Narrative for Movies and Television (Seminar Outline)

As promised to the attendees, here is the outline for the seminar I presented to the Director’s Guild of Canada last Sunday in Vancouver.

It was a spectacular session with a packed house of really eager creative industry people, looking for ways to break through creative block, inject life into their stories, and find and fix elusive narrative problems.

Judging by the response, they found what they were looking for.

Thanks again to the DGC for their invitation, to Roy Hayter who initiated the concept and sheparded it through, and to Barbara Ann Schoemaker (BA) who anticipated and handled every detail to not only make the seminar a huge success, but to make my experience both incredible and indelibly memorable.  Good people, one and all!

So, here’s the seminar outline for reference, which of course does not contain any of the graphics, animations, numerous video clips or my rambling commentary.

Narrative for Movies & Television Seminar

Fix it in the Script – NOT in Post!



            Seminar Overview

                        Morning Session

                                    Identify common serious narrative flaws

                                    Techniques to repair flawed narratives

                        Afternoon Session

                                    Story Development Techniques

                                    Application of Structure to the Creative Process

What is Narrative?

            Origin of Narrative

            Generations of Storytellers

            Trial And Error

            Conventions of Storytelling

            Patterns of Dramatics

            The Concept of Narrative

Models of Narrative

            Aristotle and the 3 Act structure

            Jung and the collective unconscious

            Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

            Each had exceptions; Each was a formula

            Each showed only a glimpse of the elusive structure

A New Model of Narrative

            Structure is Non-Linear

            The Story Mind


            “You and I are both alike”

What’s Happening!!!

            Narrative is happening

            These are the kinds of dramatic elements that make up narrative.

            If a narrative doesn’t have all the important elements, it will fail

            Let’s learn how to recognize and repair flawed narrative elements…

Narrative Problems with Characters

            The most common narrative missteps regarding characters, and how to fix them.

The Main Characterv& Influence Character

            The passionate core of your story’s message

Main & Influence Characters

            So who ARE these guys?

            Main Character represents a paradigm of belief.

            Influence Character represents an opposing view.

            Between them is your story’s passionate argument.

            The result of this argument is your story’s message.

To Kill A Mockingbird

            4 Principal Characters

                        Main Character

                                    First Person Experience for Audience

                        Influence Character

                                    An alternative life view


                                    Prime mover of the effort to achieve the goal


                                    Diametrically opposed to Protagonist achieving the goal

Head Line & Heart Line

Heroes and Villains

            The Hero


                        Main Character

                        Central Character

                        Good Guy

            The Villain


                        Influence Character

                        Second Most Central Character

                        Bad Guy

            Hero and Villain Swap




                        Head line AND heart line between same characters

                        Power of storytelling masks gaps in arguments

                        Arguments are incomplete

                        Conclusions not supported

            The Dramatic Triangle

                        Can fully separate as in To Kill A Mockingbird

                        Can hinge on one character and split the lines

                        Most common variation (the love interest)

                        Other variations

The Heart Line

            Main Character Resolve

                        The Main Character doesn’t have to change to grow

                        He or she can grow in their resolve

            The influence character pressure the MC to change

                        Key establishing points to reference later.

            Change Characters

                        Establish a belief system

                        Establish illustrations of belief

                        Announce resolve

                        Verify resolve

            Steadfast Characters

                        Establish belief system

                        Establish illustrations of belief

                        Announce resolve

                        Verify resolve

            One Must Change

                        Main or Influence will convince the other to change

                        Change occurs at character climax

                        Success in logistic goal hinges on who changes

                        Message determined by results of change

            A Changing Influence Character

Character Arc

            Character Arc 101

                        The Steady Freddy

                        The Griever

                        The Weaver

                        The Waffler

                        The Exception Maker

                        The Backslider

                        How Change Happens

The Head Line


                        Origins of Archetypes

                        Each of us has the same complement of basic traits

                        We use them to solve our personal problems

                        When we join in a group, we quickly self-organize

                        As specialists, the group gains depth and focus

            The 8 Archetypes

















            External / Internal

















            Star Wars Archetypes


                                    Luke Skywalker


                                    The Empire


                                    Princess Leia




                                    Obi Wan Kenobi


                                    Darth Vader


                                    R2D2 & C3PO


                                    Han Solo

            Oz Archetypes




                        Wicked Witch




                        Tin Man









            Oz vs. Star Wars

                        Leia- Reason



                        Scarecrow- Reason



            Oz vs. Star Wars

                        Chewbacca- Emotion



                        Tin Man- Emotion



            Oz Element Swap

                        Scarecrow (Reason?)



