“Ability” and Story Structure

Warning – Deep Narrative Theory Ahead…

What’s “Ability” have to do with story structure?

In this article I’m going to talk about how the Dramatica Theory of Narrative Structure uses the term “ability” as an element of dramatics, and how it applies not only to story narratives and characters but to real people, real life and psychology as well.

If you look in Dramatica’s “Periodic Table of Story Elements” chart (you can download a free PDF of the chart at http://storymind.com/free-downloads/ddomain.pdf ) you’ll find the “ability” in one of the little squares.  Look in the “Physics” class in the upper left-hand corner.  You’ll find it in a “quad” of four items, “Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire”.

To begin with, a brief word about the Dramatica chart itself.  The chart is sort of like a Rubik’s Cube.  It holds all the elements which must appear in every complete story to avoid holes.  Conceptually, you can twist it and turn it, just like a Rubik’s Cube, and when you do, it is like winding up a clock – you create dramatic potential.

How is this dramatic potential created?  The chart represents all the categories of things we think about.  Notice that the chart is nested, like wheels within wheels.  That’s the way our mind’s work.  And if we are to make a solid story structure with no holes, we have to make sure all ways of thinking about the story’s central problem or issues are covered.

So, the chart is really a model of the mind.  When you twist it and turn it represents the kinds of stress (and experience) we encounter in everyday life.  Sometimes things get wound up as tight as they can.  And this is where a story always starts.  Anything before that point is backstory, anything after it is story.

The story part is the process of unwinding that tension.  So why does a story feel like tension is building, rather than lessening?  This is because stories are about the forces that bring a person to change or, often, to a point of potential change.

As the story mind unwinds, it puts more and more pressure on the main character (who may be gradually changed by the process or may remain intransigent until he changes all at once).  It’s kind of like the forces that  create earthquakes.  Tectonic plates push against each other driven by a background force (the mantle).  That force is described by the wound up Dramatica chart of the story mind.

Sometimes, in geology, this force gradually raises or lowers land in the two adjacent plate.  Other times it builds up pressure until things snap all at once in an earthquake.  So too in psychology, people (characters) are sometimes slowly changed by the gradual application of pressure as the story mind clock is unwinding; other times that pressure applied by the clock mechanism just builds up until the character snaps in Leap Of Faith – that single “moment of truth” in which a character must decide either to change his ways or stick by his guns believing his current way is stronger than the pressure bought to bear – he believes he just has to outlast the forces against him.

Sometimes he’s right to change, sometimes he’s right to remain steadfast, and sometimes he’s wrong.  But either way, in the end, the clock has unwound and the potential has been balanced.

Hey, what happened to “ability”?  Okay, okay, I’m getting to that….

The chart (here we go again!) is filled with semantic terms – things like Hope and Physics and Learning and Ability.  If you go down to the bottom of the chart in the PDF you’ll see a three-dimensional representation of how all these terms are stacked together.  In the flat chart, they look like wheels within wheels.  In the 3-D version, they look like levels.

These “levels” represent degrees of detail in the way the mind works.  At the most broadstroke level (the top) there are just four items – Universe, Physics, Mind and Psychology.  They are kind of like the Primary Colors of the mind – the Red, Blue, Green and Saturation (effectively the addition of something along the black/white gray scale).

Those for items in additive color theory are four categories describing what can create a continuous spectrum.  In a spectrum is really kind of arbitrary where you draw the line between red and blue.  Similarly, Universe, Mind, Physics and Psychology are specific primary considerations of the mind.

Universe is the external state of things – our situation or environment.  Mind is the internal state – an attitude, fixation or bias.  Physics looks at external activities – processes and mechanisms.  Psychology looks at internal activities – manners of thinking in logic and feeling.

Beneath that top level of the chart are three other levels.  Each one provides a greater degree of detail on how the mind looks at the world and at itself.  It is kind of like adding “Scarlet” and “Cardinal” as subcategories to the overall concept of “Red”.

Now the top level of the Dramatica chart describe the structural aspects of “Genre”  Genre is the most broad stroke way of looking at a story’s structure.   The next level down has a bit more dramatic detail and describes the Plot of a story.  The third level down maps out Theme, and the bottom level (the one with the most detail) explores the nature of a story’s Characters.

So there you have the chart from the top down, Genre, Plot, Theme and Characters.  And as far as the mind goes, it represents the wheels within wheels and the spectrum of how we go about considering things.  In fact, we move all around that chart when we try to solve a problem.  But the order is not arbitrary.  The mind has to go through certain “in-betweens” to get from one kind of consideration to another or from one emotion to another.  You see this kind of thing in the stages of grief and even in Freud’s psycho-sexual stages of development.

All that being said now, we finally return to Ability – the actual topic of this article.  You’ll find Ability, then, at the very bottom of the chart – in the Characters level – in the upper left hand corner of the Physics class.  In this article I won’t go into why it is in Physics or why it is in the upper left, but rest assured I’ll get to that eventually in some article or other.

Let’s now consider “Ability” in its “quad” of four Character Elements.  The others are Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire.  I really don’t have space in this article to go into detail about them at this time, but suffice it to say that Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire are the internal equivalents of Universe, Mind, Physics and Psychology.  They are the conceptual equivalents of Mass, Energy, Space and Time.  (Chew on that for awhile!)

So the smallest elements are directly connect (conceptually) to the largest in the chart.  This represents what we call the “size of mind constant” which is what determines the scope of an argument necessary to fill the minds of readers or an audience.  In short, there is a maximum depth of detail one can perceive while still holding the “big picture” in one’s mind at the very same time.

Ability – right….

Ability is not what you can do.  It is what you are “able” to do.  What’s the difference?  What you “can” do is essentially your ability limited by your desire.  Ability describes the maximum potential that might be accomplished.  But people are limited by what they should do, what they feel obligated to do, and what they want to do.  If you take all that into consideration, what’s left is what a person actually “can” do.

In fact,  if we start adding on limitations you  move from Ability to Can and up to even higher levels of “justification” in which the essential qualities of our minds, “Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire” are held in check by extended considerations about the impact or ramifications of acting to our full potential.

One quad greater in justification you find “Can, Need, Want, and Should” in Dramatica’s story mind chart.  Then it gets even more limited by Responsibility, Obligation, Commitment and Rationalization.  Finally we end up “justifying” so much that we are no longer thinking about Ability (or Knowledge or Thought or Desire) but about our “Situation, Circumstance, Sense of Self and State of Being”.  That’s about as far away as you can get from the basic elements of the human mind and is the starting point of where stories begin when they are fully wound up.  (You’ll find all of these at the Variation Level in the “Psychology” class in the Dramatica chart, for they are the kinds of issues that most directly affect each of our own unique brands of our common human psychology.

A story begins when the Main Character is stuck up in that highest level of justification.  Nobody gets there because they are stupid or mean.  They get there because their unique life experience has brought them repeated exposures to what appear to be real connections between things like, “One bad apple spoils the bunch” or “Where there’s smoke , there’s fire.”

These connections, such things as –  that one needs to adopt a certain attitude to succeed or that a certain kind of person is always lazy or dishonest – these things are not always universally true, but may have been universally true in the Main Character’s experience.  Really, its how we all build up our personalities.  We all share the same basic psychology but how it gets “wound up” by experience determines how we see the world.  When we get wound up all the way, we’ve had enough experience to reach a conclusion that things are always “that way” and to stop considering the issue.  And that is how everything from “winning drive” to “prejudice” is formed – not by ill intents or a dull mind buy by the fact that no two life experiences are the same.

The conclusions we come to, based on our justifications, free out minds to not have to reconsider every connection we see.  If we had to, we’d become bogged down in endlessly reconsidering everything, and that just isn’t a good survival trait if you have to make a quick decision for fight or flight.

