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Thoughts on Story Structure

September 28, 2016

Continuing our exploration into the structure of scenes within Dramatica, consider three different modalities of events within a single scene:

  1. Setup, Revelation, Conflict, & Aftermath
  2. Potential, Resistance, Current, & Outcome
  3. Situation, Activity, Fixed Attitude, Manner of Thinking

The first two have been adequately explained in prior articles, the last has not.

Until now.

Note: The following represents preliminary thought and investigation into constructing a scene with Dramatica. For a complete and detailed explanation please read Writing a Perfectly Structured Scene with Dramatica.

Progression and Dramatic Circuit

Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explains the difference between the first two:

This was originally identified as Setup, Interaction, and Aftermath, but was expanded to further describe Interaction as Revelation and Conflict to more accurately reflect the Potential, Resistance, Current, and Power or Outcome of a 'dramatic circuit'. The difference is, SRCA (Setup, Revelation, Conflict, Aftermath) is a linear description of a scene, while PRCP or PRCO is a list of components in the scene that do not necessarily have to follow that linearity. For example, you might lead with the Outcome (A large wall with a bunch of unconscious horses laying in a pile around it), then then follow with the Potential (A runaway horse pulling a buggy), then focus on the Resistance (Someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reigns trying to stop the horses), and Current as the horse and buggy rapidly approaches the wall.

SRCA is the temporal progression of events while PRCO represents the spatial progression of the dramatic circuit.

The third modality?

  • Situation: a bunch of unconscious horses laying in a pile
  • Activity: horse and buggy rapidly approaching a wall
  • Fixed Attitude: a runaway horse pulling a buggy
  • Manner of Thinking: someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reins

These four describe the area of conflict inherent within each event. Touching each Domain within different events gives a scene the same feeling of completeness the Four Throughlines do within a complete story.

Identifying Sources of Conflict

A runaway horse pulling a buggy is an example of a Fixed Attitude? And someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reins is an example of a Manner of Thinking? The first two examples make sense, but the last two seem like confirmation bias.

Until you remember that--as will all things Dramatica--the dramatic elements identify the source of trouble.

The source of trouble within the event of a runaway horse pulling a buggy is the Impulsive Responses or Fears of the horse--not the running away. The running away is a result of the problematic fear.

The source of trouble within the event of someone in the buggy madly pulling the reins is the Conceiving or Conceptualizing or even Changing One's Nature--the manipulations existing as driver tries to coerce animal. The pulling on the reins is a byproduct of the problematic manipulation.

While the relationship between the three modalities still exists within a shroud of mystery beneath Dramatica's story engine--a means by which to construct solid scenes around meaningful and purposeful events now exists.

The Fourth Modality

Dramatica theory is quad theory. If you can find three of something, you can usually identify a fourth--it just takes a little time to wrap your head around it.

The context of SRCA to an Author is Time: the Setup happens before the Revelation which happens before the Conflict which happens before the Aftermath. You could replace SRCA with 1-2-3-4 and the meaning would remain the same to the Author. This is simply the order of presentation of the Events.

The context of PRCO to an Author is Space: the spatial relationship between the components of the dramatic circuit. In other words, if you think of the individual parts of an actual circuit board there is a place where the Potential is carried, where the Resistance is found, the Current, and the Power (or Outcome).

The circuit board carries the dramatic logic of the relationship between the Events, but the order in which the Author looks at them--or presents them to an Audience can change.

The context of TKAD to an Author is Mass.

TKAD what?

The Dramatica Quad

In Dramatica, every quad is really another way of looking at Thought, Knowledge, Ability, an Desire (TKAD). Dramatica is a model of the storymind--an internal representation of our external universe:

  • Thought is the Energy of the mind
  • Knowledge is the Mass of the mind
  • Ability is the Space of the mind
  • Desire is the Time of the mind

These four bases find themselves at the Class level within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements:

  • Fixed Attitude classifies problems of Thought/Energy
  • Situation classifies problems of Knowledge/Mass
  • Activity classifies problems of Ability/Space
  • Manners of Thinking classify problems of Desire/Time

When classifying the Events at the Scene level--at the point where the Dramatica model loops back onto itself--Authors look to Fixed Attitudes, Situations, Activities, and Manners of Thinking.

