Resolve of Changed) not only brought Elizabeth personal relief (Story Judgment of Good) but also made it possible for Marston to transform his family (Story Goal of Becoming and Story Outcome of Success).

The Narrative Argument for _Professor Marston and the Wonder Women_

In the end, Dramatica is about defining the key ingredients towards making a story resonate with clarity and definition. Sure, you could write a story about how Greed leads to self-destruction--but what are the specific narrative elements of that reality? Is it a matter of moving away from Avoiding things like Simba in The Lion King or David Grant in Nebraska? Suddenly we’re talking about personal greed and its effect on family and loved ones, rather than a simple blanket statement of evil leads to more bad.

Or, maybe you want to focus on the way out of greed. Perhaps you write about the benefits of moving towards Avoiding things like Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) in L.A. Confidential or Eliot in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Elliot greedy? Wasn’t his hiding of E.T. greedy and potentially self-destructive behavior?

The Lion King and Nebraska witness the narrative element of Avoidance as a Problem. L.A. Confidential and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial see Avoidance as a Solution. The nuances available to a writer who understands the Narrative Argument of their story energize their work with confidence and sophistication unheard of in generations past.

The connective tissue that is Dramatica

The Dramatica theory of story, without a doubt, offers us the most significant appreciation of narrative available. Without explanation and exploration it invites detours into wrong avenues of thought:

is my notion of a "narrative essence" really just a way of describing the problem element? Or am I obliquely describing the inequity itself? Maybe this connective tissue is in fact what Dramatica provides by forcing various choices once you’ve selected certain options and it’s just that, for me as a writer, I need it to come out as an explicit textual statement?

This idea is precisely what the Dramatica theory of story provides, and what the Narrative First Atomizer seeks to make more visible. By encouraging the writer to codify and define precisely what it is they are trying to say with their story, the storyform frames their intent with purpose and direction.

The "connective tissue" of the Narrative Argument connects artist to theory. I recognized the ability of Dramatica to assess the "narrative essence" of a story almost two decades ago and began this process of Narrative First in response to that realization. The Narrative Argument found within the Atomizer is the next step towards making great & effective storytelling available to everyone.

<![CDATA[Lady Bird]]>

The key to the critical success of Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird lies in its solid and competent narrative structure. While somewhat familiar in its exploration of a coming-of-age narrative, the holistic nature of its central character sets the film apart from others in its class (Main Character Problem-Solving Style of Holistic).

Lady Bird tells the story of a young girl who learns to accept the hometown she grew up in, and by extension--her mother (Main Character Resolve of Changed, Main Character Solution of Acceptance, and Story Goal of Learning). Isolated and drawn to a world of culture that exists on the far side of the continent, Lady Bird rejects everything from affordable education to even her own name (Main Character Issue of Attraction and Main Character Problem of Non-acceptance). Eager for favorable reactions from her peers and worried of those from her mother, Bird seeks out a sense of belonging while secretly applying to far-off institutions (Main Character Focus of Reaction and Main Character Direction of Proaction).

Lady Bird's mother, Marion, spends most of the time pointing out how much everything costs (Influence Character Problem of Production). Locked in a mindset of scarcity, she wastes little time divulging her opinion of everyone and everything around her (Influence Character Throughline of Mind and Influence Character Issue of Appraisal). Still, the level of attention Marion pays to Lady Bird clues us in on why she acts this way and centers her greatest impact (Influence Character Concern of Conscious). The nun's revelation of Bird's fondness for Sacramento really speaks of a nagging mother's love for her daughter.

The opening scene--of mother and daughter checking out potential colleges while driving--encapsulates the entirety of their dysfunctional relationship (Relationship Story Throughline of Psychology). With each trying to get the other to conceive of a different way of seeing things, mother and daughter come into conflict over an issue of incompatible wants (Relationship Story Concern of Conceiving and Relationship Story Issue of Deficiency). A mother's hold over what her daughter can and can't do ignites the conflict between them--Marion wants Bird to stay close and safe and that's final (Relationship Story Catalyst of Permission). With a mother driven to fear even the remote possibility of her daughter being exposed to violence, Bird finds no other alternative than to leap out of the moving car (Relationship Story Problem of Possibility and Main Character Approach of Do-er).

