James Hull Articles: Archive XI

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. 

Problems of Character Reflected in Story
Effective story structure is more than hitting familiar emotional beats or rising complications of plot. Structure exists to grant Audiences a better appreciation of the problems in their lives. The narrative’s ability to shift contexts while looking at the same thing presents an opportunity of understanding unheard of, and thus demands careful consideration.

Our last article, A Blueprint for Effective Character Development, discussed how to take Dramatica’s sometimes cold and impersonal view of story structure and turn it into something organic and writer-friendly. Offering an approach to interpreting story points like Problem, Symptom and Response, the article focused its attention on only one Throughline: the Main Character. Main Characters do not operate in a vaccuum. They need an Influence Character to challenge their approach and a Relationship with which to grow from. And while it may seem the furthest thing away, they also need an objective look at their Responses and Resolve. They need an Overall Story Throughline.

Objective Take on the Subjective

More than simply a battleground for objective character functions like Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic and Sidekick, the Overall Story Throughline presents an outside look at the problems faced by the Main Character. Sometimes referred to as the ‘A’ story line, or simply plot, this Throughline compliments the other three Throughlines found in a complete story. While the Main Character Throughline offers an intensely personal, first person “I” perspective on things, the Overall Story Throughline grants an objective “They” look at what befuddles the characters. The remaining two Throughlines–Influence Character and Relationship Story–present counter-arguments to those first two in the form of “You” and “We” perspectives.

What happens when you don’t have all four of these throughlines? If you’re a fan of self-inflicted pain take a night to watch National Treasure. While crafty in its hunt of hidden treasure, the film itself offers nothing in terms of emotional relevance. One cannot connect to this film. The reason can be found with the complete lack of a Main Character Throughline. Sure, there is an attempt to give Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) an issue with the family name, but this is quickly forgotten and never develops into moments of quiet reflection or angst regarding his true identity. Compound this with the lack of any challenging Influence Character to oppose him (despite the obvious candidates in the form of the beautiful girl and the skeptical dad) and the complete absence of any Relationship Story and the film quickly becomes an exercise in self-inflicted torture.

Crafting a story with Four Throughliens becomes priority one for writers who want to say something with their work. But even more important they need to find a way to weave the Main Character’s Throughline with the Overall Story Throughline. These aren’t simply separate occurrences or disparate storylines. The Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines offer an objective and subjective look at the same problem.

Magic in the Machine

Before Dramatica, writers had to figure this out on their own and often did so by reflecting the Main Character’s personal problem in the Overall Story (or vice versa by reflecting the Overall Story Problem in the Main Character).[1] By doing this, audiences get an overall logistical take on how to best solve problems while at the same time receviing an intimiate look at what it feels like from inside to have these very same problems. When you put the two against each other within the same work magic happens. Magic, because this is something you can’t do in your real life. You can’t be both within and without. You can only be without. And then within. Never at the same time. This is what makes stories so special and so unique to the human experience.

A Way to Combine Thematic Material.

So how does one go about doing this? Better yet, let’s take a look at classic stories and how the personal problems of the Main Character find themselves reflected in the larger Overall Story. (and of course, we’ll do it the other way as well)

The Problem With Cutting Oneself Off

In Casablanca, refugees filter through Rick’s cafe on the way to America. They seek freedom. Freedom from Hitler and internment camps and tyranny. Major Strasser and the Nazi party he represents seek to control every movement in and out of Europe.

What better way to experience this tyranny from inside than to create a character shut-off and isolated from his own feelings? A character so determined to control his emotions that he hardly bats an eye when a teenager asks him whether or not she should sleep with the Captain of the Police in exchange for a ticket to America. Rick (Humprey Bogart) seeks to have control over himself every bit as much as the Nazis wish to exert their control over the citizens of Europe. By showing us an objective look on how to solve a problem of control (“Round up the usual suspects”) while simultaneously granting us a subjective personal take on how to overcome control (“Here’s looking at you kid”), Casablanca argues the very best approach to solving control: freedom.

The Problem with Me Me Me

In the Academy Award winning screenplay for her, self-absorbed hipsters attempt to envision better relationships through technology. Whether it be scolding a friend for juicing their fruits and eating their vegetables or walking aimlessly through downtown without recognizing a single soul, the crushing amount of self-absorbtion threatens our future selves.

What better to way to experience this self-centered approach than to create a character who only sees the effects of his divorce on himself? Obssessed with his wife’s anger towards him, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes locked within his own memories, playing them over and over again in an effort to determine why me? By showing how a greater awareness of his own contribution to the demise of his marraige released Theodore from his obssession while simultaneously presenting the failure that occurs when the machines seek even greater self-awareness, her argues for an end to this tendency to draw inward.

Adding Distance to the Problem

This works for half of the stories out there. Stories where the Main Character does a complete 180 on their point-of-view will find the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline sharing the same kind of problem.[2] The other half, the half that feature a Main Character who stays resolute to their core beliefs, will find the same similarity between the Overall Story Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline. The juxtapostion between between objective and subjective still exists, only in these stories the subjective is once removed.

For instance, in How to Train Your Dragon how else can you make the struggle to overcome the non-acceptance of winged monsters more personal than by presenting a character who refuses to accept his only son? Stoick’s rejection of his son matches the Viking’s refusal to compromise when it comes to killing dragons. Unlike her and Casablanca above, the problem rests outside of the Main Character, yet its influence still affects us on a personal level. As Hiccup, we feel it. But this time, instead of my problem, it’s his problem.

Same thing happens in Back to the Future. What better way to juxtapose the trouble that happens when you try to prevent or avoid an unwanted future than by inserting a character who avoids conflict at all costs? George McFly (Crispin Glover)–like future boy and the doctor–splits and runs in the presence of danger, yet through this nebbish science-fiction fan we feel its impact personally.

Within and Without

Regardless of whether we feel the problem as our own or through someone close to us, this conflict always finds itself reflected in the larger scheme of things.

We can’t really determine for ourselves the best approach to solving a problem until we’ve seen it from all sides. The power of story lies in its ability to offer both subjective and objective views of the same problems. We simply can’t experience that in real life. That is why stories eventually developed the four Throughlines and that is why we keep returning to them day after day. By showing us the ramifications of problem-solving in different contexts, stories gift us powerful insight to approaching and solving the problems in our own lives.

  1. Dramatica is a theory of story that represents the next chapter in story development. Presented in 1994, Dramatica theorizes that every story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem.  ↩

  2. 50% of stories feature a Main Character who Changes their Resolve. The other 50% offer a Main Character who Remains Steadfast in their Resolve. The series, Character and Change covers this unique aspect of story structure.  ↩

This article, Problems of Character Reflected in Story, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Applying Pressure to the Main Character

While the growth of the Main Character through a complete story is regarded as one of the most important aspects of a story, it is also the most difficult to quantify.

Previous attempts to describe this process (those that rely heavily on the Protagonist as Hero model) often resulted in paradigms that confused a character’s development over time with their actual final resolve at the moment of crisis. The fallout from such thinking produced the well-worn, yet highly inaccurate, notion that every Main Character needs to change.

Proficient writers know instinctively that Main Characters need not always transform.

Understanding Pressure and Who Sits at the Controls

Imagine climbing into a diving bell and being lowered into the deep, blue sea. As you descend, the pressure on the outside of the bell increases. This requires you to compensate for the pressure by building up pressure on the inside so that there remains a balance between internal and external. Each change in depth requires further attention towards maintaining that balance.

If you raise the diving bell, the pressure on the inside becomes greater than the outside and there is the threat of an explosion if internal pressure isn’t reduced. If instead you were to lower the diving bell, the pressure on the inside would become less than the outside and there would be the threat of an implosion if internal pressure isn’t increased.

Internal or External: Which One is Unpredictable?

In a complete story, either the external or internal forces applied to the diving bell will seem to flow naturally (or predictably), while the other will seem to have some sort of uncontrollable or unreasonable element to it. In this second example, the one at the controls will be the unpredictable factor.

In stories where the Main Character ultimately transforms, they will appear to be the unpredictable side of the equation. As the external pressure increases or decreases, the Main Character either cannot stop using the controls of the diving bell and overcompensates, or is unwilling to use the controls sufficiently enough to prevent discomfort or harm. An example of the former would be Cobb in Inception. Surprise trains and playful children manifest themselves as projections of his attempts to overcompensate for the guilt he feels for his participation in his wife’s suicide. An example of the latter can be found with Bud in The Apartment. His unwillingness to stand up for himself describes perfectly that character who, for whatever reason, refuses to change the pressure within the bell. The imbalance increases until finally he has no other choice than to change.

When the External Becomes Erratic

In stories where the Main Character maintains their resolve throughout the moment of crisis, the Main Character is perfectly willing to go along for the ride, but whomever or whatever is controlling the ascension or descension of the diving bell is erratic or uncompromising. A perfect example of this can be found in any one of the Bourne movies. Jason Bourne, while somewhat unpredictable from an external perspective, is completely unwavering on the inside, much like his country cousin James Bond (except for the most recent Casino Royale where Bond breaks the mold as a Steadfast Main Character). In these types of stories it is the other principal character, the one with which the Main Character develops a meaningful relationship, that becomes the unpredictable factor.

In the first Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity, it is Bourne’s girlfriend Marie who is the uncontrollable one, her allegiance and complicity with his actions forcing him to maintain balance. In the second, The Bourne Supremacy the person working the crane holding Bourne’s diving bell is CIA Analyst Pamela Landy. Like her counterpart Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, Pamela works as the wildcard, erratic in her attempts to fully assess the situation. And finally, in The Bourne Ultimatum it is fellow assassin Paz who is uncompromising in his efforts to lower Bourne deeper and deeper into the ocean.

In all three films, it is that other character that ultimately transforms and brings back balance between the internal and external worlds.

Who Is At Fault Here?

In stories where the Main Character ultimately changes their nature, they often appear to be the cause of their own difficulties. Inception, Star Wars, Hamlet–stories of transformation deal with characters who have trouble keeping that pressure level bearable within that diving bell. In stories where the Main Character remains true to their nature, they will appear to be the victim or pawn of larger forces. Trapped within that diving bell, they do what they can to maintain equilibrium. Jason Bourne, Dr. Richard Kimble, Salieri - stories of steadfast resolve center around characters at the mercy of external forces.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

This concept of the diving bell and the Main Character originated with an initial conversation with Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators behind the Dramatica theory of story. It is an attempt (a fantastic attempt) to qualify the difference between Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth.

