Storyweaving is Assembling Ideas…

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 saleable 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 article, 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
Creator, StoryWeaver

Try my StoryWeaver Software Risk Free!

StoryWeaver helps you build your story’s world,

who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means,

as you develop your novel or screenplay step by step.

Just $29.95 with a 90 Day Satisfaction Guarantee!

Posted in Creative Writing | Comments Off on Storyweaving is Assembling Ideas…

Can There Be More Than One Protagonist In A Story?

A writer recently asked:

I write Western genre screenplays. And I love to use Dramatica Pro. In Western Genre sometime I will run into more than one  protagonist more than one antagonist . I name my antagonist in Dramatica Pro and then when I try to name another antagonist it will not allow me to go any further down the road in story. Will there be another advanced software in Dramatica Pro that will allow me to name more than one antagonist and let me go on with my story and continue to use Dramatica Pro?

Here’s my reply:

There is only one protagonist and antagonist in a story, but there may be more than one story in a single book or movie.

The protagonist is defined as the character who is leading the effort to achieve the Story Goal, and the antagonist is trying to prevent him from doing that.

The protagonist and antagonist represent initiative and reticence in our own minds – the force to effect change and the force to prevent change or to embrace or return to the status quo.

There can be a protagonistic group where, as an assembly they all function as a single protagonist, but if there were just two protagonists, they would both have to be the prime mover of the quest to the goal and they both can’t be, by definition. Or, each could have a separate Story Goal that affected everyone, but then you really have two stories.

In a nut shell, here’s why narrative works that way. Narratives reflect how people interact in real life. As individuals, we all have a sense of initiative, reason, emotion, skepticism and so on. And in solving personal problems we use all of these to try and find the solution.

But when we come together as a group toward a common purpose, we quickly self-organize into specialities, where one person becomes the Voice of Reason, another as the resident Skeptic and another as the Prime Operative who pushes everyone else forward toward completion of the group’s goal.

The “specialists” are represented in narrative as the archetypes, and each is just one facet of all the traits an individual has, yet each function just as we do in groups, focusing on just one aspect of the problem solving so that, collectively, the group can go into more detail and thought than if we were all general practitioners, each trying to be a jack of all trades (as we have to do for our personal issues.

Now the protagonist in the group – the one leading the effort – does not have to also be the main character. The main character is the group’s identity – the character who represents the spirit of the group – its personality in a sense. Sometimes the leader of the effort is also heart and soul of the group, in which case you have a typical hero who not only does the job, but also has to grapple with a personal issue – a decision about his own value standards that can make or break the overall effort depending on how he decides to see things, often in a leap of faith, as when Scrooge changes in A Christmas Carol.

So, only one protagonist or antagonist or reason archetype or emotion archetype, etc. per narrative.

BUT, often stories have sub-narratives built around some of the archetypes. Everyone has a story of their own. And so does every character in an overall story. We just don’t always choose to sell those “sub-stories” because we want to focus on the principals and not clutter things up.

But, you can take any character and create a sub-story around a personal goal in which he is the protagonist and main character in his own personal narrative that is not at all the issue the whole group is dealing with. This sub-story might be completely independent of the main story, or it might be hinged so that events in a character’s personal narrative are so potent than it causes the character to step out of his function in the overall story in a surprising way.

After all, our own personal narratives tend to be more important to us than the narrative of the overall group with whom we are associated.

So, with sub-stories, it can seem as if there are two protagonists in the story and even two antagonists, but they aren’t really in the same story but in a sub-story in the same overall “world” you’ve created in your story telling – your story universe.

I hope this helps provide some new ways in which to think about your characters and plot.

Let me know if you have any additional questions and may the Muse be with you!

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

Posted in Dramatica | Comments Off on Can There Be More Than One Protagonist In A Story?

Stories on the Mind

As with people, your story’s mind has different aspects. These are represented in your Genre, Theme, Plot, and Characters. Genre is the overall personality of the Story Mind. Theme represents its conflicted value standards. Plot describes the methods the Story Mind uses as it tries to work out its problems. Characters are the underlying drives of the Story Mind.

