Story Structure Seen As War

Imagine a story’s structure as a war and the Main Character as a soldier making his way across the field of battle.  In your mind’s eye, you likely see they whole scene spread out in front of you, as if you were a general on a hill watching the conflict unfold.

That all-seeing “God’s eye view” is a perspective not available to the Main Character, but only the author and audience (as he chooses to reveal it, here and there, casting light on that dark understanding of what is really going on or keeping the readers in the dark.

But there is a second point of view implied in this war of words – that of the Main Character himself.  The Main Character has no idea what lies over the next hill, or what troubles may be lurking in the bushes.  Like all of us, he must rely on our experience in trying to make it through alive.

The view through the eyes of the Main Character puts your readers in his shoes, experiencing the pressures first hand, feeling the power of the moment.  In a sense, this most perspective connects the Main Character’s tribulations (both logistic and emotional) to those we all grapple with in real life.  It draws us in, makes us personally involved, and also causes us to see the message or moral of the story as being applicable to our own journey.

Many authors establish both the overall story and the Main Character’s glimpse of it and stop there, believing they have covered all the angles.  After all, the Main Character can’t see the big picture and that overview can’t portray the immediacy of the struggle on the ground.  All bases covered, right?

In fact, no.  Suddenly, through the smoke of dramatic explosions the Main Character spies a murky figure standing right in his path. In this fog of war, he cannot tell if this other soldier is a friend or foe. Either way, he is blocking the road.

As the Main Character approaches, this other soldier starts waving his arms and shouts, “Change course – get off this road!” Convinced he is on the best path, the Main Character yells back, “Get out of my way!” Again the figure shouts, “Change course!” Again the Main Character replies, “Let me pass!”

The Main Character has no way of knowing if his opposite is a comrade trying to prevent him from walking into a mine field or an enemy fifth column combatant trying to lure him into an ambush. But if he stops on the road, he remains exposed with danger all around.  And so, he continues on, following the plan that still seems best to him.

Eventually, the two soldiers converge, and when they do it becomes a moment of truth in which one will win out. Either the Main Character will alter course or his steadfastness will cause the other soldier to step aside.

This other soldier is called the Influence character, and though you may not have heard of him, this other soldier is essential to describing the pressures that bring the Main Character to a point of decision.

In our own minds we are often confronted by issues that question our approach, attitude, or the value of our hard-gained experience. But we don’t simply adopt a new point of view when our old methods have served us so well for so long. Rather, we consider how things might go if we adopted this new system of thinking right up to the moment we have to make a choice.

It is a long hard thing within us to reach a point of change, and so too is it a difficult feat for the Main Character. In fact, it takes the whole story to reach that point of climax where the Main Character must choose to stay on course or to step off into the darkness, hoping they’ve made the right choice – the classic “Leap of Faith.”

This other character provides a third perspective to a story’s structure – that of an opposing belief system that the Main Character is pressured to consider.  What would the original Star Wars have been without Obi Wan Kenobi continually urging Luke to “Trust the force?”  How about A Christmas Carol without Marley’s ghost, as well as the ghosts of Past, Present, and Future?

Without an Influence character, there is no reason for the Main Character to question his beliefs.   But just having an opposing perspective isn’t all that an Influence Character brings to a story.

A convincing theme or message is not built just by establishing an alternative world view to that of the Main Character.  That would come off as simply moralizing since it presents the two sides as cut and dried, in black and white.  Few life-changing decisions in life are as simple as that.

Rather, the two views must also be played against each other in many scenarios so the Main Character (who represents us all) can begin to connect the dots and ultimately choose the tried and true approach that isn’t working or the new approach that has never been tried.  In other words, at the moment of conflict, both courses are evenly balanced which is why, no matter which side the Main Character comes down on, it is a leap of faith.

It is that repeated questioning of the Main Character’s closely held beliefs that comprises the fourth perspective of our story when seen as a war – the personal story between the Main Character and the Influence Character in which the author’s message is argued.

This fourth point of view elevates a structure from being a simple tale that states “here is how it is,” to a fully developed story that makes the case for “here’s why it is as it is.”  Such stories feel far more complete, even though they may still work well-enough to be successful without it.

For example, in the movie, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington, King of Halloween Town, is dissatisfied with his lot in life and decides to take over Christmas by kidnapping Santa Claus.

The kidnapping and all that follows in the plot is that Overall perspective of the general on the hill.

Jack is the Main Character, trying to improve his life through altering his situation, embodying perspective number two.

Jack’s girlfriend, Sally, is the Influence Character, providing the third perspective: an alternative belief system.  As Wikipedia puts it: “Sally is the only one to have doubts about Jack’s Christmas plan.”  Essentially, he tell Jack that Halloween and Christmas should not be mixed and he should be satisfied with who he is.

