Understanding PRCO

I understand PRCO are the elements in every dramatic unit, from element resolution all the way up to throughlines. Intellectually, I understand these parts act like a circuit of dramatic energy.

Please help me to recognize these in their distinct forms. Would Potential be as if you’re recognizing what can be a problem or what can be a great change? Resistance, I guess, is what inhibits this from occurring. Current is the process of both Potential and Resistance in struggle. Outcome somehow translates into the potential for the next dramatic unit.

Here’s an example of a scene within a romantic comedy. Two characters have an awkward encounter which sparks them to mouth off (some sexual tension). Would the potential be in them not seeing eye-to-eye on something? The resistance is something additional which heightens this conflict.

How about the sword duel in Empire Strikes Back? Would the potential have something to do with turning Luke to the dark side? The resistance might be Luke’s conscience or something. Would the father reveal be related to this? The outcome might be Luke’s suicide/escape.

Help me to distinguish these, please.


I think the analogy to an electric circuit is incredibly helpful here.

First, it’s useful to look at things objectively – you’re not “in” the circuit, you’re the electrical engineer looking at it or building it. (Author’s perspective.)

The Potential is like a battery or wall socket or other voltage source. It has all this potential energy ready to go, ready for stuff to happen, but needs some kind of circuit applied for anything to happen. In your example, the Potential might be the attraction and sexual tension that exists between the characters, either from beforehand or when they first see each other.

The Resistance is like the wires in the circuit (and the natural resistance of any other components). It doesn’t just resist the potential, it also allows it to flow. Different circuits will have different amounts of resistance – so in some PRCO units the resistance will seem to make the potential stronger or weaker, better or worse, bigger or stronger. Just depends on the scene or PRCO unit. In your example, the Resistance might be the awkward way they meet, bumping into each other or one spilling mustard on the other or something.

The Current is the flow itself between Potential and Resistance, or maybe a better way to see it is from potential through resistance. In your example this would be the actual mouthing off that they do in response to the awkwardness.

The Outcome is like the thing that the circuit does, its purpose – and also how that purpose interacts with the next circuit(s). So for example, a light bulb – the Outcome is that it produces light, but also that it triggers the next circuit’s photovoltaic sensor, or something. In your example it might be how they end up feeling about what happened, hurt or angry at each other, but maybe angrier at themselves, that kind of thing.

(I just saw your edit with the Empire example so I’ll have to think about that.)


Fantastic explanation, Mike! Especially this part:

I think this is where everybody gets bit over and over while learning and applying this stuff.


Incredible! Thanks. I’m looking forward to reading this more in depth.

1 Like

For me, it helps to consider each element in terms of the mental dilemma is raises. The electric circuit analogy @mlucas mentioned is 100% right. But what happens if we talk about what’s going on with the battery? The mental processes each element brings to your mind…

Subtext puts that fight in ESB at OS Signpost Being, with the overall Dramatic Circuit as Wisdom, Skill, Experience, Enlightenment. If we look broadly at the whole sequence when Luke arrives at Bespin until he falls, we see that Wisdom starts the PRCO. Come up with any example of Wisdom as a universal source of conflict, and we’ll get close to what’s going on in Empire:

Potential: Luke needs to be smart about facing Vader if he’s going to come out ahead, but he lacks the wisdom Yoda tried to impart while rushing into battle.

This is the potential for our dramatic circuit.
Nothing’s “gone wrong yet” … but the mind is already struggling. Asking itself, “How can Luke be smart about facing Vader if he lacks essential Jedi wisdom?”

The audience feels what Leia shouts at him. “Luke! No! It’s a trap!”

The key here is to remember that the mind does not resolve this dilemma. No choice is made when it confronts this mental process. The story is engaging simply because the mental process exists. But the story is flowing, being pushed by the drivers. The engine is turning and the mind moves past that slice of time where it was processing that dilemma.

Enter resistance!

What’s a source of conflict using Skill?

**Resistance: Luke needs to use all his talent to lightsaber fight expert Darth Vader, but Luke is still an apprentice honing his skills.

So you can start to see how this new instance of mental strife added a new layer to the first one.
“How can Luke be smart about facing Vader if he lacks esssential Jedi wisdom?” and “How is he supposed to sword fight badass Darth Vader if he’s just a Jedi in training?!”

