The difference between Dramatica and other paradigms of story structure? Dramatica takes your Original Intent—what it is you want your story to mean—and gives you back the order in which you should present your material. Tragedies move through a different sequence of events than Triumphs; some characters change by growing while others grow by changing—the specific sequence of the narrative thematic material in your story shifts depending on what it is you are trying to say.
February 16, 2017
The Difference Between Becoming And Being In Dramatica
With the Dramatica theory of story you do more than simply fit your Hero into a prearranged journey of sequences. In sharp contrast, you assume the role of Author and determine the source of conflict in your narrative's individual storylines. While the end result is greater effectiveness in communicating your story's unique thematic message, it can be difficult figuring out exactly where your conflict falls.
One of these areas of conflict centers on psychological manipulations. Instead of looking at violent attacks or treasure hunts or living under English rule, stories that center on Psychology focus on conflict arising from how people think.
Dramatica breaks how people think down into four key types of conflict:
When it comes to the difference between Changing One's Nature and Playing a Role it helps to think of the original terminology that shipped with Dramatica back in 1994. In fact, when working with writers or producers I always suggest that in the beginning you should frequently switch back and forth between the two different versions.
The "easy" terminology--the default setting for the most recent version of the software--was a marketing decision made a little over a decade to make Dramatica more palatable for writers new to the theory. The idea was that if they could somehow make the concepts friendlier and easier to understand, they could overcome some of the bad reviews surrounding the complexity of the theory.
The original terminology for Changing One's Nature and Playing a Role was Becoming and Being, respectively:
Becoming is more of a transformational whole-body change while Being is more transitory and temporary. For many raised in English-speaking countries, the difference seems inconsequential. As explained in Building Dramatica for Foreign Languages, the contrast reveals itself with more clarity in other countries:
Spanish does a much better job of defining the differences between these two. Both Ser and Estar mean "to be", but in different ways. Ser pertains to identity and is thought of as something fundamental...Estar differs by establishing states of being, condition, or location, and is referred to as the Present Progressive.
With Being characters come into conflict by thinking they will behave or be a certain way for awhile to try and impress or manipulate someone. Consider the Supers in The Incredibles: characters pretending to be something they are not, in order to fit in with society.
Conflict surrounding the changing of one's nature exists in films like Moulin Rouge! where each and every character strives to transform their essential nature and the nature of the Moulin Rouge itself. They believe that if all goes according to plan, the Moulin could become a serious destination for respectable theater.
Developing a Plan was originally labeled Conceptualizing, a FAR more interesting and compelling story point than simply describing some plan of action. Conceptualizing includes envisioning, imagining, and conceptually fitting components and people together. It can even be about figuring out how to make a relationship work. Ang Lee's Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is a perfect example of a characters trying to conceptualize a new vision for their family; eons away from simply "Developing a Plan".
Conceiving an Idea is much closer to the original term Conceiving, but can include all manners of inventing and originating beyond simply coming up with an idea. The idea that "Anyone Can Cook" features front and center in Pixar's Ratatouille and fits easily into the concept of Conceiving an Idea. But a film like Amelie focuses more on the conflict surrounding characters working to reinvent themselves. Both work to show Conceiving, but only the former easily slides into Conceiving an Idea.
Balancing Ease with Accuracy
Sometimes the strive to improve and reach more heads results in lowering oneself to the lowest common denominator. Dramatica is difficult to learn, and even harder to communicate and teach. But focusing on making it easier only limits the power and scope of its concepts.
Writing a story, especially one that holds together from beginning to end, is hard enough even without imposing a limited view of conflict. Switching back and forth between the easy and original terminology in Dramatica ensures that one avoids sacrificing accuracy for ease of use. Shoulder the difficulty and ignore the negative reviews, your Audience will appreciate and embrace your efforts to give them something meaningful and important.
February 23, 2017
Identifying The Number Of Acts In Your Story
In Hollywood, every film is a Three Act structure. Roam the halls of the story department at one of the big animation studios or saunter in to a lunch meeting for production executives on a live-action film and you encounter the same sight on every white board: a sequence of events broken down into three separate sections.
But not every story is a Three Act structure.
Some narratives tell the story of a rise to power followed by a great fall (The Dark Knight); others start with the fall, then end with the rise (The Matrix). These stories split dramatic tension into Two Acts. Any attempt to force them into a Three Act structure only encourages dissension and disagreement among collaborators.
Still others--like The Godfather or Platoon--break off into four distinct movements. Almost episodic in nature, yet still tied together thematically at the core, these stories clearly function on top of a Four Act structure. Force a Three Act paradigm here and you risk breaking a masterpiece.
