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Monday, December 31, 2012

External and Internal Dependencies

As co-creator of the Dramatica theory, I often take some of the concepts so for granted that I forget to consider wider application of them.

For example, in my classes I often speak of the three kinds of character relationships: Dynamic, Companion, and Dependent. Dynamic relationships are directly conflicting, Companion relationships have a tangential effect, and Dependent relationships are complementary.

And each kind of relationship has a positive and negative version. For example, a positive Dynamic relationship is when two opposing view duke it out and through that conflict spark a new idea – a synthesis that would never have occurred without hammer to metal. In a negative dynamic relationship two opposing character will simply beat each other into the ground.

In a negative Companion relationship, two characters have a detrimental indirect impact on one other, just as a byproduct of each doing what each is doing. For example, a fellow building a toy for his son’s birthday in the garage unknowingly kicks up wood dust that causes his neighbor to suffer an asthma attack. A positive Companion relationship might be that same fellow’s other neighbor who discovers the wood dust keeps pesky birds away from his garden.

A positive Dependent relationship is when characters feel that “I’m okay, you’re okay but together we’re terrific!” The negative Dependent relationship is saying, “I’m nothing without my other half.” And so the phrase, “You complete me” might be either positive or negative, depending….
But, I’ve said all this before. What inspired me to write this article was, as I said above, that sometimes my familiarity with a concept gets in the way of my perceiving its implications.

In this case, what I’ve never considered before was that if characters in a Story Mind represent our thoughts – different attributes of our psyche, such as reason, emotion, confidence and doubt, then relationships among characters must be illustrating the kinds of relationships we have among our own thoughts. If this analogy of the Story Mind holds true (and it should), then we must have thoughts within ourselves which share Dynamic, Companion and Dependent relationships.

And so, I began to question myself as to where I may have seen such internal relationships within my own mind. I began with the Dependent relationship as that was the kind I happened to be examining in characters when this concept struck me.

What would be a Dependent relationship between two different thoughts of mine, I wondered? And then I realized these relationships weren’t between thoughts, but between feelings. The example I found within myself were actually several and initially all of the negative variety as illustrated thus:

“If I can only finish this book I’ll be satisfied with my work as an author.” Paraphrased, this means, “I won’t be satisfied until I finish this book,” or, “I’m incomplete without this accomplishment,” or “This book will complete me,” which is really a negative feeling re-phrased to sound positive so it is more palatable to myself.

Easily, I had many things for which I longed. If I looked at them positively such as “Life is good, but that other potential situation would be even better,” then it was a positive Dependent experience. But, if it was “I can’t be truly happy until X happens, is achieved or obtained,” then it was a negative Dependent experience.

Suddenly I found myself examining all kinds of relationships among my feelings – such things as “being of two minds,” in which my sense of self (the Main Character in my head) has it out with how things might be if I had a change of heart (the Influence Character in my head) over issue X. And in so doing I realized that from the Main Character’s view is is not “who will I be” or “how will I be” if I change, but it rather seems more like “what will it be” or “how will it be” (my life situation) if I stick with my desires or abandon them from some replacement plan?

Sure we all have mental images of ourselves, which we spend inordinate quantities of time lovingly maintain as if our selves were our prized automobile which we proudly display as we motor along through life (our personas, in actuality – our means of locomotion through the social highways of our culture, local and distant, within reach and in the stars. But though we may consider our image and make choices to change or not depending on how it will be affected, we also, emotionally consider how that our world feels might change, if we get or don’t get, embrace or abandon, commit or hedge in regard to those things for which we would find a positive enhancement to our lives or that the ongoing absence of those things leaves our lives negative until that lack is remedied.

And, naturally, my thoughts then drifted to the relationships among groups, each a different story mind, and saw that these same emotional, passionate, motivational relationships existed among them as well.

Snapping back to narrative theory again, I was now confident that these three kinds of relationships between characters had unveiled to me a new understanding – that while each character may represent a structural element in a quad that leads it into one of the three kinds of relationships with another character who represents another element in that quad, and while these relationships might be positive or negative from a structural view, for the characters themselves they are felt, not thought, and they are lived in an ongoing passionate experience, not simply attributes that possess.

As a final thought before my interest in this topic waned, I reminded myself that most characters have several elements they represent, all in different quads. And therefore, they not only have Dynamic, Companion, and Dependent relationships with different characters in each quad, but may, in fact, have different kinds of relationships with the same character in different quads, and any of these may be positive or negative in any combination.

And so, the variety of character relationships already known (in our theory) to be complex structurally, has now also expanded to reveal the emotional complexity of how characters may feel about their many kinds of relationships, even between two human beings. And, by extension, how social groups manifest complex emotional relationship in their feelings about each other, and how, but intension, we can come to better understand the relationships among our own feelings, each of us within ourselves.

Naturally, of course, this ebb and flow of passions is part of the Dynamic Model of Narrative upon which I am current working with full attention. And ultimately, I hope to describe these pressures as undulating standing waves, eventually refined into a nice math model and an equation or two. But, that is for another essay.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

Friday, December 28, 2012

Conversational Inertia

Sometimes, no matter how one tries, a conversation cannot be turned. Illustrating this in conversations among characters is a way to illuminate the degree of power that is driving the conversation in a particular direction, or perhaps the magnitude of the potential behind it.

For example, my daughter is seven weeks pregnant and just posted the following note on Facebook with several additional responses:

Mindi (my daughter): I thought pregnancy and pickle craving was a myth. I’ve nearly gone through a whole jar since yesterday.

My reply: A jar of pregnancies?

Someone else’s reply: pickled pregnancies?

Another person’s reply: Not even pregnancy made pickles taste good to me.

I tried to throw this conversation into a new direction, a new context, but the inertia of the social fabric drew the linear topics back to the original issue. This is an initial indicator that those who follow my daughter on Facebook are likely not as interested in the branch in the process I moved down and are more interested in the more obvious subject of the original comment.

Conversational inertia is a hint – a whisper – that, while not definitive, is indicative of larger currents at work that move a conversation in a particular course no matter what winds blow across the surface. The stronger and deeper the current, the greater the drive behind it.

Conversations may be between two people, in which case the inertia illustrates each individual’s underlying motivations. In such a case, each may be speaking at cross purposes, as if two different conversations were chopped up and their pieces alternated linearly. Such mechanisms can often be seen in the conversations between the Main and Influence characters as they each press forward with their own paradigms like two oarsman alternately rowing toward different destinations.

Conversations may be among several people in a group, in which case the inertia illustrates the underlying motivations of the larger Story Mind in which each individual represents a facet. In such a case, there may be a single individual at odds with the group mind or the number of individuals may be split on which topic to follow, indicating that the Story Mind is literally of two minds, which functions as an analogy to our own individual mind’s when we can’t decide between two priorities or are torn between to equally attractive or equally unattractive alternatives. In other scenarios, each individual may try to hijack the group conversation in his or her own desired direction, fragmenting the Story Mind and indicating that the collective is pulled in many direction or is simply directionless, is exploring or is going to pieces.

As a final thought for you Theory Hounds, this process is part of the Dynamic Model – the wave-driven undulations of narrative dynamics that give rise to growing motivations and repress or dissolve others.

You see it in your interactions with others and in the tides and eddies of your own mind and, therefore, you see it in stories as well.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Male vs. Female Problem Solving

All too often in stories, relationships and interchanges between characters of different sexes come off stilted, unbelievable, or contrived. In fact, since the author is writing from the perspective of only one of the two sexes, characters of the opposite sex often play more as one sex’s view of the opposite sex, rather than as truly being a character OF the opposite sex. This is because the author is looking AT the opposite sex, not FROM its point of view.

By exploring the differences in how each sex sees the world, we can more easily create believable characters of both sexes. To that end, I offer the following incident.

I was at lunch with Chris (Co-creator of Dramatica) some time ago. I had ordered some garlic bread and could not finish it. I asked the waitress if she would put it in a box to take home, and she did. On the way past the cashier, I realized that I had forgotten to take the box from the table. I said, “Rats! I forgot the bread!”

Chris said, “Go ahead and get it, we’ll wait.”

I thought for a moment and said, “No, it’s not that important.” and started to walk out.
Chris: “It’ll only take a moment.”

Me: “Yes, but I have to go all the way back, and I probably won’t eat it anyway, and it probably won’t reheat very well, and…”

Chris then said in jest, “Sounds like a bunch of excuses to me.”

In fact, they really did sound like excuses to him. But to me, the reasons I had presented to him for not going back for the bread were not rationalizations, but actually legitimate concerns.

At the heart of this difference in perspective is the difference in the way female and male brains are “soft wired”. As a result, neither women nor men can see into the heart of the other without finding a lack of coherence.

