Finding Your Story’s Core

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Every story has a core – that concept at the center that pulls all of the story elements into a cohesive whole, establishes meaning and message, and provides the story with an overall identity.

There are four fundamental kinds of cores, though each has endless variations.

1. Universe stories that are all about a fixed situation people must grapple with, such as being stuck in an overturned ocean liner, locked in a high-rise building with terrorists, being handcuffed to a murder, being the only member of a group with a particular gender or race, having a physical deformity.

2. Mind Stories that are all about fixed mind sets such as exploring or overcoming prejudice, belief in something that defies all evidence to the contrary, an unreasonable fear, a determination to accomplish something even if the reason for doing it has vanished.

3. Physics stories that are all about activities such as a trek through the jungle to obtain a lost treasure, the attempt to build the first self-aware artificial intelligence, a race across a continent in the 1800s, the effort to find a cure for a virulent new disease.

4. Psychology stores that are all the the thinking process, such as trying to come to terms with personal loss, grappling with issues of faith, overcoming addiction, growing to become a true leader.

Which of these four kinds of cores best describes what you want your story to be about and how you want it to feel?

By picking a core, you will have a central defining vision for your story that will keep it on track during development, and your completed story will come across with a powerful unified impact on your readers or audience.

The “Core” concept is part of the Dramatica Theory of Narrative Structure

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A Word About Inspiration for Writers

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

Learn more about StoryWeaver at

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Writing Con Men, Shady Businessmen, and Seedy Politicians

Characters, as with real people such as con men, shady businessmen, and seedy politicians, will often use statistics to paint a false, yet plausible, picture.

For example, one such character might state that 12% of all high-school dropouts were beaten by their parents. What he doesn’t say is that 12% of high school graduates were also beaten by their parents.

By not providing statistics for the whole group, there is no comparative, and a causal relationship between beatings and dropping out is inferred.

To build your characters, read the news, see these techniques used in life and then apply that in fiction to believably drive your story forward .

Melanie Anne Phillips –

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Message and Context

The message of a story comes from context. It is context that eventually convinces Scrooge that his way of looking at the world is incorrect. Yet, before he was shown the bigger picture, his personal experience presented quite a different picture.

The Influence Character in a story (the ghosts, in the case of A Christmas Carol) presents that alternative context, shifting their argument, act by act, as the Main Character tries to maintain his conclusions by side-stepping.

Eventually, the Influence Character will chase the Main Character’s reasoning around the block until there is nowhere left to side-step and he or she must face that bigger picture.

At that point – the point of climax in the personal journey of growth for the Main Character – he or she will either accept or reject this new context (either change or remain steadfast in their views) in a leap of faith, and the ramifications of that choice will determine if the story ends in success or failure.

To help with creating these context and developing the progressive conflict between the Influence Character and the Main Character, we developed Dramatica: the world’s only writing software with a patented interactive Story Engine that cross-references your answers to questions about your story to create a template for perfect story structure.

You can try it risk-free for 90 days at our web site at

Melanie Anne Phillips

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About Your Story’s Title

By Melanie Anne Phillips

What’s in a name?  Having at least a working title will help you start your story, even if you ultimately change the title.

The title of your story may or may not have dramatic significance.  In some cases, the meaning of the title may become apparent only during the course or even at the end of a story.  There have even been stories in which the final understanding of the message is only achieved when the title becomes the last piece in the puzzle.

Consider the value of these example titles such as The Verdict (which refers to the story’s climax), Alien (which refers to the subject matter), and The Silence of the Lambs (which refers to the Main Character’s personal problems).

Whether or not a title plays into the story itself, it will always frame the first impression it has on your readers or audience.  To illustrate this, imagine all the other titles the original Star Wars movie might have had.  In actuality, Star Wars was originally titled The Adventures of the Starkiller, then Episode One of the Star WarsAdventures of Luke Starkiller, and even The Journal Of The Whills.  Now, of course, it has been renamed Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.  Clearly, you can immediately feel the impact a change in title has on the reader/audience first impression of your story.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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The Four Stages of Story Development

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Authors differ in many ways in how they approach the creation of a story, yet there are four stages in the process through which each author must travel:

1.  Inspiration

2.  Development

3.  Exposition

4.  Storytelling

In the Inspiration stage, you come up with your basic ideas for your Plot, Characters, Theme, and Genre.

In Development, you flesh-out these ideas, adding details and making all the bits and pieces work together in harmony.

In Exposition you determine how to reveal your narrative to your readers or audience over time, story point by story point.

