Narrative First Articles

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...

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Understanding the Purpose of Backstory

After twenty years in the animation industry and five more helping writers 1-on–1 develop their stories, one thing is clear—writers will do anything to avoid writing real conflict.

By actual conflict, I reference the presence of an inequity: an appreciation of two competing justifications representing an impasse within a conscious mind. And while illustrating this dilemma proves near impossible for many writers, others mistakingly turn to Backstory to avoid getting to the core of what is driving their story.

The Challenge of the Influence Character

A key component of creating a dilemma rests in the opposing natures of the Main Character Throughline perspective and the Influence Character Throughline perspective. Incompatible, yet similar at times, the IC perspective’s role is to influence and challenge the Main Character to grow out of his or her justifications.

A writer asks if this influencing force can be someone from the Main Character’s past on the Discuss Dramatica forum.

I know I could take a simpler route, for example, making the Impact Character someone from the present (a current friend, or an old acquaintance, or even an enemy) who helps (or forces) the main character to deal with their painful memories. But what if I wanted to choose to define the impact character as the person responsible for this significant past event and count the MC/IC relationship as the relationship they had in the past?

Assuming the Main Character’s story is about a source of conflict generated from what happened (the Past), the Influence Character perspective would be anyone who triggers recollections through conflict.

The Main Character is not a real person, she is a perspective, so It’s not her Memories that are being triggered or brought to light, but rather a process of Memory-ing (recollecting, reminiscing) that is the source of challenge to the personal perspective.

Flashbacks may be part of this Memory process, but Backstory is not. The Backstory is where you find the genesis of the justification in the current story:

Backstory -> Initial Story Driver -> Forestory

Forestory is what most people understand to be THE story. Backstory explains WHY, or HOW, the individual Problems in each Throughline came to be. Turning to a character from the “past” to challenge the MC avoids the proper illustration of an Influence Character Throughline perspective.

Drudging Up Backstory in a Scene

The discussion continues to suggest pulling from the Backstory to illustrate a key Storybeat within the narrative:

A young knight in training faces a trial by combat, but they’re blindfolded and come to discover a new skill that they would have never known before.

The knight stands before his people as King, surveying the crowd for a suspected mercenary sent to assassinate him and his family as he performs a traditional ceremony.

Years earlier, the boy who would be King climbs a treacherous cliffside with his father without a care in the world, making it to the top safely… though his father hesitates and stumbles and falls to his death before his eyes.

Two weeks after the ceremony, the King strolls through the black woods unguarded with his grandson. He listens to the birds as they sing, then go quiet… and without ever seeing the killer approach, spins and impales his assailant as he fell from a tree high above.

Step 3 is problematic. As awesome as the storytelling is in the above example, the sequence as presented would not work to satisfy the scene’s components in question. Seeing him as a child appears as Backstory, and out of place within the context of the other Storybeats.

If there was a greater context of Memory, and all four geared towards challenging through Memory (like the sequence in Inception where Cobb recounts the secret his wife Mal had hidden away), then it could work. It isn’t easy to appreciate the meaning of the above scene without more significant context.

Using Backstory to Inform the Forestory

The above example of the Knight pulls from a Method of Evidence and includes problematic Elements of Ability, Aware, Self-Aware, and Desire. Applying these same four to the Inception “flashback” sequence–without pulling from Backstory–one sees how they work together to challenge Main Character Cobb in regards to Memory:

  1. Ability - I can mess with people’s minds, and I did
  2. Aware - I made her see that this world is not what she thinks it is
  3. Self-aware - I made her self-conscious of whatever she was hiding, plus I remember what a jerk I was to do this in the first place
  4. Desire - I made her want to kill herself (and I miss her)

All four of those work in the particular context of Memory. The “flashback” feels less like the Backstory crutch and more of an essential part of the communication of the Influence Character’s challenging perspective to the Audience.

A flashback to Backstory appears out-of-place and jarring because it isn’t part of the greater context explored within a scene. It’s a shortcut for filling in a blank space that would be better served by an illustration consistent with its surrounding Beats. That feeling of a jump-cut in the narrative is the Author’s reliance on Backstory to fill an essential piece of the Forestory.

Backstory defines why there is a Forestory, or story. It should never become a part of the development of a narrative.

Your Personal Call to Adventure

Nine times out of ten, when a writer writes an Influence Character that is not physically present, or is a rock or is someone who died a long time ago–it’s indicative of a writer avoiding creating a compelling Main Character and Influence Character dynamic.

When you find yourself relying on Backstory, know that you’re avoiding exploring something essential to what you are trying to say with your story. Use the Dramatica storyform and its appearance within Subtext to challenge you to go deeper and define without hesitation the inequity that inspires you to write a story.

This article, Understanding the Purpose of Backstory, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

The True Nature of the Inciting Incident

It is the event that starts every complete story. Whether an action or an act of deliberation, this inequity-producing force lights the engine that lay dormant within the context of Backstory. It is not, as is so often misunderstood, development of another problem.

Recently screenwriter Matt Bird, over on his excellent Cockeyed Caravan blog, defended a challenge to the non-transformative nature of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Dr. Richard Kimball in The Fugitive. As laid out in the article What Character Arc Really Means, there are Main Characters who grow throughout a story, yet stay tied to their own personal worldview. When people speak of Main Characters who don’t change or “transform”, they are referring to those characters who do not alter their own personal paradigm. But before addressing this understanding of the central character’s growth, it becomes necessary to first clarify the true nature of the Inciting Incident.

You Say Tomato, I Say Inciting Incident

Before getting into more detail, it is important to note that this could be a case of semantics. There could be a chance that Bird is using the term Inciting Incident loosely, applying it to the beginning of the Main Character’s personal storyline rather than the way the term is typically used, that is, to signify the start of the larger over-arching storyline that involves everyone. The assumption is that, when using the term Inciting Incident, one is referring to the moment when a story starts.

Defining the Beginning

When it comes to the Inciting Incident of a story the general consensus is that it is the event or decision that creates the problem for everyone in the story. After all, it “incites” the story. Vader and his Stormtroopers attack a diplomatic ship in Star Wars, Ugarte decides to give the Letters of Transit to Rick in Casablanca and Joshua Cody’s mother dies from a drug overdose in Animal Kingdom. These are all significant events that create the inequity the Protagonist hopes to resolve, and force more actions or more decisions to occur.

They are not the event or collection of events that push a story into the Second Act. You can find more detail on this within the Advanced Story Theory section of the article Plot Points and the Inciting Incident:

The problem with forcing the Inciting Incident closer to the 20 or 25 percent mark is that, from a dramatic perspective, there is little energy being spent during that first act. Typically, stories without a strong Inciting Incident also, by matter of definition, have no definable problem in place for the characters to deal with. Thus, no conflict and little for the audience to be concerned with. Waiting until the quarter mark to get things going is a surefire way towards creating a storytelling disaster.

