The Dramatica theory of story is a complex and sophisticated model of narrative. Abstract and seemingly arcane to many, the concepts and terminology repel artists used to feeling their way through a story. And for a good reason—without that distancing effect, the theory loses all sense of its ability to accurately predict the mechanism behind a great story.
Here at Narrative First, writers learn a practical approach to the Dramatica theory of story through the Dramatica Mentorship Program. Part of the program involves traversing the Table of Story Elements from top to bottom to give the student a greater understanding of the feeling behind the terms. The writer learns by sensing the meaning, rather than relying on specific definitions.
At the top of the chart, we find the four Domains, or areas, of conflict in a story. By assigning a Throughline perspective to each of these regions the writer crafts the personality—or Genre—of the narrative. Action/adventure stories feel different from psychological thrillers because their respective areas of conflict fall into separate categories—the former in Physics, the latter in Psychology.
Assuming, of course, you’re using the original terminology.
A New Theory of Story
The Dramatica theory of story sprang out of nowhere in 1994. Conventional thinking at that time relied heavily on the cultural mythos, blended Main Characters with Protagonists, and broke plot down into three Acts. Beyond explaining the deficiencies in each of these axioms, Dramatica brought terms like Universe and Physics to the conversation.
To say it alienated the power base is an understatement.
Even writers—the ones who stand to benefit most from a greater understanding of the story—challenged the theory’s “obscure and inaccessible” terminology, leading Melanie Anne Phillips, one of the co-creators of Dramatica, to answer their concern:
I agree. I believe that any words which are difficult to understand in the semantic chart should be replaced immediately with more accessible words that are just as accurate. For example, Conceiving and Conceptualizing are much too obscure to be of use to the vast majority of writers. They should absolutely be replaced. Unfortunately, I have personally been unable to come up with alternatives. What is needed is an approach whereby writers themselves, having a command of the vocabulary, might suggest replacement words which we could consider.
Enter Situation, Manipulation, Conceptualizing, and the entire family of “Easy” Terminology.
Enter the confusion and degredation of accuracy.
The Blinded Leading the Blind
The current version of Dramatica Story Expert sets writers down the wrong path right out of the box. Universe is now a “Situation” and Psychology a “Manipulation.” Faced with these two options, is it any wonder that the neophyte gravitates towards defining the conflict in their psychological thriller as a problematic Situation?
Section One Part One of the Table of Story Elements Tour in the Dramatica Mentorship Program requires students to watch American Beauty, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, and A Simple Plan. Afterwards, the student determines the four areas of conflict in each film and attach those to the four Throughline perspectives: Objective Story, Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story. The only hint? Each film, though vastly different in subject matter and approach, shares the same alignment of Throughlines.
A recent student, like so many before, confidently placed the Objective Story Throughline of A Simple Plan in a Situation. How else would you define a story about a group of characters who come into possession of a large sum of money that more virulent men seek to recover? An Activity? No, that’s too general. A Fixed Attitude? Certainly not. Manipulation? No way, maybe the older brother. But, if you had to choose one, it seems like they’re all stuck in a no-win Situation.
Seems is the operative word here.
The Lie of Simplicity
As mentioned in the Throughline Analysis of The Prestige:
Remaining locked within the subjective perspectives afforded by the individual characters blinds the observer to an accurate account of the source of conflict.
The “easier” terminology only makes it easier to stay trapped in the subjective point-of-view of the characters. The article The Fugitive: When a Situation Isn't a Situation clarifies this point. It just makes it easier for the writer to be wrong.
Consider the original terminology for the four Domains:
Obscure? Yes. Inaccessible? Thankfully, yes—because that “inaccessibility” keeps us objective about the story.
Writers find it almost impossible to think of their characters suffering through any conflict that is not a situation. Situation, Activities, Manipulations, and Fixed Attitude? You couldn’t find a character that didn’t, at one time or another, consider one or all four of these areas as sources of conflict in their lives. Universe, Physics, Psychology, or Mind would never even remotely enter into any of their conversations.
And that’s just it.
Dramatica’s Domains don’t define where the characters see conflict; they identify where the story—and the Author—sees the conflict.
A Better Sense of the Word
That same writer and student in the Program, when supplied with the original terminology, quickly and accurately identified the source of conflict in A Simple Plan: Psychology. The film is, after all, a psychological thriller. Where else would you identify the battle? Universe?
Same thing happened with his analysis of American Beauty. At first, it seemed as if all the characters in that Academy Award-winning film found themselves in a problematic and inescapable Situation. Once the writer commanded an understanding of the original terminology and had a better sense of those terms, he accurately identified the Domain of conflict in Psychology.
Melanie explains the need to sense, or feel the meaning behind the words in that same post:
the Psychology Class is the hardest to see in a logical mode. But, since Conceiving and Conceptualizing are down at the Type level, they are already two levels into the area in which logic works least well. That means that these areas are really best understood in terms of emotion. I don't mean words describing emotion, but in terms of actually FEELING the meaning, rather than THINKING the meaning.
Those that think the meaning turn to the Dramatica Dictionary and various Storyform Analyses for answers. Those that feel the meaning and separate their experience from the structure by switching to the original terminology find the answers.
The Right Path
The first step towards using Dramatica the right way involves rolling back the program and your understanding of the original terminology. Erase from your mind Situation and Manipulation. Discard Conceptualizing and Changing One’s Nature and Impulsive Responses. Even get rid of Activities—Physics so clearly and elegantly describes the entire spectrum of possible conflict available in this Domain. Why limit yourself to the general and blandly reductive Activity?
Melanie and Chris put a lot of time and effort into delivering an accurate model of narrative.
By all means, we MUST make things more accesible, but I firmly believe we do writers a better service by providing slightly obscure absolute accuracy than by providing slightly accurate absolute understanding. With an accurate model, a certain amount of learning can ultimately provide complete understanding, but with an inaccurate model, the more one learns, the more obscure it becomes.
The more accessible terminology supports an inaccurate model and widespread misunderstanding.
Roll back to move forward.