In this series you will learn an exciting and fun way to brainstorm new story ideas by using Dramatica’s powerful Gists feature. These Playground Exercises are the cornerstone of our Dramatica Mentorship Program. In short, they help you transform theory into story.
Main Character Throughline and Gists
Many writers rail against story theory. How can a construct of chains possibly compete with the intuition of the artist? Story gurus and theoreticians can pontificate all they want, but their uncertified claims lie dormant. The proof, it would seem, lies in a writing exercise designed to elicit the strengths of both the inspiration of the artist and the wisdom of the structuralist.
Blind spots exist in every writer. They motivate us to put pen to paper and thoughts into action. Unfortunately they also stick out like a sore thumb when it comes to our stories. A complete narrative demands the absence of blind spots. Failure to do so results in “story holes” the size of asteroids.
The Dramatica theory of story sheds light on the blind spots within us. By providing a comprehensive objective view of our narrative, Dramatica supports us by filling in the holes. Have a great idea for a story but no idea who the Main Character is or what kind of issues he or she should have?.Dramatica has you covered. Have a great Main Character but no idea what to do with or how to develop a poignant relationship between him or her and another character? Again, Dramatica screens you from the emptiness of writers block.
Unfortunately much of what the theory provides looks something like this:
An unintellegible clinical assertion of something that is supposed to be beautiful and inspired and artful.
As a writer, I might have an idea of how to write a character dealing with Threat and Expectation, but looking at Hunch and Determination I’ll probably take a sidetrip to the Dramatica Dictionary and remind myself of what they mean. By the time I’ve wrapped my head around Dramatica’s precise terminology, I will have lost all interest in writing and instead want to find out what makes Dramatica work or read articles online about the theory (this last one is not so bad if you come here). Regardless the next step taken, I’ve lost all drive to continue writing and my story still sits unfinished.
Thankfully there now exists a way to get your creative mojo kicking with the latest version of Dramatica. Need help figuring out the perfect Main Character for your story? Someone who fits seamlessly within all the other themes and plot po ints you have going on? Or maybe you have parts of the Main Characters Throughline down, but some of the appreciations sit there and mock your inability to illustrate them succinctly. Dramatica can help, and it all starts with an exercise I call The Main Character Playground.
The key to this exercise lies in the generation of multiple revisions of the same story. By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better more original storytelling. It seems contradictory to say that by creating stories we don’t care about we actually find ones we really do, but it’s true. Let me show you!
First thing you want to do is grab yourself the latest version of Dramatica. Now called Dramatica Story Expert, this most recent iteration comes with a feature essential for this exercise—Gists. One of the theory’s co-creators Melanie Anne Phillips explains:
[Gists] are subject matter versions of the story points. For example, rather than reading as “obtaining” a goal might read as “stealing the crown jewels.” There are thousands of gists for you to use as story ideas, and you can create your own as well. Plus, you can even access them in the “Spin the model” feature which picks an arbitrary storyform structure, then populates it with randomly chosen subject matter to help you come up with story ideas!
Instead of Determination you get Working Out a Settlement for Something. Instead of Hubch you get Having a Sense of Foreboding. Melanie’s last point clues is in on the approach we will use to encourage brainstorming.
Hard to generate multiple version of the same story if you haven’t yet figured out what story you want to tell. The current version of Dramatica offers over 32,000 unique individual stories, or storyforms.1 Countless resources exist elsewhere to help you find the unique structure for your story (including my own Dramatica Mentoring service), but if you really have no idea what kind of story you want to tell or want to follow along, head on over to the “Project > Pick Random Storyform” and Dramatica will randomly generate a storyform for you.
Now for the fun part. If you’re not there already, open up “Project > Spin-the-Model”. Whether you have decided to create a random storyform or are going to use one of your own, make sure you select “Keep Existing Storyforming Choices” before proceeding. We want to make sure we’re working with the same thematics. This isn’t the real world where everyone throws in their opinions regardless of thematic consistency!
Next make sure “Assign Random Gists” is checked and select “Replace Existing Gists” below that. Pick a number between 1 and 20, then click the “Spin” button that many times. Eventually you’ll land on a version of your story with your original thematic choices intact but the actual storytelling random and unique. For example, using the storyform choices outlined above, a random selection of generated storyforms with Gists could be:
A little more writer-friendly wouldn’t you say?