When it comes to Main Character Growth, Stop and Start affect the controls of the crane raising and lowering the diving bell (external world), as well as the controls inside the bell increasing and decreasing the internal pressure (Main Character).

In a Change story, the Main Character is the unpredictable element. In a Stop story, the Main Character can’t stop using the controls or overcompensates as pressure increases and decreases. In a Start story, the Main Character is unwilling to work those controls.

In a Steadfast story, the Main Character is willing to go the prescribed course, but whomever or whatever is controlling the ascension or descension of the diving bell becomes the erratic or uncompromising factor.

Stop and Start describe the Main Character’s efforts to come into balance with the external pressures, so that once there is a close equilibrium, he can then take that final step toward removing the inequity entirely (through Main Character Resolve).

This article, Applying Pressure to the Main Character, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Narrative Drive and Weak Protagonists
Protagonists are responsible for driving a story forward towards its ultimate goal. If there is some confusion over who they are, or the goal itself is unclear, an audience’s interest in the events that unfold on screen will quickly fade.

Whenever a story feels weak, or seems to meander with no real sense of purpose, nine times out of ten there is confusion over who the Protagonist is and what the Story Goal is. By definition, the Protagonist pursues the Story Goal. Now this could be the same character we experience the story through (and most often is), but as explained in my article on Redefining Protagonist and Main Character, this is not always the case.

So why differentiate between the two?

Effective Rewriting

Because when you’re trying to figure out what is wrong with your story, you need to be absolutely clear about what piece you are actually looking at. There has been much confusion over the years between these two concepts, confusion that, unfortunately, has led authors to rewrite something that was possibly already working. When a story feels flat or slow somewhere during the 2nd act, an unknowing author may try to force their Main Character into doing something that is out of character or incompatible with the rest of the story.

Imagine if Red in The Shawshank Redemption had started actively working towards Andy’s freedom because King was worried that the “driving force” of the story was waning. Or what if Rick in Casablanca had tried to get the letters of transit into Laszlo’s hands before he gave that classic nod to his band. Horrid thought, right?

But this is precisely the kind of thing that happens when someone doesn’t truly understand how a complete story is structured.

The moment the Inciting Incident occurs, balance in the story’s world is upset. Before the end of the first act, the Protagonist will spring into action and work to restore balance to the world by solving the story’s major problem. That effort is a pursuit towards the Story Goal.

So how can you determine if the Main Character is the Protagonist?

Identifying the Story Goal

Before you can figure out who is pursuing the goal, it helps to know what that goal actually is. While every character in a story might have his or her own personal goal, the Story Goal is the thing that everyone in the story is concerned with. There should always be some universal problem that affects everyone as this not only ties everyone together, but also insures that the author’s message is clear and definite. If your story doesn’t have this Story Goal, it might help to step further back and learn about Writing Complete Stories.

In The Terminator, problems exist because a naked killing machine has been sent back in time to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Stopping him before he can do this is the Goal of the story. This goal begins the moment when he arrives in that electric blue ball – the natural balance of things is upset and the Goal seeks to right that.

The person leading the charge towards that goal is Reese (Michael Biehn). Reese, therefore, is the Protagonist of the story because he is the one pursuing the completion of the Story Goal. Sarah is our way into the story, and thus is the Main Character. She can’t be considered the one moving towards the goal because she doesn’t do much of anything. Eventually, she gets to the point where she has to take over for Reese, but not until very late into the story.

The Protagonist needs to be pursuing the Goal of a story throughout every act, even throughout the first. When they don’t, you end up with stores that have little to no narrative drive.

Stories That Meander

In Zombieland, problems exist because zombies have overrun the world. Getting somewhere safe is the goal of the story, and for some reason, an amusement park near Los Angeles is considered a safe zone. It’s like The Road, just without all that ash!

The ones leading that charge are the girls, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The Main Character, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), isn’t driven towards the safety of the amusement park as much as he is to basically survive. Sure, he wants to find his parents, but in the overall scheme of things and the road trip to L.A., he seems more like a passenger than the one doing all the driving. He has his own control issues to deal with and overcoming those would be his personal goal, but as far as all the other characters are concerned reaching the safety of the park is everything.

The problem with the story, though, is that the girls are really weak Protagonists. This is why, when they reach a certain celebrity’s house near the end of the 2nd act, everything in the story comes to a grinding halt. With no one actively pursuing to resolve the story’s major problem, the audience has no idea where the story is headed or when it is ever going to end. It takes them out of the experience.

That moment with said celebrity is fun, but it slows the story down. If at least one of them had kept trying to leave, or kept reminding everyone of what they were really after, dramatic tension would have remained at a higher level and the story would have been stronger.

Stories That Live

Narrative drive exists when there is an effort being made to restore balance to the world of the story. This is the Goal of the story that everyone is concerned with. If the Goal is unclear or there is confusion over who is the one leading the charge towards it, this drive is weakened and the story suffers for it. A clearly defined Protagonist, in pursuit of a Story’s Goal from the first act through the last, is one of the keys towards writing a compelling story.

This article, Narrative Drive and Weak Proagonists, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Finding the Plot of Your Story Through Theme
Regarding the argument over the integration of Characters into Plot, the barometer of Theme rarely enters the conversation. Understood more as a simple statement of right and wrong, Theme observes from a distance–an outcast on the sideline of storytelling. The truth calls for Theme to step forward and play an integral part in the development of a narrative.

A Thematic Premise Leads to Nothing

Many primers on creative writing refer to Theme as the story’s premise. Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing popularized this idea with his definition of the composition of a “good premise”:

“Every good premise is composed of three parts, each of which is essential to a good play. Let us examine ”Frugality leads to waste. The first section of this premise suggests character–a frugal nature. The second part, leads to.” indicates conflict, and the third part waste, suggests the end of the play.

Greed leads to generosity. Ruthless ambition leads to destruction. Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love. Anyone who has taken to pen to paper in the hopes of writing a great story recognizes this concept.

In his book, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, Dr. Stan Williams describes a process of placing the premise on a continuum between vice and virtue. No longer content with “Ruthless ambition leads to self-destruction,” Dr. Williams adds “Ruthless ambition leads to self-destruction, but Benevolent justice leads to rightful honor.”

With this in mind, the young Author begins her story. Scene after scene, she depicts the fall of ruthless and ambitious characters; in-between she writes of benevolent and righteous characters ascending to great heights. And in the end, the Audience finds itself bored to tears with this black-and-white argument.

As a professional screenwriter and Scriptnotes podcast host Craig Mazin notes:

[A Moral Premise] is not a “theme” for the purposes of writing a movie. That’s a motif or subject matter. I mean, you can call it a theme, but it’s useless to the writer. It doesn’t help the writing.


The Bridge Between Character and Plot

Look to the Dramatica Table of Story Elements hanging in your writing space or download a fresh copy from the official Dramatica site. Four towers cascade down the page, starting with Genre and working their way down to Character. Theme fills the gap between Plot and Character, tying the two narrative concerns of methodology and motivation with a barometer of evaluations.

The Dramatica Table of Story Elements
The Dramatica Table of Story Elements

Self Interest and Morality provide a sliding scale for evaluating “Ruthless ambition.” Same with “greed,” “generosity,” and “jealousy.” In fact, a sampling of examples from Egri and Williams tends to reside in the same limited location of the narrative model; the same story told over and over again.

A brief scan of Dramatica’s thematic landscape reveals Commitments and Responsibilities, Senses and Interpretations, and Preconceptions and Openness. The totality of human evaluation lies waiting at this level for any Author to grab hold and make their own.

These evaluations also give clues towards the plotting of a narrative.

What You Find Above Exists Below

Consider the thematic Issues of Self Interest, Morality, Approach, and Attitude. These four exist as a family of evaluations under the standard banner of Obtaining. A story that explores this area of theme–like The Matrix, Unforgiven, Reservoir Dogs, or Back to the Future sets a common Concern and Story Goal of Obtaining.

The thematic family of Instinct, Conditioning, Senses, and Interpretation requires plot development focused on Understanding something. The Usual Suspects, Inception, The Sixth Sense, and The Prestige toy with these four evaluations. Preconception, Openness, Delay, and Choice find a home in Concerns of the Future. Boyz n the Hood, Witness, Juno, and The Shawshank Redemption look to the Future as a common Goal of interest to the characters and plot themselves accordingly.

In all of these examples, the Type-level Concern that umbrellas the thematic evaluations below sets the plot for that particular narrative. Theme is more than a simple measuring stick between vice and virtue–Theme locks in the progression of Acts within a story.

Get Out

Understanding the connection between Theme and Plot helped me in my recent analysis of Get Out. At first, I felt the title of the film, and the dramatic concerns of the characters led to a shared interest of Conceiving: conceiving of a way out of both their heads and the dreaded Armitage family estate.

Looking at the family of thematic Issues resting below the Type-level Concern of Conceiving, I began to sense something incongruent. Permission, Deficiency, Need, and Expediency failed to describe the kind of conflict accurately, and thematic issues dealt with in the film.

Scanning the general area in and around these issues–as I knew, overall, that the kind of conflict explored dealt with Psychological manipulations and dysfunctional lines of thinking–I ran across State of Being, Sense of Self, Situation, and Circumstances.


These four thematic issues summed up the entirety of writer/director Jordan Peele’s narrative. Georgina, Walter, and Andre Hayworth’s Sense of Self. Mr. and Mrs. Armitage’s State of Being really awful people (actually, the entire family). Chris’s Situation of being the only black person in a sea of white people. And the overwhelming Circumstances of your physicality failing you. Put together, this unique family of disturbing Issues shapes the thematic conversation of Get Out.

And they also set the Plot of the film.

With Conceptualizing functioning as the shared mutual concern and Overall Story Goal, the Failure to reach that Goal brings about a Story Consequence of Understanding.

Exploring these issues during the Obama era, Peele originally wrote a Failure ending for Chris. Instead of best friend Rod emerging from the red and blue lights, police offers converge on the bloodied and hapless Chris, with guns drawn. MisUnderstanding Chris as a cold-blooded murder they lock him up for life.

