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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.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Novel Writing Tips: Keep A Log

Keep a daily log of creative notions and tid bits.

One of the biggest differences between a pedestrian novel and a riveting one are the clever little quips, concepts, snippets of dialog, and fresh metaphors.

But coming up with this material on the fly is a difficult chore, and sometimes next to impossible. Fortunately, you can overcome this problem simply by keeping a daily log of interesting tidbits. Each and every day, many intriguing moments cross our paths. Some are notions we come up with on our own; others we simply observe. Since a novel takes a considerable amount of time to write, you are bound to encounter a whole grab bag of tidbits by the time you finish your first draft.

Then, for the second draft, you refer to all that material and drop it in wherever you can to liven up the narrative. You may find that it makes some characters more charismatic, or gives others, who have remained largely silent, something to say. You may discover an opportunity for a sub-plot, a thematic discourse, or the opportunity to get on your soapbox.

What I do is to keep the log at the very bottom of the document for my current novel, itself. That way, since the novel is almost always open on my computer, anything that comes along get appended to the end before it fades from memory.

Also, this allows me to work some of the material into the first draft of the novel while I’m writing it.

For example, here are a few tidbits at the bottom of the novel I’m developing right now:

A line of dialog:

“Are you confused yet? No? Let me continue….”

A silly comment:

“None of the victims was seriously hurt.” Yeah – they were all hurt in a very funny way.

A character name:

Farrah Swiel

A new phrase:

Tongue pooch

A notion:

Theorem ~ Absolute Corruption Empowers Absolutely

Corollary ~ There are no good people in positions of power

I haven’t worked these into the story yet, but I will. And it will be richer for it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Screenwriting Tips: Don’t Say It!

Don’t say it if you can show it!

Movies are a visual medium. The strongest impact is created by what is seen, not what is said. Although we might marvel at well-written dialog, it is the moving shadows that capture our imagination.

Before writing a dialog scene, consider the information you are trying to convey. Consider visual alternatives that would show the audience rather then tell them. Even character development can often be more effective by seeing what the character does, rather than listening to what he or she says.

If you do need to say it, try to create a visually interesting situation in which the dialog can occur. I once had to do an interview on a big-budget industrial film with a geologist about drilling for bauxite samples 50 miles outside of Van Horn Texas in the middle of a desert.

I could have just gone to the site, set up the camera, and filmed him in front of the rig. But when he picked me up at the airstrip, he was in a dusty, beat-up pickup truck, and headed down the rough dirt road at literally 100 miles an hour.

I took out the camera and did the entire interview while bouncing around in the cab. When we arrived at the site, I simply shot a lot of silent footage of the goings on. When we cut it all together, we began with the truck interview, and then cut away to the various aspects of the job as the geologist spoke. It created a riveting three-minute sequence and pleased the client immensely.

So if you have dialog to deliver and you can’t really communicate the information in a visual way, consider changing the location or engaging your characters in some activity that will at least add a visual element.

You might have them conversing during one-on-one basketball, while doing yard work, chasing after a dog that needs a bath – whatever. And if all else fails, don’t ignore the potential of a cheap cinematic trick.

You can do a scene completely in silhouette, seen from the POV of a goldfish in a bowl, from another room as a janitor stops to listen and then continues with his cleaning.

You can even get overt. There was a television program many years ago called “Then Came Bronson,” starring Michael Parks. It was noted for trying new visual techniques. For one long dialog conversation, the director shot the two characters from the side, walking along a sidewalk across the street. He shot them silent in several locations with different backgrounds, always the same distance away, walking at the same pace. In the editing room, he cut from one location to the next so that it appeared as if the characters were continuing to walk and the background jumped from one to another behind them. The dialog was then added over the sequence as a whole.

This simple technique gave power to an otherwise uninteresting scene, added the impression that they had been talking for a long walk all over town, but got the verbal information across as concisely as possible. So look for visual opportunities to enliven dialog, and if there aren’t any, make them.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Screenwriting Tips: Red Herrings

The old expression, “A Red Herring,” means something that is intentionally misleading. In screenplays, a red herring is a scene, which is set up intentionally to mislead an audience.

One example is in the movie, “The Fugitive,” with Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble. He escapes from the prison bus, gets some street clothes, and is on the run.

He waits under a bridge and when an associate that he worked with stops his car for a red light, Kimble steps out and pretends to be a homeless person trying to wash his windshield for a buck. He uses this action as a “cover” while he holds a conversation with the associate to get some information and help.

In the background, out of focus, a police car slowly approach behind the associate’s car. You don’t see it at first because you are concentrating on the conversation. The police car stops. Suddenly, it’s lights and siren comes on. The audience is sure the jig is up. Kimble turns to look at it, and the police car whips around the associate’s car and takes off for some call it received.

The initial impression was that Kimble was about to be recaptured because the cops had recognized him. The “reality” was that they were just on patrol, got a call, and sped off with sirens wailing.
Red Herrings can be used for anything from the momentary shock value as above, to making a bad guy appear to be a good guy.

To make it work, you have to do two primary things:

1. Don’t leave out essential information or the audience will feel manipulated. Tricking your audience by misleading them is fun for them. But if you fool them by leaving out information they would legitimately have expected to be told about, then you are just screwing with them.

Red herrings are best accomplished by having information that is taken in one context and then the context is changed. This way, you aren’t holding back, you are just changing the perspective.

Your audience invests its emotions in your story. You don’t want to violate them. As an example, there is an old joke about a nurse in a maternity ward who comes in to a mother’s room carrying the new baby. She trips and falls and the baby hits the floor. Then, she gets mad at it for falling, picks it up, swings it around and bashes it against the wall. The mother is in hysterics. The nurse picks up the kid and says, “April Fool – it was born dead.” Don’t do this to your audience.

A better approach is to see a mom yank her child by the arm in a very abusive way while walking down the street. First reaction is she is an ogre and you run to stop her. Just then, you see the truck come whipping around the corner that would’ve hit and killed the child, and you stop in your tracks realizing the mom was saving his life. You look again, and the is hugging and holding him, and she is crying because he was almost lost, and because she startled him.

Psychologists call it “Primary Attribution Error,” and you can use it to your advantage. If done properly, they will love you for it.

2. Don’t change the rules of the game just to make things happen another way or the audience will feel that you lied to them.

The audience will give you their trust. They expect that what you tell them is the truth. They build on each bit of information, trying to understand the big picture.

You can easily change context to show something in a different light, but don’t tell them one thing and then simply say, “Oh that wasn’t true, I was just messing with you.”

That is a sure way to lose their trust, and once lost, you’ll never get it back.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Screenwriting Tips: Break Up Monologues

Break up long monologs among several characters

There are some moments in some movies in which a long monolog by a single individual works well. Any inspiring public speech, for example, or when one character holds others transfixed with a tirade or diatribe. But movies are an action medium, and most of the time a long-winded dissertation by one character while the others simply stand and react gets boring very quickly.

To avoid this, take your longer speeches and distribute the material to one or more additional characters. It is far more interesting to see what everyone has to say on the issue, than to see what one person has to say.

Think about real life situations. Aside from presentations and reports in a business situation, or structured events such as a ceremony, no one thinks well of someone who hogs the conversation. Let you characters make their point, then let someone else have a turn. Good examples of this can be found in the original Howard Hawk’s production of “The Thing,” and also in “The Big Chill,” both of which have extensive exposition and opinion, but no one says more than a few lines at a time before another chimes in with his two cents’ worth.

The exceptions, of course, is when someone gets all wrapped up in his own rhetoric, as when an individual muses, reminisces, waxes poetic, or proclaims a higher truth with fire in his eyes. People don’t mind if a good storyteller talks forever. Look at the long pontifications of the characters in “Network.” But even these are handled as special moments, and the ebb and flow of normal conversation continues in between, serving both to break up the monotony, and also to uplift the long passages by contrast.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Screenwriting Tips: Use Index Cards

Use index cards to work out the scenes in your script

Index cards (3×5 or 5×7 in size) are often used by screenwriters to plan out the sequence of events in their stories. Usually, a script has many different dramatic threads. The trick is how to weave them together over the timeline of the movie. For example, you might have several key challenges for your hero to overcome. You describe each of these on a different index card. You tack them up on the wall or lay them out on the table (or floor) and stand back and look at them. You see how the action seems to flow from one to another. Perhaps it seems that the ending is a bit anti-climactic, or that the build of dramatic tension isn’t right. So, you rearrange the order of the cards until you arrive at and order that feels the best.

Then, you may realize that you actually have a gap in the action that requires the creation of another challenge. So, looking at what comes before and what comes after, you determine the kind of action that is needed, and make a new card to fill the gap.

You might also realize that you have two challenges that are too much alike, or that would happen too close to each other, so you decide to lose one, or combine two into a single one that makes it all the stronger.

Then, you may know that you want a series of arguments between the hero and a love interest. In one creative session, you may work out how many arguments you want, and what each is about. You describe each of these arguments on a different index card.

As with the hero’s challenges, you tack up the cards and arrange them in the best possible order, filling gaps with new cards, and deleting or combining cards until the flow is right.

Since a movie generally focuses on one dramatic situation at a time, then intercuts among several different threads as necessary, your next job is to combine both the challenge thread and the argument thread into the overall timeline of your script.

You might decide to start with the first challenge card, then go to the first argument, and alternate. Or you might start with the first argument, have a second argument, and then two challenges in a row.
There are no “rules” as to how the two threads of cards should be shuffled together. It is purely a choice of how you wish to impact your audience.

You may even find that once you have blended the two threads into a single timeline, that combination highlights the need for an additional challenge or another argument, or perhaps the removal of one or the other. You might even be able to see the need for a whole new thread that is suggested once the first two threads are combined. So you create a third set of index cards, put them in order, and then weave them into the other two.

In this manner, many screenwriters work out the basic beats and flow of their stories so they have a loose blueprint from which to write, and therefore don’t get stuck in a logistic corner, or an emotional dead end.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Your Story’s Title

What’s in a name? Having at least a working title will help you start your story, even if you ultimately change the title.

The title of your story may or may not have dramatic significance. In some cases, the meaning of the title may become apparent only during the course or even at the end of a story. There have even been stories in which the final understanding of the message is only achieved when the title becomes the last piece in the puzzle.


Imagine all the other titles Star Wars might have had. In fact, it was originally titled Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode One of the Star Wars, then Adventures of Luke Starkiller, then The Journal Of The Whills. You can immediately feel the impact of a change in title on your impression of the story.

