Characters have two jobs. One, they must respond as real people so we can identify with them. Two, they must function as part of your plot to they contribute to the message.
Characters who don’t ring true drop your readers (or audience) out of their involvement with your story. Characters who don’t have a plot function seem pointless and can disrupt the flow of your story.
That being said, there is no need to develop the personality of a character who is simply a vehicle of exposition to provide some necessary information to your readers.
Similarly, characters can provide color and passion to a story, even if they have no impact on the course of events.
Think of these two approaches to character as the “play by play” and “color commentary” on a sporting event. One announcer tells you what’s happening and how it fits into the big picture. The other announcer provides interesting information about the backstory and personality of each player, helping us see them as people, and drawing our interest and involvement.
In your story storytelling, review your work from time to time to ensure your critical characters are working to advance the plot. And then take an emotional picture each character in your story verify that they have sufficient personality traits and personal information to attract your readers, hold their attention throughout the story, and lead them to identify with your characters or at the very least, identify them as a “type” they see in everyday life.
More on character types in future Beginning Writer Tips from StoryWeaver.
What a character likes and dislikes takes the curse of its larger than life stature. Whether you are writing a novel, play, screenplay, or teleplay, your characters loom in the hearts and minds of the audience. No one can relate to a loom. To humanize your characters and bring them down to size, give them preferences rather than just points of view.
You work in an office. Everyone does their job. The place runs like clockwork. Who ARE these people?! Until you know if they love football but hate sushi, you don’t really know them all. Who CARES what their functions are; more important to your readers is what do they take in their coffee, or tea, or do they not touch either but guzzle cola and pistachios.
Red. Does it do anything for them? What about wall paper patterns with thousands of little ducks? The things your characters like and don’t like set them apart from the crowd. And letting yourself go a little bit off the wall can bring forth attractions and repulsions that can suggest settings for a whole scene, sequence, or even the whole story itself.
Work yourself into the words. If you have pet likes and dislikes, this is the place to spout off about them. Assign them to your characters and you can get back at all those hated things, and express all those yearnings for the loved ones.
Archetypal characters have a bad name. Many writers think such characters are two-dimensional stick figures that come off more like plot robots than real people. But the truth is that archetypes represent essential human qualities that need to be explored in every story, such as trying to solve the story’s problems through logic as opposed to another character who hopes to succeed by following his or her heart. The story’s message is which approach turns out to be the best one in regard to the particular predicament explored in the story.
So if these archetypal human qualities need to be explored, how can you write a plot in which the characters that represent these attributes come off as flesh-and-blood, rather than automatons?
To find out, let’s build a plot using only archetypal characters. For this exercise I’ll be using the eight archetypal character described in the Dramatica approach story story structure that I co-developed along with my writing partner many years ago. You can, of course, use any archetypal system that is comfortable for you, such as those of Campbell or Jung.
A Sample Story Using Archetypes
To build our sample story, let’s take each archetype one by one and see how each can add the potential for interpersonal conflict and internal conflict as well.
Creating a Protagonist
Everyone is familiar with the Protagonist archetype, so let’s begin there and arbitrarily create a PROTAGONIST called Jane. Jane wants to… what?… rob a bank?…kill the monster?… stop the terrorists?… resolve her differences with her mother? It really doesn’t matter for our sample story; her goal can be whatever interests us as authors. So we’ll pick “stop the terrorists” because it interests us. All right, our Protagonist — Jane — wants to stop the terrorists.
Creating an Antagonist
Our Dramatica approach says we also need an ANTAGONIST. Antagonist by our definition is the person who tries to prevent achievement of the goal. So, who might be diametrically against the completion of the task Jane wants to accomplish? The Religious Leader whose dogma is the source of inspiration that spawns the acts of terror?… The multinational business cartel that stands to make billions if the terrorists succeed in their scheme?… Her former lover who leads the terrorist who are really an elite band of criminals? We like THAT one! Okay, we have our Protagonist (Jane) who wants to stop the terrorists who are led by her former lover (Johann).
