Jurassic Park – Building A Better Dinosaur

One way to improve your writing is to look at a good story and learn from it.  Another way it to see what’s wrong with a bad story and think about how to fix it.  But you seldom see writers looking at good stories to see how they might be improved.  Yet, that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.

I wrote the following article back when the original Jurassic Park movie first came out, just as we were finishing up work on our theory of narrative structure.  We figured that anyone can point out the flaws in a bad story and see the shining gems in a good one.  But if we we could show how to improve good stories, then writers might pay attention to our ideas about dramatics.  And so, I penned a whole series of Creative Criticisms where I used our narrative concepts to do just that.

Here’s the first article in that series:

Building a Better Dinosaur

Jurassic Park is wonderfully entertaining. The concepts are intriguing, the visuals stunning. Everything it does, it does well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do enough. There are parts missing, little bits of story DNA that are needed to complete the chain, and these problems go right back to the book the movie is based on.

The structure of a story, is not medium dependent. What works in one medium will work in all others. Storytelling, however, must vary significantly to take advantage of the strengths and avoid the weaknesses inherent in any format. Jurassic Park makes this storytelling translation very well, but the flawed dramatics were lifted intact, shackling the movie, just like the book, with a Pterodactyl hanging `round its neck.

So how can we avoid being blinded by great storytelling to see beyond it into the underlying dramatics that are working against an every more powerful story?  To find out, let’s lay a little groundwork about how the structure of stories works.  I’ll keep it to a minimum because, after all, writers aren’t narrative theorists and most don’t want to be.

First up, to the audience the message of the story is about an ethical or philosophic conflict such as greed vs. generosity that is at the heart of A Christmas Carol by Dickens.  It is this message conflict the gives the story meaning beyond action, pathos, and good storytelling.  To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, it is the force that gives binds the story together.

For that message to work, this conflict shows up both in the overall story in which everyone is involved and in the personal story the Main Character.  So, in A Christmas Carol, the overall story is about Bob Cratchet’s family, and whether or not Tiny Tim will live.  In the personal story, it is about Scrooge’s belief it is every man for himself, and that no one is obligated to help others – in fact, it is a bad idea.

Because the message conflict is reflected both in the big picture and in the small picture, success or failure in a the attempt to achieve the goal is dependent on whether or not the Main Character is able to overcome his or her personal demons, often through a leap of faith just before the climax.  So, to be dramatically strong a story must explore an the problem both objectively and subjectively, weigh one side of the conflict against the other, and then show the final result of choosing one side over the other.

Jurassic Park attempts to do this but does not quite succeed because its exploration of the personal side of the problem is lacking.  The issue at the heart of the story is order (control) vs. chaos.  Hammond believes you can build a system that is safe, Ian Malcolm (the chaos expert) responds that “life will find a way” – in other words, you can’t achieve complete control.  Things go wrong at Jurassic Park because unexpected interference with the system comes out of left field – chaos.  This is well represented in the overall plot.

At the other level, Dr. Grant is the Main Character of the story – the one who is supposed to grapple with the personal aspect of the message conflict, but though the groundwork is laid, it is not fully developed and never comes into play at the end as it should.

As the film opens, the entire first scene with Grant at the archaeological dig illustrates his displeasure with chaos. All the elements are there: a disruptive boy, a randomly sensitive computer, a helicopter that comes out of nowhere and ruins the dig. All of these things clearly show Grant’s frustration and displeasure with Chaos, but they don’t directly show the counterpoint: if you are against chaos, you like things orderly – you strive for order.

As a result, these events come off more as simple irritations that anyone might feel, rather than establishing Grant’s personal issue that he so prefers an orderly life that he seeks to prevent the forces of chaos from entering his realm.  Alas, without any direct allusion to Order being his primary concern, Dr. Grant comes off simply as finding disruptions inconvenient, faulty equipment annoying, and kids as both.

Yet just stating that Dr. Grant shares the message conflict with  the overall story is obviously not enough. The relationship between his view of the problem and the overall story view of the problem is what explores the concept, makes the argument, and allows the Main Character to grow. Ultimately, it is the differential between the two that brings a  Main Character to suspect the error of their ways and make a positive leap of faith and change. They see the problem outside themselves, then find it inside themselves.  They change the inside, and the outside follows suit.

What does this mean for Jurassic Park? In the movie as it is, Doctor Grant’s attitude toward John  Hammond’s ability to control the dinosaurs is one of skepticism, not because he promotes order but because he is wary of chaos. Grant simply agrees with Ian Malcolm, the mathematician. This makes the same point from two characters. But Grant’s function should not be to sound a warning about Chaos just as Malcolm does, but to promote even more control to ensure Order. Only this point of view would be consistent with his feelings toward the children, and why he doesn’t want any of his own.

The following scene rewrites the dialog of Grant, Hammond, and Malcolm to illustrate how the overall story conflict between Hammond and Malcolm regarding order and chaos could have easily been reflected at a personal left in Grant, who initially favors order above all things, but later (should have) come to embrace chaos and thereby changed.

GRANT

How can you be sure your creations won’t escape?

HAMMOND

Each compound is completely encircled with electric fences.

GRANT

How many fences?

HAMMOND

Just one, but it is 10,000 volts.

GRANT

That’s not enough….

HAMMOND

I assure you, even a T-Rex respects 10,000 volts!

GRANT

No, I mean not enough fences. It’s been my experience that Dr. Malcom is right. You can’t count on things going the way you expect them. You need back-ups to your back-ups. Leave a soft spot and chaos will find it. Put three fences around each compound, each with a separate power source and then you can bring people in here.

MALCOLM

That’s not the point at all! Chaos will happen no matter how many fences you build. In fact, the more you try to control a situation, the greater the potential that chaos will bring the whole thing down.

In the above scene, Grant stresses the need for even MORE control than Hammond used. This clearly establishes his aversion to giving in to chaos. But Ian illustrates the difference in their points of view by stating that the greater the control you exercise, the more you tighten the spring of chaos.

What would this mean for the middle of the story? Plenty. Once Grant and the children are lost in the open with the thunder lizards, he might learn gradually that one must allow chaos to reach an equilibrium with order. Several close encounters with the dinos might result in minor successes and failures determined by applying whether an orderly or chaotic approach is taken. This should have been Grant’s learning experience in order to reach a point of change at the climax.

