The Relationship between Character Growth and Consequence
The effect character arc plays in what it means to fail.
Learning the Dramatica theory of story is a continual process. After twenty-five years of study, I continue to learn something new every day. This reality explains my passion for the subject—it always feels like there's some new understanding just around the corner.
Consider this hidden passage from the Dramatica theory book:
A Start story is one in which the audience will see the Consequences as occurring only if the Goal is not achieved. In a Stop story, the audience will see the Consequences already in place, and if the Goal is not achieved the Consequences will remain. (Dramatica: A New Theory of Story, p. 177)
Having heard it mentioned a couple of times in various meetings and online, I set out to write an article proving the concept wrong. I never remembered this part of the theory, and I failed to recall any analysis where the relationship between the Story Consequence and the Main Character Growth was a significant part of the conversation. I figured it was just one of those things that everyone takes too literally with Dramatica, which can be a problem given the enlightened views of the theory.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out Dramatica was right.
Chris and Melanie published the original Dramatica Theory Book over twenty-five years ago. Before two decades of monthly User Group analyses. Before Narrative First and its hundreds of articles and analyses. Before Subtext and the Writers Room and the countless storyforms added to the application weekly.
No. Chris and Melanie got it right the first time. And while it might not be as cut and dried as explained in the text, the concept holds true.
Because it's a truth based on understanding, not experience.
Consider a film like Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon. As explained in the series Writing the Antagonistic Hero, Hiccup is both Main Character and Antagonist. His father, Stoick, is both Protagonist and Influence Character.
The Goal of the story is Training the Next Generation of Dragon Killers, or Learning.
Stoick pursues that Goal as Protagonist. Hiccup, as Antagonist, prevents it.
Stoick fails to achieve the Goal. Hiccup "wins."
But as Antagonist, he wins a Consequence—not a Goal.
The Antagonist and the Consequence
How is it Hiccup is not the Protagonist, and his father, the Antagonist? And what does it mean for an Antagonist to win a Consequence?
The initial inequity of a story sets the stage for resolution. The force of initiative pursues that end, reticence works to prevent it. Authors use Protagonists to exemplify initiative, and Antagonists to show reticence.
The initial inequity of Dragon is not Hiccup's downing of Toothless. That's the meeting of all four perspectives—the "Inciting Incident" as it is popularly referred to in more orthodox circles. The initial inequity that motivates both initiative and reticence is the destruction of the Viking village.
Everything else follows.
As the stand-in for initiative, Stoick pursues a resolution to end any future destruction. As reticence, Hiccup works to prevent that outcome.
The Consequence of failing a Learning Goal is Conceiving. In this case: Conceiving a World Where Dragons and Vikings Live Together. Stoick fails to teach the kids how to be killers, making way for this new idea of living together in harmony.
But How to Train Your Dragon is a Stop story. According to the passage in question above:
In a Stop story, the audience will see the Consequences already in place
This is not the case with Dragon. The Conceiving comes at the end, as a result of failing to Learn.
In fact, this is one of those cases where the Consequence is clearly defined as the result of failing. Those final images of Vikings and Dragons living in harmony, combined with Hiccup's closing speech, suggest a brand new Conceiving unheard of in years past. This revelation suggests inaccuracy within the original text.
Unless you understand the difference between storyforming and storytelling.
An Indication of What's to Come
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Dramatica theory of story is the demarcation line between the story told and the story itself. This distinction between the foundation from exposure allows a broad range of narrative interpretation. A Problem of Faith, whether exposed as too much belief or a complete lack of belief, is still a Problem of Faith.
What you tell your Audience is an indication of your story, not the story itself.
The Consequence of How to Train Your Dragon is more than Conceiving a World Where Dragons and Vikings live together—it is Conceiving. End stop. Any indication of Conceiving as a Consequence of not Learning is an accurate and meaningful representation of this vital Storypoint.
This is why Hiccup's invention for shooting down dragons works perfectly as the Consequence already in place at the beginning.