Consider the value of other example titles such as The Verdict; (which refers to the story’s climax), Alien; (refers to the subject matter), and The Silence of the Lambs ;(refers to the Main Character’s personal problems).

Friday, November 16, 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 clichĂ©.

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.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Your Story as a Person

Is your story a good enough conversationalist, or does it need to go back to finishing school with another draft before it is ready for prime time? You have days, months, perhaps even years to prepare your story to exude enough charisma to sustain just one conversation. How disappointing is it to an audience when a story’s personality is plain and simply dull?

As an author, thinking of your story as a person can actually help you write the story. All too often, authors get mired in the details of a story, trying to cram everything in and make all the pieces fit.

Characters are then seen only as individuals, so they often unintentionally overlap each other’s dramatic functions. The genre is depersonalized so that the author trying to write within a genre ends up fashioning a formula story and breaking no new ground. The plot becomes an exercise in logistics, and the theme emerges as a black and white pontification that hits the audience like a brick.

Now imagine that you are sitting down to dinner with your story. For convenience, we’ll call your story “Joe.” You know that Joe is something of an authority on a subject in which your are interested. You offer him an appetizer, and between bites of pate, he tells you of his adventures and experiences.
Over soup, he describes what was driving him at various points of his endeavors. These are your characters, and they must all be aspects of Joe’s personality. There can be no characters that would not naturally co-exist in a single individual. You listen carefully to make sure Joe is not a split-personality, for such a story would seem fragmented as if it were of two or more minds.

While munching on a spinach salad, Joe describes his efforts to resolve the problems that grew out of his journey. This is your plot, and all reasonable efforts need to be covered. You note what he is saying, just an an audience will, to be sure there are no flaws in his logic. There can also be no missing approaches that obviously should have been tried, or Joe will sound like an idiot.

Over the main course of poached quail eggs and Coho salmon (on a bed of grilled seasonal greens), Joe elucidates the moral dilemmas he faced, how he considered what was good and bad, better or worse. This is your theme, and all sides of the issues must be explored. If Joe is one-sided in this regard, he will come off as bigoted or closed-minded. Rather than being swayed by his conclusions, you (and an audience) will find him boorish and will disregard his passionate prognostications.

Dessert is served and you make time, between spoonfuls of chocolate soufflĂ© (put in the oven before the first course to ready by the end of dinner) to consider your dinner guest. Was he entertaining? Did he make sense? Did he touch on topical issues with light-handed thoughtfulness? Did he seem centers, together, and focused? And most important, would you invite him to dinner again? If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, you need to send your story back to finishing school, for he is not ready to entertain an audience.

Your story is your child. You give birth to it, you nurture it, you have hopes for it. You try to instill your values, to give it the tools it needs to succeed and to point it in the right direction. But, like all children, there comes a time where you have to let go of who you wanted it to be and to love and accept who it has become.

When your story entertains an audience, you will not be there to explain its faults or compensate for its shortcomings. You must be sure your child is prepared to stand alone, to do well for itself and to not embarrass you. If you are not sure, you must send it back to school.

Personifying a story allows an author to step back from the role of creator and to experience the story as an audience will. This is not to say that each and every detail in not important, but rather that the details are no more or less important than the overall impact of the story as a whole. This overview is one of the benefits of looking at a story as a Story Mind.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Work Stories vs. Dilemma Stories


Without a problem, a story is at rest or Neutral. All of the dramatic pieces are balanced and no potential exists. But when a problem is introduced, that equilibrium becomes unbalanced. We call that imbalance an Inequity. An inequity provides the impetus to drive the story forward and causes the Story Mind to start the problem solving process.

Work Stories and Dilemma Stories

It is important to differentiate between solvable and unsolvable problems. The solvable problem is, simply, a problem, whereas an unsolvable problem is called a Dilemma. In stories, as in life, we cannot tell at the beginning whether a problem is solvable or not because we cannot know the future. Only by going through the process of problem solving can we discover if the problem can be solved at all.

If the problem CAN be solved, though the effort may be difficult or dangerous, and in the end we DO succeed by working at it, we have a Work Story. But if the Problem CAN’T be solved, in the case of a Dilemma, once everything possible has been tried and the Problem still remains, we have a Dilemma Story.

Mind and Universe

At the most basic level, all problems are the result of inequities between Mind (ourselves) and Universe (the environment). When Mind and Universe are in balance, they are in Equity and there is neither a problem nor a story. When the Mind and Universe are out of balance, and Inequity exists between them, there is a problem and a story to be told about solving that problem.

Example: Jane wants a new leather jacket that costs $300.00. She does not have $300.00 to buy the jacket. We can see the Inequity by comparing the state of Jane’s Mind (her desire for the new jacket) to the state of the Universe (not having the jacket).

Note that the problem is not caused solely by Jane’s desire for a jacket, nor by the physical situation of not having one, but only because Mind and Universe are unbalanced. In truth, the problem is not with one or the other, but between the two.

There are two ways to remove the Inequity and resolve the problem. If we change Jane’s Mind and remove her desire for the new jacket — no more problem. If we change the Universe and supply Jane with the new jacket by either giving her the jacket or the money to buy it — no more problem. Both solutions balance the Inequity.

Subjective and Objective Views

From an outside or objective point of view, one solution is as good as another. Objectively, it doesn’t matter if Jane changes her Mind or the Universe changes its configuration so long as the inequity is removed.

However, from an inside or subjective point of view, it may matter a great deal to Jane if she has to change her Mind or the Universe around her to remove the Inequity. Therefore, the subjective point of view differs from the objective point of view in that personal biases affect the evaluation of the problem and the solution. Though objectively the solutions have equal weight, subjectively one solution may appear to be better than another.

Stories are useful to us as an audience because they provide both the Subjective view of the problem and the Objective view of the solution that we cannot see in real life. It is this Objective view that shows us important information outside our own limited perspective, providing a sense of the big picture and thereby helping us to learn how to handle similar problems in our own lives.

If the Subjective view is seen as the perspective of the soldier in the trenches, the Objective view would be the perspective of the General watching the engagement from a hill above the field of battle. When we see things Objectively, we are looking at the Characters as various people doing various things. When we are watching the story Subjectively, we actually stand in the shoes of a Character as if the story were happening to us.

A story provides both of these views interwoven throughout its unfolding. This is accomplished by having a cast of Objective Characters, and also special Subjective Characters. The Objective Characters serve as metaphors for specific methods of dealing with problems. The Subjective Characters serve as metaphors for THE specific method of dealing with problems that is crucial to the particular problem of that story.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Goals vs. Purposes

When defnining characters or groups of characters, it is important to differentiate between their goals and their purposes. Goals are the specific set of circumstances the character of group hopes to achieve. But purposes are the overarching conditions they hope the goal will bring about.

it is a misconception to think characters are ever driven to achieve goals in and of themselves. For example, suppose a character’s goal it to become president of the United States. Ask yourself why he would want to achieve that and you have his real purpose. Using our example, this character might have had no power as a child and believes that by becoming president, he will satisfy that feeling of powerlessness. Another character might want to become president because he believes that our moral values have eroded, and he wishes the bully pulpit so that he might reverse that trend.

You may note that while goals are very specific, purposes are more generalized. This is because goals are based on our logic and purposes on our emotions. So, one does not have a goal to be happy or to feel respected – those are purposes. But, obtaining the love of another or becoming a captain of industry might be goals that would satisfy those two purposes, respectively.

Of course, any single goal might be seen as the means to arrive at any number of different purposes, depending upon the emotional needs of the individual (or the emotional needs of the group, as a group psychology). Similarly, any particular purpose might be achieved by any number of goals, depending on the logistic circumstances and resources available to the individual or group.

In addition, while goals may be either a single items everyone is after, such as several suitors trying to obtain the affection of the same girl, they might also be collective goals in which all the suitors are after love, but not of the the same girl. Similarly, purposes can be conditional, such as to be happy, or they can be experiential, such as to enjoy every day to the fullest.

Structurally, you can find goals in the Dramatica Table of Story Elements in the second level from the top – the “Type” level, at which one finds such categories or families of goals as those pertaining to “Obtaining,” Doing,” “Becoming,” or “Being,” for example. Similarly, purposes can be found at the very top level of the table – the “Class” level, where you will find “Situation,” “Attitude,” “Activities,” and “Manners of Thinking.”

In conclusion, look behind your character’s goal for the emotional condition that is really driving them to achieve the goal, and consider whether or not such a goal could actually bring about that condition or if your character is deluding himself and cannot achieve his purpose even if he achieves his goal.

Monday, November 12, 2012

“Ability” and Story Structure

What’s “Ability” have to do with story structure?

If you look in Dramatica’s “Periodic Table of Story Elements” chart (you can download a free PDF of the chart at ) you’ll find the “ability” in one of the little squares. Look in the “Physics” class in the upper left-hand corner. You’ll find it in a “quad” of four items, “Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire”.

In this posting I’m going to talk about how Dramatica uses the term “ability” and how it applies not only to story structure and characters but to real people, real life and psychology as well.

To begin with, a brief word about the Dramatica chart itself. The chart is sort of like a Rubik’s Cube. It holds all the elements which must appear in every complete story to avoide holes. Conceptually, you can twist it and turn it, just like a Rubik’s Cube, and when you do, it is like winding up a clock – you create dramatic potential.

How is this dramatic potential created? The chart represents all the categories of things we think about. Notice that the chart is nested, like wheels within wheels. That’s the way our mind’s work. And if we are to make a solid story structure with no holes, we have to make sure all ways of thinking about the story’s central problem or issues are covered.

So, the chart is really a model of the mind. When you twist it and turn it represents the kinds of stress (and experience) we encounter in everyday life. Sometimes things get wound up as tight as they can. And this is where a story always starts. Anything before that point is backstory, anything after it is story.

The story part is the process of unwinding that tension. So why does a story feel like tension is building, rather than lessoning? This is because stories are about the forces that bring a person to chane or, often, to a point of change.

As the story mind unwinds, it puts more and more pressure on the main character (who may be gradually changed by the process or may remain intransigent until he changes all at once). It’s kind of like the forces that create earthquakes. Tectonic plates push against each other driven by a background force (the mantle). That force is described by the wound up Dramatica chart of the story mind.

