James Hull Articles: Archive V

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 Inciting Incident of Star Wars

What starts a story? Is it the moment when the Hero receives his Call to Adventure? If one believes stories are transformational journeys of legend, then the answer would be yes. Everything before can simply be thrown out.

But what about those who see stories as powerful analogies to our own minds trying to solve a problem? If true, then a story begins when the problem itself begins – when the inequity, or sense of separateness, introduces itself. In this case, relying on a mythical heralding would prove to be more of a fool's journey than that of a Hero.

Help Me, Obi Wan

Recently there was discussion concerning the moment when the story of Star Wars actually begins. Is it when Luke hears R2-D2's message for the first time or is it when Darth Vader boards Princess Leia's ship? The argument put forth by those who maintain the former suggest that everything prior to the Princess's plea for help was simply set-up for what was to come. In other words, one could conceivably move from the opening crawl directly to the droid's message and the story would essentially play out the same.

At a glance, this line of thinking reads as reasonable. The journey really doesn't begin until the Hero has had a chance to refuse the call, so clearly starting at this point would have no effect on the story's ensuing plot points.

Yet it would have a tremendous effect on what the story actually means.

Stories as Models of Problem-Solving

The other side argues that the Empire's illegal boarding of a diplomatic ship begins the story's investigation into a process known as problem-solving. They see that opening event as an essential component to a holistic understanding of what Star Wars is really all about. Remove it, and the rest of the film simply becomes sci-fi eye-candy. Why?

The Empire's aggression in those opening scenes has a meaningful connection to what is going on inside of Luke personally.

A Different Point-of-View

The reason you need that beginning section with the Empire boarding the diplomatic ship lies in the fact that Star Wars is looking both objectively and subjectively at the problems incurred by seeing what one can get away with. Objectively you see it within an Empire pushing the boundaries of their imminent domain. Subjectively you see it in Luke constantly testing his mettle against alien and human opponents alike.

Take that opening section out and you only get to see the problem from one point-of-view. By now everyone knows how important it is to see every side of a story when it comes to really understanding what is going on.

It's no different in actual stories.

Structural Assumptions

As discussed previously in Not Everything is a Hero's Journey and noted in The Death Rattle of the Hero's Journey, Campbell's take on the components of story leaves much to question. The same holds true for Blake Snyder's popular paradigm (see Forget the Cat, Save Yourself!). Unfortunately, these paradigms have become so entrenched that they lead many to misconstrue the importance and relative unimportance of many story events.

The reason many believe the story doesn't start until Luke meets R2 is because they're focusing too much on the central character's journey. Whether by Campbell or by Snyder they see story as an arc of one, rather than a sophisticated analogy for the mind's problem-solving process. Thus to them, nothing really happens until the Protagonist receives his calling.

But is this really when problems begin?

The Beginning of Inequity

The Empire boarding a diplomatic ship is not a continuation of the norm. It is not backdrop or backstory. It is an acceleration of aggression and is depicted as such within the film:

  • "When they hear you've attacked a diplomatic–" and
  • "Holding her is dangerous. If word of this gets out…"

This aggression is something new – a sea change that affects everyone within the story. The Inciting Incident of a story creates the inequity, the Closing Event resolves it. The Empire's act of aggression creates the inequity. Showing the Empire what happens when you push to far (blowing up the Death Star) ends it.

If Luke hearing the message begins the inequity of the story, what is the inequity exactly? What decisions does it force? If the inequity is that now this farmer boy has the plans, then it would follow that this inequity would be resolved when the Rebels have them. But it isn't. Luke hearing the message and the Death Star blowing up are not the starting and stopping points of an inequity. They don't connect. Objectively, the idea of exploring one's reach would no longer apply in any meaningful way.

Stories as Insight

Luke had little issue believing in the Force. He wasn't skeptical like Han or ambivalent about it like 3PO. Rather (as shown in The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker), his problems came as a result of him constantly testing himself, matching his abilities against Sand People, against Han, and ultimately against the Empire itself.

These personal problems naturally coincide with the larger picture story of a ruling body testing itself against its citizens - testing the limits of its authority and testing the limits of its newest weapon. Objective and subjective points-of-view mix together in one coherent piece, thus providing the audience with a unique insight into the problems they face and how best to go about solving them.

This is why stories exist.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The Inciting Incident – or what Dramatica refers to as the first Story Driver – happens when the Empire illegally boards a diplomatic ship. This event reveals the Empire's now impossible-to-hide ruthlessness and forces Leia to make a decision regarding what to do with those plans. It is not simply backgrop as it creates the inequity that motivates the Princess to send the plans to the Old Jedi Knight (in the hope, again, of possibly finding a new way to fight this war).

Instead, that meeting of R2 and Luke can be seen as the first time the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines collide. Upon hearing that message, the farmboy who dreams of excitement in space assumes his role as the Protagonist of the story. Prior to that, he simply provided the Main Character point-of-view.

This article originally appeared March 17, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. It is first in a series on Conflict. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Protagonist and Antagonist: Beyond Hero and Villain

Every writer knows they need them. Successful stories always seem to feature heroic good guys locked in glorious dramatic battle with villainous bad guys. Leave these key characters out and a writer rightfully risks losing his or her audience. Why they need them, however, has always been a foregone conclusion.

Until now.

For too long the concepts of Protagonist and Antagonist have lingered within a soup of mutually agreed upon lies. Lies that lead to worthless advice such as The audience must feel for the Protagonist or The Villain shall be so powerful that he takes the Protagonist to the end of their very end. Romantic advice, to be sure, but advice that ultimately doesn't say anything useful or worse, universal.

Instead, writers should think of these two characters from an objective perspective. Consider their functional purpose within a story rather than their emotional status within the hearts of the Audience. Only by removing oneself from a subjective appreciation of these characters can an Author ensure that their story operates both soundly and effectively.

Further exploration into the objective functions of Protagonist and Antagonist begins with the single story point they both revolve around: the Story Goal.

Defining the Goal of a story

When thinking objectively, the Story Goal is not what the Protagonist wants or needs. Characters do not maintain separate Story Goals based on their personal motivations. The correct way to think of a Story Goal is to envision it as the central focal point by which all the characters in a story orbit around and provide perspective on.

It all begins with the initial event or decision that creates the story's problem. A chasm opens up and an effort begins to take shape – one with the sole purpose of resolving that inequity. The Story Goal represents that final step in the resolution process. Complete it and the characters have resolution. Leave it open and the problem persists far beyond the walls of the story.

This Goal then becomes a concern to everyone in the story. It is not simply the Protagonist's Goal or an individual Goal of another character, but rather the Goal of focus for the entire cast. It is an objective goal.

Development of a story point

There are some who will be for this resolution and some who will not. Those who are for the successful completion of these efforts are Pro- goal (as in Protagonist). They are for the resolution of the inequity. Those who are against resolution should be Con goal, but unfortunately the suffix Ant (as in Antagonist) has been used so often and absorbed so strongly into the communal bloodstream of working writers that a much needed correction at this date seems beyond hope. Thus, Antagonist it is for those opposed to resolution.

One for, one against.

Over time these archetypes have become less and less an identifier of purpose and more of a fancy-pants label for who the story is about or who the audience should care about.

Mean good guys, nice bad guys

Determining which character is for and which one is against proves to be an infinitely better approach than simply looking at who is a hero and who is a villain. Why?

Because sometimes the Protagonist isn't a nice person.

