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8 minutes

On Dramatica's Extraordinary Sense of Perception

Dramatica can read your mind. Sure, it can help you define the conflict in your story, silo off motivations for your characters or even prevent your story as a whole from becoming an unintelligible mess, but the real magic happens when it starts predicting what happens in your mind.

Or, at least, the mind of your story.1

After twenty years of studying this incredible theory, I can tell you that the most impressive aspect of Dramatica—the thing that drives me to write hundreds of articles here and to teach weekend long classes— is its uncanny ability to accurately identify the missing pieces of a narrative. Every time I witness it in action I’m surprised and awestruck. Every single time I see it I feel like I’m witnessing something that should be impossible.

I’m seeing magic.

Interlocking Story Points

Dramatica’s core concept, that of every story acting as an analogy for a single human mind trying to solve a problem, makes this mind-reading a reality. In order to paint the thematic picture of a story to its Author, the theory offers the storyform. As a collection of seventy-five or so thematic story points, the storyform represents a holistic representation of the human mind at work. By showcasing both time and space simultaneously (with Static Story Points and Dynamic Story Points) the storyform argues a meaning—it argues the Author’s message. Many call for form, not formula when speaking of structure. While minds may differ on what they formulate and the conclusions they come to, they all carry the same format.

Stories work the same way.

Story points do not operate in a vacuum, rather they work together to create that single mind for the Audience to assume. If the Overall Story finds characters concerned with Obtaining something (either the gold doubloons or stopping a madman on the loose), then the emotional core of the story will find the relationship between the two principal characters transforming into something it never was.

Formula? Not really. The internal equivalent of getting something new is simply transforming how we think and a story—as a means of projecting an argument—needs that balance between external and internal. Without balance, the argument feels skewed and empty. Story holes are holes in the story’s argument and the Dramatica storyform makes certain the pieces of the Authors argument interlock in a solid and unbreakable way.

I Know What You’re Thinking

Understanding then the purpose of Dramatica’s storyform one can see how the mind-reading process plays out. The Author selects story points dear to them, perhaps a Triumphant Ending or a Main Character Who is Not the Protagonist, and Dramatica supplies the counter-balance to those choices. Writers can become so caught up in the minutiae of storytelling detail—like the color of a soldier’s uniform or the family history of a group of characters—that they completely forget what it is they’re trying to say. Dramatica keeps them honest and keeps them on track. You want your story to end in Tragedy? Then you’re gonna need this…

The magic persists when it comes to analysis. Whether working from the end to find the beginning or setting out to reach the conclusion, the problem-solving process remains consistent and coherent. Plug in what you observe and Dramatica will return what should be there. The feedback returns equal amounts of surprise and confirmation, with the former feeling more like sorcery than computational guessing.

When It All Falls Into Place

Analyzing a film or story with Dramatica? Nothing like it. With practice and insight, one can quickly observe and classify the reasons for a story’s success (and unfortunately, sometimes its failures). The most difficult task lies in figuring out a storyform that works from all angles. When writing your own work it’s a simple task to tweak and offset story points to make the storyform work. When analyzing the work of another those story points have already been set in concrete.

Dramatica will let you know when you have successfully figured out the form, or mind, of a story. Beyond simply working from all angles, the application will actually surprise you with information about the movie you never entered. It won’t simply work, it will conjure up the right answer…without you even asking!

How Did You Do That?

My analysis of Disney’s mega-blockbuster *Frozen* proved difficult. While I acknowledge its overwhelming success, I attribute that to more song and relationships than I do the actual story itself.2 The Overall Story lacks any real Consequence and the hand-off of Influence Character from Kristoff to Elsa feels abrupt and ill-timed. Knowing too that the final result was more a culmination of ten years of collaboration and capitulation rather than the singular vision of a driven artist, I was skeptical that any storyform could be found.

Imagine my surprise when—after selecting the story points I believed were reasonably close—Dramatica told me that Anna’s Critcal Flaw should be Attraction.3

A computer program told me that.

What is a Critical Flaw in Dramatica terms? In short, this means that the only thing keeping Anya from solving the story’s problem is an over abundance of attraction…sound familiar? Of course—her attraction to Prince Hans. How perfect Is that?!

Dramatica can do this because it understands story. Like the predictive text in the new version of iOS8, Dramatica can predict where a story should go based on what has already happened. With all of the other thematics—the “frozen” situation everyone was in, Anna’s eventual Steadfastness and a Story Driver of Action (among many other things)—Anna’s Critical Flaw had to be Attraction. The filmmakers came to it serendipitously because they all have minds that solve problems the same way. Instinctively, Attraction fit best. How long it took the filmmakers to arrive there is another thing.

I’ve glimpsed this invocation of wonder countless times. When analyzing Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon I knew that Stoic’s problem, and the problem facing everyone, was a refusal to accept dragons and weakling sons. What blew me away was when I went to check out the nature of Hiccup’s drive and saw that Dramatica says it should be Protection. That described the meekly Viking wonderfully! In order to combat issues of acceptance, a defensive posture must be taken. That’s what the story was about: Stand up and protect and things will work out.

An analysis of A Separation provided the same experience. As documented in the series “A Deep Analysis of A Separation” the selection of the Main Character’s Problem allowed Dramatica to work it’s sleight-of-hand and determine what everyone else in the story would be dealing with:

By selecting Cause as Nader’s Main Character Problem, Dramatica took the initiative and calculated the rest of the thematic material needed to tell a compelling story. Yes, thats right. The power of Dramatica, and its unique ability over any other paradigm of story, lies in its ability to take the parts of your story you know and provide with the bits you haven’t even thought of yet.

Childlike Wonder

How can a computer program predict the necessary thematic elements of a story? Rather than relying on subjective interpretations of cultural narrative or sequences of beats that bring to mind visions of the Virgin Mary in tortilla chips, Dramatica stakes its claim on the human mind itself. We all instinctively know how to problem-solve. Why not use that process to determine the effectiveness of our stories?

Watching Dramatica predict and illuminate narrative reminds me of my first magic show. Poised on bended knees, I watched in awe as the magician seemingly made things appear out of thin air. I knew it couldn’t be real; magic is make-believe. Yet I still found myself drawn in, caught up in the delight of the experience, and anticipating the surprise and wonder of making something out of nothing.

Two decades since it’s first introduction, the Dramatica theory of story continues to amaze by finding just the right piece for just the right spot. Its extraordinary powers of perception elevate it beyond a simple outliner and make one wonder, like a mind undeterred by cynicism and ego, *perhaps there is real magic after all. **


  1. For an example of an unintelligible mess please see the previous article, The Schizophrenic Stories of Pixar’s Brave↩︎

  2. Most animated films feature a parent/child relationship or some other form of. Other times they depict a love story. Frozen surprises all with its concentration on the relationship between sisters—something rarely seen in live-action if ever animated. This uniqueness breathes an air of freshness into an otherwise stale medium. ↩︎

  3. For more on the Main Character Unique Ability, see the Main Character Unique Ability↩︎

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