James Hull Articles: Archive IV

James Hull is an animator by trade, avid storyteller by night. He also taught classes on Story at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). You can find more articles like this on his site dedicated to all things story at...

For additional past articles for Screenplay.com by James Hull, click here.

The Magic of the Storyform

Can a computer program accurately predict the choices an Author would make during the development of their story? If the choices were made in the spirit of writing something meaningful and coherent, then the answer would be yes. Dramatica, an application built upon the mind's problem-solving processes, makes story structure a fascinating and magical area of exploration.

Rare is the opportunity for us nowadays to experience something truly wondrous. Sure, we might witness the birth of our own child or watch with bated breath as a satellite a billion miles away navigates its way through the rings of Saturn. But what about story?

If there is one quality that propels the Dramatica theory of story above all other paradigms it is that it can actually predict certain parts of a story. The program is smart enough to take the choices an Author makes regarding what it is they want to say with their story and give back to them parts of their story they hadn't even considered. The effect can only be described as pure magic. Things unknown about a story become known, revealing parts essential for the story to feel full, complete and meaningful.

Kurt Vonnegut, the writer behind Slaughterhouse Five, may have taken issue with computers and their attempts at "graphing" storytelling, but chances are he never had a chance to see Dramatica in action. Even if he did, he probably would have been disgusted at its accuracy in predicting some of the choices he made. How could a computer possibly mimic the intellect of a great writer? His disdain for such applications may have inhibited the wheels of progress for some time, but then, bruised egos often can't help themselves.

The fact of the matter is that we are learning at an exponential rate how our minds work. The Dramatica theory of story is simply one aspect of that research and a fascinating insight into why some stories work better than others. The best way to witness this uncanny feature or predictability in action is to answer the program's questions about a great story that already works, and see if what the application predicts actually fits the work in question.

Steadfast Characters and Their Problem

Before diving into the specific examples, it becomes important to understand the nature of a Steadfast Character and the Problem at the core of their Throughline. With Change characters, the Problem works as expected: it identifies the source of trouble in their life and the corresponding Solution signifies where their change will lead them. With Steadfast characters the Solution never really comes fully into play (it will in small doses throughout a balanced story, but never like the Change character) and thus, their Problem will appear to be more like the source of their drive rather than a true problem to be solved. It will define them, almost like a core characteristic. By looking at the Steadfast character's Problem within the following examples, one can get a sense of Dramatica's magical ability to predict elements of a story.

What is a Storyform?

For those unfamiliar with Dramatica, a storyform represents a unique collection of thematic dynamics and story points that communicate the meaning of a story. In the present incarnation of the program, there are 32,768 possible storyforms. The process of storyforming requires an Author to make structural choices about their work in order to narrow down that broad number to the one unique set of appreciations that matches what it is they want to say.

When analyzing a work through Dramatica, the analyst attempts to discover the one storyform that best matches the story being evaluated. They begin with the most easily-identifiable story points, slowly working their way to the less obvious until they get down to the one storyform. When that happens the storyform will magically "sing", predicting story points and thematic elements that the analyst did not provide. That's the moment when the analyst knows they've hit upon the right one.

And that's the moment we'll be looking for in the following examples.

Star Trek

J. J. Abrams' sci-fi lens-flare spectacular provides audiences with a solid, well-illustrated storyform. Starting with Kirk's Main Character Resolve of Steadfast (and thus, Spock's Resolve of Change), the Captain's Approach of Do-er and Linear Problem-Solving Style seem most apparent. So too do the Story Dynamics of Action Driver, Optionlock, Story Outcome of Success and Story Judgment of Good (an obviously Triumphant ending).

The Overall Story, with its chases and space battles, fits nicely in the Domain of Activity, as does Kirk's personal Main Character Domain of Situation (the ne'er-do-well son of a hero). This forces Spock's Influence Character Domain into Fixed Attitude -- and our first glimpse at the magic in action. Fixed Attitude describes Spock's Throughline perfectly: a Vulcan fixated on the rational. The Relationship between the two consequently falls into Psychology, meaning their battleground centers around conflicting ways of thinking. Once again -- magic. A perfect way to describe the conflict in their contentious relationship. They each have different ways of thinking how best to solve the problem at hand, both trying to manipulate the other into seeing things their way.

Here, things become less obvious. Certainly the Overall Story Concern must be Obtaining, particularly in a story about revenge, but beyond that is the story exploring an Issue of Self-Interest, Morality, Approach or Attitude? Perhaps Spock's Throughline would provide an easier way into the storyform.

Stepping down into the Fixed Attitude Domain and a Concern of Subconscious (what drives him!) we find four groups of four elements each. Scanning the four for the best grouping, the quad below Hope sings out the name Spock: Logic, Feeling, Control and Uncontrolled. If ever there was a group that described what problems a Vulcan goes through, this would be it!

The question now becomes, which one is his Problem? What is the true source of his inequity? It's clear that he believes his emotions get the best of him and thus, a Symptom of Feeling seems to be the best choice as the Symptom describes what a character thinks their problem is.

And with that, we're down to one storyform. And here is where the magic really begins.

The program has identified Spock's Problem as Uncontrolled and his Solution as Control. Think to his fistfights with the young Vulcans earlier on in the film for an example of his Problem, and his ability to control his emotions at the end for proof of his Solution. Hopping up to the Overall Story we see that the program has identified Uncontrolled as the Overall Story Problem as well (Nero anyone?) with Avoidance as the Symptom (warp-holing to prevent things from happening) and Pursuit as the Response (pursuing Nero to the ends of the universe). So far so good.

But the greatest instance of magic, the one that solidly identifies this particular storyform as being the one, is in Kirk's Domain. Based on the choices made previously, Dramatica predicts that Kirk's Problem would be Oppose. How could one possibly find a better term to describe him in this story? Not only does this trait show up in the opening scene where he borrows his step-dad's car, but also in every other scene where someone tells Kirk he can't do something. When people Oppose Kirk, he goes after them (MC Response - Pursuit -- more magic!).

Without any tampering from the analyst, Dramatica has accurately predicted the types of thematic elements that would make Star Trek work as a solid story. If one were looking to write this story within the first couple months of development, a simple adherence to the suggestions made by the program would help ensure that the final product would mean something - that everything would together in a seamless holistic piece.

But what about something a little less popcorn-predictable? Maybe something more scholarly, more character-driven?

Jane Eyre

No way a computer program can predict the intricacies of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel, right? Well, if you plug in Jane's obvious Resolve of Change, her Approach as a Do-er, her Holistic Problem Solving Style (how else to explain her new home in the middle of nowhere?), and the Story Dynamics of Decision, Optionlock, Success and Good, the storyform begins to take shape.

Add to this an Overall Story clearly set in Psychology (conflict stemming from the myriad of characters who have designs on Jane) and an Overall Concern of Becoming (again, manipulating Jane to become what they want) and the program has narrowed down the possible storyforms to 16. One of those sixteen elements must be the Overall Story Problem - the problem plaguing everyone within the story. As with the analysis of Spock, the four quads of four are looked at as a group in order to determine which set feels more like the source of trouble within the story. Realizing that everyone creates trouble for themselves when they act from a sense of Obligation, an analyst could easily see how Logic, Feeling, Help and Hinder "sing" the nature of difficulty within this story. In fact, doing what is sensible (Logic) screams out as the actual Problem, particularly in light of Jane's final decision to go with her emotions instead (Feeling).

But where is the magic?

Hop on over to Rochester's Influence Character Domain (Fixed Attitude - how about that for starters?) and one can see how the program has predicted his Problem to be Conscience. How else would you describe a man who cares for a wife who so clearly belongs in a mental institution? Is that not doing the right thing, rather than taking the easy way out? Amazing, right? A computer program has accurately predicted the choices a mid-19th century author made during the writing of her novel.

Magic. Pure and simple.

The Enduring Model of the Mind

The reason Brontë's novel has lasted for nearly 200 years and the reason why people still feel compelled to retell that story is because it was based on a solid storyform. Storyforms are simply models of human psychology -- a snapshot of the human mind at work trying to solve a problem. Audiences recognize this fact and appreciate the care given to a story that thinks the way they do. They are drawn to stories that have something meaningful to say.

So does one need this program in order to create something as powerful and lasting as Jane Eyre? Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley had this to say:

The theory is a discovery more than an invention. The software is an invention based on the discovery.

These principles of story structure were in place long before the invention of the computer and the programs that followed it. So no, by trusting their instinct, an Author could conceivably create something enduring and everlasting. The theory is a discovery of the process of acquiring meaning already within us. The invention of the application Dramatica simply grants us the opportunity to see that magical process in action.

This article originally appeared September 3, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Chasing the Protagonist 

Story structure based on recognizable patterns garner legions of fans. They draw many in with their easy “fifteen steps to Hollywood success” and their claims of having unlocked the keys of story. Unfortunately, with simplicity comes great inaccuracy.

The popularity of these paradigms or screenwriting blogs can be traced to the elementary nature of their concepts. Protagonists are characters who want something badly enough to drive a story. Inciting Incidents are the moments when something new happens. These are easy concepts that one can tape to their monitor during NaNoWriMo, easy-to-grasp bellwethers for hobbyists.

Unfortunately, as easy as they fit on a yellow Post-It, these concepts and edicts ultimately prove insufficient towards creating holistically meaningful stories. Their reductive nature blinds many to the complicated psychological processes that complete stories are built upon, the end result revealing itself in illogical and inconsistent analysis. Worse, it only adds to the immense landfill of confused pointless storytelling.

Recently, Story Fanatic received a challenge regarding its series of articles on How to Train Your Dragon (beginning here). The area of disagreement focused on the article’s assertion that the Protagonist of How to Train Your Dragon was in fact NOT Hiccup as many would believe, but rather his father, Stoick. An explanation if you will.

What the Protagonist is Not

The dissenter defined the Protagonist as the character who wants something badly enough to drive a story. What character doesn’t? Placing the burden of narrative momentum onto a singular character leads to Hero-centric storytelling – a myopic understanding that confuses the function of a Protagonist with the perspective of a Main Character.

That original article’s purpose was to illustrate that the Protagonist of a story pursues the resolution of the story’s problem, while the Main Character of a story represents the audience’s viewpoint into the story. The Main Character presents a personal perspective on the story’s problem. The Protagonist drives a story forward.

Sometimes (more often than not in Western film) the two are portrayed by the same player. It is this trend that fuels the ever popular Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat! paradigms. This is fine. Until, of course, it leads to preconceptions – blind spots that motivate inaccurate analysis of unfinished works.

The reservations many have towards popular story gurus and constructs of story stem in large part to this misunderstanding that the central character of a story is always the one driving the efforts towards resolving the problem. Instinctively, everyone gets that this is not always true.

The Function of a Protagonist

The Inciting Incident introduces the problem of the story that affects everyone in the story. The Protagonist works to resolve that problem, the Antagonist to prevent it. Because of these intrinsic functions, they both must be aware of the problem and the efforts to resolve it. No sense pursuing the resolution of a problem you’re not familiar with, no sense trying to prevent it if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to stop.