As it stands, Dr. Grant simply learns to care about the children. But what has that really changed in him at the core? What did he learn? And how does that relate to the message conflict in the overall story?

Would it not have been more dramatically pleasing to have his experiences with the children teach him how chaos is not just a disruptive element, but sometimes an essential component of life? And would it not make sense for someone who has spent his whole life imagining the way dinosaurs lived to be surprised by the truth when he sees them in person?

What a wonderful opportunity this was to show how the orderly interactions he had imagined for his beloved beasts are anything but orderly in the real world. So many opportunities to teach him the value of chaos, yet all we get is “They DO travel in herds… I was right!” Well, that line is a nice place to start, especially if you spend the rest of the story showing how wrong he was about everything else. Truly a good place to start growing from.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the personal story line is the manner in which they all escape in the end. Grant and the kids are sealed in the control room, but the raptors are right outside. The girl struggles to get the computer up so they can get the door locked. This of course, merely delays the Raptors until the helpless humans can escape into another Raptor attack. Then out of nowhere, T-Rex conveniently barges in, kills the Raptors and allows the humans to escape? Why? Why then? Was T-Rex just waiting in the wings for his cue?

Let’s propose one possible ending that would have tied in chaos in the overall story with Dr. Grant’s personal issue of order in the Subjective story and set up the entire dramatic framework for his growth as a character in a leap of faith.

Imagine that earlier in the story, when the power went down at the beginning, it only affected some of the compounds, rather than all. So though dinos are roaming in all sections of the park, they can’t get from one section to another.

Near the end, Dr. Grant and the kids make it back to the control room, barely escaping the T-Rex who is trapped by one of the electrified section fences. In quick action, they climb over the fence on a tree knocked down by the Tyrannosaurus. The Raptors are at the door of the control room, the girl goes to the computer to lock the door. She locks it, then tells Grant she can bring up the rest of the fences.

As she works, Grant sees a painting on the wall that shows two dinosaurs fighting.  As he watches the girl work with the painting behind her and the raptors at the door, we realize he is thinking about how he and the kids were saved earlier because a dino attacked the one that was about to kill them.  Grant looks back and forth and then makes the connection. “No!” he yells.  “Take them down, take them all down!”  The girl is incredulous and refuses but he insists and she cut the power on all of the fences, expecting the worst.

Just as before, the Raptors break in, the humans escape onto the dino skeletons. NOW, when T-Rex comes in to save the day, it is solely because of Dr. Grant’s decision to cut the power to the fences allowing the T-Rex to get into this sector. Having learned his lesson about the benefits of chaos and the folly of order, he is a changed man. The author’s proof of this correct decision is their salvation courtesy of T-Rex.

Grant and the kids make for the helicopter.  Now, when Grant suddenly gets cuddly with the kids, we understand his feeling about having children has changed because of his changed mind regarding keeping order and shutting out chaos.  As a result, this removes the obstacle that stood between Grant and his love interest and kept them from being together – the desire to have children.  Grant saves the kids, gets the girl, and equilibrium is restored on the island.

So, as you see, just a few small changes in a story, even a good one, can power boost its impact and make the whole thing resonate.  Now our narrative theory has even more suggestions for Building a Better Dinosaur, but, leapin’ lizards, don’t you think this is enough for one Constructive Criticism?

Now all the concepts in this article are drawn from our Dramatica Story Structure Software, based on our narrative theory.  You can try it risk free for 90 days and see if you can improve your novel or screenplay as well.  Just click here for details or to download the demo.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Here’s something else I made for writers…

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What Drives Characters?

As writers, we all know that characters need drive or their actions will come across as unmotivated.  But what is drive, and where does it come from?

At a minimum, every character needs a reason to explain the choices they make and the things they do.  For example, the ex-con who has made a new life going straight takes on one more job because his daughter needs a surgery he can’t afford.  Or, a mother of three who is belittled and abused by her husband falls deeply in love with a man she met in a chance encounter but can’t bring herself to run away with him because she was abandoned by her own mother as a child.

These motivations are enough to satisfy the basic need to understand what drives each character, yet the reasons given still seem unrealistically simple, superficial, or just too pat.

So how do you design drives for your characters that ring true to the complex web of conflicting feelings that form the motive forces each of us grapple with in everyday life?  For that, you need to dig down beneath the reasons a character responds and acts as they do in order to discover their justifications.

Justifications are the tangled up knots of experience that determine both our emotional responses to life situations as well as the courses of actions we think are best.  Like a ball of snarled rubber bands, justification creates a lot of potential, and if something starts to cut into it, sometimes it slowly unravels, and other times it snaps explosively.

The creation of Justification in characters is the purpose of and reason for Backstory. The dismantling of Justification is the purpose and function of the story itself. The gathering of information necessary to dismantle Justification is the purpose and function of the Scenes, with every Act completing a major new epiphany.  It is the nature of the specific Justifications explored in a particular story that determines the story’s message.

Understanding justification is essential to understanding the dynamics that drive story structure.  Fortunately this is not as hard as it might sound as we do this intuitively every day.  We all justify, for better or worse, and then subconsciously add the results of our latest use of the process into our experience base, slightly changing our view of the world every time we do it.

So my purpose here is not to tell you something you don’t already know, but to elevate that process from automatic to intentional.  In this way, you can more accurately and powerfully sculpt your characters, what drives them, and how that leads to the behaviors they exhibit.

Technically speaking, Justification is a state of mind wherein the Subjective view differs from the Objective view. Okay, fine. But how about in plain English!!!! Very well…  When someone sees things differently than they are, they are Justifying. This can happen either because the mind draws a wrong conclusion or assumes, or because things have actually changed in a way that is no longer consistent with a held view.

All of this comes down to cause and effect. For example, suppose you have a family with a husband, wife and young son. Here is a sample backstory of how a particular little boy might develop a particular justification that could plague him in later life….

The husband works at a produce stand. Every Friday he gets paid. Also every Friday a new shipment of fresh beets comes in. So, every Friday night, he comes home with the beets and the paycheck. The paycheck is never quite enough to cover the bills and this is weighing heavily on his wife. Still, she knows her husband works hard, so she tries to keep her feelings to herself and devotes her attention to cooking the beets for her husband and her son.