The Inciting Incident brings a story into existence.

When Does a Story Begin?

In Bird’s defense of the transformative nature of Clarice and Richard, he claims the Inciting Incident of Lambs is the request that Starling interview Lecter. This would mean there was no inequity before the request–and that isn’t the case with this film. Would it not be more accurate to say that Buffalo Bill’s fifth kill was the Inciting Incident that forced the decision to go with Lecter’s assistance? The decision to have Clarice conduct the interview moves the story along, but only in response to the inequity created by Bill’s latest atrocity.

When nailing down where an act turns, it becomes crucial for an Author to determine causation. Act turns are not time markers.

Causation and Act Turns

This technique of using causation to determine the Inciting Incident of a story though appears best in the example of The Fugitive. Referring again to the original post, Bird claims that both the murder of Richard’s wife and the train wreck itself function as the collective Inciting Incident of the story. If this were true, what decisions do these events force into existence? Remember that the creation of an inequity, in effect, creates a vacuum that necessitates some response. Since these are both actions, if they truly incited the problem into existence they would force decisions.

They don’t.

The murder of Richard’s wife didn’t come out of nowhere–there was a reason. Contrast this with Buffalo Bill’s heinous act. There was no prior decision that forced that serial killer into killing that fifth girl, the action itself created the inequity. In The Fugitive, the initial murder didn’t create the vacuum, it came as a response to the inequity created by another important decision.

The one-armed man killed Kimble’s wife because her husband, Dr. Richard Kimball, made the decision to blow the whistle on RDU–90.

The Story Driver Test

The best test to determine what is truly driving a story, or creating the inequities within a complete story, is to ask this question (source):

If “x” had not happened, is it likely that “y” would have happened anyways?If the answer is yes, then x is NOT driving the story forward. If the answer is no, then y MAY be the driving force.

Note that an answer of no does not guarantee that x is the event driving the story. To confidently say that, one needs to examine all the turning points within a story and determine the commonality behind all those events. In a complete story, all the x’s will either be actions or decisions. They won’t be a mixture of both. (The Advanced Theory section of this article has more on why).

The Drivers of the Lambs

With Silence one would ask, if Buffalo Bill had not killed his fifth victim, is it likely that they would have decided to go with Lecter? Probably not. Now we have a potential candidate for an action-driven story. The key is to examine other events that drive a story and see what they bring up.

If Miggs had not attacked Clarice, is it likely that Lecter would have made the decision to help her? No. Candidate number two. If Lecter hadn’t left the writing on the map would Clarice have made the decision to re-investigate the Ohio murder? No. If the moth hadn’t landed on the spools of thread in Gumb’s house would she have made the decision to try and arrest him. No, and again, another candidate.

This continues on and on until the end of the story when Clarice shoots Gumb. The inequity created by the initial Inciting Incident–that of Gumb getting his fifth kill–has been successfully resolved. This Concluding Event always clarifies the resolution the original inequity.

Luckily for those involved in this story, it has.

The Drivers of The Fugitive

This same test can works with Kimball and friends. If Kimball had not decided to reveal his discovery of RUD90, is it likely that his wife would have been killed? No way, no how. A clear indication of a decision creating an inequity.

But as with Lambs, it becomes important to check the findings against other driving events and see if they are decisions as well.

Take for instance the train wreck. Everyone can agree that this sequence turns the story into Act 2. First Act: innocent man sentenced to death, Second Act: convicted fugitive on the loose. But is it the train wreck that forces further decisions, or was there some decision that brought about that spectacular crash?

It would be difficult to conclusively determine what decisions the wreck brought about. One could try and argue that Richard decides to run away, but a) it’s less of a decision and more of a gut reaction for survival, and b) it would lack any meaningful connection between the drivers of a story and the problems they create. Causation is the key here, and it isn’t strong enough to warrant the label of Act turner.

Developing a Story’s Problems

In The Fugitive, problems arise when characters try to help others. His wife’s call for help (which is misunderstood as an attempt to identify him), Kimball’s attempt to help the injured child (which almost ends in his own apprehension), and the cops in the chopper trying to aid Gerard (which almost kill him!) are but a few examples of where assistance to others create and develop the inequity of the story. The most important example though, at least for this article, is when the corrections officer decides to open up the gate in order to aid the convulsing prisoner.

This is the decision that led to the train wreck. This is the First Act Turn.

Note the amount of attention paid to his indecision, to the yelling and the screaming for the officer to make a choice. This is a significant meaningful moment, developing the story’s original inequity and pushing it towards the end. If the officer had not decided to open the gate, would there have been a train wreck? Would there have even been an Act Two?

No way.

Connecting the Inciting Incident to Meaning

There is a meaningful pattern to the types of events that drive a story. They are not simply things that divide a story into convenient-sized quarters. While these turning points are often found at the same time mark (30 pages into a 120-page screenplay), it is not always a guarantee. Page markers do not function well as a basis for determining Act breaks.

Separating the Inciting Incident from the Main Character’s storyline is key. The Main Character has their own personal issues to deal with. They tie in thematically with the larger story, and perhaps could have their own inciting event, but they are unique and personal to the central character of a story. The central character, however, is not the entire story.

This distinction is an important one to make if there are accurate conversations to be had over what is going on within a complete story. Mashing up the Inciting Incident into an event that covers both the start of the Main Character’s story and the part of the story that concerns everyone else is a guaranteed way to incite confusion over whether or not the Main Character experiences a paradigm shift, and whether or not they truly transform.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Why all the focus on actions and decisions? One of Dramatica’s revolutionary concepts (one of many!) was the discovery of a causal relationship within the plot events that drive a story. With this revelation, the “Inciting Incident”, the “Break into Two” and “Break into Three” and the “Concluding Event” suddenly have meaning beyond tabbed folders in an outline.

Dramatica refers to these key moments as Story Drivers. A story can be either Action-driven or Decision-driven, but not both. As covered in Consistent Plot Points, a meaningful argument exists when the Author maintains the pattern of causation they began with that first Inciting Incident. A story that starts with an Decision can’t end with a Action. It simply doesn’t make sense. (See Bee Movie).

Actions drive The Silence of the Lambs. Decision drive The Fugitive. Re-reading the article above, one can see that the events that begin a story and drive it from one Act to the next are not simply things that happen (as plot is so often described), but rather events that force other events to transpire. Action-driven stories will force decisions. Decision-driven stories will force actions.

This article, The True Nature of the Inciting Incident, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

A Simple Way to Look at the Throughlines of Your Story

Having worked with Dramatica for over ten years now, the one thing I’ve come to learn is that there is always a new way of looking at things. Often this new perspective is so simple that I can’t help but smile and think, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that?!” This happened to me recently when trying to decipher the throughlines for Michael Mann’s Collateral.

