James Hull Articles: Archive XII

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.

Understanding How Character Arc Works

Writers first stumble upon this concept of the character arc in high school. Whether in a creative writing class or a snarky YouTube video, the aspiring Author assumes that for a story to “work,” she must showcase the central character changing. Great transformation becomes the focus of her writing endeavors, and anything less—regardless of how it resonates with her intuition—falls by the wayside.

Great writing falls victim once again to insufficient and remedial understandings of a narrative.

When it comes to matters of Resolve and the principal characters of a story, many writers see evidence of change in everyone. And to many, this intuitively feels correct. Stories are about people learning from one another, and so it only makes sense that the central characters of a piece should somehow both change. These misguided writers wonder if perhaps there is some greater meaning to be found when two characters meet each other halfway.

There isn’t.

One, these characters aren’t both changing their Resolve.

And Two, characters aren’t people.

They’re perspectives.

Resolve and Meaning

The Dramatica theory of story establishes a functional narrative as a model of the human mind at work. Problems and the justifications that led to them unravel through the process of Scenes, Sequences, and Acts. Key to manufacturing this model are two opposing views that cannot be held at the same time and from the same perspective.

In short, an inequity.

The meaning of a narrative—what it hopes to communicate—is the appropriateness of one point-of-view over the other. This is the foundation for the premise of a story.

And this is why the Main Character Resolve exists as an essential Storypoint—and why at the end of a story one perspective Remains Steadfast, and the other is Changed.

If both changes, like many assume and believe, is possible, there is no Narrative Argument. No premise. No purpose.

The Audience checks out.

Perspectives, not People

Many writers confuse their characters for real people.

They’re not.

The characters that populate a story are Players—vessels that maintain a particular perspective.

Once we start adopting this more objective view of narrative, the light afforded us by Dramatica, the easier it is for us to construct meaningful narratives.

The easier it is for us to make sure our stories aren’t broken.

Stories as Models of Psychology

This question of Resolve and perspective appears when one sees a Steadfast character overcome their fears, seemingly “changing” in the process.

Boo, the young girl in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., is an excellent example of this in action. She eventually grows to a point where she defeats her personal monster and demon, Randall (Steve Buscemi), seemingly transforming in the process.

Boo and her monster, Randall
Boo and her monster, Randall

While it may seem to us that she changes and grows as a person, the central narrative storyform for Monsters, Inc. does not feature her emotional change as an integral part of its meaning.

It’s not a part of the premise, and therefore, not an actual change.

The storyform is a model of human psychology at work. And from that point of view Boo is a perspective, not a person. Overcoming her fears was not the substance, or meaning, of the narrative. Instead, Boo growing beyond her fears is integral to the storyform because of the Steadfastness of her point-of-view.

Remember that Boo’s role in this narrative is to challenge the monster world’s preconception of the terrifying nature of a human. Humans are an unknown, and it’s Boo’s steadfastness in staying an unknown and staying surprising to a monster that eventually breaks Sully (John Goodman) out of his own prejudices. Boo dislodges his justifications because she doesn’t fall into those tried and true preconceptions of what it means to be a human.

Sully and his monster, Boo
Sully and his monster, Boo

When seen as perspectives from a consistent point of view, not characters, one sees Boo’s “change” as an example of Steadfast Resolve. Not steadfast in terms of her as a person or as a character, but as a perspective that influences and challenges another to Change.

For her perspective to change, she would have to exemplify and show Sully that the monsters were right in believing humans dangerous. She would need to adapt to his worldview.

And that would be an entirely different story.

On Substories and Evidence

If growing beyond her fears and changing perspective was essential to the Author, then there would be more scenes supporting a second narrative. Boo’s fear of monsters like Randall would need an alternate challenging perspective to motivate her to move beyond her preconceptions. Stories can contain multiple narratives—it’s merely a matter of intent and purpose.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough information in Monsters, Inc. to warrant further investigation into a secondary narrative. Even sub-stories, narratives with incomplete or insufficient data, find more significant evidence than what is seen in this film. Think of Han Solo’s sub-story in the original Star Wars or Nemo’s aquarium episode in Finding Nemo. These sub-stories drew their characters out of justifications by echoing the structure of a functional narrative.

Boo’s personal issue with her fear of monsters did not, and therefore slips under the wake formulated by the central narrative of Monsters, Inc. Sully grows by Changing his Resolve, Boo grows by Remaining Steadfast in her Resolve. The completeness of this dichotomy and its correlation with the premise is what we take away from the film.

It’s not our fear of monsters that needs to change, it’s our belief that we are not the monsters that needs to change.

This article, Understanding How Character Arc Works, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

The Debilitating Scourge of the Trope

How to cure oneself from a tragic virus of the mind

Nothing is more caustic to the conversation of narrative structure than the trope. A breeding ground for meaningless instances of pattern recognition, the trope is the nihilist’s playground. The absurdity of life played out in plot devices and genre conventions.

Recall the last article in this series, Writing a Meaningful End to Conflict, and the conversation surrounding Bond’s physicality in Skyfall.

Ah, so yes, I did remember those scenes, but I chalked these up entirely to the “you’re getting too old for this business” trope which while it shares the word “old” with the question of “the old ways vs. the new” isn’t actually relevant except as a kind of metaphor: Bond is getting physically old, and his ways of being a spy are old, therefore Bond’s body is a metaphor for the traditional ways of spying. But it’s kind of cheap and to me less effective than if we’d had a younger Bond who was discovering the problems with being a traditional spy in a high-tech world.

Bond getting old exists as a metaphor for you in Skyfall because the narrative failed to integrate the Main Character Throughline fully. That’s a failure of the structure, not of concept.

Thankfully, the Dramatica theory of story sees beyond the uselessness of the trope. It explains why the “you’re getting too old for this” line appears in many stories within this Genre.

A Reason for Trends

The “too old for this” bit is conflict within the context of Universe—an inequity bred from the external state of things. The reason why it appears so often in Secret Agent Action films is due to the juxtaposition of the objective view of conflict and the subjective perspective. The “trope” is a result of an Overall Story conflict in Physics and a Main Character Throughline in Universe. It reflects the difficulties inherent with the work and “I’m getting too old for this.”

This arrangement of perspectives contains the added-bonus of the Main Character who prefers to solve problems externally. Dramatica structure identifies this dynamic as a Main Character Approach of Do-er. When you find yourself facing a problematic external situation (Universe), your go-to preference for solving that conflict is taking external action. There aren’t too many super spy films concerned with the internal components of their hero—unless you’re writing about Jason Bourne.

Bourne is less “I’m getting too old for this,” and more “What did I use to do?”

The Main Character Throughline of The Bourne Identity focuses on Bourne’s inability to remember his past. Mind instead of Universe. The internal over the external. This thematic relationship is why The Bourne Identity feels different than most Bond films—the sources of conflict differ in a meaningful and measurable way.

A Measure of Success

The virus that is the trope clouds the mind’s ability to perceive meaning. Wrapped in the comfort of * “Oh, I’ve seen this one before,”* the infected focuses on common elements of Storytelling rather than Story Structure. Illustrations over the content.

You see what I mean? Rolling out grandpa in a wheelchair and having him not able to shoot straight is a pretty piss-poor argument for, “see, guns are so passé. It’s all about drones these days.”

It’s not the words themselves, but the meaning behind the words that move an Audience. The characters don’t make the argument, the story makes the argument. The narrative Elements underneath define the form of that narrative argument.

Grandpa not being able to shoot straight can be seen as a sign of inadequacy. This inadequacy signals something intolerable. Indiscriminate drones that kill innocents is something unacceptable. Drones, therefore, are inadequate in matters of espionage.

The subtext beneath the Subject Matter Illustrations of “Grandpa” and “drones” connects with a single narrative Element: inadequacy. This connection forms the foundation for that narrative argument. The resonance between them is what signals to an Audience that something more exists here.

Skyfall made this connection, but then dropped it for much of the traditional Second Act.

And yet it got 92% on Rotten Tomatoes (I mention this only because you brought up movies with >90% being representative of complete storyforms).

Generally speaking, yes, this is the case. Occasionally you will find those properties that—resplendent with beloved characters and enduring franchises—skirt by their deficiencies with love and rabid fandom. Frozen is one such example (the franchise being Disney Animation). Incredibles 2 is another. Mission Impossible: Fallout is entirely bereft of meaning, and yet scores 97% amongst critics. Skyfall fits the bill by riding decades of that same goodwill.

Quantum of Solace,—with its 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—is another story.

The Promise of the Premise

One thing I’m developing for Subtext is the ability to compare critical reception with the completeness of the storyform. This process requires a weighting of Storypoints such that you could tell to the degree how competent a film or novel was in completing its narrative argument (storyform). Match that with the admittedly subjective rating from something like Rotten Tomatoes, and you create a system of analytics that accounts for both heart and mind.

Quantum of Solace is a good comparison for Skyfall, if for no other reason than it was a victim of the writer’s strike at the time. With the deadline of the release rapidly approaching, even Bond himself (Daniel Craig) took to pen.

It didn’t quite work out.

From the look of the trailer, Quantum appeared to be a complete story. The classic “You and I are both alike” is the centerpiece of the advertisement, and features strongly in the Dramatica You and I montage.

When the film arrived, it left the Relationship Story Throughline out wholly. Not a drop of heart or emotion to be found anywhere.

Skyfall at least had the wherewithal to start encoding its deficient Main Character Throughline. They managed to go the extra distance and finish it, but the development of that thread fell by the wayside during the middle of the film.

Maybe they thought they had enough to cover the “trope.”

Rating the Meaningless

If I were to weight Skyfall’s Main Character Throughline, I would give it a 66% complete. This sufficient showing, along with the 100% development and completion of the Overall Story, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines, would easily explain why it rises above that 90% mark.

If I were to rate the value of a trope in defining a narrative structure, I would give it 2%. Two—instead of zero—because identifying “grandpa has a gun” is one step removed from a Main Character Throughline of Universe. The trope is not entirely useless, but it’s close.

The Dramatica theory of story, on the other hand, gets an AAA+ rating.

