Author Archives: Melanie Anne Phillips

The StoryWeaver Method – Step 1

StoryWeaver is a step by step approach to developing your novel or screenplay.

StoryWeaver will help you create your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.

In this first step, we look ahead to the process and outline the four stages of development common to all authors.

There are four stages to StoryWeaver’s story creation path:

1.  Inspiration

2.  Development

3.  Exposition

4.  Storytelling

In the Inspiration section, Storyweaver will help you come up with ideas for your Plot, Characters, Theme, and Genre.

In Development, you’ll flesh-out these ideas, adding details and making all the bits and pieces work together in harmony.

Exposition will help you determine how to reveal your story to your readers or audience, story point by story point.

The Storytelling stage is where you will develop a sequential plan for how your story should unfold, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, event by event.

By the end of the path, you’ll have a completed story, fully developed, expertly told.

Continue to next step…

 

The StoryWeaver method  is taken from the

StoryWeaver Story Development Software

Created by Melanie Anne Phillips

 

Rose’s House – Original Song

Here’s a song I wrote back in the mid-1980s, just before I came out as transgendred. The lyrics are veiled references to my inner conflicts of the time.

I credit my songs of the time to both my original and current name, as they were something of a collaboration between my two personas.

The DNA of Story Structure

Narrative structure has, at its core, a code not unlike that of DNA.

We first documented a model of this DNA of story in our 1994 book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story, concurrent with the release of our Dramatica software, which implemented the model as a patented interactive story engine that enabled writers to design the genome of their stories’ narratives.

Today, more than twenty years later, there is still much confusion as exactly what Dramatica is, though the model has been successfully used by more than 100,000 writers around the world, on best selling novels, on motion pictures with billions of dollars of collective box office, and most recently by the CIA and the NSA in applying narrative structure to understand and anticipate the actions of terrorist groups and lone wolves.

To help clarify the nature of the Dramatica model, I’ve prepared the following short list of points that may provide a framework from which to appreciate what Dramatica really is:

First, think of the Dramatica model as the DNA of story.

This is not a loose analogy.

In organic genetics, the model of DNA is not a specific genome but a description of how genomes can be formed.

The model of DNA is (in part) defined by having four bases and a double-helix assembly. And this is the level at which the Dramatica model functions as well.

Dramatica is the DNA of narrative structure. It is a quad-helix arrangement with four bases. It describes how narratives can be formed.

From it, you can build specific narrative genomes for species of stories, just as you can create a human genome or one for a cat.

The model of DNA does not change in the case of a human or cat genome just as the model of Dramatica does not change in the case of any given storyform.

Dramatica is not a specific narrative structure – it is a model of DNA from which specific narrative structure are created.

Just as a specific genome holds the instructions for building a particular creature, so too, a specific storyform holds the instructions for building a particular narrative.

In biology, DNA is not weighted. There is no greater tendency for DNA to create a particular genome over another.  That is the job of evolution.

Similarly in story, Dramatica is not weighted. There is no greater tendency for Dramatica to create a particular narrative over another.

However, in biology, there is great genetic variance within, for example, the human genome. So, while we can easily identify a species by its DNA, the genetic variance leads to differences in height, weight, bone structure, hair color, and even unseen attributes such as tendencies toward certain diseases.

In species, genes are specific expressions of their common genome, which creates variance among individuals within a species.

In stories, the subject matter and storytelling style are specific expressions of a common narrative, which creates variance among individual stories told from the same storyform.

And so, systems that seek to understand narrative by finding common traits among finished stories is like trying to understand genetics by finding common traits among all animals.

In 1991, we began our three-year exploration into the nature of narrative structure, eventually having a “Eureka!” moment in which we realized that while each character has a full complement of human mental traits, in the story at large, they each function as but a single facet of an overall mind, the mind of the story itself – a story mind.

This occurs in narrative because it occurs in real life, and narrative is our attempt to map out and find meaning in understanding ourselves and our interrelationships with others.

In real life, we each possess the same basic traits such as Reason, Emotion, and Skepticism.  And we use all of them to try and parse our problems and discover solutions.

When we gather together in groups toward a common purpose, we quickly self-organize to become specialists, so one person emerges as the Voice of Reason for the group, and another as the group’s resident Skeptic.  This provides the group with much greater depth and detail as it explores its issues than if all the members of the group remained as general practitioners, trying to cover all the bases to a lesser depth as we do for our own individual problems.

So, the group organization becomes a map of how individuals interact in society, and the specialties within the group define the traits within us as individuals, and illustrate how those mental processes interact within our own minds.

