Domains and Throughlines of Captain America: Civil War

Here we go with a discussion of the various Domains and Throughlines of Captain America: Civil War. If you can, try and keep the discussion limited to techniques and observations on how to accurately determine the various perspectives for the Four Throughlines of a complete story.

One thing that might help everyone on this thread is to review the “Litmus Test for Domains” and “Litmus Test for Concerns” found in this article:

Although the title says Main Character, the Litmus Tests apply to all throughlines, and are presented as objectively as possible.

I also think you can extrapolate the tests to Issue and Problem, although you have to be careful to frame the question at the right magnification. For that framing it helps to determine the higher levels (Domain and Concern) first.


It’s a great article – one I’ve read before but I think I can reasonably say I have nonetheless not quite developed the ability to apply correctly. Let me expose my ineffectiveness in using the litmus test both with the Braveheart example from the article and from Captain America: Civil War.

To be absolutely clear here: I’m making the observations below not to argue or debate that I’m right, but to expose my logic as I try to apply the principles espoused in the litmus test. In other words, my hope is that the flaw in my reasoning is easily visible to all.

Take for instance Braveheart. England moves in and starts sleeping with the wives of the Sons of Scotland on the night of their betrothal. Dirty bastards! If you were sitting down with Dramatica to write that story, the application would ask if the Overall Story Throughline of that story fell in a Situation or an Activity.

At first you might think Activity as it is what the English are doing that seems to be the biggest problem. But if those rascals stopped doing what they were doing, would there still be a problem? Certainly. England is all up in Scotland’s business, causing all kinds of problems for them—not simply sleeping with their women. It is the English presence within their country that riles the Scots up and motivate the conflict. So what if England were to leave Scotland, would there still be a problem?


This example is great because it appears self-evident: of course, if the English were suddenly gone from Scotland, the problems would go away. If English nobles stopped sleeping with Scottish women, England would still be “all up in Scotland’s business, causing all kinds of problems for them”.

What does being “all up in Scotland’s business, causing all kinds of problems for them” refer to other than the set of unwelcome activities: taking resources, taxing, killing . . .etc. Those are all activities. So what if England stopped all those problematic activities. What if they were non-violent, non-evil occupiers. The ancient Romans occupied vast tracts of foreign territory, often without triggering massive unrest – sometimes they were even welcome because their presence meant increase trade, security, and standard of living.

Let’s say that this argument is a stretch: that it’s far more economical (in the sense of Ockham’s Razor) to simply say, “Look, if England left, the problems definitely go away”.

Except that if England leaves Scotland, you’re still left with two countries with competing interests and long-standing antagonism sharing a border. You’ve got constant border wars, raiding, pillaging, and other problematic activities taking place.

So it’s not just a matter of self-evident spacial arrangements – “remove the English and you remove the problem” – you actually have to take a position on whether problems between the English and Scottish had to do with occupation or with ongoing problematic activities that will continue for so long as they even share a border and will only end when both sides stop those activities.

I’m not saying the litmus test doesn’t work – it seems like a great approach (it’s in fact the one I keep trying – and failing – to apply). I’m saying the decision isn’t actually self-evident. It’s not a pure logical deduction.

With the Civil War example (we may all regret having ever watched that movie soon!), it’s absolutely true that the first thing we see on the screen is the Avengers fighting a bunch of villains and a tragedy ensues. The Accords are a response to that. Remove the activities, and the problem goes away, right? Well, let’s look how that plays out: the Avengers decide, you know what? We have no business running in there and creating all this chaos with our problematic activities. Let’s disband right now and go live our lives like normal people.

Okay, so what happens next? The villains, terrorists, Hydra, aliens, and everyone else decide to also give up their problematic activities? No. What happens is that the next time Ultron decides to destroy the earth by dropping Sokovia from twenty miles up, the entire planet is destroyed. The next time aliens come through to invade, the planet gets taken over.

Just go back to that opening scene and remove the Avengers problematic activities from it. What do you get? The terrorists achieve their aim, which involves a lot more destruction than what we actually got.

