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The Latest in Story Structure & Story Analysis

3 hours ago

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, from original to revised, spans an eight-year period.

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.

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Great Stories

More Story Structure & Story Analysis

1 week ago

Our original Dramatica analysis of the Academy Award-winning Moonlight offered this errant observation:

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.

Complete stories require the presence of all Four Throughlines. In order to make a convincing or coherent argument, the Author needs to include all the different points-of-view one can take in regards to a particular problem:

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

Over the centuries, Authors found a shorthand to these perspectives through various throughlines:

If the Author manages to successfully encode these four perspectives, the final work will feel complete and without well-rounded. Leave one out and an Author risks incoherence and/or Propaganda.

The recent Okja from Netflix fails to provide three of the four perspectives. The end result is a beautiful, yet clearly one-sided argument against animal cruelty. One-sided arguments call activists to action–they don’t win Oscars.

Moonlight is not propaganda.

The Weight of a Throughline

Though a complete argument requires the presence of all four perspectives, the weight given to each rests solely within the taste and fancy of the Author. Here, craft and talent dictates the proper setting for each Throughline.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins deliberately set out to tell the story of Chiron and his relationship with boyhood friend Kevin against the backdrop of South Florida. If one were to set percentages for each throughline in Moonlight, the breakdown would read:

  • Main Character Throughline 75%
  • Relationship Story Throughline 15%
  • Influence Character Throughline 7%
  • Overall Story Throughline 3%

Our initial analysis accurately identified “little to no” Overall Story Throughline, yet that third-person perspective is present. As light as it may seem, it still maintains and provides that important point-of-view from above.

In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue

Being Black and Impoverished in South Florida encapsulates the kind of conflict They experience within Moonlight. The commentary that “In moonlight, black boys look blue” presents the problematic Situation each and every one of these characters face within the Overall Story Throughline. The external state of affairs and the broken institutions of family, education, and community challenge the Audience to witness intolerance from a distant, third-person perspective.

Throughlines of *Moonlight*

Internally, and passionately, Moonlight offers a personal experience of intolerance from within the Main Character Throughline. Whether Little, Chiron, or Black, our experience as an Audience member is one of challenging an intimate exploration of a Manner of Thinking. Who Am I? represents the focal point of Chrion’s journey, motivating him to find his own personal resolution of acceptance and tolerance.

Challenging Chiron to alter his point-of-view manifests within the shared perspectives of both Juan and Kevin. Both offer an example of looking out for oneself: Juan from the point-of-view of defending and respecting yourself; Kevin from the perspective of doing whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe and closeted. While seemingly on opposite sides, both stand for greater Protection. Their shared Influence Character Throughline perspective materializes through various Activities: learning to swim, learning to take a hit, and ultimately learning that one can only do the best one can do with given their situation.

Rounding out the argument of acceptance overcoming intolerance is the Relationship Story Throughline. The romantic relationship that develops between Chiron and Kevin represents the heart of the story and offers an opportunity for the Audience to experience intolerance through our encounter with a State of Mind. More than simply what Kevin or Chiron feels individually, their relationship itself finds conflict through love. The drive and desire for the relationship to exist and prosper gives insight into what we all encounter when saddled with bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

More Than a Tale

Our original analysis of Moonlight concluded with:

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.

Kevin and Chiron finally found a way to be together and Chiron himself found a way to lift the burden of refusing to accept himself off his shoulders. Chrion’s decision to open up and admit his feelings for Kevin was shown to be both “a Good thing” and “led to Success.”

If perception tarnishes the state of a person, a greater appreciation of their true nature grants better understanding. The same holds true for a work of Art–by recognizing the formation and structure of its original intent, an Audience comes to understand the work in a different light: they appreciate the Author’s heartfelt desires and need to be heard in a way they never could simply speaking in person.

Stories–complete stories–connect one heart to another. The granting of the Best Picture Oscar to Moonlight simply confirms and officially recognizes the artistry and talent of this connection.

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2 weeks ago

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! ↩︎

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Jun 27

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.

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Jun 26

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.

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Jun 22

When is a story about a singing competition not a story about competitively singing? When it’s really a story about being in a singing competition.

The Throughlines of *Sing!*

Ensemble stories, like Sing!, tend to focus on the dysfunctional relationships between various characters rather than any goal they may share. The conflict arises from their various Manners of Thinking and their attempts—whether conscious or subconscious—to manipulate the people around them. The Overall Story Throughline of Sing! takes this approach in laying out its plot.

Buster the koala, Meena the elephant, Johnny the gorilla, Eddie the sheep, Ash the porcupine, Mike the mouse, and Rosita the pig all create conflict by trying to appear to be something they are not. Manipulating their friends and family members or being manipulated by friends and family members defines the kind of conflict found in this story.

Johnny the gorilla (Taran Egerton) stands out as the one singer we get to know on a more personal level. His relationship with his father is the only relationship that exists outside of the Overall Story Throughline perspective—a key indicator for the Relationship Story Throughline and a great clue as to who the Author intended to assume the position of Main Character.

Johnny is a great singer trapped inside the body of a behemoth gorilla. This unique Situation makes it almost impossible for him to follow his dreams. His Main Character Throughline allows us to experience what it must be like personally to want to do something your body wasn’t theoretically designed to do.

Opposing Johnny is Big Daddy (Peter Serafinowicz). Representing the Influence Character Throughline perspective, Big Daddy’s Fixed Attitude challenges and impacts Johnny, forcing the boy to reconsider his career goals.

Their relationship as father and son centers around the Activities of robbing banks, practicing and driving getaway cars, and ultimately bringing the house down together. Their Relationship Story Throughline provides the heart of the story to Sing! and offers a nice counter-balance to the gentle manipulations found in the Overall Story Throughline.

They want to be something they’re not. I am stuck in an untenable situation. You are fixated on what I can and cannot do. And We can’t seem to work together. Overall Story, Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story perspectives sharing different contexts on the same central inequity.

Sing! may resonate with too much familiarity for most, but the foundation on which it rests its narrative is sound and reliable.

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Jun 21

The Final Word on Generating Dramatic Tension in Your Story

In addition to wrapping up the events of last month, we showcase two interviews—one with a writer new to Dramatica and the other, with a writer who discovered Dramatica.

Dramatica will save your life. Whether within the story room or out there in the real world, Dramatica’s unique understanding into what makes narrative—and therefore us—work allows you to weather any storm. In the story room, where you’re constantly barraged by one story note after the next, Dramatica’s storyform helps ensure that you don’t lose sight of your original intent. In the real world, the idea that there is no real solution—only different contexts—ensures that one day we might enjoy a little bit of world peace.

We then finish off our series on Generating Dramatic Tension by taking a look at narratives with a Four-Act structure and discuss how looking at story structure holistically might just be the thing you need to do in order to complete your beloved novel or screenplay.

The Dramatica Mentorship Program - our premiere service designed to give you the tools and techniques for applying Dramatica’s powerful concepts to your stories.

Show Notes & Links

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

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Jun 20

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.

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