Digesting the Wrecker

The Wrecker, by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, is a historical fiction novel concerning the hunt for a railroad saboteur nick-named "The Wrecker."

Overall, I found it an interesting read -- it came highly recommended by both my parents -- "a real page turner!" "usually it takes me a month to finish a book -- I finished this one in a week" -- and thought it would be interesting and educational for me to review it. (Educational for me, really, as it's been awhile since I flexed my story-analysis muscles).

Be aware: this review is a spoiler and draws heavily on Dramatica (www.dramatica.com) theory/terminology.

First of all, I'm going to attempt to define the Overall Story Class (Universe/Situation, Physics/Activity, Psychology/Manipulation, Mind/Fixed Attitude).

What's the problem?
The answer is as simple as remembering the title. The Wrecker is creating havoc on Southern Pacific Railroad's Cascade express line. The Wrecker's activities are causing problems. If his sabotaging was to stop, so would the story's problems -- everything would eventually return to a state of equity.

Why isn't it a situation?
The situation the Wrecker has created, one of fear and danger, is not stopping the construction of the Cutoff bridge (his goal as Antagonist). To make this an OS situation story, everyone in the story might be concerned with getting everyone back to work, everyone having quit because they were too afraid of perceived danger, a situation the Wrecker created. It could be a situation if the Wrecker could sit back now, having created a problem with enough power to accomplish his goal. It's an activity because, if the Wrecker stops his activities, the Protagonist accomplishes the Story Goal with no trouble.

What's the Story Goal?
It's interesting, because there are really two goals here, one more specific and one more general. The more specific goal is more powerful, in my mind, and once this goal resolves, the impact -- the dramatic tension of the story -- dissolves. However, the author adds bookends, a sort of prologue and epilogue -- to resolve the more general goal and to highlight the Main Character's tenacity and steadfastness.

The specific Story Goal is to make sure the Wrecker doesn't prevent the Cascade line from being completed before winter comes, which would likely bankrupt the railroad. If the line is completed, it will ensure the success of the railroad.

The more general goal is to catch the Wrecker. The first chapter in the book and the last chapter, which take place long after the main story events wrap up, address this more general goal.

Now that we've identified the Story Goal, we can start looking at the characters.

Who's Driving?
In the Objective Story, who are the drivers? (The Protagonist, the Antagonist, the Guardian and the Contagonist)

The Protagonist is s/he who pursues the goal (action) and gets others to consider the pros and cons of achieving the goal (decision element, to consider). Issac Bell, the lead Van Dorn Detective Agency investigator fills this role.

The Antagonist (action element prevent/avoid, decision element reconsider) is clearly the Wrecker, who is trying to prevent the completion of the Cascade line, causing all manner of deadly problems in an attempt to get the Protagonist (and his supporters) to reconsider their efforts.

The Guardian -- with action element help and decision element conscience -- is a little less clear. I think it may be Issac's love interest, Marion Morgan. She frequently helps the detective think through things. I think she may even soothe him when he wants to take more rash action. This role could be handed off between characters in the novel.

The Contagonist -- with action element hinder and decision element temptation -- is not clear to me. Could this be the Wrecker's alter ego, Senator Charles Kincaid? I'm not certain about this.

And here, running out of mentally available characters, I am at somewhat of a loss. I need to revisit the book to pull out more characters to then evaluate their functions. That said, here are some options:
  • The Van Dorn detectives -- sidekicks (action: support; decision: faith)
  • Osgood Hennesy -- Railroad mogul? -- He's a major player, but I'm not sure where he fits. Skeptic? (action: oppose; decision: disbelieve).
  • Osgood's beautiful daughter, Lillian. 

The question to ask is:
In the Overall Story, what function do each of the characters perform in relation to the story goal?

Do they pursue the goal and push others to consider the importance of pursuing it too? (Protagonist)

Do they prevent others from reaching the goal or get them to reconsider the importance of achieving it, causing them to dismiss their effort? (Antagonist)

Do they help others reach the goal and provide a voice of conscience in how people go about reaching the goal, giving advice? (Guardian)

Do they hinder people, not necessarily stopping them, but getting in the way? Do they tempt people to give up the goal? (Contagonist)

That takes care of the four Story Driving archetypes.

