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Psychoanalyze Your Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Does your story suffer from “Multiple Personality Disorder”?

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

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

Most writers have been taught that characters, plot, theme, and genre are people, doing things, illustrating value standards, in an overall setting and mood. In contrast, we can think of a story as having a mind of its own in which characters, plot, theme, and genre are different facets that give each story its unique personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychoanalyze your story with Dramatica’s

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Main Character Growth

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Your main character doesn’t have to change in order to grow; they can grow in their resolve not to change.  Some characters, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Rick in Casablanca , do change, while others, like Rocky in Rocky or William Wallace in Braveheart, hold onto their beliefs.

Either way, your main character will face increasing pressure to alter his or her belief system, moral outlook, or manner of thinking as the story progresses.  At the climax, they may stick to their guns and hold on to their beliefs, having faith that in the end this will resolve their personal problems because those beliefs have always worked before.  Or, they may become convinced they have it wrong, at least in this particular situation, and they abandon their previous beliefs to embrace an alternative way of thinking and/or feeling about the situation.

For the character, there is no way to tell which way of choosing will lead to a positive outcome and which will lead to personal disaster.  That is why such a choice is referred to as a “leap of faith.”

Yet not all stories require the character to make a conscious choice to change or not at the climax.  Sometimes, a character’s belief system is changed gradually over the course of the story, and they may not even realize it has happened.  It is only at the climax that the readers or audience may see that the main character responds differently than they previously had, showing that the story-long experience has finally reached a point at which the character simply tips the other way.

In fact, the character may never realize they have changed.  But, the readers or audience need to know or there really is no message for the story.  The message is made by the author showing, after the climax, whether it was the right path for the character to have changed or to have remained steadfast.

In summary, if you want a strong message for your story, you need to be clear as to whether or not your main character has changed and also whether that led  to a better or worse personal situation in the end.

Design your main character’s journey of growth
with StoryWeaver Story Development Software

StoryWeaver will take you step-by-step from concept to fully developed story.  More than 200 interactive Story Cards (TM) guide you through each step and automatically reference your work on previous steps.  So, your story is constantly evolving as you revise, refine, and fold each version into the next.

With our 90 day money-back guarantee you can try StoryWeaver risk-free.

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The Dramatic 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 Dramatica 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 Zen of Dramatica

By Melanie Anne Phillips

A writer recently asked me the following question about feedback he received from the Dramatica software which suggested his character’s Purposes should be Knowledge and Actuality:

He wrote:

I don’t understand what Dramatica means by a character’s Purpose. Purpose in life?–Nobody knows what that is although some think they do. I understand Knowledge and Actuality as stated in Dramatica Dictionary. But I cannot put Purpose, knowledge, and actuality together in a meaningful, parallel context without Purpose meaning the same thing as Methodology, i.e., he uses “knowledge” and “reality”. I feel there is a SIMPLE explanation and I’m making it complex.

I replied:

In regard to “simplicity”, Dramatica theory is like Zen. There are simple explanations if all you want it a specific solution to a specific problem. But, the deeper you go, the more the simple explanations begin to form larger patterns until an overview of the whole durn mechanism of story begins to clarify. With that view comes a mastery of structure that guides creativity, channels it, but never inhibits it.

In regard to your particular problem…

First of all, Dramatica divides character into two aspects – the Subjective qualities, which represent character points of view (what the characters see) and Objective qualities, which represents how the characters function in the big picture.

From the Subjective view, one cannot see what can be seen from the “God’s Eye View” of the big picture – the view we can’t get in real life, the Objective view.

When answering questions about character Motivations, Methodologies, Evaluations, and Purposes, Dramatica is focusing on the Objective View. So, from that perspective of standing outside the story and looking in, we not only can, but MUST know our character’s Purposes. If we do not, how can we frame a cogent argument about the relative value of human qualities to our audience?

Of course, the Character will never see ANY of these aspects: not Motivations, Methods, Evaluations, nor Purposes. You see, the qualities that make us up are like the carrier waves of our self-awareness, the operating system of our personality, the foundation of our outlook. They describe where we stand, not what we are looking at. So, when choosing elements for your characters’ qualities, make sure to describe what each character really is, as seen from an Objective outside view. Describe how it functions, now how it feels. Describe how it is to be seen, not how it sees.

