Series of Articles
A Playground for Writers
Writing your story by writing another story
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.
The Main Character Playground
A new writing exercise for writers promises to unlock their creativity.
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.
A Shining Light
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:
- Domain: Situation
- Concern: Progress
- Issue: Threat
- Problem: Expectation
- Solution: Determination
- Focus: Theory
- Response: Hunch
- Benchmark: Present
- Signpost 1: Past
- Signpost 2: Progress
- Signpost 3: Future
- Signpost 4: Present
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.
Room to Stretch
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.
Step One - Nail Down Your Storyform
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.
Step Two - Generate Random Storyforms with Gists
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:
- Domain: Being a Winner
- Concern: Having a Particular Group's Condition Grow Progressively Worse
- Issue: Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security
- Problem: Having High Expectations
- Solution: Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence
- Focus: Writing a Thesis about Someone
- Response: Suspecting Someone is Not True
- Benchmark: Being at Hand for Something
- Signpost 1: Studying Early Historic Cultures
- Signpost 2: Improving One's Situation
- Signpost 3: Having a Future
- Signpost 4: Coping with the Current State of Affairs
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 Objective Story. Without the context of the Objective 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 Objective Story (or if you had done the Objective 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.
Step Three - Get an Overall Feeling
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.
Step Four - Start Illustrating
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):
- Domain and Concern
- Issue and Counterpoint
- Focus and Response
- Signpost 1
- Signpost 2
- Signpost 3
- Signpost 4
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.
Ramping Up the Creativity
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.↩
Finding Your Main Character
The very best way to get to know the most important character of your story is to write something else.
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.
Random Gist #2
- Domain: Being the Last Vampire - Concern: Having Someone's Condition Grow Progressively Worse
- Issue: Receiving Death Threats from Something vs. Security
- Problem: Having Low Expectations of a Particular Group
- Solution: Determining a Resolution for a Particular Group
- Focus: Lacking a Plausible Theory about Something
- Response: Having an Intuition about Someone
- Benchmark: Going On with Something's Everyday Business
- Signpost 1: Relating a Particular Group's Origins - Signpost 2: Being Focused on Something's Immediate Concerns
- Signpost 3: Slowing Something - Signpost 4: Being Promised to a Particular Group
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.
Things to Consider
Having found great success with this exercise, I've learned some important things:
Trust the Gists
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.
Trust the Gists Again
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.
Illustrate Problems, not Gists
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.
Don't Stop Playing
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.
Don't Force Your Story
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.
Repeat as Needed
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.