The Fault In Our Stars: An Anatomy Of An Analysis

An effective analysis of a film requires an objective sounding board. Dramatica offers that opportunity.

Earlier this year on Discuss Dramatica, someone linked to an analysis of the Disney animated film Frozen by Glen C. Strathy. In his analysis of the film, author Strathy states:

One cannot eliminate the subjective aspect of story analyses. We all see stories differently and certain elements carry more weight for some people than others.

This is a cop out—a defensive technique designed to hinder meaningful discussion. Effective story analysis is not subjective—at least not the type we do at the monthly Dramatica Users Group meetings. A consensus is always required and everyone is required to defend their point-of-view. You can't just say "Well, that's how I see it" and expect to find the actual storyform.

In a reply to that post, I mentioned:

I didn't look at the analyses of the other films but I suspect an equal amount of innaccuracy.

My suspicions were confirmed with an analysis of one of those films, The Fault In Our Stars.

The Comprehensive Story Analysis

One of the exercises in our Dramatica® Mentorship Program requires students to complete a monthly Comprehensive Story Analysis of a film not covered within the central Dramatica analysis archives. Jon Gentry, a frequent participant in the Users Group Meetings and a student of the program, chose the mega tear-jerker The Fault In Our Stars for the month of November. His original analysis shared many elements of Strathy's analysis, most notably the placement of the Main Character in the Fixed Attitude Domain. Hazel comes across as a debbie downer who revels in her own passivity. Where else would one find someone like this than within the one-two punch of Be-er and Fixed Attitude Domain?

Dramatica Mentorship Chat for The Fault In Our Stars

On the surface, this appraisal seems accurate—Hazel maintains quite the downer atittude towards life and its purpose. Yet something about that singular story point struck me as incorrect. Both Jon and I agreed that the Signpost order (the order of Acts within the narrative) in Strathy's analysis left much to be desired and Jon felt strongly that the Objective Story Domain fell in the Psychology or Way of Thinking Domain.

Sensing this discord, we worked together on an analysis and came up with what we believe is a much stronger storyform.

The Four Throughlines

As mentioned before, it is quite clear that the Main Character of The Fault In Our Stars is Hazel. We see the world through her eyes, we experience visions of her parents at her bedside, and we learn the truth of the contents of a letter with her. In short, we the audience are Hazel.

Augustus seemed the obvious choice for Influence Character and Relationship Story. He is the love interest and he does challenge Hazel's way of seeing the world. On those three story points we all agreed. The identification of the Objective Story's Domain, however, was our collective first disagreement with Strathy.

The Goal of Concern

A brief look at the over three-hundred analyses on Dramatica reveals an interesting pattern: the Story Goal and Story Concern are always of the same Type. If the Goal is to obtain treasure, then every character will experience trouble trying to acquire something--and it doesn't have to be the same specific instance of the Story Goal. The Story Goal falls into the same thematic area as the Objective Story Concern. As Chris Huntley explains while clarifying the difference between Story Goal and Story Concern:

First of all, each of the throughlines has a Concern. Though it is not explicitly stated, the implication of the theory is that each of the four throughlines can have its own goal. This means the Objective Story throughline might have a goal, the Main Character throughline might have a goal, the Impact (Obstacle) character throughline might have a goal, and the MC v. IC (Subjective Story) throughline might have a goal.

When you identify a Throughline's Concern you also simultaneously define that Throughline's Domain. A Throughline's Concern of The Future forces a Situation context for that Throughline's Domain. Likewise with a Concern of Doing and a Domain of Activity—they both go hand-in-hand.

Identifying the Objective Story

Peter’s book ends abruptly when the main character dies. This creates a problem for Hazel-Grace who wants to know what happens to the other characters. Her desire symbolizes her need for reassurance that her parents will be all right after she dies.

Strathy’s contention is that the Story Goal is Learning and thus, the Objective Story Domain Activity. While there does seem to be the drive to find out what happens at the end of Peter’s book, does that concern extend out to everyone in the story? Is everyone really experiencing difficulties within the context of problematic activities? The Story Goal is a story point connected to the Objective Story Throughline and thus, by definition must be a Goal of concern for every character.

Hazel does want to know the ending and so does Augustus...perhaps Learning works better as the Relationship Story Concern? The trouble the two get into along the way consists mostly of problematic Activities--where one finds a Goal of Learning--an affirmation that improves our position.

When it comes to Story Points found in the Objective Story, it is best to look to characters other than the Main Character or Influence Character; these characters carry baggage from their own personal Throughlines and can sometimes confuse an accurate assessment of thematics. Look to Hazel's mother and father. The writer. The writer's assistant.1 These characters have little interest or experience much difficulty in the act of Learning. They do, however, share a problem with the way they think.

