James Hull Articles: Archive VIII

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.

A Predictive Story Engine for Gaming

By far, the most interesting conversation surrounding Dramatica today is the discussion of its application to interactive fiction. As a huge fan of Infocom's text-based adventures of yesteryear I find talk of an intelligent story engine running the show for gamers a very exciting development.

Melanie Anne Phillips, the other co-creator of Dramatica, recently took time out to address the use of the theory in gaming and even offers some insight into how this would be done:

Consider, then, the first-person player perspective in a game is not necessarily to provide experiences in a sequence that will bring the MC to the point of potential change, but rather to explore all corners of the Story World until the nature of how all the elements and dynamics at work in that particular storyform are identified and understood.

My first thought as to how to use Dramatica to craft a game was, in fact, to provide a storyform for the player to inhabit. The player would be the Main Character of the story and some other character would be the Influence Character. And somehow they would develop a relationship that would fit perfectly into the Relationship Throughline. Turns out that might not be the right approach:

The player, by choosing in what order to explore the world is much better put in the position of narrator, the interlocutor who determines for himself or herself the order in which the components of the story world are to be explored - much as one might make multiple trips to a buffet table or select items in dim sum and choose the order in which to consume them.

Player as narrator, instead of player as Main Character. Instead of forcing the player to experience the story in the order it has to happen for the Main Character, the story gears the unfolding of the experience around the player's choices. In other words, as an element outside the system the player as narrator can't break the storyform. The engine merely compensates for the change in direction and offers the player the next piece of the puzzle–whatever piece he or she moved towards.

An IF in which the player is actually the narrator, then the MC appears from time to time in the story world, having experienced things in the proper order for him to make a choice, but likely in a different order than the player. For example, the MC in the story world shows up and the player says – "Let's work together and head up to the badlands." The MC replies, "Already been there, just before the big explosion. Change me in ways I'd rather not talk about, but it made me realize there may be another way of looking at the morality of this whole conflict." And then he disappears back into the battle.

Makes perfect sense. And accounts for the unpredictability of the player.

Application in Table Top Role-Playing Games

It probably comes as no surprise that I always loved being the Dungeon Master growing up. Sure, it was fun sometimes to take my thieving hobbit off into a Cave of Chaos or into the Abyss every now and then, but the real fun for me was always creating the environment for my brother or friends to play in.

I wonder now if Dungeons & Dragons might be a good place to test out Melanie's player as narrator theory.

Over the summer, I had started to craft a storyform for my kids to inhabit but stopped when I was faced with the aspect of who the Main Character would be. Compound that with a group of kids who relish doing the opposite of what dad wants, and you've got the recipe for an afternoon disaster.

But now the approach is clear. Create a story for the kids to play in, but set the Main Character and the Influence Character as non-player characters. That way I can insure that they'll follow along in the proper Signpost order. The kids (or players) can choose to interact or step away as they wish, and in the end they'll have interacted with a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling story.

How An Inequity—And A Story—Is Made

Stories reflect the mind's problem-solving process. The story of how a mind arrives at the point where it requires this process is known as backstory. More than a background history lesson, this pre-story story can also be understood as a process of justification.

A frequently used example to describe what it means when Dramatica refers to "an inequity between characters and their environment" is the example of the desire for a new car and a car. I use it during my Weekend Workshops and I used it when I used to teach story at CalArts.

In short—the desire for a new car is not a problem. A car is not a problem. The desire for a car is not a problem. What does create the potential for a problem is the space between the two: the human mind sees this space as an inequity. When faced with an inequity you have two choices: resolve the inequity or justify it away.

Removing an inequity

Resolving the Inequity

You can resolve the inequity in different ways. For one, you could lose your desire for the new car. Get rid of the desire, no more separateness between things, no more inequity. Everything returns to Zen. OR you can get the car. Get the car, you no longer have a desire for it, no more space in-between, no more inequity, everything returns to normal.

But what if you don't have the means for a car AND you can't get rid of the desire? That's when you start the justification process.

Justifying the Inequity

When deciding the alternate path of justification, your mind first looks to see where it is going to focus its attention. Let's say you focus on the car. If you do that, then you "lock" the desire for the car away—you're no longer going to consider losing that desire as an option. Your attention is focused on the car.

With the desire locked away the car itself now becomes a PROBLEM. You don't have a car and that frustrates the heck out of you. The car is now a problem only because your mind determined it wasn't going to reconsider the desire. This is where the Justification process begins and where Dramatica fits in.

A Process for Solving Problems

The Dramatica model isn't showing you the inequity, the model is showing you the mind's problem-solving process. With the car as a problem, you automatically create a solution: more cash. Now you have a Problem (the car) and a Solution (more cash). But what if you don't have enough cash? Well then,you make not having cash a Problem by hiding that First Problem of not having a car. You've justified or hidden away that Problem and created a new Problem. Now you're looking for a Solution for a Solution.

This repeats until eventually you'll get to the 4th level of Justification (fully justified) where you are looking for a Solution for a Solution for a Solution; this is where most stories begin and where you can find yourself lost as to why you do the things you do. You're lost because you have TOTALLY forgotten your original motivation for why you behave the way you do. Sounds like a justified Main Character, right?

This story process (or storyform) depicts the process of tearing those justifications down, at least in a story that features a Main Character with a Changed Resolve. The next step in the cycle is where you'll find Steadfast Main Characters; their stories tell the process of building justifications up.

The storyform isn't about an inequity, but rather the mind's process of problem-solving or justifying a problem that came from an inequity between things.

This Week in Story Structure

The Story Of Steve Jobs Has Meaning

Everyone is up-in-arms over Sorkin's latest take on a Silicon Valley megalomaniac who changed the world:

This time, Sorkin's subject [Steve Jobs] isn't around to argue the point — an observation Apple designer Jony Ive made at the Vanity Fair Summit in San Francisco this week, decrying those who would "hijack" Jobs's legacy.


This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Dramatica.1 Real life is meaningless; stories are meaningful. You can't give an audience the satisfaction and emotional fulfillment they expect from a great story without twisting the truth of what happened.

This is why people love stories and why they keep coming back to them time and time again–because you can get something from them that you can't in real life: meaning.

The Four Perspectives

You need the four different perspectives—or Throughlines—to see the conflict in all the various contexts. You need to see it personally (Main Character), personal but separate (Influence Character), in a subjective relationship (Relationship Story) and in an objective relationship (Overall Story). You need to see all of these in order to keep yourself from remaining blind to what might be really going on from a different perspective.

This is most likely the source of the film's backlash—friends and coworkers who had a certain perspective on Jobs; friends and coworkers uncomfortable with a story showing something they were perhaps blind to in real life.

Sorkin professes pure motives. "I hope the impression left is one of an intensely complicated and brilliant man — deeply flawed, but who, nonetheless, dreamed big and galvanized others to great effect," he said in promotional materials. "Ultimately, I hope viewers will find him to be human — and someone who probably could have been happier if he didn't think that kindness and genius were binary."

Or anyone who has attended one of my classes or taken one of my workshops. «.

Narrative First

Recently I have returned to blogging daily on my Narrative First site. While not as in-depth into story structure as most of my articles, these blog posts–or thoughts–still catalog my findings and experiences into the world of narrative theory, and in particular Dramatica. The following is an entry expanding on some help I gave an Author interested in applying the theory to his work. You can follow my blog daily at https://narrativefirst.com/blog

Earlier today I helped a writer figure out the structure of their story over on Discuss Dramatica and understand which character should fulfill what role. You'll note that I tried my best to interpret what the Author was trying to say, not mutate their story into a specific set of hero steps or sequence beats.

This is when narrative theory shines: the tools and concepts amplify or solidify the Author's original intent or creative vision.

