Story Structure for Passionate Writers

By Melanie Anne Phillips

We all know that a story needs a sound structure. But no one reads a book or goes to a movie to enjoy a good structure. And no author writes because he or she is driven to create a great structure. Rather, audiences and authors come to opposite sides of a story because of their passions – the author driven to express his or hers, and the audience hoping to ignite its own.

What draws us to a story in the first place is our attraction to the subject matter and the style. As an audience, we might be intrigued by the potential applications of a new discovery of science, the exploration of a newly rediscovered ancient city, or the life of a celebrity. We might love a taut mystery, a fulfilling romance, or a chilling horror story.

As authors what inspires us to write a story may be a bit of dialog we heard in a restaurant, a notion for a character, a setting, time period, or a clever twist of plot we’d like to explore. Or, we might have a deep-seated need to express a childhood experience, work out an irrational fear, or make a public statement about a social injustice.

No matter what our attraction as audience or author, our passions trigger our imaginations. So why should an author worry about structure? Because passion rides on structure, and if the structure is flawed or even broken, then the passionate expression from author to audience will fail.

Structure, when created properly, is invisible, serving only as the carrier wave that delivers the passion to the audience. But when structure is flawed, it adds static to the flow of emotion, breaking up and possibly scrambling the passion so badly that the audience does not “hear” the author’s message.

The attempt to ensure a sound structure is an intellectual pursuit. Questions such as “Who is my Protagonist?” “Where should my story begin?” “What happens in Act Two?” or “What is my message?” force an author to turn away from his or her passion and embrace logistics instead.

As a result, authors often becomes mired in the nuts and bolts of storytelling, staring at a blank page not because of a lack of inspiration, but because they can’t figure out how to make their passions make sense.

Worse, the re-writing process is often grueling and frustrating, forcing the author to accept unwanted changes in the flow of emotion for the sake of logic. So what is an author to do? Is there any way out of this dilemma?

Absolutely!  In fact, I created a new method of story development and a new web site to help free your Muse while ensuring your story is sound.  And best of all, the web site costs nothing.  How’s that for a little freedom?

Click here to learn story structure for passionate writers

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Dramatica – Where’d the Idea Come From?

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Here’s the “digest” version of the origins of Dramatica…

Chris Huntley and I began our exploration of story structure in 1980. He and I had met a few years earlier while we were both attending the University of Southern California and both making short films.

I had left school early to go to work in the industry and, frustrated by working on the periphery of the industry at that time, I put together a low-budget feature film project and enlisted Chris’ partnership in producing a movie.

The result was a horrible little film that suffered no so much from budgetary restrictions as from our lack of knowledge of sound story structure. So, when we began to consider our next production, we thought we’d first take a stab at trying to determine what a sound story structure ought to be.

We made lists and graphs and assembled everything we knew. And we discovered… that we didn’t know much about story structure! In fact, we put the whole project on hold until we could gather a little more experience from the industry and from life in general.

Chris went into motion control special effects work for Imax movies, and I went into the industry at large as a writer/producer/director and mostly editor of non-features, high budget industrials, and educationals.

Later, Chris become the co-founder of Write Bros. – the company that created the world’s first screenplay formatting software (and won a technical achievement award from the Academy).

One day in 1991, Chris asked me to breakfast and asked if I’d like to start up our old story structure project again. I was thrilled to do so. I was editing a feature film at the time so each morning before I went off to the editing room and before Chris went off to be V.P. of his company, we’d get together over coffee and try to crack the story structure nut.

We were both committed to this project, and it wasn’t long before we started having some insights that made sense to us but that we had never heard in any of our classes at USC.

After six months, we had created a number of understandings about story structure, but lacked a unifying concept that would tie them all together. We tried starting a book about our findings, but got bogged down. Eventually, Chris suggested that we present our work to his partner, Steve Greenfield.

