Author Archives: Melanie Anne Phillips

Narrative in the Real World

Why do I post all these articles and videos on Story Structure?

Well, aside from it being my career for the past quarter of a century, narrative theory has shown me that people think in narratives, but we also manufacture narratives in the real world from too little information and hold them to be true.

We search for meaning, create a narrative to connect the dots, but they we assume we have the meaning, not realizing there may be other narratives that would equally explain those few points we actually observed.

In our relationships, in our politics, in our own hearts and minds we build narratives that in time become resistant to change. Eventually, even if a better narrative comes along that explains more and puts things in a more accurate context, we reject it out of hand because our trusted narrative is held as true.

And so we are convinced our enemy means us harm, that our internal angsts cannot be resolved, that our associates are insensitive or up to no good.

But the real harm occurs when we act on these convictions and feel justified in getting back at others or, at worst, at taking first strikes against them because we “know” the ill will they hold against us.

This I have learned from my twenty-five year study of narrative, and specifically from my work with my partner in creating the Dramatica theory of narrative structure.

Dramatica theory is a model of how the mind constructs narratives and becomes mired in misconceptions. But is also an instruction manual for discovering inaccuracies in our views and in adjusting our narratives continually to account for new information and new understandings.

Dramatica holds the key to resolving differences with others, to becoming closer to our loved ones, and to finding peace within ourselves.

Up to now, I have focused my work on explaining narrative in fiction, for that is where Dramatica was first discovered and refined. In posting these articles and videos it had been my hope that the application of these insights would be perceived by my audience and applied to their own lives.

Alas, very few have made that connection and, after a quarter of a century of sharing what I’ve learned, there is no general awareness of the power of Dramatica to effect change in oneself and one’s interactions.

And so, having described the use of narrative in fiction with as much depth and breadth as is reasonably possible, I have determined this day to take the plunge and shift my focus to an exploration of narrative in the real world.

Though this new area of inquiry draws on all of my experience, it is essentially a whole new career for me as it applies this knowledge in a completely different realm.

Posting real world narrative articles and videos is not appropriate to all my many channels, pages, blogs, and web sites that deal with the construction and development of novels and screenplays. So, you won’t see this new work everywhere I distribute.

What you will see is the occasional link to evolving material as I build whole new sites and avenues of distribution.

For many years, I have felt that this is my true calling, and all my work in fiction was simply preparation for the journey to share the means to make a better life, not only for ourselves, but for all with whom we relate.

Perhaps it is grandiose and overly optimistic, but it is my belief that the more we grasp the reasoning behind our own narratives and those of others as well, the less judgmental we will become in our conflicts, the more tolerant we will become of differing viewpoints, and greater will be our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as members of the human tribe.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

Can There Be More Than One Protagonist In A Story?

A writer recently asked:

I write Western genre screenplays. And I love to use Dramatica Pro. In Western Genre sometime I will run into more than one  protagonist more than one antagonist . I name my antagonist in Dramatica Pro and then when I try to name another antagonist it will not allow me to go any further down the road in story. Will there be another advanced software in Dramatica Pro that will allow me to name more than one antagonist and let me go on with my story and continue to use Dramatica Pro?

Here’s my reply:

There is only one protagonist and antagonist in a story, but there may be more than one story in a single book or movie.

The protagonist is defined as the character who is leading the effort to achieve the Story Goal, and the antagonist is trying to prevent him from doing that.

The protagonist and antagonist represent initiative and reticence in our own minds – the force to effect change and the force to prevent change or to embrace or return to the status quo.

There can be a protagonistic group where, as an assembly they all function as a single protagonist, but if there were just two protagonists, they would both have to be the prime mover of the quest to the goal and they both can’t be, by definition. Or, each could have a separate Story Goal that affected everyone, but then you really have two stories.

In a nut shell, here’s why narrative works that way. Narratives reflect how people interact in real life. As individuals, we all have a sense of initiative, reason, emotion, skepticism and so on. And in solving personal problems we use all of these to try and find the solution.

But when we come together as a group toward a common purpose, we quickly self-organize into specialities, where one person becomes the Voice of Reason, another as the resident Skeptic and another as the Prime Operative who pushes everyone else forward toward completion of the group’s goal.

The “specialists” are represented in narrative as the archetypes, and each is just one facet of all the traits an individual has, yet each function just as we do in groups, focusing on just one aspect of the problem solving so that, collectively, the group can go into more detail and thought than if we were all general practitioners, each trying to be a jack of all trades (as we have to do for our personal issues.

Now the protagonist in the group – the one leading the effort – does not have to also be the main character. The main character is the group’s identity – the character who represents the spirit of the group – its personality in a sense. Sometimes the leader of the effort is also heart and soul of the group, in which case you have a typical hero who not only does the job, but also has to grapple with a personal issue – a decision about his own value standards that can make or break the overall effort depending on how he decides to see things, often in a leap of faith, as when Scrooge changes in A Christmas Carol.

So, only one protagonist or antagonist or reason archetype or emotion archetype, etc. per narrative.

BUT, often stories have sub-narratives built around some of the archetypes. Everyone has a story of their own. And so does every character in an overall story. We just don’t always choose to sell those “sub-stories” because we want to focus on the principals and not clutter things up.