Bird isn't the only one learning to define herself. Both temporary boyfriend Danny O'Neil (Lucas Hedges) and father Larry (Tracy Letts) struggle to reconcile themselves against a society that, for the most part, wants nothing of them (Overall Story Concern of Learning and Overall Story Problem of Non-acceptance). As part of the Overall Story Throughline perspective, Danny and Larry provide an objective account of playing by somebody else's rules (Overall Story Issue of Preconditions). When played in concert alongside Bird's personal experience with imposed restrictions, the narrative elevates itself towards a level of grander importance.

Lady Bird is no accident. Through a careful application of subjective and objective conflicts carrying elements that resonate across both, the script grants a greater meaning--a reason for telling the story. Stop rejecting everything around you, and you can learn to accept where you come from--and the love you were given.

A beautiful and effective argument--and one not to be missed.

<![CDATA[2018: The Year of Abundance]]>

In this episode, we catch up on all things Narrative First from the past three months and kickstart our year of plenty. This includes everything from updates to the Narrative First Atomizer, new Dramatica analyses, the site redesign, building an animated television series, developing a complete story from scratch, and the biggest update to the podcast...


You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Register for the Narrative First Atomizer here

Deliberate Storytelling is a practice whereby the Author creates with intent and purpose. Collaborate with a story expert today and start down the path towards finally writing and finishing your story.

Show Notes & Links

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

<![CDATA[Dramatica: The Journey Towards a Better Understanding of Story]]>

A productive and meaningful exploration of narrative structure requires a specific strategy. One must be rigid in the application of proven theoretical concepts while simultaneously leaving themselves open to the possibility of merely being wrong about how they see things. To rest on the defense of self-perception is to cut one’s journey of development off before it even begins.

A challenge to the objective nature of the Dramatica theory of story, one often heard, arose on the Discuss Dramatica board:

I think there can be more than one interpretation since unless a writer used Dramatica to structure a story, it is very likely not going to align well. Map versus territory.

This statement is not entirely accurate; if the story "works"—and tells a complete argument—then it will map correctly within Dramatica's model of narrative. Shakespeare didn't have access to Dramatica. But he did have access to all the processes of problem-solving that every one of us possesses: a mind.

A Form to the Structure of a Story

In sharp contrast to the various paradigms of story that base structure on mythical journeys or sequencing of "birth moments," Dramatica outlines seventy-five objective Story Appreciations. These story points—means by which the Audience can appreciate the meaning & intent of a story—broadcast the Author's purpose. These appreciations coalesce to give form to an Author's argument.

This form—or Storyform—is objective. A Dramatica storyform is not victim to subjective interpretation. Given a room full of experts well-versed in the theory and a story complete in execution, one comprehensive and accurate storyform makes itself known. Unfortunately, because of the complexity and space needed to separate storyform from storytelling in the analysis process, many writers default to the "many ways to interpret a story" rationalization. Instead of availing themselves of this deficiency in understanding, they turn a blind eye—and in the process, make the whole world blind.

The Dramatica theory of story assumes that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Assuming everyone possesses a working and functioning mind, the identification of similar techniques of problem-solving will always result in agreement on one accurate storyform.

I don't think it's a very defensible position to say there is only one way to interpret a story, nor to presume all people using Dramatica (or any other theory for that matter) will see a story exactly the same way.

If the analysts understand the Dramatica theory of story with competency and accuracy--and don't fall back on the Well, that's just how I see it defense--then yes, they will arrive the same storyform. For proof of this confirmation in action, listen to the latest Dramatica Users Group analysis of La La Land.

A Chance to Dream

Convinced that the film's dream tail-end dream sequence indicated a Story Outcome of Failure, I spent several hours trying to convince a room full of Dramatica Story Experts to agree with me.

I failed.

The only two people on the planet who understand Dramatica better than me are the theory's co-creators, Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips. I spent two decades learning the ins and outs of every last concept of this beautiful and sophisticated understanding of narrative, and I still subjectively misinterpreted this fundamental dynamic of story structure.

I look back on that night now and wonder, "How the heck could I ever see that dream sequence as anything more than a fairy tale?" Neither of the principle characters changed their point-of-view in this sequence. The key to a complete argument—to a whole story—is a changed perspective. Without change, there is no argument—no argument, no story. That sequence was nothing more than a tale—an idealized fairy tale of what could have been.

Open to Re-evaluation & Greater Understanding

I could have responded with, ”Well, that's just how I see it. I have so much more experience than everyone else in the room, and I'm entitled to my opinion. Besides, there isn't one way to interpret a story.” But I would have been doing a disservice to everyone in the room, everyone interested in genuinely understanding narrative, and more importantly—to myself. By holding my interpretation as valid as any other, I would ruin the opportunity for greater understanding. My ego soothed, accounts of these different analyses would regress the development of future writers.

