James Hull Articles: Archive IX

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 Crucial Element to Telling a Great Story

Audiences gravitate towards great stories because they can experience something unattainable in their own lives. They can feel the story’s problem personally, while at the same time reason the problem from a distance. With this in mind, the most important part of any great story lies at the nexus point between this subjective and objective points-of-view.

We can’t simultaneously be within and without ourselves; stories can. Through the Main Character Throughline we get to experience this inequity personally and from within; through the Overall Story Throughline we get to observe this inequity objectively and from without. By presenting a view from both sides, a great narrative grants us the opportunity to better appreciate the problems we face in our lives.

In Dramatica, the point at which the Overall Story Throughline intersects with the Main Character Throughline is called the Crucial Element. The exact location of this element of story structure shifts based on other narrative dynamics, namely the Main Character Resolve, the Main Character Growth, and the Story Outcome. Understanding how these story points integrate to define the Crucial Element helps a writer elevate the impact of their stories.

In this series on Writing for Nanowrimo, we focused on the creative potential found in Dramatica’s brainstorming tools. With this final article, we launch would-be Authors and long-time wordsmiths beyond simple idea generation and into the stratosphere of making their stories connect and engage on a deeply meaningful level with their Audience. In fact, we already engaged this key story element by hiding it within one of our stories in this series. Read on to find the location of this special Narrative First Easter Egg.

Why So Crucial?

In the past, we downplayed the “cruciality” of this element.

Sounds pretty important, right? Turns out the Crucial Element isn’t as crucial to the formation of a story as you would think. It simply marks the element that exists at the intersection of the Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline. Crucial to the storyform, but not crucial to implementation of that storyform. In other words, don’t freak out if you don’t get it.

And it doesn’t help when Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators of the Dramatica theory of story, adds this to the conversation:

When all is said and done, the crucial elements are only ONE of MANY pieces of the storyform. Leaving them out of your story won’t ruin the experience for your audience, but adding them does tend to make the story stronger.

After several years of helping clients nail down their narrative structure and seeing the Crucial Element in action in their work and our own, we now believe this concept to be of the utmost importance.

Change Character and the Crucial Element

The Crucial Element for a Main Character with a Changed Resolve sits differently across the subjective and objective Throughlines than a Main Character with a Steadfast Resolve. For the most part, the former is easier to understand and integrate.

  • A Main Character Resolve of Changed & a Story Outcome of Success finds the Main Character’s Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Problem
  • A Main Character Resolve of Changed & a Story Outcome of Failure finds the Main Character’s Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Solution

The Influence Character’s Crucial Element lies in a dynamic pair relationship with the Main Character’s Crucial Element. In other words, in a Changed/Success story the IC Crucial Element would be the same element as the Main Character Solution.

This is easy to see in films like Star Wars or The Matrix or even Monsters, Inc. where the Main Character’s personal problem reflects the problem in the larger Overall Story. Luke’s problem with challenging himself at every turn, Neo’s problem with doubting himself at every turn, and Sully’s problem with an instinct to cause children to scream at the top of their lungs showcase problems that once resolved—make it possible for the Overall Story to end in Success.

When it comes to a Changed Main Character and a story that ends in Failure—like Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential or Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada—the Crucial Element plays out in a similar fashion with one slight adjustment. The article The Crucial Element of Screenwriting in Action covers this second scenario in detail.

Steadfast Character and the Crucial Element

With the Steadfast Main Character, the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline find overlap in a somewhat strange and different location:

  • A Main Character Resolve of Steadfast & a Main Character Growth of Stop finds the Main Character Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Symptom
  • A Main Character Resolve of Steadfast & a Main Character Growth of Start finds the Main Character Crucial Element in the same place as the Main Character Response

As with the Changed Main Character, the Influence Character’s Crucial Element in a Steadfast story lies in a dynamic pair relationship with the Main Character’s Crucial Element.[1]

While the Changed Main Character looks to the Story Outcome, the Steadfast Character looks to the Main Character Growth. Why? Simply put, in a Changed Main Character story the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline share the same Problem and Solution elements. In a Steadfast Main Character story the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline share the same Symptom and Response.

The Crucial Element identifies the location of overlap between the subjective and objective views of a story. When a story abuses or mistakes this connection, the narrative falls flat and seems to lack appropriate drive. When in alignment the narrative thrums like a well-tuned engine. Two recent movies exemplify the latter.

And, of course, our Western Occult story from last week’s article Finding Your Own Unique Voice When Writing for Nanowrimo applied the Crucial Element correctly.


Crucial Elements not Character Traits

Moana tells the story of a Steadfast Main Character who holds out for other to Stop doubting her. The quad of problematic characer elements in the Overall Story Throughline finds the Overall Story Problem in Uncontrolled, the Overall Story Symptom in Avoidance, the Overall Story Response in Pursuit, and the Overall Story Solution in Control.

The Overall Story Throughline of Moana
The Overall Story Throughline of Moana

Referring to the above for application of the Crucial Element in a Steadfast Main Character story, we find that Moana’s MC Crucial Element lies in Avoidance and Maui’s IC Crucial Element lies in Pursuit.

Remember that in a Steadfast story, the Symptom and Response elements of the Main Character and Overall Story Throughline are one and the same. For reference, here is Moana’s quad of problematic elements in her own personal Throughline.

The Main Character Throughline of Moana
The Main Character Throughline of Moana

At first glance it may seem as if these elements are reversed. If anything, Maui is the character who Avoids or runs away from trouble and Moana is the one who Pursues a course of action straight to Te Kā. Why then does Dramatica call for these roles to be switched?

Hacksaw Ridge is another story focused on a Steadfast Main Character that manages to hold out for those around him to Stop telling him how to live his life. The quad of problematic character elements in this WWII drama find the Overall Story Problem in Pursuit, the Overall Story Symptom in Control, the Overall Story Response in Uncontrolled, and the Overall Story Solution in Avoidance.

The Overall Story Throughline of Hacksaw Ridge
The Overall Story Throughline of Hacksaw Ridge

Again, we find that it appears Dramatica incorrectly reverses the Crucial Elements for these characters. Private Doss is the one advocating for freedom, or Uncontrolled behavior. Pvt. Smitty, Sgt. Howell, and Captain Glover clearly exemplify traits of Control in their efforts to dictate what Doss can and cannot do in their Army.

And that’s when you need to realize that the character elements found in the Overall Story Throughline represent facets of the Storymind as a whole–NOT individual character traits to be doled out as if at the start of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

The Storymind Concept

Dramatica sees story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solving a problem. Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic, Guardian, Sidekick–these characters stand in for aspects of the mind at work. The Protagonist represents our motivation for initiative, the Antagonist our motivation for reticence.

When building characters by dragging and dropping avatars in the Build Character window, the Author assigns facets of the mind at work to these individual players. Thinking individual traits describe these characters is inaccurate; rather these characters represent individual traits of a single mind in the process of solving a problem. Understand this simple, but powerful concept, and Dramatica’s “reversal” of objective character elements in Moana and Hacksaw Ridge becomes clear.

Prodding the Storymind Where it Counts

As a Steadfast Main Character, Moana identifies the element in the environment that must be shifted in order for the Overall Story Solution to take place. She points out the Avoidance in others, rather than signifying any Avoidance emanating from herself. Likewise with Pvt. Doss in Hacksaw Ridge–Desmond identifies this problem of Control and shifts it out of the environment and into everyone else’s concept of themselves.

In a story with a Steadfast Main Character, the most significant paradigm shift occurs within the Influence Character–and this shift initiates with the Main Character’s constant prodding of the Main Character’s Crucial Element. Maui would never have reached a point of maintaining control over his massive ego if Moana had not constantly hit upon the Demigod’s predilection for running away. In fact, this narrative aspect could have been made more meaningful had the Authors emphasized and made a bigger deal out of Maui running away from the Coconut Pygmies and the Coconut Crab.

The collective Influence Characters of Smitty, Howell, and Glover would never have reached that point where they actually delay and put off an attack (another way of saying Avoid) had it not been for Desmond’s constant example and living proof over how much Control we truly have over our lives. Instead of writing a “reserved and controlled” character one might assume Dramatica calls for by giving Desmond this Crucial Element, the Authors of Hacksaw Ridge naturally saw to it that Des offered this aspect of the Storymind up for consideration to the Audience.

Weaving in the Crucial Element

In last week’s article on our Western Occult story, I secretly wove the Crucial Element into the world views of the Main Character and Influence Character:

To him [Jack, our Influence Character], it doesn’t make sense to get on your knees and pray for something you don’t even need. Be grateful and keep yourself from praying for an impossibility…Abby [our Main Character] sits on the other side of the argument. Why should they be happy with what they have when it feels so bad to have so little?

Our story features a Steadfast Main Character as well, however Abby’s Main Character Growth differs from Moana and Pvt. Doss in that she is holding out for something to Start. The Main Character’s Crucial Element will therefore be the same as the Overall Story Response. With a Steadfast/Start story the emphasis is on the hole to be filled in order to clear the way for the Overall Story Solution to come into play, so a focus on the Response makes sense. That Response, or hole to be filled, in our story is Feeling.

Do you see how I worked in her prodding of Feelings? How about Jack’s counter of what “makes sense”? That’s another way of encoding his Crucial Element of Logic.

Abby isn’t an emotional character given to bouts of intense depression or manic excitement as one would expect if these were simply character traits. Rather, she singles out the lack of feelings or deficient feelings that Jack and the others need to find within themselves. That shift, while clearing the way for the possibility of the townspeople to finally acquire some control over their lives, simply isn’t enough to overcome their addiction to being loose and fancy free. Remember, our story ends in Failure. Abby’s prodding works as intended in terms of freeing up Jack’s emotional growth, yet it isn’t enough to overcome the story’s larger problem.

Making Your Work Crucially Important

Audiences want to be inspired; they want to learn something new about their world that they can then take with them on their own journey. Understanding where the objective and subjective points-of-view of your story crossover can go a long way towards ensuring that your efforts at the keypad or at the notepad will not go unnoticed.

The Crucial Element of a story is crucial because it pinpoints an impossibility of life only possible within a narrative. An Author communicates this meaningful reality by accurately assigning the correct element to the two major subjective characters of a story–the Main Character and the Influence Character.

In the end, we write to be personally understood. We all have a unique and wonderful way of seeing the world and we hope to wish that someone somewhere hears our heart’s voice. Embrace the concept of the Storymind by giving your Audience a clear and accurate mind to inhabit and Audiences everywhere will ultimately embrace you.

  1. It will be the same element as the Main Character Response in a Stop story, and the Main Character Symptom in a Start story.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to become a master writer with Dramatica? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have taken our a Dramatica® Mentorship Program and accelerate the development of your own sense of story.

How to Tell If Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds

Why do some Main Characters find the conflict they face manageable while others balk under the pressure of insurmountable odds? More than a random reality at the mercy of the Author’s Muse, the feeling of dramatic tension within a narrative is traceable and discernible. The direction of development within the Main Character and the overall emotional state of the story itself gives writers a clue as to the nature of that tension.

Always Four

The Dramatica theory of story always works in fours. The entire model is based on the quad—the result of the way our minds organize and process information. We see Mass, Energy, Space, and Time because we think Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire. In fact ,the latter four correlate with the first four: Knowledge is the Mass of the Mind just as Thought is the Energy of the Mind.

Ability and Desire are the Space and Time of the Mind, but those are more difficult to explain, and not something we are going to cover in this week’s article.

Last week we began a discussion on Dramatica’s Audience Apprecations. As mentioned, most of Dramatica focuses on observable objective story points seen from the point-of-view of the Author. The Audience Appreciations offer the Author an opportunity to predict how an Audience will perceive their story based on the makeup of their narrative.

That article, Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story, focused on Reach. By combining the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style with the Story Limit, an Author can predict the size of their Audience. And amazing as that sounds, that is only one Audience Appreciation.

One down, three to go.

This week we will be taking a look at Essence.

Passing Judgment on the Main Character’s Approach

The Essence of a story is described as the primary dramatic feel of a story:

A story can be appreciated as the interaction of dynamics that converge at the climax. From this point of view, the feel of the dramatic tension can be defined. Dramatic tension is created between the direction the Main Character is growing compared to the author’s value judgment of that growth.

Dramatica predicts how the Audience will feel by defining the dramatic tension between two story points: the Main Character Growth and the Story Judgment. Balancing these two touch-points of narrative against each other, the Author gains a greater understanding of the interaction of the dynamics of their story. It defines what their story means to the Audience.

The Main Character Growth

Main Characters “arc” by either growing into something or by growing out of something. While it may seem like six of one, half a dozen of the other, the Main Character Growth defines the direction of personal development for the central character. By setting the location of the story world’s larger problem in opposition to the Main Character’s personal problems, the story identifies a path of growth for working through the unravelling of the justification process.

If the Main Character grows into something, then their Growth reflects a Start direction. If the Main Character grows out of something, then their Growth showcases a Stop direction.

Look to Kirk (Chris Pine) in 2009’s Star Trek or Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream–Kirk grows into his leadership role by holding out for the naysayers and the villains to Stop coming down on him. Likewise with Sidney–though slightly tweaked–she grows by getting rid of her own typically teenaged obsession with self.

On the flip side, check out Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in Bourne’s first flick The Bourne Identity or Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) in the magnificent film The Lives of Others. Jason grows into his new life by holding out for those set against him to Start revealing who they really are. Wiesler grows by gaining a sense of compassion for those he spies on.

The direction of growth the Main Character develops is only half of the equation when it comes to determining the feeling of tension in a story.

The Story Judgment

The Author also passes judgment on the story’s efforts to resolve the central problem by declaring the process a Good thing or a Bad thing within the Story Judgment. Typically, this result shows up in the maintanence or reduction of the Main Character’s personal angst. If the Main Character works through their issues, that is seen as Good thing. If instead their angst persists or even grows larger, than that is seen as a Bad thing.

Think of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) in Brokeback Mountain or Mr. McAlister (Matthew Broderick) in Election–they end their narratives saddled with the weight of their own personal angst. Contrast this with Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) in Kramer vs. Kramer or Joy (Amy Poehler) in Inside Out–they complete their stories relieved of stress and anxiety.