Note too my advice to “open the story up.” Dramatica naturally causes this to happen by virtue of its Four Throughlines and through its concept of separating the Protagonist from Main Character. Most understandings of story tend to reduce thematic material, rather than encourage greater production.

The Author made some of the more common mistakes those new to Dramatica make: thinking of the Protagonist when determining Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth (when it should really be all about the Main Character) and not being ultra-clear on the connection between the Story Goal and the Story Outcome. The solution to the latter problem is easy enough:

  1. Determine the inequity of the story (what went wrong during the Inciting Incident)
  2. Establish the Goal necessary to resolve that inequity, or bring it back into balance
  3. The person for that resolution is the Protagonist. The person against it, the one preventing it, is the Antagonist
  4. If the Protagonist wins the Story Outcome is a Success. If they don't, it's a Failure

From there it should be easy to keep your story in check. Set the Story Outcome and Story Goal in Dramatica. You can also go ahead and set the Overall Story Problem as it defines the inequity you established in Step One above. With these structural foundations in place, it should be easier to avoid any potential contradictions during your draft. *Knowing what the problems are and what is needed to solve them * will help alleviate the problem of a pointless and meandering story.

This article originally appeared 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 Introductory Dramatica Writers Workshop this September 19-20. Put story theory to work! Learn more

The True Definition of a Protagonist

Many think they know, but the comfort of their preconceptions blinds them to the complexity of sophisticated storytelling. For thousands and thousands of years, many believed the Earth to be the center of the Universe. A lie mutually agreed upon is still a lie.

Earlier this year the distinction was made between the Main Character and the Protagonist. It was met with varying degrees of interest and ridicule, the latter coming as a result of perhaps a failure to adequately describe the intricacies of a story that doesn't assume both are one and the same. There can be no argument that the commonly accepted definition of the Protagonist is “who the story is about.” Whether or not this understanding is beneficial for writers hoping to create something of import is quite another.

Once a writer understands the difference between Main Character and Protagonist, whole worlds of possible storylines open up to them. Why should a writer be confined to stories where the character the audience identifies most with is also one the leading the charge? Aren't there aspects of life where we aren't guiding the boat, where we aren't the ones in control? Don't those moments have meaning as well?

It would be great to tell a story about an innocent man trying to escape jail…from the perspective of another inmate who lost hope a long time ago. Wait, that's already been done–in The Shawshank Redemption. Or what about a story where a writer in East Germany tries to broadcast the plight of his people…from the perspective of the man forced to spy on him. Shoot, they did that one already with The Lives of Others (Des Leben der Anderen).

Well then, what about the story of a corporate litigator trying to maintain her company's globally friendly reputation…from the perspective of the man held responsible for keeping that company's nefarious backroom dealings a secret. Too late.

Tony Gilroy already did it with his masterful film, Michael Clayton.

One Doesn't Imply The Other

The difference between the two is simple: The Main Character represents the audience's eyes into the story, the Protagonist pursues the goal of the story. Sometimes they are played by the same character, as with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Sometimes they are not, as with the examples above of Red in Shawshank and Wiesler in The Lives of Others. They key is in understanding that the assignment of the Protagonist comes as a result of a logical assessment, not an emotional one, as is the case with the Main Character.

Thus, the Main Character is not always the key focus of a story. Shawshank is about Andy Dufresne and his unjust imprisonment, yet we experience the film through Red's eyes. Amadeus is about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, yet we see his wild antics through poor mediocre Salieri. A character may be the subject matter of a piece without also being the one we receive intimate personal insight into. Empathy dictates Main Character, not sympathy.

The Protagonist is not always the one who changes in the story. Clarice doesn't change. Salieri doesn't. Jake Gittes in Chinatown doesn't, yet each one of these characters is driven to solve their story's individual problems - the key definition of a story's Protagonist. Clarice endeavors to stop Buffalo Bill. Salieri wants to be remembered. And Jake leads the investigation to figure out what really happened all those years ago.

It is apparent that there too are big problems happening in Michael Clayton and that there are efforts being made to resolve them. But what isn't as straightforward is what the outcome of it all means. Discovering that requires a closer look at the meaning behind the ending of the film.

Bittersweet Endings

Without a doubt, Michael Clayton has a bittersweet ending. Even though the good guys have won, there is no Throne Room sequence like there is in Star Wars and there aren't fighter pilots jumping up and down with glee like there are in Top Gun. This victory is much more personal.

And it isn't the kind of bittersweet ending one finds in films like Silence of the Lambs or Chinatown. In contrast to Clarice or Jake, Michael is in a much better place at the end of his story. He has resolved his issues with his family, grown closer to his estranged brothers, and, going on, one can imagine Michael will improve his superficial relationship with his son. That masterfully acted scene in the cab is proof of this emotional state of peace–it ends with a slight smile on his face, recognition that he has come through the other side a better man.

For a story to have that bittersweet ending there needs to be a juxtaposition between the Main Character's emotional state at the end of the film and the outcome of the headline, or main story line. That's the very definition of bitter and sweet. In the case of Silence or Chinatown, both Main Characters are left with unresolved feelings, yet their respective cases have been solved. Jake still doesn't get it and Clarice still hears crying lambs. Michael Clayton has and therefore requires that the main story line must end in failure.

But the good guys won? How can this be…

The Pursuit of the Goal

Who in Michael Clayton is most driven to get what they want? Who is driven to pursue this goal at any cost, regardless of who must be disposed of in order to accomplish it?


From a purely objective context, which is where a writer must sit during the construction of a story's structure, the character who is driven to Pursue the Goal is the Protagonist. This motivation to pursue must be present within every act otherwise the story will breakdown (as was the case in Zombieland). If that motivation wanes or “dies” somehow, then the story will slow down and meander aimlessly.

Michael Clayton does not suffer from this problem.

That is why Arthur cannot be the Protagonist and why, by proxy, Michael himself can't foot the bill once his best friend finds greener pastures. Michael could care less about uNorth until ¾ of the way through when they finally take a shot at his life. Arthur? Sure Arthur would like to take them down, but he is more like the fly in the ointment rather than the one actively pursuing a clear goal from the very beginning. In this respect, he is acting more like the Antagonist, trying to prevent a negative goal from happening.

It is Karen who is driving the story towards the goal of having uNorth escape this lawsuit unscathed. As an audience we may find this act reprehensible, but objectively–without preconceptions of right or wrong–it becomes clear that this is what is truly going on. This construct is what makes Michael Clayton seem so complex and why it feels more sophisticated than most of the typical Hollywood blockbusters.

There are no cats to save in this film.

Negative Goals

While the Goal of the story is purely an objective concept, the Author's own preconceived notions about what is right or wrong often find their way into it. This is why, for the most the part, the difference between Protagonist and Antagonist lies within who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.” When this isn't the case, and the Author constructs a story where the bad guy is leading the charge to resolve the story's problem, the story is said to have a Negative Goal.

A Negative Goal is one many in the audience might find detestable or immoral. In Reservoir Dogs, the bad guys– Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) et. al.–work to escape from their bungled jewelry heist while simultaneously trying to identify who “the rat” is. While outside of the world of the story it may be difficult to side with vicious jewelry thieves with an affinity for ear removal, the problems that Quentin Tarantino constructed for these characters placed these crooks at the head of the charge to resolve them. They become sympathetic as we naturally root for those attempting to conquer inequity.

As mentioned before in the article Determining Your Protagonist's Goal, the key word here is Pro-tagonist. This character is for something, this character is working towards solving the problem at hand. And because stories are about solving problems, it only makes sense that audiences would typically cheer for someone working diligently to solve that problem.

From the very beginning, Karen represents the drive to pursue in the larger context of the story. In fact, another quality of an Archetypal Protagonist, that of being driven to weigh the pros and cons of a situation, can also be applied to her. Whether it is in front of the mirror practicing her speeches or out on the street corner debating whether or not to give the “green light” for Arthur's systematic removal, Karen is the one character faced with the heavy decisions related to the story's larger problem.