But that fourth perspective is missing – the thematic argument between those two conflicting points of view that would have provided a strong and organic message to the story.  Sally states her opposition, but she and Jack never pit one way of looking at the world against the other, not through discussions, nor argument, nor even through a series of scenes illustrating the value of one over the other.

Think back to A Christmas Carol.  How many times is Scrooge’s world view contrasted against that of the ghosts in a whole series of scenarios?  But in Nightmare, the opposing world view is stated but never argued, leaving the story, though incredibly inventive and exciting, somehow less satisfying in a way the audience can’t quite identify.

All four of these perspectives are needed for a story structure to be as powerful as it can be.  In developing your own stories, consider our analogy of story structure as war to ensure that each of them is present, and your story will be far stronger for it.

Melanie Anne Phillips

This article is drawn from concepts in our

Dramatica Story Structure Software

This article is drawn from concepts in our

Dramatica Story Structure Software

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Symbolizing Concepts

It has been argued that perhaps the symbols we use are what create concepts, and therefore no common understanding between cultures, races, or times is possible. Dramatica works because indeed there ARE common concepts: morality, for example. Morality, a common concept? Yes. Not everyone shares the same definition of morality, but every culture and individual understands some concept that means “morality” to them. In other words, the concept of “morality” may have many different meanings — depending on culture or experience — but they all qualify as different meanings of “morality.” Thus there can be universally shared essential concepts even though they drift apart through various interpretations. It is through this framework of essential concepts that communication is possible.

Excerpted from the Dramatica Theory Book
which you can read free on our web site

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How Art is Made (The Battle Between Heart and Mind)

heat-and-mind

Realize that your mind is a narrative-generating machine. That is why narratives exist in the first place: because they mirror the processes of the mind. But the mind is also a repository of topical information – subject matter – and engages in the process of synthesizing two or more old ideas into a new one. The new ideas may or may not fit into the narrative the mind is constructing. And yet the heart is drawn more to the new ideas, just as the mind is drawn more to a balanced and complete structure.

And so, in waking and in sleeping our conscious and subconscious minds each rule for part of our lives, with the other being the opposition party for a few hours. And in the term of office of each, they push through their agendas: more subject matter, ever-expanding or more accurate structure, ever-refining.

The act of creation is a political war between our conscious and sub-conscious selves – our hearts and our minds – our love of a subject and our need to put that subject in a contextual framework.

Only when negotiations commence and compromises are made is a balance between topic and matrix achieved. And then, though our hearts and minds will never be fully satisfied with the treaty between them, they will let the work of art go out into the world and call it complete, as the loss of some of our most important story elements ultimately is less than the ongoing losses within us in a war between our emotions and our reason.

That, is how art is made.

–Melanie Anne Phillips

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The Four Main Kinds of Stories

You can make your story a lot more focused and targeted if you know what kind of a story you are creating.  A good place to start is to figure out which of the four basic types of stories yours is.

Now, these four story categories are a lot like the basic colors – Red, Blue, Yellow and Green.  In practice there’s really a whole spectrum of stories out there, but you can begin adding clarity to your story by dividing them into these four groups: Situation, Activity, Mind Set, and Manner of Thinking.

Situation stories are like Poseidon Adventure where folks are trapped in an overturned cruise ship in the middle of the ocean or the original Die Hard where terrorists have trapped people in a skyscraper.  Each is a fixed situation and until they get out of that situation, they’re just stuck in a real problem.

Activity stories are more like The African Queen where the characters have to make it down a jungle river in order to blow up an enemy ship or The Great Race where the characters have to participate in a turn-of-the-19th-century auto race from New York to Paris, the hard way around.  Each of these stories is about a an ongoing physical effort, and is quite unlike a fixed situation story.

Mind Set stories are like A Christmas Carol where it is Scrooge’s attitude that is the underlying problem or like To Kill a Mockingbird in which people’s prejudice is the mind set that is causing the story’s problem.  Each of these stories is about an unchanging state of mind, and the story’s problems will continue until that mind set is changed or overcome.

Manner of Thinking stories are like Hamlet where his father has been murdered and he wants to take revenge but keeps overthinking the plumbing and getting lost in his own ponderings or like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in which the characters are out to cause as much emotional pain as they can in their ceaseless predatory bickering.  Each of these stories is about problems created by people who’s way of thinking is off-kilter and problematic, and the difficulties will continue unless the some to grips with things.

So, fixed situations, ongoing activities, fixed mind sets, and ongoing problems with the way folks are thinking.  Those are the primary colors of types of stories.

Now, just knowing what type of story you are writing doesn’t write it for you.  But by understanding which of these categories your story falls into, you can better target your efforts and give your plot, in fact your entire structure, a consistent and focused core.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Plot Points – Static vs. Sequential

Some time ago I wrote an article explaining how plot wasn’t the order in which events appeared in a story, but the order in which they happened to the characters.  The storytelling order can be all mixed up for effect.  As an example, consider the Quentin Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction, in which several interconnected story lines are presented quite out of order from how they actually came down.  A large part of the fun for the audience is to try to put the pieces together in the right sequence so they understand the meaning of the story.

