Dramatica: Mad Libs or Madly Accurate?

Confusion abounds when it comes to story structure. The notion that every understanding of story is created equal–and therefore implicitly worthless–is an incorrect assumption that leaves many a writer in the dark.

Save the Cat!, the Hero’s Journey, the Writer’s Journey, McKee’s Story, and anything by Linda Seger all approach story from the same direction. They look at what is there and try to determine the universal pattern. The reason many have trouble accepting these templates or paradigms is because the naysayers instinctively acknowledge the presence of an artist at the heart of every story. These popular takes on story all garnish the same amount of disdain because the approach they take marginalizes the Author.

The unfortunate thing is that by approaching story this way, these gurus have unwittingly tarnished ALL understandings of story–even those that actually honor the artist and the purpose with which the Author sets out to express in the first place.

One such approach is the Dramatica theory of story. To mention this theory in screenwriting circles is to warrant a quick discounting, that somehow the theory is a hi-tech mad libs–a choose-your-own-adventure for the lazy fiction-eer. This almost always comes as the result of a cursory glance at the theory itself and is often accompanied by the common misconception over What Story Structure Is and Isn’t.

Slinging Food at the Paradigms

UCLA Screenwriting teacher Corey Mandell has written an interesting series of articles regarding Why Story Structure Formulas Don’t Work. In them, he successfully tears apart the popular story paradigms listed above and the disservice they do towards creative writing. Choice insights, especially surrounding what he refers to as the “Food Propulsion” scene, fuel a very compelling argument:

[The Godfather, When Harry Met Sally, and American Beauty all have] a midpoint where food is thrown, or at least dropped. So we can therefore reasonably conclude that such a scene is a universal requirement of any properly structured screenplay and must come at the midpoint as it did in these three examples. Why? Because food represents survival, and so any character willing to hurl it about is thematically demonstrating a fierce determination to achieve his goal even if it means sacrificing his own survival. Very powerful stuff.

Hilarious.

Like last week’s article here entitled Forget the Cat, Save Yourself!, Mr. Mandell elaborates on the dangers popular paradigms can have on a writer’s work. But with this suggestion:

Step one is to throw away any book or class/seminar notes detailing the nine or fifteen or whatever number of essential story beats, universal principles or narrative building blocks found in all (or most) successful movies.

He is dead wrong.

There is a universal collection of narrative building blocks in all stories, and Dramatica explains them. Note the use of the word story, over “successful movies.” Dramatica helps Authors understand how to write complete stories regardless of medium or profit. Whether or not they are successful at the box office has more to do with luck and timing than anything else.

Helping You Say What YOU Want To Say

Every single film Mr. Mandell lists as not fitting a story paradigm, “fits” into Dramatica’s understanding of story, without caveats and without any rules broken. Why? Because When Harry Met Sally, The Social Network, The King’s Speech, The Godfather, American Beauty, Juno, and The Wrestler all follow one simple story formula: They were trying to say something meaningful.

They fit because, in the end, Dramatica is simply helping Authors communicate the meaning of their story.

The creators of the theory didn’t examine a bunch of films and find patterns with which they could apply their own trademarked sequence list to. Instead, they turned off their DVD players (well, VCRs back then) and asked Why do stories exist in the first place? Taking that more psychology-based approach, they came to the conclusion that stories represent a model of the human mind trying to solve a problem. From there they found the reason for characters, the reason for plot, the reason for theme, and the reason for a whole host of other conceptual items present within complete stories.

It is through this analogy, story as a model of the human mind, that provides writers a truly accurate understanding of story structure.

Analogies That Miss The Point

In contrast, Mr. Mandell’s analogy of the wine glass as structure only serves to confuse the issue. To summarize, Mandell’s contention is that the wine is the “story”, while the glass itself is structure. Those who are wine-driven eschew story structure formulas to focus on the best part of writing:

the wine is the reason we all want to be writers. The wine is our characters, dialogue, subtext, themes and emotional connections. It is what makes stories memorable and meaningful. It is why we go to the movies.

That sounds nice. And reasonably accurate. The analogy continues, pointing out that story structure templates such as Save the Cat! erroneously focus their attention on the glass.

The job of structure is to contain this wine in an appropriately designed vessel to allow the reader/viewer to fully experience and enjoy it. When the structure does its job properly, we tend not to notice it. But when it doesn’t do its job, we aren’t able to fully experience and appreciate the wine.

This is where the analogy breaks down.

Structure does not “contain” a story. Structure is not a delivery system for wine. Structure is the arrangement of ingredients that actually went into the wine. The amount of grapes, yeast, and sugar, the process of flavor extraction, fermentation, and bottling–these represent true story structure within the wine-as-story analogy.

The key difference between Dramatica’s understanding of story structure and that of Mandell, Snyder, and everyone before them? Intent. The Author’s purpose in writing their story in the first place.