There is a level of confidence one builds up when writing about a subject day in and day out. During the past three months I’ve written over 50 articles about the Dramatica theory of story. The more I write the more I feel like I can claim a certain amount of authority over the material. Because I’m forced to put my thoughts into words, I feel like my understanding of this complex subject has grown with every article.

So it was with this heightened sense of self-assurance that I approached my analysis of Collateral.

It was easy to distinguish Max (Jamie Foxx) as a Be-er. When faced with a problem that gets him down, he retreats to his “island paradise” (the postcard he carries in the visor of his cab). This internal approach towards solving problems can also be seen in the way he deals with his mother. Unable to deal with his mother’s almost certain disapproval of his real occupation, he has instead manipulated her into thinking he’s already running the limo company. He has her thinking that he drives celebrities from one red carpet event to the next.

It was also apparent that his Main Character Growth of Start. Max was not in any way shape or form actively moving towards achieving his dream. He was content spending his nights eating Subway sandwiches and staring at Mercedes Benz brochures. It wasn’t so much that he had to Stop doing something harmful as it was that he had to Start doing something. The emphasis was on what was missing–there was a void in him.

Choosing these two items set up an unbreakable relationship between the Main Character Throughline and the Objective Story Throughline. The Main Character had to be one of the bottom two Domains (either Mind or Psychology) and the Objective Story had to be the corresponding Dependent Pair (Dependent pairs are aligned vertically in the Dramatica chart). So if Max’s problems were a result of a fixed attitude (Mind), then the Objective Story’s problems would stem from activities (Physics). And likewise, if Max’s problems were a result of a problematic way of thinking (Psychology), then the Objective Story’s problems would come from a problematic situation (Universe). [1]

I was certain that Max’s problems resulted from problematic ways of thinking. As mentioned above, he was at ease with manipulating his own hospitalized mother into believing he was something that he wasn’t. And he seemed to spend a great deal of time imagining what “Island Limos” would be. He seemed to be in love with coming up with different ideas for the perfect ”ride.”

That would place the Objective Story’s problems in Universe. To me, it seemed clear that the problem was that a professional killer had come to town. His presence was disrupting an ongoing Federal case. Everything was balanced until his plane touched the ground. If he wasn’t stopped, those who were being placed on trial would not find the justice they rightly deserved. Remove the hitman and the situation would return to normal.

Sounds pretty good, right?

Unfortunately I was missing something so simple, yet extremely essential, about the definition of these Throughlines.

Stuck or Changing

It all comes down to the difference between States and Processes. Universe and Mind describe a State. Physics and Psychology describe a Process. An even simpler way to differentiate the two pairs is this:

  • Universe and Mind describe things that are stuck.
  • Physics and Psychology describe things that are changing.

So when looking at the Objective Story, you can ask “Is this a world where things are established or stuck and if we unstick them, everything will be OK?" Or "Do we have a world where things are changing and we need to stop it in order to bring things back into balance?”

Looking at it this way, the Objective Story for Collateral is definitely the latter. There is nothing stuck that needs to be unstuck. It’s not like The Fugitive where you have an innocent man who has been wrongly convicted of killing someone, and the person truly responsible free. In that film you have a situation that is out of balance. Once the characters rectify the situation, everything can return to a state of normalcy.

But in Collateral, it is the fact that things are changing that is disrupting things. The prosecution is losing witnesses. Meanwhile, the detective struggles with learning what happened to his informant. And the FBI agents misconstrue the cabbie’s actions at the night club to mean he is the killer. Concurrently, the real assassin wastes no time in killing street thugs who try to make off with his “work-ups” (his briefcase). These are all problematic Activities.

And when you think of which Throughline is stuck, it’s obvious that it should be Max. If anyone has ever been in a rut, it’s this pathetic cabbie. Everyday it’s the same thing: get into the cab, wipe down the dashboard, and put the island postcard in the visor before he even turns the key. He has his routine and his routes memorized. When a gorgeous girl (Jada Pinkett Smith) enters his cab and suggests an alternate way, he doesn’t even take the time to consider it. As far as he is concerned, he already knows the best way, regardless if entertaining her suggestion might have drawn her closer to him. Max plays everything safe and plays by the rules–and it’s a problem for him.

Just When You Think You Know It All…

…some new bit of information slaps you upside the head and says, “Think again, dummy!” Hopefully you can learn from my mistake and apply it in your own writing. Take a look at your Throughlines and check to make sure you’ve got them encoded correctly. If they are in Universe or Mind are they describing something that is stuck? Will unsticking them bring balance back to those Throughlines? And conversely, if they are in Physics or Psychology are they describing something that is changing? Will bringing these changes to a halt return those Throughlines to a state of equity?

It really is that simple.


Under our old name, Story Fanatic, we left space open for readers to leave comments and questions. The following is a question received in regards to the above article.

A very interesting way of looking at throughlines, but can you give me any ideas that illustrate psychology as something changing that is causing a problem?

Dramatica defines Psychology as a manner of thinking–a process. This in contrast to Mind, which is a fixed thing. The latter is the thought, while the former is the process of thinking.

There are a bunch of great stories that center around problems dealing with ways of thinking–off-hand I can think of A Simple Plan, American Beauty, Rear Window, and A Room With a View. Most “chick flicks” or romantic-comedies share a common source of conflict in the different ways people think.

In A Simple Plan the problems around conflicting plans and their attempts to manipulate one another to go with their plan. When things aren’t quite going their way they change their plans–creating even more conflict.

In American Beauty the same type of conflict exists–but from a slightly skewed view. Here the characters in the story come into conflict over the concepts they have of themselves. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) begins to imagine a life completely different than the one he has led. This causes great conflict with his wife and his daughter and with his neighbors. The greater this concept of himself grows, the larger the conflict with the supporting characters (and the richness of this story lies in the fact that all the other character’s have problem-inducing concepts of themselves as well).

This article, A Simple Way to Look at the Throughlines of Your Story, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

A Dramatica Look at Manchester By the Sea

This month we take a look at Kenneth Lonergan’s laugh-riot, Manchester by the Sea. Starring Academy Award-winning Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler–a janitor saddled with responsibility of raising his deceased brother’s teenage son–the film deftly covers the entire gamut of conflict. By crafting a complete story, Manchester tells more than a tragedy–it tells something lasting and meaningful.

Remember that the key to crafting a complete story lies in positioning the Main Character and Influence Character Throughlines diagonally across from each other and the Objective Story and Relationship Story Throughlines diagonally across from each other. This allows for greater instances of conflict while ensuring that the story addresses every possible kind of conflict. One can place each of these Throughline in a single area, but only one arrangement of all four feels right.

