The difference between Dramatica and other paradigms of story structure? Dramatica takes your Original Intent—what it is you want your story to mean—and gives you back the order in which you should present your material. Tragedies move through a different sequence of events than Triumphs; some characters change by growing while others grow by changing—the specific sequence of the narrative thematic material in your story shifts depending on what it is you are trying to say.
Domain and Concern
With the Dramatica theory of story you do more than simply fit your Hero into a prearranged journey of sequences. In sharp contrast, you assume the role of Author and determine the source of conflict in your narrative’s individual storylines. While the end result is greater effectiveness in communicating your story’s unique thematic message, it can be difficult figuring out exactly where your conflict falls.
One of these areas of conflict centers on psychological manipulations. Instead of looking at violent attacks or treasure hunts or living under English rule, stories that center on Psychology focus on conflict arising from how people think.
Dramatica breaks how people think down into four key types of conflict:
On the Dramatica Table of Story Elements these Concerns are arranged in a Z pattern:
When it comes to the difference between Changing One’s Nature and Playing a Role it helps to think of the original terminology that shipped with Dramatica back in 1994. In fact, when working with writers or producers I always suggest that in the beginning you should frequently switch back and forth between the two different versions.
The “easy” terminology—the default setting for the most recent version of the software—was a marketing decision made a little over a decade to make Dramatica more palatable for writers new to the theory. The idea was that if they could somehow make the concepts friendlier and easier to understand, they could overcome some of the bad reviews surrounding the complexity of the theory.
The problem with that line of thinking is that it takes what is a broad and all-encompassing swath of narrative and narrows it down to a singular instance. It’s like the Hero’s Journey vision of story where Protagonist and Main Character always find themselves trapped within the same “Hero”. Yes, it works for a particular subset of stories, but not for every story.
The original terminology for Changing One’s Nature and Playing a Role was Becoming and Being, respectively:
Becoming is more of a transformational whole-body change while Being is more transitory and temporary. For many raised in English-speaking countries, the difference seems inconsequential. As explained in Building Dramatica for Foreign Languages, the contrast reveals itself with more clarity in other countries:
Spanish does a much better job of defining the differences between these two. Both Ser and Estar mean “to be”, but in different ways. Ser pertains to identity and is thought of as something fundamental…Estar differs by establishing states of being, condition, or location, and is referred to as the Present Progressive.
With Being characters come into conflict by thinking they will behave or be a certain way for awhile to try and impress or manipulate someone. Consider the Supers in The Incredibles: characters pretending to be something they are not, in order to fit in with society.
Conflict surrounding the changing of one’s nature exists in films like Moulin Rouge! where each and every character strives to transform their essential nature and the nature of the Moulin Rouge itself. They believe that if all goes according to plan, the Moulin could become a serious destination for respectable theater.
Developing a Plan was originally labeled Conceptualizing, a FAR more interesting and compelling story point than simply describing some plan of action. Conceptualizing includes envisioning, imagining, and conceptually fitting components and people together. It can even be about figuring out how to make a relationship work. Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is a perfect example of a characters trying to conceptualize a new vision for their family; eons away from simply “Developing a Plan”.
Conceiving an Idea is much closer to the original term Conceiving, but can include all manners of inventing and originating beyond simply coming up with an idea. The idea that “Anyone Can Cook” features front and center in Pixar’s Ratatouille and fits easily into the concept of Conceiving an Idea. But a film like Amelie focuses more on the conflict surrounding characters working to reinvent themselves. Both work to show Conceiving, but only the former easily slides into Conceiving an Idea.
Sometimes the strive to improve and reach more heads results in lowering oneself to the lowest common denominator. Dramatica is difficult to learn, and even harder to communicate and teach. But focusing on making it easier only limits the power and scope of its concepts.
Writing a story, especially one that holds together from beginning to end, is hard enough even without imposing a limited view of conflict. Switching back and forth between the easy and original terminology in Dramatica ensures that one avoids sacrificing accuracy for ease of use. Shoulder the difficulty and ignore the negative reviews, your Audience will appreciate and embrace your efforts to give them something meaningful and important.
Acts, Signposts, and Plot Progression
In Hollywood, every film is a Three Act structure. Roam the halls of the story department at one of the big animation studios or saunter in to a lunch meeting for production executives on a live-action film and you encounter the same sight on every white board: a sequence of events broken down into three separate sections.
