Narrative First The latest articles, podcasts, and analyses from Narrative First en-us James R. Hull Copyright 2019 2019-01-19T14:03:27+00:00 <![CDATA[Demystifying the Archetypes of Protagonist and Antagonist]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/demystifying-the-archetypes-of-protagonist-and-antagonist https://narrativefirst.com/articles/demystifying-the-archetypes-of-protagonist-and-antagonist

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse features a cast of characters who defy the law of physics. Tumbling through the air, smashing through walls, and stopping massive machines with the touch of a hand, amazing superheroes save the day and bring conflict to an end. Yet as individualistic and fantastical as they appear on the surface, underneath it all these characters portray various facets of the same human mind.

Multiple "characters"—one single mind.

A Storymind.

The Storymind Concept

The best way to understand the motivations of a character is to stop thinking of him as a real person. Instead, think of all the characters as different motivations of one real person—that person being the story itself.

A complete story, then, is an analogy to a single human mind trying to resolve an inequity. The various characters represent the different considerations and forces that operate within the psyche as the mind evaluates and re-evaluates its approach to resolving conflict.

This Storymind concept is at the heart of the Dramatica theory of story and foundational in the development of Subtext.

Characters are not real people—they're individual parts of the same person.

Taking this approach ensures a holistic understanding of the forces at work within a narrative.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The dual forces of Protagonist and Antagonist represent the mind’s motivation towards Initiative and Reticence, respectively. The Protagonist pursues; the Antagonist avoids.

In Spider-Verse, Miles Morales is the Protagonist and Kingpin is the Antagonist. Mike pursues, and Kingpin avoids.

At first, the notion that Kingpin avoids anything in this story sounds odd. If anything, Kingpin pursues a course of action to bring back his deceased wife and son.

And that’s when it’s important to realize that these characters are not real people—they’re facets of one single human mind trying to resolve an inequity.

In Spider-Verse, the inequity is a machine that rips a hole in the space-time continuum. The very presence of this machine draws the different Spiders in from alternate universe and threatens to tear open a black hole beneath the city of Brooklyn.

That is the inequity—or Problem—this one Storymind considers, and shares with the Audience.

With that Story Goal in mind, Kingpin’s motivation towards avoidance rings clear. He is motivated to avoid reversing the effects of the Large Hadron Collider. As a “person,” he wants to bring back his family—as a facet of a single mind he avoids or prevents (the active side of avoidance) the successful resolution of the Story Goal.

Just like every functioning Antagonist.

Miles, as Protagonist, pursues that Story Goal.

Miles Morales in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Breaking Down Archetypal Characters

Miles doesn’t just pursue the Goal, he is also motivated and motivates others to consider the pros and cons of destroying the machine. The guilt trip he lays on Peter B. Parker and his disappearing act in Aunt May’s lab sit as evidence of the Storymind in the act of Consideration.

Kingpin balances this motivation with instances of Reconsideration. His refusal to turn off the machine when danger arises and his hope that his family will somehow reconsider their feelings towards him counteract the simple act of thinking with rethinking.

These collection of paired narrative Elements—Pursuit and Consider, Avoid and Reconsider—signal the presence of Archetypal Characters within the Storymind.

The drive to pursue pairs naturally up with a drive to consider. The motivation to avoid, or prevent, typically matches up with a call for reconsideration.

That’s why the concept of a Protagonist is even a thing in our lexicon of language: we recognize a shared purpose of motivations within a mind, brought them together into a single vessel, or “player,” and then labeled him or her the Protagonist of a story.

The Protagonist isn’t the one who changes the most—the Protagonist is a perfect set of motivations that define a clear and shared drive of initiative in the context of the Story Goal—the current inequity under consideration by the Storymind.

Same with the Antagonist. He or she is not “the bad guy,” but rather, the final alignment of forces analogous to the drive towards reticence in the Storymind.

Characters are not required to follow this alignment in every complete story. In fact, higher interest and increased delight occur when an Author mixes and matches these various narrative Elements.

Miles is your pretty standard Protagonist. And Kingpin is your classic Antagonist.

Kingpin in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

But what about Peter B. Parker and Miles’ Uncle Aaron?

What facets of the Storymind do they represent?

And more importantly, why do they appear more interesting as characters when compared to the driving forces of Protagonist and Antagonist as described above?

More on that in our next article in this series on Demystifying Character Archetypes.

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2019-01-18T19:55:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Teen Titans Go to the Movies]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/teen-titans-go-to-the-movies https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/teen-titans-go-to-the-movies

You would think an animated film based on a Cartoon Network show would be full of throwaway gags and pat Saturday morning storytelling—

—but with Teen Titans Go to the Movies, you would be wrong.

Taking a cue from The LEGO Batman Movie, Titans explores what it means to be your very best—and to be yourself.

Here, the problem is measuring yourself up against the greats: against Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman. Robin wants his own movie. No longer content with being the sidekick, the boy wonder wants the fame and accolades that come with a giant Hollywood blockbuster.

Conflict driven by the need to compare and measure up is conflict instigated by the narrative Element of Accurate. The justification on Robin’s part for making things more difficult emanates from this feeling that he isn’t “accurate” enough to the assumed and well-understood superhero persona.

Combine this inner conflict of Accurate with a series of externally-driven Accurate conflicts and Teen Titans sets the stage for a meaningful story.

Where the Objective and Subjective Meet

Stories click when the internal conflicts of the Main Character sync up with the external problems found in the Overall Story. The shared dissonance created by experiencing both subjectively and objectively the same problem is where we find meaning.

It’s why we go to the movies.

In Titans, future arch-nemesis Slade (Will Arnett) uses a combination of parlor tricks and “Look out behind you!” warnings as the basis for his MIND-MANIPULATION schemes. Slade’s Doomsday Device sheds light on our collective addiction to superhero movies—quite Accurately—a weakness that features heavily in his plot to take over the world.

The Accurate and funny one-liners from Slade—gags that would play as throwaways in another film—play expertly into the Teen Titans narrative. “I’m not farting. It’s just air escaping from my butt.” That’s an Accurate statement. “What are you guys doing? I’m a giant robot with a sword, you can’t beat me.” That’s an Accurate statement.

“You guys are just losers.”

That’s another Accurate statement—

—but an accurate statement that arrives at the tail end of the narrative, and at the tail end of Robin’s growth.

Tearing Down Justifications

The structure of a complete narrative is one where the Main Characters justifications—their excuse for doing all things they do—is torn down by an alternate perspective. This powerful and impactful point-of-view is often held by a single Player. The fact that it is the perspective, not the Player, that weighs into the narrative makes it possible for this perspective to be handed off from Player to Player.

In Titans, we see evidence of a collective Influence Character—a group of characters who all perform the same function with the narrative.

Robin’s team, the Titans themselves, are ready at a moments notice to remind the boy just how important and valuable the Titans are to the world of superheroes. With a fast beat and a ridiculous flow, the Teen Titans prove to Robin—and to everyone else around them—that they have what it takes. Their rap theme song and their ridiculous Michael Bolton piece (way too reminiscent of the sincere one in Smallfoot shine a light on what they can do to make a difference.

Quite surprisingly, Teen Titans even manages to weave in a meaningful relationship between Robin and his team. It’s nice that they’re friends, but to play into this assumed trust between them and then have that trust break when Robin chooses sides balances out the narrative perfectly.

The Relationship Story Throughline in a narrative isn’t there just because it’s lovely—the conflict in the Relationship Story Throughline balances out the conflict in the Overall Story Throughline.

When every relationship finds conflict in the Accuracy of their statements, it only makes sense and feels right that the most critical relationship should somehow explore an imbalance of Trust.

Finding Resolution

The message of [Teen Titans Go to the Movies] is be yourself (again, LEGO Batman)—even if you’re a loser. Or a misfit. The solution then isn’t to play into Accuracies but rather, be Non-Accurate. Be intolerable.

Be a joke.

We know this works because Titans show us it works. The team is there until the very end, proving their natural talents while simultaneously demonstrating their emotional bond with Robin. Instead of allowing the relationship to dissolve because of misplaced trust, they resolve their difficulties by challenging Robin to weigh in on the importance of their bond.