This phase of story creation is where you, as author, determine what the ACTUAL meaning of the story is, when all the smoke clears, when the audience can look back on the finished story and say, “This is what this character was really like – this is what kind of attributes he had, these are the human qualities it represents.”

Next, there is a common misunderstanding of what “Purpose” is. This actually occurs because writers often look at Purpose as if it were a Motivation. For example, if you ask an author what a character’s motivation is, he might say, “to be president.” But in fact, achieving the office of the presidency is his Purpose – simply defined as, what he hopes to accomplish, arrive at, or possess. His Motivation, on the other hand, is WHY he wants to be president. And, this might be any one of a number of things, such as that he never had any power as a child, or that he feels inadequate and needs the accolades. For any given Purpose, there can be any number of Motivations, and vice versa.

So, when choosing your characters’ Purposes, you need to ask yourself, what kinds of things (what categories of things) do I want this character, driven by his Motivations, to be trying to achieve? There are no limitations as to which Purposes can be the particular “goals” for any given motivations. In fact, it is the combination you choose that gives a unique identity to your character, either as an archetype where the Motivations are topically connected to similar associated Purposes or as more complex characters in which the Purposes are of completely different kinds of thing than the Motivations.

Now it might seem that a character will, in fact, see what his Purpose is. After all, if he wants to be president, he’s gotta be aware of that fact! True, but what he doesn’t see is that his UNDERLYING Purpose is “Actuality.” In such a story, there might be a character that is a power broker behind the scenes. He is the President de facto, because the actual president merely rubber-stamps our character’s decisions, and reads the speeches our character writes. But, our character’s Purpose is Actuality, so he feels as if he has achieved nothing. Only if he ACTUALLY becomes president will he ever feel he has accomplished his Purpose.

It is important to note that ANY of the Purpose Elements could show up in the story as “wanting to be president.” For example, “Knowledge” as a purpose could be written so that our character wants to KNOW what it is like to be president. He has stood next to the president, he can imagine what it is like, but unless he sits behind the desk in the Oval Office himself, he’ll never really KNOW.

So, using Knowledge and Actuality together, our character has Purpose of becoming president because he must Know what it is Actually like. ANY subject matter can be fit to ANY elements. This might seem as if nothing definitive is really being determined about your structure. In fact, it is the choice as to which elements are to be represented in the subject matter that give the subject matter a specific flavor, or spin, and thereby makes it more than simple storytelling. Only when the subject matter is presented as representing particular outlooks does it take on the mantle of dramatic significance. The matching of functional elements to the subject matter creates perspective, and it is perspective in which all dramatic meaning is held.

Again, like Zen, the exploration of story structure has many levels of depth and meaning. The more one learns about Dramatica and the Objective Character Elements, the more sophistication one develops in sculpting interesting characters of unusual identity yet valid composition. And it is upon such characters that a cogent and complete argument regarding the relative value of human qualities must be built.

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Blowing A Story Bubble

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Remember blowing bubbles with that solution in the little bottles and the plastic wand? The craft of writing is a bit like blowing bubbles (life is like a box of chocolates!) This holds true not only for your dramatic approach, but also for the characters in your story as well.

The study of real bubbles is actually a science which combines physics, geometry, and even calculus! And, as with most natural phenomena, the dynamics that drive them have a parallel in psychology as well. For example, the math that describes a Black Hole in space can equally be applied to describing a prejudice in the mind.

So, by observing bubbles we can more easily grasp some otherwise intangible concepts about the psychology of stories and of the characters in them.

Turning our attention to stories, let’s look at several dramatic endeavors that can benefit by applying the qualities of bubbles. Bubbles burst. Sometimes you want them too, other times you don’t. The larger a bubble gets, the more impressive it is, but the more fragile as well. Until a bubble bursts the tension along its surface (surface tension) increases. But once it has burst, all the tension is gone. So the key is to blow the bubble as large as you can without exceeding the maximum sustainable tension. To do this, you need to know when to stop blowing, seal it off, and let it float on it’s own. In addition, you need to consider how hard to blow, how fast to blow, and to master the art of pulling away the wand to allow that magic moment when a bubble with a hole in it seals itself to become a perfect sphere.

When introducing a dramatic element into your story for the first time, consider how much material to work with at a single dramatic unit. Too little material tries to blow a bubble with not enough solution. It may not even make a film across the wand, and if it does, it will snap at the first breath before a bubble can form. Too much, and it drips off the wand, slobbering all over everything else, and snapping apart as well, because the sheer weight of the stuff makes the membrane too thick to flex. So, don’t work with dramatic units too large or small. Don’t focus on details too tiny or grand movements too large. Find the range and scope of your dramatic concepts that your readers or audience can hold onto while you pump it full of promise and then let it float into their hearts and minds on its own.

