Narrative First Narrative First Articles, Thoughts and Analysis en-us James R. Hull Copyright 2017 2017-08-19T19:04:57-07:00 <![CDATA[Dunkirk]]>

As covered in the Throughline analysis of Christopher Nolan's WWII thriller, Dunkirk is not a complete story. The lack of a fully-developed Relationship Story Throughline and a weak and deficient Main Character Throughline causes the film to come across more like propaganda, rather than narrative argument. Enough of a story exists, however, to warrant a closer look and perhaps suggest ways to develop the film into a complete narrative.

The Technique of Propaganda

Propaganda is a method of leaving out key parts of a story to coerce or manipulate the viewer to fill in the missing pieces with their own experience. By becoming a part of the story-forming process, the viewer unknowingly subscribes to the original Author’s point-of-view. Films like Moonlight or Sicko employ this method as a means of increasing emotional attachment. When done inadvertently, as it is here in Dunkirk, the technique distances the viewer and removes them from experience–unless they possess a patriotic appreciation of the United Kingdom.

The Overall Conflict

400,000 men lie trapped on the northern coast of France. This problematic Situation sets the Domain of conflict for the Overall Story Throughline perspective. To get “Home” and survive this Overall Story Concern of the Present, the United Kingdom must find a way to overcome their universal problem of Potentiality.

The Dramatica theory of story defines the narrative element of Potentiality as a determination that something has the capacity to become true. As seen within the context of an Overall Story Problem, this constant looking towards potential disaster motivates and extenuates conflict for everyone in the story(:

  • The potential disaster of losing all these men.
  • The potential disaster if a ship sinks within the Mole.
  • The potential disaster of taking on more men in a crowded boat.

Everywhere you look, the narrative of Dunkirk depicts the negative results of being driven by potential.

Replacing Potentiality with Certainty resolves the overall narrative with a Story Outcome of Success. Certainty is defined as a conclusion that something is absolutely true and this Overall Story Solution can be seen in the final sequence with Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”

The triumph of Dunkirk is the triumph of Certainty over Potentiality, as seen from the objective point-of-view provided by the Overall Story Throughline. One clear example of this dynamic plays out within the final moments of the Heinkel bombing the minesweeper.

An Example of the Dangers of Potentiality

Towards the end of Dunkirk, a German Heinkel arrives on the scene and bombs a minesweeper, capsizing the boat. British sailors evacuate and situate themselves on top of the floating hull. Safe and sound, they await rescue...until the Heinkel comes around for another pass.

Driven by the potential of the bomber unleashing another successful volley, the sailors leap into the sea only to discover another, far greater problem: oil leaking from their ship. The British Spitfire swoops in, disables the Heinkel, and sends the burning bomber plunging straight into the oil spill. The sea ignites in a fury of flame, killing many of the sailors who sought the ocean for safety.

The foundation of meaning within this sequence rests on this Problem of Potentiality. The potential of being killed drives the sailors into a far more disastrous situation. Had they remained on the overturned minesweeper and relied on the Certainty that the Spitfire would save the day, they would all be alive.

The same dynamic plays out in the sequence where young Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) locks the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy) in the small cabin below deck. The potential danger apparent in the shell-shocked Soldier motivates Peter to lock the door, creating a worse situation: the Soldier panics, climbs upstairs, and in his state of heightened anxiety accidentally knocks George(Barry Keoghan) on his head. If Peter hadn’t been motivated by Potentiality and instead possessed some of the Certainty, his father Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) portrayed, George would still be alive.

Keep Calm and Carry On

The Influence Character Throughline of a narrative provides a unique point-of-view that challenges individual approaches towards solving problems. In Dunkirk, Mr. Dawson supplies this perspective by influencing Manners of Thinking. While many panic at the potential disaster that awaits, Dawson keeps calm and carries on, refusing to overreact.

In the Dramatica theory of story, the element of Reaction is defined as actions made in response. Problems of overreacting and problems of refusing to overreact look to the same element when considering their source of conflict: Reaction. Mr. Dawson’s Influence Character Problem of Reaction motivates him to calmly single out the best course of action while everyone else runs around like a chicken with their head cut off–injecting the Influence Character Symptom of Induction/Overall Story Symptom of Induction and the Influence Character Response of Deduction into the narrative.

  • Induction: conjecturing and inferring
  • Deduction: process of elimination

This alternative approach towards solving problems influences and challenges those around Mr. Dawson to think differently. The conflict and inequity he introduces in the narrative through this concentration on Induction and Deduction push the Main Character of Dunkirk to alter and eventually Change his point-of-view.

If only we could accurately gauge the Main Character of Dunkirk.

A Personal Point-of-View

In addition to the objective view provided by the Overall Story Throughline and the singularly unique point-of-view given by the Influence Character Throughline, a complete narrative calls upon the Main Character Throughline to offer the Audience an opportunity to experience conflict first-hand. Usually, an easy thing to determine (especially in stories named after the Main Character, like Logan or Wonder Woman), the Main Character point-of-view butts heads against the Influence Character point-of-view...if they’re in the same scene.

In Dunkirk, Mr. Dawson functions as the apparent Influence Character while Timothy (Fionn Whitehead) offers our only way into the narrative. From the first scene to the last, we experience the terror of not being able to see the enemy, from Timothy’s point-of-view. Timothy’s focus on the unknown potential lying just around the corner is the same exact Potential motivating the Overall Story Throughline.

Finding Meaning in Narrative

In a complete narrative, the character who changes their resolve and adopts the competing approach to solving problems shares the same exact Problem and Solution as the Overall Story Throughline. This relationship is one instance where the various Throughlines weave together and gives meaning to the story’s events. The Audience sees the problem with Potential both from within and from without–something they can’t possibly do in their real lives.

Unmotivated Character Growth

Timothy’s growth–or Character Arc–plays out through the shift of his Resolve from his original Main Character Problem of Potentiality to his Main Character Solution of Certainty. His journey to that point requires a Main Character Growth of Stop. Once Timothy stops taking orders, and begins thinking for himself–his ability to be certain about the choices he makes falls into place. In the end, Timothy accepts death if he must, because he would rather die with the certainty that his friend was not a German spy than live with the potential of killing an innocent man.

Timothy grows to a point where he adopts Certainty into his Throughline with his defense of the Dutch stowaway–but he does so without the personalized influence of Mr. Dawson. The young man changes just because, and because that’s what characters do.

The entire purpose of the Influence Character Throughline perspective is to challenge the Main Character to reconsider their perspective. Without that influence, no significant catalyst exists to motivate growth within the Main Character and development feels forced and unnatural.

True, the Dutch deserter shares some of the qualities of Mr. Dawson, making him a candidate for a hand-off Influence Character, yet not enough exists to warrant a full 180-degree turn on the part of Timothy. The result sort of works, but feels forced because of the lack of integration between these two important Throughlines.

An Alternate Candidate for Main Character

With Timothy stuck on the beach, Peter appears to fill in for Main Character as he experiences his father’s influence directly. While not enough exists to label Peter the Main Character, he too experiences a paradigm shift with the Shivering Soldier encounter.

Peter begins their meeting motivated to overcompensate because of the potential for this shell shocked soldier to go off his rocker. Peter locks the cabin door, the soldier panics, climbs upstairs, and inadvertently knocks George on his head.

Later, the Shivering Soldier asks Peter if George is going to be OK. Knowing George to be dead, Peter responds, ”He’ll be fine”–a recognition of what the shell shocked soldier has been through, and a realization that calm is contagious. This element of Certainty feels similar to Timothy’s defense of his Dutch friend, placing Peter in the correct position to explore the resolution of the Main Character Throughline.

But it also feels like Acceptance.

The Hint of a Relationship Story Throughline

The final perspective afforded by a complete narrative is the Relationship Story Throughline. Here, conflict plays out from the point-of-view what we struggle to resolve. Existing outside of any association within the Overall Story Throughline perspective, this Throughline explores the relationship between the Main and Influence Character.

The Dramatica theory of story stands apart from every other paradigm of narrative in that it takes a set of story elements and predicts missing elements needed to complete the narrative. With the following dynamic and structural, thematic choices set within Dramatica:

The application determines the one storyform out of 32,768 that matches the narrative of Dunkirk. In addition to pointing out the Main Character Problem and Solution of Potentiality and Certainty and the Influence Character Problem of Reaction and Symptom and Response of Induction and Deduction, the storyform singles out a Relationship Story Problem of Non-Acceptance and a Relationship Story Solution of Acceptance.

These two elements and the additional elements resting within this Relationship Story Throughline need encoding within the narrative for Dunkirk to feel complete and emotionally fulfilling. Little exists that satisfies these requirements.

In the Dramatica theory of story, Acceptance is defined as a decision not to oppose which is precisely what Peter does there at the end with the shell shocked soldier. Driven to oppose any and everything the soldier engages in or says, this emotional shift resolves the relationship between Peter and the soldier and brings needed heart to a logistical account of the conflict.

It feels right, but it feels unearned and underdeveloped.

The relationship between Peter and the soldier fails to differentiate itself from their relationship within an Overall Story Throughline perspective. They are brothers-in-arms in a potential Relationship Story Throughline, and they are brothers-in-arms from an Overall point-of-view.

The only relationship that exists outside of an overall story concern is the father/son dynamic between Peter and Mr. Dawson. Here, we sense a heart-some connection beyond the affairs of the current war–but this too fails to develop adequately. The Relationship Story Problem of Non-Acceptance fails to motivate their father/son dynamic, and while there is a head nod at the end signaling a modicum of Acceptance, it does not feel quite as heartfelt as the Acceptance played out between Peter and the shell-shocked soldier.

Filling in the Missing Pieces

In short, the narrative of Dunkirk breaks in the area of the Relationship Story Throughline. Potential candidates exist for a relationship dynamic outside the concern of getting the boys home, yet these opportunities fail to develop in any meaningful and significant way.

Also, the lack of a Main Character Throughline motivated by a clear and impactful Influence Character Throughline trends the narrative towards propaganda. Characters grow and develop because they must, not because of any connection to a complete and well-nurtured narrative argument.

Of course, it may have been the Author’s original intent to provide a patriotic display of British resilience under challenging and insurmountable odds. If this is the case, then Dunkirk succeeds in fulfilling its original purpose. One cannot hope but feel an overwhelming sense of pride when the boats arrive or when Churchill delivers his speech, all set to the swelling and moving notes of Edward Elgar’s classic Variation #14.

For a narrative to survive outside the realm of patriotic indulgence, it must complete the argument with four fully-developed Throughlines. By addressing every point-of-view and accounting for every perspective, the Author guarantees respect for the Audience regardless of background or nationality.

In the end, we want a great story; one where we can find meaning and one we can return to time and time again. The presence of all Four Throughlines secures both–allowing us to keep calm and carry on with a greater understanding of how to survive in this world.

<![CDATA[Identifying The Domains And Throughlines Of A Complete Story]]>

Many focus on determining the wants and needs of principal players to the exclusion of anything else. They stop on the why and what of individuals, instead of moving on to the more important why and how of the narrative itself. To maintain the integrity of narrative, successful Authors bridge the gap between character and plot with thematic issues consistent within particular contexts.

Previous articles in this series on Identifying the Key Story Points of a Narrative covered the creation of inequity, and its resolution within the Story Goal. They also explored the Story Consequence as a counter-balance to that Goal and dove into the concept of Protagonist and Antagonist as motivating force, rather than an indicator of right or wrong.

This article seeks to expand those understandings of the major story points by moving away from the static concerns of plot and plot resolution. Effective thematic exploration looks to the juxtaposition of strongly argued equally-balanced points-of-view. Creating a Storymind for the Audience to inhabit, instead of preaching or telling them how things are–as in The Passion of the Christ, Sicko, or Okja–increases the acceptance level of the story, while providing the Audience with a greater understanding of how to solve problems.

Whether creating or analyzing, the process of building the foundation for a story remains the same: Identify the sources of conflict that generate problems for the characters. Once you know where the conflict lies, you can begin to appreciate how potential resolution plays out.

Four Areas of Conflict

Problems fall into four broad areas, or Domains, of conflict:

  • Situations describe a fixed external state where reputation, status, looks, or position generate conflict
  • Activities represent external processes where fighting, investigating, teaching, and stealing create conflict
  • Fixed Attitudes define a fixed internal state where prejudice, anxiety, jealousy, and memories generate conflict
  • Manners of Thinking describe internal processes where figuring out, inventing, pretending, and maturing create conflict

As these four areas represent the totality of conflict, a functioning, and complete narrative will find a way to address each one of them.

A riot on the streets is a problem. The marching, shouting, conscripting, and disruptive protests appear to be problematic Activities. A different Author, however, might choose to focus on the power play between social classes and see the riot as a problematic Situation. Another might focus on the prejudice or panic surrounding heightened Fixed Attitudes. And still another might look to the pretending, coercing, and subversive manipulation by the movement’s leaders to generate problematic Manners of Thinking.

No one answer is correct, no choice better than the other. But a decision must be made, for if the Author decides to bounce from one area to the next, thematic concerns and plot elements shift as well. While the attitudes and approaches of the characters might work well as issues within problematic Activities, they matter little in Manners of Thinking. Likewise, rationalizations and obligations mean a great deal when looking at problematic Manners of Thinking, yet possess no obvious connection with Activities.

