Dramatica Is Challenged By Its Interface

Bret Victor, human interface designer-extraordinaire, comments on a better way to do our work:

“The example I like to give is back in the days of Roman numerals, basic multiplication was considered this incredibly technical concept that only official mathematicians could handle,” he continues. “But then once Arabic numerals came around, you could actually do arithmetic on paper, and we found that 7-year-olds can understand multiplication. It’s not that multiplication itself was difficult. It was just that the representation of numbers — the interface — was wrong.”

This is what I want to do with Dramatica and what I believe the Dramatica® Mentorship Program is achieving…so far. Improve upon the Roman numerals of the Query System and Dramatica for Screenwriters with the Arabic numerals of my work with Narrative First. I’m sure the program could be better and every week I learn some better way to explain the theory to writers. It is the place where I learned why novelists struggle with the theory more than screenwriters and the place where I am reminded of the advantage found working with Dramatica.

Dramatica itself is not complicated or difficult; it is the representation and the interface that needs work.


Creating A Strong Narrative Drive

Following in the footsteps of last week’s thought concerning the novelist’s struggle with Dramatica, we examine more closely the need for incorporating context into our story-encoding.

For those unfamiliar with the Dramatica process, the StoryEncoding stage is where we take the individual story points found during the initial StoryForming phase and “encode” them with storytelling unique to our story. This how one accounts for the differences between similar stories like Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story; while the form itself may be the same, the individual encodings of each story point can be vastly different. In this way you can tell stories with similar meanings to different cultures and different generations.

Context and Meaning

Without context, there is no meaning. if I hold my hand out and ask Is this high or low? there is no true answer…until I put it into some other context. Is this hand higher or lower than my feet? At which point you’ll tell me higher…until I graft on another context wherein we are spinning in a spaceship equipped with artificial gravity. No context, no meaning. Shifting context, shifting meaning. And for the Author trying to say something–still no meaning.

Story Points and Context

For example let us assume that the Dramatica storyform you are working with offers up these two story points:

Main Character Throughline: Situation, Main Character Concern: The Past

Inspiration hits so you quickly write out:1

An astronaut goes on an archeological dig on Mars.

And then you quickly move on to the next story point, thinking you have successfully crafted a meaningful piece of your narrative. But you really haven’t–not yet.

Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators of Dramatica had this to say about context and our astronaut:

The description might fit the definition of “Situation” and “Past”, but it does not include any of the aspect of the Story Points of Domain and Concern. This is a common problem. They look at the setting (or the gist) and forget that is only one half of the storyform setting. The other part is the context in which each is explored.

In our example, the Situation is explored within the context of the Domain of the Throughline and the Past is explored within the context of the Concern of the Throughline. You miss out on the significant improvement Dramatica adds to your writing when you leave out the context bit. Honestly, you’re not even using it right if you forget to use it in your encoding.

Encoding with Context

How would the above storytelling look placed within the proper context? First, one would need to address the stuck nature of a Situation Throughline. There is perhaps an implied situation in the original storytelling, but it is not clear. The more definite your encoding the stronger the conflict, the stronger the narrative.

A Domain is the general area in which a problem exists. The Concern narrows this area down to a specific area of focus. Understanding these contexts a successful encoding might read something like this:

While on an archeological dig on Mars, an astronaut is marooned by his team. Discovering evidence of an unsuccessful, and unknown, previous expedition the astronaut begins to take greater and greater risks fearing history might repeat itself.

Now we have a story. Do you feel the increase in conflict there? Can you see the difference in motivation? The former lacks energy, lacks drive; the latter presents the potential for great conflict by presenting an inequity be resolved.

Writing with Purpose

Perhaps you’ve spent years working on the same story, toiling away with a great idea that you know is special but for some reason always sputters to a stop. Consider the possibility that your encoding lacks the proper context. Consider that you only have one half of an inequity. There is no motivation without inequity–and this holds true for your own writing. If your narrative lacks an inequity seen within the proper context, you will never have the motivation to see it through. Craft meaningful conflict into your work and insure years and years of productive success.

  1. Or you just saw The Martian 


Write What You Want To Read

I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it. – Toni Morrison

A good reminder of our first intentions.

via @AdviceToWriters


No One Truth

Dramatica co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips starts things out right with her reflections on Truth:

Dramatica (narrative) reflects how the mind operates in all its myriad processes.  And from it, we can learn much about life, as we can from all structurally sound stories.  