Tropes are superficial and surface level, almost snarky in their unwillingness to dig down deep and find out why a particular bit of story continues to reappear. Dramatica starts with the why first, then works itself back up to general and commonplace.

The cure for the disease.

This article, The Debilitating Scourge of the Trope, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

The Purpose of an Ending: Star Wars and The Matrix Revealed

Many writers ask me the difference between a Linear-minded story and one that is Holistic-minded. If the latter cares little for outcome, goal, and consequence, then how does it end? In contrast to the more obvious trappings of linearity, the aspects of holism seem antithetical to the creation of a story.

They continue to sneak their way into fiction.

The Linear mind sees a problem and finds a solution. The Holistic recognizes an inequity and seeks balance. No one mind is better than the other—merely the fallout of running on a different operating system.

When balance takes precedence over a solution, intention replaces accomplishment. A new direction supersedes any notion of triumph.

If you want a great example of the difference between solution and intention, turn to Star Wars and The Matrix.

Many assume these films to be the same story. Caught up in the distraction that is the Hero’s Journey, these well-minded individuals overlook the real purpose of these films. One depicts achievement, the other an alignment of self.

With Star Wars, Luke turns off his targeting computer, trusts in something outside of himself, and disintegrates the Death Star.

End of story.

With The Matrix, Neo rises from the dead, begins to believe, and tears apart Agent Smith.

But the story isn’t over.

Not yet.

Now at one with being the One, Neo makes a call:

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there, is a choice I leave to you.”

A signal of intention.

Perfectly aligned with a Holistic-minded story structure.

Yes, sequels exist that continue Luke’s journey. Same with Neo. For this concept, we focus on the original self-contained narratives.

With Star Wars, Luke’s journey is a closed circuit. It depicts a Linear experience. Identify a problem and fix it with a solution. The problem, as it were, never returns.

With The Matrix, Neo’s journey is a closed-loop—a circle. The film allows one into the Holistic experience. Sense inequities and balance them with equities, always recognizant of the fact that all truths remain true.

They don’t simply disappear with a solution.

Luke fixes his problem of seeing everything as a challenge. He trusts in something else, giving up the need to continually test himself.

Once fixed, he’ll never return to daring Sandpeople or putting up a front at next Cantina—his solution of the Force erases his problem.

Neo, on the other hand, continues to battle with the balance between belief and self-doubt. And this struggle persists up to, and including the very last scene.

That phone call is not the phone call of a confident man. Neo isn’t even sure how it’s going to end—just how it’s going to begin. The call sounds more like a conversation with himself than anything else. It’s less a threat and more indicative of one who believes—but still recognizes a level of self-doubt just beneath the surface.

That phone call is a signal of intention, not an accomplishment.

Contrast that with the Throne Room scene from Star Wars, and you begin to see the difference between the Linear story and the Holistic experience.

In the end, it all boils down to purpose. Are you trying to show how to fix things? Or are you trying to indicate a new direction, an intention towards better balance?

The choice…I leave up to you.

This article, The Purpose of an Ending: Star Wars and The Matrix Revealed, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

Story Structure We Can All Agree Upon

Effective story structure begins with setting up dramatic potentials. The competent Author then resolves these inequities with meaningful outcomes. Knowing the real source of both guarantees that the story makes sense and leaves the Audience with a feeling of fulfillment.

Guessing only habituates Author and Audience to meaninglessness.

Grasping at the Meaning

Subject Matter is a moving target. Structure is not.

A recent response to my article Writing a Relationship that Counts Towards a Premise calls out my identification of Temptation as problematic within Back to the Future:

I think you’re wrong about BTTF [Back to the Future]. Temptation is an aspect of it. But i think “Self confidence” is the determining factor. You can be tempted, but ultimately your self confidence is what is either rewarded or stifled as a result.

You might agree with this assessment that Back to the Future is about self-confidence. Or, you might differ and think the film about bravery. Or love. Or maybe even regret. The list of potential values here exceeds the number of souls on the planet (assuming the individual struggles to identify only one).

But if each of us finds a different value, what is the purpose of a story? To remind us of what we already believe? To give us a focal point to project our inner conflicts?

And, if everything means everything, it follows that any attempt to ascribe structure to this value is therefore arbitrary, fluid, and ultimately pointless.

Enter the Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat!

Chaos is not order—unpredictability, the very antithesis of structure.

For there to be order, a certain commonality must exist amongst all the various perceptions—something in charge of a story’s meaning.

There must be one source to rule them all.

The Mirage of Subject Matter

A value, such as self-confidence, is a topic for discussion. An orbiting cloud of stardust on the periphery of a story’s consciousness. More Subject Matter than a source, values such as these are what a story appears to be from afar; a means by which the Audience member—unfamiliar with narrative structure and the Storymind concept—seeks to establish a relative footing on the way to the true meaning.

A story must mean something, right?

If you don’t possess the tools to accurately define that meaning, you will always turn to some value. Some measuring stick. And that value differs for each and every one of us. Which is why—if we’re looking to structure a narrative that communicates to everyone regardless of individual experience—we must dig deeper.

We must find the inequity at the heart of the story.

A Matter of Perspective

Getting to the heart of conflict requires appreciating the effect point-of-view bestows upon meaning. One woman’s trash is another man’s treasure. One man’s globe is another lunatic’s Flat-Earth.

Add to this the inescapable reality that an inequity cannot directly be described, and suddenly you see the deficiencies of a “self-confidence” perspective. It’s simply not enough to explain what is really going on with a story.

Context is meaning. If you want to write something meaningful, you’ll need to establish a baseline of perspective. Knowing this point of reference helps you see beyond the generalities of the value.

Setting Context

Everyone understands that things look different from alternate perspectives. Conflict in a story is no different; change the point-of-view, and you change the appearance of conflict.

The Pinheads. Fighting Biff. Even Loraine was confident in what she wanted from “Calvin Klein”. Depressed Loraine and Shit head George were both results of lack of self confidence. Biff was successful because his self confidence was present even though it was tainted by ego.

The article on the Relationship Throughline focuses on conflict within the relationships. The above example focuses on conflict from without.

By within a relationship, I refer to the perspective of We—as in, we have a problem.

The perspective outside of that relationship is They—as in, they have a problem.

What appears as one set of circumstances will shine differently from another point-of-view. What looks to be the problem for them might very well something different for us.

Let me add another level of complexity and insight that will blow your mind while improving the quality of your story construction 5000%:

By We and They, I mean the Author’s point-of-view on We and They. Where does the Author position conflict within the relationships and a We perspective? Where does he see the source of conflict for an objective frame of reference?

Characters are not real people, they don’t maintain points-of-view. Characters function as placeholders for the point-of-view of the story—the Author’s perspective. After all, a story is an attempt to communicate a premise—the Author’s premise, or meaning.

“Characters” have no say in it.

What That Looks Like From Here

What happens when we dive into the amorphous cloud of “self-confidence” that appears to describe Back to the Future? What does it look like to search out where the Authors placed the conflict in the story?

It can be confusing at first to enter the unknown; preconceptions cloud your very perception of solid ground.

So first, find a perspective.

Establish a point-of-view.

Look from without, and you see Avoidance.

The time traveler avoids having sex with the confused teenage girl. The same traveler avoids, or runs away, from the bullies. The affable parent avoids upsetting his boss. All examples of conflict within the relationships from an objective point-of-view.

Look from within the relationships of Back to the Future and you see Temptation.

A father taking the easy way out when parenting. A friend fighting the Temptation to keep the one he cares about safe. A mother confused by temptations for her son from the future.

These are subjective interpretations of conflict for the relationships in the film–the conflict from within.

Same situation. Same characters. Different context, different conflict. And yet, no.

Same source of conflict—just from a different perspective.

Each perspective points to the same inequity, the inequity that can’t be addressed directly.

The very same way it happens in our mind, every single millisecond of every single day.

A Model of Ourselves

My examples of conflict found in the original linked article see the conflict in the story from one perspective. The rebuttal examples above find different conflict from another point-of-view. Both exist within the same context–the context of the story. Neither is more truthful than the other, only more accurate given a particular perspective.

A story attempts to the model the same psychological processes that go on within our own minds. Inequities are not real. Conflict is not real. The two only exist as the result of our attempt to make meaning of our perceptions.

Something we struggle to achieve, considering our limited point-of-view.

By presenting both subjective and objective points-of-view at the same time and within the same context (the context of a story), the Author grants meaning—something positively unattainable in real life.

Which is why it’s so important the Author gets it right.

The Right Solution for the Job

Getting the perspective right matters when it comes to developing a story. If you don’t know what conflict looks like from a certain point of view, you’re not going to understand how to accurately resolve it.

Having a general sense of self-confidence as problematic—without appreciating context—sets one up for an eventual encounter with writer’s block. Or worse—an incomplete story that many find trite or shallow.

On a recent episode of the Writers Room, my weekly masterclass in Dramatica theory, we discussed the spec script Don’t Go In The Water. This screenplay sold for more than $500K in 2019–a remarkable feat considering the malnourished story. “Surviving alcoholism” replaces the Ort cloud of self-confidence here, in another failed attempt to capture meaning without access to the right tools.

You know you’re in trouble when the Author feels he has to flat out tell you: “You can’t defeat the monster, you can only survive it.” To be repeatedly beaten overhead with theme is to be marginalized and lectured to as if a child. With a fully realized screenplay, one skirts the need for trite axiom proclamations from father.

A Way Out of the Dark

Don’t Go In the Water will undoubtedly get better. It can’t help be improved, especially when the film everyone compares it too—Jawscarries the same exact message. Structurally and thematically, the two are identical.

Both films present the same argument:

Give up running away, and you can tame your demons.

In fact, that’s likely why it sold regardless of its under-developed story. Producers recognized enough of Jaws in Water that they forgave the spec script’s complete lack of development in its relationships. Or it’s absent, and much needed Influence Character Throughline perspective.

Like Jaws—and like Back to the Future (and like The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Collateral)—the Author of Water cast Avoidance as problematic from an objective point-of-view. Avoiding being in torn by two by the monster that is alcoholism functions as a problem for everyone.