How hard you blow is equally important. As you may recall, blowing too hard will simply spit the solution right out of the wand and onto your parents’ carpet. (Why you chose to blow bubbles in the house even after having been told not to is no more fathomable than why you chose to be a writer, even though you knew better!)

Blow too soft, and your solution will just wiggle and vibrate in the wand, never bowing out to become a bubble at all. Eventually the solution in the wand will simply evaporate, and you’ll have spent a lot of time blowing with no bubble to show for it. Now a master storyteller can use this effect to his or her advantage. Get the right amount of solution on the wand and then just vibrate the blazes out of it with a gentle blow, tantalizing your audience, who is going to wonder if anything will every come of it. Just when it looks like the solution has almost evaporated too much to work, you pick up the airflow and form the bubble right before their eyes. Or, you might just keep it vibrating, a red herring, and simply let it dissolve out of the wand. Better be sure of your skills, though, because you want your audience to know you blew it, not to think you blew it.

And do you recall how if you blow at one intensity you get a single bubble, and if you blow with a different push you get a string of small bubbles? In fact, you can even get a series of medium bubbles if you find that narrow mid-range.

Dramatically, you can drop a lot of little bits of information, a few mid-sized bits of information, or one big bit, all with a single blow. (Killed 7 with one blow!). These are the Multi-Appreciation-Moments (M.A.M.) in which a single dramatic movement, passage, or discourse propels more than one dramatic element into the story.

Bubbles have size. The size of a bubble, in writing as in soap (or in writing “soaps”), depends primarily on the size of your wand and the huff in your blow.

Short stories are one size wand. Mini-series are another. Haiku are still one more. Each one has a maximum size of bubble it can produce, no matter how hard you blow. But size isn’t everything. There is such a thing as the beauty of perfection. Your idea is your solution, your format is your wand; try to make sure not to blow too hard for the wand/solution ratio you are using.

Surface Tension – wonderful phrase, that! Someone should use that for a title. More wonderful still is the way it works. Stories are about structure and passion. Your solution is about water and soap. Too much water and nothing happens. Too much soap and it all glops up. When you get the right mix of structure and passion, you’ve got the right raw material for a great bubble.

What holds the surface of the bubble together is the attraction among the soap and water molecules. What keeps it from collapsing is a slightly higher pressure on the inside than on the outside. A larger bubble has more tension because there is more surface. And yet, the total surface area of a collection of smaller bubbles far exceeds that of a single bubble occupying the same space. In addition, smaller bubbles are more stable, lasting far longer.

Use big bubbles for big events of singular identity with a limited life span. Use smaller bubbles collectively as a consistent foundation of longer duration.

Put your ear to the soap foam on dishwater or a hot bath, and though the mass remains largely constant, you can hear the satisfying snap, crackle, and pop of individual bubbles as they burst. Such formations can add stability to your story, even while providing an underlying level of surface tension, punctuated by hundreds of tiny eruptions. In addition, you can shape foam into all kinds of complex forms, while the shape of individual bubbles is far more limited.

While bubbles, on their own, are usually round, if you dip a bent piece of wire (such as a clothes hanger) in solution, you can create triangles, squares, and even approximations of hyper-cubes!

Although one might argue that the film from one wire side to the next does not comprise a bubble, and the enclosed area of such a shape does not either, guided by these outside influences a shaped bubble may indeed occur within the space bounded by the wires that doesn’t directly touch the wires. One shape, for example, may create a square bubble within another bubble. So, although the larger bubble is directly connected to the wires, the inner bubble is only connected to the planar surfaces of the outer bubble.

Ah, but I wax scientific. Fact is, the “set pieces” of your story are the wires dipped into your dramatic solution. An obvious heavy-handed control technique, you can also create very specific shapes by building those second-generation bubbles within bubbles, which are not formed by direct influence of your set pieces, but rather by indirect influence from being attached to those dramatics that ARE connected to the set pieces.

It’s a great point, but not for the faint of heart.