Nevertheless, she cannot hold out forever, and every Friday evening at some point while they eat, she and her husband get in an argument. Of course, like most people who are trying to hold back the REAL cause of her feelings, she picks on other issues, so the arguments are all different.  Their son, therefore, cannot see an immediate cause for the problem so he desperately looks for one so he can anticipate the problem and either avoid it or at least be prepared – something we all do called “problem-solving.”

Now the child might come to feel that Friday nights are gonna be bad or that dinner is a horrible time, but in our story, he casts his eyes down at his plate of beets so as to shut out the arguing, and this becomes the common factor he fixates on as his canary in the mine – a harbinger of a fight to come.  And, of course, all of this is going on in his heart subconsciously, below the level of his conscious awareness.

With this backstory, we have laid out a series of cause and effect relationships that lead to the child establishing a justification – a connection between the way his parents fighting makes him feel and the serving of beets. With this potential we have wound up the spring of the dramatic mechanism for our story, and now we are ready to begin the fore story to see how that tension creates problems.

The Story Begins: The young boy, now a grown adult with a wife and child of his own, sits down to dinner with his family. He begins to get belligerent and antagonistic. His wife does not know why he is suddenly acting this way or  what she may have inadvertently done to trigger his behavior. In fact, later, he himself cannot say why he was so upset. But we, the readers or audience, know it is because his wife served beets.

Looking toward the backstory, it is easy to see that from the young boy’s knowledge of the situation when he was a child, the common element that he fixated on whenever his parents argued was the serving of beets. They never argued about the money directly, and that would probably have been beyond his ken anyway.  And so, he established a subconscious correlation- a justification – that associated angry interchanges with the presence of beets.  And if there is no argument, he starts one, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Certainly, this makes no sense to the conscious mind – one would never accept nor act upon such a ridiculous association.  But the subconscious does not reason, it just associates.  And therefore, connections made in such a way are simply accepted as being truisms.

Obviously, it is not stupidity that leads to such misconceptions, but lack of accurate information. The problem is, we have no way of knowing if we have the proper information or not, for we can never determine how much we do not know or what we may have unintentionally misconstrued.  Justification is nothing more than a human trait by which we see a repetitive proximity between two items or between an item and a process and assume a causal relationship, as in “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” or “one bad apple spoils the bunch.”

But why is this so important to writing stories?  In fact, the purpose of stories is to shine a light on these erroneous connections that can get stuck in our motivations, just as Scrooge is shown that his world view is in error by having the ghosts expose the roots of his justifications and their ramifications on others.  Stories show us a greater Objective truth that is beyond our limited Subjective view. They exist to convince us that if we feel something is a certain way, even based on extensive experience, it is possible that it really is not that way at all, at least in this particular kind of situation.  And the more we consume stories, as readers or audience members, the more skillful we become at questioning our most strongly held assumptions and beliefs, leading to a more clear understanding of our lives, and therefore to a better ability to navigate them.

But not all assumptions of cause and effect are wrong.  In fact, most of the time we get it right, seeing repeated connections over and over again and accurately accepting that there is a direct connection between one set of circumstances and what happens next.

Characters, whether their assumptions are right or wrong, will be tested by a new set of circumstances that make it appear as if a given earlier assumption is actually wrong.  But are they truly wrong or do they just appear to be wrong?  That is the dilemma that leads to a character facing a leap of faith – to stick with the tried and true that currently seems to be failing, or to embrace a new understanding that seems to explain more but has never been tried.

The question here is that in our lives, our understanding is not only limited by past misconceptions, but by lack of accurate information about the present as well.  And stories are all about sending a message that in this particular kind of scenario, trust your beliefs OR in this particular scenario, abandon your beliefs.

“Keeping the faith” describes the feeling that drives characters who refuse to change their long-held views., even in the face of major contradiction, holding on to one’s views and dismissing the apparent reality as an illusion or falsehood.

“Seeing the light” describes the feeling that drives characters who ultimately embrace a new view, even in the face of potential disaster, accepting a new reality and recasting the previous belief as either having always been in error, or at least not being accurate right now.

At the climax of a story, the need to make a decision between remaining steadfast in one’s faith or altering it is presented to every main character. Each must make that choice. And as a result of that choice, the character will succeed or fail.

If we decide with the best available evidence and trust our feelings we will succeed, right? Not necessarily. Success or failure is just the author’s way of saying she agrees or disagrees with the choice the character made.  So, just making a leap of faith does not, in and of itself, guarantee success.  Rather, a story leads a character to a point at which that choice – to change or remain steadfast in one’s beliefs – can no longer be put off.  Circumstances are such that failing to make the choice at all leads to certain disaster.  The only way to have a chance to succeed is to choose to either stay the course, or to set off in a new direction.

In the original Star Wars movie, for example, Luke Skywalker is ultimately faced with trusting in the targeting computer or in himself and turning off the computer to rely on his own skills in destroying the Death Star.   He turns off the computer, trusting in himself, and destroys the Death Star.  But that is only one of four possible outcomes.

Imagine if Luke had made the the choice to turn off his targeting computer (trusting in the force), dropped his bombs, and missed the target, Darth blows him up and the Death Star obliterates the rebels… how would we feel? Sure you could write it that way, but would you want to? Perhaps! If you made Star Wars as a government sponsored entertainment in a fascist regime, that might very WELL be the way you would “want” to end it!

But there are still two other options.  Suppose Luke left the targeting computer on and succeeded, or if he turned it off and failed.  Any of these outcomes makes sense, but each sends different kind of message.  And that, as was said in the beginning, is the purpose of stories – to convey a message that a particular believe is a good or bad one to maintain in the given situation that this particular story explores.  And you can do that by showing the steadfast choice succeeds or fails, or that change leads to success or failure, each creating a different kind of message.

In summary then, the point of stories is to provide a message about the best way to respond to a specific given problem – either to stick with one’s long-held beliefs or to adopt a new way of looking at things.  Backstory explains how a belief was formed through the process of justification.  Over the course of the story, circumstances continually build pressure on your main character to change that belief, eventually arriving at a climax that forces a choice because failure is certain if one does not choose at all between the old belief and the new.

By this point, there is equal evidence supporting the original belief as supporting the new one.  And so, the main character must make a leap of faith and choose to stick to remain steadfast in its views or to adopt a new view.  Either way could lead to success or failure, depending on the flavor of message you wish to impart.