You’ll notice that I skipped the Unique Ability and the Critical Flaw. These two story points tie the Main Character Throughline to the Overall Story. Without the context of the Overall Story (i.e., we don’t know what it is) we can’t properly illustrate these appreciations and thus, will leave them out of this exercise. If you ended up using this exercise to further develop your Overall Story (or if you had done the Overall Story first) then you could come back and flesh them out for your Main Character. For now, we will concentrate on the Main Character Throughline exclusively.
First thing to do is to scan over the terms and get an overall feeling for who this Main Character is. What kind of a character would have problems with “being a winner” and would struggle against people having “high expectations” of him or her? How about a 16-year old gymnast fresh from her gold-medal performance at the International Olympics? That sounds good for someone who might have issues with “being threatening to someone” and might ponder “having a future”.
Now, we lucked out with this one. Sometimes Dramatica will spit back a collection of Gists that in no way shape or form should be in the same story. That’s a good thing! We want spontaneity, we want contrasting story points, and above all we want originality. Dramatica’s unique story engine will make sure that all these Gists, regardless of subject matter, will thematically function together. So don’t worry if your Playgrounds speak of “Having Alzheimer’s Disease”, “Having a Song Stuck in Your Head” and “Stealing Fire from the Gods”…Dramatica will make sure they operate as a whole.
The key here is to create a character who is nothing like the Main Character you might have in mind for your story. The further away from what you know the better. The more fun you have with it the better. Change the genre, change the gender, the age, the occupation…change it all! Move away from your story in order to get closer to it.
Now that we have a general idea of who this character is and we have obliterated any preconceptions we had of them, we can start writing about him or her.
For this step, I sort of use the technique described in Armando Saldana Mora’s book “Dramatica for Screenwriters” and included in the latest version of Dramatica—Instant Dramatica. I say sort of because I slightly modify it for this exercise and for the Main Character Throughline.2 For the Main Character Playground I write two or three lines for each of the following (and in this order):
If this were the Relationship Throughline I might delay the Solution illustration to the end, especially since I have no indication within the storyform whether or not the Relationship will be resolved. Presumably we know this for the Main Character: if their Resolve is Change then the Solution will come into play. If Steadfast, then their Solution might fluctuate in and out of the story, but ultimately will not displace the Problem.
In addition to considering the Main Character Resolve, it’s also a good idea to factor in the Story Judgment. The Resolve will let us know whether the Problem or Solution wins out, the Judgment will clue us in to how the Main Character feels about it. For our purposes we have a Main Character Resolve of Change and a Story Judgment of Good.
Back to our gymnast and my first take on this Main Character Playground:
Being a Winner and Having a Particular Group’s Condition Grow Progressively Worse: 16 yr. old Malina struggles with her win at the 2002 Olymipcs. Everyone looks up to her as a champion, even her fellow teammates who, week by week, perform less effectively. Malina’s status as America’s “Golden Idol” makes it harder and harder for her to fit in with the team and other girls her own age.
Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security: Malina feels like a monster. Whether it’s on the mat or down at the mall, girls feel threatened by her and gang up on her any chance they can get. It’s an even bigger issue because, as an only child, she always liked the security she felt being part of something bigger than herself. Now her own success threatens that.
Having High Expectations: Malina’s problems stem from her having such high expectations for herself, not only as a gymnast, but as a friend, as a daughter, and as a student. The pressure is unrelenting.
Writing a Thesis about Someone and Suspecting Someone is Not True: This pressure carries over into school where she struggles with writing a thesis paper about another young prodigy, Mozart. Supporting conclusions about his notoriety become so difficult that she suspects her teachers are wrong about him. And if they’re wrong about Mozart, she suspects her teachers and even her coaches are not telling her the truth about her future potential.
Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence: Eventually Malina has a change of heart and decides that her teachers, the coaches, the girls on her team and the girls her age are all forming their conclusions about her based on circumstantial evidence. Just because she won a Gold Medal doesn’t mean she’s a winner at everything. With a great weight lifted, Malina walks the halls of her high school happy and comfortable in her own skin.
