Unlearning what you have learned can be a difficult process, especially if you have achieved a relative amount of success. Why fix what isn’t broken? Giving up and proceeding blindly because that is where one finds comfort marks the difference between a serviceable story and an enduring one.
When I ask my students what story is many answer with something about character or plot. Some might add that it is important for stories to have a theme. Others speak of their favorite genre or about genres in particular. Regardless of what aspect they identify, most understand what goes in to making a story.
The Dramatica theory of story says that character, plot, theme and genre are not enough; that this basic understanding of story is just that: basic. And if you really want to comprehend the complexity that is successful narrative you need to dig deeper, and look wider.
The general understanding of story sees narrative as a single thread of character, plot, theme and genre. Dramatica sees not just one, but four threads—each with its own perspective on things and each with its own character, plot, theme and genre. The competent writer weaves these four threads into one giant thread that then becomes a fully functioning story.
Conceptually this is the hardest thing for writers new to the theory to understand; it also happens to be the most important. Everything that comes after in Dramatica is merely a refinement of that central understanding. Absorb this concept and your writing will take on a new depth.
Chris Huntley recently had this to say about the theory he created:
Many of us were taught that multiple threads in a story are optional ways for us to add complexity to a story. Optional means they can be there or not at the author’s discretion. The Dramatica approach removes that option and instead turns them into a requirement necessary to create a full and complete story. That is a huge difference between ‘traditional’ story paradigms and the Dramatica paradigm.
This difference demands a new vocabulary—something many writers balk at and use as grounds for claiming the theory folly. Striving to redefine common terms like Main Character and Protagonist seems pointless and open to ridicule. Yet, Dramatica presents a viewpoint of story that never existed before—it needs to redefine the landscape of the writer’s world. The problem isn’t complex and obtuse terminology—as many decry—but rather introducing concepts for which there is no language in the common understanding of narrative.
Not only does Dramatica present this wildly bizarre take on story—it also defines the specific areas where character, plot, theme and genre can be explored and presents limitations for each. No other paradigm defines the nature of the content and then offers an in-depth presentation of the elemental nature of that content.
Complexity arises as we enter uncharted terrain.
From the Audience’s perspective, it is virtually impossible to tell what is an essential component of story and what can be broken down further. For instance, many see character arc as a singular concept: how the character changes. Dramatica dives deeper and breaks down characters arc into its base elements: Resolve and Growth.
Depending on the perspective taken, elements of story can be seen as a state or a process. Looking at light we can see that it can be seen as a particle or a waveform—a state or a process, respectively. The same occurs with a story point like character arc.
The Resolve represents the static element of the character arc: whether the Main Character’s paradigm has changed or remained steadfast. The Growth showcases the process inherent in a character’s arc: how the character’s resolve changes over time.
Understanding the base elements of a concept like character arc allows writers the opportunity to focus on the essential ingredients of their story. They can focus and work on those story points independently, develop them exclusive of outside interference and then blend them back together. It’s easier to understand a character’s arc when you can evaluate it in terms of Resolve and Growth. Other paradigms simply call for change; Dramatica defines the change and how that change develops.
Character arc is just the beginning. Dramatica has much to say about the ending of stories, plot points and the inciting incident, and even goes so far as to give the reason towards exploring a personal relationship between the two central characters in a story. With regards to each concept of story, Dramatica breaks the topic down to its essential components, granting writers unheard of access to the deep underlying meaning of their story.
As you can see, Dramatica can get very complicated very quickly. Concepts of storytelling that for the longest time were never separated now find themselves apart and naked, exposed for the benefit of writers everywhere. Main Character and Protagonist. Resolve and Growth. These refinements of story structure enrich narrative and bring depth to the superficial.
It all boils down to that first idea of the four different threads. As Chris reminds us:
The concept of the four throughlines is the single most important and difficult aspect of Dramatica because it tells us that stories are not single threads of characters, plots, themes and genre elements woven together into complex patterns that we see in finished works. The understanding [is] that there are FOUR major threads, each with a uniquely different frame of reference, that weave together characters, plots, themes, and genre elements within EACH of those threads and then further woven together into the single work experienced by the audience
Character tells us about people and personal problems. Plot tell us how to work with character. Theme discusses what is important to us and how to think about those characters. Genre tells us how we want to feel by going through this experience of this story; when we walk out, what are we supposed to be feeling?1
These four things wrap themselves around the subject matter of the story. Subject matter is the object of our attention and the focal point for character, plot, theme, and genre. But from what perspective do we look at this subject matter?
That is where Dramatica comes in: it defines those points-of-view through those four threads.
If you’re having trouble with Dramatica or you gave it a whirl years ago and you haven’t opened it since, give this basic concept a chance to seep into your work. Define the Overall Story, Main Character, Influence Character and Relationship Story of your narrative and watch as you begin to write complete stories.
Watch as your writing advances beyond your comfort zone and surprises you with greater depth.
More on these definitions of character, plot, theme and genre can be found in the last 40 minutes of this analysis with Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley. ↩︎