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Friday, March 13, 2009

Story Title Idea

Every once in a while I publish some of my own creative work and notions. This is an idea for a story title I added today to my writer's notebook:

Title for a detective story or a mystery:

"The Quality of the Crime"


"A Crime of Quality"

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Talk on Dramatica

Here's the transcript of a talk on Dramatica I gave in 1997 - another archival discovery on some old back-ups of a long-ago computer that no longer exists...

LAAC Conference Room Transcript

A Meeting with Melanie Anne Phillips

February 23, 1997


Today's meeting is a moderated interview with Melanie Anne Phillips. This is a private conference open only to members of Word Spinners' Ink and the Internet Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Please join me in welcoming Melanie Anne Phillips. Melanie is co-developer of Dramatica, both an extensive theory of story structure and a popular line of software products that use those theories for story creation and development.

In addition to co-developing Dramatica, Melanie is the former Director of Research and Development at Screenplay Systems, Inc. Prior to her association with Screenplay Systems, she amassed some 200 credits in non-union film production, including the directing of two independent features, editing of features and larger budget industrials, and writing work for various productions ranging from features to television commercials.

Melanie, do you have any opening comments you would like to make before we start accepting questions?


Well, greetings to everyone, and thank you all for driving so far to be at this conference!
I hope you find it useful and interesting, and feel free to ask me anything (within reason!)

If you like, I can just jump in and talk about the theory and software...


Melanie, we have two Dramatica owners in the Room. For those who aren't, can you summarize how Dramatica, the software, is intended to function as a story aid?


Sure, Mr. Moderator...

Most tools for creating stories mix up the story structure and the story telling.
They are blended together, making for a good description of the finished story, but hard to use for creating one. So, the first thing the Dramatica software does is separate the two into completely different stages of story construction.

Now, this is not how authors normally operate. We come up with a bit of dialog, a setting, a piece of action or a favorite concept, and off we go without even considering if it is structure or
storytelling technique.

So, in that respect, Dramatica takes a bit of getting used to, but when you consider that West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet have almost the same structure but completely different storytelling, then you can see the advantage in the writing stage to separate them.

Now, if you are looking just at structure alone, it is a very bare-bones affair There is none of the flavor of the story, but just a raw skeleton. For example, we might say that structurally, the goal of a story is "Obtaining" something. But Obtaining WHAT? The WHAT would be the storytelling. It might be to Obtain a diploma, someone's love, the stolen treasure, etc. But in each case, the structure is about Obtaining.

It is this underlying deep structure that determines the "mind set" of a story. For example, a story with a goal of "Obtaining" would be structurally different from a story with a goal of "Becoming" something. But either of these could be expressed in an infinite number of ways through storytelling.

Now, the Dramatica software says, instead of looking at a story as a series of events that leads from one point to another, look at stories more like a sphere made up of interconnected storypoints. In fact, to make sense, story must be three dimensional, rather than simply linear. In this way, you can wrap around an idea and explore it fully.

If you take the linear approach, you have a "tale" rather than a story, which is not bad, but just more simple. A tale says that this event led to the next and the next and ended here. It
works as long as the chain is unbroken in both logic and feeling.

A Tale is just a "statement". But a Story is an "argument". A story must show context, and examine the issue from all sides, rather than just one. If a point of view is left out, it becomes a plot hole, an inconsistent character, or a warped theme.

The Dramatica software has in its memory, a model of the storypoints that make up the sphere of an argument, as if it were one of Bucky Fuller's geodesic domes. This model is much like a Rubik's cube... It has specific pieces that must show up in every story, but they can be arranged in a myriad of ways and still remain a viable cube or a viable story argument.

By making choice about how dramatic items should come into conjunction to create
potential, an author uses Dramatica to arrange the story's structure while
always maintaining a valid story argument.


Thanks, Melanie. THAT gets off and running.


Melanie, can you explain the differences between Archetypal and complex characters for us?


Sure. In a nut shell, all characters, be they Archetypal or Complex represent different elements of the drama that must appear in all stories.
In a sense, these Elements can be arranged in something of a Periodic Table of Story Elements. When you put all of the elements that fall in the same family into a single character, you have created an Archetype. When you distribute elements from the same family in different characters, they become Complex.

In either case, the same dramatic functions must be performed, but it is just a question of who is going to do it. The advantage to archetypal characters is that the audience will assume
archetypal unless told otherwise by the author.

So, rather than having to illustrate each element separately, you can illustrate only the family the archetype belongs to, and the audience will assume the rest, giving you more media real estate for other things, like special effects or theme. The disadvantage is that the archetypes are so evenly constructed internally, there are no surprises there..


You wouldn't want conflicting elements in the same character, would you? I mean, would you want a skeptic or also sometimes functioned as a sidekick? Wouldn't those be mutually exclusive, or would they?


Well, there are some elements that mix to create sparks, and others that work more like oil and water.
In Dramatica, we have charted out the Periodic Table of Story Elements to help us determine which characteristics will successfully go together and which won't.

In Dramatica, families of elements fall into "Quads", such as "Pro-action, Re-action, Inaction, and Protection". The point of the whole quad is to illustrate how, in this particular story, these different approaches fare against the story's problem. A rule of thumb it, that no single character should contain more than one element from the same quad.

It is important to note that this does not prevent internal conflict. Dramatica separates characters into two types: Objective and Subjective. Objective characters are like - suppose a general is watching a battle from a hill and sees the soldiers down below. He can't tell who is who as individuals because he is so removed from the situation. But he can identify them by function. He'll see the horse soldier and the cook and the guy leading the charge. To fulfill their "story function" each character has a job, or jobs. The jobs need to be consistent with one another to make any kind of sense.

But, if the audience swoops down and occupies the shoes of one of the soldiers on the field, we get a second kind of character - the Subjective character, who represents a point of view, rather than a function. Note that a single "player" on the field can function as an Objective character and also represent a point of view.

The Subjective aspect is where you see the pathos of inner conflict and changing attitudes. The Objective aspect is where the structural integrity of the argument is maintained in a logistic sense.

So, in this manner, a "Hero" is a Protagonist (objectively) who is also the Main Character (subjectively), but there is no reason why the audience cannot be positioned elsewhere. We may want our audience to see things from the water boy's position rather than from the quarterback's.


Hi, Melanie . . . we also have a couple Collaborator owners on board here today, and the debate has been mildly ranging for a couple months now about the pros and cons of both. Your opinions, if you're familiar with Collaborator?

Also you may want to comment on the differences between Dramatica and Dramatica Writer's Dream Kit, and what you really get for the extra money in the full Dramatica system.


Okay, this is a multi-part question. Collaborator, and the two version of Dramatica. Here goes...

I know the Collaborator creators. Sadly, once of them recently passed on. Collaborator bases its approach on Aristotle's "Poetics". It asks a series of questions that are really good ones every author should know about a story. It also provides tools for organizing material in a storytelling sense.