This is why in stories characters must do double duty.  As individuals when working on their own issues, they are general practitioners, and as members of a group, they are specialists.  It is these specialist roles from which character archetypes are derived.

Armed with this new manner of assessing narrative structure, we spent years searching for a model that explained it, ultimately discovering the mechanism of the narrative mind and publishing our theory and model.

Hopefully, this short introduction to the nature of Dramatica will provide some corners to the jig-saw puzzle of cognitive science.

Click here for more information about the Dramatica theory and its ramifications.

Melanie Anne Philips
Creator StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

How to Motivate Your Main Character

You know, my partner Chris Huntley oft has said that the best way to rob a main character of motivation is to give him what he wants.  If you fill his need, he has no reason to go off and try to do anything.  Conversely, if you want to motivate a main character, take away something he wants.  Steal his jewels, rip his heart out, put the love his life in danger, violate his morality, end his way of life.  You pick it – you are the Author/God and the actions of your main character are pre-destined by the angst you give him.

Suppose you have a main character who’s problem is that he doesn’t want anything, doesn’t care about anything, and hasn’t had anything taken from him that he really cares about.  This happens to authors far more often than you might imagine.  So how to you solve this problem and get your main character moving?

All you need is one thing – one person or place or way of life that got under his skin, and somebody up and violated it.  And now, though he is still just as cynical and jaded about everything else, he is in a blood rage because of that one thing and will go to the ends of the earth (or beyond, in some cases) to satisfy his lust for revenge or to try and save that which he holds so dear.

For example, Keanu Reeves as John Wick (great movie, by the way) is a retired assassin.  His wife who drew him out of the business dies of natural causes.  Before she died, she ordered a puppy to be sent to him after her death to remind him of her and give him something to love.  And this incredible killing machine of a man, remains retired, and learns to love more deeply – until the son of a Russian Mob big wig kills his dog for the fun of it.  In the end, everybody dies except for Wick who is now back in business.

The options are endless.  Just pick one that is meaningful to you.  Choose a loss or a threat to something loved by your main character that matches one for yourself, and you’ll find you have no trouble conveying why he is motivated to do whatever you want him to do.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator StoryWeaver
Co-creator Dramatica

I do personalized story coaching.

Click here for details…

How to Structure Your Story’s Signposts

First let me define what signposts are in stories and then provide a few hints on how to structure them.

Signposts are the markers that separate one act from another.  Think about any well structured story you’ve read or seen on the screen.  There are always several points at which you feel that you’ve moved from one act to another, such as in the plot when the characters have finished preparing for a journey and actually embark or in the character arc where the main character finally realizes he has been held back by his best friends good intentions and decides to go solo for the first time.

We intuitively know that a major turning point has been reached and that things will no longer go on as they have and that a whole new direction will reveal itself as the story unfolds.

Now all of that is just felt, but it actually comes from something very solid in story structure: the signpost.

Signposts are like road markers that tell you when you need to turn off the highway you are on and take a side road in order to get to where you’re headed.  These signposts are just at the juncture points, yet in between them, you have a lot of ground to cover that is part of your journey.

In a standard three-act structure, there are four signposts.  To see this more clearly, hold up four fingers on one hand as in the illustration below:

If each finger is a signposts, then you can see three journeys between them.

Readers or audiences feel the journeys because that is the flow of the unfolding of a story over time.  But the four fingers define the direction of each of the journeys.  So, the first signpost marks the point of departure of the story.  The last signpost identifies the destination.  the other two signposts in the middle describe the two major turning points in the story when the set up is complete at the end of the first act, and when the climb to the climax begins at the end of the second.

That’s fine conceptually, but how does it play out in actual story development?  As it turns out, all four signposts belong a family which is what gives a story a consistent identity as it plays out.

One such family, as an example, consists of the signposts of Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining.  So, in such a structure, the story begins with a general sense that Learning is the undercurrent of what everyone is engaged in.  It is the overall background for all that happens.  And while not every event or character conjecture has to pertain directly to Learning, there is that feel that establishes that Learning is what the first act is all about.

In practice, the characters in such a story will begin with Learning this or that (the first signpost) and then the act (the first journey) will follow the characters as they learn more and more until they arrive at an Understanding (the second signpost).  That’s where we feel an act break as the story changes course from exploring learning to exploring understanding.

In the second act (journey), the characters will progressively grow in their understandings until they are finally able to start Doing (the third signpost).  Again, we feel an act break as the internal quest from understanding shifts to the external quest of doing things.

Now the characters do more and bigger things until they are finally able to arrive at their designation, the fourth signpost of Obtaining.  End of narrative.  End of story.