The Story Judgment can also be seen as the relative emotional appraisal of the story’s characters at the end of the narrative. Were the efforts to resolve the inequity at large seen as mostly Good, or mostly Bad? Regardless of scope, the key is communicating the Author’s intent to the Audience–how should they interpret the emotional judgment of the story’s efforts to resolve conflict?

The Essence of Dramatic Tension

The problem with the story point of Essence is the semantic values Chris and Melanie chose to define it: Positive Feel or Negative Feel. Start/Good and Stop/Bad stories specify a story with a Positive Feel; Stop/Good and Start/Bad characterize stories with a Negative Feel.

That means Star Wars and Notting Hill feel Negative and The Omen and Romeo and Juliet feel Positive.


I’m not so sure Romeo and Juliet can be defined as positive. Under Dramatica’s definition even Hamlet would be categorized as a positive story. That’s insane.

When I first discovered Dramatica twenty years ago, this seemed like the craziest story point. It didn’t feel right and at the time, I chalked it up to an area of the theory that was inaccurate. Every story paradigm I had encountered up to that moment had some caveat, something that wasn’t quite right. My guess was that Essence fell into the same category.[1]

The definition of Positive Feel didn’t help either:

When a Main Character’s approach is deemed proper, the audience hopes for him to remain steadfast in that approach and to succeed. Regardless of whether he actually succeeds or fails, if he remains steadfast he wins a moral victory and the audience feels the story is positive. When the approach is deemed improper, the audience hopes for him to change. Whether or not the Main Character succeeds, if he changes from an improper approach to a proper one he also win a moral victory and the story feels Positive.

This sounds like Essence should be a combination of Main Character Resolve and Story Judgment, not Main Character Growth.

What exactly were Chris and Melanie hinting at? You can’t really mistake a story with a Positive Feel when compared to a Negative Feel. Even the definition for Negative Feel mentions “uppers” and “downers.” Reading that, one would even go so far as to assume that there would be far more “uppers” than “downers”.

A Surprise Discovery

This is, of course, what I intended to find when I started writing this article. Thinking I would gain the same insightful results I did from last week’s article, I figured data existed confirming the notion that Positive Feeling stories far outweighed the Negative Feels. Having spent the entire day crafting a beautifully worded 2,500+ word article, I assumed I would emerge with yet another amazing article proving Dramatica’s ability to predict emotion…

…turns out I was dead wrong. The two types of stories split 50/50 pretty much down the middle. 160 to 152–with the Negative Feeling stories outrunning the Positive ones. No real insight. Nothing really interesting to add to the conversation.

A thought occurred–could it be that Chris and Melanie made a mistake in naming the semantic values for Essence?

Misleading Terminology

The definition for Essence only adds to the confusion:

When a Main Character Stops doing something Bad, that is positive. When a Main Character Starts doing something Good, that also is positive. However, when a Main Character Starts doing something Bad or Stops doing something Good, these are negative

So Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is stopping something good and that feels negative. But Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) from Memento is stopping something bad and that is somehow positive.


Turns out the answer was buried within the definition of Essence and made even clearer in the QnA article on Is ‘Negative Feeling’ merely descriptive or is it instrumental?:

A positive story is one where the characters are doggedly pursuing a solution to their troubles–they seem to be in control. A negative story is one in which the problem is dogging the characters as they attempt to escape its effects–they seem to be at the mercy of the problem.

Ohhhhhh, now that makes sense.

Yes Leonard feels like he is doggedly pursuing a solution and yes, Star Wars feels as if the problems dog the characters as they attempt to escape its effects. That totally feels right.

Which means Positive Feel and Negative Feel characterize insufficient semantic values for the task at hand.

If Essence really is about the feeling of dramatic tension in the story then that tension doesn’t feel positive or negative–

It feels Overwhelming or Surmountable.

Beset By Overwhelming Odds

Growth describes the transitory state of the Main Characters development throughout the story. Remember that the storyform has time built into it. Though it may look like a single set of story points defining the state of things, it simultaneously delineates the passage of time through the mental processes of a single human mind solving a problem.

The essence of that transition can be seen in the juxtaposition of the Main Character Growth and the Story Judgment. That feeling of Good doesn’t simply exist at the end of a story—it permeates the entirety of the storymind itself—right along with the Growth. It explains the emotional state of the mind processing through this particular instance of problem-solving.

And that emotional state can be described as either Overwhelming or Surmountable.

Take for instance the feeling of Overwhelming in stories marked by a Growth of Stop and Judgment of Good:

Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Stop/Good)
Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Stop/Good)

Eastern Promises, Looper, and Rocky? You don’t get more overwhelming then a story about dealing with the Russian mob, a story about assassins from the future returning to the present to kill you, and a story about fighting in a boxing match you have no chance of winning.

And Joe and Ratso don’t exactly find New York a hospitable place in Midnight Cowboy either.

What about a Growth of Start and a Judgment of Bad:

Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Start/Bad)
Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Start/Bad)

You probably haven’t seen Eve’s Bayou, but let me tell you—things don’t get more overwhelming than growing up in a Creole-American fractured family in Louisiana.

Or hiding out from crooked cops in Amish Pennsylvania in Witness. Or running from a cyborg killer from the future in The Terminator.[2] Or being an unattractive seventh grader in suburban New Jersey in Welcome to the Dollhouse.

These films and 126 more offer Audiences the opportunity to see how to approach the kinds of problems that overwhelm the senses and cloud proper judgment.

Surmountable Obstacles

On the other side, we have those stories that present a set of surmountable obstacles. Instead of overwhelmed by the weight of their issues, the characters in these stories assume control and pursue solutions because the conflict appears disputable and tenuous.

A sample of Start/Good stories:

Examples of Surmountable Stories (Start/Good)
Examples of Surmountable Stories (Start/Good)

Being John Malkovich, As Good As It Gets, and City Slickers—these are not films that overwhelm their characters with insurmountable odds. Instead, they put the characters in the driver’s seat. While living inside Malkovich’s head, recovering from a hate crime, and herding cattle can be difficult at times—it’s not something either of them can’t handle.[3]

Disrupting a wedding and introducing yourself into the workplace? No problem for the women behind My Best Friend’s Wedding and Working Girl respectively.

Surmountable tension is manageable tension.

Witness a continuation of this trend with a sample of Stop/Bad stories:

Examples of Surmountable Stories (Stop/Bad)
Examples of Surmountable Stories (Stop/Bad)

Grave of the Fireflies—if you haven’t seen it, is one of the saddest movies you will ever see. If any film had the potential of being misinterpreted as a “negative” story, this would be it.

Yet despite everything Setsuko and Seita face, they still manage to overcome it all—and it never once seems like they won’t make it. Same with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Brokeback Mountain. Sure, being gay in a hostile world can be difficult—but it’s not impossible. Neither is prospecting for gold in the remote Sierra Madre mountains.[4]

And standing up to the Joker in The Dark Knight or mobsters in A History Of Violence? Mortensen might have felt overwhelmed in Eastern Promises, but in History his character Tom Stall has everything under control.[5]

A Moment of Clarity

There exists a science to narrative. While many feel overwhelmed by the prospect of learning the various touch-points and mental forces behind story, the task remains a surmountable one. Either struggle with dropping preconceptions and misunderstandings and retain your personal angst (Stop/Bad), or grow into a new understanding by adding a better appreciation of story and watch your angst and anxiety slowly dissipate and fade away (Start/Good).

We prefer the latter.

Whether your own personal narrative or a fictional narrative all your own, a greater understanding of the kind of dramatic tension in a story promises a lifetime of carefree and unfettered expression. Most write to communicate an ideal, a better approach to living and breathing and existing in the world. Capture the Essence of dramatic tension in your story and convey your own unique personal message with ease and grace.

  1. If you know anything about Dramatica, the one thing that sets it apart from everything else is the lack of caveats and exceptions. I just didn’t know it at the time…  ↩

  2. Apparently the future is really overwhelming. And full of time-traveling assassins.  ↩

  3. As Good As It Gets actually consists of two different storyforms: the Romance story–which is what most think of when they think of Nicholson and his “You make me want to be a better man” line, and the Neighbors story–which features Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) as the gay artist and Main Character recovering from physical abuse.  ↩

  4. For most of the characters in the story–Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) might have something to say about how everything turned out.  ↩

  5. Even if Viggo’s character wasn’t the Main Character (and he wasn’t). Story Essence applies to everyone in the story.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Are you a professional writer interested in learning how to use Dramatica to structure your story? Enroll in our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and never worry about a deadline again.

Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story

Writing a story is one thing, finding an Audience to sit still and embrace your story is quite another. Many understand now that a functional narrative functions because it models the mind’s problem-solving process; and many understand that men and women solve problems differently. Appreciating that difference makes it possible for writers to predict who will be drawn into their story, and who will simply be observers.

Determining Who Will Listen to Your Story

While most of Dramatica deals with appreciations tied to the narrative structure of the story, there are four Audience Appreciations that predict how an Audience will react to a given narrative. The Audience Appreciation that consists of the Story Limit and the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style is known as the Audience Reach.

Audience Reach identifies which parts of your audience are likely to empathize with your Main Character. More empathy equals greater attendance equals greater word-of-mouth equals greater revenue. By combining the choices made for the Story Limit and the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style, a schematic can be graphed to predict the kind of Audience the story will attract.

  • Linear + Optionlock == Everyone
  • Linear + Timelock == Mostly Male Audience members
  • Holistic + Optionlock == Mostly Female Audience members
  • Holistic + Timelock == No one

Problem-Solving Style is on the left, the Story Limit is on the right. In addition to having a discernible first Approach to problems, Main Characters employ a method of problem-solving that resorts to either Linear thinking or Holistic thinking. Typically, these lines of thinking fall along the gender line: Males think linearly, Females think holistically. Of course, there are variations and permutations in everything and this is not to say that one cannot think using the other’s problem-solving style. It simply makes it easier for the Audience to relate and plug into the Main Character when they know his or her method of thinking.

Difference in Problem-Solving
Difference in Problem-Solving

The message is clear: if you want the largest audience, make sure your Main Character approaches problems linearly and that the story at large is brought to a climax by running out of options. If you want the smallest audience, give your Main Character a holistic approach to problem-solving while placing them under the restrains of a deadline.

Feels weird to even think about, right?

That’s because it is relating a story about a character who has no concept of the pressure supposedly building up around them. They would be completely disaffected and disinterested. And so would the Audience. Holistic thinkers don’t see time the way linear thinkers do–they don’t see it as something that cannot be malleable and transmuted into something else.

The two middle permutations of the Audience Reach account for the blind spots seen within both Male and Female Audience members.

The Male Audience Member’s Blind Spot

Guys can’t stand people who don’t think like they do. They don’t get holistic thinkers, as it seems completely nutso to approach a problem by balancing the environment. This is why your guy’s guy friends despise watching Moulin Rouge!. Christian (Ewan McGregor) is about to be revealed as trying to win over Satine (Nicole Kidman) in front of the Duke, and instead of punching and kicking his way to victory, the kid starts singing.


That’s the response from a linear thinking and one who has no concept of what can be accomplisted simply by a shift in the balance of things. Singing is the perfect solution in this narrative as it resets the tone of the Duke’s anger and challenges the lecherous man to see Christian in a new light. In short, holistic thinking is right 50% of the time; linear thinking is appropriate the other 50%.

But don’t tell a linear-thinking Male Audience member that. He’ll likely punch you in the face.

The Female Audience Member’s Blind Spot

For women, the Story Limit is their curse. Sure, they get Optionlocks–balancing out everything like they usually do–they’re very comfortable with the idea of dwindling options and choosing which option is the best. But when it comes to a Timelock, they haven’t a clue.

When you use time as your basis for understanding everything–when you see the changes and acceleration and deceleration of forces around you first before the actual things themselves–of course time isn’t going to seem a factor. A minute can seem like a year, a year like a minute. If you were forced to sit in a cave for nine months while you waited for an alien creature to leave your body, you would want someway to make the days seem like seconds, wouldn’t you?!

Over time this became an important, yet often overlooked and under-appreciated way of seeing the world. Turning towards the 21st century, a renewed interest in the feminine and a greater holistic understanding of the world is under way. Just don’t try to make them sit through High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma, or Armageddon.[1] They will likely despise you until you find a way to balance out their annoyance with you.

Dramatica’s Ability to Predict the Future

Last week, we discussed Dramatica’s ability to predict the future of cable TV and ESPN’s eventual internal conflict in the article Using Dramatica to Assess Narrative in the Real World. There it was revealed how Dramatica accurately predicted the eventual state of things today based on the dramatic potential put into place two years ago. The findings were all theoretical…until they weren’t.

Similarily, this notion of the Audience Reach being able to predict the potential audience for a narrative was conjecture. It wasn’t based on research or analysis. It was developed based on an understanding of human psychology and the difference between the way men and women process inequities and solve problems. And it would continue to be theoretical, if it weren’t for 22 years of ensuing analysis that proved it all correct.

If you go to the Dramatica site and look for the Analysis Filter, you will be presented with a collection of tools to help you better understand the presence of these story points in finished narratives. At the time of this publication, Dramatica.com contains 320 different unique analyses of films, plays and novels. By setting the different story points with the drop-down menus provided, you can effectively search through those hundreds of stories for storyforms that fit your choices.

For instance, click the MC Problem-Solving Style drop down and select Linear. Then, under Story Limit, select Optionlock. Click Filter and await the results.

Out of 320 potential narratives, 210 of them feature Linear thinking Main Characters pressured by a dwindling number of options. That combination accounts for two-thirds of every story analyzed.

That is simply astounding.

Linear/Optionlock Stories
Linear/Optionlock Stories

Chris and Melanie were able to predict the kinds of narratives we would find in our culture based on the psychology of the central character and the plot device put into place to bring pressure on that character.


Switch to Holistic/Optionlock and click Refine. A little over 83 different films, novels and plays that satisfy the “chick flick” notion of a Holistic Main Character beset by an Optionlock.

Holistic/Optionlock Stories
Holistic/Optionlock Stories

Now let’s try the Man’s man category–Linear/Timelock. Just short of a dozen–that first one there is actually a random storyform we created in one of our Dramatica User Groups. Sorry guys. Though you may love them, the majority of audiences aren’t really into them.

