This weekend marked the third installment of my advanced writer’s workshop for writers and producers interested in learning how best to use Dramatica to improve the narrative structure of their stories. Purposefully designed to answer the question OK, I have a storyform, now what?, the twelve hour workshop takes a story from idea to detailed sequence outline with several opportunities for digressions related to deep narrative theory.1 Having taught story at the California Institute of the Arts for seven years, I’m familiar with the creative leaps students take when inspired; I wasn’t prepared for the explosion of creative growth that this collection of writers brought to the table.
The key was writing a story that wasn’t our story.
This weekend was quite simply the most productive story meeting I have ever participated in. Not only did we work through one writer’s entire story, but we also managed to slip in the exploration and discovery of another writer’s storyform, taking him from concept to storyform in less than one hour. Using the Dramatica theory of story as our basis of shared understanding, we cut through the ego and skeptical negativity that typically plagues writer’s groups and created structurally sound viable stories. We worked in true collaboration as we let the theory maintain the integrity of our narrative, freeing each of us to focus on brainstorming new and unique ways for telling the story, not the story we individually wanted to tell.
As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand. — ERNEST HEMINGWAY
The weekend centers around a brainstorming technique for Dramatica that I developed last year called The Creative Playground or “spins” for short. Once we determine the storyform for the story in question2 we then proceed to the Brainstorming section of Dramatica and “spin” the model — keeping the structure of the story intact, but allowing the gist of the individual story points to randomize.
We then develop throughlines for stories completely foreign to the one we’re working on. The story in question this past weekend involved Nazis and spies, our brainstorming sessions catered to time travel and accountants immersed in the Occult. The reason? To focus on the narrative dynamics at play underneath our story so that we could understand what the story was about, rather than our own individual impressions or interpretations of the story.
With these brainstorming sessions in hand, we walk back to the original work and mix and match those story points that seem to fit best. Sometimes this involves broad reimagining, other times it simply requires a name change. Regardless, we can better detail our sequence outline because we appreciate how those same story points would work in an entirely different story. We understand the point of the story point in question.
With the right group of people this process can be explosive—as I discovered this past weekend. The depth and breadth to which we developed each story point only contributed more towards an impressive and deeply meaningful final product. Having tried this process alone several times, I can unequivocally say that two heads is better than one. Five heads—with Dramatica holding tight to the structure—is unstoppable. I’m not sure I would want to develop a story by myself ever again. Dramatica makes sure you don’t leave anything out, your collaborators make sure you don’t let everything out.
Collaborating without Dramatica is a nightmare. Witness the countless story meetings driven by separate egos desperate to get their version of the story out, with little concern for the collective version. Witness the countless story meetings usurped by an executive with a completely different agenda in mind. A Dramatica storyform insures that everyone shares the same story. It frees everyone involved to stretch and explore and try something new, maybe even try something daring. And it makes sure that once everything is said and done, the work was not wasted time—the brainstorming adds up. Dramatica is the safety cable for the death-defying storyteller.
Where are the risk-takers?