Tony Gilroy's thriller Michael Clayton provides a masterful example of shifting sympathies and weighing audience expectations. As covered in the article The True Definition of a Protagonist, Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is not the Protagonist. He certainly is the good guy, but he is neither for nor against the efforts to resolve uNorth's legal troubles – the true objective problem in the story.

Problems begin with Arthur's breakdown and end with Karen's (Tilda Swinton's) confession. Michael has his own take on the matter (a point-of-view essential to a Main Character), but he doesn't function in the way a Protagonist should.

Karen does.

Standing against her in the role of Antagonist? Why, that's Arthur (Tom Wilkinson). He stands in the way of Karen's success and works diligently to unravel any resolution she may find. He functions as an Antagonist, but he is portrayed sympathetically. He's one of the good guys. When it comes to looking at these character objectively – the way one should when taking in the larger context of a story – audience affiliation holds no higher ground.

Sometimes the good guy is for resolution, other times the good guy is not. Sometimes both Protagonist and Antagonist are good guys.

Take How to Train Your Dragon. Inequity strikes with the destruction of the village, creating with it the Story Goal of Training the Next Generation of Dragon Killers. One person works for this Goal, the other against it. Stoick, Hiccup's father, wants the young ones to learn how to take down the giant lizards. Hiccup works against that.

The one character everyone naturally assumes is the Protagonist – Hiccup – actually works as the Antagonist of the main story when seen objectively.

Protagonist and Antagonist mean so much more than simply who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. They have an important function to perform in regards to the unfolding process of problem-solving within a story. The Protagonist represents the side of the argument that is for the successful resolution. The Antagonist shows the side dead set against it.

A reason for conflict

This is why they clash. Not because one guy has God on his side or has a heart of gold or because the other guy embraces dark forces and hates kittens. They clash because of their individual motivations in regards to the Story Goal:

  • The Protagonist pursues the Story Goal and considers the value of doing so.
  • The Antagonist prevents the Story Goal and forces others to reconsider what it is they are doing.

These motivations stay rock solid throughout the entire story. They must because again, we are looking at them in terms of their objective function. Objectivity does not include the subjective notions of change and emotional catharsis. Stories need both objective and subjective less you risk Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

A purpose behind the labels

Writers need Protagonist and an Antagonist in order to successfully prove that what they're saying is true. Arguments only succeed when all points counter have been accounted for. If a writer illustrates the efforts to solve a problem, they need to equally illustrate the efforts to prevent it.

Only then will the Audience buy in to what the writer is saying.

Protagonist and Antagonist did not come into existence in order to establish who an Audience should root for or who should be rallied against. Rather, they developed naturally as two opposing forces arguing the logical half of a story's argument. Seeing them in this light solidifies their purpose within a work and allows a writer to confidently and consistently craft meaningful stories.

This article originally appeared April 27, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Change Your Character Doesn't Need

Everyone knows the clever adage about what happens when you assume something about someone. But what of those moments when an Author assumes something about writing? Do they make an ass out of their story as well as themselves?

You betcha.

The Need for Need

Often times, when one reads about story or structure, they come across the juxtaposition of what a Main Character wants versus what he or she truly needs. The implication lies in the idea that, in order to acquire true happiness, the central character must fundamentally change because what they think they need really isn't what they really need. They lack some key ingredient. Supposedly the purpose of story lies in teaching this character that missing piece.

Thus begins the first trappings of assumption and storytelling.

The word need comes packed with such an abundancy of subjective interpretation that it muddles the full potential of story. Must an Author always argue for the positive effects of change? Making an argument for need suggests as much.

Luke Skywalker needs to let go and use the Force. Mr. Andersen needs to believe that he is Neo. This idea of need assumes a happy and pleasant outcome. But what of Hamlet or Lawrence of Arabia? The great Dane thought too much. Did he need to stop mulling things over and finally take action? Where did that get him?

And what of Lawrence? He refused to accept the inevitable and it led to greater and greater problems for him. Did he thus need to give up and accept the way things are? That was, after all, the only way for him to move forward. And how exactly did that work out for him?

The Call for Learning

Coinciding with this compulsion for want vs. need lies the question What does this character learn? Such a query works nominally for stories like Star Wars or The Matrix where greater understanding leads to positive resolution. However, in the case of masterworks like Hamlet and Lawrence of Arabia, the question rings meaningless and borders on the absurd. Hamlet doesn't learn anything.

But we do.

The Objective View of Story

Stories do not exist as tools for characters to grow and develop, characters grow and develop as parts of an elaborate argument made by the Author to the Audience. This way of thinking of story works in all cases, from Star Wars to Hamlet, from Star Trek to The Godfather. Thus, it doesn't matter what Luke or Hamlet or Kirk or Michael learn, what matters is that we the Audience fully appreciate what argument the Author makes to us.

Stop testing yourself all the time and start trusting in something else instead and you'll triumph. Star Wars makes this argument, makes it rather successfully, and Audiences return in droves to learn it again and again. Stop doubting who you are and start believing in yourself and you'll triumph as well. The Matrix makes this argument and again, found a tremendous audience willing to hear it.

Replace overthinking with what you know to be true and all will end in tragedy. Hamlet argues this inevitable and depressing end, but does so with such sophistication that it repeatedly finds an Audience generation after generation. Lawrence takes the sophistication one step further by contrasting the positive effects of tolerance in the larger sense with the negative aspects of submission within a smaller, more personal perspective.

In every instance, the Author uses character, plot, theme and genre to posit an argument in regards to solving problems.

Tempering Tragedy

In Isao Takahata's 1988 masterpiece Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies), Main Character Seita comes to a tragic and heartbreaking end: after failing to adequately take care of his little sister during the waning days of World War II, he simply gives up living and allows himself to waste away.

Up until that moment, ninth-grader Seita works incessantly to keep alive the fantasy of his father returning from sea. This unwaning drive propels him into all sorts of trouble, the least of which involves taking care of his little sister all by himself.

Accepting the end then becomes his only possible solution. He doesn't need to do this, he just does so because of the influence of his close relationship with his sister.

The argument Takahata makes breaks one's heart and in the final analysis rests dark and nihilistic. The struggle to persist can only be resolved by accepting the end, resulting in a sad and lonely death.

Depressing, right?

This is why he felt the need to temper this rather dreadful argument with the bittersweet ghost sequence between Seita and his sister. Without these sparse and otherwise hopeful interludes to counter-balance the inevitability of death portrayed in life, the film would have sat even heavier on the hearts of those in the Audience. By bringing light so quickly after successfully arguing the persistence of dark, Takahata makes a case for something far beyond this existence, elevating the experience beyond mere cartoon.

Stories as Arguments

Stories can be told without need and therefore without the prejudice of positivity. Solutions can turn out to be destructive. In the case of both Hamlet and Lawrence, what they needed to resolve their problems turned out to be something they really didn't need at all.

Authors should toss aside this notion of what a character wants versus what he or she needs and instead focus on what the Audience ultimately wants and needs: a powerful, effective and meaningful argument. Anything less simply makes...well, you know.

This article originally appeared August 21th, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Starlight and Character Arc

Why is it characters cannot see their own problems? Simple logic suggests that if a character knew the source of his or her own troubles they would employ the necessary solution and move on. Countless narratives, it would seem then, thrive on a character's lack of awareness.

How can that be?

They have the motivation. They have the moxie. They do everything they can to overcome their personal trouble, but still they continue to fail. Do they all simply lack the intelligence necessary to succeed?

No. They suffer because they continuously look in the wrong place.

