Series of Blog Posts

2019 Narrative First Retrospective

A look back over a definitive year of story structure

Life finds a way. Must go faster... go, go, go, go, go! I gave it a cold? I gave it a virus. A computer virus. What do they got in there? King Kong? I was part of something special. Eventually, you do plan to have dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour, right?

2019 Narrative First Wrap-up

A look back at a definitive year

December is a time of reflection. The sun dips low, the clouds come out (for a little bit here in Southern California), and everyone and their mother starts publishing retrospective posts about the past year. Narrative First is no slouch in this department.

Since 2010, I try to publish at least one long-form article a week. The process keeps me engaged with narrative theory and sharpens my understanding of what makes a great story great.

This year marks the first in which I wrote every single day.

I started out writing these articles while waiting for my scenes to render while working as an animator at Dreamworks.[^sorry] Stealing time here and there at lunch and on weekends allowed me to keep up the weekly schedule, and kept me sane while working on films that fell short in terms of narrative. The writing was sporadic and sectioned off—articles worked in isolation, making it challenging to maintain trains of thought.

Starting with the last week of last year (2018), the first thing I did every morning was write for Narrative First. There were occasional missed days due to loved ones and family, or trips or conferences.[^robbins] But for the most part, I kept up this routine, and the result is nothing less than spectacular.

[^robbins]: Though I did sneak away during a Tony Robbins seminar to write in the wings. What can I say? I was inspired!

[^sorry]: My apologies to those who sat around me, as I know the constant typing must have been obnoxious.

The total for my efforts this year (assuming the rest of the year will be retrospective and reflective)?

Biggest Improvements

The point of looking back over the year is to acknowledge growth and recognize accomplishments. When writing every day with head down, one can often forget to step back and look—with head up—to see the outcome.

2019 was a watershed year in terms of Narrative First, the development of the Dramatica theory of story, and my practical application of the theory Subtext. While mini-leaps and bounds occurred over the months, several significant advancements stand out:

  • Genres and Sub-genres
  • The Relationship Story Throughline as a Perspective
  • The Holistic Premise
  • Refinements of Premise in Subtext

In addition, I published a massive series of articles entitled The Hegelian Chronicles that will eventually become the source material of my next book, Writing Your Story.

Writing Your Story

The Hegelian Chronicles started with the article, Craig Mazin Loves Dramatica and continued with an extensive email conversation with novelist Sebastien de Castell.

Craig once told me he would buy me lunch if I promised not to do what it is I now do, so you can imagine my delight when he spoke about narrative structure this year—and validated everything I do.[^lunch] His take on narrative structure is 100% Dramatica theory, just without mentioning the name Dramatica. Instead, he attributes much of what he knows to a centuries-old paradigm known as the Hegelian Dialectic.

[^lunch]: Lunch is on me.

And that’s all that was needed to motivate what eventually became the most extensive Series of Articles here on Narrative First, The Hegelian Chronicles.

Sebastien stepped in to provide much-needed exploration and elaboration of that original article. His challenges to my writing always spark great conversation and force me to think through my work. I always joked that I should eventually publish a book entitled “Letters to Sebastien”—and Writing Your Story is my first answer to that suggestion.

The series is incomplete as of yet. I still need to publish three or four more articles before it is complete. That should take us through to the end of the year, at which point I will start putting into motion publication of the book.

A Look Back

Writing Your Story (The Hegelian Chronicles) is only one of several series of articles that fostered a greater understanding of story. In future blog posts, I will continue to look back and explore what turned out to be a definitive year in the development of narrative theory.

Understanding the Holistic Side of Things

Developing a method for appreciating an alternative experience of life

It’s no surprise that the leading narrative paradigm for most male Authors is the Hegelian Dialectic. Saddled with an operating system that prefers switches to dials, these proponents of thesis-antithesis-synthesis adore rational, linear thinking.

The other half of the world wonders what’s the big deal?

The Premise of a Story

Subtext, my practical application of the Dramatica theory of story, provides an insightful Narrative Premise feature. Once labeled the Narrative Argument, this tool rolls up the seventy-plus Storypoints of a Dramatica storyform into one thematic argument.

For instance, the Premise for The Shawshank Redemption reads:

premise

You can look forward to having a better life when you give up supporting the system.

Sounds pretty much like the experience of Red’s growth in that awful place. Plus, it’s a lot easier to read than this:

Story Engine Settings Report from Dramatica Story Expert

Although it means the same exact thing.

The above is the Story Engine Settings report from the latest version of the Dramatica Story Expert application. And while it’s certainly more detailed than the Premise, that high level of resolution comes with a price: your sanity.

The Premise feature in Subtext basically wraps up my two-and-a-half decades of narrative study into a small package that saves you both time and frustration. I developed a system that programmatically interprets the Dramatica storyform into something more relatable.

And I’m continually developing it—improving the feature to sync with greater understandings.

Only there was one slight issue with the original incarnation: my personal bias for linearity.

My Way

Linear thinkers assume everyone thinks like them. Why not? To think otherwise is to think irrationally.

This assumption leads linear thinkers to discount other ways of processing information. Some do it consciously, most do it preconsciously—before they even start to think about it, their mind has already blinded them to an alternate viewpoint.

And that’s what I did with the original version of the Premise feature. I coded all the narrative arguments with a linear bias. Give up this one thing and you solve your problems.

You can see this in the above example of Shawshank: give up the Problem of supporting the system, and you can enjoy the reward of a better future.

Unfortunately for me and most of my 2019, half the population thinks differently. This group sees waves where the linear mind sees particles, and they see balance where the linear sees a separation. And while balancing inequities can seem irrational at times, to the holistic, the simplicity of deduction and certainty seems plain ignorant.

In other words, I needed to refactor a significant portion of the code.

Someone who thinks in terms of waves and forces of waves organizes thought differently than one who sees switches and buttons. Narrative structure is organized thoughts. Imposing a linear bias—hardwiring it into the base functions—forces those who think in waves to recategorize their thoughts. Linearity forced them to write differently than their true selves.

And that just isn’t right.

The Holistic Measure

To the holistic mind, balance is everything. A simple Problem and Solution approach doesn’t work for them.

And it didn’t work for Subtext.

The first problem was that there was no apparent difference between a Linear Problem-Solving story and a Holistic one within the Premise feature.

The Premise for Home Alone:

premise

Give up listening to criticism, and you can put your house in order.

Seemed right at home with the Premise for her:

premise

Give up your self-absorption, and you can figure out where you fit in.

Yet, these two films couldn’t be more different in thematic essence. Home Alone functions on strict linearity. her operates on a subtler dynamic of holistic allowance.

The second problem was one of connection.

I can’t tell you how many people wrote to me to say they had difficulty finding a Premise in Subtext that felt right to them—with the original version.