                        Tin Man (Emotion?)



            Complex Characters & Relationships

                        Complex Characters

                                    Structural Relationships

                                    Character Relationships

                        Four-Dimensional Characters





            Summing Up Characters

                        Head Line characters involved in the goal

                        Heart Line characters involved in the message

                        Head Line determines if your story will make sense

                        Heart Line determines if your story will have meaning




Narrative Problems with Plot

What Is Plot?

Definitions of Plot

What happens in a story

Storytelling vs. Story Structure

The order of story-affecting events

Exposition Order vs. Narrative Order (Flashbacks)

Any sequential narrative elements

Characters, theme, and Genre

The logistics of the narrative

Plot Points (Goal, etc.)

Plot Progression (Acts, etc.)

Plot Points


The Single Goal

The Collective Goal

The Hidden Goal

Clearly Define!


What happens if the goal fails

What already exists that remains if goal fails

Situation or Condition

Specific or General, but clearly defined


Conditions that must be met for goal to be achieved

Shopping List Requirements

Sequential Requirements



Indicators the Consequence is closing in

Forewarnings of Degree

Forewarnings of Steps

Critical Mass clearly stated

Four Modifiers





Additional Plot Points




Plot Progression

Hero’s Journey

It works! (But is only one path)

It is a formula for a particular kind of story

Many different formulas

Seeking form without formula

Wheels Within Wheels






Dramatica Matrix

Dramatica Matrix

Four Signposts – IC

Influence Character Signposts

Signposts & Journeys

Four Throughlines

Main Character (I)

Influence Character (You)

Passionate Story (We)

Logistic Story (They)

Four Throughlines

Act Structure

Act Structure




Narrative Problems with Theme

What Is Theme?

Aspects of Theme




Lajos Egri


Greed leads to self-destruction

Great for classifying a story’s message

Lousy as a starting point for writing

Fraught with narrative problems

Thematic Conflict

Greed leads to self-destruction


Greed vs. Generosity

Scenes featuring Greed, Scenes featuring Generosity

Thematic Argument

Leads to…

Relative value – levels of degree

Once per act

Never compare directly

Thematic Conclusion

Total of all relative values

Author’s Confirmation

Less of two evils

Greater of two goods


Narrative Problems with Genre

What Is Genre?

Genre and Structure

Genre is most broad stroke structural aspect

Genre structure sets perspective for story

Positions your audience in their experience

Attaches point of view to structural elements

Dramatica Chart

Dramatica Chart

Dramatica Chart

Classes – Internal/External


Points of View

Main Character (I)

Influence Character (You)

Subjective Story (We)

Objective Story (They)

Situation in 4 Domains

Narrative Problems with Story Dynamics

The 8 Essential Questions

Main Character Resolve

Change or Steadfast?

Shift one’s viewpoint or stay the course

Leap of Faith or Creep of Faith

Influence character will do the opposite

Main Character Resolve

Main Character Growth

Start or Stop?

Hole in Heart / Chip on Shoulder

Grow into something or out of something

Waiting for something to start or stop

Main Character Growth

Main Character Approach

Do-er or Be-er?

Preference, not an absolute

Go with the flow

Fish out of water

Main Character Approach

MC Problem Solving Technique

Linear or Holistic?

Basic level below conscious consideration

Don’t shift techniques!

Appropriate behavior

Main Character Problem Solving

Story Limit

Time Lock or Action Lock?

State it when the quest begins.

Don’t violate the lock!

Can have smaller locks within overall story.

Story Limit

Story Driver

Action Drive or Decision Driven

Causal Relationship

Independent of amount of action or decision

Book Ends

Story Driver

Story Outcome

Was the goal achieved or not?

Independent of emotional conclusion

Independent of outcome for protagonist

Can have degrees of accomplishment

Story Judgment

Is the mood of the story better or worse?