Linear/Timelock Stories
Linear/Timelock Stories

2/3 of all stories feature Linear Main Characters pressured by a limited number of options. The other 1/3 feature Holistic Main Characters pressured by options and Linear Main Characters pressured by time.

But we’re still missing one last category: the Holistic/Timelock story. Set those in the Dramatica filter and press Refine and be prepared to be astounded by a prediction made over two decades ago.

Out of 320 stories, only four fit the bill of a Holistic Main Character trapped within a Timelock.

Holistic/Timelock Stories
Holistic/Timelock Stories

That’s right.

Only 1% of all stories turn out to be Holistic/Timelock stories. One of those, My Fair Lady, effectively ends about halfway in. Another, The American President actually has both Timelock and Optionlock in it. And the other, Donnie Darko, no one gets at all.

Sideways is the lone wolf here, having won AFI’s Movie of the Year and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 77th Academy Awards. But we’re talking Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti here. And besides, critical acclaim doesn’t always translate into higher revenue: Sideways made a little over $100G, ranking 50th in worldwide box office for 2004.

320. 84. 12. 4. Everyone. Women. Men. No one.

Though theoretical in presentation, Dramatica’s ability to predict the behavior of writers and producers past, present, and future has no equal.


In 1993, Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips predicted that a majority of complete and effective narratives would feature a Linear problem-solver caught within a story limited by a dwindling number of options. They went on further to predict a pathetic amount of stories featuring Holistic problem-solvers trapped by time.

The ensuing two decades of analysis proved their postulation correct and reaffirmed the power of Dramatica to accurately and confidently predict the soundness of a narrative.

Countless hours of sweat and turmoil go into the creation of a story. Whether it be projected on a screen, presented on stage, or devoured curled up on a couch, the presence of an effective and sound narrative is all that guarantees a fondness and admiration for the work put into it.

Great narrative can be predicted. It shares a structure common to the way our own minds process and resolve problems and thus, can be accurately formulated through a greater understanding of our own psychology. Dramatica offers writers and producers the opportunity to build a better storymind through its appreciation of the various ways each and every one of us perceives conflict. By accurately predicting human behavior, Dramatica makes it possible for creators to share their unique insights into how best to approach the conflicts we encounter in our own lives.

  1. Then again, don’t make anyone sit through Armageddon.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to become a master writer with Dramatica? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have taken our a Dramatica® Mentorship Program and accelerate the development of your own sense of story.

Using Dramatica to Assess Narrative in the Real world

A deep understanding of the underlying structure of narrative makes it possible for individuals and organizations to predict where their stories are leading them. If the outcome turns out to be undesirable, key leverage points exist that–if engaged–turn the tide of narrative and align the flow to a different path. The only question to be asked is–what story do you want to tell?

The writers and directors behind this year’s Academy Award winning film Spotlight used narrative structure to bring meaning to the chaotic and despicable events surrounding the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. While effective in its application, the unfortunate reality of the situation is that they only told the story after the fact. Imagine the lives protected and suffering avoided if they were somehow able to predict the narrative of the Catholic Church during the scandal. Instead of looking back, we could look forward and alter the course of human events.

Concluding our series on Structuring Narratives in the Real World, we now turn our attention towards using narrative to predict and set strategy for individuals, businesses, and corporations. If story is–as the Dramatica theory of story suggests–a model of a single human trying to solve a problem, then treating larger organizations as a single group character makes it possible to see patterns and trends within the day-to-day operations.

The narratives in our life are fractal–that is, what works for us as individuals works for larger groups of “us” when considered as an individual. In this context, a woman’s group or a city or a nation could be considered an individual with a point-of-view in a story. To move up and down in scope, the narrative analyst requires a story tool that scales.

Thankfully, Dramatica provides that functionality.

A Tool that Scales

As Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, explains in her article Dramatica Theory Application on World Problems:

This kind of scalability is described by a Dramatica concept referred to as the Story Mind. In fiction, characters are not only individuals but come to interact in stories as if they are aspects of a larger, overall mind set belonging to the structure of the story itself. So, for example, one character may emerge in group actions and discussions as the voice of reason while another becomes defined as the heart of the group and is driven primarily by passion. Stories reflect the way people react and behave in the real world, and so we find that when individuals band together as a larger unit, they fall into roles so that the unit itself takes on an identity with its own personality and its own psychology, almost as if it were an individual itself, in essence, a Story Mind.

In the William Holden WWII prison camp film Stalag 17, the men of Barracks 4 act as the collective Main Character for the story. We see and experience the story through their eyes, we maintain their unique perspective on Sgt. Sefton’s apparent culpability in the Nazi plot. This same technique applies to identifying and assessing narratives in the real world.

Melanie continues to explain:

Similarly, if several groups become bound as when a number of factions join as members of a larger movement, the movement begins to take on an identity and the factions fall into roles representing aspects of our own problem solving processes. Like nested dolls, Dramatica can move up and down the scale of magnitude from the individual to the national or even international level and its ability to analyze and predict based on its underlying model is equally effective. This phenomenon is referred to the Fractal Storyform. In actual practice, many groups of interest are ill-defined, have blurry edges and indistinct leadership. Still, the core motivations of the target group can be determined, and from this the edges of the group can be refined sufficiently to create a storyform of the appropriate magnitude to the task at hand.

Real world “groups of interest” may be difficult to distinguish, but identifying their collective group motivations helps unite them into a single perspective. Establishing these players is the first step when working through the subject matter of your story.

Sources of Conflict and Areas of Influence

After identifying the key players in the story, the analyst–along with the client or anyone else involved in the narrative process–begins to zero in and list out related areas of conflict to explore. Story is a process of resolving or justifying an inequity, removing or balancing an imbalance. Differentiating possible sources of inequity solidifies the story being told.

Lastly, the potential areas of influence need discernment. Leverage points and alternate points-of-view should be evaluated as to their impact on the key players and their involvement in the creation and/or continuation of conflict.

With the key players, areas of conflict and areas of influence properly identified, the only remaining step is to determine the primary question.

A Question to be Answered

We look to stories for answers. Placing our individual issues in context and offering potential means of resolution, stories address our internal yearning for meaning. This is why so many see narrative now as the means to move forward. Familiar with its potential to answer questions for the individual, we look to see similar results for larger collective problems.

What would motivate a fluctuation in the commodities market? How can consumers be encouraged to embrace a new product? Why is this country refusing to show up to the negotiation table?

Defining the question sets the purpose of the story in motion. We experience a million different narratives day-in and day-out; asking the right questions towards refining our focus helps clear away the chaos and noise from the other stories in our lives.

As Melanie explains in Using Dramatica for Real World Psychological Analysis:

Dramatica is a model of our complex web of motivations and the tensions that pull upon them. From this motivation map you can project likely behavior. But it must be done in regard to specific problems, situations or contexts. If you have multiple context, you need to prepare a separate storyform for each.

Conflict and Frustration in the Real World

All of this would be theoretical and speculative–if it hadn’t already been put into action and used to effectively answer a burning and pressing question for a volatile industry.

Undoubtedly, the switch from Pay TV to a la carte OTT “over the top” methods for consuming digital television has been devastating.[1] In the second quarter of 2016, ESPN lost 1.5 million subscribers. This is huge for Disney, which owns ESPN:

Subscription fees to ESPN’s networks account for more than half of Disney’s total revenue from its cable networks division.

During my last orientation at Disney Feature Animation in 2013, I remember the surprise we felt in the room when it was revealed that it wasn’t the parks that generated the most income for Disney–it was ESPN.

That reality seems to be on the decline, along with ESPN’s fan base. The drop in numbers represents more than simply a trend towards saving money, it signifies a loss in trust. The frustration felt by ESPN/Disney and the unresolved nature of this isue was something narrative analysts familiar with the Dramatica theory of story predicted…two years ago.

An Example of Narrative in the Real World

In November of 2013, a team familiar with the Dramatica theory of story, met with subject matter experts at Sparks Grove, a global management consulting firm, to discuss the use of narrative theory in analyzing and developing strategies for businesses. This Thoughtform team discussed several different scenarios, with the future of Pay TV and OTT rising to the top.

After a tabletop meeting and narrative analysis, the Thoughtform team returned with a paper detailing the process and their findings. As Sparks Grove explains on their blog post Anticipating Futures Through Narrative:

Companies that find themselves in disruptive, unpredictable environments can use story modeling to anticipate potential futures and market changes. By drawing on our innate ability to understand narrative, story modeling is a faster, more agile, and more intuitive alternative to traditional future visioning.

The findings of the paper are fascinating–if for no other reason than how accurate their predictions were.

For instance, ESPN’s steadfastness in its theory that it could remain the leader in delivering sports content led directly to its unresolved internal issues. For those familiar with Dramatica, the analysts discovered that ESPN’s Main Character Resolve of Steadfast in its Main Character Problem of Theory that it could dominate all outlets would lead directly to a Story Judgment of Bad.

The Thoughtform team predicted how this narrative would play out two years ago, and the events of this year proved them correct.

That is incredible.

Instead of witnessing a Main Character ending a story saddled by internal personal angst–like William Munny (Clint Eastwood) in Unforgiven or Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento or Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown, we are witness to a collective Main Character stricken with internal unresolved issues within the group. Instead of riding off a rain-soaked assassin or remembering to forget who you killed or confused as Hell as to how the tycoon managed to make off with his granddaughter, ESPN and its parent company Disney are at odds internally as to how to proceed.

Which is precisely how it should be because of the narrative being told.

Diving Further into the Analysis

The primary question asked was “How can Pay TV Providers (cable companies) survive OTT?” Again, the narrative analysis provided by the Thoughtform team answers this question clearly…and their predicted solutions revealed in recent press.

In an article entitled Traditional Pay TV Operators Surviving OTT Onslaught from the International Broadcasting Convention, the Thoughtform solution of showing consumers how “OTT content is inadequate and insufficient” is resulting in success:

The survey said that pay TV operators need to evolve their business plans to stay ahead of the competition. In particular, in the view of respondents, operators with the ability to combine TV with a larger multi-play offering will be better placed to win consumer loyalty and deliver a compelling offering that can compete with OTT entrants.
“To keep viewers hooked on their content, pay TV providers will need to further invest in delivering a contextually rich viewing experience. Leveraging the power of the internet, they can provide viewers with an experience that is more relevant, enhancing content through a wealth of contextual services such as data enrichment; personalisation; and advanced social and viewer engagement capabilities on every screen, including TV sets, smartphones, and tablets,” she noted.

ESPN may be experiencing internal strife as a result of its steadfastness, but the Protagonist in the Overall Story–the Pay TV Providers–is experiencing success because they are working the Overall Story Solution of Non-Accurate.[2]

In fact, the more Steadfast ESPN remains, the more readily consumers–as the group Influence Character–will continue to be forced by this narrative into adopting even more “illegal or questionable behavior, like sharing passwords, piracy, or other unofficial outside sources.” ESPN’s steadfastness is driving consumers into Changing their paradigm towards more illegal means (Influence Character Resolve Changed, Influence Character Solution of Non-Accurate).

ESPN is effectively its own worst enemy and–as predicted once again by the Thoughtform team–must find a way to Stop this approach if they are ever to grow to a point where they can meaningfully Change their paradigm (Main Character Growth of Stop).

The central problem for everyone lies in consumers thinking OTT is completely acceptable (an Overall Story Problem of Accurate). By delivering “contextually rich viewing experiences” that supersede OTT offerings, Pay TV providers were able to end this narrative with a Story Outcome of Success. Whether or not they were privy to this narrative analysis two years ago or not matters little–the result is the same.

Analysis of the Data

Defining the story is one thing; analyzing the data for possible success strategies is another and phase two of this deep narrative process. By adjusting key story points within the narrative, the analyst can determine alternate scenarios. With this in mind, the purpose of a deep narrative analysis is clear: Show where the present narrative is headed and offer alternative futures by suggesting key leverage points.

The “Pay TV vs OTT” story originally predicted a scenario where the Cable TV providers would end up being winners and ESPN would end up beset by internal strife. This is a Success/Bad story within the framework of a Dramatica storyform. Alternate futures include:

  • a Triumphant ending (Success/Good) where Pay TV is able to develop the skills necessary to compete and ESPN finds its place between the cable companies and the consumers by focusing on threats to its bottom line and its ability to form strong opinions.
  • a Tragic ending (Failure/Bad) where Pay TV fails to understand OTT’s market impact and ESPN remains stranded between the two
  • a Personal Triumph ending (Failure/Good) where Pay TV fails to understand the impact of OTT, yet ESPN finds a sweet spot in between by focusing on their own abilities to deliver unique and compelling content

These alternate realities could be made a reality simply by adjusting key story points here along the way to help nudge the narrative in a new direction. For each of these possible scenarios, the Thoughtform details the key leverage points in their final analysis.

A Means of Controlling the Story

Narrative is malleable. Our lives are not written in stone, our destinies not set in the complicate fabric of the universe. Once a command of the structure and dynamics of a narrative is achieved, the storyteller dictates the story.

We become victims of the process when we don’t look to the eventual outcome of our efforts. The more people understand story and truly appreciate how it works, the more effectively they can tell their own stories. That is our purpose here at Narrative First–to help you tell a better story. While we may be too late to help the victims of the Catholic Church scandal, we hope that by offering up our own unique understanding of narrative we can help the storytellers of tomorrow find their voice today.

  1. Over-the-top content is the delivery of digital media over the Internet without the involvement of a cable provider. In other words–Amazon, Netlfix, Hulu and any other app-related content delivery system.  ↩

  2. Dramatica makes a distinction between the Protagonist (prime mover) of a story and the Main Character. It is important to be able to tell these kinds of stories as they exist in the narratives around us.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Are you a professional writer interested in learning how to use Dramatica to structure your story? Enroll in our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and never worry about a deadline again.

Understanding the Personal Goal of Your Main Character

Beyond their concerns in the larger Overall Story of a narrative, every Main Character finds themselves focused on a concern personal and intimate to themselves. With so much attention focused on this area, this concern often comes across to the Audience as a goal for the Main Character. Whether conscious of it from the beginning or something they synthesize towards the end, the Main Character exists in the narrative to achieve that concern.

Zeroing in on this concern and what it means for the main character becomes a high priority for the working writer. The Dramatica theory of story, and the application that supports it, provides the tools necessary to make this determination possible.

Unfortunately, writing with Dramatica is confusing at times. The application will ask you if your Overall Story Throughline is in a Situation or an Activity and your only answer is yes! And then it will ask you if your story is driven by Actions or Decisions and all of a sudden you can't decide if your character is acting a certain way or if she decided to act that way. Back and forth you go from the application to the discussion boards to here and back to the application and then back and forth over and over in your own mind.

And therein lies the problem.

We are context-shifting machines. That's how we survive. If we can't problem-solve a nuisance we justify it away, hiding it from ourselves so we can move on with our lives. If we can't solve a problem from one perspective we will take another. It is a strength in our day-to-day lives, but a liability when it comes to writing.

Shifting context on the reader without altering the structure of a narrative only confuses and confounds them. If you are going to make an argument, then please do so concretely is all an Audience asks of an Author. Keep your story consistent and they sit riveted through the whole thing.

That is all Dramatica is asking of you when it asks these questions. The application is asking you to set the context for a particular story point so it knows what kind of a story you are telling. By locking you into your own decisions, Dramatica acts as a virtual writing partner that keeps you honest to your own storytelling.

You can't choose between Situation or Activity because you can easily make that shift in your own head. Both answers seem right. You can't decide between Decisions or Actions because to you a decision looks like an action that looks like a decision. Turns out our minds are not great tools for keeping the structure of a story consistent. Dramatica is.

Thankfully there are ways to trick your mind into coming up with consistent and confident answers to these questions.

Litmus Test for Domains

If you are having trouble making the decision whether or not a Throughline falls into a Situation or Activity, simply ask yourself:

If the situation they were stuck in suddenly became unstuck, would there still be a problem?

If the answer is NO, then the Domain might be in a Situation. We say might because it is always good to have a handful of examples to back up your argument. The answer of no indicates a good possibility that we are on the right track, but it is always nice to have more proof. If the answer is YES, then the Domain is definitely not in a Situation.

Likewise you can ask:

If they stopped doing the activities they were doing, would there still be a problem?

If the answer is NO, then the Domain might be in Activity. If the answer is YES, then the Domain is definitely not in Activity.

The trick here–as with all these litmus tests–is to rule out all the things are not sources of conflict to help you focus on what is creating the conflict.

Take for instance Braveheart. England moves in and starts sleeping with the wives of the Sons of Scotland on the night of their betrothal. Dirty bastards! If you were sitting down with Dramatica to write that story, the application would ask if the Overall Story Throughline of that story fell in a Situation or an Activity.

At first you might think Activity as it is what the English are doing that seems to be the biggest problem. But if those rascals stopped doing what they were doing, would there still be a problem? Certainly. England is all up in Scotland's business, causing all kinds of problems for them–not simply sleeping with their women. It is the English presence within their country that riles the Scots up and motivate the conflict. So what if England were to leave Scotland, would there still be a problem?


That is how you can confidently determine that the Overall Story Throughline for Braveheart is in Situation. If you remove something from the story and there is still a problem, then it was never a problem to begin with.

Litmus Test for Story Driver

For the Story Driver–that element of story that determines what the major plot points of a narrative are–the test is similar:

If X hadn't happened, is it likely that Y would have occurred?

With X being an Action or Decision and Y being the other side of the coin (e.g. If X is a Decision, then Y would be an Action).

If the answer is NO, then X might be a Story Driver. If the answer is YES, then X is definitely not a Story Driver.

Here we are looking less for the source of conflict within a Throughline and more for the cause behind the effects. The principle of negation of instance remains the same. If you can remove it and the story still thrums along, you don't have a driver.

Story points are essential elements to the life force that propels a narrative forward. If an element of story can be removed without a significant impact on the meaning of a story (like backstory) then it is non-essential and deficient for the purposes of forming a story.

Litmus Test for Concerns

The litmus tests for Domains and Story Drivers are not new. The Domain test appeared first in our analysis of the Throughlines of Collateral and the Story Driver test first appeared as a Dramatica tip of the month and later in an article here entitled The True Nature of the Inciting Incident. This litmus test for the Concern of a Throughline is brand new.

As mentioned in the blogpost of our analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer, this test of the Concern is a true revelation. It also implies that this kind of test works throughout the entire Dramatica model. Take any story point you are confused or walking the fence over and apply a litmus test of negation. You are bound to easily see the correct answer.

If you listen to our analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer or watch the video on YouTube, you will hear us discuss a story point known as the Concern. The reason we ask this question in Dramatica is that it helps us narrow down the possible storyforms. In every completely story, the Main Character will have one general Concern that shows up throughout the entire narrative. This Concern acts as a sort of Goal for their Personal Throughline and helps pinpoint the location of conflict within their storyline.

In the analysis I argue for Ted's Main Character Concern to be in How Things are Changing over the Future. In my estimation, Ted was more concerned with losing his wife and his job and how everything was shifting more than he was concerned about how things would be for him down the road. Part of this appraisal stems from my personal preference for stories beyond the "normal", but a good portion of it comes from plain misunderstanding. Thankfully, Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley was there to inspire a shift in my own thinking.

Watch the analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer (at the 48:50 timestamp)

At one point Chris mentions that Ted needs to "let that Concern of the Future go" before he can grow.[1] Whether Chris was speaking in regards to the Main Character Growth or about the Concern in general, his words struck me as concrete reasoning for why I was wrong.

If How Things Are Changing were a legitimate Concern for Ted as I had said, that would mean things will continue to be a problem for Ted until he lets that Concern of How Things are Changing go. This is clearly not true for him. In fact, Ted basically embraces the changing nature of things and lives within that moment there at the end of the story. Progress could still be somewhat of a Concern for him.

What he is not concerned with anymore is the Future.

And that is the new litmus test for Concerns:

If you remove the structural item as a point of Concern for the Throughline, would the Throughline still have a problem?

If the answer is NO, then that structural item might be the their Concern. If yes, then it definitely is NOT the Concern.

Remember, the Concern of a Throughline is simply another way to describe the problems within that story. It offers a different magnification on what is really wrong within that Throughline. The Concern functions like a Problem, just a really big Problem.

With that in mind, it was clear enough for me to see that Ted's true Concern was the Future. The source of trouble in his personal Throughline and the area where he would ultimately find resolution by letting that trouble go lie firmly in what will be. Anything else was wrong.

Testing the Test

For this new litmus test to work, it needs to be used against other films. One example does not a litmus test make.

Looking at Inside Out, If Joy were to let go her concerns of how great things used to be with her and Riley would there still be a problem within her? No way. This indicates that the Past could be a Concern for her Throughline (it is). What if Joy let go of how things were going to be, how they were in the present, or how things were changing in regards to her status as head emotion? Maybe that last one. But again, like Ted Joy is OK with how things are changing in the end…that really was never a problem for her. It never was the actual source of conflict in her personal Throughline.

What about "Donnie" Johnson Creed in Creed? What if he let go of his concern of how things were changing for him–how he wasn't moving up the ladder quickly enough and facing the kind of opponents he needed to face to be the best? Now that sounds like How Things are Changing might be his concern. If Johnson let all those worries go, he wouldn't have had so many problems. Let go of the past about his dad, or his future, or how things were now and he still would have that chip on his shoulder. His past really weighs him down, but letting it go would not have resolved his issues. That is how we know that his Concern is not of the Past, but rather of a lack of Progress.

Easier to Deal With

Dramatica runs counter to what most writers are looking for when it comes to helping them write stories. They want meaning and they want to be told that everything they imagine is meaningful. Unfortunately, our minds are terrible at organizing the elements needed to write a story. They are great for coming up with bits and pieces–it is the putting them together in a coherent and effective manner that reveals our weaknesses.

Having a litmus test to trick our minds into dealing with Dramatica is a good thing. Our ability to shift contexts and see things from multiple angles at once clouds our attempts to define story points that eventually need to be defined.

After 20 years, it sure is nice to be surprised by some new revelation in regards to the Dramatica theory of story. I hope that–in sharing this discovery–you find an easy way to quickly and confidently determine the individual story points for your own narrative. Defining them clearly for yourself will make it easier for your Audience to understand that meaning you want to share with them.

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want your next pitch or draft to be so well received it doesn't incur a single note? Join our track record of proven success by hiring a Dramatica® Guru.

Writers Who Write the Same Main Character

Artists tend to tread the same narrative ground. They feel drawn to themes and issues that resonate with their own personal issues and use storytelling to work through those problems. Director Christopher Nolan is no different.

Appraising Nolan's catalog of films through the eyes of Dramatica reveals a common set of elements. Memories, Understanding, Conceptualizing, and the Past all play significant parts in many of his films. In Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce) struggles to fight against his disability with short-term memory. Inception explores the conflict involved in getting Robert (Cillian Murphy) to understand a key bit of information. And in The Prestige two magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) scheme against each other in an effort to be the first to conceptualize the other's next move. Common areas of thematic intent wrapped up in different storytelling.

It should seem obvious then where Nolan's 2006 film Batman Begins would fall. But it wasn't.

For years, I have searched for the correct storyform for this film. For those unfamiliar with the Dramatica theory of story, a storyform is a collection of seventy-five story points that maintain the message of a narrative. Dramatica's story points are not independent, but rather interdependent. They work together to provide a holistic hologram of Author's Intent and help identify why a story unfolds the way it does.

While looking for the storyform for Batman Begins, I knew that elements of Equity and Inequity would somehow be involved. Justice and restoring balance play a heavy hand in this film. And I felt certain that Issues of Interdiction would come into play–once you see someone or something headed down a dark path you often want to intercede on their behalf and fix it. But I wasn't sure where the actual Throughlines fell within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements.

Throughlines and Areas of Conflict

Dramatica was the first theory of story to identify four distinct, yet interwoven, Throughlines within a complete narrative:

  • The Overall Story Throughline (OS) -- the conflict involving everyone
  • The Main Character Throughline (MC) -- the conflict personal to the central character
  • The Influence Character Throughline (IC) -- the conflict provided by an alternative approach
  • The Relationship Story Throughline (RS) -- the conflict that exists between the Main and Influence Character

These are not separate storylines. The Main Character exists within the Overall Story. So does the Influence Character. But their subjective points-of-view rest within their individual Throughlines. This is key because these Throughlines are actually points-of-views on conflict themselves:

  • OS Throughline is THEY
  • MC Throughline is I
  • IC Throughline is YOU
  • RS Throughline is WE

In addition to seeing Throughlines as these distinct points-of-view, Dramatica identifies four areas where conflict is found:

  • fixed, external problem or Situation
  • a shifting, external problem or Activity
  • fixed, internal problem or Fixed Attitude
  • a shifting, internal problem or Way of Thinking

Four points-of-view. Four ways of seeing conflict. Attach each of the Throughlines to one of these areas of conflict and you have a complete story. Only one rule: the Overall Story Throughline and Relationship Story Throughline must be diagonally across from each other, and so must the Main Character Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline.

Areas of Conflict Areas of Conflict Chart

So if you have an Overall Story Throughline in Activity, that means the Relationship Story Throughline will be in a Way of Thinking, or Manipulation. Think of Star Wars or Casablanca. In those films, everyone is dealing with physical conflict that needs to be stopped, while intimately a relationship explores conflict born out of manipulation.

This works for the Main Character and Influence Character dynamic as well. If you put the Main Character Throughline in Situation, that means the Influence Character Throughline will be in Fixed Attitude. Think Inside Out or Rain Man. In those films, the central character deals intimately with problems arising from status, while they face another character stuck with a certain fixation in his or her mind.

When I first saw Batman Begins in 2006, I felt for certain the Overall Story Throughline would fall under Situation. After all, there was a lot of discussion over Gotham and how it compared to civilizations in the past, and how it needed to be thrown into darkness in order for the light to rise again. Everyone found themselves dealing with that conflict.

But that would mean Bruce Wayne would have to fall into either an Activity or a Way of Thinking. Way of Thinking felt totally wrong: Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins is nothing like Hamlet or Salieri In Amadeus. Activity sounded better, but if Bruce suddenly stopped moonlighting as a vigilante he would still be personally conflicted. That's not how a Throughline works.

After ten years of struggling with identifying this film, it was time to cheat.

A Hidden Clue to the Structure

In Dramatica there is a story point known as the Main Character Approach that classifies the central character of a story into two different camps: a Do-er or a Be-er. Classifying the Main Character as one or the other defines whether the Main Character prefers to solve their personal problems externally or internally.

It also defines where the Throughline will fall.

If the Main Character prefers to solve problems externally, then their Throughline will be either in a Situation or an Activity. Once we identify where we think a problem is, we see a solution there as well. If we have an external problem we are dealing with, then we will first try to solve it externally–thus, Do-er.

If we have an internal problem we are dealing with, then we will first try to solve it internally either through a Fixed Attitude or Way of Thinking. This is why a Be-er prefers to solve their problems internally.

Note that this is only a preference. Clearly Main Characters can do both. What the Main Character Growth is trying to communicate is which one the Main Character prefers to do first. Some like to change the world around him, while other prefer to change themselves first.

Bruce Wayne is the latter.

At first, this may seem counterintuitive. Certainly Bruce spends the bulk of the film doing things. When we first meet him he takes on seven prisoners by himself, for "practice”. He engages in ninja school and spends pretty much the entire second half of the film fighting his way to victory.

But when you look at the personal moments with Wayne, those moments that are intimate to his character and his character only–you can begin to see a preference for a different kind of approach.

Personal Issues Unique to the Main Character

When looking to identify the Main Character Throughline of a story, it is important to look for those things that are unique to the Main Character and no one else. The stuff of this Throughline is the kind of stuff the Main Character would take with them into any story–not just the one in front of us. Look for their emotional baggage, those issues they are trying to overcome.

Wayne's greatest personal issue that is unique to him surrounds the murder of his parents and this idea that his fears were somehow responsible for their death. This isn't a Situation. Or an Activity. Or even a Way of Thinking. This is a Fixed Attitude.

And it shouldn't be surprising because Christopher Nolan likes Main Characters who struggle with what they think–Main Characters who struggle with their Fixed Attitudes. Leonard in Momento. Robert Angiers (Hugh Jackman) in The Prestige. Obsession with a thought drives the characters in many of Nolan's stories–including Batman Begins.

