Category Archives: Message

Message and Context

The message of a story comes from context. It is context that eventually convinces Scrooge that his way of looking at the world is incorrect. Yet, before he was shown the bigger picture, his personal experience presented quite a different picture.

The Influence Character in a story (the ghosts, in the case of A Christmas Carol) presents that alternative context, shifting their argument, act by act, as the Main Character tries to maintain his conclusions by side-stepping.

Eventually, the Influence Character will chase the Main Character’s reasoning around the block until there is nowhere left to side-step and he or she must face that bigger picture.

At that point – the point of climax in the personal journey of growth for the Main Character – he or she will either accept or reject this new context (either change or remain steadfast in their views) in a leap of faith, and the ramifications of that choice will determine if the story ends in success or failure.

To help with creating these context and developing the progressive conflict between the Influence Character and the Main Character, we developed Dramatica: the world’s only writing software with a patented interactive Story Engine that cross-references your answers to questions about your story to create a template for perfect story structure.

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Melanie Anne Phillips

The Four Throughlines in To Kill A Mockingbird

By Melanie Anne Phillips

There are four throughlines that must be explored in every story for it to feel to readers or audience that the underlying issues have been fully explored and the message fully supported.

Objective Story Throughline: The Objective Story is the big picture – the situations and activities in which all the characters are involved.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Objective Story Throughline explores opinions in a small 1930s southern town where Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white girl . Though he is being brought to trial, many of the town folk think this case should never see trial and the defendant should just be lynched. Defending Tom Robinson is Atticus Finch, a well-respected lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie version).  The father of the ostensibly-raped girl, Bob Ewell, leads a mob to murder Tom Robinson, but Atticus stands firm against them.  Enraged, Ewell seeks to hurt Atticus children in revenge.  This makes Atticus the protagonist of the story and Bob Ewell the Antagonist.

Main Character Throughline: The Main Character is the one we identify with, the one whom the story seems to be about at a personal level.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus’ young daughter, Scout in the Main Character, and her throughline describes her personal experiences in this story.  We see this story of prejudice through her eyes, a child’s eyes, as she watches her father stand up against the town and Bob Ewell.  It is because we stand in her shoes, that makes her the Main Character.  Though the story is about the trial and about prejudice, it feels like it revolves around her impressions of it.  But Scout has many issues of her own as well, not the least of which is Boo Radley, the monstrous child-killing boogey man who is locked in the basement of his family’s home on Scout’s street.

Influence Character Throughline: The Influence Character is not the antagonist but the character who most influences the Main Characters outlook and feelings.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Boo Radley is the Influence Character, the reclusive and much talked about and dangerous crazy man living down the street from Scout. The rumors surrounding this man, fueled by the town’s ignorance and fear, makes scout concerned for her safety and along with anyone else, tends to hold him in derision.

Subjective Story Throughline: The Subjective Story is the tale of how the Influence Character and Main Character change each other over the course of the story.  One will be forced by their interactions to grow in their steadfast outlook.  The other will be affected by that steadfastness to ultimately change to adopt the outlook of the other.  This is the heart of a story’s message.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Subjective Story centers on the relationship between Scout and Boo Radley. This throughline explores Scout’s prejudice against Boo’s solely by virtue of heresay. Boo has been constantly active in Scout’s life, protecting her from the background, ultimately saving her and her brother from Bob Ewell. When Scout finally realizes this she changes in her feelings toward him, thereby strongly supporting the story’s message that it is very easy to fall into prejudice for anyone, if we judge people by what we hear, rather than what we have determined from our own first-hand experience.

To further illustrate how these four throughlines work together to create and support a story’s message, watch the following video clip recorded at one of my seminars on story structure:

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Story Development Tip: Message Reversals

Here’s a tip that can fascinate your readers or audience by setting them up to believe one thing, only to provide additional information that had been withheld and changes their loyalties once revealed.

This technique can be seen very clearly in a Twilight Zone episode entitled, Invaders, in which Agnes Moorhead plays a lady alone on a farm besieged by aliens from another world. The aliens in question are only six inches tall, wear odd space suits and attack the simple country woman with space age weapons. Nearly defeated, she finally musters the strength to overcome the little demons, and smashes their miniature flying saucer. On its side we see the American Flag, the letters U.S.A. and hear the last broadcast of the landing team saying they have been slaughtered by a giant. Structure-wise, nothing changed, but our sympathies sure did, which was the purpose of the piece.

While this example was a message reversal at a story-wide scale, you can easily apply the technique to individual scenes, to a conversation, or even to a single moment. For instance, imagine looking up to see a woman yanking a child by the arm in a very rough fashion. Child abuse, you think, until you see the car coming around the corner that would have hit him if she hadn’t pulled him out of the way. Structure is the same (the child was treated roughly) but the reason turns out to be different than expected, shifting our sympathies once again.

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Message Reversals

Message Reversals (Shifting Context to Change Message)

When we shift context to create a different message , the structure remains the same, but our appreciation of it changes. This can be seen very clearly in a Twilight Zone episode entitled, Invaders, in which Agnes Moorhead plays a lady alone on a farm besieged by aliens from another world. The aliens in question are only six inches tall, wear odd space suits and attack the simple country woman with space age weapons. Nearly defeated, she finally musters the strength to overcome the little demons, and smashes their miniature flying saucer. On its side we see the American Flag, the letters U.S.A. and hear the last broadcast of the landing team saying they have been slaughtered by a giant. Now, the structure didn’t change, but our sympathies sure did, which was the purpose of the piece.

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Story Structure – Part 2 (Video)

Here’s a link to the next class in my 113 part series on story structure.

In this episode, we explore how story structure came to be in the first place, beginning with the earliest storytellers and evolving into a linear, step-by-step logical and or emotional throughline leading from premise to conclusion.