Independent of success or failure

Transmitted particularly through Main Character

Can have degrees of positive or negative flavor

Story Outcome and Judgment

Morning Session Wrap Up



Afternoon Session

Story Development Techniques


Story Structure vs. Storytelling

Storytelling vs. Story Structure

The Creative Process and Narrative Structure

Muse vs. Structure

People think in narrative but think about topics

Not all topic concepts can fit in the same narrative

Starting with structure hobbles the Muse

The Master Storyteller Method

4 Stages of Story Development

Story World

Story Line

Story Points

Story Form

Building Your Story World

Story World Construction Steps

What’s the Big Idea?

Create a Log Line

Asking Questions

A Thumbnail Sketch

The Creativity Two-Step Demo

Creativity Two-Step Technique

Take any sentence in your story development

Ask questions like an audience might

Let your Muse go and provide multiple answers

Ask questions about each answer

Rinse and repeat

Character Tips

Creating Characters from a Log Line

Character Swap Meet

Character Personal Goals

Writing from a Character’s Point of View

Have Characters Write Their Own Life Stories

More Character Tips

Characters vs. Players

“Things” as Characters

Group Characters

The Attributes of Age, Gender

Character Sub-Plots

Plot Tips

Use Signposts and Journeys as a guide

Outline of each of the four throughlines

Look for gaps and missteps, fill and fix

What happens in Act 2?

Theme Tips

A different theme for each throughline!

Illustrated through proper point of view

Main and Influence Main Message

Don’t forget the topic!

Genre Tips

A Mixed Bag

Select genres you like

Choose elements that reflect your story’s personality

Alter the traditional references

Your Story Synopsis

A map of your story’s terrain

Characters, relationships, potentials

Plot, processes, events

Theme, topics, messages

Genre, elements, moods

Building Your Story Line

From Map to Path

One story or many?

Choosing a course through your story world

Narrative Order or Exposition Order

Sequential Outline

Include all four throughlines

Character Tips

The Rule of Threes

First Impressions


Character Hand-Offs

Varied Structural Relationships

Structural, Logistical, Emotional Relationships

Plot Tips

Acts, Sequences, Scenes and Beats

The 28 Magic Scenes

Multi-Appreciation Moments (MAM)

Constructing Scenes from Beats (PRCP-1234)

Theme Tips

Main / Influence Thematic Argument, Act by Act

Four Throughlines thematic conflict moments

Pacing of Topic references

Individual character themes

Genre Tips

Genre Situation

Genre Attitude

Genre Manipulation

Your Story Treatment

Write a separate timeline for your characters, plot, theme, and genre

Look for gaps and fill them, pacing and adjust it

Weave all four timelines together

Alter the timeline with exposition order

Building Your Story Points


Linchpins or anchor points of your narrative

Like Cornerstones and Keystones

If some are missing, whole structure can collapse

Some are more crucial than others.

The Story Points

Revised Story Treatment

Look for each story point in your treatment

Consider whether each point is crucial or optional

Incorporate all crucial story points

Incorporate as many optional story points as you can

Building Your Story Form


Perfect Story Structure is a Myth

Like a Blueprint for your Story

Includes both story points and story dynamics

Ensures all story points work together

Bring your story closer to a stronger structure

Storyforming Demonstration

Dramatica At Work

Narrative for Movies & Television

~ Fin ~

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What Is Truth? (The Character’s Dilemma)

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Characters reflect real people in a purified or idealized state.  And so, we can see in them qualities and traits that are hard to see within ourselves.  One of the most difficult challenges we face every day are exemplified by characters in virtually every story – the inability to confidently understand “what is truth?”

In this article, excerpted from the Dramatica Narrative Theory Book I wrote with Chris Huntley, the elusive and changing nature of truth is explored for the benefit of your characters and yourself.

What Is Truth?

We cannot move to resolve a problem until we recognize the problem. Even if we feel the inequity, until we can pinpoint it or understand what creates it, we can neither arrive at an appropriate response or act to nip it at its source.

If we had to evaluate each inequity that we encounter with an absolutely open mind, we could not learn from experience. Even if we had seen the same thing one hundred times before, we would not look to our memories to see what had turned out to be the source or what appropriate measures had been employed. We would be forced to consider every little friction that rubbed us the wrong way as if we have never encountered it. Certainly, this is another form of inefficiency, as “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In such a scenario, we would not learn from our mistakes, much less our successes. But is that inefficiency? What if we encounter an exception to the rules we have come to live by? If we rely completely on our life experience, when we encounter a new context in life, our whole paradigm may be inappropriate.