Teen Titans scores an impressive 91% critical rating because the film effectively communicates a complete argument. While the fart jokes are plentiful, so too are scenes of relevancy and importance. The inner conflict of the Main Character synchronizes with the external conflict of the Overall Story, and the Influence Character perspectives and Relationship Story Throughline balance out and complete the narrative landscape.

Teen Titans is more than just a kids cartoon—it’s an argument for being yourself, no matter how intolerable or off the beaten path yourself might be to everyone else.

Narrative Storypoints

The following are significant Storypoints found within the storyform for Teen Titans Go to the Movies:

The Goal of being yourself is a Story Goal of Being.

The fact that they achieved this Goal is a Story Outcome of Success.

Robin resolving his issues of angst surrounding his popularity, and the fact that he actually ended up with his own movie is a Story Judgment of Good.

Wanting to measure up is a Main Character Problem of Accurate.

Proving how valuable and important they are is an Influence Character Problem of Proven and an Influence Character Issue of Value.

Proving that by being intolerable and crazy is an Overall Story Solution of Non-Accurate.

The superheroes rushing in to save the day drives Robin to decide he wants his own movie. Defeating Slade their own way helps the Titans save the day. Actions drive decisions in this story, indicating a Story Driver of Action.

The unspoken and eventual broken trust between Robin and the team is evidence of a Relationship Story Problem of Trust.

Showing Robin the video and challenging him to weigh in on his feelings towards their relationship is a Relationship Story Solution of Test.

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2019-01-16T17:50:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/spider-man-into-the-spider-verse https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/spider-man-into-the-spider-verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest.

As a veteran of the animation industry for over 20 years, I was constantly blown away by every creative choice they were able to get away with during production. Story. Art design. Animation style. And then, story again.

From top to bottom, the film is a masterpiece of art.

And as a Sienkiewicz fan from back in the day, I can’t fully express in words the joy I felt seeing Kingpin’s nightmarish rage portrayed on-screen the way I imagined it some 30 years ago.

The film, for me, was quite literally a dream come true.

Whether the filmmakers took advantage of the fact that they were under an inescapable deadline that would keep Spider-Man’s copyright in the hands of Sony or they’re just that good—it doesn’t matter. We get to enjoy this rare gift for the rest of our lives.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not just the best animated film of 2018, it’s the Best Picture of 2018–and deserves to with both Oscars at the Academy Awards this year.

While it may be difficult, and ultimately unnecessary, to pinpoint one reason for this triumphant success, the complete story and solid narrative argument at its core can claim the lion's share of responsibility.

After all, without a solid narrative you just have a collection of pretty pictures.

And comic books are much more than that.

A Conversation of Analysis

Instead of the usual deep-dive thematic breakdown found here on Narrative First, we offer this glimpse at the process involved in our analyses.

A screenwriter new to us and the Dramatica theory of story wondered if he could ask us a few questions about the Spider-Man film. Of course, we took the opportunity to make it a learning experience rather than a dictating one, and figured others might enjoy the journey as well.

Writer: Can we break down Into the Spider-Verse?! I have an idea for what it might be.

Jim: I saw SpiderVerse yesterday, and really--there's no point in doing anything anymore. that was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my entire life. They didn't hold back on anything.

Writer: OC in Universe (hopefully obviously) ...

Jim: And by OC do you mean, Obstacle Character or did you mean OS (Overall Story)?

Writer: Sorry, OS

Jim: :) yes for sure

Writer: Plot... Action, Success Good...and Optionlock?

Jim: Those are gimmes!

Writer: I was on the fence about this... but I think Miles MC is Changed?

and Peter/His Dad grow?

Jim: If Miles is Changed, how do you know that?

Writer: my litmus was that he does something at the end he wouldn't have done at the beginning

but... i was on the fence because so did Peter/His Dad

Jim: Actually - question - do you want me to lead you through it or just give straight answers LOL - I always find you learn more drawing it out, but just let me know when you want to hit the buzzer :)

Writer: Lead me through so i still learn, haha

Jim: Well who do you want to start with - Miles, Peter or Dad?

Writer: Miles

Jim: what is the evidence that he is doing differently at the end that he did in the beginning?

Writer: he's able to use his powers on command

Jim: why?

Writer: because he ... stopped testing and started trusting? (jumping the gun, i know)

Jim: lol - without dramatica words

Jim: what was his personal issue?

Writer: He took the leap of faith that Peter kept telling him about, which he found by that resolving conversation through the door with his dad

Jim: both Steadfast and Changed characters take leaps of faith - it just depends on what side of the ledge you're leaping from (or into) - in other words, leap of faith is more a natural result of creating a narrative.

Writer: hmmm... wasn't his problem from the beginning that like, he wanted to do things his way? Despite his father's disapproval?

Writer: So maybe he was steadfast in his way of thinking?

Jim: They spend a lot of time on his personal issues in the beginning...

Jim: I guess what I mean is, by wanting to do things his way - that's the MC's Throughline - how he "does" things - but what is it about how those things are done that is shown to be problematic? What's out of balance? What's giving him angst? (To the exclusion of anyone else's viewpoint)

Writer: what he wants isn't what this parents or teachers want him to do

Jim: which creates grief within him, an imbalance of...

Writer: Desire?

Jim: why is what everyone else a problem for him?

Jim: why does he purposefully fail tests?

Writer: He failed the tests because he wanted to go back to that other school. He was trying to get kicked out.

Jim: And how does that approach tie in with his initial meetings with all the Spiders--why does he turn invisible?

Jim: Why does he first go "electric"?

Writer: every time he uses his powers without being able to control them was out of fear, right?

Jim: right - but you see how the spiders talking about him in the basement creates the same kind of emotional angst that he was getting from his dad in the beginning? that's why he turned invisible...

Writer: they started attacking his abilities

Writer: how he's unable to XYandZ

Writer: and he got upset, went invisible and left.

Writer: So does that make his problem ability? for good or bad? he's Ability-ing throughout the movie?

Jim: was the grief caused by his dad a problem of Ability? was the grief caused by his guidance counselor a problem of Ability? were the Spiders gathering together and whispering about him creating an imbalance of Ability?

Writer: No... but I'm not totally sure what they were creating an imbalance of...

Writer: in english, i guess it was a problem of approval? No one approved of him

Jim: that's good - really good. Approval works great. So then at the end - does he seem still struggling with that - or is he doing things differently? (btw, don't know if you follow me on Twitter, FB, or IG but you might want to turn them off for the next couple of hours since I already have a post in the queue about his problem! LOL)

Writer: I won't look. haha

Writer: at the end, he doesn't need Peter's approval or even care about it. In fact he turns the tables, saying he won't let Spider-Man die

Writer: but... he did kind of get his father's approval through the door, right?

Jim: yes...that triggered it...but you're totally right - he is doing things differently - whether or not they "approve" of what he does - he doing it anyways...

...which would suggest a Changed Main Character Resolve

Writer: So is it more a self of self kinda thing?

Jim: i don't know self of self...??

Writer: like, a confidence thing.. confidence in himself

Writer: forget what everyone thinks of him, he's gonna do it his way

Writer: he doesn't need spider-man's permission to be spider-man, or his father's ... he just goes and does it

Writer: the Spiders were all pointing out what he lacked, right? his deficiencies?

Jim: forget what everyone thinks of him, he's gonna do it his way is ABSOLUTELY the entire thread of the entire narrative - AWESOME!

Jim: yes yes yes awesome job now who then challenges that perspective and does things differently?

Jim: in other words, who is the IC(s)

Writer: Spiders/His Dad

Writer: i would say mainly Peter/His Dad

Writer: so wait, backtracking... you're suggesting his solution is Permission? In the sense of Not needed it?

Writer: er, his Issue, i mean

Jim: I'd hold off on looking to the chart this early - it's enough to identify the terms in your own words. Remember that in reality, each of those terms is really just the same four words seen in different contexts -- so it's REAL EASY to get mixed up and focus in on a term that doesn't mean what you think it means. That's why the top down approach works well.

How do Peter and Miles' dad share the same perspective? 