In conclusion then, think about the process of justification when you consider where your characters’ drives come from, how that creates problems for them in the here and now, and the message you want to send.  The more you become familiar with how justification works, the more you can take control of the affect your story will have on your readers or audience, and the more adept you may become in making solid choices in your own life as well.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Author’s note:  Most of these concepts come from the Dramatica theory of narrative structure I developed along with my writing partner, Chris Huntley.  They became the basis for our Dramatica Story Structuring Software.  Click the link to try it for free.

Here’s something else I also made for writers…

 

 

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What Is Story Structure?

Most writers are not story theorists, and don’t want to be. Still, an understanding of the way stories work can help support a writer’s instincts to make sure a flawed structure won’t get in the way of the creativity.

So what is story structure?  It is a map of the way people go about solving different kinds of problems, and a message by the author as to which methods are better than others.

Where did story structure come from?  Well, for thirty thousand years or so we’ve been telling stories, but nobody every really invented story structure.  Rather, story structure just kind of emerged as a byproduct of the effort to describe how individuals deal with problems and how they interact with others when dealing with problems that affect more than one person.

Story structure first appeared as the conventions of storytelling – certain truisms about the way people think and feel and they behave with one other.  These truisms might not have covered every real world situation, but they were useful enough as general guidelines for crafting a story that would feel real to readers or audience members and make a clear point about personal choices and behavior in general.

Now a lot of writers wanted something a little more tangible – something they could rely on as a framework for a story that really worked.  In addition, a few theorist-types like Aristotle, Jung and Campbell, were interested in seeing if there was some sort of common thread in structure, perhaps an overarching perspective in which it all made sense, or at the very least a way of better connecting what was going on in stories with real life issues and how people dealt (or even should deal) with them.

These kinds of inquires led to the development of everything from the concept of a three-act structure to the “hero with one thousand faces” to the famous and nearly ubiquitous “hero’s journey.”

Some twenty-five years ago, Chris Huntley and I developed our own model of story structure based on one new idea no one had ever proposed before called the Story Mind – as if the story itself had its own psychology, in which every character represents a facet of that larger group mind.

In our research we came to believe that every individual has certain common traits we all share, such as Reason and Skepticism.  And we each use all of them to try and solve our personal problems.  But when we gather together in groups to solve problems of common concern, we begin to specialize so that one person emerges as the Voice of Reason for the group, and another comes to be the group’s resident Skeptic.

In this way, the group can get greater depth or resolution on how to go about solving complex problems than if all the members worked as general practitioners, all trying to do all the jobs, each and every one.

It was our feeling this sort of thing naturally occurs whenever we gather toward a common purpose because, in a sense, it is a good survival trait for the group as a whole, and therefore for everyone in that group.

Well, there’s a lot more to our theory of story structure than that, but armed with this initial breakthrough concept, we spent about three years trying to build a model of story structure.  And the end result was an interactive model of all the different kinds of traits we all share, both large and very small, and how they hang together.  Those, we felt, were the elements of structure, and we created a kind of periodic table of story structure to show their dramatic properties and how they all related to one another.

And beyond that, we discovered that there were dynamics built right into the conventions of story structure that could only be seen if you looked at it as a Story Mind.  We cataloged those and how the whole structure was really a very flexible affair in which truisms were no longer needed because you could create very specific structures for just about any issue you might like to explore as an author.

Eventually, we converted those relationships into a software-based Story Engine in which you could make choices about the kinds of dramatics you wanted to put forth in your story, and the Story Engine would actually be able to determine the ramifications of each choice on the other dramatics in your story.  Ultimately, we used the story engine as the heart of a new story structuring software product called Dramatica.  We got a patent for it, in fact!  I was very proud.

Now, if you own the Dramatica software, you’ve probably noticed it presents a flat chart called the “Theme Browser” that shows how dramatic subjects relate to one another.  Though it isn’t in the software, there is also a 3D projection of the flat chart that looks something like a Rubik’s Cube on steroids, or a super-complex 3-D chess board. You can download a free copy of it in PDF.

The flat chart provides a map of the elements that make up stories and the 3D chart is the best way to understand the  “winding up” process of dramatic tension of your story.  Essentially, when you run into troubles in life, you try one kind of a solution after another – one different item in the flat chart after another until you find one that works.  In the 3D chart, this is like moving the dramatic  element around in a Rubik’s Cube manner.

Whenever you try one solution instead of another, you not only bring the new one to the front but simultaneously push the old one into the background or onto the back burner.  In the 3D chart, we call that “flipping and rotating” because sometimes you flip positions of dramatic items and other times you rotate them to change the order in which they are applied.  After all, some problems are caused by using the wrong process and other problems are caused  by using the right processes but in the wrong sequence.

The Story Engine at the heart of the Dramatica software tracks all of those elements to make sure no dramatic “rules” are broken. What’s a Dramatic Rule? As an analogy, you can twist and turn a Rubik’s Cube, but you can’t pluck one of the little cubes out of it and swap it’s position with another little cube. In other words, you can create all kinds of patterns, but you can’t break structure. Similarly in stories, you can create all kinds of dramatic patterns, but you can’t just drop story elements wherever you want – they have to MOVE into place and take others with them or the structure won’t hold up because it doesn’t match the way our own minds work.

When you answer questions about your story in Dramatica, you are expressing your dramatic intent – the dramatic pattern you want to create for your audience. That says something about the final arrangement you want with the “colors” in the Rubik’s Cube of your story.

Every time you make a choice, you are saying, “I want my story to look like this, as opposed to that.” You are choosing just as much what you DON’T want in your story as what you do.

The choices are cumulative – they pile up. The more you make, the more Dramatica’s Story Engine winds up. Your ongoing choices start to become limited as to which options are still available, not by arbitrary and rigid rules, but because some choices or combination of choices simply prevent other options from being possible in that particular story if the structure is to be true to our own way of thinking as human beings.

Imagine – what would happen if you put any combinations of things into a story without limits? Then anything goes. That means there is no good structure or bad structure, in fact there would be no structure at all, just a heap of conflicting dramatic messages.

So, what is structure? Structure is nothing more than making a point, either logistically or emotionally or both. Many stories don’t need structure because they are not about making a larger point or having a message, but are designed to be experiences without any greater overall meaning.