Narrative Space

“Narrative Space” describes the complete breadth and depth of subject matter in which you seek to define a story.

Simply put, most authors don’t come to a story with a complete structure immediately in mind.  Rather, they are attracted to the subject matter, which may include setting, time period, activities and events, personalities, snippets of dialog, situations and anything else that is not inherently part of the argument of a narrative.  For example, take Santa Claus.  You can have him be the main character or a victim or a villain.  You can make him a spirit or a man.  You can have him involved in a western, a science fiction, a romance, a buddy picture or a tragedy.  In and of itself, subject matter is not part of a structure but just the raw material from which a structure is formed.  That is part of the reason that in Dramatica theory we named a story’s structure the storyform as it brings form to story.

Think of subject matter as the interstellar gas and material from which solar systems are formed.  This is the narrative space.  Just because you carve out a piece of this space – enclose a particular cloud of star stuff – does not create planets that orbit in understandable patterns.  The job of an author is to look into the nebulous nature of an area of subject matter – a particular historic event, an aspect of human nature – and to coalesce that material into a tale or a story.  A tale in a given narrative space would simply explore the subject matter and make a statement about it.  A story would transcend that and make the case for the best (or worst) of all possible ways to organize (or live through) that material.

As you might expect, there does not have to be a just one single storyform within a narrative space.  In fact, there can be an infinite number of stories told within a given realm of subject matter.  Some of these may exist in different corners, completely separated from each other.  Some may overlap slightly, covering similar areas of subject matter with two complete different structures and messages.  In fact, two completely different storyform arguments may actually occupy the exact same portion of the overall narrative space but form the raw material toward two contradictory purposes, much as two scepters might fashion artistically incompatible statues from identical pieces of clay.

As a final thought in this brief introduction to the concept, consider that when you are developing your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means, just because there are parts of the narrative space subject matter that are the reasons you want to write this story does not mean that they can all fit into the same storyform.  Often, to make a complete argument, we must exclude favorite subject matter pieces that would have to be ham-handedly crammed into our story and would never truly fit.  Further, we may have to include additional elements that really don’t inspire us, because if we went with only the parts we truly care about, our overall argument would be full of holes.

Lastly, take solace that you can always write a second story or a series of them about the same narrative space (subject matter) until you have devised enough structures to powerfully explore them all.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Both Sides of the Thematic Argument

Every powerful theme pits a “Message Issue” against a “Counterpoint”, such as “Greed vs. Generosity”, or “Holding On To Hope” vs. “Abandoning Hope”.

The Message Issue and Counterpoint define the thematic argument of your story. They play both sides of the moral dilemma. The most important key to a successful thematic argument is never, ever play the message issue and counterpoint together at the same time.

Why? Because the thematic argument is an emotional one, not one of reason. You are trying to sway your reader/audience to adopt your moral view as an author. This will not happen if you keep showing one side of the argument as “good” and the other side as “bad” in direct comparison. Such a thematic argument would seem one-sided, and treat the issues as being black-and-white, rather than gray-scale.

In real life, moral decisions are seldom cut-and-dried. Although we may hold views that are clearly defined, in practice it all comes down to the context of the specific situation. For example, it may be wrong to steal in general. But, it might be proper to steal from the enemy during a war, or from a large market when you baby is starving. In the end, all moral views become a little blurry around the edges when push comes to shove.

Statements of absolutes do not a thematic argument make. Rather, your most powerful message will deal with the lesser of two evils, the greater of two goods, or the degree of goodness or badness of each side of the argument. In fact, there are often situations where both sides of the moral argument are equally good, equally bad, or that both sides are either good nor bad in the particular situation being explored in the story.

The way to create this more powerful, more believable, and more persuasive thematic argument is as follows:

1. Determine in advance whether each side is good, bad, or neutral.

Do this by assigning an arbitrary “value” to both the Message Issue and the Counterpoint. For example, we might choose a scale with +5 being absolutely good, -5 being absolutely bad, and zero being neutral.

If our thematic argument is Greed vs. Generosity, then Greed (our Message Issue) might be a -3, and Generosity (our Counterpoint) might be a -2. This would mean that both Greed and Generosity are both bad (being in the negative) but that Generosity is a little less bad than Greed since Generosity is only a -2 and Greed is a -3.

2. Show the good and bad aspects of both the Message Issue and the Counterpoint.

Make sure the examples of each side of the thematic argument that you have already developed don’t portray either side as being all good or all bad. In fact, even if one side of the argument turns out to be bad in the end, it might be shown as good initially. But over the course of the story, that first impression is changed by seeing that side in other contexts.

3. Have the good and bad aspects “average out” to the thematic conclusion you want.

By putting each side of the thematic argument on a roller coaster of good and bad aspects, it blurs the issues, just as in real life. But the reader/audience will “average out” all of their exposures to each side of the argument and draw their own conclusions at the end of the story.

In this way, the argument will move out of the realm of intellectual consideration and become a viewpoint arrived by feel. And, since you have not only shown both sides, but the good and the bad of each side, your message will be easier to swallow. And finally, since you never directly compared the two sides, the reader/audience will not feel that your message has been shoved down its throat.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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The Purpose of Stories

This is the purpose and function of story: to show that when something has previously served you well one hundred percent of the time, it may not continue to hold true, or conversely, that it will always hold true. Either message is equally valid and depends wholly upon the author’s personal bias on the issue, which arbitrarily determines the slant of the message. Obviously, the outcome is not arbitrary to the author, but it is completely arbitrary to the story.

Whether the Main Character is change or steadfast, the outcome success or failure, and the judgment good or bad, determines the audience’s position in relationship to the correct and incorrect approaches to the problem, and therefore the impact of the message upon them.

From the Dramatica Theory Book