Perfect Story Structure

The perfect story. One that excites, one that enthralls, and hopefully one that enlightens. Writers strive for the pinnacle of their craft, but often fall short. Is there a way to circumvent the disappointment of failure?

Writers don’t set out to create a perfect story. They come to the table inspired by a character or a fantastic set piece, and they sit down to transpose these ideas into a workable captivating work of fiction. Inevitably these writers hit a wall. Some call it writer’s block, some call it exhaustion and some, unfortunately, call it quits.

Those who persevere often turn to established methodologies for crafting a story in an effort to find out where they went wrong, or how they can better push through. They learn to save a cat or enter the belly of a beast and they return to their work motivated to shore up their story’s weak spots. Some succeed. Some manage to undermine all that went before. And again unfortunately, some hide the draft in the back of a seldom-used filing cabinet, never to return to it again.

But what if there was a model of story structure that promised to increase one’s understanding of why stories work the way they do? A model–or theoretical paradigm–that found its foundations not in observations of working stories but rather observational processes within the most perfect machine of all time: the human mind.

Would there be a chance then to save those forgotten drafts?

The Process Behind Story

The Dramatica theory of story sets itself apart from previous paradigms with one simple notion: a complete story represents an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. It covers plot. And it covers theme and character and genre and all those other things writers have grown accustomed to over the years. But instead of simply regurgitating and re-branding ideas of progressive complications and act turns into fifteen-beat-buzz-word-story-room-friendly-boards, it lays out the reason for plot points and character motivations and thematic issues as operational chunks of the human mind at work. Stories don’t work because they follow a recognizable pattern; they work because they project how we think and solve problems. Our minds find themselves drawn to fiction that works the way they do.

Playing With Fire

Knowing this, many writers new to Dramatica set out on a dangerous and ultimately crushing path: that of writing the perfect story. Once presented with a psychological model of their story (known within the theory as the storyform), many adhere to this collection of thematic material as canon law. They refuse to veer off into new and unexplored territories, often thinking their diversions as aberrations to what truly should be. Hapless Authors such as these tumble into an unfortunate fate that fairs worse than simply inserting a Call to Adventure.

You can’t blame them–the storyform is perfection. It works without fail. It tells writers things about their story they didn’t even know. How could one not trust an apparently sentient being (even if it is a computer program) that displays such a remarkable ability to understand and accurately predict what it is one was trying to say with their work? One would be foolish to follow instinct over tempered wisdom.

Unfortunately in doing so, one manages to extinguish the spark of life that inspired the work in the first place.

The Price of Perfection

Working this way, inspiration gives way to imitation. The process of writing becomes more exercise than experience, an attempt to showcase one’s mastery of theory over one’s mastery of spinning a story. Having witnessed this first hand in my years as a Dramatica consultant (and my own earlier experience with the theory), I can attest to the fruitlessness of such an endeavor. Hours upon hours spent detailing an Overall Story Prerequisite of Preconscious or hand-wringing over the difference between a Symptom of Control and a Response of Uncontrolled or a Symptom of Uncontrolled and a Response of Control only leads to dusty drafts and forgotten dreams.

Learning to Embrace Objectivity

The alternative, of course, lies in the tried and tested Aristotelian paradigm of story–Beginning, Middle and End–leaving everything else up to “magic” and Author’s Intuition. Such reliance on ancient ways of thinking, however, would have left us isolated in our Universe, believing the planet we ride on flat and surrounded by sea monsters. Faith in the ancients would not have led to a jet-powered skycrane depositing a robotic science laboratory 230 meters away from its intended landing spot on a rock 154 million miles away. Faith in the past prevents progress towards a more knowledgeable future.

Once exposed to the thinking behind Dramatica, a writer must enhance their ability to quickly and easily shift from the subjective experience of writing and the objective analysis offered by the theory. Write, then step back and examine. Repeat as needed. And of course, one can start by stepping back and examining before writing–but writing must be allowed to happen without interference.

What happens when one veers from the storyform? Create a new one. Rarely–in fact never–have I witnessed the story process proceed from beginning to end without a change in the storyform itself. New ideas emerge, greater and more important thematic material rises to the surface, and harder decisions must be made. That character you love might not work well on an elemental level when compared to the others. That plot point that just sort of wrote itself might call for a shift in all the other plot points.

Rewriting, obviously, is part of the writing process. But at least in this way, it becomes an informed rewrite. Long gone are the blind revisions that simply undermine the entirety of everything that went before it and leave the writer more lost and confused than ever before.

No one wants that.

Moving Forward by Pressing Through

Don’t bury your head in the sand and pretend that your ego assumes all responsibility for success. Instead use Dramatica as the rock with which to rest yourself between drafts. Having done so, you will find yourself rested and more able to see that spark ignite into a bright and beautiful and warmly meaningful story.

Perfect? Perhaps not, but at the very least, the end result will be perfectly yours.

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