I’ve tried my best to make sure I don’t reference character motivation or audience appreciation here, but rather the concrete problems that would exist regardless of those things.

Problematic Activity-good guys AND bad guys fighting.
Symptom-Out of control good guys.
The Response of the Accords would only control the good guys.

That’s why the accords wouldn’t work. They only bring control to half the Activity, still leaving the other half unchecked.[quote=“decastell, post:2, topic:1136”]
, so what happens next? The villains, terrorists, Hydra, aliens, and everyone else decide to also give up their problematic activities? No. What happens is that the next time Ultron decides to destroy the earth by dropping Sokovia from twenty miles up, the entire planet is destroyed. The next time aliens come through to invade, the planet gets taken over.
If you only control half of the problematic Activities then this is what happens. If you take away all of the problematic Activities, good guys AND bad guys, then there is no more problem. That’s why this response to the symptom of out of control heroes doesn’t solve the problem. If it did, I presume there would be no need for change in the OS.

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I’m not entirely sure what you’re saying here. What is it that you think the problematic activities are, and what is it that you think the response is in the movie?

The reason I’m presenting the argument against simply removing the Avengers’ problematic activities is that Jim referenced that as the solution earlier. I’m saying you can’t simply remove the Avengers’ problematic activities as you still have all the awful things happening only now they aren’t there to stop them.

In the movie, the Accords work like this: either sign up and become a kind of indentured soldier for the U.N., or stop being a superhero altogether. Steve, War Machine, Black Widow . . .etc sign up, people like Hawkeye “retire” (that’s why he’s not being arrested until he later on comes out of retirement to help Steve.)

The Accords are the reaction to the tragedies: those pushing them believe that what you’ll end up with is a superhero army doing what they’re told – fighting the bad guys under government jurisdiction. Of course, it’s not the right solution because 1) if the superheroes just retire, as it would allow them to do, then now you have nobody fighting the aliens, monsters, robots, and super villains. 2) if they sign on, they do so at a consequence of changing one’s nature, giving up that part of themselves that Steve talks about earlier: doing what they know is right and needs to be done in that moment, regardless of the risk to themselves, regardless of what some government wants them to do. This is the defining quality that separates the superhero from the super soldier.

Hope I’ve addressed your point and not confused what you were aiming at!

Just going to address the Braveheart stuff here… with the goal of trying to communicate the way that I understand the Litmus Test.

First off, we have to apply the litmus test with a sense of what the scope and context of the story is. Otherwise we can rationalize anything by making stuff up that isn’t part of the story. To quote Jim, stories are not real life.

Braveheart is not about the problem of long-standing border wars. The Scottish characters in that film (from what I recall, it’s been a while) would be happy to go back to the way things were, with the English on the other side of the border. If the English left, the problem in this story would be resolved – border-war stuff would have to be addressed in a different story, like a sequel. (Imagine Wallace won, England left, but then the last 45 minutes of the movie suddenly became about the difficulties of long-standing border wars. Wouldn’t that feel like a different story tacked on?)

This is why the litmus test says that if the problem goes away when you remove that Domain, it might be the right Domain. When you ask that question phrased exactly that way, you could say the Domain might be Activities. Then you’d ask the question about Situation (What if England left?), and get a might for that too.

Then you’d have to ask yourself which question was simpler, less contrived, and fit the story more. Sometimes it’s really hard to figure out and you have to look at the other Throughlines. However, for Braveheart, I think it’s fairly obvious that “the English leaving” is a simpler way to get rid of the problem than “the English somehow becoming completely benevolent”. And also more likely to actually resolve things – the way the film is portrayed, I can see the Scottish still being angry and unforgiving with even suddenly-benevolent rulers.

Does that make sense? I know it’s not a 100% objective, logical process to include steps like “have a sense of the scope and context of the story”. Analyzing narrative, even with Dramatica, is never going to be as hard a science as say Physics or Mathematics.