So, we come to certain justification and build upon those with others until we have established a series of mental dependencies and assumptions that runs so deep we can’t see the bottom of it – the one bad brick that screwed up the foundation to begin with.  And that’s why psychotherapy takes twenty years to reach the point a Main Character can reach in a two hour movie or a two hundred page book.

Now we see how Ability (and all the other Dramatica terms) fit into story and into psychology.  Each is just another brick in the wall.  And each can be at any level of the mind and at any level of justification.  So, Ability might be the problem in one story (the character has too much or too little of it) or it might be the solution in another (by discovering an ability or coming to accept one lacks a certain ability the story’s problem – or at least the Main Character’s personal problem – can be solved).  Ability might be the thematic topic of one story and the thematic counterpoint of another (more on this in other articles).

Ability might crop up in all kinds of ways, but the important thing to remember is that wherever you find it, however you use it, it represents the maximum potential, not necessarily the practical limit that can be actually applied.

Well, enough of this.  To close things off, here’s the Dramatica Dictionary description of the world Ability that Chris and I worked out some twenty years ago, straight out of the Dramatica diction (available online at http://storymind.com/dramatica/dictionary/index.htm :

Ability • Most terms in Dramatica are used to mean only one thing. Thought, Knowledge, Ability, and Desire, however, have two uses each, serving both as Variations and Elements. This is a result of their role as central considerations in both Theme and Character

[Variation] • dyn.pr. Desire<–>Ability • being suited to handle a task; the innate capacity to do or be • Ability describes the actual capacity to accomplish something. However, even the greatest Ability may need experience to become practical. Also, Ability may be hindered by limitations placed on a character and/or limitations imposed by the character upon himself. • syn. talent, knack, capability, innate capacity, faculty, inherant proficiency

[Element] • dyn.pr. Desire<–>Ability • being suited to handle a task; the innate capacity to do or be • An aspect of the Ability element is an innate capacity to do or to be. This means that some Abilities pertain to what what can affect physically and also what one can rearrange mentally. The positive side of Ability is that things can be done or experienced that would otherwise be impossible. The negative side is that just because something can be done does not mean it should be done. And, just because one can be a certain way does not mean it is beneficial to self or others. In other words, sometimes Ability is more a curse than a blessing because it can lead to the exercise of capacities that may be negative • syn. talent, knack, capability, innate capacity, faculty, inherant proficiency

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

Author’s Note:  Check out all our Dramatic products here.

And here’s something else I created for writers….

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A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 2

In my previous article, A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 1, I defined what an archetype is, and what it is not.  Here in Part 2, we’re going to expand on that understanding by revealing where archetypes come from and how they came to be in story structure.

Let us consider then the origin or archetypes…

Each of us has within us, regardless of age, gender, race, culture, or language, certain fundamental human attributes such as reason, passion, skepticism, belief, conscience, and temptation.

The qualities are not so much traits and processes our minds employ to try and understand our world and ourselves, to identify problems and seek solutions, and to chart a course forward to maximize the good in our lives and minimize the bad.

When we put a box around some aspect of our lives, such as our relationship to our spouse, our position at work, or our membership in a club or organization, we call it a narrative.  That’s all narrative is, really, is to box in a part of our existence to understand it independently of the rest of our life experience.

Of course, these personal narratives are not really closed systems since what happens in one part of our lives certainly affects the others.  But our lives as a whole are so complex that we need to parse them into smaller, more easily considered pieces  And each of of these is a personal narrative.

And, as we are all aware, we don’t only create narratives about ourselves and the people in our lives, but we also build them around larger issues, such as whether or not we believe in Global Warming, why we believe that, and what (if anything) we think should be done about it.  In short, every opinion we have is a narrative, large or small.

When we consider any of these personal narratives all of our human attributes come into play to try and choose the best path, e.g., reason, skepticism, and temptation.

But when we gather together in groups to explore a common issue or toward a common purpose, very quickly someone will emerge as the voice of reason for the group, another as the resident skeptic, and one other group member will represent the temptation to take the immediately expedient course (even if ill-advised in the long-term).

These roles that form within a group narrative are the basis of archetypes.  It happens automatically as the group self-organizes.  How this happens is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but should you care to dig deeper you may find the social dynamics behind it quite intriguing.

Now that we know how archetypes form, how did they get into story structure?  Well, to answer that we really need to define story structure.  Fortunately, the explanation isn’t all that complex.

To begin with, story structure isn’t artificial and it isn’t imposed on stories arbitrarily from the outside to cram dramatics into some sort of rigid form.  On the contrary, story structure gradually emerged in stories as early storytellers sought to understand the human animal as individuals and also how they interacted together.

Imagine, then, that we all have these fundamental attributes we employ in our personal narratives and that the same attributes rise up as archetypes in our group narratives.  These seminal storytellers would note that the problems we face every day occur when one of our personal narratives is in conflict with someone else’s and also that problems occur when our personal narrative is in conflict with our role in a group narrative.

Simply put – we conflict with others who have different agendas and we also feel pressure when our chosen course is in conflict with our part in the big machine.

Now, as storytellers began to note that the same human qualities (such as reason and skepticsm) kept cropping up in every story that felt complete, they began to include them in every story.  So, a Reason archetype became a required character in every story, as did a Skeptic.  The Protagonist and Antagonist showed up as well.

As more archetypes were identified, they embedded in the conventions of storytelling.  Through trial and error, all the of these “primary colors” of the human heart and mind were noted, made their way into those conventions, and eventually solidified into what we know as story structure today.

It should be noted that story structure is flexible, rather like a Rubik’s cube.  The building blocks are always the same but they can be arranged in a myriad of patterns, as long as they don’t violate the way people really interact.  Just as a Rubik’s cube is always a cube, a story structure is always a narrative.  That’s what gives it form.

Now the archetypes are just part of story structure.  Plot elements such as goal, requirements, and consequences as well as sequential movements like acts, sequences, and beats, describe the different ways folks strive to move a narrative forward to the conclusion they seek.  Thematic items, such as thematic issue, thematic conflict, and message look into our value standards and belief systems, pitting one against another to illustrate the best ways of dealing with different kinds of problems.  And even genre has underlying human qualities represented in the structure which tend to provide perspective and context for the narrative, giving it richness and and overall organic feeling.

All of what leaves us where?  Well, it leaves us with a general understanding of the origin of Archetypes and how they made their way into story structure.

And that is where we close in Part 2 of A Brief Introduction to Archetypes an anticipate Part 3 in which we will specifically list the archetypes, show how to employ them in your story, and then bust them apart into their component elements to illustrate how you can move beyond archetypes to create far more complex and human characters without violating the truth of structure.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Author’s Note: The concepts in this article are drawn from the Dramatica Theory of Narrative I co-created with my partner, Chris Huntley.  All of this and much more made its way into our Dramatica Story Structure Software, which you can try risk-free for 90 days.  Give it whirl!

And here’s something else I created for writers…

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A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 1

Writers and narrative theorists often speak of Archetypes.  When they do, Jung and Campbell and the Hero’s Journey quickly come to mind.  And yet, if pressed, most writers would admit they don’t really have a solid grip on what an archetype is, where they come from, and how they can or should be used in a story.

So, here’s a little exploration into the nature and function of archetypes in narrative to give you something a little more definitive…

First of all, archetypes are structural characters.  That means that a Protagonist is a Protagonist whether they are man, woman, creature, or humanized force of nature.  And it doesn’t matter how old they are, what their goal is, or what personality traits they have.

If you strip away all those storytelling elements, Hamlet is the same as Homer Simpson as Protagonists.

So what is this dramatic function that defines a Protagonist and makes them all the same?  By definition, a Protagonist is the character who will not stop trying to achieve the overall story goal until they succeed or die trying.

Okay, but that is very plot-oriented.  What about stories that focus on a troubled character who has to grapple with all kinds of life issues and perhaps make a decision or take a leap of faith in order to resolve them?