Where it differs from Dramatica, is that although it is a useful organizational tool, it doesn't tell the author anything the author has not told it. In contrast, Dramatica's "Story Engine" is not a data base, but a "live" model of the relationships among dramatic elements. That is the real value of the software and what sets it apart from anything else. As an author answers questions about the story, the story engine begins to "predict" other dramatic items that must also be present as a result of those choices.

In fact, with as few as 12 questions (the 12 essential questions) Dramatica can predict a complete dramatic argument. Now, I know that is a way out statement, but here is why it works...

Some choices about a story have only marginal impact on the structure, others have wide ranging impact. You can approach Dramatica's sphere or Story Engine in any order through the
dramatic items.
For authors who like to sculpt their stories, they can choose more nuanced
dramatics to play with, and slowly build up a complete structure.

But for those who know what they want and wish to get right to the point, they can answer the 12 essential questions and have enough broad influence to have predicted all else that must follow.

So, although Collaborator is very good in making sure you cover your bases and in making you think, Dramatica is more like a knowledgeable critic who will make suggestions and notice when you leave something out or put it in the wrong place.

The difference between DreamKit and Pro is simply how many dramatic story points the engine gives you to work with. The both have the same engine, but Pro accesses more story points than DreamKit, making it more complex, and more powerful.

And of course, Pro costs more than twice as much as DreamKit!


That answers a lot . . . I never really thought Dramatica and Collaborator were mutually exclusive, and I've been using Collaborator successfully as a thought organizer. The only other concern/question I have about Dramatica is what appears to be a relatively high learning curve. This learning curve has elicited a somewhat negative response with some reviewers of the software. Would you care to comment?


Well, nobody ever said story structure was a simple thing. When you see it as a flexible structure, it becomes both simply yet complex in its variety.
Dramatica was not built to make writing easier, but to make it harder, by forcing the author to address ALL the issues that can undermine a solid structure.

Because of its range and depth, to understand all the elements at work requires a LOT of study. But, none of us learned to ride a bike or use a word processor in a snap. Believe me, if we could make it less extensive and still have it be as accurate, we would, but the human mind is not that simple an affair, and stories must fill the human mind.


I went through several storyforms before I narrowed things down to one that seemed to work. In the final storyform (which I approached through the Story Engine from the middle out), Dramatica automatically assigned a Purpose characteristic to both my
Main and Obstacle characters. How common is this, and why didn't it happen with the preceding storyforms I tried?

Also, according to the "Quad" structure, my MC's Purpose fell under Skeptic, and my OC's Purpose fell under Emotion. Does this make sense, and will it work?


Well, I'll need a little more information here. Also, the answer may be a little too specific for the general audience, but here is a bit of info that might help...

For those who don't know, Dramatica sees all complete Objective characters as having four aspects: Motivations, Methodologies, Purposes, and Means of Evaluation.

Each of these four aspects will have its own set of elements. But, which elements fall in which set is not always the same, as it depends upon other dramatic choices.

When you are creating a dramatic structure, there are two special characters that rise above simply being functions. One is the Main Character, representing the audience position in the story, and the other is the Obstacle Character, representing an alternative paradigm to the Main Character's belief system.

One of the things that connects the Objective and Subjective stories dramatically, is that the issues over which Main and Obstacle diverge are elements which form the heart of their personal issues and also appear in the Objective story overall.

So, when you create a storyform (structure), it will include in it the Main and Obstacle Character's personal problems. Since those problems show up in the Objective story, the
and Obstacle characters must represent those issues in the overall plot as well.

And that is why you will find that certain elements in building your characters are already assigned to your Main and Obstacle. Hope this clarifies


Two questions:

1) How does Dramatica compare to StoryLine Pro?

2) A while back you spoke of a three dimensional matrix of plot points that form a sphere. What are these plot points and how does Dramatica help the writer merge them into a story?


Tom, here's the answer to question one...

I also know John Truby (creator of StoryLine Pro), as all us story folk hang out at the same conventions! StoryLine Pro is based on John's classes in story structure. His approach is not so much an overall theory, but a series of really useful tips - templates, if you will, that form the foundations of successful story structures. His templates combine both the story structure and the storytelling to an extent, so that you efficiently create both at the same time. This is much more the manner in which writer's normally work, rather than Dramatica's approach to separate the two.

The advantage to John's system (StoryLine) is that it gives you a solid road map. All you need to do is follow one of the templates and you will arrive at a well structured story. The disadvantage is that if you want to do something even a bit off the path, there is no accommodation for that, and no way to predict what kind of dramatic impact that will have on your overall story.

So, I suggest using StoryLine for telling those specific kinds of stories, and using Dramatica for stories that diverge from the beaten path. Dramatica will be harder to use, but offer more opportunity for doing something different.

Now, for the answer to question 2 - Dramatica story points, what are they and how Dramatica helps writers merge them into stories...

There are over sixty story points in the current Dramatica software. Why this number? It depends on how "refined" you make the framework around your story as to how many "joints" you need where dramatics intersect.

The current version of the software is designed for creating the amount of detail needed in a story of novel or screenplay length. These story points (called "appreciations" in Dramatica) include elements of Theme, Genre, Character, and Plot. To name some, there will the story Goal, Requirements, PreConditions, and PreRequisites. There will be the Main Character Domain (where the point of view resides). There will be dynamic appreciations such as "Does the Main character CHANGE or REMAIN STEADFAST in his or her belief system by the end of the story?"

You will encounter the Thematic RANGE and COUNTERPOINT, a choice of TIMELOCK or OPTIONLOCK to draw the story to a conclusion. There are many more, of course, but you get the idea. Now to merge them into a story, first you take the raw appreciation in your structure, such as the example - a goal of "Obtaining", and flesh it out into a real story item in storytelling.

To assist you in this, Dramatica has given each story point its own window in the software with a series of buttons to help. The buttons bring up examples of short dramatic scenarios using each story point. Another button shows you any well-known stories which have been analyzed and use that same story point the same way.

There is a button for the theory behind why that story point even exists, and another usage button to show how to employ it. Overall, there are literally thousands of examples and help scenarios, for these items. Finally, to merge them into the linear progression of your story, there is the StoryGuide, which will take you through the whole process of turning a holistic structural model of your story into a progressive linear pathway, much like unraveling a ball of twine into a long string. Hope this answers your question.


Melanie, this has been terrific. But could you explain more about which elements
are in DreamKit and which are reserved for Pro?


Sure! First of all, they both have the same engine running the software. Pro just "taps" it at more points.
They also both have the exact same StoryGuide book and path, so new users can
get right into it.
Pro has additional appreciations and more examples.

Some of these appreciations unique to Pro are:

The CATALYST that gets each throughline moving when it bogs down. The INHIBITOR
that slows things up. These two work like an accelerator and brake pedal on your
story's plot.