Of course, that’s an extreme example.  Much more common is the simple flashback (or flash forward).  But even here, some flashbacks are plot, and others are storytelling.  First, consider a story in which the story opens in a given year and then the next section begins with the introduction, “Three years earlier…”  In this case, the characters aren’t being transported back in time, just the reader or audience.  The author is showing us what happened that led up to where things are “now” in the story.  That is all storytelling, and can be quite effective.

But now consider a flashback in which a character recalls some incident in the past.  The character drifts off into reverie and then we, the readers or audience, watch those events as if they are in the present, observing the memories as the character experiences them.  This is plot, not storytelling, because neither character nor readers are transport back in time.  Rather, we are just observing just what the character is reminiscing about in the here and now.  And so, this trip to the past does affect the character – it changes how they feel and perhaps what they will do next.

This is also true of flash forwards: Do we jump into the future to see where a character will end up, or is the character projecting where they might end up and we are seeing what they are thinking?  The first variation is storytelling, the second is plot.

Of course things can get really out of whack in time-travel stories, especially since you can add both plot flashbacks and storytelling flashbacks also.  The important thing here is to know when you are actually altering your plot or just changing the order in which the readers or audience are shown parts of the plot.  If you are aware, you can play these techniques like a virtuoso, but if you treat them all the same, you’ll just end up with a cacophony.

But, as I said, that was covered in an earlier article I wrote, but I am repeating it here as a necessary foundation to what comes next.  And that is, the difference between Static Plot Points and Sequential Plot Points.  Very important.

To begin, if you strip away all the storytelling aspects of plot and get down to just the structure (the order in which things happen to the characters), you’ll find there are two kinds of plot points:  One, Static Ones, such as the story Goal, that remain the same for the whole course of the story, and Two, Sequential Ones, such as Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Beats within a scene, in which the story moves from one to the next to the next until the progression of the plot arrives at the climax, resolves and ends.

And that is what this article is about – giving you a glimpse into those two aspects of plot.

First, let’s look at the static plot points.  We’ll cover just four in this article to make the point about static vs. progressive and address others in later articles.  Here’s the four we’ll explore:

Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings.

Here’s a brief description of each:

Goal is what the protagonist is trying to achieve and the antagonist is trying to stop.  Each probably has recruited their own team of helpers enlisted to aid in their two contradictory quest, but it is ultimately the protagonist and antagonist who have to duke it out to determine if the effort to achieve the goal ends in success or failure.

Now we all know that some goals turn out to be not worth achieving and that some goals are born of a misguided understanding, and also that goals can be partially achieved so, for example, the protagonist doesn’t get everything they want but enough to cover what they really need.  No matter how you temper it, the story Goal is the biggest linchpin in your story’s plot.

Requirements are what’s needed to achieve that Goal.  Requirements might be a shopping list of things the characters need to obtain or accomplish in any order (like a scavenger hunt) or Requirements could be a series of steps that need to be checked off in order.

Now you’d think that would make Requirements a sequential plot point, but it doesn’t because the Requirements remain the same for the entire story.  So, just because you have to fulfill requirement 1 and then 2 and then 3, doesn’t make them sequential.  Sequential plot points are like gears that turn to a different setting every act, sequence, or scene.  The focus of each act, for example, is different than the last one, while the Requirements remain the same, even if they have to be accomplished in a certain order.

Yeah, this stuff can get pretty complex.  That’s why you have me, your friendly neighborhood teach of story structure and storytelling to guide you through these tricky little story structure quagmires.

Consequences, are sort of like an Anti-Goal.  Consequences are what will happen if the goal is not accomplished.  It’s kind of like the flip-side of the coin.  One the one side is the positive desired future and on the other side is the negative undesired alternative if that future isn’t achieved.

Consequences are really important because they double the dramatic tension of the story.  The character are just chasing something positive, they are also being chased by something negative.  Will they catch the Goal before the Consequences catch them?  That’s where plot tension comes from.  Right there.

Forewarnings…  Just as Requirements are how you can chart the progress toward the Goal, Forewarnings are how you can chart how close the Consequences are to happening.  Consequences can be cracks in a dam, follow by a small drip, a few little leaks, and so on.  Everyone knows that at some point, the dam is going to bust – unless the characters achieve the Goal first, such as diverting the upstream flow, or opening the jammed overflow gates.

Forewarings can also be emotional too.  A man must make his fortune to satisfy a woman’s father before he can get permission to marry her.  But, there is another suitor.  While he’s off looking for a legendary treasure, the woman has a casual conversation with the rival.  As the man remains away, the woman and the rival share a meal, have a picnic, sit close together on the beach, watching the sunset.  We all know that if the man doesn’t return with the treasure soon, the woman will go with the suitor who is there, rather than the man who isn’t.