By falling back on feeling good about myself, I would have screwed things up for everyone else.

But I didn't. I listened to what EXPERTS in the room we're saying--writers who spend a considerable amount of time learning & understanding what the Dramatica theory of story is all about--and I finally realized my mistake.

Before the meeting I uploaded "my" version of the storyform to the Narrative First Atomizer—a service where I maintain the most accurate catalog of Dramatica storyforms. Did I leave that version up because my subjective interpretation of the film was just as critical? No—because that's silly and ultimately counter-productive to the whole purpose of offering such a service.

I promptly fixed it, republished the most accurate version, and now—when anyone goes to check into the story points of La La Land—they won't be confused by any counter-analyses.

What to Do If You're Wrong

So what should you do when you come up against a group analysis that runs counter to your interpretation? Nine times out of ten this is an indication that you are projecting your life experience onto the story's meaning. In those rare moments when this isn't the case, writers submit their counter-arguments with a logical explanation as to the disagreement. If proven out, we alter the original storyforms to reflect that higher understanding. The Sixth Sense, Captain America: Civil War, The Terminator, and Reservoir Dogs showcase storyforms changed from their original state to reflect a more accurate understanding.

More often than not however, the one doing the challenging often learns something about Dramatica they misunderstood. My revelation above about La La Land's tale ending arrived during a subsequent lunch discussing the analysis with Chris Huntley. My strategy moving forward requires searching out the argument being made within a story; if it's not there, then the story is a tale.

Developing as a Writer

"There isn't one way to interpret a story" defense always indicates a person who refuses to learn.

Many paradigms of story and gurus of story seek to "empower" or encourage writers through techniques refined in self-help circles. Dramatica is not a theory of making writers feel good about themselves, it's a theory of narrative—the most accurate and comprehensive theory of narrative structure around—IF used correctly.

Subjective misinterpretations occur because the story points—those appreciations of story structure—are being seen as indications of storytelling, not storyforming. The Overall Story Concern isn't merely what everyone in the story is concerned with; it's a means by which the Audience appreciates how those concerns indicate conflict. Without inequity(conflict), a story point is not attached to the storyform.

To continue with the rationalization that all analysis is equal paints a picture of mass confusion and dissolution of the accuracy of the Dramatica model of story. By maintaining the validity of your interpretation shift move away from the objective nature of a storyform—and move away from what Dramatica defines as a story. Experts in the theory, like me, leave themselves open to being wrong because an accurate storyform is infinitely more important than their self-worth.

Allowing Dramatica to Get in the Way of Writing

Some writers, faced with the reluctance or inability to change, rely on artistic self-defense to justify a refusal to learn:

Nor is it helpful if it discourages me from trusting my own process of making meaning to the point that I rely on the consensus to tell me what a story means. In such a case, I would be allowing my own creativity and critical thought process to be sidelined, and myself to be disempowered.

Many writers turn to Dramatica as a means of enlightening and inspiring their own creative muse—confirming their own intuition and expanding their own understanding to improve the quality and breadth of their storytelling.

Under my guidance, I've seen Dramatica help novelists expand the world of their characters and give form to the hundreds of pages awaiting their care & engagement, and I've seen television series and animated features snatch green lights with little to no resistance. In every case, the heart of the artist reigns supreme—it's merely a matter of knowing how to connect that intent with an accurate storyform.

The biggest mistake people make with dramatica is believing that they have to follow the theory or a given storyform to the letter, and in doing so lose touch with their own creative, meaning-making process. People give up on dramatica when they feel they have to choose between the theory and their own creativity.

Writers also give up when they think there isn't an objective basis by which to measure the various story points when constructing their story. "Well, there isn't one way to skin a cat dilutes what is otherwise a compelling and enlightening theory of narrative.

If I start worrying about doing everything "right" according to the theory or the software, or if it compels me to replace meaningful ideas with bland ones, and as a consequence I experience writer's block or end up with a less meaningful story, then dramatica has ceased to be helpful.

Every writer is free to break structure and do whatever their heart tells them. The writer/director behind Get Out purposefully broke structure at the end of that phenomenal hit. He didn't worry about doing something "wrong" with his film.

It is a complete misunderstanding to suggest that the Dramatica theory of story is trying to tell writers what is "right" and "wrong" with your story—the Dramatica theory of story is showing you how to write a convincing and reliable argument—whether or not one feels it is right or wrong to do so is entirely up to the writer. Writers should feel confident enough to break structure whenever they want.