Regardless of Peele’s decision to break structure, the Plot Concerns of both Story Goal and Story Consequence remain the same. Choosing to focus on the problematic evaluations of State of Being, Sense of Self, Situation, and Circumstances locks in a Goal of Conceptualizing and a Consequence of Understanding.

Theme determines Plot.

Different Story, Same Story

While vastly different regarding characterization and genre, American Beauty shares the same connection between Theme and Plot as Get Out. As with the Armitage estate, the process of trying to integrate with one another creates problems for everyone.

Witnessing the shirtless guy next door lifting weights and this neighbor’s strange relationship with a teenage boy challenges Col. Fitts’ State of Being gay. Climbing the ladder of local real estate and envisioning a better life involves engaging in an illicit affair (Situation) for Carolyn. Figuring out where one fits into the high school caste system alienates Jane from cheerleader Angela through Sense of Self. And remaining catatonic to fit into suburbia with an obviously gay husband creates unacceptable Circumstances for Fitts’ wife, Barbara.

Like Get Out, this collection of thematic issues set a Story Goal of Conceptualizing–or integrating–and a Story Consequence of Understanding for American Beauty. In contrast to Peele, both writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes kept their original ending and allowed the plot to end in Failure: Lester realized the real beauty of his life moments before Fitts ended it because of the embarrassing misUnderstanding between them.

An actual failure to integrate into each other’s lives.

An Understanding of Theme That Helps

Instead of relying on outdated and unproven notions of “moral premise,” look to Dramatica’s robust and comprehensive understanding of Theme as the bridge between Character and Plot. Scour the topology of thematic Issues for words and concepts that speak to you as an Artist, and connect with that Intention deep within your heart. Once you hear their signal, acknowledge the family of Variations and look to the Type-level concern that wraps them together. There you will find a focal point for your Plot and a destination for the Characters in your narrative.

This article, Finding the Plot of Your Story Through Theme, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Writing Short Stories with Dramatica
How do you possibly squeeze in all 75 storypoints of a Dramatica storyform into a story 6,000 words long, or a short film that runs less than 5 minutes?

You don’t.

The Dramatica theory of story reveals an approach for creating effective arguments. Straw-man or one-sided arguments? Dramatica can’t help you there.

There’s a reason most films run close to two hours: that’s the shortest amount of time required to form a complete and well-balanced argument. Anything longer and you might have two storyforms in there; anything shorter and compromise the integrity of the debate.

That said, sometimes the purpose of a work of fiction isn’t to argue a particular approach or message—but rather, to just entertain or inform.

To tell a tale, instead of a story.

An Approach for Short Stories

If the scope of your work is shorter than is required for a full argument, then “slice and dice” your way through the Dramatica model to find a quad of elements that resonate with you.

Keep it to one quad—any quad—and use that to help guide your story.

So it seems like the best use of Dramatica in my case may be due to a “cross-cut”? Taking part of say… the MC and IC since I have that dynamic set up? Just trying to wrap my head around what this actually looks like in practice–do I narrow down a complete story form, then just use the one quad as my guide? Or parts from two? As far as the one quad… how does one assign the different POV’s using one quad?

In a short story, you don’t have enough story “real-estate” to work through the various POV’s (by POV the writer above means the Four Throughlines of Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story, and Overall Story Throughlines).

Consider this post, Short Stories from Big Time Writers, from our first incarnation Story Fanatic. In that early blog post, I explain the minimalist story structure at work behind Scott Frank’s short story, The Flying Kreisslers.

Frank won an Academy Award for writing Logan.

Unfortunately at this time, I can’t seem to find a copy of the actual story (please write to me if you see it!), but you can appreciate a sense of the story structure in the blog post.

The Flying Kreisslers is a short story about a dysfunctional family of trapeze artists that eventually turn to murder. While there is no sense of an actual defined Throughline, you can still see a Plot Progression of sorts:

  • Being
  • Conceptualizing
  • Becoming
  • Conceiving

From pretending to be OK with things, to come up with an idea for murder—with scheming and changing one’s nature mixed in the middle—that’s the basic structure of Frank’s story.

These four Types exist at the Plot level in the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. And you find them under the larger Area of Psychology—which is where you always find problems of dysfunction.

The Psychology Domain
The Psychology Domain

But then, how did Frank come up with that Act order? Did he build a Dramatica storyform and then take the Plot Progression from the Overall Story Throughline?

Most likely not.

Letting the Storyform Go

Writers use Dramatica storyforms to make their arguments, they don’t argue Dramatica storyforms.

But one still does narrow down to one overall story form, yeah? Just ignore the other parts?

No. By writing a short story, you’re making an incomplete argument. Audiences get that. The contract is already set with them, and they’ll be OK with the arrangement.

What you can do, however, is use the plot progression of a quad to help set up the structure of your story and make it feel like there is something more there.

Make it read like you’ve put some thought into it.

Look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements (or use Subtext), find a quad that seems interesting to you, and use those elements to give your narrative a sense of flow.

One last thing… so if I’m just looking at the raw Dramatica Chart and picking a quad to help my short story… do I have to worry about how Memory actually deals with the elements in Subconscious? Or do I just write about Memory in terms of Truth, Evidence, Suspicion, Falsehood as they exist under that part of the quad?

It depends on how far down you want to go—how much time you have with your short story. Use the size of your story to determine your scope.

And don’t worry about shifting quads and seeing them in different contexts.

Writers familiar with Dramatica will know that once a story is set, the nicely balanced Table of Story Elements is all jumbled-up. You could be faced with Being in terms of Fate, Prediction, Interdiction, and Destiny (all issues found within a context of the Past, not Being) or Conceiving in terms of Prerequisites, Strategy, Analysis, and Preconditions (issues found under Learning). This “screwed-up” version is what your story looks like before you tell it—when tension is at its highest.

And when you’ve set up the potential for a complete argument.

When you shoot for something less, you can screw the model up any way you want—it won’t make a difference because the model is intended to build an argument.

When it comes to short stories, use sets of quads that resonate with your artist’s intuition.

Back to what you said about how with a short you’re just emulating what appears to be a complete story form, yeah? So… it’s not necessary, but would it hurt an author to have figured out a larger story and use that “fully solved storyform” only focusing on one bit? I guess it wouldn’t matter cuz you just said you can do literally anything, haha

He pretty much answered the question himself. You can develop a storyform and then take a slice or dice of that…or you cannot prepare one and merely search the Table of Story Elements for issues that work for you. If you do the former, the Audience may or may not have a sense of the larger storyform— depending on how much you’re able to communicate and squeeze in—and of course, how much they’re actually paying attention. But the Audience will still be merely guessing at what it is you’re trying to say.

And if you have something more substantial to say…then why not write a complete story?

Delivering the Goods

With a short story, you’re not making a complete argument, so it really doesn’t matter which quads you use for your story. With short stories, there aren’t any rules because you’re not trying to make the one thing that Dramatica helps you make—an argument.

You’re merely using bits and pieces to kind of guess at how the narrative should flow. And when it comes to guessing, the quads could be screwed up or correctly balanced—in the end, it’s entirely up to you.

Dramatica’s quads of quads of Elements can help you frame the narrative of your short story. Gather up a family of four and write something awesome. Bouncing from one Element to the next will give a semblance of completeness—a “short” version of a grander story.

This article, Writing Short Stories with Dramatica, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Why the Main Character’s Approach
Main Characters make decisions and they take actions. They engage in deliberation and they get things done. Yet for some reason, Narrative Science seemingly requires both Analysts and Authors to force their Main Characters into choosing one or the other.

Referred to in Dramatica (the first version of Narrative Science) as the Main Character Approach, this story point files the great characters of literature and the silver screen into two boxes: Do-ers or Be-ers. The former act first then ask questions later, while the latter first internalize before then making their move. Limiting and reductive at first glance, the reason for this determination lies in a better appreciation of the mind’s problem-solving process and its place within the structure of a compelling and meaningful story.

A Place to Begin

Functioning stories exist as models of human psychology–in particular, the process of problem-solving. One of the first steps to take when solving a problem lies in determining exactly where to place one’s effort while attempting resolution. Should I try to change the world around me or should I try to change myself? Answering this question initiates the process of problem-solving. Ignoring it ignites the process of justification (or hiding the problem from ourselves).

Problems don’t exist outside of us, nor do they exist within us–rather, they exist in the area between us and our environment. Because we can’t address that inequity directly, we must focus our efforts on one area or the other–thus, the Main Character’s Approach.

When faced with internal issues we focus on ourselves. When faced with external issues we focus on our environment. Why? Finding internal solutions for internal problems is much easier than searching for external ones. Likewise, exploring external solutions for problems within the external environment becomes a much easier task than searching for an internal one.

This Approach often shows itself as a preference on behalf of the Main Character. Do-ers prefer to do the work outside, Be-ers prefer to do the work inside.

The Path of Least Resistance

A Main Character facing personal issues growing from an external state of affairs or an external activity will approach their problem first by taking action. As a poor playwright with nothing to show for his efforts, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) searches externally for a new muse in Shakespeare in Love. Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) from The Iron Giant seeks adventure and action from a life that has neither.

Conversely, a Main Character experiencing personal issues emanating from an internal attitude or dysfunctional way of thinking will approach their problem first by modifying their behavior. Sully (John Goodman) from Monsters, Inc. finds his greatest asset–fright–to be a behavior in need of change if he is to ever grow closer to Boo. Meanwhile “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie Wood) from Splendor in the Grass attempts to re-wire her behavior–even going so far as to accept institutionalization–in order to keep from slipping further into madness.

In each of these cases, the Main Character approaches their personal problem by first taking that path of least resistance. External takes external, internal takes internal. Realizing this, one can easily see how the Main Character’s Approach can be used to identify the source of that central character’s personal problem as well as their response to it.

Assuming the Right Perspective

Key to pinpointing the source of these personal problems remains an accurate account of point-of-view. Are we taking a first person perspective or are we looking at it from a distance? Is the inattentive parent on the bus letting their child run rampant out of neglect, or is it because they’ve just received devastating news that they’re to raise the child on their own? One can’t can’t asses inequity without first taking into account perspective.

Same with story.

The examples of story given above focus on the issues facing each of those Main Characters personally. They may have other concerns within the larger picture or within other relationships, but when it comes down to dealing with my problems, and what am I facing (as required by the Main Character perspective) that first-person point-of-view becomes all important.