There are a several families of signposts depending on the kind of story you are telling.  And, the signposts don’t always have to be in the same order.  In one story, for example, the characters may obtain something that allows them to do something that causes them to learn which leads to an understanding – a complete different order than our first example.

In real storytelling, this second example might be that some kids steal a car (obtaining) and are then able to do (take a road trip across the country), and en route they encounter many people with issues (learning) and eventually arrive home with an understanding about the importance of respecting the property rights of others.  Lame, to be sure, but fine as an example of how the signpost order is not locked.

Now as I promised at the beginning, I have now defined what a signpost is.  But I still need to explain how to structure them.

To do this, I’m going to share a letter I just wrote to one of my story consulting clients.  (Yes, I make my living as a story consultant.  Click here to learn more…)

This particular client was taking the precise nature of each signposts way too closely to heart.  They were trying to make every single story point in each act tie directly into each signpost, not taking into account that each signpost is just the county you are traveling through and the events in the journey are flavored by that, but not defined by it.

So, here’s the note to my client with some tips for structuring signposts:

Structure should not be applied as rules but as guidelines.  Structure gives you the sense of where the meaning is – where the center of the message is.

So in regard to the four signposts, they are like real signposts: they tell you when you have crossed the border from one kind of conjecture to another.

Stories are all about exploration in order to find the narrative because the narrative will provide the understanding of how all the pieces fit together, and therefore what one needs to do to get things to end up in the best possible arrangement.

If a story travels through learning, understanding, doing, and obtaining in that order, it means the story begins with learning.  That is the first signpost – the point of departure on their journey.  And from there, it starts off on its exploration to learn more and more until it arrives at an understanding (the second signpost).  From that point forward, learning is behind and the characters grow more and more in their understanding of what they already learned until they have understood so much that they are finally able to start Doing something about it – the third signpost.  From there, learning and understanding are pretty much behind them and their focus is to do more and more until they are finally able to Obtain when they reach the fourth and final signpost: their destination.

As you can see, signposts just mark the dividing lines when the story shifts its focus from one kine of endeavor or outlook to another.  You can also think of the four signposts as four rooms in a house.  You begin by exploring the first room in which you learn a lot.  When you have learned all you can, you move on to the next room where you put all that learning together to arrive at an understanding.  When you finally understand all you can, you move on to the next room and begin doing until you have done all you can, and then you move onto the last room to Obtain what you want by taking what you learned, organized into your understanding, turned into the action of doing that results in Obtaining.

Again, in terms of rules vs. guidelines, the signposts give you a general sense of what is going on in each act – what’s the focus or the area of interest.   But, that’s not the only thing going on in each act – just the overall background against which everything happens.

Don’t feel that everything that occurs in an act has to somehow connect to the signpost.  The signpost is just like the broth in a soup into which all the other stuff is cooked.  It gives each act an identifiable flavor but can be filled with all kinds of individual tastes that have nothing to do directly with the flavor of the broth.

Now, looking at your recent work, that is actually WAY too detailed and WAY too focused on each signpost.  It is good to have so many opportunities to relate to the signpost – that shows great consistency in your thinking about that act.  But, you don’t need nearly a tenth of that many references to the signpost as you have there to convey the overall perspective in that act – you only need enough to clearly establish in the mind of your reader the general background of the kind of exploration that is going on in that act – the kind of activity, interest, or concern.

In other words, don’t try to tie everything that happens in your first act into Learning – that would be forcing the structure and taking structure way too literally.  Rather, find as many opportunities as you can in your existing story material for each signpost in each throughline that already is tied into that signpost without forcing it.

W all think in narrative patterns.  Our interests are the topics we explore, but we organize the way we appreciate a topic in narrative, which is nothing more than a framework of meaning that ensures we’ve looked at all the meaningful parts of a topic from all the pertinent points of view.

And so, when we write, as with all authors, we automatically organize our story elements into narrative patterns so they make the most meaningful sense.  But, we do this by intuition so the perspective is often a bit fuzzy and sometime a little off-true.  Structure allows us to focus that already-existing proto-narrative so that each signpost becomes a little more clear as the overall flavor of the background so that all that happens can be seen through that filter before moving on to the next.  Like Red, Blue, Green and Brightness, each signpost provides part of the picture through a different filter until we get the full-color version after the last scene at the end.

My advice:

Don’t put so much effort into each signpost.  Just find the elements of your story that already point at each signpost and then polish them up a bit so they better reflect it.  Let your remaining story elements play against that without trying to force them to direct connect.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator StoryWeaver
Co-creator Dramatica