Genre  

To an audience, every story has a distinct personality, as if it were a person rather than a work of fiction. When we first encounter a person or a story, we tend to classify it in broad categories. For stories, we call the category into which we place its overall personality its Genre.

These categories reflect whatever attributes strike us as the most notable. With people this might be their profession, interests, attitudes, style, or manner of expression, for example. With stories this might be their setting, subject matter, point of view, atmosphere, or storytelling.

We might initially classify someone as a star-crossed lover, a cowboy, or a practical joker who likes to scare people. Similarly, we might categorize a story as a Romance, a Western, or a Horror story.

As with the people we meet, some stories are memorable and others we forget as soon as they are gone. Some are the life of the party, but get stale rather quickly. Some initially strike us as dull, but become familiar to the point we look forward to seeing them again. This is all due to what someone has to say and how they go about saying it.

The more time we spend with specific stories or people the less we see them as generalized types and the more we see the traits that define them as individuals. So, although we might initially label a story as a particular Genre, we ultimately come to find that every story has its own unique personality that sets it apart from all others in that Genre, in at least a few notable respects.

Theme

Everyone has value standards, and the Story Mind has them as well. Some people are pig-headed and see issues as cut and dried. Others are wishy-washy and flip-flop on the issues. The most sophisticated people and stories see the pros and cons of both sides of a moral argument and present their conclusions in shades of gray, rather than in simple black & white. All these outlooks can be reflected in the Story Mind.

No matter what approach or which specific value is explored, the key structural point about value standards is that they are all comprised of two parts: the issues and one’s attitude toward them. It is not enough to only have a subject (abortion, gay rights, or greed) for that says nothing about whether they are good, bad, or somewhere in between. Similarly, attitudes (I hate, I believe in, or I don’t approve of) are meaningless until they are applied to something.

An attitude is essentially a point of view. The issue is the object under observation. When an author determines what he wants to look at it and from where he wants it to be seen, he creates perspective. It is this perspective that comprises a large part of the story’s message.

Still, simply stating one’s attitudes toward the issues does little to convince someone else to see things the same way. Unless the author’s message is preaching to the audience’s choir, he’s going to need to convince them to share his attitude. To do this, he will need to make a thematic argument over the course of the story which will slowly dislodge the audience from their previously held beliefs and reposition them so that they adopt the author’s beliefs by the time the story is over.

Plot  

Novice authors often assume the order in which events transpire in a story is the order in which they are revealed to the audience, but these are not necessarily the same. Through exposition, an author unfolds the story, dropping bits and pieces that the audience rearranges until the true meaning of the story becomes clear. This technique involves the audience as an active participant in the story rather than simply being a passive observer. It also reflects the way people go about solving their own problems.

When people try to work out ways of dealing with their problems they tend to identify and organize the pieces before they assemble them into a plan of action. So, they often jump around the timeline, filling in the different steps in their plan out of sequence as they gather additional information and draw new conclusions.

In the Story Mind, both of these attributes are represented as well. We refer to the internal logic of the story – the order in which the events in the problem solving approach actually occurred – as the Plot. The order in which the Story Mind deals with the events as it develops its problem solving plan is called Storyweaving.

If an author blends these two aspects together, it is very easy miss holes in the internal logic because they are glossed over by smooth exposition. By separating them, an author gains complete control of the progression of the story as well as the audience’s progressive experience

Characters  

If Characters represent the conflicting drives in our own minds yet they each have a personal point of view, where is out sense of self represented in the Story Mind? After all, every real person has a unique point of view that defines his or her own self-awareness.

In fact, there is one special character in a story that represents the Story Mind’s identity. This character, the Main Character, functions as the audience position in the story. He, she or it is the eye of the story – the story’s ego.

In an earlier tip I described how we might look at characters by their dramatic function, as seen from the perspective of a General on a hill. But what if we zoomed down and stood in the shoes of just one of those characters, we would have a much more personal view of the story from the inside looking out.

But which character should be our Main Character? Most often authors select the Protagonist to represent the audience position in the story. This creates the stereotypical Hero who both drives the plot forward and also provides the personal view of the audience. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement but it limits the audience to always experiencing what the quarterback feels, never the linemen or the water boy.

