Series of Articles
Building a Story Outline for NaNoWriMo
30 days is plenty of time--if you're prepared
Wanting to write a novel and knowing what to write about are two different things. The daily support that comes with participating in National Novel Writing Month helps, but a structural map of what those days ahead look like clears up any uncertainties. This series outlines a fun and inventive way to capture that motivation to write and convert it into a meaningful and engaging story.
Creating a Story from Scratch for Nanowrimo
Enthusiasm and dedication can take you only so far--a strong foundation and meaningful story structure will give you purpose and direction.
Writing an entire novel in a single month challenges Authors everywhere to simply get it done. While well-meaning and encouraging, efforts to participate in Nanowrimo finds some writers floundering without any sense of purpose or direction. Quickly setting up a framework for your literary endeavor keeps the flame of inspiration alive and works as a helpful guide those thirty days.
This week kicks off National Novel Writing Month or Nanowrimo for short. A "fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing", Nanowrimo challenges Authors to write a 50,000 word novel by 11:59PM on November 30th. While many can manage the 1,700 words a day Nano requires, writing something of substance and with purpose eludes most.
The real challenge lies in writing something meaningful. Sure, enthusiasm and dedication count, but without direction and intent that initial excitement often wanes—leaving many Authors well short of the 50K goal. A Dramatica storyform aids writers in making sure their work contains that all important purpose. You may have something to say, but aren't quite sure how to say it—Dramatica aligns your thinking, making it coherent and impactful.
And it may be you have no idea what it is you want to say, but you know you need to write something this November. Dramatica can help there too.
Spinning a Story
Assume you at least know what genre you want to write in2, and that genre is a Western. Maybe you're inspired by the HBO series Westworld, or you just saw the latest incarnation of The Magnificient Seven. Either way you know you want to write a Western, you're just not sure where to start.
If you're a Narrative First Subscriber you know you start by heading over to your Member Account page in order to download the Narrative First Western Genre Gist Collection.
All Genre Gist Collections have been rolled over into our app, Subtext.
The main impetus for creating and developing Subtext were these original Genre Gist Collections. Turns out, there were so many of them that Dramatica couldn’t handle it—it would take some users 10-15 minutes just for Dramatica to load up with the Gist Collections loaded.
So, I set out to create Subtext and four years later, writers can now access hundreds of thousands of Gists (Illustrations) within a matter of seconds. What’s more, individuals can add their own Genre Gists with everyone in the community benefiting from the combined effort.
The Genre-specific Illustrations in Subtext are, in fact, the same set available originally in 2016 as the Narrative First Genre Gist Collections.
After installing the Gist Collection into your copy of Dramatica, you load up the Brainstorming Tool, set the options to Replace Existing Storyform and Assign Random Gists, and then click Spin.
And in an instant, Dramatica delivers the structure of a meaningful story:
Now, this is quite a story. Looks like we have a town in conflict over Being Righteous about the local Cattle Baronness. Could be some religious overtones there, or some kind of cult at work…which instantly brings to mind some combination of the occult and a Western. Has that been done before?!
Even if it has, the version in my head—the version Dramatica sparked in my head—will be completely different than anyone else's version.
Five minutes ago I had no idea what I was going to write this November. Suddenly I know I'm writing a story about the occult in the Old West. Many see Dramatica as simply a tool for analysis—here you can clearly see it's power as a sounding board for creativity.
And that's only one story point!
Making It All Fit Together
Looking further into the storyform, we see that everyone is concerned with their devotion to the U.S. Marshal and issues of looking forward to seeing a particular group. Substitute the words "Jesus" or "The Black Witch" for "a particular group" and you only expand the potential for more cult-like conflict among the town's inhabitants.
And an Objective Story Solution of Holding Sway Over Someone? That's a dark way to bring resolution to a story about a cult. Suddenly, I really love this story!
Looking over at our Main Character, we find a character consumed with arresting a bounty hunter and trapping bandits. Perhaps the local sheriff's deputy—a young woman—because every other man who took the job ended up dead and left town. Her need to prove herself and show that she can do these things only gets her into more trouble—especially when you see that she can't stand wishy-washy people (a Main Character Problem of Re-examining Conclusions).
And just look at that Main Character Unique Ability of Being Moral. What a pain in the ass to all those cultists! The Main Character Unique Ability is the kind of thing that will help Abby1 bring resolution to the Objective Story about the cultists and their righteousness towards the baronness.
And Abby would do just fine, if it weren't for Jack Lawler—the local unpleasant and repulsive gold miner who cuts quick to the chase, makes his kill, and gets out. His acerbic nature and unihibited nature drives Abby crazy and challenges her to reconsider tracking down that bounty hunter.
Now where exactly did Jack come from?
If you look at the Influence Character Throughline, you will find three definite story points:
- Domain: Being Odious Towards the Forty Niner
- Concern: Personifying a Pistol
- Problem: Being Uninhibited
Now this is a brainstorming exercise. Which means you, as the Author, don't have to follow what Dramatica gives you as a gist precisely. These are suggestions meant to inspire situations and character.
I wasn't connecting with the specific instance of "Being Odious Towards the Forty Niner" because I didn't want Jack to be all about someone else. So I simply took the Being Odious part, mixed it up with someone who is attacking and quick to kill like a pistol, and added in the uninhibited nature. Put them all together and you have the makings of an interesting and compelling character.
What's more—you have a character that is perfectly designed to interact and challenge Abby on a deep on a personal level. Why?
The Storyform Underneath
Click the checkbox marked Show Gists to turn them off and you will see why Jack works so well against Abby. Underneath those clever Gists we provided you sits the Dramatica storyform and its elements of story.
Here you can see the foundation for Jack's Throughline:
- Being Odious is simply another way of defining Manipulation
- Personifying a Pistol is Becoming
- Being Unihibited is Uncontrolled.
Manipulation, Becoming, and Uncontrolled are exactly the kind of story elements needed to challenge Abby and her Activities, her Concern of Obtaining, and her drive of Reconsider.
- Arresting the Bounty Hunter is an Activity
- Trapping the Bandits is Obtaining
- Re-examining Conclusions is Reconsider
Dramatica's Gists walk the border between storyform and storytelling. I guarantee I would never have discovered the character of Jack Lawler by simply reading Manipulation, Becoming, and Uncontrolled. But with the Gists feature turned on, my imagination and "muse" kicks in—allowing me the freedom to create while simultaneously enjoying the safety net of those ideas connecting to structure.
In other words, I'm not wasting my time.
And Nanowrimo is all about time.
Notions of the Weeks Ahead
From here I could start writing. In fact, if I didn't have a story consulting business to run, an animated feature to write, and mentor students to mentor I would be writing this cult Western all month long. That's how excited I am about it.
And the storyform tells of so much more…
- Jack will eventually change his acerbic nature by virtue of being inspired by Abby's character. This will play out with him Being in Command of Something (probably the Mayor, or he joins the Army).
In a complete story, one character Remains Steadfast in their approach, the other Changes their Resolve. With this storyform, Abby Remains Steadfast in her drive to round up bandits—inspiring Jack to drop his odious ways and take control of his life and of others. Maybe he'll win the mayoral election or join the army…
- The townspeople Fail to Wish Gold into Existence (such an amazing awesome Goal for a story about a cult!) and instead focus on Having the Horse's Future Told
What an amazing awesome Goal for a story about a cult! You can just see cultists on their knees wishing for Gold, led to living the righteous life by the cattle baronness, only to fail because of some dire future predicted of the town's one horse…amazing!
- Time runs out, but they all end up in a better place emotionally
With the Timespace, we know everyone will be concerned with some deadline. Perhaps their wishes can only hold up until the frost comes. When that happens they'll be left with only Percy (the horse) to look to for guidance…
…which, while crazy, is shown to be a "good" thing. While the townspeople may still be caught under the fog of cultist ideals, perhaps their blindness is just what they need in order to survive. The Story Judgment of Good works with the Story Outcome of Failure to indicate a story of Personal Triumph. While they failed in their quest to wish Gold into existence, relying on something tangible…something they already had (the horse)…could be the one thing that gives them hope. And maybe that's all Abby needed to learn as well…
Crazy, yes. But crazy good.
Write Something New
Why remake a classic when you can create an instant classic in less than an hour?! The Magnificent Seven may be a great story…but it doesn't have Abby, it doesn't have the righteous Cattle Baronness or the cultists who turn to a horse for guidance, and it certainly doesn't have Jack Lawler, acerbic gold miner turned General. In the time it took to write this article (1700 words exactly by the way), I now have the foundation for a compelling and exciting story to write this month.
Dramatica offers writers and participants of Nanowrimo an opportunity to expand their writing horizons while ensuring that what they write contains purpose and meaning. Some enjoy writing by the seat-of-the-pants, but end up discouraged and frustrated when their seat fails to carry them through the pointless jumble that spills from their minds. A Dramatica storyform puts the pieces together in such a way that they all add up to a greater purpose: telling a story that means something.
Nanowrimo rightfully encourages writers with its motto:
The world needs your novel.
They also need it to mean something.
Brainstorming a Brand New Genre for Nanowrimo
By combining our Gist Collections, writers can challenge their preconceptions of story to create something never seen before.
Why limit yourself to the tried and true? Westerns, Sci-Fi, Action/Adventure, Romantic Comedies--all successful and effective genres for reaching a broad Audience. For the true artist looking to expand their creativity, these categories of narrative only begin to speak of the enormous potential for story.
In our last article, Creating a Story from Scratch for Nanowrimo, we set about constructing a Western unlike any other Western before. Using our Narrative First Western Genre Gist Collection—exclusive to Narrative First Members—we spun Dramatica's model and identified story elements that told of major occult influences. In less than a couple of hours, we molded the framework for a powerful and meaningful narrative that could sustain us throughout the month of November.