So those are four examples of static plot points.  There are many more.  You’d be surprised!  Some of them are extremely handy in making a plot click like clockwork.  Alas, those are beyond the scope of this particular article.  But don’t worry, I’ll be covering those in the not too distant future.  Was that a flash forward?

All right.  Now what about the Sequential Plot Points?  A storya unfolds over time – not just in the telling, but the whole point of a story is to follow a journey and learn if the characters involved make the right decisions or not to get what they are after, both materially and emotionally.  And we, the readers or audience, gain from that experience so we are better prepared if we ever face that kind of human issue in our own lives.

Now of course nobody thinks about that while following a story, but that’s how it works at the structural level.  That’s part of the craft of authorship: to structure a story to affect readers or audience in a certain way intentionally to move them to feel or respond in a desired fashion when all is said and done.

To this end, think of a story as a symphony.  You may know that symphonies are made of of movements – large sections of time in which certain themes are explored.  And then the symphony shifts into another movement in which a different theme is explored.  By the end of the symphony, all the variations of the theme that the composer wanted the audience to experience have been related, leading to a final climax and conclusion.  How very like a story.

In stories, the largest of these movements are the acts.  You can feel them when watching a movie or reading a book.  There comes a point where something major is completed and the characters move on to a different kind of effort or understanding.  Or, some major event occurs that sends everything off in a different direction. You get a sense of completion when you reach an act break, and also the sense that the next stage or phase of the story’s journey is about to begin.

Within acts are smaller movements called Sequences.  Sequences usually follow an arc that spans several scenes.  It may be a character arc or a kind of effort or process that has its own beginning, middle, and end within the story as a whole.  For example, we’ve all heard of the “chase sequence” that often occurs in action movies.  That’s how they come across, basically.

Scenes are smaller units and are more defined.  They are like little dramatic circuits that have a Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome (Power).  Each scene is a little machine – a miniature story within an act.  Each scene starts with some dramatic potential, runs into a resistance, presses forward, and ends with a resolution to that original potential.

One of the most elegant things about scenes is that the way a scene ends set up the dramatic potential that will start another scene later.  Elegant, but hard to get your head around.  Again, not to worry, I’ll be covering that aspect of plot in another article soon.

Point being, that each scene is a tooth on the cog of an act.  And together all these act cogs work together as part of the plot machinery of your story.

And finally, just as I covered four of the most basic static plot points, here is the fourth and final sequential plot point I’ll give you for now:  Beats.

Beats are the turning of the gears within each scene.  They are the steps within the scene that introduce the potential, bring into play the resistance, pit those against each other, and spit out the outcome.

What those beats are and how to use them is, again, the subject of another article.  But the point here is that the sequential progression of a plot isn’t just one event after another; it is more like wheels within wheels.

And so, I believe we have accomplish our goal of the moment, which is that you are now probably quite away that the order of events in a finished story is not at all the plot.  The plot is the order in which events happen to the characters.

And plot has two kinds: static, and sequential.  The static point points include such things as Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings, and never change their nature over the course of the story.  The sequential plot points are like gears that move the machinery of the plot forward, act by act, sequence by sequence, scene by scene, and beat by beat.

And that, my fellow writers, is how a story rolls.

For more on how to use these concepts to build your story, try out the StoryWeaver Story Development Software I designed just for that.  And to learn more about how to structure your story, try out the Dramatica Story Structure Software I co-created with my partner.

Until next time, may the Muse be with you!

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Character Change vs. Character Growth

Main characters don’t have to change to grow.  They can grow in their resolve.

It is a common misconception among authors that the main character in a story must change in order to grow.  Certainly, that is one kind of story,  as in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge alters his way of looking at the world and his role in it.  But other stories are about characters overcoming pressures put upon them to change their view point and holding on to their beliefs, such as in Field of Dreams where main character Ray Kinsella builds a baseball stadium in his corn field believing the old time players (and eventually even his father) will come to play.  In the end, he is not dissuaded from what appears to be an quixotic plan of a misguided mind, and his steadfastness results in the achievement of his dreams.

It is essential in any novel or movie for the readers/audience to understand whether or not the main character ultimately changes to adopt a new point of view or holds on to his beliefs.  Only then can the story provide a message that a particular point of view is (in the author’s opinion) the right or wrong way of thinking to achieve success and personal fulfillment.

But not all stories have happy endings.  Sometimes, the main character changes when he should have stuck with his guns in regard to his beliefs and becomes corrupted or diminished or fails to achieve his goals  A good example of this is in the movie The Mist (based on a Stephen King novel) in which the main character finally decides to give up on trying to find safety from monsters and shoots his son and surrogate family to save them from a horrible death only to have rescuers show up a moment later.