But, you can take any character and create a sub-story around a personal goal in which he is the protagonist and main character in his own personal narrative that is not at all the issue the whole group is dealing with. This sub-story might be completely independent of the main story, or it might be hinged so that events in a character’s personal narrative are so potent than it causes the character to step out of his function in the overall story in a surprising way.

After all, our own personal narratives tend to be more important to us than the narrative of the overall group with whom we are associated.

So, with sub-stories, it can seem as if there are two protagonists in the story and even two antagonists, but they aren’t really in the same story but in a sub-story in the same overall “world” you’ve created in your story telling – your story universe.

I hope this helps provide some new ways in which to think about your characters and plot.

Let me know if you have any additional questions and may the Muse be with you!

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

Facebook Einstein

Here’s a few verses I tooled out today…

Facebook Einstein,
Trying to make the Prime Time,
Cranking out his theories
To an audience of one.

Really has an insight,
Never gets the bright light,
Pounding out epiphanies
is work that’s never done.

Can’t take a vacation
Trying to save the nation,
If only folks would notice,
but answer came there none.

Bleeding out in sound bites,
feeding cyber skin mites,
He’s only finally noticed
when his daily posts are gone.

Sheepish

Just had an idea for a children’s book entitled, “If I were a sheep.” Here’s the first coupla lines:

If I were a sheep,
I’d shuffle off to sleep,
In my built-in woolen blanket.

And if I were ewe,
I’d know just what to do:
I’d grab another sheep and spank it.

Rotating Cubes and Built-In Uncompletion

There’s a virtual cube as a screensaver on my LG 3D TV. It rotates clockwise, then blinks out for a moment to reappear somewhere else on the screen, still rotating. Or is it? Does the algorithm continue the rotation pattern during the blanking phase, or does it simply repeat itself for a short span from place to place on the screen? Looking closely I see that each time it reappears, it is, in fact, already in motion, but the edge of the cube is always in the same starting point as it turns. Then, looking at where it fades out, an edge it coming around. But, if I project that motion over the time of the blanking out, like continuing a song in your mind when you walk out of a room where it is playing and then back in again, I find that the edge on the right does not have time to reach the starting point of the edge on the left for the spin algorithm to have continued during the blanking period. They might have just continued the on-screen spin but a little longer and the gap would have been right, so even if it was just a repeat of the same small segment and not a true algorithmic spin, you could never tell – it would be identical because the timing would line up perfectly. Yet they chose not to do that and just to let it not quite match up and, therefore, clearly be nothing more than a simple repeat. All that programming work and still to leave such an easily remedied flaw – a lack of completion – a jarring reset at each repetition. Why would they do that?

Storytelling and Cognitive Modeling

Recently, an associate suggested a tie-in between cognitive modeling of cultural storytelling preferences and Dramatica that might, someday, provide guidelines for “writing the next Star Wars.”

This, for me, opened the whole discussion regarding the relationship between story structure and storytelling – specifically in this case, between our Dramatica theory of narrative and cognitive modeling of audience reactions to stories.

Here is my reply to my associate:

To me, it is important to think of stories as having layers:

The first layer is the structure

The second layer is the subject matter

The third layer is the storytelling style

The fourth layer is the target audience, which will be pre-primed with its own expectations.

In Dramatica theory, Chris and I have named these stages:

1.  Storyforming

2.  Story Encoding

3.  Story Weaving

4.  Story Reception.

Returning to my earlier analogy where I referred to the Dramatica model as the DNA of story structure, these stages have the following correlation:

1.  Species Genome (human, house cat)

2.  Individual Genetics (height, hair color, predilection toward specific diseases.

3.  Clothing, body building, style, and presentation

4.  Surrounding culture, societal norms and expectations, etc.

In terms of characters:

1.  Psychology (The underlying functioning of the mind below the conscious mind – i.e. neuroses, biases)

2.  Personality (The true nature of one’s identity – charismatic, timid, natural leader, joker)

3.  Persona (The image we wish to project to others – i.e. appearing confident, though really fearful)

4.  Presentation or Perception (How the persona is tailored to a particular audience and/or how the audience is pre-loaded to perceive the persona).

Dramatica theory and the story engine function only at the first of these stages – creating a map of the dramatic potentials of a story or a character – the psychology of the story mind or the character mind.

Chris and I have written extensively on the other three in order to provide a means of connecting the raw framework of narrative psychology to the finished product of stories as they are presented to an audience.

And it is in this realm that the suggestions made in your note might be extremely useful.

What makes Dramatica unique is that all previous attempts to understand story structure looked at the way people were dressed and trying to determine from it the underlying psychology.  While there can be some generalized correlation between, for example, people who wear red and a given neurosis, Dramatica can map the psychology directly.

Yet that map is sterile and bears no passion with it.

And so, while essential for creating a sound foundation that is a true functional narrative, Dramatica can never provide all the emotive aspects that make stories (and characters) so attractive.

Conversely, while work on cognitive models of story reception can be extremely useful in establishing guidelines for storytelling, such guidelines will always shift as the culture changes and need to be updated regularly.  Attempts to find absolutes through cognitive modeling can never discover the underlying DNA of character any more than we can determine a person’s individual genome from their wardrobe.

The key to developing a fully connective methodology for “writing the next Star Wars” is to build a bridge between Dramatica and cognitive modeling from the other side of the storytelling/structure divide so that both the underlying psychological functioning of a story and the cultural/societal preferences for substance and style are maximized to create a finished work that is both accurate to human nature and responsive to human desire.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica