Story Structure that Eats the Author Alive

The greatest danger facing any writer is structure for structure's sake.

Recognizing the terror of story structure for story structure's sake is not hyperbole—its essential knowledge for the continuation of our species. Stories keep us alive. They teach us the most appropriate course of action given a particular set of circumstances, and they do in a way that affects both the heart and the mind.

If the Authors writing them realize that story structure is more than a way to organize their folders in Scrivener.

So one fascinating aspect of your perspective is that for you (and Dramatica), structure defines meaning. I can completely see the logic behind this (e.g. if we explore a situation in a particular order we're going to come out with a particular result in the same way that where we place the variables in an equation defines which answer appears after the equal sign.)

Structure is meaning. In other words, if you mean to write something meaningful, you naturally structure it. That organization of your personal Truth is the meaning of your story. The relationships between the Storypoints within your structure communicate your intention—not the decision where Act Two starts and Act One ends.

Story structure is not folder organization—story structure is Truth organization.

However, I'd argue you're going a bit too far in a couple of these sentences: "Again, if you don't have the answer to this question, then you don't need Dramatica—and you don't need structure. If you're not providing meaning, then things like Acts and Main Characters and Obstacle Characters and Climaxes and Resolution are pointless."

The fluid morass of alternative narrative paradigms—the Hegelian Dialectic, the Hero's Journey, Save the Cat!, the Nutshell Method, the Sequence Method, etc.—continue to bog us down because of the insistence on a structure for structure's sake. Acts hold no more significance than Chapter breaks—a convenient spot to end the day's work or start anew the next. One man's Break into Two is another woman's Refusal of the Call. Take a look at any of the Save the Cat! Books, and you'll find several inconsistencies that belie a disconnect from meaning.

Structure becomes a target, a page-count to hit, rather than the guiding force of your writer's intuition.

In the most banal, plot-centric sense, acts for me are units of story where a particular engine of conflict appears, generates its problems, and is then eliminated to be superseded by something else. From a character perspective, I write an act as a unit of story where a character is attempting to approach the underlying problems through a particular lens and ultimately finds it stops working

Can you perceive the story structure of your life? From your point-of-view right now, whether you're sitting in a chair or walking down the street, can you see the narrative of your life at work? Of course, you can't.

It's the same thing when writing a story from a character's perspective.

You are never going to see the Matrix because you're part of the Matrix. Even when you recognize the existence of the system, you're still eternally locked in that system. You might see seasons or stages of life, but even then, you're not understanding the true nature of that narrative structure. What you see is always colored by what you think.

Dramatica gives you a way to step outside of yourself. Astral projection for the modern age.

Our Intuitive Sense of Story Structure

Experienced and established Authors write with an intuitive sense of story structure. Even the one-off story blurb you sent captures the essence of meaningful and purposeful storytelling:

Joe discovers a vampire in his neighbourhood. He tries to act as if he's just nuts (ignores the evidence, goes to see a shrink, stops smoking weed) until that archetypal approach has failed him because his girlfriend's turned up dead with two fang marks. So he changes his approach to be an amateur detective (researches vampires, follows the vampire, breaks into its house) until the vampire burns down Joe's house and kills his family, sending Joe on the run where he tries to survive as a fugitive (leaves town, gets new identity, tries to make money) until that fails when it turns out vampires are taking over the whole world and he now as to become a vampire hunter . . . etc.

You just used Dramatica theory to structure your sample—and you probably didn't even know you were doing it:

Understanding (ignores the evidence, goes to see a shrink, stops smoking weed) Doing (researches vampires, follows the vampire, breaks into its house) Obtaining (leaves town, gets a new identity, tries to make money) Learning (it turns out vampires are taking over the whole world and he now as to become a vampire hunter)

You intuitively structured your example story with the four Types of conflict found within the Physics Domain. Writing from character, you had no idea you were writing a little mini-story—yet, you couldn't help to make it complete.

Many would-be Authors skip one or two of these Types when trying to do the same.

Competent and prolific writers such as yourself can't help but write Dramatica-structured engines of conflict. After all, Dramatica is a model of how we think, and great writers intuitively understand how we feel. That's why they're able to connect so well with their Audiences.

Beginning with Structure

Would you have written the same mini-story if you started out with a storyform that said:

  • Transit 1: Understanding
  • Transit 2: Doing
  • Transit 3: Obtaining
  • Transit 4: Learning

Maybe not.

Possibly, if you understood how these four Elements work to provide engines of conflict that exist within the context of Physics.

The above is what you might find with the Dramatica Story Expert application. After deciding the fundamental dynamics of your novel, the app responds with the storyform of your story. Choose Tragedy or Triumph, and Dramatica Story Expert responds in kind. The above might not lead you to the same exact vampire story—but it will lead you to tell the same story.

