Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act Of Your Story: Part One

Understanding how your characters feel requires stepping out of their shoes and looking at them from a dispassionate objective view.

When developing Scenes, Sequences, and Acts many writers focus on their ability to supply enough effective tension in their stories. Placing themselves within the heads of their characters, they look out and ask What is my greatest concern? While seemingly effective, their greatest concern should be trying to answer of question of development from a purely subjective view.

Screenwriting Within the University System

The methods taught on this site and those based on a Dramatica approach to narrative bump up against what one finds at a university. Firmly planted within the story, tenured professors and adjunct teachers rally against this alien visitor from another dimension. While teaching story at the California Institute of the Arts, I often heard of other teachers downplaying or outright challenging the Dramatica theory of story.

Why is it then that so many artists and writers find resonance with Dramatica's concepts?

I've been struggling against a number of instructors recently...They kept pushing and pushing, indicating that I was failing to grasp how to create a compelling protagonist because my 'main character does not change'...Then I read your articles about the Changed vs. Steadfast protagonist...and it all makes so much more sense now why I couldn't see a problem with what I was doing.

Students find kinship because Dramatica singles out the blind spot in the university approach: subjectivity. So focused on what a character feels and sees and wants and needs, these approaches to story fail to see what the story wants and needs. Subjectivity, by definition, fails to see the entire picture--the picture an Author needs to write a complete story.

But you need both.

Objectivity lacks passion and stories require feeling and fierceness if they hope to connect with an Audience. Dramatica and the more popular subjective approaches to structuring a story like the Hero's Journey or Save the Cat! work in tandem--not in opposition. The former informs the objective view while the latter conveys the subjective. Learning to work both methods simultaneously guarantees greater competency.

The Sequence Method

The Sequence Method, a particularly subjective approach made popular by Paul Gulino and used extensively at major universities, relies on Dramatic Questions to help set the tone of each major movement on a narrative. While many simply focus on the "Major Dramatic Question" of the entire story, the Sequence Method encourages writers to ask questions for each individual Act and eventually each Sequence and Scene. By doing so, writers secure tension within their Audience.

Finding the Subjective within the Objective

Our article Finding the Major Dramatic Question of Your Story showcases a process for converting Dramatica's rather "abstract" and objective view of a story's structure into the subjective view of story. By looking at the Story Goal from the point-of-view of the characters, an Author can easily identify what many refer to as the "Central" Dramatic Question.

This process works great for generating an overall sense of where the characters find their focus, but when it comes to the Acts leading up to the culmination or individual scenes themselves the end result proves less than beneficial. Does one constantly refer to this same question in each and every scene? And if so, how can you possibly sustain interest?

Thankfully, Dramatica provides an effective solution.

The Easy Plot Points

Everyone gets the Story Goal--whether the end result of a want or external purpose, the concept of characters striving for some resolution resonates clearly. So too, the Story Consequence. For those concerned with finding the "stakes" of a particular narrative, the Story Consequence offers a concrete focal point for failure in the Objective Story.

It should come as no surprise to those in Hollywood that Dramatica sees the failure to stop or defeat a "bad guy" as an instance of dire transformation. Fail to achieve victory and face the Consequence of Changing the World--more often than not, for the worse.1 This is why every studio executive wants the world to be "at stake" for their tent pole features--it's the low-hanging Consequence for stories with Goals of Obtaining.

The steps needed to arrive at that Goal within the story prove more illusive.

The Steps Towards Resolution

When I first set out to learn Dramatica--and I mean really learn Dramatica--I created all kinds of charts and graphs to give my mind a better visual representation of the complex story points offered by the theory. While the original Dramatica theory book proved perceptive and inspiring, some of the terminology required greater insight. As an animator, director, and storyboard artist I find greater understanding and comprehension comes with a well positioned and articulated graphic.

Dramatica offers six Static Plot Points in addition to the foundational Story Goal and Story Consequence:

Saddled with a linear mindset and confused by these compelling--yet hard to grasp--concepts, I sat down with pen and paper:2

Visualizing the Additional Story Points

The blog post Visualizing the Additional Story Points explains further:

The Goal sits on top as it represents the focal point of everything. Beneath it are the Requirements as they are the steps towards reaching the Goal. The Prerequisites and the Preconditions sit directly beneath the Requirement as they are essential for those Requirements to be met.

