Story structure is something we all feel, but when it comes to defining its parts and how they work to create a sound narrative, the simplicity vanishes. Still, if we are to be able to use structure as a tool when our intuition fails, the more we know about the elements of structure the more we can improve our stories.
The following transcript is from a series of online story structure classes that present the Dramatica approach to story development.
Topics covered in this class include:
- The Story Mind
- Why the Main Character does not have to be the Protagonist
- Does your Main Character “change” or “remain steadfast”?
- Does your Main Character grow by “starting” something or “stopping”something?
- Is your story brought to a conclusion by a “timelock” or an “optionlock”?
Dramatica : Welcome to the Dramatica class! Dan, do you have any questions you’d like to pose before I bring up some topics?
Dan Steele : None, just am here to see what you have to say.
Dramatica : Okay, well, let me get started. We didn’t put out a lot of advance notice, so I don’t expect a large crowd. Normally, we teach our classes here at Screenplay Systems in Burbank. We have a four-hour Basics class in the theory, followed by eight two-hour Focus Workshops.
The Dramatica Theory of story was developed by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, and was implemented into software by Chief Software Architect, Stephen Greenfield.
The focus workshops cover Character, Plot, Theme, Genre,Storyforming, Storyencoding, Storyweaving, and Reception theory. That’s 20 hours of material, spoken; so as you can see, we’ll just scratch the surface tonight. Please feel free to jump in at any time with a question or comment.
First off, let’s separate the Dramatica theory from the Dramatica software. The Dramatica theory has been in development for over 15 years, the software implements the theory. This class focuses on the theory, though I will answer questions about the software you may have. The Dramatica theory is not a theory of screenplay, but a theory of story. As such, it can be used equally well for novels, plays, song ballads AND screenplays.
The central concept of the theory is called The Story Mind. This means that Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single mind, trying to deal with a particular inequity. In fact, stories are an analogy to the mind’s problem solving process. With me so far?
Dan Steele : yes
RDCvr : Yes
Dramatica : Is this boring, or an okay rate of information for you?
RDCvr : good.
Dan Steele : I can take it in as fast as you wish to deliver it.
Dramatica : Great! Here goes… stop me if you have questions… The theory sees Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre as being the thoughts of the Story Mind, made tangible, so we can look at our own mental processes from the outside, more objectively. Characters are the motivations of this Story Mind. Plot is the problem solving methods the Story Mind uses. Theme is the standard of values the Story Mind uses to determine what is favorable or unfavorable. And Genre describes the nature of the Mind itself: what kind of mind is it?
We think the Story Mind came into being as follows: First of all, no one would ever sit around trying to create an analogy of the mind. Rather, the first stories were simply statements that a particular path led to a particular outcome. In and of itself, this statement (or what Dramatica calls a “tale”) is great for that one particular situation that it describes. But what about extending that?
Suppose we as authors want to say that what happened in our tale was true for all such similar situations? Well, our audience might not buy that kind of blanket statement. They would question us and ask, “what about THIS particular case”, or “what about THAT case”? If we were telling our story “live” in front of the audience, we could counter each rebuttal to our blanket statement one by one. If our argument were well thought out, we would eventually address the concerns of everyone in the audience so that they would buy into what we were saying.
However, when we record our story, either as written words, or a screenplay or book, we are not there to counter the rebuttals to the blanket statements we might make. So, we have to incorporate all possible counters to all possible rebuttals in regard to the point we are making, right in the body of the work itself. This way, any issue anyone in our audience might take with us is covered already and dealt with. This is what makes a story complete: That the central issue of the story is seen from all essential logical and emotional points of view.
When we create a work of that nature, it is not a statement or tale, but a full argument. And that is how Dramatica defines a story. Since all the ways anyone might look at the issue have been incorporated, Since all the ways anyone might look at that particular issue are incorporated, the story actually maps out all the perspectives and considerations ANY mind might take on the issue. This is what creates the analogy of the mind.
Dan Steele : bacl – AOL just booted me off
Dramatica : No problem, Dan!
Dan Steele : wait
Dramatica : Yes?
Dan Steele : obviously you cannot give in the story all possible outcomes of an event.
Dramatica : True, outcome is the author’s bias on the issue.