Being at Hand for Something: The more Malina has to be at the beck and call of her teammates to support them the more concerned she becomes with how badly they’re doing.
Studying Early Historic Cultures: Malina’s story begins in history class when a discussion of the Worl’ds Greats inevitably leads students to guessing whether or not she will join the history books.
Improving One’s Situation: Malina combats the jealousy by honestly trying to help her teammates improve their performance and their ranking among other teams.
Having a Future: Malina discovers she has a future far beyond simply performing at Olympics—she has the skills and temperance of a great coach.
Coping with the Current State of Affairs: Malina copes with being part of a team of mediocre players—a team she is proud to be a part of.
As you can see this is an amazing leap from that initial Dramatica report. Instead of a few stunted lines about Progress and Expectation and Theory, we now have a fully realized character—a Main Character we can easily fit into our story.
Note how the progression of Signposts simply works. They fees like the development of a character who shifts their world-paradigm and by doing so, resolves her personal issues. Dramatica determined the order of signposts heeded to elicit that kind of ending. The Gists help us move away from Dramatica. Try writing a downer ending using that order of Signposts and you’ll he hard pressed to do it. It won’t feel natural. That’s the power of Dramatica’s story engine.
We haven’t finished yet. Next week, we will cover the steps required to finish off the exercise and develop our creativity beyond where we ever thought possible before.
A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. Different stories can have the same storyform, but have different storytelling (e.g., West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet) (Storyform ↩︎
Other Throughlines have their own unique changes which I’ll describe in next week’s article. ↩︎
Main Character Throughline and Gists
Discovering a character true to your voice is one thing. Making sure that character fits with everything else you want to say is quite another. Thankfully, writers of the 21st century now have a tool to make that process easy and productive.
In the last article The Main Character Playground we discussed a technique for generating new characters from the same set of thematics. Relying on Dramatica’s storyform to keep it focused and the Random Gists feature to inspire a new course, we brainstormed a character both familiar and fresh. Step Four continues as we return to try a different take on our original storyform.
What kind of a character would struggle with “Being the Last Vampire” and face “Having Low Expectations of a Particular Group” as their problem? Perhaps an aged Count who has little to no hope for the werewolves taking over his nightly reign of terror. It’s a decent start…
Being the Last Vampire and Having Someone’s Condition Grow Progressively Worse: Count Vladimir the Vampire refuses to leave his coffin most nights anymore. Having contracted a severe case of acne at age 433, Vlad prefers to stay indoors where his powers of seduction don’t have to compete with his rampant ugliness. As the nodules increase and his condition grows progressively worse, one thing becomes perfectly clear: Vlad will be the last vampire.
Again, Dramatica spurs a new creative direction! I had no idea why Vlad was going to be the last vampire, but now I have a reason and the explanation is inherently part of the story’s thematics. Wonderful!
Receiving Death Threats from Something vs. Security: To make matters worse, Vlad has started receiving death threats from the Order of Horror—a non-profit organization responsible for maintaining the integrity of nightly terrors. Vlad is a Vampire and thus—ugly or not—must continue to recruit new talent. The Order is not one to be trifled with, especially when they offer such a fantastic pension plan.
Having Low Expectations of a Group: Vlad’s disdain of the modern American female and their excessive superficiality drives him into hiding. With such low expectations of his prime demographic, why bother showing up?
Lacking a Plausible Theory About Something and Having an Intuition About Someone: Vlad’s friends try to comfort him, but not a single one has a plausible theory about the constant rejection Vlad receives that makes more sense than his foul appearance. His friends challenge him to try anyways, but he refuses. It’s hard to give it your all when your intuition tells you otherwise.
Going On With Something’s Everyday Business: The more Vlad continues to go on with the everyday business of Castle Bludskull (the upkeep, the finances, etc.) and finds that he has a place where he belongs, the less he cares about his growing acne condition.
Determining a Resolution for a Particular Group: In the end, Vlad has a change of heart. Instead of excessively worrying about his looks, Vlad determines a resolution for all monsters: that they all be welcome in his new Order housed at Castle Bludskull—the Order of the Grey Pimple.