Perfect affirmation of everything I believe. But wait…

For example:  There is no one “capital T” Truth, but many small “t” truths that are all angles on the actuality that cannot be directly seen.  As is said in the East, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao.”  Meaning, those who have one definition or understanding of things are, by definition, wrong.  No one can be right, because none of us can see things from every possible angle.  But, for those who break away from a single view and begin to adopt two – Yin and Yang, the binary opposite, the journey has begin to eventually see everything from as many viewpoints as possible and thereby come ever closer to the unattainable Truth.

Why would she say that?! My whole being relies on the definitive accuracy of the Dramatica theory of story. To suggest that there is an alternative that does not account for Four Throughlines that encapsulate a single inequity shatters all my preconceptions.

Although perhaps by stating this Truth she verifies the model of Dramatica: that there is not one Throughline to rule them all. We need two, if not four, perspectives in order to truly appreciate what is there. We need to break away from myopic understandings of narrative if for no other reason than to nullify our own prejudices.

In other words, Dramatica offers insight into how to reach Truth.


A Pipeline Between Author And Audience

The hardest thing about writing, in a sense, is not writing. I mean, the sentence is not intended to show you off, you know. It is not supposed to be “look at me!” “Look, no hands!” It’s supposed to be a pipeline between the reader and you. One condition of the sentence is to write so well that no one notices that you’re writing. –James Baldwin

A Dramatica storyform can help shore up that pipeline and keep it free from muddling debris.

via @AdviceToWriters


A Predictive Story Engine for Gaming

By far, the most interesting conversation surrounding Dramatica today is the discussion of its application to interactive fiction. As a huge fan of Infocom’s text-based adventures of yesteryear I find talk of an intelligent story engine running the show for gamers a very exciting development.1

Melanie Anne Phillips, the other co-creator of Dramatica, recently took time out to address the use of the theory in gaming and even offers some insight into how this would be done:

Consider, then, the first-person player perspective in a game is not necessarily to provide experiences in a sequence that will bring the MC to the point of potential change, but rather to explore all corners of the Story World until the nature of how all the elements and dynamics at work in that particular storyform are identified and understood.

My first thought as to how to use Dramatica to craft a game was, in fact, to provide a storyform for the player to inhabit. The player would be the Main Character of the story and some other character would be the Influence Character. And somehow they would develop a relationship that would fit perfectly into the Relationship Throughline. Turns out that might not be the right approach:

The player, by choosing in what order to explore the world is much better put in the position of narrator, the interlocutor who determines for himself or herself the order in which the components of the story world are to be explored – much as one might make multiple trips to a buffet table or select items in dim sum and choose the order in which to consume them.

Player as narrator, instead of player as Main Character. Instead of forcing the player to experience the story in the order it has to happen for the Main Character, the story gears the unfolding of the experience around the player’s choices. In other words, as an element outside the system the player as narrator can’t break the storyform. The engine merely compensates for the change in direction and offers the player the next piece of the puzzle–whatever piece he or she moved towards.

An IF in which the player is actually the narrator, then the MC appears from time to time in the story world, having experienced things in the proper order for him to make a choice, but likely in a different order than the player. For example, the MC in the story world shows up and the player says – “Let’s work together and head up to the badlands.” The MC replies, “Already been there, just before the big explosion. Change me in ways I’d rather not talk about, but it made me realize there may be another way of looking at the morality of this whole conflict.” And then he disappears back into the battle.

Makes perfect sense. And accounts for the unpredictability of the player.

Application in Table Top Role-Playing Games

It probably comes as no surprise that I always loved being the Dungeon Master growing up. Sure, it was fun sometimes to take my thieving hobbit off into a Cave of Chaos or into the Abyss every now and then, but the real fun for me was always creating the environment for my brother or friends to play in.

I wonder now if Dungeons & Dragons might be a good place to test out Melanie’s player as narrator theory.

Over the summer, I had started to craft a storyform for my kids to inhabit but stopped when I was faced with the aspect of who the Main Character would be. Compound that with a group of kids who relish doing the opposite of what dad wants, and you’ve got the recipe for an afternoon disaster.

But now the approach is clear. Create a story for the kids to play in, but set the Main Character and the Influence Character as non-player characters. That way I can insure that they’ll follow along in the proper Signpost order. The kids (or players) can choose to interact or step away as they wish, and in the end they’ll have interacted with a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling story.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

  1. I solved and completed Deadline all on my own…and without the internet! 


Trying To Keep From Dying

Leaving out a Throughline is tantamount to sacrilege when it comes to the Dramatica theory of story. Complete stories require all four Throughlines. Discard one and writers risk delivering an unsatisfying and emotionally unfulfilling narrative.