There is the Main Character's UNIQUE ABILITY which makes them uniquely able to
solve the story's problem - if they make the right choice!

Balancing that is the Main Character's CRITICAL FLAW which always screws them
up, just when they almost get things solved.

In addition, DreamKit allows only for character Motivations, and not the other three aspects.

Also, PRO dynamically determines the kinds of relationships which will exist among your characters.

There are a few other bells and whistles to Pro. but I would say that DreamKit
has everything you need for the average novel or screenplay, Pro is more geared
toward heavy character oriented stories or those with complex plots.


Melanie, on behalf of everyone, thank you very much for taking time to be with
us today. It was an informative session.


And thank you, Ed et al, it has been loads of fun!


Melanie, this has been wonderful! I appreciate so much your taking the time to come here.
I'd just like to say here that I've learned more about story structure using Dramatica for the last two months than I have in the last 5 or 6 years of reading books about writing, taking writing classes and workshops, and writing.

Let me echo that sentiment. I'm *still* learning. It's tough work, but every time a door opens, it leads not to a room, but to an entirely new corridor. It's really, really, helpful. And bless you for putting up the worksheets. I'd already typed them into Winword, but having them on the website is terrific for those who haven't!

Let me also lead a long, sustained round of applause for the creator of this conference center and our moderator today. Thank you, Ed. We're much richer because you're with us!

Media and the Individual

I was going through some old back-ups of my computer from many years ago and came across this lecture I had prepared for a meeting of psychiatrists involved in the psychological aspects of art and therapy.

Alas, after being invited to speak, I met with one of the principals involved (a Freudian psychiatrist) and he was so appalled by the "radical" concepts I was proposing that he cancelled my appearance, rather than subject the members of his group to these dangerous and subversive concepts.

Hey, I thought I'd toned it down. Go figger....

Well, here's the transcript of what I would have said, given the chance....

Transcript of a Lecture

Prepared for the semi-annual convention of

The Southern California Psychoanalytic Society


The Center for Psychoanalytic Studies of Creativity and Art
of the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute

Media and the Individual

Melanie Anne PhillipsCo-creator, the Dramatica theory of story

Stories, especially those told in the media of film or television, can have a tremendous impact on an audience. Experiencing a story is similar in many ways to experiencing events in “real life”. Stories can make us laugh or cry, leave us feeling euphoric or depressed, lead us through a logistic consideration, or leave us in an emotional state.

In this age of broadcast media, CD ROMS, and high-tech motion pictures, the average citizen in our society may be exposed to almost as many narrative experiences as life experiences. As a result, understanding the nature and mechanism by which stories affect audiences can lead to insights in media impact on an individual’s outlooks and attitudes.

From one perspective, we might identify four areas in which this impact manifests itself: One, the emotional mood an audience is left with at the conclusion of a story, Two, the emotional journey experienced by an audience during the unfolding of a story, Three, understandings arrived at by the audience by the conclusion of a story, Four, logistic considerations made by the audience during the unfolding of the story. Because these are so basic and important, let me take a moment to expand slightly on each of these concepts.

1. Emotionally, a story can change the mood of an audience from what it was at the beginning of a story to a completely different emotional state by the time it is over. This might pertain to the way the audience feels about a particular topic, or simply might change the underlying mood of the audience overall.

For example, in a story such as “Remains of the Day”, an audience might be brought to a saddened and frustrated emotional state that might linger well after the story is over. This mood could even recur when some symbol or set of circumstances in everyday life triggers a conscious re-consideration of the story or a subconscious response based on patterns experienced in the story.

In addition, an audience’s emotional response toward a particular topic, symbol, circumstance, or pattern may be altered through the story experience, leading to anything from changes in likes and dislikes to changes in attitudes, loyalties, or motivations in regard to a specific topic.

2. In the process of experiencing a story, audience members may be carried from one emotion to another in an order that might conform to or differ from their experiences in “real life”. This can either reinforce or alter habitual patterns of emotional response, albeit in a small and perhaps temporary way. For example, if an audience member were to identify with a character, such as Agent Mulder in “The X-Files”, he or she might (over time) become more likely to play hunches or, conversely, less likely to accept things at their face value.

3. By the end of a story, the audience may be brought to an understanding it did not possess prior to participating in the story process. For example, in “The Usual Suspects”, the big picture is not grasped by the audience until the final pieces are dropped into place near the end. This creates an insight, as opposed to a logistic argument, and can be used to change audience opinion in regard to a particular issue, either through manipulation or propaganda.

4. As a story unfolds, a logistic argument may be constructed that leads linearly from one point of consideration to a conclusion. In “JFK”, for example, a continuous chain of logic is built link by link over the course of the film in an attempt to prove the filmmaker’s contentions about the Kennedy assassination. This method can exercise audience members in logistic methods that may be repeated unconsciously in their everyday lives.

From this brief look at the power of the visual media, we can get a sense that many people might be better understood by becoming aware of the kinds of stories to which they are exposed, and many people might also benefit from carefully tailored story experiences.

But what exactly is the mechanism of story, and precisely how can one use that mechanism to create specific impact on an audience? Those questions have plagued authors for centuries, and are also of utmost important to those who may feel that an understanding of story can enhance therapist/patient interactions.

Fifteen years ago, my partner, Chris Huntley, and I began an exploration into these issues which culminated in a book, “Dramatica - a New Theory of Story.” Tonight I want to touch on a few of the essential tenets of the Dramatica theory which I hope will provide some insight into the mechanism of story.

Traditional theories commonly see stories as narratives in which characters, representing real people, engage in activities comprising a plot which illustrates a moral point pertaining to a particular theme in a setting and style which determine genre. In contrast, Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity. That’s quite a mouthful, so let me say it once again for clarity... Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity.

In other words, stories are not really about characters, plot, theme, and genre, but rather, characters, plot, theme, and genre represent different families of consideration that go on in a single human mind when it is trying to come to terms with an inequity. Characters are the different motivations of the Story Mind that influence each other, jockey for position, or come into conflict. Theme represents the value standards of the Story Mind - the measuring sticks by which the Story Mind determines what is better and what is worse. Plot demonstrates the Story Mind's methodologies or techniques it employs in trying to resolve the inequity at the heart of the story. And genre determines the Story Mind's personality - what kind of a mind it is that is doing this consideration.

Well, that's a rather bold statement to make. After all, why would such a complex model of psychology end up being at the center of story structure? Surely writers didn't sit down and say, "I think I'll write an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity." Not hardly. So where does the Story Mind come from? According to Dramatica, this model of the mind happens quite naturally, by itself, as a byproduct of the process of communication.

When we seek to communicate we can't reach our audience directly - mind to mind . Rather, we must transmit our message through a medium. To do this, we fashion a symbolic representation of what we have in mind in the hope it will affect our audience the same way it does us. In effect, we create a model of what we are thinking and feeling for the audience to embrace. Which symbols we use depends upon our personal experiences and the culture in which we are working. But beneath the specific symbols are the essential human qualities that are the same in all of us - all cultures and all times.

