Narrative First The latest articles, podcasts, and analyses from Narrative First en-us James R. Hull Copyright 2018 2018-06-19T17:57:03+00:00 <![CDATA[Dramatica: A Specific Approach to Understanding Narrative Structure]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/dramatica-a-specific-approach-to-understanding-narrative-structure https://narrativefirst.com/articles/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.

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2018-06-12T11:12:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Solo]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/solo https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/solo

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.

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2018-06-09T11:11:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Demystifying the Plot Points of a Complete Story]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/63 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/63

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

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.

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2018-05-25T12:42:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Making Meaning Out of the Meaningless]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/62 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/62

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.

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2018-04-26T11:48:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The 2018 Academy Awards]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/61 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/61

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.

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2018-03-28T08:15:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Uncovering the Major Plot Points of a Complete Story]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/uncovering-the-major-plot-points-of-a-functioning-story https://narrativefirst.com/articles/uncovering-the-major-plot-points-of-a-functioning-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:

LEIA

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. ↩︎

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2018-03-23T09:55:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Rethinking an Analysis of The Florida Project]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/rethinking-an-analysis-of-the-florida-project https://narrativefirst.com/articles/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.

Hmmm.

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.

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2018-03-21T12:09:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Darkest Hour]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/darkest-hour https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/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.

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2018-03-15T12:05:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The Shape of Water]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/the-shape-of-water https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/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)

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2018-03-13T10:32:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Coco]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/coco https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/coco

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! ↩︎

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2018-03-08T09:33:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The Relationship Story Throughline Is Not An Argument]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/60 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/60

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.

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2018-03-07T08:00:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/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).

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2018-03-06T11:58:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Wrangling the Scope of an Entire Narrative]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/wrangling-the-scope-of-an-entire-narrative https://narrativefirst.com/articles/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.

Space?

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?

and

  • 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↩︎

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2018-03-02T11:08:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Season One]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/the-marvelous-mrs-maisel-season-one https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/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.

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2018-03-01T12:09:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Connecting the Main Character to the Overall Story]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/59 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/59

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.

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2018-02-28T08:13:00+00:00
<![CDATA[How to Build a Narrative Argument]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/how-to-build-a-narrative-argument https://narrativefirst.com/articles/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.

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2018-02-27T10:30:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Lady Bird]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/lady-bird https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/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.

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2018-02-21T09:11:00+00:00
<![CDATA[2018: The Year of Abundance]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/58 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/58

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...

...transcriptions!

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.

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2018-02-20T09:27:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Dramatica: The Journey Towards a Better Understanding of Story]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/dramatica-the-journey-towards-a-better-understanding-of-story https://narrativefirst.com/articles/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.

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2018-02-14T10:25:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Dr. Strangelove]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/dr-strangelove https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/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.

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2018-02-14T09:28:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Professor Marston and the Wonder Women]]> https://narrativefirst.com/throughlines/professor-marston-and-the-wonder-women https://narrativefirst.com/throughlines/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.

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2018-02-08T16:40:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Professor Marston and The Wonder Women]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/professor-marston-and-the-wonder-women https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/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.

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2018-02-08T11:18:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The Florida Project]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/the-florida-project https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/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.

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2018-02-06T09:21:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Mom and Dad]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/mom-and-dad https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/mom-and-dad

A potentially powerful observation of the schism between generations turns into a mindless--yet surprisingly entertaining—kill-or-be-killed tale of parental violence. Nicolas Cage and Parker Posey star as two parents driven mad by the threat of "planned obsolescence." As with the rest of the elder set in this community, the two turn their eyes on snuffing out their replacements once and for all.

A complete story makes an argument by successfully encoding the four possible perspectives. Incomplete stories fall short.

The Main Character point-of-view speaks of the "I" perspective. The challenging Influence Character point-of-view the "You" perspective. The relationship between the two establishes the "We" perspective, and the Overall Story Throughline covers the final "They" perspective. With all four aspects accounted for, an argument ensures the integrity of the presentation and a meaningful coherence to the entire experience.

Without, the result is merely a tale: a series of events leading from a beginning to an ending (unless you're Mom and Dad in which case, you don't even really get the ending) where the meaning of such events relies solely on where it stops and starts. Adjust the in or out points and the "meaning" of the tale shifts.

Complete stories establish a holistic understanding of the conflict at hand and a purpose towards developing a better understanding of the problems we face.

Mom and Dad explores compelling subject matter. The Main Character Throughline offered by Cage's father figure and the relationship between father and son present ample opportunity for saying something more—yet without that challenging Influence Character perspective, and a significant example of that view changing and possibly growing the film devolves into what you might expect from the trailer.