Well, the character in story who dealing with an inner demon or has a point of view (like Scrooge) that really needs changing is called the Main Character.  The Main Character in a story is the one you root for – it is the character you want to find peace and/or happiness.  And all the emotional ups and downs along the way seem to revolve around them.

Often, a Main Character is the same person as the Protagonist.  In this case,  you have a Hero – the guy leading the effort to achieve the goal is also the guy who is grappling with an inner issue.  And in the end, they will either succeed or not in the goal, and they will either resolve their personal issue or not.

The goal and the personal issue aren’t really tied together, so you can have four kinds of endings:

  1.  A Happy Ending in which the Hero succeeds and resolves his angst, as in Kingsman, Frozen, or Wizard of Oz.
  2. A Tragic Endings in which the Hero fails to achieve the goal and does not resolve his angst as in Doctor Zhivago, Hamlet, or Brokeback Mountain.
  3. A Personal Triumph in which the Hero fails to achieve the goal but manages to resolve his angst anyway as in Rocky, How to Train Your Dragon, or The Devil Wears Prada.
  4. A Personal Tragedy in which the Hero succeeds in achieving the goal but does not resolve his angst as in Chinatown, Silence of the Lambs, or The Dark Knight.

Getting back to archetypes, we can see why a Hero isn’t a true archetype but more of a stereotype who is created by making the same person in a story both the Protagonist and the Main Character.

Of course, the Protagonist is not always the Main Character.  Consider both the book and movie versions of To Kill A Mockingbird.  In the story, it is Atticus, the righteous lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie) who is the Protagonist.  He has the goal of trying to get an acquittal for a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in a small southern town in the 1930s.  He fails to do so, and after the conviction the man is killed trying to escape.

But Atticus is not the Main Character of To Kill A Mockingbird.  The Main Character is Atticus’ young daughter Scout. We see the story through her eyes.  And scout is the one with a personal issue to resolve: She believes that Boo Radley, the emotional challenged man who is kept in a basement down the street by his family, is a monster – a boogeyman who would kill children if he ever got hold of them.

Yet Scout has never seen Boo but has only bought into the rumors about him.  In the course of the story, Boo secretly protects Scout and her brother from the wrath of the white girl’s father who seeks to harm them because of Atticus defending the black man.

In the end, Scout realizes that it is Boo who has always looked after them from the shadows.  She had him all wrong, and she now smiles and accepts him for the caring man he really is.

And so, the message of To Kill A Mockingbird is that we (even innocent children) can be prejudiced whenever we prejudge someone based on hearsay and rumor, rather than by our own experience.

Imagine if Atticus were the Main Character instead.  Then the reader/audience would come out of the story feeling all self-righteous by standing in Atticus’ shoes.  Atticus never wavers in his belief in fair justice, so he has nothing to grapple with.  But by making Scout the Main Character, the message strikes home to the reader/audience at an almost subconscious level – deep enough to possibly make us all reconsider our preconceptions about others.

As you can see, a Protagonist is an archetype defined simply by being the character who will never stop pursuing the story goal.  And in this regard, Hamlet is no different than Homer Simpson.

The Main Character is not an archetype but a perspective – a character with whom the reader/audience can identify to provide a first person experience in regard to the story and an opportunity for the author to send a message about a particular outlook, such as with Scrooge.

At the end of part one of our introduction to archetypes we can sum up a few things:

  1. An archetype is a structural character
  2. An archetype is defined by their dramatic function, not their personality
  3. A Main Character provides the first person position in a story to the reader/audience
  4. A Main Character grapples with an inner issue.
  5. A Hero is a stereotype in which the person who is the Protagonist is also the Main Character.

As the final thought for part one, any of the archetypes might be made the Main Character so, for example, we might see the story through the eyes of the Antagonist, rather than the Protagonist, and it would be the Antagonist who is also the person struggling with a personal issue.  In this example, we have created one of the forms of an Anti-Hero.

Are there other kinds of Anti-Heroes?  Yes!  Who are they, and who are the other archetypes, and where do archetypes come from, and how can an author best put them to work?

These and many other questions will we answered in A Brief Introduction to Archetypes ~ Part 2 -coming soon….

Melanie Anne Phillips

Author’s note:  Most of these concepts come from the Dramatica theory of narrative structure I developed along with my writing partner, Chris Huntley.  They became the basis for our Dramatica Story Structuring Software.  Click the link to try it risk-free.

Here’s something else I made for writers…

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Character Development Tricks!

Here are a few of my best tricks for creating characters from scratch and for developing characters you’ve already created.

Though coming up with characters can be as simple as looking to our subject matter and asking ourselves who might be expected to be involved, that only creates the expected characters – predictable and uninteresting.

Building characters that are intriguing, unusual, and memorable is a different task altogether. Here’s a method you can use to start with those standard characters and sculpt them into far more interesting ones, step by step.

To begin, let us look to our subject matter and see what characters suggest themselves. (If you like, try this with you own story as we go.)

Example:

Suppose all we know about our story is that we want to write an adventure about some jungle ruins and a curse. What characters immediately suggest themselves?

Jungle Guide, Head Porter, Archaeologist, Bush Pilot, Treasure Hunter

What other characters might seem consistent with the subject?

Missionary, Native Shaman, Local Military Governor, Rebel Leader, Mercenary

How about other characters that would not seem overly out of place?

Night Club Singer, Tourist, Plantation Owner

And perhaps some less likely characters?

Performers in a Traveling Circus (Trapeze Artist, Juggler, Acrobat, Clown)

We could, of course, go on and on. The point is, we can come up with a whole population of characters just by picking the vocations of those we might expect or at least accept as not inconsistent with the subject matter. Now these characters might seem quite ordinary at first glance, but that is only because we know nothing about them. I promised you a trick to use that would make ordinary characters intriguing, and now is the time to try it.

Of course, we probably don’t need that many characters in our story, so for this example let’s pick only one character from each of the four groups above: Bush Pilot, Mercenary, Night Club Singer, Clown.

First we’ll assign a gender to each. Let’s have two male and two female characters. Well pick the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary as male and the Night Club Singer and the Clown as female.

Now, picture these characters in your mind: a male Bush Pilot, a male Mercenary, a female Night Club Singer, and a female Clown. Since we all have our own life experiences and expectations, you should be able to visualize each character in your mind in at least some initial ways.

The Bush Pilot might be scruffy, the Mercenary bare-armed and muscular. The Night Club Singer well worn but done up glamorously, and the Clown a mousy thing.

Now that we have these typical images of these typical characters in our minds, let’s shake things up a bit to make them less ordinary. We’ll make the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary female and the Night Club Singer and Clown male.

What does this do to our mental images? How does it change how we feel about these characters? The Bush Pilot could still be scruffy, but a scruffy woman looks a lot different than a scruffy man. Or is she scruffy? Perhaps she is quite prim in contrast to the land in which she practices her profession. Since female bush pilots are more rare, we might begin to ask ourselves how she came to have this job. And, of course, this would start to develop her back-story.

How about the female Mercenary? Still muscular, or more the brainy type? What’s her back story? The Night Club Singer might be something of a lounge lizard type in a polyester leisure suit. And the male Clown could be sad like Emit Kelly, sleazy like Crusty the Clown, or evil like Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s “It.”

The key to this trick is that our own preconceptions add far more material to our mental images than the actual information we are given – so far only vocation and gender.

Due to this subconscious initiative, our characters are starting to get a little more intriguing, just by adding and mixing genders. What happens if we throw another variable into the mix, say, age? Let’s pick four ages arbitrarily: 35, 53, 82, and 7. Now let’s assign them to the characters.

We have a female Bush Pilot (35), a female Mercenary (53), a male Night Club Singer (82), and a male Clown (7). How does the addition of age change your mental images?