Writer: Hmm... well they both want Miles to do what they say. Do things their way, in an effort to protect him

Jim: mmmm...but what is their shared perspective? In other words, Miles turns invisible because of approval - what's up with his Dad or Peter?

Writer: I guess it's that they know what's best?

Writer: both of them have "been there done that" and lived through it all before... they know what's likely gonna happen and how to likely solve things. The dad has a problem with his brother because he doesn't approve of his ways (and rightly so, cuz the brother was actually a minion of kingpin who gets himself killed) ... and Peter who can literally predict what Kingpin is gonna say... has handled so many cases already he just calls the critical item a Goober, wasn't it? There's always some Goober he needs.

Writer: So it's like... Experience of Knowledge or both

Writer: Wisdom

Writer: to use a term that's probably wrong ;-)

Jim: and so, does Dad change that perspective? does Peter change that perspective?

Writer: Not really, no. Though they do seem to grow a bit

Writer: they put trust in Miles

Writer: Peter exchanges a kind of touche moment with Miles in the end and concedes.

Jim: right (that might be more of a Relationship Story type of thing) - they both Remain Steadfast in their perspectives...awesome! So now you have all the dynamics down...well, wait - Miles Approach and/or Problem-Solving Style...

Writer: Linear

Writer: approach... and i wanna see Be-er? This element always trips me up

Jim: Take the Author's point-of-view - where are they positioning Mile's personal problem - is it the things he's doing or the things he's being?

Writer: haha again i'm not sure... is it that he's "being" caught up in people's approval/disapproval? or that he's doing things in response to that?

Writer: This and growth are really hard for me to see

Jim: yes - both are connected, so I can see why you would have that problem!

Jim: let's skip it for now...you already identified Universe as the Domain of the Overall Story Throughline...which would put the Relationship in Mind. So...LOL...where do you see Miles' Main Character Throughline - Physics or Psychology?

Writer: I'm thinking because he's grappling with the thought that he either does or doesn't need approval, it's psychology

Writer: (btw, earlier you said every element is really the same 4 repeated. what is that exactly again? that each are really some form of TKAD or PRCO or Uni, Act, Manip, Fixed? What's the 4 core repeated "things"?)

Jim: The four core elements are Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire. Repeated over and over again in every single quad - just arranged differently. This is why the model is complete - it's looking at every possible combination in order to understand where the true source of conflict is coming from within the mind.

Jim: So Miles way of thinking is out of balance? And his conflict centers around Conceptualizing, Being, Becoming, and Conceiving?

Writer: Being

Writer: he is the way he is, and that's creating problems

Writer: ?

Writer: orrrrrr

Writer: from the author's POV... which i know i'm supposed to think... is it a problem of coming up with the idea that he doesn't need approval/permisison

Writer: putting it in Conceiving

Jim: rewind a bit back to his personal problem - the issue of approval - is that a Conceiving issue? what kind of conflict does that approval create for him?

Writer: No... it's more of a Being or Becoming issue... like the first thing i said... Miles is the way Miles is, so

Writer: right? Like... if his angst is about approval... whether or not his dad approves, or his teachers, or peter... or the spiders... it eats at him being concerned with approval... approval of HIM, right?

Writer: like, at the end... he is still doing things his way to a degree. he didn't ask permission to spray paint the classic suit... he just did it and wore it and became a new spider-man

Jim: so is he doing things differently or being things differently?

Writer: doing

Writer: he's still being himself... he didn't change who he is, but he did change how he does things, and doesn't let external forces stop him from being himself.

Jim: So when you're looking at Doing as a Source of Conflict that means specifically how you Do things is a problem. Like if you're a swimmer, you're not taking the right amount of breaths, you're going under too soon when it comes time to change direction, you're jumping the gun, you're not tagging the next swimmer in the relay soon enough - it's the things you're doing that is an actual Problem.

And the resolution is to simply Be.

When you're looking at Being as a Source of Conflict, the pressure is on to be something you're not. You have to act like you're OK with something, pretend that you don't know the answer to questions, and act like you long for something you don't have. But it isn't answering the questions wrong that is difficult, it's the actual act of BEING - of trying to pretend to be something you're not -- that is the focus on conflict within the narrative. The Being is problematic.

And the resolution is to simply Do.

which one of those sounds like what the Authors were exploring with Miles?

Writer: Hahah, i mean you dropped some really obvious clues... The latter.

Jim: So if Miles' Source of Conflict is Being, that would mean for the narrative to be balanced out appropriately, Peter's Source of Impact would be Doing - the things he does would be creating conflict for Miles. Same with Dad.

How do you see that?

Writer: Well for Peter... he already IS Spider-Man, he does all the tricks, knows all the things the bad guy is gonna say and do, knows just how to solve the problem, and aims to set out doing it with or without Miles. Doing it without him because of his knowledge and experience (or... wisdom)

Writer: and for the dad, he knows what it's like to run with the bad crowd.. tag up subways, etc... and that creates conflict for Miles because the things his Dad does either prevents Miles from getting in with that bad crowd... or like, publicly humiliating him for an "I Love You"... they all challenge what Miles is trying to Be

Writer: and both Peter and Miles's Dad come from a place of Wisdom

Jim: they all challenge what Miles is trying to Be

Writer: Yes

Jim: which would suggest an Influence Character Concern of Being

Writer: hmm

Writer: so... then not that?

Jim: hah

Jim: publicly humiliating him to say "i love you" is not an Influence Character Concern that says "you need to do it this way", it says "you need to be this way"

Jim: "doing it this way" would be all about HOW he is actually physically doing it. How he says I LOVE YOU, his skill with actually saying the words and his level of familiarity or experience with saying it

Writer: so is the IC then actually in Psychology?

Jim: What is it about the pot-belly Peter that is so striking? How can he BE the Spider-man? He's more interested in bagels and burgers. He's depressed (Psychology) because he made the wrong choice with MJ. 

It's not the things he DOES that creates conflict - it's how he is - who he is, who he is being.

And he's always taking that Leap of Faith -- which is why letting go of Miles hand is just a reaffirmation of his Steadfast perspective - as is showing up at MJ's house

Writer: Ok cool yeah, I see that. Therefore making the activities Miles does the overall problem... the cheating to fail on his test... tagging stickers all over town.. etc.

Jim: He has to BE the one to stay behind, because Miles can't DO it.

Writer: well when you put it like that, it seems glaringly obvious

haha

comically simple (excuse the pun)

Jim: Yes! Tagging stickers, sneaking out at night, turning invisible but not sure how he is DOING it, unable to turn invisible or shock people on command - those are all personal problems. And when he can't DO--when he can't get up--because he's afraid of approval--he disappears, turns invisible, and doesn't want to be seen.

Writer: so that sounds like not fully understanding his Doing, right? He reaches an impasse when Peter asks him to do those things?

Jim: Peter's Knowledge, what he Thinks of Peter, his own Abilities and talents, and his love and longing for MJ (Desire) that's where Conflict emanates from his perspective.

Miles' sneaking out at night to be with his criminal uncle is a dumb move (Wisdom), his instinctual understanding of the universe makes him stand out (Enlightenment), his tripping over his own shoelaces (Skills), and his age and inexperience (Experience) show where his Conflict comes from.

Yeah. He can't Do what people want him to do. Or doesn't think he can do it. Or doesn't want to do it. He can't do that Leap of Faith.

Writer: so it seems like both of those, respectively, then stem from Peter's Desires and Miles's lack of experience

making those each their issues

i mean, we meet Peter crying in the shower... i feel like Desire is a major source of conflict for him

Jim: yeah for sure

if you look under Experience in Doing, you'll see it's comprised of Accurate, Non-Accurate, Expectation, and Determination - which one of those sound like Miles' problem?

Writer: So the question is... within his problem of lacking Experience... what specifically is causing conflict within that lack of experience?

Jim: theoretically yes....but you don't always have to make that connection - the fact that those Elements are under Experience will make that connection apparent anyways. Hope that makes sense - in other words, you don't have to make the connection between Issue and Problem explicit in the Storytelling - they can be connected or they cannot - one is not a function of the other - one is a smaller divisible part of the whole.

In other words - what's his Problem?

(p.s. you've already identified it....)