Directionless narratives fail to keep thematic issues and plot concerns within the same family. They bounce the Audience around needlessly, promising one story and delivering another.

If those four areas represent the totality of conflict, then how does a story account for all of them, regardless of the Author’s initial focus?

The Reason for Throughlines

To maintain integrity within the thematic exploration of a narrative, a consistent perspective–or context–must preside over the area of conflict. Functioning narratives find a way to address all four areas, not by shifting context and looking at them one at a time, but rather by looking at each through a consistent framework known as a Throughline.

In the Dramatica theory of story, the Throughline of a narrative is a perspective, not a character, nor a plot line. Many other understandings of narrative refer to “A” storylines or “B” storylines as if the overall plot of a story somehow holds prominence over any others. In Dramatica, it is the relationship between the Throughlines that is important, not the subject matter explored in each one.

The Four Throughlines of a Complete Story

The Four Throughline perspectives required by an entire narrative correspond with the four points-of-view our minds employ:

  • The Overall Story Throughline looks at conflict from a dispassionate They perspective, as in Their fighting involves two sides fighting and punching and kicking each other.
  • The Main Character Throughline looks at conflict from an intimate first-person I point-of-view, as in I am guilty and responsible for all the fighting because I inadvertently started it.
  • The Influence Character Throughline looks at the problematic conflict generated from a first-person You perspective, as in You never shut up!
  • The Relationship Story Throughline looks at the kind of conflict that drives a relationship forward (or backward) from an intimate We perspective, as in We used to be such great friends.

Four areas of conflict. Four perspectives providing context. A complete narrative addresses all four areas by attaching a different consistent meaning for each one. Maintaining that contextual awareness of an area of conflict guarantees thematic integrity. Issues and concerns, while dynamic in their development, remain locked and identifiable within a consistent context.

The examples above source from Captain America: Civil War. Superheroes fighting each other in the Overall Story Throughline, Tony Stark/Iron Man as the man responsible for Ultron in the Main Character Throughline, Steve Rodgers/Captain America and his undying support for what’s right in the Influence Character Throughline, and the dysfunctional friendship between Steve and Tony in the Relationship Story Throughline. With all four possible perspectives accounted for and all four areas of conflict covered, narrative functions as one complete argument.

Make an Argument for All Four

When it comes to identifying the source of conflict within a single Throughline, one can always make an argument for any one Domain, or area of conflict. The trick is making an argument for all four Throughlines at once.

Luke Skywalker, in the original Star Wars, could be seen as having a problematic attitude (I wanted to go into town to pick up some power converters!), a set of problematic activities (Sand people? Let’s go have a look...), or a problematic manner of thinking (Look around, they could use a good pilot like you.). But the only Domain that works, while considering the Domains of the other three Throughlines, is a problematic Situation: (Luke is the son a great fighter pilot, stuck working as a moisture farmer on the edge of the galaxy.).

Thankfully, balancing the four Domains does not require one to go through this process for each Throughline. Identify the source of conflict in two of them and the other two fall into place.

The Relationship Between the Throughlines

The current model of the theory emphasizes Dynamic Pairs of conflict over anything else—meaning Throughlines, Problems, and Solutions, and more connected story points—sit across from each other in a diagonal relationship. When it comes to aligning Domains with Throughline perspectives, this dynamic creates two key relationships:

  • The Overall Story and Relationship Story Throughlines sit diagonally across from each other
  • The Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines sit diagonally across from each other

Placing Luke Skywalker in the Situation Domain forces Ben Kenobi in the Fixed Attitude Domain automatically–an arrangement that feels right. Luke is stuck in a far off land; Ben is stuck with some pretty far off ideas. The two balance each other by bringing into the narrative two competing, yet somewhat similar, areas of conflict.

The same relationship between Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines exists in How to Train Your Dragon. Hiccup is a Viking stuck in the body of a wimpy 98 lb. Weakling, his father Stoick is a Viking stuck fighting for old and weak ideas. Both alike in their relative weakness of position, both different in how that weakness plays out through conflict.

Balancing the Sources of Conflict

As you can see, selecting the Domain of conflict for the Main Character Throughline selects the Domain for the Influence Character Throughline automatically. Making one more selection–typically for the Overall Story Throughline as it is usually the easiest to identify–forces the other two into positions necessarily to balance out the narrative.

Both Star Wars and How to Train Your Dragon find conflict in the Overall Story Throughline through problematic Activities. The fighting of Dragons, the trials of training new Viking Dragon-killers, the struggle against the Empire, the trials of testing out new weapons on entire planets–all of these focus on conflict in the external realm.

Maintaining that diagonal relationship with the Overall Story Throughline places the Relationship Story Throughlines of these two stories in the Domain of Manners of Thinking. Father and son hash it out over an incredible shift in power while mentor and mentee hash it out over living in the moment and being one with the Force–both finding conflict within the inner realm.

Choose the source of conflict for the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines, and the narrative model will determine the natural counter-balance found in the Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughlines.

Of Friends and Superheroes

In Captain America: Civil War colleagues and friends face off against one another in spectacular battles. The Overall Story Throughline covers the colleagues portion of that statement, the Relationship Story Throughline the friends part. By placing the area of conflict for the Overall Story Throughline in problematic Activities–which sounds right for a story about superheroes physically one-upping each other on the battlefield–the area of conflict for the Relationship Story Throughline falls into Manners of Thinking.

The friendship between Steve and Tony (Captain America and Iron Man, respectively) splinters from the inside. The internal dysfunction between them mimics the external dysfunction between the opposite sides found in the Overall Story Throughline. The attempts to manipulate one another to think differently find a relation in the attempts to physically force everyone to work differently.

A similarly balanced relationship exists between the Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines. Tony is the man responsible for creating the robot that killed so many lives. Captain America is the man responsible for standing up for what is right during tumultuous times. Both stuck with labels they can’t escape; one finding inequity in the external, the other through the internal manifestation of that label.

Writing a Complete Story

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the various Throughlines, one begins to derive a sense of what it feels like to write a whole story. Contrarily, one can skip over one or two of the Throughlines, or shift context to different points-of-view, and start to appreciate what it feels like when a story lacks clarity. Balancing all four Throughline perspectives at once guarantees that feeling of completeness.

<![CDATA[The Big Sick]]>

Executive Producer Judd Apatow continues his love affair of comedians with The Big Sick, a likable if methodical, story of one Pakistanis’ coming to America. Upholding the cultural trend of modern films like Get Out, Wonder Woman, and Dunkirk, The Big Sick explores the problematic immediacy of what we want to do, who we want to be, and who we can marry.

The Big Sick is about comedians, and if there’s one thing that drives comics more than anything else, it’s the reaction of the crowd. This element of Reaction, defined by the Dramatica theory of story as actions made in response, motivates both the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines.

One of the purposes of narrative is to grant us an understanding of the problems we face in our own lives. By juxtapositioning questionable actions made in response both from a first-person subjective point-of-view and a third-person objective point-of-view, a film like The Big Sick clues us in on the most appropriate method for resolving these issues.

The Main Character Throughline provides the first-person subjective point-of-view. Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani) bases everything he does on how his mother and father would react. This Main Character Problem motivates his Throughline and causes him to see his parent’s approval as the real problem and a refusal to adapt to their way of thinking the answer (Main Character Symptom of Acceptance and Main Character Response of Non-Acceptance). This problematic motivation drives him to act out by changing things externally before trying to adapt himself internally (Main Character Approach of Do-er), e.g. going downstairs during a family dinner to play video games instead of praying.

The Overall Story Throughline provides the third-person objective point-of-view. Kumail and his comedian friends, Mary (Aidy Bryant), Chris (Kurt Braunohler), and CJ (Bo Burnham) base their entire existence on the crowd’s response to their jokes. Their constant need of approval drives them to deduce whether or not their jokes land and infer whether or not a talent scout will give them their big break (Overall Story Issue of Need, Overall Story Symptom of Deduction and Overall Story Response of Induction).

Throw in Emily’s actual problem with her body reacting inconceivably to an infection and one can see that Reaction drives conflict in The Big Sick.

The only way to resolve problems of Reaction is with Proaction, or taking initiative action to achieve one’s goals. CJ and Mary’s decision to move from Chicago to New York City is just the kind of thing to resolve their issues within the Overall Story Throughline (Story Driver of Decision, Overall Story Solution of Proaction).

Kumail initiates the same deciding force in his Throughline when he arrives at family dinner, uninvited and unwanted, and tells each one of them that he is going to be a part of his family (Main Character Solution of Proaction). This paradigm shift resolves his issues and brings peace to the 1400 yr. weight he feels as a Pakistani man in modern day America (Main Character Resolve of Changed, Main Character Throughline of Situation).

Change of this significance does not happen in a vacuum.

Challenging Kumail to change his way and adopt a new perspective is heckler and future girlfriend, Emily (Zoe Kazan). As Influence Character, Emily provides that first-person objective viewpoint found within the context of You.

Handing off her impactful point-of-view to her mom and dad when she goes under, Emily and her parents influence Kumail with their refusal to back down when the going gets tough:

  • Emily’s refusal to enter into a relationship with Kumail
  • Emily’s refusal to seek medical treatment when her ankle gives out
  • Her father’s refusal to leave her mother regardless of how much she may hate him
  • Her mother’s refusal to put up with shoddy hospital practices

All of these contribute towards Kumail’s growth of character (Influence Character Problem of Non-Acceptance and Influence Character Resolve of Steadfast). That unwillingness to compromise drives Emily’s parents to figure out what is going on with their daughter and what treatment she needs, and gives them cause to infer that the 17th best hospital in Chicago might not be the best hospital for her (Influence Character Symptom of Deduction and Influence Character Response of Induction).

The Relationship Story Throughlinethe heart of every complete story–centers around the romantic relationship between Kumail and Emily. The film starts and ends with the two of them making a big show of their love in front of everyone (Relationship Story Problem of Production), while their tender romance teaches them both how important they are for one another (Relationship Story Problem of Production, Relationship Story Concern of Learning). Calling Emily out for heckling and figuring out that Kumail may have a pattern of using favorite pickup lines and old B-Horror movies to lure women into bed challenges both to step up to the plate and grow together (Relationship Story Symptom of Deduction and Relationship Story Issue of Strategy). Their mutual callback to the night they first met resolves their love with the idea that in all likelihood, Emily is there not to heckle, but to support (Relationship Story Solution of Reduction).

The only drawback to the film–and it’s a minor one–is the lack of an apparent Story Limit. A set number of options or a set deadline frames a narrative in such a way that an Audience understands and appreciates the scope of the story. Leaving this story point deficient and ill-defined leaves many to wonder when will it all end?

The Big Sick is a lovely film, warmly acted, and tenderly told. With all Four Throughlines accounted for, this story relates a convincing argument for taking the initiative in matters of the heart.

<![CDATA[Identifying The Protagonist And Antagonist Of A Complete Story]]>

To many, the determination of key players within a narrative remains simple: identify the good guy and identify the bad guy. Unfortunately, assumed notions of morality fail to take into consideration the actual inequity of the story. Sometimes the efforts to resolve an inequity turn out to be a good thing; other times, they do not.

The key towards maintaining the integrity of a narrative from beginning to end lies in the correct identification of the fundamental inequity of a story.

Seeking Resolution of the Inequity

In the article Identifying the Goal and Consequence of a Complete Story, the moment where a story begins determines the type of Goal to resolve it:

to accurately define the objective Goal of a narrative, one must first identify the beginning of conflict–the moment when equity turns to inequity–within the scope of that one story.

This injustice calls for some resolution. In some stories–like Star Wars, Arrival, Moonlight, and Captain America: Civil War–resolution arrives. In other stories–like Hamlet, Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada, and Manchester by the Sea–the resolution of the initial inequity fails to materialize. The first group tells of triumphs, the second of tragedies.

When determining the character functions of Protagonist and Antagonist, look to the objective context provided by the Overall Story Throughline perspective. What are they trying to achieve? And when it comes to deciding they, assume no superiority of “good” over “bad.”

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Good or bad is a point-of-view, and in the Dramatica theory of story, point-of-view is accounted for in another location within the model. In fact, four points of view exist:

The Protagonist and Antagonist of a narrative operate within the Overall Story Throughline perspective of They, as in they’re fighting against one another or they’re manipulating one another. Good or bad may play into their pursuits of fighting or manipulating or any other kind of conflict through thematic judgments, but the quality of “good” or “bad” within the context of the Protagonist fails to matter when considering the function of a Protagonist.

The role of a character takes into consideration direction of movement. With the initial inequity created and the Goal to resolve that inequity determined, one character moves towards the achievement of that resolution, the other works to prevent it:

  • The Protagonist pursues resolution of the inequity
  • The Antagonist avoids or prevents resolution of the inequity

Value judgments of good or bad fail to factor into this determination.

By all accounts sane and righteous, Michael Clayton’s Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is a “bad” guy. Yet, her actions reveal her to be the Protagonist–the one pursuing resolution of the story’s inequity.