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the first two: the Story Requirements and the Story Prerequisites.

Getting Into the Minds of Your Characters

In Dramatica: A Fractal Model of Story Structure we show how the relationship between structural elements at the largest resolution cascade down into the smallest resolution. Sequences function as mini-Acts within Acts, Scenes operate as miniature Acts within the mini-Acts of Sequences within the larger more obvious Acts. With the hologram of meaningful relationships contained within the Dramatica storyform, writers can dial in the appropriate resolution for the task at hand.

Understanding the relationship between the Story Goal, Story Requirements, and Story Prerequisities with the aide of visuals similar to the one above, Authors can assume the position of their characters and look out to find touch points for tension. Quite simply:

1. Use the Story Requirements to generate the Dramatic Question of your second Act.

2. Use the Story Prerequisites to create the Dramatic Question of your first Act.

These two rules offer a simple, yet powerful approach towards using the Static Plot Points provided by Dramatica. We finally understand what the structure of a story looks like from the point-of-view of the characters. Discovered in collaboration with Brian Davis, a remarkable story theorist within our own Subtxt Apprenticeship Program, this technique enriches our narratives by helping bridge the gap between the objective and subjective views.

We know the Story Requirements lead up to the Story Goal and we know that the Story Prerequisites lead up to the Requirements. So why not assign the Requirements to the second major movement and the Prerequisites to the first? The fractal relationship inherent in the model guarantees that this approach will work.

Our First Foray into this Approach

Pretend, for a moment, that you're M. Night Shyamalan and you're writing this cool idea for a story called The Sixth Sense. You know that the Story Goal in that film will be Understanding What Is Wrong With Cole (Haley Joel Osment). Strange things will happen in and around the poor kid and no one will quite understand what is really going on. Therapist and Protagonist Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) will be the primary character asking that question and the Audience's proxy for experiencing the events of our story.

Great. You know where the tension will be and you've got a killer ending for our story.

But you really don't know what to do in the middle.

So you select Understanding as the Story Goal in Dramatica and plug in your ending and whittle the narrative down to one single storyform. In return for your time and careful consideration, Dramatica offers you back these thematically consistent story points:

With your newfound appreciation of how to incorporate these plot points into your story, you begin with the Prerequisite. While driven by the bigger question of understanding this disturbed kid, the Audience initially experiences tension in the story by wondering Will Malcom get the idea that there is something more going on here than the usual diagnosis?

Perfect. This subjective interpretation of Conceiving generates for you a multitude of ideas for scenes in the first half of the film. Everything from their therapy sessions together to instances of strange unexplained occurrences at home contributes to this Prerequisite of Conceiving--All by positioning yourself within the characters and looking out at the story structure, or storyform, of your story.

Cole reveals his secret halfway through and suddenly the tension shifts. Suddenly, the Audience finds itself wondering Will Malcom learn why Cole has this ability and help the kid communicate the truth before it is too late? And now you have ideas for the scenes with the tape recorder, the visit to the funeral, and the accident at the side of the road.

And it is only once Malcom finally learns the true extent of Cole's ability that he is able to finally really understand why the sullen kid entered his life.

Intentional Tension

Dramatic tension is not random and it is not happenstance. It flows naturally from the combination of story points carefully laid out to deliver a message of purpose--or Author's Intent--to an Audience. Decipher your story's unique storyform and you find the basis for accurately depicting tension in your own story.

This approach carries down into the various Sequences and even into individual Scenes. The relationship between items at the top levels of story stay consistent all the way down to the very smallest. It wouldn't be surprising to find that connection within individual lines of dialogue.

Wherever you find the order of events being called into question look to the linear relationship that grows from Story Consequence to Story Prerequisite to Story Requirement to Story Goal. In truth, these items relate holistically--but we tell our stories sequentially. This follows that and that follows this and tension found between this and that stems from the relationship between the two.

In Part Two of this article, we will explore further this idea of generating dramatic tension within individual Acts and offer suggestions for stories with varying degrees of thematic material.

  1. If you set Dramatica's story engine to Obtaining for the Story Goal, the application automatically selects Becoming as the Story Consequence. 

  2. The Internet was in its infancy and affordable tablets with pen input were still two decades away. 

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