Creating a Mind for the Audience

It isn’t as if Main Characters can’t both Do and Be within a story. The concept of Main Character Approach certainly allows for well-rounded characters exhibiting both qualities. But the end-game can’t become a quest to capture down on paper “real people”.

Approach plays out as a preference because stories do not replicate real life. Rather, stories exist as constructs designed to communicate meaning by creating a “mind” for the Audience to possess. The Main Character represents the first-person perspective of this mind and thus, from that point-of-view sees the problem as being either internal or external (because it can’t see that true problem in-between the two). Taking the path of least resistance this story-mind approaches that problem by tackling external problems with actions and internal ones with behavior modification.

Why then ask for the Main Character’s Approach during the course of crafting a story? In answering that question, one can help solidify the Audience’s position within the mind of a story while simultaneously granting clues as to the work and effort put forth by the Main Character to resolve their personal issues.

This article, Why the Main Character’s Approach, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Rethinking an Analysis of The Florida Project
Time reveals all in everything we do. As an initial understanding fades, a better appreciation of purpose and intent rises to the surface. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a film the first time around—a great story forces you to work your way through to its message.

And the Dramatica theory of story gives you the tools to arrive at that better understanding.

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project haunted me weeks after my first viewing. Relating the story of a mother and a daughter struggling to survive on the outskirts of Walt Disney World, this film portrays an air of reality that stalks your every waking moment. As someone involved with Dramatica for quite some time, I know this feeling to indicate a healthy and vibrant storyform—something meaningful behind the scene.

After a month of watching a hunch grow into a certainty, I returned to my original analysis of The Florida Project to find it lacking substance:

The Florida Project, while stunning and socially relevant, fails to encapsulate an argument with the framework of a complete story. The result is a lack of attachment, a distancing from the predicament portrayed. It is as if we’re watching a beautiful reenactment of real-life events, rather than actively participating in a collaborative attempt to resolve the conflict at hand.

I no longer felt this way.

Two events added to my disconnect: a post on the Discuss Dramatica boards and a conversation with Dramatica Story Expert Jon Gentry after our recent Users Group Meeting. The former saw a correlation between those films in 2017 that scored high on Rotten Tomatoes and the presence of a “solid” Dramatica storyform. While outliers exist, those films that breech 95% do so because of their stable story structure.

Hearing Jon express his love and admiration for the film was the final push I needed. I returned to Dramatica with the intent to unravel the code behind The Florida Project’s powerful message.

An explanation of Author’s intent

The Dramatica storyform is a blueprint of Author’s intent. My first clue revealed itself in an explanation how the filmmakers shot the final scene:

Baker filmed the final scene at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom Park “very clandestinely”, using an iPhone 6S Plus without the resort’s knowledge. To maintain secrecy, the filming at the resort used only the bare minimum crew, including Baker, Bergoch, cinematographer Alexis Zabe, acting coach Samantha Quan, Cotto, Prince, and the girls’ guardians. Baker intended the ending to be left up to audience interpretation: “We’ve been watching Moonee use her imagination and wonderment throughout the entire film to make the best of the situation she’s in—she can’t go to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, so she goes to the ‘safari’ behind the motel and looks at cows; she goes to the abandoned condos because she can’t go to the Haunted Mansion. And in the end, with this inevitable drama, this is me saying to the audience, ’If you want a happy ending, you’re gonna have to go to that headspace of a kid because, here, that’s the only way to achieve it.”

That final shot reveals Moonee retreating into an even higher level of fantasy. This scene sets a Main Character Resolve of Changed and a Story Judgment of Bad. While the director refers to “a happy ending”, from an objective Dramatica point-of-view the argument posed is one of Tragedy. This fantasy life is not a “Good” thing.

More importantly, this explanation confirms the intent to argue or communicate something more profound beneath the surface.

A storyform exists.

Riding the wave of narrative elements towards a better understanding

My first stop was the Element of Non-accurate for Halley (Bria Vinaite), Moonee’s mom and Influence Character. Her inappropriate behavior and inadequacy as a mother challenge and drives the young Main Character to grow into those delusions. Halley’s obstinate and fixed state-of-mind influences Moonee’s hopeless predicament (Influence Character Throughline of Mind and Main Character Throughline of Universe).

While running yesterday, I conceptualized the connections between the Influence Character and Overall Story Throughlines. Knowing the Steadfast Character of a narrative shares the same Focus and Direction with the Overall Story Throughline, I started to guess at the dynamic pair resting with Non-accurate and Accurate.

After twenty years of Dramatica, I know by rote the top three levels of the mind. Classes, Types, Variations—those are easy to remember and unique to each Domain. The bottom level, the 64 Elements, repeat within each Domain, their arrangement shifting according to the context above them.

As I ran, I thought Non-accurate and Accurate shared an Issue of Worth with Ending and Unending. I liked that, as I could see Halley focusing on the end of each month and doing whatever she needed to keep her unstable, yet workable, living conditions perpetually cycling.

I followed those Elements over to the Psychology Domain and Concern of Being. The Overall Story Throughline of The Florida Project points out the dysfunctional ways of thinking that lead to this situation in Orlando. Tourists and residents looking the other way, pretending the problem doesn’t exist, defines the inequity everyone faces in this story.

The mother/daughter relationship of conning innocent tourists out of money, both overt and behind the scenes (with Moonee in the bathtub) strengthens this focus. An Overall Story Throughline of Psychology and an Overall Story Concern of Being require a Relationship Story Throughline of Physics and a Relationship Story Concern of Doing—which fits perfectly with their precarious relationship.

With Ending and Unending under Thought (again, what I imagined) that would give an Overall Story Problem of Result and an Overall Story Solution of Process.

Result: the ramifications of a specific effect

Result felt great.

A paradigm of story based on Author’s intent

The Dramatica theory of story—what makes it so tricky for Authors to understand—pinpoints what the story is about, not what the characters think is going on. The characters in The Florida Project don’t consciously or subconsciously go around worrying about the Results in their life—the Author is making a statement regarding the results of this society we’ve constructed. He shines a light on the Results of all of us turning a blind eye—of knowing what is going on—yet not doing a thing (an excellent indication of the Overall Story Issue of Knowledge), and showing the tragic circumstances that inevitably arise.

I knew Results was the right Problem Element for both the Overall Story and Main Character Throughlines. A narrative with a Main Character Resolve of Changed positions the same problematic element at the heart of both the objective and subjective views of the story. Moonee fails to ever take responsibility for the results of her actions—fallout from her unique position at the fulcrum between these two Throughlines.

Confident that I found the right Throughline—all while exercising—I returned home, grabbed my phone, and loaded up the Narrative First Atomizer

—only to find that I was wrong about the arrangement of Elements.

Working towards the right answer

With the new Element model in the Atomizer, one easily navigates from one Domain to another. The entry page for Non-accurate not only present a list of examples and definitions but also paints a picture of its contextual families.

The Element of Non-accurate within a Context of Worry
The Element of Non-accurate within a Context of Worry

Non-accurate and Accurate share Result and Process under Worry/Mind not Ending and Unending.


I liked that Result and Process were in there, but as Focus and Direction, they seemed entirely off. Clicking on Result showed me that it shared a quad with Proven and Unproven under Knowledge. The Issue of Knowledge sparked my initial thoughts about everyone knowing and looking away, but I couldn’t resolve Proven and Unproven with Moonee’s Throughline. Neither direction, from Proven to Unproven or Unproven to Proven, felt like the story of a young girl regressing into fantasy to save herself.

So instead, I went the other direction.

If Results was the Problem—as I previously thought—what would that mean for Halley’s Influence Character Throughline?

Tapping Unproven revealed the quad of Proven and Unproven, Cause and Effect under the Mind Domain. Effect as a Problem or source of drive for Halley?

A quick glance at the list of examples of Effect in action gave me all the proof I needed:

Examples of Effect in Narrative
Examples of Effect in Narrative

Of course. Having a Negative Effect on Someone. Once again, Dramatica is not identifying what Halley herself sees as a problem—it’s what the Author sees as her problematic influence. Halley doesn’t lament the effects of what is going on around her, nor does she feel she needs to have a more significant impact on others. By portraying Halley the way he does in The Florida Project, Sean Baker is saying that it’s a huge problem the kind of effect this mother has on her child.

The rest of the storyform exploded in my brain like a hundred million stars going supernova all at once.

Confirming the new storyform

Result and Process find a home under an Issue of Security with Cause and Effect in Moonee’s personal Throughline. The issue of security and the insecurities she feels stranded alone for long stretches of time fuel the kind of fantasy life Moonee needs to survive. The fact the young girl so easily avoids blame by re-channeling her energies towards creating all sorts of equally problematic chain reactions confirms a Main Character Focus of Cause and a Main Character Direction of Effect.

The Relationship Story Issue of Wisdom makes a strong statement about parental stupidity and its effect on the child. Interestingly enough, the storyform flips my original observation that they moved away from Ending and into Unending. One can see the broader connection that exists beneath a shared appreciation of this situation going on forever and ever and finding some way to bring it all to an end (Relationship Story Focus of Unending and Relationship Story Direction of Ending). The Relationship Story Benchmark of Learning finds relevance in the caseworkers learning about this toxic relationship and of Moonee learning what others think of her mother.

A better appreciation of a work of art

I plan to rewrite my formal analysis. In the meantime, the complete storyform for The Florida Project exists within the Narrative First Atomizer.

The Florida Project in the Story Atomizer
The Florida Project in the Story Atomizer

One thing is clear: The Florida Project is a sophisticated and highly complex narrative masterpiece. The meaning, so tightly woven into the fabric of the film, takes months before it finally dawns on you: Oh, that’s what they were saying.

This is what makes story so special.

The idea that a work of art can continue to influence and impact us, even when we least expect it—when we’ve moved on and are off doing other things—that’s something only a great story can claim as its own.

The storyform bridges the gap between Author and Audience, and pulls the two closer together by granting meaning to the events of the story. By appreciating the specific elements of a narrative, we better understand the message and the intent to give us a reason to pause.

And to think.