Sometimes, in geology, this force gradually raises or lowers land in the two adjacent plate. Other times it builds up pressure until things snap all at once in an earthquake. So too in psychology, people (characters) are sometimes slowly changed by the gradual application of pressure as the story mind clock is unwinding; other times that pressure applied by the clock mechanism just builds up until the character snaps in Leap Of Faith – that single “moment of truth” in which a character must decide either to change his ways or stick by his guns believing his current way is stronger than the pressure bought to bear – he believes he just has to outlast the forces against him.

Sometimes he’s right to change, sometimes he’s right to remain steadfast, and sometimes he’s wrong. But either way, in the end, the clock has unwound and the potential has been balanced.
Hey, what happened to “ability”? Okay, okay, I’m getting to that….

The chart (here we go again!) is filled with semantic terms – things like Hope and Physics and Learning and Ability. If you go down to the bottom of the chart in the PDF you’ll see a three-dimensional representation of how all these terms are stacked together. In the flat chart, they look like wheels within wheels. In the 3-D version, they look like levels.

These “levels” represent degrees of detail in the way the mind works. At the most broadstroke level (the top) there are just four items – Universe, Physics, Mind and Psychology. They are kind of like the Primary Colors of the mind – the Red, Blue, Green and Saturation (effectively the addition of something along the black/white gray scale).

Those for items in additive color theory are four categories describing what can create a continuous spectrum. In a spectrum is really kind of arbitrary where you draw the line between red and blue. Similarly, Universe, Mind, Physics and Psychology are specific primary considerations of the mind.
Universe is the external state of things – our situation or envirnoment. Mind is the internal state – an attitude, fixation or bias. Physics looks at external activities – processes and mechanisms. Psychology looks at internal activities – manners of thinking in logic and feeling.

Beneath that top level of the chart are three other levels. Each one provides a greater degree of detail on how the mind looks at the world and at itself. It is kind of like adding “Scarlet” and “Cardinal” as subcategories to the overall concept of “Red”.

Now the top level of the Dramatica chart describe the structural aspects of “Genre” Genre is the most broadstroke way of looking at a story’s structure. The next level down has a bit more dramatic detail and describes the Plot of a story. The third level down maps out Theme, and the bottom level (the one with the most detail) explores the nature of a story’s Characters.

So there you have the chart from the top down, Genre, Plot, Theme and Characters. And as far as the mind goes, it represents the wheels within wheels and the sprectrum of how we go about considering things. In fact, we move all around that chart when we try to solve a problem. But the order is not arbitrary. The mind has to go through certain “in-betweens” to get from one kind of consideration to another or from one emotion to another. You see this kind of thing in the stages of grief and even in Freud’s psycho-sexual stages of development.

All that being said now, we finally return to Ability – the actual topic of this article. You’ll find Ability, then, at the very bottom of the chart – in the Characters level – in the upper left hand corner of the Physics class. In this article I won’t go into why it is in Physics or why it is in the upper left, but rest assured I’ll get to that eventually in some article or other.

Let’s now consider “Ability” in its “quad” of four Character Elements. The others are Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire. I really don’t have space in this article to go into detail about them at this time, but suffice it to say that Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire are the internal equivalents of Universe, Mind, Physics and Pyschology. They are the conceptual equivalents of Mass, Energy, Space and Time. (Chew on that for awhile!)

So the smallest elements are directly connect (conceptually) to the largest in the chart. This represents what we call the “size of mind constant” which is what determines the scope of an argument necessary to fill the minds of readers or an audience. In short, there is a maximum depth of detail one can perceive while still holding the “big picture” in one’s mind at the very same time.
Ability – right….

Ability is not what you can do. It is what you are “able” to do. What’s the difference? What you “can” do is essentially your ability limited by your desire. Ability describes the maximum potential that might be accomplished. But people are limited by what they should do, what they feel obligated to do, and what they want to do. If you take all that into consideration, what’s left is what a person actually “can” do.

In fact, if we start adding on limitations you move from Ability to Can and up to even higher levels of “justification” in which the essential qualities of our minds, “Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire” are held in check by extended considerations about the impact or ramifications of acting to our full potential.

One quad greater in justification you find “Can, Need, Want, and Should” in Dramatica’s story mind chart. Then it gets even more limited by Responsibility, Obligation, Commitment and Rationalization. Finally we end up “justifying” so much that we are no longer thinking about Ability (or Knowledge or Thought or Desire) but about our “Situation, Circumstance, Sense of Self and State of Being”. That’s about as far away as you can get from the basic elements of the human mind and is the starting point of where stories begin when they are fully wound up. (You’ll find all of these at the Variation Level in the “Psychology” class in the Dramatica chart, for they are the kinds of issues that most directly affect each of our own unique brands of our common human psychology.

A story begins when the Main Character is stuck up in that highest level of justification. Nobody gets there because they are stupid or mean. They get there because their unique life experience has brought them repeated exposures to what appear to be real connections between things like, “One bad apple spoils the bunch” or “Where there’s smoke , there’s fire.”

These connections, such things as – that one needs to adopt a certain attitude to succeed or that a certain kind of person is always lazy or dishonest – these things are not always universally true, but may have been universally true in the Main Character’s experience. Really, its how we all build up our personalities. We all share the same basic psychology but how it gets “wound up” by experience determines how we see the world. When we get wound up all the way, we’ve had enough experience to reach a conclusion that things are always “that way” and to stop considering the issue. And that is how everything from “winning drive” to “prejudice” is formed – not by ill intents or a dull mind buy by the fact that no two life experiences are the same.

The conclusions we come to, based on our justifications, free out minds to not have to reconsider every connection we see. If we had to, we’d become bogged down in endlessly reconsidering everything, and that just isn’t a good survival trait if you have to make a quick decision for fight or flight.

So, we come to certain justification and build upon those with others until we have established a series of mental dependencies and assumptions that runs so deep we can’t see the bottom of it – the one bad brick that screwed up the foundation to begin with. And that’s why psychotherapy takes twenty years to reach the point a Main Character can reach in a two hour movie or a two hundred page book.

Now we see how Ability (and all the other Dramatica terms) fit into story and into psychology. Each is just another brick in the wall. And each can be at any level of the mind and at any level of justification. So, Ability might be the problem in one story (the character has too much or too little of it) or it might be the solution in another (by discovering an ability or coming to accept one lacks a certain ability the story’s problem – or at least the Main Character’s personal problem – can be solved). Ability might be the thematic topic of one story and the thematic counterpoint of another (more on this in other articles).

Ability might crop up in all kinds of ways, but the important thing to remember is that wherever you find it, however you use it, it represents the maximum potential, not necessarily the practical limit that can be actually applied.

Well, enough of this. To close things off, here’s the Dramatica Dictionary description of the world Ability that Chris and I worked out some twenty years ago, straight out of the Dramatica dictionary (look it up online):

Ability • Most terms in Dramatica are used to mean only one thing. Thought, Knowledge, Ability, and Desire, however, have two uses each, serving both as Variations and Elements. This is a result of their role as central considerations in both Theme and Character

[Variation] • Desire<–>Ability • being suited to handle a task; the innate capacity to do or be • Ability describes the actual capacity to accomplish something. However, even the greatest Ability may need experience to become practical. Also, Ability may be hindered by limitations placed on a character and/or limitations imposed by the character upon himself. • syn. talent, knack, capability, innate capacity, faculty, inherant proficiency

[Element] • Desire<–>Ability • being suited to handle a task; the innate capacity to do or be • An aspect of the Ability element is an innate capacity to do or to be. This means that some Abilities pertain to what what can affect physically and also what one can rearrange mentally. The positive side of Ability is that things can be done or experienced that would otherwise be impossible. The negative side is that just because something can be done does not mean it should be done. And, just because one can be a certain way does not mean it is beneficial to self or others. In other words, sometimes Ability is more a curse than a blessing because it can lead to the exercise of capacities that may be negative • syn. talent, knack, capability, innate capacity, faculty, inherant proficiency.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dramatica – How We Did It! (Part One)

As I approach my sixtieth birthday, I imagine the time is ripe to resolve some of the questions I’ve been getting in regard to the origin and development of the Dramatica Theory of Story and its principal concepts and implementations. So, here is how it happened (to the best of my recollection).
The Beginning

Chris and I met at the University of Southern California. I was a cinema major, and his room mate, Mark, was my partner in one of the required film production classes. Chris was not a cinema major, but was taking some courses as part of wider “Thematic Option” program in which he was allowed to design something of custom degree and to choose his own classes.

The three of us became rather like the Three Musketeers – the two of them on campus, and as I was recently married just before going to USC, I lived off campus. Partway through my degree, even though my dad was paying for the school and even offered to pay for our apartment, my sense of pride and ethics wouldn’t allow me to accept his generosity, so I quit school to work in the film biz.
I spent about a year at one job, as a production assistant and eventually editor, and then obtained another at a much larger production company. I started as a camera assistant and had just worked my way up to full editor on segments for a television show called “Real People” when another of their shows was cancelled and I was demoted to manager of the shipping department – quite a let down, as I had been making movies since I was 12. But, we needed the money.

I was pretty depressed, but I came up with a plan to raise money and direct my own feature film rather than just moan about the situation. The company (Dave Bell Associates), now defunct, took pity on me and let me use their equipment and van at no charge on the weekends.

Chris and Mark became co-producers with me, and I directed. Two of the other filmmakers at work became my sound man and cinematographer. Eventually, the director of photography quit, and to fill the positions we enlisted the aid of another of Chris’ USC film friends, Stephen, with whom he was now rooming along with Mark in a Burbank rented home. (They had come to like Burbank from visiting me there.)

Stephen, in fact, is the same fellow with whom Chris later formed Screenplay Systems, the company that eventually created the Dramatica software with Steve as company president and chief programmer of Dramatica. (He had wandered onto a government facility at the age of 13 and they had put this self-taught budding genius to work helping to program Arpanet, which laid the foundation for the internet.)

Our movie, The Strangeness, (you can buy it on or look it up on was a pretty interesting atmospheric monster movie, especially considering the budget was only $25,000. We built the set in my grandparent’s backyard in Burbank, and lit it with lanterns and road flares. Stop motion monster. Had a chapter devoted to it in the book Nightmare USA about 1980s monster movies. (We finished the film in 1980). We never got our money back, but we all formed a bond that holds to this day.

After completing our first feature, Chris and I decided to write another one. We called it The Terminator before that title was picked up by someone else. But, we realized that our first story had a lot of flaws and we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.

