The Storyform and Gists
Some writers find the motivation to write in some personal experience, some struggle they overcame that they want to share with an Audience. Others find inspiration in the works of others. Wanting to relay the same kind of message, but with different characters and a different setting requires an understanding of the thematics deep within the narrative.
In our last two articles, we took a look at Dramatica and its ability to help writers interested in engaging in Nanowrimo find and develop a story they will want to finish. In Creating a Story From Scratch for Nanowrimo we found a compelling story centering around the occult in the Old West. In Brainstorming a Brand New Genre for Nanowrimo we manifested an insane narrative combining elements of the Teen Sex Genre with the Sword & Sorcery Genre.
Some writers, however, find the desire to participate in Nanowrimo by reading a great novel or seeing a moving film. Inspired by the message of the narrative, would-be Authors seek to replicate that same kind of feeling. Dramatica functions best in this scenario. By taking the storyform for a film or novel they love, an Author can adjust certain elements of storytelling to create a new narrative unique to their own experience.
Key to modifying the storyform lies in the use of Dramatica’s Gist feature. Added to the latest version of Dramatica—Dramatica Story Expert—the Gists bridge the space between story structure and storytelling.1 Instead of Cause and Effect, writers would find Inciting an Argument and Having Negative Repurcussions. Instead of Non-accurate and Accurate, writers would find Being Vauge and Tolerating Harsh Work Conditions.
While powerful and productive during the course of a brainstorming session, overuse tends to limit and stifle the writer’s personal voice. Gists require a balance and temperment that comes with an understanding of how they affect Dramatica’s model of story.
A common request we receive in regards to our Gists Collections centers around completing the Gists down to the Element level. As of today, November 2016, our collections focus on the top two levels: the Domains and the Concerns. The Issues and Problems go untouched.
The Dramatica theory of story sees a fully functional narrative as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem—or Storymind. The theory models this single human mind with a Table of Story Elements:
The four levels of each tower examine the story’s central inequity—the one created by what most consider the Inciting Incident—at different levels of magnification. Domains, the Class level at the top, take the widest look at a kind of inequity while Problems, the Element level at the bottom, take the narrowest or more accurately defined look at the essence of the inequity.
Why leave the bottom two levels untouched? The closer you are to the bottom of the model, the closer you are to accurately identifying the exact source of trouble in a story. The more clearly defined that exact source of trouble becomes, the more constrictive and prescriptive the Gist. What once was a platform for unbridled creativity now becomes a set of manacles tying the writer to an application’s random number generator.
For instance, suppose you spun Dramatica’s story engine with our Narrative First War Genre Gists installed. As of today, November 2016, you might receive a Main Character Throughline like this:
As you can see, the Gists from our Collection show up within the Domain, Concern, and Signposts. Why Signposts? The Signposts within Dramatica define the type of conflict that occurs within each Act of a Throughline. In the example above, Act One would find this Main Character Hatching Ideas about Hanoi, Act Two would find this Main Character moving from Posing as a Member of the Air Force to Figuring Out How the Inflatable Boat Works, and finally Act Three would show this character Converging With the Captain.
On a side note, how crazy is it that those four movements feel like a complete dramatic movement? That’s the strength behind Dramatica’s storymind concept.
The Signposts look to the Type, or Concern, level because at this magnification the inequity appears to be more closely related to Plot.
As one increases or decreases magnification, the inequity shifts from looking more like Character to more like Genre. In fact, each level carries with it an aspect of the Storymind more commonly known as either Character, Plot, Theme, or Genre. At the highest mangification the inequity plays through Character, while the lowest reveals itself through Genre. Top down, from broadest to narrowest, the difference in magnification appears as:
With Dramatica’s Gists suggesting concrete examples of storytelling for Genre and Plot, the writer maintains relative freedom underneath to explore the personal aspects of narrative like Theme and Character. If we were to reverse that trend and make suggestions for the bottom half, the writer would feel rooted and constricted by the demands of the foundation—leaving little room to sway and bend towards the top.
