Dramatica: A Fractal Model Of Story Structure

Acts within Acts within Acts within Acts; the structure of a story cascades into an unending pattern.

Throughout the Universe our minds find evidence of iterative patterns. The Fibonacci spiral approximates the golden spiral by drawing circular arcs through smaller and smaller squares arranged in an infinite ratio. If story exists as an analogy to the processes within our minds, it only follows that a functioning model of story structure maintain this observable pattern.

Previous articles in this series on Plotting Your Story with Dramatica focused on how thematic intent dictates Act structure, and how a writer begins to build tension by establishing a focused and coherent Story Goal. Before exploring how one can dice up the overall tension into finer parts, an understanding of the relationship between story points in Dramatica becomes a necessity.

The Infinite Spiral

As mentioned in our podcast this week, Episode 32: Arrival & The Zero-Sum Game, Dramatica is a fractal model. The spatial relationship between the items in a quad at the top, or largest resolution, carries down and repeats through each and every level of the model. And even when you reach what you think is the bottom, or smallest resolution, the model loops back onto itself and begins again. How does this work?

Dramatica Table of Story Elements

Consider the above model of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements (you might want to download a PDF of the Table of Story Elements to make things easier). If you look closely, you will find a quad of elements repeated at each level: Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire (KTAD). These elements repeat because they are the four most important elements in Dramatica; they repeat because Dramatica is a fractal model of psychology. In fact, every quad in the model above is simply an arrangement of KTAD seen from a different context.

The Building Blocks of Dramatica

At the very top level you have Universe, Activity, Mind, and Psychology. At first, you might find it difficult to perceive how these four represent KTAD until you understand the correlation between the internal model of the Storymind and our external world.

3D Look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements

Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of Dramatica, begins to explain it in her post Dramatica -- Where'd the Idea Come From?, but in short: Universe is the Knowledge tower, Mind is the Thought tower, Activity is the Ability tower, and Psychology--or Psychology--is the Desire tower. As Melanie explains:

Knowledge is the Mass of the mind. Thought is the mind’s Energy. Ability is the equivalent of Space and Desire is the counterpart to Time.

The top level, or Class level, of the model classifies the source of trouble in each Throughline. A Universe describes conflict stemming from a fixed external problem--like being marooned on a derelict spaceship with a killer alien on board (Alien). In the mind, Knowledge is fixed and has mass--like the planets in our solar system. This is why the Knowledge tower holds fixed external problems, or Universes.

The same correlation carries through with the other three towers. Thought is fixed and represents energy within the mind, which is why you find it classifying fixed internal problems, or Minds. Zootopia, 12 Angry Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird explore Mind problems.

Ability describes a process of relating one bit of knowledge to another spatially and determining what is known and unknown, and therefore harbors the external process problems, or Physics. Star Wars, Finding Nemo and The Producers beat about problems of Activity.

And finally, Desire describes the process of how thought--or emotion--develops over time by comparing what is with what was, and what will be--which is why you find this tower classifying internal problems of processing, or Psychological issues. Sunset Blvd., Like Water for Chocolate, and The Incredibles investigate problems arising from how people think.

The Different Levels of the Mind

Move down to the Type level of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements and KTAD seems hidden once again. Like the golden spiral, the logarithmic function of these four base elements careens down the model hitting different locations at various levels. The next level down from the Types finds KTAD under Being, or Being. Move even further down and you will find KTAD spread throughout the different Classes, but only together in one place (under Instinct and Understanding in Activity).

At the Type level you find KTAD centered under Mind. Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire disperse into the various levels of the mind itself.

Knowledge finds correlation with our Memories, Thought with Conscious, and Desire with Subconscious. Impulsive Directions fill the Ability gap by representing the abilities of the mind to act instinctively or without thought, defining and defined by Memories the way Space defines and is defined by Mass.

And you thought story was simply pitting what one character wants against another's want!

A Model of Relationships

The visual of the Fibonacci spiral cascading down through the model of the Dramatic Table of Story Elements is an important one. But it isn't the only fractal relationship within Dramatica. Every single quad within the model shares the same KTAD relationship between its elements--that's why the model works the way it does.

Take any quad and you will find hints of those four essential building blocks. Universe, Mind, Activity, and Psychology we explained. But what about Past, Present, Future, and Progress--can you begin to see which one stands for Knowledge, Thought, Ability, or Desire?1 How about Truth, Falsehood, Evidence, and Suspicion? It may be difficult to figure out which one represents Knowledge and which one represents Desire, but rest assured--KTAD is there.

Locate the Element of Knowledge under Fate and Past within Universe. Do you see it there in the uppermost left hand corner of the model? Where that Element sits within the model is far more important than the label Chris and Melanie attached to it. That Element actually describes the Knowledge of the Knowledge of the Knowledge of the Knowledge.

Dramatica is a model of relationships. And while the fractal relationship stands most apparent in this structural table, an entire system of frictal relationships simultaneously co-exists within the dynamic model:

Frictal(from "friction" + "fraction"): an iterative pattern representing the temporal interaction of order and chaos as differentiated from fractal (from "fracture" and "fraction") which represents the spatial interaction of order and chaos

More on that another time.

Looping Back Onto Itself

As mentioned in the article Writing Perfect Scene Structure with Dramatica, the fractal nature of Dramatica does not stop at the bottom. The dramatic circuit represented by KTAD breaks the events in a Scene down into a Universe, an Activity, a Mind, and a Psychology (or Psychology).

The very smallest accounts for the very largest.

And from there, it starts all over again.

This is why you can have storyforms within storyforms, why episodic television can carry both the message of the individual episode and the message of the entire season within the same episode, and why one can find smaller and smaller granules of tension and conflict depending on the context of the dramatic circuit.

With the understanding of Dramatica as a fractal (and now frictal) model in mind, our attention returns to using the theory to plot out a story. In our next article, we will show how this model of structural & dynamic relationships makes it easy to break down the dramatic tension of a story into smaller and smaller parts.

  1. Past is Knowledge, Present is Thought, Progress is Ability, and the Future is Desire. 

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