To return to the analogy of the wine and the glass, what does the vintner hope to accomplish by producing this wine? Certainly, how the glass is produced is of little concern to him in the same way that Authors have little control over the venue or sound system within which their film is perceived. But this isn’t structure. However, these very same vintners would be very interested to know what combination of ingredients added to the particular flavor, aroma, characteristic and sensation they wanted to infuse into their wine.

Structure is meaning, and Dramatica can help with that.

Questions That Promote Deeper Thinking

Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of Dramatica is its ability to make Authors think deeper about their stories. The anonymous Screenwriting Screenwriter had this to say recently about the theory:

I’m sure a lot of people try out Dramatica briefly, get frustrated just as I have, and then discard it forever. I can almost guarantee you, it wasn’t Dramatica’s fault. It is not mad libs; it demands a lot of a writer to use it properly. And if it’s not giving you the answers you want, you really need to stop and examine why that is. It will be worth it.

The only writers who don’t like Dramatica either don’t understand it, or have nothing to say. For those in the first group (because really, those in the second aren’t worth the time), it might be helpful to take a couple of the films Mr. Mandell pointed to as not following a “formula” and run them through a couple of Dramatica’s questions.

Main Character Resolve

The first of these simply asks whether or not the central character of the story changes their approach towards solving problems. If they do, they are considered Change Main Characters. If they don’t, then they are called Steadfast Main Characters. Note that this has nothing to do with a character’s “arc.” Many become confused with the suggestion that there are Main Characters who don’t change. An understanding of What Character Arc Really Means should easily clear that up.

The answer to this question of resolve primes the engine of a story, setting the potential for the story’s ultimate meaning.

In The Godfather, Michael (Al Pacino) changes the way he approaches problems. In the beginning he has no problem explaining the family business to Kaye. At the end, he lies to her face about it. He changes from a man driven by his feelings about the mafia to a man driven by the cold-hearted logic necessary to keep his family business alive.

Interestingly enough, When Harry Met Sally takes its Main Character in the exact opposite direction. Harry (Billy Crystal) begins the story driven by the simple logic that men and women cannot be both friends and lovers. In the end, he changes his approach and listens to his heart.

That seems easy enough, and perhaps a little obvious. So why then is the answer to this question so important? Because, when combined with the next two questions, it provides a clue as to what the Author was trying to say through their story.

Story Outcome, Judgment and Meaningful Endings

As covered in the series of articles on Meaningful Endings, the outcome of the Protagonist’s efforts to resolve the story problem combines with the emotional state of the Main Character to identify the type of story one is telling.

Dramatica refers to these two facets of meaningful story endings as the Story Outcome and the Story Judgment. The Story Outcome simply asks whether the efforts of the Protagonist ended in Success or Failure. The Story Judgment makes a value judgment on the story’s impact on the Main Character’s personal issues. If he is still angst-ridden, then the Judgment is said to be Bad. If he has overcome his personal issues, then the Judgment is Good.

If things work out and the Main Character goes home happy, the story is a Triumph (Success/Good). If they work out, but the Main Character is torn up about it, the story is a Personal Tragedy (Success/Bad). If the efforts to resolve the story’s problem fail, yet the Main Character feels good about it, then the story is a Personal Triumph (Failure/Good). And lastly, if things don’t work out and the Main Character feels awful, the story is a Tragedy (Failure/Bad and hello, Hamlet).

Out of these four possible endings, When Harry Met Sally is clearly a Triumph story. Sally and Harry marry and Harry himself feels pretty good about it. Tying this in with Harry’s Resolve of Change and the Author’s message becomes clear: If you are driven to look at relationships with logic, success and happiness can only be found by changing that approach and replacing it with your feelings.

It’s not Earth-shattering, but it is what the film–excuse me story–is trying to say.

What about The Godfather?

Michael changes and the power structure of New York’s underground is preserved. But where is he emotionally? Not exactly jumping up and down with joy. He still has issues regarding his involvement with the mafia, made clear by his need to keep it a secret from Kaye. Thus, the meaning behind the story is equally as clear: Replacing feeling with logic may grant you success in the larger scheme of things, but you’ll lose your soul in the process.

That scene of the door closing on Michael is so cool because it actually means something. It has been broken down into its components here, but during the experience of the film one appreciates that meaning subconsciously. The Author’s meaning has been synthesized by the Audience.

Wrap-up

This is why complete stories will always be more powerful than simple statements. As Hollywood movie-mogul Peter Guber recently stated in an article for Psychology Today:

…without stories not only would we not likely have survived as a species, we couldn’t understand ourselves. They provoke our memory and give us the framework for much of our understanding. They also reflect the way the brain works. While we think of stories as fluff, accessories to information, something extraneous to real work, they turn out to be the cornerstone of consciousness.

Complete stories have the intent of arguing whether or not a particular approach to solving problems is appropriate or not. They are tools for survival. While it is true that the more popular and easily accessible interpretations of story structure ignore this fact, the Dramatica theory uses it as a foundation to develop a fascinating insight into the forces behind effective storytelling.

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