Karen's failure is what makes Michael Clayton feel bittersweet.

It is also helpful to note that the concept of the Protagonist does not exist in a vacuum; there are many different aspects of a story's structure that are tied to it. In the same way that the Protagonist's success or failure helps to determine the eventual outcome of a story, the kind of pressures the Protagonist faces also aids in determining the scope of a story. Knowing who the real driver of a story is can help in identifying the limits that keep a story from wandering around pointlessly.

Reining In The Story

Arguments can go on forever if there aren't limits placed on them. It is the same with stories. Some stories are limited by time, some by the number of options left open to the Protagonist. High Noon is an example of the first. Michael Clayton is an example of the second. Stories that meander often don't have this limit clearly set for the audience. This can often happen when there is confusion over who the real Protagonist is.

With Karen in place as the Protagonist, it becomes very clear what the options in the story are: There are only so many ways she can deal with a mad rogue attorney running around with damning evidence. She has to get rid of everyone who had contact with it (including the attorney himself) and destroy any proof of it before the story can come to its rightful conclusion. Once that final option has been dealt with (Michael in his car), Karen can meet with the members of the board at that convention center and tell them confidently that everything is going to be hunky-dory.

This final scene would be the climax of the story–that moment in a story when the limit has been reached and the Main Character must come to a decision regarding their resolve. As the smoke from his flamed-out Mercedes recedes, Michael finally decides to call his brother for help (something he never would have done at the beginning of the story) and captures Karen's bribe on tape–ending the story.

If it were Michael or Arthur as the Protagonist it becomes less clear as to what the options would have been. They perhaps could have been to meet with the girl affected by uNorth's products or maybe even to get the copies of the evidence out for the world to see. But these seem weak and murky, and are interpretations of what could be there rather than what is there. The limits help to solidify the story into one meaningful piece.

A Structural Understanding of Story

Determining who the real Protagonist is and understanding their role in the telling of a story helps to point out to a writer where they may be problems in his or her story. A majority of popular story paradigms might call for a rewrite of Michael Clayton because Michael is not a “willful protagonist” or because his “external needs” do not conflict properly with what he really “internally wants.” This advice, while well intentioned, would only lead to murkier drafts and more disappointment.

Besides, does anyone really think Michael Clayton needs to be rewritten?

The story works. And the reason it works so well and seems so unique in its complexity is because, structurally, it differs from everything else out there. Predictability goes out the window as the patterns set up to establish the story are unfamiliar to those who can now download a movie to their phone in under thirty minutes.

Michael Clayton's relatively minor box-office success could be more attributed to a lack of marketing expertise in much the same way that The Iron Giant disappeared without a trace, or how it took ten years for The Shawshank Redemption to finally find its place in history. Perhaps the same fate lies in wait for this Gilroy and Clooney collaboration, for if one thing is for sure, the film calls for repeated viewings which in turn, result in even greater moments of appreciation for what was accomplished.

Great well-told stories always have this effect on audiences.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

One of the greatest contributions to the world of storytelling comes from the Dramatica theory of story and its understanding that the concepts of Main Character and Protagonist are not one and the same. This appreciation of what is really going on in a story is one of those things that makes the theory so special. Instead of becoming a reductive mandate like so many other rules espoused by gurus and experts of story, this concept opens up so many more creative avenues–giving the writer a chance to produce things as yet unseen.

As far as Michael Clayton goes the Story Outcome is a Failure and the Story Judgment is Good. Then corresponds with that “bittersweet” feeling the film has at the end. As explained above, the other bittersweet ending–the Success/Bad scenario–doesn't quite fit in here as Michael has clearly overcome his personal issues and at the end of the cab ride has found a relative place of peace. The climax is brought about by a Story Limit of Optionlock.

With Karen as the Protagonist (driven by Pursuit and Consider), Arthur becomes the Antagonist (Prevent and Reconsider), though his presence is more about trying to get others to question their actions based on new information than it is actually trying to Prevent something from happening.

Michael's place in the Objective Story Throughline becomes less of a slam-dunk which also speaks to the complexity of this film. This isn't Avatar–the characters within are rich and unique not only in their presentation but also within their roles structurally. Yet another reason why this film becomes one of the cherished few by fans of great storytelling.

This article originally appeared 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 Introductory Dramatica Writers Workshop this September 19-20. Put story theory to work! Learn more

The Actual and Apparent Nature of Story

When seen in its entirety, a story maintains a certain nature. Whether something external the Main Character needs to work through or something they themselves need to personally work through, the resolution of the story's central inequity carries a code of greater understanding.

In the exploratory article Work Stories vs. Dilemma Stories :Dramaticapedia, Dramatica co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips posits the idea of Work Stories and Dilemma Stories.

If the problem CAN be solved, though the effort may be difficult or dangerous, and in the end we DO succeed by working at it, we have a Work Story. But if the Problem CAN'T be solved, in the case of a Dilemma, once everything possible has been tried and the Problem still remains, we have a Dilemma Story.

Defined now as Story Nature, this is one of those Dramatica concepts that has developed over time. Chris and Melanie are geniuses when it comes to story,1 but they didn't necessarily get everything right the first time around. Articles like this are compelling because you can sense the seed of some better understanding of story within the ideas. Through the years their understanding has improved and the definitions of the theory improved.

Dramatica defines the Nature of a story as:

the primary dramatic mechanism of a story

Which makes it sound super important. The truth is, like the Crucial Element, the Nature of a Story is one of those story points that is only important in so much as it informs the Author as to what kind of a story they are telling. You don't need to know it to write a good story or to make sure you don't have any story holes, but it is an interesting way to appreciate the kind of story you are telling.

Defining the Nature of a Story

The current version of Dramatica describes Apparent Work stories, Actual Work stories, Apparent Dilemmas, and Actual Dilemmas. The differentiator between Actual and Apparent lies in whether not the Main Character was on the right course or not when it comes to solving the story's inequity. 2

  • If their Resolve is Changed and they solve the story's problem then it is an Actual Dilemma
  • If their Resolve is Changed and they fail to solve the story's problem then it was an Apparent Dilemma

This makes sense. When you feel compelled to Change your position on something it feels like a Dilemma: you're choosing between one or the other. If you were right to change and you solve the story's problem then it was an actual dilemma; you weren't making it up in your head. If, on the other hand, you were wrong to change and you should have stayed the course then it was an apparent dilemma; the struggle was all in your head.

  • If the Main Character's Resolve remains Steadfast and they solve the story's problem then it is an Actual Work story
  • If the Main Characters Resolve remains Steadfast and they fail to solve the story's problem then it was an Apparent Work story

These are even easier to understand. If the Main Character succeeds then they were right to Work their way through the problem; if they fail then the Work was a wasted effort.

The Steadfast Dilemma

In reality, both sets of stories have the Main Character faced with that dilemma-type decision whether overtly or subtle, conscious or subconscious. You can have Steadfast characters who waver at the end and Main Characters who are on that path to Change their resolve from the very beginning.

William Wallace faced a pretty real dilemma at the end of Braveheart (“confess …”) even though by definition his was an Actual Work story. And Dr. Malcolm Crowe never really faced a dilemma in The Sixth Sense; he basically rode a straight path to having his resolve changed even though by definition he was in an Actual Dilemma story.

These terms Apparent and Actual help clarify the story's engine for the Author. They might be something the Audience eventually “gets” from the storyform, but it won't be a conscious consideration. The story point is simply there to make it easier for the Author to stay consistent with the story's purpose.

Locating the Nature of a Story

All four of these story points, or story appreciations, are available in Dramatica Story Expert. You can't pick them specifically–the program identifies for you what kind of story you have based on other choices you have made. You can find this story point in the Audience Appreciation section either in the Query System or the Story Points section.