I’m not sure what Jim referenced earlier (and it’s too close to bedtime to scan the other thread), but I agree with Greg. With the Litmus Test, you have to stop all the problematic Activities in your hypothetical “take X away” question. (Or unstick all the stuck Mind-sets or the entirety of the stuck Situation(s), or stop all the problematic Manners of Thinking.)

Totally agree with this: you end up with two possibilities, and one will hopefully be simpler, less contrived, and fit the story more.

I can go along with this in principle – I haven’t seen Braveheart for twenty years or so and it comes down to what backstory is given in the film as to whether a) a benevolent occupation is seen as feasible given the way the Scots and English are portrayed, and b) whether the various border violence and death from before the occupation are shown as either a serious problem or glossed over. Assuming the latter – that there’s a sense that things were tolerable until the English occupied Scotland (as opposed to things were fine until English Lords started sleeping with Scottish wives and doing other awful things) then Situation as the OS domain is simpler and cleaner.

I’m just trying to show that the choice between Activities and Situation here is only self-evident absent evidence that perhaps the occupation wasn’t a problem until the problematic activities took place, or, conversely, that even prior to the occupation things were intolerable because of conflicts across the border.

It’s not a matter of aiming for the demonstratable precision and accuracy of mathematics. I’m in fact arguing the opposite: that it’s not entirely as self-evident as presented.

To bring this back to Civil War, just observing that there’s a lot of punching and kicking going on doesn’t mean that’s the source of the conflict. There’s no means of removing that conflict, so just saying, “stop the problematic activities” becomes a bit like, “end all crime and everything will be fine” without the movie ever providing a viable means for that to take place (i.e. somewhat like your argument that it’s rather difficult to envision the English in Braveheart suddenly becoming benevolent occupiers.)

This is precisely my point: to stop the problematic activities, you’d have to get the aliens, monsters, robots, and super villains to stop too. Nowhere in the movie is that shown as possible. The only way to unstick the situation is to get people to let go of their binary mindset (“you’re either with us or against us”) and work together to reduce the casualties that come with these conflicts.

Look at all the times in the movie where, if they just stopped for a second and considered the possibility that what they so firmly believe might be incorrect, that they could have avoided the conflict:

A bomb goes off at the U.N. and dubious evidence appears showing a photo of Bucky. The government says, “There he is – let’s go get that guy.” Captain America says, “Wait, I don’t think he’d ever do that.” They respond with, “We don’t give a shit, we’re convinced he’s guilty, so let’s go get him.” Steve knows that with that attitude, they’ll never end up taking him alive, but will end up killing Bucky, so he has no choice but to get in the way. If they just stopped and considered the other side’s arguments, they’d come up with a means of detaining Bucky without the risk of everything going to hell, but they won’t.

When Bucky and Black Panther encounter each other, Bucky says, “I didn’t kill your father”, Black Panther says, “Then why did you run” and they fight. If they just stopped a second to consider that their attitudes might be wrong – if Panther asked, “Well, what evidence can you give me that you weren’t the one who did it?” or if Bucky even said, “Yeah, running did make me look guilty, but I figured no one would listen since I’ve done tons of terrible stuff in the past”, they might have come to some agreement as to what to do. The actual source of the conflict – the belief that Bucky set off the bomb – never gets dealt with in that encounter. This conflict only happens because of one thing: T’Challa wrongly believes that Bucky is the man who killed his father.

The airport scene has the same problem: the refusal of either side to consider that their belief about the primacy of the new rules of the Accords might be wrong prevents them from just stopping for the five minutes it would take to come up with a better solution than fighting.

Take away the fixed attitude, and there’s a way forward. Keep it, and you’ve got half the heroes retiring, meaning less capability of countering all those violent situations, and the other half operating as soldiers. As Steve Rogers asks early on, “what happens if they tell us we’re not allowed to get involved when trouble comes – that we’re not allowed to save those lives.” (I’m paraphrasing.) He’s making the point that the Accords won’t stop the casualties.

