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4 minutes
February 18, 2016

Developing Relationship Issues In A Story

Focus on the space between the two principal characters, not the characters themselves.

A common mistake for writers and producers new to the Dramatica theory of story is to take the theory book literally. The concepts and ideas in there are so revolutionary that it tends to inspire a sort of dogma.

Unfortunately the book takes shortcuts in its presentation of the theory resulting in erroneous assumptions. One example of this can be found in its explanation of the Relationship Story Issue and Counterpoint:1

The Subjective Story Concern describes the area of shared concern for the Main and Impact Characters. The Subjective Story Issue and Counterpoint describe why they conflict over it. The Main Character will believe the Subjective Story Issue (or counterpoint) is the value standard to use when looking at the Subjective Story Concern. As a result, The Main Character will see the Concern in a particular light. In contrast, the Impact Character will believe the other Variation (Issue or counterpoint) is the proper way to evaluate the Concern. Since this standard of measure results in different conclusions about the Concern, the Main and Impact Characters come into conflict. They use these two points as they argue over two issues: What to do about the Concern, and which is the best way to look at it?

The theory book is too reductive on this point. The context of the Relationship Story Throughline is the relationship—not the Main and Influence Character’s individual viewpoints. The theory book takes this simplistic approach in its explanation to make it easier for writers new to the theory to understand. It might work in one specific instance, but it doesn’t explain the totality of possibilities within this Throughline. Like the Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat! it only approximates one tiny sliver of the entirety of effective narrative. This reductive explanation sets writers up for failure and obfuscates a sophisticated portion of what could be an emotionally compelling narrative.

The key to understanding the Relationship Story Issue and Counterpoint is to look to the relationship between the Main and Influence Characters. Describe it. Whether it be a marriage, a friendship, siblings, or father/son nail down what the relationship actually is and determine the issues present in that coupling. Natural counterpoints will arise in return.

The Relationship Has Issues

Think of a troubled marriage between a husband and a wife. The husband does not sit on the side of Commitment and the wife on the side of Responsibility. “You should be more commited to me!” he might declare. “But I need to take responsibility for my own life!” she would respond. It doesn’t make sense to treat these two story points as opposite, when really they aren’t. Writers really can’t make anything of that argument. Besides, in this example the Throughline is about the relationship transforming; not one party convincing the other to think “their” way. I know the theory book presents it this way, but it simply is not telling the whole story.

The marriage has Commitment Issues. The marriage looks to Responsibility to counter those issues. Man and woman? They have their own personal issues—but here we are talking about the space between them.

For example, the drive to stay committed as a married couple could actually build up resentment between them, eventually driving them apart. Energy devoted to staying together—from both parties—would only make matters worse. Naturally issues of Responsibility would come into play, with the role of marriages in society becoming a topic of concern and the responsibility of a good strong marriage when raising children. This thought given to Responsibility would counteract the Commitment issues and give pause to dissolving or resolving the relationship.

But it would always be about the space between them.

Never once was it about one side claiming Commitment and the other Responsibility. That is not enough. A more sophisticated approach can be found by installing conflict arising from these issues within the marriage itself.

Avoiding Reductive Thinking

This idea that the Relationship Story is simply an argument between two people with one person on one side and one on the other is simply inaccurate. It might work for one specific context, but it fails to explain the totality and only confuses writers down the road.

In short, don’t look to the Dramatica theory book for answers. It is a great reference tool, but some of the text has not been properly vetted or reconsidered in quite some time. Following it like dogma will only confuse the writing process and will keep your narratives limited in scope.


  1. Note that in earlier versions of Dramatica, the Relationship Story Throughline was known as the Subjective Story Throughline. The Influence Character was also referred to as the Impact Character. ↩︎

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