The Author of Water continues the replication by driving the wedge of Temptation between brother and sister. Always being there for your alcoholic brother, and taking advantage of that generosity from the other side, instantiates the heart of the inter-personal conflict in Don’t Go In the Water.

Yet, without the proper development of this Relationship Throughline throughout the script, Water conflates the resolution of a sibling relationship with the objective solution of defeating the monster. Is it a sense of Conscience that overcomes evil? Or was it the Pursuit of the beast out into the open?

We don’t know for sure, which is why the Author felt the need to reinforce the latter—with dialogue.

Collateral resolves the same inner and outer conflicts without conflation, and with great panache. Foxx and Cruise grow closer emotionally as friends, as they grow further apart objectively as assassin and driver. Same thing in Jaws with Brody and Quint. And Finding Nemo with Marlin and Dory.

Seeing only “survival” as the grey-matter source of conflict, Don’t Go In the Water fails to grant us a meaningful experience. Speaking your premise directly to the Audience is tantamount to Samuel Goldwyn’s classic recommendation of writing your Audience a telegram.

Or better yet—just send them a text.

A Better Sense of Purpose

Narrative structure is more than an exploration of value. More than a general sense of what is being said. The structure of a story is something that resonates for all Audience members, regardless of background or experience.

Did Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale explicitly set out to write about Avoidance and Temptation when they wrote Back to the Future? Probably not. And neither did Benchley or Beattie when they wrote Jaws and Collateral, respectively.

But they did end up there.

Taking the easy way out, of Temptation, is the natural counterpoint to a problem of Avoidance. See conflict as Avoidance objectively, and you naturally write Temptation for relationship conflict.

Authors naturally gravitate towards perfect story structure because they instinctively know ideal story structure. That’s how their mind works.

Knowing the specifics of narrative conflict, and the relationship of perspective with meaning, helps the Author avoid countless rewrites and disappointing drafts.

Telling us the theme directly, in dialogue, is the easy way out.

Giving in to that Temptation disrupts the relationship between Author and Audience, leading us to distrust you, and your story.

Work on both the inner and outer relationships, and you guarantee a Triumph.

This article, Story Structure We Can All Agree Upon, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

The Curse of the Hegelian Dialectic

Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.

Mention these three words together, and you unlock the accursed genie that is the Hegelian Dialectic. Rising from the mystic ashes of ancient philosophy, the Hegelian promises riches beyond comprehension for those who follow his three-step process towards resolving conflict.

You only have to turn a blind eye to how the other half lives.

Hegelian Dialectic–which, interestingly enough, didn’t even come from Hegel himself–is a Linear process of solving problems. A truth, or problem, is introduced. An alternate truth, or Antithesis, enters the scene to maximize conflict. And then the resulting solution, or Synthesis, finds a third truth that takes the best of both to resolve the original problem.

Classic Linear, cause and effect problem-solving.

The Holistic mind takes a different approach. Seeing inequities instead of problems, and equities instead of solutions, the Holistic deals in the consistent application of balance.

Watch, as the vaulted genie-us of the Hegelian dissipates into the ether.

The Method of Balance

My series on The Holistic Premise addresses that train of thought wherein the wheels never stop turning. The Linear believes in the Solution–the resolution that permits one to move on, knowing the problem to be “solved.” The Holistic realizes problems themselves are manufactured within the mind and that nothing is ever solved, it’s only balanced for the time being.

I read your article about holistic premises and watched your writer’s room session, and it made me think about the Hegellian notion of the Dialectic and whether that might apply to Dramatica from the holistic standpoint – that we have thesis (problem), antithesis (solution), and that what you’re calling balance (which to me sort of implies just sticking them on a linear scale and going halfway between) might be thought of as synthesis – finding a way to forge a new perspective from the two?

This would be a Linear interpretation of balance—that there is a scale that exists between the two and once the perfect balance point is found (a synthesis), then all potential is resolved, and a solution has been found.

The Holistic knows there is never a real synthesis, but rather a constant cycle of growth and rebirth, continuous attention applied to balancing out inequities that are never truly solved.

I’d argue that they are solved but that every new balance (the synthesis that becomes the next thesis) creates the necessary preconditions for its own antithesis.

The Linear mind needs to argue that problems are solved because it can’t function without the recognition of problem and solution.

This is, in part, where “mansplaining” comes from: the Linear-minded person interrupts the Holistic because it believes that what the Holistic is seeing is somehow inaccurate or insufficient, when what they’re seeing is, in fact, what they’re actually seeing.

The Linear mind sees problems that are solved; the Holistic sees inequities that are met with equities. Neither is more right than the other, but indicative of a baseline for appreciating conflict.

The structure of a story must know the baseline of the mind of the story because it affects the order of concerns in a narrative. If you see everything as a problem that needs to be fixed, you’re going to go about solving that in a completely different way than someone who sees everything as an imbalance requiring balance.

The Hegelian Explained

I hear you about the scale being a Linear interpretation of balance. However you wouldn’t think of a Hegellian synthesis as being finding a point on that scale.

And neither would the Holistic in the process of resolving an inequity–as that point on the scale doesn’t exist for the mind that thinks that way. There are no points to the Holistic account, only waves.

A classic example is the notion of early childhood, where doing everything your parents say is the necessary normal state (the thesis = obedience). You become a teenager and begin to resent the oppressive nature of parental control and so rebel against everything they say (antithesis = rebellion). It’s only in becoming an when you reconcile the two oppositions – not through balancing “some” passive acceptance with “some” automatic rebellion, but through the realization that you require true independence which neither involves obedience nor rebellion (synthesis = independence).

So rebellion is the linear response to control, but independence is the synthesis that emerges from the clash of those two forces.

A synthesis is still a Linear-minded approach to solving a conflict. Both perspectives are evaluated separately for rightness—if one is right, or more right, than the other than that perspective is the solution. If neither is correct, then balance is the solution. If balance doesn’t work, then neither can exist.

Every thought process is an if…then statement—a primary function found in any programming language (even the most basic of programming language, BASIC).

It’s neither the Linear Dramatica move from one to the other nor finding a balance point on that scale, but rather the solution which removes the existence of the conflict (and in doing so, introduces a new thesis which will one day meet its antithesis as the cycles of growth and conflict continue – as you state below.)

Linear in Dramatica refers to the process that sees conflict as a problem to be solved. Moving from Problem to Solution is Linear. Finding a balance point on a scale is Linear. Finding a Solution that removes the existence of conflict is Linear.

The Holistic can never remove the existence of conflict because inequity always exists. It’s merely a matter of how much or how little.

The Matrix, which is structured with this Holistic approach to conflict, doesn’t serve up an account of synthesis—Neo hasn’t become one with his doubts and his beliefs. But he has become one with the overall balance between the two and can literally shape his world accordingly.

I always thought what was going on with the Matrix was:

Thesis: We are waiting for “The One”
Antithesis: Neo isn’t actually “The One” (when he meets the nice old lady in her house or whatever and she says he’s not the one)
Synthesis: Neo wasn’t The One until he became The One.

So both thesis and antithesis were wrong until Neo changed and made both of them true.

Another way to look at the narrative conflict within The Matrix, one that is closer to the foundational structure of the film, is to see it as a juggling back and forth between Faith and Disbelief.

The Oracle wasn’t wrong. She was only confirming what Neo already disbelieved. And Morpheus wasn’t wrong either. His belief that Neo was the One was right. Both positions are self-evident as appropriate throughout the film. And we experience the movie as a mind that seeks balance in all and sees all would when facing a similar inequity.

My previous article The Holistic Experience of Watching The Matrix shares an account of what it feels like when you take everything in at once. No judgments. No evaluations. No problems and no solutions. Only the flow of allowing one position in after the other and then back again.

A Matter of Intention

You know that feeling of frustration you sometimes get when someone close to you won’t just do what they should to solve the problems in their lives?

That’s often someone comfortable with Holistic problem-solving–a method of problem-solving that doesn’t recognize the problem, nor the potential solution.

The “solution” for the story inequity is about synthesizing the two opposing forces into a new perspective rather than either picking one or the other or merely compromising between them.

The balance of inequities for the Holistic mind is also not a compromise. Holistic thinkers do not compromise. They don’t give this for that, and any suggestion that services rendered are an exchange for goods offends as it suggests some obligation supplants the growth of the relationship.

The Holistic is never at ease with forcing two into one, only at ease with a shift in direction that increases the flow of communication.

To the Holistic mind, there is no real Solution that solves it all—only an Intention. Neo doesn’t believe at the end, he is only “beginning to believe.” This Intention to balance out his disbelief with a personal truth sets the mind in a different direction—opening it up to receive whatever various sort of inequities that suggest an alternate path.

In a Changed Resolve/Holistic Minded story, the Main Character intends to balance out the inequity of their Throughline with an equitable element. That’s why in future versions of the theory, you’re likely to see Problem and Solution within Holistic stories adjusted to reflect their real purpose: Inequity and Intention.

The Dramatica theory of story is a holistic appreciation of narrative structure–which is to say that the relationship between Storypoints is as equally important as the structural concerns themselves. The theory develops in the way that all dynamic relationships do, by shifting back and forth, appreciating the lack of a specific solution.

Like the genie who emerged to grant untold fortune, the writer tied to the Hegelian Dialectic is trapped–trapped in the bottle of cause and effect and Linear methods of problem-solving, unable to see the totality of the world around them. Rich, but rich with an even higher cost. Whereas those swayed by the Siren Song of a centuries-old philosophy shackle themselves to ancient knowledge as if truth, the writer familiar with Dramatica appreciates the need for further thought, and if needed–a change in direction.

Continue reading this series The Hegelian Chronicles.

This article, The Curse of the Hegelian Dialectic, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds and hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

Re-Imagining the Key Relationship of Any Story

In my twelve years of coaching and educating writers both professional and amateur, one common trait stands out: no one understands relationships. They know conflict and plot. They know character and theme. And they know how to put it all together to create something engaging and compelling for bringing to end. But they’re missing one piece.

Very few appreciate the conflict, plot, and theme that exists between characters.