What if we mix it up again? Let’s make the Bush Pilot 7 years old, the Mercenary 82, the Night Club Singer 53, and the Clown 35. What do you picture now?

It would be hard for a writer not to find something interesting to say about a seven-year-old female Bush Pilot or an eighty-two year old female Mercenary.

What we’ve just discovered is that the best way to break out of your own mind and its cliché creations is to simply mix and match a few attributes. Suddenly your characters take on a life of their own and suggest all kinds of interesting back-stories, attitudes, and mannerisms.

Now consider that we have only been playing with three attributes. In fact, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of attributes from which we might select. These might include educational level, race, disabilities, exceptional abilities, special skills, hobbies, religious affiliation, family ties, prejudices, unusual eating habits, sexual preference, and on and on. And each of these can be initially assigned in typical fashion, then mixed and matched. Using this simple technique, anyone can create truly intriguing and memorable characters.

So, imagine…. What would this story be like if we chose the seven-year-old female Bush Pilot as the Hero. How about the eighty-two year old female Mercenary? Can you picture the 53-year-old male Night Club Singer as Hero, or the thirty-five year old male Clown?

Perhaps the most interesting thing in all of this is that we have become so wrapped up in these fascinating people that we have completely forgotten about structure! In fact, we don’t even know who is the Hero, Protagonist, or Main Character!

Many authors come to a story with a main character in mind and can use this technique to break out of developing a stereotypical one.  Other authors are more interested in the events or setting of their stories and discover their characters (including the main character) in the process of working out the plot.  In that case, using this technique provides them with a whole cast of intriguing characters from which to choose the Hero.

The bottom line is that whether you have some or all of your characters in mind from the get-go or start with a story concept and create your characters along the way, these character development tricks will help you come up with the people you need to populate your story and ensure they are both fresh and real.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Author’s Note:  All of these concepts are drawn from my StoryWeaver software which takes you from concept to completion of your novel or screenplay step by step.  Try it risk free for 90 days!  Click for details…

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Get Out Of My Head!

When beginning a new novel, writers are often faced with one of two initial problems that hinders them right from the get go.

One – sometimes you have a story concept but can’t think of what to do with it.  In other words, you know what you want to write about, but the characters and plot elude you.

Two – sometimes your head is swimming with so many ideas that you haven’t got a clue how to pull them all together into a single unified story.

Fortunately, the solution to both is the same.  In each case, you need to clear your mind of what you do know about your story to make room for what you’d like to know.

If your problem is a story concept but no content, writing it down will help focus your thinking.  In fact, once your idea for a novel is out of your head and on paper or screen, you begin to see it objectively, not just subjectively.

Often just having an external look at your idea will spur other ideas that were not apparent when you were simply mulling it over.  And at the very least, it will clarify what it is you desire to create.

If, on the other hand, your problem is that all the little thoughts, notions or concepts that sparked the idea there might be a book in there somewhere are swirling around in a chaotic maelstrom….  well, then writing them all down will make room in your mind to start organizing that material by topic, category, sequence, or structural element.

For those whose cognitive cup runneth over, the issue is that one is afraid to forget any of these wonderful ideas, or to lose track of any of the tenuous or gossamer connections among them.  And so, we keeping stirring them around and around in our minds, refreshing our memory of them, but leaving us running in circles chasing our creative tales.

By writing down everything your are thinking, not as a story per se, but just in the same fragmented glimpses in which they are presenting themselves to you, you’ll be able to let them go, one by one, until your mental processor has retreated from the edge of memory overload and you can begin to pull your material together into the beginnings of a true proto-story.

Whether you are plagued by issue one or two, don’t try to fashion a full-fledged story at this stage while you are jotting down your notions.  That would simply add an unnecessary burden to your efforts that would hobble your forward progress and likely leave you frustrated by the daunting process of trying to see your finished story before you’ve even developed it.

Sure, before you write you’re going to need that overview of where you are heading to guide you to “The End”.  But that comes later.  For now, in this step, just write down your central concept and/or all the transient inspirations you are juggling in your head.

This tip was excerpted from my free online book,

Write Your Novel Step By Step

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Characters and Gender

Perhaps the most fundamental error made by authors, whether novice or experienced, is that all their characters, male and female, tend to reflect the gender of the author. This is hardly surprising, since recent research indicates that men and women use their brains in different ways. So how can an author overcome this gap to write characters of the opposite sex that are believable to all readers?

In this article, we’ll explore the nature of male and female minds and provide techniques for crafting characters that are true to their gender.

At first, it might seem that being male or female is an easily definable thing, and therefore easy to convey in one’s writing. But as we all know, the differences between the sexes have historically been a mysterious quality, easily felt, but in fact quite hard to define. This is because what makes a mind male or female is not just one thing, but also several.

First, let’s consider that gender has four principal components:

Anatomical Sex

Sexual Preference

Gender Identity

Mental Sex

Anatomical sex describes the physicality of a character – male or female. Now, we all know that people actually fall in a range – more or less hairy, wider or narrower hips, deeper or higher voice, and so on. So although there is a fairly clear dividing line between male and female anatomically, secondary sexual characteristics actually create a range of physicality between the two. Intentionally choosing these attributes for your characters can make them far less stereotypical as men and women.

Sexual Preferences may be for the same sex, the opposite sex, both, or neither (or self). Although people usually define themselves as being straight, gay, bi, or celibate, this is also not a fixed quality. Statistics shows, for example, that 1/3 of all men have a homosexual encounter at least once in their lives.

Although it often stirs up controversy to say so, in truth most people have passing attractions to the same sex, be it a very pretty boy or a “butch” woman.

Consider the sexual preference of your characters not as a fixed choice of one thing or another, but as a fluid quality that may shift over time or in a particular exceptional context.

Gender Identity describes where one falls on the scale between masculine and feminine. This, of course, is also context dependent. For example, when one is in the woods, at home with one’s family, or being chewed out by the boss.

Gender Identity is not just how one feels or thinks of oneself, but also how one acts, how one uses one’s voice, and how one wishes to be treated. Often, a male character may have gentle feelings but cover them up by overly masculine mannerisms. Or, a female character may be “all-business” in the workplace out of necessity, but wishes someone would treat her with softness and kindness.

Actually, Gender Identity is made up of how one acts or wishes to act, and how one is treated or wishes to be treated. How many times have we seen a character who is forced by others to play a role that is in conflict with his or her internal gender self-image? Gender Identity is where a writer can explore the greatest nuance in creating non-stereotypical characters.

Finally, Mental Sex describes where one falls on the scale from practical, binary, linear, logistic, goal-oriented thinking to passionate, flexible, emotional, process-oriented thinking. In fact, every human being engages in ALL of these approaches to life, just at different times and in different ways.

Now, in creating characters, consider that each of the four categories we just explored is not a simple choice between one thing or another, but a sliding scale (like Anatomical Sex) or a conglomerate of individual traits (like Gender Identity). Then, visualize that wherever a character falls in any one of those four categories places absolutely no limits on where he or she may fall in the other categories.

For example, you might have a character extremely toward male anatomical sex, bi-sexual (but leaning toward a straight relationship at the moment), whose gender identity is rough and tumble (but yearns to be accepted for his secret sensitivity toward impressionistic paintings) who is practical all the time (except when it comes to sports cars).  Any combination goes.

But when it comes to just Mental Sex by itself, there are four sub-categories within that area alone which tend to define the different personality types we encounter:

Conscious

Every character always has a Conscious choice to focus on the components or processes at any given moment. In other words, in a given situation, at each level of Mental Sex does a character center on the way things are or the way things are going? At each level is the character more interested in getting his or her ducks in a row or in a pond?

Memory

Memory relies on our recollections to organize our considerations in a give situation toward components or processes.  This can lead us to be more logistic or holistic by training, even if it is contrary to our conscious preference.