In Storytelling you establish your style, pacing, and voice.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips:

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The Story Mind (Part 10) – The Four Throughlines

Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica

The structure of a story, then, is the psychology of a single mind made tangible. For the story to be sound and ring true, the psychology must be complete and valid.

But to make a complete argument, it is not enough to simply reproduce the Story Mind structure. We must go beyond that and move into a larger realm that involves the audience.

In a nutshell, the audience will not be satisfied until they see the Story Mind presented to them from four different points of view – the Objective Story, the Main Character, the Obstacle (or Influence) character, and the Subjective Story. Simply put, imagine the goings on in a story as a battle. We can watch that battle from up on a hill overlooking the field, as a General might. This is what we call the Objective view of the story, since it is seeing the story from the outside in. Though from this perspective we care about what happens, it is not as if it is happening to us. Rather, we are simply watching it happen to others. Because we see the big picture, we can tell if a soldier is headed into an ambush, or how he might best achieve his goals. We can evaluate decisions made on the field as being good or bad in the grand scheme of things.

The Objective view is the same perspective we have in real life when we see others trying to deal with their problems. It is easy for us to think we see the best course, not being involved ourselves, and we often offer advice and comments like, “Why don’t you just…” or “How could you possibly have….”

Of course, this ignores how that person might feel, and dismisses any attachments or emotional needs they may have. Because we have no vested interest in the outcome, we can consider the situation dispassionately. After all, we don’t have to wake up in the morning having to deal with the consequences of their actions.

But if we zoom down onto the field and stand in the boots of one of the soldiers, we get a completely different point of view – the Main Character perspective. From here we experience the most passionate appreciation of the battle, rocked by the concussion of dramatic explosions all around us, stumbling across the field without that objective overview, just trying to do our job and survive the clash.

The Main Character view represents our own sense of self – the Story Mind’s self awareness. It is the view from the inside looking out. Though we can clearly see the situation surrounding others, that is a perspective we cannot get of ourselves. Rather, we must try to deduce the “big picture” based on the little personal glimpses of it we get while we grapple with our problems.

For an audience to feel that all the angles of the story’s problems have been explored, both of these real life points of view must be included in the structure. And yet, even they are not sufficient: there are two more perspectives required as well.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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The Story Mind (Part 9) – The Story Mind Revisited

Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica

So what, exactly, is the Story Mind made of? Dramatica says that “Every complete story is an analogy to a single mind trying to deal with an inequity.” Now that’s very scientific, but what does it really mean? It means that characters, theme, plot and genre are not just people with value standards doing things in an overall setting – rather, character, theme, plot and genre are different families of thought that go on in our own minds, mad tangible, incarnate as character, thematic arguments and plot points.

So a story is as if an author took the mechanism of our minds, made it tangible and put it out there for us to look at so we could examine the problem solving process. Rather than having to be involved in it subjectively, we are told by the author that he or she has the benefit of insight or experience, and that even though it may feel one way to us on the inside, there is a more objective understanding of how we should proceed.

In fact, the Main Character represents the reader/audience position in the story. It represents our own position in our own heads. We know who we are at any given time. In regard to any given issue, we know where we stand.

In essence then, the Story Mind concepts says, “Think of a story as if it were a person.” There’s only one Main Character in a story because there’s only one “I” in our own minds. Further, we all have the same emotion and logical considerations, and each of these must appear as characters in a story for it to feel complete as well. If any parts are missing, the story’s argument will feel incomplete.

Dramatica also says that this Story Mind system came into being as a natural by- product of the process of communication. If you want to state that the approach you are promoting in your story is either the best or worst of all that might be tried, that you have to actually show all the other approaches that might reasonably be taken and illustrate why they aren’t as powerful as yours.

When you create a story argument that has no holes, then you have included all the ways a human mind might consider to solve a problem. In effect, you have created a model of the mind’s problem solving process – a Story Mind.
No one set out to build this model directly. But through centuries of trial and error in storytelling, conventions were developed that worked because they built an analogy to the psychology of the mind.

With this in mind, every once in a while, stand back from your story and think of it as a single person. It is so easy for an author to get so lost in the details of making all the parts work that he or she loses sight of the big picture – the overall impact of the story as a whole.

By taking time to examine whether your story has a sound psychology that makes it feel like a functional person and that the personality of the story itself is both human and interesting as well, you’ll create a consistency that can’t be achieved simply by looking at the structural elements through a microscope.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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The Story Mind (Part 8) – Writing Remakes

Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica

What happens if you mess up and just alter part of a structure without considering the structure-wide impact that change may have? Here’s an example….

