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Thoughts on Story Structure

September 27, 2016

Developing more material to look at how to structure Scenes within Dramatica, I stumbled across commentary from a former workshop student of mine:

The best thing I've personally heard on the topic of how much of Dramatica to try and pin down was from Jim Hull when I attended his workshop last spring. He said (paraphrasing) some people need to know everything, they want the theory down to a "T" and want to know all the interactions of each and every facet of a Storyform but those ones tend to not have as much material written when it comes the amount of stories completed albeit having absolutely pristine Grand Argument Stories of course! But they mainly become teachers of the craft, Jim included himself in that category. Stories are still generated but you can go 10+ years and still be learning the theory.

This is very true. I discovered Dramatica 22 years ago and my personal portfolio today consists of three screenplays and one treatment. Contrast this with the 500+ articles, blog postings, podcasts, and analyses covering Dramatica and narrative structure and you can see where in-depth theory diving leads you.

Now, I much prefer working with different writers and producers and directors on a variety of different films, novels, and plays in contrasting genres and formats…but not everyone wants to start their own narrative science consulting firm.

Most just want to write.

He also mentioned that some people can learn just enough about Dramatica (relative), to incite inspiration and they'll take off and have pages upon pages of material, completing story after story, ultimately becoming a "writer" in the classical sense of the word (blemishes and all). Yes some of the fine details of Dramatica are left behind but these individuals don't really care either, obviously risking accuracy, coherency and filled out arguments.

Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, recently became a champion of this attitude. "No one goes to a story for perfect structure" is her latest idea—one painful for someone like me with the amount of truth it contains. As she puts it:

The main point is that that no one reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a perfect structure but rather to have their passions ignited. So if it comes to a choice between an exciting thing and a structural thing, go with the excitement whenever you can, but be sure never to break structure completely or your readers or audience will not be able to cross that gap and will cease to follow you on your journey.

I struggle with this daily in my own writing, and in working with writers and producers alike. They love the idea that Dramatica can help them to get to that perfect structure—but some spend so much time getting everything perfect, that they forget why they started writing in the first place.

They forget their passion.

The choice comes down to the individual. I appreciated this choice. Not only did it unburden me from worrying that there was only one option, one way to complete this journey but it helped me position myself down the path I saw for me personally. A way to navigate both ends of the spectrum and land on coordinates that feel best for me.

Regardless of one's familiarity with Dramatica the balance between perfection and reality is one every Artist must contend.

September 26, 2016

Started reading Brain Pickings over the weekend based on its popularity and the enthusiasm of its author, Maria Popova. Though it's too early to say for sure, the blog feels more like a Tumblr quote blog than anything else. Not sure about the format of putting a blockquote within a blockquote, but here it goes with a piece on storytelling and poet Jane Hischfield from July of this year:

But the aspect of concentration perhaps most widely relevant beyond poetry is that of narrative — our supreme hedge against the entropy of existence. Hirshfield writes: Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require — it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.

Real life is meaningless, until you put it into the context of a story. The Dramatica storyform organizes and holds the message of the meaning. Using it as a guide aids the Author in combatting life's "arbitrariness" by delivering a message of "deepened coherence."

If Popova's purpose would is to find the meaning behind the connections, then an elevated understanding of Dramatica and its unique take on the elements of story may prove to be the very last puzzle piece.

And finally, a quote for all lovers of great narrative:

Story remains a basic human path toward the discovery and ordering of meaning and beauty.

September 25, 2016

Continuing our deep dive into Scene Creation with Dramatica, we take a look at How Scenes Relate to Dramatica's Story Elements:

One more bit of information, the "spiral" nature of the structure (recently described with insight by Armando) is such that the Type (Plot) level of the structure determines the dramatic circuits of ACTS, the Variation (Theme) level determines the dramatic circuits of SEQUENCES, the Element (Character) level determines the dramatic circuits from one SCENE to the next, and the spiral effect takes us back to the top Class (Genre) level which determines the dramatic circuits of the EVENTS within each Scene.

I've heard Melanie, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, describe this spiral effect before--where the bottom of the model loops back onto itself. Not sure exactly why that happens, or how one visualizes that, but it is interesting that each scene carries a Situation, Attitude, Activity, and Mentality.

So, each Event in a Scene will have a 1,2,3,4 for sequential order, a P,R,C,O, for context, and be a Situation (Universe), Attitude (Mind), Activity (Physics), and Mentality (Psychology). In other words, the four required Events for every complete dramatic movement at the Scene level will be something Situational, Attitude illustrative, Active, and exhibiting Mentality.

I'll try and cover a few examples this week to illustrate this concept. Again, it's strange to me to go into this much detail when it comes to writing. And Melanie herself explains in the article her fears over it leading to "writing by the numbers".

However, if a greater understanding of the elements of scene structure leads to greater storytelling--why not look into it? Isn't that what Dramatica is all about?

September 24, 2016

Researching potential ways to develop scenes with Dramatica, I came across an interesting insight that I wanted to share.

