The Inside-Out Approach to Writing a Story
Developing a story with purpose
Many writers buckle under the unrelenting pressure that is story structure. Beset with formulaic sequences and must-haves, they seek an alternative approach more in-line with their artistic natures. They scramble to find some life-preserver to keep them afloat—only to completely miss out on the dry land sitting right in front of them.
Dramatica is the haven every writer intuitively seeks out. While the complexity certainly confuses, the concepts within fulfill the writer's desire to be heard—and to be understood well.
Subtext is an application I developed to make the experience of using Dramatica more practical. Based on my four years of running a private story consultancy and over two decades of study, the app leverages the magic of the theory to keep your head above water.
Subtext is opinionated software—which is to say that it hardcodes assumptions of best practices into the product. Chief among these is the idea of a Storybeat.
Theory in Action
While not strictly canon, the Storybeat translates the theoretical into the practical. The Storybeat is any event tied to the storyform. Its function is to "beat out" the key moments in a meaningful structure. Subtext sidesteps the arduous task of learning Dramatica so that you can actually use Dramatica to improve the quality of your storytelling.
I actually really enjoyed Subtext for quite a while. I used it's connections system and analyze film that shared the same problem, concerns etc. The problem was that every time I tried to write something, it didn't really work. I think that it's main drawback is that it forces you to write in a sequential manner (or as Dramatica users will define it: it's very male mental sex).
It's not so much that Subtext forces you to write in a sequential matter, as it provides the entire sequence of your story—all at once. This approach can be quite disconcerting to the Author familiar with not knowing what he is writing about, and unfamiliar with coherence.
Most writers flail in a morass of uncertainty, assuming freedom to explore an essential component of telling a story. If telling yourself that story live as free as the leaf upon the wind.
If writing to tell that story to others, then do them a favor—take the time necessary to determine what it is you want to say with your work.
Subtext only works when you know what you want to say, and this is by design:
Great storytelling is telling a story with purpose.
The Case of Kubo and the Two Strings
The critically acclaimed, yet virtually unknown, Kubo and the Two Strings is a storytelling achievement of the highest order. Writer/creator Shannon Tindle can claim responsibility for much of its success.
I'd like to share a very interesting experience I just had. I just got back this week from an international art event and I had the opportunity to talk to Shanon Tindel, creator of Kubo and the Two Strings. Before going to the event I wasn't sure what's Shanon's approach to writing. They did after all literally put their characters in the belly of the whale. I was surprised to find that Shanon was talking in terms that really resonates with Dramatica.
Dramatica is a model of the mind, not of narrative structure. The idea that a great film resonates with the theory should not come as a surprise—that resonance is a component of the system.
The Belly of the Whale, and other assorted nonsense from the Hero's Journey, seeks to make the events of a story meaningful. The processes of your mind are useful enough on their own—you don't need to fabricate a mythical journey to make them significant.
His initial idea for Kubo sparked from his fascination with Japanese culture and life experience of treating his mother in law who was suffering from dementia. He first established the idea of a little kid, treating his mom after she lost her memory. After that Shanon suggested coming up with an ending as early as you can.
By finding the relationship between the end and the initial inequity, you ensure the presence of purpose to your work. The connection between the two is the Premise of your story.
The Premise within Subtext consists of two parts: the Objective Premise Method and the Subjective Premise Method. The latter finds evidence in the initial inequity, the former in the ending.
For Kubo, the Objective Method is sensitivity; the Subjective Method is Awareness. Sensitivity in the form of administering to the elderly, Awareness in the guise of being overly responsive in that care.
Of course, one would need to possess twenty-five years of story theory and story analysis to extract those particular Methods from Shannon's intent—or you could just open up the Premise Builder in Subtext, and do the same in five minutes.
After you integrate one more vital aspect of a Premise.
The Holistic Mind and Meaning
Shannon's fascination with Japanese culture leaks into Kubo beyond the superficial aspects of setting and scene. The very nature of the narrative structure is Japanese, casting an otherwise necessary adventure into one of self-discovery.
Studio Ghibli movies differ from Pixar movies not because of their countries of origin, but rather because of their collective mindsets of origin. Japanese culture is predominantly Holistic: balance and relationship supersede self. American culture emphasizes the one over the many, its mostly Linear approach preferring black and white over shades of grey.
This tendency colors purpose. In a culture that promotes individual success over general well-being, Goal and Consequence take center stage. The result is an emphasis on encoding success or failure into a Premise.
"Keep focusing on being forceful toward something and you can make a stand." is the Premise of the Black Mirror episode, USS Callister. #MeToo thinking in the guise of a modern-day Twilight Zone. The show focuses on what it takes to achieve that Goal (speak up) successfully, and encodes that into the meaning of the story.
"Everyone suffers the tragic consequences of understanding some things weren't meant to be, when you get out of your way and abandon being response-able" is the Premise of Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck's character Lee removes his concept of being response-able from both past and present, resulting in that final shared tragic understanding. Failure is an essential part of that film's meaning.
