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Understanding Dramatica's Complex Terminology Made Easier

Complex story theory without the complications—is it even possible? With vocabulary rivaling even the most obscure foreign language dictionary, the Dramatica theory of story scares off many candidates. The key lies in understanding the importance of assessing the proper context.

When it comes to incorporating Dramatica into their workflow, many writers trip themselves up when it comes to the terminology. Forewarnings and Goals ring familiar, but terms like Prerequisites and Preconditions send many running for the hills. Even when it comes to the basic building blocks of a throughline—Domain, Concern, Issue and Problem—writers overcomplicate their illustration by failing to see the terms for what they are: different lenses on the same thing.

Why Throughlines Exist

Every complete story presents an audience four Throughlines. Distinctly different, yet subtly similar in some respects, these story lines encapsulate the conflict at the heart of the story. The Main Character Throughline grants us an intimate personal look. The Influence Character Throughline presents an intimate view as well but from a slight distance. The Relationship Story Throughline clues us in on the conflict between these two characters. Finally, the Overall Story Throughline covers the dissonance between all the characters (Main and Influence included).

When granted all these throughlines the audience gains insight into a particular problem without the bias that comes from only taking a singular point-of-view. It may seem that the Main Character of a story makes all the wrong decisions and takes all the wrong actions from a distant point-of-view, but dive in and walk a mile in his or her shoes (by exploring their personal throughline) and you may come away with a different understanding. The Throughlines exist to give the receiver of a story greater perspective.

Every Level a Problem

Understanding the importance of these disparate points-of-view and their function as a perspective on the same conflict makes it easier to appreciate the somewhat complex terminology found in each. The Domain, Concern, Issue, and Problem of a throughline act as different size lenses for the conflict at hand. What does this mean? It means you could substitute the word “problem” for Domain, Concern and Issue and still come out alright.

The Domain showcases the grandest view of the problem. Is it internal or external? Is it static or a process? That’s it. The combined answer to those two questions gives us the widest scope from which to view the problem. Static external problems find themselves in the Situation Domain. Static internal problems operate within the Fixed Attitude Domain. External processes? Those problems lie in the Actitivity Domain while internal processes find a home in the Way of Thinking or Manipulation Domain. Regardless of their location, the Throughline’s Domain still simply reflects the problem, just in a broader general sense.

Take one step down the chart and you’ll find the lens ratchet up a few stops. Moving from generality to a more specific view, the Concern isolates what Type of problem we are looking at. We still observe the same thing, only now we refine our focus. Those fixed external problems—do they have to do more with the Past, the Present, the Future or How Things are Changing? When looking at those external processes that cause problems do we see Doing, Obtaining, Learning or a Understanding to be a more detailed explanation of what is going on?

Note how the four Types fit nicely into the Domain above them. This happens throughout the entire Dramatica Table of Story Elements: the set of four items below describe the item above. Memories, Impulsive Responses, Innermost Desires and Contemplations depict Fixed Attitudes. Developing a Plan, Playing a Role, Changing One’s Nature and Conceiving an Idea represent a dysfunctional Way of Thinking.

The next level down increases our magnification ever more, focusing our attention on the Issues at hand. This level reflects the thematic point of study for the Throughline. Harmonizing this Issue with its dynamically opposed (diagonal) Counterpoint provides an Author the tools necessary to measure the relative value of compensations for the central problem. Guess what? Despite all that heady theoretical thematic mumbo-jumbo, the Issue still describes a problem. Sure, it may rest two steps away from looking at things in a general sense, but it still sheds light by describing the problem.

Finally at the bottom, we reach the actual Problem. Or have we? It may be labeled “Problem”, but is it still the Problem? Remember that each Throughline acts as a lens and as such, distorts the original image. We can never really see the original Problem—the inequity at the center of it all—because one can’t describe it.

If they could, there would be no need for stories.

The Problem at the bottom of a Throughline reports that Throughline’s version of the actual original problem. Granted, the level of detail at this level elevates its accuracy of depiction far beyond that of simply describing the Domain, yet it still merely represents the greatest magnification of the same thing.

Simplifying Structure

Instead of beating your head against the wall trying to figure out what the difference is between a Domain or a Concern or an Issue, consider this: they’re all the same thing. If it makes it easier label them Big, Medium and Small (or if you want to be technically accurate, label them Biggest, Big, Medium and Small). By understanding what they represent one can more easily integrate how they function within a story.

Dramatica is a giant problem machine. Seeing every level as simply varying degrees of magnification of conflict renders the apparatus more approachable and grants Authors the opportunity to really get to the heart of their stories.

Concepts covered: Domain, Concern, Issue & Problem.

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