In and of themselves, these qualities do not yet constitute a model of the mind. For example, if we wanted to convey fear, then we would choose a symbol that would invoke fear in our audience. That human quality would then be communicated. But it is only a small part of what makes up each of our minds.

As communication evolved, the earliest storytellers progressed beyond simply expressing basic emotions or single concepts and began to tell tales. A tale is a progression of symbols that connects one feeling or consideration to the next in an unbroken chain. In this way, an author could lead an audience along an emotional journey and also illustrate that a particular approach led to a particular outcome.

It didn't take these authors long to realize, however, that the human heart cannot leap from one emotion to another indiscriminately without passing through the emotions in between. This concept is well documented in The Seven Stages of Grief, and even in Freud's Stages of human development.

Similarly, a logistic chain must not skip any links or it will be held as invalid. So, when telling a tale, the early storytellers developed a feel for which intermediate symbolic steps were required to get from one point of view to another, both logistically and emotionally. We see the result of these discoveries in concepts such as the hero's journey, and story as myth.

Still, this is not a complete model of the mind. A tale is simply a statement that a series of concepts led from point A to point B. In other words, the message of a tale is that a particular series of events can happen. It will be accepted or rejected by an audience solely on the basis of taking the right steps logistically and making the right connections emotionally. Yes, this could happen, or no it could not.

Many fine works through the ages and even today in novels, motion pictures and television are really not complete stories, but simply tales. So what constitutes a story? Well, if a tale is a statement, then a story is an argument. A tale says, "this path led to this outcome indicating it is a good way or a bad way to go about solving a problem". A tale states that a particular outcome is possible. A story says, "this path always leads to this outcome indicating it is always a good way or a bad way to go about solving a problem". A story argues that a particular outcome is inevitable.

If an early author made a statement that a particular case was good or bad, he or she would simply have to prove that a particular approach led to a positive or negative outcome. But if that author tried to tell the audience the approach was always good or always bad, more than likely someone in the audience would say, "Well, what about under these conditions," or "what about in this context?" Being right there, the author could counter that rebuttal by explaining how the approach would still be best or worst even in that additional case. He or she would either make the point, or fail to make it, in which case the argument would be lost, and the tale would remain as a only a statement, true for that case alone.

As the art of communication evolved beyond the spoken word to the written word, however, the author was no longer physically present to argue the point. Instead, if an author wanted to "prove" inevitability, he or she would have to anticipate all reasonable challenges to that statement, and preclude dissension by incorporating all appropriate arguments in the work itself. In this manner, by the time the story is told, not only is a statement made that an approach is good or bad, but all necessary supporting arguments have also been made to "prove" it could not be any other way.

To make these supporting arguments, an author needs to look at the story not only from his or her own point of view, but to anticipate all the other points of view on the issue that audience members might take. By the time the work is finished, it should represent a full exploration of the issue at the heart of the story - both logistically and emotionally, addressing all considerations a human mind might explore within the scope of the argument. In so doing, a complete mind-set is created - an full analogy of a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity - the Story Mind.

Characters, plot, theme, and genre, evolve naturally out of this process to represent the full spectrum of considerations made by the human mind. Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Events also evolve naturally as the Story Mind finishes considering the issue from one point of view and shifts it's attention to another.

Okay, suppose we have a Story Mind. What do we do with it? Or, more importantly, how does the audience receive it? In fact, the audience examines the Story Mind from four distinct perspectives. Imagine for the moment that a story is a battle. We might hold the Story Mind out in front of us, “Alas, poor mind,” and look at it from a distance. For the audience, this perspective is like that of a general on a hill, watching the story’s battle. From here, we are looking from the outside in. We can see all the broad strategies and forces at work, but we are distanced from them. Although we may be concerned for the soldiers on the field, they are too far away to identify as individuals, so we classify them by their functions instead. There might be the soldier leading the charge - a protagonist archetype, or a deserter cowering in the bushes - the skeptic archetype. In an of it self, this view offers the best perspective on the “big picture” but at the expense of any personal involvement. So, in Dramatica, we refer to this as the Objective perspective.

For a more involving point of view, let us zoom our audience into the shoes of one of the soldiers on the field. Suddenly, we are seeing things from the inside, looking out. We are no longer privy to the broad developing movements of the battle as a whole, but we have a much better understanding of what it is like to be in the midst of the bombardment, trying to do our job and get out alive. The soldier from whom the audience experiences the story first hand is the Main Character of the story. It is important to note that the Main Character need not be the Protagonist, any more than any of us has to be the central figure in every group in which we are involved. Authors may choose to position the audience on the sidelines to gain an understanding of the battle from off-center. For example, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the Protagonist is Atticus (the Gregory Peck part in the movie), while the audience see the story through the eyes of his young daughter, Scout. If Atticus had been the Main Character, the audience would have felt self-righteous in doing the “moral” thing. But by placing the audience in Scout’s shoes, Lee Harper suckered us into being prejudiced against the unseen Boo Radley, showing us all that prejudice does not have to come from intentional hatred or meanness, but can rise quite innocently through assumption. In Dramatica, we refer to this most personal view as the Main Character perspective.

Now, as the Main Character struggles to make his way through the field of battle, a figure blocks his path. Through the smoke of all the dramatic explosions, the Main Character cannot tell if this figure is a friendly soldier trying to divert him from a mine field, or an enemy soldier trying to lure him into an ambush. As the Main Character approaches he yells, “Get out of my way!” The obstacle in his path shouts, “change course”. In the end, either the Main Character will run through the Obstacle Character to succeed or die in the mine field, or he will relent and change course to succeed or fall prey to the ambush. Neither decision guarantees success except as a reflection of the author’s argument This view is called The Obstacle Character perspective.

Finally, the audience will want to examine growth in the relationship between the Main and Obstacle characters as they “have it out” in their personal skirmish in the midst of the overall battle. No longer standing in the Main Character’s shoes, the audience judges on against the other as if they were two fighters circling. Because it deals with the conflict between two subjective points of view, this is called the Subjective perspective.

One way to get a feel for these four perspectives is to think of how the audience relates to the characters in each. The Main Character is first person singular - the “I” perspective. The Obstacle Character is seen through the Main Character’s eyes, and is the “you” perspective. The Subjective view is the “we” perspective, and the Objective view the “they” perspective. “I”, “you”, “we”, and “they”.

Symbolically, the Main Character represents where we are positioned at any given moment in our own minds - our sense of self. The Obstacle Character represents an alternative paradigm we are considering - we haven’t adopted it yet, so we don’t see things from that perspective yet, but merely examine that perspective from where we are. The Subjective view represents the process of trying to weigh the pros and cons of two points of view in a balanced fashion. The Objective view represents our attempt to look at our own mental processes analytically. Taken together, all four perspectives are like different camera angles on the same football game. Each is valid from its own point of view, but also incomplete. If they run in parallel the audience will come to a full understanding of all valid considerations regarding the story’s central issue and a complete argument will have been made.