Relating a Particular Group’s Origin: The story begins when Vlad fails to impress his latest victim with his family’s illustrious history of vampiring (Usually a sure thing). She can’t help but stare at the unsightly boil on his cheek.
Being Focused on Something’s Immediate Concerns: Vlad quickly loses sight of his personal problems once he receives notice of an imminent foreclosure on Castle Bludskull. He pours all his energy into saving his family’s castle.
Slowing Something: Business grinds to a halt as Vlad fails to bring in more customers and his reputation as a friend to the monsters slowly fades away.
Being Promised to a Particular Group: Dedicating himself to the future well-being of all monsters, Vlad sheds his well-worn vampire skin and promises to be a Concierge to the horrific.
Vlad’s story turned out to be quite different than I had originally thought. Gone were all references to werewolves and disdain for their lackluster takeover. Instead, Vlad’s story became one of accepting one’s hidden talents found when forced into a new job.
Interestingly enough, this story shares much more with the story of 16-year old Malina than simply the storyform’s thematics. Whether mere coincidence or a sign of something deeper within, this idea of finding the silver lining when trapped in an unbearable situation keeps resurfacing. Perhaps it appeals to something deep within me…perhaps it is something I truly want to write about.
Beyond bring a fertile playground for creative brainstorming, these exercises evoke the true writer within. By placing aside thematic intent and concentrated purpose, the Main Character Playground allows a smooth extraction of that interior voice. Patterns of spirit rise to the surface, making it easier to identify a Main Character that truly represents who we are.
Having found great success with this exercise, I’ve learned some important things:
Occasionally you’ll run into the same random Gists for different storyforms. Don’t change them! Keeping them the same will force you into working even harder to come up with something unique.
Other times you’ll run across a ridiculous Gist that doesn’t fit your current illustration at all. “In a Declining Market” for a story about space aliens and the Alps? Don’t change it! “Stealing Fire from the Gods” in a romantic story about two people who never meet? Figure it out. Take the challenge as an opportunity to stretch your dramatic wings.
A common mistake dwells in the act of simply copying down the Gist and using it as subject matter. “Being Depressed by Something” becomes “Adelaide gets depressed by sad classical music.” “Spur of the Moment” becomes “Chad joins Violet on a trip to the Ozarks.” Ok. But why are these problems? Everything in Dramatica revolves around the inequity. Domains, Concerns, Issues and Problems describe the same thing, only seen from a different perspective. Always make sure to illustrate the conflict the Gist creates and you’ll have a richer story.
Sometimes your illustrations will fail. You’ll feel it as you go into them as your confidence level will drop to zero and you’ll think to yourself, I’m wasting my time with this nonsense. You’re not. Keep forging forward and finish the exercise. Know that in failing and flailing, you’re growing.
Thrusting your original story idea onto these playgrounds will only scare away the children of your imagination. Approaching the process with baggage stunts the creative process and returns you right back to where you started. Don’t do it. Forget your story (and your ego) and force your mind to go somewhere it’s never been before.
Now that you’ve done the exercise twice, do it again. And again. And continue to do it until you can’t do it anymore. Then do two more.
I’ve always found it takes about seven different trips to the Playground before I’m happy with the results. For some strange reason, the fifth iteration always strikes me as being particularly strong, but only if I continue on and do two more. If I stop at five, or at least know I’m going to stop, that fifth becomes an exercise in “getting it over with” quickly and sloppIly.
Experiment with what works best for you , but do push beyond your limit. The event horizon of your creativity holds the keys to your a brand new universe of writing.
As discussed in the previous article:
By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better storytelling.
It’s one thing to have a paradigm of story structure that can be applied to any story, a pattern that many can easily emulate. It’s quite another to provide tools that unleash untapped potential and illuminate subconscious desires. When writing a Main Character, there can be no more important task than getting to the heart of who we are and what we want to say and experience. The Playground Exercise, along with Dramatica’s Gist feature, rewards Authors with a chance to see within themselves.
Many voice concerns over Dramatica’s apparent write-by-numbers approach to storytelling and the restricted nature of some of its vocabulary. Those who never examined the theory beyond a cursory glance would do well to try a visit to the Playground. An immeasurable difference in their words to come awaits.
