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The Problem With Reverse-Engineering Dramatica

Unraveling the mysteries of story theory is another way of avoiding writing.

Interesting discussion this week over on Discuss Dramatica about the theory and how it works “behind the scenes.” To many, Dramatica is magic. You take what it gives, you feel inspired and encouraged to write with it, and you end up with a decent story that makes sense and hits quality emotional beats.

For others, they feel the need to pop open the hood and figure out how it all works. Like those who scour magic shops for the secret behind their favorite trick, these investigators want to know. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The theory is prescient in its ability to predict emotional sequences within a narrative. Who wouldn’t want to know that?

I know I did. In my first 3-4 years of studying Dramatica1 I used to plot my way through the Signposts, read through the patents and everything on Melanie’s Dramaticapedia site, and even tried to hack my way into the code. And you know what I discovered?

It was ALL a collosal waste of time.

Because when I was comparing the Act order for a Throughline based on the Story Outcome, I should have been writing. When I was trying to unravel the cryptic codes within the patent, I should have been writing. And when I was reading through Melanie’s biography to catch a glimpse of how the genius became, I should have been writing.2

The point being: Dramatica is a wonderful tool for constructing a complete and emotionally compelling narrative. Writers are better served using it as a springboard rather than an excuse to tinker. The main reason I switched all my writing to simple text-based documents was because I wanted to return to writing stories. I wanted to clear the cruft so I could return to engaging in my craft. I wanted to use what the theory gave to me as a means for having my voice heard.

And it has made all the difference.

Knowing What Your Story Means

In the post entitled Selecting Signpost Paths, a Dramatica user asks if there is a way to select the order of sequences that occur in the powerful Plot Sequences Report. Unlike plotting the course of the Act order found in the Signposts—which I understand—choosing the order of sequences seems counter-intuitive. The Dramatica storyform is an objective view of the story’s events. Wanting to manipulate the Acts (Signposts) from this perspective makes sense.

The Plot Sequence Report, however, is a subjective view of the story’s events from the point-of-view of the characters. Wanting to choose this would be trying to take an objective view of the subjective and now my brain hurts. Hard to imagine knowing the order in which things happen, but unaware of what I want the story to actually mean. Character Dynamics like the Main Character’s Resolve or the Main Character’s Approach and Plot Dynamics like the Story Outcome or the Story Judgment should come first as they represent the Author’s intent.

The response from the user:

My character starts at a certain point. I NEEDED her to start with Impulsive Response because of how the opening works. And I wanted to know how that might affect the ending. Because I already know how this will end. So I need a storyform that matches the beginning and ending I’ve already chosen.

It has been my experience that no matter what you think the Signposts should be, you’re guaranteed to be disappointed when you set the Character Dynamics and the Plot Dynamics.

When the Dramatica theory book speaks of knowing your ending, they’re not referring to the Signposts, they’re referring to the combination of the Story Outcome and Story Judgment. If you don’t know these two Story Points, then you really don’t know your ending. It doesn’t matter if the story ends in Conscious, Future or Becoming. You should know the Outcome and the Judgment as they project Author’s Intent. Employing this solution will lead to success and happiness. Or employing this response will lead to failure and tragedy. The Signpost order will be set once you choose this ending.

The user believes their character’s first Signpost to be Impulsive Responses. The problem with this is that the Concern of the Main Character’s Throughline could be Impulsive Response while the actual Signpost is the Subconscious. The Concern covers the entire Throughline from Act One through Act Four. The Signpost represents one-fourth of that entire journey. And again, it is hard to tell what is what from inside the story. That’s why we have Dramatica.

Working this way is like saying I know what letters are going to go into this sentence one by one, but I don’t know what I’m actually trying to say with this sentence. The purpose of the storyform is to communicate meaning. If you don’t know what it is you’re trying to say or argue, why would you start with the first steps of the argument?

Which returns us to where we started. The purpose of Dramatica is to help you write a better story. As I tell all my clients who believe they have to answer every last question and make sure every last box is ticked, there are no awards for the best Dramatica storyform. Reverse engineering the model won’t help you write a better narrative or a more comprehensive meaningful narrative.

It will, however, show you how a Dramatica storyform is made.

The Viability of a Theory of Story

There is a tendency to understand the story engine of Dramatica as if that is going to make you a great writer. It won’t. From my experience you would be better off using that time to take the storyform that Dramatica gives you—based on choices you made in regards to your ending and the thematic issues you want to tackle—and simply write.

If you know where your story starts and ends, you should know the Outcome and Judgment. You won’t need to juxtapose a matrix of different endings in order to somehow divine which one is correct. I used to do this all the time when I first started, and it was such a huge waste of time.

StoryEncoding is not StoryForming. The order of Signposts is a part of StoryForming and helps support the argument you’re trying to make in regards to your Resolve, Outcome, and Judgment. If you know these you don’t need to know how the order of Signposts plays out—Dramatica will give it to you.

Twenty years ago, I invested $150 into Dramatica. I have found that initial fee a useful and viable investment that has paid itself back ten-thousand times over. And when you think about it, I don’t know anything else from 1994 that continues to have relevance.

The storyform Dramatica gives you will save you time in the writing process. Hands down, it is the best way to plug those holes in your story and emerge from your next draft confident and secure. Knowing what it is you want to say, Dramatica helps you organize your thinking by gifting you the order in which you should present your thematic material.

And what better gift than more time to do what you love: write.


  1. Now going on 20 years… ↩︎

  2. Well, maybe not that last one. Melanie is a compelling and creative individual! ↩︎

Concepts covered: Dramatica.

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