Writer: haha... probably ages ago before i started second guessing myself

;-)

i'm gonna say expectation

Jim: well, it took a while for you get it, but his Personal Problem is all about his personal problem...

Writer: what's expected of him?

Jim: bingo

that's where you see the approval imbalance

Writer: and then when he "talks" with his dad... he starts to flip.. becoming determined to do things his way

Jim: totally

"i see that spark in you" that's why I do these things is Determination

Writer: so, just to look at Peter... is problem is Ending?

Jim: totally

what is driving him to be a complete slob?

Writer: that he and Mary Jane ended

and he "took it so well"

he's got a problem with that being over

Jim: yes. and where is he at the end as a Steadfast character?

Writer: so .... and this is going to sound like i haven't been paying attention to any of your teachings... haha... Solving for the IC is really like solving for "another MC" with his own personal angst

and it's not so much ME vs. YOU...

Jim: No. It is YOU. Another MC would be another MC (another narrative). The impact from Peter is Being because of Ending...

Be careful trying to create some logical connection between the IC perspective "changing" the MC perspective - they balance each other out. There isn't a direct Linear connection

Writer: ok, i think that's the hangup

but that's kind of what i meant about "another MC" ... like, he's NOT related so directly to the MC

he's another, individual perspective with its own unique problem

Jim: yes - EVERYONE tries to make that connection. Because they think these are real people. They're not - they're perspectives. And they're not individual perspectives - they're I and YOU perspectives which are totally different

Peter, as IC, is all about the Impact created because of that perspective

Writer: ahh yes... because it's all just about one inequity... looking at it from different POVs

Jim: yes!

Writer: man.. that urge to connect them... wtf.

how do i lose that?

Jim: time. and awareness

Jim: Dramatica helps because it forces you to think in terms of perspective, but it takes time to stop seeing them as real people.

Writer: so like... before when we were on Concern... it seemed like "Being" WAS affecting MC

the perspective that MC should or shouldn't BE something

Jim: It was! That's how the Influence Character perspective operates

It's not the Main Character's Concern - it's what the Author is positioning as the Concern as far as the Main Character perspective is concerned

Writer: but it does affect that POV... ok

that makes sense

Jim: And see, when he shows up at the end to confront MJ - that's Ending - that's confirmation of his Steadfast perspective. He's bringing it to an End - that's why his perspective is not Changing...it's growing into, but he's still about that Ending.

Writer: was he showing up to just apologize and end it? Just make peace? closure?

Jim: all of those work as Ending, so as far as the narrative is concerned. Yes!

Writer: So how exactly does Ending under the IC concerns specifically affect the MC concern to flip from expectation to determination?

Jim: that's EXACTLY what I was saying about making a direct connection between the two! If you could make that connection, you wouldn't need a story...

Writer: Son of a....

Jim: LOL

Writer: leap of faith understanding this eh? Lol

Jim: yes!

oh, and btw - when a film goes to the effort of literally SPRAY-PAINTING the MC Problem across the screen, you might as well take it LOLOL

Great Expectations

Writer: But there is a balancing act with looking at this in equity. Is there something logical in that? Like, we keep having to balance the different perspectives against each other so that each of them work. I know the software starts to limit your choices, but there does still have to be a balance in the in balance

Like, the main character perspective really can’t be determined to be certain elements if it isn’t in balance with the OC and the impact character, etc.

Jim: Yes--that balance is what Dramatica takes care of for you - it's not so much the individual items themselves that matter as much as it is about the RELATIONSHIPS between the items. That's why they created Dramatica - to make it easy to hold those Relationships together in one single context (narrative).

Doing it yourself is inherently impossible - because we can't be both Objective and Subjective at the same time (both within ourselves and without) -- which is why you can't make that connection between the IC's Problem and why the MC flips from Problem to Solution.

That's why we love stories so much and why they fascinate us so much -- they give us an experience IMPOSSIBLE for us to achieve on our own.

Writer: Crazy! So it’s all just about finding the balance within the imbalance. And h doing so, you showcase that the imbalance could reach equilibrium again... without exactly describing how.

And by doing so

Jim: Yes - it gives the Audience that greater appreciation of how to resolve Problems in their own lives - they can literally see "behind the curtain" - to see what to do the next time they run into a similar Problem

Writer: Super awesome! Thanks for explaining all this

Jim: Yes for sure! And thanks for working through with me as well. Helps to put things into words and concretize some of these ideas. Going to put it up in Subtext!

Writer: sweet! Yeah it's super educational.. I think I had originally swapped IC and MC's Domains. Walking through it like we did makes sense. I really just gotta get beaten over the head that these aren't people.. they're not connected... and though each has an impact on the other, they're really totally separate things

looking forward to seeing it on Subtext... mostly just cuz I'll be able to look at the poster all the time ;-)

Writer: ALSO... i had a story question for you. The Relationship Throughline is where all the feels are, right? So... looking at Spider-Man, and searching for WHY we get choked up. There's conflict in the RS in the Fixed Attitude>Preconcious>Worry>Trust.... right? And the MC is the only thing that changes, right? So... how does that work? Do we feel something because we see Steadfast characters display Trust even though they're worried?

Jim: That the Relationship Story Throughline is the only place for "feels" is more of a general statement, rather than a specific reality of things. In truth, you "feel" everywhere depending on the Storytelling - MC, IC, OS - all of them.

The Relationship Story Throughline is just where it feels the most like the "heart" of the story lies.

Again - I would say you're trying to connect the dots too much, instead of letting the storyform exist as a thing on its own. You're trying to interpret and interpretation - or a model of the mind at work - and trying to effuse some meaning out of the model - when the model is the meaning...

Writer: I thought you were gonna say something like that... damnit.

One Last Word on Titles

One additional thought not covered in the above analysis: frequently, the title of a film communicates the Overall Story Throughline of a narrative. Finding Nemo. Star Wars. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The first two describe a film with an Overall Story Throughline of Physics; the last a film with an Overall Story set in the Universe Domain.

Same with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (especially interesting if you consider that the same screenwriters worked on both Cloudy and Spider-Man): The narrative Element of Universe is an actual part of the film’s title.

Just something to look out for when you’re building your own stories, or seeking to find the unique narratives of other films.

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2019-01-03T16:04:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The Mule]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/the-mule https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/the-mule

A Clint Eastwood film about Clint Eastwood.

While it’s both exciting and sad to match the events on-screen with Eastwood’s personal and professional life, the failure to evoke a compelling Narrative Argument turns the experience into a simple guessing game:

  • Did Eastwood win an award like god character did in 2005? (He did—an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby)
  • Are his films “flowers”—beautiful and temporary in nature? (They are)
  • Which studio executive was Andy Garcia’s Character supposed to represent? 😲

The answers to these questions are nothing more than the substance of an autobiographical analogy. Facts to impress our friends.

Unfortunately, for the filmmakers behind The Mule, no one plays Trivial Pursuit anymore.

The reason for movies

Audiences go to theaters to find something they can’t readily achieve in day-to-day life: meaning.

That meaning is acquired by experiencing a complete argument the way it is experienced within the mind. Characters, plot, theme, and genre? Those are simple stand-ins for what goes on in our own psyche.

A simple way to portray the mind's problem-solving process is to ensure that a film accounts for all points-of-view. Conflict is measured by perspective; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter.

The four perspectives are:

  • I have a problem
  • They have a problem
  • You have a problem
  • We have a problem

And these four perspectives find a correlation in a complete story:

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

The Mule accounts for the first two to a certain degree—the last two are entirely missing.

That’s why it’s hard not to laugh towards the tail end of the penultimate arraignment scene—it doesn’t add up to anything.

There were indications of a potential Influence Character with Eastwood's Mexican cartel handler. But the development of that meaningful Relationship—a key to balancing out the logistics of the plot—floundered. Even worse, the relationship mysteriously disappeared with no resolution at all.

The Mule is what it is—a swan song for a well-worn and challenging life.

A tale to hear.

And ultimately, be forgotten.

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2019-01-03T09:41:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Bird Box]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/bird-box https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/bird-box

Here’s all you need to know about Bird Box:

  • Malkovich is a Trump supporter
  • The door to the house is the border wall
  • The bird box is your iPhone—

—and all the birds inside are Twitter, alerting you when all the “crazies” are around.