This article, Rethinking an Analysis of The Florida Project, originally appeared March 21, 2018 on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Dramatica: The Journey Towards a Better Understanding of Story
A productive and meaningful exploration of narrative structure requires a specific strategy. One must be rigid in the application of proven theoretical concepts while simultaneously leaving themselves open to the possibility of merely being wrong about how they see things. To rest on the defense of self-perception is to cut one’s journey of development off before it even begins.

A challenge to the objective nature of the Dramatica theory of story, one often heard, arose on the Discuss Dramatica board:

I think there can be more than one interpretation since unless a writer used Dramatica to structure a story, it is very likely not going to align well. Map versus territory.

This statement is not entirely accurate; if the story “works”—and tells a complete argument—then it will map correctly within Dramatica’s model of narrative. Shakespeare didn’t have access to Dramatica. But he did have access to all the processes of problem-solving that every one of us possesses: a mind.

A Form to the Structure of a Story

In sharp contrast to the various paradigms of story that base structure on mythical journeys or sequencing of “birth moments,” Dramatica outlines seventy-five objective Story Appreciations. These story points—means by which the Audience can appreciate the meaning & intent of a story—broadcast the Author’s purpose. These appreciations coalesce to give form to an Author’s argument.

This form—or Storyform—is objective. A Dramatica storyform is not victim to subjective interpretation. Given a room full of experts well-versed in the theory and a story complete in execution, one comprehensive and accurate storyform makes itself known. Unfortunately, because of the complexity and space needed to separate storyform from storytelling in the analysis process, many writers default to the “many ways to interpret a story” rationalization. Instead of availing themselves of this deficiency in understanding, they turn a blind eye—and in the process, make the whole world blind.

The Dramatica theory of story assumes that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Assuming everyone possesses a working and functioning mind, the identification of similar techniques of problem-solving will always result in agreement on one accurate storyform.

I don’t think it’s a very defensible position to say there is only one way to interpret a story, nor to presume all people using Dramatica (or any other theory for that matter) will see a story exactly the same way.

If the analysts understand the Dramatica theory of story with competency and accuracy–and don’t fall back on the Well, that’s just how I see it defense–then yes, they will arrive the same storyform. For proof of this confirmation in action, listen to the latest Dramatica Users Group analysis of La La Land.

A Chance to Dream

Convinced that the film’s dream tail-end dream sequence indicated a Story Outcome of Failure, I spent several hours trying to convince a room full of Dramatica Story Experts to agree with me.

I failed.

The only two people on the planet who understand Dramatica better than me are the theory’s co-creators, Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips. I spent two decades learning the ins and outs of every last concept of this beautiful and sophisticated understanding of narrative, and I still subjectively misinterpreted this fundamental dynamic of story structure.

I look back on that night now and wonder, “How the heck could I ever see that dream sequence as anything more than a fairy tale?” Neither of the principle characters changed their point-of-view in this sequence. The key to a complete argument—to a whole story—is a changed perspective. Without change, there is no argument—no argument, no story. That sequence was nothing more than a tale—an idealized fairy tale of what could have been.

Open to Re-evaluation & Greater Understanding

I could have responded with, ”Well, that’s just how I see it. I have so much more experience than everyone else in the room, and I’m entitled to my opinion. Besides, there isn’t one way to interpret a story.” But I would have been doing a disservice to everyone in the room, everyone interested in genuinely understanding narrative, and more importantly—to myself. By holding my interpretation as valid as any other, I would ruin the opportunity for greater understanding. My ego soothed, accounts of these different analyses would regress the development of future writers.

By falling back on feeling good about myself, I would have screwed things up for everyone else.

But I didn’t. I listened to what EXPERTS in the room we’re saying–writers who spend a considerable amount of time learning & understanding what the Dramatica theory of story is all about–and I finally realized my mistake.

Before the meeting I uploaded “my” version of the storyform to the Narrative First Atomizer—a service where I maintain the most accurate catalog of Dramatica storyforms. Did I leave that version up because my subjective interpretation of the film was just as critical? No—because that’s silly and ultimately counter-productive to the whole purpose of offering such a service.

I promptly fixed it, republished the most accurate version, and now—when anyone goes to check into the story points of La La Land—they won’t be confused by any counter-analyses.

What to Do If You’re Wrong

So what should you do when you come up against a group analysis that runs counter to your interpretation? Nine times out of ten this is an indication that you are projecting your life experience onto the story’s meaning. In those rare moments when this isn’t the case, writers submit their counter-arguments with a logical explanation as to the disagreement. If proven out, we alter the original storyforms to reflect that higher understanding. The Sixth Sense, Captain America: Civil War, The Terminator, and Reservoir Dogs showcase storyforms changed from their original state to reflect a more accurate understanding.

More often than not however, the one doing the challenging often learns something about Dramatica they misunderstood. My revelation above about La La Land’s tale ending arrived during a subsequent lunch discussing the analysis with Chris Huntley. My strategy moving forward requires searching out the argument being made within a story; if it’s not there, then the story is a tale.

Developing as a Writer

“There isn’t one way to interpret a story” defense always indicates a person who refuses to learn.

Many paradigms of story and gurus of story seek to “empower” or encourage writers through techniques refined in self-help circles. Dramatica is not a theory of making writers feel good about themselves, it’s a theory of narrative—the most accurate and comprehensive theory of narrative structure around—IF used correctly.

Subjective misinterpretations occur because the story points—those appreciations of story structure—are being seen as indications of storytelling, not storyforming. The Overall Story Concern isn’t merely what everyone in the story is concerned with; it’s a means by which the Audience appreciates how those concerns indicate conflict. Without inequity(conflict), a story point is not attached to the storyform.

To continue with the rationalization that all analysis is equal paints a picture of mass confusion and dissolution of the accuracy of the Dramatica model of story. By maintaining the validity of your interpretation shift move away from the objective nature of a storyform—and move away from what Dramatica defines as a story. Experts in the theory, like me, leave themselves open to being wrong because an accurate storyform is infinitely more important than their self-worth.

Allowing Dramatica to Get in the Way of Writing

Some writers, faced with the reluctance or inability to change, rely on artistic self-defense to justify a refusal to learn:

Nor is it helpful if it discourages me from trusting my own process of making meaning to the point that I rely on the consensus to tell me what a story means. In such a case, I would be allowing my own creativity and critical thought process to be sidelined, and myself to be disempowered.

Many writers turn to Dramatica as a means of enlightening and inspiring their own creative muse—confirming their own intuition and expanding their own understanding to improve the quality and breadth of their storytelling.

Under my guidance, I’ve seen Dramatica help novelists expand the world of their characters and give form to the hundreds of pages awaiting their care & engagement, and I’ve seen television series and animated features snatch green lights with little to no resistance. In every case, the heart of the artist reigns supreme—it’s merely a matter of knowing how to connect that intent with an accurate storyform.

The biggest mistake people make with dramatica is believing that they have to follow the theory or a given storyform to the letter, and in doing so lose touch with their own creative, meaning-making process. People give up on dramatica when they feel they have to choose between the theory and their own creativity.

Writers also give up when they think there isn’t an objective basis by which to measure the various story points when constructing their story. "Well, there isn’t one way to skin a cat dilutes what is otherwise a compelling and enlightening theory of narrative.

If I start worrying about doing everything “right” according to the theory or the software, or if it compels me to replace meaningful ideas with bland ones, and as a consequence I experience writer’s block or end up with a less meaningful story, then dramatica has ceased to be helpful.

Every writer is free to break structure and do whatever their heart tells them. The writer/director behind Get Out purposefully broke structure at the end of that phenomenal hit. He didn’t worry about doing something “wrong” with his film.

It is a complete misunderstanding to suggest that the Dramatica theory of story is trying to tell writers what is “right” and “wrong” with your story—the Dramatica theory of story is showing you how to write a convincing and reliable argument—whether or not one feels it is right or wrong to do so is entirely up to the writer. Writers should feel confident enough to break structure whenever they want.

Losing touch with the creative process isn’t the issue here–inaccurate storyform analysis is.

Psyching Oneself Up for the Road Ahead

Putting the label of “Dramatica” on an analysis when it is grossly inaccurate does a disservice to other writers. It leads them down the wrong path, fooling themselves into thinking they’re using Dramatica when they’re just inventing their own theory–no better off than they were without it. “Well, that’s just how I see it” makes everyone think they can come up with whatever they want when it comes to analyzing a story. They certainly can—they just can’t call it Dramatica.

This “alternative interpretations” crowd advocates the same Tower of Babel that existed long before Dramatica came along. Hero’s Journey, Sequence Method, Save the Cat!, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Lajos Egri, and Aristotle—each came close, each missed the mark. The Dramatica theory of story brings sanity to an area self-expression relegated for much of human history to something resembling the dark arts, held in secret esteem by a privileged few.

Dramatica possesses the ability to help improve the quality of your storytelling for all time—if used as intended. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve arrived at the end of your understanding of narrative structure merely because you acknowledge the difference between a Main Character and Protagonist. Challenge yourself—challenge what you hold to be true by measuring up against like-minded experts in the field.

The journey towards a greater understanding of narrative structure is a long and ever-changing road with stunning vistas and deep and dark chasms. Just when you think you have it all figured out, your own justifications rise to the surface. Faced with the awareness of your own blind spots, you must make the decision: persist in my own self-delusion, or free myself from the shackles of my own limited perception.

The answer determines your lifelong growth as a writer and an artist.

This article, Dramatica: The Journey Towards a Better Understanding of Story, originally appeared February 14, 2018 on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Wrangling the Scope of an Entire Narrative
Faced with a confusing or undefined narrative, writers sometimes defer to the easy-get of the ticking time clock. When things slow down, or a story plods from one scene to the next, why not induce a little tension with a looming deadline? Unfortunately, the nature of that deadline can lead many a writer astray in the construction of their stories.

The writers on the Discuss Dramatica board recently delved into the story appreciation known as the Story Limit. While most of the discussion regressed into intellectual considerations of the difference between time and space (and whether or not time existed at all!), the notion that some struggle with this concept sparked a desire to explore the Story Limit in greater detail.

To me, the Story Limit is a foregone conclusion. Unless a ticking time clock appears on-screen or the characters continuously fret over a deadline, the Limit is almost always an Optionlock. Out of the 380+ storyforms currently in the Narrative First Atomizer, only nineteen limit their narratives by setting a Timelock. That’s 5%.