Losing touch with the creative process isn't the issue here--inaccurate storyform analysis is.

Psyching Oneself Up for the Road Ahead

Putting the label of "Dramatica" on an analysis when it is grossly inaccurate does a disservice to other writers. It leads them down the wrong path, fooling themselves into thinking they're using Dramatica when they're just inventing their own theory--no better off than they were without it. "Well, that's just how I see it" makes everyone think they can come up with whatever they want when it comes to analyzing a story. They certainly can—they just can't call it Dramatica.

This "alternative interpretations" crowd advocates the same Tower of Babel that existed long before Dramatica came along. Hero's Journey, Sequence Method, Save the Cat!, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Lajos Egri, and Aristotle—each came close, each missed the mark. The Dramatica theory of story brings sanity to an area self-expression relegated for much of human history to something resembling the dark arts, held in secret esteem by a privileged few.

Dramatica possesses the ability to help improve the quality of your storytelling for all time—if used as intended. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve arrived at the end of your understanding of narrative structure merely because you acknowledge the difference between a Main Character and Protagonist. Challenge yourself—challenge what you hold to be true by measuring up against like-minded experts in the field.

The journey towards a greater understanding of narrative structure is a long and ever-changing road with stunning vistas and deep and dark chasms. Just when you think you have it all figured out, your own justifications rise to the surface. Faced with the awareness of your own blind spots, you must make the decision: persist in my own self-delusion, or free myself from the shackles of my own limited perception.

The answer determines your lifelong growth as a writer and an artist.

<![CDATA[Dr. Strangelove]]>

The dearth of emotion that permeates Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb prevents the film from moving beyond anything more than satire. Complete stories make complete narrative arguments. They don’t skip over the personal perspective of a Main Character, and they certainly don’t leave out a meaningful bond between that Main Character and another.

The Relationship Story Throughline—the perspective that explores a growing or dissolving connection between a Main Character & an Influence Character—cares for the heart of a story. Without that relationship, the work fails to connect on an emotional level with its audience.

Peter Sellers was, no doubt, a genius, and the period during which the film released ripe for satire—but this lack of heart, and this lack of a personal perspective puts distance between the storyteller and the story receiver. No one cares about what happens because the Author does not provide the means with which to care.

Watch Dr. Strangelove for its historical significance—but don’t expect anything meaningful from the narrative.

<![CDATA[Professor Marston and the Wonder Women]]>

Complete narratives establish four distinct points of perspective on the story’s central conflict. Correlating with the four different ways our minds perceive inequity, these Throughlines set the areas of exploration for the Author to write and the Audience to experience.

They also set the Genre of the piece.

At its core, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a Coming of Age story. The character in question is indeed a middle-aged woman, not a troubled teen often found in this Genre, yet their common struggle to establish identity and find their place in the world remains the same.

A Coming of Age story classifies the Main Character’s problems in the area of Universe and the Overall Story’s problem in Psychology. This alignment creates a dynamic of narrative that sees the Main Character growing into a new perspective; the focus on starting something new, rather than stopping something old.

This arrangement also requires the Influence Character perspective to fall under Mind and the Relationship between Main Character and Influence Character to rest under Physics. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women completes this configuration by granting Marston and Olive a perspective based on an ideal and their relationship a challenge of keeping their activities a secret.

The Four Throughlines of a Narrative

Our minds appreciate inequity—or conflict—from four different points-of-view.

  • My conflict
  • Your conflict
  • Our conflict
  • Their conflict

Transposing this reality into a narrative requires the use of Throughlines to illustrate each area of conflict:

  • the Main Character Throughline shows my conflict
  • the Influence Character Throughline renders your conflict
  • the Relationship Story Throughline establishes our conflict
  • the Overall Story Throughline presents their conflict

Complete stories assign an area of conflict to a Throughline, being careful to establish a dynamic relationship between the Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines, and another dynamic relationship between the Overall Story and Relationship Story Throughlines. The Dramatica theory of story models these dynamic relationships by positioning them diagonally across from one another.

The Professor’s Theory & A Loving Authority

Professor Marston seeks to alter the way the world thinks, engendering the wrath of the Child Study Association of America. The fear of subversive manipulation that leads to book burning and censoring of material finds its home under the Psychology Domain. As part of the Overall Story Throughline perspective, this battle of ideas—presented as opposing sides over a common table—brings imbalance to everyone.