I half-expected Tim Robbins to be the one opening the door to the shelter for “the blind”—and laughed when I hear the man speak (it wasn’t him).

Screen Rant's review says it all:

Bird Box is a respectably moody and intelligent psychological thriller, if also a relatively muddled supernatural horror allegory.

Bird Box works as a cautionary tale—nothing more. The film's failure to craft a complete argument exaggerates its image systems—

—leaving one with no other alternative than to quietly roll his eyes when Malkovich proclaims, “Let’s make the end of the world great again!”

🙄

Half an Argument

Someone mentioned to me that he felt you could remove an hour from Bird Box and it would be the same film.

Exactly.

This is what happens when you double up on only half of a complete story. You fill the gaps with thematic material already well-established. You end up repeating yourself, instead of circling around and addressing all sides of an argument.

Only then can you make a lasting and robust case for your approach over others.

In Bird Box, we see strong evidence of an Overall Story Throughline perspective and a Main Character Throughline perspective. The end-of-the-world virus that leads to mass suicides supplies the former, while Mallory’s inability to accept her role as mother covers the latter.

The opposing Influence Character Throughline perspective and Relationship Story Throughline perspective are both woefully absent.

Save for one moment where potential Influence Character Tom argues the saving grace of Hope, these important counter-balances lead to what is essentially a one-sided argument.

One that won’t convince the already converted.

The Reason for a Main Character

The Main Character perspective exists to offer the Audience an opportunity to witness the same kind of conflict both from within and from without.

In our real lives, we can’t simultaneously be both within ourselves and without—we can’t see ourselves objectively.

Stories can. And do.

That’s why we love them—stories give us an experience we can’t find in our own lives.

But that point of conflict needs to be the same if we’re ever to acquire any meaning from the story.

Confusing the Source of Conflict

In Bird Box, the Overall Story Throughline Problem is Protection. Like the current political argument over the building of a southern border wall, the motivation to protect and to safeguard against outside enemies creates a massive amount of conflict.

The Solution to Protection is Inaction—to just do nothing. And that’s what Mallory does when she reaches the rapids. Faced with a post-apocalyptic Sophie’s choice, she decides not to decide and allow the raging waters of conflict carry her home.

And both her and the two children survive.

Unfortunately, the problem from Mallory’s Main Character Throughline perspective isn’t Protection, it’s Avoidance.

Faced with the reality of her pregnancy, she puts off wanting to know the gender, works through her water breaking and delays giving the children names—referring to them as “Boy” and “Girl.”

Eventually, she accepts her role as mother and pursues it with strength and confidence—

—it just doesn’t sync up with the issues in the Overall Story Throughline.

As a result, you’re left with a “well that was scary” appraisal of the last two hours.

You’re left with a tale, not a complete argument.

A Muddled Message

The Protection Problem of the Overall Story Throughline dilutes the stronger argument being made about Avoidance. In the attempt to be socially relevant, the film ends up being relevant to some, and irrelevant to others.

Unfortunately, the film sometimes struggles to balance its thriller elements with thought-provoking drama and conversations. As a result, Bird Box's subtext can be messy or unclear, and its larger commentary about the difference between survival and living (not to mention, its religious allusions) can come across as clunky and preachy, rather than organic to the story. Still, its messages are worthy of appreciation, and the movie generally works as a parable about the experience of becoming a mother in a world that seems to grow increasingly dangerous by the day.

Parables don't convince.

Complete arguments do.

The pieces were there to make that familiar argument about not avoiding—the same case made in The Lion King, Black Panther, and Mad Max: Fury Road. You had the Self-interest issues in the Overall Story, the drive for empathy from the Influence Character (Influence Character Problem of Feeling), and semblances of Temptation in the Relationship...

...but by weaving in elements of another narrative, in a work already strapped for time (a series could handle both), Bird Box ends up reinforcing our already entrenched biases.

A complete narrative argument changes the world—

—and makes it possible for us to survive and prosper without relying on the birds to warn us.

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2019-01-02T10:31:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Smallfoot]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/smallfoot https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/smallfoot

Smallfoot is a film that sets up great narrative potentials but in an obvious and blatant way. Failing to follow through on these established inequities—and confusion over the real source of conflict—adds to the sense that something is not quite adding up in the final mix.

Appealing character design and delightful animation balance out the slight deficiencies of story, resulting in a fun experience for family movie night—

—It’s just that the story could have been better.

Subtext on the Surface

The inhabitants of the Yeti world live by the Stones—stones they know for sure, tell the truth about their world. The film holds nothing back in portraying this motivation of Certainty a Problem. While many movies try to weave their sources of Conflict in with sleight of hand and sophistication, Smalllfoot wears its issues on its hairy sleeves.

Even to the point of wrapping an entire song around the Influence Character Issue of Investigation.

The “Wonderful Life” song sequence is a perfect example of the role the Influence Character perspective plays in a narrative. The Influence Character Throughline challenges and influences the Main Character to move beyond his personal justifications.

It’s when it’s put into song, and the players literally sing the definition of their Thematic point-of-view that it comes off as preachy. The Audience feels as if they’re being hit over the head with the message of the film.

Better to use the Co-Dynamic pair to Investigation of Appraisal and Reappraisal to show the relative value of questioning authority while making judgments—rather than coming right out and saying(singing), “looking around you is a good thing!”

Add to that the fact that this world’s problem isn’t Certainty but rather, Proaction—and the film manages to resemble a conversation with someone who is loud and proud about an argument they’re not sure they’re making and aren’t really bringing to completion.

Clarity

Taking the initiative to establish a fantastical narrative to protect an entire species is an Overall Story Problem of Proaction and an Overall Story Issue of Need. Conflict arises because some feel the need to take steps to protect their world.

Fine. That works great.

But then, the rest of the narrative should focus on the continuing adverse effects of taking preemptive action—not on when others are stuck with a false certainty and “truths” that they hold dear.

It’s not about “tamping those feelings down,” as it would be in a story driven by Certainty—one where Acceptance is the suggested route.

Conflict-driven by Proaction requires constant effort to answer each and every hypothesis or challenge with gentle Deduction—manipulating others to see the inescapable verity of their chosen path.

More about Issues of Need, rather than Issues of Permission.

A Matter of Resolve

The reason this film balances on the precipice of two incomplete narratives is the struggle to reconcile a Main Character Resolve of Steadfast.

For all intents and purposes, it appears as if Migo (Channing Tatum) the Main Character, is just as misguided as the rest of the population and needs to change.

He doesn’t.

In fact, his actual drive of Certainty—his refusal to recant what he’s seen and his ensuing banishment—is the exact point of view that needs to be held onto for the world to change—

—for Percy Patterson the human (James Corden), as Influence Character, to change from someone who preemptively takes action to save his career (just like the Yetis above) to someone who lives knowing that the audience will react favorably regardless of what he does to impress them.

A significant move from Proaction to Reaction.

The above Narrative Argument rests on this dynamic of a Steadfast Main Character Resolve and a Changed Influence Character Resolve.

What It Means to Remain Steadfast

Migo is sure of what he saw and is banished.

Later, the Stonekeeper (Common) reveals the evil Potential of the human race and Migo changes—lying to everyone that what he saw was a yak.

This is great stuff.

A steadfast character who flirts with their Solution and loses their drive? That’s sophisticated story construction.

But then where is Migo’s realignment with his Source of Drive?

When does he return to Certainty?

Migo's apology is sweet and heartfelt—but it leaves him aimless going forward.

Thankfully, his dad is there to help him reset his “true” aim, but there isn’t a sense that Migo takes back that Certainty with...certainty.

Sure, he jumps off the cliff knowing this is what he has to do—but where does it all lead? And how does it tie back into his original Issue of Work? Of being the one who bangs the gong?

How does his Certainty motivate those around him to change?

Theoretically, you don’t need to make that connection—the storyform continues to carry the meaning—but with a film that so boldly proclaims its intentions, this lack burdens the Audience with assimilating some kind of meaningful purpose on their own.