The narrative begins when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) suffers a manic episode in the middle of a deposition. His actions set off the inequity of the class action lawsuit for everyone in Michael Clayton. As the conglomerate’s chief counsel, Karen pursues a successful resolution of the situation–no matter what it takes.1

In How to Train Your Dragon, the destruction of the Viking hometown of Berk upsets the balance of things and drives the Vikings that inhabit that island to seek resolution. Their leader, Stoick (Gerard Butler) pursues a course aimed at training the next generation of dragon killers. His son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), does everything in his power to avoid, or prevent, the achievement of this goal. Stoick is the Protagonist of the film, Hiccup the Antagonist. Both play “good” characters in the story.

Manchester by the Sea explores conflict resolution surrounding the death of a single father. Once Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) discovers he has ten years left to live, he sets out to find a way for his brother, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) to figure into the raising of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). While deceased for most of the narrative, Joe functions as Protagonist driving the successful resolution of this inequity. Lee avoids or prevents, the accomplishment of this Goal both consciously and subconsciously. In some respects, Lee’s behavior can be seen as “bad,” yet the Author positions him as a “good” guy throughout the narrative.

When looking dispassionately at the events of a story, a narrative wastes little time considering the goodness or badness of a motivational force in the context of inequity resolution.

A Method for Determining the Protagonist of a Story

This means of determining Protagonist and Antagonist within the context of the Overall Story Goal builds upon the approach discussed in the article on identifying the Goal and Consequence:

  1. Identify the initial inequity
  2. Determine what will resolve that inequity
  3. Set the type of Objective Story Goal that generates that resolution
  4. The Protagonist pursues that Goal
  5. The Antagonist prevents or avoids that Goal

Consider the example of Captain America: Civil War. The initial inequity of that narrative begins when the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) uses telekinesis to protect Captain America (Chris Evans) from an explosion. She grabs the explosion and throws it into the air–accidentally killing innocent humanitarian workers in a nearby building. Everything that follows–the Sokovia Accords, helping the Winter Soldier escape the authorities, the fight at the airport, and even the fight between Captain America and Iron Man–claims this act as the initial motivating force.

Stopping the Avengers, or tearing them apart, is the objective Story Goal that resolves that initial inequity. Allowing innocent people to continue to die is the Story Consequence of failing to achieve that Goal.

In a moral world where everyone knows right from wrong and submits to a familiar ethereal authority figure, the idea of tearing the Avengers apart as a Story Goal seems ridiculous. But these are the good guys, why would the story work against them? In this scenario, assumed righteousness determines the objective context, not the events of the story itself.

When determining the integrity of a narrative, the story must reign supreme–not one’s understanding of right or wrong.

Captain America: Civil War goes through great extremes to present a balanced argument on both sides. No one is good, and no one is bad. Fans of the characters may choose their favorite side, but in the end–the narrative claims final word over inequity resolution.

The Bad Guy Protagonist

With the initial inequity determined, and the efforts to resolve that inequity and the consequences that ensue if those efforts fail identified, the Protagonist of Captain America: Civil War comes into focus:

Helmut Zemo. The bad guy.

Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is the character pursuing efforts to tear the Avengers apart. Also, he motivates other characters to consider reasons why the Avengers should be split apart. His effort to generate disinformation in regards to the bomber’s true identity and his endeavor to present a new context for Tony’s familial grief fulfills the objective character element of Consider.

In the Dramatica theory of story, an archetypal Protagonist consists of two motivation elements: Pursuit and Consider. Pursuit is defined as a directed effort to resolve a problem and Consider is described as weighing pros and cons. Put these two motivations into one player under the context of an inequity requiring resolution, and you have a Protagonist.

Opposing Zemo’s efforts to pursue and consider tearing the Avengers apart is the Antagonist of Captain America: Civil War:

Captain America. The good guy.

From the beginning, Captain America reconsiders and inspires others around him to reconsider efforts being made to restrict the Avengers. His struggle to prevent Bucky’s capture and prevent further loss of life amongst the police forces sent to capture Bucky exemplify the character element of Avoid from every angle. His motivation to prevent champions both sides.

Objective character elements consider neither good nor bad; they think force and direction.

In Dramatica, an archetypal Antagonist consists of two motivation elements: Avoid (or Prevent), and Reconsider. Note how these two oppose the Protagonist’s elements of Pursuit and Consider. Avoid is defined as stepping around, preventing or escaping from a problem rather than solving it.

That sounds like Captain America.9

Reconsider is defined as questioning a conclusion based on additional information. Again, Captain America. Put these two elements of Avoid and Reconsider into the same player and you have an Antagonist.

Regardless of whose side they fight on.

The Importance of Remaining Objective

Objective character elements do not see “sides”; they see inequity and the motivation to resolve or prevent resolution, of that inequity. Confusion and misattribution of purpose arrive when the Author projects their understanding of right and wrong upon the motivations of the characters, instead of relying on the actions and decisions of those characters–within the context of the narrative–to determine the morality of the events within a story.

Proper setup of the initial inequity, along with a consistent and cohesive context to consider the motivations of the characters to resolve that inequity, guarantees a reliable and complete narrative.

  1. For those who don’t know, Karen participates in some pretty socially unacceptable behavior. ↩︎


Presenting the end of the legendary Wolverine and the passing of the torch to the next generation, Logan provides an excellent example of purposeful story structure.

The element of Ending as defined by the Dramatica theory of story:

finish, completion, termination, close

This element of Ending, or “coming to a conclusion” motivates conflict in both the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline.

From the objective perspective of what problems They encounter, a Transgien virus created and distributed by Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) brings the decline of the mutant race. Escaped test subject X-23, or Laura (Daren Keen), represents the result of his failed experiment to create super soldiers from the DNA of these dead mutants. The motivation to close the book on her and her fellow child mutants establishes the source of conflict for everyone in the story.

From the first-person subjective perspective of what problems I encounter, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is dying. With his healing ability slowing and his Adamantium-laced bones poisoning him from within, the end of Wolverine is near (Main Character Concern of Progress, or How Things are Changing). His declining health justifies his carrying of a single Adamantium bullet to support his plans of one day committing suicide.

“Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long.”

Both perspectives provide an account of the forces of termination generating conflict.

The remaining two perspectives of the Influence Character Throughline and Relationship Story Throughline balance out that negative drive with different point-of-views.

Influence Character Laura is a mirror of Logan’s former self, her actions showcasing what problems You encounter. Where Logan laments his instinct to kill, Laura embraces it and uses it to her advantage. Her ferociousness and animalistic rage challenge Wolverine’s focus on giving up by showing how the impulse to kill can solve problems (Influence Character Concern of Preconscious, or Impulsive Responses). Mired in the guilt of his past killings, Logan watches as Laura’s socially offensive behavior gets them out of trouble each time (Influence Character Problem of Accurate, or “being within tolerances”).

The developing father/daughter dynamic between the two within the Relationship Story Throughline demonstrates the kind of problems We encounter. From this perspective, the conflict appears to source from an element of Proven, or what has been “verified, confirmed, or shown.” If anything, both have shown their inability to function properly as a family. This accepted truth forces their family apart when flowing with the dynamic would lead to them fulfilling the roles needed to resolve their relationship (Relationship Story Concern of Being, or Playing a Role).

The result of these four perspectives is a passing of the torch.

The element of Unending, the resolving story point of both the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines is Unending:

continual, ongoing, perpetual, ceaseless

From Logan’s point-of-view, this plays with the notion “Legends never die”. The consumption of the antidote and the ensuing violent surge through the forest confirms the comic-book fantasy of Wolverine and his acceptance of Laura’s approach towards solving problems (Main Character Issue of Fantasy, Main Character Solution of Unending).

From an overall story perspective, this plays out with the idea that these children will pick up where Wolverine and Professor X left off. The “X-Men” will continue, never ceasing to exist (Story Outcome of Success).

More importantly, the father/daughter relationship resolves with Laura’s recognition of Logan as her father. Calling him “Daddy” as he breathes his last fails to give their relationship a chance to prove itself. Without proof that they are worthy of fulfilling such familial roles, their bond solidifies unconfirmed and unverified (Relationship Story Solution of Unproven).

“So this is what feels like.”

This line carries two different meanings as it resolves both the Relationship Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline. Within the context of the latter, Logan literally dies. With his healing powers failing, he crosses over unaware of what to expect next.

This line also speaks of familial love. Letting someone get close and embracing the love of a daughter is new for Logan as much as dying. His acceptance of her and his own death brings a peaceful resolution to his personal struggles and the end to a fantastic and heartfelt film (Story Judgment of Good).

<![CDATA[Identifying The Goal And Consequence Of A Complete Story]]>

Many writers new to the Dramatica theory of story, and even those with several years of experience, struggle to reconcile what they know about story with what Dramatica tells them. Accumulated interpretations of Villains, Protagonists, Heroes, and Goals clash against the theory’s very specific definitions.

In Dramatica, the Main Character is not who the Audience roots for. The Protagonist is not a good guy. And a Story Goal is not something the characters consciously consider.

And that’s because not every story falls into a cultural bias of likable Main Characters, good Protagonists, and clearly stated intentions of conflict resolution.

Balance In All Things

As with all things Dramatica, a balance exists. The Goal and Consequence of a narrative offset each together the same way the Protagonist and Antagonist do, the Main Character and Influence Character do, and any number of dynamic relationships within Dramatica’s narrative model of the mind.1

Goal and Consequence conform through their positions within the model. If the Goal of a story ends up in the upper right quadrant of a particular Domain, the Consequence will lie in the upper right quadrant of the Domain diagonally opposite. A Goal of Learning will create a Consequence of Conceiving and Idea (How to Train Your Dragon and The Lives of Others). A Goal of Developing a Plan will create a Consequence of Understanding (A Simple Plan and American Beauty).

This positioning ties the two Static Plot Points together, providing a natural harmony within a complete story. A logical relationship connects Goal with Consequence: if the Goal is not met, then the Consequence will arrive.

  • If we can't fight the Empire, then we will have to be the oppressed (Story Goal of Doing, Story Consequence of Being - Star Wars).
  • If we don't achieve superiority over the Matrix, then we will become batteries for computers (Story Goal of Obtaining, Story Consequence of Becoming, or Changing One's Nature - The Matrix)
  • If we don’t stop the Avengers, then more and more innocent people will die (Story Goal of Obtaining, Story Consequence of Becoming - Captain America: Civil War)
  • If we don't consider that priests may be abusing boys, then the status quo will continue (Story Goal of Contemplations, Story Consequence of the Present - Doubt)
  • If we don't get together, then we will be stuck wondering what could have been (Story Goal of the Present, Story Consequence of Contemplations - Moonlight)
  • If we come to the understanding that the uncle simply can't be a father right now, then the deceased father's plan for the uncle to figure into his son’s life will fail to materialize (Story Goal of Conceptualizing or Developing a Plan, Story Consequence of Understanding - Manchester by the Sea).

This last example shifts the temporal order of the causality. Instead of thinking if the Goal fails, then Consequence appears, the Manchester example reads if the Consequence persists, then the Goal fails.

Both approaches honor the logical relationship between Goal and Consequence, because the relationship between the two does not require a temporal connection. Some stories start with the Consequence already in place, or evident from the very beginning (The Matrix, Captain America: Civil War), while others save the Consequence for the very end (Doubt). The meaning of the story remains the same regardless of their revelation within the actual text of the narrative.

The Beginning of Inequity

In order to accurately define the objective Goal of a narrative, one must first identify the beginning of conflict–the moment when equity turns to inequity–within the scope of that one story.

Many writers find it difficult determining the genesis of conflict within a story. They turn to elements of backstory or character justification as a means of explaining why characters get into conflict, rather than when the narrative in question actually began.

The story of The Matrix, the first film, begins with Morpheus’ decision that Mr. Anderson is the One. This upsets the balance of things and forces both sides to take action in the efforts to bring down the Matrix.

Focusing on the Story at Hand

Many might argue that conflict began earlier, that the enslavement of mankind as virtual batteries for computers somehow motivated efforts towards resolution. Maybe–but that’s not the story told in The Matrix. As far as we know there was the potential for conflict, but no observable conflict; there was objective equity in the arrangement between humans and the machines–no observable inequity that drove a narrative from beginning to end.

Consider Star Wars: A New Hope (the first film)–and consider it as if it was 1977. Prior to Darth Vader’s illegal boarding of a diplomatic vessel, a similar equitable state existed between the Empire and its citizens. Yes, there was civil war, but nothing deserving of a complete least, until 2016 with the arrival of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

But that’s a completely different story.

The story of Star Wars: A New Hope concerns itself only with the inequity introduced by an Empire overstepping its authority. The narrative of that story tells of a group of Rebels who find a way to fight back and resolve that inequity. This effort towards a specific resolution sheds light on the Objective Story Goal.

Purposeful Resolution

Morpheus decides Mr. Anderson is the one, creating the inequity of The Matrix. The conflict that rises from that inequity consists of problematic activities like fighting, punching, kicking, and shooting. Stopping those activities resolves the inequity and brings an end to the narrative.

Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlett Witch) uses telekinesis to throw an impending explosion into the sky, damaging a nearby building and killing many innocent people. Her actions create the inequity of Captain America: Civil War. The conflict that rises from that initial inequity consists of further bombings, punching, kicking, chasing, and web-slinging. Like The Matrix, stopping those activities–by tearing apart the Avengers–resolves the inequity of that story and brings an end to the narrative.

