Justification practice

It’s been my experience that you really don’t need to know whether or not Ability leads to justifications of Can or Cannot or Need or Needn’t in order to write a powerful justification for your story. You can mix them up while writing your story - the important thing is that you find an inequity that connects with your own understanding of the world–so that what you write will be honest and true to yourself.

That said, the growth you’re looking for is:

  • Can is based on Ability and motivates Commitments that accept Circumstances
  • Want stems from Desire and drives Rationalizations that allow for Situations
  • Should builds out from Thought and generates Obligations that surface one’s State of Being
  • Need finds its core in Knowledge and determines Responsibility that manifests a Sense of Self

Also, thinking more about it this week, I mis-labeled the “Zen” level as the Being quad…

A state of Zen is really prior to Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire.

Observation in the Preconscious senses an inequity, then labels that differential as a “problem” existing in Knowledge, Thought, Ability, or Desire - that’s the 1st level of Justification.

Being known as a great leader is a justification itself (the sense of separateness, or individuality being identified as a problem of Knowledge in the mind).

Moving up to Can, Want, Need, Should is the 2nd level of justification.

Responsibility, Obligation, Rationalization, and Commitment is the 3rd.

State of Being, Sense of Self, Situation and Circumstances are the 4th level of justification.

This doesn’t effect the approach discussed in last week’s article, or the follow-up this week, or the classes - it’s really just a matter of semantics (what is labeled as 1st or “zen”). But I thought it was important to get out there for clarification and accuracy’s sake.



I feel as though if could be useful, but I’m not sure why that might be so.

Could you dive into why having a scene framed in terms of a compound sentence justification is more useful than having a scene framed in terms of goals, stakes, and conflict, etc? Is it still useful to think in those more traditional terms?

Also, is there synergy with PRCO? This feels like breaking down PRCO to a sub-level and framing it in terms of conflict. Is that an accurate statement?

Is that why this is useful? Because it reminds you to focus on conflict? Are there any other reasons you can verbalize how you find this to be effective?

Thanks for your thoughts in advance.

I’ve just watched last week’s writer’s room on this but I haven’t yet internalized everything in this thread. That said, my understanding is that the real advantage of this approach is that it automatically creates true dilemmas at every story beat, which in turn generates narrative drive.

1 Like

First, what @Lakis says above is true, you could use this technique for any and every story point you wanted to. When I was writing the above scene the the story point couplets just sort of pulled me down the page, they made the writing flow and dovetail, making the writing part easy. Plus, I didn’t worry about if the scene was going to feel/be complete. I just trusted that @jhull said it would be.

The 2nd thing it was useful for was keeping the opposing viewpoints/perspectives of these two characters in front of me. I knew why they weren’t seeing eye to eye, I didn’t have to force anything or figure it out. it was … just there. I didn’t have to focus on what the goal, stakes or conflict was…the conflict was already built into the writing, the scene goal and stakes showed up of their own accord.

The 3rd thing is for me this really suits my writing style. I write really well to prompts and having the subtext underneath let me put anything I wanted to on top of it. Hence the slightly southern feel to the piece. This is fantastic for pansters that don’t want to know the story before they’ve written it. You could literally take it one couplet at a time.

The 4th thing is more of a ‘since I posted the scene’ thing, and probably the most important aspect. I’ve been playing with it, and I’m finding it’s giving me a short cut in to figuring out what it is that I want to say/what argument is it that I really want to make. That’s a really difficult aspect of storytelling for me because I’m really one of those people that sees facets and how more than one viewpoint can be “the right one”. And it does it in a really elegant short-hand that allows me to solidify my intentions before I ever spend anytime on the artistry part.

I’ve also been toying with how I’m developing the couplets. Starting with the format below and developing one piece at a time. THIS first one gives me the flavoring of the couplet. So far it has not worked for me that the justification word was the same in both parts of the couplet.

A character
can/n’t wants/won’t need/n’t should/n’t
in order to
A character
can/n’t want/won’t needs/n’t should/n’t
in order to

So for example:

A character can’t unending in order to Zen
A character can’t unending in order to Zen

See? That doesn’t feel right.

