Category Archives: Story Structure

Plot Points – Static vs. Sequential

Some time ago I wrote an article explaining how plot wasn’t the order in which events appeared in a story, but the order in which they happened to the characters.  The storytelling order can be all mixed up for effect.  As an example, consider the Quentin Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction, in which several interconnected story lines are presented quite out of order from how they actually came down.  A large part of the fun for the audience is to try to put the pieces together in the right sequence so they understand the meaning of the story.

Of course, that’s an extreme example.  Much more common is the simple flashback (or flash forward).  But even here, some flashbacks are plot, and others are storytelling.  First, consider a story in which the story opens in a given year and then the next section begins with the introduction, “Three years earlier…”  In this case, the characters aren’t being transported back in time, just the reader or audience.  The author is showing us what happened that led up to where things are “now” in the story.  That is all storytelling, and can be quite effective.

But now consider a flashback in which a character recalls some incident in the past.  The character drifts off into reverie and then we, the readers or audience, watch those events as if they are in the present, observing the memories as the character experiences them.  This is plot, not storytelling, because neither character nor readers are transport back in time.  Rather, we are just observing just what the character is reminiscing about in the here and now.  And so, this trip to the past does affect the character – it changes how they feel and perhaps what they will do next.

This is also true of flash forwards: Do we jump into the future to see where a character will end up, or is the character projecting where they might end up and we are seeing what they are thinking?  The first variation is storytelling, the second is plot.

Of course things can get really out of whack in time-travel stories, especially since you can add both plot flashbacks and storytelling flashbacks also.  The important thing here is to know when you are actually altering your plot or just changing the order in which the readers or audience are shown parts of the plot.  If you are aware, you can play these techniques like a virtuoso, but if you treat them all the same, you’ll just end up with a cacophony.

But, as I said, that was covered in an earlier article I wrote, but I am repeating it here as a necessary foundation to what comes next.  And that is, the difference between Static Plot Points and Sequential Plot Points.  Very important.

To begin, if you strip away all the storytelling aspects of plot and get down to just the structure (the order in which things happen to the characters), you’ll find there are two kinds of plot points:  One, Static Plot Points, such as the story Goal, that remain the same for the whole course of the story, and Two, Sequential Plot Points, such as Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Beats within a scene, in which the story moves from one to the next to the next until the progression of the plot arrives at the climax, resolves and ends.

And that is what this article is about – giving you a glimpse into those two aspects of plot.

First, let’s look at the static plot points.  We’ll cover just four in this article to make the point about static vs. progressive and address others in later articles.  Here’s the four we’ll explore:

Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings.

Here’s a brief description of each:

Goal is what the protagonist is trying to achieve and the antagonist is trying to stop.  Each probably has recruited their own team of helpers enlisted to aid in their two contradictory quest, but it is ultimately the protagonist and antagonist who have to duke it out to determine if the effort to achieve the goal ends in success or failure.

Now we all know that some goals turn out to be not worth achieving and that some goals are born of a misguided understanding, and also that goals can be partially achieved so, for example, the protagonist doesn’t get everything they want but enough to cover what they really need.  No matter how you temper it, the story Goal is the biggest linchpin in your story’s plot.

Requirements are what’s needed to achieve that Goal.  Requirements might be a shopping list of things the characters need to obtain or accomplish in any order (like a scavenger hunt) or Requirements could be a series of steps that need to be checked off in order.

Now you’d think that would make Requirements a sequential plot point, but it doesn’t because the Requirements remain the same for the entire story.  So, just because you have to fulfill requirement 1 and then 2 and then 3, doesn’t make them sequential.  Sequential plot points are like gears that turn to a different setting every act, sequence, or scene.  The focus of each act, for example, is different than the last one, while the Requirements remain the same, even if they have to be accomplished in a certain order.

Yeah, this stuff can get pretty complex.  That’s why you have me, your friendly neighborhood teach of story structure and storytelling to guide you through these tricky little story structure quagmires.

Consequences, are sort of like an Anti-Goal.  Consequences are what will happen if the goal is not accomplished.  It’s kind of like the flip-side of the coin.  One the one side is the positive desired future and on the other side is the negative undesired alternative if that future isn’t achieved.

Consequences are really important because they double the dramatic tension of the story.  The character are just chasing something positive, they are also being chased by something negative.  Will they catch the Goal before the Consequences catch them?  That’s where plot tension comes from.  Right there.

Forewarnings…  Just as Requirements are how you can chart the progress toward the Goal, Forewarnings are how you can chart how close the Consequences are to happening.  Consequences can be cracks in a dam, follow by a small drip, a few little leaks, and so on.  Everyone knows that at some point, the dam is going to bust – unless the characters achieve the Goal first, such as diverting the upstream flow, or opening the jammed overflow gates.

Forewarings can also be emotional too.  A man must make his fortune to satisfy a woman’s father before he can get permission to marry her.  But, there is another suitor.  While he’s off looking for a legendary treasure, the woman has a casual conversation with the rival.  As the man remains away, the woman and the rival share a meal, have a picnic, sit close together on the beach, watching the sunset.  We all know that if the man doesn’t return with the treasure soon, the woman will go with the suitor who is there, rather than the man who isn’t.

So those are four examples of static plot points.  There are many more.  You’d be surprised!  Some of them are extremely handy in making a plot click like clockwork.  Alas, those are beyond the scope of this particular article.  But don’t worry, I’ll be covering those in the not too distant future.  Was that a flash forward?

All right.  Now what about the Sequential Plot Points?  A storya unfolds over time – not just in the telling, but the whole point of a story is to follow a journey and learn if the characters involved make the right decisions or not to get what they are after, both materially and emotionally.  And we, the readers or audience, gain from that experience so we are better prepared if we ever face that kind of human issue in our own lives.