(Editor's Note: This article contains spoilers to quite possibly one of the greatest films of all time. If you have not seen "A Separation" please do so BEFORE reading any further...you'll thank me later!)

The External Universe

Like the universe we inhabit, our minds exhibit a natural curvature in context of spatiality. Packed with neural networks hosting years and years of justifications built upon justifications, our minds tend to warp our perception of problems and how best to solve them. Narratives provide us an opportunity to step outside of this system and appreciate the truth.

An example of this local curvature in the external world can be found in the diagram below:

Gravity distorts the light from a star

(Image Copyright David Jarvis -  http://davidjarvis.ca/dave/gallery/)

Dense and heavy objects like the Sun cause large amounts of curvature in space. Insert a large-enough mass into the equation and starlight itself bends. In the above diagram, an observer on Earth perceives the star to be in one place, when in reality its true location lies far far away.

The same happens within the human mind, and by extension, the mind of a story.

The Internal Universe

Replace the hot blazing sphere of plasma and magnetic fields with the weight of inequity born of justification and suddenly internal perceptions warp and bend. If only I could control my cravings for chocolate more, then I would lose all this weight, or If only I could block out all the temptations this world provided, then I could stay faithful to my spouse. Warped starlight prevents the people hampered by these thoughts from truly moving on, from resolving their issues and extinguishing that internal Sun forever.

Perhaps the person troubled by chocolate suffers from some emptiness inside, some deep emotional issue they have avoided for far too long. The treat fills that hole, but only temporarily. It seems like the right response, but really only acts as a panacea. Same with the person struck with the pangs of wanton deceit and betrayal. They may have spent years suffering under the delusion that they actually cared for this other person when in reality, their love was a lie.

In both cases, the appreciation of the true star's location reveals a solution. Pursue that childhood issue with therapy and without hesitation. Doubt feelings that were never there and let loose the bonds of conscience.

The problem concerns the size of that Sun and whether or not the observer gains greater perspective.

Narratives at Work

In Star Wars, Luke focuses so much of his time and energy on how long he'll have to do things (stay on Tatooine, Jedi training) that he completely misses the real source of his troubles: his constant need to test himself (for more, see this video exploration of Luke's character arc). In A Separation, Nader (Peyman Moadi) concentrates so much of his energy on proving his own innocence that he completely fails to see the effect his actions have on his 11-year old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).

Both of these stories -- like all effective narrative -- offer their respective Main Characters the opportunity to see the true "light" of trouble in their lives. This revelation, or unmasking of the central character's blind spot, speaks to the purpose of story. Lining up their final decision to solve this problem or not with the eventual consequences of their choice helps lay the foundation for the story's central argument. Change and character growth thus, becomes an important part of better understanding the universe of story (see Change Your Character Doesn't Need).

In Star Wars, Luke learns to trust in something external effectively negating any problems he had with testing himself internally. He recognized what was really going on and took advantage. The blinding explosion and shiny medal provided after only affirmed the rightness of his decision.

In A Separation, Nader received no award. A man so driven to assign blame could only end up in a dark and unresolved place. The solution radiated so clearly in the worried eyes of his daughter, yet went unnoticed at the hands of his personal mission and obsession. Isolated and alone in the chaotic courtroom halls of Iran, Nader could only sit and wait for a decision that had one result: tragedy.

Applying Science to Story

In appreciating this analogy of universe to narrative, writers gain the opportunity to correctly identify the problems of character within their story and craft meaningful alternatives to simply "going with the flow."

We have only our minds to appreciate the meaning of story. For a story to truly be effective then it must honor the mind's problem-solving process. It must provide the appropriate "Sun" of justification for its characters and warp their perceptions of what is truly needed to resolve the issues in their lives.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Dramatica makes the distinction between the two "stars" with its concepts of Problem and Symptom. The Symptom (whether it be the Main Character Symptom, Overall Story Symptom, Influence Character Symptom or Relationship Story Symptom) appears to be the source of trouble. The real source, however, lies in the actual Problem of the appropriate Throughline.

This article originally appeared August 29th, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

The Goal of Every Story, The Goal of Every Author

When tragedy strikes, protagonists leap into action. Battling the forces of antagonism and facing deep-seeded justifications, the central character of any story climbs from one treacherous Act to the next, their eyes transfixed on the prize. But what meaning does this intense area of focus hold?

Why is it so important to understand?

The Story Goal marks the promise of accomplishment. Having experienced disruption at the hands of the Inciting Incident (or first Story Driver), the characters set out in the hopes of acquiring the Story Goal. Whether this involves a physical tangible reward or one that sits at the edge of consciousness matters little when compared to its potential for peace. The Story Goal represents closure.

Fighting, killing, and stealing. Treachery, deceit and manipulation. Incarceration, slavery and poverty. Prejudice, hysteria and racism. Four major sets of problems, four avenues for a cast to travel. How to determine which path to take? Identify the type of problem the characters face and the answer presents itself.

Separating structure and content

This series on Goals took great effort to detail the distinction between the structural conceit of a Story Goal and the actual nature of that Goal. In the past, cursory examinations of story structure revealed both to be one and the same – or worse, made no mention of the second.

Splitting the two apart opens up greater understanding. Greater understanding leads to smoother, more productive story meetings.

The desire for resolution spawns the drive to achieve – a universal truth that finds itself both within story and without, owing existence to the very function of human cognition. This undeniable reality of the mind's problem-solving process explains the structural reason for a Story goal. More than simply a tendril stemming from the central character's want or need, this final finish line represents new balance.

The exact nature of this equilibrium, however, sits separate from the process itself.

The goal of the obvious

Drug a population with images meant to confuse and pre-occupy and one can expect the dormant to rise up and fight – as they did in The Matrix. Murder and extort and one can expect the victims to strike back, demanding hasty removal – as they did in L.A. Confidential.

The easily-understood Story Goal looks at achieving an achievement. Take down the Matrix. Stop corruption in Los Angeles. Steal the treasure of the Sierra Madre and exact revenge on a couple of no-good cowpokes (Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Unforgiven respectively). Inciting Incidents that create problematic activities require an activity of resolution.

But achievement only accounts for one-fourth of the entirety of problematic activities. Consider Inception. Dom and company travel deep into dreamland not to arrive at some fantastic destination or to take down a team of bad guys, but rather endeavor to implant a misunderstanding into the mind of poor unsuspecting Fischer. That Goal works as something to be achieved, yet the nature of that goal calls for greater understanding.

Structure and content untwined.

As explained in Achieving Story Goals that are Not Achievements:

Goals in an of themselves are not achievements, yet they don't need to be about achievements."

Moving into the sublime

Stepping away from the obvious goals of achievement, one searches out resolution in a higher level of understanding (as in Inception above), a revelation of hidden information (as in The Lives of Others), and a better way of reporting the truth (Almost Famous). These stories, energized by challenging and unfair activities, find peace in better doing, greater understanding, and a simple transmitting of information. Activity begets activity.

But problems do not exist solely in the vacuum of physical exertion. As revealed in Overcoming Difficult Situations, Uprooting the Fixed Mindset, and Rearranging the Broken Psychology universal inequities can posess qualities foreign to those wary of complex theoretical story structures. Problems of the mind beget goals of further consideration and new ways of processing thought. Problems of station and incarceration beg for freedom and new arrangement. The type of problem determines the type of Goal.

Moving beyond the simple explanation accounts for every complete meaningful story – whether play, novel or film.

Why bother?