There isn’t time this evening to even scratch the surface of describing the components of these four parallel arguments, but let us focus on the Main Character and examine some of the key considerations as an example. In this way, the nature of a story’s impact and how to control it to desired audience effect can be, at lest partially, illuminated.

To get meaning from the Main Character’s journey, and audience will need to know some things about the nature of that journey and its outcome. For one thing, by the end of the story the audience will want to know if the Main Character has changed or not. Many students of story erroneously believe a character must change in order to grow. In fact, a character might grow in their resolve while remaining the same. This calls for clarification of terms. In Dramatica, we define a steadfast character as one who keeps the same paradigm or character traits in regard to the story’s central issue of argument. A change character is one accepts the Obstacle Character’s alternative paradigm and adopts a new way of thinking or feeling. Because of the difficulty in overcoming obstacles and avoiding the apparently easier way out, a steadfast character needs to muster emotional reserves in order to remain steadfast, much like Job in the bible story.

Some well known Steadfast characters are James Bond in every movie except “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, and Clarise Starling in “Silence of the Lambs”. Well known change characters are Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars”, and Ebeneezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”

As indicated earlier, change or steadfast alone does not guarantee success or failure. So an author must decide which it is to be. By “success” we do not mean a value judgment, but a simple assessment - did the Main Character achieve what he set out to achieve or not? It doesn’t matter if the Main Character realized that achieving his goal would be the wrong thing to do, for example, but simply, in the end, did he do it or not.

Once that determination is made, an author can ask himself or herself, “Now, how does the Main Character feel about the outcome? Did he or she resolve his or her personal angst or not?”

Earlier, I mentioned Clarise Starling in “Silence of the Lambs”. This story ends in a success because the original goal was to capture “Buffalo Bob” and rescue the senator’s daughter, which she does. But, if you recall the end of the movie, her graduation ceremony is not presented as the celebration we might expect. Rather, the camera moves slowly in long shots, the music is very somber, and Clarise is left pretty much alone - until she is called to the phone. It is Hannibal Lecter who immediately asks her, “Are the lambs still screaming?” She does not answer because they still are.

Hannibal Lecter was her Obstacle Character, even though Buffalo Bob was the Antagonist. With his question and answer, “quid pro quo”, he forced her to tell her story and ultimately to face the reason she is in her career - trying to save every lost lamb to make up for the one she couldn’t save as a child. To find relief from this central angst, she must let go of that experience and move on. But she cannot, and hence her success is tempered with her ongoing angst. In Dramatica, we call this a judgment of “Bad”. If angst is overcome, the judgment is “Good”.

Audiences are strongly affected by the four combinations of Success/Failure and Good/Bad. Look at the different overall viewing experiences of the Failure/Bad story of “Hamlet”, the Failure/Good story of “Rain Main” in which he doesn’t get the inheritance, but overcomes his hatred for his father, the Success/Bad story of “Remains of the Day” in which he successfully maintains the household through all trials and tribulations but fails to obtain a loving relationship, and the Success/Good story of “Star Wars”.

There are many more considerations pertaining to a Main Character, and a multitude of others in the other three perspectives as well. For example, a more Objective issue is whether the story’s scope is such that it is brought to a conclusion by a Timelock or an Optionlock. We all know Timelocks like “48 hours”, but just as many stories are drawn to an end by running out of options, again, as in “Remains of the Day.”

Why a lock at all? Since the choices a Story Mind is pondering have dire consequences, the consideration might go on forever if the scope of the argument were not limited. I know I never go to the doctor until I’ve exhausted all other possibilities that could avoid it. In that case, I have been trying to deal with an inequity limited by options - when there are no alternatives left, I must choose to go or not, but I can learn nothing else (within the scope of my argument to myself) that will help me make the decision. In contrast, a Timelock is as simple as having a friend ask you to join him or her for a movie that starts at 9:00 and you can’t make up your mind because you like the movie and hate the friend, or vice versa. Not surprising that real human considerations should be reflected in story or in the Story Mind.

Unfortunately, my presentation is also under a timelock, so I must soon draw my argument to a conclusion. Before I do, however, I have one final area I’d like to touch upon - the subject of Propaganda, as it . Dramatica theory holds a wealth of information about propaganda, but one particular notion is particularly intriguing.

(Here I will hold up a larger version of the attached picture)

What is the first thing you notice about his picture? I’m almost afraid to ask this question of a room full of psychiatrists! For most people, they would notice the missing eye. In fact, they would, at some level imagine an eye in that vacant spot to, if nothing else, verify their assessment of what is missing. The propaganda in this picture is that is a man’s face, due to the tie at the bottom. While the audience is busy filling in the blank, they don’t notice the ace up the sleeve. It’s the old slight of hand - you watch the magician’s right hand, while his left is palming the ball.

This particular propaganda technique is used to strong effect in “Thelma and Louise”. There is one piece of missing information. It is never explained in the story exactly what happened to Thelma in Texas that is clearly fueling her drive for independence. The subject is brought up but the missing piece is never filled in. So, the primarily female audience fills it in for itself. Subconsciously, if not consciously, most female audience members make an association with something from their own lives or their own fears that would be strong enough to conceivably drive them to the same response. In this manner the plight of Thelma is personalized.

So far, so good. But when Thelma and Louise drive over the cliff rather than spend the rest of their lives in prison, the message is also personalized - if you try to buck the system, you will have a choice of death figuratively or literally, or a more confining prison than the one you are already in. By making one a housewife and the other a waitress, most women will even more strongly identify at some level with these characters than if they were a bank president and a congresswoman. But the key to the impact is the missing Texas piece, which changes the movie from a story about two women seeking independence to a propaganda piece which puts emotional pressure on female audience members to stay in their place - or else!

Was this intentional? Who’s to say. The script was written by a woman, and it is my understanding that the Texas Story is told in the first draft. But as we know from ink blots, author intent need not be present to generate audience effect.

Of course, we have only explored one kind of propaganda. In fact, there are a multitude of others. In “Thelma and Louise” the mechanism of propaganda involves a missing piece of information. Another technique adds an unnecessary piece of information. As an example, let us look as Disney’s “The Lion King.”

Much has been written about the possible negative racial bias created by the Hyenas in the story. Whoopi Goldberg does the voice of the principal Hyena. The Hyenas, which are dark-skinned, live in the symbolic equivalent of a ghetto. They are forbidden to set foot in the sunny world of other jungle animals. They are shown to be stupid, sneaky, and cowardly. When they do have the opportunity to enter the forbidden world, they destroy the neighborhood. Order is only restored when they are driven back to their wasteland.