Suppose that our War Collection tracked all the way down to the character level. Instead of the above, our story might look something like this:
Dramatica basically left us little room to create.
In our first example, the Domain and Concern of Being Avaricious Towards the Ensign and Pretending to Be a Lieutennant still gave us room to play around with the Problem of Causing a War and the Solution of Exploring the Aftereffects of Something. One Main Character could be Greedy Towards a Rich Ensgin which leads him to Pretend to Be a Lieutennant to compensate, but be driven to self-destruction by Causing Class Warfare only to find relief in Exploring the Aftereffects of an After-School Program for Underprivileged Kids. But another could be Greedy Towards a Rich Ensign which leads him to Pretend to Be a Lieutennant to compensate, but be driven to self-destruction because of his need to instigate violent conflict with those around him only to find relief in Exploring the Aftereffects of Combat on Innocent Villagers and the Battlegrounds that used to be their Neighborhoods.
Same Domain and Concern, same basic personality and overall plot, but completely different instances of character at the root of it all. The first main character is driven by class warfare, the second by a deep-rooted violent nature. Dramatica leaves the writer free to expand upon the most intimate parts of a Throughline when the bottom of the structure is open to interpretation.
Contrast that with the last example of Dramatica-by-Numbers where we have a Domain and Concern of Believing One Is Inferior to a Team Leader and Adoring the Green Berets and a Problem of Doing What A Sniper Should Do and Embracing Immediate Benefits from the Front Lines despite Winding Up in Leavenworth.
Harder to find examples of different characters who both find their deepest baggage stemming from doing what snipers should do and personal relief in embracing immediate benefits despite winding up in Federal prison. There is some wiggle room, but the range narrows compared to the non-Gistified versions of Problem and Solution.
This problem with narrowing the playing field with too many Gists shows up when taking the storyform for a succesful story and trying to modify it to tell your own version. Consider this Gistified-version of the Main Character Throughline for Mel Gibson’s latest film, Hacksaw Ridge:
The story of how Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) stood up for what he believed in despite all odds inspires the very best in those who take the time to experience it. But not everyone loves a war drama. Suppose you, as an Author, want to instill the same kind of inspiration and aspiration in your Audience—an Audience turned off by war—and dream of setting this story somewhere other than 1945 Okinawa.
Reducing the Domain and Concern down to Being a Pacifist and Not Wanting to Live with Regret and the Problem and Solution down to Helping Someone and Being a Nuisance makes this possible. You could tell the story of a draft-dodger during the Vietnam era, a space freighter during the great Galactic Wars, or the son of a teamster during the 1950s. Each can be seen as being driven by wanting to Help Someone.
Keeping the Problem and Solution of Helping Wounded Soldiers Stay Alive and Being a Nuisance to the Army would destroy that possibility. What once opened up the possibility of inspiring different Audiences attracted to 1950s labor unions or 1960s anti-war efforts or even science-fiction fans now reduces this potentially moving story to those attracted solely to war dramas.
Once you find a storyform that speaks to you, you can express it in many different ways. While Dramatica’s Gist feature makes it easier for writers to understand the elements at play within that storyform, an overabundance of these storytelling helpers locks the writer in to telling the same exact story. By reducing the Story Points further down the model to their essential natures, writers can take that initial spark of inspiration and corral it help guide and structure their own versions of the same story.
While there exists several incarnations of a single storyform, the meaning for that story—that message that inspires and motivates one to relay it to others—stands alone. One storyform, one meaning. Gists help open up the avenues of creativity for the writer, yet lock the artist down when abused.
When finding inspiration in the works of others to help define your own message, first identify the storyform that sits at the heart of it all while keeping the general sense of the conflict encoded within the specific storytelling at the top of the model. Leaving room at the bottom grants creative space for the writer to expand and express their own personal take on a message that speaks to them. In this way, the Author balances meaning with expression, creating a narrative unique and special and unlike any other.
Sorry PC users, Dramatica Story Expert—and the Gist feature discussed in this article—only exists on the Mac version. ↩︎