So that’s my argument for the OS domain of Fixed Attitude. While it may be wrong for any number of reasons, when I consider the litmus test, it looks like the story problems get resolved. There’s never any means of ending all the problematic activities, so I can’t see how you can get everyone unstuck through Activity.

You asked what I think the problematic activities are. IF the OS is in Activity, then I think the Activities include the alien and robot attacks as much as it includes the good guys fighting them off. Jim’s article doesn’t speak of the accords as the solution, but the response to the symptom-out of control heroes (although he may have spoken to it as a solution elsewhere). If you remove all Activities to see if there is still a problem then you need to remove the alien and robot attacks as well. If you take those away, and not just the symptom of out of control heroes, will anyone still have problematic Fixed Attitudes?

Second, When you say that the story offers no viable means to get rid of the alien and robot attacks, I don’t think it necessarily has to for those to be the problem. However, I would agree that saying “if all the bad guys suddenly stopped doing bad things” feels clunky and awkward. Maybe that’s a hint that we should look elsewhere.

What if we said “if innocent bystanders stopped being hurt in the fights, would there still be a problem?” That seems to feel a bit more manageable, to me anyway, and more within the scope of the film. It seems more answerable as well. If innocent people stopped being hurt, the heroes would not be seen as out of control and there would be no need for the accords or for anyone to choose sides.

I’ve had a lot of your same questions for a while. Particularly ones about how I can know that I’m looking at the right storyform for a narrative and not decide it should be something else later, or if I can somehow check my work. I assumed that was either a skill I would develop with practice or something I might get a better idea of if I were able to attend a class instead of just scanning the internet (that’s not a complaint-all involved do a great job of making the theory accessible online-it’s a comment on my ability to understand the info online). All that to say that even though I’m assuming Jims storyform in my responses, I think some of your questions are good questions and I’m enjoying seeing them be asked and the follow up conversation to them.

AHA!! I think we’ve zeroed in on the problem you’re having with the Litmus Test. Progress!

The “what if” of the Litmus Test does NOT have to be believable, nor should you worry about whether it is. For the what-if scenario, you get to utterly remove that domain of conflict from the throughline, as if you were God himself (or the Author). It’s perfectly fine to say “what if everyone, all good-guys and bad-guys and shades-of-grey guys, stop their problematic activities, would there still be a problem?”

The only part you think analytically about is the “would there still be a problem?” part. You take as a given the what-if’s stopping/unsticking, and go from there.

BUT – and this is key – you only use your Godlike powers on one Class (potential Domain) at a time. When asking about Activities, you don’t use your Godlike powers to remove Situation(s), Manners of Thinking, or Fixed Attitudes from consideration. If those other Classes get removed automatically, sort of go along for the ride, that’s totally okay … it’s a clue that the one you removed is the actual Domain.

Let’s take Braveheart again:

  1. What if the problematic activities (taking resources, taxing, killing, raping, fighting back) all stopped, would there still be a problem in the story that’s being presented?
    Answer - this is not cut and dried. I think there would still be a problem, because “England would still be up in Scottish business” (we haven’t removed the problematic situation or attitudes, and to me those wouldn’t automatically go along for the ride with the Activities – there’d still be hatred between people living in close quarters). But I could see it being open to interpretation.
  2. If the stuck situation in Scotland suddenly became unstuck, i.e. the English left, or the Scottish all found a new home, would there still be a problem?
    Answer - it seems clear to me that the answer is no, and furthermore, that the problematic activities would go along for the ride – they’d have to stop too. Any attitudes (hatred between Scots and English) would still exist, but that wouldn’t matter in this story once they’re physically removed from each other.

I’ll have to come back to your Civil War stuff (or let Greg comment on it; EDIT: looks like he did, cross-posted).