And Audiences don’t attend movies to do homework.

Balancing the Overall Story with a Relationship

Quite surprisingly, Smallfoot crafts an excellent balance between the Overall Story Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline—the balance between those around Migo, both objectively and subjectively.

The overall story throughline is the perspective of the narrative that focuses on the conflict everyone experiences as a result of this motivation towards Certainty/Proaction. The dysfunction that exists in their community plants the narrative’s Overall Story Throughline in Psychology; the anxiety found in generating new ideas creates an Overall Story Concern of Conceiving.

This is where the gentle (and not so gentle) attempts to manipulate the way of thinking amongst everyone creates conflict for Them. Throughlines offer audiences the opportunity to witness conflict from different points of view. The overall story throughline accounts for the perspective of They.

Balancing this objective perspective is the subjective perspective of We—the perspective afforded by the Relationship Story Throughline.

To properly balance out Overall Story conflict found in the Psychology domain, the Relationship Story must focus on problematic activities, as seen in the Physics domain.

And Smallfoot happily takes this approach with the relationship between Migo and Percy.

The comedy found between two species who can’t understand one another and need to learn to communicate correctly illustrates a Relationship Story Throughline of Physics and a Relationship Story Concern of Learning.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers fall into the familiar trap of setting up this great potential for the relationship—then splitting the two apart for a majority of the film.

As an audience member, it’s like finding some rare precious treasure hidden in the attic of your parents' house, only to have someone turn out the lights, leaving you fumbling through the dark trying to find your way out.

You wish you could see their relationship play out—but you’re only left with great unrealized potential.

You’re left wondering how they could have resolved their inability to communicate with one another.

Understanding What You’re Saying

A low critical rating is often the result of an incomplete, or broken, storyform. With Smallfoot’s Rotten Tomatoes rating of 75%, we see evidence of the former. The pieces for a complete argument were there—they just didn’t play out to their final and inevitable resolution.

The result is the semblance of a Cautionary Tale—a statement of how things should be, rather than a convincing argument that this works best.

A storyform codifies the Narrative Argument of a story, but more importantly—a storyform helps Authors ensure the integrity and completeness of their work. It makes tangible what was previously only guessed at or assumed.

With a reliable and consistent storyform, an Author makes sure the Audience isn’t left wondering how it all fits together—or what it was all was supposed to mean.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

For those well-versed in the Dramatica theory of story, the definitive Storypoints of Smallfoot are:

  • Main Character Approach of Do-er
  • Main Character Problem-Solving Style of Linear
  • Story Driver of Action
  • Story Limit of Optionlock
  • Story Outcome of Success
  • Story Judgment of Good
  • Overall Story Throughline of Psychology
  • Overall Story Concern of Conceiving
  • Main Character Problem of Certainty

With those set into the Story Engine, we’re left with one choice...the Main Character Resolve.

Setting it to Steadfast gives us:

  • Overall Story Issue of Need
  • Overall Story Problem of Proaction

Setting it to Changed gives us:

  • Overall Story Issue of Permission
  • Overall Story Problem of Certainty

You can see how the film bounces back and forth between the two, particularly regarding what you’re allowed, and not allowed to do, in the Yeti village (Permission). And in the implied resolution of walking down the mountain to see what happens (Reaction).

Choosing one storyform—and then clarifying the Storypoints essential to that one Narrative Argument—would have resulted in a film with greater clarity and meaning.

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2018-12-31T13:54:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The Lingering and Lasting Effects of a Story's Outcome]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/the-lingering-and-lasting-effects-of-a-storys-outcome https://narrativefirst.com/articles/the-lingering-and-lasting-effects-of-a-storys-outcome

Developing the next iteration of the Dramatica theory of story requires one to look at a story in a particular way—a perspective off the beaten path of the theory's previous two-and-a-half decades. We trade a structural view of the structure for a dynamic view of structure—one that measures the power coursing through the meaning of a narrative.

In my blog series Mornings with Melanie, I document my research and development into building out a dynamic model of Dramatica. The current model of the Storymind, the one in place since 1994, focuses on the substance and meaning of a narrative. The Narrative Argument found in Subtext codifies this meaning into a simple sentence, focusing on thematic argument present in a story.

While I planned on taking my time developing these new concepts of story, my experience with finishing the first season of Wanderlust prompted a surprising shift in gears.

The following is my entry in today's journal.

Uncovering the Hidden Half of a Dynamic Quad

Skipping ahead this morning. 😃

After finishing the first season of Wanderlust last night, I confirmed my thoughts surrounding the Co-Dynamic Pair to the Story Outcome.

MAJOR Spoiler Alert: A Dramatica storyform represents all the thematic content of a narrative, from beginning to end. If you haven’t seen Wanderlust, you owe it yourself and to the creators to experience it without knowing the ending.

In the last chapter of Melanie’s book on Narrative Dynamics, she posits the idea that the Dynamic Questions we know and love—like Main Character Resolve, Main Character Approach, Story Driver, and so on—are incomplete.

My best guess was that, like the four item[s] in any quad, you can only see one foot, while the other is in a different family. So, from a structural view of structure, you can only see half of each of the dynamic quad

The other half of the quad is seen from the Dynamic view of Structure—our current focus.

Constricting or Loosening

Melanie goes on to describe her first Co-Dynamic Pair discovery, the other “half” of the Story Limit:

Simply put, while the current pair of Timelock and Optionlock describe narratives that are brought to a conclusion by running out of time or running out of options, the new pair describes narratives that, at the conclusion, find time or option (space) constrictions to be becoming tighter or looser. In essence, are time or space opening up into more possibilities or are they closing down into fewer?

This paragraph alone warrants several more posts to unpack, but before we get there, I want to share my own discovery made clear last night.

The second discovery made later in the early morning hours requires a bit more time to confirm its accuracy.

The Degree of an Outcome

What Melanie alludes to, but never completes, is the Co-Dynamic Pair to the Story Outcome.

In the current model, this Dynamic question asks Does the narrative end in Success or Failure? Do the “good guys” win, or do they lose?

As Melanie describes, the other half of this Dynamic Quad focusing on Outcome measures the degree of Success or Failure.

What's more, is it a permanent success/failure or a temporary one?

Left hanging at the end of her book for an answer, I set out to discover a solution on my own.

A Structural View Measures Substance

At first, I thought the pair would be Permanent/Temporary—

—until I realized that those two still measure the substance of the narratives meaning, not the power that runs through it.

We want the flow, or energy, of Success or Failure through the dramatic circuit of the narrative.

Not it's stasis at the end.

Instead, we want to know the power of that outcome and appreciate it as a process.

Is it Lingering or Lasting?

Measuring the Processes of Meaning

At the end of the first season of Wanderlust, the good guys “succeed.” Every relationship manages to find a way to reinvent itself, bringing a Successful Outcome to the Story Goal of Conceiving.

The question is: for how long?

If this were a powerful circuit, one with loads of energy behind it, one would see examples of lasting relationships forming on-screen.

This isn’t the case with Wanderlust.

In fact, with one slight exception (the lesbian couple), the Author dials back the degree of Success in the core relationships.

Jason and Celeste set off on a backpacking trip—yet, Jason hesitates, deciding to bring a photo of his ex-wife with him. Joe and his high-school sweetheart sputter in getting things off. And Joy, while accepting her relationship with Alan anew, finds success disconcerting.

The result is the sensation that yes, while they “won” this round, the success they achieve is fleeting and only temporary.

The power behind their Success is Lingering.

Measuring the Level of an Outcome

Measuring permanence or the temporal nature of an outcome is still weighing the state of a narrative. Measuring the levels of energy as they dissipate or increase measures the process of a narrative's meaning.

And with that, I made my first Dramatica discovery:

The Co-Dynamic Pair to the Story Outcome is Lingering/Lasting.

A Lingering Outcome, whether Success or Failure, wanes as it defines the meaning of a narrative. A Lasting Outcome magnifies and elevates the substance of a story, increasing relevancy as the Storymind processes the purpose.

Contrast the Lingering quality of Success found in Wanderlust with the Lasting Success of Star Wars or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The energy behind those Successes grows, increasing in power beyond the final frame.