The key to effortless development dwells in understanding the type of narrative structure your particular story requires. Every complete story feels complete because it addresses the different contexts where problems find solutions. Each Throughline focuses on one particular area of conflict, and each of these areas divides naturally into four different Types of Conflict.
As Chris explains, Doing is about engaging or not engaging in an activity whereas Obtaining is about achievement or loss. Both require "doing" but the focus in each instance is different. Understanding is figuring out how things are related to one another whereas Gathering Information is the process of learning about something.
Observe the athlete:
Some love the training and the preparing, the quintessential perpetual student (Gathering Information)
Some want to win a gold medal (Obtaining)
Some want to simply do the exercise all the time (Doing)
Some want to understand the effects of training on their body and life (Understanding)
Again, focus is key. Some enjoy reading, while others want to read all of the books in a series and perhaps own the largest library in the world. The former focus on the Doing, the latter on Obtaining. Think of these different Types of Conflict as different dimensions of the area of conflict they explore; in this case, Doing, Obtaining, Learning, and Understanding reflect different dimensions of an activity.
Stories break into four parts in order to completely evaluate the four different Types of Conflict in each Throughline.
Exhausting Every Alternative
The characters may explore problems of Activities by Doing first, then Obtaining, then trying to Gathering Information, and finally working to make others Understand. This is what happens in The Matrix:
Everyone searches and chases down Neo (Doing)
Neo escapes the Matrix and hides from Agent Smith (Obtaining)
Agent Smith interrogates Morpheus (Gathering Information)
Agent Smith & Co. appreciate Neo's true power (Understanding)
In another story, the characters may try Understanding first and when that doesn't work switch to Learning. With no solution in sight, they try Doing and eventually find resolution with Obtaining. This is what happens in Unforgiven:
Strawberry Alice and others realize there is no justice (Understanding)
Little Bill teaches everyone what happens to reward-seekers (Gathering Information)
Ned can't kill Dave (Doing)
Munny collects his reward and exacts his revenge (Obtaining)
Both films, miles apart in terms of storytelling, focus their attention on the same kind of conflict: Activities. The sequencing of the types differs, but the feeling of completeness exists in both. The characters exhaust every potential resource in their drive to find a solution to their problems.
The Feeling of the Act Order
What about a film where they start off focusing their attempts to find resolution by Gathering Information? Having exhausted that area, they then move into Doing something which eventually leads to Obtaining--but still, no resolution. It is only once they move into Understanding that they find a solution.
The federal grand jury set for the next day incites everyone to prepare for the testimonies (Gathering Information...or Hiding Information if you're Vincent)
Vincent carries out his mission with Max in tow (Doing)
Fanning makes the connection between the deaths and Felix (Obtaining)
Max tries to get Annie to realize she is the final target (Understanding)
Note the difference in feeling here between the Act order of Collateral and that of The Matrix or Unforgiven. The dramatic tension for the first two is clearly a rise-fall situation: rise-fall for Eastwood and friends, fall-rise for Keanu and pals.
Collateral on the other hand features three distinct movements. The preparations for the grand jury (and the efforts to keep the witnesses permanently quiet); the assassinations; and the effort to save Annie (and end Vincent).
The last movement shares the same subject matter as the second one--preventing or engaging in a murder--yet feels distinctly different. Why is that?
And why does the Act order of The Matrix or Unforgiven clearly feel like only two movements?
The Meaning Behind Act Order
Doing and Obtaining feel the same. Ask anyone unfamiliar with Dramatica to explain the difference between the two and most find it difficult, if not downright challenging to answer. Same with Understanding and Gathering Information (or more precisely, Learning). Where does Learning stop and Understanding begin?
When shifting into a type of conflict that feels the same, the sense in the Audience is that this is a continuation of exploration. The delineator between the two is hard to find. Act turns feel like major turning points because they represent a shift into a decidedly different dimension of conflict. The shift from Obtaining to Understanding grabs your attention because of the differential between the two. Same with Learning into Doing.
This is why The Matrix and Unforgiven feel like Two Act structures. The first half of The Matrix covers Doing to Obtaining; the second half follows Learning to Understanding. The first half of Unforgiven focuses on Understanding to Learning; the second Doing to Obtaining.
In sharp contrast, the first half of Collateral moves from Learning to Doing--a clear distinction between dimensions of conflict. We know when Learning stops and Doing begins. That body smashes down on the roof of Max's cab and we are off for the entirety of what is traditionally known as the Second Act.