This week, we want to amplify our potential for creativity by infusing one genre within another. In the spirit of one of my writing partner's favorite proclamations: we want to find the peanut butter to our chocolate. High-concept narratives depend on this approach:
High level of uniqueness: Whereas originality is about approach and fresh perspective, uniqueness is about being one-of-a-kind, first time, and incomparable. Being original can also involve uniqueness, but being unique transcends even originality. Sometimes this is achieved in the content or in the execution of a work.
In the spirit of finding peanut butter to chocolate and of Nanowrimo, we continue our exploration of Brainstorming with Dramatica by diving into creating a brand new genre: the Teen Sex Fantasy Genre.
Dramatica Story Points and Gists
For those unfamiliar with "gists" and their use within the Dramatica theory of story, consider how difficult it can be to come up with a Main Character when presented with these story points:
- Domain: Fixed Attitude
- Concern: Impulsive Responses
- Problem: Process
We answer a bunch of questions in Dramatica and this is what the app tells us our Main Character is all about? He's got a fixed attitude, he's impulsive and he has a problem of process? What does that even mean?
Now let's look at the same Main Character, only this time we will turn on Dramatica's powerful Gist feature:
- Domain: Fearing Crowds
- Concern: Being Rash about Something
- Problem: Hating an Overly Complicated Process
Suddenly, this character makes more sense. Thirteen year old Robb fears crowds, is concerned with being rash about something (let's make it food selection for this week's grocery shopping), and hates an overly complicated process. The last one still seems a bit odd, but we can imagine a character who needs to learn how to go through the motions but is so impatient and hasty that he often makes the wrong decision.
For someone who is very picky and selective about what they eat, being impatient and impulsive presents a significant source of conflict to overcome. Thanks to the Gists, we now understand Process as a Problem.
Dramatica's Gists bridge the gap between storyform and storytelling. For years, critics and superficial writers knock Dramatica because of its "obtuse" terminology. Prerequisites, Non-accurate, Process, Preconditions, Dividends, and Costs--these sound more like what you would find on a Yearly TPS Report, not what you find at the heart of every complete narrative.
The Gists help writers transition between structure and story.
The storyform contains the narrative code of the story. Robb still sits in a Domain of Fixed Attitude, a Concern of Impulsive Responses, and a Problem of Process. But with Dramatica's Gist feature, we now have a better idea of what those three story points are all about.
Of Wizards and Sex
Several years ago, Danny McBride and his team of amazing comics created a movie that combined raunchy sex comedy with the sword-and-sorcerers genre popular in the mid-80s. Entitled Your Highness, the film bombed--an unfortunate result of its tired and broken narrative.
Key to the film's failure was its lack of a proper Influence Character and corresponding Relationship Story Throughline. Natalie Portman's character Isabel—the only potential influence on Danny McBride's Main Character Prince Thadeous—doesn't arrive until a full hour into the film. And when she does, her worldview and unique perspective fails to properly match up against Thadeous' issues. This lack of cohesion within the narrative dynamics forces a lack of interest in the final outcome.
What if instead, the filmmakers had access to our Narrative First Teen Sex and Fantasy Genre Gist Collections, installed them into Dramatica, and randomly spun the model? They might have discovered a story that not only satisfies their intended Audience but also delivers a meaningful and cohesive narrative.
Preparing the Story Engine
First, we would set the Story Engine to reflect a typical arrangement of Story Dynamics for this kind of film:
A Steadfast Main Character Resolve ensures that the stoner "bro" at the center of it all doesn't have to do too much emotional growth; immature minds typically prefer to be the ones to sit back and watch everyone else develop. The Linear Problem-Solving Style, Do-er Approach, and Story Continuum of Timespace only reinforce the frat-boy mindset of the narrative. Setting the Driver to Action, the Outcome & Judgment to Success/Good and the Objective Story Throughline to an Activity strengthens the story's marketability by keeping it well within a studio executive's expectations.
The only thing left to do would be to venture over to Dramatica's Brainstorming feature and spin the model…
Combining Stoner Culture with Dungeons & Dragons
Looking over the first storyform Dramatica offered us, the story seems scattered and all over the place…
…until we start fleshing out the individual story points.
Main Character Throughline
- DOMAIN: Being Stranded in the Liquor Store
- CONCERN: Being Current About the Scene Kids
- ISSUE: Being Repelled by Something vs. Attraction
- PROBLEM: Being Likely
Thadeous, no longer a prince, is stuck running his father's tavern for the weekend. Obsessed with staying current with the cool kids in the village to the point of being creepy (he's 43), he kicks anyone out who even remotely drags down the reputation of the place or looks like trouble. In short, he is the kind of person who would rather be safe than sorry—even if it means kicking out older patrons he knows could hook him up with drugs or a date with an older woman—just so that he can look cool in front of the other kids.
Influence Character Throughline
- DOMAIN: Having Biases for a Princess
- CONCERN: Thinking Seriously About a Daddy's Princess
- ISSUE: Reconsidering Past Decisions vs. Appraisal
- PROBLEM: Using Deductive Reasoning on a Particular Group
Isabel operates from a similar place of needing validation from others with her obsession for the King's daughters.1 While everyone mocks and disregards the airheaded ramblings of the King's spoiled princesses, Isabel gives them the respect they deserve—even to the point of getting into a physical altercation with Thadeous when he refuses to let them into his tavern. If they're hot, and they're rich, and they're single and available for marriage, they're worth everyone's attention and worth fighting for.
