Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Diagram Madness

After the last two incredibly long posts, including an aside that wasn't really about Activated Story, I decided that this blog needs a little visual interest.

So here it is, the diagram of Activated Story. Fairly simple and self explanatory. Notice there's no "conflict" or obstacles. That's because opposition happens in three areas, depending on the story: 1) opposition to the actions to change the interim condition, 2) opposition to the ending condition, or 3) opposition to the activated character herself. I'll have more to say about conflict later. Right now, I'll rest and bask in my beautiful artwork.

I'm not the only crackpot to try and diagram drama and story. Take a look at Wagner's ideal.

Don't speak German? Here are the translations:
Wortsprache - written language
Geschichte - narrative history
Verstand - mind/intellect/understanding
Phantasie - imagination
Epos - epic
Griechische Tragodie - Greek tragedy
Schauspiel und Oper - Pageant/Spectacle and Opera
Gefuhl - feeling/emotion
Vernunft - good sense/reason
Tonsprache - musical language
Lyrik - poetry
Mythos - myth
Vernunft - good sense/reason
Worttonsprache - [not really translatable. wort is word, sprache is language. I take this to mean "wordplay" or "verbose speech".]
Vollendetes Drama - perfect drama [analogous to "perfect rhyme", in other words, drama of a particular and limited form]
Dramatisher Mythos - dramatic myth
Mensh - man

Does Wagner's diagram make sense? No. Do his operas make sense? No. Is the diagram cool? Yes. Are his opera's cool? Often. Such is art.

Us diagramers are a strange and crackpot lot. It is our attempt to take a Google Earth look at our creations, to obscure the trees for the forest, to catch a glimpse of the irreducible, to stand above the "work" like the physicians of old who were theorticians and prescribers who never touched their patients, unlike the common laborers of medicine, the surgeons and barbers.

But we're laborers, too, and these theoretical models are often distractions from grabbing the shovel or the axe.

Take this strange diagram I ran accross. It's called an enneagram (9 sided star polygon), after the personality system devised by G. I. Gurdjieff and is incomprehensible to me. I suppose you start at 1 and go clockwise around the circle, with the option of following either the dotted arrows or the solid ones. I could not use this to develop a story or plot. Can you?

Numerology, I Ching, and Astrology all use a system, not dissimilar to this one, to try and explain personalities and motivations. For that matter, so does the software program, "Dramatica". Give me a break. I need something I can use, a template to follow, a guide for problem solving.

I'm a big fan of Joseph Campbell. Nobody will believe this, but I was a fan before the Bill Moyers series that made him a pop self-help icon. The man took all these world stories and distilled them! He extracted their common ideas! He gave us the keys to uber storytelling! Yeah, yeah, I know the accusations of anti-semitism and anti-feminism. I turn my blind eye to them and rationalize that it wasn't the Jews he didn't like, it was their mythology; and it wasn't that he was a chauvinsit, it was that he was of an earlier time. What he did do was provide a template for a particular, and powerful, kind of story.

Here's another easier-to-read diagram of the Hero's Journey.

Uh, you go counter-clockwise.

I don't know why.

It's a good dramatic theory, but you have to know the definitions of the various points along the circle. It's not very self-explanatory.

I came up with this (how do you spell cacamame?) idea of Activated Story because I was unhappy with the unspecific definitions of the other descriptions of dramatic theory. Take Freytag's pyramid.

The NaNoWriMo folks (National Novel Writing Month) who sponser writing a 150 page novel in a month, also have a script writing event in April (which I plan to participate in). Their advice to new playwrights is to follow the Freytag paradigm.

Exposition = my Initial Condition; Inciting Incident = Activating event. Rising Action? A vague term that refers to conflicts that increase in stakes. Climax = action that brings about the Ending Condition. Falling Action? I never got this notion. Turning point? Why is it so late? Doesn't it happen with the climax? Why is Falling Action the same length as the Rising Action? Resolution = Ending Condition.

This diagram simply confuses me. The pyramid as a symbol is rife within other systems.