Yet there is a discussion taking place over on Discuss Dramatica where a path to success might exist for Authors writing only half a story. The key is understanding your Audience, what they will give you and what they’re willing to forgo. Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explains:

If you know your audience you may leave out a lot more than would work for more general audiences. For example, though I think there is a lack of a complete storyform in The Passion of the Christ, I believe knowledgable Christians filled in many more of the gaps than did those less familiar with the story. In fact, there is a whole historical context that provides insight into why the Romans and Jewish Pharisees behaved the way they did that was not explicated in the film. So some audience members filled in ALL the blanks (and then some), while others filled them in differently and were offended, and still others saw an incomplete story that did not make a lot of sense and seemed to be overly sadistic for no apparent reason.

Director Mel Gibson knew his audience and played to those preconceptions, leaving out key elements of the argument for the “bad guys” in that context. Those unfamiliar with the Christ mythology were left with confusion and the notion “But what about…”

In Dramatica this technique is known as Propaganda, and is part of the theory known as Story Reception. Two decades ago, prior to my introduction to the theory, I thought of propaganda as something only Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan participated in. Now I understand that there is good propaganda and “bad” propaganda. Michael Moore’s Sicko is a good case of the former; by leaving out the Main Character Throughline Moore manipulates the Audience into changing their resolve towards a national health care system. As someone opposed to such a standard I found the film very convincing and eventually changed my own viewpoint on the subject–an example of positive propaganda.1

Audience as Influence Character

Following along with the previous discussion, a reader familiar with Dramatica cites a recent script that worked magnificently in spite of its lack of an Influence Character Throughline and presumably a Relationship Story Throughline. Even with half the story missing the reader found himself involved and enthralled.

Huntley explains why this is:

If you know your audience well, this is how it works. In other words, since you – as the screenplay’s audience – are predisposed against the MC/protagonist’s efforts, you already know (or can postulate) the arguments against the “hero’s journey.”

The script in question featured the Main Character/Protagonist engaged in planning and pursuing a terrorist act. While many stories combine the Main Character point-of-view into the objective function of a Protaognist (resulting in the typical “Hero’s Journey”), Dramatica still accounts for Main Characters who are not the architects of their own story. This script example, however, does combine the two. We the Audience, as a group collectively predisposed against terrorist acts, supply that alternative viewpoint against the Hero that would usually be provided by an Influence Character. By participating directly in the development of the story in real-time we become a part of the story and are effectively emotionally propagandized into the narrative.

In short, we forgive errors of structure as we are part of the structure.

The Martian’s Success

This is why many life and death stories (or genres) don’t suffer nearly as much as other stories when they don’t have a grand argument story at their centers.

A grand argument story is a Dramatica story–a narrative with all four Throughlines. The Martian, a hugely popular film with a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is incomplete by Dramatica’s standards–it only has the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines. Unlike this Summer’s less-than-successful Minions, this narrative centers itself on the act of survival, distracting the Audience from its lack of a cohesive argument.

Providing the characters act within the expectations of each’s nature, the audience will forgive a lot in that context. Unless you have a lot of time to think about it or others to reflect on it, looking for “meaning” is a luxury when you’re busy trying to keep from dying.

Meaning has little meaning when life is in the balance.

  1. For an in-depth analysis of be sure to listen to the Dramatica Users Group Podcast of Sicko


The Novelist's Struggle With Dramatica

Generally speaking, screenwriters find the Dramatica theory of story easier to use than novelists. Less a matter of talent or know-how and more a result of their preference for the subjective nature of things, the struggle novelists experience when processing their work through the Dramatica lens can be neutralized with a better understanding of what the theory communicates.

Novelists often look at the storyform, or any of Dramatica’s story points, from the point of view of their characters. They are so used to being their characters, thinking their character’s thoughts and imagining what their character would feel inside, that they have a difficult time breaking out of that more subjective view into something a little more objective. For example, a novelist might encode and show the Main Character’s Issue as if they personally are feeling the issue, when it reality it is the Author’s commentary on the Main Character’s Issue.

This usually plays out with half-baked encoding that shows where the Main Character is coming from, but really doesn’t get to the heart of why it is an actual issue for the story. When faced with a Main Character Issue of Altering the Future for Someone (Interdiction) they might write:

Roger worries about how he can make life better for his family

Thinking that this is a successful encoding of Dramatica’s story point. But it isn’t. It’s only half an inequity, half an issue. Contrast that with this:

Roger, worried about making a better life for his family, purchases a shotgun and robs three local banks.

Now we have a story. Now the Main Character’s Issue is an actual issue. Why? Because the Author has made it so. The Dramatica story point isn’t there to grant the writer free storytelling, its primary responsibility is to provide a touch point for the Author to communicate their viewpoint of the world to the Audience. The storyform is a hologram of Author’s intent.