Since its inception in 1994, the Dramatica theory of story taught that the critical relationship in a complete narrative, the “heart” of a story, was an emotional argument between the Main Character and Influence Character. This Relationship Story Throughline (once labeled the Main vs. Impact Story Throughline) pits the two principal characters against each other within an imagined philosophical battleground. Seen as a shortcut towards introducing groundbreaking concepts to the narrative discussion, this reductive take on the relationship dynamic led many writers astray—and even more to discount the theory altogether.

How could the romance between Indiana Jones and Marion be anything less than the emotional heart-center of Raiders of the Lost Ark? How could the friendship between Doc and Marty in Back to the Future be left out of similar discussions? With the Main vs. Impact litmus test, both of these critical relationships fail to meet what we all introvert know: emotional importance.

This series of articles on The Relationship Story changes all of that. By realigning our appreciation of narrative to original core concepts of Dramatica, and adding in practical experience building out meaningful stories with writers across all genres, we open up new frontiers of understanding story.

The Perspectives of Story

The Relationship Story Throughline is not the relationship between the Main Character and the Influence Character. The Relationship Story Throughline perspective is an emergent property of the consciousness of the Storymind—something not present within the unique aspects of I or You.

Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own.

The Relationship Story Throughline perspective is We.

And We are neither You nor I.

For many, this concept of splitting hairs around notions of subjectivity may appear overly complicated and semantic. For others, it may seem an impossibility to hold a We perspective that does not include self. I’m here to tell you that this complexity is both necessary and possible—particularly if you want to access the real emotional heart of your story.

It might even help you in your own relationships.

The Usual Suspects of Subjectivity

The original Dramatica theory book wasn’t wrong. More often than not this property does turn out to be the dynamic between the Main and Influence Character Players. The mentorship between Ben and Luke in Star Wars. The romance between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. The contentious friendship between Rus and Marty in True Detective: Season One.

While these couples indeed find time to argue, their relationship is not an argument. In fact, their relationship is 1/4 of the story’s argument—1/4 of the premise. Their disagreements and the basis for their point-of-view finds a home in other quarters.

The Four Throughlines of a complete narrative describe the perspectives of the single argument of the story. Characters and the relationships between them exist to hold and convey these points of view to the Audience. This arrangement allows Authors the opportunity to hand-off a perspective from one character to the next.

The classic example lies with the Ghosts in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. One by one, and starting with Marley, the Ghosts relay their common perspective of influence on Scrooge. Looking back over the narrative retrospect, these four Ghosts act as one collective Influence Character.

The same possibility exists within the Relationship Story Throughline perspective.

Handing Off the Heart of a Story

The emotional core of Good Will Hunting dwells in the Therapeutic relationship between Will and Sean. The two share an intimate bond and grow from patient/therapist to close friends. Yet, another relationship exists within the film that shares a similar and meaningful friendship.

Key Relationships in Good Will Hunting
Key Relationships in Good Will Hunting

The Friendship between Will and Chuckie (Ben Affleck) carries the same thematic elements found in the Therapeutic Relationship. The do-or-die brotherhood that finds them fighting on the basketball court to protect each other also puts them at odds over each other’s personal survival. And their shared acknowledgment that their relationship had purpose resolves their differences—with heartfelt emotion.

The Friendship felt between both couples exists outside of any central plot development. Tangential to the objective concerns of a math genius hiding out as a janitor, these relationships reflect the importance of growth and understanding in the development of friendships.

And that’s why it’s essential to stop thinking of the Relationship Story Throughline in terms of an emotional argument.

The real purpose of the Relationship Story Throughline is to shine a light on the importance of growth between us in the real world—a chance to viscerally feel and understand this dynamic as we work to resolve the inequities in our lives.

Stories offer us an opportunity to appreciate our own conflicts. While we operate in a palpable sense in the real world, and while we have our own subjective personal issues, the subjective dynamics of growth that exist beyond us as individuals is equally as crucial to understanding our experience. Some might even say more important.

The more connected we become, the more essential it becomes for us to appreciate the dynamics at play between us. This newfound understanding of the Relationship Story Throughline of a narrative draws one step closer to understanding the purpose—and intent—of our relationships with one another.

This article, Re-Imagining the Key Relationship in Any Story originally appeared on Jim's Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

How a Steadfast Character Changes the World

Most believe the Main Character of a story needs to change herself. Riddled with elementary school level renditions of narrative structure, the modern Author often grafts a meaningless change of character onto their story. The result is a work that means nothing—a duplicitous offering that leaves an Audience feeling their time wasted and misspent.

This is not a problem in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

In fact, Cuarón delivers a unique work of art so subtle in execution, that even self-proclaimed story experts find themselves playing catch-up.

A complete narrative consists of one of two paths: the Changed Resolve story and the Steadfast Resolve story. The Resolve is about the Main Character of the piece, and setting it shifts the entire focus of the narrative. Choosing to write about a Changed Resolve or a Steadfast Resolve alters the narrative structure of the story.

The Changed Resolve Story

Almost everyone understands the Changed Resolve story. Star Wars, The Matrix, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Casablanca—each one of these films tells the story of a Main Character who adopts an alternate approach to solving problems. They Change their Resolve.

Luke trusts in the force instead of testing himself all the time. Miles chooses who he wants to be, instead of living up to others‘ expectations. Ric frees himself up to express his true feelings for Ilsa, instead of drowning them in a bottle. Each character supplants their Problem with a Solution.

With Luke, the Main Character Solution of Trust overrides his Main Character Problem of Test. He turns off his targeting computer and trusts in the Force.

Miles turns to a Main Character Solution of Determination to replace his Main Character Problem of Expectation. He reaches out and touches Kingpin’s shoulder with a confident “Hey”—signaling his choice of self.

In Casablanca, Ric grows into a Main Character Solution of Uncontrolled by selling off the club and setting up a life on the lamb. This new motivation replaces his Main Character Problem of Control.

Most writers understand the Changed Resolve story because it is clear how the Main Character’s decision ties into and ultimately resolves the Overall Story Throughline of —the plot that pertains to everyone.

Syncing Up Resolve with Outcome

Luke’s turn to the Force shows the Rebels how you can beat the Empire. Miles’ choice to be the Spider-Man in this universe frees the others to return to theirs. And Ric’s selfless sacrifice makes it possible for Ilsa and Victor to escape the clutches of the Nazis.

These Main Characters save the day because their personal problem matches the problem in the Overall Story.

The Empire and the Rebels continuously challenge one another, in much the same way that Luke tests himself. Their Overall Story Problem of Test, therefore, needs a Main Character Solution of Trust to save the day.

Same thing in Spider-Verse. Kingpin and the Spiders clash because that is what is expected of them—just like Miles’ Issue with great expectations. Their Overall Story Problem of Expectation requires a Main Character Solution of Determination.

The Nazis exert significant control over the citizens of Casablanca—the same kind of control Rick shrouds over his emotions. That Overall Story Problem of Control can only be resolved with a Main Character Solution of Uncontrolled.

The Changed Resolve story is easier to understand because the Main Character changes into the exact thing needed to solve the big world Overall Story Problem.

But this isn’t the only way to solve problems in the outside world. Sometimes, treating the symptoms is all that is needed to affect meaningful change.

Our Blindness to Problems

When we justify behavior, we do so by making ourselves blind to motivation. This buried Element is reflected in the Dramatica model by the Problem Elements found at the base of each Throughline. It’s a problem because we can’t see it.

Instead, we focus our attention elsewhere—on the symptoms of the Problem. We fix what we assume is the real problem.

In Dramatica, this point of attention is the Focus of that Throughline. Where we direct our efforts to resolve that symptom is called the Direction Element.

The Steadfast character of a story represents that aspect of the mind given to work through the Focus and Direction. You don’t need to attack the Problem directly to resolve conflict. Sometimes all that is required is the regular treatment of the symptoms.

How a Steadfast Story Works

In a Steadfast Resolve story, the focus is on the work needed to treat the symptoms of the problem. Instead of driving attention towards the dilemma surrounding a change of heart, the Steadfast story sheds light on what it feels like when you’re on the right path. The first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Hacksaw Ridge, and yes, Roma, all feature Main Characters who stay resolute to the very end.

“Midge” Maisel’s hyper-focus on what’s wrong drives her to be better and better with each performance. Dawson Doss’s refusal to give up control over his beliefs guides him towards the freedom needed to save a hundred men. And Cleo’s denial of the stark realities around her free the young woman up to see life on her own terms.

In each of these examples, it is the Main Character’s Focus and Direction that ties into the Overall Story plot of their own stories.

Maisel’s Main Character Focus of Non-Accurate in her personal life—falling off the wagon with her body measurements and not living up to the standards of being a perfect housewife—find resonance in the Overall Story Focus of Non-Accurate. Here, it is the bombing on stage, not at home, that consumes most of the character’s lives. Getting better and better with each performance requires a Main Character with a Main Character Direction of Accurate—a Main Character who treats the symptoms of her life by working towards that standard, by reaching that higher mark.

Note the contrast between the above explanation and those of Changed Resolve characters. The Steadfast Resolve requires more real estate to explain because it describes something more than a simple flipping of the switch. Steadfast focuses on resistance and flow, rather than potential and result.

In Hacksaw Ridge, Doss’s Main Character Focus of Control dovetails nicely with the Overall Story Focus of Control. This is the story of a military operation in the Pacific during World War II. Discipline and regulation and the loss of control incurred by a soldier unwilling to follow orders increase resistance. Doss directs his efforts towards thinking freely. This Main Character Direction of Uncontrolled is the only thing that would have freed up resistance and allowed true bravery to flow through the battlefield on that day. His personal freedom freed up others to behave unregulated and fulfilled the story’s need for an Overall Story Direction of Uncontrolled.

As complex and sophisticated as these two examples are of the Steadfast dynamic, Cleo’s story in Roma takes it to another level.

The Strength of Character

The alignment of Throughlines in Roma creates a storyform that sees Actuality as the shared Focus Element and Perception as the shared Direction Element.