Here is a plot diagram, which uses some of the same terms, namely Rising and Falling Action. At least the sides of the pyramid are more indicative of what really happens in drama: the slope of conflict is shallower than the slope of Denouement.

But it's a metaphoric map. How useful is it? If you're lost in New York, do you want a metaphoric map of the subway, or a representational one?

Syd Field, the screenwriter mentor extraordinare, expounds upon this diagram for the screenplay. His pyramid is less steep, he calls exposition setup, rising and falling action ascending and descending action, the middle of the show Confrontation, and introduces the idea of "plot points", events that happen which change the direction of the story. Huh?

I like my diagram best. It's prettier. It's self-explanatory. Not all stories follow my paradigm. That's ok, because it's a subset of the notion of story: the descripton of a journey from one state to another. In my version, the change from one state to another is temporary, and the new state is intolerable to someone who takes action to change it to a state that he can live with. This is what Activated Story and Activated Character are all about.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Agony in Protagonist and Antagonist

I was going to use this second blog to take a look at a few stories through the activated story lens, but I've been side-tracked by a questionnaire forwarded to me by my friend Kris who had it sent to him.

I am working on a seminar (and possibly a book) about story/script analysis and would appreciate getting some smart people (both in and out of the entertainment business) to share their thoughts about what they know about story structure and character.
I am hoping to get approximately 200 responses to the survey below to properly gauge what people understand about story using six well-known films... For the following films please identify the protagonist, antagonist and theme of each:







Protagonist/antagonist ugh. Words that mean different things to different people. Theme. What rich story doesn't have multiple meanings and themes? I came to see story in terms of conditions, condition-changing events, and activated character because I wanted specific terms that meant specific things. But, since I was asked, I answered the questions using the very basic (and inadequate) definition as Protagonist – the main character; Antagonist – one who opposes the main character or their goal.

Divine Agony – or Protagoniste/Antogoniste

The root of the English word “agony” is agon, which originally meant the struggle in a competition or game. So what I am about to propose has no linguistic base. My adding the French “e” at the end of the words is so that I can differentiate them from the common usage and define them thus:

Protagoniste – one who must accept the agony of divine will

Antagoniste – one who tries to prevent the agony of divine will

The Greeks were respectful of all gods, theirs and others, because the gods represented mysteries that could not be explained or predicted: life, death, sex, love, birth, storms, volcanoes, earthquakes, spring, winter, growth of things, art, music, war, famine, drunkenness, madness, etc. If you can't explain it, you should not dismiss it. And even to call upon a god to do a favor could backfire, for the divine presence is unbearable to a mortal and a divine gift has its own unforeseen consequences.

I thought I'd take a look at each of the six movies to see if they have a divine presence. They do, which shouldn't be surprising (but is) because drama originates from religious festivals.

The Wizard of Oz

Protagonist – Dorothy

Antagonist – Wicked Witch

Protagoniste – Dorothy

Antagoniste – Everyone except the Wicked Witch and her Kansas counterpart

Dorothy, feeling unheard and ignored, has a wish to travel over the rainbow. She selfishly runs away, even though she is selflessly protecting her dog. However, she has caught the attention of some power or other, for even though she quickly changes her mind (thanks to the peddler) she has loosed the genie/tornado already and can't go home. She is transported over the rainbow, makes friends, accepts a quest, does all she is asked to do, and overcomes the final obstacle only to find out that what she most wants, to go home, is as impossible for this world to make happen as her visit to Oz was impossible from Kansas. Her entire journey is the divine agony, and culminates in an Oedipal-like revelation that she herself is the solution. The antagonistes are those who know better and try to prevent this divine journey or shield her from its dangers.

The Wicked Witch is only the monster guardian of the psyche, the fear that must be faced. In the end Dorothy has proved her worth and is returned to her world knowing in her heart that what you want and need is often no farther than your own back yard.