I can’t tell you how many people wrote to tell me otherwise once I worked in an option for holistic thinking.

I’ve been taking a deep dive into catching up on the latest Writer’s Room videos and Articles/Series. WOW! This feels like Narrative First and Subtext have taken the understanding of the Storymind to a new level of thinking, particularly around the holistic thinking. Managing to incorporate these ideas into Subtext is truly inspirational in and of itself! Kudos!

Finding Balance in Narrative Structure

This year’s series of articles The Holistic Premise documents Subtext’s journey from linear bias to balance. It took a long time to figure these out. I spent countless hours of focused concentration, digging out the essence of what it means to think this way. It was, at times, quite painful.

Thankfully, I had the input of two people much more at home with this kind of thinking: Summer de la Fuente, and Jil Hardin. Summer is always there to point out another way of thinking—she was the one who enlightened me as to the holistic structure of Patterson. Jil is the mastermind behind The Holistic Experience of Watching the Matrix. Without both of their input—and the contribution of others within the Writers Room—Subtext would still be stuck in the dark ages.

For instance, the new Premise for her elegantly captures the essence of the film:

premise

Your reluctance to address the overwhelming nature of experiencing difficult circumstances allows your intention of being self-absorbed to elevate you into a higher state of emotion.

Granted, that’s quite a lot to take in compared to the original. But do you see how that one sentence encapsulates the entirety of her’s theme?

Yes, the sentence is more complicated. It has to be! Describing waves and forces of waves requires an abundance of verbal imagery to relate the balance of forces.

Have you ever asked a holistic thinker how their day went, only to spend the next seventeen minutes hearing the details of every interaction?

That’s what life is like for a holistic.

And they deserve a narrative structure tuned to their way of organizing thoughts.

Opening Up Further Development

Ask a linear-minded person the same question about their day, and the response you receive is “Good.” Or, “The same.” To a holistic, no day is ever the same. To a linear mind, there exists comfort in the routine.

And that explains how my bias eased its way into Subtext. Coding lose this, and you get this is much more comfortable than setting up cases for allowances and resistances and uncertainties.

Of course, that was only the beginning. Once I realized there was another area where the Premise fell short, I went back to my code editor and made Subtext even better.

Refinements to the Premise in Subtext

Improving the accuracy of a thematic argument

Holistic thinking wasn't the only story dynamic getting the short shrift within Subtext's Premise feature: Experience and Engagement were also woefully absent.

The Premise of a story is not about one person. While it reads like it is all about the Main Character, the Premise truly reflects the story as if it were a person.

Capturing the state of mind of that person at the moment of inequity is the responsibility of the Premise.

Appreciating the Storymind

The Dramatica theory of story is based on a concept known as the Storymind. In short, Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind working to resolve an inequity. Your story is an actual person. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre? Those are just aspects of that one person.

The Premise is a snapshot of the Storymind at the place where subjective concerns of the mind meet objective realities.

premise

Give up being aware of a particular group's activities, and you can understand how the past shapes the present.

is the Premise of Inception.

premise

Give up bringing something to an end, and you can fight alongside the best of them.

is the Premise of Logan.

These work great for stories where the Main Character's personal problem syncs up with the progression in the Objective Story plot. And it works great when the efforts to resolve conflict in both feels overwhelming. But what about those stories where things feel more surmountable? And what about those times when the Main Character and Objective Story don't sync up?

Order and Meaning

To be able to address these different stories, I needed to make further changes to Subtext.

premise

You can create a new family dynamic when you give up resisting.

is the Premise of The Santa Claus.

You can be yourself when you give up being distrustful.

is the Premise of Tootsie.

Note the difference between these Premises and those of Inception or Logan.

In the first batch, the subjective precedes the objective. This order creates a sense that is Overwhelming. I must change before the world.

In the second, things feel lighter, more Surmountable. The world shifts when I change—an order much easier on the mind.

The difference is even more apparent when you try to change the order for the same film.

Which one of these sounds like the actual Premise for Casablanca??

premise

You can secure freedom for others when you give up restraining yourself.

or

premise

Give up restraining yourself, and you can secure freedom for others.

The former clearly communicates the essence and Experience of Casablanca. Sure, Strasser and pals are intimidating—but nothing that isn't Surmountable. Giving up restraining yourself first? That sounds like a completely different film.

Yet, the latter was how the Premise actually appeared in earlier versions of Subtext.

Setting the Experience of a Story

This setting of Premise, soon to be available in Subtext's Premise Builder, is labeled Experience. The toggle simply asks, is the Premise Overwhelming or Surmountable? Flip the switch, and Subtext acts accordingly.

The results of this choice spread out across the narrative structure. Experience affects everything from the relationship of the Main Character to the Objective Story, to the relative emotional sense of the Storymind. For an in-depth look into this aspect of Premise, read the article How to Tell if Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds.

Setting the Level of Engagement

Next on the list was the Engagement factor of the Storymind. Based on my experience writing The Refusal of the Call: The Resistance or Flow Through a Narrative, I knew the Premise also needed to account for the subjective mindset's encounter with the progression of the objective.

It's one thing to discuss the relationship between the subjective and objective (Experience), but it's quite another to consider the encounter between them. The effect of both may be Overwhelming to the mind, yet a certain level of assistance can make navigating those waters easier.

If the subjective is caught up with internal concerns, and the objective shifts on an external node, then that personal perspective adjusts to address resistance.

If instead both subjective and objective vibe on the same level—internal concern and internal node, or external concern and external node—then flow exists, and no adjustment is necessary.

With this understanding of the interaction between subjective and objective, I set out to develop this level of Engagement within Subtext.

Only one problem: everyone equates resistance with "The Refusal of the Call" nonsense from the Hero's Journey.

Open-sourcing Story Structure

The difficulty in incorporating Engagement into the Premise lies in finding the right pair of words to describe this interaction accurately.

At first, I tried Resistance and Flow—but many expressed confusion over those words and the Main Character's refusal of "the special world." Evidence, once again, of the detrimental effects of the Hero's Journey and its spinoffs. That reality, combined with planned developments in other areas of Subtext, quickly led to me putting those words aside.

Next, we tried Assistive and Resistive—and by we, I mean the collective community of Subtext and Dramatica.

These developments are not done in secret. I work my hardest to make any change the very best it can be, but then submit them to a group dynamic to see if they connect. If the cloud returns with something better, then it's my responsibility to head back to the drawing board.

Case-in-point: Assistive and Resistive.

Initially, these were great—until I started to write this article.

Casablanca's objective mind shifts along with an internal node. Ugarte's decision to hide the letters with Rick leads to his eventual death. Rick's refusal to hand them over leads Ilsa to pull a gun on him.

This internal node gels with the subjective mindset of Casablanca—Rick's bad attitude about being left at the train station. The result is a level of flow within the narrative. While at odds, the subjective Assists the objective in the drive towards resolution.