The easiest way to understand the difference between these two Elements is to think of the M. Knight Shyamalan classic The Sixth Sense. Without giving too much away, the Main Character of that film perceives the world in a certain way. His problems resolve once he sees what is actually going on—the actual reality of his situation. The Sixth Sense operates on a Problem of Perception and a Solution of Actuality.

Roma is a bit more down to Earth.

With Chaos driving conflict, the stark reality of the character’s situation seems untenable. How will the family survive without its patriarch? How will a young pregnant woman survive her abandonment? How will those innocents who encounter violence in the hospitals and on the street manage to cope?

These questions point to a Focus of Actuality.

You’ll note that I listed examples from both the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline.

This is the inflection point where the two meet.

How will the family survive without its patriarch? That’s an Overall Story Focus of Actuality.

How will a young pregnant woman survive her abandonment? That’s the Main Character Focus of Actuality.

And this is where Cleo’s steadfastness gives her employer Sofia—and the entire audience-the keys to working through these stark realities.

She sees the world the way she wants to view it.

Cleo directs her efforts towards Perception. And her life is better for it.

And so is ours.

Subtle Indications of Resistance and Flow

The Steadfast story argues the integrity of a particular approach just as powerful as its Changed story cousin. The argument can be as strong and in-your-face as it is in Hacksaw Ridge, or it can be subtle and sophisticated as it is in Roma.

The Steadfast Main Character does not share the same Problem as witnessed in the Overall Story. That responsibility of Change is left up to the Influence Character. One character changes her approach, the other remains steadfast.

The family dynamic in Roma allows us to see the effects of Chaos on a micro level. The father’s trips to the city and absentee lifestyle challenge the mother’s ability to care for her children and return some kind of Structure back to their lives.

Cleo is the answer to Sofia’s problems. Not so much in the way of her duties as nanny and caregiver, but more so in the way Cleo approaches her life.

By showing Sofia the flow possible when one alters their perception of reality rather than reality itself, Cleo clears the way for higher order. Her steadfastness treats the symptoms of Chaos, bringing success to a family trying to piece itself back together.

The Steadfast story focuses on the work, the Changed story on the dilemma.

The only dilemma left up to the Author is choosing which one tells her story best.

Then all that’s left is the work.

This article, How a Steadfast Character Changes the World, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

The Truth about Dramatica and The X-Files

Nowadays, photographic evidence isn’t enough. With the advent of Photoshop and digital photography, anyone can claim ownership of the truth. In order to convince someone that a conspiracy exists, even one related to something so inconsequential as story theory, the whistle-blowers of today need cold hard facts and an airtight case.

There were always two kinds of X-Files episodes: the Myth, or Conspiracy episodes and the Monster, or Stand-Alone episodes. While the Myth stories were always enthralling (especially since I was in my early 20s and therefore believed in the reality of conspiracies whole-heartedly), it was the Monster episodes that were always my favorite. Even to this day I can remember story lines that I haven’t thought of in almost 10 years. Why? Because most of those episodes were complete stories in and of themselves. They provided me with a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling conclusion - the hallmark of a Dramatica structured story.

That being said, this one episode, entitled “Milagro” was all about one word to me…



Why this one word?

The dictionary defines Preconscious as:

The memories or feelings that are not part of one’s immediate awareness but that can be recalled through conscious effort.

Contrast this with Dramatica’s definition of Preconscious;, which, if you haven’t “moused-over” the easy-definition above, is:

immediate responses — Built into the mind is an instinctual base of reactions and attitudes that cannot be altered but merely compensated for. When a story’s problem revolves around the unsuitability of someone’s essential nature to a given situation or environment, the central issue is the Pre-Conscious. The solution lies in the character conditioning himself to either hold his tendencies in check or develop methods of enhancing areas in which he is naturally weak in reason, ability, emotion, or intellect. — syn. unthinking responses, immediate responses, impulse, impulsive response, instinctive response, innate response, reflex

I posted the entire definition so you could get a feel for what Dramatica is really going for with this word, and, so you could see the difference between it and the commonly accepted definition. The former concerns itself with memories or feelings that are brought about through conscious effort. The latter concerns itself with immediate, instinctive responses to a stimulus.

So how does this tie back into the X-Files episode?

The Truth Exposed


As a brief recap, this episode is about a writer, Phillip Padgett (John Hawkes), who has a rare supernatural ability: whatever he writes about, happens. This would be fine if it were not for the fact that Padgett is writing a murder mystery and that his Main Character is none other than Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). The serial killer in his story could or could not be the Stranger, a mysteriously hooded figure who captures Scully’s interest. A romance develops between them - a romance that can only end in murder.

In this first scene, Padgett writes about Scully’s reaction to a charm that was mysteriously left for her:

(Original video cutscene not available)

Note the use of the word Preconscious!

Here’s a screen cap with the subtitles turned on:

The Preconscious in Milagro - X-Files
The Preconscious in Milagro - X-Files

This whole scene is about Scully trying to fight her impulse to accept this token in the manner in which was given - as an act of love:


Preconsciously, she knew this wasn’t her strength as an investigator. She was a marshall of cold facts, quick to organize, connect, shuffle, reorder and synthesize their relative hard values into discreet categories. Imprecision would only invite sexist criticism that she was soft, malleable not up to her male counterparts.

The conflict here revolves around her “girlish” impulses and how giving into those would affect the opinions of the men in the office around her. She wants to give in, but doesn’t want to be thought of as an “impulsive” stereotypical female.


Even now, as she pushed an errant strand of titian hair behind her ear, she worried her partner would know instinctively what she could only guess. To be thought of as simply a beautiful woman was bridling, unthinkable. But she was beautiful… fatally, stunningly prepossessing. Yet the compensatory respect she commanded only deepened the yearnings of her heart… to let it open, to let someone in.

Sounds more like Dramatica’s definition, doesn’t it?!

I remember so clearly that, when this episode first aired, I turned to my wife and said, “Did he just say what I think he did?!” Of course, she looked back at me like I was an idiot (”Why can’t you just enjoy a movie instead of analyzing it all the time?”), but I couldn’t help myself. The use of the word Preconscious just blared out to me…and it was used as an adverb! You could easily replace “preconsciously” with “instinctively” and the line would mean the same. But the writer of this episode was going for “flowery” prose with Padgett’s character and “preconscious” probably just seemed to fit better.

I was also aware of the connection between X-Files and the concept of Mental Sex. In short, Mulder and Scully used the opposite problem-solving process from their gender; Scully was a Male Linear thinker, while Mulder was a Female Holistic Thinker. And I was aware of another episode (my favorite one of all time) that was also a complete story in and of itself - Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. So I knew that the X-Files fit quite nicely into the paradigm of Dramatica.

But this is only one example. It could be tossed away as a fluke, a surprising, yet undeniable coincidence…unless there was some other kind of evidence….

How about three more pieces of evidence?!

Plot Progression

As explained in part one of this X-Files analysis, Dramatica sees four structural acts in a Throughline. For this example we’ll be focusing on the Main Character Throughline of Dana Scully. In this episode, Scully’s throughline exists in the Mind;, or Fixed Attitude Domain. Why? Problems arise for Scully because someone has developed a creepy obsession with her. This fixed attitude is the source of her problems in this story. The Mind domain looks something like this:

Milagro Main Character Domain
Milagro Main Character Domain

As you can see there are four Concerns, four acts that will be traversed in the course of her throughline. You can go in any order you want, but each concern will only be visited once.

The first act consisted of her dealing with the problems of her Preconscious and her attempt to quell those instincts. Let’s move forward in the episode to find out what her second act deals with:

(Original video cutscene not available)

Well, well, well…does someone own a copy of Dramatica?!

Here’s a screen cap with the subtitles:

The Subconscious in Milagro - X-Files
The Subconscious in Milagro - X-Files

Now we’ve moved into the Subconscious; which Dramatica defines as:

Subconscious — basic drives and desires — Subconscious describes the essential feelings that form the foundation of character. These feelings are so basic that a character is often not aware of what they truly are. When the Subconscious is involved, a character is moved right to the fiber of his being. — syn. libido, id, basic motivations, basic drives, anima

Sounds exactly like what Scully is dealing with in this scene.


You’d have noticed this church in passing and though parking is always a problem in this part of town, your special privileges would make it easy to visit… not as a place of worship, but because you have an appreciation for architecture and the arts… and while the grandeur is what you’d take away from your visit… this painting’s religious symbolism would have left a subconscious impression, jogged by the gift you received this morning.

This is Padgett talking, but remember, Scully is a character in his story. This is clearly a Main Character moment. Scully is trying to reconcile her developing feelings and desires for this weird “stranger” with her basic drive to be cool and collected.

Scullys Plot Progression in Milagro
Scully’s Plot Progression in Milagro

Scully’s throughline has now moved into the Subconscious. The other throughlines (the Objective Story, the Impact Character, and the Subjective Story) would all have moved into their second concern as well. But again, for the purposes of this argument Scully as Main Character is what we are most interested in.

We’ve traversed the Preconscious and the Subconscious, which only leaves us the Conscious and Memories. Wonder which one will show up for Act 3?

(Original video cutscene not available)

This is more creepy than the episode itself!

Scully’s character has now moved into her third concern: the Conscious.

She’s dealt with fighting her instincts, and then fighting her growing desires, to now, where she’s actively considering this “stranger.” How can she be falling for this writer? It’s not like her to be thinking these things.

The Conscious in Milagro
The Conscious in Milagro

She’s performing an autopsy but her mind is obviously somewhere else.


But if she’d predictably aroused her sly partner’s suspicions, Special Agent Dana Scully had herself… become simply aroused. All morning the stranger’s unsolicited compliments had played on the dampened strings of her instrument until the middle ‘C’ of consciousness was struck square and resonant. She was flattered. His words had presented her a pretty picture of herself, quite unlike the practiced mask of uprightness that mirrored back to her from the medical examiners and the investigators and all the lawmen who dared no such utterances.

Scully finishes the autopsy and looks at the charm.


She felt an involuntary flush and rebuked herself for the girlish indulgence.