  1. Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creators of the Dramatica theory of story.  

  2. If you're new to Dramatica you might want to learn more about the Main Character Resolve and the Story Outcome, the two story points Story Nature depends on.  

This article originally appeared 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 Introductory Dramatica Writers Workshop this July 18-19. Put story theory to work! Learn more

On the Need for Plot Points

Some cry contrivance. Others lament convention. And even more bemoan the influence of the ideologue. Writers will do anything, it seems, to avoid understanding what it is they are really doing.

As my story consultancy grows, I begin to witness patterns in behavior. Writers act like other writers. They safeguard themselves from the pain of unraveling what they know about story by hiding behind Aristotle, claims of artistic integrity, or the stifling weight of an outline. Their most consistent mistake rests in the assumption that the main plot of a story (or "A" story line) is simply the framework that all the really important stuff hangs from; that character and relationships reign supreme.

It's all important stuff.

True, some writers emphasize character over the machinations of the story world at large, but in the end both still need to be present in order for the Audience to make sense of what has happened.

The Interlocking of Character and Plot

Character cannot claim prominence over plot as both exist simultaneously within a piece of narrative, regardless of Author's intent. Character represents a subjective context on the matters at hand, while plot portrays an objective context. One can't simply cast the other unimportant because they find it unnecessary any more than they can disavow general relativity because stars are pretty. A subjective context presupposes an objective one.

The Dramatica theory of story exposes the difference between the objective view and subjective with its concept of the four throughlines. The Main Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline manage the subjective view of the narrative while the Overall Story Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline handle the objective. Writers who write from the heart often leave out these last two. They may pay lip service to an Overall Story Throughline by casting the Main Character into the role of Protagonist and claiming the events "his" story, but by doing so fail to properly explore this throughline by centering on one character's point-of-view.1

That's not objective.

Objective sees Goals and Consequences. It sees Protagonist and Antagonists and Limits and Plot Points.2 Requirements, Forewarnings, Costs and Dividends. Success or Failure determine its Outcome and each and every character holds itself at arm-length, described only by its function within this view.

Many writers consider this larger perspective to be "unnecessary" or just the "MacGuffin" or mechanical" or "too limiting" to their work. Writing this perspective offers little in terms of emotional expressionism. The fun part of writing—the reason many take to pen in the first place-lies in jumping into the character's heads, becoming them, feeling what they're feeling and working towards communicating the emotions they feel inside. Writers such as these wish to express their fanciful associations to the text.

That's the fun stuff.

Objective, overall-these are not the words of a writer who wears his heart on his sleeve or one who wears his heart on the page. But they are the words of a writer who enjoys mastery over his or her own text.

An Objective Look at Things

Conflict arises as a result of inequity. Everything before the story = equity. Everything after the story starts = inequity. The first "event" upsets the equity of things and compels one or another to bring about resolution.3 If that person is successful then the story has resolution and equity returns. If that person fails, then the story ends with inequity.

That person is the Protagonist of the story.

The concept of the Protagonist exists as a shorthand term to describe the character pushing for this resolution. The Antagonist operates as a shorthand term for character(s) preventing this resolution. One works for the Goal and successful resolution. One works against the Goal and would prefer the Consequences instead. Stories without these two forces lack narrative drive.

The Slice of Life Cop-Out

Stories that fail to provide these two alternative views cannot claim to be stories. Whether a slice-of-life tone poem (The Tree of Life) or a simple tale designed to satiate the senses (any Transformers movie), narrative that offers one offers offers only a part. From the perspective of an artist living present within the spirit with which gives him or her rise, this approach fulfills. Understand, though, that Audiences desire more and may not be as forgiving or appreciative of only one-half of the story. They expect and deserve a complete story.

Every audience member brings with them a mind to interpret and interpolate the narrative in question. Every mind operates under the same biological and biochemical process. Though our individual capabilities might fluctuate, our mechanism of problem-solving functions the same. Conflict resolution requires context and an appreciation of the difference between subjective and objective. If a story only provides one side of the story, the mind rebels, walks out muttering something about "story holes" or "false characters" or simply "a bad story." Audiences expect some greater context to appreciate the relationships between the characters.

The Great Models of Narrative

All great narratives work this way. The external conflict generated by the inequity of the story reflects itself in the juxtaposition between the smaller inter-personal relationship between two characters and the larger objectified relationships between all the characters.

In Pride and Prejudice you have Elizabeth and Darcy and their romantic relationship set against the social challenges of 19th century England's upper class values tow marriage and choice. One can see the problems of the Wickhams, the Collins, the Bingleys, and, of course, the Bennets more than simply backdrop for romance. Their actions compliment and inform the conflict between the choices and actions taken by the two beginning a new love. Where would Elizabeth's struggle with first impressions and temptation be were it not for her youngest sister giving in to the same?

Comparable conflicts lie within Romeo & Juliet. The interpersonal relationship between the two takes center stage, but Shakespeare also manages to weave in the war between the Capulets and the Montagues. Misplaced expectations and a rush to resolve intolerable circumstances describe the personal as well as the extra-personal. Friar Lawrence, Tybalt, Lord Capulet and Mercutio need be present for the relationship between the star-crossed lovers to carry with it some greater meaning.

And then finally we have the greatest novel of the 20th century-To Kill a Mockingbird. Here one can see the prejudice and racism that comes with the Southern murder trial of a black man reflected in the interpersonal prejudice between a young girl and the boogeyman across the street. The genius of that novel lies in the positioning of these two views. One sees Atticus the Protagonist trying to resolve the inequity perpetuated by Antagonist Bob Ewell and others: the false accusation of rape against Tom Robinson. But one also gets to experience racism and prejudice from the inside by taking the journey with Scout and her shedding of preconceptions in regards to Boo Radley.

Audiences need both the subjective and the objective to emotionally understand and ultimately make sense of the conflict presented to them.

The objective view of a story sounds mechanical and boring and formulaic and prescriptive. It is. And it is so because it is, in fact, OBJECTIVE. This view is mechanical and boring and prescriptive.4 The writer must assume an objective view of conflict resolution and ask Who are the players? What are they motivated by? How does it all play out in the end?

Key Questions to Ask When Writing this Perspective

  • When does the story actually start? When does inequity upset the balance of things?
  • What sort of goal would resolve this inequity and bring everything back into balance?
  • Who works towards this resolution? Who works against it?
  • How does the conflict resolve itself?

Those familiar with Dramatica will know the exact answer to each and every one of these questions. The first finds itself in the Story Driver. The second in the Story Goal. The third in the Archetypal Characters known as the Protagonist and Antagonist and finally the last in the Story Outcome.

Those who don't only have themselves to blame for a story that lacks direction or fails to capture and engage the minds of their Audience.

The Search for Meaning in the Meaninglessness

Great narrative grants us both a subjective experience and an objective experience simultaneously. Stories give us something we can't find in real life. One can't be simultaneously inside their own head while also hovering high above watching the actions unfold. The juxtaposition between these two views provides the meaning of the experience-a synthesis that exists between the words and between the individual frames of film. Real life, unfortunately, has no meaning. Until we create some objective context from which to appreciate it (religion, nationalism, or any -ism for that matter), everything means nothing.

Stories offer more.

A writer makes his or her story fuller by adding this all-important layer of the objective view. Fear not heart-driven writer, for undertaking this approach does not take away from the very important relationship story. Stories require both character AND plot. Audiences need that greater context that includes the two principal characters AND the rest of the cast in order to make sense of what it is they feel. Writers want their characters and the relationship between them to mean something; providing an objective view and a greater understanding of when things happen and how they resolve grants an Audience an answer as to why they should experience the story.

