That scary creature that awaits just at the edge of the ocean, its tentacles reaching out and dragging the ship of your creative endeavors into oblivion? All of us run into this creative monster one time or another. How are we to continue on when we have no idea what direction to head? If only there was a tool, a map, that once engaged would end this cursed writer’s block once and for all.
The Dramatica theory of story presents a revolutionary way of looking at narrative. Instead of a single thread that runs from beginning to end, Dramatica sees several threads that intertwine and weave back and forth, bouncing off one another and informing each other. This pattern of interaction that Dramatica sees communicates the Author’s deep thematic intent to his or her intended Audience. Writing yourself into a corner? That only happens when you don’t first set out to nail down what it is you want to say with your story. It only happens when you fail to take the time to figure out your storyform first.
A Tender Balance of Theme
The Dramatica storyform is a unique collection of seventy-five Story Points that maintain the thematic integrity of a narrative. Assuming you want to explore a certain kind of conflict in one Throughline, Dramatica helps you find elements that support and counter-balance that argument. A one-sided argument is just as bad as a story with holes in it—in fact, they’re one and the same. If you want to make sure your story flows, you have to present a balanced argument.
But even then, simply identifying the storyform isn’t enough.
Deciphering Your Story’s Structure
You have spent days, maybe weeks, answering all of Dramatica’s questions about your story and you finally have narrowed it down to one storyform. Time to celebrate, right? No—it’s time to write. Having been an avid fan of Narrative First for years you jump to the Reports section of the app, click on the Story Engine Settings report, and print out your story’s thematic structure.
And what does it look like this? This.
Ugh. Frightening isn’t it? That doesn’t look remotely like a story. Activity, Skill, Unending and Ending. What do those even have to do with telling a great story?
Click on the checkbox marked ‘Show Gists’ and instantly your story’s structure becomes a little more…human.
Now that’s better. In fact it sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? Both Story Engine Settings report above are for the same film—Star Wars. The first gives the structure in Dramatica’s base terminology, the second uses Dramatica’s Gists feature.
You Get the Gist
Gists approximate Dramatica terminology. Instead of Impulsive Responses you might have Being Numb or Being Fidgety or Responding Inappropriately. Instead of The Present you might have Being in the Here and Now or Being Present for Someone or Being Current. If I told you the Goal of your story was The Present many would respond with confusion and derision. If instead I told you the Goal of your story that every character was working for was to be current, or to be hip, or to be in the here and now—suddenly you would understand what your story is all about.1
That is what Gists do. They bridge the gap between structure and storytelling.
They aren’t a replacement for structure. You still need to know the underlying thematics to make sure the Gist doesn’t venture too far away from the reality of the story point. But incorporating them into your workflow is a great way to make sure the work continues to flow. And for writers suffering from writer’s block, Dramatica’s Gist feature can be a Godsend.
Something Out of Nothing
Two ways this Gist feature can you help out of a jam. It can help fill a gap in your storytelling or help you brainstorm an entire new story alltogether. We’ll start out by taking a look at the latter, and follow up in subsequent articles with the former.
If you Create a New File and then go to Dramatica’s Brainstorming feature, you’ll be presented with an empty story structure of several unchosen items. Head on over to the options on the sidebar and make sure you select Keep Existing Storyform Choices, Assign Random Gists, and Replace Existing Gists. We don’t have any storyform choices made yet, but Dramatica is smart enough to generate for us a completely new one.
Click Spin and you’ll see your new story.
For me, I found a story with a Changed Main Character in a Personal Tragedy. In other words, she changes how she approaches problems and finds success—but at a great personal cost. Already my mind is reeling with storytelling possibilities.
Looking further I see that she is going to be a Do-er which means she will prefer to take action first before trying to change herself. She is a Holistic thinker—which is great gender wise, but not so great for a Linear thinker like myself. Thankfully Dramatica will help steer me down the right path and who knows, maybe I’ll surprise myself by writing a character I never would have otherwise given my own preconceptions.
Not thrilled about the Timelock as it effectively shuts out half my audience, but again the difference may prove to be an interesting one.
One thing you’ll notice is that Dramatica did not generate Gists for these Dynamic Story Points. They shouldn’t as they constantly change and develop throughout the course of a story; you really couldn’t nail them down to a definite approximation. As we move down to the Static Story Points, the Gists become extremely useful.
A Little Science Fiction
For fun, I turned on our latest Science Fiction Genre Gists that we offer to monthly subscribers here at Narrative First. Once a month—along with other exclusive material—we offer our members a huge collection of Dramatica Gists that they can download and install into their version of the software. Our Fantasy and Western Genres had over 100,000 Gists each!2
The Generation of a Story’s Theme
For our purposes here we will concentrate on the Domain and Concern Story Points of each Throughline. In subsequent articles we will also take a look at the Signposts for each Throughline, but for now the Domain and Concern are sufficient for our purposes. These two Story Points represent the broadest scope of conflict within the story and serve as a nice introduction to what Dramatica offers the working writer.
Looking at the Overall Story Throughline, we see a Domain of Being the Accidental Time-Tourist and a Concern of Having the Caveman’s Freedoms Progressively Restricted. Hah! Totally random, but you can see how well these work together. Extrapolating from these prompts I know this story will be about a group of time-travelers who accidentally stumble into the Paleolithic era and come into conflict over their progressive restrictions of the local inhabitants. Social commentary with men in bear cloth. Wonderful!
