Love Interests and the Dramatic Triangle

A lot of books about writing describe the importance of a “Love Interest.” Other books see a Love Interest as unnecessary and cliché. What does Dramatica Say? As with most dramatic concepts, Dramatica pulls away the storytelling to take a clear look at the underlying structure.

A Love Interest has both storytelling and structural components. The storytelling side is what most people think of – A Love Interest is the character with whom the “hero” or “heroine” is in love. Simple! But what does that tell us about the kind of person the Love Interest is, or even what kind of relationship the two have between them? Not a whole lot!

For example, the Love Interest might be the leader of the enemy camp, in which case he or she is the Antagonist! Or, the Love Interest might be the supportive, stay-in-the-background type, in which case he or she is the Sidekick. In both cases, the hero is in love with this person, but structurally each positions the relationship on different sides of the effort to achieve the story goal. Also, the Love Interest might be a person of noble heart, a misguided do-gooder, or even a crook! And, any of these types of people might fit into either of the two example scenarios we’ve just outlined.

As we can see, the structural and storytelling elements have little to do with one another, other than the fact that there will be some of each. So, what can Dramatica do to help provide some guidelines for developing a Love Interest that works?

Lets start with some basics. Dramatica sees there being two types of characters in every story (and a prize in every box!). The first type contains the Objective Characters such as the Protagonist, Antagonist, Sidekick, or Guardian, who are defined by their dramatic functions.

The Protagonist strives to achieve the goal; the Antagonist tries to prevent that, for example. In and of itself, this aspect of character outlines how the participants line up in regard to the logistic issues of the story. But there is a second side of the dynamics of every story that center on the second type of characters – the Subjective Characters.

There are two Subjective Characters, and unlike their Objective relatives who represent functions, the Subjective Characters represent points of view. These characters are the Main Character and the Obstacle Character. The Main Character represents the audience position in the story. The Obstacle Character represents the point of view, ideology, or belief system opposite that of the Main Character.

The Objective Characters represent the “headline” in the story and the Subjective Characters represent the “heartline.” Often, the character who is the Protagonist is also given the Main Character job as well. This creates the archetypal “hero” who drives the story forward, but who also represents the audience position in the story. Of course, the Main Character (audience position) might be with ANY of the Objective Characters, not just the Protagonist. For example, in most of the James Bond films, Bond is actually the Antagonist and Main Character because although he represents the audience position, he is also called into play AFTER the real Protagonist (the villain) has made his first move to achieve a goal (of world conquest.) It is Bond’s functional role as Antagonist to try and stop it!

Not quite as often, the Antagonist is given the extra job of also being the Obstacle Character. In such a case, not only does the Antagonist try to stop the Protagonist, but he (or she) also tries to change the belief system of the Main Character, whether the Main Character is the Protagonist or another of the Objective Characters by function.

The worst thing you can do is to make the Protagonist the Main Character AND the Antagonist the Obstacle Character. Why? Because then the two “players” in the story are not only diametrically opposed in function regarding the story goal, but are also diametrically opposed in belief system. As a result, it is difficult for the audience to figure out which of the two throughlines them is being developed by any given event between them.

What’s worse, as an author it is easy to get caught up in the momentum of the drama between them so that one skips steps in the development of one throughline because the other “carries” it. Well it may carry the vigor, but it doesn’t hold water. Both throughlines must each be fully developed or you end up with a melodrama or worse, plot holes you could drive a truck through.

The solution is either to assign the Main Character and Protagonist functions to one character and split the Antagonist/Obstacle Character functions into two separate characters, or vice versa.

And this brings us to the Dramatic Triangle and how it is used to create a sound Love Interest relationship.

First, let’s assume we assign the Main Character and Protagonist jobs to the same player to create an archetypal hero. Now, this hero (we’ll call him Joe) is a race car driver who is vying with the Antagonist for the title of best overall driver of the year. Each race is a new contest between them with their balance so close that it all comes down to the last race of the season.

But there is something troubling Joe’s heart – his relationship with Sally. Sally is very supportive of Joe (a Sidekick, in fact) but Joe feels that if he really loves Sally, he should quit racing to avoid the potential of an accident that would leave him dead or crippled and ruin her life. Why does he feel like this? Because his own dad was a racer, whose untimely death on the track left his mother devastated, and ultimately committed to an asylum. (Hey, I never said this example would be creative!)

In any event, Sally doesn’t feel that way at all. She would rather see Joe go out in a blaze of glory having done his best than to spend her life with a limp shell. She tries to tell him, but he just won’t be convinced. He starts to play it safer and safer as his worries grow (because the closer he gets to the final race, the more it resembles the chain of events that happened to his dad.) Finally, he has lost his edge and his lead and it all comes down to that final event.

Now, realizing that she would never be able to live with Joe if she felt that he lost the title because of her, Sally tells him at the final pit stop that if he doesn’t win the race, she is leaving him. Joe must now decide whether he should stick with his approach born from fear of hurting another, or let Sally be her own judge of what is right for her and put the pedal to the metal.

What does he do? Up to you the author. He wins the race and Sally’s heart. He hasn’t got the courage and loses both race and girl. He loses the race, but Sally realizes how deep his love must be and decides to stay with him. He wins the race, but there is such a dangerous near-fatal crash that Sally realizes Joe was right and leaves him anyway because she discovers she really can’t take it after all.

Or, you could have Sally want him to quit and Joe refuse, resulting in four other endings with a more cliché flavor.

Why this long example, to show how the conflict of the logistics of the plot occur between Joe and the Antagonist, but the emotions of the personal relationship occur between Joe and the Sidekick, Sally.

If you charted it out, there are two throughlines. Both hinge on Joe, and then they split farther and farther apart to connect to the Antagonist on one and to the Obstacle Character, Sally on the other. In this way, the events that happen in the growth of each relationship are much easier to see for the audience and much easier to complete for the author, yet they both converge on the “hero” to give him the greatest possible dramatic strength.