Now of course nobody thinks about that while following a story, but that’s how it works at the structural level.  That’s part of the craft of authorship: to structure a story to affect readers or audience in a certain way intentionally to move them to feel or respond in a desired fashion when all is said and done.

To this end, think of a story as a symphony.  You may know that symphonies are made of of movements – large sections of time in which certain themes are explored.  And then the symphony shifts into another movement in which a different theme is explored.  By the end of the symphony, all the variations of the theme that the composer wanted the audience to experience have been related, leading to a final climax and conclusion.  How very like a story.

In stories, the largest of these movements are the acts.  You can feel them when watching a movie or reading a book.  There comes a point where something major is completed and the characters move on to a different kind of effort or understanding.  Or, some major event occurs that sends everything off in a different direction. You get a sense of completion when you reach an act break, and also the sense that the next stage or phase of the story’s journey is about to begin.

Within acts are smaller movements called Sequences.  Sequences usually follow an arc that spans several scenes.  It may be a character arc or a kind of effort or process that has its own beginning, middle, and end within the story as a whole.  For example, we’ve all heard of the “chase sequence” that often occurs in action movies.  That’s how they come across, basically.

Scenes are smaller units and are more defined.  They are like little dramatic circuits that have a Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome (Power).  Each scene is a little machine – a miniature story within an act.  Each scene starts with some dramatic potential, runs into a resistance, presses forward, and ends with a resolution to that original potential.

One of the most elegant things about scenes is that the way a scene ends set up the dramatic potential that will start another scene later.  Elegant, but hard to get your head around.  Again, not to worry, I’ll be covering that aspect of plot in another article soon.

Point being, that each scene is a tooth on the cog of an act.  And together all these act cogs work together as part of the plot machinery of your story.

And finally, just as I covered four of the most basic static plot points, here is the fourth and final sequential plot point I’ll give you for now:  Beats.

Beats are the turning of the gears within each scene.  They are the steps within the scene that introduce the potential, bring into play the resistance, pit those against each other, and spit out the outcome.

What those beats are and how to use them is, again, the subject of another article.  But the point here is that the sequential progression of a plot isn’t just one event after another; it is more like wheels within wheels.

And so, I believe we have accomplish our goal of the moment, which is that you are now probably quite away that the order of events in a finished story is not at all the plot.  The plot is the order in which events happen to the characters.

And plot has two kinds: static, and sequential.  The static point points include such things as Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings, and never change their nature over the course of the story.  The sequential plot points are like gears that move the machinery of the plot forward, act by act, sequence by sequence, scene by scene, and beat by beat.

And that, my fellow writers, is how a story rolls.

For more on how to use these concepts to build your story, try out the StoryWeaver Story Development Software I designed just for that.  And to learn more about how to structure your story, try out the Dramatica Story Structure Software I co-created with my partner.

Until next time, may the Muse be with you!

Melanie Anne Phillips

Character Change vs. Character Growth

Main characters don’t have to change to grow.  They can grow in their resolve.

It is a common misconception among authors that the main character in a story must change in order to grow.  Certainly, that is one kind of story,  as in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge alters his way of looking at the world and his role in it.  But other stories are about characters overcoming pressures put upon them to change their view point and holding on to their beliefs, such as in Field of Dreams where main character Ray Kinsella builds a baseball stadium in his corn field believing the old time players (and eventually even his father) will come to play.  In the end, he is not dissuaded from what appears to be an quixotic plan of a misguided mind, and his steadfastness results in the achievement of his dreams.

It is essential in any novel or movie for the readers/audience to understand whether or not the main character ultimately changes to adopt a new point of view or holds on to his beliefs.  Only then can the story provide a message that a particular point of view is (in the author’s opinion) the right or wrong way of thinking to achieve success and personal fulfillment.

But not all stories have happy endings.  Sometimes, the main character changes when he should have stuck with his guns in regard to his beliefs and becomes corrupted or diminished or fails to achieve his goals  A good example of this is in the movie The Mist (based on a Stephen King novel) in which the main character finally decides to give up on trying to find safety from monsters and shoots his son and surrogate family to save them from a horrible death only to have rescuers show up a moment later.

Other times, holding onto a belief system leads to tragic endings as well, as in Moby Dick in which the main character, Captain Ahab (Ishmael is the narrator), holds onto his quest for revenge until it leads to the death of himself and the destruction of his ship and the death of all his crew, save Ismael who lived to tell the tale.

Though writing is an organic endeavor, when you make specific decisions such as whether your main character will change or remain steadfast and what outcome that will bring about, you strengthen your message and provide a clear purpose to your storytelling that results in a strong spine in your novel or screenplay.

Whether your main character changes or remains steadfast is one of the questions we ask about your story in our Dramatica story structure software.  You can try it risk-free for 90 days and return it for a full refund if it isn’t a good fit for your writing style.

Click here for details…

Melanie Anne Phillips

What is Dramatica?

What is Dramatica?

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

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

The Story Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie Anne Phillips

This article is drawn from the author’s
Dramatica Story Structure Software

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A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 3

Archetypes are the spine of any story, whether you use them in a monolithic manner or sculpt them into more complex variations.  Understanding archetypes will help you to ensure your structure is human and complete.

In part 1 of this series we defined what archetypes are.  In part 2, we discovered where archetypes come from and why they showed up in story structure.  Here in part 3, we’ll define a specific cast of archetypal characters and outline how to employ them to strengthen your story.

How many archetypes are there?  I have my own answer to that question but to see what else is out there I did a quick search and found scores of lists of archetypes, each with its own collection.  One of them promised (and actually provided) more than three hundred different archetypes!

In looking through that group, I discovered something interesting:  There was no consistency to what they considered to be an archetype.  Some were defined by their profession, such as “Chef.”  Now, I suppose if I really twisted my head around, I could see a “Chef” archetype as being a character who goes through life with recipes, trying to bring things together into a finished whatever, though it seems a bit of a stretch.