You Idiom!

We all know the truisms, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” “guilt by association,” “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” “the only good (fill in the blank) is a dead (fill in the blank).” In each of these cases we assume a different kind of causal relationship than is generally scrutinized in our culture. Each of these phrases asserts that when you see one thing, another thing will either be there also, or will certainly follow. Why do we make these assumptions? Because, in context, they are often true. But as soon as we apply them out of context they are just as likely false.

Associations in Space and Time

When we see something occur enough times without exception, our mind accepts it as an absolute. After all, we have never seen it fail! This is like saying that every time you put a piece of paper on hot metal it will burn. Fine, but not in a vacuum! You need oxygen as well to create the reaction you anticipate.

In fact, every time we believe THIS leads to THAT or whenever we see THIS, THAT will also be present, we are making assumptions with a flagrant disregard for context. And that is where characters get into trouble. A character makes associations in their backstory. Because of the context in which they gather their experiences, these associations always hold true. But then the situation (context) changes, or they move into new areas in their lives. Suddenly some of these assumptions are absolutely untrue!

Hold on to Your Givens!

Why doesn’t a character (or person) simply give up the old view for the new? There are two reasons why one will hold on to an outmoded, inappropriate understanding of the relationships between things. We’ll outline them one at a time.

First, there is the notion of how many times a character has seen things go one way, compared to the number of times they’ve gone another. If a character builds up years of experience with something being true and then encounters one time it is not true, they will tend to treat that single false time as an exception to the rule. It would take as many false responses as there had been true ones to counter the balance.

Context is a Sneaky Thing

Of course, one is more sensitive to the most recent patterns, so an equal number of false items (or alternative truths) is not really required when one is aware he has entered a new situation. However, situations often change slowly and even in ways we are not aware. So context is in a constant state of flux. If something has always proven true in all contexts up to this point then one is not conscious of entering a whole new context. Rather, as we move in and out of contexts, a truism that was ALWAYS true may now be true sometimes and not true at other times. It may have an increasing or decreasing frequency of proving true or may tend toward being false for a while, only to tend toward being true again later. This kind of dynamic context requires that something be seen as false as often as it has been seen as true in order to arrive even at a neutral point where one perspective is not held more strongly than the other.


Let me now add a short conclusion to this excerpt from the Dramatica Book….

Truth is a process, not a conclusion.  If you have ever dipped into Zen, you realize that you cannot fully understand what something is unless you become it, and yet if you do, you lose the awareness of what it is as seen from the outside.

Capital “T” truth is perpetually elusive, as described in the saying, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao.”  Or, in less cryptic terms, if you define something, you have missed the point because nothing stands alone from the rest of the universe and cannot be fully defined apart from it.

The key to open-mindedness and problem solving is to decalcify your mind, to make it limber enough to perceive and explore alternative points of view without immediately abandoning the point of view you currently hold.

That is the nature of stories – when a main character’s belief system is challenged by an influence character who represents an alternative truth.  The entire passionate “heart line” of a story exists to examine the relative value of each perspective, and the message of a story is the author’s statement that, based on the author’s own experience or special knowledge, in this particular instance, one view is better than the other for solving this particular problem.

There is no right or wrong inherently.  It all depends upon the context, which is never constant.  The philosopher David Hume believed that truth was transient: as long as something worked, it was true, and when it failed to work it was no longer true.

And so, the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article, “What is truth?” can only be “truth is our best understanding of the moment.”

For a tangential topic, you may with to read my article, “The False Narrative,” in which I explore how to recognize, dismantle and/or create false narratives in fiction and in the real world.

And finally, you may wish to support this poor philosopher and teacher of narrative by trying my Dramatica Story Structuring Software risk-free for 90 days, or my StoryWeaver Step By Step Story Development Software, also risk-free.

Posted in Narrative Psychology | Comments Off on What Is Truth? (The Character’s Dilemma)

Jurassic Park: Building A Better Dinosaur!

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Here’s a flashback article from the early days of the Dramatica theory of narrative structure back in the mid 1990s.  It is the first article I wrote in a series of “Constructive Criticisms” in which I showed how Dramatica could have improved highly successful movies and books, not just ones that were obviously flawed.