Subconscious

Subconscious is driven by the sum total of all our experiences, lumped together beneath the level of accessible memory.  It provides the tendencies we have to be attracted or repelled from the situations and activities we encounter in life.

Preconscious.

You might expect PRE-conscious to be in this list before Conscious, but there is a reason why it is here at the deepest level of our mental aspects.  Preconscious is a filter that stands between us and what we perceive.  It diminishes some things and enhances others.  In the extreme, it make things disappear or appear to exist when in fact they do not.

Think of Rose Colored Glasses, prejudices, or matrixing where we see animals in the clouds or faces in the patterns of floorboards, and you’ll get a feel for how the preconscious works.  Perhaps the best example is that after a time in a room we no longer hear the air conditioner or the refrigerator or the fish tank filers.  In psychology this is called a selective filter, and it is due to habituation.

But in terms of mental sex, the preconscious is even more than that.  There appears to be a difference in the wiring of the brains of men and women that is not due to experience but cast before birth.  And that leads to a difference in perspective in which men and women do not necessarily see our world the same way inherently.

In brief, each of these “levels” or “attributes” of the mind can lean toward seeing the world in more logistic or holistic terms.   And all four levels can be either one regardless of what the other three tend to be.

And so, people in the real world can be incredibly complex and in very subtle ways when it comes to the kinds of mental attributes we, as a society, tend to associate with one gender or the other.

Finally, beyond all of these considerations is the cultural indoctrination we all receive that leads us to respond within social expectations appropriately to the role associated with our anatomical sex. These roles are fairly rigid and include what is proper to wear, who speaks first, who opens the door or order the wine, who has to pretend to be inept where and skilled where else (regardless of real ability or lack there of in that area), the form of grammar one uses in constructing sentences, the words one is expected to use (“I’ll take a hamburger,” vs. “I’d like a salad”), and the demeanor allowable in social interaction with the same and the opposite sex, among many other qualities.

In the end, writing characters of the opposite sex requires a commitment to understand the difference between those qualities, which are inherent and which are learned, and to accept that we are all made of the same clay and merely sculpt it in different ways.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Why Characters Misunderstand Each Other

This article was originally written as part of an early draft of our book on the Dramatica theory of narrative which but was never included.  It seeks to describe how characters come to misunderstand each other, and how this can lead to conflict.

I’m reprinting it here due to the really useful concepts it brings to light, but bear in mind that many of the terms have evolved since then and many of the notions have been significantly refined over the years.

Here’s the gist, and then the article:

All of our understandings of each other are based on the narratives we create to get a grip on what someone’s intent is, and what their future behavior is likely to be.  Basically, we want to know what they mean by what they say, and what they are likely to do.

But trying to  grasp someone else’s meaning is an interpretive art.  And in addition, we all have our own blinders on – our own expectations based on a history of interactions, both with the specific individual with whom we are communicating and with other people, both similar and no so much, gathered over the course of our lives.

In the article that follows, I use the word “justification” to describe how those past experiences add up to expectations, pre-judgments and even blind spots that keep us from seeing what’s really going on or even warp it to convince us things are quite different – even opposite – of what someone really intended or intended to do.

Here is the original text:

What is Justification? Justification is a state of mind wherein the Subjective view differs from the Objective view. Okay, fine. But how about in plain English!!!! Very well, when someone sees things differently than they are, they are Justifying. This can happen either because the mind draws a wrong conclusion or assumes, or because things actually change in a way that is no longer consistent with a held view.

All of this comes down to cause and effect. For example, suppose you have a family with a husband, wife and young son. Here is a sample backstory of how the little boy might develop a justification that could plague him in later life….

The husband works at a produce stand. Every Friday he gets paid. Also every Friday a new shipment of fresh beets comes in. So, every Friday night, he comes home with the beets and the paycheck. The paycheck is never quite enough to cover the bills and this is eating the wife alive. Still, she knows her husband works hard, so she tries to keep her feelings to herself and devotes her attention to cooking the beets.

Nevertheless, she cannot hold out for long, and every Friday evening at some point while they eat, she and her husband get in an argument. Of course, like most people who are trying to hold back the REAL cause of her feelings, she picks on other issues, so the arguments are all different

This short description lays out a series of cause and effect relationships that establish a justification. With this potential we have wound up the spring of our dramatic mechanism. And now we are ready to begin our story to see how that tension unwinds.

The Story Begins: The young boy, now a grown adult with a wife and child of his own, sits down to dinner with his family. He begins to get belligerent and antagonistic. His wife does not know what she has done wrong. In fact, later, he himself cannot say why he was so upset. WE know it is because his wife served beets.

It is easy to see that from the young boy’s knowledge of the situation when he was a child, the only visible common element between his parent’s arguments and his environment was the serving of beets. They never argued about the money directly, and that would probably have been beyond his ken anyway.

Obviously, it is not stupidity that leads to misconceptions, but lack of information. The problem is, we have no way of knowing if we have enough information or not, for we cannot determine how much we do not know. It is a human trait, and one of the Subjective Characters as well, to see repetitive proximities between two items or between an item and a process and assume a causal relationship.

But why is this so important to story? Because that is why stories exist in the first place! Stories exist to show us a greater Objective truth that is beyond our limited Subjective view. They exist to show us that if we feel something is a certain way, even based on extensive experience, it is possible that it really is not that way at all.

For the Pivotal Character, it will be shown that the way she believed things to be really IS the way they are in spite of evidence to the contrary. The message here is that our understanding is sometimes not limited by past misconceptions, but by lack of information in the present. “Keeping the faith” describes the feeling very well. Even in the face of major contradiction, holding on to one’s views and dismissing the apparent reality as an illusion or falsehood.

For the Primary Character, it will be shown that things are really different than believed and the only solution is to alter one’s beliefs. This message is that we must update our understanding in the light of new evidence or information. “Changing one’s faith” is the issue here.

In fact, that is what stories are all about: Faith. Not just having it, but also learning if it is valid or not. That is why either Character, Pivotal or Primary, must make a Leap of faith in order to succeed. At the climax of a story, the need to make a decision between remaining steadfast in one’s faith or altering it is presented to both Pivotal and Primary Characters. EACH must make the choice. And each will succeed or fail.

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

If we decide with the best available evidence and trust our feelings we will succeed, right? Not necessarily. Success or failure is just the author’s way of saying she agrees or disagrees with the choice made. Just like real life stories we hear every day of good an noble people undeservedly dying or losing it all, a Character can make the good and noble choice and fail. This is the nature of a true Dilemma: that no matter what you do, you lose. Of course, most of us read stories not to show us that there is no fairness in the impartial Universe (which we see all too much of in real life) but to convince ourselves that if we are true to the quest and hold the “proper” faith, we will be rewarded. It really all depends on what you want to do to your audience.

A story in which the Main Character is Pivotal will have dynamics that lead the audience to expect that remaining Steadfast will solve the problem and bring success. Conversely, a story in which the Main Character is Primary will have differently dynamics that lead the audience to expect that Changing will solve the problem and bring success. However, in order to make a statement about real life outside of the story, the Author may violate this expectation for propaganda or shock purposes.

For example, if, in Star Wars, Luke had made the same choice and turned off his targeting computer (trusting in the force), dropped his bombs, and missed the target, Darth blows him up and the Death Star obliterates the rebels… how would we feel? Sure you could write it that way, but would you want to? Perhaps! Suppose you made Star Wars as a government sponsored entertainment in a fascist regime. That might very WELL be the way you would want to end it!

The point being, that to create a feeling of “completion” in an audience, if the Main Character is Pivotal, she MUST succeed by remaining Steadfast, and a Primary Main Character MUST change.

Now, let’s take this sprawling embryonic understanding of Justification and apply it specifically to story structure.

The Dramatica Model is built on the process of noting that an inequity exists, then comparing all possible elements of Mind to Universe until the actual nature of the inequity is located, then making a Leap of Faith to change approach or remain steadfast.