Hazel's mother and father both attempt to manipulate their daughter into thinking differently. Collectively the family tries to manipulate Hazel's doctors into changing their minds. The writer’s assistant invites Hazel and Augustus over in an attempt to manipulate the author into writing something new. Even the author himself withholds information in an attempt to manipulate the handicapped girl. Every single source of conflict stems from a problematic way of thinking.

Dramatica seeks to identify the source of conflict within a story in order to harmonize a narrative’s thematics. The source of conflict in The Fault In Our Stars for everyone centers around problematic ways of thinking--specifically, trying to get others to gain insight. Even Strathy agrees (though he doesn't realize it):

The problem of how to carry on with your life after losing a loved one to cancer is a concern that affects or involves most of the characters

Definitely. But this describes the process of Conceiving a Way to Carry On With Your Life, not Learning. Learning finds trouble in the physical act of Learning, Conceiving describes a conflict set within the mind and is found in the Psychology, or ways-of-thinking Domain.

Having established the Domains of the Four Throughlines and hinted at the location of the story's Concerns (and more importantly, came to a collective agreement on them), we set about identifying the dynamics of the story.

Main Character Approach

The Domain of a Be-er rests in either a Fixed Attitude or a problematic Way of Thinking. We already know the Objective Story covers the Way of Thinking context for this story, so that rules out the latter. The Domain of a Do-er falls in either a Fixed Situation or problematic Activities. The latter is where we found the Relationship Story, narrowing our choices for Hazel down to either Situation or Fixed Attitude.

As mentioned earlier, Hazel does exhibit a very detrimental fixed attitude--but does this mean her Domain rests in a Fixed Attitude and therefore could be considered a Be-er? Is that really the source of personal trouble for her or does it simply describe a bit of storytelling about her?

More importantly, we all agree without equivocation that Hazel is a Changed character—her perspective on the meaning of life completely changes. That dynamic suggests that her Domain of presence would shift from Fixed Attitude to Situation. Has she achieved some radical shift in her physicality as a result of Augustus' influence? Perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that she overcomes a poor physical condition by shifting to a new fixed attitude (Situation to Fixed Attitude).

Was her poopy attitude towards life really a problem for her? Or would it be more accurate to suggest that her problems stemmed from her poor physical state? She couldn't go anywhere without that oxygen tank. She was defined by it at the airport and denied travel because of her condition. Her struggle to ascend the stairs of Anne Frank centered around carrying her weakened body and heavy oxygen tank—it had nothing to do with her attitude. If anything, her attitude was what helped her up those stairs.

Main Character Growth and Problem-Solving Style

Setting her Approach to Do-er locked her Domain into the Situation Throughline. Dramatica then informed us that her Growth—a Story Point that defines the "character arc"—would have her growing by Starting something new.

This seemed less intuitive to me as I felt that she had a huge chip on her shoulder about her whole predicament—usually an indication that a Main Character must learn to Stop something negative.

Jon suggested that Hazel needed to start putting herself out into the world, open herself up to greater possibility. Sounded good to me, and so I gave in. Another win for collaboration.

This left Hazel's Problem-Solving Style: a Story Point that defines how the Main Character prefers to solve problems—either Linearly or Holistically. John thought Linear, but I was confident it was Holisitic. Not answering the phone is a clear means of changing the balance of power in a relationship. Holistic problem-solvers are all about shifting balance to change the direction of things. This might seem counter-intuitive to linear thinkers, but trust me, is equally as effective—if not more in some situations—when it comes to problem-solving. It worked for Hazel and with that we were finished with the Main Character Story Dynamics:

Changed, Start, Do-er, Holistic

Objective Story Dynamics

Next we shifted attention to the four Objective Story Dynamics. The first story point identifies what shifts one Act into the next—what Dramatica refers to as the Story Driver: either Action or Decision. Jon thought Decision and I thought Action. Instead of relying on the notion that all analysis is "subjective" we each fought our positions with concrete examples.

Jon argued the doctor's decision to allow Hazel to leave the country was an Act turn. But really, what does that turn?

Furthermore, the story begins when the two star-crossed lovers meet. The story turns when the boy offers his wish to the girl, forcing the doctors to deliberate about whether or not she can go to Amsterdam. Those two sound like Actions forcing Decisions. And the story ends when the boy dies—another example of an Action.

Shifting back to the boy's offer of the wish—how is this an Action Driver when it feels like the doctor's decision to allow her to leave is the real plot point? Drivers need to force subsequent events to occur. In the article The True Nature of the Inciting Incident this concept receives a litmus test:

If x didn't happen is it likely y would have occurred? If yes, then x is not a driver. If no, then y may be the driver.