In real life we are more often one of the supporting characters in an endeavor than we are the leader of the effort. If you have always made your Protagonist the Main Character, you have been limiting your possibilities.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

Try Dramatica’s Story Mind Approach

Risk Free for 90 Days!

 

Posted in The Story Mind | Comments Off on Stories on the Mind

The StoryWeaver Method – Step 2

The StoryWeaver Method is a step by step approach to developing your novel or screenplay.

StoryWeaver will help you create your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.

The StoryWeaver Method ~ Step 2

Introduction to Inspiration

Inspiration can come from many sources: a conversation overheard at a coffee shop, a newspaper article, or a personal experience to name a few.

And, inspiration can also take many forms: a snippet of dialogue, a bit of action, a clever concept, and so on.

One thing most inspirations have in common is that they are not stories, just the beginnings of stories.  To develop a complete story, you’ll need a cast of characters, a detailed plot, a thematic argument, and the trappings of genre.

But how do you come up with the extra pieces you need?

In the steps that follow, StoryWeaver will help inspire you, even if you can’t come up with an idea to save your life!

If you don’t yet know what your story is going to be about, StoryWeaver will help you find out.  And if you do have something already worked out, these questions will help you fill in the details.

In the next step, you’ll begin your story development process by writing a short synopsis of what your story is about.  But, if you are starting from scratch without a story concept, StoryWeaver will help you to develop one.


The StoryWeaver method is based on our

StoryWeaver Story Development Software

Just $29.95 ~ Try it for 90 Days Risk Free

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The StoryWeaver Method – Step 2

Create a Story “Focus”

If your story’s underlying or central problem is seen as a disease, the solution would be the cure. The “Focus”, however, is the principal symptom.

Since the symptoms of a disease are often more apparent than the disease itself, the symptom is called the Focus, because that’s where the attention of the characters is focused.

Even if the characters are aware of the true nature of the problem itself (which they may or may not be), they will be more attentive to the immediate effects created by the Focus.

You can enrich your story and make your characters much more human by having the them focus on various symptoms of the underlying story problem rather than on the problem itself.

Click here for our List of Essential Story Points

Posted in Story Points | Comments Off on Create a Story “Focus”

Four Facets of the Story Mind

One of the unique concepts that sets the Dramatica Theory of Narrative Structure apart from all other story paradigms is the assertion that every complete story is a model of the mind’s problem solving process.

This Story Mind does not work like a computer, performing one operation after another until the solution is obtained. Rather, it works more holistically, like our own minds, bringing many conflicting considerations to bear on the issue. It is the author’s argument as to the relative value of these considerations in solving a particular problem that gives a story its meaning.

To make his case, an author must examine all significant approaches to resolving the story’s specific problem. If a part of the argument is left out, the story will have holes. If the argument is not made in an even-handed fashion, the story will have inconsistencies.

Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre are the different families of considerations in the Story Mind made tangible, so audience members can see them at work and gain insight into their own methods of solving problems.

Characters represent the motivations of the Story Mind (which often work at cross purposes and come into conflict). Plot documents the problem solving methods employed by the Story Mind. Theme examines the relative worth of the Story Mind’s value standards. Genre establishes the Story Mind’s overall attitude, which casts a bias or background on all other considerations. When a story is fully developed, the model of the Story Mind is complete.

From the Dramatica Theory Book

Posted in Dramatica Theory | Comments Off on Four Facets of the Story Mind

Essential Perspectives in Your Story’s Structure

All meaning comes from perspective – putting things in context. And perspective is created by the combination of what you are looking at and where you are looking from. Change the object of your intention and perspective is altered. Shift your point of view and perspective shifts as well.

The Dramatica Story Structure Chart is a map of what you might wish to explore (look at) in a story.  When you pick your topics and add points of view you have determined how your readers or audience will be positioned in regard to the issues you wish to explore, which is the essence of story structure

The Dramatica chart is divided into four different sections, each one representing a different kind of topic.