Steve was completely taken with the ideas we offered, and he and Chris determined that rather than a book, perhaps our best approach was to create a new piece of software for writers that would help them employ our concepts in building sound stories.

I was asked to come to their company as a consultant, and as my editing job had just completed, I agreed. Thus began a three year full-time effort to redefine the nature of what stories are and how they work.

Few are those who have the luxury of being paid to spend three years sitting in a room pondering the mechanics of story structure to the exclusion of all else. But that was the situation I was provided.

We began with index cards and post-it notes, sticking every individual concept (and there were hundreds of them) all over all four walls of my office, and later of the entire conference room!

Seeing it all spread out like that made it possible to note certain patterns and connections among some of these notions. We began to see that psychology played a large part in stories.

This came about by Chris asking a crucial question: “If the Main Character (like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol) is actually the cause of the story’s problems, why can’t he see it and just change?”

Of course, this spoke of issues far beyond stories that were essential to our own psychological issues as a species.

We started to gather all the psychological material we had developed into one place on one of the walls. Some of it seemed to fit well with the main character, but other material, though clearly psychological in nature, seemed to pertain more to the story at large, though we had no idea what to make of this. There was no pattern that explained it.

One day, while staring for the nth hour at that wall, it just hit me – maybe the psychological material we had discovered in stories weren’t about just the main character – maybe they were about the story itself. Maybe the story itself had a psychology! In fact, perhaps story structure was a model of the story’s mind!

I ran down the hall to Chris’ office and hit him with the notion. As was his practice, he leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and fell into a meditative state, closing all else from his mind. After a few moments he sat upright and responded, “I believe you are right.”

From that point forward, everything we did was based on the Story Mind concept. We reorganized all of our material assuming that it referred to the psychology of the story’s mind. Suddenly, patterns appeared, relationships were suggested, and the various components we had discovered fell right into place.

Our arrangements became more and more complex until we found ourselves hard-pressed to make them work in a single chart. It was then that we tried putting the cards in levels, placing “smaller” units under larger umbrella units into which they seemed to fall.

But how to depict this nested structure? Chris played around with pyramid shapes, I tried twisting mobius strips around donut-shaped toroids. Eventually, we settled on the four towers – not as the only shape of story structure, but as the most convenient shape with which to appreciate its internal mechanisms and relationships.

Later, I read that Crick and Watson (the two fellows that discovered the double-helix shape of DNA) didn’t find it through observation. At the time, the best imagery available of DNA was made by bombarding DNA’s crystalline form with X-Rays.

But Crick and Watson had a gut feeling that the shape of “live” DNA was more elegant, perhaps some sort of spiral. They decided to play with a number of alternative shapes as candidates that might explain all the properties that had been observed about DNA. To this end, they ordered a set of custom-made industrial “tinker-toys” which were used by chemists to illustrate molecular bonds.

They play around with various combination until, while building a ladder shape, they twisted it to form the now-familiar double-helix. As soon as they actually saw this representation, then new intuitively that it was correct and ran off to share their work with colleagues.

Chris and I unknowingly followed the same process. In the years that followed, we came to the conclusion that the towers are like the crystalline form of DNA – it represents a mind’s psychology at rest. But the mind is a machine made of time – every component, every gear and widget is actually a process.

When you put it into motion to create a “live” model, like DNA it becomes a helix, but in the case of story structure it forms a quad-helix, rather than a double one.

That’s about as deep as I want to go into how the Dramatica Chart developed in the first place. But, as a special treat for those of you who are gluttons for punishment, here’s an explanation of the workings of the structure, conceptually (for now!).

Where to begin without getting all technical-ish… Well, that’s a good start already!

Okay. The Dramatica Chat has four levels. And it has four Towers. What do these represent? The four towers represent the four key elements of our minds. Just as DNA is made up of four bases: adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T), the structure of the Story Mind is made up of four bases: knowledge (abbreviated K), thought (T), ability (A) and desire (D).