  1. The Mini-Movie Method takes this approach. By collapsing character and plot into one context, the central character must undergo a series of "plans" regardless of the true problem at hand. «
  2. Dramatica refers to Plot Points as Story Drivers as they claim responsibility for driving the plot from one Act to the next. «
  3. This first "event" need not be an action. It could be a series of actions OR it could be a decision or series of deliberations. The Inciting Incident of a story is not something that simply happens to the characters. «
  4. Well, it doesn't have to be boring. But from a writer's perspective, actually writing it can be. «

The Fallacy of the Two Hander

When it comes to the reception of a story, the receiver, or Audience member, can often mistake the elements of story for something else. In the same way one finds difficulty estimating the ingredients of their favorite dish when they only have the meal, looking at story from the outside leads to misinterpretations of the meaning, or meat, of the story. The problem deepens when accompanied by confidence.

As misleading as the MacGuffin, the concept of the “two-hander” spawns many errors in the construction of a story. Led to believe that these are two “main” characters rather than characters who share a unique relationship, Authors create narratives that breakdown under the weight of their own schizophrenia. In the same way that mixing and swapping the terms Protagonist and Main Character results in a confusion between personal goals and objective goals, the term “two-hander” leaves the impression that the story might contain two stories.

It doesn't.

In a Scriptnotes podcast last year entitled Making Things Better by Making Things Worse, professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin dished out something they usually rally against–namely, rules and education:

A two-hander is a story with two important characters, where basically both characters are roughly equally important in the progress of the story . . . generally each of the characters have something that he or she wants. And sometimes they have a shared goal, but they each have their own individual goals.

So each of these characters has something they want? Insightful. More illuminating would be the understanding that what these characters want are connected in a very deep and meaningful way, far beyond simple wants and needs. Comprehending this connection allows writers to develop strong and powerful stories.

Confidently Vague

John August's screenwriting.io site gives an even simpler definition of this concept:

A two-hander is a movie where there are two main characters of roughly equal importance to the story, and whose arcs are given roughly equal screen-time.

Sweet and simple. Elsewhere he elaborates:

Romantic comedies and buddy cop movies are often two-handers, but almost all genres have their examples. The Sixth Sense is a thriller two-hander, for instance.

So The Sixth Sense, 48 Hours, and presumably The Shawshank Reemption all function as two-handers. The list could go on and on and on.

Only it doesn't explain what is really going on.

The films listed above do not feature two “main” characters with the their own “arcs” who roughly share “equal screen-time.” Well, the last might be accurate, but how is that a measurement of the meaning of a story?

Structure is the machine that communicates the Author's meaning, a framework for what the story is about, rather than what happens. In the Dramatica theory of story this structure is called the storyform. Determining the ingredients or elements of this structure makes it easier for Authors to construct a machine that works.

The Real Difference Between the Two

Consider the Dreamworks animated film Over the Hedge. Under the definition above, this tale of animals vs. suburbia claims the name two-hander. Both Verne the turtle (Gary Shandling) and RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis) vie for “equal screen-time”, both come off similarly important.

Unfortunately both find their resolves changed by the end of the film.

For a story to make sense and to convincingly make a case for its message, one of these “main” characters will steadfastly hold on to their resolve while the other will find their resolve changed. In Dramatica, this observable reality of story falls under the concept of the Main Character Resolve: Changed or Steadfast?1 The Resolve of the Influence Character (what two-handlers call the other “main” character) will share an inverse relationship with the Main Character's Resolve. One is changed, one is steadfast.

If you have one character arguing position A and he or she comes into conflict with another character arguing position B, you can't then write both characters changing their positions. Doing so undermines everything that came before, tossing out any thematic arguments made along the way. If you argue for neither A nor B, but rather some form of you are in essence undermining the foundation of story you built.2

Show character A adopting character B's approach or character B assuming character A's position and then inform the Audience of the results. That is how an Author uses story to make an argument. That is how the machine of story works.

Screenwriter Jim Barker explains it well In his article Demystifying the Two-Hander:

the story's theme -- what the author has to say about about the value of hope (and not just “hope” itself) -- is explored by means of an argument. In other words, story is a form of persuasion, and the best means of being persuasive is to explore multiple sides of the argument. Having two characters with their own perspectives is part of the means in which the theme and argument is explored, one character ultimately forcing the other to see their differing point of view and forcing them to either remain steadfast in their approach or change.

Similar Troubles

Referencing August's definition of a two-hander, the relationship between the two “main” characters runs deeper than simply one based on relative “importance.” The reason these two characters even find themselves faced off against each other is because they share a bond of conflict. They see this conflict from two different points-of-view, but there is enough shared material between them that they find it almost impossible not to butt heads.

This is where that clichéd line “You and I are both alike” comes from. The two principal characters recognize a commonality of conflict, but see it differently. One comes at it externally, the other internally.

The Well Considered Story

Giving credence to vague terminology leads to disappointing drafts and broken stories. The process might begin with little complication, but will eventually bog down as the Author finds their structure undermined by superficial notions of story.

The Dramatica theory of story seeks to make conversations like this a thing of the past. For years I have endeavored to communicate the strength of this perspective through carefully considered and thoughtful articles. Unfortunately the culture seems determined to ignore the measured approach, preferring tweet-sized understandings of story like “two-hander” to get them through their day. Rarely does anyone spend more than a minute and a half reading a 2000 word article that took dives deep into the reason why an element of story exists.

The purpose of this site has always been to improve the quality of storytelling to the point where filmmakers don't spend the last few months of a production trying to salvage a badly structured story. I've been there before several times, and it isn't pretty. And it can be avoided. We don't have to blindly trust the process. But if no one is listening, does this site even exist?

Understanding the relationship between the Main and Influence Character is only one of the many ways Authors and filmmakers can improve their craft. Dramatica offers so much more. If there is a better, quicker, perhaps more culturally acceptable way of communicating this knowledge then perhaps the time has come to try something new.

The promise of a fully functioning story endures. Time to tell the world.

This article originally appeared 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 Advanced Dramatica Writers Workshop this May 16-17. Put story theory to work! Learn more.

  1. This is not a typo. A Changed resolve indicates the state of things for the MC. A “Change” resolve does not. 

  2. What you're really dealing with is A+B vs. C–which would require an entirely different story.  

The Secret Behind Great Character Relationships

What we know simply marks the beginning. While comprehensive and enlightening, our understanding of story today will seem simple and elementary ten twenty years from now. Our responsibility as writers lies in excavating the truth beneath our superficial grasp on reality and applying that to the characters we bring to life.

The Relationship Throughline of a story consists of two unique perspectives. Typically we describe these two points of view, held by the Main Character and Influence Character, as coming into conflict over the best way to solve the story's central problem. They argue over the appropriate way until finally one gives over to the other.

The reality of this coupling speaks of so much more.

Some relationships grow. Others dissolve. The presence of two perspectives naturally encourages comparisons of unity or sameness, while at the same time fostering division and differences.

The Dramatica theory of story circa 2014 touches lightly on this fascinating aspect of narrative. Assuming the bias towards Overall Story Throughline and Main Character Throughline, the model tends to sketch rather than enscribe the various forces at work within this more Subjective view.* When delving into this area of a story, one senses the need for more to work with, more to explain and illuminate the intricacies of intimate engagement.

Same or Different

Bearing witness to the oft-used line of "You and I are Both Alike", one sees how the notion of "Two Sides of the Same Coin" work within narrative. One side feels they are the same, the other sees only difference. This happens because in one context the two competing perspectives exhibit similar properties, in another they differ.

Aligned diagonally across from each other when assigned their prospective domains, these Throughlines both exist as either states or processes. If Situation and Fixed Attitude, then they share a static (state) commonality of conflict. "You and I are both alike, we're both stuck," would describe the perspective that sees these similarities. If Activity and Way of Thinking then they share a procedural (process) commonality of conflict. "You and I are both alike, we just can't stop ourselves, can we?"