Bubbles combine. When two bubbles encounter each other, they might just bounce off like billiard balls. But if conditions are right, they join, creating a common interface between them. They are spherical except where they are joined, which becomes a flat side. More than two bubbles can combine, and when they do, all sorts of additional, symmetrical interfaces are created.

You entire story should be like a collection of bubbles, interfaced together. Each single bubble is another dramatic element or point. Over the course of your story you have blown them one by one until your story has fully taken shape. Then, on their one, one by one they begin to pop. Some of the solution is spattered away, some is absorbed by the remaining bubbles. Due to the extra solution, the remaining bubbles pop faster and faster until all the original bubbles have burst.

Let’s close by seeing how bubble science can help describe what your characters do you in your story. Suppose Sally calls on the phone complaining to Jane about a personal issue she is facing. Jane knows just what to say, but simply saying it will be rejected and not have the comforting effect she wants. In fact, Jane is smart enough to realize that she has to start out slow and easy, and over the course of the conversation blow a bubble of comfort big enough to enclose the problem.

So, with patience, Jane continues to talk to Sally, starting by enclosing a small part of the issue, then slowly expanding her support until it hold the whole thing inside. Now if Jane is too full of herself, has the habit of “beating a dead horse,” is emotionally needy herself and has to have confirmation from Sally that her problem is completely solved, or is just inexperienced, then she won’t know when to stop blowing and will continue pumping support into the conversation until the bubble gets so large it bursts.

But, if she knows what she’s doing, Jane will recognize when the bubble is big enough and then pull away the wand and stop blowing so that the sphere can form. She can do this by changing the subject, not off-topic, but to something tangential, to something touched upon in the conversation, but instead of talking about the part of that new topic that was connected to the personal problem, she now talks about other aspects of that topic that don’t involve Sally’s original issue.

Moving sideways in topic at the right time is like pulling the wand sideways from the bubble so that it can close.

Of course, Sally might be mired in her problem and stuck to the wand. But Anne may be in the room with Jane, hear that Sally is trying to come back to the original issue, and (being a good friend and student of psychology) realize another lateral move is needed. Anne would then raise her hand to get Jane’s attention (who would ask Sally to hold for a moment). Anne offers another off-topic comment based on what she has heard of the conversation. Jane passes the comment on to Sally on Anne’s behalf, and now Sally has been doubly distracted. At this point, either the bubble is free of the wand, or Sally simply won’t let go.

If the bubble is free, then it’s effect will remain within Sally long after the conversation and will work to resolve her angst. If it is not free, the air will just whoosh right back out of the wand and the bubble will deflate as if it never was, and Sally can go on moping about her problem.

Now, you might think this is all very complex, but it is this kind of bubble interaction that makes characters seem fluid rather than built of bricks. But do real people act like that? Sure they do. In fact, the very dramatic scenario I just described happened to me two days ago. That’s how I got the idea for this writing tip.

I was “Jane,” and with “Anne’s” perceptive interjection, I was able to assuage Sally’s angst, free the bubble, and Sally has been quite happy for the last 48 hours.

Real life psychology, character psychology, story psychology… the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Bring the threads of your story together
with StoryWeaver Story Development Software

StoryWeaver will take you step-by-step from concept to fully developed story.  More than 200 interactive Story Cards (TM) guide you through each step and automatically reference your work on previous steps.  So, your story is constantly evolving as you revise, refine, and fold each version into the next.

With our 90 day money-back guarantee you can try StoryWeaver risk-free.

And, even if you choose not to keep it, you still get to keep our Writer’s Survival Kit Bonus Package!

Click for more details or to order…

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Spin a Tale, Weave a Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips

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, structure isn’t necessary to communicate powerful feelings as a montage of experiences.  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 your premise to your conclusion. A tale, then, is a sequence of dramatic elements 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 story threads are intertwined around one another, much as a artist might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that needs to be spun, making its own internal message complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the messages of all the threads come together in a single, overall pattern in the tapestry of the story, 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 thread 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.

To be a story thread, a sequence of dramatic elements must have its own beginning, middle, and end. For example, every character’s growth has its own thread. 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.

So, bottom line:  you spin a tale or you can weave a story, but if you want to convey a complex message, you need to ensure that every thread is not only a quality one, but that work together to create a greater meaning.

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StoryWeaver will take you step-by-step from concept to fully developed story.  More than 200 interactive Story Cards (TM) guide you through each step and automatically reference your work on previous steps.  So, your story is constantly evolving as you revise, refine, and fold each version into the next.

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