Now, you could hinge them both on the Antagonist, as in a James Bond film, and slip the Protagonist from the Obstacle Character. Look at “Tomorrow Never Dies.” The Protagonist is the mad newspaper mogul. The Obstacle Character is the beautiful Chinese agent (whose function is muddled dramatically by Bond’s relationship with the mogul’s wife). Bond is Antagonist AND Main Character, but the dramatic triangle is still functional.

Silence of the Lambs: Starling is the Main Character / Antagonist, Jamie Gumm (Buffalo Bill) is the Protagonist (after all, she didn’t go looking for a crime and THEN he committed one!) Hannibal is the Obstacle Character and perhaps a Love Interest of a sort (as described by the director on the Criterion Edition DVD.)

For a different approach, consider Witness: John Book is the Obstacle Character / Antagonist, the crooked Chief of Police is the Protagonist. Rachel, the Amish Girl is the Love Interest and Main Character. Or is John Book (Harrison Ford) the Love Interest to Rachel? It’s hard to tell because John is such an active Objective Character that he carries more momentum than Rachel, even though we are positioned in her shoes. The important point is that even if the Protagonist is made to be the Obstacle Character and the Antagonist and Main Character are split into two different people, the dramatic triangle still exists!

The dramatic triangle is one of the best structural ways to focus attention on one character even while splitting the headline and heartline to make a more pleasing and complete story. It can be used for “buddy” pictures and even used when the heartline isn’t between lovers or even likers but between two people who would like to see each other’s emotions destroyed by slyly manipulating the other to change his or her beliefs. Think of all those “cheat the devil” stories in which the Main Character/Protagonist is after something and the devil tries to convince the Main Character to sell his soul to get it. Yep, the dramatic triangle at work again!

So, in considering whether or not to have a Love Interest in your story, simply consider whether that would make your storytelling cliché or not. Either way, consider the dramatic triangle as a means of putting heart into an otherwise logistically mechanical plot.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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The 8 Archetypal Characters

There are 8 essential archetypal characters, each of which represents a different aspect of our own minds.

The Protagonist portrays our initiative, Antagonist our reticence to change.  Reason is our intellect, Emotion our passion.  Skeptic is our self-doubt, Sidekick our self-confidence.  Finally, Guardian represents our conscience and the Contagonist is temptation.

Naturally, each must be developed as a complete person as well as in its dramatic function so that the reader or audience might identify with them.  Yet underneath their humanity, each archetype illustrates how a different specific aspect of ourselves fares when trying to solve the problem at the heart of the story.

In this manner, stories not only involve us superficially, but provide an underlying message about how we might go about solving similar human problems in our own lives.

Here are the eight archetypal characters, described in terms of their dramatic functions:

PROTAGONIST: The traditional Protagonist is the driver of the story: the one who forces the action. We root for it and hope for its success.

ANTAGONIST: The Antagonist is the character directly opposed to the Protagonist. It represents the problem that must be solved or overcome for the Protagonist to succeed.

REASON: This character makes its decisions and takes action on the basis of logic, never letting feelings get in the way of a rational course.

EMOTION: The Emotion character responds with its feelings without thinking, whether it is angry or kind, with disregard for practicality.

SKEPTIC: Skeptic doubts everything — courses of action, sincerity, truth — whatever.

SIDEKICK: The Sidekick is unfailing in its loyalty and support. The Sidekick is often aligned with the Protagonist though may also be attached to the Antagonist.

GUARDIAN: The Guardian is a teacher or helper who aids the Protagonist in its quest and offers a moral standard.

CONTAGONIST: The Contagonist hinders and deludes the Protagonist, tempting it to take the wrong course or approach.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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A Screenwriter’s Bag of Tricks

Most of our writing tips focus on the creation of a sound story, regardless of the medium in which you are working. But since the writing of screenplays has its own unique restrictions, requirements, and opportunities, we thought it might be useful to offer a Screenwriter’s Bag of Tricks.

Like any good grab bag, this collection of tips and techniques is in no particular order. Some are geared to the beginning screenwriter, others to the expert. But regardless of your experience level, you’re likely to find a few keepers.

Use index cards to work out the scenes in your script

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might decide to start with the first challenge card, then go to the first argument, and alternate. Or you might start with the first argument, have a second argument, and then two challenges in a row.

There are no “rules” as to how the two threads of cards should be shuffled together. It is purely a choice of how you wish to impact your audience.

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

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

Break up long monologs among several characters

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

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

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

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

Use “Red Herrings”

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

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

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

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

The initial impression was that Kimble was about to be recaptured because the cops had recognized him. The “reality” was that they were just on patrol, got a call, and sped off with sirens wailing.

Red Herrings can be used for anything from the momentary shock value as above, to making a bad guy appear to be a good guy.

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

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

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

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

A better approach is to see a mom yank her child by the arm in a very abusive way while walking down the street. First reaction is she is an ogre and you run to stop her. Just then, you see the truck come whipping around the corner that would’ve hit and killed the child, and you stop in your tracks realizing the mom was saving his life. You look again, and the is hugging and holding him, and she is crying because he was almost lost, and because she startled him.
Psychologists call it “Primary Attribution Error,” and you can use it to your advantage. If done properly, they will love you for it.

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

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

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

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

Don’t say it if you can show it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drop exposition through arguments

Here’s a short one… A person talking is often boring. People arguing are often compelling. If you have to drop exposition, try to do it in the back and forth barbs of an argument. Let the characters use the information you need to convey as barbs in their back and forth attacks. Then your story won’t grind to a halt just because you need to tell your audience something.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Screenwriting 101

Screenplays are blueprints for movies. As such, they are not art, but instructions for creating art. Therefore, there are two things every great screenplay must have: A good story, and a clear and understandable description of how it should be told.

Through the years, a standard format evolved that serves as a template for presenting a screenplay in script form. In addition, certain dramatic conventions became accepted that put requirements and restrictions on screen stories that don’t apply to novels.