And this attitude gets Isabel to heaps and heaps of trouble:
- SIGNPOST 1: Having a Phobia About the Sorority Girl
- SIGNPOST 2: Thinking Seriously About the Diaphragm
- SIGNPOST 3: Forgetting the Babysitters's First Day
- SIGNPOST 4: Having Knee Jerk Reactions to the Perverts
We know she starts out the story deathly afraid of sorority girls, even though they're more conscientious and thoughtful when compared to the King's daughters. Her defense of them leads her to completely ignore the diaphragm found in their chambers (indicating that the King's daughters do not share Isabel's sexual preference), and finds her embarassed when the daughters completely forget their planned playdate with Isabel the day she was to babysit their nephew.
Crushed, and influenced heavily by Thadeous and his better safe than sorry angle, Isabel changes her worldview by conjecturing that the princesses are perverts and don't want their daddy to know how sexually active they are. She would have seen it earlier if she hadn't been so caught up in all the glitz and glamour of the rich and beautiful, but now she sees them for who they truly are.
And gets high to forget about them (with Thadeous of course).
Relationship Story Throughline
Isabel gets to that character defining moment because of her relationship with Thadeous—the classic mentor/mentee relationship. Luke and Yoda. Neo and Morpheus. Isabel and Thadeous.
- DOMAIN: Being Troublesome in the Police Station
- CONCERN: Being Inspired by the Triple A
- PROBLEM: Being Idle
- SOLUTION: Protecting
Thadeous teaches and manipulates Isabel to become a troublesome nuisance to the local magistrate. How else to make sure that he remains distracted enough to overlook the seedy but ever-so-popular activities at Thadeous' place? Inspired by the coolest Triple A halfling ever to walk these lands, both Thadeous and Isabel find common ground over their idle and lackadaisacal ways. Neither is willing to lift a finger for the other; their hipster laziness pulling them together and driving their relationship forward. In the end, they'll come together when they start looking out for each other and covering each other's back.
Objective Story Throughline
And then finally we have the central plot line of the entire film, a story about:
- GOAL: Finding Out About the Condom
- CONSEQUENCE: Getting the Idea That the Daddy's Princesses Is Hated
As Protagonist, Thadeous will be driven to find out who the condom he found in his tavern belongs to. Was it a cool kid? A degenerate halfling thief? Or maybe even Isabel herself? The truth is it belonged to the King's daughter—or at least her boyfriend, who refused to get her pregnant because he didn't want to have children with her.
The king's daughter wants to marry her boyfriend and if her father were ever to find out what her boyfriend did, it would be lights out for him. Isabel, smitten by the princess, promises to make sure no one ever finds out—and this puts her in direct conflict with the very loud and obnoxious Thadeous.
- REQUIREMENT: Understanding the Geeks's Limitations
- PREREQUISITE: Outdoing a Peeping Tom by Skillful Planning
Along the way they will have to come to understand the limitations the princesses' boyfriend put on their relationship, while outdoing a peeping giant by skillfully planning ways to work during his sleep schedule.
- FOREWARNINGS: The Count's Horse Having a Past
And, of course, the disturbing and well-known sordid past of the Count's horse only makes it more certain that the King will eventually find out what happened with his daughter. After all, her boyfriend is the Count's son, and if he was willing to wear a condom with his father's horse, there's no telling what he would do with the king's beautiful princess…
A Story for All Time
OK. So the story went a bit off the rails there at the end…! Yet, regardless of how troubling that Forewarning story point turned out be, the story as a whole held together.
This is the same experience found in the yearly Dramatica Users Group meetings held in December. Instead of analyzing a film, we spend the night brainstorming story points based on a random storyform. Like the example above, what starts out seemingly disjointed and disconnected, ends up coming together in a way that almost feels like magic.
Now, you may not feel like a sex and sorcery film about finding the owner of a condom would find a large enough Audience, but if you were to continue to flesh out this storyform the end result would be a complete and meaningful narrative. Thadeous finds the owner of that condom because Isabel finally gave up her obsession for the princesses long enough to hypothesize that they didn't want their daddy to know they were straight. That solution cuts quick to the chase and right through to Isabel's character flaw and works exceedingly well with the main plot line because all these story points balance each other out. Her conjecturing led to finding out who owned the condom. And that conjecturing came about because of Thadeous' success with playing it safe than sorry…(just like the Count's son…)
By combining the genre of Teen Sex with Fantasy, we came up with a story unlike any other on planet Earth. We have a stoner stuck in his dad's Tavern for the weekend, intent on learning the identity of a condom's owner. The mentorship he strikes up with the local tomboy teaches them both the importance of looking out for each other when dealing with people in positions of power and authority. And finally, we show that a healthy dose of paranoid speculation (amplified by certain drug use) can keep us all from looking like fools.