Dramatica’s definition of Conscious; describes this scene well:

Conscious — considerations — When one has all the facts, knows all the impact — both positive and negative; when one is fully aware of detrimental consequences and still decides on the poor course of action, there is something wrong with the way one arrives at conclusions. This is the subject of stories focusing on the Conscious. The key here is not to redefine who a character is but to lead him to relearn how to weigh an issue so his conclusions are less destructive to himself and/or others. — syn. considerations, sensibilities, cognizant, ability to consider, sensible, informed contemplation, contemplation

The Final Act

So it would follow that, if we’ve moved from Preconscious into the Subconscious and then into the Conscious, the only Concern left to visit would be Memory.

This is one of the most powerful aspects of Dramatica - the ability to predict a story’s throughline. And it isn’t just random happenstance that produced this plot progression. There are numerous other factors involved - the Main Character’s Resolve, the Story Driver, the Subjective Story Problem - all these things come together to create this one storyform. If you’ve seen this episode you know how right it feels. Granted, it’s not going to save the world, but as a story, it simply sings.

I knew the story had to end in Memories for Scully, but as I discussed in my article on brainstorming your way through Dramatica, I had difficulty finding it. Now, my “A-Ha!” moment from that article was not about this final concern, but it did help solidify my understanding of the story. I was looking for the correct item, but I was looking in the wrong place.

Towards the end of the story, Mulder apprehends Padgett under suspicion of murder. They take him in for questioning, with Mulder playing bad cop and Scully playing good cop. There is a moment where Padgett catches Scully lightly touching Mulder’s arm. She’s trying to keep Mulder from attacking Padgett, but it’s the kind of gesture only shared between intimate friends. It’s a beautiful moment that speaks of an unrequited love that will, unfortunately, remain unfulfilled. Padgett realizes that there is no way Scully would ever love him, she’s already in love with Mulder.

As Scully goes over Padgett’s paperwork, she is handed a note:

There it is…Memory;. The final concern in Scully’s Four Act Structure.

As Dramatica defines it:

Memory — recollections — The Past is an objective look at what has happened. In contrast, Memories are a subjective look at what has happened. Therefore, Memories of the same events varies among individuals creating many different and possibly conflicting recollections. Often one’s current feelings come from memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. Many a taut story revolves around a character’s effort to resolve open issues from his memories. — syn. linear reasoning, rationality, structural sensibility, syllogistics

And that’s precisely what Scully is dealing with here at the end.

It’s a sad scene - one that speaks of loss and the recollection of “promises” now rescinded. While the young teenage girl is the victim in this murder, it is obvious that it is Scully he is referring to. Padgett wanted her to read the note because he knows that for all intents and purposes, their potential love affair is now over. Scully’s brief encounter with a love she instinctively wanted will now only live as a fleeting memory.

Memory in Milagro - X-Files*


Grief squeezed at her eggshell heart like it might break into a thousand pieces, its contents running like broken promises… into the hollow places his love used to fill.


Maggie stands alone in the darkness beside Kevin’s flower covered grave, crying softly. She looks up and sees the stranger approaching her.


How could she know this pain would end? That love, unlike matter or energy, was in endless supply in the universe… A germ which grows from nothingness which cannot be eradicated even from the darkest of hearts. If she had known this — and who could say she would believe it? — she would not have chanced to remain at his sad grave until such an hour, so that she might not have to learn the second truth before the first; that to have love was to carry a vessel that could be lost or stolen… or worse, spilled blood-red on the ground. And that love was not immutable, it could become hate as day becomes night, as life becomes death.

(Milagro Act Order - image missing)

The throughline is complete. We’ve travelled with Scully along her emotional journey - one that took her from her instincts to her desires to her thoughts and finally, to her memories. The story is over and we, as an audience, are emotionally fulfilled.

What more could a writer hope for?


The point of all this is not that the writers of this episode cheated or that Dramatica wrote the story for them. The point of this whole article is to point out how seamless and how smooth the transitions feel between these acts. The act progressions feel natural.

For all I know, Chris Carter and his excellent writers may have never even heard of Dramatica. But the move from the Preconscious into the Subconscious, then into the Conscious and finally Memory is deliberate. If they were unaware of the theory, their natural instincts as writers served them well, and produced a wonderful story. Either way, it’s the only path they could have taken to give us this satisfying and heart-warming ending.

Dramatica only helps to clarify it.

This article, The Truth about Dramatica and The X-Files, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

Unveiling the Narrative Elements of Story Structure

The Dramatica theory of story is a complex and sophisticated model of story. Instead of wasting the Author’s time with notions of heroic journeys or requirements to save a cat in an attempt to gather likability, Dramatica seeks to concretize the Author’s purpose—and then graft that intention into the very fabric of the narrative structure.

Elixirs. Bellies of whales. Dark nights of the soul. All pointless and worthless; when it comes to breaking down the essential ingredients of a complete story.

One man’s Plot Point is another man’s Refusal of the Call. Gobbledygook to entertain and disinform the masses.

A better approach lies in identifying the Sources of Conflict within the narrative, determining their leverage points, then drafting a narrative structure that works through these essential Elements.

This is where Dramatica comes in.

And it’s where our service built on the theory—Subtext—assists Authors in writing complete and meaningful stories.

Identify the Source of Conflict. Then build your unique narrative outline around that Element.

No two stories are the same because the meaning at the heart of it all is always different.

Unless, of course, you’re thinking of The Lion King and Black Panther. Those films say the same thing because they’re built on top of the same narrative Element: Avoidance.

The Sliding Scale within an Element

At first, you may think—Avoidance? That’s too narrow a definition of conflict. To which I would respond: your experience with subjective and insufficient story paradigms (like Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat) has clouded your perception of reality.

There are a million different ways to encode Avoidance. Running away. Making an effort to stop someone. Preventing someone. Shirking one’s duties—there’s Lion King and Black Panther again. In fact, the reason why so many rightly point out the similarities between the two films, yet fail to bring Mad Max: Fury Road into the discussion (even though it too argued the same problem about running away) is because the specific Storytelling attached to the narrative Element of Avoid in these two films is exactly the same.

But what about the example of “preventing someone”—how is that an example of Avoid?

The Sliding Scale within a Narrative Element

The narrative Elements defined by Dramatica are less destination and more process. In fact, every Element found within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements is a function, a processing instance similar to functions found within object-oriented programming.

It is the process of avoiding that is creating conflict here—not merely Avoid.

With that in mind, it becomes easier to see that there exists a sliding scale within each of these processes that range from too much of an element to very little, or a lack of that Element.

Avoidance is running away.

A lack of Avoidance is inserting yourself where you’re not wanted.

Too much Avoidance, or an abundance of Avoidance, is preventing something or stopping something from happening.

Multiply this by the hundreds of Storypoints found in the current model and one quickly understands the complexity and sophistication possible within a single narrative.

Elements and their Opposites

Several narrative Elements read as simple opposites. Control and Uncontrolled. Acceptance and Non-Acceptance. Accurate and Non-Accurate.

Faced with these seemingly either/or instances, many Authors wonder where the sliding scale exists. How is a lack of Control not the same thing as Uncontrolled?

First things first. Uncontrolled is the closest Chris and Melanie could come to labeling this narrative Element with the elements around it. In truth, Uncontrolled is meant to embody free or frenzied. Something more out-of-control—

—but again, you see how easy it is to fall back on the opposite, or negative definitions.

The English language was designed by Linear Problem-Solvers (males). Its spatial interpretation of imbalance can only approximate force and direction. Our vocabulary of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs is more comfortable identifying the parts and substance.

We’re not so comfortable identifying those places in-between.

This reality is reflected in the model. The top half of the model is definite—it’s where the Linear male mind finds shelter. Universe. Physics. Obtaining and Doing. Knowledge and Actuality.


The bottom half is alien: Mind and Psychology. Unproven and Thought.


We just don’t have a word that accurately describes this inflection point that isn’t merely a negative, or opposite word. Linear thinkers are comfortable with opposites—on or off, black or white, Control or Uncontrolled. Our foundation is holding us back from a greater appreciation of the totality of conflict.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that understanding the nature of the Elements is more critical than the label applied to the Elements directly.

The Ends of the Narrative Element Scale

A lack of Control is not Uncontrolled—it identifies a source of conflict emanating from someone not controlling things. And sometimes control is needed. Herding cats for performance requires a fair amount of constraint, and so does a stage mom when she attends a beauty contest involving her children.

These are not examples of Uncontrolled.

The clearest example of this sliding scale is found between Faith and Disbelief.

A lack of Faith in God does not automatically mean one actively disbelieves in the existence of the Almighty. It merely means they don’t have that belief. They’re agnostic.

Atheists actively disbelieve. God does not exist, and they’re adamantly opposed to that belief. They’re motivated by Disbelief.

Of course, you could argue they possess an overwhelming Faith in the absence of God—which is why it is essential for the Author to set the context for their narrative. Within the context of looking at the existence of God, believers have Faith, non-believers lack Faith, and atheists Disbelieve.

A Look at Equity and Inequity

Two other Elements that seemingly describe opposites are Equity and Inequity. If you don’t have Equity, there must be Inequity, right?


A lack of Equity focuses on the absence of balance or fairness. Inequity describes something unjust or way out of balance for the situation.

Again, context is everything.

Identifying the difference between the two becomes even more challenging when trying to assess which side of the scale is a Problem, and which one is the Solution.

If you can reverse appreciations, how do you know which is the problem and the solution? It seems like you could encode them identically.

Context—the focus of attention in the narrative—is everything.

A lack of Equity is not the same thing as too much Inequity.

Drawing an axis line from the far end of Equity, through the middle of the quad, and extending it out to the far end of Inequity, we begin to develop a more comprehensive understanding of conflict:

  • lack of Equity == favoritism
  • Equity == don’t rock the boat
  • too much Equity == participation trophies
  • too much Inequity == slavery
  • Inequity == a splinter in your mind
  • lack of Inequity == I’m ok means you’re ok

An Author focusing on the problems of favoritism is not writing about the difficulties of Inequity. In fact, Inequity is how you resolve a lack of balance here. Purposefully treating one child way better than the other resolves circumstances where there was a feeling that things weren’t fair.

Equity is balance. Inequity is imbalance.