In this tip, I’ll outline a few of the key dramatic elements usually present in most successful scripts.

1. Teaser

Though not absolutely required, it is usually desirable to start your script with a teaser scene. This can be an intense emotional experience, a thrilling bit of action, or an offbeat introduction to a strange world. It might advance the plot, set the theme, and establish the time and location, introduce characters, or just serve as a roller coaster ride to get the audience involved.

2. Remember your audience.

Your audience is the cast, crew, and all the agents, readers, development executives or producers who may become involved in the purchase or production of your script. Your audience is NOT the people sitting in the theater. Like the old game of “telephone,” your purpose is not to tell a story but to tell other how to tell the story. And your purpose is not to impress movie go-ers, but to impress those who decide if your project will get the green light for production.

3. Don’t be overly literary in your scene description.

Many production personnel frown on anything but straight-forward prose. The purpose of a screenplay is to tell people how to tell a story, not to tell it yourself. Still and all, successful screenwriters often violate this rule because they can get away with it. And, if you are planning on directing the movie yourself, you may want to capture your intended mood. On the other hand, you don’t want those considering your project to be bored, or find your words too dry. So, the concept is to be as efficient as possible in conveying both the information in your story and the feeling of what it will be like on the screen.

4. Don’t get stuck in a genre trap.

Genres are guidelines, not rules. List your favorite genres; list your favorite elements in each genre. Then, gather together all the elements you might like to include in your script. Pepper them throughout your screenplay so that your genre develops, rather than being set at the beginning and then stagnating.

5. Use “Tracking Dialog.”

Break up all long speeches into back and forth conversation. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but in general, conversation is far more interesting both in sound and in how it can be presented visually.

6. Find interesting and believable ways to drop exposition.

Have you ever seen one character tell another, “He’s at Dollar-Mart, you know, that big national chain store?” If it were so big and national, the other character would already know this information! One of the best ways to drop exposition is in an argument. You can then exaggerate and bring out information a character might already be expected to know by using it as a weapon. And for simple exposition, try billboards, newspapers, answering machines, photos on mantles, two people talking about a third, and any other technique that doesn’t hit the audience over the head or smack of cliché.

7. Don’t preach.

You should have a message, but don’t present it as a one-sided statement. Rather, show both sides. If you are interested in passing judgment on Greed, also show Generosity. Never put them both in the same scene side by side, but make sure the audience gets to see how well each side does on its own in at least once scene each per act. In the end, the audience will sum up all the instances in which they saw how each side performed, and will draw their own conclusions (that you have craftily led them to).

8. Give your Main Character a personal issue as well as a goal to accomplish.

A story with nothing more than a logistic quest, while perhaps thrilling, is heartless. Your Main Character should grapple with an issue that pressures him or her to consider changing their mind, attitude, or nature in some way, large or small. And don’t just present the personal problem and then resolve it at the end. Unless you argue it (usually through another character who is philosophically or morally opposed to the Main Character’s view) the ultimate change or growth of your Main Character will seem tacked on and contrived.

9. Characters don’t have to change to grow.

They can stick to their guns and grow in their resolve. There are two types of characters, those who change their natures (or minds) in regard to some issue, and those who stick it out and hold on to their views. The obstacles in a story drive a character to the point of change, but whether or not he or she will change is the issue, after all. Sometimes they should change and don’t. Other times they shouldn’t and do. Each of these presents a different message, and is less overused than the character who should change and does, or shouldn’t and doesn’t.

10.There are many kinds of endings

A character might change and resolve their personal angst, yet fail in their quest as a result. Was it worth it? Depends on the degree of angst and the size of the failure. Another character might not resolve their angst; yet by refusing to change accomplish the goal. And even if they do accomplish the goal, it might have been a misguided thing to do, and is actually quite bad that they were successful. The character might not have been aware that the goal was a bad thing, or they might fail to achieve a good thing.

In addition, goals might be partially achieved or only small failures, and a character might resolve only part of their angst, or just slightly increase it.

The flavor of the movie will ultimately depend on how all these elements stack up at the end, and offer you a palette of shadings, rather than just Happy or Sad, and Success or Failure.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Origins of Story Structure

Imagine the very first storytellers. Actually, what they told would certainly not be considered a story by today’s standards. Rather, they probably began with simple communications with but a single meaning at a time.

Even animals recognize a cry of pain or a coo of love from another creature, even across species. So it is not a great leap to imagine that rather than just crying out in immediate response, early man might have come to intentionally make sounds to indicate his physical and emotional conditions. Ask any cat or dog owner if their pets don’t speak with them!

Nevertheless, a grunt, coo, scream or growl does not a story make. First we need to ratchet things up a bit and take one small step away from simple sounds that have direct physical or emotional meanings.

For example, if you are hungry you might make a “longing” sound and point at your belly with a wistful pointing motion. As simple and silly as this seems, it is actually quite a leap in communication. No longer are we tied to single symbols or single experiences; not we can string them together to create more complex meanings.

What about jumping up another level and stringing a few complex meanings together? Well, before you know it, early humans were chatting in non-verbal sentences, describing journeys, experiences, and even warnings.

And, of course, language would evolve as more and more people had more and more to say and discovered the benefits of a common vocabulary.

Now such a sophisticated communication is still not a story. But it is a tale. A tale is simply a statement that starting from a particular place and state of mid, if you follow a particular path, you’ll end up at a particular destination.

That’s what fairy tales are all about. Paraphrased, they all basically say, “If you find yourself in a given situation, you should (or should not) follow this given path because it will lead to something good (or bad).

As long as the physical and emotional journey is credible, the statement is sound. Now, your audience may simply disagree with your conclusion as author of the tale, but if your statement is sound, at least they can’t argue with your logic.

Of course, the very first tales were probably true stories about someone’s encounter with a bear or directions to find the berry bush that makes everything look funny when you eat them. But it wouldn’t take long or our early storytellers to realize that they could create fictions that summed up the value of their experience in a single, message-oriented tale.