Dan Steele : do you perhaps mean that the story maps out the end result of all perspectives?
Dramatica : The author chooses which outcome out of the infinite number will occur in HIS story. But the road that leads to that outcome must be fully described.
Dan Steele : oh, so at the story level all the outcomes exist, but at the presentation level one is selected by the author to be shown.
Dramatica : Absolutely correct. If a path is not taken that is an obvious alternative, the audience will cry, “foul” and you will have a plot hole. In other words, all the possible considerations along this path must be addressed, to make a complete argument. Now, even after making the argument, the audience may discount your concept and reject it out of hand, but they cannot argue with the internal logic of your message or claim that the characters are not consistent.
Okay, that’s the first concept out of several hundred. How we doing?
Dan Steele : okay so far
RDCvr : hanging in
Dan Steele : Obviously you have to condense things a lot, but okay so far.
Dramatica : Alright, lets take this concept of the Story Mind, and see what it does for us as authors. Let’s take this mind and hold it out in front of us. Kind of like a visible mind. We have two views of that mind: One view is from the outside looking in. This is the Objective view of the mind. Its kind of like a general on a hill watching a battle., You care about the outcome and the pain of your troops, but you are not personally involved in the action.
But there is a second view of the Story Mind that we share with the audience. That is the Subjective view. It is as if we take the Story Mind and make it our own, so we think its thoughts and feel its emotions. This is more like the view of the soldier in the trenches. He can’t see the whole battle like the general on the hill, but he is much more personally involved with the guy coming at him with the bayonet! This is the view through the eyes of the Main Character of the story. The audience sees through their eyes and feels through their heart. The other character coming at him, by the way, is what we call the Obstacle Character. Any questions on this part?
RDCvr : I’m okay.
Dan Steele : No,no questions.
Dramatica : Okay, Now the Main Character is not necessarily the Protagonist. First of all, a Protagonist is an archetypal character, and although archetypes work just fine, there are an infinite number of other kinds of more complex (and more simple) characters that can be created. But suppose we have a story with a Protagonist, and the Protagonist is NOT the Main Character… A story like To Kill a Mockingbird.
The Protagonist of a story is the driver of the Objective story. In other words, they are the most crucial soldier on the field. But we don’t have to see they battle always through their eyes. Just like we don’t always have to identify only with the quarterback in a football game. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus, the Gregory Peck part in the movie, is the Protagonist. He is the driver of the Objective story – the story all the characters are concerned with. He is the one who wants to have the black man wrongly accused of rape freed. Do the two of you know the story?
Dan Steele : Unfortunately, not too familiar with the plotline.
RDCvr : Sort of, saw the movie a long time ago.
Dramatica : Well, the parts we are interested in are pretty simple, so it shouldn’t hold things up. The antagonist of the story is Bob Ewell, the father of the girl who was supposedly raped. He wants to have the man executed or at least lynched. But, the Main Character, the one through whose eyes we see the story through is Scout, Atticus’ little girl. The audience identifies with her, and even the camera angles in the movie are from her eye level whenever she is in a scene.
In this story, the Obstacle Character is not the antagonist either. The Obstacle character is Boo Radley, the “boogie man” from next door. The author of the work, in dealing with prejudice, did a very clever thing, in separating the Main and Obstacle from the Protagonist and Antagonist. No one wants to admit they are prejudiced. So, in the Objective story, the audience looks AT Atticus and Bob Ewell, and passes judgment on them. But at the same time, we are sucked into being prejudiced ourselves from the very first scene, because of the way Scout feels about Boo.
At the end of the story, we realize emotionally, that we were just as wrong as the objective characters were. Very clever technique! About to change subject, any questions?
Dan Steele : Okay, clear on the functions/differences of Main/Protagonist/Obstacle Chars.
Dramatica : Great!
RDCvr : what is the difference between obstacle character and antagonist?
Dramatica : The Antagonist tries to prevent the Protagonist from achieving the story’s goal, the Obstacle character tries to get the Main Character to change their belief system.
RDCvr : Okay.
Dramatica : They do this by building an alternative paradigm to the one the M.C. has traditionally used. More often than not, the M.C. and Protagonist characters are put in the same “body” and so are the Antagonist and Obstacle.