The Four Throughlines of *Professor Marston and the Wonder Women*

A personal account of this conflict rests firmly within the Main Character Throughline perspective of Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall). Unpretty and unable to secure the kind of recognition a man with her intelligence and wherewithal enjoys, Elizabeth finds herself trapped within her own physicality—a Universe of disappointment.

The dynamic duo of Influence Character Throughline perspective offered up by Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcoate) and William Marston (Luke Evans) challenges Elizabeth to grow beyond her own preconceptions. Their undying love and steadfast resolve to stand up against all matters of prejudice and injustice defines the Mind Domain.

The Relationship Story Throughline—the heart of every story—completes the narrative. As with most Coming of Age stories the challenge in the relationship is one of problematic activities, of Physics. Participating and experiencing bondage in a secret meeting, acting out that experience at home and being discovered by the neighbor next-door, and suffering the results of violent beatings at the hands of those who don’t understand illustrates conflict in this area. But there is positive conflict as well: their first encounter as a trio backstage depicts emotional growth at the hands of new and unfamiliar activities.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women succeeds because it effectively encapsulates the four areas of conflict in its four separate and distinct Throughlines. Blended and woven together masterfully in the final product, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women saves the world with its superhero structure.

<![CDATA[Professor Marston and The Wonder Women]]>

To be free from constraint is to be free to submit. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women shuns typical narrative structure to connect the Audience deeply with its subject matter. Honest and sincere, the film opens us up to a new way of thinking about our relationship with love.

Influence Character as Protagonist

One of the first things a writer learns when encountering the Dramatica® theory of story is this idea of splitting the objective character function of the Protagonist away from the subjective emotional concerns of the Main Character. Many blend the two into the same concept of narrative; many blind themselves to an accurate understanding of how narrative works.

The Protagonist pursues and considers the resolution of the story’s problem, an act of Initiative seen objectively and without empathy. The Main Character offers perspective—a profoundly emotional point-of-view that only we, the Audience, share with them.

Sometimes, many times, these two facets of narrative find their place within the same player. Neo, Skywalker, William Munny, and Wonder Woman represent the force of initiative in their respective stories while simultaneously delivering a first-person account of the conflict.

There are narratives where the Main Character is not the one driving the story forward.

And that’s OK.

Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, E.T. in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Reese in The Terminator, and Westley in The Princess Bride all drive the pursuit of conflict resolution in their stories—but from a distant emotionally-detached point-of-view. These Influence Characters as Protagonists offer Authors an opportunity to explore complex and sophisticated methods of dramatic conflict. They also allow Audience members the chance to experience a narrative more often than not representative of their own experience in life: that of not being in control.

And control is at the very heart of all things Professor Marston.

A Chance to Submit

Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) is a submissive. Yearning to be dominated, she seeks to project that need onto others (Main Character Problem of Control). To place her in a position of driving the story, of controlling the world around her and seeking out her own true identity, would have been to diminish our experience of Elizabeth’s submissive nature. The default in Hollywood is to give the central character agency—to place them in charge—a disastrous option given this film’s subject matter. Writer/director Angela Robinson chose the better alternative.

An Attempt to Dominate

The Overall Story Throughline concerns the irresponsible distribution of offensive material within the Wonder Woman comic book series (Overall Story Issue of Responsibility). As Antagonist and head of the Child Study Association of America, Josette Frank (Connie Britton) represents the forces of Reticence—those of prevention and reconsideration. More than merely a series of flashbacks, her interrogation of William Marston (Luke Evans) offers us a glimpse at domination from a distant third-person perspective (Overall Story Problem of Control). Her fear and the fear of Conservative America at that time was the unholy transformation of their children into perverted and depraved adults (Overall Story Concern of Becoming).

How silly to even consider putting Elizabeth on the other side of the table.

Instead, it is Marston himself who drives the conversation forward as Protagonist. His DISC theory, and the submission of man to a “loving authority,” is an attempt to change the way the world thinks about the current male-dominated power structure (Overall Story Throughline of Psychology). By driving the discussion away from talk of sin & temptation and towards what is right and genuinely decent, Marston eventually beats Josette (Overall Story Focus of Temptation & Overall Story Direction of Conscience). Sure, this victory came posthumously-revealed in cards and heralded with Gloria Steinem’s use of Wonder Woman to launch her feminist magazine—but a win nonetheless. The social landscape in America today stands in stark contrast to the kink-averse society of the mid-20th century (Overall Story Goal of Becoming & Story Outcome of Success).

The Heart of a Narrative

Note the complete lack of emotion in the previous section. Concerns found within the Overall Story Throughline perspective—by definition—are cold and objective. No character arc. No emotional wounds. Only Initiative & Reticence, Goal & Consequence, Failure or Success. All logical. From start to finish.