If the boy hadn't offered his wish, is it likely the doctors would have deliberated over whether or not to send her? No. Then the doctor's deliberation may be the driver. If the doctors hadn't deliberated whether or not she could leave, is it likely she would have stayed in her room? Yes. Then the doctor's deliberation cannot be the Story Driver. The Action of offering the wish stands as a possible Story Driver.

Same with her Decision to finally re-read the letter. If the source of the letter's author had not been revealed is it likely that she would have read it? No, no way. That reveal turns the story.

And the writer being an ass completely turns the story around somewhere near the midpoint.

So we have five actions: they meet, the boy offers his wish, the author acts like an ass, the boy's condition grows worse, the boy dies, and finally the source of the letter's author is revealed.2 All Actions.

When it comes to the Story Continuum, the next Dynamic Story Point, clearly there is no time limit—but clearly you can't use the absence of something to prove the presence of something else. Looking to the Goal of Conceiving a Way to Live After You've Lost Someone to Cancer, you can quickly see several different ways to avoid changing your line of thinking. Fake participating in support groups, hiding in your room, and discounting a disgruntled author all reveal the different options one goes through before finally getting it.

As far as the two remaining Story Dynamics—the Story Outcome and the Story Judgment—a resounding triumph is in order. Objectively they get the idea the boy was trying to get across about the meaning of life and subjectively, Hazel finds a way to release her angst. Success and Good.

And lots of tears.

Action, Spacetime, Success, Good

Story Concerns

During our discussion above when we determined the Domains of each Throughline, we also hinted at the location of the Story Concerns. For the Objective Story Concern we liked Conceiving, the Relationship Story Concern Learning. Dramatica suggested placing the Main Character Concern into The Present and the Influence Character Concern into Conscious. This is an example of the Dramatica Theory of Story giving back—telling us something about a story we didn't specifically call out. What Dramatica is saying is if we want to write a story with the above Story Points, then the Main Character's central concern would be the here and now, and the Influence Character would force deliberation and Conscious. Sounds exactly like Hazel and Augustus respectively, doesn't it? Hazel is concerned with what she can and cannot do in regards to her present condition and Augustus works to get Hazel and others to consider a different point-of-view, to really think about life. As Jon put it, "Augustus pushes Hazel to contemplate that there's more to life than wallowing." Coulnd't agree more. And apparently, neither could Dramatica.

The Storyform Reveals Itself

At this point, the final storyform shone like a beacon in the night. Having worked with Dramatica for over 20 years I know how Throughlines become connected when certain Story Points are set and I know the patterns that condition a story; for the most part I can determine a storyform simply by looking at the Table of Story Elements. For Jon, it took a bit longer and I tried to help as best I could by walking him through my process.

Looking at the Main Character's Concern of the Present, one can see four possible Issues for her to be primarily focused on: Work, Attempt, Attract and Repel. It's obvious Hazel doesn't really struggle with her level of attraction or level of repulsion to others. Different narratives with the same subject matter might focus on these issues for handicapped people, but The Fault In Our Stars did not spend a significant amount of time on those issues.

This left Work and Attempt. Dramatica defines Work as an issue of doing something you know you can do, while Attempt presents an issue of trying to do something you think you can do. Jon chose Work and identified two examples:

climbing the ladder at Anne Frank museum, committing to being boyfriend and girlfriend

Committing to boyfriend/girlfriend is the propriety of the Relationship Story Throughline and doesn't apply here. Jon maintained his position on Work, explaining that Hazel believes her problem is that "she thinks of herself as a grenade" and that she limits herself to doing only what she thinks she is capable of.

But is climbing the stairs really limiting herself to only doing things she is capable of? Jon found himself confused about the Issue on this point, explaining that he always thought of an Issue in the Dramatica sense as an "estimation or judgement of value between two terms." In other words, he was measuring the value of Work vs. Attempt.

Every story point is an inequity generator. Whether it be a Problem, a Concern, a Domain or an Issue, the story point tells of inequity, just seen at different levels of magnification. With that in mind, Jon nailed the rest of the storyform.

For Hazel, her problem is the Evaluation of the Attempt in the Present. She experiences personal problems because she is stuck in a previous Evaluation. This is what he and Strathy were seeing when they originally positioned Hazel in the Fixed Attitude quadrant; they were seeing a problem of Evaluation within the context of her situation, not a problem within the context of a fixed mindset. It's not so much that they were wrong, as they were simply looking in the wrong place.