Other times, holding onto a belief system leads to tragic endings as well, as in Moby Dick in which the main character, Captain Ahab (Ishmael is the narrator), holds onto his quest for revenge until it leads to the death of himself and the destruction of his ship and the death of all his crew, save Ismael who lived to tell the tale.

Though writing is an organic endeavor, when you make specific decisions such as whether your main character will change or remain steadfast and what outcome that will bring about, you strengthen your message and provide a clear purpose to your storytelling that results in a strong spine in your novel or screenplay.

Whether your main character changes or remains steadfast is one of the questions we ask about your story in our Dramatica story structure software.  You can try it risk-free for 90 days and return it for a full refund if it isn’t a good fit for your writing style.

Click here for details…

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Writing Prompt Level: Expert!

Here is a writing prompt picture I posted recently and the amazingly creative response by writer Bill Williams

Bill Williams –

This is actually pretty easy to explain.

*sips coffee*

The cats in the front are feline overlords. They were testing a new human control virus on the people in the so-called “party” (Humans got a fake invitation to a pseudo-party where the drinks were spiked with FeCV (Feline Control Virus)).

Anyway, the cats in the front of the photo are contorting themselves to see if they can get the humans to do the same thing; the humans, forced to attempt to comply, are trying their best even though it’s causing some of them great pain (clearly). The female in the back of the photo with her hand on her head has just come in and hasn’t had a drink yet. She is clearly astonished at what she sees. Of course the infected humans not dancing are controlled to pretend nothing unusual is happening …

*sips coffee, brushes intruding pet cat off the chair*

I saw this once before. I believe it was 1962, San Diego CA. There were no … HUMAN survivors. (No cats were found either, but we all know just how crafty the little bastards are.)

So far their experiments have not been successful – in fact I thought they had given up on it. The photo you have presented is clear evidence they haven’t stopped trying.

My coffee tastes funny … I wonder if – DAMN CAT! OK, that’s it, I’m going national with th-

I have been instructed to tell you it is a photoshopped collage of people and animals. Nothing usual in the slightest ever happened. Please disregard what were clearly insane ramblings.

Yes, Sammie, I’ll get your cat food right now, baby. On my way!!!

You can contact Bill Williams on his Facebook Page

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Smothered in an Avalanche of Ideas

One of the writers I coach recently wrote to me about getting drowned in a sea of ideas for his story, unable to organize his material, make choices, or more forward.

Here is the note I wrote him in response that might have some value for y’all:

I noticed in our previous work together that you often came up with multiple potential plot lines for your story, all equally good, but mutually exclusive. In other words, you have a lot of creativity and keep coming up with a fountain of ideas but they are incompatible with each other if they were placed in a single story, and you have trouble choosing the ones that work together and rejecting the others.

You are not alone in this. Another creative writer I have as a client has the same problem as you. He created a whole universe – a wondrous fantasy world with the potential to be another Harry Potter success but this time in a fantasy land focusing on a young girl – so inventive, so imaginative. But, every time he came up with another great idea, it would shatter the storyline he was working on and break it into pieces like shattered glass. He couldn’t put the pieces back together again and so he came up with a whole new storyline in that world in which the fragmented pieces could be sprinkled.

The sad thing was, each of his storylines was wonderful, but he rejected each because of new ideas he couldn’t fit into them.  I believe that is the same problem you have. Basically, you are so durn creative that you pour out wonderful new ideas all the time. But because they are inspirations, they don’t necessarily fit into what you’ve already written.

Now for most writers who aren’t as inventive as you and my other client, selecting a single plot and a single story is the way to go, simply because they don’t have bushel baskets of other ideas about their story’s world. But for you and my other client, the answer is something else. And it is actually very simple. And, in fact, I’ve already given the secret to both of you, but neither of you has used it, and for the life of me I haven’t figured out why yet.

I’m thinking that your answer is not to reject any of the wonderful ideas but to create a series of books, each of which opens a whole new aspect of what we learned in the previous book. In fact, each new book may completely change what we, the reader, thought was going on in the last book we read, because now a whole new perspective has been created that throws everything into a different context and creates a different meaning.

You just pick the story you want to tell first – make that choice – then pull together all the creative ideas that work around that storyline and put all the other ideas into a sack to be used in later books in the series. That way, no idea is ever rejected, it is just earmarked for down-the-line.

So, with my other creative client, we worked out a master story arc of five books, each of which revealed a different aspect of his story’s world until all his creative ideas were included. And that’s also what you and I did – working out multiple stories that would eventually be able to use all your different storylines and situations.

But, to my surprise, neither of you actually got past that point. I don’t know if the desire to “get it all in one book” is too strong to consider a series or if, perhaps, the idea of the potential tedium of a whole series which requires sticking with a particular story world for a long time is a motivation killer.