Insane, but insanely effective in terms of story structure and meaningful narrative. Now all it needs a heaping serving of comedic storytelling on top to make it an enjoyable and memorable experience.
Teen Sex & Fantasy only begin to scratch the surface. With the Narrative First Genre Gist Collections, Authors can combine all sort of different and disparate Genres to challenge and inspire themselves to write something wholly brand new. Nanowrimo is about writing that story that didn't exist in October. Now write that story in a genre no one expects.
- Guess Isabel is a Lesbian. Again, playing to the intended Audience.↩
Finding Inspiration for Nanowrimo Within a Great Story
If moved by a particular story, Authors can use the storyform at the heart of it to relay the same meaningful message to their own Audiences.
Some writers find the motivation to write in some personal experience, some struggle they overcame that they want to share with an Audience. Others find inspiration in the works of others. Wanting to relay the same kind of message, but with different characters and a different setting requires an understanding of the thematics deep within the narrative.
In our last two articles, we took a look at Dramatica and its ability to help writers interested in engaging in Nanowrimo find and develop a story they will want to finish. In Creating a Story From Scratch for Nanowrimo we found a compelling story centering around the occult in the Old West. In Brainstorming a Brand New Genre for Nanowrimo we manifested an insane narrative combining elements of the Teen Sex Genre with the Sword & Sorcery Genre.
Some writers, however, find the desire to participate in Nanowrimo by reading a great novel or seeing a moving film. Inspired by the message of the narrative, would-be Authors seek to replicate that same kind of feeling. Dramatica functions best in this scenario. By taking the storyform for a film or novel they love, an Author can adjust certain elements of storytelling to create a new narrative unique to their own experience.
Balance and Temperment with the Use of Gists
Key to modifying the storyform lies in the use of Dramatica's Gist feature. Added to the latest version of Dramatica—Dramatica Story Expert—the Gists bridge the space between story structure and storytelling.1 Instead of Cause and Effect, writers would find Inciting an Argument and Having Negative Repurcussions. Instead of Non-accurate and Accurate, writers would find Being Vauge and Tolerating Harsh Work Conditions.
While powerful and productive during the course of a brainstorming session, overuse tends to limit and stifle the writer's personal voice. Gists require a balance and temperment that comes with an understanding of how they affect Dramatica's model of story.
A Model of the Storymind
A common request we receive in regards to our Gists Collections centers around completing the Gists down to the Element level. As of today, November 2016, our collections focus on the top two levels: the Domains and the Concerns. The Issues and Problems go untouched.
The Dramatica theory of story sees a fully functional narrative as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem—or Storymind. The theory models this single human mind with a Table of Story Elements:
The four levels of each tower examine the story's central inequity—the one created by what most consider the Inciting Incident—at different levels of magnification. Domains, the Class level at the top, take the widest look at a kind of inequity while Problems, the Element level at the bottom, take the narrowest or more accurately defined look at the essence of the inequity.
Why leave the bottom two levels untouched? The closer you are to the bottom of the model, the closer you are to accurately identifying the exact source of trouble in a story. The more clearly defined that exact source of trouble becomes, the more constrictive and prescriptive the Gist. What once was a platform for unbridled creativity now becomes a set of manacles tying the writer to an application's random number generator.
Narrowing One's Opportunity for Expression
For instance, suppose you spun Dramatica's story engine with our Narrative First War Genre Gists installed. As of today, November 2016, you might receive a Main Character Throughline like this:
- DOMAIN: Being Avaricious Towards the Ensign
- CONCERN: Pretending to Be a Lieutennant
- ISSUE: Being Mentally Gifted vs. Desire
- PROBLEM: Causing a War
- SOLUTION: Exploring the Aftereffects of Something
- Focus: Being Passable as Something
- RESPONSE: Being Outside Someone's Tolerances
- UNIQUE ABILITY: Losing a Particular Group's Ability to Be Something
- CRITICAL FLAW: Being Useful for Something
- BENCHMARK: Growing Apart From the Romans
- SIGNPOST 1: Hatching Ideas About Hanoi
- SIGNPOST 2: Posing as the Air Forces
- SIGNPOST 3: Figuring Out How the Inflatable Boat Works
- SIGNPOST 4: Converging With the Captain
As you can see, the Gists from our Collection show up within the Domain, Concern, and Signposts. Why Signposts? The Signposts within Dramatica define the type of conflict that occurs within each Act of a Throughline. In the example above, Act One would find this Main Character Hatching Ideas about Hanoi, Act Two would find this Main Character moving from Posing as a Member of the Air Force to Figuring Out How the Inflatable Boat Works, and finally Act Three would show this character Converging With the Captain.
On a side note, how crazy is it that those four movements feel like a complete dramatic movement? That's the strength behind Dramatica's storymind concept.
The Signposts look to the Type, or Concern, level because at this magnification the inequity appears to be more closely related to Plot.
