Dramatica and Four Throughlines
When it comes to writing a story nowadays, remembering where you left off is a challenge. Whether it’s the latest in tech or whatever it is you’re devouring on that tech, getting back to the business of putting one word in front of the other can be difficult. If only there was some way to easily remind yourself of the point of every scene …
“Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” — Alain de Botton
The shortcut to beating that fear? A Dramatica storyform.
With 75 different story points symbolizing a holistic understanding of your story, a Dramatica storyform accelerates development time, giving writers a clear-cut schematic of how their story will unfold. Replacing your fear of doing badly with a fear of formula? Dramatica can pinpoint close to 33,000 unique storyforms. And if that weren’t enough to allay your fears, Collateral and Finding Nemo have the same storyform—could they be any different?1
The telling of the story, the unique personal take on each story point—that’s where the art comes in. That is where you will find the artist in this process. Organizing those thoughts in a way that conveys a clear and succint message—that is where Dramatica comes in. And now Fountain.
The first big thing we’re going to do when it comes to outlining your story is to block out the big movements of your story, what most people call Acts. Now, before you skip ahead and simply put down “Act 1”, “Act 2”, “Act 3” we’re going to use the power of Dramatica to help tell us if we have a three Act story. Some stories take three Acts to tell, some take four, some simply take two.
The clue to your story’s Act structure can be found in the Plot Progression for your Overall Story Throughline. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Plot Progression or don’t have a storyform yet, feel free to pick your favorite film from the Dramatica analysis page and follow along.
Every Throughline in Dramatica consists of four Concerns that cover the types of conflict in each Throughline. For example, if your Overall Story is about Problematic Activities then your Throughline will explore Understanding, Doing, Obtaining and Learning. If it is about a Problematic Situation then you’ll find yourself covering the Past, Present, Future and How Things are Changing.
Every story will have its own unique way of exploring these Concerns but it will never repeat any of them. You do four and then the story is over. All bases covered. If you look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements you’ll see these Concerns laid out in a Quad. Moving from one corner to another feels different depending on the direction taken.
If the move is diagonal then the dramatic shift will feel like a Slide. If it crosses horizontally or vertically then it will feel like a Bump. Bumps create a feeling of a definite Act change, while a Slide feels more like the second half of a larger Act. Sorry Aristotle, competent narratives are more than simply a beginning, middle, and an end.
With four different types of dramatic concerns to work through, throughlines fall into three broad categories: Bump-Slide-Bump, Slide-Bump-Slide and Bump-Bump-Bump-Bump. Multiply this by four separate throughlines that may or may not follow the same order, and the diversity of storytelling becomes clear. This is not a reductive process.2
For this article, we’ll focus on the Overall Story Throughline. It tends to be the one most people think of when they think of a story. Personally I’ve found it the best way to create a foundation for any story I write.
Looking at the Signpost Order of your Overall Story Throughline (found in Reports > Advanced Reports > Story Engine Settings) what path does Dramatica say you should take through your story? If you have a Bump-Slide-Bump then you have a typical Three-Act structure. Using the first level of Fountain’s outlining tools (the # delimeter), go ahead and put those down.
So if you have this:
then you’ll do this:
Rian Johnson’s Looper employs this approach: the first movement focuses on everyone learning about the Rainmaker and his efforts to end the loopers’ contracts (Learning). Old Joe’s arrival and subsequent overpowering of Young Joe bumps the narrative into the second movement which consists of Old Joe searching for the Rainmaker as a child and Young Joe following the clues given to him by Old Joe’s map. This movement slides into the second half of the traditional Second Act where Old Joe begins killing the potential Rainmakers and Jesse arrives at the farm to kill both Joes (Doing to Obtaining). Old Joe’s capture bumps the story into the last movement wherein Old Joe finally understands Cid’s abilities and Young Joe understands what he has to do to save the future (Understanding).