But ask anyone whether or not Rick's subjective concerns actually assist the objective plot in Casablanca, and the answer is a resounding No.

I know what is meant by Assistive, and the group of writers instrumental in arriving at that term understands what it means. Still, to anyone new to Subtext, or Dramatica theory in general, Rick is Resistive.

Assistive and Resistive don't work.

Thankfully, my work on The Holistic Premise this year offered a way out.

Measuring Frequencies of Engagement

The Premise is not meant to describe the Main Character's journey. Nor is it intended to depict the events of a story. The Premise is a snapshot of a mind in process: the Storymind. The emphasis must remain on the state of that mind, not on any individual characters or plot events.

A mind that finds the subjective vibe-ing with the objective is a mind that resonates with the outside world. Engagement is one of Harmony. When the subjective struggles to sync up with the objective, Engagement is one of Variance.

Variance and Harmony to which character? NO character. Variance and Harmony in relation to the story itself as it works through conflict.

What is the level of Engagement in something like Casablanca?

premise

You can secure freedom for others when you give up restraining yourself.

Harmony. No sense of discord or friction exists within the Premise.

Contrast that with the same Premise set with a level of Variance:

premise

You can secure freedom for others when you get out of your way, and give up restraining yourself.

That does not sound like Casablanca.

But it does come close to describing the level of Engagement within something like Good Will Hunting:

premise

When you get out of your way and give up fighting a particular group, you can expand your world

As opposed to something like this:

premise

Give up fighting a particular group you can expand your world

The level of Engagement within that film is not one of Harmony, but rather one of Variance. The Harmony version falls short of capturing the essence of that film in a single Premise.

Adjusting a Narrative Premise

By no means do I expect everyone to connect instantly with Variance and Harmony, or even Overwhelming or Surmountable. The way they present themselves in Subtext, Experience could be labeled Astronaut and Mage, and Engagement Frosting and Tire Tread. The names themselves are not as important as the ability to instantly see their effect on narrative structure.

With the Premise Builder, all is set and available on a single screen. An Author in search of a Premise can quickly adjust the toggle switches as they fine-tune their story's message. Once the variance drops between intent and words on-screen, the artist is ready to write with a structure aligned with purpose.

Unwrap Your Holiday Present from Narrative First

A gift from me to you.

Happy Holidays!

It's been four months in development, but the time has finally come to pull the curtain on a last-minute gift from me to you:

The integration of Subtext and Narrative First into one platform!

Click the Subtext button in the upper right hand corner and the app will quickly switch contexts. You'll soon find yourself face-to-face with 453 individual storyforms! 😃

Storyforms on Subtext

Find your favorite movie or novel, and tap to find the latest and greatest interpretation of Dramatica's storyform through Subtext's unique Premise feature.

And it looks great on mobile too!

Subtext Storyforms on Mobile

Convenient back and forth buttons sit at the bottom of each storyform, making it easier for you to quickly shuffle through the hundreds of unique arguments for compelling and meaningful stories.

Integration with your Subtext account is coming soon, but I wanted to make sure you had something from me before the Holidays hit--just something to say thank you for an amazing and wonderful year.

The Path of the Virtuous

Speaking of doing nice things, I also just published a new article updating the Premise for stories with an Outcome of Failure and a Judgment of Good. Previously known as "Personal Triumphs," this unique set of narratives can better be understood as portraying acts of virtue and merit. (You can see an example of it in the above image from BlacKkKlansman.)

Read Walking the Path of Virtue 🙏🏼

Quick and Easy Updates

The very best part about this new integration between education and utility is the potential for me to quickly update storyforms across the board when we discover a new way of understanding them. If for some reason, we come to a better appreciation of narrative dynamics, change is only a few keystrokes away.

By way of example, there were over 729 references to storyforms in Subtext spread throughout the hundreds and hundreds of articles, analyses, and blog posts on Narrative First. It took me all of five seconds to quickly update them to point to this new location.

No more 404s on storyforms!

My Thanks to You

And yes, I meant to say when WE come to a better appreciation of story.

Without the contribution of everyone involved in Narrative First, Subtext, and on the Discuss Dramatica boards, we would not be enjoying this exciting moment of living on the cutting edge of narrative theory.

My sincere thanks and gratitude to all of you who helped me out this year, whether it be typos, bad links, new understandings of relationships, a better appreciation of what it means to think holistically, illustrations and story ideas in the Writers Room classes, or even that occasional email expressing thanks my way.

Thank you so much for inspiring me to do better this year. With your help--and a lot of sleepless nights--we can all look forward to even greater developments in the coming year.

See you in 2020!

-- Jim from Narrative First

P.S. If you want to catch up on all the changes this year, don't forget to check out the Narrative First Wrap-Up series on the blog.

Happy Holidays! 🎁

The Appreciations of a Narrative Premise

Defining the artistic intent behind narrative structure

In anticipation of the Premise Builder, soon to be released for Subtext, I just rolled out a look at the Appreciations of Premise across all 450+ storyforms.

Appreciations of Premise in Subtext

Details and instruction on how these Appreciations work are forthcoming, though those of you familiar with Dramatica theory will likely recognize their source within the storyform.

  • Emphasis covers the Main Character Problem-Solving Style
  • Engagement is a combination of Main Character Approach and Story Driver
  • Perspective is another take on the Main Character Resolve
  • Experience is a combination of Main Character Growth and Story Judgment
  • Ending is a combination of Story Outcome and Judgment

The values for these keys adjust as a result of different narrative dynamics. For instance, the Endings for a story that emphasizes Self (Holistic Problem-Solving) reflect a different understanding.

Varying Appreciations of Premise

These Appreciations are the fastest and most meaningful way for a writer to connect their artistic intent with narrative structure.

The Development of Genres and Sub-Genres

Classifying the personality of a story

Genres and Sub-genres were an exciting development this year. They began as a simple way of checking trends across multiple storyforms. Starting, they were known only as Genres, but the act of categorizing some 450+ storyforms revealed the need to split them out into Genres and Sub-genres. Once validated as revealing key insights, Genres found its way into the upcoming Premise Builder.

Their most significant influence, however, wouldn’t be felt until several months later—and only then as a chance discussion about an elf in New York City.

The Structure of Genre

The Dramatica theory of story finds narrative structure across four levels of resolution. Starting with the most general, and working its way to the very specific, the model identifies a cascading relationship falling from Genre to Plot to Theme to Character.

Model

Genre incorporates everything below as it determines the overall personality of a story. A narrative that explores both objective and subjective concerns of external conflict is a much different kind of story to hang out with than one where both focus on the internal.

The juxtaposition of both Main Character and Objective Story Throughlines, along with a tinge of Plot-level concerns, generates a unique identity. This ID signals to the Audience an expectation of experience—an experience born of meaning, not setting.