In the case of my other client, as soon as he saw he had so many ideas it would take several books to express them all, he dumped his whole story world of fantasy and started a whole new story set in the New York world of high-competition design.

This is the curse of the overly creative mind. It has nothing to do with talent or manner of expression or intelligence. It is just that in some folks the Muse is ramped up so high that the new ideas drown their ability to complete – they are constantly drawn to the next truly wonderful idea and cannot help but lose interest in the idea they ostensibly are supposed to be working on. Once it becomes work, the new ideas are far more interesting because, beneath it all, there is more to being a writer than being creative. It also requires an innate ability of self-discipline – to nail oneself to a chair and write, day in and day out and even when it is deadly boring, unpleasant, unsatisfying, and mind-numbing. That’s how books get written, whereas overly creative minds with equal ability in word play will get nowhere because there is too much to lure them from the drudgery.

That’s the best advice I can muster about why this happens and what to do about it.

One other answer I suggested to my other client was to write his work as a series of short stories. Don’t go for a book-length plot, even if you are aware of every step in that plot. Just write a series of short episodes, each informed by the overall plot line, but each as a stand-alone that doesn’t require the others to be read and enjoyed. In this manner you can muster enough self-discipline to complete something in short form before being dragged away, and eventually can bundle all those short tales in your story world into a single book or series of books.

Other than that, however, unless you can bring yourself to pick one storyline and put in the focus to stick with it until it is done, putting all new ideas into a sack for later, I imagine you’ll continue to be frustrated.

So you really have a choice to keep on going as you are or to create a series of books for all your ideas and new ideas but stick with the first one to get it done, or to go to the short story method and then bundle them into books when you reach a “critical mass.”

Someone once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.” The choice is really up to you.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 3

Archetypes are the spine of any story, whether you use them in a monolithic manner or sculpt them into more complex variations.  Understanding archetypes will help you to ensure your structure is human and complete.

In part 1 of this series we defined what archetypes are.  In part 2, we discovered where archetypes come from and why they showed up in story structure.  Here in part 3, we’ll define a specific cast of archetypal characters and outline how to employ them to strengthen your story.

How many archetypes are there?  I have my own answer to that question but to see what else is out there I did a quick search and found scores of lists of archetypes, each with its own collection.  One of them promised (and actually provided) more than three hundred different archetypes!

In looking through that group, I discovered something interesting:  There was no consistency to what they considered to be an archetype.  Some were defined by their profession, such as “Chef.”  Now, I suppose if I really twisted my head around, I could see a “Chef” archetype as being a character who goes through life with recipes, trying to bring things together into a finished whatever, though it seems a bit of a stretch.

Another archetype was “Builder,” but how is that much different from a Chef?  The Builder probably has plans (a recipe) that he uses in life to try and make things (like a meal, or a perfect marriage or, again, whatever).

And then there were archetypes put forth by Jung: the Mother, the Trickster, and the Hero, for example.  The Mother is a relationship by birth, the Trickster is defined by what he (or she) tries to do to others, and the Hero is a Hero because of his stout heart, I imagine, or perhaps because of heroic acts.  You can see these kinds of folks in real life, but what is the consistency that defines them or the underlying concept that binds them all together?

The farther I read through this extensive list, the more confusing it became trying to understand what made an archetype an archetype – be they con man, coward, or crone.  And worse, it gave me no idea how a Coward might interact with a Chef, or a Trickster with a Crone.

Honestly, it’s kind of a mess out there in archetype-land.  And that’s what my partner Chris and I discovered some thirty years ago when we first began work on what was to become our own theory of story structure, including our own list of archetypes.

If you’ve read in the first two articles in this series, you know that we came to believe that archetypes – true archetypes – represent the most fundamental human attributes that we all share such as Reason, Emotion, Skepticism, and Faith.

When we are trying to understand what’s happening in our lives and chart a course forward, we bring all of these attributes to bear on the problem so we can see the issues from all angles by using all the mental tools we have to make the best decisions.

That’s how we do it as individuals.  However, when we gather together in groups such as a team or a company or even a family, and we agree to work toward a common cause or purpose, the group automatically self-organizes so that one person emerges as the voice of Reason for the group at large, and other becomes the resident Skeptic. Least ways, that’s our theory.

In other words, we each take on roles representing one of the fundamental approaches we take to solving problems for ourselves.  And in this way, the group benefits from having a number of specialists on the job, rather than a collection of general practitioners, all trying to do the same thing.  It is kind of a natural progression of social evolution when humans bond together.

So, in stories (which try to represent the human issues of real life), every character uses all these traits to solve their personal problems in the tale, but take on the role of representing just one of these traits when working with the group.  And those roles ultimately became embedded in the conventions of story structure as archetypes.

Now our theory of story structure is a lot more detailed and complex than that, but you get the idea.  And based on that idea, here is our list of archetypes associated with the human qualities they represent.