Lee is a man with a bad Fixed Attitude. Whether lacking the simple courtesies of day-to-day interactions with tenants or completely oblivious to the subtle advances of those attracted to him, Lee couldn’t care less about his fellow man. Difficult at first, the structure of the narrative and the placement of Lee at the center of the Main Character Throughline makes it easy for us to empathize with what many would call an “unlikable” character. The Academy’s recognition of the brilliance of the performance and the story Lee exists in should likewise banish any future notes regarding characters who don’t save cats in the first ten minutes of a story.

Challenging Lee to consider a different approach to life is Lee’s teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). While facing a similar loss as Lee, Patrick refuses to withdraw in the same manner. Concerned with staying near friends and girlfriends who support his aspirations, Patrick refuses to be defined and locked down by his unfortunate Situation.

The complexity of the narrative reinforces this Influence Character Throughline by handing off the role of Influence Character to Randi (Michelle Williams), Lee’s former wife. Remarried and not bogged down by what happened, Randi is perfectly situated to challenge Lee to change his mind. At times, it even seems as if this town of Manchester itself play Influence Character to Lee’s Main Character.

The heart of the story, however, lies in the growing relationship between Lee and Patrick. Their pseudo father/son relationship defines the Relationship Story Throughline of Manchester and gives emotional balance to the logistical storyline of honoring Joe’s dying wishes. The dynamics of raising and taking care of a teenager without the accretion of childhood and preteen adolescence sparks an inequitable bonding. Patrick’s attempts to hookup with various girls and his attempt to get Lee to the do the same with the mother of his girlfriend threatens to keep them from truly understanding one another. Throw in the constant need to be driven to practice and the refusal to dig up Joe’s body and you have the foundation for a relationship facing problematic Activities.

Joe’s passing set one essential stipulation: that Lee take responsibility for raising Patrick. This plan positions everyone in the Objective Story Throughline against each other by way of their conflicting Manners of Thinking. Lee thinks himself “just a backup” while Joe’s lawyer thinks only of fulfilling his client’s dying wishes. Patrick thinks of the various elements he needs to arrange to set his life into motion while George (C.J. Wilson) thinks only of a life without any kids in the house. And Randi thinks there is someway she and Lee can somehow reintegrate themselves into each other’s lives.

Manchester by the Sea owes much of its ability to connect with Audiences to the arrangement of its Four Throughlines. By positioning them in a way that guarantees the greatest opportunity for conflict, the story locks us in to the argument at hand. Sometimes, you really can’t beat it.

This article, The Throughlines of Manchester by the Sea, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

Writing Consistent Plot Points

In a story, the major plot points are either driven by decisions or actions. While a story may naturally ebb and flow between both, when all is said and done, one of these will be seen as the primary driving plot force in a story. This is because meaningful stories are really just an argument and effective arguments have a pattern they must adhere to.

An author picks either an action or a decision to set the wheels of inequity into motion. In doing so, the argument of the story is begun. Choosing whether an action leads to a decision or a decision leads to an action is essentially telling an audience “This sort of thing leads to that.” This pattern is now set up as the pattern of logic that will be examined in the Objective Story. An author then concludes her argument with the meaningful bookend, “No. Actually, this sort of thing leads to that.”

Meaningful stories are really just an argument

This is a simplified look at the mechanics in a story, but is essential towards understanding why the story driver must stay consistent.

If the major plots are different or are changed halfway through a film, the integrity of a story falls apart. The author ends up making an argument that sounds something like this: “This sort of thing leads to that. Well…no. Actually, that sort of thing leads to this.”

The author who does this has, in essence, begun a completely new argument. The context has been spun around on an unsuspecting audience.

We, as an audience, were originally examining the logical effects of decisions leading to actions, or actions leading to decisions. This was the pattern that was being appraised. If we were looking at why certain decisions lead to problematic actions, we’d like to know what kinds of decisions would lead us away from those problems (or towards more if the overall story ended in failure). Likewise with actions leading to problematic decisions.

The fantastic thing about knowing the plot driver of your story is that you never again have to suffer from that awful question, “What happens next?” An action-driven story requires an action to spin the story in a different direction. A decision will do nothing to further the story. The same with decision-driven stories. In order for a decision-driven story to progress the story requires a decision to be made. Trying to force an act-turn with an action simply won’t work.

Star Wars was driven by actions (Diplomatic ship boarded, Death Star destroyed), while The Godfather was driven by decisions (Don Corleone decides not to support the drug running, Michael decides to become the new Godfather). Toy Story was driven by actions (Buzz arrives in Andy’s room, Buzz and Woody “land” in Andy’s car), while Searching for Bobby Fisher was driven by decisions (Josh decides to hold on to the chess piece instead of the baseball, Josh decides to offer a draw to Jonathan).

Countless other great films stay consistent in the type of plot point that drives their story forward. At the very least, the two most important plot points - the Inciting Incident and the Concluding Event - need to be either both based on actions, or based on decisions.

This article, Writing Consistent Plot Points, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

The End of a Main Character's Arc

Main Characters, like the people in real life they portray, find peace in their own personal way. Sometimes they achieve this resolution by means most would consider sad or even reprehensible. What happens when an Author’s judgment on a Main Character’s growth clashes with societal standards?

Something truly awesome.

Mystic River

In Dennis Lehane’s novel Mystic River you have no less than three Main Characters who, by one form or another, manage to resolve their own personal issues. While it is a story of triumph for one of them, the other two find themselves at the end of a personal triumph. Regardless of whether or not their Overall Stories ended in Success, all three found their own version of peace.

Three Main Characters? The time restriction on a feature-film, typically two-and-a-half hours, makes it virtually impossible to completely explore three distinct storyforms. Novels, on the other hand, can do so with ease.

A storyform is a collection of four distinct perspectives, all focused on the same central inequity. The Main Character clues us in on what it feels like to have the problem, the Influence Character lets us know it is like for someone else to experience that problem, the Relationship Story allows us to feel what it is like when we have the problem, and the Overall Story examines how all the players deal with the problem. By definition then, Main Characters with distinct personal issues require their own storyform. The Overall Stories of those different storyforms may overlap and share thematic material (as they do in Mystic River), but the personal nature of the Main Character’s Throughline almost demand their own collection of story points.

Understand that while this article contains images from the film version of Mystic River, the film itself fails to explore each story to completion.

For once, we’re focusing on the novel.

Sean Devine

Detective Sean Devine reconciles with his wife.
Detective Sean Devine reconciles with his wife.

Sean’s personal problems stem from his estranged relationship with his wife Lauren and his daughter, Nora. Having successfully identified the person behind Katie’s murder, Sean (Kevin Bacon in the film) calls up his wife and makes amends. They attend a parade together at the end of the story:

He loved his wife then as deeply as he ever had, and he felt humbled by her ability to convey instant kinship with lost souls. He was sure then that it was he who had wronged their marriage with the emergence of his cop’s ego, his gradual contempt for the flaws and frailty of people. He reached out and touched Lauren’s cheek…

Sean’s story is one of triumph—he solves the murder and resolves his personal issues (Overall Story Outcome of Success, Story Judgment of Good). But what about the other Main Characters?