But beyond this, a clever storyteller with an agenda might realize that he could influence people to take (or avoid taking) particular actions in specific cases. No longer were tales just descriptions of real events, means of imparting the value of experience, or entertaining fictions. Suddenly then became a tool with which to manipulate others.

To do this, there must be no gaps, no missed beats, no emotional inconsistencies. And in addition, the tale must be captivating enough to grab and hold the intended audience – to pull them in and involve them so deeply that they are changed by the experience.

And yet, despite all its power, the tale has limitations. Primary among these is that the tale speaks only to a single specific situation and a single specific course of action. So, as a storyteller, you’d need to fashion a whole new tale for each specific path you wished to “prove” was a good one or a bad one.

But wouldn’t it be far more powerful to prove not only that a path was good or bad but that of all the alternative paths that might have been taken, the one is question is the best or worst?

Now, the simplest way to do this is to simply say so. You write a tale about just one course taken from a given situation, and then state at the end that it is the best or worst. So, rather than being a simple statement, this new kind of tale has become a blanket statement.

If your tale is being told just to your own village, to the people you grew up with, then there is a good chance they will accept such a blanket statement since your tale probably reflects a local truism – some “given” that is already accepted by your audience as true. The tale simply serves to reinforce existing beliefs, and at the end everyone nods their heads in agreement with the outcome.

But what happens when the tale is told in another village. What if their givens are not the same. There may be one or two in the crowd who question the storyteller and ask, “I can see why that path is good, but why would it be better than xxxxxx?”

When confronted with an alternative approach, the storyteller might then briefly describe how the suggested path might unfold, and why is it not as good (or bad) as the one presented in the tale itself.

Again, being among friends (or at least among those who share a similar if not identical world-view) they will likely be easily convinced. And, it is also likely that due to that similar outlook, only a few alternative paths might be suggested, and all rather easily dismissed.

The development of story structure probably languished in this form for centuries, as nothing more advanced or sophisticated was really needed.

Enter that advent of mass media. As soon as books began to circulate across micro-cultural boundaries, ad soon as plays were performed in traveling road shows, to important things happened that forced the further development of the tale into what has ultimately become the structure of story.

First, the audiences became wide, varied and was no longer drawn from a homogeneous pool of consensus. Rather, they cam from many walks of life, with a variety of beliefs and agendas. And so, as the tale traveled, blanket statements were not nearly as easily accepted. Many more alternative approaches would be suggested or considered individually by audience members. So, such a tale would be considered heavy-handed propaganda and discounted unceremoniously.

And second, due to the mass distribution of the tale, the original storyteller would not be present to defend his work. Whatever other paths might occur to the audience would not be addressed, robbing the work of its previous ability to be revised on the spot as part of the performance.

In response to this reception, many authors no doubt retreated from the blanket statement form of the tale to the simple statement, thereby avoiding ridicule and strengthening the power of the tale. After all, is it not better to make a smaller impact than no impact at all?

And yet, there were some authors who took another tack. They tried to anticipate the alternative approaches that other audiences might suggest, and took the radical step of including and disposing of those other paths in the tale itself. A brilliant move, really. Now, even when the storyteller wasn’t physically present, he could still counter rebuttals to his blanket statement.

Of course, the key to the success of this approach is to make sure you cover all the bases. If even one reasonable alternative is left un-addressed, then at least part of your audience won’t buy the message.

As mass-distribution moved tales farther a field from the point of cultural origin, more and more alternatives we required. By the coming of the age of recorded media, a tale might reach such a wide audience and cross such boundaries that every reasonable alternative would come up sometime, somewhere.

Eventually, the tale had been forced to grow from a simple statement, to a blanket statement, to a complete argument incorporating all the ways anyone might look at an issue. This effectively created a new and distinct form of communication that we recognize as the story structure we know today.

By definition then, a tale is a statement and a story is an argument. And in making that argument, the structure of a story must include all they ways anyone might look at an issue. Therefore, it certainly includes all the ways a single mind might reasonably look at an issue. And, effectively, the structure of a story becomes a map of the mind’s problem solving processes.

No one ever intended it. But as a byproduct of the development of communication from simple tale to complex story, the underlying structure of a story has evolved into a model of the mind itself.

Back in 1991 my writing partner Chris Huntley and I set out to document that model of the mind as a means of discovering the elements that would ensure perfect story structure.  The result was a whole new theory of narrative called Dramatica.

We published our findings in a book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story, and along with our partner Stephen Greenfield, developed a software tool (also called Dramatica) that employs the theory to help writers structure their novels or screenplays.

You can read all about the theory and how we developed it here, and you can check out the Dramatica software and all our products and programs for writers here.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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What Is Dramatica?

What is Dramatica?

Dramatica is a theory of story that offers both writers and critics a clear view of what story structure is and how it works. Dramatica is also the inspiration behind the line of story development software products that bear its name.

The central concept of the Dramatica theory is a notion called the “Story Mind.” In a nutshell, this simply means that every story has a mind of its own – its own personality; its own psychology. A story’s personality is developed by an author’s style and subject matter; its psychology is determined by the underlying dramatic structure.

The Story Mind

The Story Mind is at the heart of Dramatica, and everything else about the theory grows out of that. If you don’t buy into it, at least a little, then you’re not going to find much use for the rest of this book. So let’s take look into the Story Mind right off the bat to see if it is worth your while to keep reading…

Simply put, the Story Mind means that we can think of a story as if it were a person. The storytelling style and the subject matter determine the story’s personality, and the underlying dramatic structure determines its psychology.

Now the personality of a story is a touchy-feely thing, while the psychology is a nuts-and-bolts mechanical thing. Let’s consider the personality part first, and then turn our attention to the psychology.

Like anyone you meet, a story has a personality. And what makes up a personality? Well, everything from the subject matter a person talks about to their attitude toward life. Similarly, a story might be about the Old West or Outer Space, and its attitude could be somber, sneaky, lively, hilarious, or any combination of other human qualities.