Here is a line-by-line comparison of the steps leading from having too much bread to the differing interpretations of my response to forgetting the box.

Melanie thinks:

That’s good bread, but I’m full. I might take it home, but I’m not convinced it will reheat. Also, I’ve really eaten too many calories in the last few days, I’m two pounds over where I want to be and I have a hair appointment on Wednesday and a dinner date on the weekend with a new friend I want to impress, so maybe I shouldn’t eat anymore. The kids won’t want it, but I could give it to the dog, and if I get hungry myself, I’ll have it there (even though I shouldn’t eat it if I want to lose that two pounds!) So, I guess it’s better to take it than to leave it.

Melanie says:

“Waitress, can I have a box to take the bread home?”

Chris understands Melanie to mean:

I want to take the bread home.

The balance sheet:

To me there was only a tendency toward bringing the bread home, and barely enough to justify the effort. To Chris it was a binary decision: I wanted to bring it home or not.

Melanie says:

“Rats! I forgot to bring the bread!”

Chris says:

“Go ahead and get it, we’ll wait.”

The balance sheet:

I’m thinking, “How does this change the way I feel about the situation?” Chris is thinking, “How can she solve this problem.”

Melanie thinks:

Well, I really don’t want to be tempted by it, this unexpected turn makes it easier to lose the weight. If I go back I’ll be tempted or give it to the dog. If I don’t go back I won’t be tempted, which is good because I know I usually give in to such temptations. Of course, the dog loses out, but we just bought some special treats for the dog so she won’t miss what she wasn’t expecting. All in all, the effort of going around two corners while everyone waits just so I can get an extra doggie treat and lead myself into temptation isn’t worth it.

Melanie says:

“No, its not that important.”

Chris says:

“It’ll only take a moment.”

The balance sheet:

I’m thinking that since I was right on the edge of not wanting to take it in the first place, even this little extra necessary effort is enough inconvenience to make it not a positive thing but an irritation, so I’ll just drop it and not pay even the minor price. Chris is thinking that since I made up my mind to take the bread in the first place, how is it that this little inconvenience could change my mind 180 degrees. I must be lazy or embarrassed because I forgot it.

Melanie says:

“Yes, but I have to go all the way back, and I probably won’t eat it anyway, and it probably won’t reheat very well, and…”

Chris says:

“Sounds like a bunch of excuses to me.”

The balance sheet:

I’m trying to convey about a thousand petty concerns that went into my emotional assessment that it was no longer worth going back for. Chris just hears a bunch of trumped up reasons, none of which are sufficient to change one’s plans.

I operated according to an emotional tendency to bring the bread home that was just barely sufficient to generate even the slightest degree of motivation. Chris doesn’t naturally assume motivation has a degree, thinking that as a rule you’re either motivated or you are not.

The differences between the way women and men evaluate problems lead them to see justifications in the others methods.

Making sense of each other:

Now, what does all this mean? When men look at problems, they see a single item that is a specific irritation and seek to correct it. When they look at inequities, they see a number of problems interrelated. Women look at single problems the same way, but sense inequities from a completely emotional standpoint, measuring them on a sliding scale of tendencies to respond in certain ways.

Imagine an old balance scale – the kind they used to weigh gold. On one side, you put the desire to solve the problem. That has a specific weight. On the other side you have a whole bag of things that taken altogether outweigh the desire to solve the problem. But, you can’t fit the bag on the scale (which is the same as not being able to share your whole mind with a man) so you open the bag and start to haul out the reasons – biggest one’s first.

Well, it turns out the first reason by itself is much lighter that the desire to solve the problem, so it isn’t sufficient. You pull out the next one, which is even smaller, and together they aren’t enough to tip the scales. So, you keep pulling one more reason after another out of the bag until the man stops you saying, “Sounds like a bunch of excuses to me.”

To the man, it becomes quickly obvious that there aren’t enough reasonably sized pieces in that bag to make the difference, and anything smaller than a certain point is inconsequential anyway, so what’s holding her back from solving the problem?

But the woman knows that there may be only a few big chunks, but the rest of the bag is full of sand. And all those little pieces together outweigh the desire to solve the problem. If she went ahead and solved it anyway, everything in that bag would suffer to some degree, and the overall result would be less happiness in her consciousness rather than more.

This is why it is so easy for one sex to manipulate the other: each isn’t looking at part of the picture that the other one sees. For a man to manipulate a woman, all he has to do is give her enough sand to keep the balance slightly on her side and then he can weigh her down with all kinds of negative big things because it still comes out positive overall. For a woman to manipulate a man, all she has to do is give him a few positive chunks and then fill his bag full of sand with the things she wants. He’ll never even notice.

Of course if you push too far from either side it tips the balance and all hell breaks loose. So for a more loving and compassionate approach, the key is not to get as much as you can, but to maximize the happiness of both with the smallest cost to each.

All too often, one sex will deny what the other sex once to gain leverage or to use compliance as a bargaining chip. That kind of adversarial relationship is doomed to keep both sides miserable, as long as it lasts.

But if each side gives to the other sex what is important to to the other but unimportant to themselves, they’ll make each other very happy at very little cost.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Good Intentions Between Characters

If we step into the story and see a misguided character doing hurtful things to others and even to ourselves, from OUR life experience we determine that character must be stopped. Perhaps we argue with them, try to educate them, fight with or kill them or just write them off, severing our emotional ties and letting them spiral down into self destruction because it is the only way to avoid being dragged down with them.

Or, we might argue with them and find ourselves convinced of their point of view, try to educate them but learn something instead, fight with them and lose or be killed, or be written off BY them or hold on to them and be dragged down as well, or drag them down with us.

The point is, both Main and Obstacle characters will feel they are right, believe in what they do, try to convince or thwart their counterpart and ultimately prove to be correct or misguided.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Character Development Tricks!

As trite as it might seem, ask yourself “What would a story be without characters?” The answer can help you get a grip on exactly what characters really do in a story, and therefore how to build them effectively.

Although it is possible to write without the use of characters, it is not easy. Characters represent our drives, our essential human qualities. So a story without characters would be a story that did not describe or explore anything that might be considered a motivation. For most writers, such a story would not provide the opportunity to completely fulfill their own motivations for writing.
For example, we might consider the following poem:

Rain, rain, go away.

Come again another day.

Are there characters in this short verse? Is the rain a character?

To some readers the poem might be a simple invocation for the rain to leave. To other readers, the rain may seem to be stubborn, thoughtless, or inconsiderate. Of course we would need to read more to know for certain.

Suppose we wrote the sentence, “The rain danced on the sidewalk in celebration of being reunited with the earth.”

Now we are definitely assigning human qualities to the rain. Without doubt, the rain has become a character. Characters do not have to be people; they can also be places or things. In fact, anything that can be imbued with motivation can be a character.

So, a fantasy story might incorporate a talking book. An action story might employ a killer wolverine. And a horror story might conjure up the vengeful smoke from a log that was cut from a sentient tree and burned in a fireplace.

When we come to a story we either already have some ideas for a character or characters we would like to use, or we will likely soon find the need for some. But how can we come up with these characters, or how can we develop the rough characters we already have?

Coming up with characters is as simple as looking to our subject matter and asking ourselves who might be expected to be involved. But that only creates the expected characters – predictable and uninteresting. Making these characters intriguing, unusual, and memorable is a different task altogether. But first things first, let us look to our subject matter and see what characters suggest themselves. (If you like, try this with you own story as we go.)

Suppose all we know about our story is that we want to write an adventure about some jungle ruins and a curse. What characters immediately suggest themselves?

Jungle Guide, Head Porter, Archaeologist, Bush Pilot, Treasure Hunter

What other characters might seem consistent with the subject?

Missionary, Native Shaman, Local Military Governor, Rebel Leader, Mercenary

How about other characters that would not seem overly out of place?

Night Club Singer, Tourist, Plantation Owner

And perhaps some less likely characters?

Performers in a Traveling Circus (Trapeze Artist, Juggler, Acrobat, Clown)

We could, of course, go on and on. The point is, we can come up with a whole population of characters just by picking the vocations of those we might expect or at least accept as not inconsistent with the subject matter. Now these characters might seem quite ordinary at first glance, but that is only because we know nothing about them. I promised you a trick to use that would make ordinary characters intriguing, and now is the time to try it.

Of course, we probably don’t need that many characters in our story, so for this example let’s pick only one character from each of the four groups above: Bush Pilot, Mercenary, Night Club Singer, Clown.

First we’ll assign a gender to each. Let’s have two male and two female characters. Well pick the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary as male and the Night Club Singer and the Clown as female.

Now, picture these characters in your mind: a male Bush Pilot, a male Mercenary, a female Night Club Singer, and a female Clown. Since we all have our own life experiences and expectations, you should be able to visualize each character in your mind in at least some initial ways.

The Bush Pilot might be scruffy, the Mercenary bare-armed and muscular. The Night Club Singer well worn but done up glamorously, and the Clown a mousy thing.

Now that we have these typical images of these typical characters in our minds, let’s shake things up a bit to make them less ordinary. We’ll make the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary female and the Night Club Singer and Clown male.

What does this do to our mental images? How does it change how we feel about these characters? The Bush Pilot could still be scruffy, but a scruffy woman looks a lot different than a scruffy man. Or is she scruffy? Perhaps she is quite prim in contrast to the land in which she practices her profession. Since female bush pilots are more rare, we might begin to ask ourselves how she came to have this job. And, of course, this would start to develop her back-story.

How about the female Mercenary? Still muscular, or more the brainy type? What’s her back story? The Night Club Singer might be something of a lounge lizard type in a polyester leisure suit. And the male Clown could be sad like Emit Kelly, sleazy like Crusty the Clown, or evil like Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s “It.”

The key to this trick is that our own preconceptions add far more material to our mental images than the actual information we are given – so far only vocation and gender.

Due to this subconscious initiative, our characters are starting to get a little more intriguing, just by adding and mixing genders. What happens if we throw another variable into the mix, say, age? Let’s pick four ages arbitrarily: 35, 53, 82, and 7. Now let’s assign them to the characters.

We have a female Bush Pilot (35), a female Mercenary (53), a male Night Club Singer (82), and a male Clown (7). How does the addition of age change your mental images?

What if we mix it up again? Let’s make the Bush Pilot 7 years old, the Mercenary 82, the Night Club Singer 53, and the Clown 35. What do you picture now?

It would be hard for a writer not to find something interesting to say about a seven-year-old female Bush Pilot or an eighty-two year old female Mercenary.

What we’ve just discovered is that the best way to break out of your own mind and its cliché creations is to simply mix and match a few attributes. Suddenly your characters take on a life of their own and suggest all kinds of interesting back-stories, attitudes, and mannerisms.

Now consider that we have only been playing with three attributes. In fact, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of attributes from which we might select. These might include educational level, race, disabilities, exceptional abilities, special skills, hobbies, religious affiliation, family ties, prejudices, unusual eating habits, sexual preference, and on and on. And each of these can be initially assigned in typical fashion, then mixed and matched. Using this simple technique, anyone can create truly intriguing and memorable characters.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in all of this is that we have become so wrapped up in these fascinating people that we have completely forgotten about structure! In fact, we don’t even know who is the Hero, Protagonist, or Main Character!

Many authors come to a story realizing they need some sort of central character and then try to decide what kind or person he or she should be from scratch. But it is far easier to first build a cast of characters that really excite you (as we did above) and then ask yourself which one you would like to be the central character.

So, imagine…. What would this story be like if we chose the seven-year-old female Bush Pilot as the Hero. How about the eighty-two year old female Mercenary? Can you picture the 53-year-old male Night Club Singer as Hero, or the thirty-five year old male Clown?

And how would things change depending upon who we pick as the Villain or Antagonist? In fact, by choosing one of these characters as the Hero and another as Villain it will begin to suggest what might happen in the plot, just as picking the subject matter suggested our initial characters. Writer’s block never has to happen. Not when you are armed with this technique to spur your passions.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Does your story suffer from “Multiple Personality Disorder?”

Does your story suffer from “Multiple Personality Disorder”?

In psychology, Multiple Personality Disorder describes a person who has more than one complete personality. Typically, only one of those personalities will be active at any given time. This is because they usually share attributes, and so only one can have that attribute at any particular moment.

Stories can also suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder if more than one character represents a single attribute. In such a case, both should not be able to appear in the story at the same time. If they do, the audience feels that the story is fragmented, or more simply put, the story has developed a split-personality.

Dramatica sees a story as representing a single mind. Most writers have been taught that characters, plot, theme, and genre are people, doing things, illustrating value standards, in an overall setting and mood. In contrast, Dramatica sees characters, plot, theme, and genre as representing different “families of thought” which go on in the story mind as it grapples with a central problem.

Characters are the “drives” of the Story Mind, which often conflict as they do in real people. Plot describes the methods used by the Story Mind in an attempt to find a solution to its central problem. Theme represents the Story Mind’s conflicting value standards, which must be played out one against another to determine the best way of evaluating the problem. Genre describes the Story Mind’s overall personality.

Traditional story theory states that each character must be a complete person to be believable to an audience. But because the characters represent the independent drives of a single Story Mind, each is not really a complete person but is rather a facet of a complete mind. In fact, if you make each character complete, they will all be overlapping, and will give your story a split-personality.

It is in the story TELLING stage where characters take on the trappings of a complete person, not in the story STRUCTURE. Each character needs to be given traits and interests, which round out the character’s “presence,” making it feel like a real human being. But these trappings and traits are not part of the dramatic structure. They are just window dressing – clothes for the facets to wear so the audience can better relate to them on a personal level.

Think about the characters you have seen in successful stories. They might represent Reason, Emotion, Skepticism, or function as the Protagonist or Antagonist, for example. Each of these kinds of characters is an “archetype” because it contains a whole family of drives in one character. For example, a Protagonist may contain the drive to “pursue,” and also the drive to be a self-starter, “pro-action.” Because these drives work together in harmony, the character becomes archetypal.

The individual drives don’t have to be bundled in an archetype, however. In fact, each single drive might be assigned to a different character, creating a multitude of simple characters. Or, characters might get several drives but conflicting ones. These characters are more “complex” because their internal make-up is not completely consistent.

Regardless of how the drives (also called character “elements”) are assigned, each drive should appear in one and only one character. If not, your story may develop Multiple Personality Disorder and leave your audience unable to relate to the story as a whole.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Creating Characters from Scratch

Where Do Characters Come From?

When we speak of characters from a structural standpoint, there are very specific guidelines that determine what is a character and what is not. But when we think of characters in every day life, they are simply anything that has a personality, from your Great Aunt Bertha (though some might argue the point) to the car that never starts when you’re really late.

Looking back through time, it is easy to understand how early humans would assume that other humans like themselves would have similar feelings, thoughts, and drives. Even other species exhibit emotions and make decisions, as when one confronts a bear face to face and watches it decide whether to take you on or find easier pickings (a personal experience from my recent hike on the John Muir trail!)

But even the weather seems to have a personality by virtue of its capricious nature. That’s why they call the wind Mariah, why there is a god of Thunder, and why the Spanish say Hace Color, when it is hot, which literally means, “It makes heat.”

So while, structurally, to be a character an entity must intend to alter the course of events, in the realm of storytelling a character is anything that possesses human emotions. In short, structural characters must have heads, storytelling characters must have hearts. When you put the two together you have entities who involve themselves in the plot, and involve us in themselves.

Where Can We Get Some?

When writing a story, then, from whence can we get our characters? Well, for the moment lets assume we have no plot. In fact, we have no theme, no genre – we don’t even have any particular subject matter we want to talk about. Nothing. We have absolutely nothing and we want to create some characters out of “think” air.

Try starting with a name. Not a name like “Joe” or “Sally” but something that opens the door to further development like “Muttering Murdock” or “Susan the Stilt.” Often coming up with a nickname or even a derogatory name one child might call another is a great way to establish a character’s heart.

What can we say about Muttering Murdock? The best way to develop a character (or for that matter, any aspect of your story) is to start with loose thread and then ask questions. So, for ol’ Muttering Murdock, the name is the loose end just hanging out there for us to pull. We might ask, “Why does Murdock Mutter?” (That’s obvious, of course!) But what else might we ask? Is Murdock a human being? Is Murdock male or female? How old is Murdock? What attributes describe Murdock’s physical traits? How smart is Murdock? Does Murdock have any talents? What about hobbies, education, religious affiliation? And so on, and so on….

We don’t need to know the answers to these questions, we just have to ask them.
Why Does Murdock Mutter?

Next you want to shift modes. Take each question, one at a time, and think up all the different answers you can for each one. For example:

Why does Murdock Mutter?

1. Because he has a physical deformity for the lips.

2. Because he talks to himself, lost in his own world due to the untimely death of his parents, right in front of his eyes.

3. Because he feels he can’t hold his own with anyone face to face, so he makes all his comments so low that no one can hear, giving him the last word in his own mind.

4. Because he is lost in thought about truly deep and complex issues, so he is merely talking to himself. No one ever knows that he is a genius because he never speaks clearly enough to be understood.

