He just doesn’t know it yet.
For those of you who don’t know, Craig Mazin is the screenwriter/producer behind HBO’s series Chernobyl and the writer behind _The Hangover _franchise. He’s also one-half of the super popular screenwriting podcast Scriptnotes.
And he’s also super critical of all things story structure.
Which is fascinating when you take into account his recent solo episode on How to Write a Movie. Everything he talks about on that show can be summed up in one word:
Either Craig knows the theory really really well, but prefers to keep that source of knowledge a secret. OR he’s going to enjoy the next two decades of learning just how magnificent and enlightening a friend Dramatica can be in matters of writing a great story.
Regardless, his show makes an incredibly strong case for all writers to know and understand the theory. And there’s no better place to start than Narrative First.
As someone who has been writing about Dramatica for over twelve years, it’s encouraging to see those with great reach foster these important and life-changing concepts for everyone to hear.
What real writers follow are their characters. And what great writers follow are their characters as they evolve around a central dramatic argument that is actually meaningful to other human beings.
Is 100% Dramatica theory.
What Dramatica refers to as a storyform, and what Subtext clarifies with its Premise feature, is this idea of a story building upon a central dramatic argument.
The article How to Build a Narrative Argument dives into the construction of this basis for a story, and last month’s series on The Holistic Premise takes it to the next level with its look at a holistic approach to making that argument.
One thing for sure—Craig would not hate Dramatica as much as Robert McKee and Syd Field Hate Dramatica.
In fact, he comes across as one of its fervent believers.
But first, we address the reference to the Hegelian Dialectic, an approach to drafting an argument that approaches the grandeur that is Dramatica;
The Hegelian Dialectic basically is a way of thinking about how we formulate ideas and thoughts and arguments. You take a thesis. That’s a statement. Something is true. And then you apply to that an antithesis. No, that’s not true and here’s why. Those things collide and in theory what results from that is a new thesis called the synthesis. And that starts the whole process over again. That synthesis becomes a thesis. There’s an antithesis. A new synthesis. That becomes a thesis. Constant changing. Every scene begins with a truth, something happens inside of that scene. There is a new truth at the end and you begin, and you begin, and you begin.
Hegelian is one way to think about how we formulate ideas and make arguments. Its approach is 100% Linear in that it moves from a Problem to a Solution through a series of cause and effect moments.
More than half of all narratives in the Western world formulate their arguments along this line of reasoning. More than half in the Eastern world take a completely different path—one that seeks to resolve inequity with equity, and one that doesn’t really see Problem or Solution. In Dramatica, this approach is referred to as Holistic.
Note the emphasis on approach over the eventual conclusion of the argument. Many confuse the “synthesis” for Holistic thought when the actual steps that arrived at that synthesis are primarily cause and effect.
There is nothing wrong with the Hegelian notion of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, only that it is decidedly Linear and therefore not all-encompassing when it comes to explaining the process of forming an argument.
But it works great for most Western American movies. And it’s a great introduction to this idea of story as an argument.
There’s a lot of what to do but where’s the why? Who came up with this stuff in the first place? Why is it there? Why are there three acts at all? Why is there a low point? Why do we like it when there’s an inciting incident? Why do we like it when there’s a low point? If we don’t know why those things are there how are we supposed to know how to write them?
There is a theory story that answers all these questions. And you can find it at http://dramatica.com.
Because we process the world through our consciousness and our consciousness is sort of a natural storyteller, all of us are actually walking around doing this right all the time. We just don’t know it. We’re narrativizing our own lives better than most who try and do it on purpose on Fade In or WriterDuet, or Highland2. I don’t know any other software.
Are you sure? You’ve never heard of Dramatica?! Because this:
we process the world through our consciousness and our consciousness is sort of a natural storyteller
Is the core conceit of the Dramatica theory of story and wrapped into everything that is the Dramatica Story Expert software.
The Storymind concept states that a complete story is an analogy for a single human mind trying to resolve an inequity. Dramatica loves this idea of the natural storyteller so much, that everything in the theory is based on this concept.
And it’s been promoting that approach since 1994.
What did he [Aristotle] think of unity or theme? Well basically theme is your central dramatic argument. Some of those arguments are interesting. Some of them are a little cliché. And the quality of the argument itself isn’t necessarily related to the quality of the script. For instance, you can have a really good screenplay built around you can’t judge a book by its cover. That’s OK. The theme itself doesn’t have to be mind-altering or, I don’t know, revolutionary. It’s your execution around it that’s going to be interesting.
In Dramatica, the above is reflected in the separation between the Storyform (the argument) and the Storytelling (the “quality” of the script/story). This is why you can have two completely different stories with the same exact Storyform. Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story are a great example of this—their arguments are precisely the same.
