James Hull Articles: Archive III

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.

How to Train Your Inciting Incident

When it comes to the construction of a solid story, there seems to be some confusion over how it actually begins.  In an attempt to generalize and make easily accessible the idea of the initial plot point, many have reduced meaningful storytelling to a generic assumption that can cause confusion among new writers.

Often referred to as the Inciting Incident, this first plot point is typically described as the moment when the Protagonist's world is turned upside-down, forcing them to react and engage in the story.  At first glance, this principle sounds reasonable and helpful in the creation of a story.

Assumptions That Beg Questions

Robert McKee describes it as something that "radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist's life."  Blake Snyder calls it the "Catalyst" and describes it as a life-changing event that happens to or is witnessed by the Protagonist.  John Truby defines it as an exterior event that causes the hero to take action.  But what about a film like How To Train Your Dragon, where the assumed "Protagonist" (Hiccup) is the one who upsets the apple cart that is the world around him?

The Problem With Dragons

In How To Train Your Dragon, problems begin when young Hiccup inadvertently wrecks havoc on his hometown of Berk.  As a result, the Vikings watch helplessly as many of the dragons escape with talons full of Nordic livestock.  Nothing happens that Hiccup reacts to.  A bomb doesn't explode, a meteor doesn't crash to the ground.  There is no external incident that Hiccup is reacting to.  In fact, the way it is presented it seems like raids like this happen on a pretty consistent basis.

If Hiccup had stayed put like he was told, the marauding dragons would not have made off with a majority of the Viking's supplies and things would have continued on as they always have.  His act of disobedience ignites the story's central inequity and inspires the drive to train new recruits. But if Hiccup is the instigator of the story's problem, how can the Inciting Incident be something that happens to him?

Confusing the Protagonist with Main Character

The problem lies with the popular notion the Main Character is also the Protagonist.  These two concepts of story are not always one and the same.  The Main Character represents the audience's eyes into the story.  The Protagonist is an objective character archetype whose main function in a story is to solve the Story Goal.  In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup is the Main Character.  His father, Stoick, is the Protagonist.

Protagonists are motivated to pursue the Story Goal and to consider the importance of doing so.  Antagonists are motivated to prevent or avoid the Story Goal from happening and inspire others to reconsider their own motivations.  The former sounds exactly like Stoick, the latter Hiccup.  But wait...Hiccup as Antagonist?

The Central Inequity Creates The Story Goal

Hiccup's opening attempt at glory breeds chaos, inspiring Stoick to pursue a new course of action.  This new course, or Story Goal, can be described as Training the next generation of dragon killers.  Why isn't the Goal to find a new way to live with dragons? (thus securing Hiccup as Protagonist).  Well for one, that motivation doesn't really arrive until further along when the Second Act begins.  Protagonists are motivated towards the goal from the very beginning of the story's problem.  Secondly, he isn't so motivated to pursue a new way as much as he is to learn as much as he can in order to avoid having to kill dragons.  Objective character functions are unchanging and consistent throughout the entire story.  Understanding that, it is clear that Stoick is on a course of pursuit throughout, while Hiccup is motivated to avoid it.

In essence then, those original interpretations of the Inciting Incident were correct -- the event does upset the Protagonist's world, requiring them to pursue a course of action to resolve it.  Their error was in assuming that the Protagonist is always the Main Character.

The utility (or futility) of the Central Dramatic Question

The central inequity is often referred to as a dilemma facing the Main Character: How can Hiccup learn to destroy these beasts at the same time he is befriending their most deadliest ally?  While this question is interesting from an audience's point-of-view, when it comes to writing a story, it becomes a little less than useful.  Instead of thinking of it as creating a Central Dramatic Question, the Inciting Incident should be seen as something that sets up the story's drive to resolve its central problem.

Thinking of this inequity as a Central Dramatic Question only becomes helpful after the fact, when looking at the story from the perspective of the audience.  This is why many look to the works of story gurus and see them as counter-productive or unnecessary during the process of writing.  On the other hand, thinking of this inequity as a problem that wishes to be solved becomes significantly more productive when sitting down to write. Suddenly the author knows what problems are at hand and can devise scenes that explore the best way to resolve them.

What an Inciting Incident really is

David Mamet comes closest when he speaks of "disordering events."  If stories are all about solving problems, then it only makes sense that there should be some genesis of that problem, some point at which the inequity of the story is created.  This inequity exists because of the Inciting Incident.

Trying to establish it as something connected to the Protagonist, particularly when there is confusion between Protagonist and Main Character, can only serve to muddy the waters of effective and meaningful storytelling.

Without the Inciting Incident, there would be no story

Inciting events can come from anywhere and from anyone. Defining precisely what the reason for this initial spark is and the result of its introduction into the story can go a long way towards clearing up any inconsistencies within previous understandings of story.  All this event must do is create the problem within the story at large.  Whether it is something that happens to the Main Character or something they brought upon themselves, all that matters is that an inequity is created that every character in the story finds themselves wanting to resolve.

This article originally appeared November 11, 2010 on Jim's Story Fanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Applying Pressure to the Main Character

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

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

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

Understanding Pressure and Who Sits at the Controls

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

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

Internal or External: Which One is Unpredictable?

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

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

When the External Becomes Erratic

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

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

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

Who Is At Fault Here?

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

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared October 28, 2010 on Jim's StoryFanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.

Sophisticated Story Goals

Comic book movies are huge nowadays. Whether because it's easier to sell a known property with a built-in audience, or because that built-in audience is now in charge of what gets made, the numbers don't lie. Hollywood wants tights.

Sometimes the results are well worth the effort. Really really worth it, like The Dark Knight or The Incredibles. Sometimes the results are absolutely horrible, like Daredevil or the more recent Iron Man 2 movie. What gives? Clearly they cover the same material. What is it that sets The Incredibles apart from other comic-book style films like the original Superman or Jaws where defeating the bad guy was everything?

Some Pretty Incredible Storytelling

Is every superhero story really about beating the bad guy? Brad Bird wouldn't have you think so. In his masterful The Incredibles, Bob and friends pair off against the measly and less-than-incredible Syndrome. In the end, they defeat him, bringing the story to a resounding Triumphant success. But does defeating him really solve their problems? Is the problem that there is this well-funded wannabe wrecking havoc across the city or is there perhaps something a little more sophisticated going on?

Stories Are About Solving Problems

The Inciting Incident brings an inequity into the lives of the characters within the story, creating an imbalance that begs for some sort of resolution. This is why stories exist in the first place -- to grant us some greater meaning when it comes to solving problems in our own lives. The Inciting Incident is simply the first step in that process.

Sometimes those inequities are resolved, as with Inception or The Town, other times they are not. Films like Rain Man or Into the Wild are perfect examples of films where those efforts to resolve problems end in failure. Either ending is perfectly acceptable. All that matters is that the Author knows what it is they want to say, and is clear about saying it.

The Incredibles issues begin with Bob's loss in court against failed suicide-jumper Oliver Sansweet. Before then, everything in Bob's world was hunky-dorey; after that lawsuit, not so much. It forces he and his family and every one of his friends into hiding. This event spawned an inequity within the lives of the characters, an inequity that Syndrome had relatively little to do with it (yet). Defeating him would not correct things as he is not the source of the problems in their lives.