You get the idea. You just pull out all the stops and be creative. See, that’s the key. If you try to come up with a character from scratch, well good luck. But if you pick an arbitrary name, it can’t help but generate a number of questions. If you aren’t trying to come up with the one perfect answer to each question, you can let your Muse roam far and wide. Without constraints, you’ll be amazed at the odd variety of potential answers she brings back!

Aging Murdock

Let’s try another question from our Murdock list:
How old is Murdock?

1. 18

2. 5

3. 86

4. 37

That was easy, wasn’t it. But now, think of Murdock in your mind…. Picture Murdock as an 18 year old, a 5 year old, an 86 year old, and at 37. Changes the whole image, doesn’t it! You see, with a name like Muttering Murdock, we can’t help but come up with a mental image right off the bat. It’s like telling someone, “Whatever you do, don’t picture a pink elephant in your mind.” Very hard not to.

The mind is a creative instrument just waiting to be played. It has to be to survive. The world is a jumble of objects, energies, and entities. Our minds must make sense of it all. And to do this, we quite automatically seek patterns. When a pattern is incomplete, we fill it in out of personal experience until we find a better match.

So, when you first heard the name, “Muttering Murdock,” you probably pictured someone who was in your mind already a certain gender, a certain age, and a certain race. You may have even seen Murdock’s face, or Murdock’s size, shape, hair color, or even imagined Murdock’s voice!

Give Murdock a Job!

Now ask one more question about Murdock – What is his or her vocation? Try out a number of alternatives: a school teacher, a mercenary, a priest, a cop, a sanitary engineer, a pre-school drop-out, a retired linesman. Every potential occupation again alters our mental image of Murdock and makes us feel just a little bit differently about that character.

Interesting thing, though. We haven’t even asked ourselves what kind of a person Murdock is. Is this character funny? Is he or she a practical joker? Does he or she socialize, or is the character a loner? Is Murdock quick to temper or long suffering? Forgiving, or carry a grudge? Thoughtful or a snap judge? Dogmatic or pragmatic? Pleasant or slimy of spirit?

Again, each question leads to a number of possible answers. By trying them in different combinations, we can create any number of interesting people with which to populate a story.
As we said at the beginning of the Murdock example, this is just one way to create characters if you don’t even have a story idea yet. But there are more! In our next lesson we’ll explore more of these methods.

Study Exercises: Reverse Engineering Characters

1. Pick a favorite book, movie, or stage play. Make a list of all the principal characters.

2. For each character, list all the key bits of information the author reveals about that character, as if you were writing a dossier.

3. Do a personality study of each character, as if you were a criminal profiler or a psychologist.

4. For each item you have noted in your dossier and profile, create a question that would have resulted in that item as an answer. In other words, play the TV game Jeopardy. Take an item you wrote about a character like, “Hagrid is a large man, so big he must be part giant.” Then, create a question to which that item would be an answer, for example, “What is this character’s physical size?”

5. Arrange all the questions you have reverse engineered in an organized list to be used in the Writing Exercises.

Writing Exercises: Creating Characters

1. Arbitrarily create a character name.

2. Use your list of questions from the Study exercises to ask information about this character.

3. Come up with at least three different answers for each of the questions.

4. Pick one answer for each question to create a character profile.

5. Read over the list and get a feel for your new character. Then, swap out some of the answers (character attributes) that you included in the profile for alternative answers you originally didn’t use.

6. Keep swapping out attributes until you arrive at a character you really have a feel for.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Crucial Element

The point at which the Objective Story and the Main Character hinge is appropriately called the Crucial Element. In fact, the Crucial Element is one of the sixty-four Objective Character Elements we have already explored (in the Dramatica Theory Book). When we look at the Objective Character Elements as the soldiers on the field (from our earlier example), there is one special Element from which the audience experiences an internal perspective on the story. This is the Main Character position in the Objective Story, and the Element at that point is the Crucial Element. As a result, whichever Objective Character represents the Crucial Element should be placed in the same player as the Main Character. In that way, what happens during the Main Character’s growth will have an impact on his Objective function. Similarly, pressures on his Objective function caused by the story’s situations will influence his decision to change or remain steadfast.

We can see that a Protagonist will only be a Main Character if the Crucial Element is one of the Elements that make up a Protagonist. In other words, a Protagonist has eight different Elements, two from each dimension of character. If one of them is the Crucial Element, then the player containing the Protagonist must also contain the Main Character. This means that there are really eight different kinds of heroes that can be created. An action hero might have a Crucial Element of Pursue, while a thinking hero might have a Crucial Element of Consider. Clearly, the opportunities to create meaningful Main Characters who are NOT Protagonists are also extensive.

The Obstacle Character has a special place in the Objective Character Elements as well. We have already discussed Dynamic Pairs. As it turns out, the point at which an Obstacle Character will have the greatest dramatic leverage to try and change the Main Character is the other Element in the Dynamic Pair with the Crucial Element. In simpler terms, the Main and Obstacle Characters are opposites on this crucial issue. Often one will contain the story’s problem, the other the story’s solution.

In the Objective Character Element set, if the Main Character (and Crucial Element) stands on Pursue, the Obstacle Character will occupy Avoid. If the Main Character is Logic, the Obstacle Character will be Feeling. In this manner, the essential differences between two opposite points of view will be explored both in an objective sense, looking from the outside in, and also in a subjective sense, from the inside looking out. All four throughlines come into play (Objective Story, Main Character, Obstacle Character, and Subjective Story), and by the end of the story, the audience will feel that the central issue of concern to the Story Mind has been fully examined from all pertinent angles.

To summarize, a complete story requires that both the Objective and Subjective views are provided to an audience, and that they are hinged together around the same central issue. This is accomplished by assigning the Main and Obstacle Characters to the Objective Characters who contain either the story’s problem or solution Elements. The Element held by the Main Character becomes the Crucial Element, as both the Objective and Subjective Stories revolve around it.

The Crucial Element: Where Subjective meets Objective

The Crucial Element will be an item which is at the heart of a story from both the Objective and Subjective points of view. How this happens depends greatly on the Main Character. The Crucial Element is the connection between the Main Character and the Objective story and makes the Main Character special enough to be “Main.” This issue at the heart of the Main Character is thematically the same issue which is at the heart of the Objective Story.

For Example:

To Kill A Mockingbird Crucial Element is INEQUITY

Inequity is the problem which is causing all of the conflict around the town of Maycomb. The trial of Tom Robinson brings all of the towns’ people into squabbles about inequity in the treatment of different races, inequity among the social classes of people, their levels of income, and their educations.

Scout, as the Main Character, is driven by her personal problem of inequity. This is symbolized most clearly in her fear of Boo Radley. Kept at the margins of the Objective Story dealings with the problem of inequity, Scout however comes to see her prejudice against Boo Radley as being every bit as wrong.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

3 Act vs. 4 Act Structure

The following is a transcript from an online class on the Dramatica theory of story hosted by its co-creator, Melanie Anne Phillips signed on as Dramatica:

William S1 : After working so long in 3-act structure, I’m unclear on Dramatica’s four-act structure.
Dramatica : Okay, let’s address that question… Dramatica sees both a structural and a dynamic view of “acts”… In the dynamic view, we “feel” the progression of a story as falling into three distinct phases. These are the same “movements” that Aristotle saw when he talked about a beginning, a middle, and an end.

An alternative is a structural view. Imagine for a moment, four signposts, along a path. One marks where you start, two in the middle, and one at the end. If you start at the first one, there are three journeys to make.

William S1 : Is act I (set up), act II (confrontation/obstacles) and act III (resolution) applicable?

Dramatica : William, yes, in the traditional understanding of story. There’s a bit more to it in Dramatica. When you move between the four signposts you take three journeys.

William S1 : Why make storytelling more complicated than it is?

Dramatica : Why make it less complicated than it is? When you look at a story as a “done deal”, when you see all the dramatic potentials, rather than concentrating on the events. That is where you see the meaning. Its kind of like scanning out lines on a TV picture. Scene by scene, act by act, you create drama that flows from one point to another. But in the end, you want to be able to connect all the points, and see what kind of picture you have created. By using both a 3 and four act structure and dynamics, Dramatica allows an author to approach a story either through the progression of events or the meaning they want to end up with.

The software has an “engine” that keeps the two compatible, so when you make decisions or changes in one, the effects on the other are shown.

William S1 : What is the 4th act?

Dramatica : The fourth act is the ending, which is the same as the denoument or author’s proof. Any other questions before we continue?

DC Finley : So, the traditional second act is now the second and third acts, right?

Dan Steele : So the event sequence is managed separately from the psychological chain of motivations?

William S1 : Then what is the dramatic purpose of the traditional third act?

Dramatica : Dan, they are managed separately, but intimately tied together. They affect one another.

Dan Steele : Yes.