In Armando Saldańa Mora's book Dramatica for Screenwriters, he explains a process by which one can use Dramatica's Plot Sequence Report to develop sequences and eventually scenes for a particular narrative.

Typically, I do this by flying by the seat of my pants. After spending so much time diving into the various structural story points within each Throughline and laying out the larger dramatic movements found in the Signposts, I feel like I want my imagination and personal creativity to take over.

Basically, I want to have fun writing.

But I can see how this might be difficult for some, especially when you consider the fact that Dramatica is so specific when it comes to the ingredients of story. Why would Chris and Melanie leave out specific information regarding sequence & scene development?

An Explanation for an Oversight

The short answer is that, at that level, the interference pattern between the various Throughlines is such that if you mess up the order of the micro-events in a Scene or misplace one Scene in another Sequence, the overall message of the story—or storyform—remains the same.

This is how Finding Nemo and Collateral operate from the same storyform, yet tell that story in vastly different ways. Same with Star Wars and Birdman. Though the latter ventures on breaking form with its use of magical realism, the base storyform functions with the same collection of storypoints as Lucas' space opera.

They wanted to leave Scene Creation and Sequence Building up to the Muse of the Author. But what about those who want, or need, more detail in order to tell stories dear to their heart?

A Quad of Scene Construction

In Armando's book he speaks of True Events and False Events when it comes to scene creation. A True Event—one made of "one-hundred percent pure Dramatic change"—consists of four base elements:

  1. It's irreversible.
  2. It changes the characters' circumstances.
  3. It gives the characters new and more important purposes.
  4. It's meaningful to the characters (and, therefore, to the Audience)

Reading this again recently, it struck me what quad these four elements came from:

The Conceptualizing Quad in Psychology

Irreversible? That's Situation under Developing a Plan.1 Changing the Character's Circumstances Well that's clearly Circumstances. New and Important Purposes? Probably gives someone a new Sense of Self. And finally, Meaningful to the Characters…that gets to the essence of the characters, or their State of Being.

And when you consider Sequence-based writing methods like The Mini-Movie Method that ask Authors to imagine What is the protagonist's plan? or How does he plan on getting what he wants? or What new plan does he or she come up with?, it only makes sense that the issues sprung by inquiries of this nature would be Situation, Circumstances, Sense of Self, and State of Being.

Extrapolating the Concept

Directly across from Developing a Plan we have Conceiving an Idea—which consists of the ever popular Needs and Wants of a character (Need and Deficiency respectively).

The Psychology or Manipulation Domain in Dramatica

Advocates of the Needs and Wants Committee for Writing a Story often leave out the other two—Can's (or Cannot) and Should's (or Should Not), but they're equally as important when seeking out the drive or intent of a character within a scene.

Thought, Knowledge, Ability, and Desire probably speak of the storyform itself, or the motivation of narrative driven by the storyform.

And Responsibility, Commitment, Rationalization, and Obligation call to mind the development and transformation of character from scene to scene.

More on this as it develops.

  1. Or Conceptualizing if you prefer the original terminology from '94 (I do). ↩︎

September 23, 2016

Want to know how to save hundreds of hours, possibly years, in terms of development time for your television series?

This morning I looked over a client's plan for her four-season television series. The brief loglines were clear and full of dramatic potential:

  • Season One: In the Dark Ages, a discovery of the lost art of swordsmanship leads four teenagers on a journey of self-discovery and what is required to be a true knight
  • Season Two: Successfully acquiring the skills, they fight in justice and apprehend evil, securing a place for themselves at the Table. But at the cost of shutting themselves from one another.
  • Season Three: Alone and spread out, they each begin to discover a New Way—a way that would unite all within the next generation. Only the Elders stand in their way and silence them.
  • Season Four: They retreat and work to create a small circle of compatriots and like-minded folk. Day by day they do their best to inspire others to walk into the Light.

I changed the genre/subject matter to protect the innocent, but maintained the narrative movements of each individual season.

Can you pick out the Act order? She wrote this without the aid of Dramatica, but the Signposts are clear as day:

  • Season One: Gathering Information about the Lost Art
  • Season Two: Apprehending Evil and Securing a Seat
  • Season Three: Understanding a Different Way
  • Season Four: Retreating and Working

Learning. Obtaining. Understanding. Doing.

Pretty incredible, right? That someone would naturally, instinctively, craft four seasons that hit the four Types found under the Activity Domain in the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. It's almost as if there is this concept of the Storymind that each and every one instinctively gravitates towards.

Unfortunately, that Act order is not permissible in the current version of Dramatica. The application won't let you choose that order It could be that this plot progression would work under a D-based or T-based system, but the model we have now is K-based—or Knowledge based.1 And you can't progress through a narrative by starting with Learning and ending with Doing.

It simply doesn't make sense.

Unless you switch Understanding and Obtaining, but that doesn't feel good. In fact, the last half where she moved from Understanding to Doing is the best and most meaningful part. Why change that?

Order Creates Meaning

What kind of feeling did you get reading those four loglines? Did you feel like it was a robust, happy ending where everything worked out for everyone? Or did you feel like maybe things didn't turn out so well and the kids ended up doing the very best they could with what they had?