We call experiential structures “Tales” and greater meaning structures “Stories.”  So, if you have an unbroken chain of events that makes sense coupled with a series of emotional experiences that don’t violate the way people really feel, that’s all you need to have a complete Tale structure.  But, to have a complete Story structure, each event and experience is part of an overall pattern that becomes clear by the time the story is over.  There is nothing better or worse about a Tale compared to a Story, but authors of Stories take upon themselves a more demanding rigor.

Historically, it has been easy to miss a step in the events of a tale or a beat in the emotional journey.  And, it has been even harder to ensure that each of those dramatic moments contributes to the greater meaning in a story.  That’s why Dramatica’s Story Engine was built –not to inspire or help you build your story’s world per se, but to ensure that whatever you want to write about, and whether you want to tell it as a tale or a story, the underlying structure will be sound, complete, and tuned to just the message you want to convey to your readers or audience.

You can try out the Story Engine for free!  The demo version of Dramatica is fully functional, other than saving your work.  So if you want to try some of the questions and play around with the other tools, you can download the demo here and get everything the Story Engine has to offer except for saving your work to continue with it in later sessions.

Honestly, you may find Dramatica a little daunting, as it is extremely powerful and wide ranging with all kinds of features and functions.  And, it is built on our theory of story structure, which (though elegant) is also extensive and detailed.  Nonetheless, my feelings are that the more you learn about story structure in Dramatica , the more you have improved your ability to visualize and actualize your story.  So, my advice is to give it a try for free.  All you have to lose is a little itsy bitsy crumb of time, but what you have to gain is a much deeper and powerful understanding of stories and how to structure them.

Melanie Anne Philips

Click here for more Dramatica details and Demo

Here’s something else I made for writers…

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Plot Order vs. Exposition Order

The order in which events unfold in a story is not necessarily the order in which those events occurred to the characters within the story.

In movies, for example, a story might open with a scene in the present, then put up a title card saying, “3 Days Earlier…” and dissolve back to an earlier time to see how things got to this point.  As another example, in the classic book, The Bridge at San Louis Rey, five travelers arrive at a bridge at the same time, then the book jumps back to see how they all came to be there.

These are simple instances of a very common practice of jumping around in time in the storytelling to create suspense and generate interest and mystery for your readers.  The problem is that mixing up the sequence of events makes it very easy for you, as author, to accidentally leave out essential pieces of the linear logic of the timeline.

When this happens, readers eventually realize that there’s something wrong with the actual order of events, and if it is a serious enough gap it can destroy the readers’ suspension of disbelief and pull them right out of the story emotionally.

You might think, then, it would be a better idea to just write things in their actual order and then mix them up for storytelling later.  But, authors often create best when envisioning their stories in the order they plan on unfolding them.  Exposition is an integral part of the creative process and forcing oneself to write only in sequential order might very well hobble the Muse and result in writers block.

Fortunately, there is a simple technique you can use to avoid temporal mis-steps than can cause your story to stumble, while still supporting the free form creation of stories in exposition order.

First write your story as usual, then jot down all the major events in your story on index cards in the order they are revealed.  Next, rearrange the cards to put the events in character time, rather than exposition time.  Finally, follow the order of events to see if you have left out any crucial steps .

With this clear view of the event-order timeline, you can easily find and plug any holes and correct any pacing issues and then apply those changes to your existing storytelling order so that it all flows perfectly in both the character-sequence and the exposition sequence.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Your Genre – Act By Act

Many writers have a misconception that genre is something you “write in” – like a box. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Genre is the overall personality of a story, created through both structural elements and storytelling  approaches.

And, like the people we meet in real life, that personality is not revealed all at once but over time as your readers or audience get to know your story, how it behaves, and how it feels.

Genre in Act One

For people and for stories as well, first impressions are very important. In act one, you introduce your story to your reader/audience. The selection of structural dramatics and storytelling techniques you choose to initially employ will set the mood for all that follows.

You may be working with a standard genre, or trying something new and inventive. Either way, it helps involve your reader/audience if you begin with the familiar. In this way, those experiencing your story are eased out of the real world and into the one you have constructed. So, in the first act, you many want to establish a few touch points the reader/audience can hang its hat on.

As we get to know people a little better, our initial impression of the “type” of person they are begins to slowly alter, making them a little more of an individual and a little less of a stereotype. To this end, as the first act progresses, you may want to hint at a few attributes or elements of your story’s personality that begin to drift from the norm in your genre.  It is the genre that attracts your readers/audience in the first place but it is the differences that make your story stand out from the crowd.

By the end of the first act, you should have dropped enough elements to give your story a general personality type and also to indicate that a deeper personality waits to be revealed.

As a side note, this deeper personality may in fact be hints at the true personality of your story that were originally hidden behind the first impressions, such as meeting a charismatic charmer who turns out to be a mean-spirited con man.  In such a case, drop a little exposition here or there that doesn’t quite fit with your up-front genre.  At first, these story point will seem out of place, but later they begin to make sense as your story’s true genre-personality begins to reveal itself more fully.

Genre in Act Two

In the second act, your story’s genre personality develops more specific traits or elements that shift it completely out of the realm of a broad personality type and into the realm of the individual. Your reader/audience comes to expect certain things from your specific story outside of the general expectations for your genre, both in the structural elements and in the style with which they are presented.

If the first impression of your story as developed in act one is a true representation of the underpinnings of your story’s personality, then act two adds details and richness to the overall feel over the story. But if the first impression is a deception, hiding beneath it a different story personality, then act two brings more elements to the surface that reveal the true nature of its real personality.

Genre in Act Three

It is the third act where you will either reveal the final details that make your story’s personality unique as an individual, or will reveal the full extent of its true personality that was masked behind the first impressions of the first act, and hinted at in the second.

Either way, by the end of the third act you want your reader/audience to feel as if the story is an old friend or an old enemy – a person they understand as to who it is by nature, and what it is capable of.

Genre Conclusion

 

As your story nears its end, you can either re-affirm the personality you have so far revealed, alter it at the last moment, or hint that it may be altered. If you’ve ever seen the end of a science fiction movie where the world is saved, the words “The End” appear, and then a question mark appears, you have experienced a last-minute change in the personality of a story’s genre.

For example, in the original movie “Alien,” there are several red herrings in the end of act three that alternately make it look as if Ripley or the Alien will ultimately triumph. In the conclusion of Alien, the Alien has been apparently vanquished, and Ripley puts herself in suspended animation for the long return home. But the music, which has been written to initially convey a sense that danger is over suddenly takes a subtle turn toward the minor chords and holds them, making us feel that perhaps a hidden danger still lurks. Finally, the music returns to a sustained major chord as the ship disappears in the distance, confirming that indeed, the danger has past.