Knowledge is the Mass of the mind. Thought is the mind’s Energy. Ability is the equivalent of Space and Desire is the counterpart to Time.

Just as mass and energy can relate in a simple way, such as when force slams one billiard ball into another, thought can rearrange knowledge and bring disparate pieces of knowledge together or move them apart.

Mass and energy can also interact in a more complex manner in which, for example, a small amount of mass can release a tremendous amount of energy in a nuclear explosion. Similarly, Knowledge and thought can interact so that a small amount of knowledge can generate an awful lot of thought (and conversely, it take a lot of thought to create a single bit of true knowledge!)

Ability is like space insofar as space defines the edges of what exists from what does not. Ability defines what we know from what we don’t know. It determines how much of anything is known vs. how much is unknown. It is from this that calculation that our minds assess our ability.

Desire is functions in the mind as Time does in the universe. Desire does not exist without a comparative between what was, what is, and what may be, just as time does not exist without an appreciation of past, present, and future.

So, the four towers are Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire. (Which is which and why is for a later discussion. This, after all, is just an introductory section for a conversational book about story structure!)

But, the four levels represent Mass, Energy, Space, and Time directly. The four dimensions of the outer world are reflected by the four dimensions of the inner world. In fact, each set is a reflection of the other with neither being the origin.

Existence cannot be understood wholly from either a material or immaterial perspective. Perception is required to enable existence, and vice versa. Thus, the Dramatica chart isn’t just some stupid cutesy little made-up list of a few dramatic concepts. Nope. Its actually a material/immaterial continuum in which all that exists can be described by its co-ordinates within the construct.

Now, before I start sounding like the “Architect” from the Matrix Trilogy (assuming it is not too late already), I’ll put these topics to rest for a while, and think about the next practical article on story development I can write for you.

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A Story is an Argument

By Melanie Anne Phillips

There are two principal forms of story structure: the tale and the story.

A tale is a statement – a statement that ‘this lead to this lead to that’ and ‘here’s how it ended up’.

Using this technique, a storyteller can say “Ok, I’m going to tell you about this situation, in which if you start here and you take this series of steps you end up there and it’s a good thing or its a bad thing to be there”.

Large good, small good – little bad, big bad – that’s up to the author, depending on the message he or she wants to put forth.  But in a tale, the statement made is simply this: follow this series of steps from this starting point and you will end up with this thing that is good or bad.

That’s the whole basis for fairy tales and cautionary tales, and there’s certain amount of power in that. But what kind of power could you get as an author if you were able to expand that and say ‘this is not just true for this particular case I’m telling you about, but it is also true for all such similar cases?’

In other words, if you start from here, no matter what path you try to take based on this particular problem you started with, this is the best (or worst) path to take of all that might be taken.  Then the message of your tale becomes ‘this particular path is the best or the worst.’ It’s no longer just good or bad, it’s the best path or the worst path to take.  Now you are aren’t just making a statement about a particular case; you are making a blanket statement covering all similar cases.

Now that has a lot more power to it because now you are telling everyone to exclude any other paths – ‘take only this one if you find yourself in this situation’ or,  ‘if you find yourself in this situation no matter what you do, don’t do that’.

While a simple tale with a simple statement is designed to influence audience behavior in a specific case, a more complex tale with a blanket statement is designed to influence general behavior by an audience.

But when you make a blanket statement have you really convinced your audience to alter its behavior?  In practice, an audience won’t sit still for a blanket statement without at least some supporting evidence. They will cry foul. They will at least question you.

So, for example, if an early storyteller is sitting around the campfire and says, ‘this is the best of all possible paths that I have shown you.’, his audience is going to say, ‘hey wait a minute, what about this other case, what if we try this, this and this?’

If the storyteller is to satisfy his audience and actually ‘prove’ his case to its satisfaction, he will need to be able to argue his point, saying, ‘in that case such and such, and therefore you can see why it would end up being not as good or better than this path that I’m touting.’

