Walking the Path of Virtue

Getting to know your creative impulse

Recent updates to Subtxt improve its interpretation of Premise. After a brief email exchange with Nick Schouten, Narrative First's resident fact-checker, it looks like the algorithms for Premise will alter again—this time, in the area of the Personal Triumph Story.

As explored in Decoding the Structure of a Personal Tragedy, equating Premise with an individual leads to all sorts of bias errors. The idea of a "Personal" Tragedy or Triumph drives the writer away from a comprehensive understanding of narrative structure—one more akin to saving cats and heroic journeys than an appreciation of story as a consistent model of human psychology.

This assumption of one person at the intersection of all things subjective and objective leads one to expect the Main Character always to play the role of the Protagonist. The Goal of the story, therefore, becomes the Goal of the Main Character by default. While convenient and prevalent in many cases, the bulk of evidence available fails to corroborate this with 100% accuracy.

Someone caught in this bias—someone simultaneously responsible for coding narrative structure into a universal application—might even go so far as to hardwire this mistake into a Premise:

Even if it means failing to acquire a large sum of money, you will find peace of mind when you let someone go.

That Premise might work great for Rain Man, but what about something like Michael Clayton—where the Main Character is not the Protagonist?

Even if it means failing to improve a situation, you will find peace of mind when you get out of your way and are truthful.

The second half feels right, but the first—the part explicitly dealing with the objective side of things—is entirely wrong. The situation with uNorth does improve, just not for the side driving for a resolution. The above Premise works only if Tilda Swinton's character Karen was both Protagonist and Main Character—and if she had a change of heart.

But she doesn't. And she isn't.

Karen is just the Protagonist, and Michael is the Main Character.

The Premise for storyforms with a Story Outcome of Failure and a Story Judgement of Good requires a rewrite.

Stories of Virtue

With the Personal Tragedy, I exchanged the individual for an overall sense of severity. While some in the Writers Room suggested alternates like "extreme" or "disheartening" or "distressing" (and later "iniquitous") the idea of these stories as representing something severe seems to stick several weeks later.

With the Personal Triumph, I see stories of virtue, or merit—an overall sense that it was all worth the effort.

Remember that the Premise speaks of the experience of the Storymind—the mind that is the story. Virtue describes the kind of conflict resolution found in objectively failing, yet subjectively finding peace.

By removing the individual from the Premise, and replacing it with a notion of virtue, we capture the essence of what these "Personal Triumph" stories mean in the final analysis.

Virtuous are those who stop living on the edge by getting out of their own way and being truthful.

That sounds perfect for Michael Clayton. And even better for Rain Man:

Virtuous are those who become nicer people by letting someone go.

These Premises border on the biblical, but I think that's OK—the intent of religious texts often is to extoll virtues. Sacrifice, personal and otherwise, is the essence of a narrative that exchanges a Story Outcome of Failure for a Story Judgment of Good.

The "Good" Consequence

In the above examples, note the positive twist on the typically negative illustration of Story Consequence.

In Rain Man, Obtaining the Inheritance is the Story Goal. Becoming is the Story Consequence.

In Michael Clayton, Stemming the Tide of Lawsuits is the Story Goal—an illustration of Progress. The Preconscious, or impulsive and rash behavior, is the Story Consequence.

Virtue finds good in failure. The Consequence of Rain Man isn't something so much to be afraid of, as it is something to be embraced. Yes, Charlie fails to Obtain the money, but what he Becomes is so much better in the final analysis.

Michael Clayton is a bit different, as Michael is not the Protagonist, but the same standard of merit persists. Michael, and everyone else involved in the lawsuit, exists in a constant state of panic. Anxiety drives revelation and cover-up, an untenable situation for any prolonged amount of time.

The Consequence of Preconscious is, therefore, a ceasing of rash and impulsive behavior. Truth numbs anxiety. And Michael's engaging in fact proves to be an act of virtue.

Overwhelming Virtue

In Defining the Narrative Structure of a Premise, the order found a role in portraying an argument. The combination of the Main Character Growth and Story Judgment reveals an essence of narrative that leads towards an Overwhelming Premise or a Surmountable one.

Both Rain Man and Michael Clayton exhibit feelings of Overwhelm: a Main Character Growth of Stop and a Story Judgment of Good. And the above set of Premises maintains that Overwhelming order of perspectives; objective leading subjective. The biblical affectations only help.

This setup continues to work with other stories of virtue, like Get Out:

Virtuous are those who understand what it takes to survive by getting out of their own way and unfairly attacking others.

Objectively speaking, Chris engages in injustice (Inequity), which is a good thing. As Get Out proves, sometimes keeping the peace—and keeping quiet—isn't enough.

But what about something slightly lighter and Surmountable, like BlacKkKlansman?

Virtuous are those who do their job by being true to themselves.

That's OK. But what if he switches the order?

Virtue lies in being authentic, even if it means quitting.

That sounds less biblical, more in-line with something Surmountable and light. And it feels like a Premise closer to the identity of BlacKkKlansman.

Interesting that the Consequence then switches back to the negative. Not altogether horrible, but something closer to neutral. And something more telling of a virtuous story both light and surmountable.

The only thing left to do is test this alternate look at virtue on a similar structure story. To Kill a Mockingbird is another Failure/Good narrative with a Main Character Growth of Start.1

Virtue lies in those who get out of their way and seek fairness, even if it means recognizing a past history of inequality is inescapable.

Wow. That's quite an improvement over the previous incarnation of Mockingbird's Premise:

Peace of mind awaits those who get out of their way and seek fairness even if it means failing to give an honest account of what happened.

This new take on the thematic argument of To Kill A Mockingbird is universal, applies to the story as a whole, and captures the unfortunate—yet hopeful—ease of Harper Lee's original novel.

Updates and Improvements

Subtxt is always in development, still in flux. While the current version is stable and is used in several different real-world productions, the application—and its understanding of narrative—can always be improved.

Defining the "Personal Tragedy" as a severe experience within the mind was one significant improvement this year. Encoding the "Personal Triumph" as virtuous is another.

By bringing the essential identity of a story closer to the surface, Subtxt intends to make it easier for a writer to understand their impulse towards creativity.

There's a reason why you want to write a story—Subtxt merely spells it out for you.


  1. No surprise that all three of these stories of virtue—Get Out, BlacKkKlansman, and To Kill a Mockingbird—share similar subject matter.
Originally published 12-23-2019

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