The subjective Throughlines, those of the Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines, care to matters of the heart. They work in concert with the Overall Story—both the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines of Marston center on the Problem of Control—but they complement and augment the experience with the passionate view of working through that conflict.

The Challenge to Grow

Polyamory is a philosophy of being in love with more than one person at the same time. What better way to construct a film about these kinds of relationships than to infuse the story structure with multiple Influence Characters and a shared Relationship Story Throughline.

Both Marston and Bella Heathcote (Olive Byrne) challenge Elizabeth with their idealistic viewpoint and steadfast love (Influence Character Throughline of Mind & Influence Character Concern of Subconscious). To them, living outside of your truth is to deny who you indeed are (Influence Character Issue of Denial) and this perspective directly impacts Elizabeth’s concern with how the rest of the world will treat them (Main Character Issue of Preconception).

The trio’s relationship and their engagement in activities many in the community find repulsive defines the stage for their unique bond (Relationship Story Throughline of Physics & Relationship Story Issue of Morality). Propelled by their belief in the other to always be there, their loving and caring relationship fizzles with Elizabeth’s conclusion that things will never work out for them (Relationship Story Problem of Faith & Relationship Story Solution of Disbelief).

The combination of the Influence Character Throughline perspective and the activities in the Relationship Story Throughline eventually drive Elizabeth to open up and engage a part of herself she previously denied (Main Character Growth of Start). By letting go of her inhibitions and dropping to her knees, Elizabeth fulfills her deepest desires and brings peace to the story’s central conflict (Main Character Solution of Free, Main Character Resolve of Changed, & Story Judgment of Good).

Freeing Oneself

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells the story of free love & free self. By infusing the concepts of domination and submission into the very structure of the narrative, the film elevates its nature beyond mere kink and titillation. Marston sought to change the way we think through his art; Robinson finishes what he started with a complete and compelling narrative argument.

<![CDATA[The Florida Project]]>

Incomplete? Yes. Beautiful and moving? Definitely.

The Florida Project, while stunning and socially relevant, fails to encapsulate an argument with the framework of a complete story. The result is a lack of attachment, a distancing from the predicament portrayed. It is as if we’re watching a beautiful reenactment of real-life events, rather than actively participating in a collaborative attempt to resolve the conflict at hand.

Film—or any storytelling medium for that matter—need not craft strong arguments to touch an Audience. The slice-of-life or experience narrative is every bit as valid as the Grand Argument Story defined by the Dramatica® theory of story. The 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for The Florida Project attests to that reality.

Unfortunately, with so many other outlets competing for our attention, the lack of something more to the substance of the narrative leaves the experience a one-and-done affair. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times may have been referring to the uncomfortable factor of the subject matter with his comment:

It’s a film that’ll make you wince at times, and you’ll most likely not want to see twice, but seeing it once is an experience you’ll not soon forget.

But he also refers to the straightforward nature of The Florida Project’s narrative: a tale of woe, its only meaning that of comparing the end to the beginning.

Complete stories make complete arguments. Calling into service several different perspectives, these types of narratives seek to explore a universal truth about how best to approach problems in our own lives. By comparing & contrasting conflict from various points-of-view, a complete story grants us greater understanding.

A Personal Account

The most glaring deficiency in The Florida Project is its lack of a clear and established Main Character Throughline. The perspective of the Main Character is the Audience’s entryway into a narrative. Without it, we feel as if we are watching the events on-screen, rather than becoming a part of them.

Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) offers us our best opportunity to become a part of the narrative, mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe) our most significant source of personal challenge. Unfortunately, we never get a sense of what it feels like to be Moonee, to be influenced by these other competing perspectives. Her performance captivates—but without the narrative and development of character to support her scenes—we sympathize with her plight, rather than empathize. Her breakdown and subsequent tumble into delusion would move us more if it represented an indication of Resolve at the tail end of a Main Character Throughline.

A Moving Experience

Roeper is right: The Florida Project is an experience you won’t forget. However, you’ll note that the only Academy Award nomination for the film offers recognition for the acting—and Supporting Actor at that. In fact, awards for the film’s writing are conspicuously absent across the board.

A story is an opportunity for an artist to connect one mind with another, a chance to better understand our world.

A tale is a report.

The Florida Project, while offering us a glimpse into an uncomfortable reality of our present-day world, misses that chance to connect by merely reporting the day’s events.