Another person brings up another scenario such as ‘what about going down this way and trying that.’ Then, if the point can be well made, the storyteller is again able to defend his assertion and say, ‘well that case, such and such, so you can see the point that the blanket statement I made is still true’.

Eventually either something will be found that is better than what the author was proposing and the blanket statement is rejected or the author will be able to stick it out and counter all those rebuttals and convince the audience that yes, the message of this tale is true in all such similar cases.

In a practical sense, you (the storyteller) won’t have to counter every potential different path when you are telling the story live because your audience will only come up with a certain number of them before they are satisfied that the alternatives they think are most important to look into have been adequately addressed.

But the moment that you record the story, the moment you put it into a song, stage play, a motion picture or a book, as soon as that happens, you’re no longer there to counter the rebuttals. You also don’t know exactly which potential rebuttals might come up. So if somebody looks at your story in the form of a movie in the theater and they see some pathway they think ought to be taken wasn’t even suggested, then they are going to feel that you haven’t made your case because maybe that would have been a better path than yours.

So what do you do? Well, in a recorded art form you have to anticipate all the different rebuttals that might come up about other potential solutions and preempt them by showing in your message why all these other potential reasonable solutions would not be as good or as bad as the one that you are proposing.

If you can cover them all, then you will have proven that your purported solution is in fact the best or the worst, and your audience will accept your message.

Just as simply saying something is true is the essence of a tale, proving it is true by making an argument is the essence of story.  And that is why a tale is a statement and a story is an argument.

But how do you make such an argument?

Here’s a short video from my “classic” 12-hour program on story structure I recorded way back in 1999:

Make Your Story Argument with Dramatica:

Dramatica software is based on our theories about the story argument.
It is the only writing software in the world with a patented interactive
Story Engine that can  help you give your story perfect structure.

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SECRETS of the Protagonist…

By Melanie Anne Phillips

The Protagonist is one of the most misunderstood characters in a story’s structure.  It is often assumed that this character is a typical “Hero” who is a good guy, the central character in the story, and the Main Character (the one through with whom the reader identifies).

In fact, the Protagonist is not any of these things, though all of these attributes may be added to what the Protagonist really is.  By definition, the Protagonist is nothing more than the Prime Mover or Driver of the effort to achieve the goal.  That’s it.  He or she is just the archetypal character who keeps pushing for the goal – that and nothing more.

So, sometimes the Protagonist is not a story’s Central character (the most memorable or charismatic character in the story).  Being the Central character simply means he or is is the most prominent to the reader.  For example, Fagin in “Oliver Twist” is perhaps the most prominent, but he is certainly not the Protagonist.  And Darth Maul is an extremely charismatic character in Star Wars, but was not at all the Protagonist.  Clearly, the actual Protagonist may in fact be less interesting than than the Central character, and may even be almost a background character if achieving the goal is not really the focus of the story but just the reason for the chase.

Similarly, the Protagonist is often not the Main Character of the story either.  The Main character is the one the reader identifies with – the character we are most connected to emotionally – the one whom the passionate outcome of the story revolves around.  It is the Main character who grapples with some personal issue they will ultimately try to overcome by the end of the story by making a choice in a leap of faith.

For example of a story in which the Protagonist is NOT the Main character, consider To Kill A Mockingbird, in which we experience the story through young Scout’s eyes, and yet, it is her father (lawyer, Atticus Finch) who is the protagonist, trying to defend a  young black man wrongly accused of rape.

As you can see, while there are many attributes often given to the character who is the Protagonist, these don’t really have to be bundled together unless you are trying to create a stereotypical hero.

Just as in our own lives, we are the Main Character, but may not be the Protagonist on every single project or job in which we are involved, nor are we always the most prominent member of our team, department, or social group.

While it is fun to read books and go to movies in which we identify with heroes, stories that recognize all of those traits don’t have to be given to just one character help us to learn how to be heroic in our own lives.