Dave Boyle

Sad sack Dave Boyle finds peace at the bottom of a river.
Sad sack Dave Boyle finds peace at the bottom of a river.

Sad sack Dave (Tim Robbins in the film), a victim of child molestation, finds his peaceful resolution at the banks of the Mystic, a place where Jimmy says:

“We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean.”

What Jimmy refers to here is his intention to kill Dave, thinking him responsible for his daughter’s death. The truth, unfortunately, is that Dave had nothing to do with Katie’s murder; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jimmy doesn’t believe him, and shows his disbelief by running a knife through Dave’s gut. Dave falls to his knees as Jimmy pulls out a gun and aims it at his childhood friend. Unwilling to die just yet, Dave pleads for mercy.

Jimmy lowers his gun.

“Thank you,” Dave said. “Thank you, thank you.” Dave lay back and saw the shafts of light streaming across the bridge, cutting through the black of the night, glowing. “Thank you, Jimmy. I’m going to be a good man now. You’ve taught me something. You have. And I’ll tell you what that something is as soon as I’ve caught by breath. I’m going to be a good father. I’m going to be a good husband. I promise. I swear…”

Dave finds peace as he bleeds out. In contrast to Sean’s story, Dave’s is one of personal triumph. While he was able to overcome the deep-seeded issues he developed as a result of his childhood trauma, he was unable to avoid some sort of retribution for the crime he really did commit. He failed to avoid the consequence of killing a child molester in the same parking lot where Katie was killed. A bittersweet ending that helps to color the “happy ending” Sean’s story received

Jimmy Markum

Jimmy Markum feels alright.
Jimmy Markum feels alright.

Perhaps the most chilling resolve lies in the heart of Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn in the film). Having just found out Katie’s true killer (albeit too late for Dave), Jimmy finds himself faced with the revelation that he killed an innocent man. How does he respond?

He was evil? So be it. He could live with it because he had love in his heart and he had certainty. As trade-offs went, it wasn’t half bad. He got dressed. He walked through the kitchen feeling like the man he’d been pretending to be all these years had just gone down the drain in the bathroom. He could hear his daughters shrieking and laughing, probably getting licked to death by Val’s cat, and he thought, Man, that’s a beautiful sound.

By most standards, Jimmy’s attitude is reprehensible. How could anyone find peace when they’re guilty of such a crime? The truth is we know people like this, and may even be a bit guilty of the same sort of justification (hopefully with less deadly consequences). A peaceful resolution does not have to be something with which an audience agrees with. Sometimes bad people get away with bad things and feel OK about it. Jimmy is one of those people.

He didn’t get the revenge he was working so hard for, but he’s OK with that. He can live with himself because he has love.

A Complicated Peace

The peaceful resolution to a Main Character’s personal issues does not have to be a black and white issue. Proving that the end result of a Main Character’s arc was a good thing does not have to be something that we as an audience actually feel good about. The Author is in charge here, not the audience.

Whether you’re talking about Sean, Dave, or Jimmy, all three Main Characters manage to resolve their own personal problems. While Sean’s is the closest to a happy ending, Dave and Jimmy’s stories have that bittersweet feeling that is unfortunately more true-to-life. The end result is something closer to truth.

What gives this story its feeling of delicious intricacy, of being that much more like real life, is the degree to which these peaceful resolutions are found. Our moral appreciation of the ends towards achieving those means, if in discord with the Author’s original intent, gives a piece of fiction that feeling of meaningful complexity. Neither technique, whether subtle or complex, is better than the other. Some Authors prefer to give their audiences something more.

Dennis Lehane is one of those authors.

This article, On The End of a Main Character's Arc, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

The Role of the Goal in a Holistic Story

Many writers understand the purpose of a Goal. It offers their characters a shared sense of purpose and gives the Author something to work towards while developing a story. What is it about those stories where a common Goal feels forced and unnatural?

More often than not, those stories are Holistically structured—meaning they dial back the importance of reaching a Goal.

I don’t know if you remember anything about the storyform we worked on before premises and Subtext were around, but that Holistic storyform w/ a Story Goal of Being’s premise (Address resistance to Knowledge by balancing your Process with your Results.) doesn’t sound right for what I’m trying to say (that it’s less painful to act in spite of fear than to give in and miss out on things by avoiding)

Recognizing that it “doesn’t sound right” is a good indication that your storyform is no longer accurate.

At least, no longer accurate for your present state of mind.

Previous understandings of the theory—and versions of Subtext—often misinterpreted the Holistic narrative. Whether referring to Mindset as the “Problem-Solving Style” or Balance as Solution, the first two decades of Dramatica imposed a Linear bias on narrative structure.[1]

The fact that you don’t connect with the Premise presented in Subtext is a great indication that you’re writing to the wrong narrative.

Writing Something Not Yourself

The Premise you see rings false for any number of reasons. It could be an indicator that you never had the right storyform in the first place. Or it could be that you have grown, and what you want to say with your story is quite different.

Or it could be that you’re trying to write a Holistic structure when really, your story is as Linear as they come.

Many Authors write in thanking me for developing the Holistic side of the Dramatica theory. They read Subtext’s interpretation of their story’s Premise, and they feel a sense of relief that someone—even if it’s an application—finally understood their writer’s intuition. They feel recognized. Their emotional response offers me validation that the Holistic Premise connects with those given towards that mindset.

In other words—if you’re not connecting, your story is not Holistic.

The Straightforward Approach

Since introducing this concept of the Holistic Premise, I’ve noticed many rush to it blindly. They read my series on The Holistic Premise, or my take down of the Hegelian Dialectic, and they assume some sort of inferiority with the Linear Mindset.

Not true.

There’s nothing wrong with getting straight to the point. In fact, for many people, it’s preferable to the point of being an absolute requirement.

Yes, The Matrix is delightfully sophisticated with its premise of “Address your doing right by others by balancing your self-doubt with your personal truth.” But there are many more fans of the Sci-Fi Action Genre who prefer the kind of straightforward truths found in The Terminator or Looper.
While severe, you can stop a killer when you get out of your way and give up being hunted.

This premise for The Terminator, while a bit more complicated with its indication of severity, is clear: give up being pursued, and you can stop a killing machine.

Looper is even more straightforward:
Give up being pursued, and you can stop someone from stealing.

Do you see the trend here?

The Linear mind loves cause and effect. And there’s no more significant cause and effect relationship than giving up the pursuit and stopping something.


that it’s less painful to act in spite of fear than to give in and miss out on things by avoiding

Sounds very Linear.

You might think it Holistic with the introduction of modifiers like “less” and “in spite of,” but you’re still writing what is essentially an if…then statement.

Give up avoiding, and you can temper your fears.

That’s about as Linear a Premise as they come.

The Holistic approach is not wishy-washy or cautious. The Intention behind the balancing of issues is every bit as purposeful as the accomplishment of Goal and solution.

The difference lies in the meaning of their purposes.

The Goal of Alignment

Connecting with your story’s Premise is not an act of mental gymnastics. When it’s right, it’s right—and you won’t feel the need to twist and turn, and somersault through definitions to make it work.

I can see Being as a Goal representing a better way of life, but Knowledge puzzles me unless… can “resistance to ‘seeking the unknown’” include doing new, unknown things, thus gaining knowledge in the form of experiences?

What you describe is a Linear interpretation of a Holistic Premise. Another indication that you’re not writing a Holistic story.

The “better way of life” is the entirety of the story’s message—not a Goal to be reached. When all truths remain true (as in the Holistic mind), the only “goal” is self-alignment with the vibrations of the outside world.

You wouldn’t think, “How can seeking the unknown lead to a better life?” That’s the Linear step-by-step way of seeing things. There is no finish line of “living a better life,” only a greater alignment of self through the balancing of issues.

The Holistic Method

Let’s say you don’t connect with the Linear interpretation of your Premise (though, you really should—it’s clear that is the story you want to tell). How can you interpret the Holistic Premise with more accuracy?

Your Premise, broken down into its base narrative Elements, reads:

Address KNOWLEDGE by balancing your PROCESS with your RESULTS.

Note the lack of emphasis on achieving a Goal. The same storyform presented in a Linear Mindset would read:

Give up PROCESS and you can BE.

The Linear identifies Process as a Problem. It then creates a cause and effect relationship between the removal of that Problem and the achievement of Being. Remove that Problem, and you can reach that Goal.

The Holistic does not seek the achievement of a Goal because it never identified a problem in the first place. Instead, Process appears as an inequity. This imbalance brings up all kinds of issues surrounding Knowledge. Who am I? What am I doing? What do I know is right?

The introduction of Results brings balance to that original inequity and addresses those issues of Knowledge.

In a Holistic story, the Goal indicates Intention—not a finish line. And not just the Intention of individual characters, but rather the Intention of the Storymind itself. Neo makes a phone call indicating his newfound sense of direction, but really—that call is the story verbalizing its purpose.

Remember, a complete story functions as an analogy of a single human mind resolving an inequity. The Premise then becomes an indication of that mind’s purpose.

In your story, Knowledge is not a stepping stone on the way towards the Goal of Being. Instead, see it as an indication of a flare-up within your story’s mind. Process and Result work as balancing agents addressing that mind’s awareness of inequity.

The Goal is your purpose as Author in writing the story.

A Message for the Masses

Epictetus writes about this balance between Process and Results in his Discourses (4.8.35b):

“First practice not letting people know who you are—keep your philosophy to yourself for a bit. In just the manner that fruit is produced—the seed buried for a season, hidden, growing gradually so it may come to full maturity. But if the grain sprouts before the stalk is fully developed, it will never ripen…That is the kind of plant you are, displaying fruit too soon, and the winter will kill you.”

Sound familiar?

Address KNOWLEDGE by balancing your PROCESS with your RESULTS.

Not only did Epictetus address the temperance of focusing too much on results with the process of maturing gradually, but he also did it within the context of letting people Know who you are. Textbook Dramatica—2000 years before the introduction of the theory.

If what you truly want to say is that it’s less painful to act despite fear than to give in and miss out on things, then what you’re saying is to balance out the scary and challenging journey (Process) with the benefits at the end (Results).

And if you connect with that—then your story is Holistic.

Forcing your Premise into something it is not is a recipe for disaster. The process should be as effortless as dreaming—after all, it’s merely your subconscious brought to light.

Sometimes you’ll write a Holistic story. Other times, you’ll default to Linear.

Write to fulfill your artist’s intuition, not to impress anyone with supposed sophistication.

  1. Funny, when you consider that the concept of Holistic thinking has been there in Dramatica from the very beginning.  ↩

This article, On Becoming a Therapist for Your Characters, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

Understanding the True Motivations of Your Characters
Many look to notions of good and evil to determine the relative morality level of their characters’ motivations. The “good guys” are the characters we care about, the “bad guys” are not. Subjective appreciations like this will always steer the Author wrong when it comes to developing integrity within their stories. And Audiences flee when you break that trust.

In the previous article The Definition of a Protagonist and Antagonist, the dual forces of initiative and reticence were revealed as key considerations when developing the Protagonist and Antagonist of a complete story.

The Protagonist represents initiative and is comprised of the narrative elements Pursuit and Consider.

The Antagonist signifies reticence and is comprised of Avoid and Reconsider.

These elements were also defined in the context of the Storymind: a complete story is an analogy to a single human mind working to resolve an inequity.

In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse this inequity is the introduction of the Large Hadron Collider, the machine Kingpin hopes will bring back his family. Removing this machine from the current universe will resolve the inequity of the story and bring balance back to the Storymind.

Miles pursues and considers a means to remove this machine.

Kingpin avoids, or prevents, and reconsiders the means to remove the machine.

Miles is the Protagonist and Kingpin is the Antagonist.

Their conflict exists because they represent motivations at cross-purposes to each other within the mind. One for resolution, one against.

Two other Players serve an essential role on both sides of this conflict: Peter B. Parker the “hobo” Spider-Man, and Miles’ Uncle Aaron.

At first glance, it may be easy to cast Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) the “hobo” Spider-Man on Miles’ side and Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) on the side of Kingpin. After all, Uncle Aaron works for Kingpin and Peter eventually mentors Miles.

But there’s something about both those considerations that don’t quite sit right within the Storymind.

Running Against the Grain of the Expected

While at times Peter seems driven to pursue the same Goal as Miles, he does mess things up at times. Eating cheeseburgers and apologizing to the wrong Mary Jane delays the successful resolution of removing the machine.

Peter B. Parker Doing What He Does Best
Peter B. Parker Doing What He Does Best

Same with Aaron on the other side. As The Prowler, Aaron chases Miles down in the street and destroys Aunt May’s house, but when the moment of truth arrives the “bad guy” can’t finish the job of killing his nephew. Aaron wants something better for the boy and actually gets in the way of Kingpin, making it ultimately more accessible to destroy the machine.

What forces then do Peter and Aaron represent in the Storymind?

And why do they seem so wonderfully complex?

The Forces of Conscience and Temptation

Like the little angels and devils that used to sit on the shoulders of Donald Duck back in the day, the forces of Conscience and Temptation influence and challenge the powers of Initiative and Reticence.