The rabble-rouser who wrote in believed Hiccup’s goal as Protagonist was to win his father’s love. Fair enough. There is an element of truth to that notion. But who is actively preventing Hiccup from achieving this goal? No one, and thus – no Antagonist. Furthermore, how are ALL the characters affected or even concerned by this problem? Maybe Stoick’s friend Gobber and perhaps Astrid, but beyond that no one really cares what is going on between these two. It is an intimate problem, a subjective problem, shared between two competing perspectives.

Their struggle, thus, is not the all-encompassing main problem of the story. It is part of the story, but not the part that concerns the Protagonist and Antagonist objective character roles. More reason to stay away from the Hero-centric models. Thinking of the story strictly from Hiccup’s point-of-view blinds people to the other contexts existing within the framework of a meaningful story. Those who hold strong to those paradigms are not seeing the whole picture.

Looking Deeper Into a Story

The Dramatica theory of story provides the most accurate model of the inner workings of a story. It presents a holistic view of the thematic dynamics at conflict – a more comprehensive understanding that seeks to explore ALL sides of an issue, NOT simply from the viewpoint of a “protagonist”.

True, Hiccup wants his father’s love badly enough to motivate many of his actions. But this is only part of the story, what Dramatica would call the Relationship Story Throughline. When looking at a story through this context, the concepts of Protagonist and Antagonist fade in importance. From this perspective, the contentious relationship between the Main Character and their greatest personal challenger becomes the most essential issue.

Consequently, the Protagonist and Antagonist can only be seen through the context of the Overall Story Throughline – what most consider to be the “story” of a story. Both Overall Story and Relationship Story exist simultaneously within a single work. Understanding which context you’re taking when examining the structure of a story can go a long way towards properly understanding the dynamics at work. Knowing that both need to be there in order to explore both sides of an issue will go a long way towards appreciating the real power of narrative fiction.

The greatest benefit from thinking this way? Seeing story in this light protects one from having to defend faulty logic with caveats and special cases. The paradigm works universally.

Hiccup’s desire for his father’s love is only part of the story. The desire to train the next generation of dragon-killers and the effects those efforts have on the Vikings and the dragons is another. Subjective emotions drive the former, objective logistics the latter. The Protagonist and Antagonist are found in the objective half of a story. Main Character and their challenger, the Influence Character, are found in the other half. Complete stories – great stories – require both as they both work in concert to provide the meaning of a story.

Stories Without Archetypal Characters

To add to this, continuously looking for the Protagonist or Antagonist of a story is a broken approach because there are some stories that have neither. Protagonists and Antagonists represent a familiar collection of dramatic elements that an audience easily recognizes. Familiarity, though, breeds contempt. Classic Archetypes such as these, while clear and easy to understand, are not complex enough to warrant deep exploration of issues. Complex characters, on the other hand, do.

Othello endures without these strict Archetypes. Shakespeare infused that play with complex characters, characters consisting of unique and disparate dramatic elements. Yet, there are still some who cling to the notion that a story ALWAYS has a definite Protagonist who wants something. Thus, they contend that Iago is the Protagonist and that his Goal was the destruction of Othello and Casio. This line of logic presents us with a clear case of how chasing the Protagonist naturally leads to error.

Protagonists do not achieve their Goal in a Tragedy. By definition, a Tragedy tells of a failed effort to resolve a problem. Pretty sure Othello is a Tragedy. To place Iago in this role as Protagonist would somehow imply that he failed to achieve his goal of bringing down Othello.

Does that sound accurate?

Looking For Something That Is Not There

Understanding context helps align an interpretation of story with what is really going on. Realizing the dual perspectives of objective and subjective helps one to fully comprehend how a work of narrative fiction operates and allows one the best opportunity to address any problems within.

Protagonist and Antagonist are objective character functions. They exist to provide an objective “take” on the best approach towards solving the central problem of a story. Their wants and desires? Subjective context – those exist within the character. Trying to find the Protagonist from that perspective will only end in false assumptions and wasted efforts.

Appreciating the dueling perspectives of objective and subjective viewpoint that permeate a work of narrative fiction grants one the ability to make a coherent argument – a solid story worthy of time and attention.

This article originally appeared October 27, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Blockbuster Films and the Main Character

Writers dream of capturing the hearts of their audience. To grab the attention of a group of people and have them become so involved with a character’s struggle that they forget their daily lives stands as the Holy Grail of wordsmithing. But how do writers expect this to happen if they don’t give the audience a way in?

It’s one thing to craft a harrowing plot of escalating complication, one that excites and surprises at every turn. To then be able to wrap it all up within a meaningful and thought-provoking exploration of thematic elements? Well, now you’re talking story. But unless the writer adds a clearly established Main Character Throughline all that work will be for nothing.

A Way In

By providing an intimate look at a problem and the personal struggle to overcome it, a writer grants the audience an emotional portal into the story’s events. The Main Character Throughline fuses story with audience. Leave it out and the audience will become simple observers. Weave it in as to be an essential component and the audience will jump in feet first, empathizing with the plight of the Main Character and consequently developing an emotional attachment to the story’s final outcome.

Blockbusters, by definition, demand repeat viewings. A strong Main Character Throughline invites audiences everywhere to become a part of the experience again and again.

Doing it Right

Star Wars excites with its laser battles and zero-gravity dogfights, yet it is Luke staring out at the twin sunset that ultimately draws us in. Inception compels attention with its intricate dreams within dreams concept, yet it is the guilt Dom feels for the participation in his wife’s suicide that makes us care about those dreams. Finding Nemo transcends the animated film genre with an epic undersea adventure like no other, yet it is Marlin’s father-knows-best attitude that forces us to empathize deeply with a computer-generated image.

The list doesn’t stop there: Toy Story 3, The Dark Knight, E.T., Spider-Man, Shrek 2 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – all blockbuster films with one thing in common: a clear, easily definable Main Character throughline separate from the larger overall struggle within the story.

The biggest film of all time, Avatar, strangely enough suffers from a broken Main Character Throughline. It may hiccup dramatically in some places, but at least the effort was made to bring the audience in on the adventure.

Doing It Wrong

Contrast this with Taken or 9 or the critically-acclaimed Of Gods and Men. None of these films offers an emotional path into the story’s events. Sure, we care about the abduction of Liam Nesson’s daughter, but do we become emotionally invested? Not at all. Same with 9. Why should we care about post-apocalyptic puppets if we’re not granted a personal struggle to latch onto? Who the heck is 9 and what are the issues most personal to him? Of Gods and Men? The acclaim rests solely in the subject matter there, not in the execution.

These films, and countless others like them that rely on spectacle and sleight-of-hand to lull the senses. They suffer at the box office because they fail to latch on to the audience’s sense of empathy. Audiences simply don’t care enough about these films to see them again (Some aren’t even seen at all – often there is a sense from the trailer whether or not a film has a potentially strong Main Character Throughline).

A Catalyst for Error

Identifying the Main Character Throughline of a story is simple, right? One simply has to look to the Catalyst – or Inciting Incident – and find the life-changing event for the Protagonist.

Not quite.

In fact, this line of thinking blatantly points out the reason why the Main Character Throughline must be clearly delineated from the Overall Story Throughline.

Taken provides a Catalyst that upsets the balance of things for Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), yet the rest of the film becomes one mindless action scene after the next. No emotional development, no growth of character, no personal issues anywhere. Thinking only of creating a life-changing event does not guarantee audience engagement because the Inciting Incident/Catalyst is tied to the Overall Story Throughline NOT the Main Character Throughline. It upsets the balance of things for Bryan as Protagonist, not for Bryan as Main Character.

The Function of a Protagonist

The Protagonist operates within the context of the Overall Story Throughline. The Main Character operates within the context of their own personal problems. Sometimes (more often than not in Western film) these two functions can be found in the same player. Luke, Dom, Marlin, Elliot, Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter – all these films feature Protagonists who are also the Main Character.

But what about Rick in Casablanca, Red in The Shawshank Redemption or Sarah Connor in the first Terminator? These films feature very strong Main Characters with very personal issues we become privy to – yet are not the ones driving the Overall Story towards its Goal.

Identifying the difference between the Main Character Throughline and the Overall Story Throughline separates those who understand how stories work from those who work stories to death. How can one possibly fix the problems within a story if they don’t know where to look? (“They’re digging in the wrong place!” – Raiders)

A Problem Personal to the Main Character

Seeing the two as one is a common blunder that often results in soulless empty stories. Taken is a perfect example of this. If one doesn’t care about engaging an audience on an emotional level, then by all means, craft a Catalyst and move on. But if one is interested in elevating their storytelling, bringing it to a point where the events on-screen actually matter…well, then identify the problem most personal to that character.

The abduction of Bryan’s daughter isn’t a personal problem – everyone is concerned with it. The police, the daughter herself, the bad guys who took her, and yes, of course, the Protagonist Mr. Mills. The abduction creates sympathy not empathy – which is correct. Audiences should, and will sympathize with a Protagonist.

The Main Character Throughline, however, are those issues the Main Character would take with them into any story, not simply the one at hand. Their throughline, their struggle defines their character. This is why their connection to the Inciting Incident is not a prerequisite.

There are times, however, when the two coincide. The Sixth Sense is one example of this: the violent act that created Malcom’s unique “situation” also happens to be the Catalyst that forced his function as a Protagonist in the larger story of understanding what is really going on with Cole. He has that objective goal as Cole’s case worker, yet his personal issues – that big problem he’s dealing with all on his own – those issues define him as a character and are a part of his Main Character Throughline. It’s that intimate look at problem-solving, what would I do in the same situation?, that compels the audience’s interest.

Defined by Their Personal Issue

Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon was a 98-lb. weakling viking long before he destroyed his hometown of Berk – the Inciting Incident of that story. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George’s “paunchy” appearance and lack of adequate pectorals had no connection with the decision to have some guests over for dinner. Black Swan’s Nina suffered at the hands of her mother’s maternal prison long before poor Beth was given the boot.

Asked to describe Hiccup or George or Nina and these throughlines would be the subject of what would be discussed.

The Character-Driven Story

Personal throughlines like this are perhaps easier to identify within smaller more character-driven pieces like Black Swan or Virginia Woolf because the emphasis is always placed on what is this character struggling with? or how can I give the lead actor something really meaty to chew on?

In Win Win, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) shoulders the burden of his families’ financial misfortune all on his own. Keeping his actions a secret from his wife and from those who know him fuses the audience with him. Who hasn’t kept a secret that would certainly destroy their reputation? Mike may be doing something wrong, but we can’t help but feel for him (a natural reaction towards someone we empathize with). We root for Protagonists, we feel for Main Characters.

This personal throughline exists as well within the disconnected yet-always-on-a-connecting-flight Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) from Up In The Air. Layoffs and corporate restructuring may affect everyone in the story, but it is that carefree “I don’t need anybody” attitude that only Ryan and we as the audience are privy to.

A Story Is A Story, No Matter How Small

The drive to create a blockbuster does not negate the need for an effective Main Character Throughline. Whether it be a quiet character-driven piece like Blue Valentine or a monster-sized epic like The Lord of the Rings, the way a story works remains consistent. Key broadstrokes of structure – like the different perspectives of the Main Character and Overall Story Throughline – determine the ultimate success of any film.

