On Building a Narrative Argument for Your Story
Moving beyond the general to make a difference in your storytelling.
The Narrative Argument found in our story outlining app Subtext is powerful and precise: a straightforward sentence that sheds light on an Author’s reason for writing her story with laser-like focus. However, most writers view the purpose of a film in more general terms than what is provided in Subtext.
One such writer recently challenged our interpretation of the Narrative Argument for Moonstruck:
Start abstaining from fear of consequences, and you can become married.
Cold and unfeeling? Yes.
But dreadfully accurate.
Her suggestion was something a little less specific, but infinitely more approachable:
“letting go of stories they tell themselves to find meaningful relationships.”
Her take on the Narrative Argument is friendlier than the original one found in Subtext. Online forums and Twitter followers would eat that statement up.
But within the context of actually writing, or constructing a story, the latter won’t get you very far.
Letting go? What is it about telling those stories that are driving these characters that they need to let go of? Are they physically finding these relationships? Or is it something a bit more esoteric and psychological in nature?
It’s important to answer these questions because the path to writing a story about the physical journey towards finding more meaningful relationships is entirely different than a psychological journey.
And without knowing what is driving those stories, we can’t set up where we end up, and therefore can’t put the right pieces in place beforehand to get us there.
In short, no plan for our writing. The “letting go” answer is perfect for our interview at Sundance or the Austin Film Festival, but unhelpful when it comes to the blank page.
And the blank page is where the Author starts.
The “letting go” included in her version is the go-to reference for everyone when describing a Main Character who grows out of her debilitating point-of-view and ends up in a better place. In the Dramatica theory of story, the two Storypoints responsible for communicating this to the Audience are the Main Character Resolve and the Story Judgment.
The Main Character Resolve is set one of two ways:
- Changed: The Main Character adopts a new approach of solving their problems
- Steadfast: The Main Character retains their way of solving problems
“Letting go of the stories we tell ourselves” is an indicator of a Changed Main Character Resolve.
The second Storypoint is the Story Judgment, which can either be:
- Good: everything turned out for the best
- Bad: everything turned out for the worse (notably, the Main Character)
“Finding more meaningful relationships “ is a Good Thing.
A quicker way to say “letting go of the stories we tell ourselves to find more meaningful relationships” is simply Changed/Good.
But as you can see, building a story from Changed/Good is nearly impossible. The paths are almost infinite to that Changed/Good ending. What are we changing away from? What is better now? How were things worse?
This is where the Narrative Argument from Subtext arrives and makes clear the path forward.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
In Moonstruck, it’s an Element of Temptation that they need to let go. The idea that you can embrace the immediate benefits of something despite possible consequences? That’s shown to be a problem for these characters.
The exciting part about Moonstruck is that the narrative isn’t focusing so much on the Element she needs to let go, but rather what Element she needs to MOVE TOWARDS.
Generally speaking, Moonstruck is a Coming of Age film. And one of the key concepts of a Coming of Age film is that the Narrative Argument is about what the Main Character GROWS INTO, rather than growing away from something.
So, it’s not so much about letting go of Temptation, as it is about embracing the alternative: Conscience. Moonstruck argues the positive gains found when one starts to abstain or hold back for fear of consequences.
That’s when one finds more meaningful relationships.
And the finding is definitely something more akin to creating, or manifesting with one’s life. The psychological act of becoming something more, rather than merely finding true love.
At least, that’s the argument that Moonstruck is making.
The writer wasn’t wrong. “Become married” was too simplistic—too reductive.
When developing the first incarnation of Subtext, I personally encoded over 400 separate Narrative Arguments. For the most part, these are spot-on. But occasionally, an argument falls short.
And that’s where Subtext truly shines.
For when a writer points out a place where Subtext can improve, we can quickly move to address the inaccuracy and make the system even better for the next writer.
We’re always open to suggestions or recommendations for improving the Narrative Arguments, and the Storytelling they inspire.
In fact, shortly after my conversation with this writer, I switched to Subtext and adjusted the Narrative Argument to this:
Start abstaining for fear of consequences, and you can manifest more meaningful relationships in your life.
Much better, right?
Even better, that idea of manifesting as describing a process of Becoming? That’s now a permanent part of Subtext as well. When future writers find themselves with a particular piece of Storytelling that focuses on Becoming—they’ll have manifesting listed as one possible option.
Understanding the Ingredients of Story
In the end, it’s all about defining exactly WHY your characters are getting into trouble. What PROCESSES are they engaging in? What specific things do they do? What are the Elements or Sources of Conflict that are creating grief in their lives?
That’s where building a Narrative Argument begins.