Superheroes Who Don't Get to Be Superheroes

This is the real problem at the heart of The Incredibles. With Bob's loss in court, the Supers were forced into hiding, unable to be what they feel they were born to be. Bob doesn't get to save the world, Helen has to pretend to be a happy housewife, and Dash has to act just like all the other kids in school. Those are some pretty hefty inequities at work there. Bob and his family have to do all these mundane activities because they can't live up to their potential. And they would continue to do so, if it weren't for the story working out the way it did.

Resolution and Defeating the Antagonist

Beating Syndrome's robot didn't resolve the story's issues. Neither did beating him back at home. If he really was the source of all problems in the story, then his unfortunate cape incident would have made everything better. It would have cleared the inequity.

However, it was only once Violet put up her shield and lived up to her full potential that the problems in the story were finally resolved. Bob's family, and by extension the rest of the Supers, found a way to be all that they can be. Sansweet's settlement was righted.

Meaning Within the Ending

This solution of fulfilling one's potential was what was really at stake in the film. By constructing the story this way, the Author (Brad Bird) says, Look, see, if you go about solving your problems this way, this is the kind of result you can expect.. And the images of Bob and his happy family were proof positive that they had taken the right approach.

Sophisticated goals come as a result of storytelling that doesn't focus on the same old obvious, tried and true treasure that lies at the end of the road. They revolve around unique and often unconsidered inequities that we as the Audience have dealt with at one time or another.

This article originally appeared September 26, 2010 on Jim's StoryFanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives. In addition, there is now a free 24/7 chat room available for those interested in discussing the theoretical concepts covered here.

Plot Points and the Inciting Incident

Plot points can sometimes be difficult to pick out, especially when there is confusion as to the purpose of such a device in a story.  If one accepts the idea that stories are about solving problems, the reason for Inciting Incidents and Act Turns becomes all too clear.

Every problem has its own genesis, a moment at which the balance is tipped and the previous sense of oneness is lost.  With separation comes the awareness of an inequity, and a desire to return back to a state of parity.  Every problem has a solution, and a story explores that process of trying to attain resolution.

In a story, this Opening Event -- or beginning of a story -- is commonly referred to as the Inciting Incident.

The Exciting Incident

The Inciting Incident (or "exciting incident" as someone once referred to it) is the event or decision that begins a story's problem.  Everything up and until that moment is Backstory; everything after is "the story."  Before this moment there is an equilibrium, a relative peace that the characters in a story have grown accustomed to.  This incisive moment, or plot point occurs and upsets the balance of things.  Suddenly there is a problem to be solved.

Stories are about solving problems.  Sometimes they are solved, as is the case with Star Wars, Casablanca or Inception.  Other times, as with stories like Hamlet, Amadeus or Se7en, they aren't.  Regardless of outcome, this Inciting Incident gets the ball rolling by introducing an inequity into the lives of the characters that inhabit the story.  The Protagonist seeks the solution, the Antagonist seeks to prevent it.

Every story works this way.

The Reason for Plot Points

The two central objective characters, Protagonist and Antagonist, battle it out until approximately one-quarter of a way into a story, some other event or decision occurs that spins the story into a brand new direction.  This second plot point is referred to as the First Act Turn as it turns the story from the First Act into the Second.  This is a further development of the problem, not the beginning of a problem.

Other plot points -- the Mid-Point and Second Act Turn -- continue to escalate the issues surrounding the efforts to resolve the problem until finally, the Concluding Event, or Final Plot Point, ends the story.  As mentioned above, this does not necessarily mean the problem has been solved.  It simply means that the efforts that were undertaken by the Protagonist have come to their natural end as every resource has been exhausted.

These plot points naturally split a story into four parts.  For fans of Aristotle, the first part is the Beginning, the second two are the Middle and the third is the Ending.  There is a meaningful reason why there are four parts.  In short, for every problem there are four basic contexts from which you can explore the way to solve a problem.  Once you have explored all four contexts, the story is over.  Any continuation would simply be a rehash of something that has already been investigated.

The most important thing to take away from all of this is that the First Act Turn is NOT the Inciting Incident.  This is a common mistake by many first time writers, and is generally caused by a lack of understanding exactly why these plot points exist in the first place.  One plot point starts the problems, the other furthers the complications of said problem.

Inciting Incidents and First Act Turns

The following is a list of great stories with their corresponding Inciting Incidents and First Act Turning Points.  The numbers provided are either based on page numbers, Kindle percentages or minutes depending on what source material was easily accessible.

For those who don't know, the general idea is that one page of a screenplay generally lines up with one minute of screen time.  A 120 page screenplay often lasts two hours on screen. or 120 minutes.  Thus, the Inciting Incident would occur on or near page 0, while the First Act Turn would happen somewhere near page 30 (out of 120).  If we're talking percentages, that would be about one-quarter of the way into a story.

Star Wars

The Inciting Incident of Star Wars is Darth Vader's attack on Princess Leia's ship (1/120).  While there was a civil war going on prior to this event, it isn't until the Empire shows its true colors by illegally boarding a ship purported to be on a "diplomatic mission" that the real problems of the story begin.  The Empire has grown ruthless in its efforts to contain any rebellion, this inciting event is only the beginning of many more to come.

The First Act Turn begins with the Empire's sinister agents attack on peaceful Jawas and ends with their barbeque of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru (30-31/120).  Suddenly, what began as a simple conflict over jurisdiction has now turned into an all-out rampage that affects even the most remote and more importantly, innocent, members of the galaxy.  The problem has grown in its potential for even greater conflict.

The Matrix

The Inciting Incident of The Matrix is Morpheus' decision that Mr. Andersen is the One they have been looking for (2/130).  This one decision drives the entire rest of the story, for if he hadn't picked Tom the rest of the world would have stayed comfortably numb in their battery pods.  Without the Inciting Incident, there would be no story.

The First Act Turn begins with Neo's decision to come in off the ledge (21/130).  It isn't until this true sign of character that Morpheus is forced into taking even greater strides to break poor Mr. Andersen out of the Matrix.  These deliberations by Neo -- continuing with his "giving the finger" scene, choosing whether or not to stay in the car, and culminating with his decision to take the red pill -- all create resistance to Morpheus' initial selection.  It isn't until Neo finally decides that he is the One (121/130) that the problems in the story come to a successful resolution.


The Inciting Incident of Unforgiven is Little Bill's leniency towards Quick Mike (5/120).  Little Bill is known for dealing with criminals in his own special way, why the sudden change of heart?  His refusal to respond in kind creates a rift within the story at large, and forces the whores to seek out their own justice.  The first Act Turning Point only makes matters worse with the arrival of English Bob and his refusal to surrender his sidearms to "proper authority"(33/120).

The Sixth Sense

The Inciting Incident of The Sixth Sense is Vincent's attack on Malcom (8/109).  Without this gunshot, there would be no story and no compulsion for Malcom to meet with Cole.  The First Act Turning Point comes with Cole's revelation that he might suffer from the same violent tendencies that Vincent did.  His steps back and his conclusion that Malcom can't help him only furthers the problems caused by the perception that Cole is merely a "disturbed" child (22/109).