Dramatica : DC, and William, here’s an answer to you both…If we look at a story as having a beginning, middle and end, then the beginning is static.. it is really the sign post where everything begins. The end is also static, the destination. But the “middle” is seen as the whole development of the story from that starting point to ending point. Now, that is really “blending” half dynamics and half structure. Two points and a string between them.

William S1 : But the beginning is NOT static.. the story usually enters in the middle of a life, event or sequence of events.

Dramatica : Yes, it enters in the middle of a life, but is thought of as the set of potentials that are already wound up that will evolve into the story line.

William S1 : Okay.

Dramatica : Dramatica sees the first act as MUCH more dynamic than that! In fact, we have 7 things to think about!

William S1 : Bring it on.

Dramatica : Let’s label the four structural acts as A,B,C,D. The familiar dynamic acts are 1,2,3. The beginning point is A then we move through 1 to get to B then we move through 2 to get to C. Then we move through 3 to get to D. Now, A,B,C,D and 1,2,3 all have to be there, in order to tell the whole tale.

DC Finley : Je comprende.

Dramatica : Any other questions about this.. oh, just a point. TV often looks at a five act structure. What they are really seeing, is point A followed by 1,2,3 and ending with D. It is not that B, and C are not there, but the commercial breaks emphasize those five and downplay the others. That’s why writing for TV is significantly different than writing for film. And BOTH are a lot different than writing prose. Okay, shall we move on?

DC Finley : Yes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Character Life Experience

As we are driven by life experiences and since the experiences of each of us are unique, it is no wonder we come into conflict and confrontation over most everything we can think of. Stories are about the incompatibility of two life experiences as they relate to the best way to resolve an inequity.

If a character stands by his life experience, then it stands to reason his approach served him well in other scenarios. Similarly, his counterpart has had different life experiences that served him equally well. In the context of the current inequity in question, each life experience generates an approach incompatible with the other. In one context, each set of experiences was problem solving. In the current context, one will be seen to be problem solving, the other justification.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What, Exactly, Is Theme?

It seems every author is aware of theme, but try to find one who can define it! Most will tell you theme has something to do with the mood or feel of a story. But how does that differ from genre? Others will say that theme is the message of the story. Some will put forth that theme is the premise of a story that illustrates the results of certain kinds of behavior.

Taking each of these a bit farther, a story’s mood or feel might be “anger”. A message might be “nuclear power plants are bad”. A premise could be “greed leads to self-destruction.” Clearly each of these might show up in the very same story, and each has a somewhat thematic feel to it. But just as certainly, none of them feels complete by itself. This is because each is just a different angle on what theme really is.

In fact, theme is perspective. Perspective is relationship. Theme describes the relationship between what is being looked at and from where it is being seen. This is why theme has traditionally been so hard to describe. It is not an independent thing like plot or character, but is a relationship between plot and character.

As a familiar example, think of the old adage about three blind men trying to describe an elephant. Each is like a character in a story, and their investigation of the beast is like the plot. One, feeling the tail comments, “It is long and thin like a snake.” Another, feeling the ear replies, “No, it is wide and flat like a jungle leaf.” The final investigator feels the leg and retorts, “You are both wrong! It is round and stout like a tree.” How each of those men felt about the elephant, how they understood it, depended upon his point of view, and the fact that it was an elephant. It is also true, that had another animal been the object of study, the perspective would have changed as well.

Where we are looking from are the four points of view represented by the four throughlines (Objective Story, Main Character, Obstacle Character, and Subjective Story). In stories, what we are looking at is the problem that the Story Mind is considering. So, to truly understand perspective (and therefore theme) we must be able to accurately describe the nature of the story’s problem, and then see how its appearance changes when seen from each different point of view.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Story’s Limit: Timelock or Option Lock?

The following is excerpted from an online class on story structure presented by co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, Melanie Anne Phillips, signed on as Dramatica:

Dramatica : Now, I’ll jump ahead for a moment and look at a couple of plot questions…. First of all, is your story forced to a conclusion because your characters run out of time, or run out of options? This is Timelock or Optionlock. We all know what timelocks are…The ticking clock, 48 hours, etc. But what about stories like Remains of the Day? What was the time limit in that? There was none. So why didn’t the story go on forever? Because it was set up to have a limited number of opportunities for the characters to try and make a relationship happen. And when all the opportunities were exhausted, that’s when the story ends. Its important for the audience to know this right up front… they have to know the scope of the argument.

In Speed, the movie, they actually change from one lock to the other and this is confusing…The set up is, that the bomb will go off at 11:30 no matter what. So, the audience gets their sense of tension from the ticking clock. They expect that to be the moment win or lose will happen. All the other “constraints” about the speed of fifty miles per hour, and not being able to take anyone off the bus, are just that, constraints, but the bus could keep going forever with refueling, if it were not for the time bomb. But at the end of the story, what brings the moment of truth? Not the time bomb…. In fact, the bus slows down below fifty as it hits the plane. The LED numbers that are ticking down are the speed, not the time! So, the timelock is not honored.

Then we don’t know WHEN the story is going to end for sure. We assume maybe when the bad guy gets it. But that wasn’t where our tension was headed. Where the tension was built toward at the beginning, and therefore its something of a cheat and bit of a disappointment.

Dramatica : Actually, barring questions, I’ll have to stop there for now, as I have a class of 30 eager writers coming here to Screenplay for a class tomorrow morning.

Dan Steele : is “reception theory” the psychology of the audience?

Dramatica : Yes, Dan, its like this.. We, as an audience, can see pictures in clouds, wallpaper, constellations…We try to order our world, When we see a finished work, we look for pattern. Sometimes we see what the author intended, Sometimes things the author never intended that may or may not be in conflict with the intended message. And sometimes, we see no pattern at all. It may be the Storyform was flawed, missing apiece. Or it may be that the storytelling just didn’t convey it, or it may be that the audience just isn’t tuned into the symbols the author chose to use.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Screenwriting 101

Screenplays are blueprints for movies. As such, they are not art, but instructions for creating art. Therefore, there are two things every great screenplay must have: A good story, and a clear and understandable description of how it should be told.

Through the years, a standard format evolved that serves as a template for presenting a screenplay in script form. In addition, certain dramatic conventions became accepted that put requirements and restrictions on screen stories that don’t apply to novels.

In this tip, I’ll outline a few of the key dramatic elements usually present in most successful scripts.

1. Teaser

Though not absolutely required, it is usually desirable to start your script with a teaser scene. This can be an intense emotional experience, a thrilling bit of action, or an offbeat introduction to a strange world. It might advance the plot, set the theme, and establish the time and location, introduce characters, or just serve as a roller coaster ride to get the audience involved.

2. Remember your audience.

Your audience is the cast, crew, and all the agents, readers, development executives or producers who may become involved in the purchase or production of your script. Your audience is NOT the people sitting in the theater. Like the old game of “telephone,” your purpose is not to tell a story but to tell other how to tell the story. And your purpose is not to impress movie go-ers, but to impress those who decide if your project will get the green light for production.

3. Don’t be overly literary in your scene description.

Many production personnel frown on anything but straight-forward prose. The purpose of a screenplay is to tell people how to tell a story, not to tell it yourself. Still and all, successful screenwriters often violate this rule because they can get away with it. And, if you are planning on directing the movie yourself, you may want to capture your intended mood. On the other hand, you don’t want those considering your project to be bored, or find your words too dry. So, the concept is to be as efficient as possible in conveying both the information in your story and the feeling of what it will be like on the screen.

4. Don’t get stuck in a genre trap.

Genres are guidelines, not rules. List your favorite genres; list your favorite elements in each genre. Then, gather together all the elements you might like to include in your script. Pepper them throughout your screenplay so that your genre develops, rather than being set at the beginning and then stagnating.

5. Use “Tracking Dialog.”

Break up all long speeches into back and forth conversation. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but in general, conversation is far more interesting both in sound and in how it can be presented visually.

6. Find interesting and believable ways to drop exposition.

Have you ever seen one character tell another, “He’s at Dollar-Mart, you know, that big national chain store?” If it were so big and national, the other character would already know this information! One of the best ways to drop exposition is in an argument. You can then exaggerate and bring out information a character might already be expected to know by using it as a weapon. And for simple exposition, try billboards, newspapers, answering machines, photos on mantles, two people talking about a third, and any other technique that doesn’t hit the audience over the head or smack of cliché.

7. Don’t preach.

You should have a message, but don’t present it as a one-sided statement. Rather, show both sides. If you are interested in passing judgment on Greed, also show Generosity. Never put them both in the same scene side by side, but make sure the audience gets to see how well each side does on its own in at least once scene each per act. In the end, the audience will sum up all the instances in which they saw how each side performed, and will draw their own conclusions (that you have craftily led them to).