The other context sees these Domains in terms of external or internal. Situation and Activity tell of external conflict. Fixed Attitude and Way of Thinking describe internal struggles. If set in Situation and Fixed Attitude one character might say "we are both alike, we're stuck" whereas the other would retort, "We're nothing alike. I know where I stand (external), you don't even know yourself (internal)".

When caught up within the turmoil of a relationship, one character will see the forces driving them towards a shared sameness while the other will only see apparent differences. Neither claims accuracy: they're both right, and they're both wrong. The direction of their relationship determines how close to unity they ultimately will reach.

Growing or Dissolving

At the heart of every Relationship sits a motivating source of inequity. Dramatica refers to this disparity as the Relationship Story Problem. Whether a lack of faith or trust, an inability to accept or a longing for something more, this Problem motivates the Relationship forward.

Problems naturally call for Solutions. You can't have one side of the equation without the other, you can't have inequity without equity. The "problem" with the term Solution lies in the assumption that this resolution brings the two characters together. Naturally one would assume that if there was a problem, then the solution must heal their differences.

But what about relationships on the decline?

Relationships rely on tidal forces. Ebbs and flows. Directions and tides. When situated on the path for dissolution, a relationship turns to the Solution to end it all, once and for good. Whether together or not, the resolution of the inequity in their lives ends the conflict between them. Contrast this with the Solution for a Relationship on the rise. Here resolution brings two hearts together, ending conflict by bringing two together.

Neither approach claims superiority over the other. The responsibility for determining the direction of the Relationship and the proper application of the Solution lies within the writer. They must appreciate this reality of narrative for themselves and for their story.

In Ernest Lehman's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Main Character Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) joins fellow Hunsecker pawn Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) in a somber display of a relationship in decay. Tasked with ruining Susan's relationship with Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), Sidney uses their friendship to slither in close enough to gather the information he needs. Whether great friends or simple acquantences prior to the story's start, the two slowly move apart. The banter between them, centering around inferences of the other's weakness in the presence of J.J. (Induction), drives their relationship towards its inevitable end. Once Susan concludes her brother's involvement and Sidney's part in it (Deduction), the friendship dies. Having learned how to play the game herself, Susan moves past Sidney and moves on.(2)

Contrast this with the growing relationship between Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman) in Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge!. Driven to torment by Satine's apparent ease with which she gives into lustful desires (Temptation), Christian begs, argues, and ultimately insults his love on the public stage for all to see. Only by mutually refusing to take the easy way out and forgoing their own egos (Conscience) do they finally find a place where they can come together. While death tempers this synthesis, resolution completes the Relationship's positive development.

A Greater Truth to our Work

The Relationship Throughline whispers something more than simply the presence of two alternate perspectives. The growth and development of this kinship in conflict calls for an appraisal of its direction and a nod to their similarities and differences. The Dramatica theory of story represents a watershed moment in the history of our understanding of narrative. However what we know now and appreciate as reality only scratches the surface of effective and lasting storytelling. Delving into the forces at work opens our minds and encourages greater breadth to our own writing.

  1. Point of fact, earlier iterations of Dramatica referred to the Relationship Throughline as the Subjective Story Throughline. The switch was made to encourage engagement from Western writers who prefer the individual and logic over the couple and holism.
  2. For a complete analysis of this film see the Dramatica Users Group analysis of Sweet Smell of Success

This article originally appeared 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 Advanced Dramatica Writers Workshop this May 16-17. Put story theory to work! Learn more.

Story Consultants: The Snake-Oil Salesmen of Screenwriting

Treacherous waters await those who set out upon the seas of storytelling. While the tossing and turning of indiscriminate waves threaten stability, it is the the company kept within that calls for caution.

The act of writing requires only one. Whether with pencil in hand or keys beneath, writers write with the understanding that in the end, they only have themselves to rely on.

Yet, the process can overwhelm one to such a degree that they consider looking to others for help. Some turn to professional screenwriters kind enough to log their experience and know-how in podcasts and blog posts. Others turn to story consultants and gurus familiar with narrative and its ability to bridge the gap between Author and Audience.

Confusions sets in once one discovers that the former don't look too kindly upon the latter.

Consultants Who Can't Do

In a blog post written several years ago, screenwriter Craig Mazin attacks script consultants:

What is NOT a smart move is listening to the people who DON'T do the job. And who are they? Oh, you know who they are. They're selling books. They're selling seminars. They're "script consultants." And for a small fee, or a medium fee, or a goddamned flat-out ridiculous fee, they'll coach you right into the big leagues!

This inspired screenwriter John August (and Mazin's co-host on the Scriptnotes Podcast) to chime in with his own version of Those who can't do, teach:

I don't endorse any of them. I haven't found any I'd recommend to readers.

The two posts generated hundreds of comments (sadly those from August have been lost) both for and against, with the majority siding with August and Mazin. Why pay for someone to help write a better story when they themselves haven't done it? If these "so-called experts" have all the secrets, why aren't they sitting on a pile of money and critically-acclaimed screenplays instead of how-to books and blog posts?

Because story can be so much more than simple self-aggrandizement.

August keys in on the ulterior motive for these consultants with his sports analogy:

Many of the best coaches were never star players. Rather, the top coaches have the ability to extract the best efforts from the athletes they train. They recognize weakness and focus attention. It's conceivable that the same could hold true for screenwriting. There might be individuals with a remarkable sense of both the broad narrative form and the precise on-the-page details.

To put it another way–those who can, do; those who care, teach.

Setting Ego Aside

The truth of the matter is a consultant does what he does because he is more interested in helping others rather than himself. Why spend one's relatively short time on Earth marking territory and building shrines when one can turn the tide far beyond the boundaries of self-indulgence?

Story-telling, and in particular feature film screenwriting, needs fixing. Epic battles and latex-clad heroes can only last for so long before Audiences will finally give up what little faith they have in movies. How else can one explain the increase in acclaim for episodic television like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men if not superior storytelling?

The majority of feature films today lack a strong structural foundation. They tell tales, not stories. Following the muse works great as a step one; steps two and beyond require organizing that creative impulse into something more meaningful.

The Flimflammer's Approach

In a recent Scriptnotes podcast screenwriter Mazin resumes his attack on consultants by echoing the oft-heard complaint against a structural approach to writing:

This whole "plot point one," "pinch point," blah, blah, blah, you've been suckered like so many before you into thinking that there is a calculator through which you can run ideas and out comes a screenplay and you just simply calculate your way to success. There is no faster, easier, simpler way to arrive at failure then attempting to calculate the process of screenwriting.

Many who struggle with Dramatica (narrative science theory) decry its apparent attempt to turn writing into a "calculated" endeavor. They see the boxes, they run into dead-ends trying to fit their convoluted story into its comprehensive paradigm, and they easily discount it as yet another in a long line of com-men eager to separate writers from their precious pennies.

They [script consultants] are flimflamming you, buddy. They're flimflamming you.

Or it could be that the flimflammers have grown tired of incomplete and pointless stories. It could be that they have discovered a better, more comprehensive way of understanding why stories seem to require certain structural precepts (more on this later).

It could be that they simply want to share this information with as many people as they can.

The books that have been written are being written by people who have failed at screenwriting, possibly because they were over calculating, and now they offer you the gift of the very process that failed them. I am not a fan of this nonsense.

Thank God some of them have failed at screenwriting! If they hadn't, they wouldn't have taken the time to ask why. They wouldn't have spent decades looking into the psychology of story and discovered its analogous relation to the mind's problem-solving process. They wouldn't have moved us beyond Aristotle's ridiculous "beginning-middle-end" tripe.

Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips developed their brand of narrative science (Dramatica) after writing and directing a really bad movie–a movie influenced in part by established screenwriters and university professors. Instead of developing bad habits accumulated from years of capitulating to producers and studio executives who truly have no idea how to construct a proper narrative, these two "flimflammers" set out on their own and discovered something quite unique–an understanding of story we all know instinctively to be true, yet previously have been unable to quantify.