To me, it felt very bittersweet, almost tragic in the way they succeeded but then ultimately understood a different way and retreated back into themselves. I feel down when I read those four loglines, and you want to know something crazy?

So does Dramatica.

A Forced Tragedy

The red Story Points signify those points of narrative that Dramatica predicted should be there in order to fit in with the Act order I chose elsewhere. An Overall Story Throughline in Activity with Understanding in the 3rd Signpost and Doing in the 4th Signpost forces the narrative into a tragic endingFailure/Bad.

And isn't that what the story feels like?

This is an incredible example of how order carries with it meaning. Other models of story and paradigms of narrative might play with the order of events as if it is only the steps that matter—not the order in which they appear. Dramatica sees things differently.

A happy triumphant lark like Star Wars or The LEGO Movie carries with it a specific order of thematic considerations to bring about that Success/Good ending. Contrast that with the sad and depressing tragedies one finds in stories like Hamlet or Sicario. The order of thematic events will be drastically different.

Knowing that her series arc ends in tragedy before she even writes the first word is an incredibly powerful thing to know. Imagine the weeks of rewrites and panics she would have felt two years in…

  1. If you look in the upper left hand corner of every Domain you will find Knowledge seated in the same position. This is on purpose and helps signify to you the kind of bias present in the model. ↩︎

September 22, 2016

The key to everything in Dramatica—and therefore, in all things story—is to separate out the Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines from the Overall Story Throughline.

If the relationship covered in the Relationship Story Throughline is the very same relationship the Main and Influence Characters have in the Overall Story Throughline, then you haven't created a Relationship Story Throughline If the issues your Main Character suffers also find themselves showing up in the Overall Story Throughline or the Relationship Story Throughline, then you haven't built an effective Main Character Throughline

Ben and Luke have a mentor/mentee relationship outside of their relationship as fellow Rebels in the greater war. Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx) and Vincent (Tom Cruise) in Collateral have a friendship and similar mentor/mentee relationship outside of their relationship as captor and hostage in the struggle to stop the assassin wrecking havoc in Los Angeles.

Red (Morgan Freeman) has justifications for why he prefers to think like an institutionalized man in The Shawshank Redemption but his friendship with Andy centers around the made-up word hope. Newt in Aliens (Carrie Henn Danielle Edmond) spooks everyone out with her tales of monsters hidden in the dark, yet her relationship with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) deals with the needs of mother and daughter.

The key to creating a robust story is to find the differences between the Throughlines…only to weave them back together into one seamless whole.

September 22, 2016

My apologies to those of you who have experienced frustrations trying to access Narrative First in the past 48 hours. The site is growing in popularity more and more each day, and I had to flip some switches and turn some dials to allow for more traffic.

You could say my hemming and hawing over how to set things up build up resistance—like a Be-er in an Action story! I Changed my perspective and flipped into Do-er territory, thus facilitating flow throughout the Internet.

Thank you for your patience.

September 21, 2016

Psychotic Stories

Reading this reminded me of those schizophrenic stories I run into from time to time. Psychotic in the way they start telling one narrative then switch to another, only to shift to a completely different one before the film or novel ends.

Dramatica helps Authors keep their stories sane.

September 20, 2016

I mentioned this in the podcast today, but wanted to get it down on paper for all to read: I feel like the substitute semantic values of Overwhelming and Surmountable I wrote about in How to Tell If Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds make a huge difference in analysis. Knowing that the Main Character Throughline is somehow connected to the essence of dramatic tension makes it easier to determine whether the MC is a Do-er or Be-er.

Case in point: a recent student in our From Logline to Treatment FREE E-Course sent us a story where the Main Character faced overwhelming odds--and I mean really, really overwhelming odds. But I wasn't really sure whether the MC was a Do-er or a Be-er. The issues and personal baggage were there, I just couldn't tell if they were dealing with external or internal issues.

That's when I remembered my own article.

The Overall Story Throughline was clearly in Activities and the Story Judgment was clearly Good. With an Overwhelming feeling of dramatic tension, there was only one option left for the Main Character Growth: Stop.

Setting the MC Growth to Stop forces the Main Character Throughline into a Companion relationship with the Overall Story Throughline. In Dramatica, a Companion pair is one in which the two elements of a quad sit side-by-side in a horizontal relationship.

With the Overall Story in Activity, the Main Character Throughline must be in Situation...and only Do-ers find themselves in that Domain.

With confidence I suggested to the Author that her Main Character was a Do-er, suggested a possible Influence Character in Fixed Attitude, and sent her off to flesh out and enliven her story.

Hopefully, I've done the same for you tonight.

September 19, 2016

Emphasis mine. The pressure to live up to the moniker leads us down an insincere path and causes us to sometimes doubt ourselves.

"Shape does not need to be imposed."--Well that's any story paradigm or structure that feels false to you.

Shape is part of what we are listening to--that's the storyform that eventually takes shape as you write from that artistic impulse. Dramatica is not imposed, writers naturally impose Dramatica.


Rid yourself of writer's block. Forever.

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