If, on the other hand, you have something like this:
then you’ll organize your document like this:
because you have what is known as a Slide-Bump-Slide story, or Two-Act story. These stories feel like they consist of two major movements. Some refer to them as “rise and fall” narratives.
James Cameron’s Aliens takes this approach: the first movement consists of understanding what happened to the Lost Colony and slides into learning what really happened (“They’re coming outta the goddman walls!”). The second movement consists of fighting back against the alien threat and slides into destroying their queen and the colony itself (“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.”). Understanding to Learning and then Doing to Obtaining.
Lastly, if you have this:
then get ready, because you have a Bump-Bump-Bump-Bump story and you will want to organize your story like this:
These narratives feel more episodic in nature. Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Godfather takes this approach: the first act deals with the growing realization that drugs are the future of the business and that Michael must be brought in to deal with Sollozo (Understanding). This Bumps into the second movement with the murder of Sollozzo and Captain McClusky. The Second Act focuses on the families fighting over who will gain power and territory. Sonny’s fight to regain power leads to his eventual death (Obtaining) which Bumps the story into the Third Act. Here, Michael learns all he can from his father. Others learn of the Coleone’s plans to move to Vegas. This movement Bumps into the last act with the death of Don Corleone. Having learned all he can to prepare for Tessio’s inevitable betrayal, Michael does what a Godfather must do. He takes vows while his hitmen make key shifts in power. And finally, the other dons pledge their allegiance to Michael.
From here, you will want to drop in the specific Signposts from every Throughline. The Overall Story will be the easiest—there will be one sequence for every Act. Use the ’##’ Section delimiter to denote the next level down and attach any notes concerning it with the ’=’ Synopsis delimiter.
If you were writing Aliens, your document would look something like this:
OS Signpost 1: Understanding
= Everyone tries to figure out what happens to the Lost Colony. Ripley tries to get everyone to understand that this is a bad idea.
OS Signpost 2: Learning
= The Marines learn what really happened to the Colony and what they’re up against. They try to get information back to Earth. [[ The drop ship crashes, destroying any chance of leaving for safety. ]]
OS Signpost 3: Doing
= The Marines fight the Aliens. The Marines retreat. And retreat some more.
OS Signpost 4: Obtaining
= Ripley finally finds her balls and faces the Queen. They nuke the colony and Ripley ejects the bitch into space.
You’ll note I added the Bump between the Two Acts—the destruction of the drop ship with Fountain’s ’[[ ]]’ Notes delimeter. Dramatica calls a major plot point like this the Story Driver, and it’s generally a good idea to keep track of these things to keep your story grounded with your original intention. If you have a story point you want to keep track of, put it in there as a Note. Fountain will leave it out when it comes time to print the final document.
Now all you have to do is write the damn thing. You’ll want to put the Main Character Throughline in there as well as the Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughlines. You’ll also want to drop in all those other story points that aren’t Signposts. Sometimes you’ll find that you want to double up on some of the Signposts within one Act; nothing wrong with that. As long as you don’t address a Signpost in a different Act, your story will maintain its narrative integrity.
The tendency when taking this approach is to use each Signpost as a Sequence. This is fine, but you’ll find that occasionally your muse will call for more than one Throughline’s Signpost to be in the same Sequence. Always listen to that voice in your head when it comes to weaving these Signposts together. Don’t listen to that voice when it comes to the dramatic content and the order in which it appears. This is where Dramatica excels and where our context-shifting minds tend to screw things up.
In these distracted times, remembering what your story is about and why characters do the things they do becomes the ultimate struggle. Sure, it’s convenient to be able to write while driving down to teach a workshop or while your girlfriend checks her Instagram,3 but falling back into that headspace at a moment’s notice—that’s the real trick.
Folding your Dramatica storyform into your screenplay document makes it easier to drop into your story. You can start at the end or start at the beginning, you can even start dead center if you want because you’ll have the confidence that what you are writing will add up to something deeply meaningful. Outlining your screenplay with Dramatica and Fountain means setting yourself up with days and days of productive and fun writing.