The inability of an Author to articulate exactly what their character wants or needs can absolutely trace its source back to an ignorance of the concepts discussed in this series on the Story Goal. Familiarity with these concepts eases the path to better storytelling and opens up the dialogue to include those put off by more traditional understandings of story. Why over-complicate what a character wants or needs? Because the mind itself – the very tool with which appreciates the meaning and essence of a story – functions with the very same complexity. Goals? A single human processes trillions. A single story only has to do it once.

The former can't do it wrong, the latter can. Honor the process of problem-solving and the Goal that naturally evolves from such a function and an Author can rest easy knowing they did it right the first time.

Rewrites thus becomes less a process of discovery and more a process of clarification. Meaningful purpose driving productive output.

Kinda sounds like a Story Goal every Author should have.

This article originally appeared June 10, 2012 on Jim's "Story Fanatic" website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

The Shawshank Analysis

Why is it we can't turn away when this film pops up during one of those weekend marathons? We've all seen it before, we know what's going to happen, yet we still delight in re-experiencing the struggle of these character to overcome overwhelming odds. Why is that?

Is it something spiritual? Something deep within us, a yearning for universal absolution the film provides? Or could it be something more Earthbound? Perhaps, something more closely tied to our own biology? One can't deny the Christ-like symbology in Andy's final gesture of triumph, yet why then does the film work for all regardless of belief?

A framework of problem-solving

Universal attraction transcends any notion of spirituality. Removing religious attribution or the belief in the cultural trappings of mythology in story allows one to see the real process behind great stories. Spirituality need not be discounted in the final analysis, but should not be seen as a requirement for great success.

The Shawshank Redemption both film and short story from which it came presents an incredibly well-crafted argument, a solid example of problem-solving in motion. To understand why this film works so well requires a understanding of story more holistic in nature, an understanding that appreciates the various perspectives at conflict and brings them together into one seamless and purposeful model of human psychology.

The emerging field of narrative science lifts the veil of mystery shrouding this film and begins to improve the quality of discussion surrounding what makes great stories so great.

Projections of our projections

Those still saddled with the prerequisite of spiritual or mythological motive see stories as a method for understanding who we are and how the world works. Their templates of innermost caves and helpless cats make sense as a means to appreciate ourselves and our human experience. Clear away the aforementioned baggage, however, and reality shines through: Stories employ a structure based on how we see and make sense of our world, not the other way around. In other words, stories exist as projections of how we problem-solve.

When one asks why the strong attraction to The Shawshank Redemption, the answer lies in how accurately the story projects the mind's own problem-solving process. Beginning with a clear delineation of perspective and ending with a meaningful dissonance of both subjective and objective appreciations, the story of Red and Andy works because it follows a system familiar to all of us.

Four major points-of-view

Problem-solving requires a problem. In Shawshank, one word stands out above all others as the source of trouble: support. Whether implicitly applied by simply going with the flow ("Yessir, I do believe I have been rehabilitated") or explicitly through the cheering on of "fresh fish", an application of support creates conflict.

The Shawshank Redemption presents four unique perspectives on this problem of towing the line. The first lies within Red, the only guilty man in Shawshank. From his point-of-view we get to experience what it is like to personally have this problem. We follow him into the parole-board hearings, we're there with him as this kid with the silver spoon up his ass arrives, and we experience the shock of disbelief when we discover what's really been going on in Andy's cell. We experience the story through Red's eyes.

But it is within those parole-board hearings that we truly experience the problem of supporting a system. Red's problem lies in his institutionalized way-of-thinking: he supports the system, believes it has helped him, and hat-in-hand tells everyone what he thinks they want to hear.

Of course, they continue to deny him until he finally begins to stand up for himself. Once he finally tells them to shove their assessment once he finally opposes the system the shackles of his problematic way-of-thinking clang to the ground and he leaves Shawshank a free man.

A prison for all

Stepping outside of Red and rising high into the air like that helicopter shot on the day Andy first arrives provides us with the story's second perspective. From here we begin to see the problems of support from an objective point-of-view. Red gave us that personal subjective perspective, looking at everyone dispassionately grants us distance and greater understanding.

An inmate's promise to be a friend to an overweight new arrival ends up in a brutal beating. The drive to support the educational development of the inmates leads to participation in and continuation of corruption. An agreement to be there for the wife-killing lawyer in the re-opening of his case,gets a young inmate shot for trying to "escape." Contrast these various perspectives on the problem of support with those experienced through Red and one begins to gain a better appreciation of why stories draw us in.

Red stands up for himself because that was what was needed to overcome his personal problem. But how can we be sure of this solution without first seeing how it works within others? From an objective point-of-view we can see that the same solution applies. Andy's defiance with his broadcast of The Marriage of Figaro gifts freedom to the inmates of Shawshank; for a moment, they were all free. His final act of opposition to the Warden's efforts of indoctrination furthers the viability of such a solution by showing it bringing down the walls of scandal within that prison.

Note the importance of these two views: as an Audience member we get to experience what it is like to have support as a problem while at the same time we witness problems of support for everyone.

That doesn't happen in real life.

More on this later, but for now more investigation. These two perspectives while comprehensive in their exploration of the problem fall short of telling the whole story.

An opposition towards justification

In order for Red to grow to the point where he can stand up for himself he needs to encounter a different point-of-view. One similar in scope to his own (small, intimate), yet presented in a fashion similar to the objective view explained above.

Andy himself provides that needed third perspective. Interestingly enough, however, from this point-of-view a problem of support looks more like a problem of control. Whenever someone tries to clamp down on Andy's activities or when he attempts to control a situation it impacts Red. Even the way he carries himself, cold and aloof, hits Red in a way that leads the old-timer to question his own approach of towing the line.

This distinction, of how Andy's problem influences Red rather than how it effects Andy personally, defines the all-important third perspective of complete stories - the perspective of personal opposition.

Rounding it out with friendship

The most effective arguments stand on a firm ground of balanced perspective. Offer someone all the alternatives and your position will garnish greater acceptance by avoiding the trappings of a one-sided argument. The same concept applies to the different points-of-view within a story. Just as Red's intimate subjective perspective needed an intimate objective perspective to balance it out (Andy's point-of-view), the larger objective perspective of everyone colliding within the prison requires a smaller subjective perspective on the conflict of colliding viewpoints. In The Shawshank Redemption this point-of-view can be found in the friendship between Red and Andy.

From Red's point-of-view and the point-of-view of everyone trapped in the prison the problem of Shawshank appears to be an overabundance of support. From the point-of-view of Andy the problem looks like stifling control. However, from the point-of-view of the friendship between Red and Andy the problem looks like neither of these, preferring instead to appear as a failure to reconsider one's position.

"Hope is a dangerous thing," Red tells Andy, succinctly verbalizing the sticking point preventing these two from ever becoming friends. Andy sees the world differently, preferring the dream of Zihuatenejo over Red's cynical consideration. The heart of the story revolves around this inability of either to change their mind; the plight of their friendship resting on a simple decision:

"Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'."

The purpose of storytelling

These four distinct well-balanced perspectives exist for a reason. As mentioned before, the prison of our own minds prevents us from experiencing a subjective point-of-view at the same time we experience an objective point-of-view. We cannot simultaneously be inside of ourselves and out. Stories grant us this rare opportunity to see a problem resolved from all different points-of-view.