8. Give your Main Character a personal issue as well as a goal to accomplish.

A story with nothing more than a logistic quest, while perhaps thrilling, is heartless. Your Main Character should grapple with an issue that pressures him or her to consider changing their mind, attitude, or nature in some way, large or small. And don’t just present the personal problem and then resolve it at the end. Unless you argue it (usually through another character who is philosophically or morally opposed to the Main Character’s view) the ultimate change or growth of your Main Character will seem tacked on and contrived.

9. Characters don’t have to change to grow.

They can stick to their guns and grow in their resolve. There are two types of characters, those who change their natures (or minds) in regard to some issue, and those who stick it out and hold on to their views. The obstacles in a story drive a character to the point of change, but whether or not he or she will change is the issue, after all. Sometimes they should change and don’t. Other times they shouldn’t and do. Each of these presents a different message, and is less overused than the character who should change and does, or shouldn’t and doesn’t.

10.There are many kinds of endings

A character might change and resolve their personal angst, yet fail in their quest as a result. Was it worth it? Depends on the degree of angst and the size of the failure. Another character might not resolve their angst; yet by refusing to change accomplish the goal. And even if they do accomplish the goal, it might have been a misguided thing to do, and is actually quite bad that they were successful. The character might not have been aware that the goal was a bad thing, or they might fail to achieve a good thing.

In addition, goals might be partially achieved or only small failures, and a character might resolve only part of their angst, or just slightly increase it.

The flavor of the movie will ultimately depend on how all these elements stack up at the end, and offer you a palette of shadings, rather than just Happy or Sad, and Success or Failure.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Using Main Character Resolve

Just because a Main Character ultimately remains steadfast does not mean he never considers changing. Similarly, a Change Main Character does not have to be changing all the time. In fact, that is the conflict with which he is constantly faced: to stick it out or to alter his approach in the face of ever-increasing opposition.

Illustrating your Main Character as wavering can make him much more human. Still, if his motivation is strong enough, your Main Character may hold the course or move toward change from the opening scene to the denouement. It all depends on the kind of experience you wish to create for your audience.

There is no right or wrong degree of certainty or stability in a Main Character. Just make it clear to your audience by the end of the story if he has been changed or not by the experience. Sometimes this happens by forcing your Main Character to make a choice between his old way of doing things or a new way. Another way of illustrating your Main Character’s resolve is to establish his reaction in a particular kind of situation at the beginning of the story that tells us something about his nature. After the story’s climax, you can bring back a similar kind of situation and see if he reacts the same way or not. From this, your audience will determine if he has Changed or remained Steadfast.

What if a Main Character Changes when he should Remain Steadfast, or Remains Steadfast when he should Change? Choosing your Main Character’s Resolve describes what your Main Character does without placing a value judgment on him. The appropriateness of his Resolve is determined by other dynamics in your story which will be addressed later. For now, simply choose if your Main Character’s nature has Changed or Remained Steadfast.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

“Things” as Characters

A writer asks:

“My favorite creative writing book is ‘Setting’ by Jack Bickham. Use of setting as primary with characters, plot, theme, mood, etc derived from it and interacting with it seems of particular value in science fiction. Where would Deep Space 9 be without deep space and a space station! Setting is certainly the cauldron of my imagination.

So how can I best approach things this way with Dramatica? Do you have any examples where setting has been created as a character?

Can I have two antagonists, for example, one a person and the other a setting?”

My Reply:

In fact, the Antagonist in a story can be a person, place or thing – any entity that can fulfill the dramatic function of the Antagonist.

First, look at the movie “Jaws.” The Antagonist is the shark. The mayor is the Contagonist.
Next consider the 1950s movie with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner called, “The Mountain.” Tracy plays an aging mountain climber whose nemesis is the huge mountain that looms over his home and nearly killed him years ago. He hasn’t climbed since. The mountain claims new victims in a plane crash.

Tracy is the only one qualified to lead an expedition to rescue them. Wagner, his nephew, wants to rob the plane of its valuables and slyly convinces Tracy to lead the expedition on humanitarian grounds. The mountain is the Antagonist and Wagner is the Contagonist.

In the movie, “Aliens” (the second film in the series), the Aliens themselves are the “Group Antagonist” and the Contagonist is Burke, the company man.

In the movie, “The Old Man & the Sea.” Anthony Quinn is the Protagonist, the Great Fish is the Antagonist, and the Sea is the Contagonist.

In a short story called, “The Wind,” which appeared in an anthology released by Alfred Hitchcock, the wind itself it the Antagonist, having sentience and stalking down and eventually killing an explorer who accidentally stumbled upon the knowledge that the winds of the world are alive.

These examples illustrate that all of the dramatic functions (such as Protagonist, Antagonist, and Contagonist) need to be represented, but can easily be carried by a person, place, or thing. Still, there is only one Antagonist, and the other negative force is usually the Contagonist.

There are two exceptions to the “rule” that there should be only one Antagonist. One is when the Antagonist is a group, as in the “Aliens” example above, or with an angry mob or the Empire in Start Wars. The other is when the function of the Antagonist is “handed off” from one player to another when the first player dies or moves out of the plot.

A hand-off is different than a group insofar as the group is fulfilling the same dramatic function at the same time as if it were a single entity, but the hand-off characters fulfill the function in turn, each carrying forward the next part of the job like runners in a relay race.

Although the hand-off is often done with Obstacle characters (i.e. the ghosts in “A Christmas Carol or the argument about the power of the Lost Ark made to Indiana Jones in the first movie by both his boss at the university (Brody) and his companion/protector, Sulla), hand-offs are seldom done with Antagonists for reasons I’ll outline in a moment.

This is because Obstacle characters are each carrying the next part of linear argument regarding value standards and/or worldviews, but the Antagonist represents a consistent force. It is much harder for an audience to shift its feelings from one Antagonist to another, than to “listen” to one character pick up the moral argument from another.

In summary, it is best to have only one Antagonist, but that character can easily be a person, place or thing (including setting).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Origins of Story Structure

Imagine the very first storytellers. Actually, what they told would certainly not be considered a story by today’s standards. Rather, they probably began with simple communications with but a single meaning at a time.

Animals recognize a cry of pain or a coo of love from another creature, even across species. So it is not a great leap to imagine that rather than just crying out in immediate response, early man might have come to intentionally make sounds to indicate his physical and emotional conditions. Ask any cat or dog owner if their pets don’t speak with them!

Nevertheless, a grunt, coo, scream or growl does not a story make. First we need to ratchet things up a bit and take one small step away from simple sounds that have direct physical or emotional meanings.

For example, if you are hungry you might make a “longing” sound and point at your belly with a wistful pointing motion. As simple and silly as this seems, it is actually quite a leap in communication. No longer are we tied to single symbols or single experiences; not we can string them together to create more complex meanings.

What about jumping up another level and stringing a few complex meanings together? Well, before you know it, early humans were chatting in non-verbal sentences, describing journeys, experiences, and even warnings.

And, of course, language would evolve as more and more people had more and more to say and discovered the benefits of a common vocabulary.

Now such a sophisticated communication is still not a story. But it is a tale. A tale is simply a statement that starting from a particular place and state of mid, if you follow a particular path, you’ll end up at a particular destination.

That’s what fairy tales are all about. Paraphrased, they all basically say, “If you find yourself in a given situation, you should (or should not) follow this given path because it will lead to something good (or bad).

As long as the physical and emotional journey is credible, the statement is sound. Now, your audience may simply disagree with your conclusion as author of the tale, but if your statement is sound, at least they can’t argue with your logic.

Of course, the very first tales were probably true stories about someone’s encounter with a bear or directions to find the berry bush that makes everything look funny when you eat them. But it wouldn’t take long or our early storytellers to realize that they could create fictions that summed up the value of their experience in a single, message-oriented tale.

But beyond this, a clever storyteller with an agenda might realize that he could influence people to take (or avoid taking) particular actions in specific cases. No longer were tales just descriptions of real events, means of imparting the value of experience, or entertaining fictions. Suddenly then became a tool with which to manipulate others.

To do this, there must be no gaps, no missed beats, no emotional inconsistencies. And in addition, the tale must be captivating enough to grab and hold the intended audience – to pull them in and involve them so deeply that they are changed by the experience.

And yet, despite all its power, the tale has limitations. Primary among these is that the tale speaks only to a single specific situation and a single specific course of action. So, as a storyteller, you’d need to fashion a whole new tale for each specific path you wished to “prove” was a good one or a bad one.

But wouldn’t it be far more powerful to prove not only that a path was good or bad but that of all the alternative paths that might have been taken, the one is question is the best or worst?

Now, the simplest way to do this is to simply say so. You write a tale about just one course taken from a given situation, and then state at the end that it is the best or worst. So, rather than being a simple statement, this new kind of tale has become a blanket statement.