We knew Dramatica was a powerful new way to look at structure.  And to convey this to others, we figured that while anybody might show how to make a bad story better, we had the method to show how to make a great story superlative.

So, here’s the original article as it appeared in the first edition of our Storyforming Newsletter…

Jurassic Park: 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. To be fair, these problems largely result from the mostly faithful adherence to the dramatic structure and dynamics of the book upon which the movie is based.

Storyform, the structure and dynamics 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 nearly lifted intact, shackling the movie just like the book with a Pterodactyl hanging `round its neck.

Yet criticisms are a dime a dozen. Suggestions for improvement are much more rare. Fortunately that is the strong suit of the Dramatica theory. Here is one plan for building a better dinosaur.

Dramatica Background

As a starting point, Dramatica denotes a difference between a Tale and a Story. A Tale describes a series of events that lead to success or failure. It carries the message that a particular way of going about solving the problem is or is not a good one. But a Story is an argument that there is only one right way to solve a problem. It is a much more potent form that seeks to have the audience accept the author’s conclusions.

To gain an audience’s acceptance, an argument (Story) must appeal to both logic and feeling. To make the logical part of this argument, all the inappropriate ways a problem might be approached need to be addressed and shown to fail. Each one must be given its due and shown not to work except the one touted by the author. This is accomplished by looking at the characters and the plot objectively, much like a general on a hill watching a battle down below. The big picture is very clear and the scope and ramifications of the individual soldiers can be seen in relationship to the entire field.

However, to make the emotional part of the argument, the audience must become involved in the story at a personal level. To this end, they are afforded a Subjective view of the story through the eyes of the Main Character. Here they get to participate in the battle as if they were actually one of the soldiers in the trenches. It is the differential between the Subjective view of the Main Character and the Objective view of the whole battle that generates dramatic tension from which the message of the story is created.

By comparing the two views, the argument is made to the audience that the Main Character must change to accommodate the big picture, or that the Main Character is on the right track and must hold on to their resolve if they hope to succeed. Of course, the Main Character cannot see the big picture, so they must make a leap of faith near the end of the story, deciding if they want to stick it out or change.

Now this relationship between the Main Character and the Objective story makes them a very special character. In fact, they hold the key to the whole battle. They are the crucial element in the dramatic web who (through action or inaction) can wrap the whole thing up or cause it to fall apart. As a result, the personal problems they face reflect the nature of the Objective problem of the story at large.

To the audience there are two problems in a story. One is the Objective problem that everyone is concerned with; the other is the Subjective problem that the Main Character is personally concerned with. Although the problems may be greatly different in the way they are manifest, they both hinge on the crucial element in the Main Character as their common root. So, to be a complete argument a story must explore an Objective AND a Subjective problem, and show how they are both related to the same source.

Jurassic Park Analysis:

Jurassic Park attempts to be a story (not a tale) but does not make it because its exploration of the Subjective problem is lacking.

The Objective problem is clearly shown to be caused by the relationship of Order to Chaos. The message of the logical side of the argument is that the more you try to control something, the more you actually open yourself up to the effects of chaos. As Princess Leia put it to the Gran Mof Tarkin in Star Wars, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

Since Order is actually the problem, the Chaos must be the solution. This is vaguely alluded to in Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaurus wipes out the Raptors, unknowingly saving the humans. Although the point is not strongly stated, it is sort of there. We will come back to this point later to show how it should have been a much more dramatically integral event than it was. The important concept at the moment is that as far as it goes, the Objective Storyline is fairly close to what it should be, which is true of most action-oriented stories.

It is the Subjective Storyline that fails to fulfill its dramatic mandate in Jurassic Park. To see how we must go back to the very beginning of the film, to our Main Character, Dr. Alan Grant. Since Dr. Grant contains the crucial element, we would expect him to intersect the Objective Story’s problem by representing Order or Chaos. Clearly the author intended him to represent Order. This means that he contains the Problem element (the inappropriate attitude or approach that is the underlying source of the Story’s troubles), rather than the Solution Element, and as such must Change in order to succeed.

The entire first scene with Grant at the dig should have illustrated his love of Order. All the elements were there: a disruptive boy, a randomly sensitive computer, a helicopter that comes out of nowhere and ruins the dig. All of these things could have illustrated Grant’s hatred of Chaos and his quest for Order. Using the same events and incidents the point might have been made in any number of ways, the easiest being a simple comment by Dr. Grant himself.