Audiences know inherently when they receive a broken story. The box office reflects their disappointment.

By taking the time to clearly identify those issues personal to the Main Character, a story becomes something more than simply a Protagonist trying to reach a Goal. It becomes something more than simply a shell who endures some life-changing event. Stories with that emotional punch to the gut – stories that touch the heart – become a compedium of experiences that grant meaning and incite thoughtfulness.

Why strive for anything less?

This article originally appeared September 7, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Framing Devices and What They Mean

While many may suggest that change is always good when it comes to storytelling, using that approach to describe the intent behind the use of “bookends” or a framing device can be potentially misleading. As always, a deeper look into the purpose behind such concepts can illuminate the reasons why they exist and how they can be best applied to one’s work.

In the commentary section of the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, screenwriting legends Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot single out their five rules of screenwriting, with the first two being:

  • No Bookends and
  • No Bookends

Said with tongue firmly-in-cheek, Rossio and Elliot are clearly referring to the rather pedestrian use of a framing device to set the stage for the story itself. Films like Saving Private Ryan, A League of Their Own, and even Young Guns 2 employ this technique of having an aged character recount the story, typically with a voiced-over narration as well. This particular version of a framing device sits outside of the actual story, wrapping itself around the potentials within.

It is not a part of the Author’s proof, and simply serves as a means to create a context within which to appreciate the story.

Purposeful Framing Devices

A film like Titanic extends the idea of a framing device a bit further, taking these bookended scenes and infusing them with a story of their own. The central “1912” story was concerned with Main Character Rose (Kate Winslet) and her change at the hands of handsome Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). The modern visiting-the-wreck story flipped things around with a now much older Rose influencing the change of character within Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton). This second story is far less complete than the one with the big block of ice, but it still attempts to depict the kind of growth of character that exists with a complete story. As such, it has its own meaning that, like its simpler narration-only cousin, sits outside of the story proper. These smaller sub-stories may share thematics or create dissonances with their bigger brothers, but they still aren’t an essential part of the main story’s argument.

Another fork of this concept has the Author jumbling up the order in which the events are told, or revealed to the Audience. Starting at the end, then rewinding to the beginning and playing through to the end again is a common technique used by Authors who want to play on the Audience’s preconceptions of how certain scenes appear to be at first glance. Films like Memento, The Usual Suspects and The Sweet Hereafter all incorporate this tecnhique to provide an enhanced appreciation the story’s message. Here, these scenes become an integral part of the story’s argument.

Yet, as meaningful to the story as they are, this particular version of a framing device still don’t provide the powerful opportunity for an Author to prove their central character’s resolve.

Moving Beyond Simple Bookends

Dramatica theory co-creator Chris Huntley sums up these instances of framing devices quite nicely in a recent conversation on the Dramatica Convore page:

Bookends are often storytelling devices that allow the author to put the story in context. Other times, bookends are storyweaving devices that show a bit of the end of the story at the beginning of the work, and then finish the end of the story at the end of the work. Another form of bookending involves having an establishing scene at the beginning that shows how things stand [with the Main Character] and then have a parallel scene at the end of the work that shows how [the Main Character] has changed (or not).

It is with this last example that the framing device begins to takes on a signficant and powerful meaning.

Why Resolve Matters

Lightly touched upon in last week’s article Dramatica: Mad Libs or Madly Accurate, the Main Character’s final resolve is used by an Author to help establish the meaning of their story. If the Main Character changes their approach and the end result is a triumph, then the Author is saying Changing your approach in this context is the right thing to do. If instead, the Main Character remains steadfast in their approach and the outcome is an abject tragedy, then the Author’s message becomes a cautionary tale – By sticking to your guns, you are setting yourself up for failure.

As introduced by Huntley above, a common technique to prove this resolve is to employ two scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end, that drop the Main Character into a similar set of circumstances, and in some cases even the same exact situation. If the Main Character responds the way they did in the beginning, then it becomes clear to the Audience that the Main Character’s resolve has stayed the same. If the Main Character somehow musters up the courage to react differently, to try a different method for solving their personal issues, then it becomes obvious that the Main Character has resolved to change their approach.

This is why it might be more beneficial to refer to this technique as the Author’s Proof of Resolve, rather than simply another instance of “framing device” or bookend. Beyond simply showing that something has “changed” or providing a context within which to appreciate the story, this sophisticated use of a framing device comes with the prime intent of helping an Author confidently prove the message of their story.

Proving the Author’s Argument

Referring again to last week’s article, The Godfather uses Kaye to frame Michael’s “proof of resolve”:

In the beginning he has no problem explaining the family business to Kaye. At the end, he lies to her face about it. He changes from a man driven by his feelings about the mafia to a man driven by the cold-hearted logic necessary to keep his family business alive.

Presented with the same set of circumstances, Michael has changed the way he approaches that problem. The two scenes prove his resolve.

In Top Gun, the aptly named Maverick (Tom Cruise) is a lone wolf, jumping into action at the drop of a hat, completely disregarding any responsibility he might have towards others. He starts the story abandoning his wingman in order to flip over and flip off a Russian pilot, complete with a Polaroid snapshot. The result? His terrified wingman almost loses his life on final approach.

At the end of the film, Mav finds himself in the same exact situation, only this time he refuses to leave his wingman. Proof of resolve once again. The Main Character has altered the way he solves the issues plaguing them. Granted, Top Gun is not Shakespeare or as well-crafted as The Godfather but the concept remains just as effective – the Author’s message is conveyed clearly and succintly. Control your impulses and you too can experience triumph.

In The Shawshank Redemption, Red’s proof of resolve sequence is made even more obvious by having it all take place in the same exact room! Facing the parole board at the beginning of the story we can easily see what the system has done to poor Red (Morgan Freeman). Beaten down, he cowardly grasps hat in hand and nods Yessir, whatever you say sir. Telling the board what he thinks they want to hear, he recevies his rejection notice with ease.

At the end, having gone through a lifetime of growth experience with Andy (Tim Robbins), he vehemently stands his ground and speaks up and out at them. No longer content with simply towing the system line, Red defies authority and in turn gains their respect. His stamp of approval is the Author’s proof of resolve, and the message clearly delineated: speak out and you too may find freedom.

More To It Than Simply Change

Bookends or framing devices are not revolutionary new concepts in storytelling. Understanding how they operate and how they can best be applied to one’s work is.

Save the Cat! creator Blake Snyder refers to bookends in the explanations of his Opening and Final Image:

These are bookends. And because a good screenplay is about change, these two scenes are a way to make clear how that change takes place in your movie…the final image in a movie is the opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred and that it’s real

This could be considered a reasonable assessment from the Audience’s point-of-view (covered in Forget the Cat, Save Yourself!), but as far as the Author is concerned, why do these scenes of correlation exist and how can one manufacture meaning out of them?

If the framing devices are being used to show the Main Character’s change in approach (or lack thereof–equally as important!) towards solving his own personal issues, the why becomes clear. They are there to prove the Main Character’s final resolve. It is more than simply depicting change because good screenplays are about change, it is actually supporting the Author’s message, solidifying their reason for writing in the first place. Crafting scenes like this simply becomes a matter of understanding the problem at the heart of the Main Character’s personal throughline and creating scenes that exploit it.

Advanced Story Theory for This Article

Dramatica provides an Author with the key elements central to a Main Character’s Throughline. In the case of Red, Support is his Problem with Oppose falling into place as the appropriate Solution. The parole board scenes provide a perfect opportunity for the Author to show how Red’s willingness to fall in line can be “fixed” by speaking out and opposing their way of doing things.

If instead Red had been a Steadfast character, that final parole board scene would have him responding the same way he did in the beginning, supporting their every word.

Now, the story isn’t set up for that to make sense, but in a completely different story an Author could show how towing the line is completely the appropriate way to resolve an issue of insitutional thinking. Having been challenged in every scene in-between, Red could find him standing resolutely in the Support corner. If he were to be let go because of it, then the Author’s message would be clear and a bit subversive, be a yes man and you can be free.

If instead, he received his final rejection notice and went back to his cell head down, the message would come from the same point-of-view, yet be a completely miserable and downer experience. Tow the line and you’ll end up a sad and lonely man! Sad message, but a clear one to be sure.

This article originally appeared June 4, 2011 on Jim’s Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

How to Figure Out Your Character's Arc

Many a story begins with a great character. That flash of inspiration that says I have to write a story about this person. Yet, so many stories stall out just short of that all-important finish line. Why is that?

The answer can often be traced to misplaced focus. So much attention is placed on fleshing out the character and providing them with greater and greater sources of escalating conflict, that the basic logic of their actual arc breaks down. In fact, sometimes it's not even there at all.

There is a simple dynamic that exists within all Main Characters, defined by the chasm between a problem and a solution.

Why the Main Character Exists

The purpose of a Main Character within a complete story is to present to the audience a personal perspective on the story's central inequity. Some stories explore Main Characters who create problems by testing themselves. Will Hunting and Luke Skywalker come to mind as central characters troubled by the fallout of personally imposed trials. Other stories take a look at Main Characters beset by problems of perception. Malcom Crowe from The Sixth Sense and Lester Burnham from American Beauty both suffered because of how they perceived the world around them. These inequities, which are seen as problems by the audience, exist independent of gender, genre or generation. They drive the Main Character forward through a story, coming complete with a corresponding resolution device, or solution.

Problems of test require solutions of trust. Both Will and Luke managed to find peace in trusting something outside of themselves. Problems of perception require a dose of reality. Both Malcom and Lester finally saw things the way they really are. Perceptive problems can't be solved by trusting something, and problems of trials can't be resolved by the reality of the situation. Every problem comes complete with one complimentary solution. Understanding what drives a character can help a writer determine what that solution is, thus revealing exactly how to resolve their character's arc.

Common Problems, Common Solutions

As mentioned previously, a Main Character's problem is about as far removed from genre as one can get. Take for instance three completely different films: Something About Mary, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Memento -- a raucous comedy, a kid's fantasy adventure, and a psychological thriller. Polar ends of the genre spectrum, yet they all feature Main Characters troubled by the same exact problem. And because they all come from the same dramatic place, one can predict where they will end up. Assuming, of course, that they ultimately resolve their problems.

Something About Mary

Ted had a bit of a disastrous date with Mary back in high school. In fact, it was so bad that he has dwelled on it, and continues to dwell on it many many years later. Ted is the kind of character who is unable to do the kinds of things he wants to do. This performance anxiety, which finds its roots in that dreadful day in the bathroom, is his problem. This inequity within him is a problem that determines what he can and cannot do in regards to Mary today, an inadequacy deep at the heart of his own personal angst.

Now, this might seem a little too much for a film that is supposed to be about franks n' beans right? We are talking about a sdlkfjsdf brothers film. But it is this kind of attention to character that elevates this film above others in its class. Ted suffers from a lack of ability and it shows. Harry Potter, on the other hand, suffers from too much ability.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry can talk to snakes (which I'm told is called Parsiltongue), he can ride a broom with little to no effort, and he can catch a Snitch just as well as his dad. Harry is a born Seeker. These skills set Harry apart from the other kids, increasing the angst he already feels at having been lableled The Boy Who Livved.