Creating a Skeptic
Two simple Characters down, six to go. Dramatica now tells us we need a SKEPTIC. So who might be doubtful of the effort and not believe that success is possible for our stalwart Jane? Perhaps a rival special agent who doesn’t want to be left in the dust by her glowing success?… Maybe her current love interest on the force who feels Jane is in over her head?… Her father, the Senator, who wants his daughter to follow him into politics? Good enough for us. So we have Jane who wants to stop the terrorists, pitted against her former lover Johann who heads the criminal band, and opposed by her father, the Senator.
Creating a Sidekick
To balance the Skeptic, we’re going to need a SIDEKICK is, by definition, has complete unshakable faith in the Protagonist. We could bring back the idea of using her current lover but this time have him knowing how much ridding the world of scum appeals to Jane so he remains steadfastly behind her. Or we might employ her Supervisor and mentor on the force who knows the depth of Jane’s talent, wants to inspire other young idealists to take action against threats to democracy, or prove his theories and vindicate his name in the undercover world… We’ll use the Supervisor. So here’s Jane who wants to stop the terrorists, pitted against her former lover Johann, the head of the band, who wants to stop her, opposed by her father, the Senator, and supported by her Supervisor.
Creating a Contagonist
Let’s bring in a CONTAGONIST. What’s a Contagonist, you ask? It’s an archetypal character we developed uniquely in Dramatica. Essentially, they gum up the works. Sometimes they act as tempation to lure the protagonist off the proper path. And other times they gum up the works by doing or saying something that creates problems for the Protagonist, often quite by accident.
Here are some possible Contagonists for our sample story: the Seasoned Cop who says, “You have to play by the rules” and thwarts Jane’s efforts to forge a better approach?… Or, the Ex-Con with a heart of gold who studies the classics and counsels her to base her approach on proven scenarios rather than her own inspirations?… Or, her friend Sheila, a computer whiz who has a bogus response plan based on averaging every scenario every attempted? Computer whiz it is. So Jane wants to stop the terrorists, is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, opposed by her father, the Senator, supported by her Supervisor, and tempted away from the strength of her own inspired approach by her friend Sheila, the computer whiz.
Creating a Guardian
Keeping in mind the concept that for every archetype there should be another one who represents the opposite human quality, we are going to want to balance the Contagonist (who tempts and gums up the works) with a Guardian archetype (who appeals to conscience and smooths the way).
We might go with a Master of the Oriental martial arts who urges her to “go with the flow” (“Use The Force, Jane!”)?… The Ex-Con again who says, “Get back to basics”?… or perhaps the Seasoned Cop who paves the way through the undercover jungle?…. We like the Seasoned Cop. Note that we could have used him as Contagonist who says “You have to play by the rules,” but elected to use him as Guardian instead, who paves the way for Jane by giving her the benefit of his experience. As you can see it’s totally up to us as authors which characteristics go into which players. Jane wants to stop the terrorists, is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, is opposed by her father, the Senator, supported by her Supervisor, tempted by her friend Sheila the computer whiz, and protected by the Seasoned Cop.
Creating Reason and Emotion Characters
The final two archetypal characters in our Dramatica system represent our intellect and our passion, respectively. Since we really like some of the character we came up with earlier but not to use, let’s bring back the Ex-Con as REASON, stressing the need to use classic scenarios. We’ll balance her with the Master of the Oriental martial arts, who maintains Jane’s need to break with the Western approach by letting loose and following her feelings.
Well, that covers all eight Archetypal Characters: Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic, Sidekick, Contagonist, Guardian, Reason and Emotion. So now we end up with Jane who wants to stop the terrorists and is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, is opposed by her Father, the Senator, is supported by her Supervisor, tempted by her friend Sheila the computer whiz, protected by the Seasoned Cop, urged by the Ex-Con to copy the classics, and counseled by the Master of Oriental martial arts to let loose and follow her feelings.
As was pointed out at the beginning, you can use any archetypal characters you like, and simply applying the human quality they represent to their plot function, they will have the potential not only to come off as real people but to lay the groundwork for conflict within themselves and with the other characters as well.
