Story Structure with the Muse in Mind

Story Structure can be a straight-jacket for your Muse. On the one hand, structure is necessary for a story to have a point or even just to make sense!  But on the other hand, structure tends to channel ideas down predictable paths and to rob a story of serendipity.

In my twenty-five years as a teacher of creative writing and story structure, I’ve developed a number of techniques to help you find your perfect balance between the rigors of structure and the free-wheeling flow of inspiration.

Here’s the short list:

Structure Hobbles the Muse

The Muse explodes outward into a world of passion and possibilities. As a teacher of creative writing for twenty-five years, my experiences with many types of writers tell me that one should never consider structure at … Continue reading

Let your Muse run wild

Let your Muse run wild The easiest way to give yourself writer’s block is to bridle your Muse by trying to come up with ideas. Your Muse is always coming up with ideas – just not the ones you want. … Continue reading

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Narrative Analysis – American Student Released by DPRK (North Korea)

American student released from DPRK (North Korea) – What’s the narrative?

Salient narrative facts:

1. The student is in a coma since March due to botulism, according to DPRK sources.

2. The DPRK has launched 16 missiles in the last few weeks, garnering international concerns.

3. The DPRK recently threatened a first strike nuclear attack against the United States to “protect itself.”

4. The student has been in custody for 17 months and his condition was not known.

Narrative assessment:

The release of the American student, especially in a coma from a cause that creates suspicion of foul play or at least lack of expected protections, is not an olive branch but a further provocation designed to additionally fan the flames of American sentiment against the DPRK.

Clearly, the DPRK is trying to provoke some sort of preemptive action on the part of the United States beyond merely tightening sanctions.

Narrative question:

What is the motivation of the DRPK in attempting to provoke preemptive action against it by the United States, and what are their likely reactions to alternative potential actions?

In previous work we have done for the CIA, NSA, NRO and Joint Chiefs of Staff, this would be the starting point for full-scale narrative analysis of potential scenarios including the creation of a motivation map of the DRPK and specifically of KIm Jong-un, as well as a narrative projection of future behavior , leading to a recommendation of the most effective action plans for United States policy officials.

Most of our analyses, ranging from our presence in Afghanistan to psychological deterrents against Chinese cyber incursions, are largely based on open source material, which holds a wealth of narrative data, hidden within the subject matter, invisible to those untrained in the science and methods of narrative analysis and narrative creation.

Contact us for information about narrative analysis and creation services at narrative@storymind.com

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Group Identity – A Society’s Sense of Self

Here’s a little essay on how narrative can determine whether a group, culture, or society will hang together or fall apart…

When you see a society as a group mind, you can see that it must have an identity, just as we do: “I think therefore I am.”  In stories, this identity is the main character – the sense of self of the story mind.  Think of “corporate identity” of being a fan of a television show who goes to a convention about the show and connects with all the other fans.  As individuals, we get a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, that reflects a part of who we are and binds us all together.

When we say we are Democrats or Republicans, we are not saying that is all we are, or that the group identity for our part is the totality of our being, but rather that a portion of ourselves as individuals is represented by that group identity and, in that regard “we are all alike” and at the same time, we are NOT like members of the other party.

Every tribe, every sports team, needs a corporate identity or there is no glue to hold it together as it is just a collection of individuals (This IS the United States used to be These ARE the United States).  Of late, we are struggling with our common identity as Americans because the gap between the two party’s agendas has become so wide that we no longer feel like Americans when the other party is in power, or perhaps better put: we feel they are not Americans and we are foreigners in our own country (“Dude, Where’s my Country?”)

Often what helps focus a grow a group identity is a figure head – an avatar for the sense of self of the group mind, such as Steve Jobs with Apple or a religious or ethnic martyr like William Wallace (“Braveheart”) or Jesus Christ himself.  In the case of Apple, the corporation chose to end the avatar of Jobs when he died and tried to have Apple itself become its own main character, with little success.  In contrast, Kentucky Friend Chicken maintains the avatar of Colonel Sanders, just as Disney did for may years, and still to a small extent today.