The Inciting Incident of Casablanca is Ugarte's decision to give Rick the letters of transit (15/127).  While the murder of the two couriers seems to get things rolling, problems don't really start until Ugarte decides to give them to Rick.  After all, people get murdered in Casablanca all the time.  But give them to someone whose allegiances are in question?  Now we've got a problem.

More than just a "Macguffin", these papers and the efforts to retrieve become the major source of conflict for everyone involved in the story.  This is why Rick's deliberations over what to do with them, including his refusal to help out Ugarte ("I stick my neck out for nobody"), propel the First Act into the Second (30-45/127).  With Rick in charge of who gets them and when, Laszlo's mission becomes that much more difficult.  

The Lives of Others

The Inciting Incident of The Lives of Others is Minister's Hempf's decision to have Georg Dreyman "watched." (10/135).  Without this bigwig's desire for Dreyman's girlfriend, Wiesler would have continued his life as he always had, and quite possibly would never have crossed paths with this writer and his friends.

Like Casablanca, the First Act Turn comes more as a wave than an actual singular event.  This time it is Dreyman's best friend, the director Albert Jerska, and his constant ruminations over the purpose of his life that progressively complicate a simple spy operation into something far more reaching and grander in scope.  Jerska's dark contemplations of suicide inspire Dreyman to write and give reason for Wiesler to better understand the kind of struggles and torment these artists go through as a result of the state's actions.

The Incredibles

And finally, the Inciting Incident of The Incredibles occurs with the overwhelming flood of lawsuits stemming from Mr. Incredible's loss in court against Oliver Sansweet, the man he rescued from suicide (14/127).  This rush to sue forces the Supers into hiding, promising "to never again resume hero work."  These previously costumed guys (and girls) now can't be who they want to be, and thus yet another story inequity has been created.  If it had just been Sansweet, then perhaps things would have simmered down.  The flood of lawsuits tipped the scales.

Problems escalate when Bob and Frozone almost get caught during the fire in the apartment building sequence (32/127).  Before, Bob had found a way to deal with the initial problem by moonlighting with his best friend.  This event, and their near apprehension by local authorities, forces Frozone to decide that this night was the last one.  What was once a manageable problem has now become an even bigger one, and eventually provides the motivation for Bob to accept the mysterious invitation from Mirage.

Plot points drive a story towards the resolution of its problem.

Not Just About Movies

But what about other forms of narrative fiction?  Surely this is just a "formula" for Hollywood-wannabes to follow...

Story is story regardless of the delivery device.

The Inciting Incident of Shakespeare's Hamlet is the death of Hamlet's father.  As with The Matrix, where the actual inciting event happens "off-screen", the story immediately opens up with the characters plagued by the problem's effects:

Let me not think on't!  Frailty, thy name is woman--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears -- why she, even she --
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer--

Quick translation: Hamlet has been thrown into great despair because of his mother's impulsive move to quickly marry his father's brother, Claudius (10%).  The fact that she couldn't even wait a month drives Hamlet mad, thus creating a problem in Elsinore that calls for some sort of resolution.  This problem grows in importance when the Ghost of Hamlet's father informs his son of what really happened:

GHOST: A serpent stung me.  So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused.  But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
HAMLET: O my prophetic soul!  My uncle!

No longer an inequity that must be suffered, the death of Hamlet's father now becomes something that must be avenged (20%).  The dramatic energy produced by the news of his father's passing has waned to the point where something new must come along and drive the story further towards its inevitable conclusion.  This revelation of a "murder most foul" is that event, and can be considered the First Act Turning Point of the play.

Problems, Energy, and Plot Points

Determining the events or decisions that escalate a story's problem should be Job One for the working dramatist.  It is one thing to create an opening scene that wrecks havoc on the characters in the film and forces them to deal with this new problem, quite another to ensure that the inequity persists until the closing curtain.

Eventually, as with Hamlet, the potential for dramatic conflict will decline throughout the course of an Act.  It is the same drop in potential that one feels as the pain from a pinch or slap in the face subsides over time.  In order for the problem of a story to continue to drive the characters towards an eventual solution, a new potential must be introduced.  These new dramatic forces, escalating the problem beyond that initial blast, drive the story forward in such a way that the characters themselves could never return to who they were or what they did during that first initial response.  There can be no turning back.

Act turns exist to re-energize the potential of a story's problem, not to satisfy page-counting readers or paradigm-happy script gurus.  Connecting the two first plot points to this problem, and making sure that they aren't simply the same event, will give an audience something to engage in and something to become invested in.  The fact of the matter is that no audience member can resist the draw of the problem solving process as it unfolds on the big screen; it's human nature to see what greater meaning can be gained from how the resolution plays out.

This article originally appeared August 5, 2010 on Jim's StoryFanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.  In addition, there is now a free 24/7 chat room available for those interested in discussing the theoretical concepts covered here.

The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker

While a superficial understanding of story principles makes for a great YouTube video, it does nothing but further the confusion that can exist over effective character development.  The greater the level of accuracy on the part of the writer, the greater the experience for the audience.

As with the article last month regarding why Everything Is Not a Hero's Journey, there also exists a certain group of people that seem to think many popular Protagonists are really just carbon-copies of one another.  To them, every central character in a story is simply another evolution of Gilgamesh.

Now, to a certain extent, they are right.

Both Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) in Star Wars fulfill the role of the classic Archetypal Protagonist; that is, they are the ones who are pursuing the successful resolution of the story's primary goal.  In this purely objective context they do resemble each other.  But where their similarity breaks down is in the deeper investigation of what is really going on inside of them personally.

Many central characters find themselves faced against apparently insurmountable odds.  Many grow to a point where they fundamentally have to change the way they see the world (though this is not always the case).  And many find emotional relief from their personal issues at the end of a story -- many reach a catharsis where they overcome that which held them back.

When using the above as touch points for examining a story, sure, it looks like every Protagonist is the same.  Both Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars easily fit into these generalized observations regarding story.  But that's just it -- they lack specificity.  Not only are these concepts of story useless to a writer in figuring out exactly what to do with their story, they also prove to be ultimately detrimental because of their blatant inaccuracies.

Constructing a story -- a meaningful story -- is a hard and demanding process.  There can be no room for best guesses or gross generalities.

Both The Matrix and Star Wars, while similar at face value, really are quite different.  One concerned itself with faith, the other with trust.

What Motivates a Character

Every Main Character comes to a story ripe with personal baggage.  Whether it be some deep psychological issue from when they were a child, or something that just happened to them yesterday, this personal issue -- or problem -- is what motivates them to participate in the larger entity that is a story.