They’re not opposites when it comes to narrative, but unfortunately, this is the English language, and these are the constraints Authors need to appreciate.

How else can they be Uncontrolled in their writing?

I mean, Free.

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

A Script Analysis of BlacKkKlansman

Is America racist?

Spike Lee seems to think so. At least, that’s the impression one gets from his latest film, BlacKkKlansman. Of course, Lee doesn’t have any real proof to back up that claim—

— and that’s precisely why this film is so powerful.

The narrative Element of Unproven drives the conflict of KkKlansman. It fuels hatred. It feeds ignorance. It powers an investigation that turns violent.

Unproven describes an understanding suspected to be true but not substantiated enough to call it fact

That watchful eye on what has yet to be verified is the soul of this narrative. The film’s brutal final moments only confirm America’s failure to verify rampant racism.

With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee proves that America is racist by focusing on that which is Unproven.

Understanding the Unproven

I never fully understood the narrative Element of Unproven until I saw this film. Visualizing the unverified as a Source of Conflict always left me searching for answers.

It’s important to understand that Unproven is not merely the negative of Proven. It’s not a lack of proof or false proof. Instead, Unproven defines that motivating force that intuits an imbalance—a singling out, or an itch—that drives one to seek resolution because something is specifically unverified. It’s that knowing without needing evidence to back that knowledge up.

The difference between Proven and Unproven, in the context of a narrative, is akin to the disparity between Cause and Effect. Proven is to Cause as Unproven is to Effect.

With Causes, you can trace a single line back to the root “cause” of a problem. You can see the proof.

When looking to Effects, there is no direct line back to something, yet there is still a problem. Something unproven as of yet. It’s that same feeling one gets when considering the effects of conflict that courses beneath the lifestream of Unproven.

A notion that something is not right.

Witnessing Both the Subjective and Objective

With KkKlansman, Lee expertly plays both sides of Unproven. Externally—and objectively—he explores the covert racism of the Klan and the unwillingness of many to do anything about it. Internally—and subjectively—he explores the naïveté of Colorado’s first black cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington).

Ron’s notion that “Not all cops are bad” seeks to write-off lousy behavior because it is Unproven. It amplifies and magnifies the suffering by relying on the unverified to determine right or wrong.

Only someone driven by the intolerable—someone who sees the disparity and is ready and willing to call others out on their willful blindness—can unseat this deep-seated justification.

With Ron, that point-of-view rests within Patrice (Laura Harrier).

The Influence Character

The Influence Character of a narrative challenges the Main Character to rethink his personal biases. Often coming from a seemingly alien point-of-view—yet always knowing just what to say at the right time—the Influence Character upends the Main Character’s inertia by shining a light on heretofore hidden preconceptions.

Patrice’s point-of-view challenges Ron by always looking to the results of looking the other way: This is what we get, and this is what will happen if we don’t do something. And it’s not merely a point-of-view that rests solely within Patrice. The very moving portrayal of the results of The Birth of a Nation carries this sad fact of reality straight to the heart.

Doing your part and engaging in the process of elevating the conversation becomes the only meaningful response. This is how Patrice is able to challenge and influence Ron to grow beyond his preconceptions. Patrice’s point-of-view on valuing Black America works as the fulcrum to dislodge Ron’s limited perspective.

The Relationship Story

When making an argument, it’s not enough to just put two competing points-of-view against each other. Besides witnessing the two approaches at work within the light of an overall context (the Overall Story), the narrative must also explore the relationship that exists between the two opposing forces.

You maintain your personal problems. Your spouse experiences her own. Your marriage carries an entirely different set of conflicts outside of individual concerns. Yes, the personal points-of-view influence and inform the friction within the relationship—but they are not the relationship.

Ron and Patrice strike up an unlikely bond. At the heart of it rests an imbalance of continuation—the idea that they keep running into each other and feel driven to maintain their friendship fuels their interactions.

Ron and Patrice work as a proxy for the relationship that exists between the naive and the vigilant. An imbalance of wisdom between the two results in a cautious bond that starts and stops starts and stops.

It’s only when the vigilant can no longer “hang”—and the two split—that the relationship finally finds its inevitable conclusion.

Dysfunction in Society

BlacKkKlansman is a dysfunctional dark comedy. The twisted psychologies that lead to mail bombs and secret societies blame the assumed results of not taking action as impossible to avoid. An “integrated” America is the outcome they seek to prevent by burning crosses and processing meaningless IDs.

In the end, America fails to change its essential nature. Though they managed to prove one single cop’s tendency towards prejudice, the system and the Klan go unpunished. Burn the evidence, destroy the proof, and learn to deal with the consequences of allowing the unverified to persist deep beneath the surface—

—consequences of failure that erupt into violent action in August of 2017.

Yet, BlacKkKlansman is also a story of Personal Triumph. While the conflict in the overall scheme of things remains unresolved, Ron himself finds relative peace. No longer content to hide behind the phone and his white alter-ego, he calls David Duke and boldly verifies the reality of Ron Stallworth’s true identity: a man who doesn’t have to hide—a man willing to show his true color(s).

Essential Storypoints Supporting the Narrative

The following are critical Storypoints found within the storyform for BlacKkKlansman:

A Personal Triumph consists of two Dynamic Storypoints: a Story Outcome of Failure and a Story Judgment of Good. It’s Good because Ron feels comfortable in his own skin. It’s a Failure because of those scenes at the end in August of 2017.

When an argument seeks to make a case for Failure, the Consequences persist. The Story Goal of BlacKkKlansman is Being, the Story Consequence is Doing. This can be interpreted as the balance between who we are and what we do.

By failing to prove the Klan’s hidden influence (an Overall Story Solution of Proven), America gets to keep its identity. Lee contends that if Ron’s investigation, and countless other items of racism, had been brought to the surface and Proven—then America would have to act differently (a Story Goal of Being).

That didn’t happen.

And it continues not to happen.

The “proof” is the video footage of Americans running over other Americans—a genuine Consequence of Doing.

Lee is apparently done with us—as evidenced by the shattering of the relationship between Audience and filmmaker, between the naive and the vigilant. That fantasy sequence at the end shatters expectations, breaking the unbroken bond of trust between Author and Audience.

And it’s all on purpose.

Lee can no longer “hang” with us—a Relationship Story Solution of Ending that both supports his narrative argument and leaves us with the task of doing something about it.

It’s our turn to prove that there is a problem.

This article, BlacKkKlansman, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds and hundreds of insightful articles, analyses, podcasts, and blog posts can be found Inside Narrative First.

The Definition of a Protagonist and Antagonist

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse features a cast of characters who defy the law of physics. Tumbling through the air, smashing through walls, and stopping massive machines with the touch of a hand, amazing superheroes save the day and bring conflict to an end. Yet as individualistic and fantastical as they appear on the surface, underneath it all these characters portray various facets of the same human mind.

Multiple “characters”—one single mind.

A Storymind.

The Storymind Concept

The best way to understand the motivations of a character is to stop thinking of him as a real person. Instead, think of all the characters as different motivations of one real person—that person being the story itself.

A complete story, then, is an analogy to a single human mind trying to resolve an inequity. The various characters represent the different considerations and forces that operate within the psyche as the mind evaluates and re-evaluates its approach to resolving conflict.

This Storymind concept is at the heart of the Dramatica theory of story and foundational in the development of Subtext.

Characters are not real people—they’re individual parts of the same person.

Taking this approach ensures a holistic understanding of the forces at work within a narrative.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The dual forces of Protagonist and Antagonist represent the mind’s motivation towards Initiative and Reticence, respectively. The Protagonist pursues; the Antagonist avoids.

In Spider-Verse, Miles Morales is the Protagonist and Kingpin is the Antagonist. Mike pursues, and Kingpin avoids.

At first, the notion that Kingpin avoids anything in this story sounds odd. If anything, Kingpin pursues a course of action to bring back his deceased wife and son.

And that’s when it’s important to realize that these characters are not real people—they’re facets of one single human mind trying to resolve an inequity.

In Spider-Verse, the inequity is a machine that rips a hole in the space-time continuum. The very presence of this machine draws the different Spiders in from alternate universe and threatens to tear open a black hole beneath the city of Brooklyn.

That is the inequity—or Problem—this one Storymind considers, and shares with the Audience.

With that Story Goal in mind, Kingpin’s motivation towards avoidance rings clear. He is motivated to avoid reversing the effects of the Large Hadron Collider. As a “person,” he wants to bring back his family—as a facet of a single mind he avoids or prevents (the active side of avoidance) the successful resolution of the Story Goal.

Just like every functioning Antagonist.

Miles, as Protagonist, pursues that Story Goal.

Miles Morales in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Miles Morales in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Breaking Down Archetypal Characters

Miles doesn’t just pursue the Goal, he is also motivated and motivates others to consider the pros and cons of destroying the machine. The guilt trip he lays on Peter B. Parker and his disappearing act in Aunt May’s lab sit as evidence of the Storymind in the act of Consideration.

Kingpin balances this motivation with instances of Reconsideration. His refusal to turn off the machine when danger arises and his hope that his family will somehow reconsider their feelings towards him counteract the simple act of thinking with rethinking.

These collection of paired narrative Elements—Pursuit and Consider, Avoid and Reconsider—signal the presence of Archetypal Characters within the Storymind.

The drive to pursue pairs naturally up with a drive to consider. The motivation to avoid, or prevent, typically matches up with a call for reconsideration.

That’s why the concept of a Protagonist is even a thing in our lexicon of language: we recognize a shared purpose of motivations within a mind, brought them together into a single vessel, or “player,” and then labeled him or her the Protagonist of a story.

The Protagonist isn’t the one who changes the most—the Protagonist is a perfect set of motivations that define a clear and shared drive of initiative in the context of the Story Goal—the current inequity under consideration by the Storymind.

Same with the Antagonist. He or she is not “the bad guy,” but rather, the final alignment of forces analogous to the drive towards reticence in the Storymind.

Characters are not required to follow this alignment in every complete story. In fact, higher interest and increased delight occur when an Author mixes and matches these various narrative Elements.

Miles is your pretty standard Protagonist. And Kingpin is your classic Antagonist.