You don’t go to a Marvel movie expecting a memory play. You don’t read Shakespeare anticipating action and adventure. You visit the former for explorations of external conflict resolution, and you sample the latter for insight into the psychologies and mindsets of those in conflict. Of course, you can always break Trends—which I’ll get into in a moment—but the Genre of a story is an overall tell for the Audience.

And a great way to quickly determine the narrative structure of a story.

Framing a Narrative

Genre sits at the top and is the most genre-al. Character lies at the bottom, detailing specific Elements of motivation.

It was only during an analysis of the Holiday Classic Elf, that I finally realized those two levels are all you need to frame narrative structure accurately.

For years I tried to find the storyform for Elf, and for years I always came up short. With the new Personality model in Subtext, it took me all of three seconds to put it together.

Elf is a light Holiday Comedy. Holiday Comedies juxtapose a Main Character Throughline in Universe with an Objective Story Throughline in Psychology.

Top level set.

The opening sequence tells us a “holiday spirit crisis” exists. Copying the driving character Elements of Cause and Effect from Monsters, Inc., Elf fuels its narrative drive with an energy shortage.

Bottom level set.

And the narrative structure of the film determined.

premise

Being truthful magnifies your higher state of vibration, allowing you to address your innate capacity to bring good cheer with others.

Imagine being able to do that with your story?

That’s the whole point of Subtext. And the reason why these advancements in Genre and Sub-genre were so significant this year.

Greater Definition of the Genre-al

I coin the method used with Elf the Genre-al approach to finding the unique narrative structure of a story. By starting with Genre and looking first for the general areas and relationships of conflict, one can quickly zero in on the exact storyform with high precision.

But if we’re looking for a more general understanding of narrative, why is it not enough to simply categorize a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark an Action film? Why the need to modify it with the Adventure moniker? And how is an Action/Adventure different from a Family Adventure?

Answers to these questions led to the development of Sub-genres—and the discovery of a Personality Quad present within the Dramatica model.

The Quad is the scaffolding of Dramatica. Every concept within the model exists as an extraction of four base Elements arranged into a quad: Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire. The arrangement of these four into a grid communicates the essential qualities of their natures.

The Base Quad of Dramatica

With Knowledge in the upper left-hand corner, Knowledge and Thought appear as separate states. You’re either thinking about something or going off of knowledge—but never both at the same time. Abilities and Desires then become more of a sliding scale. In contrast to the static state of Knowledge and Thought, Ability and Desire appear as processes.

Grafting the personality of a story into this Quad reveals the reason for a Sub-genre component.

If the storyform is a static element of personality, then Genre must exist along that sliding scale axis of Ability and Desire. Genre must then consist of two parts: Genre and Sub-genre. While neither Ability nor Desire is a subset of the other, the Sub-genre nomenclature works well as an easy identifier of its relationship to Genre.

The Base Elements of a Narrative Personality

The storyform, specifically, is an area of Thought—it’s what that person wants another to think. It represents the energetic transfer of consciousness from one individual to the next.

Working backward, Genre expresses the temporal experience of Desire. Thrillers strike the subconscious different than Comedies or Adventures. The development of living with that personality over time defines the Genre of the piece.

Sliding into Ability, the Sub-genre reveals a trend of spatial organization within a personality. The communication capabilities of an Action Thriller strike a different chord than those of a Psychological Thriller. Their resonance defines a trend more akin to purpose than to thought.

These three Elements set into a quad creates a vacuum--a fourth Element must complete the set. It wasn’t until I began to incorporate Personality into Subtexts codebase that I began to understand why.

The Modality of Genre

What does it mean to label Elf a light Holiday Comedy? How is that different from a heavy Holiday Comedy?

Light narratives emphasize Comedy and Entertainment. Heavy ones use Drama and Information to convey their message.

Elf and Home Alone are both Holiday Comedies. While they both exhibit a certain amount of Entertainment, Elf trends toward Comedy while Home Alone appears quite Dramatic in places. The result is a difference in how the two films structure their narratives:

The light Holiday Comedies find the Objective Story and Main Character Throughlines in a vertical alignment. The dramatic Holiday Comedies find the two in a horizontal arrangement.

Light and dark are Modes of Genre. Big chunky dials with only four settings. They work together with Sub-genre as a Companion Pair assigned with the responsibility of setting the arrangement of a personality’s narrative structure.

A Visual Representation of Personality

With this final Element of Genre set into place, the Quad of Personality is complete:

The Personality Quad

Think of the path through the Quad as moving from the grossly general to the finely-tuned specific. Mode to Sub-genre to Genre to Storyform. A vague notion of intent that leads into a fully-formed purpose.

2020 will see further development into this area, including an investigation into the practical application of light and heavy as indicators of Mode, and the exploration of meaningful relationships between the Elements of Genre.

Rediscovering the Relationship Story Throughline

Finding what was already there

The most significant development in Dramatica theory in 2019 was something that has been there since the initial release: namely, the idea of the Relationship Story Throughline as a perspective. Pitched most often as the “emotional argument” between the Main and Influence Character, this Throughline is neither argument nor restricted solely to the relationship between the Main Character and Influence Character.

Heresy? Perhaps. Especially if your only familiarity with the theory is the Dramatica theory book. But for those of us who spent years putting these theoretical concepts into practice, the revelation results in relief.

The Relationship as a Character

I teach an online course called the Dramatica Mentorship Program. After years and years of teaching hundreds of students, it became clear to me that I see relationships differently than everyone else. I see them as a character.

Look to the Dramatica theory book, and you’ll see the Relationship Story Throughline portrayed as the “emotional” argument. Two soldiers meet on a field, and the debate between them is their relationship. This analogy encourages a he-said/she-said mentality: John thinks their marriage is OK. Mary thinks they need more communication. Their relationship is an argument over who is right and who is wrong.

This sort of interchange is not a relationship.

Previous incarnations of the theory even went so far as to recast the Relationship Story as the Main vs. Influence Character Throughline (itself an iteration of the original Subjective Story Throughline). A marketing push meant to attract more writers to Dramatica, the MC vs. IC Throughline fiasco only managed to delay the development of the theory.

Writers prone to dualistic thinking—those primarily beset by a Linear rational mindset—struggle to recognize the dynamic between things. Main vs. Impact makes sense because the reason we don’t see eye-to-eye is our individual incompatible natures. He-said/she-said is the description of a relationship from the point-of-view of the individuals in a relationship.

While it may not make sense to the rational mind, a driving force exists within the dynamics of a relationship. At times this force, particularly within the context of creating a narrative, seems to possess an intelligence of its own.

John may think things are lovely. And Mary may still want to open up the lines of communication. But the marriage sets plans all its own.

Even if you balk at the notion of this extra-intelligence, as a writer, you can’t deny the dramatic impact such a reality would play on a story.