Truth Behind the Con

In the very same podcast in which he calls out consultants for subterfuge, Mazin pitches the importance of a structural approach to story and an understanding of narrative science:

One of them is the protagonist. The idea of the protagonist, traditionally, is that our capacity for drama as humans and such that we prefer — we prefer — that once character is the focus of internal change. One character is going to have an epiphany and a catharsis and a transformation. But, another character with them can be instrumental to that. Another character with them can change, also. Another character can change in such a way that changes the protagonist.

Dramatica refers to these two characters as the Main Character and the Influence Character (the term protagonist–commonly mistaken or substituted for the Main Character–features elsewhere within the theory). Isolating the concept of Resolve between these two characters, one will experience a 180 degree "flip" or change in their point-of-view while the other will grow in his or her resolve by remaining steadfast to their personal paradigm (See the series Character and Change).

The protagonist sometimes isn't the biggest one, or the most heroic one, but they're just the one that changes. So, think about it that way. And just remember, we will be trying to — we will be connecting with somebody's change. And if two people are changing we want to know which one is primarily changing. It's just sort of ingrained in the way we experience story.


Dramatica (and narrative science theory) isn't an elaborate scheme to swindle amateur writers; it's an attempt to quantify and qualify this "ingrained experience" that we all instinctively understand to be true. Those engaged in its ongoing-development and education simply wish to pass on what they've found.

It's a very… — You just have to know this stuff when you're doing it, and you have to figure it out, but you can't divide your attention. You have to actually — you have to know.

Writers have to know this stuff, yet they can't seek help from those who know. Why can't they seat both professional screenwriters and theoreticians/consultants in captain's cab along with them?

A Synergy for Story

For the very best example of this needed collaboration in action, one need only look to the real world example of animation directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. The former, a member of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! Writers Group excels at structure. The latter, a creative powerhouse, brings the unexpected and touching character moments to the table. Together they create heartfelt stories full of purpose and meaning. Apart, not so much. Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, products of mutual collaboration, showcase stories that satisfy the head as much as they fulfill the heart. The Croods–directed without the assistance of DeBlois' attention to structure–meanders aimlessly, ending only because animated films last 90 minutes–not because an actual story had been told.

The Croods may be heartfelt and inventive, but without something greater to pull it all together–something more than the sum of its parts–the film falls into insignificance. Years from now the majority will be hard pressed to remember even a little of The Croods. Contrast that with the legions of fans who count Lilo or Dragon one of their very favorite animated films and one can begin to see the importance of having both.

Purpose and heart can and must co-exist. One can glean all the experience and industry know-how from August and Mazin while at the same time benefit from the enlightenment and wisdom of those outside of the system like Phillips and Huntley. Want to know how to conduct yourself in a meeting or how best to receive and respond to those notes you'll inevitably run into? Listen to the former. Want to understand the connection between your Main Character's personal issue and the larger thematic issue affecting everyone in the story while at the same? Partake in the latter. Regardless, taking both along for the ride ensures a pleasant and purposeful experience.

Someone to Talk To

A recent article from screenwriter/consultant Erik Bork sums it up nicely:

Certainly it's true that many writers who succeed never hired "script consultants". But I would say virtually all of those writers had access to their equivalents at some point, as I did — to augment their ardent self-study.

Access to those who know. The certified consultants featured on Dramatica's Story Consultant page understand narrative science better than anyone else in the world. They might not have a clue how to conduct themselves within a meeting or how to avoid the dreaded air duct clam, but they do know how to use character, plot, theme and genre to construct a convincing and solid story. They do understand the commonality of the almost 300 films, novels and plays (yes, even Shakespeare understood that ingrained experience!) featured on the site's Analysis pages. And they understand how to work with writers to give their work gravitas–to make those words count for something more than yet another on the pile of disdained and forgotten films.

Yes, the seas ahead promise turbulent violence. Crews may lose hope or find themselves lost without trusted companions there to help navigate the waters of story. But with the assistance of hardened screenwriters and inquisitive theoreticians, the voyage can continue with confidence. One to set the course. One to keep the boat steady.

Safe harbor awaits those brave enough to set sail.

This article originally appeared 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 Weekend of Dramatica introductory workshop this March 21-22. Introduce yourself to this wonderful and powerful theory of story!. Learn more.

The End of the Three-Act Structure

The time has come to obliterate Aristotle's stranglehold on narrative fiction. With the amount of information and different perspectives available to Audiences today, a simplified beginning-middle-end approach simply doesn't cut it anymore.

Complete stories consist of four major movements, not three. Sure, it seems simple enough to assume that because a story has a beginning, middle, and end that there must be three movements to define these sections. But is that all there is to an Act? A superficial take on the events within a story based upon their moment in time?

Perhaps there could be something more there, something more closely related to the thematic substance buried deep within the story itself.

2A, 2B or Not 2A, 2B

Unlike Hamlet, the answer presents itself clearly.

The standard in modern screenwriting paradigm calls for splitting up the Second Act into two halves, labeling them 2A and 2B. For all intents and purposes, as long as everyone on the production agrees with this naming convention, there isn't anything about this approach that could prevent the successful conclusion of a film. The question becomes if the final product finishes with a glorious and well-celebrated run or peters out over the first weekend, adding weight to the already great discarded landfill of pointless stories.

How to avoid this unfortunate result?

Don't assume that both halves are dealing with the same thematic stuff. Don't assume that this "Special World" somehow carries with it some intrinsic meaning because of its position between the beginning and the end.

Because it doesn't.

Why the Act?

In a recent article on The Myth of the Three-Act Structure film critic Hulk defines the true end of an Act as something that creates propulsion, something that changes narrative value and has the characters moving towards some new reality/situation (loosely translated from the Hulkspeak–you're welcome).

This is good stuff.

But something more important lies further down. Diving even deeper into what that new reality or situation is, one eventually discovers that this dramatic movement showcases a shift in focus–a different context from which to appreciate the central problem of a story.

Examining All Sides of an Issue

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. This familiar understanding offers an excellent starting point for any discussion surrounding the thematic makeup of Acts within a story.

A story begins with the creation of an inequity–a problem needing resolution. If one were to simply follow one perspective, one point-of-view on how to solve the issue at hand, one would simply see the terrorist. Great stories, and the Authors who write them, take in all the different ways of looking at a problem. Using the different perspectives offered both objectively in the main plot and subjectively within the Main Character, these Authors offer a greater understanding of the conflict in question.

But it's not enough to simply include those different points-of-view, they must be laser-focused on what that problem truly is. One perspective will see the problem as an activity. Another will see it as a situation. Another a fixed attitude, like a prejudice or a biased opinion. And yet another will see it as a problem of psychology. Together, these perspectives unite to offer that better understanding, that appreciation of who is the terrorist and who is the freedom fighter.

Four Sides to Every Problem

With the individual perspectives defined, the attention shifts towards how each will explore their own take on the problem at hand. Take for instance the perspective of the problem as an activity. There are four separate areas an activity can fall into. Obtaining something, like a map or a new country. Doing something, like swimming the English Channel or writing a dissertation. It can fall under the category of Understanding, like appreciating the motives of a serial killer or why an alien race fights for survival. And finally, an activity find definition in Learning–gathering information or educating the next generation of lion hunters. Regardless of what that problematic activity is, it will always fall into one of those four categories. One cannot think of an activity that does not fall along one of these four lines.

The purpose of an Act is to explore one of these four areas. Once it has been significantly examined, that perspective shifts into the next area and a new Act begins. When speaking of changing "narrative value", these are concrete occurrences of what that value truly is. Once a new area, or Act, has been thoroughly exhausted (that feeling of "we get it already"), the next one takes over. This is why there is that sensation that the characters cannot go back–they won't because they've already covered that area.