It's the same kind of problem Ted has, only it is weighted way over at the other end. Besides simply being incapable, one can be capable of too much, especially when they're not sure exactly what to do with it. In either case, both Ted and Harry experience an inequity that can be attributed to ability.

But what of a character who finds their problem encompasses all aspects of an inequity?


Leonard has a very clear problem defined for us from the start: he can't make new memories. Another way to put it? He is unable to make new memories. Leonard has a mental disability, a deficiency that drives his every move.

But like Harry, Leonard can also be seen as being too capable. In fact he is so capable of deceiving himself that, if left to his own devices, he could keep the quest for his wife's killer going indefinitely...

...which brings us to the resolution of a character's arc.

The Solution to a Problem

So how does one determine where a Main Character will end up? Understand the solution that will resolve their problem. When one is beset by problems of ability, like Ted, Harry and Leonard are, the answer can be found in desire.


Desire overcomes ability. Think of it this way: Let's say you're not very good at something. Perhaps you're an animator at a big-time studio and you don't draw as well as some of the other artists. This lack of ability (or disability if you like) is a tremendous source of pain for you as it holds you back from whatever purposes you strive for. In other words, it is a problem.

Now there are two approaches you can take to work this problem. The first involves staying the course, working the problem and the effects of it, until the problem is gone. Perhaps your drawing skills will improve. Perhaps the skills of those around will decline. In either case, the approach is one of steadfastness, that problem of ability still driving your every move.

The other approach is to simply give up wanting to be a great animator or, give up that desire. It may seem tragic (as some stories are), but when it comes to resolving a problem, the emotional consequences run second to the methodology needed to get there. Giving up that desire to be better, or wanting something else even more, will solve that issue one had of a lack of ability. That problem of ability simply disappears.

A Solution for Every Character

This second approach is exactly what happened to Ted. But instead of simply giving up on wanting Mary, he followed it to the very end, effectively increasing his desire for the girl of his dreams. He followed his heart and told Mary he came to Florida because he loved her. In doing so his feelings of inadequacy disappeared and Mary came running after him. Ted's arc was completed by the solution to his problem.

Same with Harry. Only his solution of desire came in the form of those at Hogwarts welcoming him in. His adventure with the Sorcerer's Stone found him a new home, a natural solution for someone who never had one, having suffered great alienation for so long.

Both Harry and Ted found peace at the end of their arcs. By replacing their problems of ability with a solution of desire they nullified the inequities at the heart of their personal struggles.

But what about Leonard?

Now Where Was I?

With those last four words it is clear exactly where Leonard is -- he's still stuck with that problem and probably will be for a long time to come. There was no instance of desire that could have abated his disability. There could have been perhaps with Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), but in the end she was using Leonard just as much as Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) was. That solution of desire never presented itself.

Because of this unfortunate fact, that unrest Leonard feels inside of him will always be there. In fact, there is no indication that he won't burn that picture of Teddy the next day and move on. After all, he has shown that he is quite capable of keeping his charade up indefinitely.

The End is In Sight

When a writer fully understands the kind of problems that their Main Character struggles with, determining how to wrap up their stories becomes a simple matter of figuring out whether or not the appropriate solution is put into place. For Ted and Harry the answer was yes. For Leonard, the answer was sadly no.

In either case, the arc carries with it greater meaning.

For Something About Mary and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the message was that great happiness can be found when you replace your problems of capability with an overwhelming sense of heart. Whether by following it or feeling it from others, that sense of desire will resolve your personal issues.

For Memento, there was no resolution. Sure, Leonard's mental disability gave him the ability to seek revenge upon the killer of John G., but it left him feeling lost, still troubled by the demons he began the story with.

Find your character's true inner problem and the key to the end of their arc will be presented to you.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Dramatica refers to this dynamic within the Main Character as the Main Character Problem and the Main Character Solution. In the three examples above the MC Problem was Ability and the MC Solution was Desire. In addition to the earlier examples of Test and Trust and Perception and Actuality, there are countless more problems that a Main Character can be driven by.

When the Solution comes into play, the story features a Change Main Character. Their Resolve has Changed, signified by the Solution taking precedence over the Problem. In Steadfast Main Characters, like the example of Lenny above, the Solution is never encountered. Technically it can be throughout the course of the story in order to make the struggle seem less one-dimensional, but when it comes to that final decision, that final Resolve, the Solution is never put into place.

And it doesn't always have to end Badly, the way it did for Leonard. Characters can refuse to use their Solution and come out ahead. William Wallace did (he came out a-head, sorry, couldn't resist!), but he stayed steadfast in his approach and managed to not only free Scotland but the angst he felt within him over his wife's murder.

This article originally appeared June 23, 2011 on Jim's website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.


Dysfunctional Families and Their Stories

Stories of dysfunction are popular among writers who want to explore the conflict that can arise when the psychologies of characters clash. Nailing down exactly what those problems are and how best to dramatize them can be difficult, especially given the basic understandings of story prevalent today.

One popular sub-genre of dysfunction is that of the dysfunctional family.

Dysfunctional families experience difficulties because of psychological problems, problems that can't be resolved by defeating a bad guy or winning a race. Their problems stem from the way the individual family members think, rather than what they say or do. A successful resolution to their problems will find the family functional once again -- an outcome that will hinge upon the Goal of the story.

Determining the Story Goals of Dysfunction

Typically, when presented with a story like this the Goal has something to do with bringing the family back together. Whether that relies on maintaining the American dream as it is in American Beauty, or simply being the superhero family that they were born to be as it is in The Incredibles, the Goal of the story becomes less about what the Protagonist wants and more about overcoming the inequity at the source of the dysfunction.

How exactly does one determine the Goal of a story?

Story Goals are always about overcoming the inequity created by the Inciting Incident. The Goals of most Hollywood films are relatively easy to figure out because they are based on problems that require some kind of physical achievement by the characters in order to resolve them.

In Unforgiven there are some bad men that need killin'. In The Matrix humans need to gain the upper hand over their computer overlords. And in Casablanca there are two tickets of transit that spell freedom for a couple of lucky souls. External problems that require external solutions.

But what physical prize needs to be achieved in American Beauty, or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman or Little Miss Sunshine? For that matter, what about The Incredibles or Down n' Out in Beverly Hills or even the classic Frank Capra comedy Arsenic and Old Lace? All these films tell stories of dysfunctional families, yet have no clearly delineated external Goal for the characters to reach.

With Brad Bird's incredible The Incredibles one could argue that the Goal is to defeat Syndrome. But as discussed in the article Sophisticated Story Goals, pureeing the bad guy wasn't enough -- Violet had to take that final step and become a part of the family. With her force-field firmly in place, the dysfunctional Parrs became the functional Parrs, paving the way for them to finally enjoy Saturday juvenile sports just like all the other "normal" families.

Story Goals are not always about achieving things, yet they are always about resolving inequities. As Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story recently pointed out (source):

By definition, a Story Goal is a form of accomplishment. Do not confuse the nature of the story point with the methodology to reach it. Otherwise, EVERY goal would be an obtaining goal, and that does not accurately reflect the way many stories are intended. Part of the problem lies in our cultural bias. We tend to look at the end as the point, and not the means.

Thus, while a Goal may appear to be some sort of achievement, that accomplishment is not as important to the meaning of a story as the means to achieve it. In order to determine how a dysfunctional family might mend itself, it becomes necessary for one to address what exactly the inequity of a particular story really is.

Inequities of Dysfunction

In American Beauty, patriarch Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is asked to put into words how his contribution to the workplace fits in. With that one Inciting Incident an inequity is created, an inequity of dysfunction that had been bubbling for years, an inequity that threatens the very stability of the Burnham's perfect American fairytale family. The Goal isn't about whether or not Lester sleeps with the 16-year old cheerleader (no matter how much he wish it were), it is something more psychological in nature. The only way to truly resolve the issues plaguing the Burnhams is for each character to put aside their own personal agendas and work to together to imagine a new concept of what their family life should be.

The same kind of inequity exists in the Richard Dreyfuss/Bette Midler comedy Down n' Out in Beverly Hills, albeit a bit less melodramatic. Set squarely in the late 80s, the dysfunctional Whitemans family is beset upon by a bum (Nick Nolte) with an eye for the truth. Again, as with American Beauty, there is no bad guy to defeat, no treasure to be gained, and no mountain to be climbed, yet there is still this feeling that something is wrong. That feeling finds its source with the role each character feels they have to play. The maid as mistress, the dutiful mother who would rather be anything else, the son who floats from filmmaker to glam-rocker in an attempt to express himself -- each of these are acts of pretense that must be put aside in order for the Whitemans to overcome their dysfunction.

In the slapstick classic Arsenic and Old Lace, drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) discovers that his two sweet aunts are really homicidal maniacs. Learning that his family's dysfunction extends far beyond just younger brother Teddy's delusions of grandeur (he thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt), Mortimer begins scheming and manipulating those around him based on the concern that he might, in fact, become mad like the rest of them. Avoiding this insane transformation is the only way the inequity of the story can be resolved, especially when a second dead body turns out not to be the work of his aunts, but rather his older brother, Jonathan!

Three different stories (four if you count The Incredibles), three different genres, yet they all focus the dramatic eye on the same kind of inequity -- problematic ways of thinking.

So How Does It All Turn Out?

In The Incredibles everything worked out for the Parrs. Down n' Out In Beverly Hills? The Whitemans awake from their wild party sans makeup, both real and psychological. The dysfunctional family now fully functional.

Arsenic and Old Lace? The aunts, along with both brothers, are carted away to the insane asylum. But more importantly Mortimer learns that he was adopted, and that the chances of he and his blushing bride creating offspring as wild and crazy as these nutbags disappears as quickly as it had come. That fear of becoming just like them has dissipated, and with it the inequity of the story.

American Beauty, unfortunately, does not have such a rosy ending.

Whether you look at Lester's tragic demise, or his wife Elle who discovers far too late how great he really was, or the Colonel who can't quite find a way to make who he really is fit into the concept of what he thinks he should be, the inequity of the story persists. The story is a failure, and if it weren't for Lester's cheerful take on the whole thing it would have been seen as a tragedy the likes of Se7en or Hamlet.

The Trouble with Dysfunction

The psychology story is an opportunity for an Author to explore issues of a different feather, issues left untouched by the majority of Hollywood films.

Why is that?

Those in the West rarely examine the way they go about reaching conclusions. They have no problem questioning their actions or the actions of others, but when it comes to matters of psychology they most often are not quite sure what it is they are dealing with. Confused as to the very nature of the story within their hands, they label it a personal drama story or feel the work in question if far too eclectic for common tastes.

In reality, the resistance shows itself in those who are uncomfortable with the thought that the way they go about coming up with ideas may in fact be fraught with issues and inequity.

The dramatists purpose, then, is to reveal it to them.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Stories of dysfunctional families often find their Objective Story Throughlines in Psychology. In contrast to stories found within the Mind domain, OS Psychology stories explore the problems that arise from the way people think, rather than what they think.