Vader boards a diplomatic ship, creating the inequity of Star Wars. The conflict that rises from that inequity consists of problematic activities like space battles, supernatural choking, light-sword fights, and laser gun battles. Stopping those activities would not resolve the inequity of an Empire overstepping its bounds–but finding a better way to fight them would.

Joe finds out he has terminal cancer, creating the inequity of Manchester by the Sea. The conflict that rises from that inequity consists of scheming and positioning, fulfilling familial roles one is not ready for, and altering the family dynamic between an uncle and his nephew. Stopping those activities or finding a better way to fight cancer would not resolve the inequity of Manchester–but figuring out how to integrate the fatherless son into the uncle’s life would.

In each of these, the initial inequity sets the type of Objective Story Goal needed to resolve the conflict in each narrative:

  • Morpheus decides Mr. Anderson is the One: We will continue to become batteries for computers, if we don’t tear down the Matrix (Story Consequence of Becoming, Story Goal of Obtaining - The Matrix)
  • The Scarlett Witch accidentally kills innocent humanitarian workers: More and more innocent people will die, if we don’t stop the Avengers (Story Consequence of Becoming, Story Goal of Obtaining - Captain America: Civil War)
  • Vader boards a diplomatic ship illegally: If we can't fight the Empire, then we will have to live the life of the oppressed (Story Goal of Doing, Story Consequence of Being - Star Wars).
  • Joe finds out he has terminal cancer: If we come to the understanding that the uncle simply can't be a father right now, then the deceased father's plan for the uncle to figure into his son’s life will fail to materialize (Story Consequence of Understanding, Story Goal of Developing a Plan - Manchester by the Sea)

Steps Towards Determining the Goal of a Story

Identifying the objective Story Goal and Consequence of narrative consists of three steps:

  1. Identify the initial inequity
  2. Determine what will resolve that inequity
  3. Set the type of Objective Story Goal that generates that resolution

From there, identification of Protagonist, Antagonist, and the balance of other objective structural elements becomes a matter of comparing their function in narrative to that Story Goal. Protagonists pursue resolution of the Story Goal, Antagonists work to prevent resolution.

Narrative and Meaning

Good or bad matters little when observing narrative in terms of inequity and equity resolution. One force pursues, one force prevents. One represents our mind’s motivation towards initiative, the other our reticence.

All that matters is the resolution of the inequity at hand.

Narrative gives meaning to chaotic and seemingly meaningless events. Where one sets the beginning and end of a narrative determines the scope of its eventual meaning.

Consider the events in our own lives. Without framing them into structure, life is random and uneventful–pointless and meaningless. The same holds true for our stories, whether on film, on stage, or in a book. Where the inequity of the story starts and where it ends sets the breadth of meaning and understanding for the Audience.

Everything else is chatter.

  1. You can download a copy of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements here↩︎

<![CDATA[Captain America: Civil War]]>

In an ensemble film where many characters deal with various obstacles and emotional struggles, one expects the character named in the title to be the primary point-of-view.

Not so with Captain America: Civil War.

While Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans)–Captain America–serves to push forward a certain agenda that influences much of the conflict in the film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Iron Man, offers us the intimate personal view of conflict only seen through a Main Character perspective.

Tony opens up his journey with a look back at a significant moment in his life: the last time he saw his father and mother alive. He shares with us his deep emotional baggage: he wishes he would have told his father he loved him instead of acting like a petulant and immature child. This regret forms the foundation for his motivation to avoid making the same kind of mistakes based on feelings–

-feelings that Steve Rodgers essentially infuses into everything he says and does. In fact, Steve’s stubbornness to consider any other viewpoint other than his goody two-shoes 1940s black-and-white wholesome American values influences those around him to want to punch Steve in his “perfect teeth”.

Steve acts as Influence Character in Captain America: Civil War, not Main Character.

A Balanced and Purposeful Narrative

When you set the Main Character Problem to Avoidance in Dramatica®, the Influence Character Problem automatically sets itself to Feeling. This is, of course, after you select certain obvious Character and Plot Dynamics. The film ends in Triumph (Story Outcome of Success & Story Judgment of Good) and finds itself driven by actions and a dwindling number of superhero friends who can come into conflict before Iron Man and Captain America must go head-to-head (Story Driver of Action & Story Limit of Optionlock).

Steve’s headstrong point-of-view suggests a maintaining of resolve and an impact sourcing from an internal perspective (Influence Character Resolve of Steadfast and an Influence Character Throughline of Fixed Attitude). In order to balance out this point-of-view, Tony must pivot his approach away from taking action first (Main Character Resolve of Changed and Main Character Approach of Do-er).

In an action packed four-quadrant film like this, a Linear Main Character Problem-Solving Style is a foregone conclusion. Writing a Holistic Problem-Solver would only serve to isolate the Audience and drive away much of Marvel’s core Audience.1

Tony is driven to avoid conflict. Steve is driven by his feelings for his friend, Bucky. Put the two together and you set the foundation for the conflict felt between the Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines, respectively.

You also lock down the one storyform that determines the thematic concerns of the entire story, while simultaneously communicating the purpose of the film.

Message and Purpose

Captain America: Civil War is a story of revenge (Overall Story Throughline of Activities). Whether motivated out of personal loss or job security, the attempt to avoid or prevent further conflict only serves to increase the amount of violence (Overall Story Issue of Self Interest and Overall Story Problem of Avoidance). Seeing the Avengers as an out-of-control and destructive entity, the proposed Sokovia Accords aim to bring superheroes under the proper supervision of governmental agencies (Overall Story Symptom of Uncontrolled and Overall Story Response of Control).

Unfortunately, this kind of approach only perpetuates the conflict. What is needed is a proactive and purposeful attempt to resolve the situation (Overall Story Solution of Pursuit)–the kind of purposeful and proactive response Tony Stark needs to take, both professionally and personally.

Connecting Objective to Subjective

Tony’s Augmented Reality presentation defines for us what it feels like to be isolated and alone. The lack of Pepper Potts’ presence and the loss of his parents set the stage for a personal account of someone who will do anything to put off what they see as inevitable (Main Character Throughline of Situation, Main Character Issue of Delay, Main Character Concern of the Future).

In short, Tony’s personal motivation to avoid conflict matches the motivation to prevent conflict found in the larger narrative. His personal pursuit of Captain America–as a friend–resolves both his personal Throughline and the Overall Story plot Throughline of revenge.

The Bad Guy Protagonist

The Dramatica theory of story makes no judgment as to the morality of the Protagonist of the narrative. A Protagonist pursues and considers while the Antagonist prevents and reconsiders. More often than not, this aligns with common cultural understandings of good and bad. Protagonist do good, Antagonists do bad. Some stories, however, take an alternative approach.

In Captain America: Civil War, the “bad guy” Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) seeks to tear apart the Avengers by pitting Iron Man and Captain American against one another (Overall Story Goal of Obtaining). This relentless pursuit of revenge places Zemo within the objective role of Protagonist. Tony’s arrival at the Siberian Hydra facility places him in a perfect position to witness the real events of his father’s death and give him reason to fight both Cap and the Winter Soldier.

Zemo exacts his revenge and wins (Story Outcome of Success).

The End of the Avengers, the End of a Friendship

The Relationship Story Throughline balances out the Overall Story Throughline in much the same way that the Main Character balances out concerns of the Influence Character. Within the Overall Story perspective of Captain America: Civil War, we witness the separation of the many parts of a team. Within the Relationship Story Throughline we witness the separation of a certain kind of team: a friendship.

The drive to take advantage of what was once a great friendship undermines the connection Tony and Steve once felt for each other (Relationship Story Problem of Temptation). This dysfunction eventually transforms what they once had into an arrangement more adversarial in nature (Relationship Story Throughline of Psychology, Relationship Story Concern of Becoming).

While Steve tosses out an olive branch at the end of the narrative with his “I’ll be there for you” speech (Relationship Story Solution of Conscience), the damage has already been done. For now, their relationship as friends no longer exists. Like the Avengers themselves, Steve and Tony find their personal team fractured–setting up the potential for a future narrative to resolve their separation.

  1. To understand why this is the case, please read about the concept of Problem-Solving Style↩︎

<![CDATA[Measuring Your Growth And Understanding As A Writer]]> I updated my official analysis of Moonlight, taking care to explain where my original inaccuracies fell and what specific piece of narrative structure the filmmakers purposefully left out.

While I find the process of correcting my conclusions fascinating, not to mention imperative considering the nature of my work and this site, some find the lack of certainty telling of something else:

ur the master and you're re-assessing moonlight, etc. if last week moonlight was a non successful grand argument and this week it is, that doesn't make me think mastering dramatica will help me get shit done.

Definitely not what I had in mind.

Developing an Understanding

The published corrections on both the Moonlight and Doubt analyses reflect my personal growth in understanding. The Doubt analysis in particular, spans an eight-year period from original to revised.

I find it enthralling to discover something new about a work. Discerning that Doubt captures problems incurred by certainty and works them into a subtle power play between the two principal characters deepens my appreciation for the film. Detecting the missing piece of Moonlight and tying it directly to a specific Signpost within one storyform confirms my writer’s intuition, while simultaneously teaching me how to accomplish the same in my own work.

The best part about the Dramatica theory of story is that it never changes–you do. The theory remains objective and holds that objectivity while you–the Main Character of your life–change your point-of-view around it. Understanding the theory acts as a benchmark for your own personal development as a writer and narrative artist. The deeper your understanding grows, the clearer Dramatica’s concepts of narrative become—making you a more effective and efficient writer.

And that’s how I get shit done.

The Original Analysis

For the sake of posterity, and for anyone interested in comparing my original conclusions with the final analysis, I present my first pass at Moonlight:

Haunting soundtrack. Engaging cinematography. Riveting and honest performances.

But no story.

Sure, Chiron (Alex Hubert, Ashton Sanders, & Trevante Rhodes) grows to accept who he is...but did the film make a convincing argument as to how best to approach that problem?

A Grand Argument Story combines elements of Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre into four distinct Throughlines: The Overall Story Throughline, the Main Character Throughline, the Influence Character Throughline, and the Relationship Story Throughline.

Moonlight is all Main Character Throughline and little to no Overall Story Throughline. The end result is a great subjective experience, or what is commonly referred to as a slice-of-life story. Without the objectivity one receives from the Overall Story Throughline, the story fails to make its case for why things turned out the way they did. In the same way that our lack of objectivity in our own lives fails to grant us meaning, our inability to see what happens outside of Chiron's point-of-view locks us into his perspective.

We feel for him. But we don't learn from him.

Contrast this with The Matrix where you clearly see how a little bit of faith can save the day. Or Whiplash where a little determination can overcome any doubt over how you have yet to prove yourself.

Moonlight is a Tale, not a story. While captivating and engaging, the film failed to make a convincing argument as to whether Chiron's choices were a good thing or a bad thing, and whether or not they led to success or failure. As a consequence, we can only take the events as they are and not see them as part of a greater, more meaningful experience.

<![CDATA[Why You Need Four Acts Instead of Three]]>

Many writers break narrative down into Three Acts. After all, what could be simpler than Beginning, Middle, and End? Unfortunately, this idea that the “Middle” somehow stands equivalent to Beginning and End leads many to write incomplete and broken stories.

But isn’t everything a Three-Act structure?

Shooting TIE-Fighters

Everyone knows how the first Star Wars movie ends, right? Moments before Luke Skywalker completes his run, the ghost of Ben Kenobi tells the young farmboy to turn off his targeting computer. Against all better judgment Luke complies, and ends up taking that one perfect shot that destroys everything.

At that very point in time, Luke replaces his motivation to Test his skills with the drive to Trust in something other than himself. This Change of Resolve completes his character arc and saves the day. This act proves the message of the film that by trusting in something outside of yourself you can do impossible things.

Now, here's the interesting part: that final moment in the trench only works because of the TIE-Fighter Attack Sequence during the escape from the Death Star shortly after Ben's sacrifice.


The Context of Acts

One of the purposes of story is to show us the appropriateness and inappropriateness of taking certain actions within different situations or circumstances. The central purpose of an Act is to provide a context for problems the characters face. When a story shifts from one Act to the next, that shift the Audience feels is actually a shift in context.

In Star Wars the four contexts, or Acts, play out like this:

  • Act One: Misunderstandings of what happened to the rebel plans and a greater understanding that the Empire means business now (the context of Understanding)
  • Act Two - Learning where the plans are and teaching the Rebels that the Death Star can actually destroy an entire planet (the context of Learning)
  • Act Three - Fighting against the Empire in a space battle pitting the Milennium Falcon against TIE Fighters and following the Rebels back to their hidden base (the context of Doing)
  • Act Four - Moving into position to destroy the Rebel base and taking that one great shot that destroys the Death Star once and for all (the context of Obtaining)

Four contexts, four Acts. Understanding to Learning to Doing to Obtaining. You need to cover all four when writing a story where physical Activities–like laser gun fights, light sword duels, and spaceship battles–depict the kind of conflict within the story.