This seemingly ethereal concept is the Relationship Story Throughline.

The Dynamic-First Approach

The key to writing this crucial part of your story is not to think about it at all. Write the other parts first, then check to see what kind of relationship is required to balance everything out.

Sure, you can start developing a story with a Relationship—as we did this year in the Writers Room with our Friends with Benefits story—but for most, this part of a story won’t be evident until further down the line.

In some respects, this approach resembles our new-found strategy for analyzing stories with Dramatica. For the first two decades, we would define the relationship first, then look for the perspective and matching thematic concerns. Now we seek the balancing perspective first, then find evidence of relationships that fit the mold. By taking this approach, we avoid confirmation bias and leave ourselves open to discoveries.

For instance, take the storyform for Back to the Future: the initial analysis cast only father and son as the primary relationship. This evaluation made sense because both fulfilled the roles of Main Character and Influence Character, and both appeared to fulfill the tenets of an emotional argument.

Cut to May of this year when John Dusenberry, a writer, and part-time Story analyst for Narrative First, wrote to me questioning why the Relationship Story Throughline of Back to the Future wasn’t between Marty and Doc. He felt their bond was the heart of the story.

And I had trouble defending the contrary.

A couple of days, and several articles later, and now the analysis of Back to the Future reflects multiple relationships. And not just two—but three relationships that portray the perspective of a Relationship Story Throughline.

Perspective First

When you look for the perspective first, you see the ease with which handoffs exist from one relationship to the next. The Relationship Story thematic elements needed to balance out the plot require a Concern of Becoming, or maturing, and an Imbalance of Temptation, or taking the easy way out.

Father and son conflict over taking the easy way out when it comes to Biff. Marty and Doc do the same in terms of revealing the future.

And mother and son engage in problematic temptations.😁

The same thematic elements exist in all three relationships. It’s not randomly funny that Marty’s mom has the hots for him—it’s essential towards the meaning of the story.

Yet another reason why this development stands out as the most important of the year.

Improving the Experience of Writing a Story

I can’t tell you how many times this year writers told me, “Thank you” for pointing out this aspect of a story. So many writers turn to Dramatica because they recognize its utility—only to turn away when they feel boxed in and restricted. Having this new perspective on perspective only confirms what many of them already knew deep inside.

Seeing the Relationship Story Throughline as a perspective first and a character second frees the writer’s artistic sensibilities from the reductive nature of easy-listening education. It opens up an entirely new landscape of thematically consistent and meaningful storytelling.

We all instinctively get that there is something there between us. Perhaps, understanding these relationships as characters will help us improve the quality and content of those characters.

2019 Annual Time Report for Narrative First and Subtext

The numbers behind the work

Last year, I recorded every single minute of every single hour spent building up Narrative First and Subtext. Using a combination of Toggl and Timery (and a whole bunch of Siri Shortcuts), I checked in and checked out my virtual timecard. I present to you the results of 2019 in a quad of graphs:

Writing Content for Narrative First

First up, my time spent writing content for Narrative First, including articles, analyses, and blog posts. 365 of these hours exist within the first hour of almost every day (writing is the first thing I do every morning). As you can see, December is the month most writers disappear from the narrative landscape, granting me more time to deliver thoughtful and helpful content.

Total time: 600 hours

Time Spent Writing Content in 2019

Narrative First Consulting

Next up, the hours spent coaching writers 1-on-1 through consulting (or coaching, I can never figure out what is the best way to refer to this kind of service). Again, the latter half of the year is when everyone gets to actually writing their story. Springtime is developing time.

Total time: 778 hours

Time Spent Consulting in 2019

Building Subtext

The next chunk of hours represents my total time spent building and rolling out our cheat sheet for great storytelling: Subtext. Up and down during the year, but leveling out on the low side during the winter months as I worked to discover a new codebase for future development.

Total time: 1037 hours

Time Spent Building Subtext in 2019

Writing Screenplays

Finally, something new to squeeze in between building and deploying, coaching writers, and writing new content: writing screenplays. Actually, writing A screenplay. Those 65 hours in November? One screenplay, two weeks. More on this later.

Total time: 76 hours

Time Spent Writing a Screenplay in 2019

Survey Says

Add them all up and you get a number just nine hours short of 2,500—about seven hours of every day in 2019 devoted to improving the quality of storytelling now and in the far far future.

Total time for 2019: 2491 hours

Thanks for the opportunity to make things better!

Integrating Narrative First and Subtext Together

The culmination of a lifelong aspiration

While the developments in narrative theory of 2019 have proven exciting, my favorite advancement this year is the merging of Narrative First and Subtext into one product. The ability to seamlessly switch contexts from education to utility sets the stage for a new generation of writers well-versed in the practical application of meaningful storytelling. Imagine sitting down in a theater, or loading up Disney+, and not being incredibly disappointed at the incoherent and disjointed story playing across the screen.

That’s always been the dream behind Narrative First.

And now that dream becomes a realistic hope.

Starting Slow and Easy

Growing up, I originally wanted to be a computer programmer. My dad bought a top of the line 64K IBM PC for his consulting business back in 1980–not realizing that he purchased it for my consultancy. I promptly took the computer over as my own, stole as many hours as I could, and brought my imagination to life.

Without the internet or the Computer Science section of Borders to guide me, I reached for the first thing on the Computerland shelf that looked promising: a gray three-ring binder marked IBM PC Assembly Language.

Those who code know an inverse relationship exists between the facility of a programming language and its proximity to the base metal of the machine. Aside from binary, itself a collection of 1s and 0s, Assembly is the most arcane language for anyone to learn—particularly, for a ten-year-old in Southern California looking to make his version of Zork.

Assembly language looks like this:

MOV AX, 0000
MOV BX, 1000
PUSH BX
PUSH AX

These commands continue on and on, page after page until finally, you print your first word on the screen.

It’s a nightmare.

But one I happily engaged with day after day in my quest to create a digital world. After all, no one else I knew was doing this kind of work. It was as if I was capturing the spirit of what it felt like to be a world explorer hitting a new shore every single day.

And that feeling continues to this day.

Computer Linguistics

I eventually managed to write my first adventure—not as comprehensive, or as involving, like Infocom’s best (Deadline was my favorite)—but functional, and somewhat engaging for my little brother, my first tester.

However, I didn’t write it in Assembly Language—I wrote it in BASIC.

After who knows how long fighting memory registers and the PC’s DEBUG application with Assembly, I switched over to something infinitely easier:

10 PRINT “You are in a maze with a bunch of different tunnels.”
20 INPUT “Which direction do you want to go?”, d$
30 GOTO 10

I did manage to write a working copy of Snake in Assembly, but the amount of time required to accomplish that task proved to be too much for me in my tweens. BASIC was as simple to program as its name suggests, and served me well for several years—until that one fateful day.