When Throughlines Fall into Place

Identifying Bruce Wayne as a Be-er dealing with a Fixed Attitude ends up forcing his Influence Character into Situation. The question is, who is Bruce Wayne's Influence Character? What relationships represents the heart of the story?

His relationship with Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) seems to be the likely candidate. But remember, the Influence Character is a point-of-view not a character. Rachel doesn't really challenge Bruce on his approach to things. And when she does, she is really just standing in for another character. So who stirs up all kinds of trouble because of a point-of-view they have in regards to a certain Situation?

Ra's al Ghul.

That perspective that Gotham should perish and go the way of Rome or Constantinople isn't the source of conflict everyone experiences. Rather, it is the point of view of the League of Shadows as expressed through Ra's al Ghul/Ducard (Liam Neeson).

This idea that Bruce should embrace his fears–"you fear your own power, you fear your anger, the drive to do great and terrible things”–comes from Ducard. And it is exactly what Bruce needs to hear in order to grow through his own Fixed Attitude. Ducard connects with Bruce because it is a similar, yet slightly different perspective. Similar in that it is fixed, different in that it is external whereas Bruce's perspective is internal.

This is why they can have their "You and I” moment after training. They are both alike in that they are both seeing conflict from a fixed point-of-view, but they are different in that one is external and the other internal. This dissonance fuels their interactions. That argument over the will to act is the text of Relationship Story Throughline.

Finding the Storyform for a Story

The quad of four elements below represents Ra's al Ghul's point-of-view as seen through the eyes of Dramatica. Ra's is driven by people's fears, angers, and their refusal to accept the drive deep within them to do terrible things. And this drive within himself causes him to see a lack of justice or peace as the problem in the world. And in response, he upsets the balance of things: "When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.”

The Influence Character Quad of Batman Begins The Influence Character Quad of Batman Begins

From there, Dramatica begins to work its magic and predicts story elements not selected. For Ra's Issue of Interdiction to work, Bruce himself must be facing an Issue of Suspicion. The suspicion that he had something to do with the murder of his family, and the suspicion that he is somewhat like his father–who also failed to act.

For Ra's Concern of the Past to work (which is forced by our selection of the Issue of Interdiction) then Bruce's Concern must have something to do with Memories. Anytime he steps out of his role as billionaire vigilante and confronts his own demons, they always have something to do with suppressed Memories.

The magic of Dramatica is simply balance. If an Influence Character looks to the Past, then a Main Character must look to their Memories. If an Influence Character looks to Intercede, then a Main Character must look to their own Suspicions. Whether Christopher Nolan or screenwriter David S. Goyer looked to Dramatica for help or not, that natural balance within the story is there.

Perhaps they found it as a result of writing stories with similar thematic intent. Maybe the first came out a little rough, but as they continued to explore this area and refine their understandings of it, their intuition kicked in and assured a proper balance between the Throughlines. Dramatica is built on the psychology of the mind, not on observable repeated patterns within film. It only makes sense then that a theory based on the psychology of the human mind would be able to predict the intuition of a writer trying to construct a well-balanced story.

Something More Than Backstory

The confusion involved in locating the storyform for Batman Begins can be attributed to the use of time-shifting in the StoryWeaving phase. What looks like backstory is really an essential part of Bruce Wayne's growth as a Main Character. In next week's article we will continue to dive into the storyform for Batman Begins and explain how the mechanism of its narrative works.

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Want to learn how to generate story ideas the way explained this article? Join our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and receive personalized instruction on how to master the Dramatica theory. Become a master storyteller. Learn more.

Finding Your True Self Through Writing

Going with your first impression is usually a recipe for disaster when it comes to writing. Far too many times, the first thing we come up with is simply a rehash of something we have already seen or read. Pushing ourselves to move beyond our comfort zone opens up worlds of story we never even knew we had inside.

Following up on last month's article Generating an Abundance of Story Ideas, we take a look at the remaining three Playground Exercises. To recap, I was struggling to come up with concrete imaginative encodings for my Influence Character's Story Points. Instead of using Dramatica's insights to make my story bigger, I was simply parroting the different appreciations and making my story smaller in the process. I eventually decided to take my own advice and began working through a series of Playground Exercises that I created to help clients break through their usual creative ruts.

The effect was staggering and I felt it would be good to share my experience with writers and producers wondering how to use Dramatica to increase their level of creativity.

New Discoveries

Note how different these three are from the previous two and how far away I started to get from my original story idea. This is a very good thing. Instead of writing a story that was already in my head and–let's be honest–not particularly original, I started to head down a path that reflected more of my subconscious thoughts & desires rather than the subconscious of someone else.

By locking in the thematic meaning of the story with the storyform, I was able to stretch my imagination with the confidence that I wasn't wasting my time. I wasn't heading down another blind alleys I wasn't wasting my precious few hours a day writing chasing the wrong dog.

With Marissa I found a character who found peace shutting out the world around her. With the Bonaporte family I found the pain induced by trying to keep the memory of a family member alive. With Harold I found gold.

Getting Personal

Now Harold is about as far away from my original Stephen King-inspired story idea that I could get: a character who was so deathly afraid of factory-style work because of it hid the reality of one's true calling. That should feel authentic to you, more authentic than the guy who couldn't remember if he killed someone, and it should–because it is something very honest and true to my heart.

I had no idea deep down inside that this is what I felt. I mean, I knew it on a superficial level, but I didn't know my true feelings on the subject. By working through these Playground Exercises I was able to unearth something extremely personal to me–something honest and real. Something that I could really dive into and communicate from deep within my own consciousness and experience.

I almost left this last one out. It's a bit too revelatory and I was concerned about what my colleagues in the animation industry might think of my true feelings. But I guarantee many of them feel the same–as do many of you. We've all had jobs or careers that didn't sit right, didn't feel authentic. And by getting to that honesty my story will now end up connecting more deeply with those who read or see it.

People go to stories for truth, for shared experiences. By not concerning myself with thematic intention or this character's relation to the rest of the story, I ended up forming someone who reflected my deepest of intentions. What writer wouldn't want that?

Next week I'll cover the process of folding these five very different characters into one. You can pretty much be guaranteed that Harold will fit predominantly into that mix.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #3

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Hating People Who Whine & Being Forgotten by a Particular Group: Marissa Lamont is the kind of mother who hates when her children whine. So much so, that she will lock herself in her room, put noise-cancelling headphones on, and turn up the Anthrax until she can't hear it anymore. As a result, her children never learn to get along, the house is a battleground, and her hearing is shot. But there is something else…peace. That peace of mind she feels infects the other women in the neighborhood and they too begin to revel in the ecstasy of shutting everyone out. Husbands neglected, children undisciplined, and a general sense of breakdown of communications between people begins to occur. Marissa, and the women in her circle, want to be forgotten by those who demand so much from them. It causes those around her to feel deprived, uncared for, and ignored. But it also has the side effect of developing self-reliance in those she left behind. On the surface Lamont's influence is a disruptive element, but like most disruptive elements eventually turns to a beneficial and uplifting experience.

Influence Character Issue

Being a Source of Suspicion vs. Evidence: Marissa's antics are a source of suspicion amongst her fellow neighbors: what does she do behind those closed doors and what is she hiding from? That suspicion infects the neighborhood with gossip and distraction and a general lack of purpose as everyone finds themselves more interested in what Marissa is doing rather than what they should be doing (like paying bills, feeding the kids, and getting enough sleep for the next day).

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Philosophically Aligned with Something & Being Lost in Reverie about a Particular Group: Marissa believes the problem with most mothers these days is their philosophical alignment with suburban mores. Everyone is too caught up in aligning themselves with this idea of who they should be, rather than who they could be. Her response, and the response she has for so many of the women, is to become lost in reverie about long lost dreams, about that group of women they had planned to be as they were growing up. The only way to move past what you should be is to lose yourself in the dreams of what you used to want to be…

Influence Character Source of Drive

Seeing if Someone Truly Exists: Marissa Lamont is driven to see if this perfect suburban mother exists. She seeks her out in Internet chat rooms, in the grocery store, and even at school functions. Whenever she finds a woman she figure is the perfect woman, she approaches and begins breaking her down, asking insinuating questions and getting to the root of what that woman is really all about. Is she wearing that workout outfit because she is going to the gym as the perfect woman, or because she thinks she is supposed to be wearing a workout outfit to fit in. That drive to find what really exists cuts through the facade of suburban life and exposes these women for who they really are: hurt and put upon.

Influence Character Demotivator

Camouflaging a Particular Group: Even Marissa from time to time feels she has to hide and camouflage herself from her husband and her children, and when she does put on airs she manages to demotivate the other women around her and lessen her impact on the neighborhood.

Influence Character Benchmark

Reasoning: The more her children and husband try to reason with her, the more she grows concerned with the fact that they will never forget about her. That she will always be needed, and that she will never be able to live her dreams out. Communicating this to the other women allows them to see that simple reason will make it impossible for any of them to be forgotten.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Contemplative: When we first meet Marissa, she is at the head of the dinner table, children screaming, husband on his smart phone, expletives and food flying, a meal uneaten in front of her. Her daughter asks her a question and she seems distractive. “Just thinking, dear,” she tells her and returns back to her contemplation of the mashed potatoes in front of her. The contemplation confuses and intrigues her neighbor from down the street who stopped by for a drink. Marissa seems at such peace. “What is your secret?” She asks.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Having a Photographic Memory: Marissa inspires all the mothers around her when she begins to recite—from photographic memory—the exact imagery of each and every one of her children and even when her and her husband began first dating. The images play on the big screen TV, but Marissa has seen them all. Contrary to what the other husbands say about Marissa's strange behavior she hasn't forgotten or neglected her family—she remembers each and every detail about them. This inspires the women to return home and do the same.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Gagging at the Thought of Eating Oysters: The families arrive for a community cookout, a meal prepared by the husbands and by the children. The fathers present oysters to the women and Marissa begins gagging. Uncontrollably. It shocks and dismays everyone around them, but soon the other mothers turn away in disgust. It simply isn't good enough for them. Marissa shows them how to stand up for what you want, and to have that confidence that you deserve more.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Experiencing Rapture: The women of the neighborhood experience pure bliss as they shut out the world around them and indulge in their own personal happiness. Seventh heaven (the name of this story) kicks in as the women find peace refusing to compromise on their principals. Marissa reaches over, turns the knob on the Volume up to 10, and leans back in her chair and thinks to herself, “This is the life.”

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #4

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Clashing Attitudes about Someone & Losing Something's Memories: Lilly Bonaparte grew up in a household centered around the patriarch of the family, Edward G. Bonaparte V. Treated like royalty his whole life, Edward had problem keeping his family in line and on track with his wishes and plans. Everyone that is…except Lily. At 13 she couldn't stand the old man and did whatever she could to disrupt their perfect little family. She would refuse to pray before dinner, refuse to do chores, refuse to come home before curfew, refuse to not date anyone older than her, and refuse to contribute in any meaningful way to the family. Suffice it to say, Lilly Bonaparte's attitudes towards her father angered him, brought anxiety to her mother, and threw the rest of her five siblings into constant brawls over who would take up her slack. At the heart of Lilly's concerns were the loss of the memory of Edward's mother, Valerie. Valerie was in the last stages of Parkinson's disease and was on the brink of losing all touch with reality—a travesty as far as far Lilly was concerned. And the idea that her father never visited Valerie or made any attempts to collect her memoirs or family's history devastated Lilly and drove her to label her father a miserable son who would only beget more miserable children and grandchildren. Effectively cursing the entire family lineage, Lilly brought turmoil and angst to the Bonaparte household with her efforts to keep Valerie and her more lenient ways of parenting alive.

Influence Character Issue

Being Suspicious of Someone vs. Evidence: Lilly's suspicion that father was doing all of this as a means of guaranteeing a larger inheritance only drove her to sneak into the old man's study and rifle through his things, hack into his computer, and reveal family secrets kept secret for a long time (like who was brother Austin's real mother). This suspicious attitude brought dissention and grief to the Bonaparte household and upset the tender balance Edward had worked his whole life to maintain.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Known by a Particular Group & Brainstorming Something: Lilly believes the problem to be that the Bonaparte's are known as a perfect family, something to aspire to, and to look up to by the other families. This is, of course, a problem as their family is completely built on lies and the ego of one man. In response, Lilly works hard to brainstorm different means of bringing her father down—an approach that unnerves the other children, incites some of the others to rebel and talk back to their father, and begins a wave of rumors throughout their tightly knit neighborhood of friends.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Exploring Reality: Lilly's drive to explore the reality behind the Bonaparte family and Edward's real life growing up brings turmoil to the Bonaparte household. Let sleeping dogs lie is not something Lilly believes in and as a result the tender bond between Edward and Valerie is forever shattered, reducing the family inheritance, and bringing shame and embarrassment to the Bonaparte family in the eyes of the other neighbors. It, however, also has the positive effect of inspiring her siblings to stand up on their own and claim their own individuality within the family—a disruptive effect in the eyes of the patriarch, but a positive move from those oppressed by his ways.

Influence Character Demotivator

Seeing Someone from a Particular Perspective: When her siblings begin seeing their father in a different light, Lilly tends to back off, her mission accomplished.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more her siblings consider that their father is not the great man he makes himself out to be, the less concerned Lilly is with losing her grandmother's experiences…the other kids will see to it that no one forgets.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Conscious of Something: Lilly starts the story by making everyone in her family conscious of her father's affair seven years ago. Out of nowhere. No one was even talking about it, Lilly just interjected between Roger and Mary's stimulating conversation about the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. “You all know dear old father had an affair with Miss Torio seven years ago, don't you?” That one comment set off a wave of disappointment and chaos.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Thinking Back about a Particular Group: Lilly takes her three oldest brothers out on a hike and strikes up a conversation about how the Bonapartes used to be back in the day. She wonders if they can think back and remember how it was before Valerie became old and decrepit and if they recall a time when the family was more about joy and expression than it was about following rules and decorum. The boys do recall. One, Andrew the oldest, gets really upset and refuses to talk about it anymore. He heads home angered. The other two recall and promise Lilly to tell the others when they get back.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Reacting Spontaneously to Someone: Edward loses his cool in front of everyone when out to dinner. Lilly demands that an extra chair be set for Valerie, even though she can't make it, and that sends Edward over the edge. In front of his wife, his family, and the rest of the neighborhood in attendance at Dolario's, Edward flips out and starts cursing the very existence of Lilly. She simply sits back and smiles. “At least, “ she says. “My real father shows up.”