As one increases or decreases magnification, the inequity shifts from looking more like Character to more like Genre. In fact, each level carries with it an aspect of the Storymind more commonly known as either Character, Plot, Theme, or Genre. At the highest mangification the inequity plays through Character, while the lowest reveals itself through Genre. Top down, from broadest to narrowest, the difference in magnification appears as:
- Genre at the Domain level
- Plot at the Concern level
- Theme at the Issue Level
- Character at the Problem Level
With Dramatica's Gists suggesting concrete examples of storytelling for Genre and Plot, the writer maintains relative freedom underneath to explore the personal aspects of narrative like Theme and Character. If we were to reverse that trend and make suggestions for the bottom half, the writer would feel rooted and constricted by the demands of the foundation—leaving little room to sway and bend towards the top.
An Example of Writing-By-Numbers
Suppose that our War Collection tracked all the way down to the character level. Instead of the above, our story might look something like this:
- DOMAIN: Believing One Is Inferior to a Team Leader
- CONCERN: Adoring the Green Berets
- ISSUE: Denying the Results of the Presidential Election vs. Finishing Off Basic Training
- PROBLEM: Doing What A Sniper Should Do
- SOLUTION: Embracing Immediate Benefits from the Front Lines despite Winding Up in Leavenworth
- Focus: Being a Hinder to the Officers
- RESPONSE: Being an Angel to the Enemy
- UNIQUE ABILITY: Being Stubborn Towards the Navy
- CRITICAL FLAW: Being Receptive of Munitions
- BENCHMARK: Blocking the Bastion Out
- SIGNPOST 1: Wondering About the Airman First Class
- SIGNPOST 2: Collecting the Mortar's Memories
- SIGNPOST 3: Responding Inappropriately to the Joint Chiefs of Staff
- SIGNPOST 4: Desiring a Squadron
Dramatica basically left us little room to create.
In our first example, the Domain and Concern of Being Avaricious Towards the Ensign and Pretending to Be a Lieutennant still gave us room to play around with the Problem of Causing a War and the Solution of Exploring the Aftereffects of Something. One Main Character could be Greedy Towards a Rich Ensgin which leads him to Pretend to Be a Lieutennant to compensate, but be driven to self-destruction by Causing Class Warfare only to find relief in Exploring the Aftereffects of an After-School Program for Underprivileged Kids. But another could be Greedy Towards a Rich Ensign which leads him to Pretend to Be a Lieutennant to compensate, but be driven to self-destruction because of his need to instigate violent conflict with those around him only to find relief in Exploring the Aftereffects of Combat on Innocent Villagers and the Battlegrounds that used to be their Neighborhoods.
Same Domain and Concern, same basic personality and overall plot, but completely different instances of character at the root of it all. The first main character is driven by class warfare, the second by a deep-rooted violent nature. Dramatica leaves the writer free to expand upon the most intimate parts of a Throughline when the bottom of the structure is open to interpretation.
Contrast that with the last example of Dramatica-by-Numbers where we have a Domain and Concern of Believing One Is Inferior to a Team Leader and Adoring the Green Berets and a Problem of Doing What A Sniper Should Do and Embracing Immediate Benefits from the Front Lines despite Winding Up in Leavenworth.
Harder to find examples of different characters who both find their deepest baggage stemming from doing what snipers should do and personal relief in embracing immediate benefits despite winding up in Federal prison. There is some wiggle room, but the range narrows compared to the non-Gistified versions of Problem and Solution.
Inspired to Tell the Same Story
This problem with narrowing the playing field with too many Gists shows up when taking the storyform for a succesful story and trying to modify it to tell your own version. Consider this Gistified-version of the Main Character Throughline for Mel Gibson's latest film, Hacksaw Ridge:
- DOMAIN: Being a Pacifist in Wartime
- CONCERN: Living a Future Full of Regret
- ISSUE: Following One's Religious Beliefs vs. Willingness to Compromise
- PROBLEM: Helping Wounded Soldiers Stay Alive
- SOLUTION: Being a Nuisance to the Army
- Focus: Being Told What to Do
- RESPONSE: Having the Freedom to Choose for Oneself
- UNIQUE ABILITY: Willingness to Put One's Life in Danger
- CRITICAL FLAW: Putting One's Life in Danger Regardless of the Danger it Puts Others In
- BENCHMARK: Reconciling a Troubled Family History
- SIGNPOST 1: Watching Family and Friends Go Off to War
- SIGNPOST 2: Making Amends with Your Father
- SIGNPOST 3: Looking Forward to Returning Home
- SIGNPOST 4: Being There for Your Fellow Soldier
The story of how Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) stood up for what he believed in despite all odds inspires the very best in those who take the time to experience it. But not everyone loves a war drama. Suppose you, as an Author, want to instill the same kind of inspiration and aspiration in your Audience—an Audience turned off by war—and dream of setting this story somewhere other than 1945 Okinawa.
Reducing the Domain and Concern down to Being a Pacifist and Not Wanting to Live with Regret and the Problem and Solution down to Helping Someone and Being a Nuisance makes this possible. You could tell the story of a draft-dodger during the Vietnam era, a space freighter during the great Galactic Wars, or the son of a teamster during the 1950s. Each can be seen as being driven by wanting to Help Someone.
