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8 minutes

The Crucial Element of Screenwriting in Action

When does story theory overcomplicate the writing process? The drive to understand all that is Dramatica sometimes works against Authors. In a case where too much knowledge can be a bad thing, suppressing the urge to overthink may prove beneficial.

Dramatica’s Crucial Element. In a theory as complex and comprehensive as Dramatica, the idea that one part may be more crucial than another tends to be an attention-grabber. Further examination proves the concept to be less important as the name implies. The Crucial Element is crucial to the storyform, not the story itself. It details the connecting tissue between the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines, not the lynchpin for your story’s success.1 In other words the element is more crucial to the Author in understanding his or her story, rather than an element crucial for the Audience to pick up on. If you ignore it, other story points will make sure that the message comes through loud and clear.

Still not buying it? Chris Huntley, co-creator of the theory has this to say about the crucial element:

When all is said and done, the crucial elements are only ONE of MANY pieces of the storyform. Leaving them out of your story won’t ruin the experience for your audience, but adding them does tend to make the story stronger.

See? You don’t have to worry about it…

…still here? Sigh. Ok. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. Time to crawl down the rabbit hole of structure.

The Problem with Crucial Elements

If you followed the above link, or have researched the Crucial Element previously, you came across this:

If the MC is change and the outcome is success, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC problem.

If the MC is change and the outcome is failure, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC solution.

The first makes sense. The Main Character was part of the problem everyone was facing (like Luke in Star Wars or Neo in The Matrix); they change and everything works out.

The second doesn’t. How can the Main Character have the Solution element and the Problem element. If his Main Character Problem defines who he is, how can he possibly be defined in the Overall Story Throughline as the opposite element? It makes sense that if our Main Character is dealing with Actuality and sees things for how they are, then logically he should have that same element in the Overall Story. Yet here is Dramatica saying otherwise. Won’t this make our Main Character schizophrenic?

The answer requires a little perspective.

Objective and Subjective Views

If a story represents an analogy to the problem solving process of the mind then it follows that a story should showcase views from within and without.2 Inequities (conflict) look different depending on your point-of-view. The efforts to resolve conflict will appear differently as well, depending on the kind of story you want to tell.

So while your Main Character may personally be suffering from too heavy a reliance on what actually happened (Actuality), objectively they might be driven to alter how things seem to be (Perception). Especially if you want to tell a story that ends in a Failure.

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent to a reader exploring this somewhat duplicitous stance Dramatica takes. The storyform in question identified these key story points:3

  • MC Resolve: Change
  • OS Goal: Understanding
  • Story Outcome: Failure
  • MC Problem: Actuality
  • MC Crucial Element: Perception

Putting the Crucial Element to Work

“…when it says your MC has a Crucial Element of Perception that is referring to his or her function in the Overall Story. I’m not sure exactly what your Overall StoryThroughline is about but if, for example, all your characters were concerned with figuring out why 1/3 of the world’s population simply disappeared (totally ripping this off from HBO’s “The Leftovers”), then you might look at it this way.

Let’s say your Main Character leads a new religion based on the perception that the reason they are left here is because of something wrong they have done in the past, i.e. the 1/3 disappeared because of the “Rapture” and the rest are left to stay and ponder what they themselves did wrong.

OK. That is the Overall Story Throughline.

Now let’s say the Main Character Throughline is all about the man’s dead wife. He can’t get over the fact that he was responsible for her death (Kind of ripping this off from Inception). He was the one driving the car the night she was killed, he was the one who had too much to drink that night, he was the one who thought he could make it past the intersection in time…you get the point—regardless of whether or not it was an accident the facts of the matter are—he killed her. And he can’t get over it.

You see how this plays nicely into the Overall Story…here’s a guy who is torn up over what he did, and now projects that guilt onto everyone else around him, perceiving that this worldwide event is punishment for wrongs they all have done.

Perception when it comes to everyone else and those leftover. Actuality when it comes to killing his wife. The inequity at the heart of the story remains the same, it remains a singular instance of separateness. It simply looks like Actuality from within and Perception from without.

Your story is a Change/Failure/Good story. This means your Main Character will somehow Change their point-of-view, flip it to approach life more like the Influence Character, and will therefore resolve the angst and guilt he felt for his wife.

He does this by taking the Perception he was putting out for everyone in the Overall Story and placing it instead within his own Personal Throughline.

So instead of going to those religious zealot meetings and continuing the perception that they all are guilty, the Main Character turns it back on himself—maybe through therapy or whatever—and finds that the only way to get rid of his guilt is through changing his own perceptions of what happened that night. Essentially fooling himself into seeing that—yeah, maybe he was right to try and make it past that intersection. Just because he was drunk doesn’t mean to him it wasn’t the right decision at that time. The facts don’t lie, but he was the one actually driving the car…from his point-of-view he made the right decision…and that’s all that matters.

But see, by “taking” this element out of play of the Overall Story and using it for his own personal problems, the Main Character removes the opportunity for that Perception to have a positive impact on everyone. It is true that all these people disappeared, and it is a lot of pain for those left behind to go through—almost the same kind of pain the MC felt living a life without his beloved. A little perception—no matter how misguided—could have helped alleviate the suffering and depression of millions…but that’s not the story you’re trying to write.

Your story ends in Failure. Which means everyone in the big picture story—everyone “leftover” from this cataclysmic event—will be left unable to understand why any of this happened. The efforts to Understand (Overall Story Goal) will end in Failure. Instead of coming to place where they Understand that sometimes s*** happens, they’ll be forced to simply imagine what happened to their loved ones and work towards figuring out a plan to live out their lives alone (Overall Story ConsequenceConceptualizing).

Seeing Everything at Once

You can see how the Crucial Element plays out nicely in a story like this. What a character deals with personally may be different than what he or she puts out there in the real world. His or her personal “stuff” will still be connected—just not the way you think it will because you’re looking at things from a single perspective.4

Beyond simply connecting the Overall Story Throughline with the Main Character Throughline, the Crucial Element ensures a continuity of thematic intent—the whole Change/Failure/Good Actuality to Perception storyform you have decided to tell comes through loud and clear for everyone in the Audience to understand. In addition, the storyform has made the Main Character a complex character, conflicted on different levels. Always a good thing.

The question now is…is that the story you wanted to tell?


  1. For a story to feel complete it needs to have 4 different Throughlines, each representing a different perspective on the story’s central inequity. (The Four Throughlines↩︎

  2. Dramatica’s central concept lies in the idea that a story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. (The Story Mind↩︎

  3. A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. (Storyform↩︎

  4. Dramatica offers you a chance to see every angle—to see the problem from every point-of-view. This is something we can’t do in real life (at the same time). Dramatica helps you write complete stories↩︎

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