Diving down further one finds the four Concerns of Psychology: Conceptualizing, Conceiving, Being and Becoming. Recent versions of the software offer users simpler terms to replace them. Conceptualizing becomes Developing a Plan, Conceiving becomes Conceiving and Idea, Being becomes Playing a Role and Becoming becomes Transforming One's Nature. While these new "layman" terms might be easier for the newbie to grok, they tend to narrow down and obfuscate what is really happening at this level. As with all things Dramatica, understanding what the terms truly mean becomes more important than the terms themselves.

Down n' Out and The Incredibles find their OS Concerns in Being. Arsenic and Old Lace in Becoming. American Beauty finds the source of its difficulties in Conceptualizing.

One of the more compelling ideas to come out of Dramatica is the notion that a particular Story's Goal will be similar in nature to the OS Concern.

In The Incredibles this means the Parr family has to Be themselves in order to overcome the inequity of the story. In Down n' Out they simply have to stop Be-ing. In Arsenic and Old Lace Mortimer needs to stop trying to Become like his adoptive family. And in American Beauty Lester and Co. need to Conceptualize a new model of the American family.

This article originally appeared June 12, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Keeping Your Story Limit Consistent

One of the interesting things about the Dramatica theory of story is how certain aspects of it can show up in daily life.

For instance, have you ever played the game Boggle? It’s a word game where, in a set amount of time, you’re supposed to connect the letters to form as many words as you can. The hourglass flips over and you start writing as fast as you can. This game is based on a Timelock.

Time runs out - the game is over.

Well, I was playing it this weekend against my 6-year old son who, out of nowhere, decided to add another limit! He drew a series of 9 circles and said that for every word I got wrong, he would cross off one of the circles. After nine mistakes, the game would end and I would lose.

But what about the hourglass?! Where did this Optionlock come from?

Should I worry about the time running out? Well, if I did that then I might get one of the words wrong. And if I get one of the words wrong I’ll only have eight more chances. But it’s the time that really matters, right? Shoot! I got one of the words wrong. Now I only have eight chances left! But wait, there’s only a little bit of sand left in the hourglass. Precious moments left before time runs out. Which one is more important?! Time? Options? Options? Time?!


I think this is the same thing that happens to audiences when the limit is ignored or disregarded in a story. Like Speed or Wedding Crashers. In Speed there is plenty of confusion over whether or not it’s a timelock or an optionlock (re: Dramatica Storyforming “Speed Violation” page 3 PDF). They setup one limit, then ignore it and sort of switch to another. In this Dramatica Online Class Log, Melanie Anne Phillips adds:

Then we don’t know WHEN the movie is going to end for sure. We assume maybe when the bad guy gets it. But that wasn’t where our tension was headed…its something of a cheat and bit of a disappointment.

Fun movie, but still that little hiccup at the end. Wedding Crashers is a bit different. From my best recollection, they’ve got the weekend on the island to “get the girl.” Time runs out and he doesn’t get the girl. But there is still another 45 minutes left to go! As a consequence of the original Limit being ignored, we’re left shifting uncomfortably in our seats for the rest of the film just waiting for it to end. (I remember the same feeling from You’ve Got Mail - only there you’ve got the limit coming to an end what seems like an hour before the Subjective Story comes to an end!).

Events like my game of Boggle and how they relate to Dramatica have always been of interest to me. The theory is based on the mind’s problem solving process so obviously it’s going to show up in real life as well. When searching for meaning, the mind needs the consistent context of a limit. Change the context and you change the meaning.

Now if only the movies we watch could have this same consistency.

This article originally appeared November 1, 2005 on Jim's Story Fanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

What Story Structure Is and Isn't

Beginning, middle and end. Aristotle figured it out centuries ago and the rest of us are simply repeating his work with new fangled terminology, right? Far from it.

Story structure is not simply opening and closing images, midpoints, darks nights of the soul, three acts that break at 30-60-90, spiritual transformations, progressive complications, whammies and reversals. These are all storytelling devices. They add flavor to a solid story structure, not meaning. This is why they don’t apply to every story, why the order in which appear can so easily be shifted, and why so often they seem like matters of interpretation. Their use varies depending on the individual style of the writer.

The Journey of Writing a Story

In a recent presentation writer/director Guillermo del Toro made mention of his disdain for story structure and for the familiar systems propagated by the Robert McKees and Blake Snyders of the world. Reiterating his analogous comparison between the competing writing philosophies of the structuralist and the naturalist to that of tourist and traveler, he began to expand on his particular approach to writing.

A tourist arrives on scene with a set itinerary, a list of popular sites to visit and a schedule within which to visit them. A traveler, on the other hand, experiences the foreign land with little to no boundaries, and no presumptions about what the trip will entail. Preferring the latter, del Toro explained that he would much rather experience “diarrhea in a corner” rather than be burdened with the expected.

What writer wouldn’t?

The allure of the wandering minstrel, of the romanticism involved with not knowing where one is headed, runs through the genetic code of any writer and of any artist. Who wants to be told what to do when creating? The problem is that this analogy is based on an all too familiar misconception regarding story structure.

Story structure exists to convey and support an Author’s argument, not to provide a framework of fifteen familiar beats.

Crafting an Argument

In that very same presentation, del Toro was asked if the themes of disobedience and choice clearly present within his masterful film Pan’s Labyrinth were subject matter that he intentionally set out to write, or if they were simply happy accidents he discovered along his travels. Without skipping a beat he answered quite confidently that yes, the problems of disobedience or rather lack thereof, were guiding lights in some of the decisions he made when writing the original screenplay.

This is story structure.

When an Author sets out to say something, to prove something to a willing audience, he or she is using story structure. Utilizing character, plot, theme and genre, an Author sets out to argue a particular point-of-view. To the extent that he or she aligns their work with the natural problem-solving processes of the human mind (as discussed in the previous article on The Real Magic Behind Great Stories), a story will feel complete and meaningful. The more “broken” or stilted this process is, the weaker or more meaningless a story becomes.

Pan’s Labyrinth works because Guillermo del Toro was trying to say something about the unquestioning allegiance to authority.

Different Perspectives on a Common Problem

When arguing a point, particularly when a writer can’t be there to answer any counter-arguments (as in the case of a film delivered to a wide and international Audience), it becomes necessary to cover all the bases. In story, this completeness of argument comes by exploring the four different contexts from which a problem can be seen–I, You, We and They. These correspond, respectively, to the Main Character in a story (I), the character who challenges their way of seeing things (You), the relationship that develops between the two (We), and the big picture story involving all the characters (They). Arguing only one side of the argument or only some of the perspectives leads to a story that feels pointless or lightweight. Thankfully Pan’s Labyrinth does not suffer from this, leaving many an audience member satiated and emotionally fulfilled.

An exploration of del Toro’s 2006 fairy tale classic begins with young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Seated at the emotional center of the story, she fulfills the first perspective on the problem, that of the Main Character. Through her eyes we experience what it would be like to be a slumbering Princess tasked with accomplishing three very important trials.

Diametrically opposed to her sits the fantastical creature, Pan (Doug Jones). He challenges the way Ofelia sees herself, manipulating her growth of character by presenting her with opportunities to act the way one of her nobility should.

Together they form a relationship and the third perspective on the story’s problem. It is within this context that one can begin to see the inklings of the argument. At first following orders without question, Ofelia gradually but determinedly begins to run counter to Pan’s demands. Her experience with the Pale Man, of opening a different door and eating the food she was explicitly told not to, keys an Audience in on the film’s message and the writer’s purpose in telling this particular story.

Contrast this with the fourth and final perspective, that of the adults and the Spanish Civil War, and the story’s argument becomes all too clear. While Ofelia’s experience with Pan gives an Audience a subjective look into the problems encountered when not questioning authority, it is through the battles between the Facists and the Rebels that we begin to see those problems from an objective third-person perspective. As the Doctor (Álex Angulo) so clearly points out in his rain-soaked scenes, he is not like the evil Captain Vidal (Sergi López). He does not follow orders without question. Again, more clues to the Author’s argument.

Four perspectives, four familiar contexts (I, You, We, They) on a single problem–in this case, an overabundance of trust.

Wrapping up an Argument

The ending of a story acts as a clue towards the Author’s original purpose in setting down those first words. In the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, the argument is being made that only by repudiating the voices of authority can one find triumph. Evident in Ofelia’s final gold-laced scenes, her act of defiance against Pan guaranteed her life-everlasting with both father and mother. If she had continued to do things the way she always had, following orders without question, the outcome would not have been as fulfilling.

And, as if to hammer home his position on the importance of disobedience, del Toro communicates the very same in the bigger picture, albeit with a grace and subtlety of expression that eludes most contemporary American filmmakers.

Problems begin in Pan’s Labyrinth when Captain Vidal’s son arrives with step-daughter in tow. Without Ofelia’s presence and the corresponding focus of attention on her threat to the baby’s natural progression as heir of Vidal’s reign, there would be no story…no problem to solve. Ofelia’s first interaction with Vidal can be seen as the first fallout from this Inciting Incident.

Pursuing the successful resolution of the Story’s Goal–a continuation of power flowing from grandfather to father and father to son–is Vidal himself, placing himself firmly in the role of Protagonist. While at first glance this may seem an unnatural choice, especially considering his villainous tendencies, impartiality must supplant value judgment when assuming the objective look at a story’s problem. A problem is introduced and the Protagonist works to resolve it; good and evil have little to do with it.

This is why Vidal’s eventual comeuppance feels less like a triumphant Hurrah! worthy of the halls of the Throne Room scene in Star Wars or the deck of the aircraft carrier in Top Gun, and more like the bittersweet successes found in The Lives of Others or Michael Clayton. Mercedes (Maribel Verdí), and her merry band of Spanish rebels, have prevented the successful resolution of the story’s central goal. Vidal’s son will never know his father’s name, the continuation of power will cease to exist. The Protagonist has failed. Proof of this lies in his final act of violence against Ofelia.

Whereas Ofelia eventually grew to a point where she could stand up and test those beliefs once held true, Vidal continues to act without question. Believing all along that Ofelia’s intentions were to kill his only son, Vidal had no choice but to shoot her. Instead of seeing the fruits of overcoming the story’s problem, the Audience bears witness to what happens when the problem persists. Subjectively we see the joy that comes from questioning a previously held belief, objectively we see the failure that comes from not questioning. The combination of the two provides a resonance of meaning unheard of in lesser films.

Effective story structure developed and finalized the original argument Guillermo del Toro set out to make. It was not an after thought.

Seeking a Destination with Purpose

Seeing story structure as a mechanism for providing meaning, for supporting an Author’s argument, flows effortlessly from that initial spark to create. Most writers of narrative fiction write because they want to create something that has weight, something that is greater than the sum of its parts. This intangible extra benefit they seek with their work comes as a result of giving an Audience something they can’t acquire in the day-to-day lives: a look at problem solving both from within and without, objective and subjective. Whether they realize they are doing so or not, writers who write with purpose utilize structure to communicate their message.

They may be traveling, but there is always a reason why they chose the path in the first place.