Keeping the Problem and Solution of Helping Wounded Soldiers Stay Alive and Being a Nuisance to the Army would destroy that possibility. What once opened up the possibility of inspiring different Audiences attracted to 1950s labor unions or 1960s anti-war efforts or even science-fiction fans now reduces this potentially moving story to those attracted solely to war dramas.
Once you find a storyform that speaks to you, you can express it in many different ways. While Dramatica's Gist feature makes it easier for writers to understand the elements at play within that storyform, an overabundance of these storytelling helpers locks the writer in to telling the same exact story. By reducing the Story Points further down the model to their essential natures, writers can take that initial spark of inspiration and corral it help guide and structure their own versions of the same story.
While there exists several incarnations of a single storyform, the meaning for that story—that message that inspires and motivates one to relay it to others—stands alone. One storyform, one meaning. Gists help open up the avenues of creativity for the writer, yet lock the artist down when abused.
When finding inspiration in the works of others to help define your own message, first identify the storyform that sits at the heart of it all while keeping the general sense of the conflict encoded within the specific storytelling at the top of the model. Leaving room at the bottom grants creative space for the writer to expand and express their own personal take on a message that speaks to them. In this way, the Author balances meaning with expression, creating a narrative unique and special and unlike any other.
- Sorry PC users, Dramatica Story Expert—and the Gist feature discussed in this article—only exists on the Mac version. ↩
Finding Your Own Unique Voice When Writing for Nanowrimo
Learn how to connect your heart's deepest desires with the structure of your story to create a compelling and meaningful narrative.
When it comes to writing a novel or a screenplay, some writers go with the flow. They sit down, start their timers or zero out their word counts, and begin connecting to their Muse. But what if there was a way to define your heart's desire and tie that voice directly to the structure of your story?
Presumably a writer becomes a writer because they have something they want to say, some unique perspective on the world that they want to communicate to others. Why write if you have nothing to say? Many who take to writing do not feel comfortable expressing themselves and see the act as a means to extract this creative impetus. That inner drive—that inner voice—is what compels a writer to sit behind a keyboard and take pen to paper.
An Artist's Voice
Setting the Dramatica theory of story aside, ask yourself What is it that I hold most dear? What do you believe in, and what do you see as being the truth? It will be different for every man, woman, and child but there will be something—some truism that eminates from your heart.
In our Narrative First Weekend Workshops, I used to help writers find these truisms by filling in the blank for this statement:
People need ___
Some answer food, some water, others love, and others creative expression. And you don't even need to use to word "need", you can use can, want, should—anything that justifies a certain position on what is truth and what is not. People should go to church. People want acceptance. People can't reach for the stars.
But we're Authors here. And making a statement like "people need food" or "people need creative expression" means nothing unless we provide some context for it.
Finding Meaning within Context
Nothing means nothing without context. A grape can be round or a grape can be green, its meaning--or truth--lies in the context taken by the viewer. Insoluble arguments occur over differing contexts, not over opposites.
We will get to the insoluble arguments soon enough, but for now let's focus on giving context to our heart's truth. Context is that which surrounds and gives meaning, so let's give meaning to our truisms:
- People need food in order to survive.
- People need creative expression in order to feel fulfilled.
Adding the phrase "in order to" forces us to grant a context for what we believe. It gives meaning to our truth.
The Western Occult story we kicked Nanowrimo off with in earlier this November in the article Creating a Story from Scratch with Nanowrimo lacked a certain truth. Overall it felt cool and entirely unique, but the Artist's point-of-view was nowhere to be found. We were focused on exploring the Dramatica storyform—and the Dramatica storyform says nothing about what lies within the heart of the writer-artist. It helps the artist communicate that inner truth, but the artist must still identify what it is they want to say.
Continuing our month-long series on using Dramatica to help support a writer through Nanowrimo, we take time out this week to help develop that story by digging deep within ourselves to find a truth worth writing.
The Driving Force Behind a Narrative
The first step to grafting my heart onto the cold and impeccable storyform for our Western Occult story is to identify a truth I hold dear. Since it is Thanksgiving week here in America, I'll go with something that reflects the holiday spirit:
People need to be grateful in order to feel that they are part of a community.
Ahhh that's nice, isn't it? Very Thanksgiving-y and a very true statement within a given context. The next thing to do would be to define an alternate context in which that statement isn't true. You can do this easily by adding the word UNLESS to the end of the statement and following it with a definition of a different point-of-view.
People need to be grateful in order to feel that they are part of a community UNLESS their focus on their socio-economic status makes it impossible to feel thankful.
And with that, we start a story.
Needing to be grateful in order to feel part of a community is indeed true. However, if your priority is class warfare and the social status of one group of people vs. another then being told to feel grateful can feel condescending. Why should someone be grateful for the scraps they are served?
With the juxtaposition of these two truisms—two statements that contradict each other, yet maintain truth within their own context—we create an inequity to fuel our narrative. Arguing which point-of-view is more appropriate within the context of resolving the Story Goal becomes the duty of the Author.