Different Contexts for One Problem

Each of these Acts provides a context for the central problem of Test in Star Wars. In Act One, the Empire boards a consular's ship in an attempt to test what they can get away with. In Act Two, the Empire tests the destructive force of the Death Star on Alderaan. In Act Three, Luke and Han test themselves against the Empire...and the Empire provides a semi-challenging test to make it look like they were trying to stop them from escaping (not really). In Act Four, the Rebels test their collective strength against the Empire.

After that fourth context, there is no other place for the story to go. One can't provide another context for Test within the greater context of problematic Activities. The only thing you could do is start another story, and start the process all over again.

Or you could do what Luke does and stop testing and start trusting.

Complete Stories Require All Contexts

This is why stories require four Acts to function as a complete narrative. Jumping from Learning to Obtaining skips an essential area of exploration. In fact without that Doing context, Luke’s final gesture would appear meaningless.

Some successful stories skip context in order to force the Audience to synthesize their own understanding. 2017 Best Picture Moonlight takes this approach. Jumping from Chiron’s act of violence straight to his new life as Black, the film skips over explaining progress in the Overall Story. What happened in the interim? And more importantly, where did Chiron get the idea of putting up a front?

By leaving these questions up to the Audience to both formulate and answer, Moonlight makes the experience of watching the film deeply personal. Instead of being force-fed a montage of growth and personal re-invention, we supply our own history of development and self-actualization and become a part of the story.

Star Wars is not Moonlight.

An Old Problem Seen in a New Context

If Star Wars skips over the experience of Luke testing himself against the TIE-Fighters from within the Millennium Falcon, no real dilemma–no real choice–exists when it comes to turning off the computer.

In order to successfully provide Luke with the quandary of deciding whether or not to turn off his targeting computer, the narrative needs to grant the boy an opportunity to see testing actually work. The story needs to show Luke a context where Test functions as expected. That way when Ben pipes up and sticks his spiritual nose into the final sequence, Luke has reason to doubt the Old Man and refuse. "Hey, I just showed that I can DO it by myself–I already passed the test, " he thinks. Why not leave the targeting computer on and see what I can do.

Thankfully for the Rebels, Luke chose otherwise. He tried trusting instead, and that change in approach results in the successful destruction of the Death Star

Explaining the Middle

A narrative requires all four Acts in order to provide an Audience with a comprehensive understanding of the story’s central conflict. By exploring all four contexts, the Author ensures a full and complete evaluation of the story’s problem and potential solution. If the Author mistakingly skips one, the Audience instinctively knows. They sense a hole in the narrative and toss the entire thing out–discounting it as “a bad story.”

Leaving key portions of the “Middle” out works for a film like Moonlight because of its intention to create a deeply personal and subjective experience. For Star Wars–and for a majority of films out there–breaking the Middle down gives greater context.

The Beginning sets the potential; the End reveals the outcome. The Middle functions as transition between the two–a journey that shifts context from one location to the next. To equate the Middle with the previous two is to deny its very essence as a passage of greater meaning and understanding.

Authors use narrative to communicate a message–to argue that a particular approach to solving problems is better than another. The passing through is very bit as important as the final result. By fully depicting the implications of deciding to go one way or the other, Authors ensure their message–or argument–rings true and remains in the hearts and minds of their Audiences.

<![CDATA[The First Plot Point Of A Story]]> Over the weekend, I restored two articles into the Vault section of Narrative First: Why You Shouldn't Care How the Dramatica Theory of Story Works and The Most Important Event in a Story.

The first represents one of my initial attempts to communicate those new to the theory the importance of not losing sight of why you discovered Dramatica in the first place: to write a better story. Unravelling math equations that tie Character and Plot to Theme and Genre is a fantastic way to avoid finishing that story. Discovering the Plot Sequence Report and using T-K-A-D to Write a Perfectly Structured Scene With Dramatica helps the artful procrastinator distract themselves from the real struggle of writing.1

The second helps Authors define where their story begins. The rather nebulous concept of "Inciting Incident" tends to claim this spot when in reality the genesis of a narrative begins with the creation of an inequity. Star Wars doesn't start when Luke gets the message, it starts when Darth illegally boards a diplomatic ship. Finding Nemo didn't start when Nemo lost his mom, it began when the kid left the safety of the reef.

Star Wars is about star wars—those start when an Empire oversteps its authority. Finding Nemo is about finding Nemo—that journey starts when the kid disappears.

Finding clarity in regards to the beginning of a narrative crystalizes who is the Protagonist and who is the Antagonist and sets in stone the Overall Story Goal for everyone in the story.

  1. Obviously I'm quite guilty of this approach. So guilty, I created an entire business around these avoidance techniques! ↩︎

<![CDATA[Narrative Structure Gives Purpose to Story]]>

The structure of a narrative defines the purpose of a work. More than simply giving an Audience what they expect, the proper formation of character, plot, theme, and genre communicates the Artist’s deepest Intent. Story structure may not be everything, but everything purposeful needs structure.

Story structure isn't everything.

Ever since I sat across from Melanie Anne Phillips–one of the co-creators of Dramatica–and she told me that "no one goes to the movies for perfect story structure," my thoughts stray towards imagining how best to apply that to our work here at Narrative First.

For instance, I recently published the latest in our Storyforming Series–a collection of video tutorials that focus on delivering insights and techniques for rapidly defining the storyform for a particular narrative. The latest episode centers on Woman Woman. In 20 minutes I discuss the observations and choices I made that led to my official analysis of the film.

I'm really excited about this series and can’t wait to add more videos to the series in the coming weeks and months.

Referring back to Melanie’s words, these videos focus on the storyform–something apparently no one goes to the movies to see.

Two decades of experience with Dramatica and narrative says something quite contrary.

Twenty Years That Say Otherwise

Without a doubt, the closer a film or novel or play approaches Dramatica’s concept of a complete story–or storyform–the greater the final result. To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Lives of Others, Whiplash, and Inside Out all share the common denominator of complete stories within the eyes of Dramatica.

But they also possess a quality that elevates them above everything else.

Three Different Ways to Preach Story Structure

Recently I found three new films that demand attention: Logan, Get Out, and A Monster Calls.


Logan was super sad–but thankfully told a complete story. I should say it almost told a complete story. The individual Throughlines were present and well constructed, but the Relationship Story Throughline in particular failed to develop with enough detail. As a result, the film comes off cold and almost heartless.

Sad, but more sad in the logistical sense. Beloved characters die and that's unfortunate; but the real tragedy of a failed relationship fails to fully materialize.


Logan is an example of story structure told lightly to the point of almost being invisible.

Get Out

Get Out stuns from start to finish. A comedic and dark psychological thriller that, while on the surface appears to not maintain a complete storyform, actually communicates a message so subtle and so sophisticated that many might overlook it. The end result is a film that works its message on you without you even knowing it (just like the film itself!).

*Get Out*

Get Out is an example of story structure that creeps up on you without even knowing.

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls claims the prize of the most heartbreaking and sweetest movies of the last decade. With a concrete story structure that works a kind of Arrival-esque holistic relationship between the Influence Character and Main Character Throughlines, this simple story of a child dealing with loss lightens the burden of those suffering through the same. The end result is a deeply moving message that is apparent, but not preachy.

*A Monster Calls*

A Monster Calls is an example of story structure told through imaginative and unique imagery.

Three different ways to relate story structure to an audience: lightly and on the brink of incoherence (Logan), subtle and manipulative (Get Out), and imaginative and unique imagery (A Monster Calls).

Contrast this with the latest from Illumination, Sing!

Story Structure and Nothing Else

Like the films above, Sing! tells a complete story. But quite unlike those examples—that is all the movie does. The structure itself sits right there on the surface, almost to the point where you feel like you can see through to the bones of the narrative. A disturbing and uncomfortable experience, as evidenced by the numerous reviews that qualify the film as "familiar" and "contrived."

The experience is an obvious one–we all instinctively know how structure works. The Dramatica theory of story explains narrative so accurately because the concepts rest on the notion that a complete story represents a single human mind working to resolve a problem. Thus, we know how story works because we work through problem-solving each and every minute of each and every day.

Unfortunately, seeing it there exposed unsettles the mind. We know how our minds work–but we don’t want it revealed to us. The more we understand why we do the things we do, the less inclined we are to do things we do. Motivation requires blind spots. Remove those blind spots and remove the impetus to problem-solve.

Remove the impetus to watch a movie that does the same.

Giving Them Something More

Story structure insures purpose. The storytelling, the shades and colors the Author–or artist–applies to that structure, elevates the work into something unique and truly lasting. The Authors of the above films do more than simply relate story structure, they tell their stories.

James Mangold (Logan) entertains you with a visceral experience that masks a message of advocating rash and impulsive responses when fighting against those who oppose progress. Jordan Peele (Get Out) hypnotizes you by making you think you’re just watching a scary movie when really he infects you with an approach for getting out of your own head. And Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls) offers a method for dealing with loss and emotional trauma through imagination and storytelling itself.

So yes, Audiences don’t go to the theater to experience perfect story structure–but they do go to see a perfectly structured story.

In this respect our Storyforming videos, and everything else we do at Narrative First, continue to provide that foundation for a great storytelling experience.

The goal is not perfect story structure–but rather, a method for perfectly structuring your story.

<![CDATA[Despicable Me 3]]>

Completely unwatchable in parts, mildly hilarious in others, Despicable Me 3 stands out as a perfect example of what happens when a film fails to structure its narrative around a complete storyform. Illumination's previous offering Sing! may rely too much on a structure to provide subject matter, but at least they gave purpose to the scenes and sequences within. Chasing after unicorns and watching the Minions break out of jail fall flat because they don't tie into a greater Overall Story Throughline. Those sequences play episodic and pointless as a direct result of this disconnect.

Trey Parker is, and always will be, amazing. Had the film centered on his character instead of Gru's grueling twin brother there might have been a greater purpose to the film's events–but again, there would have to be some sort of connection thematically between the various points-of-view.

Audiences instinctively seek out complete narratives. Relying on franchise instead of a story to provide value insults an Audience's natural drive for narrative and more often than not leads them to disappear in droves.

<![CDATA[Storyforming Wonder Woman]]> Wonder Woman Ready for Battle

We just posted the latest in our Storyforming Screencasts–a series of videos offering insights and techniques into quickly identifying the storyform of a great narrative. This time we focus on Wonder Woman. In 20 minutes we explain how we were able to single out the one storyform out of a possible 32767 that formed the basis for our analysis of the film.

To access this video and many more in the coming weeks and months, be sure to sign up for a Narrative First Membership. If you have any suggestions for future episodes, please contact us.

<![CDATA[An Update to Our Analysis of Doubt]]> Over the weekend we cleaned up our previously totally wrong analysis of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt and aligned it to the 500x times more accurate official Dramatica analysis of Doubt. Our new analysis of Doubt takes into consideration all we learned over the past two weeks.

In addition, we added the film to our Storyforms section--an exclusive area where Narrative First members can quickly access complete stories and download their individual DR5 files for use with the Dramatica Story Expert application. For more details on how you can access our complete collection, please visit the Narrative First Membership page.

Called upon by Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley to take over the monthly Dramatica Users Group meeting, I was sure—based on that original analysis—that we wouldn't find anything. Eight years of greater understanding later and living and breathing narrative theory as a full-time career now, the storyform for the film couldn't be more clear.

My previous thoughts on teaching the class explain more and you can find the entire 2 1/2 hour video analysis of Doubt here.

For the sake of posterity, we leave behind our original analysis:

A wonderfully acted film that falls two notches shy of telling a complete story. While “Doubt” is clearly the topic of discussion, it is only within the final scene that we truly discover what the film is really about. This revelation is also the film’s downfall, for stories to truly work they need to explore different themes within each throughline (four to be exact). With only doubt and certainty bandied about, the story feels light and the argument one-sided. Sister James (Amy Adams) wavers between Main Character and Sidekick, disappearing conveniently when necessary for the story to proceed. Ultimately, her character only exists to serve as a bouncing board for Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). In the context of story structure, she only serves to confuse the story’s message. A compelling film that could have been so much more.


At first glance, Illumination’s Sing! may appear light and frothy, and perhaps lacking a solid story structure. Who is the Main Character? Why do I not care all that much about Buster Moon? And why does it feel so familiar and, as one reviewer put it, completely unoriginal?

While the film bears a striking resemblance to My Fair Lady in terms of pure thematic exploration, the real reason many cry average or “seen it” is the straightforward StoryWeaving that leaves nothing to surprise, neither spatially nor temporally. The narrative sets up potentials, doles out resistance to those potentials, plays out their conflict, then delivers the outcome. Nothing is left to interpretation or chance.

Add to this an unambiguous encoding of the key thematic elements and you simply cover story structure with a thin translucent film. The bones take precedence over shape and form. Make no doubt, the narrative works. But no one goes to the movies to watch effective story structure.

That said, a film with see-through skin makes the perfect subject matter for an analysis of effective and complete story structure.