But not every story is a Three Act structure.
Some narratives tell the story of a rise to power followed by a great fall (The Dark Knight); others start with the fall, then end with the rise (The Matrix). These stories split dramatic tension into Two Acts. Any attempt to force them into a Three Act structure only encourages dissension and disagreement among collaborators.
Still others—like The Godfather or Platoon—break off into four distinct movements. Almost episodic in nature, yet still tied together thematically at the core, these stories clearly function on top of a Four Act structure. Force a Three Act paradigm here and you risk breaking a masterpiece.
The key to effortless development dwells in understanding the type of narrative structure your particular story requires. Every complete story feels complete because it addresses the different contexts where problems find solutions. Each Throughline focuses on one particular area of conflict, and each of these areas divides naturally into four different Types of Conflict.
Problems of Activities split off into Understanding problems, Doing problems, Gathering Information problems, and Obtaining problems. Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators of the Dramatica theory of story, describes the difference between these four Types in the Dramatica Users Group narrative analysis of Zootopia at the 1:21:40 mark in this video:
As Chris explains, Doing is about engaging or not engaging in an activity whereas Obtaining is about achievement or loss. Both require “doing” but the focus in each instance is different. Understanding is figuring out how things are related to one another whereas Gathering Information is the process of learning about something.
Observe the athlete:
Again, focus is key. Some enjoy reading, while others want to read all of the books in a series and perhaps own the largest library in the world. The former focus on the Doing, the latter on Obtaining. Think of these different Types of Conflict as different dimensions of the area of conflict they explore; in this case, Doing, Obtaining, Learning, and Understanding reflect different dimensions of an activity.
In addition to Problems of Activities, complete stories examine Situational Problems, Fixed Attitude Problems, and Problems of Manipulations. Situations divide up into problems of the Past, problems of the Present, problems of the Future, and problems with How Things are Changing. Fixed Attitudes find problems with Memories, problems with Contemplations, problems with Innermost Desires, and problems with Impulsive Responses. And finally, problems with Manipulations split into Conceptualizing problems, Conceiving problems, Being problems, and Becoming problems.1
With four Types of Conflict in each Throughline, The Reason for Acts becomes clear:
They signify the change in dramatic focus the characters take in order to solve the problems within a story.
Stories don’t naturally separate into four parts because they need a beginning, a middle, and an end. They don’t break down into fours because of Syd Field’s Plot Points and Midpoints. And they certainly don’t divide up into four movements because film reels were only 10-15 minutes long.2
Stories break into four parts in order to completely evaluate the four different Types of Conflict in each Throughline.
The characters may explore problems of Activities by Doing first, then Obtaining, then trying to Gathering Information, and finally working to make others Understand. This is what happens in The Matrix:
In another story, the characters may try Understanding first and when that doesn’t work switch to Learning. With no solution in sight, they try Doing and eventually find resolution with Obtaining. This is what happens in Unforgiven:
Both films, miles apart in terms of storytelling, focus their attention on the same kind of conflict: Activities. The sequencing of the types differs, but the feeling of completeness exists in both. The characters exhaust every potential resource in their drive to find a solution to their problems.
What about a film where they start off focusing their attempts to find resolution by Gathering Information? Having exhausted that area, they then move into Doing something which eventually leads to Obtaining—but still, no resolution. It is only once they move into Understanding that they find a solution.
This is what happens in Collateral:
Note the difference in feeling here between the Act order of Collateral and that of The Matrix or Unforgiven. The dramatic tension for the first two is clearly a rise-fall situation: rise-fall for Eastwood and friends, fall-rise for Keanu and pals.
Collateral on the other hand features three distinct movements. The preparations for the grand jury (and the efforts to keep the witnesses permanently quiet); the assassinations; and the effort to save Annie (and end Vincent).
The last movement shares the same subject matter as the second one—preventing or engaging in a murder—yet feels distinctly different. Why is that?
And why does the Act order of The Matrix or Unforgiven clearly feel like only two movements?
Doing and Obtaining feel the same. Ask anyone unfamiliar with Dramatica to explain the difference between the two and most find it difficult, if not downright challenging to answer. Same with Understanding and Gathering Information (or more precisely, Learning). Where does Learning stop and Understanding begin?