Less “doing the right thing” and more thinking about the consequences, the motivation towards Conscience naturally sits on the side of the Protagonist. Goals do not exist without consequences, and the conscience constantly reminds the Storymind of what could happen if the inequity is not resolved.

Temptation, on the other hand, ignores the consequences. Not as forceful or impactful as the clear-cut motivation towards reticence, temptation disrupts the course of action towards resolution—tempting the mind towards other considerations.

Appreciating these dual forces from the context of a mind seeking to resolve an inequity, it is clear that Conscience helps those efforts while Temptation hampers, or hinders efforts.

The Archetypal Force of Conscience

As with the perfect combination of Pursuit and Consider within the Archetypal Character of the Protagonist, the dual motivations towards Conscience and Help combine to form a different Archetypal Character naturally. The Dramatica theory of story refers to this character as the Guardian. Often portrayed as a helpful teach or kind mentor, the Guardian aids the Protagonist in the successful resolution of the inequity.

Morpheus in The Matrix. The enigmatic S.R. Hadden in Contact. Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars. These Guardians act as the voice of Conscience while helping their respective Protagonists resolve the conflict.

The Archetypal Force of Temptation

Death Vader in Star Wars. The charismatic David Drumlin in Contact. Cypher in The Matrix. These troublemakers disrupt the efforts to resolve the conflict by appealing towards the mind to ignore consequences.

They don’t stop resolution—they just delay it by getting in the way.

Think of Cypher’s steak dinner or Drumlin’s appeal to Jody Foster’s Ellie to stop wasting her time talking to aliens. These players distract—or Hinder—conflict resolution through Temptation.

Note the balance between Help and Conscience and Hinder and Temptation. Like Pursuit and Consider, Avoid and Reconsider, the Storymind addresses all sides of the argument when in the process of resolving the conflict.

Balance on Both Sides of the Argument

This tendency towards balance within the mind led the creators of the Dramatica theory of story, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, to coin a new name for this Archetypal Character: The Contagonist. One part Temptation, one part Hinder, the Contagonist disrupts efforts towards resolution on both sides of the good guy/bad guy fence.

He doesn’t fight for one side or the other because Objective Character Functions couldn’t care less about notions of “good” or “evil.” An Objective Character Function is objective—it has a function in the story, and it performs that function from beginning to end.

Consider Darth Vader’s Force Choke of Admiral Motti in the first Star Wars. Or the Dark Lord’s idea of using a homing beacon onboard the Millennium Falcon, rather than straight capture. These actions and decisions get in the way of the Empire’s clear-cut motivation to prevent a rebellion. Sure, the beacon pays off—but not after a few hapless TIE-Fighter pilots play out their role.

Objectively speaking, Darth is a lone wolf.

The Narrative Elements of a story exist within the context of the Story Goal—not with their “good guy” or “bad guy” affiliation. This is why you find Complex Protagonists and Complex Antagonists in films like Michael Clayton or How to Train Your Dragon.

Karen the Protagonist
Karen the Protagonist

Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), a “bad guy,” pursues a successful resolution of the case against uNorth—in favor of uNorth. Michael Clayton (George Clooney), a “good guy,” prevents that resolution.

Karen is the Protagonist of Michael Clayton. Michael is the Antagonist.

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a “good guy,” prevents efforts to train the next generation of dragon killers. His father Stoic (Gerard Butler), as misguided as he is in the eyes of the Author, pursues that successful resolution.

Hiccup is the Antagonist of How to Train Your Dragon. Stoic is the Protagonist.

An Objective Stance

The development of an argument requires the Author to step back and take an objective point-of-view of the play at hand. Who moves forward? Who pulls back? Who gets in the way of resolution, and who helps? Where are the voices of Conscience and Temptation?

Subjective attribution colors and distorts this balanced and considered approach. Notions of good and evil, light and dark, mask the very truth on display. Unable to see a clear picture of the forces at work, the Author breaks the integrity of the argument and loses the Audience’s trust.

There is balance within the mind.

There is balance within the Storymind.

Take this objective perspective of character motivations with the Story Goal the next time you develop a story. The experience will help you gain perspective and balance in your own work.

Building Interest by Embracing the Unexpected

Embracing this approach brings us back around to the discussion surrounding Peter B. Parker and Uncle Aaron. If they both represent alternating halves of the same Archetypal Character, how can you possibly classify their role within a story?

There’s no doubt they work within Spider-Man—the scenes involving two are always the most entertaining and the most engaging.

And the reason for that lies in this essence of character that works against the expected perfect alignment of Archetypal Characters.

These two characters approach something much more Complex.

And for that, we refer to them as Complex Characters.

This article, Understanding the True Motivations of Your Characters, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

On Becoming a Therapist to Your Characters

The Dramatica theory of story sets itself apart from all other understandings of narrative structure with its objective appreciation of conflict. Most alternative paradigms encourage the Author to go inside of her characters. Dramatica wants you to take a step back—after all, it’s the only way one can truly gain a greater perspective.

This distancing effect plays two essential parts in the development of the Author. One, it frustrates her, turns her off entirely to Dramatica, and leaves her searching aimlessly around for what happens next in her story. Two, it opens her up a greater appreciation of the source of conflict between characters.

We can’t see our problems from within. If we could, they wouldn’t be problems—we would solve them. That’s why we often turn to a friend, or a professional, to help us understand a solution.

What’s interesting about that is that you almost have to take an especially un-perspective to map out the RS [Relationship Story Throughline]. When we think in terms of “feelings” (which is a natural thing to do given this is the relationship story we’re talking about), you can’t help but place yourself inside the characters. But with the RS, you have to become the therapist dispassionately telling the couple what’s wrong with their relationship without ever making it about one person.

While positioned and often defined as “the heart of a story,” the Relationship Story Throughline perspective is most definitely a dispassionate, objective-view, of this heart. A Storyheart to complement the Storymind.

A Dramatica storyform is a meta-objective view of conflict—an understanding of inequity as defined by the Author’s intention.

Framing the Conflict

In Dramatica, the Four Throughlines of a complete story correspond with the four perspectives afforded by our minds:

  • The Overall Story is the objective view
  • The Main Character is the subjective view
  • The Influence Character is the objective view of the subjective
  • The Relationship Story is the subjective view of the objective

Many writers confuse “the subjective view of the objective” with an emotional first-person view of the conflict. Instead, this view is a subjective appraisal of objective interpersonal relationships.

From this perspective, dynamics and emergent properties take precedence—always from the Author. From here, the Author describes the Storymind’s consciousness—not the individual thoughts and feelings of the characters. It’s subjective because this view is understood from within the system and is therefore prone to misinterpretation.

Understanding the Emergent Properties of the Mind

An emergent property is the outcome of a system not directly associated with the parts of that system. Insects, the mind, and yes—relationships—all exhibit these properties of collaboration and resistance.