Kingpin in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Kingpin in *Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

But what about Peter B. Parker and Miles’ Uncle Aaron?

What facets of the Storymind do they represent?

And more importantly, why do they appear more interesting as characters when compared to the driving forces of Protagonist and Antagonist as described above?

More on that in our next article in this series on Demystifying Character Archetypes.

This article, The Definitions of a Protagonist and Antagonist, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

The Essential Ingredient of Every Complete Story

When carefully crafting the ultimate meal, chefs obsessively focus on choosing the right ingredients. They know that taste relies on choosing how much of each to put in and when they choose to add them into the dish. In a way, an Author is like a chef and should know the ingredients they have to choose from—not rely on how they think their story will taste.

In the past few weeks, we focused our attention on the Audience Appreciations of story—those Story Points that help up predict and understand what kind of an Audience will embrace our story and how the experience of that story will feel to them. Turning our attention to the essential base ingredients of story, we shift our focus towards a better understanding of how to craft that experience.

We shift our attention towards the Dramatica theory of story.

Dramatica is based on the idea that a complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Character, plot, theme, and genre? These concepts are not about three-dimensional people or complicating events of rising tension. Rather, they function as analogies to what goes on in that gray mass behind your eyes.

And it all started around a campfire.

The Storymind Concept

Way back when, Ugga and Orga would return from their day’s adventure and recount what they saw to their fellow cavemates. They told what them what to expect and what to avoid out in the wild. Danger. Excitement. Food. Everything. Eventually, Ugga and Orga wanted to extend their reach beyond their own campfire so they could help out the cavepeople on the other cliff and down in the valley.

In essence, they were the first bloggers.

But they didn’t have access to Twitter or Facebook, and lacked the means to back up their stories or answer any questions posed to them. The only way to effectively communicate what they discovered was to develop a system that covered all the bases, answered all the questions, and accounted for the various counter-arguments other cavepeople might have in regards to their narrative. What if the sabre-tooth tiger didn’t come after me? What if I climbed that tree and didn’t find a berry? Ugga and Orga needed a way to counteract these trolls. They needed to develop a mind for the others to inhabit.

Over centuries this matured into the storymind—a self-contained model of the human mind at work. Along the way, some tried to define this model to make it easier for others to communicate. Aristotle. Joseph Campbell. Syd Field. Christoper Vogler. Blake Snyder. With each generation understanding grew, yet somehow was still incomplete.

Unfortunately, the hundreds and thousands of years between Ugga and Snyder hid the fact that stories were really just a way to communicate the most appropriate way to solve a problem. Without that reality in mind, any attempt to define story naturally got lost in subjective interpretations of who the characters were and whatever spiritual or transformational journey they appeared to be on. In an attempt to define the who, what, and how, they forgot the why.The true nature of story, it seemed, would remain buried beneath the oceans of time for all eternity.

Until Dramatica.

The Storymind at Rest

In 1993, Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips released the Dramatica theory of story. Instead of looking to stories for patterns and trends of character development and spiritual growth, Chris and Melanie sought to identify the ingredients of story from the other side—from the Author’s point-of-view. Those other story paradigms? They explain the experience of hearing or participating in a story.

Author’s don’t experience the story they write, they craft and create the story they write.

Ugga and Orga weren’t interested in the experience—they were more concerned with this process of communicating their message as clearly and as completely as possible. Those first storytellers realized you can’t serve a delicious meal by simply taste-testing your favorite dishes.

You need to know the ingredients first.

The Author’s Role

This is the Dramatica Table of Story elements at rest:

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

Impressive and imposing, yet perfectly at peace. Self-Interest sits across from Morality. Pursuit from Avoid. The Past from the Present. And even Inequity from Equity. Every single last diagonal relationship within this model tells of a perfect balance.

No inequity. No story.

In order to make this model messy and create the potential for a story, someone needs to get in there and twist and turn it until the theoretical rubber bands tying these elements together begin to strain under the pressure. Until they verge on the brink of snapping. Someone needs to get in there and start making choices to wind this model up to the point where one tap will send it unravelling, spinning over and over again until it returns to that state of peace.

Someone like you.

The Eight Dynamic Questions

If you want to get your hands dirty writing a story, you’re going to have to answer a few questions. Eight, to be exact. These eight dynamic questions set the amount of pressure applied at various locations within the model. If you want a different kind of story, you twist it up a different kind of way.

Dramatica labels these eight questions dynamic because they claim responsibilty for twisting and turning the model at rest into a fully-realized packed-full-of-potential storymind. Other questions and story points concern themselves with structural aspects of a narrative. These fellas focus on the movement between the various structures.

When developing a story, Authors must know the answers to these questions. If they don’t, their story will likely sputter out and crash three feet in front of them like the rubber-band airplane they didn’t take the time to wind up properly.

Take the time to wind up your airplane.

Character Arc

The first two dynamic questions work together when it comes to defining the forces inherent within a narrative. The Main Character Resolve and the Main Character Growth pair up to define what most see as the “character arc” of the central character of a narrative. This concept of development is so important—not because of the journey it defines—but rather, because of where it sets the Main Character Throughline in relation to the Overall Story Throughline.

Every problem is really seen as an inequity between the way we see the world and the world as it truly is. The Main Character Throughline versus the Overall Story Throughline. Understanding where the two converge and which one lies closer to the truth helps us determine how to jumble up that model of the storymind.

The Main Character Resolve simply asks:

At the end of the story, does the Main Character Remain Steadfast in their worldview or did they Change and adopt the Influence Character’s point-of-view?

For those who don’t know, the Influence Character represents the alternative approach towards solving problems in a story. Typically a mentor, but sometimes a father, or a brother, or a lover, the Influence Character exists to challenge the Main Character by showing him or her the path not taken. They offer an alternative perspective on what the MC could have been.

The other half of character arc, the Main Character Growth, defines the direction of the Main Character’s development:

Does the Main Character grow by losing a trait or by gaining a trait? Do they Stop doing something or Start doing something?

The exact application of this second Story Point adjusts depending on the answer to the first question. In a Main Character with a Changed Resolve, the Growth works as expected by adding or dropping a trait. In a Steadfast Main Character, the Growth is seen in the Main Character’s relation to the outside world: Are they holding out for something to stop or holding out for something to start?

By putting the answers to these two questions together, an Author winds up the model of the storymind resulting in four very different kinds of stories.


In these stories, the Main Character changes the way they see the world by adopting the Influence Character’s point-of-view. They may kick and scream the entire way but by the end, they change their resolve by dropping some trait or character flaw.

Changed/Stop Stories
Changed/Stop Stories

Neo stops doubting himself in The Matrix and starts thinking more like Morpehus and Trinity, Joe (Tony Curtis) stops living the life of a distrustful irresponsible ladies’ man in Some Like it Hot, and Sully stops scaring the crap out of little kids in Monsters, Inc.


In these narratives, Authors tell stories of Main Characters who change the way they see things by adding something to their lives. They still adopt the Influence Character’s perspective, but they do so by Starting something:

Changed/Start Stories
Changed/Start Stories

Red starts standing up for himself in The Shawkshank Redemption, Matt King (George Clooney) in The Descendants starts defending his family, and Oscar (Kåre Hedebrant) engages in a little of the unspeakable in Let the Right One In.


In sharp contrast to the Changed Resolve stories, these Main Characters stand up for themselves and end up changing the way the Influence Character sees the world. This is an important concept to understand: If the Main Character Remains Steadfast, then the Influence Character HAS to Change their Resolve. If they don’t, or if they both change, then the Author has communicated nothing.

Ugga and Orga were trying to communicate the most appropriate way to solve problems in their community. In order to combat all those trolls in the cave down by the river, they had to match up one way of solving problems against another. By showing the result of one approach winning out over the other, they were able to effectively argue and convince those idiots how best to lead their lives.

The process hasn’t changed.

Author’s can communicate the best way to solve problems by showing the wrong way first, or by showing the right way first. Either way it doesn’t matter, as long as one side effectively “wins” over the other. As long as one changes to the other’s point-of-view.

The Main Characters of these stories Remained Steadfast, holding out for something—or someone—to Stop and change to their point-of-view:

Steadfast/Stop Stories
Steadfast/Stop Stories

Hiccup holds out for his father and the other Vikings to stop killing Dragons in How To Train Your Dragon. His dad eventually gets the point. Captain Kirk holds out for Spock and the rest of his teammates to stop running hogwild throughout the galaxy in Star Trek and the Vulcan eventually stops flying off the handle all the time. Marty McFly holds out for his dad and everyone else to stop running away from trouble in Back to the Future and eventually George balls up his fist and takes that swing.

Even with those short explanations, one can see the difference in dynamic tension set by these two essential ingredients of story when compared to Changed stories. That difference lies in the method by which the storymind winds up, and by the potentials the windup ultimately creates.


Finally we look to the Main Characters who hold out in the desparate hope that something will Start:

Steadfast/Start Stories
Steadfast/Start Stories

Remy holds out for everyone to start seeing him as a real chef in Ratatouille, Ray Kinsella buys into the whole “If you build it, he will come” idea and dutifully holds out for that moment to start in Field of Dreams, and Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) holds out for the other jurors to start coming to the realization that this kid is innocent in 12 Angry Men.

Again, very different dynamics at work in these kinds of stories. The Main Character in these stories represents the right way to solve problems. By Remaining Steadfast and digging their heels in, they eventually manage to convince the other side to change and adopt their point-of-view.

Taking It Back

Already one can see the variety of dishes available with only these two ingredients. Essential as they are to the eventual taste and experience of the meal, the Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth paint an incomplete picture. In order to completely wrap up the storymind into something full of dramatic potential, six more questions must be answered.

In the coming weeks, we will discuss these essential questions—essential questions that Ugga and Orga knew instinctively centuries ago. By understanding the true purpose of telling a story and appreciating the methods by which the potential of a story manifests, Authors everywhere should be well equipped to create the most savory and flavorful meals.

That should keep the trolls quiet.

This article, The Essential Ingredients of Every Complete Story, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

For more articles by James Hull, click here.

Hundreds of more articles are available in the Story Fanatic Archives