So in developing your Protagonist, give the guy a break and see if you can’t distribute some of those other jobs to other characters to make them more interesting and your Protagonist more reflective of real life.

This tip was excerpted from StoryWeaver

I created StoryWeaver to guide you step by step
through the entire story development process
from concept to completion.

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Tear Your Story Apart!

By Melanie Anne Phillips

By necessity, authors are so focused on what they are putting into their stories that they often don’t think about what isn’t there.  Yet the early stages of story development only create a framework – a skeleton – and for a story to truly take shape, become organic, and take on a personality, many additional details will be needed.

Here’s a simple technique you can use to add depth and breadth to any story.

First, write a brief one or two sentence description of the core of your story.  For example, here’s a thumbnail description of a story my son and I for years have threatened to write:

Snow Sharks (Don’t Eat Red Snow)

Thumbnail for Snow Sharks:

The government has been developing a new breed of shark that lives in snow rather than water for use as mobile land mines in places such as Siberia or the Arctic.  A transport plane carrying them crashes in a storm high in the Rocky Mountains.

Now, we ask questions about each sentence in our thumbnail:

Questions about the first sentence:

The government has been developing a new breed of shark that lives in snow rather than water for use as mobile land mines in places such as Siberia or the Arctic.  

1. What branch of the government is involved?

2. Is this sanctioned or rogue?

3. Who is/are the scientists behind this?

4. How long has this program been going on?

5. How close are they to a final “product?”

6. Can the sharks breathe air?

7. Do they require cold (can they live in heat)?

Questions about the second sentence:

A transport plane carrying them crashes in a storm high in the Rocky Mountains.

1. What kind of plane?

2. How many sharks was it carrying?

3. Do they all survive?

4. Where was the transport taking the sharks?

5. Why couldn’t they wait until after the storm?

6. How many crewmembers are on board?

7. What are their jobs?

8. Do the crew members know what they are carrying?

9. Do any sharks survive?

10. If so, do the sharks kill all the survivors?

11. Is there anything in the wreckage that reveals the cargo, its nature and who is behind it?

12. Is the crew able to contact their command center before crashing?

13. Are they able to convey their location?

14. Is there a rescue beacon?

15. Does the plane carry a “black box.”

As you can see, each question is like a thread you can pull – a story thread that can open up a whole new aspect of your plot progression and character arcs.

If you were to answer each of these questions, your story would expand from that simple two-sentence thumbnail into a much richer story.

Then, you could ask questions about each sentence in the new, expanded story and grow it even larger very quickly.

If you already have a story, be it just an outline, a short synopsis, or even a complete draft, asking questions like these about key expositional sentences in your manuscript can help offer alternatives to what may be a cliche story line, or to add more detail or subordinate plot lines that enrich the fabric of your overall story.

In summary, the point is that you don’t have to bang your head against a blank page trying to come up with ideas.  Just tear your story apart with as many questions as you might reasonable ask, and it will grow like baseless rumor on the internet.

Need personalized story help?

Try my story consultation service for free!

Email me about your story, one page or less,
and I’ll give you some initial feedback and
create a customized story development plan.

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The Creativity Two-Step

By Melanie Anne Phillips

It is easier to come up with many ideas than it is to come up with one idea.

Now that may sound counter-intuitive, but consider this… When you are working on a particular story and you run into a specific structural problem, you are looking for a creative inspiration in a very narrow area. But creativity isn’t something you can control like a power tool or channel onto a task. Rather, it is random, and applies itself to whatever it wants.

Creative inspiration is always running at full tilt within us, coming up with new ideas, thinking new thoughts – just not the thoughts we are looking for. So if we sit and wait for the Muse to shine its light on the exact structural problem we’re stuck on, it might be days before lightning strikes that very spot.