Unfortunately 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.

Why is it so important to set up the nature of the problem so early? Well, one of the major problems with the Jurassic Park storyform is that we really don’t know what the problem is until near the end of the first act. Certainly almost every movie goer must have been aware that this was a picture about an island where they cloned dinosaurs back to life, and they run amok wreaking havoc – that’s all storytelling. But that doesn’t say why. The “Why” is the storyform: the excuse, if you will, for having a story to tell. If the point of contention had been established up front, the whole thrust of the picture would have been given direction from scene one.

Just stating that Dr. Grant shares the problem with the story is obviously not enough. The relationship between his view of the problem and the Objective 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 Changing (versus Steadfast) Main Character to suspect the error of their ways and make a positive leap of faith. 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? As it is, Doctor Grant’s attitude toward John Hammond’s ability to control the dinosaurs is one of skepticism, but not because of Order, because of Chaos. Grant simply agrees with Ian Malcolm, the mathematician. This makes the same point from two directions. But Grant’s function is not to tout Chaos, but to favor Order. Only this point of view would be consistent with his feelings toward the children.

As illustrated in the table scene with Hammond, Ian, and Elissa, Grant jumps from representing his original approach to representing the opposite, neutralizing his effectiveness as owner of the crucial element and taking the wind out of the dramatic sails.

This problem could have been easily avoided and strong drama created by having Dr. Grant continue to believe that the park is unsafe, but for different reasons.

(Note: The following proposed scene is designed to illustrate how Grant’s and Ian’s positions on what is needed for the park to be safe is different. The storytelling is minimal so as not to distract from the storyforming argument.


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


Each compound is completely encircled with electric fences.


How many fences?


Just one, but it is 10,000 volts.


That’s not enough….


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


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.


That’s not the point at all! Chaos will happen no matter how much you prepare. 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 Order or allowing Chaos.

As it stands, Dr. Grant simply learns to care about the children. But what has really changed in him? What did he learn? Would it not have been more dramatically pleasing to have 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 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 Subjective Storyline is the manner in which they 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 describe one possible ending that would’ve tied in Chaos, Dr. Grant’s personal problem of order in the Subjective storyline, his growth as a character and eventual change, AND have all this force a successful outcome to the Objective storyline.

Imagine that earlier in the story, when the power went down it only affected some of the compounds, not all. So only some of the areas were open to the roving dinos. Rather than having Elissa get the power back on for the fences, she merely powers up the computer system, but then no one can boot it up.

Dr. Grant and the kids make it back to the control room, barely escaping the T-Rex who is trapped by one of the functional electric fences. 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. There might be some kind of visual reminder in the room (such as a dino picture) that Grant (and the audience) associate with his major learning experience with the kids about needing to accept Chaos. Grant almost allows her to bring up the power, then yells for her to stop. He tells her not to bring it up, but to actually cut the power on all of the fences.

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 fence that was holding him in. 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.

Equilibrium is established on the island, Grant suddenly loves kids, he gets the girl, they escape with their lives, and all because the crucial element of Order connected both the Objective and Subjective storylines.

Certainly, Dramatica has many more suggestions for Building a Better Dinosaur, but, leapin’ lizards, don’t you think this is enough for one Constructive Criticism?

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Try StoryWeaver Risk-Free for 90 Days Too!

If you’d rather spend a little more time on developing your story’s people before they become characters, its happenings before they become plot, the moral dilemmas before they become theme, and the personality of your story overall before it becomes genre, then try my entry-level StoryWeaver software, also risk-free for 90 days.

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What Drives Characters?

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Justification is the tangled up knot of experiences that creates both understanding and misconception.  Like a ball of snarled rubber bands, it also holds 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, 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 the 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.”

With this backstory, we have laid out a series of cause and effect relationships that lead to the child establishing a justification. 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 only common element that he could see 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 tension – a justification – that associated angry interchanges with the presence of beets.  Or, in some cases, he might have even learned that behavior – to argue with others in the presence of beets.

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.  And therefore, associations made in such a way are simply accepted as being true.

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. Justification is simply a human trait by which we see repetitive proximities 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 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.

In stories, 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 actually wrong or do they just appear to be wrong?

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.