In The Matrix, Thomas Andersen (Neo) suffers from a preponderance of disbelief, both in himself and in the world around him.  When asked by Morpehus to climb out on the ledge in order to escape Agent Smith, Thomas doesn't get very far before turning around.  "I can't do this, " he claims as he cowers back inside.  It is this idea that Neo is so unpersuadable, both inside and outside of the Matrix, that sits at the heart of his personal struggle.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker consistently gets into trouble because of his relentless need to test himself.  When R2 goes missing, he leaps at the chance to prove his mettle and promptly gets his ass handed to him by the local natives.  This flaw haunts him at every turn.  In earlier drafts, there was even a sci-fi take on the classic 50's drag race, complete with the requisite scene of Luke pushing his dragster beyond the limits of safety in order to test his abilities against his fellow desert delinquents.  This drive to test himself at every turn was Luke's major personal problem.

Clearly these two characters are coming from two different places.

Luke never had a problem believing in the Force; he was on-board with the whole thing from the moment he lost his aunt and uncle.  Likewise, Neo didn't create problems because he felt this need to test himself all the time; if left to his own devices he probably would have still been there camped out in front of his computer screen.

They both were motivated by two distinct and separate problems.

Why does this matter?

A Solution For Every Problem

Different problems require different solutions.  You wouldn't use masking-tape to hold together soap bubbles anymore than you would use a hammer to make a sandwich.  Each problem defines its own appropriate solution and nothing less will than that one particular solution will resolve it.

Disbelief requires faith as a solution.  Test requires trust.

Thomas Andersen eventually grows to a point where he can begin believing that he is, indeed, Neo.  Faith resolves his issues.  Luke eventually grows to a point where he is willing to let go.  Trusting in the Force resolves his issues.  Both characters managed to resolve their individual problems by using the correct solution for the issues that plagued them.

Now, at first glance, faith may seem an awful lot like trust.  Couldn't you argue that Neo was really trusting Morpheus when he decides not to run from Agent Smith?  And couldn't you say that Luke started believing in the Force when he turned off his targeting computer?  Not really.

Neo would not be the superhero he was at the end of the first film if he simply trusted in Morpheus.  There was no way he was going to be able to stop those bullets until he truly believed that he could.  Similarly, we already established that Luke believed in the Force -- he even had an argument with Han about it back when he was first training on the Milennium Falcon.  Luke needed to simply trust in this otherworldly "force" for the torpedoes to hit their mark.

Why then is it so important to delineate the exact nature of the problem in a story?

The Problem Defines the Story

The Main Character's problem represents the finest level of granularity from which one can appreciate the true meaning of a story.  That's why an exploration of it can so often seem like splitting hairs.  It is important though to make this distinction, because there is so much more that is built on top of the problem, so much more that relies on the accurate understanding of it, that to get it wrong would only cause greater problems in the story at large.

The Main Character's problem is intimately tied to the problems suffered by all the characters in a story.  It's why this particular Main Character is even in the story in the first place; and it is the answer to the question Why now? so often referred to in story meetings.  If for some reason these two problems are at odds (the external and internal), the Main Character may seem out of place, or worse, inconsequential to the resolution of the story.

In addition, there will be a discrepancy between the kinds of goals in stories with dissimilar problems.  Problems of belief will naturally lead to goals focused on accomplishing some insurmountable task.  Problems of trust organically lend themselves to goals more focused on simply doing something.  Like the distinction between faith and trust, the distinction between acquiring something and doing something is a very important one.

This is why Luke would not have fit into the story that was The Matrix, and why Neo would have had a hard time finding a home amongst the inhabitants of Star Wars.  Each particular story goal required a different central character, a different vessel for the meaning of the story.

The Right Man (or Woman) For the Job

The goal of The Matrix was to gain control over the software program, to bend it to the will of the humans.  Simply fighting Agent Smith and his well-dressed friends was not enough (as evidenced by Morpheus' years of trying).  Neo was the lynch-pin for the successful achievement of that goal because the one thing that would allow them to gain that control -- unwavering belief -- was an important factor of Neo's character development.

Luke, as described above, had no problem with believing.  Trying to replace Neo with Luke would have broken the logic of the story structure and diminished any appreciable meaning.

In Star Wars there was no attempt to gain control over the Empire or the tyrannical systems they employed.  Instead, there was only the will to find a competent way to fight them.  That was the goal of the story.  And like Neo, Luke was the key to the successful achievement of that story goal because learning to trust was a crucial part of his individual character development.  The only way for the Rebels to successfully fight against the Empire was to trust in something other than themselves.

Neo trusted Morpheus from the very first IM he received.  To swap him for Luke would have destroyed that story's meaning and shortened the film to about thirteen minutes.  These two characters are simply not interchangeable.

The Need for Clarity in Storytelling

Not every story is the same.  There are tens of thousands of different meaningful story structures, each with its own unique perspective on why things are the way they are.  And because each unique story structure requires a specific kind of central character, it follows that there are just as many variations of Main Character.

The Matrix was trying to prove how having more faith can lead to greater happiness, while Star Wars was trying to prove that trusting in something other than yourself is the way to go.  While looking at them through the lens of the Hero's Journey they might seem the same, the truth is that they carry two very distinct and separate messages.  This is yet another reason why the Hero's Journey is a failed device for appreciating the meaning of a story.

By definition, everything in a meaningful story is connected.  Character flows through plot which flows through theme and finally closes the circle through genre.  The machine that is a well-told story is a delicate balance of passionate storytelling and solid logical story-structure.  To be inaccurate on even the smallest of matters is to invite failure in the construction of the story at large and a breakdown in the communication of the message the Author hopes to send.

This article originally appeared June 16, 2010 on Jim's StoryFanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.  In addition, there is now a free 24/7 chat room available for those interested in discussing the theoretical concepts covered here.

Not Everything Is A Hero's Journey

There is a sickness running through the world, a sickness that attempts to twist every instance of narrative fiction through the siphon of errors that is the "Hero's Journey" story structure paradigm.

Made popular in the 90s through the work of Christopher Vogler, this understanding of story makes the claim that every great story can be traced back to the monomyth as uncovered by Joseph Campbell. From error-ridden snarky videos to lightweight analysis of plot elements, the Internet teems with those who think every story is the same and that this similarity can be attributed to man's need for mythic transformation.

There can be nothing more destructive to the world of storytelling than this compulsion for spiritual metamorphosis.

Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes, solving those problems require the centerpiece of a story, the Main Character, to undergo a major transformation in how they see the world. Sometimes they don't. There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms.

See Chinatown and/or Amadeus for more on this.

Forcing the Change

Besides the aforementioned spiritual implications, the Hero's Journey fails because it is so general. The specifics are open to interpretation. This is why mental gymnastics abound when a story doesn't quite fit into the paradigm.

When the Protagonist doesn't change, the claim is made that there are actually two Hero's Journeys going on. What about stories where the Hero Crosses the Threshold before they've even met the Mentor? No problem, because order has no meaning in this paradigm. A writer can do whatever they want as long as they hit the required points.

For a paradigm to be accurate, there should be no need to warp it or bend it to fit stories that are obviously successful.

Take for instance how Campbell describes the Hero at the end of his journey:

The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity.

The Hero loses himself and is reborn. This is exactly what happens to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Randy the Ram in The Wrestler. Wait. No it isn't.

