The Scientific Study of Story

A question I'm often asked is "How can you possibly take a beautiful creative expression like the art of writing and quantify it into tiny little boxes and mathematical equations?"

Some wonder how I sleep at night while others flippantly ask for my credentials. Regardless their response to my investigation of story structure as human psychology, their consternation comes as little surprise considering the onslaught of ego-driven writing advice abundant in most circles.

The answer to these questions requires a little background.

A history of disappointment

I cannot tell you how many countless hours, how many wasted weekends spent away from family, and how many stress-related ailments I have suffered through over the past twenty years because the films I had been working on had horrible stories. Stories so bad that the last three or four months of production were spent running around re-animating and re-crafting new scenes in an attempt to somehow make sense of the work that had already been done.

And I mean horrendous stories.

90% of the productions I worked on didn't even have a Third Act in mind when they began. Many couldn't even decide which character was the actual Main character. I mean, out of all things, how simple is it to determine who the Main Character is?!

A great story weaves elements of character, plot, theme and genre throughout all Four Acts. Each connects meaningfully with the one after and ties in sweetly with the one before. You can't just make it up as you go along. You can't simply "trust the process" and hope it all works out in the end. It never works out. Instead, you end up saddling yourself with mountains of overtime and pointless "gag" passes hoping that someone, anyone, will like the final product.

The relatively few movies I've worked on that I am proud of--those that actually stand the test of time and warm the heart as much as they challenge the intellect--had one thing in common and one thing only: Something meaningful the Authors (directors/writers) were trying to communicate.

In other words they had a plan.

Chancing upon hope

A little over 15 years ago I discovered a unique perspective on storytelling called Dramatica. While overwhelmingly complex in its attention to the details of storytelling, Dramatica's central idea lies in the idea that every great story works as an analogy of a single human mind trying to solve a problem.

The math and the boxes come later.

With this single "given" in mind, the extent to which a work in question follows those natural processes of problem-solving determines how well received the story will be and thus, how "successful" it will be in the long run.

Of course, most of the encounters many a writer has had with "structures" or writing "paradigms" leave them with a sour taste in their mouth. Hero's Journeys, McKee's Story and Snyder's Save the Cat! persist an unwelcome idea of "writing-by-numbers" resulting in a stifling and restrictive stranglehold on an artist's creativity. When faced with the added complexity that is Dramatica, many turn in disgust and discount before fully taking the time to research and understand what it really is all about. (I'm told even McKee himself, when presented with Dramatica, threw his hands up in the air, proclaimed his hatred of such things, and immediately stormed out of the room!).

Shifting tides

This site, and the eventual publications bred from these articles, will function as a virtual log of my experiences and discoveries made while attempting to gain a greater understanding of story. For the first seven years my writing fell under the banner of Story Fanatic. It helped identify my voice and explain a bit perhaps why anyone would spend so much time learning and writing about these things.

But now, with concentrated focus and new direction, the masthead shifts to reflect greater purpose: Narrative First. Why start a project, whether it be film, novel or play, without first understanding what it is you are trying to say? Why waste the efforts of so many talented and creative individuals on something that doesn't make sense? Why spend hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars on a film that most will answer with, "Well, that sucked."

Better off writing a tweet and forgoing the lost man hours than building the house of cards that is pointless storytelling.

But these are real people, not formulas!

Characters are not real people. If they were, there would be no need to put them in a "story". A story is a construct, a functioning living entity designed to grant the viewer/reader a greater understanding of how things work (meaningful problem-solving). Characters function as different facets of that single mind trying to solve a problem. If they were real people, the mind (story) would come off schizophrenic and dysfunctional!

Dramatica, and the study of Narrative Science that it eventually spawned, identifies these functions, grants meaning to the order of plot events, and classifies the different thematic appreciations of story in such a way that an Author can be sure that what they are saying has a point. It makes sure that an Author's passion has purpose.

So when faced with the question as to why Narrative Science, why treat storytelling as serious subject matter and why quantify what so many have failed to do in the past, I simply answer, "Because it's needed."

New class begins January 2022!