Dramatica: Story Theory for the 21st Century

Moving beyond Aristotle and remedial explanations of story structure.

In the 80s, it was Syd Field. In the 90s, it was Christopher Vogler and Robert McKee. In the 'aughts it was Blake Snyder and McKee yet again. What do the teens, the 20s and beyond hold in store for writers?

McKee, the most well thought-out of the bunch, may last another decade or so. Snyder too may survive, though without his personal touch, a decline in interest will probably occur.

But if there is to be any hope for the future of storytelling though, the Dramatica theory of story should take center stage. Based on the fundamental concept that a story is analogous to a single human mind trying to solve a problem, this story theory cogently explains why stories exist and why some are better than others. It is the most advanced, most complete model of storytelling available to us today.

The previous paradigms don't even come close.

Bill Didn't Use It

That being said, the most frequent argument against Dramatica goes a little something like this:

It's too complicated...makes you wonder how Shakespeare was able to write all those great plays without it! LOL

And not just Shakespeare. They'll cite Casablanca or To Kill A Mockingbird. Basically, insert any classic writer's name or great story into the above straw man argument and you'll have the basis for why so many people give up on learning this theory. But the above is less of an argument and more of a mask--a mask used to shield an insecure mind from facing anything more challenging than "Fun and Games" or "progressive complications".

In addition to exemplifying an error in critical thinking, this snarky half-witted comment fails to take into account the radical changes between this century and those that proceeded it.

The Reality of Today

The difference between our world and the one inhabited by the Epsteins or whoever wrote those beautiful Shakespeare plays is the level of distraction.

Writers in 2010 are constantly bombarded by a multitude of inputs. Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, email, instant message--each one beneficial or detrimental depending on the context and the time within which you receive them. The easy solution, the one that is offered up without much thought, is to cut oneself off from these notification based social-networks when writing.

Those who make these suggestions don't get it.

There are countless times when these little snippets of information can turn into sources of great inspiration for even better creative writing. Creativity occurs when the mind forgets and replaces that space with new material from which to build even more networked ideas upon. If anything, this new world order of distraction leads to greater and more original works of art. More random inputs naturally lead to more spontaneous connections. Damming the flow would only stifle potential greatness.

Of course the danger is that in allowing chaos to run the show, authors risk writing something with no ultimate point to it, no message. Spontanaeity in the moment is great, but quickly turns into an unwanted bedfellow if the purpose of one's work is to establish some greater meaning. These random pieces must be connected thematically.

Furthermore, it is silly to think that you can somehow be a part of this culture without using these social networking tools. Writers must exist in the world they hope to send a message to if that message is ever to be communicated clearly. The box has been openend and these things are not going away. You need to know how to communicate to everyone by engaging in the culture growing and developing around you.

Thankfully, Dramatica can manage this chaos.

Dealing with Distraction

Dramatica gives you the tools necessary to deal with this new world. In short, the theory helps you define what the message of your story is and then, makes sure that you keep that message consistent throughout your piece. It sets the purpose behind your work of fiction in stone.

In this way, you can still keep up on what your sister had for lunch through her Facebook updates, while simultaneously making sure that all the characters in your story maintain the thematic issue that selfishness leads to disaster (or whatever the thematics behind your message call for). Why is this important? Well, besides keeping up a positive sibling relationship, it is possible that her tuna sandwich might inspire your Main Character's backstory to center around a desire to stop destructive over-fishing. Or her latest picture of her daughter's school project might spin your spy-thriller down an unexplored path filled with macaroni and glue. Why shut this possible source of inspiration off?

Dramatica allows the chaos to seep in, but is always there to constantly remind you what it is you wanted to say. By setting the story engine into place, you are capturing your intent in digital form. As a steadfast writing partner, Dramatica will ensure that you remain honest to the meaning you hope to communicate.

But doesn't a work of art ebb and flow and change purpose as it is developed? Some do, and when that happens you can rework Dramatica's story engine to incorporate your changes. The important thing to understand is that whatever it is you're trying to say, Dramatica will help you focus on it.

The Ever-Dwindling Window of Time

If you're anything like me, you're lucky if you get an hour a day to write something that is dear to your heart. For me, it usually takes anywhere between twenty and twenty-five minutes before I am even able to get into the zone and begin to feel that my subconscious is taking over. Then, if I'm lucky enough not to be interrupted by kids, phone calls, or IMs, that leaves a little over thirty minutes of quality writing a day. Thirty minutes.

It's safe to say that Shakespeare had a bit more.

With Dramatica, you sit down for those thirty minutes and instantly step back into the message of your story. Because it is so accurate and it because it maintains an unwavering consistency, it frees you to concentrate on writing the story you intended to write instead of wasting time remembering what it was you were trying to say.

Knowing that your intent will remain intact, you can let your mind wander and soak up all that happens around you. When you sit at your keyboard you can craft this madness that swims throughout your head into a meaningful and well-thought out argument. Your story will mean something.

Use the Tools

Steinbeck and friends were able to write great works of fiction without Dramatica because it didn't exist back then. Those who use this line of logic to argue against using the theory might as well argue that we should stop using computers for basic word-processing because Shakespeare used a pen. Extending it further, we should stop self-publishing on blogs or manufacturing digital content because the greats didn't have access to these same electronic tools.

What a ridiculous notion.

Why not use the latest and greatest? We have the ability now to write complete stories the like of which the world has never seen. Hamlet and The Great Gatsby were only the beginning. You should use the tools your lifetime provides to you. Why not use Dramatica to write your next novel or screenplay and stop worrying about emulating the greats that have come before you? Who knows, maybe you'll write something better...

Originally published 05-12-2010

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