One night at about 2 a.m. in the editing studio behind my home, we decided to put our heads together and see if we could find any truisms of story structure we could count on, at least for action films, that could form a better foundation for the screenplay to come.

This was the moment that the Dramatica Theory of Story was born.

We put in several weeks of solid effort in the project, beginning by asking ourselves, “Is there such a thing as story structure?” Fact is, we really didn’t know. Our instructors at USC had provided us with a few concepts that we could count on such as, “There must be a Protagonist and an Antagonist,” and “Three act structure,” and “The Main Character must have a leap of faith.”

But were these always true, or just in some contexts or some genres? And were they the tip of a structural iceberg – the corners of a hidden network of interconnections that represented the holy grail of storytelling?

To find out, we reasoned we should start from scratch – put aside anything we had ever heard about structure, avoid reading or learning any more about other people’s ideas, and figure it out for ourselves from the ground up.

Now while this might seem pretentious, you have to put it in context of a time in which very little was actually known about story structure in a definitive sense. So, there wasn’t that much previous knowledge to ignore if we went back to basics. In fact, we thought, even if we re-invent the wheel, at least we’ll have the process by which we came to the same conclusion others had and that should help validate it.

But where to begin? The decision was actually pretty simple. We discussed how there seemed to be four major areas that impacted structure – characters, plot, theme and genre. We knew nothing about genre or theme, we knew precious little about plot, but we did know a tad about characters.

To learn about characters we used Star Wars as our model. Why? It was made by a USC film graduate from whom we (in the cinema department) had been treated to a pre-release screening at Fox studios as a gift from Lucas to his old school. (The producer of the first Star Wars, Gary Kurtz, hosted the event and answered questions afterward. I asked, “What inspired you to make all the spaceships move so fast?” (as all previous movies had slows ships like 2001 or Buck Rogers clunky things). His response, “Because it’s better that way.”)

Regardless, the movie was new, clearly worked well, and seemed to deal in archetypes. By listing the principal characters in the movie, we figured we had a good list of characters from which to start.
So the first order of business was to list the characters that kept cropping up in Star Wars and then in other kinds of movies we wanted to write.

In each of these stories there was always a Protagonist and an Antagonist. (We chose those terms simply because we just assumed that “heroes” and “villains” were kind of melodramatic, and our sense of reason was drawn to the more logically based Protagonist and Antagonist representing the character who was trying to achieve a goal and the character who was trying to stop him. Pro and Ant – for and against.)

In Star Wars, Luke was clearly the Protagonist and (at first) we pegged Darth Vader as the Antagonist. We then noted that Princess Leia was Intellectual character (cold and driven by logic) and she had an opposite counterpart, Chewbacca, an Emotional character who openly expressed his passions, never making a plan. We jotted down the droids as the faithful Sidekicks and identified a Skeptic character, Han Solo, who seemed to be diametrically opposed to the nature or outlook of the Sidekicks. And then we found a Guardian character who protected the Protagonist: Obi Wan Kenobi.
This gave us a total of seven character types. Kind of a magic number. But we noted that the first six characters seemed to fall into pairs of opposite natures or approaches – Luke and Vader, Leia and Chewy, Droids and Han. And then there was the Guardian, all by itself.

We got into a long debate about whether or not story structure (if it existed at all) was symmetrical or not. Could it have some things that had counterparts and other things in the same set of things that just hung out there alone?

We wanted there to be symmetry. It just felt better. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a hanging character created a conceptual hole where its opposite “should” be. So, what’s the opposite of a Guardian? Well, it would be a character who “un-protected the Protagonist – screwed things up for him, rather than protecting him. Kind of like an Antagonist, but not directly opposed to the Protagonist – more like the monkey wrench in the works.

Was that character in Star Wars? In fact it was: Darth Vader! We had thought he was the Antagonist (like everyone else did – all black with flowing robes and the first evil figure to show up in the story). But when you thought about it, Darth wasn’t the head bad guy – that was the Empire itself, as made manifest in the Gran Mof Tarkin. Vader, in fact, was just a henchman for Tarkin, and a rather loose-canon type as well!

So we called this character the Henchman, since he was the sidekick to the bad guy just as the common “sidekick” was the faithful supporter of the Good Guy or Protagonist. But wouldn’t that then made Vader the equivalent of the side kick droids, C3PO and R2D2?

Well, that’s true in the way they are used in that particular story, but in fact, Vader represented the Dark Side of the Force and was really the opposite to Obi Wan who represented the Bright Side – Obi Wan, the Guardian, vs. Vader, the… well…, what should we call it?

Now I honestly don’t remember if it was at that time Chris coined the word “Contagonist” for that character type, or if it he came up with it about ten years later when we began a major effort to push our theory forward. Either way, while we both discovered the function of the character, Chris named it. In fact, a most of the names for things are his creations, though not exclusively so.

We then switched our attention to plot and found something we called the Rule of Threes. Basically, it meant that everything in the plot had to happen three times. First, to introduce something, then to interact it, and then to show the outcome. Chris named that too: “Rule of Threes”.

We got a little way into that process of delineated steps in plot using index cards with typewritten titles like “Guardian Introduced,” “Skeptic States Motivation,” and “Contagonist vs. P.C. #2,” (P.C. stood for Primary Character – a term we came up with to describe the character the story revolved around from an audience perspective. This, because we had noticed that some stories were about the Antagonist as the main character – the one trying to stop something, rather than being about the Protagonist who was trying to make something happen. - I have the original cards next to me for reference as I write this.)

Alas, the Rule of Threes didn’t always hold up. We ran into more and more exceptions – even in the narrow genres in which we wanted to work. It often held true, but not always, which didn’t really help us define story structure in concrete terms at all.

After a few of weeks of growing frustration, Chris wisely put forth that we just didn’t yet know enough about life, the world, or stories to get beyond this point. He suggested that we put our work on hold and come back to it some years later when we had more experience, and I agreed.

Chris graduated and went off to work as an IMAX cameraman doing special effects. I went on into the business as an editor and later as a writer and director of industrials, educational films, television commercials, documentaries, a music video and one more low budget family feature in which Mark had a major role.

Fast forward ten years to 1990. Chris and Steve have gone on to form Screenplay Systems and Steve programmed Scriptor – the world’s first screenplay formatting software (for which he and Chris later received a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy).

I was editor on a PanaVision feature at the time, Prima Donnas, and Chris was buried neck deep in being V.P. of Screenplay systems as their company grew. One day he called me on the phone and said, “You know that old theory of story structure we were working on a decade ago? How about we have breakfast at the Coral Cafe and talk about starting it up again. I think we’re ready.”

If not for that call, Dramatica would have died before it was barely born. But, I was having a miserable time on that feature and really wanted to do something else for a while, so the idea was appealing to me to.

Over breakfast, we discussed where we had left off ten years ago, that we could already see some new directions to take, and that we’d like to get together at his place (or more often mine) for an hour of chat and coffee every morning before Chris went off to V.P. and I went off to edit.

Over the next six months we made all kinds of progress I’ll talk about in a moment, started a couple of books, one called “Wordsmith” – an adventure story about a fellow who learns about story structure from Dr. Wordsmith (a scientist), and another called “Story” (before THAT title was taken by someone else!)

We began to talk about our findings with other friends, and Chris told his partner, Steve, about them. Screenplay Systems was considering creating story development software in conjunction with a known story “guru,” but the more he heard about our embryonic developing theory, the more Steve became convinced that it made a lot more sense and might be a better way to go.

Over many lunches we all discussed the ideas that were being created until Steve asked for a formal presentation of our work. As sketchy as it was, we put it together as best we could and Steve then completely embraced it and he and Chris cancelled their other plans, and I came on board as an independent consultant to join Chris in developing it.

Chris, of course, still had to be the business operations manager for Screenplay System, but I put full time effort into advancing the theory. In fact, every weekday for three years, I was basically shut in a room with stacks of post-it-notes of various colors, and a wall-size dry marker board to crack the story structure code.

Chris’ office was right down the hall so we compared notes all day long. (I had an office too, but spent most of my time with the white board and post-it notes in the conference room.) They hired two programmers to build the model we were developing, but one didn’t believe such a theory could be true, so he kept altering what we wanted him to do to match his own notions of what would make more sense. We had to let him go. Then, the next programmer was so much the opposite and bought into it so thoroughly that he used the model to analyze his own life, realized he really didn’t want to be a programmer and quit! That left Steve, who took over and became the primary programmer on the project.

Once we had the computer model built, we went through several revisions of the software, but the theory and story engine never changed, not though all these two decades. It is symmetrical, elegant, beautiful and accurate.

Now, we’re going to back track a bit – back to the time when Chris and I first started the project up again, ten years after putting it hold, because that is where the breakthroughs began. And now you will learn who came up with what.

After we bopped around our old ideas for a while, Chris asked the question: “If a character, like Scrooge, is the cause of a story’s problems, why doesn’t he see that?” It was a really good question! What could be the mechanism by which a character wasn’t just consciously denying that he is the source of the troubles, but actually can’t even see it? And to carry that forward, what brings him to the point where he does see it? And then what determines if he accepts it and changes or rejects it and keeps on going as he was?

Chris coined the phrase, Blind Spot, to describe a point in one’s mind where we cannot consciously see. In fact, a place that is so dark it is invisible – we don’t even know it is there. Next, Chris reasoned that if something was going on in the mind of the Main Character (as we were now describing the Protagonist) that blocked the truth from it, then it must be psychological in nature. So, rather than plodding on ahead focusing solely on structure, we ought to take a side trip into the psychology of the Main Character. Again, Chris’ ideas entirely. In fact, he drove most of the innovation in the initial days and I was his sounding board. As we progressed those roles became even and then reversed to a degree because he put his efforts into discovering ways to apply the theory to structuring stories, whereas I became fully focused on continuing to advance the theory itself.

From our investigation of the Main Character’s Psychology, Chris came up with the the notion that blind spots were caused by rationalization (which we later renamed justification because it involved more than just rationalizing).

The notion of rationalization led to a big ongoing debate about the difference between objective reality and subjective reality and especially as to whether there was an objective reality we all saw subjectively, or whether “objective” reality did not truly exist and was no more than the common areas of agreement among all of our subjective realities.

In essence, it was the old Socrates/Plato argument about whether our concepts such as “bed” exist innately in our minds and all real beds are imperfect attempts to manifest the ideal, or that there is no perfect ideal and all of our functional attempts to construct beds create the concept of bed which continually refines itself. Form follows function or function follows form.