SITUATIONS:  The first section deals with stories about fixed situations, such as being stuck in a collapsed mine or struggling with a disability.

ACTIVITIES:  The second area is for stories about activities like trying to win a race or the effort to discover a lost civilization.

ATTITUDES:  The third covers stories about fixed attitudes, mindsets, fixations or prejudices.

MANIPULATION:  The final section deals with changing attitudes, manners of thinking, and emotional progressions such as slipping into a depression.

 

To create meaning in our story we need to add points of view to the topics under consideration.

Just as there are four kinds of topics, there are also four points of view from which to see them.  They are the Objective View,  the Subjective View, the Main Character View, and the Influence Character View.

THE OBJECTIVE VIEW:  The Objective view explores your story’s topics as would a general on a hill watching a battle in the valley down below. Though he cares about the conflict below him, he is not directly participating and also sees a bird’s eye view of the broad strategies involved. Essentially, the Objective view encompasses the “Big Picture” of the grand schemes in your story – from the outside looking in.

THE MAIN CHARACTER VIEW:  But what about the personal view – what things look like from the inside looking out. For that, we have to imagine that we zoom down from the hill into the shoes of one of the soldiers on the field of battle. We experience what he experiences, we feel what he feels, we see things through his eyes. This is the most personal point of view in a story, and it is that of the Main Character – the character with home the reader/audience most identifies – the one whom the passion of the story seems to be about or to revolve around.

THE INFLUENCE CHARACTER VIEW:  The third point of view is from the inside looking in – much like one soldier encountering another in the midst of all the dramatic explosions. This represents the way we all look within ourselves to consider our options, other outlooks we might adopt, whether or not we should change our point of view. So this is the view of the Main Character looking at the Obstacle Character – representing that alternative paradigm we might change to embrace.

THE SUBJECTIVE VIEW:  Finally, there is the Subjective view of the argument we make with ourselves about the pros and cons of sticking to our guns or changing our minds. This is represented by the personal skirmish between the Main and Influence charactersin the midst of the overall battle as seen by the general from the Objective view.

In essence, these four points of view are equivalent to I, You, We and They.

The Main Character is “I” – our sense of self or identity in our own minds.

The Influence Character is “You” – perhaps our future “I” – another way of being we might adopt.

The Subjective Story is about “We” – our examination of the relationship between our now and futures selves – the difference between who we are and who we might become.

The Objective Story is “They” representing all the other aspects of ourselves that aren’t being pressured to possibly change.  This is the realm of the archetypal characters.

Having outlined the four topic categories and the four points of view, what remains is to combine them together to create your story’s structural perspectives. In fact, all four topic categories must be explored in your story for it to feel complete. What sets one story apart from another begins by the author’s decision as to which point of view will be used to explore which topic category.

When the points of view are matched to a corresponding topic realm, four principal perspectives are created for your story. And each perspective is a different angle on the truth at the heart of your story – a different approach to discovering and solving the problem issue that creates all the difficulties in your story.

This match of point of view and topic area of interest is called a “Domain.” So, since the four points of view are matched up with the four topic areas, your story will have four Domains of perspective – the Objective Domain, Subjective Domain, Main Character Domain, and Influence Character Domain.

To fully develop your story, you’ll need to dig deep into each domain to see in greater detail the true heart of your story’s problems. This means that each point of view looks deeper and deeper into sub-topics within the overall topic over the course of the story.

To facilitate this, each domain in the chart is divided into smaller and smaller parts – squares  within squares so they are balanced evenly within the mechanics of your story’s structure.

As an example, in the Dramatica chart we find that the overall area of Situation is sub-divided into four smaller aspects: Past, Present, Future, and Progress, while the area of Activities is divided into Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining.

Each of these areas requires a little study to really understand how to use the chart to explore your subject areas in a way that creates the kind of impact you wish to have on your readers or audience.

Summing up, for a story to having meaning and to build a message, we must include all four of the topic areas and all four points of view to fully develop the four essential perspectives of story structure.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creatorDramatica

Posted in Dramatica Basic Concepts | Comments Off on Essential Perspectives in Your Story’s Structure

The Cardinal Rule of Storytelling

You probably know someone who can take a bad joke and tell it so well that you are rolling on the floor. And you probably know someone who can’t tell a joke to save their life, even if the joke itself is hilarious.