Main Character Throughline and Gists
Dramatica functions like a time machine. Speeding you past months of rewrites and dead-end alleys, the theory sheds light on bad story choices while it offers up potentially better ones. Unfortunately, learning how to use it slows time down to a crawl. You need to trick your brain into thinking it’s not using Dramatica in order to get back up to speed.
In previous articles, we explored a new process of using Dramatica called The Main Character Playground. By applying a handful of random Gists to a single storyform, we broke free of our own preconceptions and learned more about the story we want to tell by completely avoiding it. The last step in those articles—Step Four—had us illustrating the random Gists with as many different genres of storytelling in an effort to find our Main Character. The process resumes in this article as we gently move back to our own work.
Spread out your various story illustrations, look them over and see if one speaks to you. Chances are this happened while you were writing them. Several times I’ve finished an illustration only to want to immediately drop everything I’m working on and start in this new story! That’s a good sign. You’ve written something that really inspires you and gets to the core of who you are. Save it for later.
Out of all these various illustrations that have the same thematic components as your original story, which one of them feels like someone you would want to spend days, weeks, maybe even months getting to know better?
Play time is over. Time to call your main Character home and set him to the task of illustrating your story. Having found the randomly illustrated character that speaks to you, simply replace his or her name with the name of the Main Character in your story, change a location or two and you should be good to go.
Now there might be something more you have to adjust in order to make the illustration fit your genre just right, but try to maintain the flavor or nuance of your original storytelling. That uniqueness, that “fun” that you had illustrating those Gists? Try and keep the integrity of your words when it comes to folding them back into your story.
If you still can’t find one that rings out, try taking bits and parts from different Playgrounds and mix them together. I’ve taken the thematic “meat” as it were from one story (the Domain down to the Solution) and mixed it with the Benchmark from another and the Signposts from two other stories. Because I’ve generated so much story material to work from, an embarassment of riches awaits from which to pluck out the rarest and most exhilarating gems.
More often than not you’ll find the perfect story that only requires changing the name, maybe the gender association, and that’s it. That has usually been my experience. Other times you’ll have to do more and mix and match as I have described. The important part is maintaining that creative spark that you felt while you were doing them. Dramatica made it possible for you to forget about the structure and simply have fun writing and it will show in ways that should shock and surprise you. Just don’t lose that astonishment as you roll it over into your story and you should be quite pleased with the results.
And just like that, you’ll have your Main Character. You’ll know exactly what his or her problem is. You’ll know what issues he will be dealing with, the kinds of things he will be doing to avoid dealing with his real problems, and you’ll know how it all works out for him in the end. Along the way you’ll have a good measuring stick to determine his progress (the Benchmark) and you’ll have landmark-sized destinations for his emotional journey that you should hit along the way (the Signposts). In all you will have created a Main Character you never even knew existed the week before and one that fits perfectly into the story you have constructed so far. You’ll have a Main Character that jibes effortlessly with the kind of story you want to tell and the message you want to get across. You will have saved mountains of needless rewrites and weeks of frustration all because you wrote something that wasn’t even your story!
Of course, now that you’ve finished the Main Character Playground, you’ll want to dive into the other Throughlines in your story and see what other new and exciting things to invent.
Before you do, take some time off. At least a day or two. The different Throughlines describe different points-of-view within the human mind and in doing so require different techniques to conceptualize. I’ve found it nearly impossible to switch to illustrating the Relationship Story or Influence Character after spending a couple days with the Main Character. You need time for your brain to reset and realign its receptors to the new perspective.
A week is ideal. Two weeks even better. After three weeks you will have completely forgotten what you did for the Main Character playground and that’s exactly where you want to be. When you maintain the entire story in your head the tendency is to blend certain items which risks losing the uniqueness. Save the combining and eventual shorthand for the writing process. Try to keep the Throughlines as distinct and individual as you can so you can get a good idea of what their respective thematics are really about.
We started with the Main Character because that is often the easiest to communicate and the Throughline most writers feel comfortable with. The other Throughlines—the Overall Story, the Influence Character and the Relationship Story Throughlines—all have their own unique spins on the Playground exercise. Understanding what these Throughlines represent makes clear the difference: different perspectives require different contexts and different contexts necessitate different interpretations.