Two things I’m trying to understand from your post:

Once believability is removed from consideration, what’s to stop you from saying, ‘If everyone just stopped caring about the English activities, there wouldn’t be a problem.’ Imagine a story of roommates: Joe keeps stealing Ted and Janet’s stuff. The thing is, Ted and Janet don’t care about material possessions, so the activity of Joe stealing can’t identify the domain. If we say believability is irrelevant, then you could treat all OS domains as fixed attitude because if no one cared about it, then it wouldn’t be a problem. You can’t simply impose the notion that they all should care about it – that has to be in the story, no?

Again (and I think Jim answered this by saying there’s nothing in the movie to indicate there were any problematic activities prior to the occupation – but pretending there might be for the sake of argument here), if the antagonism between the two is going to just shift from fighting within Scotland to fighting at the border, then removing the occupation ain’t going to solve it. Would you agree with that? In exchange, I promise to agree that there’s nothing in Braveheart to indicate that there was any violence or issues prior to the occupation :wink: (though I’m pretty sure there was historically).

Me too! I find the litmus test very helpful, but still inconclusive at times, especially for my own work. I may be completely wrong about this, but I’m wondering if looking at the antagonist’s (small a) activities helps us home in on a domain…
For example, in Braveheart, England has occupied Scotland, creating a problematic Situation for William Wallace and his people.
In Civil War, Zemo (I know Jim and others have marked him as the Protagonist, but bear with me…) plants the bomb to frame Bucky (Activity) with the goal of tearing the Avengers apart.
In Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill is abducting and murdering women, creating a problematic Situation for the FBI and families of the victims.
Or am I totally off base here?

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Feel free to still reply on Civil War.

I think you’ve caught a point missing from the Litmus Test, or at least one that wasn’t emphasized clearly enough. The stuff that comes unstuck (stuck Mindsets/Attitudes, stuck Situations) or stops (Activities, Manners of Thinking) in your what-if question is the problematic stuff. The stuff that’s actually stuck, or continuing without resolution, in a way that’s problematic.

e.g. I don’t think you get rid of all Attitudes, to the point where the characters aren’t even human anymore. “the English are raping and pillaging us left and right but we don’t care, tra-la-la”. The what-if question for OS Fixed Attitude in Braveheart would involve getting rid of hatred, bias, fear, etc.

(NOTE: we’re going to have to get @jhull to review this stuff because I’m adding my own interpretations of his Litmus Tests that I only think are correct.)

P.S. maybe for your Situation test imagine the Scots all left and found a new home, no borders with England.

Could you elaborate on this idea that in identifying the domain we don’t need believability a little for me?

Look at the two examples in your last post:

and then . . .

I’m not sure I’m reading these two correctly, but it seems like you’re saying that the idea of completely eliminating the Scots caring about the raping and pillaging isn’t believable – it renders the Scots no longer human in your mind. But you’re then saying it’s okay to identify Situation as the domain because you could envision “the Scots all left and found a new home, no borders with England.”

The former (the Scots stop caring about the abuses) is largely unrealistic, the latter (the Scots all leave Scotland for a new home) is kind of geographically impossible.

So that leaves me a bit muddled trying to see how believability isn’t important for the litmus test – especially given the situation solution you’re offering is actually the more impossible of the two.

Hope I’m not twisting your words here – just trying to reconcile what you mean by something not needing to be believable when applying the litmus test to domains.

The way I think this would work is something like this.
1.If super-powered people stopped destroying the city, would there still be a problem? No.
2.If regular people stopped caring that the super-powered people were destroying the city, would there still be a problem? No.
3. Either the story is about A) the problem of super-powered people destroying the city OR the story is about B) the problem of regular people being too worried about their city being destroyed.
4. Does the story deal more with one option over the other?
5. If the story deals with getting the super-powered people to stop destroying things, there’s a good chance it’s option A. If the story deals with trying to get regular people to stop caring about the city being destroyed, there’s a good chance it’s option B.

Still not a perfect process for determining a throughline, but I think you can still work with it.