Now the Potential has a direction to flow toward the negative. If the resistance has been something positive like “Luke wants to keep honing his skills to fight Vader, except that he’s a lightsaber virtuoso!” We would be seeing a totally different story. The “resistance” added to the potential would push us into a positive direction, where we’d be thinking “Vader doesn’t know what’s about to hit him.” But that’s not this story.

Conflict, or Current is like the start of the “payoff” to the “setup of P&R.” C is where we’re going to see things start flowing.

In this case, a source of conflict wrapped up in Experience:

Current: Luke can practice his skills against Vader to see if his abilities cut it, but Vader is ridiculously overqualified and teaches Luke that the hard way.

Finally, the end of the “payoff” is the Outcome.
And again, there is no choice made here. Nothing is “over” … it’s just the last mental struggle in this dramatic circuit.

Outcome: Luke wants to practice the Jedi ways to continue fighting Vader, but being enlightened to the fact that the Dark Lord Vader is Luke’s father changes everything.

So now, the mental struggle is:
“How can Luke go on as an enlightened Jedi, if he’s the son of a Dark Lord?!”

The story isn’t over… around here is the story driver, which pushes the mind into the final mental processes. This whole ACT is the “Current” of the overall PRCO.

So if this all described “Being” as Conflict, then Outcome will leave us in a mental conflict of Conceiving. Maybe, “Luke needs to think up some way to remain on the Light Side and face Vader to save the Galaxy, but what is he supposed to do with insight that Obi-Wan and Yoda have been withholding critical truths?”

Which is what the audience leaves the theater thinking… and sequel or not, keeps the story alive in your mind forever.


I feel like something huge just clicked for me reading this. I never understood how to connect the justification exercises with PRCO. Going to have to think about this some more.

I think I understand this but I’m not sure. Can you possibly elaborate how the story is pushed by the drivers without resolving this dilemma? (Is the something you cover in one of the Conflict Corner classes? I really want to get through them but I’m always a few steps behind!)

The way I understand it is that Drivers are instances of the Problem element present in a storyform.

So using ESB as an example again, the drivers are instances of Actions that force Decisions… and they have to do with the element Non-Accurate. So like, being wrong, being insufficient, being reckless, being vague, being questionable…

Sounds like some of the main things in ESB, right?

When the mind starts to consider an overall inequity, it’s the driver that kicks things off. In this case, an Imperial Probe Droid lands on Hoth … causing everyone to start deliberating over what it is, where it came from, what does it mean that it’s there, and what they should do about it.

That leads to Luke deciding to stay out in Wampa terrirtory, the Rebels deciding whether or not to evacuate, the Empire deciding to focus their energy on the Hoth system.

It’s really the whole Act that’s driven by that one action. The appearance of the droid is questionable, leading to questionable and reckless decisions. It throws the mind not just into deliberations at the instance of the action, but throughout the Act, until it’s exhausted that area—in this case Conceptualizing.

A story has fixed parameters (pages, minutes, etc) and the story is like an engine.
Think of the Initial Driver as the “Ignition” that turns on the Story Engine, and the other drivers are like shifting gears. The first one drives through all of first gear, until the engine shifts to 2nd gear, then 3rd, 4th …


This absolutely make sense – I guess I never tied it directly to an instance of the Problem (though I’m sure I’ve seen this is somewhere). Expressing it that way very useful.


One more thing I’d add is that Drivers can be part of the Signpost they’re in, but the real point of them is to describe the transition between Signposts. They’re the act of shifting gears.


@JohnDusenberry I’ve had your explanation of that ESB sequence open on my computer for the last week. I keep referring to it as I re-outline/revise the opening of my novel and it’s making a huge difference. I don’t think I ever really understood how to apply PRCO before – I think I was conflating it with SRCA or something.

Not sure what format it would take or if it would be useful to anyone else, but I would love to see other examples broken down like that at some point.

To be clear, by “like that” I mean 1) describe the conflict using a conversational conflict statement (i.e. instead of the more formal version we’ve learned) 2) describe it in terms of a dramatic question.
But also I guess keeping in mind it’s “place” in the circuit.


I know Jim is working on that exact request for a handful of stories on Subtext, and I’ll be submitting some of my own.

1 Like

Yes, working through Shawshank now as I build out the new StorybeatStream in Subtext :slight_smile: Planning on doing all Four Throughlines for that and moving onto others.