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. Still, how you reveal what happened to the characters can have a huge effect on the reader/audience experience.
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 Plot Points, such as the story Goal, that remain the same for the whole course of the story, and Two, Sequential Plot Points, 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.
What’s in a name? Choosing names for your characters can be perfunctory or can provide your readers or audience with insight into your characters’ natures, add humor or surprise, or even at the very least break out of ordinary monikers into the realm of the unusual.
So far, we’ve been dealing with characters primarily by their jobs, vocations or roles since we derived them from your plot. Now it’s time to start building some personality into your characters to see if they really have potential for your story, and we’ll begin by giving them names.
Few people (other than performers, artists, and writers) get to choose their own names. But as a writer, you have the power to choose the names of all your characters. And with this power comes the opportunity to say something to your readers or audience about a character’s inclinations, accomplishments, or outlook.
A name could convey military service, religious affiliation, or status. A nick-name might illuminate a major character trait, some event in a character’s past, or the way other characters feel about him or her. Names can add to comic value, hint at danger, or flirt with with mystery.
In this step, add a name to each of your characters that doesn’t already have one and reconsider the names of those characters who do.
TELL ME MORE
In this step, you’ll start interviewing all the folks that showed up for your casting call so you can learn a bit more about them in order to decide who to hire to be in your story.
The first step in any interview is to get to get the character’s name. You probably already have names for several of your potential cast members, but there are likely to be some whose names you don’t yet know.
For the nameless ones, it’s time to give them a moniker. Names give us our first impression of a character. In most stories you’ll want to keep most of your characters’ names normal and simple. But if they are too normal or if everyone has an ordinary name, you’re just boring your readers.
However, if your story requires typical names, try to pick ones that don’t sound like one another or your readers may become confused as to which one you are talking about. Personally, I’ve always had trouble remembering which one is Sauron and which is Sarumon, but that’s just me. Nonetheless, try to stay away from character combos like Jeanne and Jenny, Sonny and Sammy, Bart And Bret and – well, you get the idea.
If your story might benefit from giving some of your characters more unusual names, consider nicknames. Nicknames are wonderful dramatic devices because they can work with the character’s apparent nature, against it for humiliating or comedic effect, play into the plot by telegraphing the activities in which the character will engage, create irony, or provide mystery by hinting at information or a backstory for the character that led to its nickname but has not yet been divulged to the readers.
Keep in mind these are just temporary names for identification. You’ll have the chance to change them later. So for now, just add a name to every character in your potential cast list.
What’s in a name? Not a name like “Joe” or “Sally” but something that opens the door to further development like “Muttering Murdock” or “Susan the Stilt.” Often coming up with a nickname or even a derogatory name one child might call another is a great way to establish a character’s heart.
What can we say about Muttering Murdock? The best way to develop a character (or for that matter, any aspect of your story) is to start with loose thread and then ask questions. So, for ol’ Muttering Murdock, the name is the loose end just hanging out there for us to pull. We might ask, “Why does Murdock Mutter?” (That’s obvious, of course!) But what else might we ask? Is Murdock a human being? Is Murdock male or female? How old is Murdock? What attributes describe Murdock’s physical traits? How smart is Murdock? Does Murdock have any talents? What about hobbies, education, religious affiliation? And so on, and so on….
We don’t need to know the answers to these questions, we just have to ask them.
Why Does Murdock Mutter?
Because he has a physical deformity for the lips.
Because he talks to himself, lost in his own world due to the untimely death of his parents, right in front of his eyes
Because he feels he can’t hold his own with anyone face to face, so he makes all his comments so low that no one can hear, giving him the last word in his own mind.
Because he is lost in thought about truly deep and complex issues, so he is merely talking to himself. No one ever knows that he is a genius because he never speaks clearly enough to be understood.
You get the idea. You just pull out all the stops and be creative. See, that’s the key. If you try to come up with a character from scratch, well good luck. But if you pick an arbitrary name, it can’t help but generate a number of questions. If you aren’t trying to come up with the one perfect answer to each question, you can let your Muse roam far and wide. Without constraints, you’ll be amazed at the odd variety of potential answers she brings back!
