When to Apply Structure to Your Story

In every developing story there is already a fuzzy proto-narrative forming within your subject matter.

This proto-narrative occurs because though people think ABOUT topics, they think IN narrative form. Narrative is just a map of all the perspectives we have at our disposal with which to explore a problem and look for a solution.

If one way of examining the issues isn’t explored, it leaves a hole that is felt by the readers/audience because we all intuitively look for narrative meaning.

If there is inconsistency in the perspectives so that they keep drifting away from an objective reporting of what the real issues are, then the readers/audience sense a biased presentation and question the whole message, even to the point of rejecting the entire experience.

But you really can’t create by building the narrative structure first because the inventive mind doesn’t work that way. If you try to direct your Muse to focus on logistics, she’ll go on strike. So, you have to let her range free – at least at first. You create your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens, and what it means.

And because we think in narrative form, you will automatically have organized your story ideas into a pattern that provides meaning, that generally explores most of the angles and documents most of the stages and steps simply by describing a journey from problem to solution.

Still, because creativity is driven by passion, not logic, the development of your initial story concept usually results in a narrative that is not complete and not completely on course. So, that is when the analytical mind comes into play – to find and refine the narrative structure already forming in your story.

Applying structure to your concept at the right time supports your inspiration, provides your story with a clear and distinct spine, and maximizes your impact.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Dramatica Do-er vs. Be-er

A Dramatica student asks:

In Dramatica theory, are all Objective Characters be-ers and all Subjective Characters do-ers?

My reply:

No, there is no assignment of be-er or do-er to objective characters at all. Objective Characters, such as the archetypes, are all defined by their functions only, when seen in terms of structure.

Naturally, in storytelling, you layer on a personality for each objective character to help the readers or audience connect to them as real people. And that personality, which is independent of structure, could be a do-er or a be-er, but it is not assigned by structure.

Conversely, Subjective Characters, of which there are two: Main and Influence, will be do-ers or be-ers, based on which domain you have chosen for them in your structural storyform. Universe (Situation) and Physics (Activities) are both externally focused areas of exploration, so if your Main character resides in one of these, he or she will be a do-er as a result.

And, since the Influence Character is diametrically opposed in outlook to the Main Character, they will be positioned in the domain opposite that (diagonally) to the Main Character. So, if your Main Character is in one of the external domains, your Influence Character will be in one of the internal domains: Mind (Attitude) or Psychology (Manner of Thinking), which will make it a be-er.

So, to sum up, only the two subjective characters are structurally mandated as be-ers or do-ers, they will be opposites.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Characters Who Carry Guilt

In the classes I teach on story structure we often point to Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) in “Silence of the Lambs” as a great example of a Success/Bad story in which the goal (save the senator’s daughter from Buffalo Bill) is achieved, but the personal angst of not being able to save that spring lamb remains, as evidenced by Lecter’s final conversation with Starling over the phone in which he asks, “Are the lambs still screaming?” Her silence in response (plus the somber soundtrack music even though this he graduation from the academy) both indicate she is still holding on to that angst.

We usually leave it there, having served our purpose of illustrating what Success/Bad means. Sometimes we go on to say that the reason she is trying to save all these people today – the reason she got into law enforcement (besides the fact her father was a sheriff) was because she can’t let go of that one lamb she couldn’t save and keeps trying to make up for it.

But now I’m thinking that while that may be true in an objective sense, nobody would carry that weight in their heart and act out that way for those reasons alone. You’d see it, you’d understand it and move on.

Rather, I think the reason she does what she does is not to make up for that lamb but to avoid having to carry another similar sense of loss. So every extraordinary effort – even to the extent of putting herself at risk of death – is to keep from adding one more victim to the pain or failure she already carries.

It would seem, then, counter-intuitive to put oneself in a profession where the risk of failure in the exact same subject matter area as your angst. But consider – most of us need to pay penance when we feel we have screwed up. The risk of hurting herself emotionally even more by her choice of profession, therefore, is penance for the first lamb she lost, while the extra-human effort she puts into each case is the attempt to avoid adding another instance to the pain she already carries.

Pretty screwed up, really, but in actuality the only way a mind, a heart, can make up for failing another in a way that can’t be fixed is to try to help others in a similar way. But then the risk of failure is omnipresent, so we give up a life of our own to excel enough to avoid another failure.

