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4 minutes
November 17, 2015

Trying To Keep From Dying

When you're trying to stay alive, meaning has little meaning.

Leaving out a Throughline is tantamount to sacrilege when it comes to the Dramatica theory of story. Complete stories require all four Throughlines. Discard one and writers risk delivering an unsatisfying and emotionally unfulfilling narrative.

Yet there is a discussion taking place over on Discuss Dramatica where a path to success might exist for Authors writing only half a story. The key is understanding your Audience, what they will give you and what they’re willing to forgo. Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explains:

If you know your audience you may leave out a lot more than would work for more general audiences. For example, though I think there is a lack of a complete storyform in The Passion of the Christ, I believe knowledgable Christians filled in many more of the gaps than did those less familiar with the story. In fact, there is a whole historical context that provides insight into why the Romans and Jewish Pharisees behaved the way they did that was not explicated in the film. So some audience members filled in ALL the blanks (and then some), while others filled them in differently and were offended, and still others saw an incomplete story that did not make a lot of sense and seemed to be overly sadistic for no apparent reason.

Director Mel Gibson knew his audience and played to those preconceptions, leaving out key elements of the argument for the “bad guys” in that context. Those unfamiliar with the Christ mythology were left with confusion and the notion “But what about…”

In Dramatica this technique is known as Propaganda, and is part of the theory known as Story Reception. Two decades ago, prior to my introduction to the theory, I thought of propaganda as something only Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan participated in. Now I understand that there is good propaganda and “bad” propaganda. Michael Moore’s Sicko is a good case of the former; by leaving out the Main Character Throughline Moore manipulates the Audience into changing their resolve towards a national health care system. As someone opposed to such a standard I found the film very convincing and eventually changed my own viewpoint on the subject—an example of positive propaganda.1

Audience as Influence Character

Following along with the previous discussion, a reader familiar with Dramatica cites a recent script that worked magnificently in spite of its lack of an Influence Character Throughline and presumably a Relationship Story Throughline. Even with half the story missing the reader found himself involved and enthralled.

Huntley explains why this is:

If you know your audience well, this is how it works. In other words, since you — as the screenplay’s audience — are predisposed against the MC/protagonist’s efforts, you already know (or can postulate) the arguments against the “hero’s journey.”

The script in question featured the Main Character/Protagonist engaged in planning and pursuing a terrorist act. While many stories combine the Main Character point-of-view into the objective function of a Protaognist (resulting in the typical “Hero’s Journey”), Dramatica still accounts for Main Characters who are not the architects of their own story. This script example, however, does combine the two. We the Audience, as a group collectively predisposed against terrorist acts, supply that alternative viewpoint against the Hero that would usually be provided by an Influence Character. By participating directly in the development of the story in real-time we become a part of the story and are effectively emotionally propagandized into the narrative.

In short, we forgive errors of structure as we are part of the structure.

The Martian’s Success

This is why many life and death stories (or genres) don’t suffer nearly as much as other stories when they don’t have a grand argument story at their centers.

A grand argument story is a Dramatica story—a narrative with all four Throughlines. The Martian, a hugely popular film with a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is incomplete by Dramatica’s standards—it only has the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines. Unlike this Summer’s less-than-successful Minions, this narrative centers itself on the act of survival, distracting the Audience from its lack of a cohesive argument.

Providing the characters act within the expectations of each’s nature, the audience will forgive a lot in that context. Unless you have a lot of time to think about it or others to reflect on it, looking for “meaning” is a luxury when you’re busy trying to keep from dying.

Meaning has little meaning when life is in the balance.


  1. For an in-depth analysis of be sure to listen to the Dramatica Users Group Podcast of Sicko↩︎

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