Excellent direction, a killer title sequence, and Cage being Cage make the trip worthwhile—just know that you'll quickly forget it an hour or two later.

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2018-01-30T15:52:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Not Your Usual Approach to Developing Stories]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/not-your-usual-approach-to-developing-stories https://narrativefirst.com/articles/not-your-usual-approach-to-developing-stories ]]> 2018-01-23T21:21:00+00:00 <![CDATA[Unravelling the Story Structure Of Tangled: The Series]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/unravelling-the-story-structure-of-tangled-the-series https://narrativefirst.com/articles/unravelling-the-story-structure-of-tangled-the-series

Every writer dreams of delivering something that lasts and strikes a chord within the hearts of their audience. To connect on a deep emotional level and share our experience of life with another is why we create. An understanding of the structure of that communication ensures a win-win on both sides of telling a great story: author and audience member appreciate each other.

The season finale for the Disney channel’s animated show Tangled: The Series premiered last week. As a story consultant on the series, I found the reaction from fans rewarding:

"Wow, a season-ending cliffhanger! i LOVE season-ending cliffhangers, but didn't expect it from a children's show! I'm pleasantly surprised and can't wait to see what Rapunzel and Eugene's adventures in season 2 will hold!"

This level of gratitude and anticipation, common with most of the responses, arises because of the care and thought that went into writing a complete story for the first season.

Detailed in the article Outlining a Television Series with Dramatica, the process involved listening to the various ideas for character, plot, and theme and converging all into singular storyforms for both the entire series and the individual seasons.

"believe me when I tell you that everything has significance and is meticulously crafted. The writing is amazing.""

That “meticulous” craftsmanship? 100% purposeful and deliberate from the very beginning. The narrative structure of the series accounts for part of the show’s success and helps to explain much of the positive feedback.

  • The first season told a complete storyform--setting up the Audience's expectation for more thoughtful narratives
  • The start of the second season storyform begins in the final moments of the first season—setting the stage for the next storyform
  • The storyform for the entire series ties both of the first two seasons together—they're related to each other by the series' first two structural Signposts

The storyform for the first season—the special narrative code—can be found in the Narrative First Atomizer, a service built from the ground-up to support the development of amazing stories.

Digging Deep Down

When Executive Producer Chris Sonnenburg first approached me with the idea of creating a deliberate and purposeful path for the series to follow, he stressed one phrase in particular:

Plus est en vous

French for “there is more in you,” the phrase appears in the journal Rapunzel’s mother gifts to her near the beginning of the series. Everything within the first season revolves around this theme.

How then do you tie intention to narrative structure?

You make your purpose part of the structure.

The following image, taken from the Atomizer, displays the quad of character elements found at the center of Rapunzel’s personal Throughline.

Rapunzel and her Quad of Character Elements

The engine behind the Atomizer relies on the Dramatica theory of story—a comprehensive approach to story that sees complete narratives as models of the human mind at work.

Translated into common tongue, the quad above says ”Rapunzel, driven by speculation of what she might become, focuses her attention on an apparent problem of self-awareness, and responds by seeking greater external awareness.”

Plus est en vous is telling Rapunzel to look inwards, to become more Self-aware. Her lack of understanding of what that means drives her to seek out a higher Awareness of everything around her. Everyone Speculates what she could be, but what indeed is her Destiny?

The Complete Throughline for Rapunzel

Looking upwards through the model, we find an Issue of Destiny situated directly above these four character elements. Rapunzel’s core drive naturally leads to this thematic issue of Destiny—another instance of Sonnenburg’s intention. Find what’s inside of you so you can carve out your path through life.

Intent that Carries Throughout

Setting Rapunzel’s Throughline to this quad of elements, integrating a Triumphant ending, and granting her father the most significant shift in personal point-of-view locks in the balance of the story’s thematic appreciations.

King Frederic, Rapunzel’s father and Influence Character for the first season, challenges his daughter and the rest of the kingdom with his efforts to repress painful memories. His lies and attempts to make things appear better than they define an Influence Character with Issues of Falsehood and a Problem of Perception.

King Frederic's Influence Character Throughline

These thematic elements do not arise haphazardly—they perfectly balance out Rapunzel’s issues of Destiny and Speculation. The problem with Destiny is the question of whether or not we're fooling ourselves--a character who finds success in fooling himself and those around him is perfectly situated to challenge a character beset by issues of Destiny. Are we just lying to ourselves with the belief that there is something more, and that our struggle leads to something meaningful? Or is the lie real?