This complete transformation of self is a key component of the Hero's Journey. To leave it out, as is done in this interpretation of Star Trek as Hero's Journey, is to ignore the true meaning behind the Hero's becoming a Master of Two Worlds. Fans of the Hero's Journey paradigm cherry pick which precepts of the monomyth fit well with thier argument. They use what they need and leave out what doesn't work.

Furthering this cafeteria-style approach to story structure (in addition to employing the ridiculous notion of the MacGuffin), the article defends its interpretation by adding that Spock underwent a Hero's Journey as well. This is the same mistake Stuart Voytilla made in his book Myth and the Movies and his analysis of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The idea that there are two instances of a Hero's Journey in one story is a clear indicator that there is a misunderstanding over the relationship located at the heart of every complete story.

The Two Principal Characters In A Story

In every complete story there is a Main Character and an Impact Character. The Main Character comes to a story with some emotional baggage. The Impact Character enters and by virtue of their own presence, brings the Main Character's baggage to the surface. They have an "impact" on them. One way or another, the two argue over the proper way to solve the problems in the story until at the end the Main Character has to come to a decision: Either keep doing things the way she always has, or change and adopt the Impact Character's way of seeing things.

This exists in every great story because it is the way an Author proves their argument. Once the Main Character makes that choice the story will either end in success or failure. This is the Author saying, See, make this change and great things will happen or See, make this change and tragedy will befall you. Stories are about solving problems, not mythical journeys of spiritual transcendence.

In Disney's Beauty and the Beast Belle is the Main Character and the Beast is the Impact Character. Both don't fit in with the rest of society, but one -- Belle -- has found an appropriate way of dealing with it. In the end, she continues to do things the way she always has. The Beast, however, is the one who has the major transformational change. This is NOT the physical transformation but rather, the transformation of character that he undergoes. He changes and the spell is broken. The Author's proof that Belle made the right choice is apparent in the smile on her face as they dance into the clouds.

No need for two heroic journeys. No need for mental warping.

Same thing happens in Star Trek (though instead of purple clouds we get shiny lens flares!). Kirk is the Main Character and Spock is the Impact Character. Both come to the story with different approaches towards dealing with the Nero problem, two different approaches that clash when they come into contact with each other. Kirk is all about the relentless pursuit of the goal while Spock prefers to take a more reserved "logical" approach. Throughout the story, they argue over the proper approach until finally Spock relinquishes control and finds a way to allow a little freedom into his life, both in the world around him, and more importantly, inside of him emotionally.

Spock has undergone the major transformation of character. Kirk is still driven by that need to pursue, to win no matter what it takes. He has not lost a portion of himself on his way towards becoming a Master of Two Worlds.

In this way, screenwriter John Rogers had it right:

He starts as an arrogant sonovabitch, and becomes a slightly more motivated arrogant sonovabitch. He does not learn to sacrifice, he does not learn to work well with others -- he takes over the goddam ship. He's right all the time, he never doubts he's right, and the only obstacle he occasionally faces is when other people aren't sharp enough to see how frikkin' awesome -- and right -- he is as quickly as they should.

Beautifully written and 100% accurate. Rogers uses the term revelatory arc to describe Kirk's lack of change, but what would be even more precise would be to refer to him as the Steadfast Main Character. Every Main Character has their resolve brought into question. Some change, others remain steadfast. It really is that simple. A simple, but powerful tool available to any writer who wants to create something with meaning.

Time to Move Forward

Rogers' article is a celebration of Star Trek's apparent breaking of the rules. However, the film really doesn't break the rules as much it points out clearly that the present understanding of the rules is simply wrong. It all comes down to a misunderstanding over What Character Arc Really Means. It is true that the two principal characters must grow, but they don't both have a heroic transformational change of character.

The love affair with the Hero's Journey had its time. Turning every character into a Threshold Guardian or a Mentor or a Shapeshifter does nothing to really help the evolution of storytelling as much as it does to satisfy the hubris of those who hold such axioms dear. To impose such things on a writer should be deemed tyrannical and completely counter-productive to the creative instincts of potential artists everywhere. In the 21st century, there needs to be a push towards an even greater understanding of story theory and the structures that support it.

Story structure exists to carry the message, not inform it.

This article originally appeared June 9, 2010 on the StoryFanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles like this one can be found in the Article Archives.

Story Theory for the 21st Century

In the 80s it was Syd Field.  In the 90s it was Christopher Vogler and Robert McKee.  In the 'aughts it was Blake Snyder and McKee yet again.  What do the teens, the 20s and beyond hold in store for writers?

McKee, the most well thought-out of the bunch, may last another decade or so.  Snyder too may survive, though without his personal touch, a decline in interest will probably occur.

But if there is to be any hope for the future of storytelling though, the Dramatica theory of story should take center stage.  Based on the fundamental concept that a story is analogous to a single human mind trying to solve a problem, this story theory cogently explains why stories exist and why some are better than others.  It is the most advanced, most complete model of storytelling available to us today.

The previous paradigms don't even come close.

Bill Didn't Use It

That being said, the most frequent argument against Dramatica goes a little something like this:

It's too complicated...makes you wonder how Shakespeare was able to write all those great plays without it! LOL

And not just Shakespeare.  They'll cite Casablanca or To Kill A Mockingbird.  Basically, insert any classic writer's name or great story into the above straw man argument and you'll have the basis for why so many people give up on learning this theory.  But the above is less of an argument and more of a mask -- a mask used to shield an insecure mind from facing anything more challenging than "Fun and Games" or "progressive complications".

In addition to exemplifying an error in critical thinking, this snarky half-witted comment fails to take into account the radical changes between this century and those that proceeded it.

The Reality of Today

The difference between our world and the one inhabited by the Epsteins or whoever wrote those beautiful Shakespeare plays is the level of distraction.

Writers in 2010 are constantly bombarded by a multitude of inputs.  Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, email, instant message -- each one beneficial or detrimental depending on the context and the time within which you receive them.  The easy solution, the one that is offered up without much thought, is to cut oneself off from these notification based social-networks when writing.

Those who makes these suggestions don't get it.

There are countless times when these little snippets of information can turn into sources of great inspiration for even better creative writing.  Creativity occurs when the mind forgets and replaces that space with new material from which to build even more networked ideas upon.  If anything, this new world order of distraction leads to greater and more original works of art.  More random inputs naturally lead to more spontaneous connections.  Damming the flow would only stifle.

Of course the danger is that in allowing chaos to run the show, authors risk writing something with no ultimate point to it, no message.  Spontaneity in the moment is great, but quickly turns into an unwanted bedfellow if the purpose of one's work is to establish some greater meaning.  These random pieces must be connected thematically.

Furthermore, it is silly to think that you can somehow be a part of this culture without using these social networking tools.  Writers must exist in the world they hope to send a message to if that message is ever to be communicated clearly. The box has been opened and these things are not going away.  You need to know how to communicate to everyone by engaging in the culture growing and developing around you.

Thankfully, Dramatica can manage this chaos.

Dealing with Distraction

Dramatica gives you the tools necessary to deal with this new world.  In short, the theory helps you define what the message of your story is and then, makes sure that you keep that message consistent throughout your piece.   It sets the purpose behind your work of fiction in stone.