A character can’t unending in order to Zen
A character should unending in order to Zen

When I finish them completely then I ask myself, do I believe that? Can I defend that? What examples have I got of that. If I cringe and go ew I don’t believe that, then I tweak it. It’s so much better than getting a scene written and know there’s something wrong or missing.

So far it’s been a confidence builder.


I missed answering this one. Yes.

Here is one of my couplets that is P

Potential through Results.
A character should embrace the results of something in order to receive the guidance of others
A character wants to disregard the results of something in order to determine what is right for them.


Okay, this approach is amazing and this thread is great! (And great example @jassnip). In the interest of clarifying/summing up for myself, here are my notes. @jhull @jassnip please feel free to correct or clarify.

The basic structure for applying conflicting justifications is:

[People/I/You/We] [Can/Want/Need/Should] (illustration a) in order to [Knowledge/Thought/Ability/Desire] UNLESS [People/I/You/We] (illustration b) [Can/Want/Need/Should] in order to [Knowledge/Thought/Ability/Desire]

Where “people” is OS, “I” is MC, “You” is IC and “We” is RS.


  • “Illustration a” and “illustration b” are both illustrations of the same story point (e.g. two illustrations of Suspicion).
  1. This approach can be applied to every story point in the storyform, from Domain to Problem, to PSR Variations to each PRCO Element at the scene level.

  2. Don’t worry about “mapping” from one level to another within one justification:

  • However, when contrasting justifications, it can be helpful use different first-level words:

Does that all sound right?


Everything up until the last bit:

You can’t live forever if you wish to share the same experience of life with others UNLESS you can’t be a perpetual student of life without escaping death in order to know the all the secrets of life.

While wordy, both speak of justifying Unending through Can’t. I could imagine a character watching his friends and family pass away in front of him and wishing he could be with them—while simultaneously looking the other way in order to unlock the mysteries.

1 Like

Hey Jim, does this retain the same meaning? (I found the negatives in the second part confusing)

You can’t live forever if you wish to share the same experience of life with others UNLESS you can perpetually escape death in order to know all the secrets of life.


I would take @jhull 's word for it. However, just because I adore being a PITA. I would say that it becomes more elegant and clear if you change the second part to want.

A character can’t live forever if they wish to share the same experience of life with others UNLESS A character wants to escape death and be a perpetual student in order to know all the secrets of life

But I think that’s why Jim said[quote=“jhull, post:29, topic:2858”]
It’s been my experience that you really don’t need to know whether or not Ability leads to justifications of Can or Cannot or Need or Needn’t in order to write a powerful justification for your story. You can mix them up while writing your story - the important thing is that you find an inequity that connects with your own understanding of the world–so that what you write will be honest and true to yourself.

It’s whatever phrasing works for you.


Much better - I kept it awkward so others could see the lineage (the unending part, the knowledge part etc.) But yes, the point is to write something that actually makes sense to YOU.


Thanks Jim and Diane.

I’ve been playing around with these and found something really interesting which relates to that concept – having it make sense and work for YOU.

Often, the phrasing of the Zen part of the formula seems to work better with something other than the usual mapping (should -> desire, need -> ability, etc.). But the more I look at this, the more it seems to be a “feature rather that a bug” – pointing me to the “root motivation” underlying the phrase I choose.

For example, a dilemma of a character faced with the need to erase someone’s memories using a drug that she’s not supposed to have and doesn’t know the proper dose for. In my scene this came out as Non-Accurate – which way to err, too high of a dose or too low?

You should err on the side of caution in order to protect the patient UNLESS you need to do something intolerable in order to keep something secret.

So, I don’t know about others, but for me the first-level (can, want, need, should) is easier to get a feeling for – the should and need both feel right. And from that, it guides me to realize that “protect the patient” is really an expression of Desire, even though the words don’t say that. Same with “keep something secret” – it sounds like Knowledge, and yet when I think about the character and the scene and what I’m trying to say, it’s Ability that feels right.

From there I can use that as guidance to rephrase (this step may not always be necessary):

You should err on the side of caution in order to protect someone you care about (desire) UNLESS you need to do something intolerable in order to keep flying* (ability).