Is this a useful perspective? Can be. Many writers get so wrapped up in the details of a story that they lose track of the overview. For example, you might spend all kinds of time working out the specifics of each character’s personality yet have your story take a direction that is completely out of character for its personality. But if you step back every once and a while and think of the story as a single person, you can really get a sense of whether or not it is acting in character.

Imagine that you have invited your story to dinner. You have a pleasant conversation with it over the meal. Of course, it is more like a monologue because your story does all the talking – just as it will to your audience or reader.

Your story is a practical joker, or a civil war buff (genre), and it talks about what interests it. It tells you a story about a problem with some endeavor (plot) in which it was engaged. It discusses the moral issues (theme) involved and its point of view on them. It even divulges the conflicting drives (characters) that motivated it while it tried to resolve the difficulties.

You want to ask yourself if it’s story makes sense. If not, you need to work on the logic of your story. Does it feel right, as if the Story Mind is telling you everything, or does it seem like it is holding something back? If so, your story has holes that need filling. And does your story hold your interest for two hours or more while it delivers it’s monologue? If not, it’s going to bore it’s captive audience in the theater, or the reader of its report (your book), and you need to send it back to finishing school for another draft.

Again, authors get so wrapped up in the details that they lose the big picture. But by thinking of your story as a person, you can get a sense of the overall attraction, believability, and humanity of your story before you foist it off on an unsuspecting public.

There’s much more we’ll have to say about the personality of the Story Mind and how to leverage it to your advantage. But, our purpose right now is just to see if this book might be of use to you. So, let’s examine the other side of the Story Mind concept – the story’s psychology as represented in its structure.

The Dramatica theory is primarily concerned with the structure of a story. Everything in that structure represents an aspect of the human mind, almost as if the processes of the mind had been made tangible and projected out externally for the audience to observe.

Do you remember the model kit of the “Visible Man?” It was a 12″ human figure made out of clear plastic so you could see the skeleton and all the organs on the inside. Well that is how the Story Mind works. it takes the processes of the human mind, and turns them into characters, plot, theme, and genre, so we can study them in detail. In this way, an author can provide understanding to an audience of the best way to deal with problems. And, of course, all of this is wrapped up and disguised in the particular subject matter, style, and techniques of the storyteller.

Now this makes it sound as if the real meat of a story, the real people, places, events, and topics, are just window dressing to distract the audience from the serious business of the structure. But that’s not what we’re saying here. In fact, structure and storytelling work side by side, hand in hand, to create an audience/reader experience that transcends the power of either by itself.

Therefore, structure and storytelling are neither completely dependent upon each other, nor are they wholly independent. One structure might be told in a myriad of ways, like West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, any given group of characters dealing with a particular realm of subject matter might be wrapped around any number of different structures, like weekly television series.

But let’s get back to the nature of the structure itself and to the elements that make up the Story Mind. If characters, plot, theme, and genre represent aspects of the human mind made tangible, what are they?

Characters represent the conflicting drives of our own minds. For example, in our own minds, our reason and our emotions are often at war with one another. Sometimes what makes the most sense doesn’t feel right at all. And conversely, what feels so right might not make any sense at all. Then again, there are times when both agree and what makes the most sense also feels right on.

Reason and Emotion then, become two archetypal characters in the Story Mind that illustrate that inner conflict that rages within ourselves. And in the structure of stories, just as in our minds, sometimes these two basic attributes conflict, and other times they concur.

Theme, on the other hand, illustrates our troubled value standards. We are all plagued with uncertainties regarding the right attitude to take, the best qualities to emulate, and whether our principles should remain fixed and constant or should bend in context to particular circumstances.

Plot compares the relative value of the methods we might employ within our minds in our attempt to press on through these conflicting points of view on the way toward a mental consensus.

And genre explores the overall attitude of the Story Mind – the points of view we take as we watch the parade of our own thoughts unfold, and the psychological foundation upon which our personality is built.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Throughlines and How to Use Them!

Some time ago I write an article that described the difference between the two basic forms of story structure with the following phrase:

You spin a tale, but you weave a story.

The common expression “spinning a yarn” conjures up the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile into a single unbroken thread. An appropriate analogy for the process of telling a tale. A tale is a simple, linear progression – a series of events and emotional experiences that leads from point A to point B, makes sense along the way, and leaves no gaps.

A tale is, perhaps, the simplest form of storytelling structure. The keyword here is “structure.” Certainly, if one is not concerned with structure, one can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many power works of this ilk are considered classics, especially as novels or experimental films.

Nonetheless, if one wants to make a point, you need to create a line that leads from one point to another. A tale, then, is a throughline, leading from the point of departure to the destination on a single path.

A story, on the other hand, is a more complex form of structure. Essentially, a number of different throughlines are layered, one upon another, much as a craftsperson might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that is spun, making it complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the linear pattern of colors in all the throughlines form a single, overall pattern in the tapestry, much as the scanning lines on a television come together to create the image of a single frame.

In story structure, then, the sequence of events in each individual throughline cannot be random, but must be designed to do double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater purpose.

You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I used the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.

Throughlines then, are any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, every character’s growth has its own throughline. Typically, this is referred to as a character arc, especially when in reference to the main character. But an “arc” has nothing to do with the growth of a character. Rather, each character’s emotional journey is a personal tale that describe his or her feelings at the beginning of the story, at every key juncture, and at the final reckoning.

Some characters may come to change their natures, others may grow in their resolve. But their mood swings, attitudes, and outlook must follow an unbroken path that is consistent with a series of emotions that a real human being might experience. For example, a person will not instantly snap from a deep depression into joyous elation without some intervening impact, be it unexpected news, a personal epiphany, or even the ingestion of great quantities of chocolate. In short, each character throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.

Now that we know what a throughline is, how can we use it? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. Using the throughline concept, we can far more easily create a story structure, and can also ensure that every element is complete and that our story has no gaps or inconsistencies.