What if you opened up Subtxt, with the same narrative dynamics and storyform, only to find:

  • Act 1: Joe is dense about someone
  • Act 2: Joe culls
  • Act 3: Joe gets a reward
  • Act 4: Joe researches war criminals

(This is precisely what Subtxt gave me on the first try, uploading the same storyform)

Act 1 is scary close to your version. Act 2 and 3 are close if you consider Joe's actions to be geared towards "culling" away misunderstandings. And if you flip "getting a reward" on its head towards losing something...or who knows, maybe Joe considers losing his family a reward? It definitely spins the story in another direction.

And Act 4 certainly clues one in on the kind of information gathering that conflicts Joe at the end. Maybe somehow, these vampires are "war criminals."

Whether or not you write with Dramatica in mind is irrelevant, you're always writing with Dramatica in mind. The question is one of intent. Do you know what it is you want to say? If yes, then a Dramatica storyform can help tell you the order of things that works best with what you want to communicate with your story. Not quite sure yet? Then ask your question, write as usual, then check your work after, confident that the feedback you receive is not based on opinion.

Developing with Structure

You may look back and decide, instead, that Act 2 is more about Learning rather than Doing.

Fair enough.

You can switch the two of them—just know that it's going to affect the meaning of your story. Remember the Act order difference between Star Wars and The Dark Knight? Replacing Doing with Learning switches the feeling and meaning of the story. What I originally suggested may help prove your eventual narrative argument better than this alternate version.

Know, too, that interpreting the second Act as Learning doesn't mean you get to keep the remaining balance. You can't just flop Transit Concerns as if they're widgets. When you start with Understanding and Learning, the 3rd Transit must be Doing.

Nothing else makes sense.

You can't make something understood—only to teach how serious you are—to then start dominating and controlling things—only to end by doing something.

That doesn't even make sense. It's an incomplete story—incomplete because of its broken narrative structure.

You can, however, make something understood—only to teach how serious you are—to start doing what must be done—only to end by dominating and controlling the situation.

That feels complete. And it feels that way because the progression makes sense to a functioning mind.

Story structure is Truth organized for the purpose of communicating meaning.

Making Sense of Story Structure

Why can't you go from Understanding to Learning to Obtaining to Doing? Because that's not how our minds make logical sense of things. Dramatica won't let you write an illogical story.

Trying to write your story in that order feels weird:

  • He misunderstands his girlfriend
  • So he learns all he can about vampires
  • Only to lose his family
  • So he fights them

I'm kind of left with a sense of Ok, so then what happens? Which is not the kind of feeling or experience you want to give your Audience.

Contrast that deficient story with:

  • He misunderstands his girlfriend
  • So he learns all he can about vampires
  • They track his family down as he hunts them
  • Joe kills ever last one of those bastards

Slightly more satisfying, right?

Dramatica theory won't let you write a broken or incomplete story. It allows you to know why that plot progression with Learning to Obtaining in the traditional 2nd act just won't work. And it suggests an alternate path that both satisfies and fulfills your Audience. Dramatica helps make sense of the stories we tell ourselves.

The Intuitive Side of Things

So while I see your reasoning behind structure as "order which defines meaning", I use aspects of structure all the time without knowing my ultimate premise but as a way to ensure the story is always moving forwards and I'm not looping back over and over.

Beyond merely keeping up momentum, Dramatica tracks down inefficiencies—missing pieces—in your stories. What you're doing intuitively, Dramatica spells out discretely. That's all Understanding-Doing-Obtaining-Learning is: an appreciation of narrative that helps Authors prevent themselves from looping over and over chasing the wrong thought.

Some call it writer's block.

While your original example touched on all the contexts of Physical conflict, the last barely made the grade. You hinted at Learning in the end (when Joe finds out that vampires are taking over the world), but it wasn't enough. You would still need to encode it with as much detail and care as the previous Acts for the rhythm and momentum of the narrative to feel consistent. What he does he, in turn, teach these vampires?

When I fail to incorporate that sense of "acts" in the way I've described, I always find myself with a big problem in the rewrite that forces me to eliminate or move big chunks of plot. And when I read novels or watch movies where they've failed to effectively use act structure to delineate approach or engine of conflict, those stories always feel scattered to me.

That's because we naturally work through these various Act-sized concerns as we solve problems in our lives.

As the Author of this narrative, you are not trapped within the minds of the characters, unable to see objective reality the way we can't see objective reality. You are the Author. Which means you are God. Which means you can't help but indicate various strictures that form the narrative. It's there in the "I can't help but write in terms of Acts," but there's even more just beneath the surface begging to come through. You're painting the tip of the iceberg when you know full well there's a mountain of meaning hidden from view.

Dramatica simply flips your point-of-view so that your feet are at the top, and your eyes are at the bottom. The ocean of your story's purpose and all its wonders spread out before you, beckoning you to recognize their splendor above the flash and glam of sunlit peaks.

Originally published 10-15-2019

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