James Hull Articles: Archive VII

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 Science of Storytelling

Monumental leaps in understanding herald the progress of man. Fire. The wheel. Indoor plumbing. Dramatica. The latest development in our understanding of narrative has the potential to improve things far better than the ability to cook our meat.

Some, however, would prefer to stay in the past. Author and USC Adjunct Professor Gene Del Vechhio had this to say in his article on "The LEGO Movie and The Science of Storytelling":

The success of The Lego Movie is science first and foremost, masterfully brought to life with artistic flair. How do we know this? Because Aristotle told us so over two thousand years ago.

Yes, Aristotle started this whole narrative as a science gig. And yes, Campbell and Vogler built upon that foundation with their interest in Hero's Journeys. McKee and Snyder took it one step further by making all that palapable and marketable to an otherwise distracted culture. But what of the next evolutionary step?

Del Vechhio falis to mention the Dramatica theory of story. Billed on its website as the "Next Chapter in Story Development", Dramatica surpasses these rather introductory examinations of narrative. If Aristotle was Kindergarten (and really, it is), and if the Hero's Journey was elementary school and Save the Cat! junior high, then Dramatica is the PhD of storytelling. Steeped in human psychology rather than observed movie references and audience research, this giant leap forward in our collective understanding can significantly improve the quality of storytelling.

Junk Science

Examine, if you will, this Periodic Table of Story Elements:

The Periodic Table of Storytelling

This is not Dramatica. Combining ridiculous "tropes" like the MacGuffin and Adventurer Archelogist into a single chart, this chart attempts to pass popularity as science.1 The chemical "base" and position of each item on the chart identifies nothing more than the number of links pointing to the element. Disregarding the relative cynicism and uselessness of a trope itself, what value does the commonality of a storytelling device hold? Is one supposed to insert a Genre Savvy character because it carries more "kilowicks" than the Jerk with a Heart of Gold? Or is one supposed to avoid this character because everyone is doing it?

The chart is pointless.

Compare this with Dramatica's Table of Story Elements:

Dramatica Table of Story Elements

Not as pretty, but 5,000 times more useful to a writer. And less cynical. The Dramatica theory of story doesn't say it has all been done before. The Dramatica theory of story says there are thousands of different ways to craft a story's argument. Pick one and let your creativity determine how to present it, regardless of what has come before. Leave tropes for the less imaginative.

Dramatica's chart helps a writer balance out their argument so it doesn't feel one-sided. The position of each and every element holds significant meaning, especially in relation to the elements around it. It's no coincidence that the relationship between The Past and Situation matches the physical relationship between Memories and Fixed Attitude. One can find comparisons like this throughout the entire chart becuse high level math exists beneath all of them. Tangent, co-tangent and secant? Dramatica relies on real science and real math like to help pull these appreciations of story together.

Contrast the sophistication of Dramatica's understanding to that of the Hero's Journey:

The narrative should begin, they say, by immersing the audience into the hero's world, having the hero receive a call to adventure, making him first refuse the call, allowing him to then meet a mentor who convinces him to follow the call, and so forth.

Storytelling conventions masquerading as science. No relationship from one beat to the next and no explanation as to why they operate.

Act One runs 30 miuntes...Act Two should run 60 minutes...Act Three should ideally run another 30 minutes...This time-based storyline blueprint has proven over time to be critical because each Act is segmented in a way that keeps the audience's attention, making the story not too long nor too short.

Audience attention? That's a highly subjective analysis and open to all kinds of interpretation. Dramatica, on the other hand, has a very objective and reasoned explanation why stories have four major movements, or Acts.

Referring to the chart above you'll see on one level the story appreciations of Obtaining, Doing, Learning and Understanding. Each of these represents a different way of examining an Activity. When making an argument (or delivering a "message"), competent writers need to address all the different ways their characters can go about solving their problems. Once each has been dealt with, the story is over. Why go back and cover ground that has already been covered?

That's why there are four Acts.

It has nothing to do with audience attention, and everything to do with delivering a balanced and complete argument.

Evolutionary Understanding

In a recent radio interview, physicist Brian Greene had this to say about his particular area of research:

physics...many people think of it as some subject that they are forced to take in high school and they're so thrilled when they finish it because then they can forget about the whole thing,...but that's a sort of tragic perspective...physics is a way of understanding reality, of engaging with the world, of making sense of your own existence in the deepest possible way.

This is what I personally love about Dramatica. I love great stories. I love those stories that sit with you long after you've left the theater. I love those stories that haunt you all weekend long when you're caught up in a great novel. I love that feeling.

Dramatica makes sense of that feeling by giving an understanding of the dynamics at work in "the deepest possible way."

A lot of times I'm asked "Oh, how can I fit my story into the Dramatica template?" or "I don't know if I can come up with the 28 scenes Dramatica says has to be in every story." First of all, Dramatica theory doesn't say every story has to have 28 scenes–thats a misunderstanding from the theory book. Secondly, and more importantly, there is no real Dramatica "template". Stories don't fit into beat sheets or waypoints along a journey–it's the other way around. Dramatica gives us the chance to look at story and understand what is truly there.

In that same radio interview, Brian Greene had this to say about evolutionary understanding:

even Einstein himself knew he was taking an incremental step forward, giving us a deeper understanding of space and time and gravity. But he knew it wasn't the end of the story because the way physics and science in general works, people understand something in one era and then in a later era they expand the understanding. They typically don't wipe out what happenend in the past. Newton is still with us..and its good...because its a close approximation to the truth...but Einstein did a better job....and ten, hundred years, somebody else is going to do a better job still.

This evolution was the point of Del Vecchio's article, but instead of detailing the latest and greatest, he relied the well-traveled. Aristotle was a close approximation, nothing more. Analyze the Greek's groudbreaking concept of "beginning, middle and end" against Dramatica's Main Character Unique Ability. One illustrates a key ingredient for matching character to plot, the other only aids in writing the Table of Contents.

Why This Main Character?

Do you ever wonder why a Main Character is even in a story? Was it some random decision the Author made? It could be. But the only way that character becomes an integral part of a story is through the employment of their Unique Ability. This concept ties the Main Character into the larger Overall Story that everyone is concerned with. It gives him or her the ability to bring a successful conclusion to all the problems everyone is facing.

As a deeply connected man in possession of letters of transit, Rick finds himself in the unique position of being the only one able to bring the problems of Casablanca to an end. This Unique Ability of Closure ties him into the story, making him the Main Character. And what of Batman/Bruce Wayne's Unique Ability of Threat in The Dark Knight? The only way someone could save a city like Gotham would be if they represented an even greater danger than the psychotic criminals they hope to overcome.

Now, knowing that this concept of narrative exists, do we really want to return to the Stone Age granted to us by Aristotle??

A Call for Progress

One last quote from Brian Greene in regards to math:

math is a lnaguage that many of us are less familiar with. [It's a] language optimally suited for analyzing a certain class of problems

Bad stories exist. Trust me, I've worked on more than one. They're a real problem for many who work in the film industry because so many give their life and soul to what ultimately is a forgettable and pointless story.

Dramatica presents a language optimally suited for analyzing the problems inherent in story. What's more, it provides a scientific framework for quickly and adequately resolving those problems. It can be frustrating and overwhleming at first, but after years of study and the gaining of familiarity one begins to see story in an entirely new light. In a way, learning Dramatica helps authors develop their story sense.

The Weekend of Dramatica assists this process: helping writers from all walks, whether they be filmmakers or actors or writers, to better understand narrative and condition themselves to spot those problem areas.2 Knowing Dramatica is like having a powerful and prescient tool to help cut through the murk of constant rewrites and disappointing drafts.

Like most foreign languages Dramatica can be quite a challenge at first. There will be moments here and there where things will make more sense and seem familiar, and then there will be those times when you want to quit altogether and proclaim "I don't need Dramatica." That would be like saying "I don't need gravity" or "I don't need oxygen." These are things that bind us together in the phsyical world regardless of our affinity for them. Real, demonstrable scientific facts.

You can ignore it all you want, but like gravity and oxygen, there comes a time when you need to know what holds a story together and what gives it motivation. That's the only way to truly move forward. The concepts and theories of Dramatica bind us together in our collective appreciation of narrative. By introducing the world to real narrative science, Dramatica helps writers develop their story sense and move beyond the trappings of prehistoric times.