If you start with a joke that just isn’t funny, even the best delivery in the world won’t improve the humor of the punch line, but getting there may have been a hoot. Conversely, if the joke is outstanding, a terrible delivery will rob the experience of its levity even though you still see what was supposed to be funny.

Stories work the same way. Even a perfect structure will lay there dead if poorly told. But a good storyteller will keep a reader/audience riveted, even if they clearly see how flawed the structure really is.

Point being, structure is not the Story God. It is a means to an end. It is far better to break structure and go with your Muse than to shackle yourself to the nuts and bolts of story mechanics at the expense of inspired storytelling.

Naturally, the best stories are those that have sound structure and passionate storytelling. But if you find the two diverge, it is always better to err to the side of passion.

Remember the cardinal rule of storytelling – Never bore your audience.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Posted in Storytelling | Comments Off on The Cardinal Rule of Storytelling

A Story’s Four Essential Throughlines

Imagine a story’s structure as a war and the Main Character as a soldier making his way across the field of battle. Suddenly, through the smoke of dramatic explosions he spies a murky figure standing right in his path. In this fog of war, the Main Character cannot tell if this other soldier is a friend or foe. Either way, he is blocking the road.

As the Main Character approaches, this other soldier starts waving his arms and shouts, “Change course – get off this road!” Convinced he is on the best path, the Main Character yells back, “Get out of my way!” Again the figure shouts, “Change course!” Again the Main Character replies, “Let me pass!”

The Main Character has no way of knowing if his opposite is a comrade trying to prevent him from walking into a mine field or an enemy combatant trying to lure him into an ambush. And so, he continues on, following the plan that still seems best to him.

Eventually, the two soldiers meet, and when they do it becomes a moment of truth in which one will win out. Either the Main Character will alter course or his steadfastness will cause the other soldier to step aside.

This other soldier is called the Obstacle (and sometimes Influence or Impact) character. He represents that “devil’s advocate” voice we all have in ourselves that makes us consider changing our ways.

In our own minds we are often confronted by issues that question our approach, attitude, or the value of our hard-gained experience. But we don’t simply adopt a new point of view when our old methods have served us so well for so long. Rather, we consider how things might go if we adopted this new system of thinking.

We look at it, examine it from all sides and ask ourselves, how would my life, my self-image, my identity be if I were to become that kind of person by giving up my old views in favor of this new, unproven one that is only potentially better?

It is a long hard thing within us to reach a point of change, and so too is it a difficult feat in a Story Mind. In fact, it take the whole story to reach a climax in which all the research has been done that can be done. And even then, both sides of the argument are so well balanced that the Main Character cannot see a definite edge to either.

This crucial moment leads to those weighty decisions where Main Characters step off the cliff into the darkness, hoping they’ve made the right choice – the classic “Leap of Faith.”

Of course, not all decisions are that cataclysmic. And as we shall see, there are many other ways the differences between Main Character and Obstacle Character points of view can resolve. But for now, it suffices to acknowledge that a Story Mind that did not include and Objective view, a Main Character view, and an Obstacle Character view could not possibly feel like our own minds in real life as we seek to make the best choices based on our best information.

Many novice authors fashion only the first two points of view, believing that a general epic story and a personal view through the eyes of one of the characters is enough. More experienced authors recognize the need to show an alternative approach to that of the Main Character, and include the Obstacle Character as well. But a surprisingly small percentage of authors ever realize that a fourth perspective is necessary or a story will feel incomplete.

What is that final view point? It is the personal argument between the Main Character and the Obstacle Character as they approach each other: their own private skirmish right in the midst of the overall battle.

Movies like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” have an overall Objective story, a Main Character with a problem, and an Obstacle Character who has a different point of view about the propriety or validity of the Main Character’s approach or attitude. But even with all that, it is lacking one crucial thing – the interaction between Main and Obstacle as the duke it out philosophically.

