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7 minutes
February 1, 2016

Dean Deblois On Story And Structure

Great writers intuitively understand the mechanics of structure at work beneath their stories.

Dean DeBlois, the writer/director behind How to Train Your Dragon 1 and 2 and Disney's Mulan and Lilo and Stitch, recently posted some thoughts on story. These thoughts come so close to describing the Dramatica theory of story, I'm surprised he still doesn't know anything about it.1

This is where Dramatica meets writer's intuition. Dean is a great writer and his instincts are telling him--after years and years of work--that there is something structural at the core of every great story. Readers here and writers familiar with Dramatica know what that structural core is (the storyform), so it's fascinating to see a great artist come so close to explaining the theory from a different point of view.

Dean begins with some notes on fleshing out the characters around the Main Character:

I had never considered that each character, for example, should somehow represent the qualities and values that are inherent in the main character, both good and bad.

This is an interesting thought. Though I wonder if it would be more accurate to say that every character represents a facet of the story mind, rather than simply the Main Character. Seen objectively, every character--including the Main Character--contains some aspect of problem-solving unique to themselves. Dramatica refers to them as Objective Characters.

Instinctively Seeing the Story Mind

We would often talk about the story as a living, breathing thing. After a while, we would get the sense that the story itself knew what it wanted, and that it would reject moments and ideas that didn’t support it. There’s undoubtedly an intuition when it comes to storytelling, and I think it’s because we humans are somewhat preconditioned to tell and receive stories in a certain way.

Yes! That intuition is the recognition that a complete story acts as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem.

Like music, if the notes are off or out of order, it just feels wrong. The same is true of story. We inherently know is something is off or missing.

And that is because we all have minds; we all have an inherent understanding of how to solve problems and thus, how a story should play out. Fail to honor that process, leapfrog over a step, or leave something out altogether and the audience will call you out on it--because each and everyone of them problem-solve every single day.

The Purpose of Story

Stories are more than entertainment; they are life lessons, cautionary tales, and reassurances, packaged in myth so as to be safely digest it without any real threat or challenge imposed on our own lives. They show us what’s possible and what must be avoided. I think, for these reasons, storytelling does have form, and understanding it is essential if we can’t always afford to rely on intuition.

This reads like an ad for Dramatica! The idea that story has a meaning, or a message, for how to best approach a problem...that is textbook Dramatica right there.

I’ve come to realize that there is a kind of mathematics to storytelling at its base level. Just like the music analogy, you need certain ingredients in a certain order for it not to sound discordant. Every story has an act structure, a beginning, middle and end, and each of those acts has their own beginning, middle, and end. Even the individual scenes have beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s a basic structure that can’t be argued in classical storytelling.

The Dramatica theory of story is the only understanding of story that actually does outline the mathematics of story, using trigonometry to describe the connection between Throughlines and story points.

And definitely yes, if you put things in the wrong order they will sound discordant.

The Essential Elements of an Effective Narrative

Understanding the ingredients is actually freeing, in that the skeleton, which may seem formulaic at first glance, presents an opportunity to do something fresh and memorable in execution.

And this is what I've been trying to tell people for years about Dramatica--learn the ingredients and you can craft whatever kind of narrative you want.

A common criticism of Dramatica is how cold it is; how unfeeling and uninspired it can feel at times. That is because the theory focuses on the ingredients of story. The Main Character Symptom, Story Prerequisites, and Story Catalysts--these are boring, unfeeling quantifiers of story--but they do quantify and ultimately, qualify.

I often reference it as an example of how “formula” can give way to something that feels entirely original, because knowing a scene’s function allows you to be creative with how you actually portray it.

Instead of guessing as to the point of scene in your story, understanding its function clears the way for wreck loose creativity. You can write whatever you want since you already know its purpose.

A well-crafted logline contains the hero, his or her problem, the catalyst of the story, the villain or opposing force, the first act break, and a hint at the transformation to come, which is actually the theme of the story.

In Dramatica-speak this would be: the Main Character Throughline (and the Protagonist, if they happen to be different characters), the Main Character Problem and the Overall Story Problem (the inequity at the heart of it all), the Antagonist and perhaps the Influence Character (since they usually are different), a hint at the Main Character Resolve and perhaps the Story Outcome and Story Judgment.

Dean speaks of the "transformation to come" as the theme of the story, but really it's the combination of all the seventy-five story points locked up in the storyform that transmit the theme to the audience. The transformational part--the combination of the Main Character Growth, Main Character Resolve, Main Character Problem and Solution, Story Outcome and Story Judgment provide the clearest indication of that theme.

An Answer to Questions

Dean goes on to explain an essential tool his mentor, Blake Snyder (of Save the Cat! fame), brought to light:

One of the most useful tools that I return to time and again is a series of “Big Questions” that Blake laid out in his third book, “Save The Cat Strikes Back.”

Who’s the hero? What’s his or her problem? What does he want? What does he need? How does pursuing what he wants unexpectedly give him what he needs?

In Dramatica this difference between want vs. need is more accurately determined by the juxtaposition between the Main Character's Symptom and Response and the Main Character's Problem and Solution.

Understanding the Purpose of Narrative Tools

Dean wraps things up by reiterating the usefulness of these different takes on story:

The tools are there to stretch the canvas and prime it for your creations, but your own strokes of brilliance are what brings it alive.

Brilliant. Nothing better than working with filmmakers who understand narrative. He concludes with an inspirational message for those who love great stories, and love writing them even more.

Story is an untamable beast, filled with mysteries and luck. Anyone who claims to have it down is usually a victim of his or her hubris. After all, if dynamic, emotive storytelling can be boiled down to a series of bullet proof rules, every movie would be a blockbuster and every book would be a best seller. There’s no substitute for a great idea and a unique voice. Find yours and work on it. Never stop challenging yourself to achieve excellence. You won’t always attain it, but you might just strike gold in your humility.


  1. Having been an animator on the first Dragons movie I can tell you personally that Dean doesn't know about Dramatica. But what he does know is how to write a good story (and how to be a gracious director to work for as well!) ↩︎

Concepts covered: The Storyform.

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