The Ensemble Cast

The Overall Story Throughline, while on the surface about competing in a singing competition, actually finds conflict in the gentle Manipulations of the cast trying to be something they are not. Buster (Matthew McConaughey) lies about the prize money in an effort to be someone his dad could be proud of, Johnny (Taran Egerton) pretends to be into the family business, Ash (Scarlett Johansson) the teen porcupine pretends to be OK with playing pop music, Eddie (John C. Reilly) appears to be a record mogul, Meena (Tori Kelly) tries to muster up the courage to pretend to herself that she can sing, Mike the mouse (Seth McFarlane) pretends to be famous so he can get the girl, and finally Rosita the pig (Reese Witherspoon) pretends to be the dutiful housepig as she pursues her dreams. Playing a Role features prominently in this story and pinpoints the source of conflict for all the characters in the story. Their relationships with one another straining under the weight of psychological dysfunction.

Ensembles work when all the characters focus on the same thematic issues. In Sing!, the Overall Story Issue is Ability. Each and every one of these characters experiences difficulties because of their perceived abilities as performers. The shared Overall Story Problem that motivates all of the conflict in the story is Effect: namely, everyone gears their attention on how their auditions or performances will turn out. This focus on effect causes them to completely overlook key factors–like maybe they should avoid building a giant aquarium for a stage.

In order to achieve the Story Goal of living up to their own expectations and being something more than you are, the performers need to focus on the Overall Story Solution of Cause. That final performance is a benefit performance–a cause–and it showcases the positive results that occur when the characters “just start singing” and singing for themselves (make themselves happy), instead of worrying about the effects.

Again, no surprises between story structure and storytelling. Their worrying about the outcome undermines them, while focusing on the cause saves the day. Straight forward and to the point.

Much like the personal issues suffered by the Main Character, Johnny.

A Personal Point-of-View

Many see Sing! as Buster’s film. Others see it as Johnny’s film. While others see this as no one’s—and everyone’s–film. The latter find explanation as to their error in the above section on ensemble pieces.

Those who inaccurately see Buster in the pivotal role should understand the difference between the Protagonist and Main Character as Buster provides the driving force behind the efforts to resolve the Overall Story’s Problem.

Buster is the Protagonist. Johnny is the Main Character.

With Buster and the other singers, the film presents their conflict from an objective point-of-view. We stand back and observe their struggle. Johnny is the only singer we see alone, a perspective that allows us to become intimately familiar with his personal issues.

Johnny is a great singer trapped in the body of a giant gorilla. This Main Character Throughline of a Situation finds greater clarity of conflict in his Main Character Concern of How Things are Changing (or in this case, how things aren’t changing). As a Main Character with a Steadfast Resolve, Johnny’s Main Character Problem of Proven is treated more as a source of motivation, rather than an actual problem. Jonny literally wants to prove himself to his father.

This drive draws attention again to the familiar aspect of this story’s structure. An Author expands and develops storytelling out of the storyform, out of the story’s structure. To simply rely on the structure itself as storytelling—I want to prove myself–a story risks revealing its raw intention and boring the Audience.

If we were to tell you that living up to his father’s expectations broadcasts the key problem element in their Relationship Story Throughline, would you be surprised?

Neither was anyone in the Audience.

A Father and Son Relationship

Continuing the trend of strict translation from structure to screen is the father/son relationship between Johnny and his father, Big Daddy (Peter Serafinowicz). Here, even the character’s name points directly to story structure.

With a Relationship Story Throughline in Activities, the kind of conflict that erupts between father and son centers around doing things like robbing banks, and driving and practicing to drive the getaway car. In fact, Johnny even goes so far as to mutter to himself while practicing, “You’re not doing it right, Johnny! Speed up, Johnny! Do it like I showed you–” as he almost runs over his dad. To hit the Relationship Story Concern of Doing so squarely on the nose is akin to holding the Audience’s hand and guiding them like a child throughout the entire experience.

“You and I are both alike” scene? Sing! covers that base as well with a classic back-and-forth exchange. Pile on the aforementioned Relationship Story Problem of Expectation and a Relationship Story Symptom and Response of being inadequate and passing as a criminal respectively and one quickly understands the source of comments like “unoriginal”.

Sing!’s problem wasn’t that it was “unoriginal”, it’s that its storytelling didn’t stray from the structure of the story itself. Audiences instinctively know story structure–they use it everyday to solve problems and justify behavior. When an Author fails to graft an imaginative take onto those processes, the Audience feels like they have been cheated. They get the structure–they want creative storytelling on top of it to engage with and embrace.

The only inkling of originality comes with Big Daddy’s fundamental shift in his point-of-view.

Bringing the Thunder

When it comes to a great performance, musicians and artists everywhere know you have to bring it. You have to bring that excitement, you have to bring the passion to the Audience, and you have to make waves.

Or you could bring a windstorm.

As the Influence Character with a Changed Resolve, Big Daddy shares the same Problem Element as the Overall Story Throughline. In short, Big Daddy does not want his son “turning gay”–the Effect of hanging out with theater people pretty obvious to anyone who has lived a life of crime.

With Effect situated as the Influence Character Throughline Problem in Sing!, the Influence Character Throughline Solution becomes Cause–just like the Overall Story Solution. But instead of simply supporting a cause, like the blatant story structure nod in the Overall Story Throughline, Big Daddy brings the thunder by forcing police helicopters to chase him all the way down to the final performance. By causing a windstorm that disrupts the entire scene, Big Daddy not only saves Mike and the rest of the show from the Russian bears, he also inspires Meena to later bring down the house with her own thunderous earthquake.

The Consequence of Structure

Stories with a Story Goal of Being balance their narratives with a Story Consequence of Doing. If the characters fail to be, than they have to do. What happens when everyone finds out that Buster lied and they destroy his theater? He and Eddie have to do the most humiliating thing ever–wash cars with their puffy and spongy bodies.

The converse applies.

Stories that fail to do, end up having to be something they’re not. Sing! is a fun movie. The car-wash sequence is hilarious and some of the music sequences are downright toe-tapping fun. Unfortunately because the film failed to do more than simply ape story structure, it now must take on the role of an average and affable animated flick.

Nothing wrong with washing cars–it’s an honest and reliable line of work. Great stories strive to be so much more than honest and reliable–they want to thrive and infect their audience with such great fervor that they live forever. Only then can they be something more than the sum total of their parts.

Only then can they be truly great.

<![CDATA[Identifying the Overall Story Issue in Doubt]]> While editing and publishing the Dramatica Users Group Analysis of Doubt video, it occurred to me that I completely forgot to address the Overall Story Issue. Normally this wouldn't be a problem--save for the fact that the actual title of the movie--Doubt--features prominently in the corner of Dramatica's Table of Story Elements.

In the interest of time, and hopefully in an attempt to better educated writers interested in developing their understanding of Dramatica, I went ahead and recorded a quick 6-minute video explaining why the Overall Story Issue of Doubt was not Doubt, but rather Investigation.

For more video tutorials like this, please visit our Membership page for details.

<![CDATA[Our In-Depth Analysis of Doubt]]> Last week, I ran the Dramatica Users Group analysis of the 2008 drama Doubt starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. The class ran exceedingly well and provided a mountain of insight into a particular kind of storyform not often seen in American cinema.

When Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley first asked me to cover for him last month, my first thought was But there isn’t even a storyform for that movie. In my estimation, Doubt was nothing like The Shawshank Redemption or Pinocchio. Like next month’s Moonlight, the film would prove to be one of those analysis sessions where we can’t find a consistent narrative (like City Lights or Leviathan). In fact, I was so confident in my original analysis of Doubt from 2011 where I said:

A wonderfully acted film that falls two notches shy of telling a complete story.

that I even asked Chris to check in with me before the class.

Imagine my surprise when I watched the movie again last Monday and thought, Well, that was one of the easiest storyforms to figure out!

The Board from the *Doubt* Analysis

All Four Throughlines were clearly there. The Story Outcome and Story Judgment were clearly stated. Hoffman and Streep’s classic “You and I are Both Alike” scene clearly defined their Relationship Story Throughline. Even the Main Character’s Growth–an often elusive and subjective story point to discover-was clearly presented.

One of the most interesting things we discovered as a group was that the Overall Story Issue for the film was not Doubt, but rather Investigation. While not covered in the above class, we did upload an addendum video on Identifying the Overall Story Issue of Doubt that we're sure you'll find compelling.

A Lifetime of Study

Dramatica is not something you learn and put aside. The theory takes years and years to understand and even more years to master. A writer new to the theory said this about his experience Tuesday night:

very fun and humbling evening last night. I feel like this is a life long adventure. every time I think I understand it I find a new layer that breaks my brain. thanks again.

While there are methods for accelerating that process, like our Dramatica® Mentorship Program, it is a lifelong pursuit. That excites me. It means I’ll always be learning something new. It means I’ll always be growing. It means that I will always have a solid touchpoint to keep me on track as I develop the art and craft of what it means to tell a story.

The study of Dramatica improves your writing like nothing else. Personally, I’m grateful to experience that growth every day and to play a role in helping others experience the same.

<![CDATA[A Double Shot of Dramatica Analysis]]> We finally found time this week to edit, render, and publish the video analyses of both the Pilot Episode of The Americans and the sci-fi film Arrival. Both classes dive into the deep thematic structure of their narratives while using the Dramatica theory of story for context. After identifying the Four Throughlines, we establish the Character and Plot Dynamics, and then visit the Dramatica Table of Story Elements to pinpoint the source of conflict in each Throughline.

The Americans Pilot Episode

This analysis is great as it takes a look at how Dramatica works within the context of a one-hour television show. In addition, Chris explains how some of the story points in this episode set up potential for future stories within the series. If you've ever been interested in what it takes to outline a television series with Dramatica, this is a great video to watch.


This class is wonderful, if for no other reason than it shows the various thought processes that lead up to the same conclusions we made in our official analysis of Arrival. Pay special close attention to the difference between how things are revealed, and the actual structure of the narrative.

The Dramatica Users Group meets the 2nd Tuesday of every month and has for the past 22 years. Everyone is welcome to join--newbie or veteran. Please contact us directly for more information.

<![CDATA[Wonder Woman]]>

Within the context of a great narrative, few superhero movies deserve the title of God, let alone God-killer. Patty Jenkin's Wonder Woman surpasses each and every DC offering (and some Marvel offerings) since The Dark Knight so completely that it sets the standard for "female-driven" action/adventure.

To observe the slate of upcoming attractions attached to this blockbuster, one would think it a simple case of replacing the usual male lead with a female. Dress her up—make her bad ass—and suddenly you have a culturally "hip" female-friendly crowd pleaser.

Unfortunately, everyone instinctively sees through the ruse.

Wonder Woman, on the other hand, does far more than simply provide eye-candy in a skirt and boots. The film promotes a female approach to problem-solving, eschewing the predominantly male perspective of playing with the odds for something more definite. Something more concrete.

Running the film through the Dramatica theory of story provides a framework for a greater understanding of how they accomplished this monumental—and super important—feat.

NOTE: The following analysis provides numerous spoilers. If you haven't seen the film, we highly suggest you see it first, then return here after. Trust us…you'll love it!

The Wonder Woman

Diana, Princess of Themyscira and Daughter of Hippolyta (Gal Gadot), is more than royalty—she's a God. More specifically, she is a God-killer, a Situation her mother works hard to keep secret and one Diana only fully realizes during her final battle with Aries, the God of War (Main Character Throughline of Situation). Zeus sculpted Diana out of clay as a final gesture of love for mankind—fulfilling this Work represents her greatest personal Issue (Main Character Issue of Work).

The truly feminine characteristic Diana brings to this world, and one that those pandering to the Audience miss, is her Certainty that she is always on the right path (Main Character Problem of Certainty. This knowing, often mistaken as "female intuition", motivates Diana to leap before she thinks, cross battlefields before ascertaining the odds, and—in sharp contrast to the positive aspects of this knowing—murder Ludendorff (Danny Huston) thinking him Aries (Main Character Approach of Do-er).

This final act challenges her resolve to stay true to her calling. While following her intuition saves the village, it also leads her to kill the wrong person. For a moment, her sense of knowing seems to fail her and Aries—representing the ultimate male perspective—steps in to break her certainty down. Using Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) as an example, Aries (David Thewlis) shows Diana the potential all humans possess for horror, demotivating her and manipulating her to change her approach (Main Character Solution of Potential). In fact, Aries manipulated the war itself into existence in order to get Diana to conceive of man's ultimate fallibility (Story Consequence of Conceiving).

And if it weren't for Steve Trevor's valiant act, she probably would have joined him.

Steve Trevor. Spy.

Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) challenges Diana throughout the narrative with his fixed belief that Gods aren't real, and that real men are capable of despicable horror (Influence Character Throughline of Fixed Attitude, Influence Character Concern of Contemplations). As Influence Character, Steve's play-it-safe attitude challenges Diana to question her own beliefs. Thinking himself "less" than the average man, minimizing conflict by playing yes-man to his generals, and even reducing Diana's status of Princess to just "Diana Prince" presents a completely foreign approach to solving problems (Influence Character Problem of Reduction).

Steve isn't the only man to think this way.

The generals themselves and the politicians in the backrooms work to minimize casualties and slowly reduce the enemy's capability of making war—an approach that only serves to extend and increase the ferocity of the atrocities (Overall Story Problem of Reduction).