There are four primary or Driver archetypes and four secondary or Back Seat Driver archetypes that influence the primary ones.  First I’ll list them by the human attributes they represent, and then I’ll list them again with their archetypal names as they appear in story structure.

Driver Archetypes:

Initiative / Reticence

Intellect / Passion

Passenger Archetypes:

Conscience / Temptation

Confidence / Doubt

As you can see by the primary attributes listed, the driver archetypes directly try to grapple with the problem whereas the passenger archetypes think about consequences and put the problem in context.  It is just the way the human mind works when it fashions narratives to get a grip on the situation.

Now here are those same attributes again with their archetypal names.

Driver Archetypes:

Initiative (Protagonist) / Reticence (Antagonist)

Intellect (Reason) / Passion (Emotion)

Passenger Archetypes:

Conscience (Guardian) / Temptation (Contagonist)

Confidence (Sidekick) / Doubt (Skeptic)

Let’s take the archetypes one by one just to get a sense of how each human attribute shows up in a story.

First up, the Protagonist.  The Protagonist is the character that keeps on plugging away at the goal, no matter what.  That’s the human quality of Initiative – the motivation to affect change, get up and go, make something happen, shake things up, and so on.

Next, the Antagonist.  The Antagonist is the character that wants to prevent the goal from being accomplished, no matter what.  That’s the human quality of Reticence (reticence to change) – the motivation to keep things as they are, put them back the way they were, quash the fires of rebellion, and so on.

Side note:  In James Bond films, it is the villain who takes the first strike and Bond who thwarts him, so from an archetypal standpoint, the villain is the Protagonist and Bond is the Antagonist, just by the human attributes they represent in structure.  Just think about that for a moment.  It is one reason why Bond seems like a different kind of hero.  There’s a lot more about this kind of thing in our theory, but its a bit off-the-point for now, so lets look at the next pair of archetypes.

The Reason archetype is the character who tries to solve every issue by figuring it out.  They apply logic to the matter, and if it doesn’t make sense, they are against it (rather ignoring the humanity of the situation).

The Emotion archetype is the character who wants everyone to follow their heart – be yourself, if it feels right do it (as we used to say in the 60’s).  Of course, now I’m actually in my 60’s but that’s another story….

Now before we move on to the passengers, consider how these archetypes always travel in  pairs.  Protagonist / Antagonist and Reason / Emotion.  Every archetype has a counter part, and the conflict between the characters in each pair mirrors the conflicts in our own minds as we duke it out between two different ways of deciding what to do so we can have confidence in the last one standing as the approach to take.

In other words, our initiative is weight or pitted against our reticence – should we do something or let sleeping dogs lie?  Which is better?  Well, that all depends on the situation, and that’s what stories are all about: The author is telling us that in this particular situation, it is better to take initiative, or that it is better to try and maintain the status quo.  But the primary decision we have in the world is to act or not to act, and that’s why Protagonist and Antagonist have at each other as the problem-solving effort of the story progresses – to provide evidence for the author’s message about which is the better approach in this specific case that the story explores.

It is the same with Reason and Emotion.  But it is also different in a big way.  Initiative and Reticence are diametrically opposed.  Intellect and Passion can be opposed, but don’t have to be.  Sometimes they can actually agree.  Sometimes what makes the most sense also feels the best.  Sometimes what makes sense feels so-so.  And sometimes it feels like a horrible thing to do.  Both Reason and Emotion might also agree that something is rotten – it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t feel right either.

As you can see, with these two pairs of archetypes we’ve discovered two different kinds of character relationships.  And when you build a story around each of these characters, you’ll see all of these pop up as it unfolds.

Now, let’s take a look at the passengers to get a better grip on those archetypes…

The Guardian looks out for consequences as in, “Where’s this all going to lead to?” or “Fine, but what price might we have to pay later.”  These are the functions of the human quality of conscience.

When you think about it, if you strip away all the moral associations, Conscience is really about thinking about the ramifications and Temptation is going for the immediate benefit (we’ll get around the consequences later..  somehow….)

And so, Guardian and Contagonist are partly about the long term gain vs. the short term gain.  You see folks who lean more to one or the other in real life, but we all have both of those two traits  – even a sociopath weighs the immediate benefit vs. the eventual risk.

And finally we have the Sidekick and the Skeptic.  In stories, think of the Sidekick as the faithful supporter and the Skeptic as the doubting opposer.  These two archetypes are rather like cheerleaders – one representing our confidence in finding a solution and the other representing self-doubt.

Of course in stories, the overall plot is about the group, so these attributes show up like they do in real-life organizations: Confidence says, “Go team!  I know we can do it!” where Doubt is more like Eeyore or the Cowardly Lion, “I think we’d better give up on this because we haven’t got a chance.”

Now I could go on and on about these archetypes and, in fact, I actually have!  Here’s a link to a free online version of the book we wrote about our theory of story structure.