Who's Along for the Ride?
What about our Passenger archetypes?

Do they support those trying to reach the goal and have blind faith in them, never questioning anything? (Sidekick)

Do they oppose those trying to reach the goal, disbelieving everything?(Skeptic)

Do they control situations and contribute logic or sound-thinking to the goal? (Reason)

Are they out of control and emotional? (Emotion)

Perhaps I don't know the story well enough. What this tells me is that a once read-through without reference back to the story is not enough to create a compelling and thorough analysis.

Another look at the Throughlines...
So, let's assume the Overall Story (OS) takes place in the Activity/Physics Class. The story is about the efforts to stop the Wrecker's activities. This fits well with the Action/Adventure feel of the novel.

This makes the Main/Impact or Subjective Story Throughline -- the Heart of the story -- one of Manipulation/Psychology. Who is the Impact Character in this piece? Who does the Main Character -- Issac Bell -- also the Protagonist, making him an archetypal Hero -- have the most trouble with? Who pushes him the hardest to abandon his goals and give up or change? I'd have to say the Wrecker.

That said, I believe that Bell is a Steadfast character, which means that the Impact Character is a Change character. Does the Wrecker change? In the epilogue, Kincaid gives up rather than fight Bell. What about in the body of the book, though? The Wrecker goes off the rail (somehow surviving), but he has no change of heart before doing this.

Hmmm... a tough one. Another pro for the Wrecker being Issac's impact character is their similarities. Both Issac and Kincaid (as the Wrecker) are absolutely and wholly committed to their causes. Bell will never give up (the motto of the Van Dorn agency), nor will the Wrecker (not until he fails at his goal of preventing the Cascade Cutoff Bridge from standing).

What about the M/I Throughline? Maybe I should go on to identify the MC and IC Throughline first and then come back to this.

OOOO!!! -- Maybe it's the psychological manipulation going on -- the battle of WILLS going on -- between the Wrecker both in his role as the Wrecker and in his role as Kincaid vs Bell.

Main Character Throughline
With the OS as Activity and the MI as Manipulation, that leaves Bell with either Situation/Universe or Mind/Fixed Attitude. So which is it? It looks like this is determined by whether the MC is a Do-er or a Be-er. Bell is clearly an action-oriented Do-er, meaning that his throughline has to do so with something external, rather than internal. So that brings us to MC Throughline: Situation -- Bell is chosen by Van Dorn to lead this investigation -- in other words, he's been put in the Situation of being responsible for finding and neutralizing the Wrecker.
"A Situation Main Character finds himself in a troublesome situation... It could be a predicament such as being a rock star..." - Dramatica Theory Book
In this case, Bell's "predicament" is his role: he's a Van Dorn detective assigned to the most important case in the country.

Impact Character Throughline
So our IC Throughline is Fixed Attitude. What is the Fixed attitude that the Impact Character holds that has the most impact on the Main Character? Probably that the Cascade Line must be destroyed. From the Dramatica Theory Book:
 "The Fixed Attitude Impact Character displays a fixation or attitude dealing chiefly with memories, desires, immediate responses or considerations. It is this attitude that causes the Main Character to reconsider or justify his position."
Clearly, the Wrecker is fixated with preventing the line from being completed -- obsessed with it, really. I wonder about taking this down to the next level of specificity, the Type level.


Types give the next level of granularity after the Classes. I'm not certain how to bring the Storyform down to this level. I wonder if looking at the Story Engine might help.

OS Outcome and OS Judgment

The story ends with Bell defeating the Wrecker, and Bell getting married to his sweetheart (or attending another wedding with his new wife -- I forget which). The point is, it's all good in the world (Success Outcome) and it's all good for Bell (Story Judgement Good). So this is a Triumph story, a feel-good book.

That didn't change anything or inform the Driver or the Limit.

Story Driver and Story Limit

Let's see if the Dramatica Theory book can help here.
"Do Actions precipitate Decisions, or do Decisions drive Actions?... the 'inciting event' that causes the story's Problem will also match the kind of Driver required to resolve it."
"The Story Driver appears in... the inciting incident... and the concluding incident."
"Ask yourself, 'Would the effects still happen if the cause is removed?' If the answer is... yes... then your driver does not stand up to the test. If the answer is... no... then that's a good indication that it IS a driver."
 So, what is the Inciting Incident in this story? I'd say it's sabotage by the Wrecker.