Mary Poppins

Protagonist – Mary Poppins

Antagonist - Mr. and Mrs. Banks

Protagoniste – Mr. and Mrs. Banks

Antagoniste – the children

Mary Poppins is herself the divine force. She is summoned by the children who write an ad for a nanny, and she is the one who answers their prayer. The children's ad really describes what they want in a parent, as Mr. and Mrs. Banks have delegated their parental duties to whomever they hire. The children are protected against the divine presence by the fact that they are children, but the Banks suffer the agony of finally seeing what is really important (their family) and the realization of how close they came to losing that. Mary Poppins leaves change in her wake.

The Music Man

Protagonist – Harold Hill

Antagonist – The anvil salesman

Protagoniste – Harold Hill

Antagoniste – The anvil salesman (and Marion)

Secondary Protagoniste – Marian

Secondary Antagoniste - Mrs. Paroo

Harold Hill's sin is hubris: the hubris that he can use the god's province – music – to enchant even the hard-heads of Iowa to part with their money. Music is the divine force, and it is wielded by a mortal claiming it for his own. The anvil salesman could stop all this – if he could find Harold and alert the authorities. The music teacher could stop all this, which is why Harold has to seduce her. And how does he seduce her? With the power of music – off handedly showing her how it brings people together in the making of it, and personally with the change it affects in her fatherless little brother. Love is the second sacred province that Hill trespasses against, and his divine punishment is to fall in love himself.

Marian thinks she will have love on her own terms, with a man fitting her own definition. Her mother tries to warn her about that foolish notion, but it is no good. The god of love gives Marian the agony of being deeply, madly, and wrongly in love with definitely not the man of her choosing.

Harold is brought low, his hubris punished publicly. He survives because he submits and like Job is abashed. But the effect of the divine force upon the kids in the town supercedes his trespasses and turns tragedy into transformation. Music transforms everything, including Harold's fate.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Protagonist: Atticus

Antagonist: Bob Ewell (and the white community)

Protagoniste: Bob Ewell (and the white community)

Antagoniste: Atticus

Atticus is not himself the divine force, but a representative of it: law, justice, truth. He is a priest of Apollo the lawgiver. He tries to stave off calling down the divine, but in the end Ewell and the poor white community give him no choice. Even though he technically loses his case, the truth shines forth with consequences for Ewell and ultimately for the community that disrespects it. Ewell's divine agony is multiplied when, unrepentant, he tries to take revenge by attacking Scout, prompting divine intervention in the form of Boo – children, the mad, the infirm and the mentally challenged are both sacred to and instruments of the divine.

Scout is the witness of events, and represents the stakes by which the story is played out. Atticus faces and kills the mad dog like he faces the rabid mob. The righteousness of his stand is proven out by Scout, who diffuses the mob by shining the light of innocence on their dark intentions. Not only are they ashamed of their actions and try to use the mob as conscience's shield, but they don't want their children to learn the lesson of their cowardice and so turn away from confrontation.

Atticus is more than priest and knight. He is the definition of a hero – one who does what no one else will do, but which must be done for mankind's sake, at his life's peril, and for no earthly reward. That it is a righteous battle, and a holy one does not exempt him or his family from danger or ruin.

My Fair Lady

Protagonist – Henry Higgins

Antagonist – Pickering

Protagoniste – Henry Higgins

Antagoniste – Pickering and Liza's father

Secondary Protagoniste – Liza

Secondary Antagoniste – Liza's father

Henry Higgins has the hubris to claim that he has the power to change the class into which someone was born with a few speech lessons. And it's not just playing god that angers the divine, it's the arrogance of choosing someone at random. Pickering and later Liza's father first scoff and then are concerned of the consequences. But there wouldn't be a story if the antagonistes were able to talk sense into the protagonistes.

Higgins' divine agony is to fall in love with his creation – he, a man of breeding where class matters, with a common flower girl with a facade of elegance. And the agony is increased by his realizing which of them is truly of a better class.

Of course, Liza is the victim of a be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario, and her divine agony is to get what she wished for. Both creator and creation are now in a world where neither can exist without the other.

