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Weaving a Life—The Three Levels of Dramatic Action

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David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

One of the most useful insights I took away from Steven James’s excellent Story Trumps Structure is his strategy of breaking down the main character’s overall arc into three distinct struggle threads:

  • Internal Questions: These involve how the character views herself, addressing questions of integrity, dignity, purpose, worth.
  • External Challenges: These involve tasks in pursuit of a specific goal, often in the face of great odds—catch the killer, rescue the child, escape the disaster, find the way home.
  • Interpersonal Relationships: These involve connections with others, whether positive or negative, and address whether those connections are growing stronger or weaker. They possess elements of both the internal (because they often reflect how the character views herself) and external (because they involve other people).

Interpersonal relationships also provide an excellent means for:

  • Raising the stakes (making success matter to more than just the protagonist or opponent);
  • Creating competition for the same goal;
  • Eliciting empathy—we care about those who cares about others.

At some point as you’re planning or reworking your story, you should take a moment to analyze which level of dramatic action you intend to emphasize: External, Internal, or Interpersonal. This is because the various levels of dramatic action reveal different aspects of character, and elicit different responses from readers and audiences:

  • External challenges typically define the character’s outer objective. They create curiosity—e., about the limits of the character’s prowess and willfulness. They ask the question: Is the character capable of achieving her goal? They can also inspire admiration because of her skill, determination, persistence, etc.
  • Internal and Interpersonal struggles typically create empathy, i.e., concern for the character and her struggle to be a better person, and elicit an emotional response from readers and audiences.

However, none of these levels of dramatic action act independently of the others in truly compelling fiction.

 This point was driven home repeatedly by Steven in his book. I took the baton from there in The Compass of Character and developed a specific methodology for creating and developing that interdependence.

 Interweaving Struggle Levels

Whenever more than one struggle level exists, you should try to weave them together so that solving a problem on one level has material repercussions on the other. A satisfying conclusion to the story usually requires the integrated resolution of all the levels of dramatic action in the story—unless the point is to show how success on one level makes success on the other(s) elusive or impossible. Even then, however, the interconnection among the struggle levels will make this ambivalent ending more poignant.

If the struggle threads merely run parallel—going along at the same time but not affecting or influencing one another—they will likely feel disconnected, and possibly undermine one another. Worse, they may come to feel gratuitous, and test the reader’s or audience’s patience.

A classic example is the attempt to “humanize” a detective by giving him family problems that have no impact whatsoever on the crime he’s trying to solve, or dragooning a wife or daughter into the role of hostage to raise the stakes in a way that feels contrived.

Using Intrinsic Longings to Interweave Struggle Levels

The natural interweave among levels of dramatic action can be seen more clearly by gaining a better understanding of the underlying motivations typical of each kind of struggle.

Each level of dramatic action speaks to a specific set of inner. The following list is hardly exhaustive, but it should point out the kinds of internal longings that tend to motivate each particular type of struggle:

  1. Internal Questions
    1. A need for a sense of truth, meaning, value, significance, purpose.
    2. A need for identity, authenticity, integrity, dignity, honor.
    3. A need for self-confidence, success, self-realization, fulfillment.
  2. External challenges
    1. A need for safety, security, survival.
    2. A need for justice, peace.
    3. A need for adventure, challenge, freedom, power.
  3. Interpersonal relationships
    1. A need to love and be loved.
    2. A need for belonging, respect, acceptance.
    3. A need for revenge or retribution.
    4. A need to be forgiven and given a second chance.

Notice how, in the second and third categories, the internal needs motivating the character’s actions can only be gratified through success on the external or interpersonal level, respectively.

This is the simplest and most direct way of weaving internal together with external or interpersonal—realizing that even external goals and interpersonal connections speak to underlying needs that resonate with the individual’s sense of self.

Secondly, the items in these categories are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary.

The person who craves adventure may do so purely for the adrenalin rush. Far more likely, she needs to define, test, and surpass her limits, to constantly challenge what is supposedly possible, which intrinsically speaks to issues of confidence, success, self-realization, and identity. The alpine climber isn’t testing the mountain—she’s testing herself.

Throw in the need for the climber to prove herself to someone else—her father, a lover, a competitor, an outright enemy—and you add an interpersonal struggle into the weave.

Almost all love stories—whether they concern romantic partners, family, or friends—naturally involve internal questions:

  • Am I worthy of the other person’s love?
  • How will earning the loved one’s affection affect my understanding of my own value, even my purpose?
  • Do I need to betray my sense of integrity, authenticity, or purpose to earn the loved one’s affection?
  • How will this relationship influence my self-confidence?
  • Will it gratify my need for fulfillment—if not completely, at least significantly?

For a more detailed example, consider the following story line:

A rural fire chief accused of incompetence for his mismanagement of a house fire in which three children died faces a second crisis when an out-of-control wildfire threatens his small community. Notice how the story interweaves deep-seated needs on three distinct levels:

  • External: He must meet the challenge of the fire, and make sure the townspeople remain safe.
  • Internal: The battle against the fire has the potential to redefine his sense of worth, competence, and purpose. Perhaps he was accused of cowardice in the earlier tragic incident; this challenge might allow him to prove his courage, not just to others but himself.
  • Interpersonal: If he succeeds, he may finally earn (or at least deserve) the right to be forgiven by those who have blamed him for his previous failure.