When shifting into a type of conflict that feels the same, the sense in the Audience is that this is a continuation of exploration. The delineator between the two is hard to find. Act turns feel like major turning points because they represent a shift into a decidedly different dimension of conflict. The shift from Obtaining to Understanding grabs your attention because of the differential between the two. Same with Learning into Doing.
In the 10th anniversary edition of The Dramatica Theory of Story, Huntley coined this shift a “Bump” or a “Slide”. Bumps represent vastly different dimensions, while Slides refer to similar concerns.
This is why The Matrix and Unforgiven feel like Two Act structures. The first half of The Matrix covers Doing to Obtaining; the second half follows Learning to Understanding. The first half of Unforgiven focuses on Understanding to Learning; the second Doing to Obtaining.
In sharp contrast, the first half of Collateral moves from Learning to Doing—a clear distinction between dimensions of conflict. We know when Learning stops and Doing begins. That body smashes down on the roof of Max’s cab and we are off for the entirety of what is traditionally known as the Second Act.
The second half moves from Obtaining to Understanding. Again, another clear marker between the two. Max gets wind that Annie is next and no longer do we focus on achieving—we put all efforts into getting her to understand the severity of her situation.
Three acts. Two acts. Four. Why does any of it matter?
When it comes to deciphering questions of dramatic tension, trying to graft a traditional Three Act understanding on to what is clearly Two Act structure results in confusion, distraction, and a complete waste of the writer’s resources.
If you were to write Unforgiven and felt yourself struggling to answer the question of dramatic tension in “Act Two”, you might convince yourself of the need to graft an incongruent point-of-view onto your story. This one mistake could potentially set you back weeks—if not months—into a series of pointless rewrites trying to determine the essence of your story. Structuring a narrative without considering the underlying Types of Conflict and dynamic forces at play results in disastrous consequences.
Thankfully the Dramatica theory of story, and the application that supports its findings—Dramatica Story Expert—make it easy for writers to determine the number of Acts in their story. Once you dial in your storyform, look to the four Signposts in your Overall Story Throughline and take note of the order.
In next week’s article we will take a look at using this understanding to help you determine the thematic makeup of dramatic tension in each Act.
Last week’s article covered The Difference Between Becoming and Being in Dramatica. ↩︎
Overall Story Throughline and Overall Story Goal
Writers love to place themselves in the shoes of their characters. Pretending to be someone else and emoting with the needs and desires of another mark the starting block of the writer’s initial foray into a lifetime of discovery. One problem: without a proper map they end up lost and confused, doubling back on themselves without even noticing.
The first artice in this series on Plotting Your Story with Dramatica recognized The Difference Between Becoming and Being in Dramatica. Understanding the various Types of conflict that exist in a story and how they feel shifting from one to another built the foundation for Identifying the Number of Acts in Your Story, the second article in the series. With that knowledge in hand, we now steer our foucs towards answering the question of dramatic tension within a story.
Dramatica deals almost entirely with the objective view of a story. While The Audience Appreciations of Story like Reach, Essence, Tendency, and Nature bridge the gap between the objective and subjective, this objectified view of narrative is what separates Dramatica from everyone else. It is why some refer to its approach as too “abstract” and why others find the terminology “obtuse” and over-complicated. Writers write from inside the point-of-view of their characters; anything outside appears foreign and manufactured.
The unfortunate side-effect of remaining locked in a subjective view rests in the very definition of a subjectified view: blind spots. Without access to the totality of everything going on around us, we often mistake our perceptions for reality. Films like The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, and American Beauty explore this exact problem.
However, a completely objective view lacks the one thing that subjectivity claims as its own: compassion. The phrase One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter describes the ability of the subjective view to empathize and care about the particular point-of-view one takes. In story, we want the Audience to relate to our characters and to be moved by their thoughts, their words, and their actions.
A powerful and meaningful narrative finds substance in both the subjective and objective views. The greatest writers dive into their stories and write subjectively, and then come up for air and take a more measured and objective view of their words. After assessing and determining the moments of subjective indulgence, they dive back down and make the necessary adjustments.
Dramatica helps with the objective part of the process. Countless other paradigms and understandings of story help with the subjective part—only, they don’t make attempts to bridge the gap between the two. Our new understanding of Dramatica makes it possible to do both.