A single ant is a rather limited organism, with little ability to reason or accomplish complex tasks. As a whole, however, an ant colony accomplishes astounding tasks, from building hills and dams to finding and moving huge amounts of food. In this context, emergent properties are the changes that occur in ant behavior when individual ants work together.

The crucial relationship in your novel is like a group of ants. Write about the colony, not the ants.1

Dramatica theory is a model of the mind at work. The meaning wrapped up in a storyform (the Premise) functions as an emergent property of this single mind.

Human consciousness is often called an emergent property of the human brain. Like the ants that make up a colony, no single neuron holds complex information like self-awareness, hope or pride. Nonetheless, the sum of all neurons in the nervous system generate complex human emotions like fear and joy, none of which can be attributed to a single neuron.

It sounds like a Dramatica storyform to me. In the same way that the Main Character Throughline is meaningless without the Overall Story Throughline, the Relationship Story Throughline is pointless if merely a “he said/she said” argument between two individuals. When writing the Relationship Story Throughline, write it as an emergent property of a connection.

You’ll be one step ahead of the scientists.

Although the human brain is not yet understood enough to identify the mechanism by which emergence functions, most neurobiologists agree that complex interconnections among the parts give rise to qualities that belong only to the whole.

Our minds often overlook emergence for something more tangible as this recognition of a shared quality relies heavily on perception. Much easier to weigh in with the actuality of objective reality. The properties of a relationship require something much more ephemeral and subjective. Meaning arises from the conflux of objectivity and subjectivity, explaining the need for both in a story.

I think this’ll be my approach from now on with the RS: pretend I’m a therapist doing a counselling session with the two characters and explaining to them why the relationship is in conflict.

Precisely. Stories often provide an avenue for a writer to work out his or her issues in a fictional or fantastic situation. The writing process then becomes a form of personal therapy. The Relationship Story Throughline allows the writer to be one’s therapist, and gain that greater understanding of the interpersonal dynamics at work in our lives.

This article, On Becoming a Therapist for Your Characters, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found inside Narrative First.

  1. And if you want to read a fantastic story about a group of ants, check out Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time. ↩︎

The Second Most Important Character in a Film

Everyone agrees that the Main Character is the most important character in a film. Why? Because through this person, an audience experiences first-hand the emotions and consequences of the narrative surrounding them.

But there is another, less understood character that is primarily responsible for influencing growth in the Main Character. This character is known as the Influence Character.

While working on my own story, I came across an explanation in the Dramatica theory of story that I hadn’t remembered:

When the Influence Character is steadfast, then he will make his arguments to the Main Character in reference to his own drive. He will treat his own drive as if the same things should be driving all others as well.

This part I knew and understood but it was what came after it that made me stop and think, “Why hadn’t I seen that before?” I’ve been working on and off with Dramatica for over 10 years now and probably have read the following line a million times. But for some reason it never really resonated with me until last week.

This often pops up in conventional arguments where the Influence Character says to the Main Character, “you know, we are just like, you and I,” (if the IC is steadfast) or “we are nothing alike,” (if the IC changes)."

Is that true? Is it really that black and white? “We’re alike” if the Main Character changes and “We’re nothing alike” if the Influence Character changes. Is it really that easy?

Overall, I understand that this is a generality and therefore shouldn’t be taken as a strict rule of dramatic narrative, but it started me thinking. How did this generality hold up under further scrutiny? And more importantly, could it help me with my own work?

I took six Influence Characters, three who Change and three who Remain Steadfast, and applied the above axiom.

Change Influence Characters

Score one for Marshall Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive. Chasing Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) in and around Chicago I could hear Tommy Lee Jones uttering “We are nothing alike Richard.” Gerard is not the type to suggest that he and a fugitive wanted for murdering his wife are anything alike. It would be quite strange to hear him say so.

Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFayden) from Braveheart?…hmmm. “We are nothing alike, William Wallace (Mel Gibson).” Perhaps deep down inside his shameful self might feel that, but I don’t recall him ever saying it aloud. Instead the voice of disparity comes from Robert’s father, the Leper. Robert wishes to join Wallace but his father reminds him that Robert is a noblemen, not some commoner like Wallace. “Uncompromising men are easy to admire…But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble.” As his father puts it, Robert and Wallace are nothing alike.

Looking at October Sky Coal-mining father John Hickam (Chris Cooper) certainly doesn’t feel like he and his son Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) have anything in common. John considers himself more of a practical man while Homer has head (and his rockets) in the clouds. Again I believe he even has a conversation with his wife about how he and his son are nothing alike.

Steadfast Impact Characters

And now we move on to Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) from American Beauty and his own “personal hero,” Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). When Ricky’s boss threatens to fire him for not working, Ricky tells him, “Fine, don’t pay me. I quit. Now leave me alone.” Words Lester wishes he could say to his own boss. Ricky doesn’t come out and say “You and I are alike,” but he might as well have.

What about the obviously named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and his relationship with the troubled child psychologist Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) in The Sixth Sense? In the classic hospital scene, Cole asks “Tell me why you’re sad.” At first Malcom refuses, but soon realizes that Cole is just as sad as he is; perhaps opening up could help the young boy out. Again, the words aren’t said but the intention is there.

And what about Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) from The Shawshank Redemption? Before he tells Red (Morgan Freeman) about Zihuatanejo he talks about the whirlwind tornado that fate dealt him. “I just didn’t expect the storm would last as long as it has.” We cut to Red, his head hung low. And although we can’t read the expression on his face, we know for certain that Red feels the same. Personally I like it much better when you can do the “You and I are alike” line without actually having to say it - part of the reason why I chose these examples.


So does the rule work?

It seems like it does. I mean, you can’t imagine Ricky telling Lester “We’re nothing alike” or John Hickam telling his dreamer son “You and I have so much in common. Let’s sit down and talk about our dreams.” Still, it’s probably not a good idea to rely on it all the time, but I do think there’s a real world reason for why the rule works so well.

The character who has the most to lose (or gain depending on how you look at the Change) is more often than not the one who will resist any notion of similarity between the other.

When someone tells you, “You know, you’re acting just like so-and-so” and you react with disgust or disbelief, chances are that so-and-so is your own personal Influence Character. We hate seeing a part of us that we don’t quite understand or even want to accept.

This resistance is a resistance to Change and depending on which side of the argument you stand, you’re either going to be a proponent for it or you’re going to speak out against it. That’s one of the main reasons why the Influence Character exists: to provide that other side of the argument. So it’s comforting to know that with a few simple words (“We’re both alike” or “We’re nothing alike”) you can easily tell which side of the argument this second most important character stands on.

This article, The Second Most Important Character in a Film, originally appeared on Jim’s Narrative First website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found Inside Narrative First.

Understanding How Character Arc Works
December 2019

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.

For more articles by James Hull, click here.
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