If your tale is being told just to your own village, to the people you grew up with, then there is a good chance they will accept such a blanket statement since your tale probably reflects a local truism – some “given” that is already accepted by your audience as true. The tale simply serves to reinforce existing beliefs, and at the end everyone nods their heads in agreement with the outcome.

But what happens when the tale is told in another village. What if their givens are not the same. There may be one or two in the crowd who question the storyteller and ask, “I can see why that path is good, but why would it be better than xxxxxx?”

When confronted with an alternative approach, the storyteller might then briefly describe how the suggested path might unfold, and why is it not as good (or bad) as the one presented in the tale itself.
Again, being among friends (or at least among those who share a similar if not identical world-view) they will likely be easily convinced. And, it is also likely that due to that similar outlook, only a few alternative paths might be suggested, and all rather easily dismissed.

The development of story structure probably languished in this form for centuries, as nothing more advanced or sophisticated was really needed.

Enter that advent of mass media. As soon as books began to circulate across micro-cultural boundaries, ad soon as plays were performed in traveling road shows, to important things happened that forced the further development of the tale into what has ultimately become the structure of story.
First, the audiences became wide, varied and was no longer drawn from a homogeneous pool of consensus. Rather, they cam from many walks of life, with a variety of beliefs and agendas. And so, as the tale traveled, blanket statements were not nearly as easily accepted. Many more alternative approaches would be suggested or considered individually by audience members. So, such a tale would be considered heavy-handed propaganda and discounted unceremoniously.

And second, due to the mass distribution of the tale, the original storyteller would not be present to defend his work. Whatever other paths might occur to the audience would not be addressed, robbing the work of its previous ability to be revised on the spot as part of the performance.

In response to this reception, many authors no doubt retreated from the blanket statement form of the tale to the simple statement, thereby avoiding ridicule and strengthening the power of the tale. After all, is it not better to make a smaller impact than no impact at all?

And yet, there were some authors who took another tack. They tried to anticipate the alternative approaches that other audiences might suggest, and took the radical step of including and disposing of those other paths in the tale itself. A brilliant move, really. Now, even when the storyteller wasn’t physically present, he could still counter rebuttals to his blanket statement.

Of course, the key to the success of this approach is to make sure you cover all the bases. If even one reasonable alternative is left un-addressed, then at least part of your audience won’t buy the message.
As mass-distribution moved tales farther a field from the point of cultural origin, more and more alternatives we required. By the coming of the age of recorded media, a tale might reach such a wide audience and cross such boundaries that every reasonable alternative would come up sometime, somewhere.

Eventually, the tale had been forced to grow from a simple statement, to a blanket statement, to a complete argument incorporating all the ways anyone might look at an issue. This effectively created a new and distinct form of communication that we recognize as the story structure we know today.

By definition then, a tale is a statement and a story is an argument. And in making that argument, the structure of a story must include all they ways anyone might look at an issue. Therefore, it certainly includes all the ways a single mind might reasonably look at an issue. And, effectively, the structure of a story becomes a map of the mind’s problem solving processes.

No one ever intended it. But as a byproduct of the development of communication from simple tale to complex story, the underlying structure of a story has evolved into a model of the mind itself.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Creating Characters: “My Hero!”

We’ve all heard the phrase, “the hero’s journey.” Much has been written about the steps in this journey and the nature of the hero himself. What is usually assumed is that the “hero” is an elemental character who possesses certain essential attributes. In fact, there are four truly essential attributes of the stereotypical hero:

1. He is the Protagonist

2. He is the Main Character

3. He is the Central Character

4. He is a Good Guy

Traditional writing theory uses these terms more or less interchangeably. But we are using them as descriptors of completely different attributes that make up the stereotypical “Hero.”

It really isn’t important what we names we use. What is important is that there are four distinct qualities that are combined to create a hero. So, if you use any of these terms in a different way, that’s fine. For our purposes, we need to (at least temporarily) agree on a common vocabulary so we can efficiently discuss the attributes themselves.

So, throughout this article we shall assume that the following definitions hold true:

The Protagonist is the Prime Mover in the plot – the chief driver toward the story’s overall goal.
The Main Character is the most empathetic character – the one with whom the audience most closely identifies; the character the story seems to be about.

The Central Character is the most prominent character – the one who stands out most strongly among the players.

The Good Guy is the moral standard bearer – the character whose intent is to do the right thing.
Putting it all together then, a hero drives the story forward, represents the audience position in the story, it the most prominent character, and tries to do the right thing.

Typical heroes include Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, Harry Potter, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, and Erin Brockavich.

Many writers are taught that they need to have a hero. Problem is, heroes in stories should be just about as rare as they are in real life. They do occur; they just aren’t the only option.

Now for the fun part…

These four heroic attributes aren’t necessarily tied together. In fact, they can be swapped for other attributes, distributed among several characters and even put together in different ways!

For example, suppose we change one attribute and create a character with the following four qualities:

1. Protagonist

2. Main Character

3. Central Character

4. Bad Guy

Now we have the typical anti-hero (in the popular vernacular). Such a character would drive the plot forward, represent the audience position in the story, be the most prominent, but represent a negative moral outlook.

Let’s try one more combination:

1. Antagonist

2. Main Character

3. Central Character

4. Good Guy

In this case, we have a character who is trying to prevent the story’s goal, represents the audience position in the story, is the most prominent, and tries to do the right thing.

James Bond is such a character. He did not instigate an effort; he is responding to an effort begun by the villain! In almost every Bond story, the villain is actually the driver of the plot – the proactive one – the Protagonist by definition, while James Bond is perpetually reactive, trying to put an end to the evil scheme.

In a future tip we’ll take apart the stereotypical “Villain” and see what he is made of!

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Measure of a Hero

It is said that the stature of a hero is determined by the magnitude of the villain he must overcome. While this does help to define the scale of a hero’s achievement, it says nothing about how much he must reach beyond his abilities to succeed. To more fully measure a hero one must provide the readers or audience with two yardsticks . One that speaks to quantity, the other to quality.

Determinations such as these are essential to both elevate and humanize a hero. But where are they to be found in story structure? Nowhere. They are, in fact, part of story dynamics. While structure provides the “what” of story, dynamics provide the “how much.”

As usual, Dramatica sees these two forces as being intertwined. And just as usual, we can best understand them in the form of a quad. The hero and villain occupy two opposite points in the quad, but what occupies the other two cross-wise points?

To answer this, we must briefly consider the nature of the quad. While every quad contains a great number of interrelated dynamics, there is one sort with which we are now primarily occupied – the defining pair vs. the refining pair. In other words, the principal relationship vs. the moderating relationship.

One way to employ the quad is to think of one pair as a ruler for measuring the essential nature of a relationship and the other pair as a means of putting it in context. So, for example, our initiative – our drive to effect change as represented by the protagonist – is in relationship with our reticence – our drive to prevent change as represented by the antagonist. If this is the relationship being measured, then the characters representing our reason and emotion put that relationship between protagonist and antagonist in context and moderate it, just as in our own minds, the battle between our initiative and our reticence are moderated by the intertwined cross-relationship between our intellect and our passion. Simply put, our reason and emotion have it out and continuously adjust the degree of our drive as primarily determined by our desire to alter things vs. our desire to let sleeping dogs lie.
Well, if you’ve gotten through that, then it should be easy to consider that while protagonist, antagonist, reason and emotion are all structural parts of narrative representing structural parts of our minds, then the hero and the villain are not quite so structural.

Hero and villain include storytelling attributes layered on top of the underlying structure just as while our lives may be understood from a logical perspective, it is our overlying manner that defines the essence of our personalities.

A hero is a protagonist who is also the main character (the character with whom the readers or audience primarily identifies – the one about whom the story seems to revolve). He is also the central character (the most prominent) and in addition a “good guy.”

In contrast, a villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character (the one who is philosophically opposed to the point of view of the main character). He is also the second most central character and in addition a “bad guy” – a character of ill intentions.

So, as we can see, hero and villain are not archetypes, like protagonist and antagonist, but are stereotypes – a combination of structural and dynamic elements, comprised of underlying specifics and contextual attributes. This being the case, we cannot look to a purely structural quad to understand how to measure a hero, but must create a new kind of quad – a dynamic quad that organizes two relationships of storytelling.

The first relationship, as we began, is that of hero and villain. And now at last, the second relationship is that of the detractor and the booster. The detractor is a stereotype who downplays or badmouths the qualities and abilities of the hero. The booster speaks of the hero in hyperbole – literally in heroic terms. One of these spreads the conception that the hero is inadequate to the task. The other sets an elevated bar beyond realistic expectations.