Google “the question of dramatic tension” and you’ll find many articles detailing the subjective approach to writing a story. They focus on methods for keeping the audience “hooked” into the story, and for keeping up audience involvement. The blog Writing for Theatre: Tips & Tricks for Beginner Playwrights has this to say about dramatic tension:
One of the main ways of creating tension is by planting questions in the “mind” of the audience. As soon as a play begins, audiences have questions they want answered by the playwright. Where and when is the play set and why? What are the characters doing? Are they important characters? Where will the play head? What is the theme of the story?
Many refer to the question on everyone’s mind in the Audience as the Major Dramatic Question, or “Central” Dramatic Question. As Doug Eboch, the writer behind Sweet Home Alabama explains in his post on The Dramatic Question:
The Dramatic Question is the structural spine of your story. Remember how I said last time that a story consists of a character, a dilemma and a resolution? On some level all Dramatic Questions can be boiled down to “Will the character solve their dilemma?” Of course that’s not very helpful to the writer trying to crack a story. You need to ask that question with the specifics of your character and dilemma.
The above bears repeating:
“Of course that’s not very helpful to the writer trying to crack a story.”
This is where the subjective approach to constructing a story breaks down. Even if you ask the question with “the specifics of your character and dilemma” you will find yourself no further along than before you asked…because you will still be trying to construct the foundation for a narrative that affects each and every character from a subjective point-of-view. Subjectively, we are all blind to what is really going on. Why should it be any different from the point-of-view of a character?
On Scott W. Smith’s blog Screenwriting from Iowa he presents a collection of Major Dramatic Question examples from around the globe:
Anyone familiar with Dramatica will notice that each of these questions finds genesis within the Story Goal of the narrative:
A Goal is that which the Protagonist of a story hopes to achieve. As such, it need not be an object. The Goal might be a state of mind or enlightenment; a feeling or attitude, a degree or kind of knowledge, desire or ability.
And interpreting the essence of these questions objectively, one could easily assign Obtaining as the Story Goal for each of these stories:
Obtaining includes not only that which is possessed but also that which is achieved. For example, one might obtain a law degree or the love of a parent. One can also obtain a condition, such as obtaining a smoothly operating political system. Whether it refers to a mental or physical state or process, obtaining describes the concept of attaining.
E.T. achieves freedom. Clarice captures Buffalo Bill. Erin brings justice. And Marlin finds Nemo.
Unfortunately, if you were to set Dramatica’s story engine to Obtaining for all of those films you would be short one Oscar for screenwriting.
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Erin Brockovich, and Finding Nemo find conflict in their individual stories through Obtaining. The government agents try to capture the alien and the kids try to win his freedom in E.T.; Erin digs into the case and tracks down evidence of coruption in Erin Brockovich; Marlin, Dory, and Nemo escape from sharks, whales, and aqauriums in Finding Nemo. If the question of Dramatic Tension sets the spine of a story then yes, questions of Obtaining fit…for these films.
The Silence of the Lambs is an entirely different monster altogether. Rather than focusing on achieving or Obtaining, this film gathers its attention on How Things are Changing:
The FBI is concerned with its discovery of an increasing number of victims and the progress it is making toward locating Buffalo Bill; Clarice Starling is concerned with her progress as an FBI trainee; Buffalo Bill is concerned with the progress of his “suit of skin”; Hannibal Lecter is concerned with the progress being made toward better accommodations (and escape); etc.
Writing Silence from the point-of-view of Will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill? results in all these missed opportunities for potential conflict. Where would Hannibal Lecter be or Buffalo Bill if it was simply about capturing the villain? Digging into the case and tracking down clues—like you would in an Obtaining story like Erin Brockovich—leaves out Clarice’s progress as a trainee, Lecter’s progress towards better accomodations, and more importantly—the progression of victims at the mercy of Bill’s developing “suit of skin.”
Once we identify the source of conflict in The Silence of the Lambs as progress, or How Things are Changing, it becomes easier to identify the true dramatic question of the film:
Will Clarice be able to stem the tide of Buffalo Bill’s murderous rampage?
Far more interesting, and far more compelling than simply whether or not she will capture the bad guy, asking a question that brings to mind all the devolving forces working against Clarice inspires greater creativity and sophistication within the narrative. The artistry that sets Silence apart from all other films in this Genre is this focus on the rising tide as the center of conflict—not capturing and evading. Focusing on the “wants and needs” and “dilemma” of the central character would only guarantee mediocrity.
And the Academy doesn’t hand out awards for mediocrity.