Consider the Bill Murray film, “Scrooged:” (a remake of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”) as opposed to “Scrooge” (the 1951 version of the story starring Alistair Simm).

In the Simm version, Scrooge goes about business in the usual English fashion, but lacks generosity. That is illustrated by his refusal to donate to charity, his lack of consideration for Bob Cratchett’s family’s plight, and statements about the poor such as, “If they would rather die, then they should do so and decrease the surplus population.”

Though some of this continues to exist in the Murray vehicle, the writers clearly wanted to me his character even more of a villain. So, they spent far more time focusing on how mean Murray’s character is, rather than staying centered on his lack of generosity.

In the Simm movie, Scrooge, the ghost bombard him with visions of those he hurt because he might have helped yet did not. Even in the first act, Marley’s ghost laments that he and his ilk are doomed to wander the earth, witnessing those who need help but being unable to intercede.

In the Murray picture, the ghosts make more or less the same argument – there are those who are suffering because you will not help. Yet, that isn’t his problem in this version. His problem is that he is mean-spirited.

In the Simm story (as in Dickens’ original), the Ghost of Christmas Present confronts him with two waifs named Ignorance (lack of education) and Want (lack of what is needed). This drives how the point that it is a lack of action from which Scrooge suffers.

The same arguments are made to Bill Murray’s character. But when he finally changes, it seems a bit hollow. It feels somewhat unmotivated and trite.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the film. But wouldn’t it have been far more satisfying at an emotional level if the argument had matched the problem that needed to be resolved.

If the writers of “Scrooged” had wanted to update the story by making the lead character more proactively villainous, then they should have changed the arguments made by the ghosts as well. Instead of showing Ignorance and Want, they might have shown Defeat and Suffering. These would be the children of the Murray-Scrooge character’s actions – victims of his mean-spiritedness, and a truth with which he could not quibble.

As you can see, structure and storytelling are intimately acquainted, yet are two different creatures. Storytelling can be altered at (as George W. Bush said) “The whim of a hat.” But structure cannot be made mincemeat, willy nilly. No sir! Structure must remain balanced, in symmetry, and if one aspect is changed, then care must be given to ensure that all other affected parts of the structure (directly or indirectly) must be appropriately adjusted as well.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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The Story Mind (Part 7) – Story Structure vs. Storytelling

Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica

By now, you’re likely pretty familiar with the concept that every story has a mind of its own – a psychology (the structure) and a personality (the storytelling). But, if you are like many authors, knowing that and being able to identify the difference in a finished story may be something of a problem.

Until you can almost intuitively see the difference between story structure and storytelling in a completed story, you stand little chance of being able to employ that knowledge in creating your own stories.

So, in the seminar I teach on Dramatica Theory, our interns came up with a video we show in class that illustrates the point quite clearly. The short segment compares two films that have almost identical structure – “Cyrano de Bergerac” (Jose Ferrer, 1950) and an updated remake of the story, “Roxanne” (Steve Martin, 1990).

In Roxanne, the names have been slightly altered (Chris for Christian and Charley for Cyrano), the wardrobe is contemporary, the setting is in a modern city and the language is plain old American English.

Still, for all these differences, the underlying structure remains the same – the Cyrano character is in love with a girl, believes he is undesirable so does not approach her, but when he learns of another’s love for her he helps the fellow by writing flowery love sonnets to express his own love, thereby satisfying partially his need to share his soul with her. Ultimately, the ruse is discovered, the other suitor rejected, and the girl realizes that Cyrano (Charley) is the one she truly loves.

There is, however, one major structural difference between the two. In the original Cyrano, it is the title character’s suggestion that he write the letters for Christian in order to impress the girl. In Roxanne, it is Chris’ suggestion that Charley (the Cyrano character) write the letters.

As a result, the person who is responsible for all the troubles that follow has changed. Therefore, in the original movie Cyrano does not get the girl and in fact is mortally wounded. But in Roxanne, since it was not he idea to perpetrate the deception, Charley does get the girl and lives to enjoy her love.

When you make a change in one part of a structure, it will almost certainly require changing at least one other aspect of the structure to keep things in balance. The writers of Roxanne intuitively knew this, though they were likely

simply trying to create a film with a happy ending, and yet, they didn’t just change that part. They went right back to the beginning and gave the onus of hatching the plan to Chris rather than Charley.

Writerly instincts or intentional structural design, I do not know. But, in your stories, the more you are able to perceive what will have a structural impact and what is simply a storytelling choice, the more you will be able to ensure that your stories’ structures are sound.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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