Stoick sees where things are going with Hiccup and his inventions. If he doesn't teach these kids now, who knows what they're going to come up with next? The training is more an attempt to stop further Conceiving then it is Learn something new.
In this way, the Consequence becomes the motivation towards the successful resolution of the Goal. The Stop dynamic indicates a motivation already in place, a motivation understood by the collective mind of the story.
Theory Before Experience
Many turn to personal experience when it comes to understanding story. The Save the Cat! methodology looks at successful stories and identifies patterns. The Hero's Journey looks to commonalities across cultures and identifies similar stages of growth. In both cases, the experience predates the understanding. Truth runs backward with these approaches to story, encouraging all kinds of in-congruency and obliterating any measurable benefit from them.
With Dramatica, understanding precedes experience. Consequence and Growth share a relationship first because of their relationship within the mind—not because Star Wars or The Matrix seem to make it so.
With a Stop dynamic, the Main Character and Objective Story perspectives share a focus on either external conflict or internal conflict. This mutuality encourages a consequence in the opposite realm—one where the subjective nature of the Main Character is not given to bias. The Storymind, therefore, recognizes the Consequence already in place. It's not something to be discovered through the process of stripping away justifications.
Hiccup's personal issues revolve around his 98-lb. Weakling status—an external state of conflict. The Vikings vs. Dragons debate takes place entirely on the stage of battles and defeats—external processes of conflict.
With both subjective and objective focused on the external, the internal Consequence of Conceiving sticks out like a sore thumb. Of course, the mind of the story thinks, inventing is a consequence that needs to be stopped—the "real" problem is over here in the external.
With a Start dynamic, the mind of a story finds itself evenly split between objective and subjective points-of-view. The problem could be here in the external, or it could be over here in the internal. It's once growth draws the two closer together, that the mind begins to recognize what it is leaving behind.
This explains why a story with a Start dynamic begins to indicate the Consequence as the story progresses.
One Story Does Not a Concept Make
This relationship between Consequence and Growth plays out in How to Train Your Dragon, but how does it fare among other stories?
The Wife is a Stop story with a Goal of Conceiving and a Consequence of Learning. Reporter Nathaniel Bone threatens to reveal the Castleman's secret by asking questions about Joan's involvement in Joseph's writing. Everyone will Learn the truth if they don't maintain the idea that Joseph wrote everything.
Michael Clayton is a Stop story with a Goal of Progress and a Consequence of Preconscious. Attorney Arthur Eden is already manic depressive and in a state of panic (Preconscious) from the very beginning. Everyone else will join in on the alarm and make rash decisions if they don't find some way to turn the tide of the lawsuit around.
It looks like the relationship between Growth and Consequence holds up under closer scrutiny for Stop stories.
Mean Girls is a Start story with a Goal of Being and a Consequence of Doing. Cady Heron's drive to be a part of "the Plastics" locks the Goal of Being into place. And there really isn't a Consequence to her social group choice—until she starts to see what she has to Do to stay within it.
Unforgiven is a Start story with a Goal of Obtaining and a Consequence of Becoming. William Munny figures it would be an easy thing to exact revenge on those men who attacked a prostitute—until he realizes the Consequences of what he has to Become to complete his task.
The Instinct for Truth
I set out to prove a concept from the original Dramatica theory book wrong—and proved myself wrong in the process. Motivated by this gut instinct that something was amiss, I discovered that a concept founded in truth holds up under investigation. It's one thing to claim that a relationship between Growth and Consequence exists for all stories—it's quite another to see it play out so effectively across so many stories.
That is—if you're willing to blind yourself to the words, rather than the truth beneath the words.
Pretty Woman is a Start story with a Goal of Becoming and a Consequence of Obtaining. The Goal, or shared common focal point, is transforming the way Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) does business. As a successful corporate raider, Edward threatens to tear apart a family-owned shipbuilding company—
—a Consequence of Obtaining that exists from the very beginning of the film.
In a Start story.
Turns out, my instincts were right.
There is something more to the relationship between Growth and Consequence than a simple either/or statement. Something we will investigate further in my next article, Dialing In the Consequence of a Story.