In our sample story, we’ve added names to all our characters with a good mix of the ordinary and the odd, including proper names and nick names. Some names just came to mind. Others are alterations of names of characters I’ve seen in television shows and movies. Some are based on sound-alike first and last names. In other words, names aren’t hard to come by, and mixing them up a bit just livens the party.
You’ll note that in several names, such as those of the posse, the gang, the businessmen, and the shopkeepers, I’ve given them organizational names such as The Gazpacho Enforcers. In so doing, I’ve given the town our example story the name of Gazpacho, so always be aware of opportunities to extend other parts of your story than the one you are currently working on. I’ll put the town name of Gazpacho in the Notes window to make sure I can refer to it later.
Also note that I’ve added an all new group character at the end of the list – a charitable organization: the Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society. The name just fell into my mind when I was naming all the Gazpacho groups and it struck me as to how ridiculous and pompous they sounded. Again, be on the lookout for random creative ideas: they can pop out of the shadows at any time!
Jedediah Farnsworth – The Old Sheriff
James Vestibule – The New Sheriff
The Hole in the Head Gang – Gang of Cutthroats
Armoire Vestibule Gang Leader (The sheriff’s wife)
The Gazpacho Enforcers – A posse
Stiff-Leg Sam – Deputy
Shandy Stilton – Mayor
J.W. Blinkers – Banker
The Gazpacho Consortium – Businessmen
The Gazpacho Retail Trade Association – Shopkeepers
Nell Goodtime – saloon girl
Slick Nick – bartender
Hugo Laughter – blacksmith
Bart Costello – rancher
Brother Bob – preacher
Nancy Lacy – schoolmarm
The Tumbling Troubadours – A troupe of traveling acrobats
Ulysses S. Grant – President of the United States
Percy Prancy – A bird watcher
Ghost of Julius Caesar – Annoying Spirit
The Sons of the Gazpacho Ladies Auxiliary Support Society – Charitable organization
At the core of a story’s message is a very simple issue – whether the author is telling us it is better to be like the main character or not. This is usually thought of as the moral of the story and is proven to the readers or audience by how the main character fares after making a choice or taking a leap of faith at the climax.
For characters like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the message is that it is better to change one’s attitude toward others and adopt a new way of thinking. If you do, things will work out better. But for other characters, such as in Field of Dreams or Rocky, the message is to stick by your beliefs because that’s the only way to solve your problems.
Sometimes change is good, as with Scrooge. But imagine if Ray had given up on building the ball field or Rocky Balboa had determined there was no way to win and he shouldn’t continue to try.
Stories can be written about characters who change or about characters who don’t. That’s the first part of the message. The second part is what happens to the character in the end as a result of their choice to change or not.
This results in four possibilities:
The main character changes and things work out for the better.
The main character changes and things work out for the worse.
The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the better.
The main character remains steadfast and things work out for the worse.
Each of the four combinations provides a different kind of message about changing or sticking to your beliefs. So far, so good. But now you need to get that message across to your readers or audience.
The first part of conveying your message is to be clear about the nature of the human quality or thought pattern that your moral is about. That aspect of your main character that defines him, just as Scrooge’s lack of concern for his fellow man is the issue at the heart of him. How you do this can be subtle or straight out, but by the time the moment of choice is upon your main character, your audience or reader needs to absolutely and with total clarity know what that issue is or your message will be unclear.
The second part of conveying your message is to show that as a result of his or her choice, your main character is better off or worse off than they were. This element of your message has two components:
Did they achieve the goal?
Are they in an emotionally better place than they were.
For example, suppose you have a story in which a character changes his beliefs, achieves the goal, and is elated. That’s fine, and the message is that whatever his issue was, it was good he changed his point of view. But change is not always good, so in another story a character might change his beliefs, still achieve the goal, but be miserable in the end because he hadn’t resolved his anguish or he had to take on an emotional burden to accomplish his quest. For example, in Avengers: Infinity War, the villain Thanos has to kill the person he loves the most to accomplish his goal, and this leaves him logistically satisfied yet emotionally devastated.