In this way, you can still keep up on what your sister had for lunch through her Facebook updates, while simultaneously making sure that all the characters in your story maintain the thematic issue that selfishness leads to disaster (or whatever the thematics behind your message call for).  Why is this important?  Well, besides keeping up a positive sibling relationship, it is possible that her tuna sandwich might inspire your Main Character's backstory to center around a desire to stop destructive over-fishing.  Or her latest picture of her daughter's school project might spin your spy-thriller down an unexplored path filled with macaroni and glue.  Why shut this possible source of inspiration off?

Dramatica allows the chaos to seep in, but is always there to constantly remind you what it is you wanted to say.  By setting the story engine into place, you are capturing your intent in digital form.  As a steadfast writing partner, Dramatica will ensure that you remain honest to the meaning you hope to communicate.

But doesn't a work of art ebb and flow and change purpose as it is developed?   Some do, and when that happens you can rework Dramatica's story engine to incorporate your changes.  The important thing to understand is that whatever it is you're trying to say, Dramatica will help you focus on it.

The Ever-Dwindling Window of Time

If you're anything like me, you're lucky if you get an hour a day to write something that is dear to your heart.  For me, it usually takes anywhere between twenty and twenty-five minutes before I am even able to get into the zone and begin to feel that my subconscious is taking over.  Then, if I'm lucky enough not to be interrupted by kids, phone calls, or IMs, that leaves a little over thirty minutes of quality writing a day.  Thirty minutes.

It's safe to say that Shakespeare had a bit more.

With Dramatica, you sit down for those thirty minutes and instantly step back into the message of your story.  Because it is so accurate and it because it maintains an unwavering consistency, it frees you to concentrate on writing the story you intended to write instead of wasting time remembering what it was you were trying to say.

Knowing that your intent will remain intact, you can let your mind wander and soak up all that happens around you.  When you sit at your keyboard you can craft this madness that swims throughout your head into a meaningful and well-thought out argument.  Your story will mean something.

Use the Tools

Steinbeck and friends were able to write great works of fiction without Dramatica because it didn't exist back then.  Those who use this line of logic to argue against using the theory might as well argue that we should stop using computers for basic word-processing because Shakespeare used a pen.  Extending it further, we should stop self-publishing on blogs or manufacturing digital content because the greats didn't have access to these same electronic tools.

What a ridiculous notion.

Why not use the latest and greatest?  We have the ability now to write complete stories the like of which the world has never seen.  Hamlet and The Great Gatsby were only the beginning.  You should use the tools your lifetime provides to you.  Why not use Dramatica to write your next novel or screenplay and stop worrying about emulating the greats that have come before you?  Who knows, maybe you'll write something better...

This article originally appeared May 5, 2010 on the StoryFanatic website.  Hundreds of insightful articles like this one can be found in the Article Archives.

Redefining Protagonist and Main Character

Red and AndyThe currently accepted definition of the Protagonist as being the character the audience empathizes most with is inaccurate.  Those who hold onto it are robbing themselves of the opportunity to create unique stories that defy convention.

As stated in my linked item concerning The Confusion Between Main Character and Protagonist, the idea that these two concepts are one and the same is an outdated notion from yesteryear.  While there are several films and stories where the two are masterfully combined, there is a relatively unexplored and misunderstood area that seeks to create unique meaning by separating the two.

To Kill A Mockingbird, The Terminator, The Counterfeiters (Die Falscher), The Shawshank Redemption, and The Lives of Others (Des Leben der Anderen) are just a few of the many wonderful stories that have Main Characters who do not drive the story forward.  In this article, we'll be taking a look at that last two and hopefully clarify the structure beneath the sheen.

Defining Goals

Before determining the Protagonist of the story, it helps to first define what the Story Goal is.  The Story Goal is something everyone in the story is concerned with.  The successful achievement of this goal will resolve the story's central problem.  This problem is presented early on in a story and disrupts the natural balance of things.Andy succeeds in his role as Protagonist

In The Shawshank Redemption, problems in the story exist because an innocent man has been unjustly incarcerated.  Without Andy's innocence there is no problem and thus, no story.  This problem affects everyone -- from the warden to the hardest screw to the inmates and so on.  Once Andy is freed, the problems in the story will be resolved and the story will be over.  This is the Goal of the story -- freeing an innocent man.

In The Lives of Others, problems in the story exist because a jealous state official wants dirt, real or imagined, on a potentially subversive writer.  This problem affects everyone -- from the writer himself, to his girlfriend, to his neighbor and to the Secret Police captain assigned to his case.  If the truth about this writer remains a mystery, then the story will be resolved and the story will be over.

Defining Protagonists

The Protagonist is defined as the character pursuing the Story Goal.  In Shawshank, this responsibility lies in Andy.  Though we don't know it until much later, he spends a lot of his time digging a giant hole and preparing everything for his eventual escape.

Warden Norton loses in his role as AntagonistThe Antagonist is defined as the character preventing the Story Goal.  Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) fulfills this role.  He's the one preventing Andy from escaping and gives him plenty of opportunities to rethink his escape plans (throwing him in the hole, shooting Tommy, etc.).  This is another property of the Antagonist, his or her drive to get others to Reconsider their actions  (For more on the characteristics of Archetypal Characters like this, please read my article Character Motivation Defined).

In The Lives of Others, the Protagonist is the writer Georg Dreyman (codenamed "Lazlo" for you Casablanca fans!) and the Antagonist is the jealous state official, Minister Hempf.  Georg is constantly pursuing a course of action wherein his blacklisted friends (director Albert Jerska) can have an opportunity to make their art.  Hempf does everything in his power to prevent him, including stealing away his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland.

Identifying the Main Character

But in both these films we don't experience the events that happen through the eyes of their respected Protagonists.  The Main Character is defined as the character through whose eyes we experience the story.  We never get to feel what it is like to be in that hole for a month with Andy.  We see him go in.  And we see him come out.  When he plays the music over the loudspeaker, we're not in there with him, we're experiencing it from outside.  It's Andy's impact we are feeling (which leads to his other dramatic function as the Impact Character, explained in this article The Second Most Important Character in a Film).

Instead, it is through Red's eyes that we witness the events of the story.  While he does supply the dramatic function of Narrator, there are deep thematic issues going on within Red that we are personally privy too as well.  We are emotionally invested in his journey, due in no small part to the particular shot selections made by Darabont and his crew.  In fact, whenever Red makes that long walk to his parole hearings, we the audience assume his position.  Those P.O.V. shots are a clear indicator that the filmmakers themselves considered this character the one the audience should empathize with the most.

Learning to be a good man.

The same could be said for The Lives of Others and the Main Character of that film, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (brilliantly portrayed by Ulrich Muhe).  We are emotionally invested in him because again, we are privy to things about him that many others in the story don't know (his pathetic and secluded home life, the hidden looks on his face as he listens in to the conversations below, etc.).  The emotional meaning of the story is wrapped around whether or not people like him (the Stasi) can change.