The more familiar understandings of story structure, as propagated by Snyder and the Hero’s Journey advocates of the world, make no mention of supporting an Author’s purpose in writing and thus, feel more like a didactic explorations of familiar cultural hotspots rather than a helpful shaman along for the trek. It is structure as seen from the eyes of the Audience, an unfortunate reality that will often feel like an imposition on a writer’s natural sensibilities.

In that respect, these paradigms of story will always feel like a tourist trap.

This article originally appeared April 8,2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Stories and the Mystical Power of Transformation

Spend a few moments perusing the articles on this site and you’ll soon pick up on a pattern. Whereas other places seem to eschew the same ol’ Hero’s Journey/transformational arc paradigm, this site takes a decidedly different approach.

McKee, Field and Snyder certainly have value when it comes to understanding structure. Their diagnosis of story structure has helped many a potential writer take their first steps towards writing something more meaningful (including yours truly). Where they fall short, however, is in their attempts to be working models for all successful narratives. They simply don’t scale.

These paradigms of story often emphasize the transformational arc of the central character above all else. Very often this transformation takes on a spiritual undertone. The metaphysical takes presence, elevating story to a mythical pedestal that at times, can seem unreachable.

The time may have come to plant our feet firmly back on the ground.

Method to the Madness

In sharp contrast to an understanding based on magic, the articles within this site approach story structure from the perspective of problem-solving. Instead of allegories for spiritual transformation, stories here are seen as analogies to the human mind attempting to solve a problem.

This more objective-based approach supports the Author’s view of a story. Here, the mechanics and functions needed to effectively argue a particular point-of-view are presented in such a way that they become useful and trusted tools. The more popular subjective-based approach, those called into play by many others, supports the Audience’s view of a story. There, how a story is received becomes more important than how it is built.

Why Problem-Solving Instead of Transformation?

Compared to the lens of problem-solving, using the lens of transformation to interpret a story’s events becomes more of a subjective process open to individual interpretation. There is nothing wrong with this approach, it works for some and less for others. But in the end, it is still just an opinion, carrying with it all the mistaken assumptions that accompany one’s personal bias.

As mentioned previously, these more subjective interpretations of story enjoy their popularity because they perpetuate the idea that stories are somewhat unknowable, that they possess a quality almost otherworldly. With the utmost confidence, they often profess that this spiritual element explains our fascination with story.

The reality, as will be explained later, turns out to be less spellbinding (yet no less entrancing).

When something is misunderstood, it becomes much easier to chalk it up to magic rather than to dive in and fully assess the intricate mechanics at work. Sure, sometimes stories can be magical metaphysical explorations of transformation, but sometimes a story can simply be an exploration of the proper approach towards solving a problem. As it turns out, it actually always is.

Story Structure Without Bias

The reason for the superiority of the problem-solving approach to appreciating a story’s meaning lies within its objective look at story. There is no call for spiritual transformation, no demand that a protagonist die–either physically or metaphysically–and no need for a protagonist to come to life in some marvelous way. While one can add on this spirituality post facto, it is not a requirement for a story to feel meaningful and complete. In fact, most of the time it only adds more confusion to the discussion.

Recently I received an email from Robert Cornero of Hacking Hollywood questioning my focus on Salieri’s steadfast approach to problem-solving in Amadeus:

you might say a character like Salieri has now secured his place in Hell by the end of the movie. His humanity has died, throttled due to jealousy, where at the beginning he had some shred of it. He always could have stopped and chosen a different path, but he keeps choosing to take these steps further and further down this hellish road. And that’s sort of the sense I get from that film. Each scene is a fiery drumbeat, transforming honesty into lies, beauty into ugliness, and finally sanity into insanity, leaving Salieri reveling in his own personal hell, deluded. The tree has grown up crooked in every sense of the word.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this interpretation. It actually comes off as quite intriguing, definitely sexier than the rather cold psychological model of problem-solving and justification. But how does an Author use this understanding to construct a story? There are no tools, no structural elements that one can knowingly use to effect this kind of reaction. There are traces of it in the mentioning of Salieri’s delusion, but how would an Author go about reaching this point meaningfully? How does one craft this descent of character?

The objective view of the problem-solving approach provides the answer.

Seeking Accuracy Over Ease of Appreciation

This week there was discussion surrounding the character of Will in Good Will Hunting and his apparent passivity. Notes on this article can be found here, but in short, the lack of analyzing the film through the lens of problem-solving only served to provide a lightweight confused analysis of the story’s structure. One mistake that stood out was the belief that Matt Damon’s character was somehow “passive.”

However, every once in awhile, a movie is based around a character without a goal. In these cases, the character is known as “passive.” They’re passive because they’re not “actively” trying to obtain a goal.

The only way one can see Will as passive is by misunderstanding his role as Antagonist in the film. Will Hunting, Antagonist? Blasphemy! many would say. But as with Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, Good Will Hunting serves up a Main Character motivated to both avoid the story’s goal and to force others to reconsider their own motivations. These are the primary elements of an Antagonist as Antagonists work against the successful resolution of the story’s goal.

They are anything but passive.

Subjectively, from the Audience’s point-of-view, Will certainly doesn’t fit the emotional “feeling” of an Antagonist. But when viewed from the perspective of the Author, of the one constructing the story, Will’s motivations are clear. Going forward with this Antagonist role, it is obvious how Will would react in each and every scene. Thus, the objective view provides useful meaningful tools.

The somewhat confused analysis in the linked article depicts quite clearly the problems involved with subjective interpretation. Main Characters are always Protagonists (not so!). Main Characters always need to have goals. Inactive characters are boring. These are all opinions on story structure, not story structure itself.

A Model for Everyone

Every human has a mind. Every mind operates under the same bio-mechanical process. While there are those who suffer from a deficiency of function, the underlying “structure” of the mind is the same for every human now or ever in existence. The process of coming to conclusions works the same for everyone.

However, not every human is spiritual. Not every mind has come to the same conclusion regarding the power of metaphysical transformation. Some have, but not all.

One approach stresses objectivity, the other subjective mysticism. One encompasses every human that has ever lived. The other…not so much.

Why write if you have no intention of reaching the widest possible audience? Why alienate those you wish to influence? The way towards universal meaning lies in an objective approach to story structure. Sure, there will be moments in writing where an Author will have to read their work and have their work read and assess how it is being received. But in the moment of creation, in the actual act of doing, it would seem more beneficial to have actual functional tools that are based in objective commonality.

A Tool for Universal Meaning

Identifying the problems and corresponding solutions within a story is a process that can only have one final answer. Whether or not the final product accurately explores the mind’s inherent road map towards working through these problems becomes the responsibility of each individual Author. If done properly, the end result will be an argument that cannot be legitimately confronted without intense subjective opinion.

This is why the Dramatica theory of story is superior and why this site focuses on that theory and the paradigm of problem-solving when interpreting the meaning of a story. Beyond its truly “magical” ability to predict what happens next within a story, the theory specifically defines the problems of a story from an objective perspective. No morality. No spiritual transformation. No mythical journey. No subjectivity.

There may be errors of interpretation in applying the theory to works that have already been written, but having a neutral framework from which to appreciate story always provides a convenient and confident fall back point from which to reset, regardless of personal bias.

In short, Dramatica becomes a touchstone for accuracy.

An Explanation for the Magical

Most importantly though, the theory provides an answer for the draw stories have upon us. In complete stories there isn’t one problem to solve, but several depending on the context taken (more on this can be found in the article, Writing Complete Stories). Problems are looked at from within, from the perspective of the Main Character, and from without, from the perspective of larger story (typically called the ‘A’ storyline).

The true fascination with stories then comes from the fact that they provide us a chance to hold both views simultaneously. In real life, we can’t truly be objective about our own personal problems. We can’t be both in and out. This is why others can easily see errors in our work and why they can effortlessly point out our own failed paradigms that we weren’t even aware of.

But complete stories can. They grant us that experience, a unique sensation that can often feel mystical.

So while stories may feel magical to an Audience, to an Author it becomes more important how the trick is performed. Seeing stories as analogies to the mind’s problem-solving process grants a writer their first look behind the curtain.

This article originally appeared April 1, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

The Illusion of Change

Transformation is a process of letting go, a discarding of old ways with the hope that relief may come with new resolve.  Growth of character, however, makes no such assumptions of metamorphosis.

With the intelligent, well-crafted Inception dominating the box office for the second week in a row comes the opportunity to revisit one of Christopher Nolan's lesser-known -- though not lesser films -- The Prestige. Telling the story of two magicians fighting for fame and fortune in the Victorian Era, this 2006 thriller delivers concrete emotional wallop amongst the dark suspense and surprise that is common with Nolan's work.  Much of his success can be attributed to the sound story structure he diligently applies to every film.  Story structure that, like Inception, gives greater meaning to the events that unfold.

Dueling Magicians

One of the precepts for a meaningful story centers around the idea that when looking at the two principal characters one will transformationally change, while the other will remain steadfast.  While this may seem to run counter to the widely accepted notion that a character must change in order to arc, it actually speaks of a more accurate understanding of What Character Arc Really Means.  Two approaches are presented towards solving the story's major problem, one appropriate, the other not so much.  Which one is which is entirely up to the Author and the message they wish to communicate with their audience.  When both characters change there is nothing said, no greater purpose to the events on-screen, and therefore, no reason to remember the film some twenty-five minutes later when one pulls out of parking.

To a writer, change should be evaluated by comparing the character's final resolve at the end of the story with who the character was at the beginning.  If their character -- if the way they look at and see the world -- has somehow become drastically different from where they started, then yes they have had a transformation of character.  If on the other hand, they simply grew into a viewpoint they only somewhat believed in at the beginning, then they have actually held steadfast to their worldview.  They haven't changed, they have simply grown.

One can grow without changing who they are and how they see the world.

At first glance it may seem that both principal characters change in The Prestige.  Robert Angier (Huge Jackman) changes from a magician unwilling to get his hands dirty (as evidenced by his reticence to kill even the smallest of birds) to a man willing to kill himself over and over again for the roar of the crowd.  On the other side of the street, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) transforms from a man willing to do whatever it takes to keep his magic a secret (as evidenced by the prompt removal of two perfectly good digits) to a man willing to admit the truth of his situation regardless of who he may hurt.  So how can both be considered Change characters if in doing so, the story would be considered broken?

Ignoring this paradox for a moment, the similarities between the two -- the You and I connection -- become as equally important in the investigation of this story's structure.  Both magicians are driven by that desire for "the Prestige."  If the film had been written by an lesser artist, there might have even been an on-the-nose conversation where Angier calls Borden out:

ANGIER: You know...you and I...we're not that all that different.

BORDEN: And how's that?

ANGIER: We both would do anything for the sound of their applause.

Ugh.  As it stands, we do get something close to that in the final reveal scene, but admittedly with more artistry and professsionalism than the ham-handed example above.  Regardless, both characters are driven by that desire for recognition, but only one of them truly lets it go at the end.  To determine who, it becomes necessary to separate out the individual storylines.