Of Two Worlds

Diana and Steve develop a budding romance around the struggle to conceive of the other's world (Relationship Story Concern of Conceiving). Letting a clock tell you what to do, sleeping alone because you shouldn't lie with someone you're not married to, acknowledging their need for one another, and discussing the comical sexual deficiencies of the male species provide thematic context for their relationship (Permission, Expediency, Need, and Deficiency—all Issues found within a Concern of Conceiving). Instigating that first step—whether it be on the boat, on the battlefield, or on the airfield at the end—drives them to come into conflict and eventually drives them towards the ultimate symbol of love (Relationship Story Problem of Proaction—self-sacrifice).

The Final Solution

The development of their relationship eventually leads Steve to change his approach (Influence Character Resolve Changed). He confesses his love to Diana, gives her his watch as a symbol of altering his thinking towards the feminine, boards the airplane and destroys Maru's poison gas. By literally making a big scene, he tosses aside the male preference for probability over time and shows Diana what mankind truly deserves (Influence Character Solution of Production). This heroic act motivates Diana to reaffirm her initial intention and stand-up to defeat Aries once and for all (Main Character Resolve of Steadfast).

Subtle but Powerful Clarification

In a slight structural misstep that perhaps made its way in as a result of a more male-oriented understanding, Diana confirms her steadfastness to Aries by telling him: "It's not about what you deserve, it's about what you believe." Belief, or faith, is the Male understanding of Knowing. For Diana's line to truly resonate with the rest of the narrative, it should have read: "It's not about what you deserve, it's about what you know."

That knowing—that certainty that drives her to jump in without doubt and without second-guessing—that's the true power of the feminine hero. Faith is close—and works fine—but for a film that so eloquently encodes the feminine experience of problem-solving, an alignment with that intuition would affirm what so many are taught to ignore.

Resolution and Meaning

The story begins with the theft of Dr. Maru's book, turns with the discovery of Diana's island and the killing of General Luddendorf, and ends with the final destruction of Aries (Story Driver of Action). Diana's great show of force at the end confirms her intuition and fulfills the story's central concern of teaching Diana that mankind is worth fighting for (Overall Story Solution of Production, Story Outcome of Success, and Story Goal of Learning).

To say Wonder Woman is fantastic is an understatement. To say that it takes the plight of feminine understanding to the task of standing up against the forces of doubt and reduction is to honor its truest intentions. The unexplored chasm of knowing and certainty and "female intuition" deserves more than a girly costume and a gender attribution search and replace. It deserves a greater understanding and respect for its ability to save the world.

<![CDATA[Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie]]>

Colorful and imaginative, Dreamworks Animation's Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie delights fans of the series while challenging the attention span of those unfamiliar. To leave the theater claiming "boredom" simultaneously suggests the lack of a connection with someone who loved reading the books and an intuitive understanding of story.

Underpants lacks a Main Character Throughline, lacks an Influence Character Throughline, and lacks a Relationship Story Throughline. With an Overall Story Throughline that pivots with the creation of Captain Underpants himself, even that most objective and easiest of perspectives to lock down fails to engage the Audience on a deeper emotional level.

One sequence in particular hints at the difference attention to these other three Throughlines would manifest: the vision of best friends George and Harold separated across time and space as two planets spun off from one another tugs at the heart and grants sincere emotion into an otherwise cold and slapstick experience. More sequences like this, tied together in a cohesive thematic framework better understood as Four Throughlines, could have exponentially increased the returns on this film.

And by returns, we refer to not only revenue—but also the intention of those willing to return to watch a second time. Blockbuster epic films like this year's Wonder Woman demand repeated viewings because they tell a full and complete story—because they relate a narrative encompassing all Four Throughlines. A film like Captain Underpants, while loved and enjoyed by those who grew up loving when their Dad would work the "Flip-O-Rama" for them at bedtime, will end up forgotten by those longing for a connection to something much deeper.

To understand your story is to appreciate the storyform that communicates your deepest intentions. By connecting to that message, you ensure a sincerity unfounded in most modern cinema and an honesty Audiences return to time and time again.

<![CDATA[Four Hours of Historical Dramatica Audio]]> From the desk of why didn't anyone tell me about this sooner?!, Melanie Anne Phillips—my favorite go-to for an easy link post posted FOUR HOURS OF BRAND-NEW DRAMATICA AUDIO! And by brand-new, I mean historical audio recorded during the first few months of development of the theory.

I have yet to listen to all of it, but imagine Chris and Melanie sitting around in a conference room with a micro-cassette recorder between them and you get the basic idea. I can't think of a better way to spend your days of June gloom whilst you wait for the next episode of the Narrative First podcast.

<![CDATA[Comparing Story To Outer Space]]> The Genesis of a Story

Super genius Melanie Anne Phillips visualizes the process of creating a story out of base compounds and noble gasses:

Think of subject matter as the interstellar gas and material from which solar systems are formed.  This is the narrative space.  Just because you carve out a piece of this space – enclose a particular cloud of star stuff – does not create planets that orbit in understandable patterns.  The job of an author is to look into the nebulous nature of an area of subject matter – a particular historic event, an aspect of human nature – and to coalesce that material into a tale or a story.

Emphasis mine. This is where Dramatica comes in. Finding a great story idea is one thing, coalescing it into an actual story? Something entirely different.

A tale in a given narrative space would simply explore the subject matter and make a statement about it.  A story would transcend that and make the case for the best (or worst) of all possible ways to organize (or live through) that material.

Every complete and meaningful story is an argument . The Dramatica theory of story helps authors develop the argument of their story.

Often, to make a complete argument, we must exclude favorite subject matter pieces that would have to be ham-handedly crammed into our story and would never truly fit.  Further, we may have to include additional elements that really don’t inspire us, because if we went with only the parts we truly care about, our overall argument would be full of holes.

The first is the hardest when working with writers and producers; many find it damn near impossible to let go of their precious babies no matter how much their ugly faces ruin the family picture. The second is no less difficult, but takes considerable effort to communicate the reason why aliens deserve a seat at the Thanksgiving table.

Dramatica and Narrative First--uniting the universe one story at a time.

<![CDATA[The Best Way To Read By The Pool]]> When it comes to reading scripts on holiday--and by the pool--turn to Weekend Read. Nothing more annoying than constantly having to resize PDFs in a reader or having to continually scroll back to your location when you step out to check your IG Stories or take a dip in the water.

Weekend Read

With Weekend Read you simply morph your client's PDF into the app and the above annoyances slip away, making it easier to lose yourself in a great story. Bonus functions include being able to highlight dialogue by character--for those moments when you want to remind yourself Was this the guy who was hitting on that other woman earlier?

It may seem like you can get by without it--but really, you shouldn't.

<![CDATA[A New Understanding Of Dramatica]]> Experiencing difficulty connecting with Dramatica and its concepts because it seems to favor logic over passion? Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the theory, takes us on a trip to visit The Holistic Side of Narrative Structure--the hidden, passionate side of story construction:

Linear thinking says – logic and passion are nothing alike because logic requires evidence and proof and passion does not. But from a holistic way of thinking, logic and passion are quite alike because each arrives at conclusions, and it requires both to direct and then implement logic – they are team members of the greater process.

The first part makes complete sense to me--the second requires a bit more contemplation. Passion arriving at a conclusion? How does that work?

You and I

One of the most indelible moments I remember learning Dramatica featured this montage of storytelling:

From Dodgeball to In the Heat of the Night, the same lines of dialogue continue to show up--venturing on cliché. But as Melanie explains, their proliferation serves a purpose:

You can see how often that conversation comes up in stories. And yet we never see it as cliché, because it is the core and essence of that duality problem...Simply put, life experience shows us that under some conditions, it is better to see things as separate and other times as part of the same group. This is how we determine friend from foe, mine from yours, and even defining ourselves sometimes as individuals and sometimes as part of a family.

These concepts appear over and over again both in the elements of story structure and in the subject matter we explore in stories because choosing one view over the other is never absolute and must be determined by experience for a given context, yet is always changing, drifting, and what was best seen linearly this week (or in our childhood) may be better seen holistically (as an adult) at this time (though it might change again next week).

Conflict is context. No one solution exists. What works in one context fails in another. With story, we distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate approaches.

​And then Melanie continues by defining the difference between Linear and Holistic thinking:

Linearity looks to the long-wave truths, calls them predicable, labels them as a law, sets up rules to impose the law, and defines any instance where it doesn’t work as an exception.

Holism looks to the short wave truths, calls them “evolving,” labels them as trends, breaks down barriers to encourage evolution, and defines any instance where change does not occur as an obstacle.

Both are true, neither is right.

That explanation of Holism needs to be revisited--especially for us predominantly Linear thinkers. ​

One Side Separates, The Other Blends

Bringing everything back full circle to that "You and I" montage, Melanie redefines the basis for everything in Dramatica:

Simply, it isn’t that one side divides and the other multiplies or even one side is exclusive and the other inclusive or even one side defines the differences and the other defines the similarities. No, the way to grok the equation is, one side separates and the other blends.

And with that, Melanie shifts the overwhelming complexity of Dramatica into a simple matter of context.

... point for the here and now is to open a door to an additional realm within the Dramatica theory that leads to a more sweeping and more practical appreciation of the model as it initially appears and as you have currently applied it.

<![CDATA[Storytelling Is The Number One Skill]]> Over on Medium, Jon Westerberg tells us Storytelling is the Number One Skill You Want to Improve:

I think that storytelling is the greatest technology that humans have ever created. Storytelling is the basis for almost everything in our society, and the way we interact, build, communicate, live and dream all derives from it.

Couldn't agree more.

And we would go further to say that Dramatica is the greatest combination of both technology and theoretical story structure humans have ever created.

In the last week we helped two companies align storytelling with their core values. The first--a company that sees close to a billion dollars in revenue annually--was pleased to hear that our concept for their big budget animated feature synchronized perfectly with their company-wide marketing campaign. Instead of simply helping them tell a story, we helped them craft a structure that propagated one of their core values.

A complete story is an argument. When one of the principal characters resolves their own issues by completely changing their world paradigm, the Author makes the argument that changing this position resolves even bigger issues in the world around them. Instead of marketing an idea through imagery, a story markets values by showing the results of taking that new position.

With the other project, we managed to weave the company's mission into both the pilot episode and entire series of a proposed animated television series. By developing two similar, yet vastly complex arguments, into one work, the production company can move forward with the confidence that the end result will be more than simple diversionary entertainment.

Storytelling should be the number one skill you want to improve--understanding the psychological structures behind effective storytelling accelerates and deepens that skill set far beyond simply making it "relatable." Making it truly relatable requires aligning structure with the psychological processes that dictate problem-solving within our own minds.

Dramatica--and specifically Narrative First--provide the tools and know-how to make that alignment an easy and fun process.

<![CDATA[Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act of Your Story: Part Five]]>

For years, Authors relied on instinct alone to source effective tension within their stories. Some found success while many others eventually gave up and turned towards other pursuits. The drive to tell a story is a sacred one and exclusive to no one. An approach now exists to help those stumbling in the dark find their way.

Our series on Plotting Your Story with Dramatica—a series this article completes— offers Authors an opportunity to accurately determine the exact source of tension within their story. With this approach, Authors lay aside guessing for a knowing that integrates with their deepest intentions. The Dramatica storyform codifies Author's intent; diving in and looking at the framework from within clues us in on what it feels like subjectively to experience that intent.

In short, this process shifts us forward in linear time so that we may know our story as the Audience experiences—before we even put the final touches on that first sentence.

The Four Act Structure

Previous articles in this series examine traditional Three-Act structures and the more prevalent, and popular, Two-Act structures. In this, we observe the rare—and almost episodic—Four-Act structure.

Complete narratives move through four different regions, or Signposts, of conflict. The nature of those Signposts determine whether the story feels like a Two, Three, or Four-Act structure. Some stories explore our differences before our similarities, while others begin with the similarities and then venture into the differences. These up-and-down (or down-and-up) narratives—like Aliens or The Matrix or The Incredibles—feel like Two-Act Structures.

Other stories start with one, move into the other, and then return back to the first. Arrival, Being John Malkovich, and The Descendants share this approach. These there-and-back-again journeys feel like Three-Act Structures.

The Four Act Structure alternates between our differences and similarities as it seeks out a potential solution for the characters. The constant bouncing back-and-forth feels episodic because of the lack of an observable trend in thematic exploration. The Great Gatsby, The Godfather, and To Kill A Mockingbird all quadrangulate resolution as they move towards their inevitable conclusion.

A Preference for the Objective Point-of-View

Note the emphasis on the novel in the examples above. Narrative functions the same regardless of form; novels, screenplays, and plays all share the same structural and dynamic framework. Some forms, however, lend themselves to a certain kind of structure. The fall-and-rise of the Two Act structure works great for the cinema because of the emphasis on sight and sound. The increased real estate of the novel naturally gravitates towards the Four Act structure; the alternating currents feel at home within a work that enjoys the luxury of time.

The Approach

In order to determine what the structure of a story feels like to its characters, an Author simply looks to the Static Plot Points:

Two-Act Structure

Three-Act Structure

  • the Story Prerequisites generate tension for the First Act
  • the Story Requirements generate tension for the Second Act
  • the Story Consequence generates tension for the Third Act

A pattern of beginning with the Prerequisites and moving to the Requirements emerges. What then of the Four-Act Structure? Does one simply tag on the Story Goal or some other Static Plot Point to that fourth and final Act? Or do we somehow shift the entire pattern forward and find some other point of reference for that first narrative movement?

