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Thoughts on Story Structure

November 21, 2016

Dramatica story expert Mike Wollaeger on what a Dramatica storyform is:

The Storyform is what the author knows, not what the characters in the story know. So if they are trying to avoid intimacy, but you as an author are telling a story about finding intimacy, your goal is probably along those lines.

The original poster wondered what the Story Goal would be if the characters are trying to avoid what they secretly want. This is always the hardest thing for writers new to Dramatica to understand. The Story's Goal, the Story's Concern, the Story's Issue--these are the story's Goal, Concern, and Issue as seen by the Author.

The storyform represents what the Author is trying to communicate to the Audience.

Dramatica sets itself apart from all other paradigms of story by taking an objective look at a narrative. Hero's Journey, Save the Cat!, the Sequence Method, Bob's Twenty Five Ways to Write a Novel--these are all subjective Audience-based interpretations of the dynamics found within a narrative.

The problem with subjective interpretations of story is that they are, by definition, subjective--and open to all sorts of inaccuracies and biases. An objective view of narrative avoids opinion and preconception by telling it like it is--it might be harder to swallow and understand, but it is always accurate.

November 15, 2016

Researching the Dramatica theory of story and its reception as of late led me to an old post from last year entitled Dramatica and What it Means for Story. In it, I quote a science fiction forum with strange ideas about copyright law and accepted methods of participation.

Time to revisit that post as a writer who briefly stopped by the Discuss Dramatica forum in March of this year, also took time out to leave disinformation and confusion on the sci-fi forum.


First this:

The theory is overly complex, its terminology baroque, its rigidity of form a flaw and not a feature, and overblown claims notwithstanding it does NOT offer a complete theoretical approach to solving development of all storyform. Not even close.

A pretty broad sweeping statement with little to back it up. Accusations of "baroque terminology" often indicate a mind not willing to take the time to dig deeper into Dramatica's unique story terminology and perspective on narrative. Dramatica's Definitions Are Not Your Own and Understanding Dramatica's Complex Terminology Made Easier are two places where open-minded individuals begin.

Structure & Entertainment

The writer continues:

One of the indicators that this MUST be so can be found at Jim Hull's web site. He sells his skills as a Dramataica expert, particularly in screenplay form. I expect he's actually good at that. But if one digs into his published film analyses, there are several 'scratch your head' moments in the division between his "Story Score" and "Entertainment Score".

I am, actually, really good at it. I'm also really good at helping build television series, novels, and plays. Story is story regardless of medium, but I realize some feel screenplays are more "structured" than other forms of storytelling.

However, the attempt to misguide people with lies about how I present my analyses is inexcusable. I don't divide up my critiques into a "Story Score" and "Entertainment Score". How the Hell woud anyone give a rating in regards to story? People have a hard enough time differentiating between a story and a tale, why would I rate on a differential in semantics?

Instead, the analyses on Narrative First offer two ratings: Entertainment and Structure. I do this because I recognize that there are some films that offer amazing experiences, yet don't come close to providing a meaningful narrative to go along with it. I love Terence Malick's The Tree of Life and I really enjoyed the recent animated film Trolls—but both are functionally broken in terms of narrative.

By narrative I refer, of course, to what Dramatica calls a Grand Argument Story. Four Throughlines—Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story, and Overall Story—all in service of providing an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. The closer a film approaches an accurate representation of a functional storyform the higher the Structure rating.

As it turns out—and this should be no surprise to anyone who has spent any time actually investigating Dramatica—the closer a film approaches an accurate storyform, the better and more critically acclaimed the film. Check out our showcase of Narrative First analyses:

Showcase of Great Narrative

her. Whiplash. Zootopia. These are all films universally lauded for their artistry and great storytelling. They also happen to all score 5/5 for Structure and a 4/5 or 5/5 for Entertainment here on Narrative First. A complete storyform, or high Structure rating, guarantees critical acclaim and universal praise. The converse is not true: a high Entertainment rating guarantees nothing except popularity—a quality that is both temporary and fleeting.

The writer on the forum refers to our analysis of Guardians of the Galaxy, taking umbrage at our "story" score of 1/5 (again, this is a rating of its narrative structure) yet failing to mention our 5/5 rating for Entertainment. Guardians is a really fun movie—hilarious, well-acted, and exciting. Unfortunately the lack of a proper story structure makes it something that is easily forgotten. Who here remembers what happened in Guardians of the Galaxy? I recall some gem and funny moments with the big muscle-bound guy. Now who here remembers what happend in To Kill a Mockingbird or Whiplash?


It's not 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it's not a terrible movie either. In fact, audiences loved it. And the fact that Jim Hull rated it so poorly in Story terms should say something about Dramatica Theory. Because if the theory can't predict which stories will emotionally impact audiences, it's not a useful theory for crafting story. By definition. Right?

Structure and Entertainment. Please think about and understand the difference. I believe and recognize that Guardians entertained audiences…I'm not quite sure it emotionally impacted them on the level of her or Zootopia or Inside Out.

