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Dramatica's Definitions Are Not Your Own

Dramatica improves commonly understood concepts of narrative in an effort to improve our understanding of story.

An important thing to understand when diving into the Dramatica theory of story is that it has a very specific take on narrative terminology that some may take for granted. Protagonists, Heroes, Goals, Problems and Solutions—simple enough to comprehend for any writer beyond grade school, yet concepts that this theory narrowly and accurately defines. And in some cases, redefines.

Protagonists pursue the Overall Story Goal. Heroes function as Protagonists and as the personal point-of-view Main Character. Problems identify inequities and Solutions identify the means to resolve those inequities. Many jump in with the confidence that they already know what part of their story the theory refers to, then find themselves in trouble when they conflate their preliminary understanding with that of the more comprehensive Dramatica.

Avoiding Problems and Pursuing Solutions

Every client I work with and past and present members of the Dramatica® Mentorship Program gains access to the Narrative First Slack Team—a private instant messaging service specifically reserved for writers interested in improving their understanding and application of the theory. In addition to gaining private access to yours truly, Slack members can ask questions in a semi-public forum during office hours every Monday night. The process has proven to be productive and insightful—and for me, delightful.

Recently a writer expressed difficulty understanding the difference between a Problem of Avoidance and a character’s obvious motivation to avoid a problem:

There’s still some fundamental way in which I don’t get Avoid and Pursue (not just in this storyform but anywhere), because it seems like every character in everything ever is avoiding and/or pursuing something, so I don’t get how we can say that this time that’s also the Problem.

This question recalls a series of articles written here covering The Story Goal. Most Auhors comprehend Goals of Obtaining because Goals are about achieving something. It is when Dramatica suggests a Goal of Impulsive Responses that some struggle. If the characters are trying to achieve or obtain better Impulsive Responses, how is that any different from a Goal of Obtaining?

Goals in and of themselves are achievements, yet they don’t need to be about achievements. They can be–Stopping Corruption in L.A. Confidential, Securing the Inheritance in Rain Man, and Winning the Competition in Surf’s Up all provide excellent examples of how achieving itself can restore equity. But what about those stories that require a different kind of solution?

The answer can be found in the article Achieving Story Goals that are Not Achievements, but suffice to say the misunderstanding occurs when one imposes culturally popular definitions of narrative with Dramatica’s very specific definitions. The inaccuracy compounds when one forgets the original purpose of these story points.

Conflating Dramatica’s Definitions

The first error occurs with the notion of the broad definition. A Problem is something to be avoided, right? Sometimes. But that is not Dramatica’s definition of a Problem. Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explains:

[Some] see the definition of problem as that which one wishes to avoid or prevent, and the definition of a solution as that which one pursues to resolve the problem.  That definition of problem and solution is okay — though a bit inaccurate since it does not address the concept of inequity, which is the Dramatica definition.  

Dramatica’s definition of Problem is the source of inequity in a Throughline. Now, for most typical stories the source of inequity is always seen as something “bad” and something to be avoided by a flawed character. Luke Skywalker Tests himself too much in Star Wars, Robert Angiers Desires the adulation of the crowd in The Prestige. But what about stories where a character is on the right path? There still exists an inequity that motivates them forward. Think of characters like William Wallace in Braveheart or Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road—both pursued their goals driven by an inequity deep within them. Problems are not always something to be avoided.

Conflating Dramatica’s Purpose

The second error of conflation arrives when one forgets the purpose of a story point. Huntley continues:

Even using those definitions does not identify the SOURCE/NATURE of the Problem or the SOURCE/NATURE of the Solution.  Problem and Solution are defined by WHAT they are in narrative structure, and even require further refinement when put to use by adding yet another contextual constraint, namely the throughline with which it is associate (e.g. MC, OS, etc.).

Everyone forgets the context of the Throughline. Problem and Solution mean nothing unless viewed through the filter of the Main Character’s Throughline or the Relationship Story’s Throughline. What does the inequity look like from a personal point-of-view? What does it look like from the perspective of a relationship? This is why one can make a distinction between characters that have a Problem of Avoidance and characters that have a Problem of Disbelief.

Only when you associate the abstract story point with a structural item, i.e. an element within the Dramatica model, does it begin to have narrative meaning.

The perspective of the Throughlines color the inequity. George McFly may have a Problem of Avoidance in Back to the Future, but from the perspective of Main Character Marty that Problem, or inequity, looks more like Hinder. We look at George and see someone Avoiding; we look from within Marty and we feel what it is like to be driven by others Hindering us.

Meaningful Story Structure

The purpose of a story point is to shed light on the nature of an inequity. They show up under the guise of Problem or Solution or Goal or Consequence, yet they all describe the same thing: an imbalance in the collective story mind of the narrative. The common tongue is useful in situations where one discusses matters of story with laypersons or friends or family. When it comes down to the art and craft of writing, authors would do well to learn the language of Dramatica. Only then can they navigate the virgin landscape of their stories with the confidence and expertise of a seasoned traveler.

Concepts covered: Four Throughlines, The Storyform & Inequity.

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