Keep in mind that your reader/audience will need to say goodbye to the story they have come to know. Just as they needed to be introduced to the story’s personality in act one and drawn out of the real world into the fictional one, now they need to be disentangled from the story’s personality and eased back into the real world.

Just as one wraps up a visit with a friend in a gradual withdrawal, so too you must let your reader/audience down gently, always considering that the last moments your reader/audience spends with your story will leave a final impression even more important than the first impression.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Archetypes vs. Stereotypes

Archetypes represent human qualities we all share, such as Reason, Emotion, Faith, Skepticism, Conscience, and Temptation.  Stereotypes represent the different kinds of personalities we encounter in life.

In story structure, archetypes, by definition, are characters defined by their plot function, such as the protagonist, who is trying to achieve a goal.  The protagonist represents our initiative – the desire to improve things by affecting change.  The antagonist represents our reticence to change.  The antagonist tries to stop the Protagonist  – too keep things as they are.    These two human qualities are always at war with each other within ourselves, and by assigning those traits to characters, we can get a more objective external look at that battle and thereby better understand within ourselves when to act and when to hold back.

All of the archetypes have a counterpart whose approaches are opposite one another. For example, there is a Reason character who tries to solve plot problem with logic, while the Emotion archetype hopes to succeed through passion.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, are collections of personality traits, such as a Nerd or a Bully. So you can think of archetypes as the underlying psychology of a character, and stereotypes are the personalities that are built on top of that psychology.  In other words, we all share the same building blocks of psychology (archetypes) but we don’t all share the same personalities (stereotypes).

For example, a protagonist could be a bully or a nerd and still be a protagonist. And so could an antagonist or a reason archetype or an emotional archetype. It is the archetypal function that determines what a character will do in the plot and the stereotype personality that determine how they will act while doing it.

In this way, characters very accurately reflect the people we encounter in real life. We understand them by their functions and relate to them through their personalities.

Stereotypes allow us to connect with fictional characters because, quite literally, we’ve seen that type before. Archetypes allow us to understand where these characters are coming from – what their motivations are, and what they are trying to achieve.

Archetypes exist because each represents a facet of our own minds, turned into a character, so we can learn what is the best way to go about solving a problem in our own lives.

By observing how each archetype fares in the effort to resolve the story’s issues (which extend far beyond simply achieving a goal), we come to understand the author’s message about how to achieve satisfaction and fulfillment for ourselves.

Learn more about archetypes and stereotypes in this video clip:

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The Dramatica Triangle

By Melanie Anne Phillips

There are two story lines in every complete story, and you can either run them in parallel or you can hinge them together to form a dramatic triangle.

The first story line is the overall story that follows the effort of the protagonist to achieve a goal in which all the characters are involved.

The second story line is the personal story that follows the struggles of the main character to deal with a personal issue.

When you keep these two story lines separate and parallel, each advances on their own, and yet they still reflect each other.

For example, in the classic book (and the movie adaptation) of To Kill a Mockingbird, the overall story is about Atticus (the lawyer trying to get a black man a fair trial in the 1930s South) who is the protagonist.

But in the personal story we see things through the eyes of Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, who is personally dealing with her fear of the local boogeyman, “Boo” Radley – a mentally challenged member of a family down the street who is never seen and only known by rumor.

In the end, we learn about prejudice externally through what Atticus does, and we learn about prejudice personally through Scout’s prejudgment about Boo, until she is forced to change her mind about him when she comes to know him for who he really is – a caring protector who has actually saved her from others who would do her harm.

If Atticus were the main character, we would simply stand in the shoes of the fellow battling prejudice and feel righteous.  But by standing in Scout’s shoes, we buy into her belief in the rumors about Boo, and learn how easy it is to be prejudiced whenever we base our opinions on what we hear, not what we see for ourselves.

In this example in which Atticus is the protagonist, the antagonist is the father of the white girl the black man is accused of raping, who wants the defendant lynched without a trial.

In the personal line, Scout is the main character and Boo himself is the influence character who has been leaving gifts for scout and protecting her all along the way, providing all the clues necessary for her to ultimately re-evaluate him.

Just as the antagonist fights against the protagonist, the influence character pressures the main character to change his or her beliefs.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, keeping both story lines separate has some advantages.  For one thing, since the audience identifies with the Main Character, we aren’t standing in Atticus’ shoes feeling all self-righteous about fighting against prejudice.  Rather, we stand in Scout’s shoes and learn how easy it is to become prejudice whenever we rely on rumor and other people’s opinions, rather than learning the truth for ourselves.

But, keeping the two story lines separate is a very complex form of structure and isn’t really need for most stories.  It requires four special characters: protagonist vs. antagonist and main character vs. influence character.

A simpler alternative is to have both storylines occur between just two characters: a hero and a villain.  A hero is a protagonist who is also the main character, and a villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character.

So, a hero is not only the person trying to achieve the goal, but is also the audience position in the story and the one who is grappling with challenges to their belief system.  And, a villain is not only the person trying to prevent the goal from being achieved, but is also the person challenging the main character’s belief system.

While this sounds very efficient in concept, it is also very dangerous.  Each of these story lines needs to be fully explored with no gaps or holes if the reader or audience is to buy into it.  But, as an author, it is very easy to get so wrapped up in the action or the passion of one of the stories that you skip over parts of the other one in your eagerness to push ahead with the exciting one of the moment.

As a result, there can be significant gaps in each of the two – gaps that undermine the believability of the overall story and make the personal story seem unrealistic and contrived.

The more this happens, the more the complete story begins to feel like a melodrama, where characters jump from one frame of mind to another without motivation, and where events happen after other events without any understanding of why.

Fortunately, there is a better way to arrange the two story lines so each is clearly seen and fully developed, and yet they are tied together in a manner that strengthens the story as a whole.  That method is the Dramatic Triangle.

A Dramatic Triangle hinges both story lines together around one character and anchors the other two ends on two different characters.  The most common way to do this is to create a hero who is both protagonist and main character, with a separate antagonist and a separate influence character.

In this arrangement, the hero fights against the antagonist in the overall story, and has to defend his belief system against the influence character in the personal story.