Another archetype was “Builder,” but how is that much different from a Chef?  The Builder probably has plans (a recipe) that he uses in life to try and make things (like a meal, or a perfect marriage or, again, whatever).

And then there were archetypes put forth by Jung: the Mother, the Trickster, and the Hero, for example.  The Mother is a relationship by birth, the Trickster is defined by what he (or she) tries to do to others, and the Hero is a Hero because of his stout heart, I imagine, or perhaps because of heroic acts.  You can see these kinds of folks in real life, but what is the consistency that defines them or the underlying concept that binds them all together?

The farther I read through this extensive list, the more confusing it became trying to understand what made an archetype an archetype – be they con man, coward, or crone.  And worse, it gave me no idea how a Coward might interact with a Chef, or a Trickster with a Crone.

Honestly, it’s kind of a mess out there in archetype-land.  And that’s what my partner Chris and I discovered some thirty years ago when we first began work on what was to become our own theory of story structure, including our own list of archetypes.

If you’ve read in the first two articles in this series, you know that we came to believe that archetypes – true archetypes – represent the most fundamental human attributes that we all share such as Reason, Emotion, Skepticism, and Faith.

When we are trying to understand what’s happening in our lives and chart a course forward, we bring all of these attributes to bear on the problem so we can see the issues from all angles by using all the mental tools we have to make the best decisions.

That’s how we do it as individuals.  However, when we gather together in groups such as a team or a company or even a family, and we agree to work toward a common cause or purpose, the group automatically self-organizes so that one person emerges as the voice of Reason for the group at large, and other becomes the resident Skeptic. Least ways, that’s our theory.

In other words, we each take on roles representing one of the fundamental approaches we take to solving problems for ourselves.  And in this way, the group benefits from having a number of specialists on the job, rather than a collection of general practitioners, all trying to do the same thing.  It is kind of a natural progression of social evolution when humans bond together.

So, in stories (which try to represent the human issues of real life), every character uses all these traits to solve their personal problems in the tale, but take on the role of representing just one of these traits when working with the group.  And those roles ultimately became embedded in the conventions of story structure as archetypes.

Now our theory of story structure is a lot more detailed and complex than that, but you get the idea.  And based on that idea, here is our list of archetypes associated with the human qualities they represent.

There are four primary or Driver archetypes and four secondary or Back Seat Driver archetypes that influence the primary ones.  First I’ll list them by the human attributes they represent, and then I’ll list them again with their archetypal names as they appear in story structure.

Driver Archetypes:

Initiative / Reticence

Intellect / Passion

Passenger Archetypes:

Conscience / Temptation

Confidence / Doubt

As you can see by the primary attributes listed, the driver archetypes directly try to grapple with the problem whereas the passenger archetypes think about consequences and put the problem in context.  It is just the way the human mind works when it fashions narratives to get a grip on the situation.

Now here are those same attributes again with their archetypal names.

Driver Archetypes:

Initiative (Protagonist) / Reticence (Antagonist)

Intellect (Reason) / Passion (Emotion)

Passenger Archetypes:

Conscience (Guardian) / Temptation (Contagonist)

Confidence (Sidekick) / Doubt (Skeptic)

Let’s take the archetypes one by one just to get a sense of how each human attribute shows up in a story.

First up, the Protagonist.  The Protagonist is the character that keeps on plugging away at the goal, no matter what.  That’s the human quality of Initiative – the motivation to affect change, get up and go, make something happen, shake things up, and so on.

Next, the Antagonist.  The Antagonist is the character that wants to prevent the goal from being accomplished, no matter what.  That’s the human quality of Reticence (reticence to change) – the motivation to keep things as they are, put them back the way they were, quash the fires of rebellion, and so on.

Side note:  In James Bond films, it is the villain who takes the first strike and Bond who thwarts him, so from an archetypal standpoint, the villain is the Protagonist and Bond is the Antagonist, just by the human attributes they represent in structure.  Just think about that for a moment.  It is one reason why Bond seems like a different kind of hero.  There’s a lot more about this kind of thing in our theory, but its a bit off-the-point for now, so lets look at the next pair of archetypes.

The Reason archetype is the character who tries to solve every issue by figuring it out.  They apply logic to the matter, and if it doesn’t make sense, they are against it (rather ignoring the humanity of the situation).

The Emotion archetype is the character who wants everyone to follow their heart – be yourself, if it feels right do it (as we used to say in the 60’s).  Of course, now I’m actually in my 60’s but that’s another story….

Now before we move on to the passengers, consider how these archetypes always travel in  pairs.  Protagonist / Antagonist and Reason / Emotion.  Every archetype has a counter part, and the conflict between the characters in each pair mirrors the conflicts in our own minds as we duke it out between two different ways of deciding what to do so we can have confidence in the last one standing as the approach to take.

In other words, our initiative is weight or pitted against our reticence – should we do something or let sleeping dogs lie?  Which is better?  Well, that all depends on the situation, and that’s what stories are all about: The author is telling us that in this particular situation, it is better to take initiative, or that it is better to try and maintain the status quo.  But the primary decision we have in the world is to act or not to act, and that’s why Protagonist and Antagonist have at each other as the problem-solving effort of the story progresses – to provide evidence for the author’s message about which is the better approach in this specific case that the story explores.

It is the same with Reason and Emotion.  But it is also different in a big way.  Initiative and Reticence are diametrically opposed.  Intellect and Passion can be opposed, but don’t have to be.  Sometimes they can actually agree.  Sometimes what makes the most sense also feels the best.  Sometimes what makes sense feels so-so.  And sometimes it feels like a horrible thing to do.  Both Reason and Emotion might also agree that something is rotten – it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t feel right either.