The Shawshank Redemption offers up the argument that standing up and speaking out brings triumph both universally and personally. The juxtaposition of this solution both from an objective view and a subjective view transcends a simple "message" into a concrete argument. Rounding it out with a look at the actions of a life steeped in control and the inability of two to come together without a second glance at preconceived notions solidifies the Author's position within the minds of the Audience.

As Stephen King writes in his fantastic memoir On Writing:

[Writing is] telepathy, of course...I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We're not even in the same year together, let alone the same room...except we are together. We're close. We're having a meeting of the minds.

An act of telepathy from writer to reader. An argument effectively crafted and transmitted to be received years later by an open and willing mind. This defines the purpose of story. To the extent a narrative mimics the psychological processes present within the minds of a reader or audience member determines a story's power and ultimate effectiveness.

By bringing together the various points-of-view one can consider when evaluating an argument against towing the line, The Shawshank Redemption succeeds in grasping our attention and commanding our acknowledgment of King's position. A purpose for fiction far outlasting mere entertainment or mythological trends...a purpose of simple communication...

A sharing. From one mind to another.

But wait, there's more!

For a comprehensive analysis and a continuation of the discussion above, be sure to check out the 2-hour (!) deep analysis class of The Shawshank Redemption on YouTube. Facilitated by the author of this blog, Jim Hull, the recorded class explores the model of psychology hinted at in the above article. Joined by story enthusiasts from around the world both online and off Jim uncovers the underlying meaning encoded within one of Stephen King's greatest stories.

This article originally appeared June 21, 2012 on Jim's "Story Fanatic" website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Distrust the Process

You hear it all the time. "Trust the process." "Story is hard." And the ultimate cop-out, "No one in Hollywood knows what they're doing." Each one of these excuses relies upon the belief that somehow story is this magical mysterious thing that can only be acquired through months of sweat and heartache.

It isn't.

The heart of a story – the actual meat hiding underneath the pomp and circumstance of 1080p HD and 7.2 channels of surround sound – has edges. It has form. And it can be readily acquired and understood provided the Authors have access to the right tools.

In the end, it comes down to a matter of focus.

Letting Writers Write

Typically, a discussion of trusting the process leads to an even more esoteric discussion surrounding "flow" and the creative process. Writers receive words of encouragement enabling them to journey forth without purpose and without design. Anything goes.

As a writer and working professional artist for several years I can tell you that I love this mindset. Why wouldn't I? That I should somehow become a vessel for the mighty Universe to create through…what singular ego would turn down such a magnificent opportunity?


Id run rampant. Toss in several more egos, perhaps a whole writing "team", and this highly touted process descends into a tangled morass of competing ideas with no real meaningful connection. Sure, occasionally this approach results in a gem. But for the most part constant guessing, missed opportunities and endless rabbit holes become the cornerstones of "letting yourself go."

There has to be a better way.

The Problem With Collaboration

Suggesting a plot point or character moment because you once had the same experience in 4th grade rarely improves a work of fiction. Collaborating with others who also insist on injecting their rose-colored elementary school life into a work in progress only compounds the error. How?

Quite simply, the singular vision triumphs over the trust-the-process crowd because there is one mind writing one story. The trust-the-process collaborators group thinks consist of several different minds each trying to boost their egos by putting their particular idea into the story.

But what if the idea has no place in the story? Could one even tell if the idea was trash before mixing its way into the process?

A story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Unless the team agrees ahead of time to adopt the same mindset, the end result will always be a mish-mash of incompatible psychologies. In short, the story will be schizophrenic.

Or even shorter – the story will suck.

This is why the films based on a singular vision (one writer/director) often turn out to be the most solid. One human mind writing one story mind. The trust-the-process collaboration group-think model consists of several different minds vying to satisfy their own egos. They compete to gain traction with their own ideas, regardless if those ideas even have a place within the story.

But how could one tell if an idea had a place within a story before the story was complete? Isn't that why you have to "trust" that everything will work out?

Focusing on Meaning

Complete stories model the mind's problem-solving process in regards to one problem. While hundreds upon thousands of problems exist, a truly holistic story only stops to consider one.

This singular problem cannot be described in words nor can it be expressed with a simple sentence. If that were possible, it would negate the need for story. Instead, aspects of character, plot, theme and genre work together in concert to approximate the problem (really the inequity) at the heart of a story. These story points surround the inequity and define it in order to provide a unique perspective.

If part of the story focuses on understanding, then the other areas of the story need to focus on what has happened in the past, on what is remembered, and on figuring out a way to better apply any new understandings. Likewise if the story focuses on what will be, other parts need to focus on achieving, on what is desired, and on the changes needed to reach that desired future.

All of these concerns work together. And while they offer different points-of-view, they all cover the same thematic ground. To mix and match would prove disastrous.

I've Got an Idea!

Toy Story 2 focuses on developing an appreciation for toys. Everyone in the story finds themselves concerned with this issue. Their focus lies in developing that understanding. The rest of the film matches that initial concern, thus insuring a complete and fulfilling story. Woody's concerns himself with issues of what once was. Jesse shares a similar concern, yet focuses more on the memories of what was lost. And together the two try to figure out where they best fit in.

Four major throughlines, four major areas of concern, all focused in the same thematic area.

Now what if instead, Jesse concerned herself with her love for horseback riding, or her unrequited love for the Old West? Ludicrous idea, right? Yet this is exactly the sort of incompatible thematic material brainstormed in story meetings time and time again.

The writer who might have suggested it can probably relate to such an instance, perhaps they've always loved Westerns and cowboy culture and can't wait to infuse their personal take on the genre into this film. But would the audience appreciate this new perspective? For that matter, would the story mind itself be able to appreciate it?

No. And that is why it is paramount that these areas of concern be solidified early on in the development process.

Starting with the End in Mind

More often than not, a project falters because of this misplaced trust in the Universe. Meaningless character moments and stilted sequences wedge themselves into a piece that simply has no place for them.

Trusting the process places trust in the human mind to keep perspectives consistent. Anyone who knows anything about human psychology will tell you that our minds are context-shifting machines. Changing perspective allows us to survive, granting us the ability to judge the landscape of our lives and the people and places we interact with and help us better assess a more reliable and profitable approach.

Leaving the context of a story up to a human mind is foolhardy at best. Leaving it up to the responsibility of several human minds, each with their own unique ego requiring massaging and fulfillment? A catastrophe set to doom the crews following up to many hours of wasted overtime.

Of course a writer needs to be allowed their moments of creative exploration. Those chance moments of divine inspiration? That's why many set out to write in the first place.

But if the end result remains producing something truly meaningful and ultimately powerful to an Audience, nailing down the singular mind of a story becomes job one. Once found, then and only then can a writer (or writers) feel free to "let themselves go", trusting that process that so many enjoy.

Doing Away with Magical Thinking

Story is not magic. It's not hard. It is not some rare talisman that can only be grasped during dream walks late at night. If story concerns itself with solving problems, then it only follows that a better understanding of how the human mind solves problems will lead to a better and more meaningful storytelling.

Breaking the area of concern breaks the mind of a story. Broken minds reveal themselves in fits of insanity. If you want an answer as to why many films as of late simply don't have great stories, this is why. Deluding oneself into believing that benevolent artistic forces guide writers down the path of success only robs Audiences of something truly moving. It robs writers of the opportunity to say exactly what it is they want to say with their work.

Madness. Both in the process and the result. A mental health disorder for writer and work.

This article originally appeared March 8, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Unlocking the Structural Code of the Story Goal

Stories that amble along needlessly often suffer from the lack of a clearly defined Goal. Without that drive towards resolution, a work of fiction can meander from one pointless scene to the next. Determining the source of difficulties guarantees clarity of purpose for any story.