A common example would be a hero who has a love interest, who is his influence character.  She loves him because of his moral outlook.  But, the hero is fighting against the antagonist who, seeing the love interest as a weakness of the hero, kidnaps her.

Now, the hero is torn between two things.  To free his love interest, he must adopt the immoral tactics of the antagonist.  If he does, he will save her, but lose her love.  Tough choice, and the stuff great stories are made of!

A variation of this is for the protagonist to also be the influence character, rather than the main character.  Then, he would be fighting against the antagonist in the overall story, but he would also be trying to change the beliefs of the main character, who is the third corner of the triangle.

In this arrangement, we would not be seeing things through the eyes of the protagonist, but through the eyes of the main character.  We stand in the shoes of the main character and watch the protagonist/influence character, but be personally challenged to change our beliefs by him.

This arrangement was used in the movie, Witness, with Harrison Ford as a police detective and Kelly McGillis as Rachel, a young Amish mother with a son who has witnessed a murder when they were traveling.

Ford is the protagonist trying to protect the child, and the murderer is the antagonist trying to kill the child.  We see the story through Rachel’s eyes, making her the main character, and Ford is the influence character as he is trying to convince Rachel to leave her Amish community and go with him into the larger world.

This still satisfies the needs of having the two story lines, but provides an unusual reader/audience position in the story at large.

But there are other ways to hinge the two stories together as well.  In one version, the antagonist might be the main character, so we see things through the eyes of the character trying to prevent the goal from being achieved.

In another, the antagonist might be the influence character so he battles against the protagonist in one storyline and tries to change the beliefs of the main character in the other.

Which form of the Dramatic Triangle you choose is up to you as the author and the kind of experience you wish to design for your readers or audience.  But any of the variations is less prone to melodrama than having both story lines between just two characters and is less complicated and easer to fashion than keeping both storylines separate between two pairs of different characters.

Learn more about story structure with Dramatica

 

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The Four Throughlines in To Kill A Mockingbird

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

Throughline 1: The Objective Story

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

Throughline 2: The Main Character

The Main Character is the one we identify with: the one whom the story seems to be about at a personal level.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, is the Main Character, and her throughline describes her personal experiences in the story.  We see this story of prejudice through her eyes, a child’s eyes, as she watches her father stand up against both the town and Bob Ewell.  It is partly because we stand in her shoes that makes her the Main Character.  But also, the main character is the one who must grapple with some internal issue, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  Though the story is about the trial and about prejudice, neither Atticus nor Ewell ever come to a point where they question or even change their beliefs.  Rather, it feels like that inner consideration revolves around Scout’s impressions of all that happens.  In fact, Scout is actually prejudiced, not against blacks but against Boo Radley, the supposed monstrous child-killing boogey man who is locked in the basement of his family’s home on Scout’s street.

Throughline 3: The Influence Character

The Influence Character is not the antagonist but the character who most influences the Main Character’s outlook and feelings.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Boo Radley is the Influence Character to Scout. The rumors surrounding this man, fueled by the town’s ignorance and fear, makes Scout concerned for her safety, even though she’s never seen him, and along with most everyone else, she holds him in derision.  Yet it is Boo’s influence on Scout over the course of the story that ultimately brings her to a point of change in her own personal prejudice.

Throughline 4: The Subjective Story

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

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

Melanie Anne Phillips

Want to know more?  Check out my books on story development, my StoryWeaver software for building your story’s world, and our Dramatica software for structuring your story.

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How Story Structure Relates to the Real World

 

By understanding how the structure of fiction relates to the real world, we can better fashion our stories and perhaps even convey something to our readers or audience that they can use in life.

We all sense that stories have some sort of structure because we see the same dramatic patterns over and over again.  If there were no structure at all, there would be no patterns.

But where do these patterns come from and what do they mean?  Are they unique to fiction or are they reflective of real life, just as characters are clearly reflective of real people, yet not quite the same?

In the case of characters it is easy to see that while they bear resemblance to folks we’ve met, they are also highly idealized, often accentuating a single attribute above all others that defines them as a personality type or even an archetype. From this, we can speculate that while fiction is similar to what we experience every day, it isn’t exactly the same thing.

In this article I’d like to share with you some of the insights into the relationship of story structure to real life that I have uncovered in my quarter century as a teacher of creative writing.  (Oh, and being the co-creator of the Dramatica theory of narrative structure doesn’t hurt either.)

To begin, let’s first look back at the origin of stories and what some notable people have said about their nature.  Consider an age before stories: a time when the concept of creating a fictional representation of the real world simply hadn’t occurred to anyone yet.  Communication would be a simple representation of things and events that actually happened – a way of sharing information or obtaining help or even garnering sympathy, love, or respect.

But as we all know, it wouldn’t take long for someone to realize they could leverage more of what they want and avoid more or what they don’t by fudging the facts, or even relating an outright fabrication.

Of course, fiction didn’t really happen after people starting relating truthful tales.  Since we all like to put our best foot forward by nature (even if it is made up a bit), fictional stories developed concurrently, right along with the actual ones.  And so the ranks of the reporters of real events and the purporters of unreal ones grew right along side each other.

At the same time, those bent on understanding life and sharing what they learn might create fictional stories that summed up the lessons they’d learned from personal experience.  Others might simply want to describe how things worked in the real world without including a lesson, moral or message at all.  And others might see the advantage of leveraging untrue stories to paint their enemy in a bad light, get people to behave as they wanted them to, or to elevate themselves to a position of power.

No matter what the reason they were created, it was soon discovered that to be effective fictional stories had to include certain moments (we call them story points now) that formed the lynch pins of a web of logic and passion that could convince an audience to buy into the story: to take it either as the truth or as a true insight into life and how to live it.  Hearts and minds were swayed.

Now any storyteller worth his salt is going to notice when the same story points keep showing up in all the most successful stories.  And they are also going to notice when stories fail when they don’t include certain basic story points.

Eventually a whole cadre of story points turned up that became the conventions of storytelling – things like having a goal and requirements for the goal, a main character that the reader or audience can identify with, a whole slew of heroes and villains and variations of the same, acts, and scenes, and beats, the leap of faith, character arc, archetypes, genres, messages, themes, and on and on.

And yet, though most everyone, even folks who aren’t writers, are aware of most of these, nobody really knew how they fit together or, as per the subject of this article, exactly how they related to the real world.