Fortunately, we can trick Creativity into working on our problem by making it think it is being random. As an example, consider this log line for a story: A Marshall in an Old West border town struggles with a cutthroat gang that is bleeding the town dry.

Step One: Asking Questions

Now if you had the assignment to sit down and turn this into a full-blown, interesting, one-of-a-kind story, you might be a bit stuck for what to do next. So, try this. First ask some questions:

1. How old is the Marshall?

2. How much experience does he have?

3. Is he a good shot?

4. How many men has he killed (if any)

5. How many people are in the gang?

6. Does it have a single leader?

7. Is the gang tight-knit?

8. What are they taking from the town?

9. How long have they been doing this?

You could probably go on and on and easily come up with a hundred questions based on that single log line. It might not seem at first that this will help you expand your story, but look at what’s really happened. You have tricked your Muse into coming up with a detailed list of what needs to be developed! And it didn’t even hurt. In fact, it was actually fun.

Step Two: Answering Questions

But that’s just the first step. Next, take each of these questions and come up with as many different answers as you can think of. Let your Muse run wild through your mind. You’ll probably find you get some ordinary answers and some really outlandish ones, but you’ll absolutely get a load of them!

  a) How old is the Marshall?

a. 28

b. 56

c. 86

d. 17

e. 07

f. 35

Some of these potential ages are ridiculous – or are they? Every ordinary story based on such a log line would have the Marshall be some common age from our example list, such as 28 or 35: just another dull story, grinding through the mill.

Step One Revisited

But what if your Marshall was 86 or 7 years old? Let’s switch back to Step One and ask some questions about his age.

For example:

c. 86

1. How would an 86 year old become a Marshall?

2. Can he still see okay?

3. What physical maladies plague him?

4. Is he married?

5. What kind of gun does he use?

6. Does he have the respect of the town?

And on and on…

Return to Step Two

As you might expect, now we switch back to Step Two again and answer each question as many different ways as we can.

Example:

5. What kind of gun does he use?

a) He uses an ancient musket, can barely lift it, but is a crack shot and miraculously hits whatever he aims at.

b) He uses an ancient musket and can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But somehow, his oddball shots ricochet off so many things, he gets the job done anyway, just not as he planned.

c) He uses a Mini-Gatling gun attached to his walker.

d) He doesn’t use a gun at all. In 63 years with the Texas Rangers, he never needed one and doesn’t need one now.

e) He uses a sawed off shotgun, but needs his deputy to pull the trigger for him as he aims.

f) He uses a whip.

g) He uses a knife, but can’t throw it past 5 feet anymore.

And on and on again…

Methinks you begin to get the idea. First you ask questions, which trick the Muse into finding fault with your work – an easy thing to do that your Creative Spirit already does on its own – often to your dismay.

Next, you turn the Muse loose to come up with as many answers for each question as you possibly can.

Then, you switch back to question mode and ask as many as you can about each of your answers.

And then you come up with as many answers as possible for those questions.

You can carry this process out for as many generations as you like, but the bulk of story material you develop will grow so quickly, you’ll likely not want to go much further than we went in our example.

Imagine, if you just asked 10 questions about the original log line and responded to each of them with 10 potential answers, you’d have 100 story points to consider.

Then, if you went as far as we just did for each one, you’d ask 10 questions of each answer and end up with 1,000 potential story points. And the final step of 10 answers for each of these would yield 10,000 story points!

Now in the real world, you probably won’t bother answering each question – just those that intrigue you. And, you won’t trouble yourself to ask questions about every answer – just the ones that suggest they have more development to offer and seem to lead in a direction you might like to go with your story.

The key point is that rather than staring at a blank page trying to find that one structural solution that will fill a gap or connect two points, use the Creativity Two-Step to trick your Muse into spewing out the wealth of ideas it naturally wants to provide.

Need personalized story help?

Try my story consultation service for free!

Email me about your story, one page or less,
and I’ll give you some initial feedback and
create a customized story development plan.

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