In fact, that is what stories are all about: Faith. Not just having it, but also learning if existing faith is valid or not and also if we should be “converted” to believe in something new instead. That is why characters, must make a leap of faith in order to have any chance to succeed.

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.

The reason it is a Leap of Faith is because we are always stuck with our limited Subjective view. We cannot know for sure if the fact that evidence is mounting that change would be a better course represents the pangs of Conscience or the tugging of Temptation. We must simply decide based on our own internal beliefs.

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! Suppose 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 to succeed or fail, or to chose the choice to change as leading to success or failure, each creating a different flavor 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.  Circumstances continually build pressure to change that belief eventually arriving at a point where failure is certain if one does not choose between the old belief and the new.  But by this point, there is equal evidence supporting the original belief and 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.

So, in conclusion, think about the process of justification when 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 it works, the more you can take control of the affect your story will have on your readers or audience, AND the more adept you will become in making choices in your own life as well.


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What is Story Structure?

By Melanie Anne Phillips

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.”

I have my own take on what story structure is.  I believe it is about the conflicts that occur between an individual trying to do the best for himself and what his role in society demands of him.  This larger role could be as simple as what a dear friend really needs, what a child needs to be happy, or what a nation asks of its ruler.

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 use them all to try and solve our personal problems.  But when we gather together in groups to solves 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 that 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 for an interactive model off all the different kinds of traits we all share, both large and very small.  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 catalogued 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 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.  And ultimately, we used it 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 comes with 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 Rubik’s Cube style.  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 flips 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.

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 some of 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 future choices start to become limited, not by arbitrary and rigid rules, but because you can’t do everything at one time in one place. Some choices or combination of choices simply prevent other options from being possible in that particular story.

Imagine – what would happen if you put anything you wanted into a story? Then anything goes. That means there is no good structure or bad structure, in fact there would be no structure at all.

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 moment 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.  So if you try it and get lost, just email me, and I’ll walk you through it – no charge, just because I’m a teacher and I like to teach.  My feelings, everything you learn in Dramatica is one more way 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 bit of time, but what you have to gain is a much deeper and powerful understanding of story.

Click here for more Dramatica details and Demo

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Character Justifications

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Problem solving tries to resolve an issue.  But if there is an obstacle to a solution, the process of justification tries to find a way around.  Sometimes characters get so wrapped up in the attempt to side-step an obstacle that they miss an alternative direct solution.

This can lead characters into misconceptions, irrational behavior, and conflict with other characters.

Let’s see how this happens.

A Simple Example of Problem Solving

Imagine a waitress coming through the one-way door from the kitchen into the restaurant. Her nose begins to itch. She cannot scratch her nose because her hands are full of plates. She looks for a place to lay down the plates, but all the counter space is cluttered. She tries to call to a waiter, but he cannot hear her across the noisy room. She hollers to a bus boy who gets the waiter who takes her plates so she can scratch her nose. Problem solved! Or was it justification?

What if she could have solved the problem just by shrugging her shoulder and rubbing her nose? Then there were two possible solutions, but one was much more direct. Rationally, either one would serve as well in that particular context, yet one was much more efficient and therefore more emotionally satisfying because it required less unpleasant work than the other method.

There’s a Problem In Your Solution!

If the waitress could not use her hand to scratch her nose, then using her shoulder was another potential solution to the same problem. However, trying to find a place to put down the plates is a generation removed from solving the original problem. Instead of trying to find another way to scratch her nose, she was using her problem solving efforts to try and solve a problem with the first solution. In other words, there was an obstacle to using her hand to scratch her nose, and rather than evaluating other means of scratching she was looking for a place to get rid of her plates. When there was a problem with that, she compounded the inefficiency by trying to solve the plate problem with the solution devised to solve the problem with the first solution to the problem: she tried to flag down the waiter. In fact, by the time she actually got her nose scratched, she had to take a round-about path that took up all kinds of time and was several generations removed from the original problem. She made one big circle to get to where she could have gone directly.

But, what if there was a limit: her itching nose was about to make her sneeze and drop everything. Then, going on that long circular path might mean she would sneeze and fail, whereas the only appropriate path would be to use her shoulder to scratch before she sneezes. But what if her stiff uniform prevents her shoulder from reaching her nose? AND what if the extra time it took to try the shoulder actually delayed trying the round-about method just long enough to make her sneeze before the waiter arrived? If she had only taken the great circle route in the first place, she would have had just enough time to solve the problem.