Narratives with a Story Limit of Timelock

Narratives with a Story Limit of Timelock

The reason for this has more to do with Audience Reception than anything else,[1] but practically speaking 9.5 times out of 10 the narrative in question defines its scope regarding space, rather than time.


The original term for Optionlock was Spacelock. Fearing confusion among those repulsed by science-fiction, the Dramatica theorists switched out Space for Options–and in doing so, introduced the familiar kind of misunderstandings that occur with the simplifying of all of Dramatica.

The difference between time and space

The Dramatica theory of story is a mental model of the mind, specifically the mind’s problem-solving process. Part of this process involves understanding whether the problem exists within a context of time or space. The methods by which we resolve issues adjust to these concerns.

Same with a story.

If stories are indeed an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem,[2] then allowing for the different considerations of time and space is needed. Thus, the Spacelock or Timelock.

A narrative isn’t potentially limited by Options; it’s potentially limited by Space. Characters think in terms of options, not space–illuminating the source of all confusion: the Dramatica storyform is not concerned with how the characters think, it’s interested in how the Author thinks. It’s interested in how the mental model of the mind is thinking. By changing Spacelock to Optionlock, Dramatica shifts the Author’s thinking towards a subjective understanding of the limit, rather than an objective understanding.

And the Dramatica storyform is all about objectivity.

The rose petals of Beauty and the Beast

An easy example of the difference between a Spacelock and a Timelock lies within Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast:

There’s a rose with a limited number of petals. It’s also tied to the Beasts 21st birthday. Technically you can look at the rose and see how many petals there are, but I’ll be darned if I could tell you that number. I also have no idea how long it is until his birthday. So is it an Optionlock or Timelock. It seems that it doesn’t matter. It can be one or the other, both, or neither. By falling in love with the Beast as the last petal falls, Belle is essentially cutting the wire as the clock reaches zero. She takes the final option just as she runs out of time.

It’s not about her final option; it’s about the story’s opportunities coming to a close.

The litmus test in determining the Story Limit is this: Would changing the supposed limit change the MEANING of the story? If not, then the limit is not functioning as a Story Limit. If it does, then the limit could be an instance of the Story Limit.

In regards to the Story Limit of Beauty and the Beast, changing the actual date of the Beast’s 21st birthday would not appreciably change the meaning of the story. And appreciation is what the storyform is all about.[3]

As an Audience member, we possess no clue as to how long the film lasts. We don’t know if it takes three days, three weeks, or three years. The Authors never indicate the Beast’s starting age, nor do they continuously refer to any sort of time throughout every Act.

But they do regularly refer back to the wilting rose.

The Story Limit of Beauty and the Beast
The Story Limit of Beauty and the Beast

The rose signifies the approaching deadline, but it does so through a comparison of space, not time. A Timelock is a definite amount of time. By the end of a story with a Timelock, you know exactly how much time it took because Time was an essential part of that story’s meaning.

Consider a film like Ex Machina. Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleason) arrives for a week of fun and intellectual curiosity with tech-magnate Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

One week.

While the film refers explicitly to the ticking off of days with its sporadic use of title cards, time defines that looming deadline, not space. In sharp contrast to a wilting flower with no particular attachment to a definite unit of time, those days count down the time until the helicopter returns to take Caleb back to civilization.

Caleb says goodbye for seven days in Ex Machina
Caleb says goodbye for seven days in Ex Machina

In Ex Machina, time is of the essence. In Beauty and the Beast, it is the dwindling number of options for transforming the beast from monster to man that sets the pace and arrival of the climax.

Space is of the essence.

The apparent blending of time and space

What about a film like Pixar’s Cars? Lightning McQueen has one week to travel across the United States to participate in a race in California. Is that a story limited by time, or a story limited by options?

At first glance, it may seem like time. After all, the narrative sounds like Ex Machina in that there are a specific date set and a set amount of time within which to reach the racetrack.

But if you were to extend the date of the race, move it back a couple of days or move it forward a couple of days would that appreciably change the meaning of the story?

Regardless of when the actual race occurs, it is the crossing of the finish line–the dwindling number of competitors who could get closest to that finish line that determines the climax of that story. The number of people you have to use and walk over on your way to victory–that’s what the story is all about, not the amount of time or lack of time you have to get there.

The same situation occurs with Richard Donner’s Sixteen Blocks. Det. Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) needs to transfer Edward “Eddie” Bunker (Mos Def) to court to testify in a police corruption case. The grand jury is set to convene at 10am–two hours for Bruce to make that trek. If he doesn’t succeed, a bunch of crooked cops gets off scot-free.

Sixteen Blocks is all about time.

Bruce and Mos make their way across Sixteen Blocks
Bruce and Mos make their way across Sixteen Blocks

While the narrative continually refers to the amount of space Bruce needs to travel and how close he gets (even the title defines space: sixteen blocks!), changing that limit–making it twenty-three blocks or four blocks–wouldn’t change the meaning of the story. The question is Can you get there within two hours?, not Can you get across four or sixteen or twenty-three blocks?

Change the time of that court hearing and suddenly the meaning of the story–the approaching climax shifts appreciably. The Story Limit is tied directly to the climax of a narrative. Set the grand jury hearing to 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. or even 6, and suddenly Bruce has more time for funny lines and taking out bad guys. Set the clock to 9:30 am and suddenly he has no time for quips–that’s an appreciable change, especially in a Bruce Willis action thriller!

The limit from the character’s point-of-view

How does altering the limit of a story change the meaning of a story? After all, there is a subjective component to a mind trying to solve a problem. Understanding how the meaning changes for the characters when the Author changes the limit is as simple as understanding the difference between these two contexts:

  • How far can you get in a certain amount of time?


  • How much time will it take to get that far?

The first is a Timelock, the second an Optionlock. The first sets in stone a deadline and asks you to consider how much space you can traverse. The second sets in stone a distance and asks you to focus on how long it will take. The limit sets the scope of what it means to resolve that story’s problem.

Confusing space for time

Even narrative experts fall prey to subjective misinterpretation.

My first draft of this article mistakingly identified a secondary Story Limit of Pixar’s Coco to be a Timelock. Wrapped up in this exploration of the difference between stories limited by time and those framed by space, I deferred to the subjective experience of watching that film and the feeling that “time” was running out.[4]

A sunset is NOT a Timelock.

Aspiring young guitarist Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) crosses over into the land of the dead to discover a long-forgotten relative Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). Finding a way to return his photograph to the family altar sets the focus of the narrative, and the reality of the situation defines the scope: a fixed amount of Space within which to make the journey from the dead to the living.

An essential component of this Spacelock lies in Miguel’s downward spiral from boy to bones. If he doesn’t make it back to the land of the living by sunrise, he’s never making it back.

Miguels impending doom in Coco
Miguel’s impending doom in Coco

One might mistaken this limit for Time–after all, we measure time by the sun’s location in the sky, don’t we?

The key word here is position. Like the rose petals in Beauty and the Beast, where the sun’s position marks the Limit, not when.

The sunset thing ticks me off the most, because “the amount of degrees in the sky the sun has to pass through” is time. Like, literally, that’s what time is. If the passage of a minute and hour hand around a clock is acceptable, then surely the passage of the sun through the sky is, too…Meet me when the sun is at is highest peak“ and ”Meet me at high noon" are the same thing!

The first is a reference to spatial awareness, the second temporal. This difference in awareness calls for different approaches to resolution–different stories.

What are waiting for? The sun to reach a specific place or the sun to reach a specific time? In High Noon, it’s 12pm (like Sixteen Blocks and even 3:10 to Yuma, it’s in the title!). In Coco, it’s dawn.

With dawn, we look to the sun’s place in the sky. With 12pm we look to the passage of time.

Defining the edges of meaning

A complete narrative seeks to argue a valid approach towards solving problems. A storyform–of which the Story Limit is an integral part–defines the intent and purpose of that argument. The storyform is an objective account of the story’s message, not a subjective account from the character’s point-of-view.

As Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explains:

KEEP IN MIND: All Dramatica story points are from the objective Author’s point of view, one in which everything has already played out, and all is known. That means the question of the Story Limit: Timelock or Optionlock? asks to identify what IS (objectively), not what seems to be from a subjective point of view

Characters think in terms of options, Authors think in terms of space (or at least, they should). The Story Limit, whether Spacelock or Timelock, sets the scope of the efforts to resolve a problem.

Without a definite or consistent Story Limit, the Audience fails to empathize with the approaching climax. They need a baseline–an objective baseline–from which to evaluate the actions and decisions taken to resolve the story’s conflict.

Set the scope–or Story Limit–of a narrative in stone and keep to it. Refer to it at least once per Act, and allow the Audience to become an integral part of the message you seek to convey. The result is a greater appreciation of why you wrote the story in the first place.

The result is a greater understanding of you.

  1. Timelocks eliminate half your Audience.  ↩

  2. A given of the Dramatica theory of story.  ↩

  3. This is why Dramatica uses the terminology of the appreciations of story structure–you’re appreciating that particular element of narrative structure.  ↩

  4. Thanks to Gregolas for pointing that out.  ↩

Interested in learning more about stories with similar structure in a fun and visual way? Register now for the Narrative First Atomizer and get to know story at a molecular level. The Narrative First Atomizer breaks down successful narratives into their essential ingredients—providing you the know-how to craft and develop your own meaningful stories. Visit Narrative First to learn more about this exciting service.

The Most Important Event in Any Story
When you come to the end of a story and you look back on everything that happened, what event could you call the most important? Was it the one at the end that brought everything to a satisfying close? Was it that tragic downturn that brought the Main Character to their lowest point? Or was it in fact, that event that started everything off–that event that, if removed, would erase the need for anything that came after it?

This “Most Important Event” is not a new idea; many refer to it as the Inciting Incident or the first Major Plot Point. My brother prefers to call it the “Exciting Incident.” Whatever their favorite term, almost every writer/story guru recognizes the importance of the event as it gets the ol’ story ball rolling. Often it puts the Main Character in instant jeopardy, increasing the conflict in such a way that a story must proceed.

But as with all things, a different perspective can you give a different understanding of story. Lets say you’ve written a story but you’re not sure if you’ve got that Most Important Event in there; perhaps you have something, but you don’t feel that it is quite strong enough. Well, coming from the usual perspective of looking at the beginning of your story it can be difficult to really tell if it is working correctly or not.

A different perspective can give you a different understanding.