Screenwriters often don’t deal with the inner monologues of their characters; the form doesn’t allow for that. When siphoning their work through Dramatica, screenwriters get it. They are used to writing a blueprint for a story, rather than the experience of a story.

Novelists on the other hand are always in the heads of their characters; multiple characters at times. The Dramatica storyform defines the Author’s perspective on conflict NOT the character’s perspective. When depicting what the Main Character Concern or Issue or Problem, you define what you the Author see as the source of conflict for their character. You’re defining the Problem and the Solution and every other story point. Think of the Dramatica storyform as a blueprint for your story’s thematics and the rest will come naturally.


Tying Main Character To Influence Character

Tying Main Character to Influence Character

The two principal characters exist in a complete story because they simultaneously compliment each other at the same time they both oppose one another. Looking at the very top of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements–where you find Genre level story points like the Main Character and Influence Character Domains–one can see this dynamic connection.

Dramatica Genre Chart

Arranged in a diagonal configuration, both MC and IC Throughlines will be found either in Situation and Fixed Attitude OR Psychology and Activitiy. The former will be both States (Situation and Fixed Attitude), the latter will be both Processes (Psychology and Activities). This is where the complimentary nature comes from. The opposing viewpoint comes from one being External and the other Internal.

Just Alike

As revealed in the article Two Sides of the Same Coin, this reality of story often results in the cornball line, “You and I are both alike.” The MC or the IC recognizes some kind of shared problem and they can’t help but deliver a ham-fisted line. There are, however, sophisticated ways of getting the same information across. One such example exists in Tom McCarthy’s 2003 film The Station Agent.

Main Character Fin (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf–a dwarf with a huge chip on his shoulder. Spending a life dealing with laughter and ridicule at the expense of your appearance tends to make one a wee bit bitter. Fin is angry about being a dwarf and he wants out. In an attempt to distract himself, Fin buries his head in the past–preferring the predictability of trains and their set paths over the often cruel and unpredictable reality of human nature.

Fin from The Station Agent

Influence Character Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson) suffers from a different, albeit no less painful, fate–the tragedy of losing a child. Fixating on the memory of her son and desperately wanting her old life back, Olivia finds herself stuck. She wants her old life back and it won’t come back to her.

And here is where the similarity between the two characters exists.

Olivia is stuck with her grief; Fin can’t not be a dwarf. They’re both stuck (one internal, one external) and they both can’t let go. She won’t give it up; Fin can’t give it up. Olivia is dealing with the same issues as Fin, but from the point of view of attitude. There is nothing external keeping her stuck mentally that way, it is all internal. Contrast that with Fin who is all about being stuck externally.

Regardless of internal or external, the unchanging nature of their individual problems brings them together and sets them against one another. It is why this story has to be about Fin and Olivia and not about Fin and Steve or Olivia and Jason.

Finding a Subtle Form of Expression

You don’t need to have the “You and I are both alike” scene in your own story. As long as you find that commonality of issues between the Main and Influence character–as The Station Agent did–the audience will understand where you are coming from and appreciate the narrative you create for them. Sophistication in the alignment of conflict alleviates the need for obvious dialogue and insures a story with purpose and meaning.


Writing Tips From Aaron Sorkin

We started at 100 miles an hour in the middle of a conversation [in The Social Network], and that makes the audience have to run to catch up.

Start late and end early. This, and many other platitudes, permeate this interview with Aaron Sorkin. Some though find foundation in the Dramatica theory of story:

Everybody does it differently. For me, rather than tell the audience who the character is, I like to show the audience what a character wants.

Working with more clients and students lately one common mistake rises to the surface: that of simply telling us what the Issue or Concern or Problem of a character is rather than showing us. By telling us their issues instead of showing us, Authors imply conflict and deflate tension.

The properties of people and the properties of character have almost nothing to do with each other.

Characters are not people–they are points-of-view. That is what the Main Character Throughline and Influence Character Throughline are all about: a perspective.

There needs to come a time when you’ve got it, know what the scene is about, what needs to happen in the scene, and what the problem is. There does need to come a time when you just have to let it fly. You’re lucky to get to that point. If I just wrote genuinely badly, I’ll know it, stop, and be upset with myself. If I’m writing the way I write, I’m okay with that.”

Eventually you’ll hit your limit with Dramatica on a particular story. You’ve got the Throughlines worked out down to every last appreciation and you’ve weaved them together into an effective and cohesive outline. Time to put Dramatica away and start writing. Come back after you have let the story fly and flow through you.