Paying the Price For a Solution

Clearly, problem solving turns into justification and vice-versa, depending on the context. So how is it that achieving results in the rational sense is not the only determining factor as to which is which? Simply because sometimes the costs that must be paid in suffering in a long, indirect path to a goal far outweigh the benefits of achieving the goal itself. When we try to overcome obstacles that stand between us and a goal (pre-requisites and requirements) we pay a price in effort, resources, physical and emotional hardship. We suffer unpleasant conditions now in the hope of a reward later. This is fine as long as the rewards justify the expenses. But if they do not, and yet we continue to persevere, we cannot possibly recoup enough to make up for our losses, much as a gambler goes into the hole after losing her intended stake.

Why is it that we (as characters) throw good money after bad? This occurs because we are no longer evaluating what we originally hoped to achieve but are trying to solve the problems that have occurred with the solutions we have employed. In the case of our waitress, she wasn’t thinking about her nose when she was calling to the waiter or yelling to the bus boy. She was thinking about the problem of getting their attention. Because she lost sight of her original objective, she could no longer tally up the accruing costs and compare them to the benefits of resolving the inequity. Rather, she compared each cost individually to the goal at hand: putting down the plates, calling to the waiter, yelling at the bus boy. And in each case, the individual costs were less than the benefits of resolving the individual sub-goals. However, if taken as a whole, the sum of the costs may far outweigh the benefits of resolving the original problem. And since the pre-requisites and requirements have no meaning except as a means to resolving that original problem, any benefits she felt by achieving those sub-goals should have had no bearing on determining if the effort was worth the benefits. But, as she had lost sight of the original problem, that measurement could not be made. In fact, it would never occur to her, until it was too late to recoup the costs even if the problem came to be resolved.

Does this mean the only danger lies in the round-about path? Not at all. If it were to turn out that there were NO direct paths that could work, ONLY an indirect one could resolve the problem at all. And if the existence of the problem is such that its inequity is not just a one time thing but continues to cause friction that rubs one physically or mentally raw, then the inequity itself grows the longer the problem remains, which justifies ANY indirect method to resolving the issue as long as the rate at which the costs accrue is less than the rate at which the inequity worsens.

Accelerating Inequities!

But let’s complicate this even more… Suppose the inequity doesn’t worsen at first, but only gets worse after a while. Then what may have been the most appropriate response for problem solving at one stage in the game becomes inappropriate at a later stage. In such a complex web of changing conditions and shifting context, how is an individual to know what choices are best? We can’t. That is the point: we can never know which path is best because we cannot predict the future. We can only choose what our life experience has shown to be most often effective in similar situations and hope for the best. It does not matter how often we re-evaluate. The situation can change in unpredictable ways at any time, throwing all of our plans and efforts into new contexts that change their evaluation from positive to negative or the vice versa.

Stories serve as collective truisms, much like the way insurance works. Through them we strive to contain the collective knowledge of human experience so although we cannot predict what will happen to any specific individual (even ourselves) we can tell what is most likely the best approach to inequity, based on the mean average of all individual experience.

Strategy vs. Analysis

Although we have covered a lot of ground, we have only covered one of two kinds of problem solving/justification: the effort to resolve an inequity. In contrast, the second kind of problem solving/justification refers to efforts made to understand inequities so that we might come to terms with them. In a sense, our initial exploration has dealt with strategies of problem solving whereas this other area of exploration deals with defining the problem itself.

More Articles on Justification…

Posted in Narrative Psychology | Comments Off on Character Justifications

The Main Character’s Problem

This is the nature of the Main Character’s struggle in a story. He has either built up an understanding of how to try and solve problems that no longer fits, or he has built up an understanding of what causes problems that is no longer correct

The backstory builds one of these scenarios. A context is established that creates one kind of problem requiring a specific solution. The story begins with a context in which the main character’s established problem solving technique is no longer appropriate. The question then becomes whether the Main Character should change his method to conform to the new situation or remain steadfast in sticking to the old method until things get back to “normal.”

This creates the core of the story’s message, which is brought to a climax when the main character must make a leap of faith.

Excerpted from the free online book,

Dramatica: A New Theory of Story

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