Influence Character Signpost 4

Being Infatuated with a Particular Group: The local reporter, a man in the booth next to the Bonapartes at Dolario's, becomes infatuated with the family and sets out to write the family's memoir—exposing Edward for the sniveling son he is and the abuse some children engage in towards aging and disabled parents. The reporters expose is met with unrivaled acclaim and soon the Bonaparte name becomes synonymous with parental abuse, particularly in the case of Parkinson's. The Bonaparte name is forever memorialized as something you would never want to associate your own family with.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding #5

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Fearing Work & Remembering an Anniversary: Harold Fauntleroy is deathly afraid of work. Why commit yourself to a task you would never do if they didn't pay you? That is not what life is about, that's voluntary slavery! Unfortunately for Harold's wife and two sons his fear keeps them homeless, hungry, and hopeless. His wife must take on an extra job and her sons are left to fend for themselves while their parents are away. Of great concern to Harold is the anniversary of his father's passing away, which is coming up in a few weeks. His father never lived his life, never took a chance, and always did everything the way he was told to. As a result he died content…but an unhappy content. Harold remembers the look on his father's face when he told Harold his life was a waste and that look of emptiness scares Harold so much that he refuses to commit to anything lasting longer than a week or two. The Fauntleroys struggle as winter approaches and the thought of sleeping in their car becomes more and more a reality.

Influence Character Issue

Being Paranoid about Someone vs. Evidence: Harold's constant paranoia that his employer is trying to diminish his soul creates an uneasy work environment for those who work with him and inspires others to quit or possibly do less work so that they too can concentrate on their own art. The paranoia—while disruptive to those in charge—actually inspires great things in others. A woman who hadn't picked up a paint brush in 35 years begins painting her cubicle walls. A man who always wrote short stories begins taking afternoons off at the office to work on his masterpiece. Harold Fauntleroy brings out the best in others by being paranoid about the truth of those in charge.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Ignorant & Considering Someone: Harold believes the biggest problem in the world is when people are ignorant. Ignorant of what is really going on around them and ignorant of what it is their heart truly desires. Harold sits down with each and every person and tells them that he considers them special. That he thinks about them. That he sees a unique individual capable of doing a great many things. The only thing they need to do is to get other people to start considering them. That's when they know they are on the right track.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Finding the Objective Reality of Someone: What excites Harold is finding the objective reality of the people he meets. Everyone he meets is hiding behind a mask, a false sense of themselves. Unearthing that truth, that reality that is there deep within each person unnerves those who have never stepped out of their comfort zone, and excites those who have dreamt of being so much more. Harold is all about reality. It may drive his wife crazy and his kids to become more fearful about what is happening with their family, but Harold is doing good work. He's bringing light to the world.

Influence Character Demotivator

Having a Slanted View on Something: Unfortunately, Harold's wife has her viewpoint on things and it does diminish his effectiveness from time to time. As committed as he is to truth, he does love his wife and hates to see her so nervous and anxious. Her slanted view on life and doing what others expect of you tempers Harold's drive and pulls him back occasionally from making huge gains.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more people consider doing something they have never done before, the less concerned Harold is with the anniversary of his father's death. It means there was a purpose behind it.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Starting a Think Tank: Harold begins to disrupt the universe the moment he requests a meeting room at work and begins to develop a think tank for creative endeavors. Inspired by Google's 5th day of personal projects, Harold starts brainstorming with the other employees how they too could make something more of themselves. This think tank upsets the employers, drives down productivity, and frightens stock holders. But it inspires the workers.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Thinking Back about Something: Harold pushes it farther when he gets those workers to begin to think back to when they were children and when they had dreams and no limitations. When the future seemed boundless. This thinking back inspires some of the workers—essential to the company's success-to quit to go follow their dreams. Harold is brought in and fired for his disruptive behavior.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Numb to Something: Harold's former employees act numb to threats from their employer. When brought in to a meeting to set rules and expectations and threats of firing, they act as if numb to the entire thing. Their heads are already in the clouds because of Harold and no amount of threat is ever going to change that.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Fearing Water: Fearing the rising tide of employee dissention created by Harold's persistent influence, the company decides to move its entire operation off-shore. Everyone is fired, but not a single person fears the consequences. They get in touch with Harold and he begins a new company—one that offers a chance for everyone to fulfill their true potential. In time, they all fulfill their greatest desires.

This article originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Want to learn how to generate story ideas the way explained this article? Join our Dramatica Mentorship Program and receive personalized instruction on how to master the Dramatica theory. Become a master storyteller. Learn more.

Generating an Abundance of Story Ideas

Too many times writers find themselves stuck without an inkling of where to go next. They write themselves into corners or run out of steam on that great idea that they thought would carry them through the end. Having an understanding of what it is you want to say and a framework for capturing that intent can go a long way towards preventing what many call writer's block.

Many see the Dramatica theory of story as a great analysis tool, something to be used to examine what worked and what didn't work. What they fail to realize is that Dramatica is also a great creativity tool. By listening to what it is you want to say with your story, Dramatica can offer insight and suggestions to round out your story and make it feel more complete.

The Playground Exercises

You know that writing tip that suggests coming up with twenty different ideas in order to get to one original one? The idea being that your first, your fifth, and even your fifteenth idea is really just a superficial rehash of something you have already seen or have already thought. Once you vomit out all the obvious choices your writer's intuition starts coming up with brand new and novel ideas that take your writing to the next level.

The Narrative First Playground Exercises were inspired by this process. The generation of several different Throughlines with slightly different storytelling grants an Author a playground from which to explore the deep thematic meaning present in their story. Even my own story.

My Story

Working my way through the Playground Exercises for my current writing project, I was amazed by the abundance of creativity I experienced in only a few hours. Averaging about 25 minutes per Playground, I managed to flesh out five completely different and potential Influence Characters for my story. That's five fully functional and thematically integrated characters all before lunchtime.

Sounds exciting, right?

Inspired by something Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley mentioned to me, I created the Playground Exercises late last Summer as a means to better understand the Main Character in the story I was working on. I was continuously running into a roadblock with this character and couldn't figure out why she seemed so small in comparison to the rest of the story.

By brainstorming ideas for characters dealing with the same thematic material as my Main Characters, I was able to concentrate on the essence of the Throughline–the meaty, thematic stuff–instead of futzing around wondering how it would fit into my story. The process was, and is, freeing and productive and often produces ideas for new and completely different stories.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do them and very often when working with clients they start out with the latter approach. This is a shared mistake brought about by the common misunderstanding that the Dramatica storyform presents storytelling material, rather than storyforming material.

The Storyform as a Source of Conflict

Many look to Dramatica and think it is a story-by-numbers approach. They think you flip a few switches and Dramatica spits out a preformed story. When they see a Main Character Concern of the Past they think, Oh, Roger is worried about the Past. or when they see a Main Character Problem of Feeling they think, Oh, Roger is the kind of person who feels a lot of mixed emotions.

This is not proper StoryEncoding. This is using the Appreciation as storytelling, rather than using it as a means to form a story.

A Main Character Concern of the Past means the Main Character experiences conflict because of the Past. Sure, he or she may be worried about the Past, but this worry doesn't set into motion a story. Instead, a Main Character who is so concerned with how great things used to be that they return to their high-school summer job at 42, start working out how to impress their teenage daughter's girlfriend, and start buying drugs from the neighbor next door to feel young again DOES set a story into motion. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like American Beauty doesn't it? Kevin Spacey's character Lester Burnham does have a Concern of the Past, but it's more than an indicator of worry, it's a generator of conflict.

Likewise, a Main Character Problem of Feeling means the Main Character experiences conflict because of Feeling. Of course this means they will "feel a lot of mixed emotions" but then again, what kind of character doesn't? Instead, a Main Character who is so overwhelmed by strange and uncomfortable emotions that they will pummel anyone who brings those emotions out DOES set a story into motion. In fact this was the problem Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) suffered in Brokeback Mountain. His inability to process his Feelings with the evidence he had of the torture and murder of a man who embraced similar emotions drove him to a life spent in denial and personal anguish.

This is the first rule of the Playground Exercises: Do not use the Appreciation (or Gist) as storytelling, but rather as a source of conflict.

Looking for Conflict in the Right Throughline

One should always look to each of these appreciations and ask, How is this a problem? While they have fancy names like Domain and Concern and Issue, really they're just different magnifications of the same thing: conflict. The Domain is the largest, most broadest way to describe an area of conflict; the Concern is the next smallest and the Issue even smaller. The Problem is the smallest way to describe a Problem (can't go much smaller than that!).

So when working through these appreciations and random Gists I simply ask myself, How is this a source of conflict for this Throughline? Each Throughline will have a slightly different question. The Main Character is very experiential and personal and typically the easiest to write. In contrast, the Influence Character is all about the impact or influence that character has on the world around them. When writing these I always made sure to write a character who created all kinds of havoc around them and for others because of who they were and what they were driven to do. This brings up the second rule.

The second rule when doing these Playground Exercises is to ignore the other Throughlines. Don't worry about them. I don't care one bit how the Influence Characters I come up with are going to impact the Main Character of my story because in the end, the storyform will make sure this character impacts the Main Character.

In my story the Main Character has a Concern of the Past and the Influence Character has a Concern of Memories. Right there, the impact is set. The Main Character in my story will naturally be impacted by this Influence Character because my Main Character is personally dealing with The Past–she can't help but be influenced by this strange thing known as "Memories".

Concentrate on getting the StoryEncoding strong for an Influence Character who impacts others through their Concern and the storyform will naturally impact the Main Character regardless of what you come up with.

Generating an Abundance of Ideas

How does this process work? This is the Influence Character Throughline section of my storyform for my latest project:

Influence Character Throughline
Domain: Fixed Attitude
Concern: Memories
Issue: Suspicion vs. Evidence
Problem: Actuality
Solution: Perception
Symptom: Knowledge
Response: Thought
Benchmark: Contemplations
Signpost 1: Contemplations
Signpost 2: Memories
Signpost 3: Impulsive Reponses
Signpost 4: Innermost Desires

I have no problem sharing this with you as no one really owns a storyform. How I interpret and encode a storyform will be completely different than the way you do. That's what makes us unique and awesome.

Originally I was really excited about this storyform because it perfectly matched up with my story idea: that of a friend who wakes up a murder suspect, yet has no recollection of what they did the night before. The storyform above looked perfect for what I wanted to do: a Concern of Memories (he couldn't remember what happened), an Issue of Suspicion (everyone suspected him of killing), a Problem of Actuality (he actually killed the person!)–all of these seemed to really work great for the story I wanted to tell.

But when I went to actually write the thing the story kind of collapsed in on itself. I kept repeating myself with the Influence Character and he came off as kind of one-dimensional. What was worse was that he really didn't have any kind of effect or impact on the Main Character–she changed her resolve because I needed her to for the story, not because this other character challenged her to do so.

I resisted and resisted and put off doing my own Playground Exercises because I figured I was above all that. After all, twenty years of experience with Dramatica I should know what I'm doing, right? Turns out, I was short-changing my own writing process. By refusing to do what I had seen work wonders so many times before, I was keeping myself from writing a thematically rich and compelling story.

So I generated five different Influence Character Throughlines with the same storyform you see above by using Dramatica's Brainstorming feature. With this feature you can lock in the storyform and then randomize the Gists, or approximation of the story points, to keep the storytelling fresh and unique. I copied them over into Quip–the same app I use to work with clients–and then began brainstorming completely different Influence Characters. Different situations. Different genres. Different genders. But at the heart of them–the same thematic concerns of narrative.

Here are two of them. Note how disparate in storytelling, yet similar in thematic intent, they are. Note how every appreciation generates conflict and doesn't use the Gist as simply a storytelling prompt. There are moments when I start out using it as storytelling, but then quickly move it into a source for conflict.

Note too how I start out writing something somewhat similar to my original idea. This is how the Playground Exercise works–it lets you dump out your first thoughts and then forces you to stretch and become something more than you were before you started. You know the old adage You can't solve a problem with the same mind that created it? That is precisely what we're doing here–transforming minds to become better writers.

You should be able to see the magic that is the Playground Exercises and of the Dramatica storyform for generating new and wonderful characters. In the next article I'll present more examples and explain how I take these exercises and use them to craft a fully fleshed out and developed character for my story.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding Example #1

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Being in a Special Group & Reminiscing about Someone: Roger, a 16-year old autistic boy, challenges the people around him with his strange behavior and demanding personality. To know Roger is to constantly be on edge, always fearful of saying the wrong thing, and always careful to make sure his every need is met—even before he asks for it. The result is an uneasy environment around Roger; people rarely take risks if they fear repercussions and Roger is full of them.

To make matters worse, Roger spends an inordinate amount of time reminiscing about Plato, his favorite stuffed animal from when he was three. Roger sorely misses Plato and often wakes the family up late at night crying for him or creeps them out when they're awake by hugging a pillow and pretending it is his long lost friend. His constant reminiscing reminds everyone how stuck Roger is and how, because he is different from everyone else, they need to be careful not to hurt his feelings. Unfortunately this has the opposite effect on the kids at school where the focus on a stuffed animal often leads to bullying and after-school fights.