Although technically, Dramatica does notice one slight difference: the argument for Romeo is limited by Options (only so many ways these two families can work things out), while the debate for West Side is limited by Time (the deadline of the final rumble).
Or even Mad Max: Fury Road: Give up running away, and you can reclaim a city (or whatever you want to refer that outpost in the film as).
But the important thing is that the argument has to be an argument. I think sometimes people misunderstand the use of theme in this context and they think a theme for a screenplay could be brotherhood. Well, no. Because there’s nothing to argue about there. There’s no way to answer that question one way or the other. It’s just a vague concept.
This is crazy because I was just speaking with a popular novelist these past weeks about the same exact thing. Brotherhood is not an argument, it’s what we familiar with Dramatica would call Subject Matter. Brotherhood is what the story is about, not what we want to say about brotherhood—which would be the story.
Now, it’s really important to note you probably don’t want to start with an argument. That’s a weird way to begin a script.
For some, yes. But speaking as an animator of 20 years who worked on productions where they didn’t figure out the argument until the last two months of production, I can tell you I wish they had taken the time to get the narrative first.
I know my family would’ve liked to have seen me more during those crunch times.
The purpose of the story is to take your main character, your protagonist, from a place of ignorance of the truth or the true side of the argument you’re making and take them all the way to the point where they become the very embodiment of that argument and they do it through action.
This is super cool because it works both for a Main Character who changes his Resolve and adopts an entirely new perspective (Simba, Marlin, Max), and it works for the Main Character who Remains Steadfast and hold on to his point-of-view (William Wallace, Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, and Leonard in Momento).
Typically in the beginning of a story your main character believes in the opposite of the theme and they have also achieved some kind of stasis. There’s a balance in their life. In fact, their ignorance of that theme has probably gotten them to this nice place of stasis and balance. It doesn’t mean they’re happy. What it means is that without the divine nudge of the writer-god their life could go on like this forever. It’s not a perfect life. It’s not the best life they could live but it’s the life they’ve settled for. Their stasis is acceptable imperfection.
Dramatica refers to this as justification, as it reveals why the Main Character feels justified to hold on to their truth, or point-of-view. This then becomes their Problem that motivates the exploration of their Throughline.
Let me take a break for a second and say that everything I’m talking about here is mostly to serve the writing of what I would call a traditional Hollywood movie. That doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean cliché. It doesn’t even mean formulaic. It just means it’s a traditional narrative. So, I don’t know, if you’re looking to be a little more Lars von Trier about things, well, I don’t know how interesting or helpful this is going to be. But I’m presuming that most of you just want to write a general kind of movie that conforms to a general kind of movie shape.
Narrative is narrative regardless of medium or intent. If you’re writing a Slice of Life, Terrence Malik film, then you’re not arguing a particular point of view, and you, therefore, do not need narrative structure.
The only reason to pay attention to structure is if you want to order your argument.
this is why the magical midpoint change occurs. See, now you know why. You’re not just doing it because a book said. These things generally happen in the middle of the movie because our hero’s belief system has been challenged. There is an element of doubt. There is not a willingness to go all the way and believe the other side of the argument yet. They may not even understand the other side of the argument.
The magical midpoint is also the place where the Main Character has finished exploring two of the possible four contexts for the conflict present in their personal Point of View.
In the example of Finding Nemo, where Marlin personally deals with his fears of losing his only remaining family member, Act One dealt with the suppression of those painful memories and the first half of the traditional Act Two dealt with rash and impulsive responses—what Dramatica would refer to as the Preconscious.
The only two areas of the mind left to explore are the Subconscious and Conscious, in that order. Marlin’s panic at the start of the second Act turns to fear and sadness (Subconscious), which eventually leads to a greater sense of mindfulness in the 3rd (the Conscious).
Having explored all four areas of his personal conflict, Marlin recognizes the solution and gives up his motivation/justification to prevent his son from getting hurt.
He encourages Nemo to start his own adventure.
Their goal in the beginning, which was to go backwards to the beginning to achieve stasis, to re-achieve stasis, that goal is in shambles. Their anti-thematic belief, whatever it was that they clung to in the beginning of this story, it’s been exposed as a sham. And the enormity of the real goal that now faces them is impossibly daunting. They can’t yet accept the theme because it’s too scary. When your core values are gone and when you aren’t ready to replace them with new values, well, you might as well be dead. And this is why people go to movies.
The only thing I would add to this is that it is, again, decidedly Linear (cause and effect) in its approach. There is an entirely different approach to resolving a conflict that is equally as important when writing certain kinds of stories. This approach prefers balance over thesis-antithesis and sees values as never truly being “replaced,” but rather balanced out with other values.
My recent article, The Holistic Experience of Watching The Matrix details this unique and equally as important approach to storytelling.