In “Nightmare,” Jack Skellington believes he can be something beyond his nature and resolves to try. His girlfriend states that he should be happy with who he actually is, and not to try and be something that really isn’t him.

Jack will have none of it, and sets plans in motion that cause all the problems of the story. In the end, he realizes she was right and resolves from now on to be the best of what he truly is.

But the problem is that they never discussed these differing philosophies. They simply stated their opposite beliefs and in the end, Jack changes course and she remains on the road where she started.

Though there is a message, without the give and take between the Main and Obstacle, we the audience are given no information on how to achieve that change of heart within ourselves. So the message is simply acknowledged as being noble, but it isn’t personalized or taken to heart.

This fourth point of view is called the Subjective Story. It is the perspective of the battle over philosophies that explores the value of each belief system fully and completely, testing one against the other, pitting them against each other in all contexts. Only if this is seen in the Story Mind does the audience become convinced that the message is of real value to them.

So, these four throughlines – Objective, Main, Obstacle, and Subjective are all required for a story structure to feel complete. They likely seem pretty strange and unfamiliar in contrast to your usual way of approaching stories.

Fortunately, there is a much simpler way to think about these throughlines. The Main Character represents the “first person” perspective: “I”. He looks at the Obstacle Character’s philosophy and sees that character as “You.” He considers the personal skirmish between himself and the Obstacle character as defining “We,” and the view from the hill of the whole durn thing looks at “They.”

I, You, We, and They – the simpler, more familiar equivalents of Main Character, Obstacle Character, Subjective Story, and Objective Story. They are the four points of view we have in real life, and they must be represented in stories if they are to successfully press home their messages to the audiences.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica
Creator StoryWeaver

Posted in Story Development | Comments Off on A Story’s Four Essential Throughlines

Mentors, Guardians, Obstacles & Star Wars

Here’s an unusual situation where both Chris and myself independently answered the same question from a writer. Comparing our two replies is both interesting and also sheds light on two different ways of looking at the same central story structure concept.

A writer asks, regarding the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV):

In your book, Dramatica, you have Obi Wan as the obstacle character. This is counter-intuitive. In every other story methodology, Obi Wan is the mentor, and Dark Vader is the opponent. Darth Vader directly opposes Luke.

Please explain.

Chris Huntley’s reply:

Most every other story methodology does not identify the four throughlines and their significance.

In the “big picture,” the empire is at war with the rebels. The constant warring between the factions causes trouble for everyone. In that throughline, the empire, led by Gran Mof Tarkin, is shown to be the “bad guys,” the rebels are the “good guys,” the farmboy from Tatooine is the hero driving the story forward, the retired Jedi master is the guardian (mentor), and the emperor’s henchman is the one that seems to mess up everyone’s agenda. This throughline is the logical part of the author’s position.

Luke, as the Main Character, is someone who dreams of being a do-gooder, or saving the day, etc., yet he is stuck on a planet as far from the core (and action, he thinks) as is possible. He has Jedi blood, unbeknownst to him, which gives him skills and powers beyond his years. It is raw talent that needs training and focusing. He tests himself by putting himself in dangerous positions, which turn out to be far more dangerous than he can handle (e.g. the Tuskan Raiders, Breaking Leia out of the cell block, etc.). This throughline provides the personal side for the audience to empathize and step into the story.

Obi-wan is Impact Character. He is Luke’s trainer, not only in the use of the Force but in learning to believe in himself — to trust himself…to trust the Force. This throughline provides the influence needed to force Luke to grow.

The relationship throughline is about the Mentor/Student relationship that develops between Ben and Luke. This throughline is the emotional center of the author’s position.

NOTE: In Star Wars (1977), Darth Vader does not directly oppose Luke. In fact, the two only have one somewhat direct confrontation at the end of the story in the trench on the Death Star. In subsequent films, the two come into direct confrontation, but that is, as they say, another story.

Best regards,
Chris Huntley
Write Brothers Inc.

My reply:

The Obstacle Character, by definition, is the one who stands in the path of the Main Character approaching life in his same old usual way. He is an obstacle to staying in a mental rut. It is the Obstacle Character who constantly pressures the Main Character to change his ways, to alter his manner of thinking or of doing things. Clearly that is Obi Wan, not Vader.