On the opposite side, a character might remain steadfast in his beliefs, fail in the goal but find personal salvation or true happiness in the end. Or a character might remain steadfast, succeed in the goal but be left personally raw. An example of this last combination can be seen in Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling is successful in saving the senator’s daughter, but could not let go of the screaming lambs in her memory, as pointed out in the end by Hannibal Lecter (“Tell me, Clarice,” are the lambs still screaming?”) This is why the ending music over her graduation ceremony is so somber – she achieved the goal but could not let go of her angst.
And, of course, you can have the quintessential tragedy in which a change or a steadfast character fails and the goal and is miserable in the end, such as in Hamlet, or the penultimate feel good story in which a change or steadfast character both succeeds in the goal and find (or holds onto) great happiness, true love, etc., as in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV)
The point here is that change, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad until you see the results of that change. And also, a character does not have to change to grow, but can grow in his or her resolve.
And finally, the ramifications don’t have to be cut and dried: all good or all bad. Rather, by treating the goal and the emotional outcome separately, you have the opportunity to temper your message with bitter sweet and sweet bitter endings as well, thereby creating a more complex message for your readers or viewers.
Melanie Anne Phillips Co-creator, StoryWeaver Creator, Dramatica
Over the course of the story, your reader/audience has come to know your characters and to feel for them. The story doesn’t end when your characters and their relationships reach a climax. Rather, the reader/audience will want to know the aftermath – how it turned out for each character and each relationship. In addition, the audience needs a little time to say goodbye – to let the character walk off into the sunset or to mourn for them before the story ends.
This is in effect the conclusion, the wrap-up. After everything has happened to your characters, after the final showdown with their respective demons, what are they like? How have they changed? If a character began the story as a skeptic, does it now have faith? If they began the story full of hatred for a mother that abandoned them, have they now made revelations to the effect that she was forced to do this, and now they no longer hate? This is what you have to tell the audience, how their journeys changed them, have the resolved their problems, or not?
And in the end, this constitutes a large part of your story’s message. It is not enough to know if a story ends in success or failure, but also if the characters are better off emotionally or plagued with even greater demons, regardless of whether or not the goal was achieved.
You can show what happens to your characters directly, through a conversation by others about them, or even in a post-script on each that appears after the story is over or in the ending credits of a movie.
How you do this is limited only by your creative inspiration, but make sure you review each character and each relationship and provide at least a minimal dismissal for each.
Melanie Anne Phillips Creator, StoryWeaver Co-creator, Dramatica
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 Creator, StoryWeaver Co-creator, Dramatica
Some time ago I wrote an article that described the difference between the two basic forms of story structure with the following phrase:
You spin a tale, but you weave a story.
The common expression “spinning a yarn” conjures up the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile into a single unbroken thread. An appropriate analogy for the process of telling a tale. A tale is a simple, linear progression – a series of events and emotional experiences that leads from point A to point B, makes sense along the way, and leaves no gaps.
A tale is, perhaps, the simplest form of storytelling structure. The keyword here is “structure.” Certainly, if one is not concerned with structure, one can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many power works of this ilk are considered classics, especially as novels or experimental films.
Nonetheless, if one wants to make a point, you need to create a line that leads from one point to another. A tale, then, is a throughline, leading from the point of departure to the destination on a single path.
A story, on the other hand, is a more complex form of structure. Essentially, a number of different throughlines are layered, one upon another, much as a craftsperson might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that is spun, making it complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the linear pattern of colors in all the throughlines form a single, overall pattern in the tapestry, much as the scanning lines on a television come together to create the image of a single frame.
In story structure, then, the sequence of events in each individual throughline cannot be random, but must be designed to do double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater purpose.
You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I used the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.
Throughlines then, are any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, every character’s growth has its own throughline. Typically, this is referred to as a character arc, especially when in reference to the main character. But an “arc” has nothing to do with the growth of a character. Rather, each character’s emotional journey is a personal tale that describe his or her feelings at the beginning of the story, at every key juncture, and at the final reckoning.