Influence Character Issue

Being a Suspect in a Murder Case vs. Evidence: Strangely enough, Roger is also a suspect in a murder case. Whether a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply as a matter of his condition, everyone suspects the worst of Roger and treats him like a pariah. No one will sit next to him at school, he frightens the timid girls on the bus, and dinners at home are an uneasy and unpleasant experience. The evidence is there on Roger's blood-stained hands and sheets, but no one knows if that is simply an autistic kid looking for attention or if it truly does speak of a murderous personality. The uneasy feeling he creates in others leads his family members to second-guess opportunities to leave and forces them to support him—no matter how badly they don't want to–as they fear for their own lives.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Philosophically Aligned against Something & Being Contemplative: Roger thinks the problem with the world today is that everyone spends too much time aligning themselves against that which they fear. It is so much easier taking the opposite position of the unknown then it is stepping out and trying something new. Roger refuses to give in to the "smaller" life and spends his waking hours contemplating different states of existence—all of which challenges those around him to improve their own way of thinking and to see the world differently. In short, he forces the people he comes into contact to deal with their own doubts and fears—something many would rather avoid doing.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Exploring Reality: Roger gets most worked up when he witnesses people consumed with the reality of day-to-day life. Paying taxes, working a job, and living the life of a city dweller causes him to lash out and publicly deride those who do. Why would anyone accept the reality given to them? To be a sheep and not step out of the bounds of normal existence, that is the problem with the non-autistic creature. His refusal to accept reality insults girls attracted to him, humiliates home economics teachers, and forces his family into working extra hours to make up for the work Roger himself has lost.

Influence Character Demotivator

Keeping Up Someone's Appearances: Roger loses himself when he becomes more concerned with keeping up appearances at the workplace or in a public restaurant. Those few rare moments when he stops being "special" and works to fit in—that's when the conflict dies around him and his friends and family can finally breathe a momentary sigh of relief.

Influence Character Benchmark

Wondering about Something: The more Roger wonders about the meaning of life, the more he reminisces about Plato and about the loss of his only true friend. Relationships are but a fabrication of our own minds, he believes. Ultimately transitive in nature and completely made up.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Concentrating on Something: We first see Roger standing in the middle of traffic contemplating a giant crack in the road. When questioned, Roger states that he sees more than anyone else ever could. It isn't just a crack because the more he thinks about it and the more he looks at it, the more glorious and beautiful it becomes. The artistry and majesty of the ripples and torn asphalt is a thing of beauty.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Being Memorialized by Something: Roger gets up in arms when the board refuses to memorialize his favorite 2nd grade teacher Mr. Donovan. Mr. Donovan was the kindest most gentlest teacher who spent every a couple minutes every morning reminding Roger how awesome he was and how much he enjoyed his company. To refuse to memorialize this man is to refuse to recognize the beauty of the universe and an attempt by the great unwashed to remain asleep.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Oversensitive to Something: Losing touch with reality, Roger's anxiety rages as he expresses his oversensitivity to touch and sound. The loud sounds of the city frighten him and cause him to scream and react in a way that terrifies children walking down the street. In addition, he screams terror when his family members try and hug him and show him affection.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Being a Heartbreaker: Roger comes to the conclusion that small-minded people are the problem and he rejects his girlfriend of several months. He shows no signs of sadness, no signs of remorse, just a complete loss of feeling for anyone around him. To be attached to someone is to remain shackled in the world of the normal. That is why he will never ever forget about Plato—Plato was more than what he was…and that's precisely how Roger wants to live his life.

Influence Character Throughline StoryEncoding Example #2

Influence Character Domain & Concern

Hero Worshipping & Being Memorialized by Someone: Tay Nguyen is the world's biggest Hunger Games fanboy. At 63 years of age he creeps out the teenage girls at comic book conventions, angers his wife who wants to go on cruises around the world, and empties out his bank account and the money saved up for his children so that he can buy more and more merchandise and cosplay outfits. Up until now, Tay has not amounted to much of anything. 43 years as a sanitation worker really hasn't left much of a mark on the world. He wants to be memorialized by becoming so famous the Author has to write a part for him in the next book. This obsession to be remembered causes him to make a fool of himself and his grandchildren at a mall appearance, frightens the Author when she catches him spying outside her window late at night, and creates riots amongst other fans as they feel Tay is ruining their beloved series. Tay is a royal pain-in the-ass.

Influence Character Issue

Being Someone's Suspect vs. Evidence: To make matters worse, the Author starts to suspect that Tay might be her muse. Stuck with writer's block these past months, she begins to think Tay might be the answer to all her problems…which ends up delaying the book even longer (she wants to spend more time with Tay to get to know him), angers fans to the point of vandalizing the Author's house (since they don't want Tay to have anything to do with it), and sets the publishing world into chaos as many more Author's begin to suspect that their writing is missing something when they realize they don't have their own personal Tay.

Influence Character Symptom & Response

Being Ignorant of Something & Acting Without Thought: Tay sees the world's problems as revolving around their ignorance of the themes behind Hunger Games and of the strength and courage of its central character. The world can be so ignorant sometimes and can so easily discount something that could truly help them. Tay's response is to act with little consideration given to what he is doing, and to simply go with the flow. As that is what Katniss would do.

Influence Character Source of Drive

Finding the Objective Reality of Something: Tay swings into action anytime someone tries to find objective reality in the Hunger Games and in particular its fandom. Anytime a news reporter tries to deconstruct the fiction and true motivation behind its deepest fans, Tay leaps into battle and starts tearing down the foundation of most everyone's reality. Stories are life, Tay believes; they help us understand our lives better and give us real solutions to our problems. Nobody can make sense of real life—it doesn't have the same purpose a story does. This breakdown of reality, of course, encourages the Author and other Authors to spend more time diving into their own self-consciousness (through drugs and other means) rather than actually get down to the business of writing.

Influence Character Demotivator

Misperceiving a Particular Group: When reporters and locals begin misperceiving Hunger Games fans as sad and pathetic and lonely people, Tay begins taking time proving to everyone else what great people they are. This sounds more like justification and all it does is make these people, including the Author behind the Hunger Games and other Authors discount Tay and the other fans as lunatics.

Influence Character Benchmark

Considering Something: The more people start to consider that their lives are mere fiction, the less Tay cares about being memorialized…it's already happening.

Influence Character Signpost 1

Being Preoccupied with Something: When we first meet Tay is preoccupied with his latest cosplay for the convention this weekend. His wife tries to speak to him, his grandchildren come to visit, nobody—and I mean nobody—can seem to get through to him. Tay is in his own little world and he ruins the plans the family had for that week and challenges his wife's patience as he sits there and compares his outfit to images on the Internet.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Being Memorialized by Something: Tay is set to receive the official Hunger Games Greatest Fan award from the Author of the Hunger Games. As he begins to give his acceptance speech, boos and jeers start to rise up from the audience. He sends the crowd into turmoil when he mentions that the Author herself has promised to create a character based on him for the next book.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Being Spontaneous: The Author, spurred on by Tay's influence, begins spouting out inane nonsense at her next interview on Good Morning America. The Author is simply riffing on the cuff (something Tay convinced him of), but she angers and upsets the people outside, embarrasses the interviewer on GMA, and basically ruins the ending of the next book by just letting it out.

Influence Character Signpost 4

Fearing a Particular Number: Tay refuses to enter the offices of the editor for the Author's next book because he doesn't trust the street address: they are the same exact numbers used to signify the evil overlords in the original Hunger Games episode. He ends up missing out on being included in the next book because he is so consumed by the fiction of it all that he steps away and returns home.

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to become a master writer with Dramatica? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have taken our Dramatica® Mentorship Program and knock out stories with as little as one or two drafts.

How to Write a Television Series

Writing and producing a television series is difficult. With the recent popularity of streaming services and “binge watching”, writing and producing a television series is daunting. Trying to tell a serialized story over the course of a season or several seasons overwhelms even the most accomplished writer.

There is a way, however, to streamline the process while making it both productive and fun.


On Vox, Todd VanDerWerff discusses the one thing Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu get wrong about television, namely how most series tend to get “really saggy in the middle”:

This was particularly true with [Jessica] Jones, which reached a climactic point around the middle of its first season, then screwed around for several episodes before staging its final battle. By the time Jessica faced off with the season’s main supervillain, their encounter didn’t nearly have as much potency as it would have if the season had run for only eight episodes instead of 13.

This only happens because the show’s creators are unaware of the storyform they are trying to tell. Whether strung out across 13 episodes or 26, a competent and dynamically interesting story can be told as long as the story’s dynamics are kept in check. Outlining a television series to tell a single story in such a way that it does not “sag” in the middle is possible: you just have to know Dramatica.

A Dramatica storyform is a collection of 75 different story points that communicate the original intent of the Author’s narrative. While the purpose of the storyform is to maintain the integrity of the Author’s message, it also has the beneficial side effects of insuring there are no “story holes” and that characters stay motivated and tightly interwoven within a dynamic and developing plot. Knowing this storyform and using it to outline your work is the best way to avoid any of the pitfalls VanDerWerff speaks of.

Telling a Single Story

Streaming services have an unfortunate tendency to assume they should use all the time in a season — including the extra moments freed up by not having to remind viewers of certain plot developments — to tell a single story.

Telling a single story for one season is a smart and productive approach. Audiences only want to know that the time they give to a show is time well spent–they want the experience to be meaningful. As long as the writers and producers have something to say and know how to say it, they can easily fill 13 episodes with thematic material that captures the audience’s attention and keeps them engaged. The first season of HBO’s True Detective did this; by crafting a coherent and complete structure they delivered a powerful and captivating story.

In those instances where you do find that the story “sags” or lingers in the middle, you can fill that gap by defining a smaller storyform for a single episode.

Storyforms within a Storyform

This was the approach we took consulting on an animated series for a major studio, and the approach we take with novelists wanting to craft stories that span several books. Designate a storyform for the entire series, then identify smaller storyforms for a single season or book that support the larger storyform. When needed, and for variance, create smaller storyforms for individual episodes.

These last, extremely small storyforms, don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with the larger storyforms at play. For instance, think back to The X-Files and their mythology vs. monster episodes. The mythology had one single storyform spread out over several episodes; the monster episodes had one storyform per episode. Classics like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Beyond the Sea told complete stories all on their own.

The recent update to the series (2016) took a similar approach: one storyform for the two bookend episodes and then different storyforms for the interior episodes. Data needed to develop and complete the larger over-arching storyform found itself woven into some of those self-contained episodes while there was one that stood out on all its own.

Epic Storyforming

The number of fictional works that are so dense that they require tellings longer than three hours is pretty slim. Certainly, gigantic epic novels like The Lord of the Rings or War and Peace fall into this category. But most other stories are rather slim when you come right down to it, and stretching them out just means adding pointless incidents and busywork, stuff that distracts from the story’s “spine,” or its most central conflict.

The Lord of the Rings in fact had several different storyforms all running concurrently. This is yet another approach writers and producers can take to flesh out and more fully develop their seasons. If they don’t want to craft standalone episodes or worry about “sagging”, they can easily and confidently run several storyforms at the same time within the same work. You simply need to know what it is you are trying to say.

Knowing Your Storyform

The storyform acts as the carrier wave for the Author’s intent. Plug in what conflict you want to explore, how you want it to turn out, and how you want the audience to feel about how it turned out, and Dramatica will provide you with a storyform.

Of course, stories are more than their conflicts. The best ones feature interesting characters who drive the plot forward, and those characters could help or hinder the progression of that plot through their actions. And all stories have obstacles that stand between the characters and their ultimate objective…But the number of obstacles a writer can organically introduce into a story before those obstacles start to feel pointless and random is very small.

This only happens when the writer or producer has no clue as to the storyform. Vince Gilligan (X-Files alum, btw) and David Simon and Beau Willimon may not have direct knowledge of Dramatica and its concept of the storyform, but their writer’s instinct–which is what Dramatica was built on–drive them to craft stories that do have complete storyforms.[1] Shakespeare didn’t have access to a Mac, yet Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello stand out as prime examples of solid storyforming. Bill had something to say and his legacy persists because of his effectiveness in communicating that message.

Dramatica just makes it easier.

Replicating the Bricks

A story can be told in a scene, or in an episode, or in a handful of them. But over a full season or series, it can easily fall apart, as writers lose focus and the obstacles placed in front of characters start to feel random and unmotivated. Streaming shows, because of how they’re presented to us, tend to look at the wall of a great series like The Wire and assume they just need replicate that wall. But that’s not the solution at all. Instead, they should start by replicating the bricks.

Brilliant analogy, but not entirely accurate. Crafting self-contained episodes, or bricks, can be an effective deterrent to unmotivated narrative. However, replicating the chemical makeup of the bricks and understanding the fractal nature of those bricks within the wall would better serve writers and producers. Dramatica helps to identify those base components of narrative.

The key to combatting this problem of losing focus lies in knowing exactly what storyform a particular episodes or series of episodes is telling. There are so many story points within a single storyform–not including the 45 or so sequences hidden deep within the storyform–that a writer would find it rather difficult to maintain a story that felt “random” or “unmotivated”. As always, clarity in regards to intent–whether through character, plot, theme, or genre–keeps an audience engaged regardless of length.

Size doesn’t matter when the message is clear.

  1. Vince Gilligan is responsible for Breaking Bad, David Simon The Wire, and Beau Willimon House of Cards.  ↩

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want to become a master writer with Dramatica? Join the other novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who have taken our a Dramatica® Mentorship Program and accelerate the development of your own sense of story.

The Multiple Main Characters of Mystic River

Main Characters, like the people in real life they portray, find peace in their own personal way. Sometimes they achieve this resolution by means most would consider sad or even reprehensible. What happens when an Author's judgment on a Main Character's growth clashes with societal standards?

Something truly awesome.

Mystic River

In Dennis Lehane's novel Mystic River you have no less than three Main Characters who, by one form or another, manage to resolve their own personal issues. While it is a story of triumph for one of them, the other two find themselves at the end of a personal triumph. Regardless of whether or not their Overall Stories ended in Success, all three found their own version of peace.

Three Main Characters? The time restriction on a feature-film, typically two-and-a-half hours, makes it virtually impossible to completely explore three distinct storyforms. Novels, on the other hand, can do so with ease.

A storyform is a collection of four distinct perspectives, all focused on the same central inequity. The Main Character clues us in on what it feels like to have the problem, the Influence Character lets us know it is like for someone else to experience that problem, the Relationship Story allows us to feel what it is like when we have the problem, and the Overall Story examines how all the players deal with the problem. By definition then, Main Characters with distinct personal issues require their own storyform. The Overall Stories of those different storyforms may overlap and share thematic material (as they do in Mystic River), but the personal nature of the Main Character's Throughline almost demand their own collection of story points.

Understand that while this article contains images from the film version of Mystic River, the film itself fails to explore each story to completion.