At the most basic level, we have Mind and we have Universe, as indicated in the introduction to this book. An inequity is not caused solely by one or the other but by the difference between the two. So, an inequity is neither in Mind nor Universe, but between them.

However, based on their past experiences (assumed causal relationships in backstory) a given Subjective Character will choose either Mind or Universe as the place to attempt to resolve the inequity. In other words, she decides that she likes one area the way it is, and would rather change the other. As soon as this decision is made, the inequity becomes a problem because it is seen in one world or the other. i.e.: “There is a problem with my situation I have to work out.” or “I have to work out a personal problem”.

Doesn’t a Character simply see that the problem is really just an inequity between Mind and Universe? Sure, but what good does that do them? It is simply not efficient to try to change both at the same time and meet halfway. Harking back to our introductory example of Jane who wanted a $300 jacket: Suppose Jane decided to try and change her mind about wanting the jacket even while going out and getting a job to earn the money to buy it. Obviously, this would be a poor plan, almost as if she were working against herself, and in effect she would be. This is because it is a binary situation: either she has a jacket or she does not, and, either she wants a jacket or she does not. If she worked both ends at the same time, she might put in all kinds of effort and end up having the jacket not wanting it. THAT would hardly do! No, to be efficient, a Character will consciously or responsively pick one area or the other in which to attempt to solve the problem, using the other area as the measuring stick of progress.

So, if a Main Character picks the Universe in which to attempt a solution, she is a “Do-er” and it is an Action oriented story. If a Main Character picks the Mind in which to attempt a solution, she is a “Be-er” and it is a Decision oriented story. Each story has both Action and Decision, for they are how we compare Mind against Universe in looking for the inequity. But an Action story has a focus on exploring the physical side and measuring progress by the mental, where as a Decision story focuses on the mental side and measures progress by the physical.

Whether a story is Action or Decision has nothing to do with the Main Character being Pivotal or primary. As we have seen, James Bond has been both. And in the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, Indy must change from his disbelief of the power of the ark and its supernatural aspects in order to succeed by avoiding the fate that befalls the Nazis – “Close your eyes, Marian; don’t look at it!”

Action or Decision simply describes the nature of the problem solving process, not whether a character should remained steadfast or change. And regardless of which focus the story has, a Pivotal Character story has dynamics indicating that remaining steadfast is the proper course. That mean that in an Action story, a Pivotal Character will have chosen to solve the problem in the Universe and must maintain that approach in the face of all obstacles in order to succeed. In a Decision story, a Pivotal Character will have chosen to solve the problem in the Mind, and must maintain that approach to succeed. On the other hand, a Primary Character, regardless of which world she selects to solve the problem, will discover she chose the wrong one, and must change to the other to find the solution.

A simple way of looking at this is to see that a Pivotal Character must work at finding the solution, and if diligent will find it where she is looking. She simply has to work at it. In Dramatica, when a Pivotal Character is the Main Character, we call it a Work Story (which can be either Action or Decision)

A Primary Character works just as hard as the Pivotal to find the solution, but in the end discovers that the problem simply cannot be solved in the world she chose. She must now change and give up her steadfast refusal to change her “fixed” world in order to overcome the log jam and solve the problem. Dramatica calls this a Dilemma story, since it is literally impossible to solve the problem in the manner originally decided upon.

From the Subjective view, both Pivotal and Primary work at solving the problem. Also, each is confronted with evidence suggesting that they must change. This evidence is manifested in increasingly growing obstacles they both must overcome. So what makes the audience want one character to remain steadfast and the other to change?

The Objective view.

Remember, we have two views of the Story Mind. The Subjective is the limited view in which the audience, in empathy with the Main Character, simply does not have enough information to decide whether or not to change. But then, unlike the Main Character, the audience is privy to the Objective view which clearly shows (by the climax) which would be the proper choice. To create a sense of equity in the audience, if the Main Character’s Subjective Choice is in line with the Objective View, they must succeed. But if a propaganda or shock value is intended, an author may choose to have either the proper choice fail or the improper choice succeed.

This then provides a short explanation of the driving force behind the unfolding of a story, and the function of the Subjective Characters. Taken with the earlier chapters on the Objective Characters, we now have a solid basic understanding of the essential structures and dynamics that create and govern Characters.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about Dramatica

and learn more about Narrative Science

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4 Writing Tips for Novelists

1. Novels Aren’t Stories

A novel can be extremely free form. Some are simply narratives about a fictional experience. Others are a collection of several stories that may or may not be intertwined.

Jerzy N. Kosinski (the author of “Being There”) wrote another novel called “Steps.” It contains a series of story fragments. Sometimes you get the middle of a short story, but no middle or end. Sometimes, just the end, and sometimes just the middle.

Each fragment is wholly involving, and leaves you wanting to know the rest of the tale, but they are not to be found. In fact, there is not (that I could find) any connection among the stories, nor any reason they are in that particular order. And yet, they are so passionately told that it was one of the best reads I ever enjoyed.

The point is, don’t feel confined to tell a single story, straight through, beginning to end.

Rather than think of writing a novel, think about writing a book. Consider that a book can be exclusively poetry. Or, as Anne Rice often does, you can use poetry to introduce chapters or sections, or enhance a moment in a story.

You can take time to pontificate on your favorite subject, if you like. Unlike screenplays which must continue to move, you can stop the story and diverge into any are you like, as long as you can hold your reader’s interest.

For example, in the Stephen King novel, “The Tommy Knockers,” he meanders around a party, and allows a character to go on and on… and on… about the perils of nuclear power. Nuclear power has nothing to do with the story, and the conversation does not affect nor advance anything. King just wanted to say that, and did so in an interesting diatribe.

So feel free to break any form you have ever heard must be followed. The most free of all written media is the novel, and you can literally – do whatever you want.

2. Get Into Your Characters’ Heads

One of the most powerful opportunities of the novel format is the ability to describe what a character is thinking. In movies or stage plays (with exceptions) you must show what the character is thinking through action and/or dialog. But in a novel, you can just come out and say it.

For example, in a movie, you might say:

John walks slowly to the window and looks out at the park bench where he last saw Sally. His eyes fill with tears. He bows his head and slowly closes the blinds.

But in a novel you might write:

John walked slowly to the window, letting his gaze drift toward the park bench where he last saw Sally. Why did I let her go, he thought. I wanted so much to ask her to stay. Saddened, he reflected on happier times with her – days of more contentment than he ever imagined he could feel.

The previous paragraph uses two forms of expressing a character’s thoughts. One, is the direct quote of the thought, as if it were dialog spoken internally to oneself. The other is a summary and paraphrase of what was going on in the character’s head.

Most novels are greatly enhanced by stepping away from a purely objective narrative perspective, and drawing the reader into the minds of the character’s themselves.

3. Keep A Daily Log Of Tidbits

One of the biggest differences between a pedestrian novel and a riveting one are the clever little quips, concepts, snippets of dialog, and fresh metaphors.

But coming up with this material on the fly is a difficult chore, and sometimes next to impossible. Fortunately, you can overcome this problem simply by keeping a daily log of interesting tidbits. Each and every day, many intriguing moments cross our paths. Some are notions we come up with on our own; others we simply observe. Since a novel takes a considerable amount of time to write, you are bound to encounter a whole grab bag of tidbits by the time you finish your first draft.

Then, for the second draft, you refer to all that material and drop it in wherever you can to liven up the narrative. You may find that it makes some characters more charismatic, or gives others, who have remained largely silent, something to say. You may discover an opportunity for a sub-plot, a thematic discourse, or the opportunity to get on your soapbox.

What I do is to keep the log at the very bottom of the document for my current novel, itself. That way, since the novel is almost always open on my computer, anything that comes along get appended to the end before it fades from memory.