When it comes to the Influence Character Throughline you’ll want to focus on their influence or impact on others. Too many times those new to Dramatica simply write that Throughline as another Main Character. The Influence Character only exists as a challenge to the Main Character’s way of doing things, so write that difference. Instead of “The unfair working conditions of Chinese immigrant workers drive Frank the railroad man to drink” as an exploration of Inequity as a Main Character Problem, think “Sam delights in treating the Chinese immigrants unfairly and makes sure the railroad men under his command watch and even participate” as an example of an Influence Character Problem of Inequity.1 One is personal, the other impersonal, and challenging.
When it comes to the Relationship Throughline, save its Solution until the very end. Write the Signposts and feel where you think their relationship will end up. As of now, Dramatica supplies no indication as to whether or not the Relationship Throughline resolves, so you’ll have to rely on your instincts for that answer. If you can’t definitively choose one way or another, do both and see which one speaks to you more.
You may wish to skip the Playground on this one. Many Authors already have a pretty good idea of how things will work out objectively, it’s usually the subjective part of the story—the part designed to encompass emotion and point-of-view—that trips them up.
Assuming that is not the case, make sure you write the Overall Story Playground from the point-of-view of the group and use roles in place of personal pronouns and proper nouns. Ignoring names tends to make things more objective (key to this Throughline).
When faced with a Gist that reads “Stuck in Traffic,” write A group of travelers finds themselves stuck in traffic, for “Cooking,” write A group of students challenge each other to a cook-off. Always keep the Overall Story Playground focused on the group.
Unlike the Relationship Story, the Overall Story has an indicator as to how it resolves: the Story Outcome. As with the Story Judgment and the Main Character, the Story Outcome clues you in to how to end your story. In short, if the Outcome is Success then the Overall Story Solution will come into play. If Failure, then the Solution could occasionally come into play but in the end, the Overall Story Problem will win out and the inequity for the group will still exist.
What happens when you’ve exhausted your festive resources? Take a break. Clear your mind for a week or two and then start writing. Combine the four separate stories into one. Using Armando’s excellent Instant Dramatica technique for combining all these disparate pieces, start breaking down yor story into four major movements. Domains, Concerns and first Signposts in Act One. Issues, Counterpoints and second Signposts in Act Two. Symptom and Responses and the third Signposts in Act Three and finally, Problem and Solutions and the last Signpost in Act Four.
Within those independent Acts, move the information around. Shift the dynamics to tell the story you want. This is where the art comes into it and where you’ll find rules non-existent. Truth be told, the Problem, Solution, Symptom and Response should be in very Act. Armando’s technique works for a synopsis. if you want something deeper, use it as a base outline and expand from there. The only rule? Keep the Signpost order the same and don’t move on to the next Signpost until you’ve finished addressing all the signposts for that Act.2
The classic how-to book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, tasks artists with illustrating their subjects upside-down. When inverting their depicted objects, artists concentrate more on line and form rather than replicating the perfect apple or the perfect tree. Far too often writers find themselves trapped writing and rewriting the perfect tree. The Main Character Playground exercise, and its accompanying brothers and sisters in the other Throughlines, frees writers from their own self-imposed limits and grants them an opportunity at creating something truly wonderful and unique. Something uniquely them. Something no one else—computer or otherwise—can copy.
Hopefully this exercise has given you a good idea of how to take Dramatica’s somewhat complicated theoretical ideas and put them to good use. If you’re stuck and can’t figure out the right Main Character for your story, or if you simply keep writing the same relationship over and over again, the Playground technique can help energize the creative writer in you and help you discover new and exciting characters to write about.
Artists need that permission to stretch their legs and run rampant on the blacktop in order to meet new friends and find out what they’re capable of. Hear the bell ringing?
It’s time to play.
This example assumes the Main Character would be one of the railroad men challenged by the Influence Character Sam to rethink his or her approach. ↩︎
For example, do not move on to the Main Character’s 3rd Signpost until you have addressed the 2nd Overall Story Signpost, the 2nd Influence Character’s Signpost and the Relationship Story’s 2nd Signpost. ↩︎