The Dangers of Multiple Personality Disorder in Story

The writer moves on with more disinformation and misunderstanding:

So what attracted me to spend the time digging through Dramatica theory? At its core is one insight that authors should consider seriously. That story characters and events symbolically represents divergent and competing psychological states within the author. Much like multiple personality disorder. That the process of reading evokes the same in the audience. And from this insight one can learn something useful about successful craftsmanship.

Ugh. Not even close. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre represent different aspects of a singular mind trying to solve a problem. One mind, one personality.1 Multiple personalities suggests multiple storyforms and is a huge problem when collaborating with several different Authors with several different ideas of what a story should be about. A Dramatica storyform keeps everyone on track with the purpose and original intent of a narrative.

  1. In fact, Dramatica sees Genre as the personality of the mind. ↩︎

November 7, 2016

In response to a question I posed regarding Holistic Problem-Solving assassins, I received a link to a story on Reddit entitled Operation Duplex Destruction. In this story, the poster relates a compelling--if not twisted--account of using manipulation to bring his neighbor and landlady down:

I do my research and learn about my state's childcare laws. I learn that there is a limit to how many children an unlicensed facility can care for, which is also based on how many caregivers there are. I also learn that there are certain requirements, such as state workers inspecting the facilities and doing background checks on the caregivers...After that I do some research on housing equality laws in my state. Turns out it's illegal for anyone, even a private owner, to discriminate against potential tenants on things like race, sex, religion etc.

He then calls CPS on his neighbor and the NAACP on his landlady. Certainly not a Holistic approach to "taking someone out", but most definitely in the Domain of Manipulation and a Concern of either Developing a Plan or Conceiving an Idea.

November 7, 2016

You really can't hear enough about how different the Dramatica story of theory is compared to other story paradigms. Theory co-creator Chris Huntley gives an interesting explanation regarding the Table of Story Elements and its relation to "story structure":

The structural chart is one of the unique aspects of Dramatica as a theory and practical tool for story development because it represents the natures of the conflicts/resolutions explored. However, it is not part of what most paradigms consider "story structure".

A brief reminder as to what the Dramatica Table of Story Elements looks like:

The Dramatica Table of Story Elements

The chart above helps Authors determine and set the nature of conflict within their story. Four different Domains, four different Throughlines, four different ways of looking at conflict.

The Dramatica equivalent to what other paradigms see as story structure are the story points, e.g. story goal, main character problem, etc. You will not find those on the Dramatica structural chart because they are not part of it. They are LINKED to the chart and the story dynamics deform the chart (from its default state) to represent the dramatic potentials created by making storyforming choices.

Structure is tied to the nature of the conflict within a story, but it is not conflict itself.

So studying the chart alone is insufficient to understanding how Dramatica (or narrative) works. One needs the chart, the story points, and the interaction between them to understand how a narrative really works.

Enrolling in the Dramatica® Mentorship Program can help with that...

October 19, 2016

The Dramatica Users Group analysis of Ex Machina is now online. Note the improvement in quality when compared to past Users Group classes. I dug up an old iPhone and decided to use its camera instead of the one on my aged white Macbook. The difference is tremendous and will likely be our approach for future classes.

I also took the liberty of doing some fun editing back and forth at the end between Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley and his monitor. Hopefully that makes the presentation clearer and more beneficial towards your understanding of Dramatica.

As always, if you have any questions about anything presented in this video, don't hesitate to ask.

October 17, 2016

Melanie Anne Phillips on dramatic tension:

In narrative structure, there are two forces that converge to create a sense of rising tension that culminates at the climax: the quest to achieve a goal and the increasing pressure to change a deeply held conviction. Each of these forces informs the other so that, ultimately, the choice to change one’s nature or remain steadfast in one’s views and potential success in achieving the goal depend upon one another. In some stories, success depends upon the personal choice. In other stories, one’s nature is determined by success or failure. But in all cases, the interrelationship between the outcome of the plot and the culmination of the main character’s growth, builds the potential that drives the story forward to its conclusion.

Defining it as the nexus between the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline, Melanie defines two key story points:

  • Main Character Resolve: the increasing pressure to change a deeply held conviction
  • Story Goal: the quest to achieve a goal

This is not an If..Then statement beginning with the Main Character's Resolve and ending with the Overall Story Goal. A story doesn't always end in Success as a result of the Main Character's Resolve, but it very often does (Luke in Star Wars, Neo in The Matrix). Sometimes the nature of the Resolve is determined by the story's Success or Failure (Hamlet in Hamlet or Elliot in E.T.). The latter category of Main Characters often find themselves Changed by a story's events, rather than Changing to effect a story's events.