After spending 10-12 hours creating my masterpiece text adventure, I turned off the computer before hitting Save--

--in a world before ubiquitous Autosave.

I was devastated. Everything I had worked on was simply gone—not a trace of it anywhere. I cried for two hours straight (I was still young, mind you!) and vowed never to touch another computer again.

So naturally, I chose a career in animation.

The Unavoidable Path of Destiny

In the late 80s, artists animated the same way they did back in the early 30s and 40s—with pencil and paper. I took to mine, was accepted into the Character Animation Program at the California Institute of the Arts, and after six rejection letters, eventually became an artist at Walt Disney Feature Animation.

I arrived shortly after the release of The Lion King. Hand-drawn animation was on top of the world (just a few short years before, Beauty and the Beast was up for Best Picture), and while I didn’t get to work on that seminal classic, I was amongst those who made the film a reality. More importantly, I knew I had a long and industrious career in animation ahead of me.

That is until Pixar came along and ruined everything.

I still remember working on The Hunchback of Norte Dame, and being invited to the theater to see two sequences from a film the Lifesavers commercial guys were working on up north. We left that screening stunned. At the time, we were blown away by the story and the characterization of Toy Story. It wasn’t until five years later that we would be blown away by the technology.

Literally.

After finally becoming a Disney animator on Tarzan, a studio executive informed me in the bathroom that my contract I was fired. Hand-drawn animation was now a thing of the past. Disney made some feeble attempts at keeping the legacy going, but audiences didn't have the interest anymore. They wanted more Toy Story, and they wanted more Pixar. But I was determined to keep my dream alive—and there was no way I was going to let the computers win.

I spent a year in exile directing episodes of Dilbert for Sony before I lucked out with what would prove to be the highlight of my drawing days: animating horses on Dreamworks’ Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Unfortunately, audiences didn’t feel the same. And they felt even less for our next offering: Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. I packed up my pencils while they shuttered my drawing desk to a warehouse in Glendale, CA. My next assignment was to be Shrek 2, an all-computer animated film. My drawing days were over.

But I can’t tell you how many times I hit Control-S that following decade and a half.

A Dramatic Discovery

Many attributed the success of Pixar to the new medium. Computer animation simply looked better than hand-drawn animation. Of course, I knew better—it was the story that drew Audiences and truly knocked us back during that first screening.

Around the same time I saw those first scenes from Toy Story, I discovered an even greater marvel of the universe: the Dramatica theory of story. Dramatica was everything I didn’t find on my shelves of screenwriting books and what I hoped I would find at a weekend seminar with Robert McKee. The theory presented a comprehensive understanding of story without caveats and exceptions. No backtracking, no fumbling of terminology—just straight-up wisdom that left me nodding my head with every page turn.

If there’s one thing you learn from Dramatica, it is that inequity is the mother of all motivation. And there was plenty of injustice in the stories I helped to animate. The shortlist of films I worked on with deficient stories included The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Sinbad, pretty much every Dilbert episode, Madagascar, Over the Hedge, Bee Movie, Monsters vs. Aliens, Megamind, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss n’ Boots, Madagascar 3, and The Croods.*

Just a shortlist.

By day, I helped produce broken stories. By night, I learned how to fix all those fractured stories. So I did what everyone at the turn of the century did when they had something important to say but weren’t in a position to be heard: I started a blog.

The Story Fan

Story Fanatic was my first step into the world of writing about narrative structure. It began as simple conversations with Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley but sparked to life the moment I dared speak out about one of the greats.

While working at Dreamworks, I won an employee contest to view Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds in his private screening room at Amblin. Walking into the small secluded courtyard on the Universal lot and beyond the cobblestone well with the Jaws shark in it, I began to feel as if I had truly arrived. Spielberg was one of my heroes, and getting a chance to sit in his seat, and eat his popcorn was beyond the dreams of any ten-year-old who listened obsessively to the score for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But War of the Worlds was no Raiders.

I couldn’t believe how awful the story was, especially when just around the corner, Chris and Melanie were offering a theory and software application that could have easily fixed the holes in the story. Why didn’t Spielberg or his screenwriters know about Dramatica? Someone needed to say something. Someone needed to point out the meaningless of a Deus Ex Machina ending. Someone needed to set the record straight.

So I went home, booted up my computer, and wrote a criticism of one of my all-time heroes. War of the Worlds was my first analysis of a film put out into public. No more hiding behind friends at lunch, no more complaining to whoever would listen when I got home, just raw criticism and recommendations for improvement—for all the world to read. With a blog, you hit publish, and in milliseconds the globe as a whole connects directly with your heart and mind.

And the best part is you don’t have to hit Control-S anymore.

It’s there forever.

That was 2006.

I’ve been hooked ever since.

Blogging into Development

Story Fanatic started as a Typepad blog, made a brief stopover in Wordpress hell, then settled into a full-blown Expression Engine installation. Why not? At the time, EE was the same Content Management System that ran the White House blog—if it was good enough for W, then it had to be good enough for me.

Expression Engine was great because of its extensibility. Wordpress had some extensions, but they didn’t seem to possess the same level of quality, nor did they do everything I wanted them to do. Plugins were haphazard and appeared amateurish compared to EE’s offerings. Add to that the fact that everyone’s blog looked like it was a WP installation, and I knew I had to jump.

The more articles I wrote, the more interested I became in switching from animation to story—the more excited I was in helping to write stories professionally. Story Fanatic became Narrative First to reflect a switch in focus from me to the outside world. I began to teach Story at the CalArts, sold a feature film to Dreamworks, and landed a spot in their Story Internship Program. I would argue online with professional screenwriters during my lunch break, animate in the afternoon, then develop my ability to teach narrative theory with my students until long past midnight.

Pure exhilaration, no exhaustion.

Around the same time, I convinced Chris Huntley to let me rework the entire Dramatica website. Confident in my abilities to craft HTML and CS into something delightful, I took to making what I consider to be one of the most important “discoveries” of all time more accessible for everyone.

Part of this rewrite included a feature to filter storyforms based on narrative dynamics (You can find the perfection of this idea with the Storyform Connections feature in Subtext). While I was able to work out the basic functionality with EE, it dawned on me that to do what I wanted to do, I needed to go back to where I started.

I needed to start coding again.

But first, I needed to get laid off.

Remaining Steadfast and Growth

Once I realized that storyboard artists at Dreamworks had little to no impact on the actual story of a film, I moved back into animation. The timing, as always, proved fortuitous—Dreamworks was set to produce a 2D/3D hybrid film combining hand-drawn animation with computer animation. The film looked amazing, and the artists were excited to start drawing again—but guess what part of the film was awful?

Yep. The story.

The production shut down before it began, leaving a whole bunch of us without a home.