* see, the character didn’t really care about the secrets getting out; for her it was more about will she get in trouble and have her pilot’s wings revoked. Very interesting how justification technique pointed to that, via Need being the verb that felt more like what I was trying to say. This is definitely more at the root level of the character’s motivations, and the selfishness has way more dramatic potential.



I really wonder what the scene would look like if you flipped the order of justifications.

Does the order correlate directly to success or failure? Judgement? I’m not certain the scene, as it is, goes so far as to make a judgement, but the actions feel justified.

If you reversed the order of the justifications, but you framed the outcome as bad, would that essentially be saying the same thing as the original order being framed as good.

Are those reasonable questions?

Also, was the choice of justifications more of a prompt for you? Or more of a guide for a direction that you had already chosen?


I guess I should ask, does order imply the outcome? Is this statement the marquee for the upcoming clash or a roadmap to an already decided conclusion?

And, at the risk of complicating things, could there be a three part justification Battle Royale?

For example:

A character won’t Forget the long family history of military service in order to maintain a family tradition UNLESS a character should defile someone’s memory in order to protect their family AND a character needs to shed light on past wrongs in order to heal familial wounds.

I have no idea if my addition follows the right guidelines, but the question is: would three characters create another layer of justification? Like a trilemma? Maybe a trilemma requires two UNLESS clauses? Maybe what I did was just stacking the deck a little?


Hi Diane,

I just watched last week’s Subtext class on the justification v justification and it is fascinating! So, thanks for this little workshop here.


1 Like

I just read your scene, Diane, and it definitely kept me hooked. Also, it had an underlying tension (subtext!) that deepened the entire scene. Wonderful demonstration!

I wish I could’ve joined tonight’s class but I was running late after rearranging some things in my living room. I tried to join late, but the meeting was in full swing and for some reason I couldn’t enter. Perhaps next week :slight_smile:

So @Jeremy,

I think you’re going to be shocked. I made a mistake above. And I profusely apologize for it, to everyone. Although, in the scheme of things it doesn’t really change anything…

But I didn’t write this in the order of TRUTH, EVIDENCE, SUSPICION, FALSEHOOD.

I wrote it in the REVERSE order FALSEHOOD, SUSPICION, EVIDENCE, TRUTH. Just in between writing it and posting it I forgot what I did.

But more or less it comes out to be 7 steps

  1. What are you doing here? (suspicion 1)
  2. How do I convince him G-Pop lied, (falsehood 1)
  3. You’re lying to me (falsehood 2)
  4. Medals (Evidence 1)
  5. Anything Gramms says is suspect (suspicion 2)
  6. discharge papers (Evidence 2)
  7. considering the truth (Truth)

All bundled together with a healthy dose of memories affecting the perspectives.

I’m pretty sure if I switched the order to T, E, S, F that it would come out as a different kind of scene.

Thank you.

Are you respectively mapping desire, ability, thought, knowledge to (layman’s words) want/won’t, can/can’t, need/needn’t, should/shouldn’t?

Then from there, are you using the layman’s words to get a feel?

Then, once you get the feel for the right word, are you mapping the laymen’s word back to its appropriate KTAD?

Then, that gives you the root motivation, thus the accurate justification phrase?

(I have to say, this feels like slowing down the lightening fast processes of the brain in order to explain the way it works things out.)

Ultimately, it leads to a justification phrase that contains the entire KTAD within it.

Did I get that right?

Oh wait a second…in the article: Constructing Sources of Conflict for Your Story

@jhull writes:

We justify the zero level with its corresponding Method in the first level. Can justifies Knowledge, Want justifies Thought, Need justifies Ability, and Should justifies Desire.

So, I mapped the layman’s words to the wrong Zero Level Zen word up above, but the rest of my post still stands.

OKAY! I think I’ll go for a walk now :blush:

1 Like

Different order = different context = different meaning.

One las thing!

The holistic justification process doesn’t seem to follow the justification pattern discussed in this thread. Can’t wait to sink my teeth into that one.

Words that might be used for the holistic justification process?

Here’s a thread discussing holistic word choices:

Not sure how to put them into phrases just yet…