  1. Does Joe’s theft lead to conflict? No.
  2. The story isn’t about Joe’s theft.

.1 Ted and Janet DO care that Ted is stealing their stuff. If they didn’t care, would there still be a problem? No.
2. If Joe stopped stealing Ted and Janet’s stuff would there still be a problem? No.
3. Either the story is about how Ted and Janet need to stop caring about their material possessions being taken, or the story is about how Joe needs to be stopped from taking Ted and Janet’s possessions.

It’s not about believability, but about taking the litmus test “removal of potential problem area” too far. You have to only remove the problematic part, or you could argue for any Domain. (There’s no longer a problem if everyone stops all thinking, or if everyone stops caring about anything, or time stops, etc.)

Or maybe (just an idea here) you have to only take the litmus test far enough that you don’t create a different problem? “Scots stop caring about the abuses” sort of seems like the conflict for a completely different story, OS Fixed Attitude (lack of caring).

My idea of the Scots moving to a new home was a bit crazy, but I think it still works for the litmus test. Mostly I just used it to get you to stop worrying about the border wars. Honestly, the best way to do the Situation test is to say “what if all the English were no longer in Scotland, would this story still have a problem?” You can’t say border wars are still a problem if border wars aren’t shown as a problem in the film. (The word still is important.) We can’t worry about history, only what’s in the actual story.

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I think that’s probably the crux of it right there: if there’s no indications within the film that border wars were an issue prior to the occupation, then don’t worry about them as a consequence of removing the problems associated with a domain in the litmus test (which is pretty much what Jim said about the situation of the English occupation: since the film doesn’t refer to problematic border wars, don’t introduce them as a potential consequence of the English leaving Scotland.)

To get back to your original point about believability, I guess we could say that it’s not about which removal of a domain is more believable, but which one is more conceptually economical: it’s a lot easier to imagine the English leaving Scotland than it is to imagine the Scottish no longer caring about abuses.

For the Litmus Test, there’s no need to worry about that either. To test whether the OS is in Activity you just say “what if all the problematic activities in this (overall) story stopped – would there still be a problem?” No need to worry about how or why the activities stop – you don’t concern yourself with that at all.

The Litmus Test is actually super simple, and boils down to a yes or no question – though sometimes you’re not sure and have to answer “maybe”. Usually it’s because you’re not clear on exactly what constitutes the throughline; you might be mixing it up with other throughline(s). (Either that, or the story your analyzing isn’t complete – c.f. Wall-E.)

For example, with The Usual Suspects I had a lot of trouble figuring out the OS and RS domains. Even though I’d correctly identified that there were two main characters, I still thought a lot of the manipulation was in the overall story. That’s because I had trouble determining what constituted the OS in that film.

Did you and Greg want to try applying the Litmus Test to Captain America: Civil War? I need to watch it again before I can be of any help.

I’d certainly be willing to be part of that conversation if enthusiasm for this topic hasn’t run dry yet. i think it would be particularly helpful to look at everyone’s opinions on whether to sign or not and determine whether those are a source of conflict or a decision forced by an action or how they fit in from a Dramatica standpoint.

As I sit here rocking a child in the dark and thinking way too much about a Captain America movie, I was able to come up with the below.

Previously I could agreed more with the idea that everyone had a problematic Fixed Attitude about signing the accords. But now I’m using the Litmus Test and seeing how these attitudes are not the source of the problem but are about a problematic Activity.

It doesn’t matter what any hero thinks about the accords. What matters is whether they sign them. Sign and you work for the gov’t, but won’t be arrested. Don’t sign and you’re arrested or retired. So it’s not the attitude that causes anyone conflict bit whether they sign. I can see this as a Sign Post of Doing (signing) or of Obtaining (getting signatures).

The Avengers don’t fight because of their differing attitudes, but because half are trying to arrest the other half. While Tony does some things that look like manipulation of other characters, it’s story telling rather than a source of conflict for him or others. For instance lying to May to talk to Peter is simply how he Obtains Spider-Man. There is no conflict in it. He has some trouble manipulating Steve, but that’s RS.

Figuring those things out seems to’ve made it a lot clearer to me how this can be an Activity OS.