In the article The True Champion of Chinatown, the Goal of the story was identified as Securing the Family History, with creepy tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston) at the helm. This rather wild notion runs counter to more popular understandings of the film. Many see Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) front and center, pursuing the Goal of revealing the Cross' family secret. This seems to be the most obvious understanding of the goal, yet as that article established, seeing Jake's goal as the goal of concern to everyone fails to take into account the differential between the objective and subjective views of the story. Still, it does seem unusual to think of the Goal of that L.A. story in terms of Cross.

For that matter, how come in this analysis of How to Train Your Dragon the Goal was identified as Training the Next Generation of Dragon Killers? Shouldn't it be to kill the big bad monster dragon? And if the Goal of The Matrix is to take down the Matrix itself, why isn't the Goal of Star Wars to blow up the Death Star? Aren't they the same story?

The answer to all of these questions lies within a better appreciation of the true genesis of a story.

In the Beginning there was balance

Here is how it works: Before story, balance exists. The world rests at peace. Something or someone interjects itself upon this serene scene, instantly creating an inequity. Sensing this new imbalance, our minds label the differential a problem and naturally begin the process of resolving that problem.

Problems don't exist in a vacuum. In fact, problems can't be problems without solutions. Achieving the solution to the story's inequity then becomes the Goal of the story.

Note that this Goal does not come attached to any one character. No one owns the Goal of a story, rather it attracts and repels everyone within. Some will be for it while others would rather the inequity persist. Some may even be responsible for starting the problem in the first place. Regardless, look not to individual wants and needs for the Goal of a story. Seek the initial inequity and work from there.

My kingdom for a solution!

In Chinatown, problems begin when Hollis refuses to build the new dam, thus screwing up Noah's plans for familial and urban reunification. Resolving that issue – an issue that affects everyone in the story – becomes job one for the man in the white hat.

Likewise in The Matrix, Morpheus places his faith in Mr. Andersen, screwing up the nice little gig Agent Smith and his band of human harvesters had going on. Balance becomes imbalance and resolution takes center stage. The Goal that grows out of this desire for resolution – Dismantle the Matrix – did not stem from someone's own personal wants or needs, but rather from the chasm of inequity created by that initial choice of simple Mr. Andersen.

In Star Wars, the imposing Empire overextends itself by boarding a diplomatic ship. In the past these overlords were simply annoying, now it seems they've crossed the line. Would blowing up the Death Star really resolve this inequity? Not really. The destruction of the Death Star only appears to be the Goal of the story because of the nature of Goals themselves.

When achieving the Goal is the Goal

Ask an Author the Goal of their story and they'll naturally reply So and so needs to win the heart of his loved one or The bandits need to find the lost treasure or The copy girl needs to secure more clients. Goals of achievement are easiest to identify (and thus easiest to write) because Goals themselves are achievements. A problem enters the character's lives and many of them set out to acquire the appropriate solution. That said, their motion towards this ending does not constitute what kind of resolution is needed. Do not confuse the particular type of a Goal with the concept of a Story Goal. The first defines the static nature of a structural point, the other defines the process undergone in getting there.

Goals of acquirement

So when it comes to a film like The Matrix, Dismantling the Matrix works as a natural Goal to resolve Morpheus' faith in Neo. Not only is the Goal something to be achieved but it's also about achieving. Think of this kind of goal as acquiring something or winning something or destroying something. The act of obtaining (or freeing) resolves the story's imbalance.

Braveheart, Unforgiven, Casablanca – all of these films share a similar kind of Goal. In Braveheart troubles begin when the King of England murders the sons and fathers of Scotland. Winning Freedom for Scotland returns balance to those involved. Same with Casablanca. Ugarte hands the Letters of Transit over to Rick and suddenly there is trouble for the great and noble Viktor Laszlo. Acquiring those Letters of Transit becomes the Goal of the Story, one that everyone shares concern with and one that naturally resolves the story's difficulties.

Unforgiven? Two cowpokes scar an innocent woman sparking a reward for revenge. Killing Anyone and Everyone Involved secures resolution for the inhabitants of Big Whiskey. Now, it does little to resolve the demons locked away in William Munny's head (in fact it has quite the opposite effect), but remember that the Goal of the Story is story-wide, it is not tied to the personal issues of any one character. It is objective and universal.

When Goals move beyond winning or losing

But what about Star Wars? Surely this simple sci-fi flick explores nothing more than good guys beating the bad guys. But that's just it – in the battle between Rebellion and Empire just being able to fight back works better than a particular instance of achievement. The doing becomes more important than the obtaining.

In future articles in this series on Story Goals we'll take a look at more sophisticated resolutions similar to the one found in a galaxy far far away. Looking towards the initial inequity, we'll determine the necessary solution and determine what kind of Goal would satisfy that drive to return things to a state of balance.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

If you're familiar with the Dramatica Theory of Story this bonus section should present some interest to you. If not, what are you waiting for?! Learn more at Dramatica.com.

Dramatica refers to the Goal of a story as the Overall Story Goal. This is seen as separate (yet tied thematically) to the Main Character's Concern or the Influence Character's Concern, both which may be seen as goals in and of themselves. The Overall Story Goal resides wholly within the objective view of a story provided by the Overall Story Throughline.

The Overall Story Goal begins with the initial Story Driver or what many have previously referred to as the Inciting Incident. Achieving resolution – completing this Goal – requires the introduction of the Overall Story Solution, a thematic pair with the Overall Story Problem.

This article originally appeared April 29th, 2012 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Story Goals and Why They Exist

A storytelling cliché pops up from time to time, an easy get that reeks of desperation from low screening numbers: Characters who actually state their goals out loud. Why must we suffer through this ridiculous conceit?

It's not like this happens in normal day-to-day conversation. We don't travel to work and state Today I'm going to finish that report! If we do, we should be locked up. And so should the characters of stories who react in kind.

Great stories work a goal without the fear of an audience not getting it because they didn't hear it. Great stories work that understanding through sound story structure.

Great stories, like Back to the Future.

The Structure of Time Travel

But wait a second…Doc distinctly tells Marty, "We've got to send you back to the future!" Doesn't that qualify as another vapid response to unclear structure?

The completion of a goal finishes a story. Marty successfully returns to 1985, yet unfinished business still lurks in the wings. The Libyans continue to roam the Twin Pines mall. Getting back to the future, it turns out, solves nothing.

Time Shifts and Story Structure

Many stories play around with the temporal shifting of events. Could it be that the shifts in time simply don't factor into the structure of the story?

Paraphrasing Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley (from the [March 2005 Dramatica Tip of the Month]): if the characters in a story are aware of the time shifts (as in Somewhere In Time or Back to the Future) then that awareness becomes a part of the structure. If they're not (as with Memento or Pulp Fiction), then the time shifts are simply a storytelling device, and have little to do with the actual structure of the piece.

In this case, time shifts matter.

Tying Causation to a Story's Goal

When appreciating the Goal of a story, accurate analysts nail down the individual events that turn a story from one dramatic tide to the next. The initial cause shines as the most important of all these. When identified with absolute certitude, the event that is needed to resolve a story's issues reveals itself. Widely known as the Inciting Incident, this first marker drives a story into existence.