And now you know why the name Narrative First—hundreds of artists down the road rely on you to get the story right early. If not, countless waste in hours and overtime wages wash over the production, or worse—rampant unemployment for all. Better to get the narrative first, before calling everyone else to join you.

I worked a stint at Sony Pictures on the sequel to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Animated singing dwarves and Snow White for Disney World in Florida and the Shanghai Disney Resort. And I directed several episodes of Puss n’ Boots for Dreamworks Television. All the while, I continued to write for Narrative First and tinker with the presentation of the site.

Because there’s always a way it can be better.

Making Preparations for Forever

Expression Engine began to wear thin on me when it came to publishing my first book. A CMS like EE stores its posts in a SQL database. This storage often carries with it a specific method of formatting—a technique often incompatible with other publishing platforms.

2010 was the first year I wrote consistently for Narrative First (still Story Fanatic at the time). I published a new article every Thursday from the first week of March through Thanksgiving weekend. Naturally, at the end of it all, I decided I wanted to make a book out of all my hard work.

Only the hard work was yet to come.

Pulling out those posts from EE and converting them into a book format proved to be a nightmare. Copying and pasting blocks of text from window to another and manually checking italics and bolds because the formatting didn’t carry over. If I fixed the spelling on one side, I would have to manually adjust it on the other — tons of unnecessary repetition and wasted time.

Enter Markdown. Markdown is a way of writing in text files that is universal across all applications. Italics are wrapped in single asterisks, bold in double. Headlines find their way into a document through the pound-sign (hashtag), a single hash for an H1 header, two for H2s, and so on. By removing the text from its eventual representation, Markdown accomplishes two things: one; it allows the writer the opportunity to focus on the actual writing. And two, it makes it super easy to maintain one canonical version of your work that exists and persists across all devices.

For all time.

Text files aren’t going anywhere soon, or anywhere in the distant future. I used to write them back on my dad’s IBM PC and COMPAQ computers back in the 80s, I wrote them on my Palm Pilot in the late 90s, and I’m doing it right now in the 20s on my iPhone. I’ll be writing in TXT format until I take my last breath—and no matter what new surprising discovery lies waiting for us, someone will be able to quickly transpile all my work.

Indefinitely.

Arriving Full Circle

Writing in flat text files precipitated a move away from Expression Engine and the monolithic CMS. Why take the time to copy and paste your TXT file into SQL when you can have someone else do all the hard work? And that’s when I made a move to Statamic.

Statamic is a play on the words static and dynamic. Using flat text files as the database, Statamic dynamically serves pages based on a series of template layouts. Upload a new file or make changes to an existing one, and Statamic makes the changes on your site for you.

I was in publishing heaven. Working in TXT files meant there was only one canonical version of every article. To publish a book, I simply dragged and dropped the contents of one folder to another, and my work was complete. Add to that my discovery of Git, Github, and the versioning of these files, and my life was perfect. Git saves the changes to a file, not the data itself. In practical terms, this means no longer appending —ver1 or —third-draft-before-changes or any other random flag to the end of filenames. Artistically, this meant I could make changes with the confidence that rolling back to a version days or months ago as only a click away.

The deeper I got into Git, the more I learned about Pull Requests, and Forking, and open-source software. I geeked out over Plug-ins for Statamic and started to imagine ways I could somehow combine the two to help out my now-growing story consultancy.

I wanted to start coding again.

Mentorship and Consulting

After five years of publishing new content regularly, a director reached out to ask if he could pay me to teach him what I know about Dramatica. Excited that someone understood the importance of what I was doing, but not confident yet in the actual value of my work, I charged far too little and setup the Dramatica Mentorship Program.

One student grew to two. And then three, and four. I couldn’t believe people were paying me to teach them about Dramatica. Sure, my students at CalArts we’re technically doing the same, but they didn’t really have any say in the matter—they were forced to take my class. These writers wanted what I had to offer, and they kept coming back month after month.

And that’s when a professional screenwriter reached out and asked—not, that I teach him—but whether or not I would be interested in helping write his next screenplay.

The rest is history.

I began to take everything I was doing as a side hustle as my main hustle. I continued to write and publish something new every week; I cultivated my mailing list; I talked to clients during lunch and began to develop new and practical ways of applying Dramatica theory. I created the Playground exercises and laid the early groundwork for seeing the Relationship Story Throughline as a character. I even tried to use what I knew to be right about story to my Puss n Boots episodes that I was directing. If storyboard artists had little to no impact, directors at Dreamworks Television had even less. After a few failed attempts to make things better, I parted ways and took to Narrative First full time.

I made some attempts to get back in the game, but I felt like Don Draper returning to start again at the bottom. I had already come too far not to put my everything into story.

The last four years have seen a steady increase in the growth of Narrative First.

Narrative First 2013-2019

While the number of mentees in the Mentorship grew, I developed a steady stream of consulting clients, both amateur and professional. This growth led to the discovery of a certain kind of writer looking for something else than education or consulting. Some merely wanted a template—a leap pad to start the journey of writing their next novel or screenplay.

They wanted a cheat sheet.

Shortcuts to Story

The original incarnation of Subtext was the Narrative First RoadMap—and it was 100% manual. I met with the writer, found out the intent of their peace, determined the storyform, then laid out a series of Beats—starting points—from which to begin writing their story.

Pretty much what Subtext does now automatically.

The response to the RoadMap was so great that I knew it would need to scale beyond me eventually. I considered hiring and training RoadMappers, but the talent pool is shallow, and the interest level even less minuscule. No, the only way would be through technology—tech I would need to develop myself.

At first, I tried extending Statamic. I figured if the engine worked for a couple of hundred blog posts and articles, then yes, it would suffice for the thirty or so Storybeats in a complete story. I got pretty far with that approach, even managed to bring a couple of authors along for the ride. Unfortunately, that path required a lot of manual tinkering—tinkering I was more than happy to participate, but hacking I knew the general public would not accept.

It was time to head back to 1980.

On Being Friendly

Statamic introduced me to Laravel, the PHP framework its developers used to forge static and dynamic together. While I flirted with Ruby on Rails and other approaches to developing a web app, Laravel had one shining feature that made it stand out from all the rest. Actually, no—two shining features: documentation and community.

The reason behind the documentation should be apparent. Without a clear understanding of the intention of a tool, you never fully realize all that it can do. The second reason, though, is the most important. If there’s one thing I learned on this path from Zork to Marriage Story, it’s the community that makes all the difference.

The people invested in EE were smart, professional, and just plain lovely. Any time I had a question, there was someone eager and willing to help. Same with Laravel—but on a global scale. Laravel introduced me to VueJS, a front end framework for JavaScript, which eventually led me to NuxtJS (a framework for a framework!) and Netlify. The communities surrounding these last two were even more professional, more helpful, and just plain more excellent than many in the Laravel community. Anyone who has attempted creative work knows what it’s like to be surrounded by those who build you up, rather than take shots at tearing you down. With Nuxt and Netlify, I found a home in the former. The goodwill within these communities helps manufacture slicker code and better features, which results in a better final product.