Before the throughline concept, writers traditionally would haul out the old index cards (or their equivalent) and try to create a single sequential progression for their stories from Act I, Scene I to the climax and final denouement.

An unfortunate byproduct of this “single throughline” approach is that it tended to make stories far more simplistic than they actually needed to be since the author would think of the sequential structure as being essentially a simple tale, rather than a layered story.

In addition, by separating the throughlines it is far easier to see if there are any gaps in the chain. Using a single thread approach to a story runs the risk of having a powerful event in one throughline carry enough dramatic weight to pull the story along, masking missing pieces in other throughlines that never get filled. This, in fact, is part of what makes some stories seem disconnected from the real world, trite, or melodramatic.

By using throughlines it is far easier to create complex themes and layered messages. Many authors think of stories as having only one theme (if that). A theme is just a comparison between two human qualities to see which is better in the given situations of the story.

For example, a story might wish to deal with greed. But, greed by itself is just a topic. It doesn’t become a theme until you weigh it against its counterpoint, generosity, and then “prove” which is the better quality of spirit to possess by showing how they each fare over the course of the story. One story’s message might be that generosity is better, but another story might wish to put forth that in a particular circumstance, greed is actually better.

By seeing the exploration of greed as one throughline and the exploration of generosity as another, each can be presented in its own progression. In so doing, the author avoids directly comparing one to the other (as this leads to a ham-handed and preachy message), but instead can balance one against the other so that the evidence builds as to which is better, but you still allow the audience to come to its own conclusion, thereby involving them in the message and making it their own. Certainly, a more powerful approach.

Plot, too, is assisted by multiple throughlines. Subplots are often hard to create and hard to follow. By dealing with each independently and side by side, you can easily see how they interrelate and can spot and holes or inconsistencies.

Subplots usually revolve around different characters. By placing a character’s growth throughline alongside his or her subplot throughline, you can make sure their mental state is always reflective of their inner state, and that they are never called upon to act in a way that is inconsistent with their mood or attitude at the time.

There are many other advantages to the use of throughlines as well. So many, that the Dramatica theory (and software) incorporate throughlines into the whole approach. Years later, when I developed StoryWeaver at my own company, throughlines became an integral part of the step-by-step story development approach it offers.

How do you begin to use throughlines for your stories? The first step is to get yourself some index cards, either 3×5 or 5×7. As you develop your story, rather than simply lining them all up in order, you take each sequential element of your story and create its own independent series of cards showing every step along the way.

Identify each separate kind of throughline with a different color. For example, you could make character-related throughlines blue (or use blue ink, or a blue dot) and make plot related throughlines green. This way, when you assemble them all together into your overall story structure, you can tell at a glance which elements are which, and even get a sense of which points in your story are character heavy or plot or theme heavy.

Then, identify each throughline within a group by its own mark, such as the character’s name, or some catch-phrase that describes a particular sub-plot, such as, “Joe’s attempt to fool Sally (or more simply, the “Sally Caper.”). That way, even when you weave them all together into a single storyline, you can easily find and work with the components of any given throughline. Be sure also to number the cards in each throughline in sequence, so if you accidentally mix them up or decide to present them out of order for storytelling purposes, such as in a flashback or flash forward, you will know the order in which they actually need to occur in the “real time” of the story.

Once you get started, its easy to see the value of the throughline approach, and just as easy to come up with all kinds of uses for it.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Your Story as a Person

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

What’s more, you have days, months, perhaps even years to prepare your story to exude enough charisma to sustain just one 2 or 3 hour conversation with your readers or audience, and they expect all that effort to result in a tightly packed story holds their interest, transports them to a world of imagination, and also makes sense along the way.

One of the best ways to pump that kind of energy and detail in your story is think of your story as a person you’ve invited to dinner, and to let you story tell you all about itself over the meal.

Here’s how it might go.  Let’s call your story “Joe.” You know that Joe is something of an authority on a subject in which your are interested. You offer him an appetizer, and between bites of pate, he tells you of his adventures and experiences, opinions and perspectives.

Over soup, he describes all the different drives and motivations that were pulling him forward or holding him back. These drives are your characters, and they are the aspects of Joe’s personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~Melanie Anne Phillips

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Finding Inspiration for Your Novel

We all know that writing is not just about assembling words, but also about assembling ideas. When we actually sit down to write, we may have our ideas all worked out in advance or we may have no idea what we want to say – just a desire to say something.

Some of us must labor on projects that we hate, but which have been assigned to us. Others may simply be in love with the notion of being a writer, but haven’t a thing to say. Regardless of why we are writing, we all share the desire to create an expression that has meaning to our audience.

And just who is that audience? It might be only ourselves. Often I have written material as a means of getting something off my chest, out of my thoughts, or perhaps just to get a grip on nebulous feelings or issues by forcing myself to put them into concrete terms.

Some of what I write this way has actually turned out to be salable as essays on personal growth or insights into meaningful emotional experiences. But, most of what I have written for my audience of one remains with me. Perhaps it is too personal to share, or just too personal to have meaning to anyone else.

When I write for myself, it is seldom a story. More often than not, it isn’t even a tale. Rather, it is a snippet of my real experiences, or a flight of fancy, such as the words “red ground rover.” What does this mean? I have no idea. But I do know how it feels to me.

In fact, popping out a few nonsense but passionate words is a trick I often use to get a story going. I’ll write something like the above almost randomly. Then I’ll ask myself, “Is the ground red with some one or something roving over it, or the whole thing a nick name for a bird dog or a mail carrier in the outback?

Blurting out something that has no conscious intent behind it can be a useful trick in overcoming writer’s block. It seems that writer’s block most often occurs when we are intentionally trying to determine what we want to talk about. But, when we just put something forth and then try to figure out what it might mean, a myriad of possibilities suggest themselves.

If you like, take a moment and try it. Just jot down a few nonsense words to create a phrase. Then, consider what they might mean. Rather than attempting to create, you are now in analysis mode, the inverse emotional state of trying to produce something out of nothing. You’ll probably be surprised at how many interpretations of your phrase readily come to mind.