The second half moves from Obtaining to Understanding. Again, another clear marker between the two. Max gets wind that Annie is next and no longer do we focus on achieving--we put all efforts into getting her to understand the severity of her situation.
Questions Concerning Dramatic Tension
Three acts. Two acts. Four. Why does any of it matter?
When it comes to deciphering questions of dramatic tension, trying to graft a traditional Three Act understanding on to what is clearly Two Act structure results in confusion, distraction, and a complete waste of the writer's resources.
If you were to write Unforgiven and felt yourself struggling to answer the question of dramatic tension in "Act Two", you might convince yourself of the need to graft an incongruent point-of-view onto your story. This one mistake could potentially set you back weeks--if not months--into a series of pointless rewrites trying to determine the essence of your story. Structuring a narrative without considering the underlying Types of Conflict and dynamic forces at play results in disastrous consequences.
Writers love to place themselves in the shoes of their characters. Pretending to be someone else and emoting with the needs and desires of another mark the starting block of the writer's initial foray into a lifetime of discovery. One problem: without a proper map they end up lost and confused, doubling back on themselves without even noticing.
Dramatica deals almost entirely with the objective view of a story. While The Audience Appreciations of Story like Reach, Essence, Tendency, and Nature bridge the gap between the objective and subjective, this objectified view of narrative is what separates Dramatica from everyone else. It is why some refer to its approach as too "abstract" and why others find the terminology "obtuse" and over-complicated. Writers write from inside the point-of-view of their characters; anything outside appears foreign and manufactured.
The unfortunate side-effect of remaining locked in a subjective view rests in the very definition of a subjectified view: blind spots. Without access to the totality of everything going on around us, we often mistake our perceptions for reality. Films like The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, and American Beauty explore this exact problem.
However, a completely objective view lacks the one thing that subjectivity claims as its own: compassion. The phrase One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter describes the ability of the subjective view to empathize and care about the particular point-of-view one takes. In story, we want the Audience to relate to our characters and to be moved by their thoughts, their words, and their actions.
A powerful and meaningful narrative finds substance in both the subjective and objective views. The greatest writers dive into their stories and write subjectively, and then come up for air and take a more measured and objective view of their words. After assessing and determining the moments of subjective indulgence, they dive back down and make the necessary adjustments.
Dramatica helps with the objective part of the process. Countless other paradigms and understandings of story help with the subjective part—only, they don't make attempts to bridge the gap between the two. Our new understanding of Dramatica makes it possible to do both.
A Question of Dramatic Tension
Google "the question of dramatic tension" and you'll find many articles detailing the subjective approach to writing a story. They focus on methods for keeping the audience "hooked" into the story, and for keeping up audience involvement. The blog Writing for Theatre: Tips & Tricks for Beginner Playwrights has this to say about dramatic tension:
One of the main ways of creating tension is by planting questions in the “mind” of the audience. As soon as a play begins, audiences have questions they want answered by the playwright. Where and when is the play set and why? What are the characters doing? Are they important characters? Where will the play head? What is the theme of the story?
Many refer to the question on everyone's mind in the Audience as the Major Dramatic Question, or "Central" Dramatic Question. As Doug Eboch, the writer behind Sweet Home Alabama explains in his post on The Dramatic Question:
The Dramatic Question is the structural spine of your story. Remember how I said last time that a story consists of a character, a dilemma and a resolution? On some level all Dramatic Questions can be boiled down to “Will the character solve their dilemma?” Of course that’s not very helpful to the writer trying to crack a story. You need to ask that question with the specifics of your character and dilemma.
The above bears repeating:
"Of course that's not very helpful to the writer trying to crack a story."
This is where the subjective approach to constructing a story breaks down. Even if you ask the question with "the specifics of your character and dilemma" you will find yourself no further along than before you asked…because you will still be trying to construct the foundation for a narrative that affects each and every character from a subjective point-of-view. Subjectively, we are all blind to what is really going on. Why should it be any different from the point-of-view of a character?
The Silence of the Lambs: Will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill?
Erin Brockovich: Will Erin bring justice to a small town?
Finding Nemo: Will Marlin find his son?
Anyone familiar with Dramatica will notice that each of these questions finds genesis within the Story Goal of the narrative:
A Goal is that which the Protagonist of a story hopes to achieve. As such, it need not be an object. The Goal might be a state of mind or enlightenment; a feeling or attitude, a degree or kind of knowledge, desire or ability.
And interpreting the essence of these questions objectively, one could easily assign Obtaining as the Story Goal for each of these stories:
Obtaining includes not only that which is possessed but also that which is achieved. For example, one might obtain a law degree or the love of a parent. One can also obtain a condition, such as obtaining a smoothly operating political system. Whether it refers to a mental or physical state or process, obtaining describes the concept of attaining.