But this is not the propaganda of Lion King; it is merely “manipulation”. By way of definition, “manipulation” occurs when a meta message which exists above the structural message of the story at large is discernible to the audience. In other words, if the audience is able to tune in to a bias, it is manipulation. But if the audience is unaware that it is being biased by subliminal symbolic references - THAT is propaganda.

A clever propagandist will use manipulation as a distraction, to better obscure the propaganda going on elsewhere in a story. In “The Lion King”, while attention is drawn to the potential racial issues, it is hardly ever noticed that there is an even stronger anti-female bias in the undercurrent. Why doesn’t Simba’s mother ascend to the throne when her husband is killed? Why do all the female lions accept the rule of the Simba’s evil uncle? Why do they do all the hunting as if it is their genetic duty? What of Nala, the female lion who stays during the hard times, tries to help and pays her dues while Simba is hiding in the forest living the good life? Why is the cowardly Simba who runs from responsibility given the crown as soon as he returns? These biases seldom come to conscious consideration, as the minds of audience members are busy wondering why the Hyenas are black.

And, being a children’s film, the damage is even worse, since the racial manipulation is beyond the scope of most children, so the built-in bias is accepted as propaganda instead, influencing a whole generation of young people to unquestioningly believe that minorities belong in the ghetto and males have a divine right to rule. Again, was this intentional? Who’s to say. But if it wasn’t, imagine the damage caused by accident.

Clearly, the visual media have a powerful impact on society as a whole and each of us individually. When one becomes familiar the mechanism of story, one can better identify this impact, and even work to employ it with precision.

I thank you for your time, and hope you found it well spent.

Copyright 1996 Melanie Anne Phillips

Monday, March 9, 2009

Elements of Structure - Art of Storytelling

by Melanie Anne Phillips
creator StoryWeaver, co-creator Dramatica

The Dramatica Theory Book begins:

"Part of what makes a story great is its underlying dramatic structure and part is the manner in which that structure is related to an audience, often called "storytelling". Therefore, this book is divided into two principal sections: The Elements of Structure and The Art of Storytelling."

When I wrote that paragraph, I thought it was pretty self explanatory. But over the years I've been surprised by how many people, though they agree with the concept in principal, don't really understand the difference between those two facets of a story.

Part of the problem is that people lump all aspects of a story other than the words they use to tell it into a single glop they think of as the structure. This means they see a characters name, its job, age, gender and so on as structure. They see the setting, time frame and genre as structure. They all the events that happen and all the moralizing as part of the structure. Yet none of these are structural elements at all. They are, in fact, part of the storytelling.

Why is it important to differentiate the two? Because structure can only be solidly built if you see it for what it really is - the framework that holds up the story.

In this tip, I'd like to spend a little time illustrating the nature of and differences between story structure and storytelling, and provide some techniques for using this clear view of both to enhance the soundness of your story and your creative experience as well.

What we're going to do is break a completed story into four parts, rather than just structure and storytelling. To do this, we'll use an analogy.

Think of a story as a body. There's the skeleton, the soft tissue, the clothes and lastly the haircut, jewelry, make-up, facial hair, cologne and so on.

The skeleton is the structure, the soft tissue is the encoding (I'll define this in a moment), the clothes is the exposition and the finishing touches are the storytelling.

Structure then is the fixed framework that defines the basic shape and function of the thing. For example one story might have a goal of Obtaining a particular item. Another story might have a goal of Becoming a different kind of person. Obtaining a thing is completely different from Becoming a new person, so those two structures would be completely different.

Now on to the soft tissue of story, the Encoding. Using the above example, in the Obtaining story the goal might be to obtain a treasure, a diploma, someone's love or the answer to a riddle. Clearly each of these stories would seem completely different, even though they are all Obtaining stories and, therefore, structurally identical.

In the other story example, "Becoming" might be becoming more honest, becoming more self-sufficient, becoming more passionate or becoming more considerate. Again, each of these would seem like a different story, even though, structurally, they are all about Becoming something.

Just as the same skeleton can belong to a fat person or a thin one, a healthy one or a sick one, a strong one or a weak one, so too a single structure can manifest itself in many different ways.

So we have a pretty good grip on a very fundamental understanding of the first two parts of a story, the structure and the encoding. Now we consider the clothing, which is the equivalent of Exposition.

In stories, as in clothing, exposition is the way the thing is revealed. How much do you show up front? How long does it take to see more? What do you see in what order? And when do you get to see it all?

Authors need to remember that while they know their entire story from beginning to end and everything in between, their audience or readers don't. So the job of exposition is two-fold. One, to make sure you find a place in the unfolding of your story to convey everything you want the audience/readers to know. Two, to consider how best to unveil the details of your story like a striptease artist, teasing your audience/readers to instill in them the greatest possible interest.

Finally, we come to the actual storytelling - the fancy dancy primps and preens that give the whole package pizazz. Now consider that though you have completed the first three stages in developing your story (built a structure, determined the encoding, and worked out the exposition, you haven't actually written a word! So this last stage, Storytelling, is (surprisingly enough) where you actually tell your story!

The structure determines what it is, the encoding determines what it means, the exposition determines how it comes across, and storytelling determines how it feels. In other words, in four steps you've moved clear across from a fully logistic approach to the elements of structure to a purely passionate experience in the art of storytelling.

Now, I promised to describe why this is useful to a writer. First of all, we shouldn't think about the four stages when we are creating - it just moves us into an analytical frame of mind and smothers our Muse. But once we are done with inspiration for a bit, then we need to look at our story more objectively - to examine it analytically to make sure we haven't missed a beat, gone off track, failed to communicate or lost the passion.

A completed section of your story may mask problems in one of the four aspects by something really cool in another. This doesn't solve the problem, it just hides it behind some flash. In the end, it might wow, but it won't sustain. Conversely, the best balance meal of a story might be bland to the point of being impossible to swallow, yet seems quite complete to an author. By separating the four stages, you can see where your storytelling might not have enough oomph and needs to jiggle its booty a bit more to entice.

By putting structural considerations out of your mind while you creatively write, it frees your Muse to pursue any creative path that appeals to her. By putting creativity out of your mind while you analyze, you can see clearly where the problems are and how to go about fixing them.

In the end, you'll be more productive and have a more pleasant creative experience. And all by being truly aware of the difference between the elements of structure, the art of storytelling and all the points between.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How To Structure Your Story's Theme

Your thematic message (morel or the story) has two sides: the Issue and the Counterpoint. The Issue is the human quality under examination in your story (such as greed) and the Counterpoint is the opposite trait (such as Generosity), presented for contrast. Together, they play both sides of the moral dilemma. But how do you go about making your thematic point to your readers or audience?

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 is 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 abolutely 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.

Unfolding Your Thematic Topic

The thematic topic is the subject matter of your story, such as "death," or "man's inhumanity to man." No matter what topic you will be exploring, it will contain large issues, small issues, and everything in between.