This is not to say that many notable attempts have been made over the centuries to understand and document what story structure is.  Aristotle, for example, offered a landmark investigation into the nature of dramatics in his classic book, Poetics.  From it, we ended up with the concept of a three-act structure drawing on his assessment that “for everything there is a beginning and an end, and therefore there must also be a middle.”

Of course these days we write one-act plays, three-act movies, and five or seven act television episodes.  We know they work, but a lot of writers still have no clue why.

Others have taken a serious stab at explaining what story structure is and where it comes from including Jung’s archetypes, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Chris Volger’s refinement of Campbell in his book, The Hero’s Journey.

Though each of these explanations of story structure (and many others) provide some really good insight, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, it has been difficult to pull all the story points together and fashion a complete description of what story structure is that covers all the bases and doesn’t have exceptions.  Nonetheless, they are useful guidelines, though some are more like recipes that work only for certain kinds of stories, rather than a system equally good for any kind of story.

Armed with this short history, here’s what I have to contribute to the understanding of what story structure is and how it relates to everyday life:

Everyone one of us shares certain basic human attributes such as the ability to reason, a healthy skepticism, and sense of conscience and temptation.  In our own lives, we use the full complement of these traits to try and chart our best course in an uncertain world.

When we get together in groups, however, it isn’t long before someone emerges as the voice of Reason for the organization, and another becomes the resident Skepticand yet another will speak as the Conscience.  Eventually any group that is large enough will self-organize so that all fundamental human attributes will be represented by a different individual in the group.

As students of the human animal, storytellers would see these personality types defining themselves over and over again whenever a group is formed.  If they were to tell stories that rang true, they needed to ensure that each of these attributes was represented by a different character in their stories.  So, in a sense, the group begins to function as if it were an individual with its own complement of traits.  And since the very same types needed to appear in every complete story, they became the archetypes.  Simple as that.

Further, each of us has a sense of identity (“I think therefore I am”).  Similarly, within the group-mind, one individual will rise to represent the identity of the group, such as Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, or a presidential candidate embodying the identity of his entire party.

In the real world, we get a sense of belonging by defining the nature of our group as in “I am a Californian” or “I am an author.”  Though the nature of each individual in the group can vary widely, we are drawn into a comradeship when we define our tribe, our profession, our gender, or our generation.

Storytellers would see that each group had an individual who embodied the group – the one with whom all members of the group could identify.  And that individual became the main character in the conventions of storytelling.

I could go story point by story point to show how each of these elements of fiction has a counterpart in real social organization, but you get the idea.  Yet that is only part of how story structure relates to the real world.  Though I won’t try to prove it here, it turns out that the way story points interact in fiction to create dramatic tension mirrors the way the way people interact in groups that creates social tension.

Further, the group (be it fictional or real) has its own agenda and quite a bit of inertia, and the main character (or group identity) has his or her own personal agenda so the two are frequently in conflict.  In fiction, the core of all dramatic tension is created by the demands of the group chafing against the personal needs of the main character.  Yeah, that’s a pretty big bite.  You might want to chew on that one for a while before you decide if you want to swallow it or not, but it is quite a concept that would explain quite a bit.

But again, I’m just sharing what I’ve learned in twenty five years of studying story structure.  I’m not trying to prove it, just to share it.

Bottom line is that the structure of stories is an idealized model of what goes on in the real world.  That’s why we find value in stories: they resonate with us, with our own lives.  On the one hand, they are familiar, one the other, it is like stepping into someone else’s life.  We are immersed into the fabric of a voyeuristic journey and emerge changed by it, carrying the passions and understandings of what we just experienced into our own lives in which we now think, feel, and behave differently as a result of merging with the identity of the main character.

That’s a pretty good place to stop for now.  If you’d like to more, browse this blog, check out my books on story development, try my StoryWeaver software for building your story’s world, or our Dramatica software for structuring it.

Thanks for your time, and may the Muse be with you.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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The Penance of the Lambs

In the classes I teach on story structure I often point to Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs as a great example of a Success/Bad story in which the goal (save the senator’s daughter from Buffalo Bill) is achieved, but the personal angst of not being able to save that spring lamb remains, as evidenced by Lecter’s final conversation with Starling over the phone in which he asks, “Are the lambs still screaming?” Starling’s silence in response plus the somber soundtrack music (even though this is her graduation from the academy) indicate she is still holding on to that angst.

We usually leave it there, having served our purpose of illustrating what Success/Bad means. Sometimes we go on to say that the reason she is trying to save all these people today – the reason she got into law enforcement (besides the fact her father was a sheriff) was because she can’t let go of that one lamb she couldn’t save and keeps trying to make up for it.

But now I’m thinking that while that may be true in an objective sense, nobody would carry that weight in their heart and act out that way for those reasons alone. You’d see it, you’d understand it and move on.

Rather, I think the reason she does what she does is not to make up for that lamb but to avoid having to carry another similar sense of loss in the future. So every extraordinary effort – even to the extent of putting herself at risk of death – is to keep from adding one more victim to the pain or failure she already carries.

It would seem, then, counter-intuitive to put oneself in a profession where the risk of failure in the exact same subject matter area as your angst. But consider – most of us need to pay penance when we feel we have screwed up. The risk of hurting herself emotionally even more by her choice of profession, therefore, is part of her penance for the first lamb she lost, while the extra-human effort she puts into each case is the attempt to avoid adding another instance to the pain she already carries.

Pretty screwed up, really, but in actuality the only way a mind, a heart, can make up for failing another in a way that can’t be fixed is to try to help others in a similar way.  Yet then the risk of failure is omnipresent, so we give up a life of our own to excel enough to avoid another failure.

It is a never ending cycle of emotional self-flagellation: trying to make up for the failure by putting oneself in the situation most likely to create a repeat, then devoting one’s life to trying to avoid the failure and thereby punishing oneself for the original failure.

Of course, the only way out of this vicious circle is to accept the original failure, call it a clean slate, and move on. But who can easily do that, and how?

Those are the questions for which readers and audience yearn for answers.  They hope that the author possesses some special insight based on personal experience or extensive observation.  Stories work at a passionate level because, even in the most outlandish sci-fi situations, the human heart beats along side our own.  And the more you draw your characters from the issues we face every day (“We envy what we see every day” – Hannibal Lecter to Clarice Starling), the more your readers or audience will embrace them and make the passion of your story their own.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Something I made for writers:

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