For example, think of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The Main Character in that film, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) shares Rapunzel’s focus on Destiny and the idea of “waiting for a train...knowing where you hope it will take you, but you can’t be sure.”

Rapunzel and Dom partake in the same thematic issue. Their respective Influence Characters challenge them with half-truths and falsehoods: Frederic with his professed ignorance of problems in the kingdom and Dom’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and the lie she holds onto regarding being in a dream state.

Influence Characters and their challenging point-of-view exist to impact the Main Character and force him or her to deal with their justifications. Rapunzel holds tight to her focus on something more within her, causing her father to fundamentally shift his point-of-view.

Instead of continuing to persist a lie based on appearances, Frederic shifts his attention to the reality of the situation and of Rapunzel’s unique role to play. Her father “arcs” from Perception to Actuality.

Bringing Purpose to Children

This effort towards meaningful character development and sound narrative structure brings a cohesiveness to the series typically absent in most children’s programming. Some may question overthinking a show that exists only to babysit and distract for 22 minutes at a time. Placing aside the reality that regardless of age, every one of us problem-solves with the same psychological process, children know when they’re being talked down to and instinctively ignore those who pander to them. Why shouldn’t they be shown the same amount of respect and attention to detail found in more adult programming?

Don’t they deserve great stories?

Going Above and Beyond

The first season of Tangled: The Series was not a matter of lucky happenstance. The creators set the path from the very beginning and referred to this narrative storyform throughout, to keep the series focused on Rapunzel’s most personal problem.

The first season consists of 19 half-hour episodes and three one-hour specials. The pilot episode Tangled: Before Ever After and the finale Secret of the Sundrop account for two of these specials, a mid-season special Queen for a Day (Episode 17) furnishes the last. While these three form the bulk of the first season’s storyline, the episodes in-between support and subtly inform that central purpose.

Remember that the development of this series began three years ago—three years before binge-watching and multiple streaming services were a thing. Anticipating this particular situation and eager to present something more than merely another children’s show, the series’ creators lobbied hard to make the serialized nature of Tangled: The Series a reality. This effort would likely be a foregone conclusion today given the landscape and appetite for season-long storyforms that draw Audiences in with the promise of something more.

This first season of Tangled, and the seasons to come, showcase the kind of impact intentional storytelling brings to the final work. That "I can't wait to see the next installment" is a reaction to complete and as-yet-to-be completed storyforms. You hook them with the anticipation of a greater understanding of the issues and problems we all face. Give your Audience a meaningful structure that says something, and they'll respond with appreciation and gratitude.

Enjoy the show!

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2018-01-19T10:40:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The Narrative First Atomizer]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/57 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/57

In this, the final--and most epic--episode of Season 2, I finish off the initial development of my story and introduce the various features of the new Narrative First Atomizer.

But first I kick things off with an analysis of Thor:Ragnarök--NOTE: in the episode I inaccurately assess the Story Outcome as Success. Clearly the efforts to reach the Overall Story Goal--Saving Asgard from Ragnarök--fail. Switching this Story Dynamic also changes the Relationship Story Throughline Problem and Solution. The Atomizer link below presents an accurate and updated account of the storyform.

Listener mail paves the way for an extended discussion about the Crucial Elements, particularly in regards to a Steadfast Main Character. I finish off my first pass of The Red Lake by briefly outlining the Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines. And finally, I cover all the features of the Narrative First Atomizer--a brand new service that sheds light on the elements of story structure.

Register for the Narrative First Atomizer here

See you next year!

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. You can hear this episode's opening theme here: World Opening

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2017-12-20T10:34:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Thor: Ragnarök]]> https://narrativefirst.com/throughlines/thor-ragnarok https://narrativefirst.com/throughlines/thor-ragnarok

To craft a meaningful story, the compelling writer weaves together four separate, yet thematically connected, Throughlines. By providing the Audience an account of conflict from every possible angle, the writer ensures a story of integrity and completeness. Action sequences, comedic lines, and memorable characters mean nothing if not supported by a robust narrative scaffold.

Thankfully for us, Thor: Ragnarök follows this approach.

The Four Throughlines of Every Complete Story

Equity exists before a story begins; inequity motivates the story to its conclusion. This imbalance is impossible to describe directly: it is the space between things, not a thing in and of itself. This indescribable area—the inequity—is the basis of all conflict.

A writer presented with the inability to describe the very thing that propels their story forward (conflict) looks to approximate it through four different perspectives:

  • I experience this inequity
  • You experience this inequity
  • We experience this inequity
  • They experience this inequity

How I experience the inequity at hand differs demonstrably from how You experience the very same inequity. We experience this imbalance separate from how They experience it. No one perspective holds the truth. The mind gathers up all four, assesses what it needs to derive meaning, then proceeds with a greater understanding of how to overcome the very same inequity in the future.