As you can see, with these two pairs of archetypes we’ve discovered two different kinds of character relationships.  And when you build a story around each of these characters, you’ll see all of these pop up as it unfolds.

Now, let’s take a look at the passengers to get a better grip on those archetypes…

The Guardian looks out for consequences as in, “Where’s this all going to lead to?” or “Fine, but what price might we have to pay later.”  These are the functions of the human quality of conscience.

When you think about it, if you strip away all the moral associations, Conscience is really about thinking about the ramifications and Temptation is going for the immediate benefit (we’ll get around the consequences later..  somehow….)

And so, Guardian and Contagonist are partly about the long term gain vs. the short term gain.  You see folks who lean more to one or the other in real life, but we all have both of those two traits  – even a sociopath weighs the immediate benefit vs. the eventual risk.

And finally we have the Sidekick and the Skeptic.  In stories, think of the Sidekick as the faithful supporter and the Skeptic as the doubting opposer.  These two archetypes are rather like cheerleaders – one representing our confidence in finding a solution and the other representing self-doubt.

Of course in stories, the overall plot is about the group, so these attributes show up like they do in real-life organizations: Confidence says, “Go team!  I know we can do it!” where Doubt is more like Eeyore or the Cowardly Lion, “I think we’d better give up on this because we haven’t got a chance.”

Now I could go on and on about these archetypes and, in fact, I actually have!  Here’s a link to a free online version of the book we wrote about our theory of story structure.

You might also be interested in the software we created based on the theory.  You can try it risk-free for 90 days!  Check it out…

Though this concludes our brief introduction to archetypes, in future articles, we’ll break the archetypes into smaller dramatic elements and show how you can rearrange those to create more complex and deeper characters that will fulfill all necessary structural roles.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Here’s something else I made for writers:

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…

Is Story Structure A Myth?

A whole flock of Story Gurus (myself included) will tell you that stories have structure. Therefore, if you learn that structure you’ll improve your stories. Ostensibly, this will lead to fame, riches, a keen sense of accomplishment, and the unparalleled pleasure of the act of writing itself.

But is that true? Do stories have a structure? And even if they do, is there really any way to figure out what it is? Based solely on the number of competing theories, one might suspect that either stories don’t have structures or that even those who spend their entire lives trying to figure it out, can’t!

But there’s an alternative explanation – actually, a couple of them, and I’d like to share those with you now….

First of all, we have two questions:

1. Do stories have structures?

2. Can we ever really define what they are?

We’ll take them in turn.

Stories have structure. There, I said it. But now I have to prove it. And so I’ll say something else – not all written works are stories. And many of those other kinds of writing don’t have any structure at all. In other words, when people use the term “stories” in a casual way to mean any durn thing an author writes, well, then it is impossible to agree if stories have structure or not, ’cause some of them do and some of them don’t.

So the first thing we need to do is divide what we commonly think of as stories into two different camps. One includes all those written works that have structure and the other contains all the written works that don’t.

Now its pretty silly to say that that any written work could exist that has absolutely no structure. So I’ll go back a bit on what I said. Even a dictionary has structure, sentences have structure, and paragraphs follow the conventions of a particular gramatic form.

Every random collection of words with no intent behind them has structure. Why? As a species we see animals in clouds, mythic figures in glops of stars, and impose images on inkblots. From this we can surmise that the human mind tries to impose structure even on chaos. No matter what written work we might examine, no matter how fluid and free-form, there will be those who see a clear structure in the thing.

Let’s no be so picky. If you see structure in everything, then you already don’t think structure is a myth so my work is done here. But when most people think of structure in regard to writing, they are not talking about grammar or form. Rather, they have “formula” in mind. In other words, writers tend to equate structure with a rigid formula for telling a story – a list of requirements that must be met or the story will suffer.

So let’s go with that and refine our first question to read as follows:

1. Is there a rigid formula that must be followed to write a successful story?

No.

Wait a minute! Didn’t I just say “Stories have structure,” and now I’ve turn ’round and proclaimed , “No they don’t.”

Yes. Yes I did. And here’s why…. Stories have structure but that structure isn’t a rigid formula; it is a flexible form. That’s why its so hard to see – its never quite the same from one story to the next.

Yet, the elements remain the same: There are Characters, Plot and Theme. There are personal problems, and goals, and moralities. There are acts, and scenes and beats. We feel their necessity, we sense their consistency, yet these are just impressions. The actual nature of the structure remains elusive, seen only in glimpses in shadows, never showing itself clearly.

This is not surprising. It is like the old story of three blind men trying to describe an elephant: One feeling the trunk, “It is long and twisty like a snake”. Another, examining the leg, “It is tall and round like a tree.” The last, exploring the ear, “It is thin and flat like a rug.”

Story Gurus are each describing the same elephant in the room. Each is seeing a portion of the truth. While the descriptions seem in conflict or at least disparate, they are really just parts of the same beast.

I’m not here to promote my particular view of the critter. Rather, I figure my “truth” is also just another facet of a greater “Truth”. So in regard to the questions I posed, let me answer like this:

Yes, stories have structure. No, we’ll never see the whole of it. But the more story gurus you study, the more sides you see of what stories are, what they can be, how they work, and how to build them.

Embrace what works for you, reject what feels wrong, and strive to develop your own take on story structure, always remembering that no matter how clearly it appears to you, its probably just another piece of the puzzle.

The bottom line is that you should apply structure only in ways that enhance your productivity and your enjoyment in pursuing your craft. Anything else has no more place in your writing life than a rigid structure can be applied to every kind of story.

To that end, I created a couple of software products for writers:  StoryWeaver (for inspiration and development) and Dramatica (for structure).  Check ’em out, and help support this poor, retired, teacher of creative writing, eh?