Also, this allows me to work some of the material into the first draft of the novel while I’m writing it. For example, here are a few tidbits at the bottom of the novel I’m developing right now:

A line of dialog:

“Are you confused yet? No? Let me continue….”

A silly comment:

“None of the victims was seriously hurt.” Yeah – they were all hurt in a very funny way.

A character name:

Farrah Swiel

A new phrase:

Tongue pooch

A notion:

Theorem ~ Absolute Corruption Empowers Absolutely

Corollary ~ There are no good people in positions of power

I haven’t worked these into the story yet, but I will. And it will be richer for it.

4. Don’t Hold Back

Unlike screenplays, there are no budget constraints in a book. You can write, “The entire solar system exploded, planet at a time,” as easily as you can write, “a leaf fell from the tree.”

Let you imagination run wild. You can say anything, do anything, break any law, any taboo, any rule of physics. Your audience will follow you anywhere as long as you keep their interest.

So, follow your Muse wherever it leads. No idea is too big or too small. Write about the things you are most passionate about, and it will come through your words, between the lines, and right into the hearts and souls of your readers.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Of Showers and Fractal Time

As you likely know, I am the co-creator of the Dramatica theory of narrative, the Storymind theory of narrative psychology, and of the Mental Relativity theory of what can best be called narrative physics, which deals with the underlying mathematics of the Dramatica model and how they apply to our perceptions of reality, even so far as to determining what we perceive to be the laws of the physical world.

What you may not know is that, though the original tenets and equations of Dramatica are still as valid today as they ever were, the extent of the theory has continued to grow as it has been applied to more and subjects and as more and more branches of the theory have been developed to a greater extent.

But today, something has happened for which there is no precedent: I have discovered a new part of the theory equal to all that has been previously documented and emanating side by side from the very top.

For those in the know, this new realm is the temporal equivalent of “one side multiplies and the other divides” from our first breakthrough regarding the equations of narrative.

With that concept framing the coming explanation, let us begin…

Originally, the “one side multiples and the other divides” came to me in a dream (yeah, right, but really).  You can read all about it here:  Dramatica – How We Did It

This new half of the theory also began with a dream.  So sue me.

I had this dream about a university where I was going to be speaking about, what else, narrative theory.  Before the talk, a professor in one of the classes asked me to help him with a problem:  He couldn’t schedule his class because the students weren’t completing their projects on time.  I thought for what seemed like about ten seconds in the dream and then gave him my advice: Use one time for the class and another for the projects.

I had no idea what this meant at the time any more than I did about “multiplies and divides” in the previous incident.  But the dream then continued.  Apparently, I had just finished the speaking presentation and afterward, the dean of the university called me to his office with a problem as well.  He complained that he couldn’t schedule the university because the professors weren’t keeping their classes on time.

Again, I thought for about ten seconds and gave him this advice: Use one time for the university and another for the classes.

And then I woke up.  And I realized this was the same kind of thing as my previous dream nearly 30 years ago.  And again, as before, I had no idea what it meant.

So I thought about it, and then I thought some more.  I was convinced this instance held the same potential as the first one – I just didn’t know what that was yet.

As before, then, I realized I need to back-burner process this until my subconscious was ready to divulge what it wanted my conscious mind to know.  But the bummer is, I didn’t ask for this knowledge – didn’t want it – wanted to just drift off into the sunset having done my work on narrative theory.  But no.  Stupid subconscious!

So this went on for a few weeks with several concepts put forth by my conscious mind to explain what this meant, yet all of them falling short of really connecting with what this dream felt like it meant.

And then this morning, in the shower, the truth of the matter struck me.  I had been thinking the past few days and old thought with a new spin.  For some years I’ve realized that there is a pace at which I can work on projects, even those that I don’t like, that is comfortable and pleasant.  And there is a pace at which the work is horrible and stressful.

Earlier this week, I told Teresa that I didn’t get out and hike or go to the movies any more because I have been putting off taking a shower until late in the day when I’m too tired to out and have fun.  But, I have always hated taking a shower.  I loathe it.  I find it the most unpleasant thing one can do on a regular basis.

But today, I made a point to take a shower earlier than normal so we could get done some essential work before the weekend.  And while in the shower, I realized that I was racing through the process because I hated it, but had never in my life taken a leisurely shower and luxuriated in it – because I HATE it – luxuriating in a shower?  Non sequitur.

But what if, said my mind to me – what if the actual reason you hate showering is because you race through it.  And what if you intentionally slowed down and took your time?  So, unable to resist a practical experiment, I slowed down.  I stood in the warm water, sensually applied the suds and – well, let’s not get grody about all this.  “Grody” – ancient vernacular – look it up.

What I found was that I could actually enjoy a shower, if taken as a pleasant clip.  And then the “one time for the big thing and one for the component smaller thing” came back to me.  And I realized that message from my subconscious was all about fractal time.  Yeah..  that’s right… fractal time.

But I had no idea what I meant by fractal time.  So I walked around the concept in my head and this is what I saw.  Dramatica theory and its offshoots and cousins are all about that point at which if you are looking at something macroscopic digitally – in other words, you can see the macroscopic components, then there is a point microscopically where the littler components are so small, you fail to see pieces because they all blend into a single unit or a single line: “one side multiples and the other divides”: one side is seen as homogeneous and the other as made of parts.

In Dramatica, the differential between those two magnifications is the essence of what defines the scope of a narrative. We call it “the size of mind constant.”  It states that single narratives can be no larger than  one in which when you look at the biggest part of the story argument you can’t look any larger without being able to hold the smallest parts of the message argument in your mind at the same time.  Or conversely, when you look at the smallest parts of the argument, the narrative can be no bigger than one in which you can also see the components of the biggest parts of the argument at the same time.

Like boxcar covering a certain number of ties on a railroad track, our minds can see a certain span from the largest to the smallest in one single glance.  We get around this limitation by moving the box car back and forth along the track.  So, we move beyond the largest components of the argument and temporarily lose sight of the smaller pieces, consigning them to memory, then move down to the details again and beyond those smaller pieces into even smaller parts of the argument and lose track of the larger components.

Back and forth we go, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, pushing the limits of what we can see about the subject until we would see so much we’d lose track of what it all meant as it turns into a structure-less glob of perspectives.

A fractal dimension in narrative is defined by a human limitation as to the biggest argument you can make in which all parties can see all the parts without any blending into homogeny.  We call such a narrative a Grand Argument Story because though you can tell smaller narratives, you can’t tell larger ones.  (Though a story might contain more than one narrative, in which case each must fit within the size of mind constant, but they can all be considered as part of the entire work that explores that subject matter – just like in real life where we all juggle many narratives simultaneously and in succession as well.

Now that’s a spatial fractal.  One definition of a fractal is “the spatial record of the results of the interaction of order and chaos.”  But what is a temporal fractal?  What would that be, I wondered, still in the shower…

Well the first thought was going back to the dream.  My original interpretation had been that one time for the big and one for the smaller had this aspect I couldn’t quite parse but I could feel that I wasn’t being told the solution was magnitudes of time but qualities of time, natures of time – as if one kind of time for the big and another kind for the small.

So I starting thinking about what kinds of time there were.  And then, up from the memory vaults, came a concept I’d put forth in 1996 or thereabouts when I was recording hours of audio speculating and extending Dramatica narrative theory into narrative psychology and narrative physics:  Objective time vs. subjective time.

I those days I had first thought these two kinds of times mean one that was the same for everyone and another kind that was unique to the individual.  You know, kinda like Einstein’s theory that the faster you go, the more time slows down for you compared to everyone else.

Of course, we really see that in the old example of the space ship going near the speed of light, but in reality, that subjective time is there always, in each of us because, after all, just by standing on a different part of the globe, we are traveling faster or slower – 1000 mph at the equator, 600 mph in the temperate zones, and near 0 mph at the poles (discounting our transit round the sun and our solar system through the galaxy and so on, ad infinitum.