Separating Inciting Incident from Main Character

Many people erroneously see the First Act Turn as the Inciting Incident. Whenever someone states that a story didn't start for the first twenty or thirty minutes, they more often than not completely missed how the story actually began. That 20-30 minute marker almost always becomes responsible for turning the First Structural Act into the Second. It is rarely the Inciting Incident.

These errors in judgment owe their life to the preconception that the central character, or Main Character, is also the Protagonist. The Protagonist of a story – the one responsible for pursuing the successful resolution of the story's inequity – latches on to the Act Turns as a powerful symbiotic, part and parcel of the same structural tides.

The Main Character, on the other hand, represents a point-of-view – a personal look into the issues at hand. Main Character and Protagonist are not always one and the same. They can be, but not always. But because many assume they are and because the Main Character often doesn't shift into gear (pardon the pun here) until that First Act Turn, many see that moment as the story's Inciting Incident.

Thus, while Marty certainly has a hand in this Act Turn that does not mean it actually starts the story. That jump through time certainly starts the "fun and games" moment of the movie, but it doesn't start the story. Instead another event claims that title, an event that - if it had never happened - would have precluded the need for Marty to ever push the DeLorean to ninety.

The Driving Events of Time Travel

The Inciting Incident of Back to the Future happens when Doc screws over the Libyans. Substituting pinball machine parts for plutonium effectively starts the inequity of the story and guarantees the subsequent act turns. Without that event, time would have simply marched on as it always has.

Continuing the analysis of key structural moments, The First Act Turn would therefore be the moment Marty pushes the DeLorean to 90 mph. The Midpoint – or next major driving point – can be found when Marty bests Biff in the town center, thus cementing his mom's affection for him. The Second Act turn, or subsequent major driving point, occurs when George finally stands up to Biff and knocks him out cold. Each of these turns the story to a place where it cannot return. Each of these develops the initial inequity put into place by Doc's scam.

Bringing an End to the Madness

So returning to that famous line, getting Marty "back to the future" must be the Concluding Event, correct? Not quite. The problem with that line of thinking lies within the fact that the story still needs to work through some unresolved business. Returning back to 1985 didn't really solve anything. It is a step in the right direction, but it is not truly what is at stake within the story. Instead, the Concluding Event finds itself tied to the Inciting Event.

Doc cheats once again.

By taping the pieces of Marty's letter back together, Doc successfully brings an end to the problems caused by his initial egotistical blunder. Marty and Doc win. The problems of the story come to a resolution.

A Goal for All

Essentially then, the goal of Back to the Future was to beat the space-time continuum. They didn't simply restore it, they kicked its ass. That was, after all, what Doc hoped to accomplish when he first dreamt up the wormhole-chomping Delorean monster machine. He cheated the Libyans because he wanted to beat the timeline he felt trapped in. Marty jumped back to the 50s because he was cheating death. Same too with his attempt to head back to 1985 ten minutes earlier. Time's a bitch as they say, and both Doc and Marty worked their mojo to overcome it. Doc's final cheat was simply the final nail in the coffin.

They beat time.

Constructing a Solid Story

The key to having a story work out properly, for it to "make sense" to an audience, lies firmly within the application of the mind's problem-solving process to the events of a narrative. Understanding how the Inciting Incident creates the inequity that the story-mind must resolve makes an Author's efforts towards communication a purposeful endeavor. Having a character verbalize his or her goal panders to an audience and simply does not guarantee comprehension.

Goals exist as a tool for Author's to construct meaningful stories. They are not a panacea for bad storytelling.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

If you're familiar with the Dramatica Theory of Story this bonus section should present some interest to you. If not, what are you waiting for?! Learn more at Dramatica.com

The concern with how things will be, over whether or not there will be a future, seems to lie more heavily within Marty himself. Doc has a thing or two to say about this, but when you factor in all the other characters – the mayor, the Libyans, the guy on the park-bench, the hormonal mom and the dweeb dad – the future simply doesn't fit.

Marty's Main Character Concern is the Future. Marty is a McFly, always has been, always will be. Escaping that prison of inheritance becomes everything to him. Returning home to find his future set translates into a Story Judgment of Good.

Thus, the best storyform for this film would be: Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Physics, Obtaining, Self-Interest, Avoidance

Conflict of a Different Nature

In story, the forces of conflict arrange themselves in unique and natural patterns. When balanced properly, a story can deliver substance and meaning on a scale unheard of in lesser delivery mechanisms.

Beyond granting Authors insight as to why their stories might be experiencing difficulties, this understanding also allows writers to infuse their work with an originality and purpose difficult to attain through mere muscle. Recognizing the most common patterns of conflict and sampling those not-so common patterns broadens the knowledgebase of those who work in narrative fiction while freeing their imagination to consider new possibilities.

The Same Old Story

Many story gurus/theorists claim a methodical approach to story structure as the best means towards creating a story of substance. Whether it be through a template of beats or a heroic journey from one world to the next, this advice aids the writer, yet never truly informs them as to why they should be adhering these ideas. Lacking a concrete explanation as to the meaning of these story points, the writer can do little more than follow along and hope for the best. More often than not, this approach leads to the same story, told in the same way, with little to no substance.

Contrast this sad result with the varied opportunities left open to writers who understand Dramatica's concept of the Four Throughlines. As we have seen throughout this series, the order or beats that a story goes through pale in comparison to the power of focusing a story's conflict on purposeful explorations of unique and connected throughlines. What is being explored becomes far more important than hitting those beats.

With this approach, the same 'ol same 'ol can be avoided, allowing the writer's muse to create with intent.

Stories of Internal Struggle

Complete stories cover external and internal conflicts simultaneously. Certain parts of astory will focus on the efforts in the physical world, while others will emphasize the struggle within. Hollywood tends to favor the external struggle found in situations and activities. Why? Visual medium, visual instances of conflict. Rarely do they venture inwards -- such an act generally calls for a more ponderous medium.

In a previous article on exotic story structures, discussion centered around Main Characters with deficient ways of thinking. Both Red in The Shawshank Redemption and Hamlet in his self-titled play stood up as suitable candidates for this particular type of conflict. Yet in the big picture, these two stories explore very different areas of conflict.

Shawshank tells the story of men consumed by intolerable conditions. Hamlet, on the other hand, tells the story of men (and a woman or two) consumed by their obsessions and the obsessions of others. Hamlet's sustained grief for his father and Claudius' call for "discretion" exemplify the kind of overall story-wide conflict that comes from Problematic Fixed Attitudes. Conflict exists because of what everyone thinks, not because of their particular situation. Combined with Hamlet's personal struggle over the way he thinks, this universal look at conflicting attitudes creates a story with a personality quite unlike any other.

Why aren't there more movies that take advantage of this unique setup?

Communicating deficient psychologies and conflicting mindsets becomes somewhat of a challenge within the sparse confines of a screenplay. Stories that share this particular story "personality" -- Amadeus and The Great Gatsby to name a few -- stand out in mediums where the struggle over the internal can more readily play out. Novels and plays embrace the internal with a confidence Hollywood cannot. Still, the convenience of that reality does not forclude the possibility of success. Amadeus did pretty well and continues to sit atop many of the "greatest films of all time" charts. For the adventurous and determined screenwriter the challenge of visualizing the internal lies in wait.

The Perception of Conflict

With this final piece of the puzzle in place, this series on Conflict comes to a conclusion. A comprehensive understanding of conflict and the throughlines that explore them met. Whether internal or external, state or process, every kind of inequity in the known Universe has its place within the world of story.

But that's just it...

...known Universe.