The Main Character Throughline

The Main Character's Throughline, while woven into the thematics and plot events of the larger main story, maintains its own concerns and thematic issues.  In fact, these dramatic concepts are so unique to this character that he or she would take them with them no matter what story they went into.  If Luke had never run into R2 and instead was involved in a story about drag-racing across the dunes of Tatooine (Taladega Wars), he would still have found time to whine about how he was stuck on a planet where his spaceship fantasies could never become a reality.  Likewise, if William Munny had never heard of Big Whisky, and instead was involved in the great Oklahoma Land Rush with Tom and Nicole (Far and Unforgiven), he would still have had those issues with maintaining his wife's attitude that he "ain't a bad man any more."  If someone were to try and claim one of his stakes, why...well let's just say that Little Bill probably got off easy.

Thus, in order to truly understand what is most personal to the Main Character of a story, it becomes necessary to filter out all those elements that really are a part of the larger main story.  This is even more important in a film like The Prestige where the Main Character is also the Protagonist not always the case.  Far too many times what people think of as a personal moment from the Main Character point-of-view actually turns out to be a choice or action taken from their point-of-view as the primary driver of the main story.

If one were to overlook all of Angier's actions as Protagonist (and his goal of trying to understand how Borden does the Transported Man trick), his most personal issues deal with his desire to be the very best, his obsession with the adulation of the audience, and of making them forget their ordinary lives -- if even for a second or two.  These are the kinds of issues he would take with him into any story as they are the problems central to his very nature.  They coalesce nicely with the rest of the story, but they can be seen as separate and individual and most importantly, personal to him.

Scenes where we the audience see the Main Character alone are often chock-full of these sort of personal thematic issues.  In The Prestige we get such a moment during Angier's first performance of his own Transported Man trick.  Having successfully swapped places with his alcoholic look-alike, Robert takes his triumphant bow from below the stage -- out of sight of the adoring audience but thankfully within earshot.  His desire for that love, regardless of how he has to get it, speaks volumes about his character.

Another often-used device in communicating this personal throughline is to have another character in the story point out plainly and clearly what the Main Character's real problem is.  This is not the same as the Impact Character, who by their very existence in the story forces the Main Character to deal with their personal issues, but rather a character who simply comes out and says, "Hey, you know what your problem is?"  David Bowie's Tesla fills this role when he warns Angier of proceeding:

TESLA: I can make your machine, Mr. Angier.  But I can also give you some advice... (pointed) Go home.  Forget this thing.  I can recognize an obsession.  As Mr. Alley could tell you, I myself am given to one now and then.  It will not do you any good.

ANGIER: Have your obsessions done you no good?

TESLA: At first.  But I've followed them too long -- I am their slave.  Their whipping boy.  And one day they may choose to destroy me.

Angier looks into Tesla's eyes.

ANGIER: If you understand an obsession then you know you won't change my mind.

And thus we have a perfect example of a Main Character moment.  With these issues at the core of what Angier is personally struggling with it becomes obvious that he grew INTO his resolve, not out of it.  His desire began as a small kernel of motivation, but eventually grew into something that consumed him, resulting in his eventual destruction.  This was, of course, the meaning behind the whole piece.

Angier, therefore, was a Steadfast Main Character.

The Difference Between Resolve and Growth

Resolve, which is what we are concerned with when determining whether a character ultimately changes or stays true to their nature, sits apart from the actual character's growth.  Their growth is how they get there, how they end up at that moment of crisis, faced with that choice that will set in stone their resolve.  Main Characters can waffle back and forth through the story (and probably should for the sake of interest), but it is that final culminating moment that ultimately defines them.  Have they grown to a point where they are ready to let it all go and see the world anew?  Or have they determined for themselves that yes, the way they have been going about this is truly the way to go.

Angier's need to "get his hands dirty" was something he had to grow into, but was always something he had the potential for.  Only then could the audience begin to love him the way he wanted them to.  He had moments of doubt, moments when he considered changing, but in the end, in the end he stuck with that desire for fame.

Borden, on the other hand, completely transforms his worldview.  The key scene for this happens when his wife asks the twin brother (the one more interested in Johanssen) whether or not he really loves her.

Since the moment he met her, Borden has been driven to keep up the perception that both he and his brother were one and the same.  How else could he successfully pull off the trick of the century without this elaborate deception?  The only problem is that this success came with a price -- the emotional torture of his innocent wife.  Eventually, and in no small part to his interactions with Angier, Borden comes to a place where he just can't keep it up any longer and reveals to her the truth:


Sarah turns to face Borden.  Desperate.

SARAH: I can't live like this!

BORDEN: (angry) What do you want from me!

Sarah pauses.  Catches her breath.

SARAH: (quiet) I want you to be honest with me.  No tricks, no lies, no secrets.

Borden calms.  Looks into her eyes.  Nods.

SARAH: (CONT'D) Do you love me?

Borden looks into her eyes.  Sincere.

BORDEN: Not today.

Sarah takes this in.  Borden watches, helpless.

SARAH: (whispers) Thank you.

Borden watches her turn away from him.

Borden changes to someone no longer driven by illusion.  Reality has taken over as his new approach to solving problems and one can imagine that, moving forward, Borden and his brother might choose a different line of work.  Unfortunately, in undergoing this transformation of character, Borden breaks Sarah's heart, revealing to her that all along the trick was more important than their relationship.  Motivated by this new revelation, his wife feels as if she has no other alternative than to take her own life.

In sharp contrast, there is no way Angier would give up that stage for anything or anybody.

Clarity of Character

Separating out the throughlines, determining the difference between a character's resolve and their personal growth, clarifying which principal character transforms and which maintains their point-of-view -- all of these are tools a writer can use to insure that their story stays consistent and meaningful throughout.  When writing a story as complex and non-linear as The Prestige, understanding precisely what is going with the characters that populate it can go a long way towards making sure the audience does not leave befuddled or overcome with unanswered questions.  Those who prefer to leave such concepts left to chance, or to the whims of their individual muse, aren't really looking close enough because really...they don't want to know.

They want to be fooled.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The storyform for The Prestige is so elegant and so precise that it almost seems as if Christopher Nolan himself is an avid user of Dramatica.  Then again, he may just be a naturally great storyteller!

When identifying the dramatics behind this great film, it was apparent that Borden's Problem was one of Perception, his desire to keep the illusion that there was only one of him alive the source of all his troubles.  This worked nicely with an Overall Story Problem of Perception and how the characters get into trouble because things don't appear the way they should.

The Overall Story was an Activity story (Two magicians battling it out on stage), and with Borden's Throughline firmly in place as a Situation character (twin brother), Angier's Throughline fell into the Fixed Attitude Domain.  When speaking of Angier's character it is quite clear that he is a man obsessed.

Angier Remains Steadfast while Borden Changes, resulting in an Objective Story Outcome of Success; Angier finally Understands the reality (OS Solution of Actuality) behind Borden's Transported Man trick.  Interestingly enough, Angier does enjoy his Solution of Ability the moment he is able to finally do the real Transported Man trick.  If he was a Change character this Ability would have resolved his issues.  Unfortunately, he continues on and devises a scheme (Relationship Story Concern of Conceptualizing) to seek the ultimate revenge on Bale.  His Problem of Desire overwhelms him and eventually takes him to a place where he can do nothing else but die unresolved -- no longer able to transport audiences to a world where dreams are possible (Story Judgment of Bad).

Steadfast, Start, Be-er, Male, Action, Optionlock, Success, Bad, Physics, Understanding, Senses, Perception

This article originally appeared July 29, 2010 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Of Ticking Clocks and the Ending of Stories

Stories come to an end for one of two reasons: the characters either run out of time or they run out of options. Being told that there are only two ways of bringing about the end of a story can seem very stifling to an author; how can you possibly reduce the entirety of narrative fiction down to an either/or choice?

As with all things, a slight change in perspective can make all the difference.

It is true that when it comes to the Story Limit there are only two choices: a Timelock or an Optionlock. But there are different degrees of subtly that can be had when looking at this part of a story. It all comes down to where you place your focus on that Story Limit.


Take for instance, the Timelock. You can look at a Timelock as either a deadline or a duration of time. It's a subtle thing, but one that speaks to the elegance that can be had with a slight change of perspective.

The first kind of Timelock, the deadline, has you focusing on what is lacking -- the deadline that has not yet been met; the second, the duration of time, has you focusing on what is there -- the hours that are quickly ticking away. Armageddon (Used here as an easy example, NOT as an admission of great storytelling!) has more of the latter: there are only 18 days left to save the Earth from ultimate destruction. While that could be viewed as a deadline, the true focus in that story is on the time that is quickly running out. Notice how many times Billy Bob Thornton's Truman peers through sweat-stained eyebrows at the glowing LCD clock slowly ticking away his own mortality -- that's a Timelock focused on a duration of time. If the thought of Armageddon makes you cringe, think of 48 Hours with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte.

This is in contrast to movies that come to an end because of a deadline, like The Philadelphia Story starring Cary Grant. Here the focus is on the all-important wedding taking place at noon on Saturday. The characters focus their attention on that impending appointment rather than on the hours ticking away. High Noon would be another good example of this.

Both versions are Timelocks, yet as you can see, both have completely different ways of weaving that limit into the story.

Focus Determines Meaning

This shift in meaning reminds me of a helpful analogy that can be used when trying to determine the Main Character's Growth. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Main Character's Growth (what is commonly referred to as their Character Arc) basically clarifies whether the Main Character is moving away from something or growing towards something in their personal growth. If they are moving away from the something their Growth is said to be Stop. Conversely, if they are growing towards something, their Growth is said to be Start.

It's a subtle difference, but one that can be made easier by imagining the Main Character's personal issue as being a cup half-filled with either sludge or coins. One kind of Main Character will have you focusing on what is there; the other on what is lacking. The cup filled with sludge resembles the Main Character who focuses on what is there and moves away from it. The cup filled with coins resembles a Main Character who focuses on what is not there and grows towards that emptiness.

As you can see, this analogy can be helpful in determining the kind of Timelock that exists in a story. The Timelock focused on a deadline has the characters focusing on what is lacking, like the cup half-filled with coins. The Timelock focused on a duration of time has the characters focusing on what is there, like the cup half-filled with sludge. 

But what about Optionlocks?


In an Optionlock story you either have a finite number of options that run out or you have a pre-determined amount of space from which to operate in.  As with Timelocks, the difference lies completely in where you wish to focus your audience's attention.

The first kind of Optionlock, the finite number of options, again has you focusing on what is there.  This limit exists in movies like Seven.  In that film, serial killer Kevin Spacey methodically works his way through the seven deadly sins.  Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt know that once that seventh and last sin is visited upon them, the story is officially over.

The other kind of Optionlock Limit exists in stories that are defined spatially.  Movies like Rainman or any other road movie where the characters work their way through a pre-defined limited space.  In these films the characters can take as long as they want, but when they hit the end, it's all over for them.  As opposed to the first kind of Optionlock which has a set number of objects, these kinds of stories have a set amount of spaces or places that the characters can go through.

Instead of checking things off, as characters would in the first kind of Optionlock, this second one has the characters focusing on how much space they have left; they're focusing on what is not there, like the cup half-filled with coins.  It's probably more helpful to think of this kind of limit as more of a Spacelock rather than an Optionlock.