The Fourth Modality

With Time, Space, and Mass accounted for, only a context for Energy remains. This is where Active, Passive, Increasing, and Decreasing Tension exists.

Update on Sep. 29: After sleeping on it, the real answer hit me while I was running this morning: the final and fourth modality is Proactive, Reactive, Passive, and Defensive. Dramatica experts will recognize the lineage of these terms in the Proaction, Reaction, Inaction, and Protection quad under the Issue of Strategy in the Activity Domain.

  • Proactive: horse and buggy rapidly approaching a wall
  • Reactive: a runaway horse pulling a buggy
  • Defensive: someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reins
  • Passive: a bunch of unconscious horses lying in a pile

The Four Scene Appreciations

With the fourth and final modality set, Authors can now develop their scenes by identifying the area of conflict in each event, the order in which they appear, their relationship to each other in terms of the dramatic circuit, and the flow of energy through that particular event.

Returning to the horse and buggy scene from above, an Author might recreate Huntley's example by writing:

Setup: (a Passive Situational Outcome) A large wall with a bunch of unconscious horses laying in a pile around it

Revelation: (a Reactive Fixed Attitude Potential) A runaway horse pulling a buggy

Conflict: (a Defensive Manipulation Resistance) Someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reigns trying to stop the horses

Aftermath: (a Proactive Activity Current) the horse and buggy rapidly approaching the wall.

This is, of course, not the only way a scene plays out in Dramatica. With four modalities and four options in each, 24 permutations exist. Add to that the infinite varieties of ways to split-up a scene across several different logical scenes, and those options multiply exponentially.

This excerpt from the Dramatica theory book on Events Masquerading as Scenes gives a hint as to the possibilities:

Changing locations during a scene obscures this temporal division of twenty-four scenes. For example, imagine an Activity Event (action) taking place in the jungle. Follow that with a Manipulation Event (deliberation) back home in England. The change in location makes one feel that two different scenes have occurred. Yet, if you design the story well, the Fixed Attitude and Situation Throughlines will also be represented just before, during, or just after changing locations.

In the coming days and weeks, we will explore these various combinations in our Dramatica Scene Analysis feature, soon to begin here at Narrative First.

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September 27, 2016

Apparently Daniel Williams, the writer previously quote in a post on mapping the story genome, told a similar positive story to Dramatica co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips earlier this year.

Working with Melanie to deliver the Storymind Presents online workshops was one of the highlights of 2016 for me. There really is nothing like being in the same room with her as she discusses our favorite story theory:

After all these years I sense a real ground-swell in interest and activity among those who have found some useful truth in Dramatica. There’s a real sense that something is building - not a movement or a cause or anything like that (at least not yet), but a growing shared understanding of a relatively new way of looking not only at stories but at our world, at others, and at ourselves as well.

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September 27, 2016

From writer Daniel Williams:

I’m just getting back into Dramatica and using it to help with my Novelettes. I'm using a shorter story form to get used to Dramatica and trying to understand it. All I can say is that the first thing I produced using it has been a winner with my circle of readers and is far and away the best thing I’ve written from a structural and meaning standpoint.

Fantastic news. Daniel's experience matches that of many "getting back into Dramatica" after some time away. For some reason, that time away is important in the development of the Author's storymind.

I felt it was co-written with the software, and I’m amazed how accurately it assess the meaning of my story after I’ve only put in a few core details. It reminds me of Watson and Crick finding the DNA double helix. The science and art of story, underpinned by human experience and the laws of story.

Dramatica, in fact, does describe the DNA double helix of story. If you can visualize the structural model as one helix, then the dynamic model should easily slide into that view of the other helix.

Can't wait to start building visual representations of these as-of-yet esoteris and underdeveloped concepts.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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). ↩︎

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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. ↩︎

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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.

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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.

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