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Thoughts on Story Structure

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.

October 7, 2016

On the discuss.dramatica site, Dramatica Story Expert Mike Wollaeger explains the difference between Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! paradigm and our personal favorite--the Dramatica theory of story:

It's important to remember that Snyder is talking about screenplays and Dramatica is talking about stories. Screenplays start on page one and go until they are finished, about 110 pages. Stories start when an inequity becomes problematic and ends when things are put back into balance. Stories are not confined to a physical form, they are a mental construct.

Which reminds me. Dramatica needs to pivot to different terminology when it comes to Scenes, Sequences, and Acts.

That's a fancy way of saying that Snyder (et al.) are talking about how a story is laid out.

Forget the Cat, and Save Yourself!. Start looking at story, and let the format sort itself out.

October 6, 2016

After working on the first Dramatica Scene Analysis last night, I discovered a more refined way of defining these elements of a dramatic unit.

The key is to always think of Author's Intent. When it comes to Dramatica—and looking at Scenes, Sequences, and Acts through that lens—the "message" or storyform the Author intends on communicating is the primary object of focus.

So think of the Potential of the circuit as the source of inequity for that dramatic movement as far as the Author is concerned. You're not looking at where the Scene starts, but rather where the Author believes the source of conflict eminates from. All Scene Events have purpose—it's a matter of where the emphasis is placed.

In A Separation the Potential for conflict lies within Nader's strict convictions. Remove his obstinate I'm always right no matter what attitude and there is no real conflict. No back and forth arguing. No problem with Simin leaving. And the judge could go on living his happy life without interruption.

It is clear from this scenes, and from many others, that the Author of A Separation intended to show Nader's attitude as one of the primary sources of conflict within the story. This scene is a microcosm of that intent.

The Resistance of a dramatic circuit amplifies or diminishes that Potential. In A Separation that amplification arrives in the form of the judge essentially siding with Nader. Overwhelmed by the system, he takes the easy way out figuring everything will work itself out.

Why is Simin's hope for a better life for her daughter not the Resistance to the Potential found in Nader? It certainly opposes his position, but in terms of the dramatic circuit of meaning constructed by the Author it neither amplifies nor diminishes that inequity.

This is where paradgims of scene construction that look simply at the wants and needs of characters fall short for many Authors. Butting one character's wants against the wants of another (A man wants a delicious taco, another won't let him have it) can lead to a zero charge for that scene. They effectively cancel each other out.

Dramatica, on the other hand, works with the Author to communicate his or her intention. In A Separation, the Author states that matters get worse for those involved because of this laissez-faire attitude in Iran that everything will work itself out. There's nothing wrong with Simin's attitude or their arguing—the Potential forumlated within Nader's convictions is amplified by the system. That is part of the message of purpose intended by the Author.

The Current of a dramatic circuit shows the play, or interaction, between Potential and Resistance. In A Separation that Current plays out with the back and forth arguing, the posturing and positioning between husband and wife as they try to make themselves heard.

In effect, the Author writes the conflict that arises from the Potential meeting up against the Resistance. It is possible the Author imagined this conflict first, then worked backwards to determine the Potential—the source of that inequity—and the Resistance that engendered the conflict in the first place.

And finally, the Power of the dramatic circuit displays the result or outcome of the other three—and the potential for conflict to arise in later scenes. In A Separation this Power lies in Simin's hope for a greater future for her daughter. That notion of misplaced potential that lies in her young child trapped in a country that diminishes her importance.

Rather than seeing this desire as the Potential that drives the scene, the Author decides to encode it as the eventual Outcome of all the awfulness that came before.

To summarize:

  • The Potential of a dramatic unit is where the Author sees the source of inequity. If it was removed, then there would be no reason for the scene.
  • The Resistance of a dramatic unit amplifies or diminishes the Potential. In short, what does the Author believe makes things worse?
  • The Current of a dramatic unit is the interaction between Potential and Resistance, the escalation or descalation of dramatic conflict as seen by the Author.
  • The Outcome of the dramatic unit is where the Author believes the Power of the circuit lies and where a possible potential for the next Scene arises.

There is a sense from this scene that not everything will work out the way it should. The alignment of these events within the dramatic unit and the order in which they are presented is the reason for that feeling. The PRCO and SRCA of every dramatic unit is purposeful and adds to the Author's message carried within the code of the storyform.


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