Writing with a “Collective” Goal

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Some writers become so wrapped up in interesting events and bits of action that they forget to have a central unifying goal that gives purpose to all the other events that take place. This creates a plot without a core. But determining your story’s goal can be difficult, especially if your story is character oriented, and not really about a Grand Quest.

For example, in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” all the characters are struggling with their relationships and not working toward an apparent common purpose. There is a goal, however, and it is to find happiness in a relationship. This type of goal is called a “Collective Goal” since it is not about trying to achieve the same thing, but the same KIND of thing. When considering the goal for your story, don’t feel obligated to impose a contrived central goal if a collective goal is more appropriate.

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Plot vs. Exposition

By Melanie Anne Phillips

A common misconception is that Plot is the order of events in a story. In fact, the order in which events are unfolded for the reader or audience can be quite different from the order in which they happen to the characters.

Plot, then, is really that internal progression of events, while the reader/audience order is more precisely referred to as Exposition.

For an author, it is important to separate the two. Otherwise it is too easy to overlook a missing step in the logical progression of the story because the steps were put out of order in Exposition.

On the other hand, trying to separate the internal logic of the story from the Exposition order really inhibits the creative muse. When working out a story, many authors like to envision the finished work including the Exposition. This gives the best impression of how the story will feel to the audience.

So the key is to first create your plot as it will appear in the finished story. Once you have a handle on it, that is the time to put the plot in Character Order to see if there are any missing pieces.

If there are, fill in the logical gaps, then “re-assemble” the plot back into the order in which you wanted to unfold it for the audience, making sure to add the new gap-filling plot pieces into your exposition as well.

Using this system, you will ensure that everything that happens in your story is not only interestingly revealed, but also makes an unbroken chain of sense.

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The 8 Archetypes

From my “classic” 1999 video series on story structure:

Part 20: The 8 Archetypes

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Is Story Structure Your Enemy?

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Structuring before writing or anywhere in the beginning of the process hobbles the Muse and creativity stops and progress bogs down.  This can make it appear as if story structure is your enemy.

But, if you apply structure at the right point in the process, story structure can be your greatest ally.

To turn structure from foe to friend, follow these four steps:

First Step

Create your story world: What are all the elements you would like in your story?  Don’t force creativity – just make a list of all things you want in your story – the people, events, messages, and moods you’d like to explore.

If you have specific ideas for a battle, a line of dialog, a clever plot twist – anything that you want in your story – jot it down.  Then, develop those ideas into the world in which your characters live an in which your plot will take place.

For some tips on how to develop your story world, click here.

Once you feel you have the basic outline of your story in focus, write a synopsis of your story.  A synopsis talks about what’s in your story – not so much the order of events.  It is intended as a conversational description of what your story is about, as if someone asked you, “I hear you are writing a novel (or screenplay).  What’s it about?”

If you answered that question, you wouldn’t answer by telling them the order in which things occur.  You would tell them about all the major concepts, interesting moments, and principal characters.  You would describe your story world so they get an idea of what the finished story will be like.  That, is your synopsis.

Second Step

Create a pathway through those elements – your story’s spine or timeline, including quest, characters and plot.

Your story’s timeline (often though of as your plot-line, though it also includes your character arcs and the development of your story’s message) is like a journey through the story world you created in the first step.

Imagine that your story world is a map of the terrain you wish to cover in your story.  Then the timeline is a journey across that terrain – the sequential order in which you visit each of the interesting concepts you’ve developed.

It can be difficult to turn a list of ideas into a pathway, however, but if you run into trouble, click here for a method of generating your timeline from your story world.

One you have your timeline, imagine that the person who asked what your story was about in the first step responded with, “Cool!  I like it!  How does it unfold?

Your answer would be a conversational recounting of the key events or happenings in your story in sequential order – not too much detail, just the essentials.  If you write that down, it becomes what is called a story treatment.

Essentially, a treatment is a description of how your story will unwind, minus any dialog unless it is absolutely essential to understanding a particular event.

Third Step

Once you have your treatment, add in structural story points. I’m not talking about building your story’s complete narrative structure – not yet.  For this step, you just want to make sure all the critical structure story points are all in there, such as Goal, Requirements, thematic conflict, a main character, and whether that main character ends up changing their nature (like Scrooge) or holding on to their point of view (like James Bond).

You see, structure is composed of two parts – the essential story points and the dramatics that hold them together.  Every story has the same points, but it is the way they are connected to one another that creates your story’s unique narrative structure.

We’ll worry bout those connections in the next step.  Here, just make sure all the most important story points are in your story, and if not, put them in so they fit with what you’ve already developed.

For a list of the twelve most important story points you really need, click here.

Fourth Step

Create a narrative structure for your story.  To do this, you will want to look at all your story points and then determine how they hang together.  This can be done by intuition and experience, but it is always a little “iffy” if you rely on that alone.

That’s why we created a software program that can do it much more precisely.  You can use it for free to work out the narrative structure in  your story.  But, the software is not the point.  The point is to create a template for your story that would show you what a perfect structure would look like.

Now, nobody reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a great structure.  Rather, we are drawn to stories to have our passions ignited.  Still, there are some essential structural components that can scuttle the best-told and most exciting story every conceived.

So how can you reconcile structure with your Muse?  Simple.  Don’t try to make your story’s structure perfect, just better.  Use your structural template as a guide – like a blueprint.

Writing is a strange endeavor, as it is best done when you build the house first, and then determine the perfect blue print for it later.  Then, you lay that template over your story and see where you can bring your story into better alignment with it, without destroying all the design concepts and decorations you already have in place.