Dan Steele : Fine, but what if the antagonist is the protagonist, as in man against himself?
Dramatica : In Dramatica, we call any body that holds a character a player. Actually, you have touched on some very important theory points. First of all, when it comes to the Antagonist and Protagonist and all the other “objective” characters, the audience sees them “objectively” from the outside. Therefore, we identify them by their function in the story.
Again, we can feel for them, but we must see their function in order to understand the meaning of the battle. So, putting two objective functions that are diametrically opposed into the same player, mask the function of each, and make it VERY difficult to see what their purpose is. However, in stories like “Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde”, or Sibyl, there are many objective characters in the same body, but not at the same time!
In fact, each is identified as a separate character, and each has its day in the sun. But the Main and Obstacle characters are not identified by function, but by point of view. The Main Character is I to the audience, first person singular. The Obstacle character is you. Second person singular. So, the Antagonist might be the Main Character, or the sidekick, or the Guardian or any objective character.
Dan Steele : Hmm. Am wondering though how this copes with internalpsychological conflicts of a “tormented” Main character no, make that a Protagonist.
Dramatica : Well, the Main character, being a point of view is where all that internal conflict is seen.
RDCvr : But usually you also have external conflict which reflect or push the internal, no?
Dramatica : It is important to remember that when you combine a Protagonist in the same body as a Main character, the Protagonist part tries to drive the story forward to the goal, but the M.C. part is the INTERNAL conflict of the story, and can be full of angst.
Dan Steele : Okay.
Dramatica : They just don’t HAVE to be in the same body. Dramatica needed to separate the Objective or analytical part of the story’s argument, from the Subjective or passionate part of the argument in order to map out all of each side. In a finished story, of course, they are all ultimately blended together through storytelling.
Now, to jump ahead, Now that we have an understanding of how the Main Character differs from the Protagonist, Dramatica has four very important questions it asks about the Main Character. These questions are used by the software to arrange the relationships between character, plot, theme, and genre. Its kind of like a “Rubik’s” cube of story, as it were. These answers twist it into your unique arrangement.
Question one: Main Character Resolve. At the end of your story, has your Main Character changed or remained steadfast? Change or Steadfast is the question. Now some stories have a leap of faith where the M.C. must consciously choose to stick with their guns, or realize THEY might be the cause of the problems and CHANGE.
Scrooge is a change character. So is Luke Skywalker. Dr. Richard Kimble, or Job in the Bible are STEADFAST characters. Hollywood often has it that a character must CHANGE to grow. But Dramatica sees that a character can grow in their resolve as well. That’s why James Bond doesn’t seem to change but still works as a character. But there is always someone in the story who WILL change. In fact, if the Main Character changes, the Obstacle character will remain steadfast, If the Obstacle character changes, the M.C. will remain steadfast.
Who is Dr. Richard Kimble’s Obstacle? Who changes in The Fugitive? Any thoughts?
RDCvr : The policeman.
Dan Steele : Yes.
Dramatica : Right, Gerrard, the Tommy Lee Jones character. He starts out the first time he meets Kimble saying, “I don’t care!” And Kimble even brings it up to him in the police car at the end. And he says to Kimble, “Don’t tell anybody”, meaning that now he cares, he has changed. But Kimble didn’t! He never gave up… NEVER! In Goldfinger, if James Bond is steadfast,who changes? Who is the Obstacle Character?
Dan Steele : So one char. or the other HAS TO change their belief system by the end.
Dramatica : Yes, Dan, that is the nature of the author’s bias in the argument.
RDCvr : Goldfinger.
Dan Steele : Does Goldfinger dying count as a change in bel sys?
Dramatica : No, Goldfinger is an objective character – the Antagonist, in fact. Actually, Its Pussy Galore, the one who flies the plane – Honor Blackman.
Dan Steele : Oh, okay – yes
Dramatica : She changes from helping Goldfinger to helping Bond. Its not big, but it is there! It HAD to be there! Of course it is downplayed in an action story, and also the Obstacle character change is often underplayed because the M.C. is more important to the audience. But even Bond is asked at the end why she did it, and he replies, “I must have appealed to her maternal instincts”. It was important to make sure the audience knows that Bond was the one that changed her.
Dan Steele :So the antagonist provides the force against the main goal, but the obstacle char provides forces for belief system change?