Unfortunately, if you were to set Dramatica's story engine to Obtaining for all of those films you would be short one Oscar for screenwriting.
Subjectivity Breeds Blindness
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Erin Brockovich, and Finding Nemo find conflict in their individual stories through Obtaining. The government agents try to capture the alien and the kids try to win his freedom in E.T.; Erin digs into the case and tracks down evidence of coruption in Erin Brockovich; Marlin, Dory, and Nemo escape from sharks, whales, and aqauriums in Finding Nemo. If the question of Dramatic Tension sets the spine of a story then yes, questions of Obtaining fit…for these films.
The Silence of the Lambs is an entirely different monster altogether. Rather than focusing on achieving or Obtaining, this film gathers its attention on How Things are Changing:
The FBI is concerned with its discovery of an increasing number of victims and the progress it is making toward locating Buffalo Bill; Clarice Starling is concerned with her progress as an FBI trainee; Buffalo Bill is concerned with the progress of his “suit of skin”; Hannibal Lecter is concerned with the progress being made toward better accommodations (and escape); etc.
Writing Silence from the point-of-view of Will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill? results in all these missed opportunities for potential conflict. Where would Hannibal Lecter be or Buffalo Bill if it was simply about capturing the villain? Digging into the case and tracking down clues—like you would in an Obtaining story like Erin Brockovich—leaves out Clarice's progress as a trainee, Lecter's progress towards better accomodations, and more importantly—the progression of victims at the mercy of Bill's developing "suit of skin."
Asking from a Place of Objectivity
Once we identify the source of conflict in The Silence of the Lambs as progress, or How Things are Changing, it becomes easier to identify the true dramatic question of the film:
Will Clarice be able to stem the tide of Buffalo Bill's murderous rampage?
Far more interesting, and far more compelling than simply whether or not she will capture the bad guy, asking a question that brings to mind all the devolving forces working against Clarice inspires greater creativity and sophistication within the narrative. The artistry that sets Silence apart from all other films in this Genre is this focus on the rising tide as the center of conflict—not capturing and evading. Focusing on the "wants and needs" and "dilemma" of the central character would only guarantee mediocrity.
And the Academy doesn't hand out awards for mediocrity.
An Approach that Answers Everything
The problem with asking dramatic questions and taking a subjective approach to structuring a story lies in the very nature of subjectivity—you don't see everything that is going on. In fact, this approach seems ludicrous when you consider that an Author is the God of their story—they know and see everything!
Anchoring the subjective point-of-view to an objective understanding of the true nature of conflict within a narrative is the only way to guarantee a powerful and meaningful story.
By all means, write from within. Take that character's point-of-view and run with it. But anchor it to an objective view that ties plot, theme, character, and genre into one.
Ask questions, but know that those questions have answers. Dramatica's concept of the Story Goal helps writers nail down and ask the right question by asking them to identify the true nature of their story's conflict. In fact, Dramatica goes one step further by helping to provide the answer to that question through its concept of the Story Outcome.
Subjectively we can only ask as we experience a story. That is why approaches to writing from within focus on these questions of dramatic tension. Why restrict ourselves as writers to simply asking questions, when there exists a foundation for both the question and the answer?
March 10, 2017
Dramatica: A Fractal Model Of Story Structure
Throughout the Universe our minds find evidence of iterative patterns. The Fibonacci spiral approximates the golden spiral by drawing circular arcs through smaller and smaller squares arranged in an infinite ratio. If story exists as an analogy to the processes within our minds, it only follows that a functioning model of story structure maintain this observable pattern.
Previous articles in this series on Plotting Your Story with Dramatica focused on how thematic intent dictates Act structure, and how a writer begins to build tension by establishing a focused and coherent Story Goal. Before exploring how one can dice up the overall tension into finer parts, an understanding of the relationship between story points in Dramatica becomes a necessity.
The Infinite Spiral
As mentioned in our podcast this week, Episode 32: Arrival & The Zero-Sum Game, Dramatica is a fractal model. The spatial relationship between the items in a quad at the top, or largest resolution, carries down and repeats through each and every level of the model. And even when you reach what you think is the bottom, or smallest resolution, the model loops back onto itself and begins again. How does this work?
Consider the above model of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements (you might want to download a PDF of the Table of Story Elements to make things easier). If you look closely, you will find a quad of elements repeated at each level: Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire (KTAD). These elements repeat because they are the four most important elements in Dramatica; they repeat because Dramatica is a fractal model of psychology. In fact, every quad in the model above is simply an arrangement of KTAD seen from a different context.