  1. No concept of story has been proven to be more useless than the MacGuffin. If George Lucas relies on the MacGuffin, you know it has to be a busted notion. The MacGuffin is a Joke ‹--

  2. The Weekend of Dramatica is a 2-day deep dive into the murky and exciting waters of story theory. Spacing limited, so reserve now. ‹--

Don't Use Other Movies as Reference

Some people can't resist telling you about their favorite movie. Whether their favorite sci-fi flick seen in adolescence or one of AFI's top 100, film buffs love to share scenes. Problems set in the moment they bring up said love affair in a story meeting. Does the beloved scene or group of scenes actually apply to the story point being discussed? Or is it simply an unfortunate instance of fancy taking control?

Regardless of what you may have heard online or read in books multiple stories exist. There is no one Hero's Journey to rule them all. They might share a commonality of presentation but the substance–the real true meaning–behind every single book, novel or play claims a unique identifying code. Like the building blocks of DNA that–while small in number–combine to create thousands upon thousands of different people, the structural aspects of story combine to create a novel experience.

Occasionally a story might share the same code. West Side Story is simply Romeo & Juliet. Avatar is Pocahontas. Collateral is Finding Nemo (believe it or not, the Jamie Foxx/Tom Cruise thriller Collateral tells the same story as Pixar's Finding Nemo). But for the most part, the stories we share differ enough as to be detrimental, rather than helpful.

Bringing them up as examples for breaking a story only compounds the problems.

Work This Story, Not That One

Writers often refer to other movies in order to support their potential fix for a certain story problem. It's like in Usual Suspects when you started to see that night from Verbal's point-of-view… Or Remember that scene in Goodfellas when Karen flushed the drugs down the toilet? It's like that. If it worked for them, why wouldn't it work for us?

Because we might be telling a different story.

Problems occur when the example called to task bears no resemblance with the structural issues present in the narrative being worked on. Sure, you can reference that "killer Steadicam shot" in Goodfellas or "that gun battle on the streets of L.A. in Heat without harm, but only because those are instances of storytelling, not storyforming. Storytelling operates independently of the thematic issues within a story. It's the icing on the cake, the seasoning added later and parceled out at the Author's behest. Writers can ape presentation with little to no effect upon the meaning; they can't mimic substance without risking a confounding of purpose.

The storyform of a work of narrative carries the meaning of a story. It is the message and the purpose beneath the various levels of character, plot, theme and genre. It makes possible the transmission of bias. The story form is Author's intent. If the film referenced endeavors to delivers a message dissimilar to the one at hand, then the reference can only manage to disrupt and garble the final communication.

Different Stories That Seem the Same

One sees this line of thinking often when confronted with the dual miscues of the Hero's Journey and the Save the Cat! franchise. Refusing to dive any further beyond the surface, these digestible accounts of story conflate purpose with cultural trend. Do many cultures across the globe celebrate and pass on a similar legend? Yes. Do most films follow a predictable path as they lay out their individual sequences? Certainly. Does correlation confirm causation? Absolutely not.

Many consider Star Wars and The Matrix the same story. They see Luke Skywalker and Mr. Anderson as cut from the same cloth. While The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker illuminates in greater detail why, understand that the elements of story that drive and motivate Luke and Neo rest in different dramatic camps.

Luke is motivated to test what he can and cannot do and it gets him into trouble. Neo is driven to disbelieve himself and it gets him into trouble as well. Luke needs to trust, Neo needs to believe. Two separate thematic messages. Similar? Very. But the solutions and moments required to satisfy one cannot be transposed to the other. Trust cannot fix disbelief. Faith cannot heal a testing nature.

Calling to mind Luke when writing Neo would only generate inappropriate solutions. Bringing up Back to the Future–a story all about finding and acquiring–when writing a story about misunderstandings only provides more rabbit holes to fall into. This is how broken stories remain broken stories.

Write Your Story

Instead of recalling scenes similar to those on which you're working, reference your own imagination and set scenes and characters to the meaning you are trying to provide. Understand the conflict your story rides upon and illustrate those scenes. If your character keeps screwing up because he doesn't believe in himself, don't start writing scenes where he tests his mettle like Luke Skywalker simply because you saw the movie 110 times when you were a kid. You're not writing Star Wars, you're writing your story.

This is where Dramatica proves to be crucial during the creativity process: by maintaining the integrity of the narrative developed in other scenes, Dramatica focuses creativity in the right direction. Write the story at hand, not the story you love from your childhood. Do this and your story sessions will prove efficient, effective and most importantly–fruitful.

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

Bringing Gravity to Gravity

Audiences loved Gravity. Critics praised the film. And while the filmmakers' peers loved Gravity--as evidenced by the 7 Academy Awards it won including Best Director and Best Cinematography--there was one award they kept from it.

Best Original Screenplay.*

To date the film has grossed over $700 million dollars, making it one of the top ten films of 2013. Poll audience reaction and they'll cite the action, the music and the special effects of Gravity. "Masterfully directed" and "some kind of miracle" only hint at the kind of critical acclaim Gravity received.**

However rarely will they laud the story, and even if they do they'll say it was run-of-the-mill Hollywood. Visually, Gravity is stunning. But there is something missing from the actual story, something that explains why it didn't win an award for writing.

The Missing Piece

Gravity presents a strong and clear Main Character Throughline. We experience the film through the eyes of Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission. More importanty, we feel what it is like to be a mother struggling to overcome the loss of her daughter. The audience experiences these issues through her eyes.

The film also places an Influence Character Throughline to help challenge Dr. Stone and these issues. With his calm demeanor and steely blue eyes, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) helps propel Stone through her growth. The Relationship Throughline that develops between the two of them, that of mentor and student, rounds out the film by providing the emotional argument for Stone's transformation.

But what of the fourth and final throughline? Where is the Overall Story Throughine? We never depart from Stone's point-of-view. We have no idea what is going on down on Earth. Why did the Russians launch their missile? What geopolitical shifts come as a result of this act of agression? How is everyone affected by these events?

For those answering So what?, you're correct. The movie didn't need it.

But without that perspective of greater objectivity, the events on-screen simply become a roller-coaster ride. Without that juxtaposition of objective vs. subjective, what happens just happens. The events onscreen mean nothing more than what we see. We may attach our own personal meaning to it, but the Author misses out on saying something more.

An audience needs that dissonance between objective and subjective in order to gain some greater appreciation of the film's events.

Another Point-of-View

Aningaaq, the short companion film to Gravity offers a wonderful opportunity to experience this important aspect of narrative. Writen and directed by Alfonso Cuaron's son Jonas, Aningaaq depicts the other side of the conversation Dr. Stone was having while marooned in the space capsule. Stationed on a remote fjord in Greenland, an Inuit fisherman--Aningaaq--picks up her distress call. Fighting the language barrier, the two speak of lonliness and loss and an approach to dealing with grief.

Think back to your experience with Gravity in the theaters. Remember what it was like to be flung around in zero gravity and the isloation you felt at 350 miles above the Earth. Now take a look at it from another point-of-view

Problems with the story of Gravity?

This missing Overall Story Throughline explains it all.

We know what it feels like to experience pain and how we personally deal with loss, but rarely do we take a look at how others deal with the same kind of loss within the same frame of mind. By seeing Aningaaq deal with his personal grief objectively while maintaining the subjective experience we have of Dr. Stone and her daughter, we experience a cognitive dissonance unavailable to us in real life.

We acquire meaning.

The Four Throughlines

We cannot simultaneously be inside ourselves and out. The Cherokee proverb "Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes" tells of this reality. We can't be objective about ourselves. Stories on the other hand can. Stories give us an experience we can't acheive in our own lives, they give us the context for meaning.

By allowing an Audience member to witness the effects a problem has on everyone (objective) while simultaneously providing an experience of what its like to have that problem personally (subjective), a story generates a greater understanding.

The Four Throughlines of a complete story cover the four contexts we can assume. The Main Character Throughline depicts what it's lke when I have a problem. The Influence or Challenge Character Throughline show us what it's like when You have a problem. The Relationship Throughline between these two characters allows us to feel what it's like when We have a problem. And finally, the Overall Story Throughline let's us step back and see what it's like when They have a problem.