In the end, we concluded that men and women see the answer to this differently. Men, due to the way their minds are wired, tend to believe in an objective reality, while women tend to believe in a subjective reality. Problem is, while women’s subjective relativity can admit that men can have a completely different but equally valid view of reality, men’s objective reality cannot accept that women can have a different view unless one of the sexes is wrong. And it isn’t them because an objective reality is more logical and logic trumps intuition.

So, as a part of our little side trip, we discovered that men and women actually experience the universe (existence) in a different way, and Chris was forced by the logic of the argument to accept that the woman’s view is equally valid as his, but it is just as true that is is not as valid to him.

This was huge. There were two different kinds of minds on the planet – almost as if we were living with aliens who accounted for half the population. Of course, it often feels like that, doesn’t it, but now that conclusion was supported by a logical argument based on the process of justification of the Main Character that led to a blind spot. Man, were we way off course if we wanted to understand story structure! (Or so we thought at the time.)

Now this is the point beyond which we both started making equal contributions to the advancement of the theory. We reasoned that if there were two primary views of reality, the male truth and the female truth, that both would be needed to triangulate a big “T” Truth.

Armed with that expectation, we felt that if we could follow male and females Main Characters through a story and see what kinds of things they did and thought about, perhaps we could see some of the elements of structure and the order in which they occurred. Then, by comparing this information from many stories, we might see repeating patterns and even, if we were lucky, absolutes that would be the most solid and unchanging building blocks and “rules” of story structure – essentially, the elements of dramatics.

So, we set about watching a number of movies. We still weren’t investigating to see if any of our ideas also applied to books or plays. We wanted to make movies, and the whole reason for investigating story structure was to help us do that better.

We began to compile lists of words that described things like the subjects the main character was talking about, that described how they felt, what they thought, and what they did.
Aware of the differences between our two perspectives, we found that while sometimes we discovered the same concepts, other times we could see elements at work that the other hadn’t noticed.

In time, we had compiled quite a list between the two of us. As we were looking specifically for the psychological processes at work within the mind of the Main Character and particularly for the processes of rationalization (still using that word at the time) we felt that those terms might indicate the nature of the how a blind spot functioned over the course of the story.

One of the first things we discovered was that the subject matter of most concern to the Main Character (the things that created the greatest internal conflict) was the difference between what he “could” do vs. what he “needed” to do and also between what he “wanted” to do and what he “should” do.
These words were refined to Can, Need, Want, and Should. We realized that while conflict might exist between Can and Need and also between Want and Should, there was another equally valid way to pair them up that illustrated a different kind of potential conflict.

Can might be paired with Want and Need with Should. In this arrangement, the conflicts would be between what you Can do vs. what you Want to do and also between what you Need to do and what you Should do.

So, as we understood it, Can/Need conflict is about ability measured up against what is required, Want/Should is about desire that come up against ethical considerations, Can/Want is about whether ability is sufficient to satisfy one’s desires and Need/Should is about logistic necessities vs. ramifications (emotional, ethical, or practical).

We decided that these four items were interconnected, something like a family of primary concerns. And we found that if we organized them by putting into the four corners of a square, both kinds of pair relationships could easily be seen. We put Can in the upper left, Want in the lower Right, Need in the upper right and should in the lower left.

So, the top horizontal pair represented Can and Need (both external or perhaps logistic) and the bottom horizontal pair represented Want and Should (both internal or perhaps emotional). The Can/Want diagonal represented the most basic drives, while the Need/Should diagonal represented the situational or contextual consideration. We named this arrangement a quad.

So, we had one quad of psychological items that were driving the Main Character. Were there others? Surely there must be, for Can, Need, Want and Should are not a blind spot; we can all see those quite clearly within ourselves. If they were part of the creation or psychological maintenance of a blind plot, there must be other components to the process that helped hide parts of ourselves from ourselves. To discover them, we went back to stories and observed more of what the main character did and thought.

In time, we catalogued four more psychological attributes of a Main Character – Commitment, Responsibility, Rationalization and Obligation. These seemed like they described the next step from Can, Need, Want, and Should in creating a blind spot. It was as if they described aspects of ourselves we locked in place as a result of having determined Can, Need Want and Should.

Can motivated our Commitments while Need, determined our Responsibilities. Want was the driver of our Rationalizations while Should generated our Obligations. Since there was a direction path from our original quad to these four items, it was quite natural to arrange the new ones in the same pattern.
In fact, this new family of four items had the same arrangement among them as did the original family of Can and Want, Need and Should. Well, we were pretty happy with ourselves. To our knowledge, no one had ever described the way the items in these two quads related to one another before, much less how one family related to the other.

But, where there any more families? We began to think about the relationships of one family to the other. It seemed like the whole family of Can, Need, Want and Should was a little more basic and close to the immediate concerns of the Main Character than his Commitments, Responsibilities, Rationalizations and Obligations. In fact, they seemed like they operated at two different levels of complexity. In other words, the new quad of four seemed a bit father along the path to the creation of a blind spot.

So, we went back to analyzing films and simultaneously gave the question some good old fashioned head bashing such as, if Need leads to Responsibility, what does Responsibility lead to? How about Commitments, Rationalizations and Obligations?

What’s more, if there is something farther along the path toward a blind spot, is there something at the other end of the path that is even more basic than Can, Need, Want and Should?

Eventually, we catalogued two other families – one more complex or of a higher order consisting of Situation, Circumstances, State of Being and Sense of Self. Yep, that was pretty complex. But it described the external logistic condition (Situation), the external emotional condition (Circumstances), the internal logistic condition, State of Being, and the internal emotional condition, Sense of Self.

Honest to gosh, this is what we really did, though talking about it now, it sure seems like we were making a lot of unsupported leaps. Glad it worked out!

On the more basic side, we realized that what a character Can do was based on Ability, but limited by all the restrictions imposed by all elements in the more complex families. Similarly, at the heart of Want (a lack) is Desire (an attraction). At the center of Should, essentially the driver that builds a sense of Should, is Thought (not just acting without thinking but considering the ramifications). And the kernel of Need is Knowledge – information, we can’t need what we don’t know about. (Sure, you can argue that philosophically, but in terms of the Main Character’s drives, if all these things are descriptors of his personal considerations, then Knowledge of some problem or inequity leads to an assessment of Need – what is required to accomplish it; to get it done.

Now this almost seems counter-intuitive at times, and believe me it took a LONG time to get to the core. But when we added that final family in consisting of Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire, we knew we had discovered a deeper insight into the psychology of story structure than anyone had before. Or at least a different one, assuming we were actually deluded and barking up an interesting but ultimately useless tree.

Now we had a pathway to the creation of a blind spot: The Main Character first considers Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire. When one of those indicates that a problem exists, the hunt is on to find a solution. So, we (the Main Character) look outward toward the lack or limitation that is constricting these four basic concerns. Knowledge tells us what we Need, Thought tells us what we Should, Ability tells us what we Can and Desire tells us what we Want.

If the problem is solved on the spot right there, great! But if not, we realize it is going to take some time so we put some long-term motivations into play: We make Commitments based on what we Know, we lock out Thoughts in a pattern that will keep us moving forward – Rationalization. We take on Responsibilities in response to what is Needed, and we Obligate ourselves because we Should.

If the problem is still not solved, we begin to question why. We investigate who we really are, our State of Being which is defined by our Commitments. We examine that in comparison to who we think we are, our Sense of Self, which is defined by our Rationalizations. We question our Situation, which is defined by our Responsibilities, and we examine our Circumstances as defined by our Obligations.

By the time we get to this level which is most externally focused, we have shifted our view from ourselves to our environment, and in so doing we have created a blind spot of any initial inequity in our most element family of personal concerns, Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire. We have come to look outward instead of inward and thereby no longer see ourselves as the cause of a problem but as if the problem exists externally to ourselves, just like Scrooge.

We had done it! But was there more to learn about the process and how it related to the structure of stories? And for that matter, what other element beyond the Justification process might be contained as part of story structure?

To find out, we decided to focus on that primary quad that we came to call TKAD – the essential quad of all – the one that most clearly illustrated the internal relationships of a quad family. We called it TKAD instead of KTAD because we favored thought over knowledge.

I became convinced that the relationships in this family of elements could be reduced to an equation or equations. In fact, I became obsessed with it. Chris was much more practically minded and wanted to move on, arguing that we already had so much useful material and that the elusive equation, while conceptually intriguing, was not immediately applicable and we could go back and work on it later.
We compromised. I woud have one week to solve the equation or we would put it aside. The week was to end on Friday. I struggled all week – trying to boil down these relationships into a single mathematical formula – the horizontal and diagonal pairs, the path of Justification. I explored all kinds of approaches, trying to conceptualize and refine – to get down to the essence. Nothing worked. Every idea fell short.

It was Friday afternoon. The deadline was approaching. It was the height of summer and our bedroom was in an add-on patio in the back of the house with an aluminum awning roof and no air conditioning. Worse, I was in the middle of hormone therapy and had just been given an increased prescription by my doctor that I had started just a couple days earlier.

In frustration, I lay down on the bed in that back room and fell asleep. Now – this sounds like some made up cockamamie story that one might use as the basis of a new religion. But, honest to gosh, this is what really happened, as it happened, so put away all the mumbo jumbo shit and just accept the fact that sometimes things converge at just the right time and just the right way to make something happen. Okay, here it is:

In my sleep, I dreamed. I felt like I was on some spiritual plane (yeah, I know how it sounds) and I was shown all the secrets of the universe and I actually felt I understood them! All the great secrets – is there a God? What is the meaning of life? Is there an after life? Does the universe go on forever, or does it end? How could we ever get to this point if time is infinite, including stretching infinitely into the past?

And a voice told me (yeah, I know how it sounds, but it was just a dream, so give me a break) – a voice told me I could take the answer to one question – but only one – back with me when I awoke. I thought about it, but already knew what my answer would be. I wanted that damned equation!

And in my dream, I saw the answer, as if it were a tangible thing. i reached out, put my hands around it, pulled it to my chest and literally threw myself awake. Just like the movies, I bolted upright from a dead sleep, my arms clutching air tightly to me.

But the answer was really there. And it was fading fast. So I leapt from the bed, grabbed a pen and paper I kept nearby and quickly scrawled, “One side divides; the other multiplies.” Wonderful! Brilliant! What did it mean???