Some characters may come to change their natures, others may grow in their resolve. But their mood swings, attitudes, and outlook must follow an unbroken path that is consistent with a series of emotions that a real human being might experience. For example, a person will not instantly snap from a deep depression into joyous elation without some intervening impact, be it unexpected news, a personal epiphany, or even the ingestion of great quantities of chocolate. In short, each character throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.
Now that we know what a throughline is, how can we use it? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. Using the throughline concept, we can far more easily create a story structure, and can also ensure that every element is complete and that our story has no gaps or inconsistencies.
Before the throughline concept, writers traditionally would haul out the old index cards (or their equivalent) and try to create a single sequential progression for their stories from Act I, Scene I to the climax and final denouement.
An unfortunate byproduct of this “single throughline” approach is that it tended to make stories far more simplistic than they actually needed to be since the author would think of the sequential structure as being essentially a simple tale, rather than a layered story.
In addition, by separating the throughlines it is far easier to see if there are any gaps in the chain. Using a single thread approach to a story runs the risk of having a powerful event in one throughline carry enough dramatic weight to pull the story along, masking missing pieces in other throughlines that never get filled. This, in fact, is part of what makes some stories seem disconnected from the real world, trite, or melodramatic.
By using throughlines it is far easier to create complex themes and layered messages. Many authors think of stories as having only one theme (if that). A theme is just a comparison between two human qualities to see which is better in the given situations of the story.
For example, a story might wish to deal with greed. But, greed by itself is just a topic. It doesn’t become a theme until you weigh it against its counterpoint, generosity, and then “prove” which is the better quality of spirit to possess by showing how they each fare over the course of the story. One story’s message might be that generosity is better, but another story might wish to put forth that in a particular circumstance, greed is actually better.
By seeing the exploration of greed as one throughline and the exploration of generosity as another, each can be presented in its own progression. In so doing, the author avoids directly comparing one to the other (as this leads to a ham-handed and preachy message), but instead can balance one against the other so that the evidence builds as to which is better, but you still allow the audience to come to its own conclusion, thereby involving them in the message and making it their own. Certainly, a more powerful approach.
Plot, too, is assisted by multiple throughlines. Subplots are often hard to create and hard to follow. By dealing with each independently and side by side, you can easily see how they interrelate and can spot and holes or inconsistencies.
Subplots usually revolve around different characters. By placing a character’s growth throughline alongside his or her subplot throughline, you can make sure their mental state is always reflective of their inner state, and that they are never called upon to act in a way that is inconsistent with their mood or attitude at the time.
There are many other advantages to the use of throughlines as well. So many, that the Dramatica theory (and software) incorporate throughlines into the whole approach. Years later, when I developed StoryWeaver at my own company, throughlines became an integral part of the step-by-step story development approach it offers.
How do you begin to use throughlines for your stories? The first step is to get yourself some index cards, either 3×5 or 5×7. As you develop your story, rather than simply lining them all up in order, you take each sequential element of your story and create its own independent series of cards showing every step along the way.
Identify each separate kind of throughline with a different color. For example, you could make character-related throughlines blue (or use blue ink, or a blue dot) and make plot related throughlines green. This way, when you assemble them all together into your overall story structure, you can tell at a glance which elements are which, and even get a sense of which points in your story are character heavy or plot or theme heavy.
Then, identify each throughline within a group by its own mark, such as the character’s name, or some catch-phrase that describes a particular sub-plot, such as, “Joe’s attempt to fool Sally (or more simply, the “Sally Caper.”). That way, even when you weave them all together into a single storyline, you can easily find and work with the components of any given throughline. Be sure also to number the cards in each throughline in sequence, so if you accidentally mix them up or decide to present them out of order for storytelling purposes, such as in a flashback or flash forward, you will know the order in which they actually need to occur in the “real time” of the story.
Once you get started, its easy to see the value of the throughline approach, and just as easy to come up with all kinds of uses for it.
Melanie Anne Phillips Creator, StoryWeaver Co-creator, Dramatica
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