The Four Perspectives

In real life we can only assume three of these contexts at once. If we take the I position, then we can see how You have a problem and how We have a problem. But we can never step outside of ourselves and see what it's like when They have a problem, because we are included in that perspective.

If we instead assume the They perspective, we can see how You have a problem and how We have a problem but we can never truly know what it personally feels like to have that problem. We can't take the I perspective.

For those experiencing their own cognitive dissonance in regards to why We doesn't include I, precisely. The We context does not include I the same way They does not include You. The tendency to blend the first two erupts from our own self-awareness and coincindentally ruins many stories. When it comes to generating meaning, context is everything.***

Gravity failed to give us that greater context and thus diminished what it meant to most.

Writing a Complete Story

The strength of this outer-space thriller betrays it's ultimate weakness. By placing the audience almost entirely within Dr. Stone's (Sandra Bullock's) first person point-of-view for most of the film, Gravity fails to provide the much needed third-person perspective on the day's events. Without an objective view to juxtapose against the subjective, the story loses all hope of providing any greater meaning and instead becomes nothing more than an amusement park ride.

The short film Aningaaq provides a taste of what that objective view would be. By granting us a dispassionate view of how someone else deals with grief and loss, we gain a greater understanding of how to let go of grief ourselves.

Make no mistake: inserting this short into the film would not have improved things. Gravity was designed to be experienced entirely from within. Adding this in would have diminished the experience. The point to be made here is the difference between the objective and subjective views and how important that difference is for authors wanting to write complete, deeply meaningful stories. Gravity was not a complete story. Chinatown, Casablanca, Her, and Hamlet were.

The question is, what kind of story do you want to tell?

* Spike Jonze won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his film her. ** Rotten Tomatoes consensus stated it was "masterfully directed" while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said the film was "more than a movie. It's some kind of miracle". *** For a story to feel complete it needs to have 4 different throughlines, each representing a different perspective on the story's problems. (The Four Throughlines)

This article originally appeared March 27, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives.

The Main Character Playground

Many writers rail against story theory. How can a construct of chains possibly compete with the intuition of the artist? Story gurus and theoreticians can pontificate all they want, but their uncertified claims lie dormant. The proof, it would seem, lies in a writing exercise designed to elicit the strengths of both the inspiration of the artist and the wisdom of the structuralist.

Blind spots exist in every writer. They motivate us to put pen to paper and thoughts into action. Unfortunately they also stick out like a sore thumb when it comes to our stories. A complete narrative demands the absence of blind spots. Failure to do so results in "story holes" the size of asteroids.

A Shining Light

The Dramatica theory of story sheds light on the blind spots within us. By providing a comprehensive objective view of our narrative, Dramatica supports us by filling in the holes. Have a great idea for a story but no idea who the Main Character is or what kind of issues he or she should have? Dramatica has you covered. Have a great Main Character but no idea what to do with or how to develop a poignant relationship between him or her and another character? Again, Dramatica screens you from the emptiness of writers block.

Unfortunately much of what the theory provides looks something like this:

  • Domain: Situation
  • Concern: Progress
  • Issue: Threat
  • Problem: Expectation
  • Solution: Determination
  • Symptom: Theory
  • Response: Hunch
  • Benchmark: Present
  • Signpost 1: Past
  • Signpost 2: Progress
  • Signpost 3: Future
  • Signpost 4: Present

An unintelligible clinical assertion of something that is supposed to be beautiful and inspired and artful.

As a writer, I might have an idea of how to write a character dealing with Threat and Expectation, but looking at Hunch and Determination I'll probably take a side trip to the Dramatica Dictionary and remind myself of what they mean. By the time I've wrapped my head around Dramatica's precise terminology, I will have lost all interest in writing and instead want to find out what makes Dramatica work or read articles online about the theory (this last one is not so bad if you come here). Regardless the next step taken, I've lost all drive to continue writing and my story still sits unfinished.

Thankfully there now exists a way to get your creative mojo kicking with the latest version of Dramatica. Need help figuring out the perfect Main Character for your story? Someone who fits seamlessly within all the other themes and plot points you have going on? Or maybe you have parts of the Main Characters Throughline down, but some of the appreciations sit there and mock your inability to illustrate them succinctly. Dramatica can help, and it all starts with an exercise I call The Main Character Playground.

Room to Stretch

The key to this exercise lies in the generation of multiple revisions of the same story. By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better more original storytelling. It seems contradictory to say that by creating stories we don't care about we actually find ones we really do, but it's true. Let me show you!

First thing you want to do is grab yourself the latest version of Dramatica. Now called Dramatica Story Expert, this most recent iteration comes with a feature essential for this exercise–Gists. One of the theory's co-creators Melanie Anne Phillips explains:

[Gists] are subject matter versions of the story points. For example, rather than reading as "obtaining" a goal might read as "stealing the crown jewels." There are thousands of gists for you to use as story ideas, and you can create your own as well. Plus, you can even access them in the "Spin the model" feature which picks an arbitrary storyform structure, then populates it with randomly chosen subject matter to help you come up with story ideas!

Instead of Determination you get Working Out a Settlement for Something. Instead of Hubch you get Having a Sense of Foreboding. Melanie's last point clues is in on the approach we will use to encourage brainstorming.

Step One - Nail Down Your Storyform

Hard to generate multiple version of the same story if you haven't yet figured out what story you want to tell. The current version of Dramatica offers over 32,000 unique individual stories, or storyforms.1 Countless resources exist elsewhere to help you find the unique structure for your story (including my own Dramatica Mentoring service), but if you really have no idea what kind of story you want to tell or want to follow along, head on over to the "Project > Pick Random Storyform" and Dramatica will randomly generate a storyform for you.

Step Two - Generate Random Storyforms with Gists

Now for the fun part. If you're not there already, open up "Project > Spin-the-Model". Whether you have decided to create a random storyform or are going to use one of your own, make sure you select "Keep Existing Storyforming Choices" before proceeding. We want to make sure we're working with the same thematics. This isn't the real world where everyone throws in their opinions regardless of thematic consistency!

Next make sure "Assign Random Gists" is checked and select "Replace Existing Gists" below that. Pick a number between 1 and 20, then click the "Spin" button that many times. Eventually you'll land on a version of your story with your original thematic choices intact but the actual storytelling random and unique. For example, using the storyform choices outlined above, a random selection of generated storyforms with Gists could be:

  • Domain: Being a Winner
  • Concern: Having a Particular Group's Condition Grow Progressively Worse
  • Issue: Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security
  • Problem: Having High Expectations
  • Solution: Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence
  • Symptom: Writing a Thesis about Someone
  • Response: Suspecting Someone is Not True
  • Benchmark: Being at Hand for Something
  • Signpost 1: Studying Early Historic Cultures
  • Signpost 2: Improving One's Situation
  • Signpost 3: Having a Future
  • Signpost 4: Coping with the Current State of Affairs

A little more writer-friendly wouldn't you say?

You'll notice that I skipped the Unique Ability and the Critical Flaw. These two story points tie the Main Character Throughline to the Overall Story. Without the context of the Overall Story (i.e., we don't know what it is) we can't properly illustrate these appreciations and thus, will leave them out of this exercise. If you ended up using this exercise to further develop your Overall Story (or if you had done the Overall Story first) then you could come back and flesh them out for your Main Character. For now, we will concentrate on the Main Character Throughline exclusively.

Step Three - Get an Overall Feeling

First thing to do is to scan over the terms and get an overall feeling for who this Main Character is. What kind of a character would have problems with "being a winner" and would struggle against people having "high expectations" of him or her? How about a 16-year old gymnast fresh from her gold-medal performance at the International Olympics? That sounds good for someone who might have issues with "being threatening to someone" and might ponder "having a future".

Now, we lucked out with this one. Sometimes Dramatica will spit back a collection of Gists that in no way shape or form should be in the same story. That's a good thing! We want spontaneity, we want contrasting story points, and above all we want originality. Dramatica's unique story engine will make sure that all these Gists, regardless of subject matter, will thematically function together. So don't worry if your Playgrounds speak of "Having Alzheimer's Disease", "Having a Song Stuck in Your Head" and "Stealing Fire from the Gods"…Dramatica will make sure they operate as a whole.

The key here is to create a character who is nothing like the Main Character you might have in mind for your story. The further away from what you know the better. The more fun you have with it the better. Change the genre, change the gender, the age, the occupation…change it all! Move away from your story in order to get closer to it.