Melanie Anne Phillips

What Is Story Structure?

Most writers are not story theorists, and don’t want to be. Still, an understanding of the way stories work can help support a writer’s instincts to make sure a flawed structure won’t get in the way of the creativity.

So what is story structure?  It is a map of the way people go about solving different kinds of problems, and a message by the author as to which methods are better than others.

Where did story structure come from?  Well, for thirty thousand years or so we’ve been telling stories, but nobody every really invented story structure.  Rather, story structure just kind of emerged as a byproduct of the effort to describe how individuals deal with problems and how they interact with others when dealing with problems that affect more than one person.

Story structure first appeared as the conventions of storytelling – certain truisms about the way people think and feel and they behave with one other.  These truisms might not have covered every real world situation, but they were useful enough as general guidelines for crafting a story that would feel real to readers or audience members and make a clear point about personal choices and behavior in general.

Now a lot of writers wanted something a little more tangible – something they could rely on as a framework for a story that really worked.  In addition, a few theorist-types like Aristotle, Jung and Campbell, were interested in seeing if there was some sort of common thread in structure, perhaps an overarching perspective in which it all made sense, or at the very least a way of better connecting what was going on in stories with real life issues and how people dealt (or even should deal) with them.

These kinds of inquires led to the development of everything from the concept of a three-act structure to the “hero with one thousand faces” to the famous and nearly ubiquitous “hero’s journey.”

Some twenty-five years ago, Chris Huntley and I developed our own model of story structure based on one new idea no one had ever proposed before called the Story Mind – as if the story itself had its own psychology, in which every character represents a facet of that larger group mind.

In our research we came to believe that every individual has certain common traits we all share, such as Reason and Skepticism.  And we each use all of them to try and solve our personal problems.  But when we gather together in groups to solve problems of common concern, we begin to specialize so that one person emerges as the Voice of Reason for the group, and another comes to be the group’s resident Skeptic.

In this way, the group can get greater depth or resolution on how to go about solving complex problems than if all the members worked as general practitioners, all trying to do all the jobs, each and every one.

It was our feeling this sort of thing naturally occurs whenever we gather toward a common purpose because, in a sense, it is a good survival trait for the group as a whole, and therefore for everyone in that group.

Well, there’s a lot more to our theory of story structure than that, but armed with this initial breakthrough concept, we spent about three years trying to build a model of story structure.  And the end result was an interactive model of all the different kinds of traits we all share, both large and very small, and how they hang together.  Those, we felt, were the elements of structure, and we created a kind of periodic table of story structure to show their dramatic properties and how they all related to one another.

And beyond that, we discovered that there were dynamics built right into the conventions of story structure that could only be seen if you looked at it as a Story Mind.  We cataloged those and how the whole structure was really a very flexible affair in which truisms were no longer needed because you could create very specific structures for just about any issue you might like to explore as an author.

Eventually, we converted those relationships into a software-based Story Engine in which you could make choices about the kinds of dramatics you wanted to put forth in your story, and the Story Engine would actually be able to determine the ramifications of each choice on the other dramatics in your story.  Ultimately, we used the story engine as the heart of a new story structuring software product called Dramatica.  We got a patent for it, in fact!  I was very proud.

Now, if you own the Dramatica software, you’ve probably noticed it presents a flat chart called the “Theme Browser” that shows how dramatic subjects relate to one another.  Though it isn’t in the software, there is also a 3D projection of the flat chart that looks something like a Rubik’s Cube on steroids, or a super-complex 3-D chess board. You can download a free copy of it in PDF.

The flat chart provides a map of the elements that make up stories and the 3D chart is the best way to understand the  “winding up” process of dramatic tension of your story.  Essentially, when you run into troubles in life, you try one kind of a solution after another – one different item in the flat chart after another until you find one that works.  In the 3D chart, this is like moving the dramatic  element around in a Rubik’s Cube manner.

Whenever you try one solution instead of another, you not only bring the new one to the front but simultaneously push the old one into the background or onto the back burner.  In the 3D chart, we call that “flipping and rotating” because sometimes you flip positions of dramatic items and other times you rotate them to change the order in which they are applied.  After all, some problems are caused by using the wrong process and other problems are caused  by using the right processes but in the wrong sequence.

The Story Engine at the heart of the Dramatica software tracks all of those elements to make sure no dramatic “rules” are broken. What’s a Dramatic Rule? As an analogy, you can twist and turn a Rubik’s Cube, but you can’t pluck one of the little cubes out of it and swap it’s position with another little cube. In other words, you can create all kinds of patterns, but you can’t break structure. Similarly in stories, you can create all kinds of dramatic patterns, but you can’t just drop story elements wherever you want – they have to MOVE into place and take others with them or the structure won’t hold up because it doesn’t match the way our own minds work.

When you answer questions about your story in Dramatica, you are expressing your dramatic intent – the dramatic pattern you want to create for your audience. That says something about the final arrangement you want with the “colors” in the Rubik’s Cube of your story.

Every time you make a choice, you are saying, “I want my story to look like this, as opposed to that.” You are choosing just as much what you DON’T want in your story as what you do.

The choices are cumulative – they pile up. The more you make, the more Dramatica’s Story Engine winds up. Your ongoing choices start to become limited as to which options are still available, not by arbitrary and rigid rules, but because some choices or combination of choices simply prevent other options from being possible in that particular story if the structure is to be true to our own way of thinking as human beings.

Imagine – what would happen if you put any combinations of things into a story without limits? Then anything goes. That means there is no good structure or bad structure, in fact there would be no structure at all, just a heap of conflicting dramatic messages.

So, what is structure? Structure is nothing more than making a point, either logistically or emotionally or both. Many stories don’t need structure because they are not about making a larger point or having a message, but are designed to be experiences without any greater overall meaning.