It's A Wonderful Life

Protagonist – George Bailey

Antagonist – Mr. Potter

Protagoniste – George Bailey

Antagoniste – Harold and Mr. Potter

This is another case where the wisher really wants not to have made that wish. Poor George Bailey is driven to despair and is contemplating suicide for reasons it took ¾ of the movie to show. The divine literally steps in, in the form of the voice of the archangel Michael, and an angel wannabe, Harold. They decide to give George what they consider to be a truly wonderful gift: to be able to see your life if you weren't in it. Beware gifts from gods. It nearly kills George with panic and grief.

This divine agony could have been avoided if George had taken any one of Mr. Potter's several offers, but no, George had to do the selfless thing rather than what he really wanted to do. Perhaps this “look no farther than your own back yard” theme was important for the isolationist 30's of The Wizard of Oz, or the restless generation who had to stay home during WWII. At any rate, George finally buys it and submits to the divine will, knowing that what happens to him is unimportant as long as he has his family close. In so submitting he is rewarded like Job for suffering for divine amusement.

So what's my point?

I don't know if this makes the point that the divine reins in dramatic story, or that any crackpot template can be rationalized in any story. Maybe it says both. And although it's interesting to look at story this way, ultimately it doesn't help much in a story's creation.

This post is long enough. Next time I'll look at each of these six classics in terms of activated story, because that crackpot template is very useful for story creation.


Sunday, April 1, 2007

Activated Storytelling


First Post - Definitions

This blog came about because I started talking to myself. Actually, I have blogged many pages in my mind - trouble is I can't retrieve them. So I have to record them somewhere...

STORY -- the narrative of a journey from somewhere to somewhere, usually through somewhere, delivered to an audience.
  • the journey is not literal travel from place to place, but an emotional one from one state to another
  • the narrative is the plot, the description of what happens along the way
  • a story needs an audience to receive it
  • the audience travels its own journey from a starting emotional state to an ending one by agreeing to receive the story, and sometimes that journey is more important than the one being told
The paradigm of a story is:
  1. statement of initial condition
  2. journey
  3. statement of concluding condition
The audience has to know how things are in whatever world is being presented, in order to understand the concluding condition, or what things become.

Most stories require a series of interim conditions to logically get from start to finish. The degree of difference between the two determines the number of interim conditions. You can't go from hate to love without a whole range of intervening steps.

ACTIVATED STORY -- a story that has an event which activates a character to pursue a goal, and the success or failure at accomplishing that goal marks the climax of the tale.

The paradigm for an activated story is:
  1. initial condition
  2. activating event
  3. activated character
  4. actions which lead to the concluding condition
  5. concluding condition
The initial condition is the "once upon a time there was..."
The activating event changes the initial condition. "And then one day..."
This new condition is intolerable for someone, and they have to change it.
The activated character is out to change the new condition back to the old, or at least to something that they can live with.
Their actions are the plot of the story: they demonstrate they have the potential to succeed, they are humiliated and just short of total defeat, they rise pathetically, they accomplish a small goal, etc. etc. until in one final confrontation that will determine all they triumph (or fail) and the concluding condition comes about.

Not all stories are activated.
This is a subject for another post, but it's important to realize that many fine novels, plays and movies do not follow the activated paradigm. Short stories, for instance, usually set up the initial condition and stop at the activating event, leaving the audience to think about the resulting condition that may be implied more than stated. Company, Sondeheim's early piece, does this too. Bobby is unchanged until the final song, and then, depending on the strength of the performer, only promises change. But it is a change the audience in its journey of the evening has been made to want. Don't underestimate the power of the audience's surrogate journey. Some of the best drama can only be explained by involving the audience as a character in the story.

Often, it is the villain who is the activated character.
Especially in comicbook land, the good guy goes about his business of reacting to crime. He does his job. The villain, on the otherhand, has a plan, a goal, and only the superhero stands in his way. But why look only to Marvel? How do you explain Iago in terms of protagonist and antagonist? Othello is the main character of the story, but he is reactive. Iago is the activated character whose every move is to bring him closer to resolving the intolerable condition of Othello being promoted over him.

The paradigm is not linear.
Events in life unfold one after the other. It doesn't matter in storytelling where you start. It only matters that you hold the audience's interest. That, also, is a matter for another post.