Step Four - Start Illustrating

Now that we have a general idea of who this character is and we have obliterated any preconceptions we had of them, we can start writing about him or her.

For this step, I sort of use the technique described in Armando Saldana Mora's book "Dramatica for Screenwriters" and included in the latest version of Dramatica–Instant Dramatica. I say sort of because I slightly modify it for this exercise and for the Main Character Throughline.2 For the Main Character Playground I write two or three lines for each of the following (and in this order):

  • Domain and Concern
  • Issue and Counterpoint
  • Problem
  • Symptom and Response
  • Solution
  • Benchmark
  • Signpost 1
  • Signpost 2
  • Signpost 3
  • Signpost 4

If this were the Relationship Throughline I might delay the Solution illustration to the end, especially since I have no indication within the storyform whether or not the Relationship will be resolved. Presumably we know this for the Main Character: if their Resolve is Change then the Solution will come into play. If Steadfast, then their Solution might fluctuate in and out of the story, but ultimately will not displace the Problem.

In addition to considering the Main Character Resolve, it's also a good idea to factor in the Story Judgment. The Resolve will let us know whether the Problem or Solution wins out, the Judgment will clue us in to how the Main Character feels about it. For our purposes we have a Main Character Resolve of Change and a Story Judgment of Good.

Back to our gymnast and my first take on this Main Character Playground:

Being a Winner and Having a Particular Group's Condition Grow Progressively Worse: 16 yr. old Malina struggles with her win at the 2002 Olympics. Everyone looks up to her as a champion, even her fellow teammates who, week by week, perform less effectively. Malina's status as America's "Golden Idol" makes it harder and harder for her to fit in with the team and other girls her own age.

Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security: Malina feels like a monster. Whether it's on the mat or down at the mall, girls feel threatened by her and gang up on her any chance they can get. It's an even bigger issue because, as an only child, she always liked the security she felt being part of something bigger than herself. Now her own success threatens that.

Having High Expectations: Malina's problems stem from her having such high expectations for herself, not only as a gymnast, but as a friend, as a daughter, and as a student. The pressure is unrelenting.

Writing a Thesis about Someone and Suspecting Someone is Not True: This pressure carries over into school where she struggles with writing a thesis paper about another young prodigy, Mozart. Supporting conclusions about his notoriety become so difficult that she suspects her teachers are wrong about him. And if they're wrong about Mozart, she suspects her teachers and even her coaches are not telling her the truth about her future potential.

Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence: Eventually Malina has a change of heart and decides that her teachers, the coaches, the girls on her team and the girls her age are all forming their conclusions about her based on circumstantial evidence. Just because she won a Gold Medal doesn't mean she's a winner at everything. With a great weight lifted, Malina walks the halls of her high school happy and comfortable in her own skin.

Being at Hand for Something: The more Malina has to be at the beck and call of her teammates to support them the more concerned she becomes with how badly they're doing.

Studying Early Historic Cultures: Malina's story begins in history class when a discussion of the Worl'ds Greats inevitably leads students to guessing whether or not she will join the history books.

Improving One's Situation: Malina combats the jealousy by honestly trying to help her teammates improve their performance and their ranking among other teams.

Having a Future: Malina discovers she has a future far beyond simply performing at Olympics–she has the skills and temperance of a great coach.

Coping with the Current State of Affairs: Malina copes with being part of a team of mediocre players–a team she is proud to be a part of.

Ramping Up the Creativity

As you can see this is an amazing leap from that initial Dramatica report. Instead of a few stunted lines about Progress and Expectation and Theory, we now have a fully realized character–a Main Character we can easily fit into our story.

Note how the progression of Signposts simply works. They fees like the development of a character who shifts their world-paradigm and by doing so, resolves her personal issues. Dramatica determined the order of signposts heeded to elicit that kind of ending. The Gists help us move away from Dramatica. Tr y writing a downer ending using that order of Signposts and you'll he hard pressed to do it. It won't feel natural. That's the power of Dramatica's story engine.

We haven't finished yet. Next week, we will cover the steps required to finish off the exercise and develop our creativity beyond where we ever thought possible before.

  1. A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. Different stories can have the same storyform, but have different storytelling (e.g., West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet) (Storyform 

  2. Other Throughlines have their own unique changes which I'll describe in next week's article. 

This article originally appeared June 26, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Dramatica Writers Workshop this September 20-21. Learn how to use the technique above on your own stories. Put complicated story theory to practical use!. Learn more.

Structure Is Not What Happens When

Separating out structure from writing leads to disaster. Failure to understand that the two work in concert to provide a message of intent to the audience fractures productions and removes responsibility of content from the creators. Story is structure.

One of the most frustrating experiences for someone proficient in the Dramatica theory of story dwells in listening to professional writers speak with inaccuracy towards structure. They might refer to the "MacGuffin." Or they might claim that one could remove all of structure and "still have a story." Or worse: they could attempt to marginalize the efforts of a consultant who just the day before had helped them propel an idea into production. Regardless, the ego-driven machinations of voices less than secure with their own contributions perhaps are best left for the therapist's couch.

Unless, of course, those voices persist in denigrating the work of story consultants.

Rather Be Seen Than Heard

Professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin love to beat up on the "story guru." Painting these story consultants as snake-oil salesman intent on robbing the innocent of what few dollars they have left, both August and Mazin assure their authority by tearing down the work of others.1

The latest Scriptnotes Podcast, Making Things Better By Making Things Worse, offers yet another opportunity to defend the work of the consultant and to clarify the Dramatica approach to structure. One gets the sense that the two hosts–both staunchly critical of script consultants and screenwriting books in the past–would actually appreciate the perspective of narrative provided by Dramatica, if only they would take the time to understand the concepts.

No page numbers. No step-by-step guarantee of success. And no formula driven cookie-cutter order of sequences to follow. Trying to say something with that character? Then you're going to need this other character to challenge her and provide the necessary counterpoint to your thematic argument.2 Need the story to end a certain way? Then you'll need to address some of these particular issues earlier rather than later.3 Dramatica completes the Author's message by filling in the blind spots inherent within the intention for writing. The purpose is never to write a Dramatica story. Rather, the purpose is to write the Author's story, with Dramatica filling in the blanks where necessary.

Dramatica is not easy. The theory– and the application that supports it–does not make screenwriting or any other form of writing less complex. If anything, it requires more complexity from Authors in the presentation of their stories. The purpose of the Dramatica theory of story is not to make it easier to write a movie in 21 days or to provide an easy set of 15 beats for writers to follow. Dramatica's sole function is to provide Authors the tools necessary to argue their points effectively and succinctly.

When to Reveal and Structure

In their first of their many inaccuracies with regards to structure John August, the screenwriter behind Go and Frankenweenie, has this to say about writing:

Structure is really about when things happen and when you reveal certain information. And I get frustrated by screenwriting textbooks because they always talk about structure as when in the sense of like on this page you're supposed to do this, and on this page you're supposed to do this, and hitting these page counts, when really it's so much more subtle than that.

Most of the books that August refer to identify those page numbers as 30, 60, 90 (or somewhere nearby). One could be cynical and assume that the gurus Mazin and August refer to seek easy-to-follow numbers in order to compensate for some deficiency of talent. Or one could see how the process of dividing a typical 120-page screenplay into four even movements naturally leads to those numbers. Either way the fact remains the same: every complete story consists of four Acts.

The Dramatica theory of story makes no reference to page numbers. It does, however, provide an explanation as to why Acts exist, why there seem to be four of them in every complete narrative, and helps shed light on the order of the thematic material for each of these major movements.

The theory also provides a clear distinction between when things happen within a story and when they reveal themselves to the Audience.

It's when are you giving a piece of information to the audience so that they have — it's how are you dolling out the information to the audience to get the best sense of what your story is.

Here August blends storyWEAVING with storyFORMING. Dramatica's storyform captures the complex process of problem-solving and distills it down to an arrangement of story points.4 This process, represented by the Signposts beneath each throughline, relies on the order of these story points to convey its conclusion. How that information is "doled out" to the Audience rests entirely in the talent and taste of the Author. The storyform forms during the storyFORMING phase of crafting an argument:

The storyENCODING phase attaches specific instances and unique identifiers to what would otherwise be a cold and mechanical presentation. Stories with similar storyforms rely on this phase to place distance between them.