It took only a moment to realize that the four items in a family are made up of two pairs, no matter now you slice it. And the function of the process of problem solving / creating a blind spot is described by the relationship of what is going on between the pairs, rather than among all four elements.

The equation, written down as a/b = c*d. One side divides and the other multiples. One pair is seen as separate items, the other as the blending of both items of the pair.

In talking it over with Chris, we determined this meant that when the mind is operating in any given quad family and it is seeking to find the source of (or solution to) an inequity or problem, it examines the elements of the family individually to see which might be the source (or solution). ”a” divided by “b” ,as in the equation above, means that “a” is being parsed or analyzed by “b.” And the multiplying side, “c*d” means that “c” and “d” function like ends of a spectrum or a ruler – a base line against which the results of “a/b” can be measured.

This equation – this relationship among the pairs and elements of a quad – became the quintessential equation of story structure that not only described what we had already learned but opened the door to all future discoveries to come.

Applying it to the basic KTAD quad gave us T/K = AD – not a math equation but a logic equation – the essential relationship among the core elements, the four bases of the DNA of the mind. Do a little algebra to solve for T by multiplying each side by K and you get the form T = KAD. The form begins to look familiar.

Consider (as a loose analogy) that Knowledge is the Mass of the mind, Thought is its Energy. Ability is the Space of the mind – bits of what you know (Mass) separated from each other by what is unknown (“not knowledge”, or Space in the outside world). Desire is the Time of the mind – describing the comparison of what is to what was and what may be. The relationships among TKA & D are dynamically identical to those of Energy, Mass, Space and Time. And so, the equation is actually a comparative to E=MC2. (C squared, of course, is the combining of Space and Time, just as “c” and “d” are blended in the Dramatica equation. After all, E=MC2 is algebraically identical to E/M = C2, which again looks suspiciously like our story structure equation.)

Now, there’s all kinds of reasons for that that we figured out later, but if you wanted to know how the equation came to be, there it is.

Sounds kind of miraculous – like a message from the Divine. But it wasn’t, really. Or at least, even if it was, there was also a perfectly reasonable alternative explanation for it, as now described:

When I stood up from the paper, I realized the metal roof had raised the temperature in the room to well over one hundred degrees. My mouth was dry and tasted awful, so I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and reached for the “red.” And I stopped, and asked myself, why am I reaching for “red.” And then I realized that I was going for the toothpaste, which had a red label on it.

But I had never done that before. Previously, all of my life in fact, I’d always reached for the shape of the tube, not the color. So I went outside in the front yard and the dry straw-like grass of summer seemed like a neon yellow, and the colors of the houses on the street and the sky glowed with fluorescent colors not unlike street lights at twilight.

And then it struck me – the amazing set of circumstances that had converged upon me at just the right moment – the deadline putting my mind under pressure – being halfway between sleeping and waking and therefore halfway between the conscious and subconscious – and being at just the right point where my increased dose of hormones shifted the operation of my mind from linear to a momentary perfect balance with holistic thinking, from linear logic-based to non-linear passionate logic. And all of this in the stifling heat of that oven of a back room.

From that moment forward, I began to take more of a proactive lead on major theory breakthroughs, while Chris became more and more interested in pursuing practical applications of what we had discovered. That is not to say that Chris didn’t continue to make his own breakthroughs in our joint journey of discovery, but simply that his interests were more in getting our concepts into a form folks could use.

As I recall, this was just a few weeks before I started working full time on the theory over at Screenplay Systems, which would make it sometime in June or july of 1991. I may have jotted down the experience with a specific date in my writings somewhere, but I’ve generated so much text over the years that I wouldn’t know where to look.

In any event, things really started moving forward once I was putting my mind on this for eight hours a day. The first thing I did was create post-it notes – one for each of the psychological terms we had discovered in story structure by watching films. I put these on the wall of my office and started arranging them into families as best I could.

Sometimes, families were complete and other times they only had one, two or three items that we had actually observed. After a while, enabled by knowing the basic TKAD quad and having completed quads as examples, I was able to start completing partial quads not by observation of stories from film, but by finishing the quad pattern in terms of the relationships among the items.

For example, if one quad had K type item, a T type item and an A type item than the fourth and final item must be a D type. Since each quad must have a family “feel,” that suggested the realm in which each semantic (name) item should be put. And then by seeing how (in the example above) K, T and A related to the missing quadrant in the quad, one could calculate the semantic name value that needed to be in that empty space.

It was really just a process of triangulation or, rather, quadrangulation, in which one simply cross referenced what was known to determine what was not known. In fact, that is how one uses Dramatica’s Story Engine even today – answer questions about the story you want to tell or the real world scenario you wish to analyze based on what you do know, and the Story Engine will cross reference all that material to determine the rest of the underlying narrative psychology that must, therefore, be present.

While I did most of this work, it wasn’t really invention, just work. And the only reason I did more was that Chris and Steve were fronting the money for my full-time effort while they both had a big company to run.

Still, Chris and I would confab several times daily, me filling him in on what I’d done since our last talk and he contributing to the process of filling in quads when he saw a connection I hadn’t. Steve, Chris and I had lunch every day and discussed the broader implications as well.

Now one of the big goals of this project was to to see if there was a bigger pattern – an overall organizing factor that might show relationships among the quads themselves, rather than just among the element within each quad.

To look for this pattern, we started organizing the elements and the quads in categories on the wall, as you would in a spreadsheet. Each category had a heading and under it fell the elements, like a periodic table of story structure elements. Some of the elements were in quads, others were solo, but no real pattern had yet suggested itself.

We started to consider that perhaps four quads might also come together in a quad of quads – four quads that shared among themselves the same TKAD relationship. And so, we added that additional layer of complexity which began to organize the items on the wall even further, except for the partial quads and the single items which still just hung out there on their own.

Now one problem we had was in many cases we weren’t sure we had the right words in a given quad. On the one hand, they had the required TKAD relationship, but on the other hand, they each carried different weights.

For example, suppose you had a hypothetical quad that had Thought, Knowledge, Ability and Want. At first this would make sense, but it would require realizing that Want was actually a conditionally limited version of Desire to determine that it was not really in the same quad family, but in a related family of Should, Need, Can and Want.

This may have been just work and not inspiration but it was hard work, exacting work, and extensive work as the list grew into scores and scores of items. In many cases we weren’t even sure some items belonged on the wall at all! For example, the word “psychology” itself was there at one point, until we realized that wasn’t an element but a description of what the elements meant, in terms of the main character, so we removed the word.

Similarly, we realized that the word “justification” didn’t belong in the quad of Commitment, Responsibility, and Obligation. The proper word at that level was Rationalization while Justification described the process of moving away from core values to contextual ones.

So, we came to understand that the main character’s mind, at the purest understanding of its seminal motivations, was driven by TKAD, but then outside limiting concerns “justified” not acting on those basic drives and instead forming a plan of action based on Should, Need, Can and Want. But, even those had limitations imposed by environment, and they evolved into Rationalization, Commitment, Responsibility, and Obligation. (See how Thought becomes Rationalization and Ability becomes Responsibility, for example). And finally, even that quad is further justified as it moves into considerations of Sense of Self, State of Being, Situation and Circumstances.

By the time the main character’s mind has made this journey of justification from the primary quad to the forth quad, it has shifted from a completely internal perspective driven directly by the elements of oneself to a completely external perspective driven by elements outside of oneself.

Psychologists call this projection, and we had (for the first time on the planet, as far as I know) actually created a flow-chart that described all the key steps in the process. And all of this from looking for elements of the psychology of the main character in order to understand his blind spot and how it operated and then organizing those results in quad form guided by the TKAD equation. Quite a distance from our starting point already, yet so much further to go!

Speaking of characters, we had not given up on our initial work with archetypes either. While we were working with our quads and post-it-notes, we were also seeing if our set of eight archetypal characters could be found in every story that rang true, not just in Star Wars.

Almost immediately we ran into trouble. Our next favorite film in the loose genre we liked was Wizard of Oz. We matched our archetypes from Star Wars against those characters. At first things looked great: Protagonist – Luke and Dorothy, Antagonist – Empire (Tarkin) and Witch, Guardian – Obi Wan and Glinda, Contagonist – Darth and Wizard, Sidekick – Droids and Toto, Skeptic – Han Solo and the Lion, Resaon – Leia and the Scarecrow (who came up with the plans), and finally Emotion – Chebacca and the Tin Man (who cries and rusts himself).

Looked good. In fact, we were pleased to now understand that while the Tin Man had no heart, he was the one who expressed the most emotion. And while the Scarecrow had no brain, he was the one who did the most thinking. (Even one of his first lines, “some people without brains do an awful lot of talking” proves that he is a thinking, even philosophical creature, belying his lack of a brain.)
So at first, elation, but then a growing sense that something was wrong. Why? The Scarecrow and Tin Man didn’t quite match up with Leia and Chewy. While Leia was certainly the thinker, she was also very staid and controlled in her manner. But the Scarecrow, while the thinker, was all over the place physically. Similarly, Chewy was emotional internally and uncontrolled externally (matching the two) while the Tin Man was just as emotional internally, but very controlled, like Leia, externally. Cleverly, or so we thought, we commented that the Tin Man was Leia on the outside and Chewy on the inside. (Rimshot, please.)

Clearly, we were missing something. We discussed it endlessly and the only to options seemed to be that either there were more archetypes than the eight we had originally catalogued, or there was a deeper level – smaller components of character than the archetypes.

Since the differences between Star Wars and Oz characters seemed to be along an internal/external line (with the Start Wars characters being consistent in and out, while some of the Oz characters were one way inside and the opposite way outside, we decided to try and describe the internal and external characteristics of the eight archetypes we already had.

We asked questions such as, if the Protagonist is the one driving the effort to achieve the goal, what is his external nature. Eventually, we settled on “Pursue” as the word to describe what he did externally. No matter what happens to him, the Protagonist will Pursue the goal – he can’t help it; it is his nature. And when it comes to the moral issue of the story, he pursues the answer to that too. Internally, this manifests itself as Consider.

So, the Protagonist is the driver toward the external and internal solutions to the story’s external and internal problems, giving him the external and internal characteristics of Pursue and Consider. That’s why he’s the Protagonist as opposed to say the Reason archetype who will always remain Controlled, his external characteristic, while relying on Logic, internally or the Emotion archetype who is Uncontrolled on the outside and is driven by Feeling on the inside.