Hazel does evaluate herself as a grenade. Everyone looks at her and sees a victim (external Evaluations placed on her). She sees everyone trying to protect her AND she wants to protect anyone from getting close to her and hurting her like mother did at her bedside (Main Character Focus](!dr) of Protection). In response she wallows in stasis (Main Character Direction of Inaction). Here you can see why everyone identifies Hazel as "passive". Many equate Be-er with passivity, particular those stuck in a Western mindset and even more particuarly those of a certain gender who prefer linearity over holism (i.e., Men). Hazel is not passive by nature, she is responding with passive inaction as a means to counteract all the protective pressure placed on her. And in the end, she sees the world in a new light (Main Character Solution of Re-evaluation).

Main Character Quad for The Fault In Our Stars

The strength with which one can defend that quad of Problem, Solution, Focus & Response with concrete examples tells of an accurate storyform. That flow of being able to move from one position of the quad to the next—that is the kind of thing one should look for when identifying a storyform, either for a completed work or for a work of their own.

Verifying the Storyform

Objective Story Quad for The Fault In Our Stars

From there it was a matter of bouncing from one Throughline to the next to see if that flow continued into the other perspectives. With a Changed Main Character the Objective Story shares the same Problem and Solution. Looking to that quad in Conceiving one sees an Objective Story Focus of Possibility and an Objective Story Direction of Probability. Jon explained it as "Everyone is hedging against what could happen or go wrong, so they respond by limiting what they're comfortable with in the realm of Probability. He pointed to the Solution as evidence that "everyone needs to adjust their thinking about what it means to live with or survive losing someone with cancer." (Objective Story Solution of Re-evaluation). Perfect.

Influence Character Quad for The Fault In Our Stars

Moving to the Influence Character, Dramatica identified Augustus' motivation as Inaction (Influence Character Problem of Inaction) which at first, seems counter-intuitive. Augustus is motivated to do tons of stuff, particularly in regards to Hazel. But a closer examination of Dramatica's definition of Inaction provides us with a more accurate definition of his motivation: taking no action as a means of response. Augustus does nothing as a means of fighting his cancer. In his backstory he responded to his diagnosis by not allowing it to control his actions and instead, lets things happen. He simply doesn't let the situation get to him—precisely the kind of thing that impacts Hazel's point-of-view.

Relationship Story Quad for The Fault In Our Stars

The Relationship Story Throughline sealed our storyform. Sharing the Focus & Response from the Objective Story Throughline, the Relationship Story Problem fell into Certainty and the Relationship Story Solution into Potentiality. Simply put this means the trouble between the two lovers stems from a certainty, and they grow closer and resolve their relationship when they turn to potentiality. Sounds pretty much exactly like Hazel & Augustus. They both begin the story certain of the meaningfulness of life and it fuels the conflict between them; hard to form a relationship when you're both certain about how things will turn out. The certainty is also a point of contention that ignites that flame. That flame burns brightest when they eventually look to the potential of infinite love: the moment they embrace infinities.3

The Power of Synergistic Collaboration

Dramatica is a very powerful application when it comes to understanding the forces behind a narrative. The Fault In Our Stars was a relatively well-received story—generally an indication that a sound and complete storyform lies at the center of it all. As we have shown here, this was the case with this beloved story of neophyte lovers.

Hopefully we have also shown the importance of not doing an analysis like this within a vaccuum. Inaccuracies and understandings abound when one simply assumes that their interpretation is one of many. The Dramatica storyform is an objective view of a story's meaning—subjectivity and opinion only pop up when one cannot consistently defend their choice of Story Points. In that case, subjectivity and caveats become a necessity, for how else to defend a broken and contradictory storyform?

It is important that writers and producers new to Dramatica receive an accurate and vetted model of usage. Practice and process become essential guarantors of success. For a synergistic approach to best applying the theory to narrative, one can attend the monthly Users Group Meetings or simply ask questions within one of the official Dramatica Discussion forums. Endeavor to work together and to collaborate with the objective point-of-view provided by Dramatica as a sounding board and you will identify the patterns of forces that make up a deeply meaningful and complete story.

Final Storyform: Changed, Start, Do-er, Holistic, Action, Spacetime, Success, Good, Psychology, Conceiving, Deficiency, Evaluation

  1. It is also good to think of them in terms of their roles in the Objective Story. This helps to objectify the characters (cause, you know, it's the Objective Story)
  2. This last Action is probably more indicative of the end of the Relationship Story more than anything else.
  3. And that's why you cry so much at the end—the solution to the Relationship Story, the emotional component of the narrative's meaning is locked up in Potentiality, i.e. infinities)

New class begins January 2022!