The storyWEAVING phase finds the Author deciding on what to reveal and when. Starting with the end and working backwards may instill a level of apprehension or suspense, but it has no effect on the actual structure of the story. Unravel Christopher Nolan's Memento into its original chronological order and the storyform would remain the same. It most certainly would not have been as effective, but the meaning of the story–the argument encoded within the storyform–would have been understood to be the same.

The storyRECEPTION phase unfortunately relieves Authors of any remaining control over their story and thus, sits outside the purvey of this article. Suffice to say any number of intrusions, distractions or disruptions can contribute to the failed intent of a work. The Author can only write and hope that what they want to say will be heard and understood in the manner it was presented.

A Call for Better Storytelling

Presumably August and Mazin produce their podcast to inspire and enlighten those legions of writers who dream of seeing their work on-screen. Why then would they continue to disseminate disinformation in regards to structure? In a pattern that seems to repeat itself without fail, I have now been a part of three separate productions that plead no contest to the story provided to them. Not one single note. The reason for this rests in the fact that I was able to help the individual writers5 involved craft what Dramatica refers to as a "complete story. " By focusing the talent and passion towards a larger purpose, we left studio executives elated and thankful. This response owes much of its success towards the structure and understanding of narrative provided by Dramatica.

In the end we all want a memorable and heart-warming story. A well-structured narrative, informed by the Dramatica theory of story, captures hearts and minds–leaving those on the receiving end wanting even more.

Structure is not what happens when. Structure is why it all happens in the first place.

This article originally appeared July 31, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Dramatica workshop this September 13-14, 2014. Read more about the Dramatica Writers Workshop.

  1. August less so, as he at least allows for screenwriting knowledge delivered via book. But of course, read it and then forget it. 

  2. Dramatica refers to this character as the Influence Character–essentially, the character responsible for challenging the Main Character to deal with his or her personal justifications. 

  3. The order of events determines whether a story ends in Triumph or Tragedy (Meaningful Endings). 

  4. A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. Different stories can have the same storyform, but have different storytelling (e.g., West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet). The Dramatica storyform 

  5. One was a passion project that I actually wrote from the ground up. 

The Crucial Element of Screenwriting in Action

When does story theory overcomplicate the writing process? The drive to understand all that is Dramatica sometimes works against Authors. In a case where too much knowledge can be a bad thing, suppressing the urge to overthink may prove beneficial.

Dramatica's Crucial Element. In a theory as complex and comprehensive as Dramatica, the idea that one part may be more crucial than another tends to be an attention-grabber. Further examination proves the concept to be less important as the name implies. The Crucial Element is crucial to the storyform, not the story itself. It details the connecting tissue between the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines, not the lynchpin for your story's success.* In other words the element is more crucial to the Author in understanding his or her story, rather than an element crucial for the Audience to pick up on. If you ignore it, other story points will make sure that the message comes through loud and clear.

Still not buying it? Chris Huntley, co-creator of the theory has this to say about the crucial element:

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.

See? You don't have to worry about it...

...still here? Sigh. Ok. Just don't say I didn't warn you. Time to crawl down the rabbit hole of structure.

The Problem with Crucial Elements

If you followed the above link, or have researched the Crucial Element previously, you came across this:

If the MC is change and the outcome is success, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC problem.

If the MC is change and the outcome is failure, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC solution.

The first makes sense. The Main Character was part of the problem everyone was facing (like Luke in Star Wars or Neo in The Matrix); they change and everything works out.

The second doesn't. How can the Main Character have the Solution element and the Problem element. If his Main Character Problem defines who he is, how can he possibly be defined in the Overall Story Throughline as the opposite element? It makes sense that if our Main Character is dealing with Actuality and sees things for how they are, then logically he should have that same element in the Overall Story. Yet here is Dramatica saying otherwise. Won't this make our Main Character schizophrenic?

The answer requires a little perspective.

Objective and Subjective Views

If a story represents an analogy to the problem solving process of the mind then it follows that a story should showcase views from within and without.** Inequities (conflict) look different depending on your point-of-view. The efforts to resolve conflict will appear differently as well, depending on the kind of story you want to tell.

So while your Main Character may personally be suffering from too heavy a reliance on what actually happened (Actuality), objectively they might be driven to alter how things seem to be (Perception). Especially if you want to tell a story that ends in a Failure.

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to a reader exploring this somewhat duplicitous stance Dramatica takes. The storyform in question identified these key story points:***

  • MC Resolve: Change
  • OS Goal: Understanding
  • Story Outcome: Failure
  • MC Problem: Actuality
  • MC Crucial Element: Perception

Putting the Crucial Element to Work

"...when it says your MC has a Crucial Element of Perception that is referring to his or her function in the Overall Story. I'm not sure exactly what your Overall StoryThroughline is about but if, for example, all your characters were concerned with figuring out why 1/3 of the world's population simply disappeared (totally ripping this off from HBO's "The Leftovers"), then you might look at it this way.

Let's say your Main Character leads a new religion based on the perception that the reason they are left here is because of something wrong they have done in the past, i.e. the 1/3 disappeared because of the "Rapture" and the rest are left to stay and ponder what they themselves did wrong.

OK. That is the Overall Story Throughline.

Now let's say the Main Character Throughline is all about the man's dead wife. He can't get over the fact that he was responsible for her death (Kind of ripping this off from Inception). He was the one driving the car the night she was killed, he was the one who had too much to drink that night, he was the one who thought he could make it past the intersection in time...you get the point--regardless of whether or not it was an accident the facts of the matter are--he killed her. And he can't get over it.

You see how this plays nicely into the Overall Story...here's a guy who is torn up over what he did, and now projects that guilt onto everyone else around him, perceiving that this worldwide event is punishment for wrongs they all have done.

Perception when it comes to everyone else and those leftover. Actuality when it comes to killing his wife. The inequity at the heart of the story remains the same, it remains a singular instance of separateness. It simply looks like Actuality from within and Perception from without.

Your story is a Change/Failure/Good story. This means your Main Character will somehow Change their point-of-view, flip it to approach life more like the Influence Character, and will therefore resolve the angst and guilt he felt for his wife.

He does this by taking the Perception he was putting out for everyone in the Overall Story and placing it instead within his own Personal Throughline.

So instead of going to those religious zealot meetings and continuing the perception that they all are guilty, the Main Character turns it back on himself--maybe through therapy or whatever--and finds that the only way to get rid of his guilt is through changing his own perceptions of what happened that night. Essentially fooling himself into seeing that--yeah, maybe he was right to try and make it past that intersection. Just because he was drunk doesn't mean to him it wasn't the right decision at that time. The facts don't lie, but he was the one actually driving the car...from his point-of-view he made the right decision...and that's all that matters.

But see, by "taking" this element out of play of the Overall Story and using it for his own personal problems, the Main Character removes the opportunity for that Perception to have a positive impact on everyone. It is true that all these people disappeared, and it is a lot of pain for those left behind to go through--almost the same kind of pain the MC felt living a life without his beloved. A little perception--no matter how misguided--could have helped alleviate the suffering and depression of millions...but that's not the story you're trying to write.

Your story ends in Failure. Which means everyone in the big picture story--everyone "leftover" from this cataclysmic event--will be left unable to understand why any of this happened. The efforts to Understand (Overall Story Goal) will end in Failure. Instead of coming to place where they Understand that sometimes s* happens, they'll be forced to simply imagine what happened to their loved ones and work towards figuring out a plan to live out their lives alone (Overall Story Consequence: Conceptualizing).

Seeing Everything at Once

You can see how the Crucial Element plays out nicely in a story like this. What a character deals with personally may be different than what he or she puts out there in the real world. His or her personal "stuff" will still be connected--just not the way you think it will because you're looking at things from a single perspective.****

Beyond simply connecting the Overall Story Throughline with the Main Character Throughline, the Crucial Element ensures a continuity of thematic intent--the whole Change/Failure/Good Actuality to Perception storyform you have decided to tell comes through loud and clear for everyone in the Audience to understand. In addition, the storyform has made the Main Character a complex character, conflicted on different levels. Always a good thing.

The question now is...is that the story you wanted to tell?

This article originally appeared June 12, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day Dramatica Workshop of all things Dramatica the second week of September 2014 (Sep. 13-14). Read more about The Dramatica Writers Workshop.

A few definitions:

* Throughlines: For a story to feel complete it needs to have 4 different Throughlines, each representing a different perspective on the story's central inequity. (The Four Throughlines)

** Storymind: Dramatica's central concept lies in the idea that a story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. (The Story Mind)

*** Storyform: A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. (Storyform)

**** Perspective: Dramatica offers you a chance to see every angle--to see the problem from every point-of-view. This is something we can't do in real life (at the same time). Dramatica helps you write complete stories.

The Schizophrenic Stories of Pixar's Brave

'Tis not a typo. If a functioning story resembles a single human mind trying to solve a problem then the duplicitous and haphazard nature of Pixar's Brave suggests a split-personality. A psychotic mess of storytelling, this film of two minds exemplifies the need for a better understanding of story structure.

Pixar Animation Studios wrote the book on story during the turn of the century. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monster's Inc., and The Incredibles set the bar for intelligent and well-structured storytelling. Strange then that their thirteenth film, Brave should grab a C+ on the critic compilation site Rotten Tomatoes. Logic dictates that success build upon success ad infinitum. Their film the year before, Toy Story 3, scored 99%. Brave racked up a paltry 78%. What went wrong?

A Tale of Two Directors

Writer director Brenda Chapman originally conceived the project in 2008 (then called The Bear and the Bow). When the film went into production she became Pixar's first female director. This lasted until 2010 when she was replaced by Mark Andrews over creative disagreements. This split in vision, regardless of Chapman's eventual acceptance of the film, fractured the story's narrative and melded two incomplete stories together. Merida did turn out to simply be a boy in woman's clothing (as speculated in the 2011 article Female Main Characters who Think Like Female Main Characters) and the film faltered on three key aspects of story structure: the Story Driver, the Story Limit, and the Main Character's Resolve. Addressing these issues might have saved the film from the under-80 club.

Story Driver

For stories to argue their points effectively they need to establish impetus up front. Decisions will call for actions which will call for more action and so on. Once the Author sets the argument in motion with either an action or a decision, he or she must honor that structural point of reference. If a decision or deliberation ignited the fuel of a story's problem then a corresponding decision or deliberation will eliminate it. Same if the spark had been lit by an action--a corresponding action would smother the flames of conflict. Actions can't solve decision making problems and choices can't solve problems of action. Audiences expect the second half of the action/decision decision/action equation to be found as a result of the first. Without it they can't determine the causality of the argument.

Brave is driven by both actions and decisions, depending on which story you're looking at. In the first story, the parent's decision to invite suitors and the suitor's acceptance of the invitation forces Merida to compete for her own hand. Had her parents and suitors decided otherwise, Merida would never have raised her bow and torn her dress. This story ends when Merida's mother Elenor capitulates and motions for Merida to break with tradition. That decision brings to an end the argument over individual determination vs. predestined tradition.

The second story sits smack dab in the middle of the first and quite coincidentally, consists of a Plot Witch (or more appropriately a Plotwhich). Beginning with mother's ingestion of the poisoned cake and ending with the sun rising on the second day, this alternate narrative finds itself driven by actions. Mother transforms and questions arise. Do I tell Dad? Merida might ask. Or do I keep it a secret and ask the Witch for my money back? What do I decide to do? Contrast this with the first story and its parental decree of betrothal. What can I do to fight back?

In either case, the narrative breaks. The two stories don't form separate arguments the way one would expect when a work consists of different stories (Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets or Lord of the Rings). Instead what one finds is the sane argument being made in a way that contradicts itself. Do actions drive decisions or do decisions drive actions? In Brave the answer is yes.

Story Limit

Arguments need boundaries. They need borders to help define their scope and refine their aim. In story these markers appear as a finite number of options or a finite amount of time. Are we witnessing the pressure to solve a problem when time is running out or when options are taken from us? Again, in Brave the answer is yes.

In the first story you have a finite number of suitors: the clans MacGuffin, Macintosh and Dingwall. Add Merida to the mix and you have four little Indians to work through before mom and dad (really mom) has to make the final decision.

But before any of that can play out, Merida makes her deal with the devil and the countdown begins. Now, instead of being concerned with dwindling options we find ourselves racing against the clock. Is it about the promise of betrohal or the witch's curse? Again, yes. The story feels like it ends when mom circumvents the original Optionlock and allows Merida to do what she wants, but it doesn't. In fact, it goes on for another 20 minutes as we patiently wait for something to happen before the sun rises on the second day. What exactly we don't know, because that all-important decision leap-frogged the original scope of the story.

When Both Characters Change

Regardless of the previous missteps-forgivable with the proper storytelling--the greatest offense to narrative occurs with that very same decision. Merida, inspired by her mother's unique situation as a bear in a castle that hates bears, steps out in front of the clans and takes control of the chaos. Confessing her act of selfish defiance Merida proclaims her willingness to give up the bow and choose a suitor. At the very same time--and in a surprisngly touching emotional moment--Elinor also changes her point-of-view, insisting that Merida be allowed to choose in her own time.

What the what?

You can't have both principal characters change their point-of-view within the same context. The original argument found individual determination pitted against tradition. To have both switch sides doesn't resolve the conflict, it only swaps the players. The Main Character and Influence Character of a story represent unique points-of-view on the same thing. This is why you frequently come across the cliched line of dialogue, "You and I are both alike." The conflict exists between these two characters because they're both looking at the same thing. One side has their approach, the other has theirs.

Take the arument between black and white. Really, there isn't an argument because black and white represent two different contexts. No conflict. Instead, the more appropriate argument would be to pit black and white against shades of gray. Now we're looking at the same thing from two different points-of-view. Some see black and white, some see gray. Conflict ensues. To then have both sides switch and somehow argue for a compromise between them doesn't work. You can't argue black and white and gray because there are elements of black and white within gray. It's either one or the other.

As covered in the article A Reason for Rules and the series Character & Change:

Surely compromise solves problems. But in order to tell that story, one character would have to maintain an all-or-nothing perspective while the other would call for greater synergy. The former would eventually change and the story would end in triumph, proving that compromise solves problems.

Selfishness is one context. Compromise another. The context in which both Merida and her mother come into conflict surrounds the idea of doing what you want vs. following tradition. They both changed on this issue, ultimately proving nothing. Even more disastrous--they made this emotional change-of-heart before the Final Act.

The Natural Development of Character

Acts exist not to divide a story up into convenient sections. but rather to grant a subjective character the necessary growth needed to come to a place where resolve can change. Finding solutions to problems requires characters to examine all the different contexts. Leaving one out blinds the character to a possible resolution and cheats the audience out of a well-rounded argument. Acts exist to provide these different contexts, different areas where they can try out a solution.

Both Merida and Elinor change before they have a chance to look into that final context, that final Act. This False Moment is why the film feels like it ends early and why we have no idea what we're waiting for as the sun rises. Why--after having this major emotional breakthrough in the banquet hall--would Merida continue to sew that blanket? (while riding horseback of all things). She already mended the bond torn by pride. Having her continue to sew would be like Luke saying "I'm not such a bad fighter pilot myself" AFTER turning off his targeting computer!

Psychotic Breakdown

Watching Brave allows one the opportunity to experience the sensations of a mental breakdown. With two minds to choose from, separate contexts within which to measure change, fluid borders to throw our sense of time and space off, and a complete lack of logical and emotional progression, the events of Brave depict a state of mind in psychosis. Losing contact with the reality of proper narrative loses contact with the Audience. The result? Critical meh.

As a story consultant I'm frequently challenged with, "Why can't both characters change?" Brave offers an easy reference tool and a cautionary tale for the insanity that occurs when one breaks with the tradition of story structure.

[^cars2]: Technically Cars 2 came out the year prior and scored a 38%, but no one likes to talk about him. Like that strange 3rd cousin nobody cares to acknowledge.

This article originally appeared May 29, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day discussion of all things Dramatica the first week of June 2014 (Jun. 7-8). Read more about The Weekend of Dramatica.

The Problem with Problems of Character
When granted a new understanding of story, writers tend to latch onto one or two key items. They sense the benefit of a new story point for their writing and quickly add it to their tool belt. The problem lies in assuming this new understanding a lone operator.

Six years of teaching Story Development at California Institute of the Arts granted me insight into common mistakes Authors make. In this case, many of the students within the Character Animation program would pick and choose from the various story points I would present them. They would grab and use the ones that made those most sense, and then toss aside those that didn't seem to apply.

The Same Story

Tasked with creating short 2-minute films, these filmmakers wasted no time assigning their characters a specific problem. They understood the need to have a character driven by some flaw and successfully incorporated this point of story within their films. Yet many would fall into the trap of not letting their characters actually resolve their personal issues.

Whatever their characters were driven by, they simply had them stop doing it. A guy chasing after a girl stopped chasing. A kid driven to succeed in business stopped trying. An artist working on a project gave up. Across the board the consensus was: have your character stop what they're doing and all will be fine.

But stopping a problem doesn't resolve it.

The Persistence of Inequity

Hunger hits and suddenly you can't concentrate. Lethargy sets in--maybe even crankiness--productivity reaches an all-time low. What do you do to solve it? You eat. The meal satisfies and your hunger subsides. Problem solved.

Until you become hungry again.

One must remove the possibility of hunger in order to overcome this cycle. Take a pill. Rewire the digestive system. Real problems require real solutions, fighting symptoms does nothing as the potential for conflict remains.

This same process drives characters.

A Short Story Problem

Let's say we have a character with a gambling problem. More specifically, lets give her an obsession with winning the perfecta down at the track. At the end of the story we want her to overcome her gambling addiction. We do this by having her simply stop gambling.

The end.

But does that feel complete?

A Solution for Every Problem

For every problem a character encounters, a solution exists. In the example above, our gambler has a problem of Pursuit--she keeps chasing that high, keeps running after that next win. The solution for Pursuit is Avoid (or Prevent). In order for our character to overcome her gambling addiction, she will have to actively avoid or prevent herself from going to the track. "I'm never going back there again" or paying the security guards at the gate to keep her from going in would signify a real resolution of her personal problems.

Simply stopping pursuing does not accomplish the same result.

A character's problem causes them tremendous grief. From the context of their point-of-view, their problem drives their throughline. In our example of the gambler, every trouble she experiences stems from this pursuing. Not pursuing simply turns down the dial on her problem. It doesn't resolve her gambling addiction. It turns down the dial enough that the character thinks (or in this case, the subjective writer thinks) that they have resolved things. But as soon as things ratchet up again, the problem returns and it becomes clear the character has not resolved a thing.

Beneath the Surface

Going to zero does not mean off. The problem doesn't go away, it simply diminishes to a point where one is no longer aware of it. The waves of trouble the problem creates seem to go away, but the problem itself doesn't disappear. It's still there, waiting to rise again.

Consider the earthquake and the tsunami. If the tsunamis is the apparent problem, then the earthquake that caused it is the actual source of the problem. The tsunami wrecks havoc and then dissipates, capturing the brunt of our attention. You could perhaps find a way to combat the tsunami or stop earthquakes from creating tsunamis, but you wouldn't really be solving anything. As soon as another earthquake hits, the tsunmai would return and whose to say this time it won't be even stronger then the defenses you've created.

Contrast this with actually taking action to prevent earthquakes from happening in the first place. Now you would never have to deal with the tsunami because you would be addressing the actual problem at its source, not its symptom. The tsunamis would never return.

This is the kind of change characters need to resolve their problems.

The Reason for Bookends

Characters focus on the symptoms of the problems affecting them. They can't see their actual problem and thus any effort given to overcome them would never completely resolve their issues. By employing the solution to their problem, characters resolve the inequity within them and the problem no longer exists as a problem. They resolve things by changing the context.

This is why many Authors resort to bookend scenes. By presenting their characters within the same situation they can show an Audience how the context has changed for that character. In Hamlet, Hamlet is told that his uncle killed his father. By the victim no less! What does he do? He thinks it away, convinces himself otherwise. Later on he sees his mother die from a drink handed to her by her husband (his uncle). Does he think about it? No, he acts right away secure in the knowledge that his uncle did it.

Same situation, different context.

These bookend scenes test a Main Character. It gives them an opportunity to show that their behavior has changed, that their context for approaching problems has changed. More importantly it grants an Author the chance to define what it is they want to say with their work.

In a closed story, an Author wraps things up. A complete story has meaning, it has edges. By changing the context from which a character approaches a problem, the Author opens up the possibility of putting things in a different context. He or she defines the edges of a story by completing it and presenting the potential for a new story.

Ambiguitiy curses good narrative. By refusing to define where they stood on a parituclar issue many of my students failed to actually say something with their work. Their films were forgotten minutes later. Many writers I consult with suffer from this same affliction.

A Holistic Understanding of Story and Character

Problems don't make sense in an of themselves when it comes to story. Like most story points, problems must be seen in the context of everything else around them. They come with symptoms and responses to those symptoms, they come with solutions and goals and consequences towards not achieving those goals.

The problem with most of my students (and more accurately the way I was teaching it at the time) was that they were simply thinking of the problem itself. Their character had a problem with chasing after their dreams, so they stopped chasing. End of story. The students felt this worked because they weren't thinking of the entirety of a problem within a character, they weren't thinking of the symptoms, the solution or any consequence towards their characters failing.

They were focusing on one story point.

Dramatica, and more specifically the Dramatica concept of a storyform, presents a holistic framework for an argument.[^storyform] The storyform argues for a particular approach to solving problems. Taking just one of these story points out of context destroys the whole purpose of the storyform and removes any potential gain such an understanding could give to an Author. When considering a story point, Authors must consider all story points. The system works as a cohesive whole and must always be understood in its entirety, not piecemeal.

This article originally appeared April 10, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day discussion of all things Dramatica the first week of June 2014 (Jun. 5-6). Tell me more about The Weekend of Dramatica.

Dumbing Down Dramatica
Familiarity and ease of use comes with a cost. Making things simpler confuses something that needs a degree of complexity to be understood. Stories exist as analogies to our minds ability to solve problems. While those minds might be simple, the tools to examine them shouldn't.

A recent analysis of the Peter Sellers' classic 1981 film Being There unraveled a stumbling block. After a semester and a half of learning Dramatica, the students in my Story Analysis at CalArts had become quite proficient in identifying the Influence Character. Regardless of the movie--Casablanca, On the Waterfront or Brokeback Mountain--they always seemed to nail this part of story structure with ease.

Being There proved a little more challenging.

Main Characters Who Influence

Being There tells the story of Chance (Peter Sellers) and the profound changes his simple-mindedness brings to Washington politics. Obsessed with television and gardening, Chance unknowingly drops wisdom on those consumed by the chaos of a stifling economy. Many take comfort in his words and his calm demeanor, changing the way they think because of his influence.

Like Forrest Gump, Being There presents a Main Character who modifies the viewpoints of those around him. This dynamic rings true for most Main Characters with a Steadfast Resolve. William Wallace in Braveheart, Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon and Henry Fonda's character in 12 Angry Men bring change to the world around them rather than experience significant change themselves. Yet in all these cases, the Main Characters still had a significant relationship with another character who influenced their own point of view. Fonda had Lee Cobb, Hiccup had his dad, and Wallace had Robert the Bruce. Each Main Character knew the impact and influence this other Influence Character had on them.

Chance never had a clue. His mental condition and his obliviousness to everything around him made him a Main Character impervious to any kind of persuasion. The theory of Dramatica is clear: No Influence Character, no story.

Could this be a case where the film transcends theory?

If It Ain't Broke

Saddled with this disconnect I contacted Chris Huntley, co-creator of Dramatica, to get his take. He responded:

This is an instance where the label "Influence" character doesn't fit. Imagine it was labeled "Challenge" character...MUCH better fit, and closer to the original "Obstacle" character (or Opposition character)

Being There provides another example where the attempt to make Dramatica more palatable resulted in the theory losing a level of accuracy. The original term for Influence Character was Obstacle Character. Why Obstacle? Because this character's primary role in a story is to act as an obstacle to the Main Character living their life blind to their own personal issues.

Every Main Character comes to a story packed with some sort of justifications for their behavior. These issues, built up during a time usually referred to as Backstory, motivate the Main Character to behave the way they do. Main Characters go on about their day not knowing why they do the things they do because this process of justification hides those problems away. If Main Characters were aware of their foibles, they would solve them.