Imagine, then, if you were to take one of those interpretations and build on it. In my example, let me pick the first interpretation – that “red ground rover” means someone or some thing that roves over red ground. Well, let’s see…. Mars is red, and the Martian Rover at one time examined the planet. Looks like I’m starting a science fiction story.

But what to do next? How about another nonsense phrase: “minion onion manner house.” What in the world does that mean? Let’s tie it in to the first phrase. Suppose there is some underling (minion) who is hunting for wild onions on Mars (onions being so suited to the nutrients in the soil that they grow wild in isolated patches). The underling works at the Manner House of a wealthy Martian frontier settler, but is known as Red Ground Rover because of his free-time onion prospecting activities.

Now, these phrases weren’t planned as examples for this book. To be fair, I just blurted them out as I suggest you do. Just as we see pictures in ink blots, animals in the clouds, and mythic figures in the constellations, we impose our desire for patterns even on the meaningless. And in so doing, we often find unexpected inspiration.

Even if none of our ideas are suited to what we are attempting to write, we have successfully dislodged our minds from the vicious cycle of trying to figure out what to say. And, returning to the specific task of our story, we are often surprised to find that writer’s block has vanished while we were distracted.

Now you may have noticed that in the example we just explored, there are elements of Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre. The Genre appears to be a variety of Science fiction. The Theme would seem to revolve around the class system on a frontier Mars and the implications of interjecting one natural ecosystem willy nilly into another. The plot involves an individual out to better his lot by working outside the system, and whatever difficulties that may create for him. And, we have at least two characters already suggested – the Red Ground Rover explicitly and the Lord or Lady of the Manner House implicitly (plus whatever servants or staff they may employ.)

This is a good illustration of the fact that when we seek to impose patterns on our world (real or imagined) we actually project the image of our mind’s operating system on what we consider. Characters form themselves as avatars of our motivations. Theme intrudes as representations of our values. Plot outlines the problem solving mechanisms we employ. And Genre describes the overall experience, from setting to style.

We cannot help but project these aspects of ourselves on our work. The key to inspiration is to develop the ability to see the patterns that we have subliminally put there. Almost as important is knowing when to be spontaneous and when to analyze the results, looking for the beginnings of a structure.

If you are a structuralist writer, you’d probably prefer to have the whole story worked out either on paper (or at least in your head) before you ever sat down to write. If you are an inspirationist writer, you probably wouldn’t have a clue what you were going to write when you began. You’d sit down, bop around your material and eventually find your story somewhere in the process, as you wrote. The final story would be worked out through multiple drafts. Most writer’s fall somewhere in between these two extremes. An idea pops into our head for a clever bit of action, an interesting line of dialog, or a topic we’d like to explore. Maybe it comes from something we are experiencing, have experienced, see on television, read in the newspaper, or perhaps it just pops up into our conscious mind unbidden.

Almost immediately a number of other associated ideas often come to mind. If there are enough of them, a writer begins to think, “story.” We then ponder the ideas with purpose, seeing where they will lead and what else we might dig up and add to the mix.

Eventually we have gathered enough material to satisfy our own personal assessment that we actually have the beginnings of a story and are ready to begin serious work on it. Then, structuralists set about working out the details and inspirationists set about finding the details as they go along.

Yet there is a problem for both kinds of writers. What holds all these ideas together is a common subject matter. But just because they all deal with the same issues does not mean they all belong in the same store.

It is common for authors to become frustrated trying to make all the pieces fit, when in fact it may be impossible for them to all fit. Perhaps several different combinations can be worked out that gather most of the material into the semblance of a structure. But odds are there will be a significant amount of the material that gets left out no matter how you try to include it. Even if each potential structure leaves out a different part and incorporates material left out in another potential structure, there is no single structure that includes all.

Like trying to pick up chicken fat on a plate with the flat side of a fork, we chase a structure all around our subject matter until we run ourselves ragged. Then we stare at the paper or the screen, realizing we’ve tried every combination we can think of and nothing works. It is this dilemma we call writer’s block.

It is much easier when we realize that stories are not life; they are about life. In the real world, we group our experiences together by subject matter, not by the underlying structure that describes it. For example, we are more likely to see the issues regarding the disciplining of our children as being lumped into one category of consideration whereas getting chewed out by our boss is another.

In truth, if our child tells a lie, it is not necessarily the same issue at all as when he or she doesn’t do the assigned homework. But, not doing homework may have a much closer structural connection to our getting in trouble with our boss because we failed to file all of the expense reports he requested.

We can avoid writer’s block. We can recognize that the material we create at the beginning of our efforts is not the story itself, but merely the inspiration for the story. Then we can stop chasing our mental tails and pick the structure that is most acceptable rather than cease writing until we can find the impossible structure that would pull in all the material.

Based on this understanding, it is not hard to see that we come to Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre not on a structural basis but on a subject matter basis as well. And, there is nothing wrong with that. As was said in the beginning of this book, we don’t write because of the desire for a perfect structure. We write because we are passionate about our subject matter. Yet sooner or later, the structure needs to be there to support our passions.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Finding Your Creative Time

You sit in your favorite writing chair, by the window, on the porch, or in the study. You wear your favorite tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches, or your blue jeans, or your “creative shoes.” You look around at the carefully crafted environment you spent months arranging to trigger your inspiration. Reaching eagerly forward you place your hands on the keyboard or grasp the pen or pencil, and… Nothing happens.

You look around the room again, out the window, sip your coffee, cross or uncross your legs, finger your lucky charm, reach forward and… Still nothing

What in blazes is wrong? You know you are full of inspiration; you can feel it! Why the ideas were flowing like a deluge just this morning, last night, or yesterday. Frustrated, yet determined, you try several more times to get the words to flow, but to no avail. “Good pen name, ” you think,” Noah Vale.”