But if you start at the end of your story and take a look back, you begin to see things differently. Is there an event there at the beginning, that if you took it out, would preclude any need for a story to follow? If you can’t find one, then your story never really started in the first place. You’ve got to have that first event that really upsets the balance of things and sends all your characters into a tizzy.

Finding Nemo
Finding Nemo

Too many times, writers concentrate on the emotional aspects of a story at the expense of the logical portion of their narrative. Take Finding Nemo–some think that the Inciting Event of that story occurred when Nemo’s mother was killed.

Not true.

Sure, it had a profound effect on the emotional makeup of Nemo and his father–but it had little to do with the logical part of the narrative. The story really started when Nemo left the safety of the Reef. Soon after he was caught by the dentist, therefore upsetting the status quo for everyone.

It’s noteworthy that this event applies to all the characters in a story, not just one or two principal characters. When looking at where a story starts logically (from an objective standpoint), it’s got to be something that upsets the balance for everyone.

Star Wars
Star Wars

What of Star Wars? Some think it has something to do with the plans. Well what about the plans? If Princess Leia hadn’t stolen them, would there still be a story? I would think so; there’s still quite a large inequity going on in that part of the galaxy. Turns out the Inciting Event of Star Wars had more to do with a tyrannical Empire boarding a diplomatic ship. Problems in this sci-fi spectacular occur because those in power continue to test the extent of their dominance. Without that scene of black-cloaked tyranny stepping onto a counselor’s ship, there would be no need for chasing droids, teaching ancient religions and bulls-eyeing womprats. There would be no story.

What about E.T. The Extra Terrestrial? Easy – E.T. gets left behind. The Iron Giant? The Iron Giant crashes to Earth. What about something more serious, maybe even historical, like Hotel Rwanda? The murder of the Hutu president by Tutsi rebels sets off that explosive story. Serious or light-hearted, it doesn’t matter much; point is you’ve got to have that event that creates the inequity–for all the characters in a story.

What about something on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Because there is such a huge emphasis on the emotional part of that story,[1] deciphering exactly where the story begins for all the characters can be a tricky process. But there is one event that, if didn’t happen, would’ve stopped the story dead in its tracks: the decision Paul makes to grant Holly shelter through his bedroom window.

True, he didn’t really welcome her with open arms, but he certainly didn’t say no! If he had, the rest of the world would’ve carried on as it always had. Holly would still be getting her weather reports and Paul would still have nothing but a ribbon-less typewriter.

Think of it this way–the world of a story is a calm mountain lake with no breeze on a crisp cool autumn morning. There is the potential for great conflict, but it lies just beneath the surface, muffled and hidden out of sight. The narrative is at balance. Suddenly, a huge boulder drops out of the sky, breaking the surface of the once placid lake. Fish scatter. Sediment shivers. Waves, both large and small, ripple their way towards the shoreline. An inequity has been introduced; the narrative is now out of balance.

You’ve got to figure out what the boulder of your story is. You’ll know when you’ve found it because your story will cease to exist without it. Without that giant boulder your work will remain a peaceful quiet lake, high in the mountains of Stories That Never Were.

Stories That Never Were
Stories That Never Were

  1. After all, it is their romance that everyone remembers!  ↩

Interested in learning more about stories with similar structure in a fun and visual way? Register now for the Narrative First Atomizer and get to know story at a molecular level. The Narrative First Atomizer breaks down successful narratives into their essential ingredients—providing you the know-how to craft and develop your own meaningful stories. Visit Narrative First to learn more about this exciting service.

Unravelling the Story Structure of Tangled: The Series
The season finale for the Disney channel’s animated show Tangled: The Series premiered last week. As a story consultant on the series, I found the reaction from fans rewarding:

“Wow, a season-ending cliffhanger! i LOVE season-ending cliffhangers, but didn’t expect it from a children’s show! I’m pleasantly surprised and can’t wait to see what Rapunzel and Eugene’s adventures in season 2 will hold!”

This level of gratitude and anticipation, common with most of the responses, arises because of the care and thought that went into writing a complete story for the first season.

Detailed in the article Outlining a Television Series with Dramatica, the process involved listening to the various ideas for character, plot, and theme and converging all into singular storyforms for both the entire series and the individual seasons.

“believe me when I tell you that everything has significance and is meticulously crafted. The writing is amazing.”"

That “meticulous” craftsmanship? 100% purposeful and deliberate from the very beginning. The narrative structure of the series accounts for part of the show’s success and helps to explain much of the positive feedback.

  • The first season told a complete storyform–setting up the Audience’s expectation for more thoughtful narratives
  • The start of the second season storyform begins in the final moments of the first season—setting the stage for the next storyform
  • The storyform for the entire series ties both of the first two seasons together—they’re related to each other by the series’ first two structural Signposts

The storyform for the first season—the special narrative code—can be found in the Narrative First Atomizer, a service built from the ground-up to support the development of amazing stories.

Digging Deep Down

When Executive Producer Chris Sonnenburg first approached me with the idea of creating a deliberate and purposeful path for the series to follow, he stressed one phrase in particular:

Plus est en vous

French for “there is more in you,” the phrase appears in the journal Rapunzel’s mother gifts to her near the beginning of the series. Everything within the first season revolves around this theme.

How then do you tie intention to narrative structure?

You make your purpose part of the structure.

The following image, taken from the Atomizer, displays the quad of character elements found at the center of Rapunzel’s personal Throughline.

Rapunzel and her Quad of Character Elements
Rapunzel and her Quad of Character Elements

The engine behind the Atomizer relies on the Dramatica theory of story—a comprehensive approach to story that sees complete narratives as models of the human mind at work.

Translated into common tongue, the quad above says ”Rapunzel, driven by speculation of what she might become, focuses her attention on an apparent problem of self-awareness, and responds by seeking greater external awareness.”

Plus est en vous is telling Rapunzel to look inwards, to become more Self-aware. Her lack of understanding of what that means drives her to seek out a higher Awareness of everything around her. Everyone Speculates what she could be, but what indeed is her Destiny?

The Complete Throughline for Rapunzel
The Complete Throughline for Rapunzel

Looking upwards through the model, we find an Issue of Destiny situated directly above these four character elements. Rapunzel’s core drive naturally leads to this thematic issue of Destiny—another instance of Sonnenburg’s intention. Find what’s inside of you so you can carve out your path through life.

Intent that Carries Throughout

Setting Rapunzel’s Throughline to this quad of elements, integrating a Triumphant ending, and granting her father the most significant shift in personal point-of-view locks in the balance of the story’s thematic appreciations.

King Frederic, Rapunzel’s father and Influence Character for the first season, challenges his daughter and the rest of the kingdom with his efforts to repress painful memories. His lies and attempts to make things appear better than they define an Influence Character with Issues of Falsehood and a Problem of Perception.

King Frederics Influence Character Throughline
King Frederic’s Influence Character Throughline

These thematic elements do not arise haphazardly—they perfectly balance out Rapunzel’s issues of Destiny and Speculation. The problem with Destiny is the question of whether or not we’re fooling ourselves–a character who finds success in fooling himself and those around him is perfectly situated to challenge a character beset by issues of Destiny. Are we just lying to ourselves with the belief that there is something more, and that our struggle leads to something meaningful? Or is the lie real?

For example, think of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The Main Character in that film, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) shares Rapunzel’s focus on Destiny and the idea of “waiting for a train…knowing where you hope it will take you, but you can’t be sure.”

Rapunzel and Dom partake in the same thematic issue. Their respective Influence Characters challenge them with half-truths and falsehoods: Frederic with his professed ignorance of problems in the kingdom and Dom’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and the lie she holds onto regarding being in a dream state.

Influence Characters and their challenging point-of-view exist to impact the Main Character and force him or her to deal with their justifications. Rapunzel holds tight to her focus on something more within her, causing her father to fundamentally shift his point-of-view.

Instead of continuing to persist a lie based on appearances, Frederic shifts his attention to the reality of the situation and of Rapunzel’s unique role to play. Her father “arcs” from Perception to Actuality.

Bringing Purpose to Children

This effort towards meaningful character development and sound narrative structure brings a cohesiveness to the series typically absent in most children’s programming. Some may question overthinking a show that exists only to babysit and distract for 22 minutes at a time. Placing aside the reality that regardless of age, every one of us problem-solves with the same psychological process, children know when they’re being talked down to and instinctively ignore those who pander to them. Why shouldn’t they be shown the same amount of respect and attention to detail found in more adult programming?

Don’t they deserve great stories?

Going Above and Beyond

The first season of Tangled: The Series was not a matter of lucky happenstance. The creators set the path from the very beginning and referred to this narrative storyform throughout, to keep the series focused on Rapunzel’s most personal problem.

The first season consists of 19 half-hour episodes and three one-hour specials. The pilot episode Tangled: Before Ever After and the finale Secret of the Sundrop account for two of these specials, a mid-season special Queen for a Day (Episode 17) furnishes the last. While these three form the bulk of the first season’s storyline, the episodes in-between support and subtly inform that central purpose.

Remember that the development of this series began three years ago—three years before binge-watching and multiple streaming services were a thing. Anticipating this particular situation and eager to present something more than merely another children’s show, the series’ creators lobbied hard to make the serialized nature of Tangled: The Series a reality. This effort would likely be a foregone conclusion today given the landscape and appetite for season-long storyforms that draw Audiences in with the promise of something more.

This first season of Tangled, and the seasons to come, showcase the kind of impact intentional storytelling brings to the final work. That “I can’t wait to see the next installment” is a reaction to complete and as-yet-to-be completed storyforms. You hook them with the anticipation of a greater understanding of the issues and problems we all face. Give your Audience a meaningful structure that says something, and they’ll respond with appreciation and gratitude.

Enjoy the show!

Interested in learning more about stories with similar structure in a fun and visual way? Register now for the Narrative First Atomizer and get to know story at a molecular level. The Narrative First Atomizer breaks down successful narratives into their essential ingredients—providing you the know-how to craft and develop your now meaningful stories. Visit Narrative First to learn more about this exciting service.

Identifying the Storyform of a Complete Story
Many writers write without any clue as to the relevance of their last scene. Self-doubt and panic sets in the moment they start to question if what they wrote fits in with the rest of their story. A Dramatica® storyform erases this skepticism by guaranteeing a purpose-driven approach to scene writing.