We took on a narrative consulting job for a sports team once that had all the most expensive and best players in terms of stats, but couldn’t win in the clutch.  We analyzed the narrative and discovered the problem was so simple it is hard to see:  The players were asking “What can I do for my team?” rather than asking “What can WE do AS a team?”  As long as they saw themselves as individuals contributing to the greater good, no team identity could form.  So our narrative prescription was to instill a sense of all being contributors, rather than each contributing his best ability.  This would lead individual members to accept being benched or put in a less important order of play for the good of the group, and they would then begin to click as a team and to win.

So, for a society – ANY society – to become cohesive and to stand strong, it must develop a group identity, and that “brand” must be personified by a personality, real or fictitious.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about Narrative Science

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Know Your Story Points: Overall Story Concern

Excerpted from our Dramatica Story Structuring Software:

Overall Story Concern:  the purposes or interests sought after by the characters overall.

Within the scenario in which your story takes place, there is an area of shared importance to all the characters in your story.  Select the item(s) that best describes this Concern.

THEORY:  Problems can manifest themselves in several ways.  Therefore, simply defining the nature of a Problem does not necessarily predict its effect.

For example, if the Problem is that there is not enough money to pay the rent, it might motivate one person to take to drink but another to take a second job.

The effects of a Problem are not necessarily bad things, but simply things that would not have happened quite that way without the existence of the Problem.  So it is with Concerns.

The choice of Concern determines the principal area affected by the story’s Problem and serves as a broad indicator of what the story is about.

USAGE:  The Concern of a story tends to revolve around a definable area of activity or exploration.  This central hub may be internal such as Memories or Conceiving an Idea (coming up with an idea).  Or, it may be external such as Obtaining or How Things are Changing.

When choosing a Concern it is often useful to ask, “Which of these items do I want the characters in my story to examine?”

Keep in mind that the Concern only describes WHAT is being looked at.  HOW to look at it is determined by choosing the Issue.

The choice of Concern sets limits on how much dramatic ground the Theme can potentially encompass and therefore includes some kinds of considerations and excludes others.

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What Good Is Dramatica?

Chris Huntley and I developed a theory of story structure back in the early 1990’s.  Our theory was all about the relationships among structural story points – like a Rubik’s cube of story structure.  We programmed those relationships – that cube of story – into a software program called Dramatica where they became something we call the “Story Engine,” and it is not like any other tool for story.

Basically, you answer questions about the kind of structure you want for your story, and behind the scenes, the Story Engine adjusts the relationships among all the story points of your potential structure accordingly.

As you answer each question, it tightens up your structure a little more until you reach a point where all the other questions are automatically answered because your previous questions have enough influence to lock the structure.

You can answer the questions in any order you like, starting with the ones most important to you on a given story, and in this way, your story structure always reflects your intent as an author, yet is always complete and consistent.

Simple concept, but it requires a bit of learning about the story points, the questions and their implications for your story.

If you are more of an intuitive writer, you may find it a little too specific, but if you are looking for some guidance or a framework for your story that provides form, not formula, then Dramatica is probably just what you are looking for.

Like all our products for writers, it comes with a risk-free 90 Day return policy, so if it doesn’t work with your writing style, you can get just ask for your money back.

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Know Your Story Points: Overall Story Domain

Excerpted from our Dramatica Story Structuring Software:

Overall Story Domain:  The scenario against which a story takes place.

Every story is set against the issues which arise from a single problem.  The problem itself will fall into one of four broad categories.  If you want the problem to grow out of a situation, then choose Situation;  if you want the problem to emanate from an activity, then choose Activity.  If you want the problem to evolve from fixed attitudes and states of mind, then choose Fixed Attitude; and if you want the problem to result from the characters’ manipulations and ways of thinking, then choose Manipulation.

THEORY:  An author cannot successfully make an argument promoting a solution until he or she has identified the Problem.

