Dramatica and a Narrative Model of the Mind

Setting the record straight

Knowledge is the basic building block of logic. Once we know something, we can easily combine it with other bits of Knowledge to form a conclusion—a new block built upon the foundation of the earlier ones. When productive, these blocks of Knowledge manifest a higher level of thinking; when deleterious, those entrenched in beliefs can’t find their way out.

Those blocks only lift them so high.

There exists a post: Opinions, Questions, and Hunches on Dramatica Theory that haunts me every time I visit the Screenplay forum; not for any threat to my life’s work, but rather because of the sheer magnitude of ignorance it conveys about the theory. Even worse, it tends to infect the minds of others:

I rather like some aspects of Dramatica theory, but the more I dig in the more inconsistencies I find. Someone else posted an absolutely devastating critique on its lack of formalism.

Only it’s not “devastating.” And the lack of formalism is the result of a lack of proper research. And the inconsistencies?

Guess it’s time to address this madness finally.

The author behind the post spent zero to little time educating himself about the theory. Same with anyone else who, blown away by the sheer volume of the response, assumed their confusion was the rule.

We find this all the time with Dramatica: an individual’s inability to grasp the concepts leads him or her to set out on a course of willful destruction. Much easier to kill what we do not understand. The retort, while seemingly impressive by length and challenge, is merely fearful ignorance masquerading as thoughtful critique.

The Basics

The first misunderstanding is that of context. Meaning is context. What might be right in one context ends up bad in a completely different scenario. A knife is meaningless unless used for cutting and preparing a meal; it’s even more meaningful when used in a murder. The prior context is a good use of a knife, the last bad—assuming crime is terrible. Sometimes, it’s an entirely acceptable form of behavior.

Context determines meaning.

Now, the purpose of a Grand Argument Story is to imitate a human mind experiencing and tackling the problem from each and every possible scenario.

Wrong. The purpose of a Grand Argument Story is to communicate one possible scenario—one singular context.

Tackling every possible scenario from every possible context is a recipe for madness. If you want that, live your life; we swim in a constant sea of turbulent contexts, ever-shifting given the present moment.

A story is not that; a story is one moment.

Dramatica imposes a limit by only allowing the combined dimensions of position and motion (resulting in the four members of the Class quad) to be used only once throughout all viewpoints.

This limitation is a feature. This imposition of combinations prevents one from running around in circles and chasing one’s tail of consideration (see your post). If everything means something from every context, then everything means nothing.

When it comes to identifying a Source of Conflict for a Throughline, many tend to focus on one point-of-view to the exclusion of others. They look at Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption and see his problem in all four Domains:

  • Universe: an innocent man locked up for a crime he didn’t commit
  • Physics: a rebel who stands up to physical aggression
  • Psychology: a man on a mission to change the way a prison population thinks
  • Mind: an optimist who suffers at the naïveté of his hopes and dreams

But what does all of that mean?

Now, look at Andy in the context of the other three Throughlines, and you begin to see what the story is all about:

  • Universe: an innocent man disrupts the stasis of corruption at a prison
  • Physics: a rebellious freedom fighter stands up against any physical aggression
  • Psychology: an institutionalized man supports the system (Red)
  • Mind: a friendship develops around the idea of hope

Seen in this one instance, it’s clear that Andy doesn’t even represent the Main Character I perspective—Red does. And it’s even more apparent that with all these perspectives encapsulating a single inequity, that there exists a way out. The Shawshank Redemption argues that finding freedom and triumph requires abandoning the support of external systems—and it does this by presenting one set of interrelated perspectives.

Trying to witness it all at once: the relationships, the personal perspective, and the influencing points obliterates any recognizable meaning. We find ourselves lost at sea again, adrift in the ups and downs present before the introduction of Dramatica.

So, to answer the first question:

1.Why does Dramatica impose this limit? Shouldn’t each viewpoint have a problem in each member of the Class Quad in order to have a Grand Argument Story?

No. Viewpoints do not “have” problems—they create them. Problems are something made up in our minds; the moment we look at an inequity from a specific point-of-view and declare it a problem, well—its now a problem. That inequity, or separateness, is not truly a problem, our appreciation of it as a problem makes it a challenge.

That process of justifying inequities as problems is what Dramatica models with its Table of Story Elements.

Switch the perspective, and you switch the context; change the context, and you change the meaning.

A storyform in Dramatica represents one meaning and, therefore, one context.