We could begin to see why these character were archetypes – their external and internal characteristics were in alignment. Protagonist pursued externally and pursued or considered internally. Reason was controlled externally and controlled or logical on the inside. Emotion was uncontrolled on the outside and uncontrolled or driven by feeling on the inside.

But what about the Oz characters? Using the external and internal characteristics as a guide, we could see the Tin Man and the Scarecrow had swapped characteristics! Tin Man was Controlled externally, but driven by Feeling internally, while the Scarecrow was Uncontrolled externally, but driven by Logic internally.

Buoyed by this insight, we divided all eight archetypes into two characteristics each, creating a set of sixteen. Using these, other Oz characters and eventually characters from many other stories were analyzed, and followed the same kind of mix and match patterns as well. In fact, we couldn’t find a character who couldn’t be described as being comprised of these basic characteristic building blocks we had discovered. So, we named them “elements” as they were the smallest structural components into which characters could be broken down.

And then two things happened. One, we found the sixteen characteristics could be grouped into four quads. Each quad had four characters in it – one archetype and its opposite in each of the two pairs. So, the elements of Protagonist and Antagonist shared a pair relationship in one quad, while Reason and Emotion shared the other pair relationship in the same quad.

From this we learned more about the relationships among the elements in every quad, which eventually led to our concepts about the Dynamic, Companion and Dependent pairs. That particular concept is pretty complex, and since this article is not about explaining Dramatica but rather to document how we came up with it, just check out the Dramatica theory book and you can read all about it.

The second thing that happened was that we found some of the words in our four quads of characteristics were already in our wall of post-it notes. So, it didn’t take long to start reorganizing the post-it notes to include the new characteristics and also to rearrange the notes along the lines of the way the archetype quads worked.

At this time, we were already realizing that while the Main Character was driven by psychology, these other characters, these archetypes, were driven like automatons – to act as their characteristics demanded. We also realized that the Main Character was not separate from the archetypes, but was one of them. In essence, the Main Character, while most usually built from the Protagonist, could and was frequently some other archetype. So, the archetypes represented the kinds of approaches we might made and those were like personality types. But, we (authors) effectively choose one of those types to explore more deeply in terms of their psychology, and that becomes the character the story seems to revolve around. Whoa. This was pretty good stuff.

Now who came up with all this? Both of us. It was the constant playing of these questions and concepts back and forth between us that led to tiny little advancements in understanding by one of us and then the other, often alternating for a long time before we arrived at the enlightenment at the end of the tunnel.

When there was a big breakthrough, it was often arrived at simultaneously, and even spoken out loud simultaneously as we both took the last step of inspiration at exactly the same moment in synthesis.
But this wasn’t always the case. For example, I was looking over our constantly revised wall of post-it-notes in the conference room one day, trying to rearrange some of the psychological elements of the Main Character and I just couldn’t make some of them fit. It seemed as if they didn’t really describe the main character but actually described the psychological nature of the whole story.

I wondered, was this the psychology of the author? Perhaps the psychology of the audience? Maybe it was the psychology the author wanted to create in the audience? And then I had my Eureka moment: It was the psychology of the story itself. The story actually had its own psychology, as if it were a character, independent of the Main Character!

I ran down the hall to Chris’ office and blurted as much out to him. He stared off into space for a moment (as he often did when considering a new concept) and after perhaps twenty seconds replied, “I believe you are right.”

Immediately, I returned to the wall to show him what I was seeing, and then we began the long process of yet again rearranging the notes, but this time by separating all the psychological elements into two areas – those that described the Main Character’s mind and those that described the story’s mind, which we called, obviously, the Story Mind.

Now, while it is true I’m the one who first thought of this, it is also true that rather than being a great insight, it was really the next step in the long line of thinking we had done together, precipitated by our recent work and the long hours I had to just stare at the wall looking for patterns. So, it could have been either of us, and is based on the work of both of us, but I’m still kinda proud of it because I remember to this day what if felt like to think of it, and it was shattering, startling, like reality broke apart and revealed a bigger truth behind it.

Here’s another inspiration I had about this time (and I can’t recall if it was just before or just after discovering the Story Mind). We already had the four quads that represented justification – the linear process of moving from essential internal issues to contextual external issues. We also knew that some elements had greater “weight” than others and therefore that certain quads had greater weight then others.

And in this atmosphere I began using some of the post-it-notes as category names into which other elements or quads belonged, rather than using all the notes as equally weighted elements.

Along the way, i discovered that sometimes a single post-it-note was sometimes best understood as the name of a specific single quad. For example, we had five words, Morality, Faith, Disbelief, Conscience and Temptation. Which ones were equal weight and had the right relationship to be a valid quad?

After messing around with various combinations, we determined that the four that best went together as pairs were Faith, Disbelief, Conscience and Temptation, and that Morality was better used as the name for that quad. In other words, Morality is the umbrella concept in which Faith, Disbelief, Conscience and Temptation operate, but it also worked equally well in reverse: Morality was created, in fact, by the existence and interactions of Faith, Disbelief, Conscience and Temptation. It was commutative, and also described orders of magnitude.

And it was working with several of these newly named quads that I had my next inspiration: perhaps these quads were actually not on the same plane, as it were, but were nested so that elements made up quads, and the names of the four quads actually formed a higher magnitude of quad, and so on.
What a jolt! What we had thought was a flat periodic table of story elements was actually multi-dimentional. We needed a vertical axis to the thing – hard to do on a flat wall. Still, by grouping elements into quads and then grouping them into quads of quads and so on, we were able to not only better organize the items and see the levels of magnitude, but also to see even better where semantic terms were missing – spaces in quads of all magnitudes that had not yet been observed directly in stories nor could be calculated by TKAD until unseen gaps became obvious by arranging all the quads on different levels.

Not as big an insight as the Story Mind concept, but just as useful in the ongoing construction of the chart and, as before, the result of our combined efforts, though I made that final mental step. Not being overly humble or self effacing here. I’m very proud of being the one to be the first to think of the model as being multi-level, but also ready to admit I stood on top of a mound of our joint body of work and just reached up one more step from where we both were. And, Chris was still spending most of his time running the company while I could devote all day, every day to the project.

You see my thrill is not in competing with Chris, and we’ve never really done that. My thrill is in being first on the planet to think of something. Trodding new mental ground no one in the history of humankind had ever walked before. That’s what excites me. Then I lose interest and move on, while Chris has the capacity to make it all practical, both his insights and mine.

And along those lines, there may be a lot of the things I note as being “we discovered” or “we realized” when Chris actually had the first insight. I don’t really recall a lot of it, and Chris would be the better source of his own recollections as to what he personally came up with. Point is, that the only time I mention that I was the one to think of something is when I have a clear detailed memory of the actual moment when it occurred to me. Otherwise, it was both of us or Chris.

So, here’s one of those things that was either Chris or us – in putting together the revised arrangement based on the Story Mind, the levels of magnitude and the elements from the characters, we came to see that there wasn’t just one collection of story elements, but two. It was like the story’s psychology was of two minds – half of it about internal issues and half about external ones, just like our archetypes only at a much larger scale.

Then, we hypothesized that perhaps there were two things here, mixed together – a Story Mind we called “Mind” and a parallel structure pertaining to the external environment which we called “Universe.” We felt that one represented how we saw the world and the other how we saw ourselves. So, in a sense, they were both parts of the Story Mind, but one looked inward and the other looked outward. Essentially, each set was a different perspective.

So, our next step was to separate all the post-it-notes into two independent sets, one with the internal perspective and the other with the external perspective. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds because each perspective is built of many different elements which, because of the progression of TKAD, are more of a spectrum ranging in the Mind set from purely internal all the way to just this side of external. And, naturally, the Universe perspective operates the same way.

In fact, by the time we worked our way from the highest magnitude perspective (pure Mind or pure Universe) to the elements of the “smallest” quads, like those containing the character elements, the two perspectives are almost looking at the same thing.

Consider – real Truth cannot be seen, but we approach it by looking within ourselves and also looking out toward our world. What we see in each direction reflects what we see in the other. And in the emerging Dramatica model, it seemed to us that the elements of each perspective were really the same items – just seen from two sides, an interface between the two.

So, we came up with a graphic representation of each set – two pyramids, one for Universe and one for Mind, with the same elements at the bottom of each because when you got that far down, it turned out the items in the quad one level up resolved themselves, were made up of the very same basic building blocks.

Problem was, that when you start at the top point, then go down to the quad beneath it (four items) and the four quads beneath that (sixteen items) and them to the bottom sixteen quads (64 elements), it turns out the elements aren’t in the same position as those in the Mind pyramid.

Then perhaps the element level was a shared level – a true interface between Universe and Mind. That didn’t work either. Our best explanation was that since these were two perspectives, perhaps it was like looking at the world through two different filters, and each distorted the view of the same central Truth.

As we continued, we began to feel that two pyramids were not sufficient. This was due to a number of simultaneous influences. First, if everything seemed to be based on the TKAD quad, shouldn’t there be four pyramids instead of two? Second, we were still analyzing films and were discovering dramatic elements that did not easily fall into our two pyramids of quads. One thing we would never allow ourselves was the luxury and false comfort of pretending something worked by forcing it to fit or by bending the logic by which we had developed our structure. And finally, we began to see there were two kinds of elements in each pyramid – those that dealt with states of things and those that dealt with processes.

So, we kept Universe and split out all the external processes it contained into a new pyramid called Physics. And we kept Mind and split out all the internal processes it contained into a new pyramid called Psychology. We spent even more time filling in the gaps and spaces, sometimes having to re-define existing words and sometimes inventing new ones where no existing ones existed for the meanings we were discovering in our refined model.

Now we had four complete Domains, an external state and process and an internal state and process. And from that point forward any dramatic element we observed in stories was properly described by an element in one of the four Domain pyramids. In all, it took us nearly two years of full time effort to progress from that wall initial wall of post-it notes to the four Domains we now had.

Still, the pyramids were cumbersome and difficult to use. So, Chris came up with an inspired re-design. Rather than representing each element as a point in a pyramid, he re-drew each Domain as a tower with the top item, such as Universe the whole top level, and then beneath it an equal-sized level which was divided into four equal quadrants to make that second level a quad. Below it was a quad of quads, and at the bottom level of each Domain tower were the sixty four elements. Brilliant design, and the one we still use today, twenty years later.