So what’s the problem? How can you feel all primed to write, sit in your favorite environment with everything just perfect and still nothing comes?

Perhaps the problem is not where you are trying to write, but when!

Each of us has a creative time of day and a logistic time of day. Never heard of this? I didn’t discover it until quite recently myself. As a writer, I always thought creativity came and went with the Muse, sometimes bringing inspiration, sometimes spiriting it away. Like most writers, I had found that creating a quiet refuge, a creative sanctuary, increased the frequency and intensity of visits from the Muse. What I didn’t know was that the Muse keeps a schedule: she comes and goes like clockwork.

Here’s my scenario and see how it might apply to you… I’ve always felt guilty when I write – guilty that I’m not out cleaning something, building something, visiting someone, or even just getting out in the real world and living a little. But writing always draws me back. I find it therapeutic, cathartic, invigorating, stimulating, and, well, just plain fun. Sometimes… no, make that ALL the time, it’s as good as… no, make that BETTER THAN sex! And food! And earning a living! I often feel (when writing) like that rat with the wire connected to his pleasure center who kept pushing the stimulation button until it starved to death because it forgot to eat!

Well, the urge to write is there all the time. But, because I feel guilty I try to get all of my chores done I the morning, clearing the way to spend the afternoon or evening writing guilt free. But then I sit there watching the sun go down, full of the desire to write but completely unable to do so.

Recently, however, I had the good fortune of actually finishing all my chores the night before. I found myself with the whole morning free and guilt-free as well! At first, I was just going to goof off, do some reading, watch some TV, but then that old Writing Bug took a nip of my soul and off I was to my study to pound the keys. And you know what? The words just spilled out like secrets from the town gossip! This was wonderful! What an experience! I was pelting out the thoughts without the least guilt and without the slightest hesitation. I was flying through my own mind and playing it out on the keys! It felt very much like when I play music.

But why was this happening? I was truly afraid the feeling would go as quickly as it came and I would be lost in the creative doldrums again. In fact, it did fade with time – not abruptly, but gradually… slipping away until it was no more. But it did not leave a vacuum. In its place was a rising motivation to clean something, build something, visit someone, or get out in the real world and live!

Then, it hit me… Perhaps my creativity does not spring from where I write, but when! Perhaps the morning is my creative time and the afternoon, my practical time! I experimented. Try to write in the afternoon, the evening, at night, the morning. Quickly I discovered that if I felt free from the guilt of non-practical activity, I could write in the morning as if I were designed to do nothing else! But no matter how many chores I might accomplish in the morning, by the time the sun dropped below the horizon, my inspiration dropped away as well.

In fact, my creative time seems tied to the sun. For me, it brightens in the morning, peaks around noon, and fades away to nothing at dusk. Interestingly, I recently moved to the mountains and dusk comes early hear in the canyon this time of year – far earlier than when I lived down in the flatlands of the city.

Looking back over the years, I could see that my daily creative cycle depended upon the direct rays of the sun, not the time of day. And all those years I tried to get the practical stuff done in the morning to avoid guilt didn’t help my creativity but hindered it!

Lately, I just know that when the sun goes down it’s time to get practical. As a result, I know in the morning that I’ll accomplish real world logistic things later in the day. That eliminates guilt because the work part is already scheduled. And, that frees my mind to play with words all morning long.

When is your creative time? Just being a “morning person” or a “night person” isn’t enough because that only determines when you have your most energy. But what KIND of energy? Perhaps you are more energetic when you are working on the practical, so you think that just because you get your greatest energy at night you are a night person. This is not necessarily so! Suppose your creative side is NEVER the most energetic part of you, but is strongest in the morning. Then you are a Practical night person and a Creative morning person.

Your Creative Time might be any span of hours in the day. Or, it might even be more than one time. For example, you might be most inspired from mid-morning until noon and again from mid-afternoon to dusk. Everyone is a bit different. The key is to find your Creative Time and then adjust your daily schedule to fit it. It is important to remember to avoid guilt feelings while trying to determine your Creative Time. To do this, don’t just focus on when you are going to try writing, but make sure to also schedule other time to concentrate on chores. This way your “reading” of the level of your creativity will not be tainted by negative feelings of guilt, and you should arrive at more accurate appraisals.

After a week or so of trying different combinations, you should be able to determine the best creative and most practical times of the day. From that point forward, you will almost certainly find inspiration is present more than it is absent, and writing becomes far more joyful a process and less like work.

But there is a little bit more… Our lives are not just creative or practical. In fact, there are four principal emotionally driven aspects to our days: Creative, Practical, Reflective, and Social.

We need our Reflective time to be alone, to mull the events of our life over our minds eye, to let our thoughts wander where they will: to daydream. We need our Social time to recharge our batteries in the company of others, to express ourselves to our friends, to de-focus from our own subjective view by standing in the shoes of those around us.

I’ve found for myself that Saturday is a Social day for me, and that Sunday a Reflective day. I don’t do much of either on the weekdays at all. Whether this is nurture, nature, or something else altogether I can’t say, and to be truthful, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I have come to recognize it.

When is your Reflective time? Do you have some every day, just on weekdays, only on weekends, or some combination of these? How about your Social time? Do you ever feel guilty wanting to be alone? Do you ever feel deprived because you ARE alone? Part of these feelings may come from trying to do each of these activities in times that (for your) are actually geared toward the other.

Once you have mapped our your Creative, Practical, Reflective, and Social cycles, you’ll find that you get so much more accomplished, and with so much more fulfillment. All four aspects of your life will improve, and the improvement in each will remove emotional burdens and therefore increase the energy in each of the other three!

In short, you can be in phase with your emotional cycles, or out of phase. The more you schedule your activities to match the flow of your feelings, the more your life experience will buoy itself higher and higher with less and less effort. And best of all, the more inspiration you will find when you sit in your tweed jacket and reach for the keyboard.

Melanie Anne Phillips

This article is excerpted from the book:

How to Beat Writer’s Block

 

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