Holistic structure emphasizes the alignment of self with the external world. Resonance replaces Goal and Consequence with an emphasis placed on the issues present within the inequity.
"Allowing your positive expectations to balance out your determination of what is best for someone addresses doing something worthwhile." is the Premise of the comedic drama The Farewell. "Success" is more a factor of balance, rather than any specific accomplishment.
"Allowing the uncertainty of repressed memories into your experience disconnects you from the outside world, clouding your volatility with shades of continuing along the same path." is the Premise of the dramatic thriller Snowpiercer. Here, misalignment takes over to reveal an overall sense of disconnection.
Kubo and the Two Strings, thankfully, avoids the latter with its Premise of alignment:
Address your resistance towards being sensitive by balancing your overwhelming responsiveness to others with your practicing self-care.
In other words, alignment comes when you find a healthy balance between caring for someone and caring for yourself. That's what makes the film so beautiful (besides the animation and character design)—the structure successfully communicates this meaningful and moving message.
And it all ties back to Shannon's original intent and purpose for writing the story.
Digging Up the Premise
Unearthing a Premise in this way is the "inside-out" approach to building a story.
Shanon's approach for coming with ending resembles very much to what Melanie Ann Philips talk about in her blog post : "what drives character?". Basically it the approach of setting your characters Backstory or justification. For example Kubo at beginning of the movie is very angry the situation his in - having grown in a broken family and he wants to revenge his grandpa. Since Shanon prefers changed characters, Kubo chooses the solution of forgiveness.
The nature of that forgiveness is higher self-awareness—that's the genesis of the reconciliation. Working backward from that balancing Element, one finds Awareness at the heart of the story's inequity. This focusing on the external syncs with Kubo's drive for revenge—his outwardly focus blinding him from inner peace.
Why am I telling you all this? Since I would really want to see a tool that allows me to write this way: from the inside out. Maybe something node based like the hypershade in Maya. Something that would allow me to weave points together instead of trying to guess my story sequentially.
We just discovered the Premise of Kubo and the Two Strings from the "inside out." We determined the nature of the story's mind to be Holistic. We found the balancing Element of forgiveness in greater Self-Awareness. And we traced the story back to identify the source of revenge as an over-abundance of Awareness.
With those narrative Elements, you have all you need to find your story's unique structure. Plug them into Subtext's Premise Builder, and you have your entire story laid out for you from beginning to end.
What more would you need?
The Sequential Approach to Writing a Story
Eventually, you need to start writing your story. And you need to put that story into a format that your Audience can read—from beginning to end. The "linear" treatment provided by Subtext is less a function of Male Mental Sex, and more a requirement of the process of reading.
We read line by line.
The order in which the Storybeats appear in Subtext relies 100% on the purpose of your story. If you took the same events from Kubo and recast them from an Americanized-Western point-of-view, the Beats would proceed in an entirely different order.
But they would still present themselves line by line.
This isn't to say that you can't then play with the weaving of those Beats. Temporal sequencing like that found in Memento or Pulp Fiction takes advantage of our mind's ability to reconstruct the actual order of events. The Storybeats in Subtext and a Dramatica storyform relate the meaning of your story, not the experience of it.
But I suspect you refer to something a little more elegant.
Giving Them a Mind to Possess
Every Storybeat exists in every story. Closure, Hope, Preconception, Sense of Self, and on and on and on until the mind exhausts every possible avenue of consideration. The difference lies in the specifics of the storytelling, and the order in which it proceeds. The latter requires an understanding of purpose, the former a gifted storyteller.
If you find yourself bucking against the order of your choosing (your intent), merely find the Storybeat that reflects your current inkling and write to that point. No one says you must write from beginning to end. Write from wherever the muse strikes your fancy, confident in the understanding that structure will tie it all together in the end.
I do this all the time. I'll write a sequence I know must be in the story. I'll write it first, or at least near the beginning, only to find that the structure requires it in another place.
No big deal. I simply copy and paste, shift it to the appropriate Act, and find something else to write.
That initial writing wasn't wasted time, and neither is anything you write. Given a premise, or purpose, our minds instinctively gravitate towards what needs writing—we just don't know precisely where sometimes.
Our minds are constant storytellers. We continually shift perspective, breaking context—and therefore, narrative structure—five million times a second. We don't lose the thread because we are the instruments of our observations.
Our Audience is not so lucky.
They require footing, firm ground in perspective, so they know the exact context for understanding the conflict in our stories. This Storymind isn't their mind; it's your mind they possess. They need us to choose a Premise and stick with it from beginning to end.
Anything less is nothing short of schizophrenia and a complete breakdown of all meaning.
Give your Audience a mind to possess and make it whole. That is the Holistic inside-out approach you seek—the path of the Storymind.