But since the effects of speed on time increase logarithmicly or some such, you can’t really see them at the speeds we’re talking about here.  Still, it is intriguing to consider that the person just a few feet away from you is aging at a different rate than you are because you are not rotating around the earth at the same speed.

After a few years, however, I abandoned the concept of objective and subjective time as interesting but not particularly useful (and too experiential), and instead shifted to thinking of time as being either constant or stretchy.  Stretch time…  I really liked the sound of that.  It meant that time could be constant (within observable parameters) as we both watch the seconds go by on a clock, but could be changing for each of us, relative to one another, as we go pacing back and forth in a room opposite to each other (within measurable, or at least theoretical parameters), due to our changing speeds in rotation around the earth.

So one magnitude of time is observable (constant) and the other is beneath the level of our observation (stretchy).  That replicates the relationship of macroscopic and microscopic narrative argument components that defines the fractal nature of narrative described above in relation to the Grand Argument Story.  So THAT is what a temporal fractal is – a flow of time that appears to be constant (objective reality) and an actual flow that goes faster and slower for each individual compared to all the others (subjective reality).

Now isn’t it strange that in the case of time itself, what you can commonly observe appears to objective reality, and what you individually experience but cannot observe appears to be subjective reality, and yet, constant time is really based only on the common limits of our collective minds to perceive differences, so it is really subjective, and stretchy time is what is really going on with each of us, yet because it cannot be directly observed and is different for each individual, we see it as subjective time when it really is the objective truth.  There’s enough just in that alone to create mobius loops of our philosophy and our science.

So the reality is that time is stretchy, but we perceive it as constant.  That seems simple enough.

After a while, back in the 90s and early 2000s I can to call stretchy time relativistic time because is was both more accurate and also sounded more scientific.

While in the shower then, all this came flooding back to me and I then understood that the two kinds of time from my dream were constant time and relativistic time.  One kind (such as a class) has to be constant when the other (individual projects) has to be seen as relativistic (each student proceeding at his own pace.

Of course you see, then, that for the constant to remain a constant even if some students’ projects would exceed the class time allotted, then to end at the appointed time, each project could only be completed if the amount of detail in the project were allowed to vary to enable a more swift completion.  And this illustrated how time (deadlines) are related to space (detail) and how each affects the other.

So, my two kinds of time were actually part of the same quad that began with “one side multiples and the other divides.”  That’s the spatial part of the narrative/psychology/physics of the model.  The temporal side is “one side is absolute and the other is relative.”  Together, they complete a quad one level up from the entire Dramatica model we have created so far.  In other words, this opens up a second half of narrative consideration, equal in size to that of the original, but all about time.

Now the multiply/divide side gave us an equation that resulted in the development of four separate classes of stories/considerations – Universe, Physics, Mind, and Psychology.  Universe is the fixed external state of things.  Physics covers all the external processes.  Mind is about fixed states of mind.  Psychology covers internal processes (manners of thinking).

Taken collectively, these four classes describe all external or internal states or processes.  Spatially speaking, you can’t think of anything that isn’t an external or internal state or process.  Game over.  Done.

But now with time as the second half of the multiply/divide quad, what would the four top-level classes of temporal narrative be?

Inception, Duration, Flow, and Fluctuation.  In other words, when does it start, how long does it last, how fast is it going, how much does that vary?

The four classes of temporal narrative structure – the prime fractal dimension.  There it is.

Of course, I’m sure those names will change and the understanding of what they mean and how they relate to one another in a quad arrangement will alter and grow.  But for now, I am simply reporting a rather nice breakthrough in realizing there were two more components at the top to fill out the quad, and to suggest the four temporal classes that engenders.

Time for a lunch break.

Melanie Anne Phillips

 

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Happy New Year, Writers!

I’ve been teaching creative writing now for more that twenty-five years, and here are my best tips for starting your new writing year:

First, schedule your writing time like you would a dentist’s appointment. Why?  Because as Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.”  We all hate going to the dentist, and most of the time, we also hate writing – coming up with words for the page is like pulling teeth.  But after we’ve gotten the gumption and gotten it done, the afterglow of the results ranges from satisfaction to ecstasy.

So put it down on your calendar.  And then, as soon as it is over, schedule your follow-up visit before you leave the office or you’ll never get around to it.

Next, during your writing session, don’t sit in front of a blank page trying to come up with something to say. Rather, let your mind wander to favorite memories, favorite subjects, or even to problems, worries or fears, and just write about them.  Consider it a warm-up exercise before you get your game on.

As you warm-up, you’ll find that your mind naturally begins to feel its way around the subject you intend to write about.  And at some point, you’ll come up with an idea on that topic that is so logistically important or emotionally powerful to that you find you’ve already started writing about it instead of the warm-up topics.

Third, never try to force the Muse to work on a story problem. Cut her free. By nature, she is full of boundless energy and wants to explore your creative mind with reckless abandon.  Try to shackle your Muse to the task at hand, and she’ll balk.  But if you let her run wild, even if it is WAAAAY off topic, it is like another warm-up exercise in the middle of the long routine of writing.  Every once in a while you need to come up for air, feed your head, and give  your heart some candy.  In short, don’t feel that once you start working on your actual story that you can’t diverge whenever the Muse stands at the door with her leash asking to go for a walk.

Fourth, write about what you love.  Sure, we all have dreams of writing a great novel or script, and perhaps we will, but don’t let that make you choose a less epic topic because you think it has the potential to be more noteworthy.  In fact, the odds of writing something truly meaningful go WAY down if you don’t write about what moves you personally.

But here’s the rub – this is a real pisser for me personally… The kinds of stories I like to read are not the kinds of stories I’m very good at writing. Man, that gets stuck in my craw!  I want to write sci-fi-ish action stories of great adventure, incredible discovery and amazing tales of triumph over unbelievable odds! But every time I try it is all mechanical, stilted, or (worst of all) completely lame.

Yep, I’d also like to be a pastry chef, but I’m good at making sauces. I’d like to be a chess champion, but I flub it all up, yet I can triumph in checkers or tic-fracking-tac-freaking-toe.  My private horror (don’t tell anybody): what I’m good at is this. Yes, this. Writing inspiring articles so others can write all the wonderful things I’d like to write. What manner of hell is this?

Not to worry, though.  I’ve just started a new novel, and for the first time it is something I really, really, really want to work on.  I’m actually enjoying the writing of it and can’t wait until the next session – not like a dentist’s appointment at all: more like an ice cream social.

Yep, that happens too.  But not often.  So don’t wait for it – do the other stuff I’ve mentioned and get things “wrote” in between the rare bromance with a flirty story you just can’t resist.

Well, I’ve come to terms with it. That’s why you’ll find literally HUNDREDS of articles on story structure and storytelling here and also on my writing tips web site at Storymind.com [Self Serving Plug Alert]

I eventually came to the conclusion I’d rather write what comes naturally than get perpetually stuck trying to write what I like to read. If I want that other kind of story – the one I’m no good at – I’ll read somebody else’s.  So, I’ve finally embraced the awful, yet sobering and even somehow calming notion that it is better to be a carefree pianist, bringing music into the world with little effort at all, than a continually struggling trombonist, blurting out a few stilted notes and never affecting anyone nor even finding satisfaction in my own work.

Summing up then my tips for you new writing year…

I urge you all to set up that time where you are forced (by resolution) to do nothing. And from that nothing will rise your Muse like a Kraken of Creativity, snarling out its arms to embrace every shiny, beckoning or threatening notion within its horizon, consuming it, and spewing out prose of a grand and powerful ilk upon the world, upon yourself, upon your soul.

May God have mercy upon us all, for we are writers.

Now get Kraken in this new year, for God’s sake (and for your own)!

Melanie Anne Phillips

Oh – and you might want to try this too:

Posted in Creative Writing | Comments Off on Happy New Year, Writers!