Four areas for each perspective. Four acts per story.

Any more Acts would simply be a rehash of a old contexts. That's why stories end when they do. All sides, all contexts explored.

How to Train Your Dragon begins with the dragons and Vikings at odds with another, one side stealing and the other side hunting (Doing). It then shifts into an examination of the problems found in training the next generation of dragon killers (Learning). That movement exhausts itself when they discover the presence of an even bigger threat and Hiccup reveals his new relationship (Understanding). His father responds and that final Act revolves around good and bad battling for survival (Obtaining). At that point the story ends because it has to. Nothing more to cover, all perspectives of an activity examined.

Same with The Terminator. Problems begin when a robot from the future arrives and mistakingly shoots the wrong Sarah Connor (Understanding). These misunderstandings persist (trust the police, trust the scary guy in the overcoat?) until Sarah has no other choice but to take Kyle at his word. From there it's a race to see how quickly Kyle can convince Sarah of her importance and the reality of their situation (Learning). The second half of the film focuses on the chase–beginning with the shootout at the police station and ending with the destruction of the Terminator (Doing and then Obtaining). It almost feels like one Act because Doing and Obtaining are so closely related, but it's not. There is a meaningful shift from the running away (Doing) to the purposeful effort to destroy (Obtaining). That final movement becomes essential in a story exploring problems of activity. Leave that final Act out and the story would feel incomplete. The reason the story works rests in the fact that the Author explored all sides. Sarah rises to the occasion and defeats the robot menace once and for all.

Why the Need for an Act

There may be some who see more Acts within a story–some say five, some say twenty, some forty-two–but most likely what they are seeing is something other than the true function of an Act. When seen within the context of a well-balanced argument, the reason why Acts exist becomes clear. Regardless of how an Author decides to divvy up their work, psychologically speaking the story can only function as the result of four movements.

Four acts. Four ways to explore a single point-of-view.

Advanced Story Theory for This Article

Dramatica presents Authors with the tools necessary to explore all sides of an argument. By infusing their work with the meaningful utilization of distinct throughlines, an Author can create thematic balance, both objectively and subjectively. Modern audiences know better than simply black or white. They deserve stories that respect that wisdom.

This article originally appeared 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 Weekend of Dramatica introductory workshop this March 21-22. Introduce yourself to this wonderful and powerful theory of story!. Learn more.

Heroes Who Don't Change

It would be irresponsible to suggest that one could craft a story without character development. Stories without this growth fail in the delivery of the Author's intended message. What of stories that have at their core a character who does adopt a new way of seeing the world?

When exposed to the polarizing concepts of the changing Hero and the steadfast Hero, many Authors make the mistaken assumption that the latter does not grow, that they don't "learn" anything. It is clear the former fits into the accepted notions of character-arc, Protagonists and development, but the latter lends itself to confusion. After all, characters who view the world with consistency end up uninteresting and lifeless, right?

Without Growth a Story Reaches Us Stillborn

Stories fall flat without character development. Having sat through screenings of Iron Man 2 and The Informant, I can attest to the veracity of the rule. This failure does not come as a result of the Hero failing to learn something as much as it does from a lack of growth. Without proper growth, structural integrity collapses and the argument of the story breaks.

The act-by-act transitions that are a natural occurrence within great stories exist because the efforts to solve the problems at hand must adapt to new and ever-changing contexts. This is The Reason for Acts. They signify the end of exploring problem-solving in one area; time to move on to a new one. If the Hero did not grow and adapt to these new circumstances the whole purpose of the story would come into question.

Steadfast Heroes grow the same way.

Evolving by Standing Resolute

Contrary to its imposing title, a Steadfast Hero grows. With the passing of each Act, this kind of character digs their heels in deeper and deeper, bolstering their stance in response to the rising tension. The Steadfastness refers to their final Resolve in the moment of crisis: do they change the way the way they are doing things or do they maintain the course? In other words, it has more to do with the final result rather than the process that brought them there. Getting there means as much personal change and adaptation as witnessed in their Changed cousin.

Structure Offers a Clue to the Author's Intent

In How to Train Your Dragon where would Hiccup be if he continued to sit and stew about his unfair situation when all around him there were Vikings who were adapting to their new training and to the discovery of a big bad dragon? Beyond being a boring movie, there would be no point to the visceral three-dimensional action/adventure. But he did grow. He took a stance to protect these dragons and act-by-act he put more and more of his back into that controversial stance. He managed to find a way to overcome the bad reputation everyone had of him and managed to resolve his own personal problems.

What about Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams? That baseball field in Iowa would still be a cornfield, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) would still be hiding out in his apartment, Archibal ‘Moonlight' Graham (Burt Lancaster) would never have had the chance to hit one in the majors, and Ray himself would never have had a teary-eyed catch with his father (sorry for the spoiler) if he didn't trust those voices he was hearing in his head. Act-by-act (four to be precise), Ray has his approach challenged. Act-by-act Ray rises to the challenge. Even at the end, faced with the dual fruits of his folly–foreclosure and bankruptcy–Ray refuses to sell his farm. And as a result he heals the real problem of the relationship with his long since past father.

In both films, the Authors told us the right way to solve a problem. Hiccup promised to protect, Ray refused to question voices from beyond. While both were on the right track, not every Steadfast Hero is. Ask Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, Jake Gittes in Chinatown or Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. While each of these found a way to solve the problems at hand in their individual stories, personally they were taking the wrong approach.

The Audience's Interpretation Tarnishes a Story

There is no way around it: Audiences will draw meaning from the story presented and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. While Authors have something to say, it is the Audience who must finish the transmission by interpreting the story's events. This is where the problem comes for those who fear Heroes who don't "learn" something.

What a Hero "learns" is something an audience creates themselves upon finishing a story. Assuming the story is whole and the Hero has grown (a big assumption in an era when all Hollywood asks of its heroes is that they have a built-in audience, preferably the type that nurtures a fetish for spandex), the audience will interpret the difference between where the Hero ends and where they began as the adoption of some sort of knowledge. When Authors create a story they need not concentrate on developing something that is beyond their reign.

Heroes do NOT Have to Learn Something

Last week's article made the distinction between Heroes who grow by learning and Heroes who grow by teaching. That article proved the purpose of story not to be to teach the central character something revelatory, but rather to argue that a particular way of solving a problem is either right or wrong. Offering an audience the chance to experience problem-solving and its results from within the eyes of this character and from without is the power of complete stories. It gives an Author the opportunity to argue their unique perspective in a way that can't exist in real life.

This is the power of great stories.

Authors should worry less about what the audience interprets from their story and more about making sure their message is as succinct and as clear as possible. Make sure that the character's growth in approach moves with each act. Leave the interpretation–and notions of learning and teaching–to the Audience.

Advanced Story Theory for This Article

In Dramatica, this growth that a Main Character undergoes, whether they are Change or Steadfast, appears as the Main Character Growth. Once the Main Character's Direction, this appreciation describes the course a Main Character will take on their way to their final Resolve. Whether Stop or Start, more detail on this story point lives within the article Applying Pressure to the Main Character.

Solving the problems within the big picture story while failing personally (as in the examples of The Wrestler, Chinatown, and Romeo and Juliet) exemplify the need to differentiate between the Overall Story Throughline (the big picture part) and the Main Character Throughline (the personal part). Success in one end doesn't necessarily mean a resolution in the other, and vice versa. The combination between the two offers a story's Meaningful Ending.

This article originally appeared March 03, 2011 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 Weekend of Dramatica Workshop this March 21-22. Introduce yourself to this wonderful and powerful theory of story!. Learn more.

For more articles by James Hull, click here.

Hundreds of more articles are available in the Story Fanatic Archives