A New Understanding

Remember our article Dramatica: A Fractal Model of Story Structure? In it, we examine the cascading nature of dramatic units moving from Act all the way down to the individual Beats of a Scene. In fact, the separation from one level to the next exists as an illusion manufactured by the observer: a narrative circuit is a narrative circuit is a narrative circuit. The same relationship exists for tension within a Four-Act Structure.

In a recent blog post Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, explains the core conceit of narrative:

One side [of the model] separates and the other blends. That blending part is what you don’t see in the Dramatica model directly, but it’s affect is omnipresent…These concepts appear over and over again both in the elements of story structure and in the subject matter we explore in stories because choosing one view over the other is never absolute and must be determined by experience for a given context, yet is always changing, drifting, and what was best seen linearly this week (or in our childhood) may be better seen holistically (as an adult) at this time (though it might change again next week).

In order to effectively determine the best solution for a particular problem we need access to both the point-of-view that emphasizes the differences and the point-of-view that encourages a blending of similarities. Instead of simply seeing dramatic tension as a linear progression from one Static Plot Point to the next, a more comprehensive approach sees tension in the relationship and juxtaposition of Static Plot Points throughout the narrative and at each and every touchpoint.

Fractal Sources of Tension

Want to identify the source of tension within a Four-Act structure? Alternate between the Story Prerequisites and the Story Requirements for each Act. Want to generate ever-increasing tides of tension for a Sequence or even a Scene? Encapsulate both Prerequisite and Requirement within that dramatic unit and show it as simply a microcosm of the grander scale of things.

Pride and Prejudice does this at both the Act and Scene level. Jane Austen's time-tested narrative examines conflict bred from a deplorable Situation: the Bennet daughters must marry, and marry well. This much-needed Future exists as a blended and shared common Goal because of the discrete and separated reality of their current situation. This Requirement of the Present naturally looks to Contemplations as its Prerequisite: the Bennet father only considering those suitors worthy of an inheritance.

Already one senses the holistic relationship between Story Prerequisite, Story Requirement, and Story Goal. No longer do we search out one before acquiring the next before reaching the final destination. Now we see story points in relation to one another encouraging "evolution" and demanding change—just as Melanie said they would in her post. The story points themselves examine the fractured discrete nature of things, yet the dynamism at work within the model looks to the blended nature of the narrative itself.

Looking to the individual Acts themselves, one begins to see this relationship reflected again and again. The novel begins with an exploration of the Bennet family's current situation and tension within the daughters building up around their father's ultimate decision—the Story Prerequisite of Contemplations within the context of the Overall Story in the Present.

Elizabeth's assumed decision to wed Mr. Bingley moves the narrative into a consideration of how things are changing for the Bennet family. The presumed betrothal encourages suitors like Mr. Collins to present themselves as the better alternative for the situation at hand—the Story Requirement of the Present within the context of the Overall Story in Progress, or How Things are Changing.

This pattern of narrative relationships continues throughout the second half with the Story Prerequisites of Contemplations establishing tension in the Third Act and the Story Requirements returning to generate tension within the Fourth Act. Diving into each Act further, one finds this relationship between conscious contemplation and current situation continued throughout each and every Sequence and Scene. Even the individual Beats of these scenes carry the thematic DNA code of the narrative—constantly and consistently repeating, echoing the Author's original intent.

The Balance of Tension

Throughout this series, our examples emphasize the Overall Story Throughline to the exclusion of the other three Throughlines. In truth, the actual feel of a narrative finds rhythm within the Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story and Overall Story perspectives.

Some narratives find a consistency in three of the four Throughlines: Witness finds the Main Character, Influence Character, and Overall Story Throughlines searching for resolution throughout Three-Act structures. The Relationship Story Throughline bucks this trend with a Two-Act structure. The balance of all four trends towards Three Acts—an explanation why it often serves as the penultimate Three Act structure.

Others find a mixture of Two, Three, and Four Act structures—the exact nature of each Throughline determined by the various Character and Plot Dynamics chosen by the Author.

In our work with writers, producers, and directors we found an emphasis on the Overall Story Throughline to be the most effective approach. This commonality rests in the fact that most of our clients operate within the film or television industry. By setting the basic structure of the narrative to the most prominent Throughline in that medium, we help Authors meet their Audience's expectations. Were we to consult with more novelists or playwrights, we would expect a shift in focus towards the more subjective Main Character or Relationship Story Throughlines.

The Dramatica theory of story presents Authors an opportunity to see their stories from an unusual and often unattainable perspective. By granting an objective view of key story points and dynamics, creators can step outside of themselves and see their work the way everyone else does. Having identified the key Static Plot Points from that perspective, the Author can then confidently dive into the lives of their characters and know exactly where to find narrative tension.

Writing a story used to be a game of guessing and endless speculation—a process of needless tension often ending in tragedy and missed opportunities. With Dramatica, Authors shine a light on their heart's hidden desires and greatest intentions.

<![CDATA[Problem-Solving and the Order of Acts Within a Story]]> Malcom Solves Problems by Working the Balance of Things

Over the weekend, we removed the plastic wrap off FIVE of our premiere articles within our Vault:

The first three cover the Dramatica concept of the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style. For those new to the theory, the MC Problem-Solving Style (originally the Main Character's Mental Sex) sets the base-operating system for the story engine of a narrative. Linear problem-solvers seek solutions to problems by looking to cause and effect. Holistic problem-solvers seek solution to problems by looking to the relationships between things and shifting the balance to draw out change.

This difference requires Authors to make a choice as to how their Main Character functions as it explicitly sets the order of thematic material considered in each and every Act.

Why Act Order is More Important Than Time Spent explains why this order is infinitely more helpful (and useful) than the actual time spent within each Act. Think you need to "turn" the First Act after 25 pages in a screenplay and the Second after 75 or so? Think again: the actual substance of those Acts supersedes any of these considerations.

Finally, Thinking of Your Audience First takes an initial look at Dramatica's Audience Appreciations. We provide this article within the context of history. The more recent series of articles The Audience Appreciations of Story dive into these illusive concepts with far greater confidence and accuracy.

<![CDATA[In Regards To The Inciting Incident]]> Joe and Lee work things out

The "Inciting Incident" is a nebulous term and therefore insufficient in matters of story structure and analysis. Some see it as the event that starts the story while others see it as the "Call to Adventure". Even Hero's Journey advocates find it less than useful:

The Inciting Incident is a confusing term and, in general, not very helpful. Within the context of the Hero's Journey, it could represent a few points of action…Perhaps the Inciting Incident is useful in [infantile] three, four or five act structures, but amidst the complex Hero's Journey, it is less useful.

Ignoring the ridiculous comparison between the Hero's Journey and other "infantile" understandings of narrative structure, one witnesses a lack of agreement over the function an Inciting Incident actually performs.

The Call to Adventure

From a Dramatica point-of-view, the Call to Adventure is simply the moment where the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines meet for the first time. R2D2's delivery of Ben's message in Star Wars weaves in Luke's constant need to find ways to test himself against the larger world's concern of finding someone skilled enough to help fight the evil Empire. The revelation that brother Joe listed Lee (Casey Affleck) as guardian to son Patrick in Manchester by the Sea pits the empty black hole of wanting anything within Lee against the bigger picture concern of a dying man's wishes.

This functions as a sufficient definition of Inciting Incident--if it weren't for the fact that these stories don't start with those moments.

The First Story Driver

Instead of relying on amorphous "Inciting" moments, the Dramatica theory of story looks to the initial creation of the central inequity within the Overall Story Throughline. Dramatica refers to this initial event--whether it be an Action or a Decision--as the first Story Driver. This moment marks the dividing line between the world at peace and the world embroiled in conflict--the world that needs a story to make meaning of the efforts to resolve that conflict.

Death Vader's illegal boarding of Princess Leia's ship is the initial Story Driver of Star Wars. Sure, the Rebels and Empire were at odds before the story began, but it was an equitable conflict--like the Cold War between the US and Russia. His blatant display of hubris upsets that tender balance and motivates everyone to search out a way to fight back.

Joe's diagnosis—shown out of temporal sequence within the movie—is the initial Story Driver of Manchester by the Sea. Lee's personal problems start sometime later, yet it is this dire set of circumstances that forces Joe, his wife, his attorney, and his friends to begin the process of making key decisions in the planning of Patrick's future.

Diagnosing the Start of a Story

As you can see, knowing the identity of the Inciting Incident does little for an Author. While masquerading as the beginning of a story, this mixed-up charlatan confuses issues and mixes perspective in its attempt make things easier. Authors need to understand the difference between conflict as seen from the Main Character point-of-view and conflict as seen from the objective Overall Story point-of-view. A term like Inciting Incident blends the two, leading to all kinds of subjective misinterpretations of conflict.

The Main Character Throughline naturally collides with the Overall Story Throughline at some point within a narrative. Knowing when it does, or the nature of it, matters little to the actual meaning of a story.


BFG--or Big Friendly Giant--invokes awe with stunning animation and boredom with lackluster storytelling. This fractured fairytale manages to craft together a narrative devoid of an Overall Story Throughline--a feat unheard of in most, if not all, Western cinema. The only other work that comes close is the original Twilight novel; the movie adaptation thankfully added this key perspective knowing that the only way to keep the Audience in their seats was to provide an objective reason for them being there.

Complete narratives consist of Four Throughlines--each granting a different point-of-view on conflict. The Overall Story Throughline offers the third-person dispassionate They perspective. This is where the Author communicates why they're in conflict, what they hope to accomplish, and the shared thematic issues they all face. Without this view, a story leaves an Audience guessing as to the whole purpose for the work in the first place. We all instinctively know what it's like not to hold an objective view of ourselves--we experience that unknowing of greater reason day in and day out.1 Why suffer through that pointlessness in a movie?

We see from within or without, we cannot do both--except in a story. If we see from within we know my problems, your problems, and our problems; but can't see their problems when we ourselves are a part of it. Conversely, we know their problems, your problems, and our problems, but can't simultaneously jump into their shoes to experience I.

The Four Perspectives

We love stories, and return to then over and over again, because they grant us the experience of seeing it all all at once.

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the other movie by Melissa Matheson and Steven Spielberg, expertly crafted an Overall Story Throughline in with an additional Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines. Eliot's fear of abandonment complimented E.T.'s very real abandonment, and together the two developed a relationship capable of letting go--a key factor in resolving the bigger Overall Story picture of phoning, and eventually going, home.

BFG introduces a potential Main Character, and a potential Influence Character, and potentially could develop a Relationship Story--unfortunately the absence of a thematic thread holding them all together keeps the film from telling a great story. That boredom you sense twenty minutes in and the fidgeting you try to corral in your own children exists as a result of this missing Throughline.

In short, BFG functions as a great demo reel for stunning character animation. You will want to look elsewhere for a great story.

  1. Unless, of course, we craft what we think things look like from a 3rd person perspective. But even then, we subjectively approximate that view. ↩︎

<![CDATA[Main Character And Perspective]]> Recently, I received an email questioning our narrative analysis of Arrival. The writer took issue with my assignment of Be-er to Louise's Main Character Approach, thinking the story featured more instances of her solving problems externally, rather than internally. In fact, this writer listed over 40 different examples to back up his claim.

Unfortunately, each and every one of them described Louise's function as Protagonist in the Overall Story, not the Main Character Throughline.

Main Characters, Protagonists and Perspective

When a single player represents both the Overall Story function of the Protagonist and the first-person perspective of the Main Character, it can be difficult determining what portion of the storyform a certain event holds.

Seeing the Main Character Throughline as a perspective, not a storyline, makes the process easier.

The easiest way to find the part of the story that applies to the Main Character Throughline, and therefore a clue to the Main Character Approach story point, is to look to that personal baggage that the Main Character would take with them into any story—not just this one. Find something unique to the Main Character and the Main Character only, and you'll find this personal baggage.

If you look at Louise and the totality of Arrival, you’ll see that the biggest personal issue for her is the loss of her daughter. She is the only player, the only point-of-view really, that suffers through that loss—and it is those memories of her daughter, those painful memories, that connect us the Audience to the narrative. The Author specifically places within her point-of-view in order to experience a unique understanding of time.

A completed story intertwines the various elements and perspectives into one “piece”, so it can be difficult at times to parse out the different contexts for the Four Throughlines. If you can look to those elements of story that are unique to the Main Character and unique regardless of external “plot” or Overall Story, then you will find the path to the Main Character Throughline.

A Greater Perspective

Realizing that not every Main Character is a Protagonist broadens a writer's mind towards a more comprehensive understanding of narrative; seeing the Main Character as a perspective, not a character, opens up even greater channels and opportunities for storytelling.

Arrival is challenging to analyze because Louise is both Main Character and Protagonist. She not only suffers through the loss of her daughter but also drives the plot forward from Act to Act. Separating her function as the one pursuing and considering a successful resolution for all from her emotional point-of-view ensures an accurate assesment of its central narrative dynamics.