Take a moment to imagine how such a story might proceed. Can you see how, with every external action he takes to organize resources and fight the fire, the issues of forgiveness and self-worth are equally present, influencing his ability to function? As his sense of self wavers or solidifies, so does his confidence and capability to do his job. And as he succeeds or fails, others in the community will either stand with him in support or turn against him in condemnation, further affecting not just his sense of identity but his ability to protect them all.

Two Examples

Let’s now consider two specific examples, one from literature and film, the other from TV:

The Dead

James Joyce’s The Dead is not only a great short story but was brilliantly adapted for film by the iconic director John Huston and his son, Tony Huston, who wrote the script.

The setting is the annual Christmas party thrown by Kate and Julia Morkan, the spinster aunts of Gabriel Conroy. Though the story embraces not just family but community, its focus lies primarily on Gabriel and his wife, Gretta, an outwardly happy and affectionate couple.

Tensions lie beneath the surface, however. Gabriel’s mother opposed the marriage, because she saw Gretta, who comes from the rural and largely impoverished west of Ireland, as inferior to her son in social standing and education. And though Gretta profoundly misses the west country and hopes to visit there soon, Gabriel harbors no such desire. An anglicized Irishman, he is content to remain in Dublin, teaching literature and writing book reviews for a conservative newspaper.

But Gabriel’s alienation extends beyond his sense of what it means to be Irish. He is riddled with self-doubt, and worries endlessly about how the speech he has prepared, to be given near the end of dinner, will be received.

As it turns out, his speech is a grand success, and he glows with pride as the evening comes to a close. However, as he goes to collect Gretta so they can leave, he finds her transfixed on the stair, listening to a young man singing “The Lass of Aughrim.” (This moment is captured beautifully in the film version.) He notices that her cheeks are colored and her eyes are shining, and he interprets this as a sign that tonight, at their hotel, they might at last rekindle the warmth of their marriage.

But when they get to their room, Gabriel finds Gretta remote and cold. When he inquires why, she mentions the song, and begins to cry, then tells him the story: When she lived in Galway, a boy she knew named Michael Furey used to sing that song. Gabriel is at first jealous, thinking Gretta longs to reunite with the young man, but she tells him Michael is dead. The night before she was to go away to the convent, he stood outside her window in the freezing rain despite his tuberculosis. She begged him to go home, but he refused, saying he preferred to die, which he did within a week.

News of such a passionate love makes Gabriel feel ridiculous and petty, and he shrinks before the knowledge of how meager a part he has played in Gretta’s life. And yet, as he lies awake with Gretta sleeping beside him, he moves from despair to a state of “generous tears,” and he hopes for a love like Michael Furey’s. “Better to pass boldly into that other world, than fade and wither dismally with age… The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.”

Gabriel’s external challenge—to deliver his speech impressively—is part of the larger overall goal on the part of Kate and Julia to ensure the party is a success. Thus already we see an interweaving of external and interpersonal—Gabriel’s successful achievement of his external goal will also serve to please his aunts, whom he loves dearly.

The speech is also meant to bolster his self-confidence. That need for self-confidence forms his internal question—and notice how it influences the other two struggle threads. It infects the whole of his fretting over his speech, and registers in his worries over the increasing emotional distance in his and Gretta’s marriage, which is the interpersonal relationship most at issue in the story.

But his internal struggle also involves issues of authenticity—his love and loyalty for Ireland are not only questioned by one of the guests, but his ambivalence goes to the core of his difficulties with Gretta, who loves and longs for the west country where England’s influence is felt the least, and the old ways maintain.

His external struggle ends in success, but that only provides Gabriel with false confidence. That confidence is dashed in the story’s climax when he learns the real reason Gretta was so moved by the song she heard. His lack of self-worth deepens, forcing him into a dark night of the soul in which he resolves to live his life with a greater sense of purpose and passion, with the hope, however tenuous, of this rekindling the warmth between him and Gretta.

Breaking Bad

For our second example, let’s consider the five-season TV series Breaking Bad.

Walter White is a brilliant chemist who once had sterling prospects, but when his girlfriend left him for his business partner, he sold his interest in their venture, which was based largely on Walt’s research, for a paltry $5,000. The company went on to make billions, but his former friend and lover never credited him. Walt moved to Albuquerque, married, and began raising a family while working as a high school chemistry teacher, supplementing his meager pay with part-time work at a local carwash.

At age 50, Walt is diagnosed with inoperable Stage III lung cancer. Desperate to provide for his family given his impending death, he makes the bold, reckless decision to manufacture crystal meth, enlisting a former student, Jesse Pinkman, to help make and market the product.

Walt’s external struggle is to sell enough methamphetamine to ensure his family’s financial security. By definition, it weaves together the external and interpersonal struggle threads. But the fact he must keep what he is doing secret, combined with the danger it invites into his life, alters those interpersonal relationships in significant ways.

Even with all the external challenges and disasters and the interpersonal chaos his decision entails, it’s Walt’s internal struggle that drives the real story. As he grows in expertise, he not only becomes more self-confident, his very identity changes from that of a mild-mannered man who accepts his fate to a ruthless kingpin who demands that everyone—including the friends who sold him out for $5,000 and the family that supposedly motivates his criminal turn—acknowledge that he is the very best at what he does and is a man deserving of not just respect but fear. As he tells his wife: “I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.”

Can you separate the internal, external, and interpersonal struggle threads for a main character in either a favorite book, film, or TV series, or your own WIP?

How do the various struggle levels crucially influence each other, and how do they resolve at the end?

Have you ever encountered or written a story where success on one struggle thread renders elusive or impossible success on one or both of the others? What emotional impact did that create?



About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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