Narratives attach Throughlines to these four perspectives:

  • the Main Character assumes the I point-of-view
  • the Influence Character shows the You perspective
  • the Relationship Story takes on the We perspective
  • the Overall Story presents the point-of-view of They

This arrangement is why these four perspectives, though seemingly different and disparate at first, appear to connect on a deep thematic level: the four Throughlines focus on the same inequity.

Avoiding Ragnarök

In Thor: Ragnarok, the fire demon Surtur seeks Ragnarök—the Asgardian version of Armageddon. This end of days arrives the moment Surtur can unite his crown with the Eternal Flame burning in Odin’s vault. Protagonist Thor, determined to prevent this period at all costs, charges in and claims the crown for his own—preventing Ragnarok.

At least, so he thinks.

Thor’s father’s passing and the release of his sister, Hela (Cate Blancett), from her prison magnifies the Physical problems involved in preventing the end of Asgard. From the Overall Story Throughline perspective, we witness the inequity of continually charging in to fight: Hela’s takeover and destruction of Asgard’s army, the Grandmaster’s Contest of Champions, the liberation of the gladiators on Sakaar, and the return to Asgard to face Hela only increase conflict—and the death and destruction that follows.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the son of Odin, the rightful heir to the kingdom, and the one person in his family concerned with ensuring the legacy of his people. His position in the Universe sets Thor apart from everyone else in the narrative. Through his Main Character Throughline, we feel the personal effects of pursuing what is right and fighting evil regardless of who stands in our way—even if it’s someone close to us.

The Four Throughlines of *Thor: Ragnarök*

Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) provides the challenging Influence Character perspective of the narrative. Having made up her Mind a long time ago that not everything is worth fighting for, she presents a rational approach towards keeping yourself alive: run and live to fight another day. Valkyrie represents the path not taken by Thor, their shared point of origin providing enough familiarity to grant growth in Thor’s personal Throughline.

Originally conceived to be romantic, the Relationship Story Throughline between Valkyrie and Thor that appears in the final film centers around mutual respect ✊. Dysfunctional at best, these comrade-in-arms experience the Psychological inequity of charging in as a matter of trust. The skepticism encountered over their conflicting belief systems drives them to manipulate one another to achieve their individual goals.

In the end, both the relationship between Valkyrie and Thor and Valkyrie’s fixed attitude drive Thor to drop his constant need for a fight. By turning and running away, Thor gives way to Ragnarok and the destruction of Asgard—but saves his people and their future. Logistically speaking the efforts to prevent Ragnarok failed, yet emotionally the decision to run and fight another day proves to be a good one for Thor and his people.

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2017-12-11T18:11:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Story Structure Senioritis]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/56 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/56

If it sounds like this episode was recorded before Thanksgiving, that’s because it was. Facilitating the initial release of the Narrative First Atomizer consumed most of my waking days and nights these past two months—but the show must go on.

If nothing else, I️ can’t let The Red Lake go unspoken. Follow along as I️ craft a fully realized narrative framework in less than 20 minutes. Seriously. What started out as a completely random narrative based on the story structure of Aliens and Blade Runner: 2049 became an interesting clash between dwarves and halflings high in the mountains above a dark and crimson red lake.

In addition, I️ answer listener email regarding the difference between Doing and Obtaining and its application towards The Dark Knight. And I️ cover unusual storyforms.

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

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2017-12-05T00:27:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Winter's Bone]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/winters-bone https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/winters-bone

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Winter's Bone attributes most of its success to a healthy and robust narrative. Complete coverage of all Four Throughlines and story points that resonate with integrity, the film delivers a meaningful—if heart-breaking—message of triumph.

At first, one may consider "Saving the Farm" the centerpiece and focal point of the narrative. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) functions as both Main Character and Protagonist—why wouldn't her concerns about providing for her siblings and infirmed mother determine the more considerable interest in the Overall Story?

The Overall Story Throughline

The Overall Story Throughline provides a unique point-of-view of conflict that accounts for everyone's perspective. This vantage point includes not only Ree and her immediate family, but also her neighbors, her close and distant cousins, and local and civilian authorities. Those who want Ree and others to keep their mouths shut about the disappearance of her father couldn't care less about the Dolly farm—saving the farm could never be the subject matter of the Overall Story Concern and Overall Story Goal.

Instead, one looks at the source of all conflict in Winter's Bone: honoring the family code and keeping your big mouth shut. Honoring the Family Code is attached to the narrative using the Overall Story Issue of Preconditions. Dramatica defines Preconditions as limitations tacked onto an effort. This family code is not necessary—but it is something Ree needs to take into account if she is to survive her present ordeal.