This is why you have a story. And this is why the Main Character needs an Obstacle Character.

The Obstacle Character shines a light on the Main Character's justifications and says, "Hey buddy, you've got some serious problems!" They stand in the way of the Main Character's personal growth (or lack of personal growth in this case) and push or pull the Main Character into changing.

Unfortunately over the past two decades, many writers confused Obstacle Character with the Objective Character role of Antagonist. You can't blame them. Dramatica says there's an Obstacle Character? Well of course they must mean the bad guy of the story... Not quite.

The "bad guy" of the story (or Antagonist) works to prevent the successful resolution of the Story Goal for everyone. The Obstacle Character works on the Main Character's personal issues. Sometimes the Obstacle Character can be the bad guy (like The Joker in The Dark Knight or Ra's al Ghul in Batman), but more often than not this role splits off into its own separate character (like Samantha in her, Mud in Mud or Woody in Nebraska).

In a film like Being There, the separation between bad guy and influence becomes even more complicated.

Standing in the Shoes of an Idiot

The Dramatica definition of a Main Character is that character through which the audience experiences the story. We witness Being There through Chance's eyes because we are new to this crowd of Washington players. It might be more difficult because of his mental condition, but we don't know what Rand has planned for Chance and the idea that a car would be waiting for us on demand is presented as something new and surprising. The audience shares Chance's perspective in spite of his affliction.

Placing us in his shoes makes it difficult to empathize with them, but not impossible. The problem rests in finding who stands in opposition to our simple-minded obliviousness.

Another Train of Thought

In class we determined that Rand was the Influence Character. As the one person who seems to strike up a remarkable relationship with Chance, Rand seemed like the obvious choice. He also changed his Resolve, flipping from a character afraid to even talk about death to one concerned with getting his affairs in order.

However he never really represented a challenge to Chance.

As with most everyone else in the story, Rand interprets Chance's point-of-view as something profound and transformative. Everyone accepts Chance's words and embraces them with fervor. Everyone that is, except the Doctor.

Dr. Allenby is the only one who sees Chance for who he really is. From the very beginning he challenges Chance and his true intentions. He may not appear in the film often, but when he does it is always in opposition to Chance's point-of-view. This is what Influence Characters (and more accurately, Obstacle Characters) do, they challenge and bring into question the Main Character's way of solving problems.

Dr. Allenby continues to investigate and track the new arrival's history until finally he discovers Chance's true identity. Yet, instead of revealing this to everyone, the Doctor keeps to himself. Why? Because like other Influence Characters with a Change Resolve, he has accepted the Main Character's way of seeing things. By stating he "understands" and keeping the truth to himself, Dr. Allenby embraces the truth of simply "being there".

Getting to Know the Dynamics of Story

For the most part the term Influence Character works. Unfortunately there are times, as in the case of Being There, where the term muddles the true role of such a character and makes analysis a difficult task. It might also reduce the motivation to write stories with dynamics similar to this one. Understanding what this character truly does within a story, and refusing to be bogged down by more approachable and "friendlier" terminology, makes it easier to write and analyze successful narrative.

This article originally appeared March 20, 2014 on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. Jim will be leading a 2-day discussion of all things Dramatica the first week of June 2014 (Jun. 5-6). Tell me more about The Weekend of Dramatica

Learning Heroes vs. Teaching Heroes
The latest trend in Hero worship differentiates between central characters that educate and central characters that are educated. While accurate in certain contexts, digging deeper into story structure one can see that there is an important distinction to be made.

When taken as a whole, it seems as if there are two major categories of Heroes. On the one side you have those that transform while on the other you have those that are transformative. Heroes that learn and heroes that teach. But for a concept of story structure to prove useful to writers it must apply to all stories, regardless of genre or setting.

The learning/teaching concept works fine for "teaching" characters like William Wallace in Braveheart or Hogarth in The Iron Giant, but what about Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs or Jake Gittes in Chinatown? All four characters manage to transform those around them, but can one say that Clarice was a "teaching Hero" to Hannibal Lecter? And in the case of Jake, how can he possibly be responsible for educating others when he doesn't even have a clue himself?

Stories are Less About Teaching and More About Solving Problems

The mistaken assumption lies in the thought that stories are about characters developing by gaining or passing on knowledge. Luke may have learned to trust his feelings in Star Wars and Kirk may have taught those around him to rebel against authority in Star Trek, but to what end? Would it be accurate to suggest that this new knowledge came as a result of trying to solve a problem?

In Star Wars, Luke had a problem with testing himself, he solved those problems by trusting his feelings. In Star Trek, it was Spock who created problems with his tendency to lash out uncontrollably when confronted with his own unique heritage. Kirk's drive to oppose those who stood in his way helped solve Spock's problems by encouraging the confused Vulcan to employ a little control.

When viewed in this light, both films can be seen as efficient and popular models of effective problem solving. Thinking in terms of learning or teaching confuses the issue with the subjective interpretations of the audience. In other words, it becomes less of an effective tool for writers trying to create a story.

Protagonists who Teach, Main Characters who Learn

In addition, there are times when it seems like Heroes could be both learners and teachers. Amelie (in the aptly titled Amelie) could be seen as a teaching Hero. Her gentle manipulations of those in her social circle result in the majority of them re-evaluating their situation in life, each finding a relative sense of harmony. Yet she also learns to re-evaluate her own anti-social behavior through her relationship with Mr. Glass.

Is Amelie a teaching Hero or a learning Hero?

One could say both, but in doing would diminish the usefulness of such categorizing. The problem is that Amelie is both Protagonist and Main Character. When looking at her in terms of her objective role as a Protagonist she can be seen as a "teacher." When viewing her in terms of her subjective role as Main Character she can be seen as a "learner." And while it is clear that the Protagonist is not always the Main Character, in these situations when it is, the idea of splitting Heroes into learners or teachers becomes less beneficial.

One Changes While the Other Stands Their Ground

Within a complete story, two approaches towards solving the problem at hand are presented: one by the central character of the piece (often referred to as the Hero, but more accurately as the Main Character) and the other by another character who develops a significant relationship with the first. Both approaches to problem-solving battle it out act by act until the end when one changes to adopt the other's paradigm. This is what is going on when people refer to the "arc" of a character.

Whether this shift was the right thing to do or the correct approach for success is covered in detail in the series on Meaningful Endings, but suffice it to say that the answers to these questions contain the Author's Proof or message of the piece. Instead of determining whether the Hero/Main Character has learned or taught something, this final stage of character development helps to support the Author's position. Stories are less about characters learning something, and more about an Author trying to argue the efficacy of a particular approach.

A Matter of Resolve

Instead of looking at Heroes as either teaching or learning, it is far more accurate to look at them in terms of their final resolve. Do they change and adopt a new way of approaching problems or do they stand their ground and forge ahead? If they do maintain their approach, it will be that other significant character they developed a relationship with that will change. This is how an argument is made through narrative fiction.

Suddenly, films that don't quite fit the learning/teaching paradigm make sense. In Winter's Bone, did Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) teach anybody anything? No. But she did stand her ground in her efforts to find her missing father, and in doing managed to influence her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) to change his approach. In Amadeus, did Salieri teach those around him? Of course not. He set to destroy Mozart and saw those efforts to the end. In that tragedy it was Mozart who changed his approach, working himself to his own early grave.

Developing a Story With Accuracy

Thinking in terms of a learning Hero or a teaching Hero isn't necessarily wrong. In some contexts (family films) this approach could be considered helpful. But in the final analysis of all stories, regardless of genre or intended audience, thinking in terms of the Main Character's final resolve grants greater accuracy. This concept of story structure applies to any story or piece of fiction that wishes to transmit some deeper meaning.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The learning Hero is always a Change Main Character. The teaching Hero is always a Steadfast Main Character. When people speak of teaching or learning Heroes what they are really referring to is the Main Character's Resolve.

The problem is that the converse is not always true. Change Main Characters do not always learn something (Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential, William Munny in Unforgiven). And Steadfast Main Characters do not always teach (Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles). As usual, the objectivity of Dramatica encompasses all fiction and provides a solid touch point from which to build a story.

This article originally appeared March 3, 2011 on Jim's Narrative First website. It is part of a series of articles on Heroes. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

For more articles by James Hull, click here.

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