The same distinction arises with stories that end in Failure.

Corruption in the LA police department is a Lasting Failure, as seen in L.A. Confidential. The failure of Andy to fit in with the fashion industry in The Devil Wears Prada is a Lingering Failure. The energy of that failure dissipates such that the failure to achieve factors little into the final analysis.

Note that both of these stories feature a Story Judgment of Good, lest you think the emotional judgment somehow leaks over into this assessment of power.

It doesn't.

The current Dramatica model measures potential and substance. This new Dynamic view of Structure model measures the power, or velocity, of a dramatic circuit.

And that power Lingers, or it Lasts—as a measure of that process of power.

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2018-12-27T14:31:00+00:00
<![CDATA[When It All Finally Clicks Into Place]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/66 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/66

Is the process involved in the analysis of a Dramatica storyform truly objective, or is everyone fooling themselves? Jim answers these questions as well as giving an update on our app, Subtext.

(Note: This episode was recorded April 11, 2018--at that time, Subtext was called the "Narrative First Atomizer")

In addition, we dive into what it feels like when a storyform just clicks into place--when you know you've found the unique set of thematic Storypoints that create the message of the narrative.

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Story Development Services from Narrative First. Stop rewriting and finally finish that story with our expert advice.

Show Notes & Links

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

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2018-12-22T15:02:00+00:00
<![CDATA[On Building a Narrative Argument for Your Story]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/on-building-a-narrative-argument-for-your-story https://narrativefirst.com/articles/on-building-a-narrative-argument-for-your-story

The Narrative Argument found in our story outlining app Subtext is powerful and precise: a straightforward sentence that sheds light on an Author’s reason for writing her story with laser-like focus. However, most writers view the purpose of a film in more general terms than what is provided in Subtext.

One such writer recently challenged our interpretation of the Narrative Argument for Moonstruck:

Start abstaining from fear of consequences, and you can become married.

Cold and unfeeling? Yes.

But dreadfully accurate.

Her suggestion was something a little less specific, but infinitely more approachable:

“letting go of stories they tell themselves to find meaningful relationships.”

Her take on the Narrative Argument is friendlier than the original one found in Subtext. Online forums and Twitter followers would eat that statement up.

But within the context of actually writing, or constructing a story, the latter won’t get you very far.

Letting go? What is it about telling those stories that are driving these characters that they need to let go of? Are they physically finding these relationships? Or is it something a bit more esoteric and psychological in nature?

It’s important to answer these questions because the path to writing a story about the physical journey towards finding more meaningful relationships is entirely different than a psychological journey.

And without knowing what is driving those stories, we can’t set up where we end up, and therefore can’t put the right pieces in place beforehand to get us there.

In short, no plan for our writing. The “letting go” answer is perfect for our interview at Sundance or the Austin Film Festival, but unhelpful when it comes to the blank page.

And the blank page is where the Author starts.

Dissecting Generalities

The “letting go” included in her version is the go-to reference for everyone when describing a Main Character who grows out of her debilitating point-of-view and ends up in a better place. In the Dramatica theory of story, the two Storypoints responsible for communicating this to the Audience are the Main Character Resolve and the Story Judgment.

The Main Character Resolve is set one of two ways:

  • Changed: The Main Character adopts a new approach of solving their problems
  • Steadfast: The Main Character retains their way of solving problems

“Letting go of the stories we tell ourselves” is an indicator of a Changed Main Character Resolve.

The second Storypoint is the Story Judgment, which can either be:

  • Good: everything turned out for the best
  • Bad: everything turned out for the worse (notably, the Main Character)

“Finding more meaningful relationships “ is a Good Thing.

A quicker way to say “letting go of the stories we tell ourselves to find more meaningful relationships” is simply Changed/Good.

Ok.

But as you can see, building a story from Changed/Good is nearly impossible. The paths are almost infinite to that Changed/Good ending. What are we changing away from? What is better now? How were things worse?

This is where the Narrative Argument from Subtext arrives and makes clear the path forward.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

In Moonstruck, it’s an Element of Temptation that they need to let go. The idea that you can embrace the immediate benefits of something despite possible consequences? That’s shown to be a problem for these characters.

The exciting part about Moonstruck is that the narrative isn’t focusing so much on the Element she needs to let go, but rather what Element she needs to MOVE TOWARDS.

Generally speaking, Moonstruck is a Coming of Age film. And one of the key concepts of a Coming of Age film is that the Narrative Argument is about what the Main Character GROWS INTO, rather than growing away from something.

So, it’s not so much about letting go of Temptation, as it is about embracing the alternative: Conscience. Moonstruck argues the positive gains found when one starts to abstain or hold back for fear of consequences.

That’s when one finds more meaningful relationships.

And the finding is definitely something more akin to creating, or manifesting with one’s life. The psychological act of becoming something more, rather than merely finding true love.

At least, that’s the argument that Moonstruck is making.

Constantly Refining

The writer wasn’t wrong. “Become married” was too simplistic—too reductive.

When developing the first incarnation of Subtext, I personally encoded over 400 separate Narrative Arguments. For the most part, these are spot-on. But occasionally, an argument falls short.

And that’s where Subtext truly shines.

For when a writer points out a place where Subtext can improve, we can quickly move to address the inaccuracy and make the system even better for the next writer.

We’re always open to suggestions or recommendations for improving the Narrative Arguments, and the Storytelling they inspire.

In fact, shortly after my conversation with this writer, I switched to Subtext and adjusted the Narrative Argument to this:

Start abstaining for fear of consequences, and you can manifest more meaningful relationships in your life.

Much better, right?

Even better, that idea of manifesting as describing a process of Becoming? That’s now a permanent part of Subtext as well. When future writers find themselves with a particular piece of Storytelling that focuses on Becoming—they’ll have manifesting listed as one possible option.

Understanding the Ingredients of Story

In the end, it’s all about defining exactly WHY your characters are getting into trouble. What PROCESSES are they engaging in? What specific things do they do? What are the Elements or Sources of Conflict that are creating grief in their lives?

That’s where building a Narrative Argument begins.

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2018-12-10T13:00:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Ralph Breaks the Internet]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/ralph-breaks-the-internet https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/ralph-breaks-the-internet

Spoiler alert: The surprise Pixar twist-villain of Ralph Breaks the Internet is that there is no surprise Pixar twist villain. In fact, there isn’t an Antagonist to be found anywhere. Which unfortunately leads to a bland and uninteresting Overall Story Throughline—one beset with mildly amusing set pieces and Internet meme-gags that seem passé before they finish.

An Antagonist prevents or avoids the successful resolution of the story’s central problem. This motivation towards reticence is essential to convey within the context of a narrative as it represents a critical driving force in our own lives.

Stories are models of our mind’s problem-solving process. Leaving out or skipping parts of this process is something everyone in the Audience will notice. After all, they all have minds.

This is why so many people will tell you that Ralph Breaks the Internet was boring. There was no force of antagonism working against the force towards initiative—that of the Protagonist. Without that pushback, the story presents no consequence for failing to reach the Story Goal. No real stakes. And therefore, little to no interest.

Sure, Ralph himself works as a kinda-sorta Antagonist about halfway through--but he never fully commits, and with that driving force absent from the other Acts an objective sense of what the story is all about fails to materialize.

Ralph Breaks the Storyform

What makes this absense so unfortunate is the fact that there is a tremendous amount of heart in the film. Unlike most recent animated fare that completely ignores the Relationship Story Throughline, Ralph doubles down and delivers a powerful and emotional friendship between its two principal characters.

The Relationship Story Throughline acts as a counter-balance to the plot-laden Overall Story Throughline. Focusing on the relationship between the Main Character and Influence Character, this Throughline deals with the story’s central conflict from a “We” perspective—as in, this is our problem. It’s often where one finds the emotional core of a story, and Ralph nails this aspect of narrative.

But strangely enough, the identification of Main Character is not nearly as clear. The story starts out firmly in Vanellope’s corner—and we empathize easily with her ennui over Is this all there is to life for me?

But then, the film slips into Ralph’s corner, breaking established perspectives and literally glitching the Audience’s perception of the story’s central message.