These areas of conflict are not real. They're not tangible. They don't really exist as much as they represent our own perceptions of what we observe and sense. As Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of Dramatica, is always fond of quoting, "The energy that flows through a system tends to organize that system" (Buckminister Fuller) -- meaning these areas of conflict are built by our own minds. Our personal operating systems call for conflict to fall down these lines. Thus, because we create these stories, it is only natural that they reflect our own internal thought processes.

Stories are models of our own minds at work. The foundation for Dramatica sits upon this idea and informs its every concept. It's the reason why every story written with the theory or every story that fits easily into its framework feels complete and comprehensive. As audience members, we know how we think. Stories that honor that knowledge find a special place in our hearts and in our minds.

Of course, if our minds evolve then this structural chart will have to transform accordingly. But for now, its accuracy remains unparalleled.

The structural chart -- these four Areas of Conflict and the Throughlines that attach to them -- are not a "system" for creating Hollywood blockbusters. They are not templates or elaborate plotting machines. They are reflections of ourselves. It just so happens that those stories that reflect us the best often become the ones we honor the most -- with ticket sales and gold statues.

This article originally appeared December 31, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. It is first in a series on Conflict. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

A Conflict Unlike Any Other

Every engine needs a fuel source. Without a constant supply, the mechanism sputters and fails, eventually coming to a rest dormant and forgotten on a dried plain. How does one keep the bristling and shiny furnace of story steaming down those tracks?

Through conflict.

Stories live and breathe conflict. Even the most rudimentary explanations of stories understand this. Consider this common insight that defines essential ingredient as

the problem faced by the characters. Conflict happens when characters are against each other, like teams in a game or two groups fighting on the playground.

But when it comes to crafting a story's unique personality that sits apart from all the others, that really delves deep into the inner psychological needs that audiences crave, an Author needs to understand in detail that forces that craft that conflict.

A Definition Apart

One of the greatest aspects of the Dramatica theory of story rests in the precision with which it attempts to quantify the molecular level of story structure. This accuracy develops a level of trust unheard of in other competing paradigms or schools of thought. In a recent QnA with Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley, the very common concept of conflict gets a thorough evaluation:

"Conflict is the product of effort to resolve an inequity as it meets resistance. We look for conflict as we attempt to identify an inequity's source(s). If we neglect to look in all the possible places conflict can exist, we open ourselves (and the story) to missing the entirety of the conflict and a true understanding of the inequity, leaving the real likelihood of failing to resolve the inequity thoroughly. So, all four perspectives and all four domains must be explored in order to understand the nature of an inequity and the nature and source(s) of conflict generated by trying to resolve the inequity."

Four Ways of Looking at Conflict

The four perspectives Huntley speaks of were well known prior to Dramatica. First person, third person, first person plural and third person plural. I, You, We and They. As explained in more detail within the article Writing Complete Stories, these four contexts have found their way into stories via the Main Character (I), the Influence Character (You), the Relationship Story (We), and the Overall Story (They) Throughlines.

Hearing this for the first time, one might think Well, that seems right, but I'm not sure… Rest assured, there is a reason why these four throughlines appear in complete stories.

Ever heard the idea that "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." This enlightened understanding of the world around us can provide much needed appreciation of why some stories simply feel more whole than others. How else can one truly be sure they are crafting a balanced story if they leave out one side of the argument? Authors need to inspect an issue from every direction, thus, the four Throughlines.

And yet, while these four perspectives may be relatively familiar to most, it is what they are looking at that is unique to Dramatica's understanding of story.

Four Areas That Define Problems

A Situation, a Fixed Attitude, an Activity, and a Thought Process. Think of a problem and it MUST fall into one of these categories. Racism? That's a fixed attitude. Unjustly accused of killing your wife? That's a situation. Wiping out an alien race? Definitely an activity. Brow-beating your wife. That's a thought process you might want to reconsider. Regardless of what problem an Author invents, it will fall into one of these four areas.

When an inequity hits the world of story, the forces that conspire to resolve it have no idea where the conflict is coming from. It could be an activity, it could be a fixed attitude…the structure of a story simply can't determine where the inequity resides – at least, not without some level of inaccuracy. This reality gives us a clue as to why Dramatica calls for all four areas of conflict to be present in a complete story. This is why Huntley states:

"If we neglect to look in all the possible places conflict can exist, we open ourselves (and the story) to missing the entirety of the conflict and a true understanding of the inequity"

Cover all four areas where problems can exist and like the advice to include all four perspectives, An Author can insure that their story ends up well-balanced and completely argued.

There won't be any story "holes".

The Chart of a Story's Personality

At the top level of Dramatica's Model of Story sit the four Domains, or areas of conflict.

The way one can begin to fully understand why a story feels the way it does (and why some feel more similar than others) is by applying the four Perspectives – or story Throughlines – to these four Domains. Any combination is acceptable save for one rule: the Main Character and Influence Character Domains must be diagonally opposed to each other. Why?

Cliches with Purpose

The Influence Character's primary purpose for being in a story is to compel the Main Character to deal with their personal issues. They very best way to do this is to give the Influence Character enough of the same kinds of issues do that the Main Character begins to sense that this new character represents an external reflection of themselves. This is where the common cliche of "You and I are both alike" comes from.

If the Main Character's problems can be found in a Situation and the Influence Character creates problems because of their Fixed Attitude, well then you have enough of a similarity between the two that growth can occur. A Situation describes something external that is stuck. A Fixed Attitude describes something internal that is stuck. Both are static, thus "You and I are both alike." The line of dialogue that usually follows, "We are nothing alike" occurs because, while they both describe something fixed, in the end one is external and one is internal. They are not completely alike.

This occurs in the animated film How to Train Your Dragon. Hiccup, the Main Character, finds personal trouble in his physicality, or Situation. He is a 98lb. weakling in a tribe of manly Vikings. "You just pointed to all of me," refers to those issues. Because this is a father/son movie, Hiccup's father Stoick assumes the role of Influence Character. Following the above rule from Dramatica, the Influence Character must be in a diagonally opposed relationship to the Main Character on the structural chart. This places Stoick in Fixed Attitude and helps define the kind of impact he'll have on Hiccup.

Stoick. Stoic. Even his name confirms the placement!

Interestingly enough, later on in the film Hiccup has the "He and I are both alike" moment, but uses it to describe his relationship with Toothless, not his father. While it helps explain Hiccup's motivation for freeing the beast, its use outside of the norm tends to imply that there should be even more exploration of their relationship beyond simply dragging sticks in the sand. It implies that there is still growth to be had in the relationship between them, when at that time their relationships was already rock solid.

Genre as a Tool

Dramatica considers this personality level of story structure – the Domain level – to be the most accurate and beneficial way to quantify Genre. Netflix, Apple TV, Blake Snyder and John Truby refer to Genre in terms like Thrillers, Romantic Comedies and War Dramas. But beyond a handy shopping list of storytelling patterns, how truly helpful are these concepts in determining the scope of what it is an Author is trying to say? How helpful are they in balancing the story's points of view? At best they identify the patterns. They never quite answer the question why?

Everyone agrees that a story must have conflict. And while everyone also recognizes the necessity of seeing all sides of an argument, only one theory of story requires it for meaning. Dramatica moves beyond this reality by helping an Author establish solid concrete arguments. With Dramatica, Genre becomes a tool for establishing personality, rather than a simple cataloging device.

This article originally appeared December 5, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. It is first in a series on Conflict. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

For more articles by James Hull, click here.

Hundreds of more articles are available in the Story Fanatic Archives