The problem with asking dramatic questions and taking a subjective approach to structuring a story lies in the very nature of subjectivity—you don’t see everything that is going on. In fact, this approach seems ludicrous when you consider that an Author is the God of their story—they know and see everything!
Anchoring the subjective point-of-view to an objective understanding of the true nature of conflict within a narrative is the only way to guarantee a powerful and meaningful story.
By all means, write from within. Take that character’s point-of-view and run with it. But anchor it to an objective view that ties plot, theme, character, and genre into one.
Ask questions, but know that those questions have answers. Dramatica’s concept of the Story Goal helps writers nail down and ask the right question by asking them to identify the true nature of their story’s conflict. In fact, Dramatica goes one step further by helping to provide the answer to that question through its concept of the Story Outcome.
Subjectively we can only ask as we experience a story. That is why approaches to writing from within focus on these questions of dramatic tension. Why restrict ourselves as writers to simply asking questions, when there exists a foundation for both the question and the answer?
Dramatica, Storymind, and Plot
Throughout the Universe our minds find evidence of iterative patterns. The Fibonacci spiral approximates the golden spiral by drawing circular arcs through smaller and smaller squares arranged in an infinite ratio. If story exists as an analogy to the processes within our minds, it only follows that a functioning model of story structure maintain this observable pattern.
Previous articles in this series on Plotting Your Story with Dramatica focused on how thematic intent dictates Act structure, and how a writer begins to build tension by establishing a focused and coherent Story Goal. Before exploring how one can dice up the overall tension into finer parts, an understanding of the relationship between story points in Dramatica becomes a necessity.
As mentioned in our podcast this week, Episode 32: Arrival & The Zero-Sum Game, Dramatica is a fractal model. The spatial relationship between the items in a quad at the top, or largest resolution, carries down and repeats through each and every level of the model. And even when you reach what you think is the bottom, or smallest resolution, the model loops back onto itself and begins again. How does this work?
Consider the above model of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements (you might want to download a PDF of the Table of Story Elements to make things easier). If you look closely, you will find a quad of elements repeated at each level: Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire (KTAD). These elements repeat because they are the four most important elements in Dramatica; they repeat because Dramatica is a fractal model of psychology. In fact, every quad in the model above is simply an arrangement of KTAD seen from a different context.
At the very top level you have Situation, Activity, Fixed Attitude, and Manipulation. At first, you might find it difficult to perceive how these four represent KTAD until you understand the correlation between the internal model of the Storymind and our external world.
Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of Dramatica, begins to explain it in her post Dramatica — Where’d the Idea Come From?, but in short: Situation is the Knowledge tower, Fixed Attitude is the Thought tower, Activity is the Ability tower, and Psychology—or Manipulation—is the Desire tower. As Melanie explains:
Knowledge is the Mass of the mind. Thought is the mind’s Energy. Ability is the equivalent of Space and Desire is the counterpart to Time.
The top level, or Class level, of the model classifies the source of trouble in each Throughline. A Situation describes conflict stemming from a fixed external problem—like being marooned on a derelict spaceship with a killer alien on board (Alien). In the mind, Knowledge is fixed and has mass—like the planets in our solar system. This is why the Knowledge tower holds fixed external problems, or Situations.
The same correlation carries through with the other three towers. Thought is fixed and represents energy within the mind, which is why you find it classifying fixed internal problems, or Fixed Attitudes. Zootopia, 12 Angry Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird explore Fixed Attitude problems.
Ability describes a process of relating one bit of knowledge to another spatially and determining what is known and unknown, and therefore harbors the external process problems, or Activities. Star Wars, Finding Nemo and The Producers beat about problems of Activity.
And finally, Desire describes the process of how thought—or emotion—develops over time by comparing what is with what was, and what will be—which is why you find this tower classifying internal problems of processing, or Psychological issues. Sunset Blvd., Like Water for Chocolate, and The Incredibles investigate problems arising from how people think.
Move down to the Type level of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements and KTAD seems hidden once again. Like the golden spiral, the logarithmic function of these four base elements careens down the model hitting different locations at various levels. The next level down from the Types finds KTAD under Being, or Playing a Role. Move even further down and you will find KTAD spread throughout the different Classes, but only together in one place (under Instinct and Understanding in Activity).
At the Type level you find KTAD centered under Fixed Attitude. Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire disperse into the various levels of the mind itself.