You might also be interested in the software we created based on the theory.  You can try it risk-free for 90 days!  Check it out…

Though this concludes our brief introduction to archetypes, in future articles, we’ll break the archetypes into smaller dramatic elements and show how you can rearrange those to create more complex and deeper characters that will fulfill all necessary structural roles.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Here’s something else I made for writers:

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A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 2

In my previous article, A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 1, I defined what an archetype is, and what it is not.  Here in Part 2, we’re going to expand on that understanding by revealing where archetypes come from and how they came to be.

Let us consider then the origin or archetypes…

Each of us has within us, regardless of age, gender, race, culture, or language, certain fundamental human attributes such as reason, passion, skepticism, belief, conscience, and temptation.

The qualities are not so much traits and processes our minds employ to try and understand our world and ourselves, to identify problems and seek solutions, and to chart a course forward to maximize the good in our lives and minimize the bad.

When we put a box around some aspect of our lives, such as our relationship to our spouse, our position at work, or our membership in a club or organization, we call it a narrative.  That’s all narrative is, really, is to box in a part of our existence to understand it independently of the rest of our life experience.

Of course, these personal narratives are not really closed systems since what happens in one part of our lives certainly affects the others.  But our lives as a whole are so complex that we need to parse them into smaller, more easily considered pieces  And each of of these is a personal narrative.

And, as we are all aware, we don’t only create narratives about ourselves and the people in our lives, but we also build them around larger issues, such as whether or not we believe in Global Warming, why we believe that, and what (if anything) we think should be done about it.  In short, every opinion we have is a narrative, large or small.

When we consider any of these personal narratives all of our human attributes come into play to try and choose the best path, e.g., reason, skepticism, and temptation.

But when we gather together in groups to explore a common issue or toward a common purpose, very quickly someone will emerge as the voice of reason for the group, another as the resident skeptic, and one other group member will represent the temptation to take the immediately expedient course (even if ill-advised in the long-term).

These roles that form within a group narrative are the basis of archetypes.  It happens automatically as the group self-organizes.  How this happens is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but should you care to dig deeper you may find the social dynamics behind it quite intriguing.

Now that we know how archetypes form, how did they get into story structure?  Well, to answer that we really need to define story structure.  Fortunately, the explanation isn’t all that complex.

To begin with, story structure isn’t artificial and it isn’t imposed on stories arbitrarily from the outside to cram dramatics into some sort of rigid form.  On the contrary, story structure gradually emerged in stories as early storytellers sought to understand the human animal as individuals and also how they interacted together.

Imagine, then, that we all have these fundamental attributes we employ in our personal narratives and that the same attributes rise up as archetypes in our group narratives.  These seminal storytellers would note that the problems we face every day occur when one of our personal narratives is in conflict with someone else’s and also that problems occur when our personal narrative is in conflict with our role in a group narrative.

Simply put – we conflict with others who have different agendas and we also feel pressure when our chosen course is in conflict with our part in the big machine.

Now, as storytellers began to note that the same human qualities (such as reason and skepticsm) kept cropping up in every story that felt complete, they began to include them in every story.  So, a Reason archetype became a required character in every story, as did a Skeptic.  The Protagonist and Antagonist showed up as well.

As more archetypes were identified, they embedded in the conventions of storytelling.  Through trial and error, all the of these “primary colors” of the human heart and mind were noted, made their way into those conventions, and eventually solidified into what we know as story structure today.

It should be noted that story structure is flexible, rather like a Rubik’s cube.  The building blocks are always the same but they can be arranged in a myriad of patterns, as long as they don’t violate the way people really interact.  Just as a Rubik’s cube is always a cube, a story structure is always a narrative.  That’s what gives it form.

Now the archetypes are just part of story structure.  Plot elements such as goal, requirements, and consequences as well as sequential movements like acts, sequences, and beats, describe the different ways folks strive to move a narrative forward to the conclusion they seek.  Thematic items, such as thematic issue, thematic conflict, and message look into our value standards and belief systems, pitting one against another to illustrate the best ways of dealing with different kinds of problems.  And even genre has underlying human qualities represented in the structure which tend to provide perspective and context for the narrative, giving it richness and and overall organic feeling.

All of what leaves us where?  Well, it leaves us with a general understanding of the origin of Archetypes and how they made their way into story structure.

And that is where we close in Part 2 of A Brief Introduction to Archetypes an anticipate Part 3 in which we will specifically list the archetypes, show how to employ them in your story, and then bust them apart into their component elements to illustrate how you can move beyond archetypes to create far more complex and human characters without violating the truth of structure.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Author’s Note: The concepts in this article are drawn from the Dramatica Theory of Narrative I co-created with my partner, Chris Huntley.  All of this and much more made its way into our Dramatica Story Structure Software, which you can try risk-free for 90 days.  Give it whirl!

And here’s something else I created for writers…

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