Dramatica : Yes, Dan, exactly! That is the essence of the first question of Dramatica. Which kind of story do you want? The one where the M.C. sticks with their guns, or the story in which they are convinced to change? By making that choice, you not only know a lot more about your story and where it will go, but you have also had some impact on theme, plot, and genre as well. This doesn’t mean the M.C. will end up in a story filled with success. For example, by changing, they might give up just before they were about to win! So, outcome is a completely different thing. The question is not what they SHOULD do, but what they actually DO!
Dan Steele : So Resolve: change means MC sticks to guns, but Resolve:steadfast means either : 1) MC is convinced to change, or 2) MC changes another?
Dramatica : Right, Dan, that’s how it works.I don’t know how long you want to hang out tonight, but I can do another question if you like.
RDCvr : Yeah.
Dramatica : Okay, question number 2.
Dan Steele : An hour is plenty for a volunteer effort by you, thanks! But continue as long as you wish!
Dramatica : Question 2: about the Main character: Direction…. Start or Stop? This question means something different depending upon whether you answered change or steadfast. For a change Main Character, the question is: Do they have to grow by Starting something they aren’t doing, or stopping something they shouldn’t be doing? In other words, Do they have a chip on their shoulder or a hole in their heart?
We’ve all seen stories in which the M.C. is causing problem because of what they do, and other stories in which they allow a problem to grow because they don’t do anything! The Direction of character growth is just as important as Change or Steadfast. For a steadfast character, the question is different. Since the character is not changing, the question is, are they working or holding out for something to stop, or something to start?
In other words, is there a problem they are trying to get rid of, or is there something good they want to make happen. A simple question, but one that carries a lot of clout on your dramatics!
Dan Steele : Okay, makes sense.
Dramatica : Now, I’ll jump ahead for a moment and look at a couple of plot questions…. First of all, is your story forced to a conclusion because your characters run out of time, or run out of options? This is Timelock or Optionlock. We all know what timelocks are…The ticking clock, 48 hours, etc. But what about stories like Remains of the Day? What was the time limit in that? There was none. So why didn’t the story go on forever? Because it was set up to have a limited number of opportunities for the characters to try and make a relationship happen. And when all the opportunities were exhausted, that’s when the story ends. Its important for the audience to know this right up front… they have to know the scope of the argument.
In Speed, the movie, they actually change from one lock to the other and this is confusing…The set up is, that the bomb will go off at 11:30 no matter what. So, the audience gets their sense of tension from the ticking clock. They expect that to be the moment win or lose will happen. All the other “constraints” about the speed of fifty miles per hour, and not being able to take anyone off the bus, are just that, constraints, but the bus could keep going forever with refueling, if it were not for the time bomb. But at the end of the story, what brings the moment of truth? Not the time bomb…. In fact, the bus slows down below fifty as it hits the plane. The LED numbers that are ticking down are the speed, not the time! So, the timelock is not honored.
Then we don’t know WHEN the story is going to end for sure. We assume maybe when the bad guy gets it. But that wasn’t where our tension was headed. Where the tension was built toward at the beginning, and therefore its something of a cheat and bit of a disappointment.
Dramatica : Actually, barring questions, I’ll have to stop there for now, as I have a class of 30 eager writers coming here to Screenplay for a class tomorrow morning.
Dan Steele : is “reception theory” the psychology of the audience?
Dramatica : Yes, Dan, its like this.. We, as an audience, can see pictures in clouds, wallpaper, constellations…We try to order our world, When we see a finished work, we look for pattern. Sometimes we see what the author intended, Sometimes things the author never intended that may or may not be in conflict with the intended message. And sometimes, we see no pattern at all. It may be the Storyform was flawed, missing apiece. Or it may be that the storytelling just didn’t convey it, or it may be that the audience just isn’t tuned into the symbols the author chose to use.
Dan Steele : Well, thanks, Melanie
RDCvr : Okay, next week.
I’ll be here next week, and please, tell your friends, if you think they’d like this class.
Dan Steele : I’ll come by next week and I’ll see if I can motivate others to stop by.
Dramatica : Great! Have a terrific weekend, both! Niters!
Dan Steele : nite
RDCvr : bye.