Binary Does Not Equal Boring

Spacelock...Optionlock...they both describe the same thing just seen from different angles.  Your point of view determines the meaning of what it is you're looking at.  While many of the choices you have to make in writing a story boil down to a seemingly black or white choice, like a Story Outcome of Success or Failure or a Main Character Resolve of Change or Steadfast, the degree with which you can temper that answer rests primarily in how you look at it.

The artistry of your own story lies within your use of the various shades of gray that exist between those choices.

This article originally appeared October 25, 2007 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Writing a Screenplay with Dramatica

Misguided conclusions abound regarding the Dramatica theory of story with many claiming that this revolutionary look at structure is only good for after-the-fact analysis, not writing. Such thinking flows from a lightweight understanding of what the theory is, and isn't.

When it comes to popular models of screenplay structure, whether it be Robert McKee, Michael Hague, John Truby or Blake Snyder, many writers flinch at the prospect of following a simplistic formula. How can the complexity of Hamlet or the subtlety of character growth in To Kill a Mockingbird be possibly broken down into a simple set of common sequences? This instinct to rebel seems appropriate given the reductive nature of many of these paradigms.

The problem isn't that these ways of looking at structure are particularly wrong. In fact, for many stories, they can be quite revelatory in their explanations of proper sequencing and emotional growth of character. Where they fall short, however, is in the breadth of their understanding. Accuracy becomes a casualty of these efforts to pare down the complexity of a complete story into a bite-sized catch-word paradigm.

An all-encompassing understanding of story

Dramatica sacrifices easy digestion for high accuracy. The theory is not easy to understand because story is a complex and complicated beast. When people in development say "trust the process," what they are really asking for is more time -- more time for their inaccurate or simplistic models of story to eventually arrive at a story that sort of works. This hopeful anticipation drives those long periods of development time when really it should be purposeful intent at the helm. Dramatica, while significantly front-loaded on the initial comprehension level, ultimately saves time by delivering a precise and meaningful understanding of the story an Author wishes to tell.

The key is the storyform

Once a writer determines what it is they want to say with their film, the Dramatica theory of story presents them with what is known as a storyform. This collection of sixty or so elements of structure elaborates in great detail the meaning or message the Author wishes to communicate. Balancing purpose with the sequence required to deliver it effectively, the storyform represents a holistic snapshot of the human mind trying to resolve a particular problem. And because complete stories are about solving problems, there can be no better tool to construct an effective work of narrative fiction than this simple one-page report.

Meaning exists independently of subject matter

While the storyform is precise in its arrangement of thematic elements, how they are exposed to an audience is left completely up to the creativity and talent of the individual Author. Take for instance the storyform for Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon. At first glance it might look less like an emotionally compelling movie and more like a collection of semi-scientific words that seemingly have nothing to do with telling a story. But upon closer examination, certain items might resonate with one familiar with the message of the film. Stoick's Problem of Non-Acceptance and his eventual Solution of Acceptance, as covered in the article What It Means to Fail, can be found under the Impact Character's Throughline. Likewise the bittersweet Personal Triumph of Success/Bad, as detailed in the article When Failure Becomes a Good Thing, sits up top under Plot Dynamics. In fact, the more comfortable one becomes with the terms listed in this report, the more obvious it is that this storyform is a very accurate representation of the meaning behind How to Train Your Dragon.

But it doesn't just have to be an animated film about Vikings and dragons. In fact, this storyform is the foundation for any story that wishes to explore the same thematics and come to the same conclusions regarding acceptance and learning.

Writing from intent

Let's say we wanted to write a modern sci-fi thriller, something along the lines of Moon or Sunshine. We know that the exploration of other planets and other worlds is the next step for human advancement and that one of the most interesting places to start would be the icy moon of Jupiter, Europa. Why? There are some in the scientific community that believe its thick icy crust protects an ocean of life unlike anything we have here on Earth. What if, in the middle of this century, there was a manned mission to uncover the truth beneath the surface and what if this mission went horribly wrong?

Following the current trend of single-word titles, we'll call it Europa. The film would be a taught character-driven piece about isolation and our influence on the universe around us and attempt to have the same emotional impact that Dragon had. It will follow an expeditionary force of astronauts, scientists and most importantly students eager to learn the right, and wrong way of collecting scientific evidence. Taking the above storyform as a basis for the dramatic intent of our piece, we can begin to outline or imagine how the film will play out.

Exploring the storyform

Before writing word one, we already know how the film is going to end -- the world is not going to learn what is under that icy surface (Story Outcome of Failure). We also know that our Main Character (Aaron?), as Antagonist, will be satisfied as to this outcome because he would have been the problem student working to prevent it all along (as Hiccup was in Dragon -- for further explanation, please see the article How to Train Your Inciting Incident). How exactly this will all play out is, of course, up to us, but we know going into it that the efforts to reach the Story Goal are going to end in Failure just as they did in Dragon.


We also know the Act order the characters will go through - Doing to Learning to Understanding to Obtaining. This means that in the First Act the scientists/astro-students will be landing on the surface of Europa, perhaps arguing over the best place to land, trying to balance their safety with the safety of the inhabitants below. This argument would showcase their conflict with Doing. Maybe, in an effort to Protect the sanctity of life below (Aaron, after all, is driven by Protection), our Main Character covertly hacks the ship's computer so that they are unable to land safely. This Action could be the Plot Point, or Story Driver, that pushes our story into the structural second act.

The Second Act

So then we have the monster of the Second Act to focus our attention on. No need to panic though because we know, in order for our story to be meaningful, that it will begin with our characters focusing on Learning and then somewhere past the middle, begin to focus on Understanding. Perhaps the Protagonist Head Scientist/Teacher (Marcus?), driven to succeed at all costs (his theoretical concepts are at stake here), mounts a daring excursion to the surface using the ship's unreliable escape pods (They've come all this way, after all...). They leave one crew member on-board to watch over things, then head down.

Once they're on the surface, we can begin to play out the conflict between Marcus as he tries to gather evidence of the mystery below the icy crust, and Aaron's drive to get them to reconsider the dangers of impacting life below. Marcus can't understand why Aaron would get so worked up about some fish, Aaron thinks all life is precious and autonomous. We could have all the classic back-and-forth arguments, with perhaps the group splitting into two factions. This would all come to change though with the shift into the second-half of the Second Act when they would stumble across some great deep revelation about life beneath the surface. Something along the lines of discovering that really big dragon in How to Train Your Dragon.

What if they realize that there aren't just single-cell fish underneath, but an entire ecosystem of alien life living in harmony beneath the surface? Marcus, and his drive to prove his theories appropriate, upsets the quiet world of the aliens and drives them to attack the expeditionary crew. Marcus would see this as the attack of monsters that must be destroyed. Aaron would see it as life simply trying to defend itself from outside influence. This new conflict over Understanding would come to be the focus of the rest of this Act.

They would race back to their escape pods, trying desperately to communicate with their ship above. Students and scientists would lose their lives, yet Aaron would still be working to protect this misunderstood alien-life form. Eventually it would have to come to an end with an Action as equally powerful as Hiccup's refusal to kill the fiery Monstrous Nightmare. Perhaps once they arrive back at the ship, maybe even with some alien specimens on board, Aaron destroys all radio communications. What better way to protect these guys than to make sure no one ever finds out about them?

Climax and Resolution

This Action would drive our story into its Fourth and Final Act, that of Obtaining. And here, the outcome of Failure falls perfectly into place. Aaron is going to win. He is going to prevent the world from learning about Europa, but how exactly? By destroying the ship and every crew member on-board. In this climactic battle, both Marcus and Aaron will face off, with Marcus wanting to arrive back safely on Earth. Perhaps even the remaining crew members would rebel and misbehave just as the young Vikings did in Dragon, maintaining the inequity created by Non-Acceptance. Aaron eventually succeeds, maybe by driving the ship into the heart of Jupiter itself, crushing him, and everyone on-board leaving no trace of their ever having existed.

This failure will mean that the Consequence will occur - something to do with Conceiving. Either the world will have to come up with some explanation as to why the crew never returned home or why they never even bothered to radio a message. It could be painted in a positive light as it was in Dragon, Europa could return to the peaceful quiet world it once was while Earth continues to revolve in constant turmoil. Beyond simply bringing the story to a close, this kind of ending guarantees that there was a reason for the story to play out the way it did and for existing in the first place.

Audiences love it when their time isn't wasted.

Personal Issues

But remember too that the storyform calls for the Main Character to have resolved their personal issues. As Aaron drives the ship into the eye of Jupiter, there will be a smile on his face. He will have overcome his own personal issues. In Dragon it was Hiccup's diminutive physicality, in Europa? Perhaps it could be Aaron's reputation as the under-achiever of the group. Maybe the crew was a tight-knit group of scientists who went to the same school or worked at the same place, and Aaron was always seen as an outsider. His scores on the aptitude test would have been drastically low compared to the others, and his scientific career a joke. The others would always see him as lazy or incompetent because he couldn't keep up with them. Well, saving an entire world from destruction and scientific experimentation could be seen as quite an accomplishment, couldn't it? This would give his decision to destroy the ship meaning and details again the power of the Dramatica storyform. While bringing about the failure of the mission, the Main Character would be overcoming their own personal angst of not living up to the others. He would have accomplished something no one else could have and all by remaining Steadfast to his core beliefs.

Filling in the Pieces

Already we have a pretty strong story, something more meaningful than what one usually finds in theaters today. But there is still so much more to work on. We have yet to identify the Impact Character. It could be Marcus, like it is Stoick in Dragons. But maybe we want to explore something even more deeper. After all, this could be a film that runs 110-120 minutes, not simply an animated film of 90. Maybe there would be another crew-member, one of the other scientists, a skeptical tough-as-nails astronaut who hates bookworm types or maybe even the ship's computer that would share that same perspective of not accepting Aaron for who he is. A relationship would develop between Aaron and this entity, a relationship that would eventually heal itself with the acceptance coming from the other party's significant change of character.

The point of all this is: we have the framework for a meaningful story that we can begin to write from. Whether or not the final work is a success is, as always, entirely up to us as writers. Is Europa a guaranteed blockbuster success? No. Does the story actually mean something? Does it have some purposeful intent behind the machinations of character, plot, theme and genre? Without a doubt. The Dramatica software, and the theory it is based on, does not write the story, does not flesh out the characters, or bring life to their dialogue. It simply provides the pieces needed and the order in which to lay them out in order to arrive at the meaning one wishes to achieve.

The rest is all luck.

A Million Different Stories

Now we could apply this storyform to any kind of genre: War Drama, Western, Romantic Comedy, it doesn't matter. All that goodness of color and human expression is left up to us. And this isn't the only storyform possible. The current incarnation of Dramatica offers writers over 32,000 different unique stories. With each storyform carrying the possibility of millions of different interpretations (as exemplified above), the possibilities for creative expression become endless. It should also be noted that the current model is only one portion of the entirety of the theory. There are actually countless more storyforms possible -- they would only require a different model and a different set of givens hardwired into the system. For now though, the model in place is excellent for providing Authors with the clues needed to write something meaningful and lasting well beyond their years.

This article originally appeared November 30, 2010 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

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Hundreds of more articles are available in the Story Fanatic Archives