October 14, 2016

In-between repeated viewings of the new Rogue One trailer, I noticed Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of Dramatica, posted about the fractal nature of the theory:

The structural model you see can be the mind of one person or the collective mind of a group. It is the same structure, interpreted in two different ways. When we look at the four levels of the structure as if it were a single mind, we see (from the bottom up) motivations, evaluations, methods, and purposes. When we look at the same four levels as a group mind we see Characters, Theme, Plot and Genre.1

Fascinating insight, and one I hadn't considered before. By making the connection between a single mind and a group mind within the model, Melanie proves that archetypes are not born of our "collective unconscious."

...that is where archetypes really come from – not the collective unconscious per se, nor from myth nor dreams, but simply from the attributes that are common to us all. In short, the group becomes a model of the individual mind, since that is exactly what we do as individuals, but now each of our attributes has become an archetypal role in a group narrative.

Character Archetypes simply function as group attributes of ourselves.

  1. Note that I actually corrected her original post to show the difference between the two contexts of singular and group mind. ↩︎

October 12, 2016

Guess I'm more like Nathan than I thought—my deep thematic analysis of the excellent Ex Machina contains many inaccuracies. The worst part is learning that the mistake I made is the exact same thing I tell my Mentorship students and professional clients each and every day:

Dramatica's story points are indicators of the SOURCE of conflict in a narrative, NOT merely storytelling.

Chris Huntley on *Ex Machina*

Several Dramatica Story Experts engaged in our monthly Dramatica Users Group meeting. Led by Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley, we worked our way through the narrative of Ex Machina. After an hour or so of back and forth--fueled mainly by my misconceptions--we finally arrived at a storyform that is so unbelievably represetative of the film, I don't know how I could have been so wrong.

But then I remembered the above about looking for the source of conflict, instead of using Dramatica's story points as storytelling--and it all made sense.

Once the Dramatica Users Group Video and Podcast are published you will be able to witness my error in judgment in action. Thankfully I'm more interested in getting it right than being right, so I was open enough to eventually reconsider and see the mistakes I made.

In short, Caleb is a Changed Be-er and Ava a Steadfast Influence Character. In hindsight it seems ridiculously obvious, but unfortunately I allowed my own understanding of the Audience Appreciations and my interpretations of them over the past couple of months cloud and alter my thinking.

The problem with Audience Appreciations is that they slip the Author into subjectivity—into opinions and personal takes on the concrete elements of story, rather than what actually is there. Perception, instead of Actuality.

The new analysis will be part of this week's podcast and article.

October 12, 2016

From Alex Epstein's Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made:

I've only tried one screenwriting plotting program. Dramatica attempts to formalize the process by which a crafty screenwriter creates a story. It boils down story structure to a "branching tree" of thirty-two thousand possible "storyforms". By answering questions like "Does the Main Character succeed or fail?" And "Is this a good thing or a bad thing?" you settle on one storyform. It is supposed to take about a week to learn how to use Dramatica. I have no idea if Dramatica is worth the money, but the company has some happy reviews on their website. If you have trouble figuring out why your stories come out wrong, or just have trouble creating story structure, Dramatica or something similar might help.


A week and twenty years maybe. And even then you might end up completely borking your initial analysis of a great movie like Ex Machina. Dramatica is more than worth the money--if for nothing else than the way it opens up your mind to a greater understanding of story.

October 8, 2016

The Dramatica theory of story offers Authors a rare opportunity to look at their story from an objective point-of-view—from the perspective of what their story means, rather than how their story plays out.

Acts, Sequences, and Scenes exist in the Storytelling Domain. They help frame and illustrate meaning. Unfortunately, the infinite variety in which they can be appreciated and observed makes them deficient for an objective framework of story.

Keep Acts, Sequences, and Scenes for those paradigms and models of story that look at presentation and Audience Reception. But when it comes to Dramatica, the theory should likely pivot to ensure greater understanding of Dramatica's unique story points and structure.

Instead of Act, use Signpost and/or Journey.

Instead of Sequence, use Range.

Instead of Scene, use Dramatic Unit.

Less sexy to be sure, but inifinitely more accurate.

Yes, Signpost and Journey already exist and communicate their functions adequately. If it ain't broke, then why fix it?

The Dramatica concept of the Throughline Issue used to be called Range with the first version of the theory back in 1994. As Sequences travel through the Variation level of the model—where the Issues of a Throughline are found—why not use the original terminology to break free from ideas like the popular film-school Sequence Method? It allows those entrenched in that paradigm and their own preconceptions about what a sequence is to use both systems without cross-interference.

As far as Scenes go—as we develop an understanding of how Dramatica Scene Construction works, it becomes apparent that the idea of an actual "scene" varies depending on when you get into the Dramatic Unit (quad) and when you get out. Again, instead of relying on the physical concept of "the scene" to communicate the smallest meaningful part of Dramatica, why not start introducing Authors to this idea of a complete Dramatic Unit?

They can still start their "scenes" late into the unit and can, of course, leave whenever they want. The important part is that Authors and producers and directors alike begin to understand the PRCO, SRCA, TKAD, and PASS of a Dramatic Unit. Combining that knowledge with whatever techniques they mastered on the other side of communicating a story will result in an effective and efficient storyteller.


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