This can be a difficult thing to determine at the beginning. Personally, I believe both truisms and I'm not sure which one I feel is more appropriate. Working my way back to the Dramatica storyform will help solidify my position and grant me a better understanding of what my story truly means.
A Problem to Be Resolved
Before the story begins, the world is in stasis. The first Story Driver comes along—either an Action or a Decision—and upsets that tender balance, throwing the world of the story into upheaval. The characters identify the Problem created by this imbalance and determine an appropriate Solution. A Goal of common concern arises from this Solution. Some are for it, others are against it. The Consequence of failing motivates those for and provides a rally cry for those against.
In our story Being Loose is the Problem and Holding Sway over Someone the Solution. In order to gain that control a *Goal of Wishing for the Gold to Come Into Existence** becomes a point of contention for the people of this town. Some will be all for this constant wishing, seeing it as a means to hold sway over the less educated.2 Others will be against it because of the doomed future predicted by the town's one and only horse.
At first I thought it would be a conflict between those who use religion to control the masses and those enlightened by science and education, but comparing that Consequence with the Goal the story seems to be more about one loopy superstitious belief against another. Personally, I find arguments over dark gray and darker gray to be more interesting than black vs. white and therefore think this relation between Goal and Consequence to be perfect for my own artistic expression.
Assigning Points-of-Views to Structure
Having identified the Problem and Solution and Goal and Consequence, we now turn our attention towards the subjective viewpoints within our story.
Every complete narrative juxtaposes one approach towards solving problems against another. One is maintained by the Main Character of the story, the other by the Influence Character. The two battle it out over the course of the story until one adopts the other's point-of-view. This adoption leads to either Success or Failure in the efforts to achieve the Story Goal, and that outcome defines the Author's argument. In short, a story offers two perspectives on how to best solve a problem and argues which one is more appropriate by showing the outcome of one "winning" over the other.
Remember our truism statements from above:
People need to be grateful in order to feel that they are part of a community UNLESS their focus on their socio-economic status makes it impossible to feel grateful.
One of these describes our Main Character Abby's point-of-view, the other our Influence Character Jack's point-of-view. Since this is a very different kind of Western, I think I'll have Abby take the gritty "poor socio-economic status makes it difficult to be thankful" position. Jack will maintain that "a gracious attitude leads to a greater sense of community."
A Purpose to Conflict
Suddenly there is purpose to Abby's drive to Arrest the Bounty Hunter. She finds herself motivated to take this action because of her poor socio-economic status. Arresting criminals and collecting the reward for them is her way out of a life of scraping by while others sit in wealth and splendor. Most importantly, the problems and point-of-view she takes is directly connected to something personal and important to me that I want to express as an artist.
Same thing with Jack. His unpleasant and repulsive demeanor comes as a result of having to live a lifetime with ungrateful people. The fact that he feels like he can say anything to anyone at any time or place simply because they lack the ability to give thanks is a point-of-view I can really get behind.
Story as an Argument
Dramatica differentiates between a tale and a story by identifying the latter as making an argument. Two worldviews come into conflict over the best way to resolve a story's problem with one winning out over the other.
When it comes to Wishing Gold Into Existence, Jack is of the opinion that people aren't grateful enough for what they do have, and if they were they would have a greater sense of community. To him, it doesn't make sense to get on your knees and pray for something you don't even need. Be grateful and keep yourself from praying for an impossibility.
Abby sits on the other side of the argument. Why should they be happy with what they have when it feels so bad to have so little? To Abby, it's difficult to be thankful when you are served table scraps. And that's why you should fight and take whatever you can from whoever you find.
Looking back over the storyform, I am reminded that Jack will Change and adopt Abby's point-of-view and that switch will lead to Failure. By virtue of his relationship with Abby and everything that happens in and around the town with the Cattle Baronness, Jack eventually comes to the conclusion that Abby is right: you get what you take.
Unfortunately, by adopting this perspective they all Fail to wish gold into existence (which, of course, was always an impossibility) and are stuck with having their futures predicted by the town horse.
It's sad and it's dark, but it fits. If Abby had instead adopted Jack's more "positive" viewpoint then perhaps the wishing would have led to a greater sense of community spirit and a fading desire to believe in superstitions. They would have elevated themselves by holding sway over their own lesser natures.
Unfortunately he didn't, and the lesser of two evils persists. However, this failure is bittersweet as it turns out to be a Good thing for everyone—particularly Abby. Breaking out of one's socio-economic standing is difficult, if not impossible. Standing up and taking what little you can for yourself is sometimes the only thing you can do to feel whole.
Connecting Truth to Heart
By identifying truisms near and dear to my own belief systems, my motivation for writing and completing this story skyrockets. Instead of simply defining the argument to be made to the Audience, I now know what I want to argue to the Audience. Yes, being grateful can lead to a greater sense of community but really, if you want to feel good against an impossible situation you sometimes have to take what you can when you can.
By connecting what I deeply hold true to a solid and well-crafted argument, my story becomes uniquely mine. My beliefs, my experience, my desire to express myself to the greater community drives my heart to connect with yours.
And for that, I will be forever grateful.