For once, we're focusing on the novel.

Sean Devine

Detective Sean Devine reconciles with his wife.

Detective Sean Devine reconciles with his wife.

Sean's personal problems stem from his estranged relationship with his wife Lauren and his daughter, Nora. Having successfully identified the person behind Katie's murder, Sean (Kevin Bacon in the film) calls up his wife and makes amends. They attend a parade together at the end of the story:

He loved his wife then as deeply as he ever had, and he felt humbled by her ability to convey instant kinship with lost souls. He was sure then that it was he who had wronged their marriage with the emergence of his cop's ego, his gradual contempt for the flaws and frailty of people. He reached out and touched Lauren's cheek…

Sean's story is one of triumph—he solves the murder and resolves his personal issues (Overall Story Outcome of Success, Story Judgment of Good). But what about the other Main Characters?

Dave Boyle

Sad sack Dave Boyle finds peace at the bottom of a river.

Sad sack Dave Boyle finds peace at the bottom of a river.

Sad sack Dave (Tim Robbins in the film), a victim of child molestation, finds his peaceful resolution at the banks of the Mystic, a place where Jimmy says:

"We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean."

What Jimmy refers to here is his intention to kill Dave, thinking him responsible for his daughter's death. The truth, unfortunately, is that Dave had nothing to do with Katie's murder; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jimmy doesn't believe him, and shows his disbelief by running a knife through Dave's gut. Dave falls to his knees as Jimmy pulls out a gun and aims it at his childhood friend. Unwilling to die just yet, Dave pleads for mercy.

Jimmy lowers his gun.

"Thank you," Dave said. "Thank you, thank you." Dave lay back and saw the shafts of light streaming across the bridge, cutting through the black of the night, glowing. "Thank you, Jimmy. I'm going to be a good man now. You've taught me something. You have. And I'll tell you what that something is as soon as I've caught by breath. I'm going to be a good father. I'm going to be a good husband. I promise. I swear…"

Dave finds peace as he bleeds out. In contrast to Sean's story, Dave's is one of personal triumph. While he was able to overcome the deep-seeded issues he developed as a result of his childhood trauma, he was unable to avoid some sort of retribution for the crime he really did commit. He failed to avoid the consequence of killing a child molester in the same parking lot where Katie was killed. A bittersweet ending that helps to color the "happy ending" Sean's story received

Jimmy Markum

Jimmy Markum feels alright.

Jimmy Markum feels alright.

Perhaps the most chilling resolve lies in the heart of Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn in the film). Having just found out Katie's true killer (albeit too late for Dave), Jimmy finds himself faced with the revelation that he killed an innocent man. How does he respond?

He was evil? So be it. He could live with it because he had love in his heart and he had certainty. As trade-offs went, it wasn't half bad. He got dressed. He walked through the kitchen feeling like the man he'd been pretending to be all these years had just gone down the drain in the bathroom. He could hear his daughters shrieking and laughing, probably getting licked to death by Val's cat, and he thought, Man, that's a beautiful sound.

By most standards, Jimmy's attitude is reprehensible. How could anyone find peace when they're guilty of such a crime? The truth is we know people like this, and may even be a bit guilty of the same sort of justification (hopefully with less deadly consequences). A peaceful resolution does not have to be something with which an audience agrees with. Sometimes bad people get away with bad things and feel OK about it. Jimmy is one of those people.

He didn't get the revenge he was working so hard for, but he's OK with that. He can live with himself because he has love.

A Complicated Peace

The peaceful resolution to a Main Character's personal issues does not have to be a black and white issue. Proving that the end result of a Main Character's arc was a good thing does not have to be something that we as an audience actually feel good about. The Author is in charge here, not the audience.

Whether you're talking about Sean, Dave, or Jimmy, all three Main Characters manage to resolve their own personal problems. While Sean's is the closest to a happy ending, Dave and Jimmy's stories have that bittersweet feeling that is unfortunately more true-to-life. The end result is something closer to truth.

What gives this story its feeling of delicious intricacy, of being that much more like real life, is the degree to which these peaceful resolutions are found. Our moral appreciation of the ends towards achieving those means, if in discord with the Author's original intent, gives a piece of fiction that feeling of meaningful complexity. Neither technique, whether subtle or complex, is better than the other. Some Authors prefer to give their audiences something more.

Dennis Lehane is one of those authors.

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. The Dramatica® Beginner's Workshop returns this March 19-20. Develop your story sense while learning this revolutionary theory! Learn more about this workshop.

Story Analysis: The Revenant
February 2016

Spoiler Alert --Brilliant filmmaking with an almost-story, The Revenant is a gritty experience of one man's will to survive-and seek revenge. The last point is important as it does seem the Author's intent is to say something deeply meaningful about revenge and leaving judgment up to the rushing waters of God. Unfortunately the narrative supporting that notion lacks certain key elements resulting in the argument proving that meaning less persuasive as it could have been.

Hugh Glass (Leonardo diCaprio) is driven by the will to survive and gives us a firsthand experience of what it's like to put off one's own death (Main Character Problem of Pursuit, Main Character Issue of Delay). Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) gives us the alternative perspective with his no-frills frontier attitude of doing what is prudent and reasonable (Influence Character Drive of Logic and Influence Character Domain of Fixed Attitude). And the Overall Story of selling pelts, stealing pelts, killing natives, raping natives, and exacting revenge all cover the third Throughline neatly (Overall Story Throughline of Activity, Overall Story Concern of Obtaining).

But it is the fourth Throughline-the Relationship between the Main and Influence Character-that goes unaccounted for. Sure, there is the potential in Glass and Fitzgerald's first scenes together and yes, they do conclude it nicely-but the in-between parts-that's where the hole in the argument is found.

This missing part also explains why the film lacks a certain amount of heart. All the grit and struggle and determination is captivating and masterful-but without the heart, it tends to get a bit monotonous in the middle. There are attempts to alleviate this with Glass' dreams of his wife and of ruined churches and piles of skulls. And these work quite nicely to supply that Relationship Story Problem of Conscience that a complete argument would require. But without their anchor in a relationship between Fitzgerald and Glass, these scenes ultimately end up far less effective than they need to be.

It is nice that Fitzgerald offers up that Relationship Story Solution of Temptation during their final battle-and almost fulfilling when Glass both Avoids killing and leaving revenge up to God (Main Character Solution of Avoid and Relationship Story Problem of Conscience). But it feels like overhearing the end of a debate or an argument when you haven't heard the two hours of back and forth that came before. It is the right conclusion for the dramatics put in place, but unfortunately lands weaker due to the argument's underdeveloped nature.

Make no mistake-The Revenant is a film you won't want to miss and one that will definitely earn several Oscars this year. However, if you're looking for a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling story you might leave the theater feeling a bit cheated. This is a tale of survival and revenge, not a story of survival and revenge.

The presence of a solid storyform usually predicts whether or not an Audience member will want to see a movie again; the idea resting in the notion that stories offer us an insight into problem solving we can't find in real life. The Revenant is that rare beast that transcends story to offer an experience unlike any other. Even a site "where story is king" appreciates and applauds this monumental effort.

This article originally appeared on Narrative First—fine suppliers of expert story advice. Want your next pitch or draft to be so well received it doesn't incur a single note? Join our track record of proven success by hiring a Dramatica® Guru.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

How many times have you seen it? Is that desire to see it again simply a matter of decades-old nostalgia or could it be the film possesses a quality that differentiates the timeless from the forgotten? Closer examination reveals the latter; The Force Awakens contains a solid storyform at its center.

Every complete story consists of four major Throughlines: a Main Character, an Influence Character to challenge the Main, a Relationship Story Throughline between the two, and finally an Overall Story Throughline for all the characters–Main and Influence included–to experience.


At first glance, one may see Rey (Daisy Ridley) at the center of the narrative. While she takes on the responsibility for driving the plot forward, this comes as a result of her objective function as Protagonist in the Overall Story, not as the subjective means for an Audience to enter the story. Certainly there are moments personal only to her–the nightmare visions the strongest example–yet these brief moments act merely as the first Act to a Throughline that most likely will span the entire trilogy. Instead, we look to FN–2817–or Finn (John Boyega)–as our Main Character perspective for this story.

Finn’s Throughline begins the moment he lowers his blaster and refuses to fire into the crowd of innocent villagers. “I wasn’t going to kill for them,” he explains later–a justification signaling his Main Character Problem: Support. Everywhere he goes he runs into conflict stemming from this Problem. Cries of “Traitor!” arise from the perception that he–a soldier from birth (Main Character Throughline of Situation)–has switched allegiances.

Yet Finn’s problem is not that he won’t fight for the First Order, it is that he refuses to stand for anything–a lack of Support if you will. Other dynamics within the narrative then give Finn a Main Character Symptom of Pursuit and a Main Character Response of Avoid. Main Characters are aware of their Symptoms and think this is where their problem lies. Finn believes his problem is that the First Order will pursue him from one end of the galaxy to the next and thus–as Moz points out later–responds by running away (Avoiding).

MC Problem Quad for The Force Awakens
MC Problem Quad for The Force Awakens

The only way Finn can truly resolve his personal problems is to Oppose something. He needs to stand against something and refuse to accept the status quo. This complete change of character (Main Character Resolve Changed) comes when he gleefully stands up to his former boss and tells her, “I’m in charge now, Phasma. I’m in charge!” Employing his Main Character Solution resolves his personal Throughline and quite literally opens up the way for the Overall Story to end in success.

Like the disdain shown for Finn but on a global level, the First Order’s hatred of the Republic stems from the deep-seeded belief that the Republic supports the Resistance. Only traitors and murderers would stoop that low (Overall Story Problem of Support). Add to that the lack of support from a certain individual who sits on the sidelines of the Galaxy and you have a narrative primed for conflict.

OS Problem Quad for The Force Awakens
OS Problem Quad for The Force Awakens

Luke Skywalker is missing. Our very first Story Point in the film signifies the inequity of the story and fuels everything that comes after. If Luke simply stepped forward and stood up to the evil forces awakening, none of what followed would have happened. This is how meaningful narrative works: The personal conflict experienced subjectively by the Main Character is repeated objectively in the larger Overall Story. Juxtaposing both points of view grants an audience insight into resolving problems they can’t experience in real life.

And that’s why you want to see the film again. Why you want to see any great film again. You are gaining an understanding impossible to appreciate in your day-to-day life. Wrap it up in an entertaining package and you have the recipe for massive success.

With the forces of evil growing in power, Finding Luke becomes the Overall Story Goal, forcing the Story Consequence of failing into Changing One’s Nature–in this case, transforming the face of the Galaxy to one ruled by the wicked First Order. Overall Story Issues of Attitude come into play–signified by Po’s cocky demeanor with Kylo Ren (Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver respectively) and Han Solo’s brazen attitude towards his debtors (Harrison Ford).

As mentioned previously, Finn’s change of character paves the way for the overall story to end in success: they find Luke (Story Outcome of Success). Without Finn’s Change the Resistance would not have been able to stand up against the First Order (Overall Story Solution of Oppose). Whether or not Finn’s change resolved his personal angst is left to be seen–though it is clear the implication is that his actions were a Good thing (Story Judgment of Good).

Rey will eventually be the one to bring balance back to the Force, but for now–in order to bring balance to this storyform–she would have to impact those around her with her fixed attitude, a longing for someone unseen, a hope eagerly anticipated, and a drive for doing the right thing (Influence Character Domain of Fixed Attitude, Influence Character Concern of Innermost Desires, Influence Character Issue of Hope, and an Influence Character Problem of Conscience). Choosing to forgo the bountiful portions in lieu of selling her droid is less a “Save the Cat” moment and more a perfect application of the Influence Character’s Problem of Conscience. Rey easily exhibits all of the above thematics for her Throughline–which explains why she is the perfect foil for Finn and why he seems so astounded when she is able to take care of herself.

If you were to write your own story with a character just like Finn, Dramatica would suggest to you a character just like Rey. Whether it was writer’s intuition (a good bet considering Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and J.J. Abrams’s body of work) or whether it was the result of working with the application, Rey balances Finn’s point-of-view on every point. Her Steadfastness motivates Finn’s eventual Change.

Lastly there is the matter of the Relationship Story between Rey and Finn. Here too the writers chose storytelling elements that perfectly encapsulate the thematics needed to round out and complete the narrative.

With a Main Character like Finn, an Influence Character like Rey, and an Overall Story revolving around the First Order, the Republic and Luke’s absence–you would need a relationship between Rey and Finn that started out one way and then morphed into something completely new. Growing from a convenient partnership (“You’re a pilot?!”) to lifelong friends satisfies several key story points within the Relationship Story Throughline.

MC Problem Quad for The Force Awakens
MC Problem Quad for The Force Awakens

By growing into a new kind of relationship they answer the Relationship Story Concern of Changing One’s Nature as the nature of their relationship changes. Obligating themselves to each other (“They think you’re with me”) initiates the conflict in their relationship and eventually grows into the two of them standing by each other in the face of ultimate evil (Relationship Story Issue of Obligation). But at the heart of their relationship lies their Relationship Story Problem: Logic. Their relationship is a matter of convenience at first: Fin needs a pilot and Rey needs a gunner. Eventually it grows into something more meaningful and something more deeply felt–this is where the Relationship Story Solution of Feeling comes into play and how their relationship eventually grows into a lasting friendship. “I’ll see you soon, my friend.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more than a cultural phenomenon: it is the continuation of a legacy of great storytelling that began in the 70s,died out in the late 90s, and finally came back in 2015. There is more to the film than familiar faces, recognizable sound effects, and similar situations. The Force Awakens is a complete story, balancing out the four key Throughlines in such a way that the Aidience leaves with a greater understanding of how to successfully resolve certain problems. Anyone wishing to repeat this same kind of success would do well to discover the storyform for their work, and endeavor to fill it with the same sort of life and love.

Final Storyform Settings

Main Character Resolve: Changed, Main Character Growth: Stop, Main Character Approach: Do-er, Main Character Problem-Solving Style: Linear, Story Driver: Action, Story Limit: Optionlock, Story Outcome: Success, Overall Story Throughline: Activity, Overall Story Concern: Obtaining, Overall Story Issue: Attitude, Overall Story Problem: Support

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