Knowledge finds correlation with our Memories, Thought with Contemplations, and Desire with Innermost Desires. Impulsive Responses fill the Ability gap by representing the abilities of the mind to act instinctively or without thought, defining and defined by Memories the way Space defines and is defined by Mass.
And you thought story was simply pitting what one character wants against another’s want!
The visual of the Fibonacci spiral cascading down through the model of the Dramatic Table of Story Elements is an important one. But it isn’t the only fractal relationship within Dramatica. Every single quad within the model shares the same KTAD relationship between its elements—that’s why the model works the way it does.
Take any quad and you will find hints of those four essential building blocks. Situation, Fixed Attitude, Activity, and Way of Thinking we explained. But what about Past, Present, Future, and How Things are Changing—can you begin to see which one stands for Knowledge, Thought, Ability, or Desire?1 How about Truth, Falsehood, Evidence, and Suspicion? It may be difficult to figure out which one represents Knowledge and which one represents Desire, but rest assured—KTAD is there.
Locate the Element of Knowledge under Fate and Past within Situation. Do you see it there in the uppermost left hand corner of the model? Where that Element sits within the model is far more important than the label Chris and Melanie attached to it. That Element actually describes the Knowledge of the Knowledge of the Knowledge of the Knowledge.
Dramatica is a model of relationships. And while the fractal relationship stands most apparent in this structural table, an entire system of frictal relationships simultaneously co-exists within the dynamic model:
Frictal(from “friction” + “fraction”): an iterative pattern representing the temporal interaction of order and chaos as differentiated from fractal (from “fracture” and “fraction”) which represents the spatial interaction of order and chaos
More on that another time.
As mentioned in the article Writing a Perfectly Structured Scene With Dramatica, the fractal nature of Dramatica does not stop at the bottom. The dramatic circuit represented by KTAD breaks the events in a Scene down into a Situation, an Activity, a Fixed Attitude, and a Way of Thinking (or Manipulation).
The very smallest accounts for the very largest.
And from there, it starts all over again.
This is why you can have storyforms within storyforms, why episodic television can carry both the message of the individual episode and the message of the entire season within the same episode, and why one can find smaller and smaller granules of tension and conflict depending on the context of the dramatic circuit.
With the understanding of Dramatica as a fractal (and now frictal) model in mind, our attention returns to using the theory to plot out a story. In our next article, we will show how this model of structural & dynamic relationships makes it easy to break down the dramatic tension of a story into smaller and smaller parts.
Past is Knowledge, Present is Thought, How Things are Changing is Ability, and the Future is Desire. ↩︎
The Storyform, Overall Story Goal, Overall Story Consequence, Overall Story Requirements, Overall Story Prerequisites, and Sequence Method
When developing Scenes, Sequences, and Acts many writers focus on their ability to supply enough effective tension in their stories. Placing themselves within the heads of their characters, they look out and ask What is my greatest concern? While seemingly effective, their greatest concern should be trying to answer of question of development from a purely subjective view.
The methods taught on this site and those based on a Dramatica approach to narrative bump up against what one finds at a university. Firmly planted within the story, tenured professors and adjunct teachers rally against this alien visitor from another dimension. While teaching story at the California Institute of the Arts, I often heard of other teachers downplaying or outright challenging the Dramatica theory of story.
Why is it then that so many artists and writers find resonance with Dramatica’s concepts?
I’ve been struggling against a number of instructors recently…They kept pushing and pushing, indicating that I was failing to grasp how to create a compelling protagonist because my ‘main character does not change’…Then I read your articles about the Changed vs. Steadfast protagonist…and it all makes so much more sense now why I couldn’t see a problem with what I was doing.
Students find kinship because Dramatica singles out the blind spot in the university approach: subjectivity. So focused on what a character feels and sees and wants and needs, these approaches to story fail to see what the story wants and needs. Subjectivity, by definition, fails to see the entire picture—the picture an Author needs to write a complete story.
But you need both.
Objectivity lacks passion and stories require feeling and fierceness if they hope to connect with an Audience. Dramatica and the more popular subjective approaches to structuring a story like the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat! work in tandem—not in opposition. The former informs the objective view while the latter conveys the subjective. Learning to work both methods simultaneously guarantees greater competency.
The Sequence Method, a particularly subjective approach made popular by Paul Gulino and used extensively at major universities, relies on Dramatic Questions to help set the tone of each major movement on a narrative. While many simply focus on the “Major Dramatic Question” of the entire story, the Sequence Method encourages writers to ask questions for each individual Act and eventually each Sequence and Scene. By doing so, writers secure tension within their Audience.