That’s why I work so hard on moderating the discussion on the Discuss Dramatica boards. The Dramatica community needed a better place to interact with one another than a mailing list—so I dragged everyone over to Converse. That failed, so I tried HipChat. Then Google Plus. Then finally landed on Discourse. Every move motivated by making things better—every move a response to disinterest and abandonment—every move a step towards building a better community.

This desire is why I continue to record weekly classes with other writers in the Writers Room even though I have well over a hundred hours in the archives. I know how important the community is, and I know how much better things get when everyone enjoys contributing to the creation of something new. I know the difference between working on How to Train Your Dragon and the first ten years of this century.

Fueling the Future

Subtext is a subscription service SaaS. At first, I wasn’t sure how the Dramatica community would respond to such an offering, but I knew it was something that had to be done. Dramatica Story Expert runs on the buy-once, use-forever model. The $249 I spent in 1994 is a valid license 25 years later. Do the math, and you’ll see that Dramatica as a service cost me .83 cents a month. You can’t run a service for writers on a $1 a month. The user base simply isn’t large enough to justify the costs of servers, maintenance, and further development.

That last bit was the most important to me.

Looking back over the past year in Narrative First and Subtext, one sees giant leaps forward in the development of the Dramatica theory of story. Imagine where it would be now if we started Subtext in 1994? The advancements of 2019 were made possible in part by its subscribers. Dramatica was made better by Subtext—which made Subtext even better.

It turns out; the business model was never an issue.

Everyone was waiting for this application.

Developing Subtext

Years ago, I offered Genre Gist Collections for Dramatica—illustrations of narrative Elements tweaked for different Gentes. Through a simple bit of Python code, I was able to turn the 12,000 Gists that came with Dramatica into 300,000. One problem: Dramatica choked on any import over 20k.

Version one of Subtext started as a way to circumvent this limitation. It frustrated me that a practical and hugely beneficial application of the theory was not possible given the age of Dramatica’s stack. Add to that the frustration PC users continue to endure without even limited access to this Gist feature, and I went to work. I rolled out v1 of Subtext (then referred to as the Subtext) shortly before Thanksgiving, November 2017.

The simple offering of Genre Gist Collections turned into simple story creation (the original Quick Story feature)t which then turned into the Story Outline, which in turn developed into the concept of Storybeats. I had been writing analyses for Narrative First for over ten years, and vetting storyforms for even longer at the User Group meetings and at CalArts, so it only made sense to add them to Subtext’s database. Adding a visual representation of Throughlines to the storyforms was the next logical step as I had been writing about them as well.

The writing is the key—I’ll write an article exploring some new aspects of Dramatica, and if it seems helpful enough, I add it to Subtext. Case in point: How to Build a Narrative Argument and what would eventually become Subtext’s Premise feature. Realizing that Dramatica’s storyform intimidates a lot of writers, I found a way to distill those seventy Storypoints into a single sentence. After developing the algorithms, I added them to the codebase and rolled out the changes for everyone to enjoy—and to provide feedback. I made slight alterations, and Subtext’s Premise feature (then called the Narrative Argument) was available to everyone.

Same with the Storybeat Breakdowns, itself a feature based on a series of articles as yet to be published. The idea of the Storybeat Breakdown comes directly from my time spent as an animator. My first role within the Disney studios was to “break-down” key poses drawn by the supervising animator, i.e., the drawings in-between the other drawings. Extending this approach to the process of diving into a particular Storybeat only seemed natural to me.

I went on to add many more features over the next couple of years. Storybeat Breakdowns necessitated the ability to import Dramatica’s Plot Sequence Report. Selecting Storytelling Illustrations (Gists) for these Beats opened up the need to submit new ones. And the development of Genres and Sub-genres, and multiple Relationship Story Throughlines, inspired new ways to access this information.

And wait until you see the new Premise Builder. Soon, you’ll be able to determine the unique narrative structure of your story without needing to know a single bit of Dramatica.

The most significant feature, though, is one I’ve been working on for 25 years.

My New Jam

As mentioned in the article, Writing the Path of Virtue, Subtext is just getting started:

Subtext is always in development, always in flux. While the current version is solid and being used in several different real world productions, the application—and its understanding of narrative—can always be improved.

As Subtext’s sole developer, I always search out new ways of delivering the very best experience. As of this writing, January 2020–40 years after I started coding applications—the JAMStack is set to take over modern web development.

But I couldn’t wait.

Subtext and Narrative First are already on the JAMStack—together—a dream come true for me.

Ten years ago, I started to work on a side project called “storymappr.” I created the home page, drew some cool illustrations for it, set up a Twitter account, and bought my first Apple Developers License. I wanted a way to combine all my writing into one useful tool that would help people write better stories. No matter where they were, using only the phone in their pocket or the tablet in their hand, or even their trusty laptop or desktop computer, they could connect with their story. I knew, regardless of the access point, everyone had access to a browser. I just needed the tech to catch up with my imagination.

Subtext is storymappr made material.

The JAM in JAMStack stands for three satellite technologies working in orbit around a single application:

  • JavaScript
  • APIs
  • Markup

JavaScript to run the front end, APIs to grab the content (version-controlled, of course!), and plain-old’ HTML and CSS markup to deliver the goods.

Technology built for the way I’ve been writing the last two decades — a technology developed for writers looking to up their game through thoughtful theoretical concepts and useful tools.

The process is simple—taking us back to the mid-90s, just with the benefits of all the new. I build the site out into static webpages and then deliver them to the edge of a Content Delivery Network, or CDN with Netlify. Whether you’re down the street from me here in Valencia or at a cafe in Bali, you’re getting the same split-second response; you’re not waiting for a server in New York to build and deliver your content. The content you’re looking for is already waiting for you.

This approach translates into an app-like experience for the user. The design of Subtext and Narrative First means they’re only one line of code away from being ready for the App Store of your choice (coming in 2020 😃).

These two applications are now one application—seamless integration between the stories you write and over two decades of thoughtful exploration and theoretical development. The events of 2019 that the experience will only get better. And with the release of VueJS 3 later this year, the interaction process will become so fast that Subtext will remove all resistance, blurring the line between artistic intent and application.

Knowing from the Beginning

Narrative First is all about knowing where you want to go from the outset—it’s in the name. The last chapter in my recent book, Writing Your Story, says as much with the line:

If your subconscious already knows the Premise, then there is nothing left for you to discover.

Whether I care to admit it or not, I always knew I would end up back here—constructing a framework to deliver a story. The difference between when I started and now is simple, but powerful: it’s not just my story anymore, it’s yours.

And it’s great to see it all end in Triumph.