Meaning and Accuracy

And the emotional meaning behind The Shawshank Redemption is also wrapped around whether or not Red can change.  He is more than just the one telling the story.  Through him we get to feel what it is like to have become "institutionalized" and a person who has lost all hope.  Likewise, in The Lives of Others we get to feel what is like to be someone struggling with the negative labels people ascribe to us.  As a member of the Secret Police, Wiesler knows many consider him a "bad man."  The emotional meaning of the story lies in whether or not he can resolve these personal issues.

This is why it is important to separate out the concepts of Protagonist and Main Character.  When stories are broken or feel incomplete, the reason is usually because the argument being made by the author is inconsistent or illogical.  Blending the logical driver of the story (the Protagonist) with the emotional driver (the Main Character) can lead to this confusion.  Sure, they can be combined as they have been in many great stories (Up In The Air, The Wrestler, The Silence of the Lambs, Braveheart, The Godfather, and so on), but to require that they must always be one and the same is to discount the subtle and beautifully complex emotional arguments that are being made by films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Lives of Others.

Accuracy should prevail if the art of storytelling is ever to evolve.

Read this article and many more at StoryFanatic.com.  

Complete Stories: Part 3
Exceptions and Pixar

In this final article on writing complete stories, we take a look at the exceptions to the rule.  You can, in fact, write very successful movies that are not complete stories.  Several successful films have done this.  The only problem is that you run the risk of becoming forgotten.  Complete stories stay with audiences for a lifetime.  One has to look no further than the archives of Pixar to see that such a case is true.

The Exceptions

There are occasional exceptions to the failure of incomplete stories.  In 2009 we were treated to three entertaining movies that fell short of supplying us with a convincing argument.  Taken had neither the Opposition Throughline nor a Relationship Throughline.  That's OK, because the purpose of that film was to show Liam Neeson kicking ass throughout Europe, not provide audiences with some deeper meaning.

Incomplete Stories that Rock Likewise, Inglorious Bastards from Quentin Tarantino missed the mark in the complete story department.  The entertainment value that came from the uniqueness of the subject matter and some captivating performances superseded the audience's need for some greater understanding.

And finally, Coraline wasn't trying to be anything more than a beautiful tale (there is a difference between a tale and a story).  If you've seen the film you know there's a scene towards the end that seems to come out of nowhere.  Coraline's mother, constantly distracted by the pressures of her career, brings home a gift for her daughter.  It feels like the right thing for her to do, but at the same time it feels awkward as she never really grew to that point.  If they had developed the relationship between Coraline and her mother more (i.e., a Relationship Throughline), the story would have meant something more than simply beautiful character design and technically superior animation.

But they didn't, and the box office languished because of it.

Films suffer when a throughline is missing.  Luckily, there is one studio who understands that.

The Pixar Secret

As mentioned above, sure, you can get by with an incomplete story if you have fabulous production design, but you'll always be doing just that: getting by.  Audiences crave meaning. It's why they go to movies and why they cherish the films they do.  And you don't have to look much further than Pixar Animation to find films that people cherish.

Their secret?

They Write Complete Stories

They write complete stories.

Of the ten films produced at that studio in the last fifteen years, each and every one has a full and complete story.  All four throughlines are present in each film.  In fact, the greatest of them all, Finding Nemo, actually has two complete stories in it!  We have the father/son story that focuses on, well, finding Nemo, and we have the secondary story with Nemo and Gil in the aquarium.  The latter is less defined than the former, but it is still treated as a complete story. It's why the film feels so "full."

When reviewing a Pixar film, critics overwhelmingly point out the abundance of heart.  This is because every single film has a meaningful relationship at the core.  Woody and Buzz, Bob and Helen, Sully and Boo, Wall-E and Eve -- these are all classic heart-felt relationships that will be remembered by audiences for years to come. 

In addition, every film focuses on one central character from which the audience can experience the story. Cars has Lightning McQueen and Toy Story 2 has Woody.  And every film has an opposition character that forces the Main Character to deal with their issues.  Lightning has Doc, Woody has Jesse.

The presence of these four throughlines explains why audiences (particularly children) can watch them over and over again.  They're getting something out of it that they can't get in real life.  They're gaining meaning from solving problems both objectively and subjectively.  When life seems pointless or confusing, these films can help supply comfort or greater understanding in the form of meaning.

And that's all there is to it.

Great Expectations

As the world of fiction grows more fragmented and people become more and more distracted by the meaningless, the need for complete stories becomes apparent.  If a writer wishes themselves to be heard and to have a profound effect on those who experience their story, they will have to provide them with a complete argument.  Anything less, and those long hours at the keyboard will simply become fodder for the refuse pile that is Tweets and YouTube clips.

Audiences want complete stories.  It's up to the authors of the 21st century to make it so.

Complete Stories:
A Matter of Perspective -- Part 2

Last month we took a look at how meaning is achieved when an argument presented from all four major perspectives.  This month we dive further into complete stories and discover how those four perspectives translate into throughlines.

The Four Throughlines

The four perspectives correspond with the four throughlines found in every successful story.  The I perspective matches up nicely with the Personal throughline.  From this context an audience member can feel what it is like to personally deal with a problem.  The You perspective matches up with the Opposition throughline, as in "You have a different way of seeing the world."  The We perspective corresponds with the Relationship throughline of a story and finally, the They perspective matches up with the Big Picture throughline.

The Big Picture Throughline

This throughline is what most consider the main story, the plot, or if you prefer, the A-story line.  A majority of screen-time is spent telling this throughline (at least in American cinema).  This is the part of the story you describe when you're asked, "What was the story about?"  From here, the audience gets to see the central problem from a bird's eye objective view.

The Personal Throughline

This throughline concerns itself with who the story is about.  Most story experts agree that a successful story revolves around one central character, most often referred to as the Main Character.  This throughline is also sometimes called the B-story line.  From here, the audience gets to experience the central problem from a completely subjective personal viewpoint.
The Opposition Throughline

This throughline provides the opposing viewpoint necessary to force the Main Character to deal with their own issues.  Most accurately referred to as the Impact Character, this character has also been labeled the personal antagonist.  From here, the audience gets to experience a personal viewpoint of the problem that is not their own.
The Relationship Throughline

This throughline is the heart of every story.  It concerns itself with the relationship created between the Main and Impact Character and whether or not that relationship is growing or dissolving.  From here, the audience can gather some emotional meaning from the problem unavailable in any of the other throughlines.

Incomplete Stories

Incomplete stories exist when one of the throughlines is missing.  When the Relationship Throughline is missing, you have a story without heart.  In Monsters vs. Aliens, the Main Character Susan is left to deal with her personal problems on her own.  Because of this, her change at the end seems forced and unbelievable.  Main Characters need that Impact Character to help draw them out.  Towards the beginning of the film there is a scene with Dr. Cockroach that seems like the beginning of a Relationship Throughline, but it is not followed through with.

This missing throughline is the primary reason for the poor performance of this film overseas.  Audiences outside of America love stories with heart.  Don't give it to them, and they won't show up.

When the Personal Throughline is missing, you end up with a story that is cold or uninvolving.  In 9, we never learn who "9" is or what emotional baggage he brings to the story.  This is why it becomes difficult to become emotionally involved with the film.  Storytellers must provide this gateway into a story less they risk an audience checking out.