Keeping Your Big Mouth Shut speaks of the Overall Story Concern of Learning. Here, the act of gathering information—or learning what happened to her missing father—generates conflict for everyone involved. Ree's pursuit of her father's final days creates trouble for her, her brother and sister, her neighbors, and everyone else in and around that community.

Ree's careful and methodical approach to taking the steps necessary to unlock the mystery of her missing father (Overall Story Catalyst of Prerequisites) brings pressure because of this unspoken level of Acceptance for all that happened. Dramatica defines and Overall Story Problem of Acceptance as a decision not to oppose and finds commonality in consenting to punishment and accepting intolerable circumstances. Everyone puts up with the backwoods system of justice administered by Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall) and his cronies because that's just the way things are around there. Even the matriarchs—those who stand to lose the most from this inequity—punish Ree for not accepting their way of life.

Everyone suffers from this imbalance of Acceptance—including Ree's uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes).

A Personal Perspective on Acceptance

As the Changed character, Teardrops shares the same Problem as the Overall Story. His Influence Character Problem of Acceptance drives him to grab the back of Ree's head when she says otherwise and motivates him to be comfortable with looking the other way when it comes to the murder of his only brother.

Their dysfunctional familial relationship, steeped in their shared loss, skirts resolution as it dances with the idea that they could somehow be a family again. This Relationship Story Concern of Conceiving and Issue of Deficiency limps towards the finish line, finding an increase in conflict through a Relationship Story Catalyst of Permission: when Ree refuses to listen to what she can and cannot do, Teardrop reprimands her.

Both niece and uncle know—in all likelihood—that they can never be whole again. This Relationship Story Problem of Probability touches upon resolution with the Possibility that he might return after he completes his brother's errand—but even that seems close to an impossibility.

The relationship does, however, help push Teardrop towards his Influence Character Solution of Non-Acceptance. His is not a Leap of Faith change; instead, he changes over time—unravelling his justifications until that moment when he instigates his act of revenge.

Ree's relentless pursuit of the Story Goal of Learning ends with a Story Outcome of Success.

TEARDROP (CONT’D)

I was never good like your daddy was.

He looks down, pauses. Something is heavy on his mind.

TEARDROP

I know who.

REE

What?

TEARDROP

Jessup. I know who.

He walks towards his truck.

Now that Teardrop has learned who killed his brother, and in a place of Non-Acceptance, he can exact his revenge.

And all because of Ree's stable and Steadfast presence.

Don't Ask for What Should Be Given

Ree balances Teardrop's meaningful Change of perspective with her Steadfast Main Character Resolve. Her Main Character Approach of Do-er and Linear Problem-Solving Style provide her the external moxie needed to overcome the local policy of don't ask, don't tell.

Ree

Never ask for what ought be offered.

This line--in response to her little brother's suggestion they ask their neighbors for food--defines her Main Character Problem of Inaction. Dramatica defines Inaction as taking no action as a means of response. Often portrayed as a symbol of weakness in most Western culture, Inaction, as seen within Ree, establishes a foothold in the narrative and digs its heels in as the situation escalates.

Saving the farm may not be the concern of everyone, but the responsibility of doing something about it rests heavy on Ree's seventeen-year-old shoulders. Her Universe is this family and serves as the definition of her Main Character Throughline. The safety and protection of her immediate family is an immediate concern for her and an example of a Main Character Concern of the Present.

As the only able adult in the Dolly household, Ree is the only one who can work and provide for her family. This Main Character Unique Ability of Work grants her the ability to solve the story's problems—but only after a few detours. The revelation that joining the Army would require abandoning her brother and sister and payment could take upwards of 80 weeks (Main Character Signpost 3 of Future) sets her back on the right path towards resolution.

In the end, Ree finds peace with her responsibilities as head of household.

SONNY

We heard you talking about the Army. Are you wanting to leave us?

REE

I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.

Ree kisses her sister’s head.

REE (CONT’D)

I ain’t going anywhere.

Ashlee hands her chick to Ree. She picks up the banjo where Ree left it, sits back down on the porch, and strums.

While establishing the Story Judgment of Good, this Triumphant ending carries with it significant negative Costs. Teardrop's mission weighs heavily on their minds and the song they sing portrays them brooding, and lost in thought. This Story Cost of Conscious balances out the otherwise "happy ending" of a Success/Good narrative, ensuring the gravitas of their predicament remains prevalent in the Audience's consideration.

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2017-11-20T12:02:00+00:00