Part of this lies in confusion over the difference between a Protagonist and the Main Character—and the mistaken notion that both must reside in the same player.

Ralph is set up to be both the Protagonist and the Changed Influence Character. Vanellope is primed to be the Steadfast Main Character. While their individual resolves play out, their point-of-view to the Audience shifts—confusing the viewer and reducing any significant appreciation of what was being said.

Friends Don’t Do That To Friends

Rich Moore, one of the directors behind the film, was my very first boss ever in the animation industry. I loved working for him on The Critic and was blown away and flattered when he asked me to do some drawings for consumer products on the first Wreck-It Ralph movie—so I wanted this one to be great.

Unfortunately, I found myself waiting and waiting for the story to kick one—waiting for some solid Antagonism to draw me into the plight of these two—where was the objective point-of-view on insecurity? Without it, the film falls flat.

That said, I will be forever grateful for the final scene between Ralph and Vanellope. While the story may be broken, the heartbreaking goodbye when one let's go so another can grow is all too familiar to me. With one son in college and a daughter just moments away, I know what that sense of insecurity feels like—and I’m grateful to see a way to move through those heart-wrenching moments with understanding and grace.

Stories are meant to teach us the very best way to work through the problems in our lives. And while some stories may struggle themselves to communicate their messages effectively, the heart and passion that drives the Author’s intent are sometimes just enough to break through and touch our hearts.

Even if it needs to glitch to do so.

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2018-11-26T11:17:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The Grinch]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/the-grinch https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/the-grinch

The latest take on the classic Chuck Jones’ animated short, The Grinch, delights with tactile textures and appealing character designs--but disappoints when it comes to the story.

As someone who actually worked in Chuck Jones’ story department, I can tell you that he probably wouldn’t have noticed. The characterization and gags in The Grinch--both elements Chuck excelled at--carry on in that great Warner Bros. tradition. Unfortunately, the film also manages to carry on the tradition of an incomplete and broken storyform.

The Four Throughlines

A 6-minute or even 26-minute short can get away with missing elements--the Audience forgives the oversight, taking into account the realities of reduced storytelling real estate. A feature film, on the other hand, must fulfill expectations lest character development and eventually maturation appears to materialize out of nowhere.

A complete story consists of four different perspectives on the narrative’s central problem:

  • The Overall Story, or THEY perspective
  • The Main Character, or I perspective
  • The Influence Character, or YOU perspective
  • The Relationship Story, or WE perspective

Leaving one of these out is akin to not telling the whole story--literally failing to see the problem from all different sides.

A Lack of Heartfelt Conflict

The Grinch suffers the same plight as The Nightmare Before Christmas:1 a missing Relationship Story Throughline. Like Nightmare, Grinch tells an entertaining and funny Overall Story Throughline with competence. And it offers a great Main Character Throughline--a welcome addition absent from the original cartoon. Even the Influence Character Throughline appears in the guise of Cindy Lou. But for some reason, the film completely skips over the Relationship Story Throughline. Just like in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Any time Jack and Sally gather together on-screen to work through some "WE" conflict, someone interrupts them. The result is unmotivated character change and a deep desire to turn the film off 3/4 of the way through a viewing.

While The Grinch avoids a complete "punch-out", that unsubstantiated motivation persists. The Grinch and Cindy have one interaction at the beginning of the film and one at the end.

That’s it.

Which is strange--especially considering they had the perfect setup for a complete Relationship Story.

Filling in the Blanks

Cindy wants her Mom to be happy. And after the Grinch gets her thinking that a letter isn’t enough to guarantee success, she suits up to visit Santa Claus--

--but then her Mom stops her from going outside.

Why?

The Grinch is suiting up to pretend to be Santa Claus...why not have Cindy traipse up to his mountaintop, mistaken him for the Big Guy, and then work through all their emotional heartfelt Relationship Story Throughline stuff? The Grinch could use her to spy and gather information about the town, all while pretending to be interested in her plight--

--which would then eventually lead to him in actually caring about her plight.

This wasn’t even my idea--it was my 16-year old daughter’s idea of what would naturally work within the structure of the current story.

And she’s right.

With the Grinch’s Throughline in Universe, Cindy’s in Mind, and the Overall Story in Psychology, the Relationship Story falls naturally into Physics--the essence of the conflict in their relationship needs to center around activities. Activities like gathering information. And stealing Christmas. And understanding that there is something more between them.

The Dramatica Model of the Storymind

The Psychology of Story

Effective and meaningful stories are a result of understanding the psychology of story--not the "storyboarding process" as suggested in this article Ralph Breaks the Internet: how storyboards helped make the movie great - Vox. Pixar succeeds because their story departments are run by people whom inherently tune into this reality of story as a model of a single human mind trying to solve a problem.

The Grinch falls short and fails to remain in our hearts because it failed to address a very important part of the way we appreciate our lives--our relationships with others. By skipping out on the the Relationship Story Througline, The Grinch leaves a giant/heart shaped hole in our chest three sizes too big to ignore.


  1. Made even more funny, considering Danny Elfman scores both films--bringing an auditory reminiscence consistent with an incomplete holiday special. ↩︎

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2018-11-22T15:06:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Raiders of the Lost Ark and Multiple Storyforms]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/65 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/65

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

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

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

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

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

Show Notes & Links

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

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2018-08-02T16:01:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Writing Short Stories with Dramatica]]> https://narrativefirst.com/articles/writing-short-stories-with-dramatica https://narrativefirst.com/articles/writing-short-stories-with-dramatica

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

You don't.

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

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

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

To tell a tale, instead of a story.

An Approach for Short Stories

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

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

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

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

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

Frank won an Academy Award for writing Logan.

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

UPDATE: A reader sent in a copy of the original text! You can read it here: Resurrecting The Flying Kreisslers.

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

  • Being
  • Conceptualizing
  • Becoming
  • Conceiving

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

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

The Psychology Domain

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

Most likely not.

Letting the Storyform Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delivering the Goods

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

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

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

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2018-08-01T16:58:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Pretty Woman]]> https://narrativefirst.com/throughlines/pretty-woman https://narrativefirst.com/throughlines/pretty-woman

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

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

We just turn them into stories for fun.

High-Class Story Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2018-07-30T13:08:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Westworld: Season 2, Episode 8]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/westworld-season-2-episode-8 https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/westworld-season-2-episode-8

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

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

Only Time Will Tell

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

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

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

They finally get what you're trying to say.

Having Something Important to Say

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

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

And that's because it had something to say.

Function and Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Challenging Perspective

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

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

Defining the Scope of a Narrative

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

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

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

Take My Heart When You Go

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

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

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

Take Mine In Its Place

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

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

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

AKECHETA

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

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

AKECHETA

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

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

AKECHETA

I dedicated my life to sharing the symbol.

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

AKECHETA

It means you can see.

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

AKECHETA

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

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

AKECHETA

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

A Greater Understanding

AKECHETA

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

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

AKECHETA

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

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

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

AKECHETA

But it was a promise I couldn't keep.

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

The Heart of Every Story

AKECHETA

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

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

Just like Maeve and her daughter.

Just like Akecheta and Kohona.

DAUGHTER

The ghost said we should be scared.

MAEVE

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

AKECHETA

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

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

MAEVE

Take my heart when you go.

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

That's a story resolving with meaning and purpose.

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

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2018-07-25T16:55:00+00:00
<![CDATA[Firefly: Season 1, Episode 8]]> https://narrativefirst.com/throughlines/firefly-season-1-episode-8 https://narrativefirst.com/throughlines/firefly-season-1-episode-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This leaves the Main Character Throughline and Influence Character Throughline.

Achieving Through a Force of Personality

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

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

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

A Shared Perspective of Influence

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

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

Until the final climactic moment.

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

The Balance of Conflict

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

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

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2018-07-11T18:48:00+00:00
<![CDATA[The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi]]> https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/64 https://narrativefirst.com/podcasts/64

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

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

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

You can read the entire transcription of this episode here.

Show Notes & Links

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

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2018-07-05T11:10:00+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 Greatest Showman]]> https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/the-greatest-showman https://narrativefirst.com/analysis/the-greatest-showman

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

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

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

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

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2018-04-20T00:00:00+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