Scrolling down to the Main Character Throughline we see that Dramatica gave us a Domain of Singing for the Space Babe and a Concern of Yelling at the Robot Zombie. OK, this one is crazy but I think we can work it out. Our Main Character—let’s call her Roda—is struggling throughout the whole story with her skills as singer. Specifically she wants to sing for the Space Babe…perhaps Roda is smitten by the pneumatically-gifted Captain of her ship and wants to impress the babe with her skills as a singer. In fact, it’s so much of a struggle that she can’t help but yell at the Robot Zombie who works as the ship’s concierge.3
Already we have a massively dense story…and we’ve only covered half of it. For most writers this would be enough. They know the central plot of the story—that it involves time travellers and cavemen. And they know their story’s central character, one of those time-travellers who just wants to sing her way into her captain’s heart. For most that would be sufficient to write a first draft.
But that’s not enough for Dramatica. And it’s not enough for most audiences. Viewers (and readers if this were to be a novel) demand complete stories. They want to see this Main Character’s approach challenged and they want a relationship to develop between the Main Character and the person challenging her. Will it be the Captain? Maybe, maybe not. Nothing we have done so far sets that in stone.
How the Other Half Lives
Ok, this is hilarious.
Scrolling down to the Influence Character Throughline we see that this character has a Domain of Being Petulant Towards the Caveman and a Concern of Mimicking the Robot Clone. Oh man, so many different ideas spring up. Instead of making the Influence Character the Captain, maybe this would be better if it was one of the cavemen they discover. A caveman who can’t stand being around his fellow neanderthals and whose bad temper and childish behavior humiliates and insults the people he is around. And then his concern of Mimicking the Robot Clone could be his attempts to mimic and make fun of…Roda herself! Maybe Roda is a Robot Clone, a clone who wasn’t programmed with the right ability to sing and then along comes this caveman—we’ll call him Thug—who mocks and makes fun of her and basically diminishes any pull or influence she might have over the other cavemen.
How incredible is that? Thirty minutes into this process and already we have a rich and compelling story. Thug will challenge Roda because he can affect and influence the others to act the way he wants simply by making fun of her; Roda can’t affect the Captain at all and she’s trying to actually do something about it. As silly as the storytelling may seem, you can still see how these two characters would be drawn to one another and how one would grow from the other. These two characters will bounce off of each other until finally at the end Roda will take over and adopt Thug’s childish and petulant psychology.
Sounds like a great story, right? Just one more Throughline left…
A Relationship for the Ages
Finally we have the Relationship Story Throughline, and look at how perfect it fits in with everything else. Remember, these Gists were set up in a completely random fashion, yet they still feel like they all work together. The only reason for that is the Dramatica structure underneath. That is, in fact, the magic behind Dramatica—we can stretch the storytelling as far as we want, as long as we maintain that consistent set of thematics underneath it all.
With Thug constantly humiliating Roda and Roda trying to win the heart of her Captain, it only makes sense that these two should develop a love affair. What Is better than two star-crossed lovers meeting across time and space? The storyform tells us their relationship will be a contentious one, with each of them vying over who is right and who is wrong. Yet they will be drawn to each other because of their fear over the End of the Universe—a shared concern that forms the basis for their relationship.
Perhaps Roda’s arrival at this time threatens to bring down the very fabric of our existence. Who knows. The possibilities are endless when it comes to mixing and matching the storytelling for a storyform.
The Beginnings of a Complete Story
Do you see the story we just created together? It’s the story of two star-crossed lovers who meet across time and space, a robot clone from the future and a caveman from the Paleolithic area. Accidentally trapped in a time without technology, these futurists must find a way to live with primitive man while avoiding progressively restricting their freedoms—for if they do, they may upset the space-time continuum and cease to exist. While drawn to the caveman Thug, the robot clone Roda dreams of swooning her ships’s Captain off her feet with her melodious voice. Unfortunately for her, Thug is an expert mimic and finds every opportunity to mock her disharmonious voice with his petulant and childish attitude.
In the end, Roda comes to be just as obnoxious as Thug, mimicking and making fun of those she wishes to impress. It insures the evolution of man, but saddens her personally as she fails to impress the one woman she has always dreamt of spending her life with.
I had no idea what was going to happen when I first started writing this article, in fact I had planned to write about creating a new story and using the Gists to fill in story holes. But now it’s clear to me that I should break these up into another series of articles. The storytelling within me simply took over. Guided by the storyform I created a solid framework for a story that would be both logically consistent and emotionally compelling.
Now the only thing to do would be to write it.
A Starting Point for Creativity
The important takeaway here is the idea that one can easily and quickly develop a complete story in less than a hour with Dramatica—as long as they know what they’re doing. Even if you have no idea what you want to write about, but you love writing, you can easily Spin the Model as we did above and start writing with confidence. I didn’t even get into the Signposts like I wanted to (I will in a later article), but those Story Points lay out for you what should happen in each Act. It really is an incredible tool for creating and vetting a strong narrative.
The only problem you’ll have is deciding which story to write first. I’m deep in the middle of a screenplay right now, but looking at this story of Roda and Thug…I want to jump on this instead. An overwhelming embarrassment of riches to be sure, but one that insures I will always have the motivation and insight to engage in my craft.
Writer’s block is a failure of the author to recognize the thematics that run the course of a narrative. Dramatica obliterates writer’s block once and for all. The only challenge remains learning and understanding the theory to the best of your ability.
And it would be massively unique. Who writes a story nowadays about the need to be in the here and now? ↩︎
Compare that to the 12,000 that come with the program. 10x the amount of opportunities for creativity. ↩︎
That’s Robot Zombie. Not Rob Zombie like I saw when I went over the first draft of this article. ↩︎