In stories, Problems can be identified as falling into four broad categories: Situations, Activities, States of Mind, and Manners of Thinking.  These categories are named by the four Classes, Situation (a situation), Activity (an activity), Fixed Attitude (a state of mind), and Manipulation (a manner of thinking).

Situation represents an External State,

Activity an External Process.

Fixed Attitude is an Internal State and

Manipulation an Internal Process.

Since they are related, all four of these Classes will figure in every story as the Problem works its influence into all areas of consideration.  However, only one Class will ultimately prove to be both the source of the Problem’s roots and therefore the place it must ultimately be solved.

USAGE:  The Overall Story Domain is the throughline which describes how all of the story’s characters have been brought together.  By choosing this Domain, the author sets the background against which the story will be told.  Therefore, its influence is gently felt throughout the story.

A SITUATION story deals with an unacceptable situation – one in which the external environment is seen as problematic.  This could be a job situation with poor working conditions, being trapped in a sunken ship, waking up as someone else, living next to an orphanage that keeps you awake at night with its screaming waifs or any other intolerable state of affairs.

Often, the best way to see a Situation Overall Story is in terms of the Types below the Class of Situation:  The Past, How Things are Changing, The Future, and The Present.  These Types will be of primary importance to all the Overall Characters in a Situation Overall Story.

A ACTIVITY story employs an activity that needs to arrive at a solution.  This might be the effort to steal the crown Jewels, win the love of your heart’s desire, make the Olympic team, or raise the money to buy the orphanage and evict all the screaming waifs.

Note that if the existence of the orphanage is the focus of the story, it is a Situation (Situation) Domain.  However, if the effort to buy it is the focus, it is a Activity (Activity) Domain.

Often, the best way to see a Activity Overall Story is in terms of the Types below the Class of Activity:  Doing, Gathering Information, Understanding, and Obtaining.  These Types will be of primary importance to all the Overall Characters in a Activity Overall Story.

In a like manner, the Fixed Attitude Domain reflects a state of mind and the Manipulation Domain describes a mental activity (or manner of thinking).

Fixed Attitude Domain stories might be about prejudice, a lack of self-worth (if it is a fixed view), or a refusal to see the value of someone’s desires.  Remember that, as an Overall Story Domain, these fixed states of Mind will be the source of the problems that everyone in the Overall Story deals with.  This would be an Overall view of problems of fixed states of mind, and not looking at how it feels to have these fixations.

Often, the best way to see a Fixed Attitude Overall Story is in terms of the Types below the Class of Fixed Attitude:  Memories, Impulsive Responses, Innermost Desires, and Contemplation.  These Types will be of primary importance to all the Overall Characters in a Fixed Attitude Overall Story.

MANIPULATION Domain supports stories where people take too many risks, are egocentric, or make light of serious situations.  Overall Stories of this Domain will look at the effect of a person’s or persons’ thinking in these ways to manipulate others.  Placing the Overall Story in this Domain means in essence that the story will objectify Manipulation, taking an Overall view of these ways of thinking and their effects.  The problems that everyone in the Overall Story deals with will come from ways of thinking and their manipulations.

Often, the best way to see a Manipulation Overall Story is in terms of the Types below the Class of Manipulation:  Developing a Plan, Playing a Role, Changing One’s Nature, and Conceiving an Idea.  These Types will be of primary importance to all the Overall Characters in a Manipulation Overall Story.

As a final note, it is important to keep in mind that stories are often not about a problem that exists but a desire to be fulfilled.

Stories of this nature can create a much more positive feel as exemplified in a Situation story in which an heiress must spend a million dollars in 24 hours to inherit 30 million more, a Activity story where a mountaineer hopes to be the first to scale a mountain on Mars, a Fixed Attitude story of unconditional love, or a Manipulation story about overcoming a dependence on sedatives.

The choice of Domain narrows the playing field of a story.  Without actually putting up walls, choosing a Domain shifts the focus of audience attention by establishing the center around which broad scale dynamics will revolve.  The Dramatica engine is calibrated to this center.

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How Can You Teach Writing When You Speak In Jargon?

