A Simple Way to Look at the Throughlines of Your Story
A simple question you can ask to determine the thematic issues of your story.
Having worked with Dramatica for over ten years now, the one thing I’ve come to learn is that there is always a new way of looking at things. Often this new perspective is so simple that I can’t help but smile and think, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that?!” This happened to me recently when trying to decipher the throughlines for Michael Mann’s Collateral.
There is a level of confidence one builds up when writing about a subject day in and day out. During the past three months I’ve written over 50 articles about the Dramatica theory of story. The more I write the more I feel like I can claim a certain amount of authority over the material. Because I’m forced to put my thoughts into words, I feel like my understanding of this complex subject has grown with every article.
So it was with this heightened sense of self-assurance that I approached my analysis of Collateral.
It was easy to distinguish Max (Jamie Foxx) as a Be-er. When faced with a problem that gets him down, he retreats to his “island paradise” (the postcard he carries in the visor of his cab). This internal approach towards solving problems can also be seen in the way he deals with his mother. Unable to deal with his mother’s almost certain disapproval of his real occupation, he has instead manipulated her into thinking he’s already running the limo company. He has her thinking that he drives celebrities from one red carpet event to the next.
It was also apparent that his Main Character Growth of Start. Max was not in any way shape or form actively moving towards achieving his dream. He was content spending his nights eating Subway sandwiches and staring at Mercedes Benz brochures. It wasn’t so much that he had to Stop doing something harmful as it was that he had to Start doing something. The emphasis was on what was missing--there was a void in him.
Choosing these two items set up an unbreakable relationship between the Main Character Throughline and the Objective Story Throughline. The Main Character had to be one of the bottom two Domains (either Mind or Psychology) and the Objective Story had to be the corresponding Dependent Pair (Dependent pairs are aligned vertically in the Dramatica chart). So if Max’s problems were a result of a fixed attitude (Mind), then the Objective Story’s problems would stem from activities (Physics). And likewise, if Max’s problems were a result of a problematic way of thinking (Psychology), then the Objective Story’s problems would come from a problematic situation (Universe). 1
I was certain that Max’s problems resulted from problematic ways of thinking. As mentioned above, he was at ease with manipulating his own hospitalized mother into believing he was something that he wasn’t. And he seemed to spend a great deal of time imagining what “Island Limos” would be. He seemed to be in love with coming up with different ideas for the perfect ”ride.”
That would place the Objective Story’s problems in Universe. To me, it seemed clear that the problem was that a professional killer had come to town. His presence was disrupting an ongoing Federal case. Everything was balanced until his plane touched the ground. If he wasn’t stopped, those who were being placed on trial would not find the justice they rightly deserved. Remove the hitman and the situation would return to normal.
Sounds pretty good, right?
Unfortunately I was missing something so simple, yet extremely essential, about the definition of these Throughlines.
Stuck or Changing
It all comes down to the difference between States and Processes. Universe and Mind describe a State. Physics and Psychology describe a Process. An even simpler way to differentiate the two pairs is this:
- Universe and Mind describe things that are stuck.
- Physics and Psychology describe things that are changing.
So when looking at the Objective Story, you can ask “Is this a world where things are established or stuck and if we unstick them, everything will be OK?" Or "Do we have a world where things are changing and we need to stop it in order to bring things back into balance?”
Looking at it this way, the Objective Story for Collateral is definitely the latter. There is nothing stuck that needs to be unstuck. It’s not like The Fugitive where you have an innocent man who has been wrongly convicted of killing someone, and the person truly responsible free. In that film you have a situation that is out of balance. Once the characters rectify the situation, everything can return to a state of normalcy.
But in Collateral, it is the fact that things are changing that is disrupting things. The prosecution is losing witnesses. Meanwhile, the detective struggles with learning what happened to his informant. And the FBI agents misconstrue the cabbie’s actions at the night club to mean he is the killer. Concurrently, the real assassin wastes no time in killing street thugs who try to make off with his “work-ups” (his briefcase). These are all problematic Activities.
And when you think of which Throughline is stuck, it’s obvious that it should be Max. If anyone has ever been in a rut, it’s this pathetic cabbie. Everyday it’s the same thing: get into the cab, wipe down the dashboard, and put the island postcard in the visor before he even turns the key. He has his routine and his routes memorized. When a gorgeous girl (Jada Pinkett Smith) enters his cab and suggests an alternate way, he doesn’t even take the time to consider it. As far as he is concerned, he already knows the best way, regardless if entertaining her suggestion might have drawn her closer to him. Max plays everything safe and plays by the rules--and it’s a problem for him.
Just When You Think You Know It All…
…some new bit of information slaps you upside the head and says, “Think again, dummy!” Hopefully you can learn from my mistake and apply it in your own writing. Take a look at your Throughlines and check to make sure you’ve got them encoded correctly. If they are in Universe or Mind are they describing something that is stuck? Will unsticking them bring balance back to those Throughlines? And conversely, if they are in Physics or Psychology are they describing something that is changing? Will bringing these changes to a halt return those Throughlines to a state of equity?
It really is that simple.
Under our old name, Story Fanatic, we left space open for readers to leave comments and questions. The following is a question received in regards to the above article.
A very interesting way of looking at throughlines, but can you give me any ideas that illustrate psychology as something changing that is causing a problem?
Dramatica defines Psychology as a manner of thinking--a process. This in contrast to Mind, which is a fixed thing. The latter is the thought, while the former is the process of thinking.
There are a bunch of great stories that center around problems dealing with ways of thinking--off-hand I can think of A Simple Plan, American Beauty, Rear Window, and A Room With a View. Most “chick flicks” or romantic-comedies share a common source of conflict in the different ways people think.
In A Simple Plan the problems around conflicting plans and their attempts to manipulate one another to go with their plan. When things aren’t quite going their way they change their plans--creating even more conflict.
In American Beauty the same type of conflict exists--but from a slightly skewed view. Here the characters in the story come into conflict over the concepts they have of themselves. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) begins to imagine a life completely different than the one he has led. This causes great conflict with his wife and his daughter and with his neighbors. The greater this concept of himself grows, the larger the conflict with the supporting characters (and the richness of this story lies in the fact that all the other character’s have problem-inducing concepts of themselves as well).
- For more on this relationship between the Main Character and Objective Story please refer to my previous article A Different Look at Main Character Dynamics.↩