Six days a week for nine months? Most view this kind of employment situation untenable. For those us working on completing How To Train Your Dragon in time for its release in 2010, it was an incredible honor and lasting experience. Why?

A singular vision propelled the narrative.

Creating Vision

The purpose of this series on Preparing to Write a Complete Story is to help writers strategize an approach for figuring out the basic structure of your story. When you know where the conflict starts, and what is needed to resolve it, it’s easy to determine which scenes are necessary and which scenes you can save for another day.

The articles on Identifying the Goal and Consequence of a Complete Story and Identifying the Protagonist and Antagonist of a Complete Story help you determine the forces at work within the conflict of your narrative. Identifying the Domains and Throughlines of a Complete Story and Identifying the Influence Character of a Complete Story aid in positioning the various perspectives on that conflict within your narrative.

Before you fire up the Dramatica® Story Expert application and begin making selections, you need to consider what it is you want to say with your story. What message do you want to convey? The answer to this question ties those six steps above into a single hologram of meaning.

This final article in the series gives shape to that hologram through a concept of Dramatica known as the storyform.

The Storyform

Many think of story structure as something you apply to a series of events or a group of characters. They ascribe mythical journeys to these individuals and a set of predetermined cultural beats to log the progression to a higher self.

Not with Dramatica.

As confirmed in the previous articles on Identifying the Influence Character:

A complete narrative is not an investing and compelling account of something that happened–a complete narrative is a cohesive analogy of a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre–these are not parts of a story–they’re parts of the human mind.

Learning the important scenes becomes a process of determining that mind.

The storyform is a snapshot of the human mind at work.

If you want to write something meaningful, it’s time to stop fooling yourself. Stop thinking of your characters as real people with real feelings and start seeing them as elements of a single identity. That’s the way to a cohesive narrative.

The Great Debate Over Captain America: Civil War

The impetus for this series rests in the huge debate over the Main Character perspective within Captain America: Civil War. As evidenced by the amount of discussion in the Discuss Dramatica forums on the topic, confusion abounds in regards to this purpose of Dramatica’s storyform.

The storyform is not there to tell you more about your characters or what they’re thinking or what they’re going through–the storyform is there to tell you what your story is about. Problem, Solution, Resolve, and Outcome? These, and the seventy other story points found in a storyform make an argument for how one should approach life:

  • Stop testing and start trusting and you can make the world a better place (The LEGO Batman Movie)
  • Stop testing and start trusting and you can fight a rebellion against an empire (Star Wars)
  • Embrace the good and the bad as if it all balances out in the end and understand the meaning of life (Arrival)
  • Embrace the good and the bad as if it all balances out in the end and figure out how to live life in a new city (Inside Out)

The LEGO Batman Movie and Star Wars share similar storyforms. Aside from choices that skew Genre (the former is Dysfunctional Family Comedy, the latter SciFi Action/Adventure), the message of both films is the same: Success comes when you Stop Testing. A Main Character who Changes their Main Character Resolve by Stopping a Main Character Problem of Testing results in a Story Outcome of Success.

Arrival and Inside Out share a similar relationship. Again, discounting Genre selections (one a Sci-Fi Thriller, the other a Dysfunctional Road Trip Comedy), the message communicated by both storyforms is the same: Success comes when you Start seeing Equity (balance). A Main Character who Changes their Main Character Resolve by Starting a Main Character Solution of Equity results in a Story Outcome of Success.

In all four examples, the storyform communicates a message to the Audience. It’s not about Joy or Sadness, or Louise or Heptapod aliens, or Luke Skywalker or Batman–its about the intent behind the creation of the narrative itself.

What is the Author trying to say?

I Don’t Know What I Want to Say

If you don’t know what you want to say, Dramatica can help you with that. You can make selections within the application based on what you have written and wait for Dramatica to respond with choices to round out and complete your argument. Dramatica is the only story structure “paradigm” that can help you do this.

Write what you feel deep inside. Turn to Dramatica to help you uncover what is you’re trying to say.

The storyform defines the edges of an inequity so one can adequately communicate it to someone else.

The Conflict That Cannot Be Spoken

Many writers new to Dramatica grow frustrated over this idea of inequity. Where is it in the model? and How can I figure out the inequity of my story?

Well, you can’t. Because an inequity is not a real thing.

The mind senses an inequity, or imbalance between things, and begins imputing all sorts of problems and solutions to that imbalance. But these problems and these solutions–they’re made up in the mind.

The inequity isn’t a problem.

The mind’s justification process–that’s a problem.

The inequity of a story sits at the center of all four throughlines. It’s not something you can describe or define–if you could, you would call up your friend and tell them. But you can’t, and that’s why you write a story.

An inequity exists between things and as such, can only be approximated by looking at it from the several different viewpoints offered by the various Throughlines. Main Character, Influence Character, Overall Story, and Relationship Story–these are points-of-view on that fundamental inequity.

Note that they’re all looking at the same thing. That shared focus is an important concept to understand when making the final decision for the thematic story points within your narrative. Everything needs to point to the same thing if they’re going to add up to the message you’re trying to prove.

If you don’t have that purpose in mind, you’re going to end up all over the place–as evidenced by that discussion surrounding the Main Character in Captain America: Civil War.

Tying Personal Issues to The Story at Large

Reading through that post, some see Tony Stark (Iron Man) as the Main Character, others see Steve Rodgers (Captain America). The ones who see Tony assuming the position of the Main Character sense the challenging influence brought on by the perspectives of Steve and Peter Parker, and witness the resolution moment where Iron Man chooses for himself what is right and wrong and “eyeballs” a shot at the Winter Soldier.

Those who try to position Steve as the Main Character flounder when it comes to defining a consistent, challenging perspective from an Influence Character. They may insert concerns from the comic book series or their appreciations of the characters, but those understandings exist outside of the work in question. They bring in material inconsequential and, in some respects, contradictory to the singular storymind presented within the film.

No challenge exists for Steve. No moments of consideration. No defining resolution moment that ties his conflict with the external conflict of the Overall Story Throughline. The defining moment of his perspective–the decision to decide whether it was right or wrong to keep Bucky’s past a secret–was made off-screen and out-of-sight.

As presented in the film, this secret was something You did, not something I did.

Tony’s uncontrolled rampage is the kind of thing Zemo hoped for when he set out to split the Avengers. By tying Tony’s personal resolution in with the results of the overall story, the Authors prove their message:

When you stop trying to control yourself and start letting go, you split the ties that bind a team together.

Positioning Tony’s perspective within the Main Character Throughline outlines a cohesive storyform that argues the above without equivocation.

The Narrative First Approach to Dramatica

Over the years, I have developed a method for preparing writers and their stories for Dramatica. Before arriving at the one single storyform out of the 32,768 possible storyforms available within the current model, I like to develop a holistic sense of what the Author is trying to say with their story…

…because it’s nice when you can get the narrative first.

My process before opening Dramatica is simple:

  1. Identify the Initial Inequity (Story Driver)
  2. Determine what will resolve that initial inequity (Story Goal)
  3. Determine what happens without resolution (Story Consequence)
  4. Identify the forces of initiative towards that Goal (Protagonist)
  5. Identify the forces of reticence away from that Goal (Antagonist)
  6. Identify the personal point-of-view and its challenger (Main Character Throughline and Influence Character Throughline)

All of this can be done without the Dramatica Story Expert application and within a short amount of time. This series of articles walks you through that process. The key is staying objective and knowing what it is you want to say.

And if you don’t know, say half of it and let Narrative First and Dramatica help you with the other half.

The Disaster of Not Knowing

Imagine the disaster inherent within the animation studio system and without the aid of Narrative First and Dramatica. Not only do you have a situation where everyone vies for the validity of incongruent ideas, but you also have a situation where everyone competes for ideas based on these characters being real people and having real feelings. You don’t have everyone focused on a single mind, and you don’t have everyone focused on a single purpose.

The reason the first How To Train Your Dragon feature ranks superior to the second regarding storytelling is the simple fact that the studio system that bucks against a singular vision didn’t have enough time to intervene. After several misspent years in development, the original directors of the film were taken off, and Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders were brought in to save the day.

In three months, Dean and Chris tossed out the original book, cast Toothless as a giant and appealing character,[1] and reworked the entire film into something everyone loves.

The second film? Not so much. And it’s a shame–Dean’s original pitch for the next movie in the series generated high emotional impact–because it was based on a robust and complete storyform. Unfortunately, with the second, the luxury of time worked against the production. With much riding on the series, studio executive and managers stepped in, reworked the story, and excised what used to work for the first film.

The original How To Train Your Dragon represented a singular vision–not from one person, but from two people sharing a common purpose. With Dean and Chris tuned into the same storymind, we worked those six day weeks with passion and with gratefulness–because we knew we were working towards something meaningful.

You can experience that same kind of passion by determining the storyform of your own story.

The Purpose of a Complete Story

Everything they told you about story in the past is wrong. McKee was wrong. Snyder was wrong. Syd Field was wrong. And so was Campbell and anyone who bought into the whole idea of the Hero’s Journey.[2]

Even Aristotle had it wrong.

A story is not something built with structure. A story exists because of structure.

Stories exist because of who we are.

A complete story is a functioning model of the human mind at work. Characters aren’t real people; they’re representations of the forces of motivation within the mind. Plot isn’t something that happens to characters or because of characters–plot is how the mind goes about solving the current problem. And Theme? Theme isn’t what you want to say with your story, theme models the evaluation processes going on within the mind.

The storyform–that’s what you want to say with your story.

The Narrative First method for identifying and dealing with the central inequity of your narrative is your first step towards nailing down that purpose and intent behind your story.

Your next is to write the damn thing.

  1. You can find the original design for Toothless in the movie. Look for the tiny little green dragons that cuddle up next to him. Those were the original models for Toothless. Thank you, Dean and Chris!  ↩

  2. I was one of those people…until I started to see all kinds of inconsistencies and caveats.  ↩

Interested in learning more about stories with similar structure in a fun and visual way? Register now for the Narrative First Atomizer and get to know story at a molecular level. The Narrative First Atomizer breaks down successful narratives into their essential ingredients—providing you the know-how to craft and develop your own meaningful stories. Visit Narrative First to learn more about this exciting service.

For more articles by James Hull, click here.

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