The Building Blocks of Dramatica
At the very top level you have Situation, Activity, Fixed Attitude, and Manipulation. At first, you might find it difficult to perceive how these four represent KTAD until you understand the correlation between the internal model of the Storymind and our external world.
Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of Dramatica, begins to explain it in her post Dramatica -- Where'd the Idea Come From?, but in short: Situation is the Knowledge tower, Fixed Attitude is the Thought tower, Activity is the Ability tower, and Psychology--or Manipulation--is the Desire tower. As Melanie explains:
Knowledge is the Mass of the mind. Thought is the mind’s Energy. Ability is the equivalent of Space and Desire is the counterpart to Time.
The top level, or Class level, of the model classifies the source of trouble in each Throughline. A Situation describes conflict stemming from a fixed external problem--like being marooned on a derelict spaceship with a killer alien on board (Alien). In the mind, Knowledge is fixed and has mass--like the planets in our solar system. This is why the Knowledge tower holds fixed external problems, or Situations.
The same correlation carries through with the other three towers. Thought is fixed and represents energy within the mind, which is why you find it classifying fixed internal problems, or Fixed Attitudes. Zootopia, 12 Angry Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird explore Fixed Attitude problems.
Ability describes a process of relating one bit of knowledge to another spatially and determining what is known and unknown, and therefore harbors the external process problems, or Activities. Star Wars, Finding Nemo and The Producers beat about problems of Activity.
And finally, Desire describes the process of how thought--or emotion--develops over time by comparing what is with what was, and what will be--which is why you find this tower classifying internal problems of processing, or Psychological issues. Sunset Blvd., Like Water for Chocolate, and The Incredibles investigate problems arising from how people think.
The Different Levels of the Mind
Move down to the Type level of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements and KTAD seems hidden once again. Like the golden spiral, the logarithmic function of these four base elements careens down the model hitting different locations at various levels. The next level down from the Types finds KTAD under Being, or Playing a Role. Move even further down and you will find KTAD spread throughout the different Classes, but only together in one place (under Instinct and Understanding in Activity).
At the Type level you find KTAD centered under Fixed Attitude. Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire disperse into the various levels of the mind itself.
Knowledge finds correlation with our Memories, Thought with Contemplations, and Desire with Innermost Desires. Impulsive Responses fill the Ability gap by representing the abilities of the mind to act instinctively or without thought, defining and defined by Memories the way Space defines and is defined by Mass.
And you thought story was simply pitting what one character wants against another's want!
A Model of Relationships
The visual of the Fibonacci spiral cascading down through the model of the Dramatic Table of Story Elements is an important one. But it isn't the only fractal relationship within Dramatica. Every single quad within the model shares the same KTAD relationship between its elements--that's why the model works the way it does.
Take any quad and you will find hints of those four essential building blocks. Situation, Fixed Attitude, Activity, and Way of Thinking we explained. But what about Past, Present, Future, and How Things are Changing--can you begin to see which one stands for Knowledge, Thought, Ability, or Desire?1 How about Truth, Falsehood, Evidence, and Suspicion? It may be difficult to figure out which one represents Knowledge and which one represents Desire, but rest assured--KTAD is there.
Locate the Element of Knowledge under Fate and Past within Situation. Do you see it there in the uppermost left hand corner of the model? Where that Element sits within the model is far more important than the label Chris and Melanie attached to it. That Element actually describes the Knowledge of the Knowledge of the Knowledge of the Knowledge.
Dramatica is a model of relationships. And while the fractal relationship stands most apparent in this structural table, an entire system of frictal relationships simultaneously co-exists within the dynamic model:
Frictal(from "friction" + "fraction"): an iterative pattern representing the temporal interaction of order and chaos as differentiated from fractal (from "fracture" and "fraction") which represents the spatial interaction of order and chaos
More on that another time.
Looping Back Onto Itself
As mentioned in the article Writing a Perfectly Structured Scene With Dramatica, the fractal nature of Dramatica does not stop at the bottom. The dramatic circuit represented by KTAD breaks the events in a Scene down into a Situation, an Activity, a Fixed Attitude, and a Way of Thinking (or Manipulation).
With the understanding of Dramatica as a fractal (and now frictal) model in mind, our attention returns to using the theory to plot out a story. In our next article, we will show how this model of structural & dynamic relationships makes it easy to break down the dramatic tension of a story into smaller and smaller parts.
Past is Knowledge, Present is Thought, How Things are Changing is Ability, and the Future is Desire. ↩︎