It is a never ending cycle of emotional self-flagellation: trying to make up for the failure by putting oneself in the situation most likely to create a repeat, then devoting one’s life to trying to avoid the failure and thereby punishing oneself for the original failure. That’s how we think and how we feel.

Of course, the only way out of this vicious circle is to accept the original failure, call it a clean slate, and move on. But who can easily do that, and how?

The answer is that no one can easily do that – not by ourselves.  We need to be shown the way.  And that is the real purpose and power of stories, to show us the way – either by illustrating how to resolve our angst or by providing an example of what not to do.

And how do stories do this?  And how can we fashion such stories or perhaps even apply what we learn to our own lives?

Here’s a link to a few of my articles on overcoming angst in stories and ourselves:

The Process of Justification

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Clear Your Mind Before Writing

When beginning a new novel, writers are often faced with one of two initial problems that hinders them right from the get go.  One – sometimes you have a story concept but can’t think of what to do with it.  In other words, you know what you want to write about, but the characters and plot elude you.  Two – sometimes your head is swimming with so many ideas that you haven’t got a clue how to pull them all together into a single unified story.

Fortunately, the solution to both is the same.  In each case, you need to clear your mind of what you do know about your story to make room for what you’d like to know.

If your problem is a story concept but no content, writing it down will help focus your thinking.  In fact, once your idea for a novel is out of your head and on paper or screen, you begin to see it objectively, not just subjectively.

Often just having an external look at your idea will spur other ideas that were not apparent when you were simply mulling it over.  And at the very least, it will clarify what it is you desire to create.

If, on the other hand, your problem is that all the little thoughts, notions or concepts that sparked the idea there might be a book in there somewhere are swirling around in a chaotic maelstrom….  well, then writing them all down will make room in your mind to start organizing that material by topic, category, sequence, or structural element.

For those whose cognitive cup runneth over, the issue is that one is afraid to forget any of these wonderful ideas, or to lose track of any of the tenuous or gossamer connections among them.  And so, we keeping stirring them around and around in our minds, refreshing our memory of them, but leaving us running in circles chasing our creative tales.

By writing down everything your are thinking, not as a story per se, but just in the same fragmented glimpses in which they are presenting themselves to you, you’ll be able to let them go, one by one, until your mental processor has retreated from the edge of memory overload and you can begin to pull your material together into the beginnings of a true proto-story.

Whether you are plagued by issue one or two, don’t try to fashion a full-fledged story at this stage while you are jotting down your notions.  That would simply add an unnecessary burden to your efforts that would hobble your forward progress and likely leave you frustrated by the daunting process of trying to see your finished story before you’ve even developed it.

Sure, before you write you’re going to need that overview of where you are heading to guide you to “The End”.  But that comes later.  For now, in this step, just write down your central concept and/or all the transient inspirations you are juggling in your head.

This tip was excerpted from our free online book,

Write Your Novel Step By Step

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Writers – $10 Off Coupon at the Storymind Store!

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Narrative in the Real World

Why do I post all these articles and videos on Story Structure?

Well, aside from it being my career for the past quarter of a century, narrative theory has shown me that people think in narratives, but we also manufacture narratives in the real world from too little information and hold them to be true.

We search for meaning, create a narrative to connect the dots, but they we assume we have the meaning, not realizing there may be other narratives that would equally explain those few points we actually observed.

In our relationships, in our politics, in our own hearts and minds we build narratives that in time become resistant to change. Eventually, even if a better narrative comes along that explains more and puts things in a more accurate context, we reject it out of hand because our trusted narrative is held as true.

And so we are convinced our enemy means us harm, that our internal angsts cannot be resolved, that our associates are insensitive or up to no good.

But the real harm occurs when we act on these convictions and feel justified in getting back at others or, at worst, at taking first strikes against them because we “know” the ill will they hold against us.

This I have learned from my twenty-five year study of narrative, and specifically from my work with my partner in creating the Dramatica theory of narrative structure.

Dramatica theory is a model of how the mind constructs narratives and becomes mired in misconceptions. But is also an instruction manual for discovering inaccuracies in our views and in adjusting our narratives continually to account for new information and new understandings.

Dramatica holds the key to resolving differences with others, to becoming closer to our loved ones, and to finding peace within ourselves.

Up to now, I have focused my work on explaining narrative in fiction, for that is where Dramatica was first discovered and refined. In posting these articles and videos it had been my hope that the application of these insights would be perceived by my audience and applied to their own lives.