We call experiential structures “Tales” and greater meaning structures “Stories.”  So, if you have an unbroken chain of events that makes sense coupled with a series of emotional experiences that don’t violate the way people really feel, that’s all you need to have a complete Tale structure.  But, to have a complete Story structure, each event and experience is part of an overall pattern that becomes clear by the time the story is over.  There is nothing better or worse about a Tale compared to a Story, but authors of Stories take upon themselves a more demanding rigor.

Historically, it has been easy to miss a step in the events of a tale or a beat in the emotional journey.  And, it has been even harder to ensure that each of those dramatic moments contributes to the greater meaning in a story.  That’s why Dramatica’s Story Engine was built –not to inspire or help you build your story’s world per se, but to ensure that whatever you want to write about, and whether you want to tell it as a tale or a story, the underlying structure will be sound, complete, and tuned to just the message you want to convey to your readers or audience.

You can try out the Story Engine for free!  The demo version of Dramatica is fully functional, other than saving your work.  So if you want to try some of the questions and play around with the other tools, you can download the demo here and get everything the Story Engine has to offer except for saving your work to continue with it in later sessions.

Honestly, you may find Dramatica a little daunting, as it is extremely powerful and wide ranging with all kinds of features and functions.  And, it is built on our theory of story structure, which (though elegant) is also extensive and detailed.  Nonetheless, my feelings are that the more you learn about story structure in Dramatica , the more you have improved your ability to visualize and actualize your story.  So, my advice is to give it a try for free.  All you have to lose is a little itsy bitsy crumb of time, but what you have to gain is a much deeper and powerful understanding of stories and how to structure them.

Melanie Anne Philips

Click here for more Dramatica details and Demo

Here’s something else I made for writers…

The Dramatic Triangle

By Melanie Anne Phillips

There are two story lines in every complete story, and you can either run them in parallel or you can hinge them together to form a dramatic triangle.

The first story line is the overall story that follows the effort of the protagonist to achieve a goal in which all the characters are involved.

The second story line is the personal story that follows the struggles of the main character to deal with a personal issue.

When you keep these two story lines separate and parallel, each advances on their own, and yet they still reflect each other.

For example, in the classic book (and the movie adaptation) of To Kill a Mockingbird, the overall story is about Atticus (the lawyer trying to get a black man a fair trial in the 1930s South) who is the protagonist.

But in the personal story we see things through the eyes of Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, who is personally dealing with her fear of the local boogeyman, “Boo” Radley – a mentally challenged member of a family down the street who is never seen and only known by rumor.

In the end, we learn about prejudice externally through what Atticus does, and we learn about prejudice personally through Scout’s prejudgment about Boo, until she is forced to change her mind about him when she comes to know him for who he really is – a caring protector who has actually saved her from others who would do her harm.

If Atticus were the main character, we would simply stand in the shoes of the fellow battling prejudice and feel righteous.  But by standing in Scout’s shoes, we buy into her belief in the rumors about Boo, and learn how easy it is to be prejudiced whenever we base our opinions on what we hear, not what we see for ourselves.

In this example in which Atticus is the protagonist, the antagonist is the father of the white girl the black man is accused of raping, who wants the defendant lynched without a trial.

In the personal line, Scout is the main character and Boo himself is the influence character who has been leaving gifts for scout and protecting her all along the way, providing all the clues necessary for her to ultimately re-evaluate him.

Just as the antagonist fights against the protagonist, the influence character pressures the main character to change his or her beliefs.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, keeping both story lines separate has some advantages.  For one thing, since the audience identifies with the Main Character, we aren’t standing in Atticus’ shoes feeling all self-righteous about fighting against prejudice.  Rather, we stand in Scout’s shoes and learn how easy it is to become prejudice whenever we rely on rumor and other people’s opinions, rather than learning the truth for ourselves.

But, keeping the two story lines separate is a very complex form of structure and isn’t really need for most stories.  It requires four special characters: protagonist vs. antagonist and main character vs. influence character.

A simpler alternative is to have both storylines occur between just two characters: a hero and a villain.  A hero is a protagonist who is also the main character, and a villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character.

So, a hero is not only the person trying to achieve the goal, but is also the audience position in the story and the one who is grappling with challenges to their belief system.  And, a villain is not only the person trying to prevent the goal from being achieved, but is also the person challenging the main character’s belief system.

While this sounds very efficient in concept, it is also very dangerous.  Each of these story lines needs to be fully explored with no gaps or holes if the reader or audience is to buy into it.  But, as an author, it is very easy to get so wrapped up in the action or the passion of one of the stories that you skip over parts of the other one in your eagerness to push ahead with the exciting one of the moment.

As a result, there can be significant gaps in each of the two – gaps that undermine the believability of the overall story and make the personal story seem unrealistic and contrived.

The more this happens, the more the complete story begins to feel like a melodrama, where characters jump from one frame of mind to another without motivation, and where events happen after other events without any understanding of why.

Fortunately, there is a better way to arrange the two story lines so each is clearly seen and fully developed, and yet they are tied together in a manner that strengthens the story as a whole.  That method is the Dramatic Triangle.

A Dramatic Triangle hinges both story lines together around one character and anchors the other two ends on two different characters.  The most common way to do this is to create a hero who is both protagonist and main character, with a separate antagonist and a separate influence character.

In this arrangement, the hero fights against the antagonist in the overall story, and has to defend his belief system against the influence character in the personal story.

A common example would be a hero who has a love interest, who is his influence character.  She loves him because of his moral outlook.  But, the hero is fighting against the antagonist who, seeing the love interest as a weakness of the hero, kidnaps her.

Now, the hero is torn between two things.  To free his love interest, he must adopt the immoral tactics of the antagonist.  If he does, he will save her, but lose her love.  Tough choice, and the stuff great stories are made of!