Just as the hero is built upon the structural protagonist while the villain is built upon the antagonist, the detractor stereotype is constructed on the structural skeptic archetype while the booster is constructed on the structural sidekick archetype.

So, while the magnitude of the villain determines the stature of the hero, the cross-dynamic between the detractor and the booster determines how well the hero meets expectations, thereby reducing or enhancing it and, in effect, telling the readers or audience how hard the protagonist had to work – how much grit he had to employ to exceed his own abilities in order to succeed against the villain.
In your own stories, then, do not become so focused on the relationship between your hero and villain directly, but rather take time to develop subtle scenes, moderating moments, in which expectations of the hero’s innate abilities, tenacity, and character are both raised and lowered. In this manner, you will contextualize his true accomplishments and much more richly convey the measure of a hero.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Throughlines (and how to use them!)

Some time ago I described the difference between the two basic forms of story structure with the following phrase:

You spin a tale, but you weave a story.

The common expression “spinning a yarn” conjures up the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile into a single unbroken thread. An appropriate analogy for the process of telling a tale. A tale is a simple, linear progression – a series of events and emotional experiences that leads from point A to point B, makes sense along the way, and leaves no gaps.

A tale is, perhaps, the simplest form of storytelling structure. The keyword here is “structure.” Certainly, if one is not concerned with structure, one can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many power works of this ilk are considered classics, especially as novels or experimental films.

Nonetheless, if one wants to make a point, you need to create a line that leads from one point to another. A tale, then, is a throughline, leading from the point of departure to the destination on a single path.

A story, on the other hand, is a more complex form of structure. Essentially, a number of different throughlines are layered, one upon another, much as a craftsperson might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that is spun, making it complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the linear pattern of colors in all the throughlines form a single, overall pattern in the tapestry, much as the scanning lines on a television come together to create the image of a single frame.

In story structure, then, the sequence of events in each individual throughline cannot be random, but must be designed to do double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater purpose.

You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I coined the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.

Throughlines then, are any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, every character’s growth has its own throughline. Typically, this is referred to as a character arc, especially when in reference to the main character. But an “arc” has nothing to do with the growth of a character. Rather, each character’s emotional journey is a personal tale that describe his or her feelings at the beginning of the story, at every key juncture, and at the final reckoning.
Some characters may come to change their natures, others may grow in their resolve. But their mood swings, attitudes, and outlook must follow an unbroken path that is consistent with a series of emotions that a real human being might experience. For example, a person will not instantly snap from a deep depression into joyous elation without some intervening impact, be it unexpected news, a personal epiphany, or even the ingestion of great quantities of chocolate. In short, each character throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.

Now that we know what a throughline is, how can we use it? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. Using the throughline concept, we can far more easily create a story structure, and can also ensure that every element is complete and that our story has no gaps or inconsistencies.

Before the throughline concept, writers traditionally would haul out the old index cards (or their equivalent) and try to create a single sequential progression for their stories from Act I, Scene I to the climax and final denouement.

An unfortunate byproduct of this “single throughline” approach is that it tended to make stories far more simplistic than they actually needed to be since the author would think of the sequential structure as being essentially a simple tale, rather than a layered story.

In addition, by separating the throughlines it is far easier to see if there are any gaps in the chain. Using a single thread approach to a story runs the risk of having a powerful event in one throughline carry enough dramatic weight to pull the story along, masking missing pieces in other throughlines that never get filled. This, in fact, is part of what makes some stories seem disconnected from the real world, trite, or melodramatic.

By using throughlines it is far easier to create complex themes and layered messages. Many authors think of stories as having only one theme (if that). A theme is just a comparison between two human qualities to see which is better in the given situations of the story.

For example, a story might wish to deal with greed. But, greed by itself is just a topic. It doesn’t become a theme until you weigh it against its counterpoint, generosity, and then “prove” which is the better quality of spirit to possess by showing how they each fare over the course of the story. One story’s message might be that generosity is better, but another story might wish to put forth that in a particular circumstance, greed is actually better.

By seeing the exploration of greed as one throughline and the exploration of generosity as another, each can be presented in its own progression. In so doing, the author avoids directly comparing one to the other (as this leads to a ham-handed and preachy message), but instead can balance one against the other so that the evidence builds as to which is better, but you still allow the audience to come to its own conclusion, thereby involving them in the message and making it their own. Certainly, a more powerful approach.

Plot, too, is assisted by multiple throughlines. Subplots are often hard to create and hard to follow. By dealing with each independently and side by side, you can easily see how they interrelate and can spot and holes or inconsistencies.

Subplots usually revolve around different characters. By placing a character’s growth throughline alongside his or her subplot throughline, you can make sure their mental state is always reflective of their inner state, and that they are never called upon to act in a way that is inconsistent with their mood or attitude at the time.

There are many other advantages to the use of throughlines as well. So many, that the Dramatica theory (and software) incorporate throughlines into the whole approach. Years later, when I developed StoryWeaver at my own company, throughlines became an integral part of the step-by-step story development approach it offers.

How do you begin to use throughlines for your stories? The first step is to get yourself some index cards, either 3×5 or 5×7. As you develop your story, rather than simply lining them all up in order, you take each sequential element of your story and create its own independent series of cards showing every step along the way.

Identify each separate kind of throughline with a different color. For example, you could make character-related throughlines blue (or use blue ink, or a blue dot) and make plot related throughlines green. This way, when you assemble them all together into your overall story structure, you can tell at a glance which elements are which, and even get a sense of which points in your story are character heavy or plot or theme heavy.

Then, identify each throughline within a group by its own mark, such as the character’s name, or some catch-phrase that describes a particular sub-plot, such as, “Joe’s attempt to fool Sally (or more simply, the “Sally Caper.”). That way, even when you weave them all together into a single storyline, you can easily find and work with the components of any given throughline. Be sure also to number the cards in each throughline in sequence, so if you accidentally mix them up or decide to present them out of order for storytelling purposes, such as in a flashback or flash forward, you will know the order in which they actually need to occur in the “real time” of the story.

Once you get started, its easy to see the value of the throughline approach, and just as easy to come up with all kinds of uses for it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Main Character Resolve: Change or Steadfast?

Some Main Characters grow to the point of changing their nature or attitude regarding a central personal issue like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Others grow in their resolve, holding onto their nature or attitude against all obstacles like Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

Change can be good if the character is on the wrong track to begin with. It can also be bad if the character was on the right track. Similarly, remaining Steadfast is good if the character is on the right track, but bad if she is misguided or mistaken.

The Main Character represents the audience’s position in the story. Therefore, whether she changes or not has a huge impact on the audience’s story experience and the message you are sending to it.
Many authors never specifically determine whether they want their Main Characters to change or not. Rather, they focus on growth and a general feeling of how things turn out. But characters don’t grow just from change; one can also grow in one’s resolve, becoming more stubbornly attached to a point of view or purpose in the face of increasing obstacles.

Only by knowing if a character changed or remained steadfast can an audience/reader understand the story’s message of success of failure, and whether the Main Character ended up happy, sad or anywhere in between.

Tighten and strengthen your story’s message by making an explicit choice of change or steadfast, clearly convey that choice at your story’s moment of climax, and then use the conclusion (denouement) of your story to show whether that choice was the proper one to make and why.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Novel Writing Tips: Novels Aren’t Stories

A novel can be extremely free form. Some are simply narratives about a fictional experience. Others are a collection of several stories that may or may not be intertwined.

Jerzy N. Kosinski (the author of “Being There,” wrote another novel called “Steps.” It contains a series of story fragments. Sometimes you get the middle of a short story, but no middle or end. Sometimes, just the end, and sometimes just the middle.

Each fragment is wholly involving, and leaves you wanting to know the rest of the tale, but they are not to be found. In fact, there is not (that I could find) any connection among the stories, nor any reason they are in that particular order. And yet, they are so passionately told that it was one of the best reads I ever enjoyed.

The point is, don’t feel confined to tell a single story, straight through, beginning to end.
Rather than think of writing a novel, think about writing a book. Consider that a book can be exclusively poetry. Or, as Anne Rice often does, you can use poetry to introduce chapters or sections, or enhance a moment in a story.

You can take time to pontificate on your favorite subject, if you like. Unlike screenplays which must continue to move, you can stop the story and diverge into any are you like, as long as you can hold your reader’s interest.

For example, in the Stephen King novel, “The Tommy Knockers,” he meanders around a party, and allows a character to go on and on… and on… about the perils of nuclear power. Nuclear power has nothing to do with the story, and the conversation does not affect nor advance anything. King just wanted to say that, and did so in an interesting diatribe.

So feel free to break any form you have ever heard must be followed. The most free of all written media is the novel, and you can literally – do whatever you want.