In Act One, you need to introduce and establish your theme so that your readers or audience gets a sense of the kinds of issues you'll be exploring. To do this, you have three different approaches available.

1. You could outline the scope of your subject matter with one or more large, definitive dramatic moments. Then, in acts two and three, you would gradually fill in smaller and smaller details, adding nuance and shading to the overall topic as the story progresses. This system is best when trying to apply topics that are often seen objectively or impersonally to everyday life.

2. Conversely, you could begin with the details in Act One, then move to larger concerns as the story progresses. This is a good way to elevate topics dealing with commonplace, mundane, or work-a-day issues to philosophical or global importance.

3. Finally, you could mix it up, presenting a blend of issues ranging from the large to the small in every act. This creates a feeling that the topic is an area to explore, rather than a statement to be understood.

Whichever approach you take, the pattern needs to be set up in Act One so your reader or audience can follow. So determine which approach you wish to take and then create specific examples that illustrate your topic, both in a large and small way.

Finally, pepper these examples into each act as the scope of your topic broadens, narrows, or contrasts the two extremes as it goes.

Characters in the Middle of Act Three

In baseball, they call it the "seventh inning stretch." In stories, it is called the middle of act 3.

Up to this point, your characters and your reader/audience have been on a roller coaster that's been going higher and higher, in fits and starts. In the last part of the third act, the tension will rise up that final highest climb, and then plunge all the way to the bottom as the outcome of the story is determined.

As with a roller coaster, there is more of a thrill if you see that hill coming. So the middle of act 3 serves two purposes. First, to give your reader/audience a little breathing room, and second, to set them up for the emotional upheaval to come.

If two characters had argued or fought at the beginning of the act, a third character might tell them they can settle their differences later, but if they keep fighting now, everyone will lose the bigger fight. Realizing the truth of this, the two characters would calm down, let the adrenaline clear out of their systems, and then focus on the job at hand with the other party as reluctant allies.

In Volleyball, there is the set-up and the spike. The end of act three is the spike, but the middle is the set-up. No matter how much of a slam-bang finish you have planned for your story, it will mean nothing without the right set-up.

So, consider what you have coming, consider where you've been, then use the middle of act 3 to refocus your characters on the overall goal, rather than on each other.

Introducing Characters in Act One

Some stories introduce characters as people and then let the reader/audience discover their roles and relationships afterward. This tends to help an audience identify with the characters.

Other stories put roles first, so that we know about the person by their function and/or job, then get closer to them as the act progresses. This tends to make the reader/audience pigeon-hole the characters by stereotype, and then draw them into learning more about the actual people behind the masks.

Finally, there are stories that introduce character relationships, either situational, structural, or emotional, at the beginning. This causes the audience to see the problems among the characters but not take sides as strongly until they can learn about the people on each side of the relationship, and the roles that constrain them.

Of course, you do not have to treat these introductions equally for all characters and relationships. For example, you might introduce on character as a person, then introduce their relationship with another character, then divulge the constraints the other character is under due to role, then revel the other character as a person.

This approach would initially cast sympathy (or derision) at the first character, temper it by showing a relationship with which he or she must contend, then temper that relationship by showing the constraints of the other character, and finally humanize that other character so a true objective balance can be formed by the reader/audience.

Don't forget that first impressions stick in our minds, and it is much easier to judge someone initially than to change that judgment later. Use this trait of audiences to quickly identify important characters up front, or to put their complete situations later, thereby forcing the reader/audience to reconsider its attitudes, and thereby learn and grow.

No matter what approach you take, you have the opportunity to weave a complex experience for your reader/audience, blending factual, logistic information about your characters with the reader/audience emotional experience in discovering this information.

Character Dismissals

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.

Rising Tension in Character Relationships

Character relationships should come under strain over the course of your novel or screenplay so that tension in the relationship rises. To accomplish this, you need to create dramatic moments in which outside pressures put each relationship in an increasing vice-grip.

Conversely, overemphasizing tension might be detrimental, especially in particular genres. For example, in light comedy, action stories, and so on, relationship issues are not likely to be all that crucial or central. Nonetheless, relationship stress should still rise, just not to the same depth and degree. In short, keep an eye toward the overall mood you want for your story, and within that scope, bring tension to its maximum by the end of the third act.

Tension does not have to rise smoothly, but can lurch forward in fits and starts. ! The key is to mimic real life and the naturally uneven nature of the stress in our lives. Tension can rise slowly, then drop quickly in a momentary release, only to begin to rise again. Or, it can snap into place precipitously, only to gradually fade away. In fact, a single relationship might employ both of these techniques.

No matter how you get there, you will want to eventually arrive at a set of dramatic circumstances that brings each relationship to the maximum stress level. That is the point at which the relationship will stand or snap - the character climax of your story.

Characters' Changing Emotional Relationships

Perhaps the most complex relationships among characters are the emotional ones because they can grow to any degree in any direction AND because both characters don't have to feel the same way about each other!

For example, how many stories are written about "unrequited love" where one character is infatuated with the other, but the other is repulsed by them, yet in the end both may love each other, both hate each other, or they may have swapped positions, emotionally.

Another example is the younger brother who tags along with the older brother. To the younger, the older brother is his hero. To the older, the younger brother is a pest.
Now, suppose the younger brother is attacked by a bully. The older brother may come to the rescue and defend his tag-along. But the moment the threat is gone and the younger brother looks up at his protector with glowing eyes, the older brother say, "Okay, get out of here and leave me alone." Emotional relationships change with the slightest breeze and change back with the least provocation.

Consider the emotional relationships among the characters in your novel or screenplay. Now, consider your plot and also changes in situational relationships, such as who is second in command or married to whom. Go over the emotional journey of each of your characters as individuals. Then, imagine how each emotional relationships might shift, change, and grow for each of the characters due to changes in their situational relationships with others.

It is a fair amount of work, but you will find that this development more than any other will enrich your characters and the passionate experience of your story.

Introducing Characters - First Impressions

When your reader/audience first meets your characters in a story, it has the same effects as when you are introduced to someone in real life. First impressions have a tremendous impact that you can use either to establish or mislead your reader/audience as to the true nature of each character.

You might tell your reader/audience all there is to know about a particular character right up front. But for another character, you may drop little bits of information over the whole course of the story. And, of course, you want to note how a character's outlook and feelings change as the story unfolds.

Then there is the question of who shows up first? Joe, Tom, Sally, or the Monster? Characters introduced early on become more important to the reader/audience at a personal level, even though their roles may not be as significant in the story at large.

To elevate an interesting character who is not a major player, you may wish to introduce and follow him or until he or she latches up with a major character down the line. Or, you might reveal several characters together in a group activity to give them equal footing at that point in the story.