What if you leave out the Big Picture Throughline?  In film, it is virtually impossible.  Novels, not so much.  The book version of Twilight suffers from an underdeveloped Big Picture Throughline. We know a lot about Bella, and Edward and their budding romance but we don't know anything about the big bad vampires until 3/4 of the way into the story.

This is why most men will toss the book aside after twenty pages or so.  When you leave out the Big Picture Throughline, you end up with stories that don't make sense.  This is also why, in the movie version, they sprinkled in bits with those three baddies from the very beginning.  You need to have a sense that a story is going to make sense if you want to retain male viewers.  Having a Big Picture Throughline goes a long way towards making this happen.

Complete stories are stories in which all four throughlines are present.

Complete Stories:
A Matter of Perspective
-- Part 1

Most everyone who delves into the complicated world of storytelling eventually comes to the realization that in the end, stories are about solving problems. The concepts of story -- character, plot, theme, and so on -- were all developed as a means to communicate the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of the approach used in solving those problems. When done properly, an audience is provided with meaning.

All meaning is derived from context. The idea that "one man's trash is another man's treasure" is based on the chasm that exists between two opposing contexts. I may see the world differently than you, but from my perspective I am right. Likewise, from where you stand the way you see the world is correct. Meaning depends on the perspective we take.

There are four perspectives from which we can extract some meaning in our lives: I, You, We and They. As we go about our daily lives, we can easily shift perspectives from one context to the next, using whichever one will help us achieve our goals or make us feel better. The only thing we can't do is assume all four perspectives at once.

In our view of ourselves, we can take the I perspective and see what it is like to personally have a problem. We can also see a viewpoint opposite from ours (the You perspective) and have a relationship with others as well (the We perspective). But we cannot step outside and look at ourselves objectively. It's an impossibility.

Conversely when we look at others, we can view them objectively from the They perspective, we can have a relationship with them (the We perspective), and have an opposing view to theirs (the You perspective). But we cannot be them. We cannot simultaneously be both objective and subjective.

Stories can.

If you take the central problem in a story, you can see how that problem would appear different depending on what perspective was taken. The approach one character takes may seem an appropriate way to solve the story's problems while completely inappropriate to another character. It's only once we examine the central problem from all four perspectives that we are finally able to comprehend some truth to the matter and thus arrive at some greater meaning.

This is why stories have such a profound effect on us and why sometimes you can't help but read or watch the same stories over and over again. Stories offer us something we cannot get in real life, namely - meaning. When a story covers all four perspectives at once, it effectively has made a complete argument that an audience will be powerless to ignore. They'll have nothing to say because all the bases have been covered.

Read this article and many more at StoryFanatic.com.

Character Motivation Defined

Characters are more than the labels they are so easily defined with.

As explained in the previous article introducing the Dramatica Archetype, each character is defined by their function within the main story line. Protagonists pursue goals while Guardians aid the effort towards that goal.  While these quick definitions make it easy to understand their purpose in a story, they fall short of actually providing an author with the means to use these characters in a story. To find those tools within the archetypes, they first must be broken down into a finer resolution.

The Elements of Character

If you want to know what motivates your character, you must move beyond the labels of Protagonist and Antagonist and look at the elements that created that label in the first place.  Looking this closely at a character, we can see that there are motivations that lead to action and motivations that lead to decision making.  An archetype happens when just the right action element is matched up with just the right decision element.  Put the two together in the same character and the labels we’ve grown so familiar with will “ring out” as if striking the right harmonic chord.

Below you’ll find the second part of my presentation on Archetypal Characters where I focus my attention on defining the elements that work well together.

So a Protagonist is driven to Pursue a goal (their Action element) while at the same time possessing the motivation to Consider (their Decision element) the pros and cons of attempting that goal.  The Antagonist is driven to Prevent that goal and to force the characters in the story to Reconsider whether or not they should take action in the first place.  Match the right Action element with the right Decision element and you get an Archetypal Character.  While there may indeed be some cultural significance to these characters (as witnessed by Jung/Campbell/Vogler), their real power lies in their objective reality.

At first glance, it may be difficult to decipher the difference between Consider and Reconsider.  The former describes a character who weighs their options, makes a decision and moves on.  The latter describes a character who has already made a decision, but now finds themselves debating whether they made the right decision or not.  It’s difficult to make sense of at first, but once you see it at work, over time it will start to become apparent (I promise).

In addition, it’s important to note that these elements do not necessarily have to be “within” the character themselves, they can be attributed to or seen as properties of that character by others within the story.  The Antagonist represents the motivation to Reconsider, whether they are driven to do it themselves or whether they motivate others to Reconsider.  Regardless of how it is exposed within a story, all that matters is that they represent that part of the story’s larger argument.

Character Archetypes in Star Wars

The following clip is one of my favorites.  In it, you’ll find examples of each Archetype broken down to their motivation elements. Link to video.

You can see how the murder of Luke’s aunt and uncle is really an attempt by the Empire to get the Rebels to Reconsider their rebellious efforts.  It’s not so much that Mr. Tarkin is pacing back and forth deliberating whether or not he made the right choice as it is that he and his compatriots represent the motivation to Reconsider.  Lucky for the galaxy, Luke decided to stick with his original Consideration.

Now What?

But Archetypal Characters are boring, right?  For the most part, I agree.  Sure, maybe one or two within a story is OK, but all eight? Probably not a good idea nowadays (unless you’re purposely trying to create a throwback to 20th century fiction).  The trick is to realize that you don’t have to match up the right Action element with the right Decision element.  You can mix and match to your heart’s desire. In other words, you can let your creativity take over!

Woody Harrelson’s character in Zombieland, Tallahassee, is a unique mix of elements from the Guardian Archetype and the Contagonist Archetype.  As Guardian to Jesse Einsenberg and the girls, Tallahassee represents the drive to Help the group reach the amusement park.  But it would be quite a stretch to say that he also represented the other Guardian element, Conscience, in the story.  If anything, he is motivated by Temptation.  You don’t have to look much further than his addiction to Hostess Sno Balls for proof of that.  This is what makes his character so unique and interesting.  The fact that he is motivated by conflicting elements creates an interestingness factor to him that Ben Kenobi can’t quite live up to.

You can even combine Archetypal Characters as they did in the original Toy Story.  Woody is both the Protagonist and Reason character of the story.  As Protagonist, he Pursues the goal of reuniting with Andy while also Considering the pros and cons of taking Buzz back with him. As Reason, he applies Logic (as in the opening sequence when all the other toys are freaking out during Andy’s birthday party) while at the same time maintaining Control over the group and the situation.

To Creativity and Beyond

This understanding of Character Archetypes is precisely what makes the Dramatica theory of story superior to all previous understandings of story.  As opposed to the Campbell/Hero’s journey paradigm, the Dramatica Archetypes are seen as stepping stones towards more complex storytelling.  While you can use them as is, their real power lies in their ability to easily communicate a real understanding of character motivation.  In fact, once you understand the elements that make up an Archetypal Character, the only limit to character development is your own imagination.

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