A variation of this is for the protagonist to also be the influence character, rather than the main character.  Then, he would be fighting against the antagonist in the overall story, but he would also be trying to change the beliefs of the main character, who is the third corner of the triangle.

In this arrangement, we would not be seeing things through the eyes of the protagonist, but through the eyes of the main character.  We stand in the shoes of the main character and watch the protagonist/influence character, but be personally challenged to change our beliefs by him.

This arrangement was used in the movie, Witness, with Harrison Ford as a police detective and Kelly McGillis as Rachel, a young Amish mother with a son who has witnessed a murder when they were traveling.

Ford is the protagonist trying to protect the child, and the murderer is the antagonist trying to kill the child.  We see the story through Rachel’s eyes, making her the main character, and Ford is the influence character as he is trying to convince Rachel to leave her Amish community and go with him into the larger world.

This still satisfies the needs of having the two story lines, but provides an unusual reader/audience position in the story at large.

But there are other ways to hinge the two stories together as well.  In one version, the antagonist might be the main character, so we see things through the eyes of the character trying to prevent the goal from being achieved.

In another, the antagonist might be the influence character so he battles against the protagonist in one storyline and tries to change the beliefs of the main character in the other.

Which form of the Dramatic Triangle you choose is up to you as the author and the kind of experience you wish to design for your readers or audience.  But any of the variations is less prone to melodrama than having both story lines between just two characters and is less complicated and easer to fashion than keeping both storylines separate between two pairs of different characters.

Learn more about story structure with Dramatica

The Four Throughlines in To Kill A Mockingbird

There are four throughlines that must be explored in every story for it to feel to readers or audience that the underlying issues have been fully examined and the message completely supported.

Throughline 1: The Objective Story

The Objective Story is the big picture – the situations and activities in which all the characters are involved.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Objective Story Throughline explores prejudice in a small 1930s southern town where Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white girl . Though he is being brought to trial, many of the town folk think this case should never see trial and the defendant should just be lynched. Defending Tom Robinson is Atticus Finch, a well-respected lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie version).  The father of the ostensibly-raped girl, Bob Ewell, leads a mob to murder Tom Robinson, but Atticus stands firm against them.  Enraged, Ewell seeks to hurt Atticus’ children in revenge.  This conflict over the goal of getting Robinson a fair trial makes Atticus the protagonist of the story and Bob Ewell the Antagonist.

Throughline 2: The Main Character

The Main Character is the one we identify with: the one whom the story seems to be about at a personal level.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, is the Main Character, and her throughline describes her personal experiences in the story.  We see this story of prejudice through her eyes, a child’s eyes, as she watches her father stand up against both the town and Bob Ewell.  It is partly because we stand in her shoes that makes her the Main Character.  But also, the main character is the one who must grapple with some internal issue, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  Though the story is about the trial and about prejudice, neither Atticus nor Ewell ever come to a point where they question or even change their beliefs.  Rather, it feels like that inner consideration revolves around Scout’s impressions of all that happens.  In fact, Scout is actually prejudiced, not against blacks but against Boo Radley, the supposed monstrous child-killing boogey man who is locked in the basement of his family’s home on Scout’s street.

Throughline 3: The Influence Character

The Influence Character is not the antagonist but the character who most influences the Main Character’s outlook and feelings.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Boo Radley is the Influence Character to Scout. The rumors surrounding this man, fueled by the town’s ignorance and fear, makes Scout concerned for her safety, even though she’s never seen him, and along with most everyone else, she holds him in derision.  Yet it is Boo’s influence on Scout over the course of the story that ultimately brings her to a point of change in her own personal prejudice.

Throughline 4: The Subjective Story

The Subjective Story is the tale of how the Influence Character and Main Character impact each other’s beliefs over the course of the story.  One will be forced by their interactions to grow even more steadfast their their beliefs.  The other will be pressured by that steadfastness ultimately to  change and adopt the outlook of the other.  This is the heart of a story’s message.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Subjective Story centers on the relationship between Scout and Boo Radley. This throughline explores Scout’s prejudice against Boo solely by virtue of hearsay. Boo has been constantly active in Scout’s life, protecting her from the background, ultimately saving her and her brother from Bob Ewell. When Scout finally realizes this she changes in her feelings toward him, thereby strongly supporting the story’s message that it is very easy for anyone  to fall into prejudice if we judge people by what we hear, rather than what we have determined from our own first-hand experience.

To further illustrate how these four throughlines work together to create and support a story’s message, watch the following video clip recorded at one of my seminars on story structure:

The Four Throughlines concept is unique to our
Dramatica Theory of Narrative Structure
and is
central to story development
in our Dramatica Software.

Click here to try it risk-free for 90 days…

How Story Structure Relates to the Real World

 

By understanding how the structure of fiction relates to the real world, we can better fashion our stories and perhaps even convey something to our readers or audience that they can use in life.

We all sense that stories have some sort of structure because we see the same dramatic patterns over and over again.  If there were no structure at all, there would be no patterns.

But where do these patterns come from and what do they mean?  Are they unique to fiction or are they reflective of real life, just as characters are clearly reflective of real people, yet not quite the same?

In the case of characters it is easy to see that while they bear resemblance to folks we’ve met, they are also highly idealized, often accentuating a single attribute above all others that defines them as a personality type or even an archetype. From this, we can speculate that while fiction is similar to what we experience every day, it isn’t exactly the same thing.

In this article I’d like to share with you some of the insights into the relationship of story structure to real life that I have uncovered in my quarter century as a teacher of creative writing.  (Oh, and being the co-creator of the Dramatica theory of narrative structure doesn’t hurt either.)