Who is your Main Character? Do you want to involve your audience immediately by bringing that character in first, or would you rather have them look more objectively at the characters and plot, introducing the Main Character later?

You know all about your characters while your audience knows nothing. It's okay to reveal more about your characters later in the story, but you must lay the groundwork and reveal personality so that your audience can sympathize with them and feel for them as the story progresses. For complex characters, it may take the entire story before all their subtleties are revealed.

Sometimes an author may want to have a character with a dark side, or a hidden side that will be revealed only later in the story. Don't avoid introducing the character, but rather try to introduce their facade as a complete character, making it that much more shocking when they reveal their other face.

Remember, first impressions are lasting, and an audience with the first impression of someone as a good guy, will resist thinking of them as a bad guy for as long as possible. So, don't give hints to the truth right off the bat.

Your Plot, Step by Step

by Melanie Anne Phillips
creator StoryWeaver, co-creator Dramatica

Here are some general guidelines to help you structure your story's plot, step by step.

Act One Beginning

The beginning of act one is the teaser. It may or may not have anything to do with the actual plot of the story. This is where you get the feel of the story and the feel of the main character. A good example is in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the very beginning Indiana Jones replaces a statue with a bag of sand and then gets chased through a lot of booby traps. This actually has nothing to do with the story to come, but it sets the tone and grips the audience.

Act One Middle

The middle of act one is the set up of the situation and goal. Even though you should reveal the goal in this section, you don't need to have the protagonist accept the goal.

If your goal requires a lot of preparation before starting on the quest, then you might want to have the acceptance of the goal by the end of this section and the preparation in the next section.

In contrast, if your protagonist needs to think or do something before accepting the goal and/or there is no preparation needed for the goal, then the acceptance of the goal can happen in the end section of the first act instead.

Act One Ending

By the end of this section everything should be ready to embark on the quest. All preparation, all acceptance is completed. Just as when you are going on vacation you turn off all the lights, pet the dogs, lock the doors, put the suitcases in the car, get in the car, put on your seatbelt, start the car and drive off out of sight... all this is the first act. The second act begins with the car on the road.

Act Two Beginning

This section presents the beginning of the quest. It is the start of the actual journey. In many stories, this is an upbeat or at least hopeful time. Everything goes as planned. Keep in mind that throughout act two the difficulties in achieving the goal are constantly increasing. This is the section before that starts to happen; when it seems as if the journey will be a piece of cake.

Act Two Middle

This is possibly the most important section you will write. It is the midpoint, the exact middle of your story.

Act two has in it, either in the this second or the end section, a special problem, often called a "plot twist." The stakes are raised in an unexpected form, and in so-doing the whole picture is changed.

In an action story it will change what the characters think they need to do and make the goal more difficult to achieve. In a character piece, this problem makes it more difficult to resolve their personal problems; it complicates them.

Now you have a choice to make. If your plot twist will require reorganization or recovery by the characters, then it should be in this section. But if the plot twist simply sends things in a new direction, then it should be at the end of the next section.

Act Two Ending

Now you have either put the ground shaking problem in the previous middle section, or you are planning to put it in this one. Remember that if your problem requires reorganization of material or the scheme, then the problem should have been in the last section leaving this section for reorganization and/or recovery. If you want to put the problem in this section, make sure the problem does not require reorganization.

So you can have act two go out with a bang if you drop your plot twist right at the end of this section. Or, if the the bang was in the middle section you can have this section (and act two) go out with a whimper.

Now don't let the name fool you, a whimper can be very effective. As an example, suppose in the middle of Act Two a natural disaster occurs as the Plot Twist bang. All the food the group has with them is scattered to the winds. After this disaster, all the food that can be found must be found.

The end section of act two in this story would involve finding the food, patching bags, rounding up lost horses, fixing what's broken and so on, recovering. At the very last, everything is ready to go, and the man who is carrying the food sees a last grain of rice on a rock, picks it up, drops it in a bag, gets on his horse and leaves.

That moment with the single grain of rice is the whimper. It ends the act with a subtle sense of closure and the anticipation that Act Three will begin with a new sense of purpose for the characters.

Act Three Beginning

Act three is the buildup to and, of course, the climax itself. All the plot points in the story have been set up in the first act, developed in the second, and the third act is where everything comes together for better or for worse.

The beginning of the third act is a response to the plot twist of the second act. If you put the twist in the middle of the second act, then the characters spent the remaining part of act two recovering from that set back and getting ready to start again. In such a case, the beginning of act three feels like the beginning of the quest all over again - with renewed resolve.

If you put the twist at the end of the second act, then it dropped like a bombshell and changed the whole purpose of what the characters are trying to achieve. In this case, act three begins with the characters setting off in a whole new direction than at the beginning of the quest.

Either way, the reader/audience should be made to know that this is the start of the final push toward the ultimate climax or reckoning.

Act Three Middle

Throughout the story, although the Protagonist and Antagonist may have come into conflict, there have always been extenuating circumstances that prevented an ultimate conflict. In the middle of act three, these circumstances are dismantled, one by one, until nothing more stands between these two principal characters.

At the end of this section it is clear that a final face-off is inevitable.

Act Three Ending

This is climax of your story. It is where the antagonist and protagonist meet for the final conflict. Your entire story has been leading up to this moment, with rising tension and suspense. All the stops are removed and the momentum cannot be turned aside.

When the Protagonist and Antagonist meet, they start with the small stuff, sizing each other up. This is true whether it is an action-oriented story or a character study. The dynamics are the same - only the weapons they use are different.

In action stories there will be physical weapons. In character stories, the weapons will be emotional. In stories about a single character grappling with personal problems, his or her demons come to bear, slowly but directly, building to the final breaking point.

In all kinds of stories, this section builds as the two camps (and their followers) pull stronger and stronger weapons out of their arsenal, since the smaller ones have proven ineffective.

The battle quickly becomes more heated, more imperative, and riskier. Eventually both the antagonist and protagonist have employing all the weapons they have at their disposal except one. They each retain a trump card, one last weapon that they have not yet used for fear that it might backfire or take them down along with their opponent. With the use of this last weapon the battle will be decided, one way or another.

The final moments of the ending of act three might take one of two directions:

1. The weapon (physical or emotion) is employed and the results are seen as the smoke clears.

2. The weapon is employed and the result is left in limbo until the conclusion (epilog, dénouement or "wrap-up")


The conclusion is the aftermath and epilog. The climax is over and it's time to take stock of all that has happened. The conclusion is both a cool down period for the reader/audience after the excitement of the climax and a wrap up of loose ends.

How did it all turn out? What was gained and what was lost? Was the effort to achieve the goal successful or not. Or, what the Goal only partially achieved, and was it enough?

In a sense, the conclusion is a new "set-up." Just as the opening of your story set-up the way things are when the problem begins, the conclusion sets up how things are, now that it is over.

What kind of new situation has come into being through the changes wrought by the climax?