In the real world of story development, perfect structure is a myth.  Trying to make a story structure perfect will drain the life out of it. And trying to create a structure first and then write from it will create a “paint by numbers” picture.

But if you use structure only at the end (after completing your first draft is ideal), then you can hone your story as closely as possible to the most solid structure, without undermining your passionate expression.

Now I said you could use our story structuring software free, and here’s how.  We created a product called Dramatica, based on our concepts of narrative structure.  It contains a Story Engine that uses those concepts to help you build a structure that best represents your story.  The demo version is fully functional, including the Story Engine!  So, you can use it to structure your story and you don’t have to spend a dollar.

You can download the demo version for Windows or for Mac here.

You’ll find the demo has complete instructions and even a path for beginners called the StoryGuide that will walk you through the story structuring process step by step.

What it won’t tell you is how to apply that structure to your story without crushing the creativity.

For that, just keep in mind – the structure that Dramatic generates should be treated as a collection of guidelines, not a list of rules.  Use each story point in the structure to gain insight into your story, and then apply it if you can and as best you can to strengthen your structure.

And, of course, your friendly neighborhood story coach is always available, as described below.  Plus, you may also with to try my other software, StoryWeaver, to help you with the creative part of the process as well.

Contact me about narrative analysis for fiction and the real world


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Structure Hobbles the Muse

By Melanie Anne Phillips

The Muse explodes outward into a world of passion and possibilities.

As a teacher of creative writing for twenty-five years, my experiences with many types of writers tell me that one should never consider structure at all until a first draft is completely written.

Structure gets in the way, it hobbles the muse.  We all think in narrative anyway, so whatever we create already has a fuzzy structure in it.  The Muse is okay with this.  So let her be; let her range free and roam wild.  And when she is done, spent, and filled with satisfaction, then you bring in structure as a framework upon which to hang what she has created so that it is displayed in the best light.

Now is the time to break free of bonds.  Structure will follow in its own moment in time.

Contact me about narrative analysis for fiction and the real world


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Forget Your Protagonist – Who’s Your Main Character?

By Melanie Anne Phillips

For just about any story you read, you get a sense of who it revolves around – who is it really about? Who is the character whose shoes we stand in, through whose eyes and heart do we see and feel the story at the most passionate personal level?

In Gone with the Wind, for example, the two most prominent characters are Rhett and Scarlet. We like Rhett, but it is clearly Scarlet’s story – the whole thing revolves around her, what she thinks, what he feels, the plans she makes, her attitudes, and so on. Rhett, as charismatic as he is, does a lot of things, but he even disappears for quite a while at one point in the picture, but that’s okay because Scarlet is the core of the story. So, she’s the Main Character.

In both the book and movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus (the Gregory Peck part) is the protagonist. The Story Goal is to try and save the black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in the 1930s south. By definition, the Protagonist is the one pushing forward the effort to achieve the goal. So, that is clearly Atticus. And his opponent, the Antagonist, is the father of the offended girl who wants the man lynched. That’s the plot and Protagonist and Antagonist fight for it. But, neither of them is the Main Character, and we can tell this because we don’t stand in either of their shoes – we don’t see the story though either of their sets of eyes. Rather the Main Character is Atticus’ young daughter Scout. She is also the narrator of both the book and movie, but that is not what makes her the Main Character. Rather, it is that we see the story through her eyes – a child’s view of prejudice.

And there is one more character – the one I want you to focus on creating next for your story – the Influence Character! In TKAM, it is Boo Radley – the Boogeyman who lives next door. While the logistic argument of the story is between Atticus and Bob Ewell over the trial and the fate of the defendant, the passionate or philosophic argument is all about Scout’s prejudice against Boo without ever having seen him. And in fact, he turns out to be the one who has been protecting her from Bob Ewell all along. In other words, any time we make judgements about someone without knowing them, that’s what prejudice is all about. That’s the message of the story. And that’s why Atticus is NOT the Main Character. If he was, we’d stand in his shoes, be all righteous defending a black man, and nothing would be learned. But by standing in Scout’s innocent shoes and still finding ourselves to be prejudiced (because we buy into her fear of Boo) the message is made.

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The Zen of Narrative

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Think of the Dramatica theory of story structure as the Zen of narrative. Every new aspect of it that you learn provides a new angle on the issues you face and opens up new avenues of exploration through which to seek a resolution to your inequities. So, each new step is going to be a zen-like lesson the illuminate another side of how both fictional and personal narratives can be controlled and altered.

To begin, consider that stories (in general) are about a single narrative growing from a single inequity. They are closed systems in which only those elements that pertain to that exploration of that particular issue are included. But this differs from real life. In our own lives, we weave scores of narratives and participate as minor characters in many others created not by ourselves.

For example, we may have a narrative about our career, a narrative about our self image, a narrative as a member of our family, a narrative in our department at work and another regarding the entire company at the corporate level. We may participate in a narrative in our church, in a club, with our in-laws or in a class we are taking. In fact, whenever we gather in a group, a narrative will form and we will play a role in it.

And so, when dealing with our issues in the real world, there is not one single silver bullet that will solve everything. Rather, we need to identify each of the principal narratives in which we have dissonance so we can then analyze each one to better understand the dynamics at play, and through them discover the kinds of pressure we must bring to bear to eventually resolve the underlying inequity.

The best way to identify these different narratives in our lives is to see them in terms of our independent areas of relationship. For example, the relationship we have with our boss is not directly connected to the relationship we have with our spouse, though each can affect the other in indirect ways. For example, our spouse may egg us on to ask for a raise we don’t feel comfortable in seeking. But the spouse and boss never are never directly involved with each other, just through us as the hinge, lynch pin, or intermediary.

In the end, we are each the main character in the narratives of our life.

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