We came to realize that one of the four Domains would describe the issues explored by the Main Character, one by the Obstacle Character who had a diametrically opposed philosophy to that of the Main Character, one Domain would be the Subjective Story in which the Main and Obstacle duke it out philosophically – essentially the course of their philosophic or message argument, and the final Domain would be the Objective Story in which all the other characters like Protagonist and Reason would go about their functions.

There were many other revelations from our work, such as that some Main Characters change to adopt the Obstacle’s philosophy and some would remain steadfast in their beliefs, be that good or bad. We could chart the course of the Main Character’s Justification and the growth of its philosophic argument with the Obstacle character. We could even chart story points such as Goals and Requirements.

But there was one thing the Dramatica structure could not do. I could not tell us the order in which the elements in the quads would appear in a story. We could observe that each primary quad around which a story centered would be explored over the course of a story until all four items in each central quad had been examined. But the sequence eluded us.

We spent weeks and weeks trying to figure out the pattern. We watched endless numbers of movies and found that if we plotted each item as it happened within a quad, it would generate different patterns in different quads. We catalogued the patterns, compared them from film to film, but couldn’t crack the code.

This problem lingered on and on. Chris created charts and graphs. I rearranged more post-it-notes. Chris built a series of blocks on a shoe string (not meaning a cheap price but threaded along an actual shoe string!) I tried wrapping foil tape around a toroid (a one-foot in diameter styrofoam donut) in a quad helix, labeled with the elements of each Domain on a different color tape. Still, no progress.
And then came another of those Eureka moments which, as often happens, is when the mind is primed for a solution and just needs some similar dynamic system to appear in every day life to suggest the solution to a problem in a completely different area of subject matter.

In my case, I was taking my daughter to the California Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park in L.A., near USC. And we stopped at a hands-on display of twenty-one bar magnets mounted on metal rods so each could rotate independently like the needle on a compass. You could rotate the magnets by turning the top of the pin that held them.

If you turned the first magnet in the row at just the right speed, it would make the second one turn, and if you got the speed just right, you could get all twenty-one magnets to rotate by just turning the one.

And that’s when it hit me. The structure we had created, first on a flat wall, then as pyramids and finally as towers wasn’t really static at all. In fact, it wasn’t the patterns of the sequence in the story that were moving, it was the structure itself!

Right at that moment I knew I had the answer. But, being a weekend, I couldn’t get into the office until Monday. As soon as I did, I tried out a few combinations and realized that simply rotating the quads like magnets solved some of the patterns but not all of them. And then I had another inspiration – that perhaps the quads also flipped along their axes, swapping the positions of the elements in the quad along the diagonal.

I soon discovered that by a combination of a single flip along one axis or the other in combination with a rotate one item to the left or one to the right, all of the patterns we had seen in stories could be replicated! Problem was, what determined whether a given quad flipped one way or the other and whether it rotated to the right or the left?

I filled in Chris and Steve and started working on the issue. But, damn it was hard! I was still having my hormone doses adjusted and sometimes the frustration just drove me to tears. What’s worse, costs were mounting on this multi-year development process and Screenplay Systems needed to release something soon or they couldn’t afford to continue development.

It was almost Christmas and that is when Chris had to tell me that if I couldn’t figure it out in two weeks, they were going to pull the plug. I was now under even more pressure than I had been when I came up with the equation.

So I went “all in” and took all of my mind, all of my self out of my mental “ram” and compressed it onto my mental hard drive. i freed up all my mental processing space so there was nothing of me left for the duration of this effort.

And then, the answer began to emerge. The flips and rotates represented the kind of tension that was being wound up in the model – the dramatic tension in a narrative. Each kind of tension caused a flip or rotate of one sort or another in specific quads along the primary line of tension.

For example, a story that was driven by actions would have one effect and a story driven by decisions would have another. A character who would eventually change was driven by one kind of tension (and therefore one kind of flip and/or rotate) and a steadfast character would be driven by another.
Determining what these kinds of tensions were was difficult, and Chris and I worked on that together. But connecting particular kinds of flips and rotates to particular types of tension (which we named story dynamics) was my job.

Now, I don’t think I finished in the two weeks, but I did make enough progress to buy some more time. And, as I recall, I completed it in about a month. Keeping all those mechanisms, all of which interrelated and affected one another, in my head at the same time was the single biggest thought I had ever had. It blocked out all the rest of me and took up all the space in my head. It hurt. But I did it.

In fact, I devised a system whereby the end product of all the flips and rotates was a “wind-up” of the Main Character’s domain and another of the Objective Domain so that it was, as Chris has described it, like winding up a Rubik’s cube in which all the pieces are connected by rubber bands.

When it was finished, all the patterns that had made no sense became simple and predictable, and we were actually able to determine the order of events in a story just by answering questions about the kind of tension in the story and where it was applied to the structural model.

Now I’m not sure if it was before or after I worked out the “Justification Wind-up” as we came to call it, but one other problem was locking down the pattern of the elements at the bottom of each Domain.
We knew they were the same elements, but in what pattern did they alter from one domain to the next. The day I figured that one out I had all the elements cut apart in little squares spread out all over the carpet in Chris office while he worked at his desk.

I kept moving them around and rearranging them in different patterns until one pattern made me stop and stare. It was an elegant pattern of symmetry and simplicity, just like the quad itself! And, it was the touchpoint between a quad view of the world and a binary view of opposites.

The secret was that the individual elements didn’t shift around, but the binary pairs of elements did so that, for example, Faith and Disbelief would never be split or separated, but that pair might be separated from Conscience and Temptation as a pair. The pairs moved, not the elements, but in what manner, in what pattern?

Again, I employed my understanding of the manner in which TKAD related to one another and translated that so that one Domain had the T pattern of pairs, another had the K pattern of pairs, and so on. Finally, that problem was solved as well.

We were now getting good predictive results from the computer model of these relationships that Steve had built for the software. But there were still some things that didn’t quite fit without forcing it or changing context to make them fit.

We figured that was as accurate as the model could be. Now I think it was me that saw this, but it might have been Chris or the both of us, but just before we were going to master the software, we went to Steve and told him that we felt the elements were in the wrong places at the bottom level. In fact, the entire element sets at the bottom of two Domains had to be shifted and exchanged with those from the other two Domains.

He asked why, and the answer was that while the TKAD rearrangement of the pairs of elements was correct, which Domain was the T or K arrangement, for example, was not as simple as just putting the T pairings in the T Domain and the K pairings in the K Domain.

What we had failed to consider was that from the top of Domain through all four levels to the bottom – this was also a quad. And by the time you went from the top of the vertical quad of any Domain to the bottom, the effect of moving “around” that quad caused it to rotate ninety degrees like a helix.
This put the pairing arrangements ninety degrees out of phase with the TKAD nature of the top level of the Domain. Stupid vertical quad! Thank goodness we caught it before it was released, because after Steve made the change, accuracy was increased tremendously. And that arrangement has never been altered as it is completely predictive of what actually happens in narrative.

Now there were a lot of other insights coming to us all in those heady days. For example, I haven’t mentioned anything of the story points like Story Goal, Main Character’s Problem and Subjective Story Benchmark. There are several score of them, and they were discovered when we were watching all those films.

At first, they were all lumped into the overall collection of Post-it notes, but eventually we realized they weren’t elements, they were contexts – they were descriptive of how the elements were employed.

For example, one item on the notes on the wall was Obtaining and another was Becoming. A story might have a Goal of Obtaining or a Goal of Becoming or any of a number of other types of goals, but each one was a different kind of Goal and therefore drove the story in a different direction.
Goal, and all the other story points, contextualize the elements, showing how (as a result of the Justification process that build potentials and tensions in the narrative structure as it winds up) the meaning of an element changes, depending on whether the Story Mind employing it as a Goal or some other story point.

Now in the middle of all this, Chris came up with a couple of really big insights. First, we had already tied the four Throughlines (I, You, We, and They as represented by the Main Character, Influence Character, Subjective Story and Objective Story) to one of the four Classes (Universe, Mind, Physics and Psychology) to create four Domains. Which of those four points of view went to which Class was part of what determined the Justification Wind-up.

Chris went beyond that to consider the impact storytelling style on the way in which the four Classes came across to the audience. He devised an understanding that there were four “flavors” of storytelling / audience impact – Drama, Comedy, Entertainment, and Information. He built a table in which these four means of expression along one side and the four Classes along another created a grid where they overlapped.

For example, he could see that the Physics Class could be presented as a Drama (Action Drama), as Comedy (Physical Comedy), as Entertainment (Thrills) or as Information (How it Works). Going along the Comedy line, Comedy and Universe created (Situation Comedy), Comedy and Physics created (Physical Comedy), Comedy and Mind created (Comedy of Manners) and Comedy and Psychology created (Comedy of Errors).

This grid of sixteen flavors of Genre revolutionized the understanding of what Genre really is and how to use it. I added a couple flourishes, just as Chris often did with my work, which is how we both contributed to everything, no matter who thought of the kernel of it first.

Another of Chris singular contribution was a complete theory of Propaganda – how it works, and how to do it. In fact, he wrote a whole chapter about it in the Dramatica Theory Book.

Speaking of which, here’s some information about how the book was written. Basically, I wrote it, Chris edited it, created all the graphics and illustrations, and formatted it for printing.

Of course, it was really a collaboration in terms of the ideas, and Chris was a taskmaster when it came to anything I’d penned that was unclear, not in the best order, or missing a critical bit of reasoning. And it was a good collaboration, as I’m pretty handy with a word (as you can tell from this article) and Chris is great at assessing linear impact of the development of a thought.

So, I wrote it, Chris contributed his chapter on Propaganda and did the illustrations and editing, and we both organized and arranged it to ensure that everything was in there, all necessary gaps and in-betweens were developed and filled. And, as it turned out, just the process of trying to document our theory led to a better understanding of the theory and even the creation of new theory as needed to fill holes in our logic.

All that was left to do was print the book, duplicate the software and release the puppy.
Well, that pretty much brings us to the end of Part One of “How We Did It.” Naturally, with a process this long and a theory this big, I’ve left out a lot of specifics and details. But, I do believe I’ve documented the key breakthroughs and the logic behind them to satisfy (or at least mollify) a good chunk of the curiosity that’s been lingering around the edges of this thing.

Coming in Part Two is the description of how we were able to advance the theory from its use in fictional narrative to being an accurate tool of analysis and prediction in the real world and the ongoing development of the Dynamic Model – a complete system for understanding narrative in terms of the pressures and tensions at work within it.