Why isn't it the Wrecker's decision to sabotage?

I'd answer this by saying that the author focuses on the sabotage -- on planting dynamite -- very close to the beginning. I'd call it Decision if the author had focused more on how or why the Wrecker made his Story Goal decision to sabotage the Cascade line.

What about the concluding event?

I'd say the concluding event was the Wrecker falling in the train -- his last failed attempt at destroying the bridge. Definitely an Action.

What about the Story Limit?

While there is mention in the book that the railroad line needs to be completed before winter, a time deadline, the real focus seems to be that Bell has only a limited number of Options -- a limited number of opportunities -- to stop the Wrecker before it's too late. The time factor is not heavily emphasized.

More often, there are strategic points -- like the shipping yard in New York -- that the Wrecker attacks. There are a limited number of these strategic points, including the Cascade Canyon bridge itself. These are the focus more than time. So I'm calling this one an Option Lock.

The Dramatica Theory book supports this:
"A Timelock is either a specific deadline... or a specific duration of time... The conflict climaxes when the time is up."
"An Optionlock tends to take many pieces of the puzzle and bring them all together at the end."
"If missing essential parts causes the obstacles, an Optionlock is in effect."  pp.189

In addition to being an adventure story, The Wrecker is also a detective story. The main character is the lead investigator at a detective agency, after all! The "missing essential parts" in this story are the clues to the Wrecker's identity. This story is one concerned with the Protagonist trying to find the identity of the Wrecker to stop him, and the Antagonist trying to hide his identity to accomplish his goal.

What's the OS Story Concern?

Because we have an OS Story of Activity, there are four options for the OS Story Concern: Understanding, Doing, Obtaining or Gathering Info. The OS Story Concern is what everyone in the story is concerned with, all of the major characters. I'd rule out understanding -- they only want to understand who the Wrecker is to stop him. The goal could be Gathering Information, but again, they only want to gather information to stop him. Are all the characters concerned with Obtaining something? Catching the Wrecker? "Obtaining" the completion of the bridge? Perhaps.

They are all clearly concerned with Doing something: Bell wants to catch the Wrecker. The Wrecker wants to destroy the bridge. Let's see where Doing takes us.

What's the Overall Story Issue?

Moving down from the Activity Class, to the Concern of Doing, we have four options for Issue (Variation level):  Wisdom, Skill, Experience, and Enlightenment.

The DTB (Dramatica Theory Book) has this to say:
"...the Overall Story Issue... will appear almost everywhere..."
"...[it's] the closest touch point with the traditional use of the term, 'theme.'"
This is more a gut-feeling than anything else. Looking within each of the Variations at their Elements, Skill seems most appropriate. This is a story full of Tests between individuals, between elements. It's about who you can trust. It's about cause and effect. This is what resonates most with me.

Main Character Issue

Bell, throughout the book, is engaged in securing the line -- in protecting the trains.  This makes me want to pick Security as the MC issue. That said, security is not something that others aren't concerned with. Quite the contrary, everyone to some degree is concerned with railroad security, even the Wrecker. Does that mean that this isn't the main character's issue? We're going to go with that for now.

OS Problem

All that's left in the OS Problem.  Here, we're either Test or Trust. After reviewing definitions, Test is the one I learn toward. Bell is not one to trust without evidence. He's all about evidence. In the end, Trust is the overall story solution. Trusting Bell to lead the investigation, as Van Dorn did, led to a successful outcome, to the saving of the Cascade Cutoff Bridge.

So I've got a Storyform. Now what?

Well, that's a damn good question. I think for now, we take a break. But before that, I quickly want to take a look back at what motivated me to do this to begin with.

My goals in doing this were to:
  • Gain a better understanding of Dramatica theory
  • Test myself to see if I could identify major story components
  • Better understand how the Throughlines might apply to my own Zero Sum story
I'd say I've accomplished the first, did passably well on the second, and won't know about the third until I actually apply what I've gone over here to my own story.

Hope you enjoyed. And hope that this helps illustrate how all over the place I can be when trying to understand a story. Don't despair if you're the same way -- it's how we learn.

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