Now, while Obi Wan may traditionally be labeled a “mentor”, that label doesn’t work for every Obstacle Character. For example, an Obstacle Character may not like, care about, or even be aware of the Main Character. It could be a rock star whom the Main Character will never meet. But, by following the disintegrating life of the drug-using rock star in the tabloids, the Main Character comes to realize that he must change his ways and does, perhaps. Therefore, this character has been an obstacle to the Main Character continuing down the same path – his original life course, but he would hardly be seen as a stereotypical “mentor”, which is far too limiting a label.

Further, in the original Star Wars movie, “Episode IV – A New Hope” (to which I believe you are referring) Darth does not directly oppose Luke. Darth opposes everyone. He chokes his own people. It is he who comes up with the plan to release the Millennium Falcon with a tracking beacon which ultimately leads to the rebels getting the plans that destroy the death star (“This had better work, Vader….”).

Darth is a character we call the Contagonist – a name we coined to describe this character who is not the head villain (the Emperor as represented by the Gran Mof Tarkin and all his storm troopers is the real villain of Star Wars, as we see even more definitively in the prequels. Darth, in fact, is diametrically opposed to his old master, Obi Wan. That is why the two of them must battle one on one.

Now, this is not to say that Darth is the opposite of Obi Wan’s function as Obstacle Character. There are two kinds of characters in stories: Objective Characters who are seen by their function, such as Antagonist and Protagonist, and two special Subjective Characters who are seen by their points of view, such as Main Character and Obstacle Character. Luke and Obi Wan (and any Main and Obstacle Characters would) have two different perspectives on life, and it is the heart of the story to see if the Main Character will or will not be convinced to adopt the Obstacle Character’s view.

This is what leads to the leap of faith or moment of truth for the Main Character. In Luke’s case, Obi has been on his case for the entire movie to reach out and touch the force, to trust himself and his abilities, even so far as to put him in a helmet with the blast shield down during training so Luke could only rely on his own feelings. That is why just before Luke destroys the death star, he is using the targeting computer and Obi’s voice returns to remind him, trust your feelings, Luke. Luke finally let’s go, trusts in himself and turns off the computer, much to the dismay of the command center. And yet, it is that decision, driven by a story-long pressure from Obi Wan as the Obstacle Character, that brings him to that necessary step if he is to ultimately succeed. (Imagine how unfulfilling it would be if he turned off the computer and as a result failed to destroy the death star, or if that scene had not been even included with Obi Wan’s voice – the ending, though a success, would have lacked something that helped make it so fulfilling).

But, that is only Obi’s subjective character role. Obi Wan also has an objective character role – the Guardian (comprised of Support and Conscience and more). The Guardian is an archetype, meaning it is actually made up of a number of different character attributes that all share a similar flavor, just as in chemistry all the elements naturally fall in to families, such as the rare earth elements or the noble gases. That’s why chlorine and fluorine are so similar, for example.

When all the elements from one family end up in the same character, it is an archetype. So, the opposite of the Guardian is the Contagonist (made up of Oppose and Temptation, among others). By “nature” he opposes everyone, not just Luke. But, his function to oppose is in DIRECT conflict with Obi Wan’s nature to support. Similarly, Darth’s “Temptation” (of the dark side) is balanced and diametrically in conflict with Obi’s “Conscience” (to follow the force).

So, while Luke in the plot must get past Darth who, like many implementations of the Contagonist archetype, is essentially the empires guard dog, it is Obi who opposes Luke’s desire to be part of the system with all its tech toys and weapons and convinces him to trust his own inner abilities.

Of course, there is far more going on in Star Wars than this simple exploration. And, each of these concepts appears in different ways in different stories. But, this should at least outline for you the purpose of the Obstacle Character (also called the Impact or Influence Character) and why Darth, though dressed in black, is not the real villain of Star Wars, just the henchman of the villain.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

Posted in Characters | Comments Off on Mentors, Guardians, Obstacles & Star Wars