To begin, let’s first look back at the origin of stories and what some notable people have said about their nature.  Consider an age before stories: a time when the concept of creating a fictional representation of the real world simply hadn’t occurred to anyone yet.  Communication would be a simple representation of things and events that actually happened – a way of sharing information or obtaining help or even garnering sympathy, love, or respect.

But as we all know, it wouldn’t take long for someone to realize they could leverage more of what they want and avoid more or what they don’t by fudging the facts, or even relating an outright fabrication.

Of course, fiction didn’t really happen after people starting relating truthful tales.  Since we all like to put our best foot forward by nature (even if it is made up a bit), fictional stories developed concurrently, right along with the actual ones.  And so the ranks of the reporters of real events and the purporters of unreal ones grew right along side each other.

At the same time, those bent on understanding life and sharing what they learn might create fictional stories that summed up the lessons they’d learned from personal experience.  Others might simply want to describe how things worked in the real world without including a lesson, moral or message at all.  And others might see the advantage of leveraging untrue stories to paint their enemy in a bad light, get people to behave as they wanted them to, or to elevate themselves to a position of power.

No matter what the reason they were created, it was soon discovered that to be effective fictional stories had to include certain moments (we call them story points now) that formed the lynch pins of a web of logic and passion that could convince an audience to buy into the story: to take it either as the truth or as a true insight into life and how to live it.  Hearts and minds were swayed.

Now any storyteller worth his salt is going to notice when the same story points keep showing up in all the most successful stories.  And they are also going to notice when stories fail when they don’t include certain basic story points.

Eventually a whole cadre of story points turned up that became the conventions of storytelling – things like having a goal and requirements for the goal, a main character that the reader or audience can identify with, a whole slew of heroes and villains and variations of the same, acts, and scenes, and beats, the leap of faith, character arc, archetypes, genres, messages, themes, and on and on.

And yet, though most everyone, even folks who aren’t writers, are aware of most of these, nobody really knew how they fit together or, as per the subject of this article, exactly how they related to the real world.

This is not to say that many notable attempts have been made over the centuries to understand and document what story structure is.  Aristotle, for example, offered a landmark investigation into the nature of dramatics in his classic book, Poetics.  From it, we ended up with the concept of a three-act structure drawing on his assessment that “for everything there is a beginning and an end, and therefore there must also be a middle.”

Of course these days we write one-act plays, three-act movies, and five or seven act television episodes.  We know they work, but a lot of writers still have no clue why.

Others have taken a serious stab at explaining what story structure is and where it comes from including Jung’s archetypes, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Chris Volger’s refinement of Campbell in his book, The Hero’s Journey.

Though each of these explanations of story structure (and many others) provide some really good insight, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, it has been difficult to pull all the story points together and fashion a complete description of what story structure is that covers all the bases and doesn’t have exceptions.  Nonetheless, they are useful guidelines, though some are more like recipes that work only for certain kinds of stories, rather than a system equally good for any kind of story.

Armed with this short history, here’s what I have to contribute to the understanding of what story structure is and how it relates to everyday life:

Everyone one of us shares certain basic human attributes such as the ability to reason, a healthy skepticism, and sense of conscience and temptation.  In our own lives, we use the full complement of these traits to try and chart our best course in an uncertain world.

When we get together in groups, however, it isn’t long before someone emerges as the voice of Reason for the organization, and another becomes the resident Skepticand yet another will speak as the Conscience.  Eventually any group that is large enough will self-organize so that all fundamental human attributes will be represented by a different individual in the group.

As students of the human animal, storytellers would see these personality types defining themselves over and over again whenever a group is formed.  If they were to tell stories that rang true, they needed to ensure that each of these attributes was represented by a different character in their stories.  So, in a sense, the group begins to function as if it were an individual with its own complement of traits.  And since the very same types needed to appear in every complete story, they became the archetypes.  Simple as that.

Further, each of us has a sense of identity (“I think therefore I am”).  Similarly, within the group-mind, one individual will rise to represent the identity of the group, such as Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, or a presidential candidate embodying the identity of his entire party.

In the real world, we get a sense of belonging by defining the nature of our group as in “I am a Californian” or “I am an author.”  Though the nature of each individual in the group can vary widely, we are drawn into a comradeship when we define our tribe, our profession, our gender, or our generation.

Storytellers would see that each group had an individual who embodied the group – the one with whom all members of the group could identify.  And that individual became the main character in the conventions of storytelling.

I could go story point by story point to show how each of these elements of fiction has a counterpart in real social organization, but you get the idea.  Yet that is only part of how story structure relates to the real world.  Though I won’t try to prove it here, it turns out that the way story points interact in fiction to create dramatic tension mirrors the way the way people interact in groups that creates social tension.

Further, the group (be it fictional or real) has its own agenda and quite a bit of inertia, and the main character (or group identity) has his or her own personal agenda so the two are frequently in conflict.  In fiction, the core of all dramatic tension is created by the demands of the group chafing against the personal needs of the main character.  Yeah, that’s a pretty big bite.  You might want to chew on that one for a while before you decide if you want to swallow it or not, but it is quite a concept that would explain quite a bit.

But again, I’m just sharing what I’ve learned in twenty five years of studying story structure.  I’m not trying to prove it, just to share it.

Bottom line is that the structure of stories is an idealized model of what goes on in the real world.  That’s why we find value in stories: they resonate with us, with our own lives.  On the one hand, they are familiar, one the other, it is like stepping into someone else’s life.  We are immersed into the fabric of a voyeuristic journey and emerge changed by it, carrying the passions and understandings of what we just experienced into our own lives in which we now think, feel, and behave differently as a result of merging with the identity of the main character.

That’s a pretty good place to stop for now.  If you’d like to more, browse this blog, check out my books on story development, try my StoryWeaver software for building your story’s world, or our Dramatica software for structuring it.

Thanks for your time, and may the Muse be with you.

Melanie Anne Phillips