I recently received the following note as a response to the writing tips newsletter I publish:

How do you think you going to learn how to be a teacher when you talk in jargon?

What is structure?
What is a protagonist?
What is Narrative?
What is a Log line?
What is truth when none exist?

We live in a world where truth is what every Malcolm Turnbulll says it is.

Regards, Len

My response:

Well, I’ll tell you, Len. Here’s how I have managed to teach for the last 25 years. First, I don’t try to put everything I know into one single article. In fact, I have an article called “What is Narrative” and one called “What is structure” and one called “What is a protagonist” and a whole series of articles on truth (both capital “T” and small “t,” ranging from David Hume’s definition through the Tao.

And also, one cannot always write for beginners and define everything nor can one always write for advanced students and define nothing. Since both levels of experience are present in the 16,000 folks who follow my newsletter, I try to include articles over the whole range of levels, if not in every newsletter, at least over the span of a few issues.

But since you asked, here are some answers to your specific questions, just for you:

What is narrative?

Narrative is our attempt to see our problems from all useful angles so that we might better understand how a specific situation operates and how best to maximize it to what we’d like it to become. When we documented that approach that we all use intuitively into the conventions of storytelling, we called it narrative. And nowadays, we turn our understanding of how we explore a situation to find the greatest meaning (narrative) back to the the real world so that we might understand our selves, our roles in society, and how others interact, and how they might behave in the future. Of course, that’s just an opening paragraph for a full exploration of the topic.

What is a protagonist?

A protagonist is an archetypal character, which means that it is a character who represents a fundamental human quality, in this case, our initiative – our motivation to move forward and affect change in our lives. In a story, the protagonist is the primer mover of the effort to achieve the story’s goal. The protagonist is often mistaken as being the main character, but the main character in a story is the one who grapples with the personal issue at the heart of the story’s message – like Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” The reader or audience tends to stand in the shoes of the main character, or at least to look over their shoulder, and the passionate side of the story seems to revolve around them. When you give the job of protagonist AND main character to the same person in your story, you end up with the typical “hero” who fulfills both roles. But, those two aspects of structure don’t have to always go together. For example, in the book (and movie version) of To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch (the Gregory Peck part in the movie) is the protagonist, trying to get a fair trial for the black man accused of raping a white girl in the 1930s South. But the main character is Finch’s young daughter Scout, as we see this story of prejudice through her eyes, and she must grapple with her own prejudice against the local Boogey Man, “Boo” Radley, who she has judged without having any direct interaction with him, in parallel to the prejudice of the towns people against the man on trial.

What is structure?

Structure (narrative structure specifically) is built from a number of story points that appear in every complete story, such as a Goal or a moment at which the main character will either change their long-held view of how to solve their problems to adopt a different approach or will hold onto their resolve and remain steadfast in their outlook. Consider a Rubik’s cube in which there are only 27 pieces yet by moving them around, it creates more than forty trillion trillion combinations. Still, this is not without form. In a Rubik’s cube, corner pieces always remain corner pieces, no matter how you twist it. So, it always remains a cube. This creates form without formula, and that is what narrative structure does as well.

What is a Log Line?

I believe I actually defined this one right in the newsletter… A log line is a one-sentence description of what your story is about. It defines the core of your story and is useful in keeping your story focused on its essence as you write.

What is truth?

You ask what is truth when none exist? Well, if you had read my article on truth, you would know that your question is actually what the article is about. It describes the relationship of subjectivism to objectivism, and how each can only see a part of the complete picture. It wades in to deeper water with a philosophical discussion, but then turns practical with an exploration of how the search for truth (asking the question, what is truth?) is the essence of a character’s dilemma in not know for sure the best way to respond in a given situation.

Summing up, whether it is Malcolm Turnbull or Donald Trump, we all have our self-purported truth-sayers. But simply labelling something as the truth does not make it so, no matter how much a person wants it to be or believes it to be. In fact, as they say in the East, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao,” which means (for our purposes), that you can’t step into the same river once. Or, less cryptically, there is no truth that can be fully defined.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Storymind

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