Alas, very few have made that connection and, after a quarter of a century of sharing what I’ve learned, there is no general awareness of the power of Dramatica to effect change in oneself and one’s interactions.

And so, having described the use of narrative in fiction with as much depth and breadth as is reasonably possible, I have determined this day to take the plunge and shift my focus to an exploration of narrative in the real world.

Though this new area of inquiry draws on all of my experience, it is essentially a whole new career for me as it applies this knowledge in a completely different realm.

Posting real world narrative articles and videos is not appropriate to all my many channels, pages, blogs, and web sites that deal with the construction and development of novels and screenplays. So, you won’t see this new work everywhere I distribute.

What you will see is the occasional link to evolving material as I build whole new sites and avenues of distribution.

For many years, I have felt that this is my true calling, and all my work in fiction was simply preparation for the journey to share the means to make a better life, not only for ourselves, but for all with whom we relate.

Perhaps it is grandiose and overly optimistic, but it is my belief that the more we grasp the reasoning behind our own narratives and those of others as well, the less judgmental we will become in our conflicts, the more tolerant we will become of differing viewpoints, and greater will be our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as members of the human tribe.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

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Can There Be More Than One Protagonist In A Story?

A writer recently asked:

I write Western genre screenplays. And I love to use Dramatica Pro. In Western Genre sometime I will run into more than one  protagonist more than one antagonist . I name my antagonist in Dramatica Pro and then when I try to name another antagonist it will not allow me to go any further down the road in story. Will there be another advanced software in Dramatica Pro that will allow me to name more than one antagonist and let me go on with my story and continue to use Dramatica Pro?

Here’s my reply:

There is only one protagonist and antagonist in a story, but there may be more than one story in a single book or movie.

The protagonist is defined as the character who is leading the effort to achieve the Story Goal, and the antagonist is trying to prevent him from doing that.

The protagonist and antagonist represent initiative and reticence in our own minds – the force to effect change and the force to prevent change or to embrace or return to the status quo.

There can be a protagonistic group where, as an assembly they all function as a single protagonist, but if there were just two protagonists, they would both have to be the prime mover of the quest to the goal and they both can’t be, by definition. Or, each could have a separate Story Goal that affected everyone, but then you really have two stories.

In a nut shell, here’s why narrative works that way. Narratives reflect how people interact in real life. As individuals, we all have a sense of initiative, reason, emotion, skepticism and so on. And in solving personal problems we use all of these to try and find the solution.

But when we come together as a group toward a common purpose, we quickly self-organize into specialities, where one person becomes the Voice of Reason, another as the resident Skeptic and another as the Prime Operative who pushes everyone else forward toward completion of the group’s goal.

The “specialists” are represented in narrative as the archetypes, and each is just one facet of all the traits an individual has, yet each function just as we do in groups, focusing on just one aspect of the problem solving so that, collectively, the group can go into more detail and thought than if we were all general practitioners, each trying to be a jack of all trades (as we have to do for our personal issues.

Now the protagonist in the group – the one leading the effort – does not have to also be the main character. The main character is the group’s identity – the character who represents the spirit of the group – its personality in a sense. Sometimes the leader of the effort is also heart and soul of the group, in which case you have a typical hero who not only does the job, but also has to grapple with a personal issue – a decision about his own value standards that can make or break the overall effort depending on how he decides to see things, often in a leap of faith, as when Scrooge changes in A Christmas Carol.

So, only one protagonist or antagonist or reason archetype or emotion archetype, etc. per narrative.

BUT, often stories have sub-narratives built around some of the archetypes. Everyone has a story of their own. And so does every character in an overall story. We just don’t always choose to sell those “sub-stories” because we want to focus on the principals and not clutter things up.

But, you can take any character and create a sub-story around a personal goal in which he is the protagonist and main character in his own personal narrative that is not at all the issue the whole group is dealing with. This sub-story might be completely independent of the main story, or it might be hinged so that events in a character’s personal narrative are so potent than it causes the character to step out of his function in the overall story in a surprising way.

After all, our own personal narratives tend to be more important to us than the narrative of the overall group with whom we are associated.

So, with sub-stories, it can seem as if there are two protagonists in the story and even two antagonists, but they aren’t really in the same story but in a sub-story in the same overall “world” you’ve created in your story telling – your story universe.

I hope this helps provide some new ways in which to think about your characters and plot.

Let me know if you have any additional questions and may the Muse be with you!

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

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