Our article Finding the Major Dramatic Question of Your Story showcases a process for converting Dramatica’s rather “abstract” and objective view of a story’s structure into the subjective view of story. By looking at the Story Goal from the point-of-view of the characters, an Author can easily identify what many refer to as the “Central” Dramatic Question.
This process works great for generating an overall sense of where the characters find their focus, but when it comes to the Acts leading up to the culmination or individual scenes themselves the end result proves less than beneficial. Does one constantly refer to this same question in each and every scene? And if so, how can you possibly sustain interest?
Thankfully, Dramatica provides an effective solution.
Everyone gets the Story Goal—whether the end result of a want or external purpose, the concept of characters striving for some resolution resonates clearly. So too, the Story Consequence. For those concerned with finding the “stakes” of a particular narrative, the Story Consequence offers a concrete focal point for failure in the Overall Story.
It should come as no surprise to those in Hollywood that Dramatica sees the failure to stop or defeat a “bad guy” as an instance of dire transformation. Fail to achieve victory and face the Consequence of Changing the World—more often than not, for the worse.1 This is why every studio executive wants the world to be “at stake” for their tent pole features—it’s the low-hanging Consequence for stories with Goals of Obtaining.
The steps needed to arrive at that Goal within the story prove more illusive.
When I first set out to learn Dramatica—and I mean really learn Dramatica—I created all kinds of charts and graphs to give my mind a better visual representation of the complex story points offered by the theory. While the original Dramatica theory book proved perceptive and inspiring, some of the terminology required greater insight. As an animator, director, and storyboard artist I find greater understanding and comprehension comes with a well positioned and articulated graphic.
Dramatica offers six Static Plot Points in addition to the foundational Story Goal and Story Consequence:
Saddled with a linear mindset and confused by these compelling—yet hard to grasp—concepts, I sat down with pen and paper:2
The blog post Visualizing the Additional Story Points explains further:
The Goal sits on top as it represents the focal point of everything. Beneath it are the Requirements as they are the steps towards reaching the Goal. The Prerequisites and the Preconditions sit directly beneath the Requirement as they are essential for those Requirements to be met.
For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the first two: the Story Requirements and the Story Prerequisites.
In Dramatica: A Fractal Model of Story Structure we show how the relationship between structural elements at the largest resolution cascade down into the smallest resolution. Sequences function as mini-Acts within Acts, Scenes operate as miniature Acts within the mini-Acts of Sequences within the larger more obvious Acts. With the hologram of meaningful relationships contained within the Dramatica storyform, writers can dial in the appropriate resolution for the task at hand.
Understanding the relationship between the Story Goal, Story Requirements, and Story Prerequisities with the aide of visuals similar to the one above, Authors can assume the position of their characters and look out to find touch points for tension. Quite simply:
1. Use the Story Requirements to generate the Dramatic Question of your second Act.
2. Use the Story Prerequisites to create the Dramatic Question of your first Act.
These two rules offer a simple, yet powerful approach towards using the Static Plot Points provided by Dramatica. We finally understand what the structure of a story looks like from the point-of-view of the characters. Discovered in collaboration with Brian Davis, a remarkable story theorist within our own Dramatica® Mentorship Program, this technique enriches our narratives by helping bridge the gap between the objective and subjective views.
We know the Story Requirements lead up to the Story Goal and we know that the Story Prerequisites lead up to the Requirements. So why not assign the Requirements to the second major movement and the Prerequisites to the first? The fractal relationship inherent in the model guarantees that this approach will work.
Pretend, for a moment, that you’re M. Night Shyamalan and you’re writing this cool idea for a story called The Sixth Sense. You know that the Story Goal in that film will be Understanding What Is Wrong With Cole (Haley Joel Osment). Strange things will happen in and around the poor kid and no one will quite understand what is really going on. Therapist and Protagonist Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) will be the primary character asking that question and the Audience’s proxy for experiencing the events of our story.
Great. You know where the tension will be and you’ve got a killer ending for our story.
But you really don’t know what to do in the middle.
So you select Understanding as the Story Goal in Dramatica and plug in your ending and whittle the narrative down to one single storyform. In return for your time and careful consideration, Dramatica offers you back these thematically consistent story points:
With your newfound appreciation of how to incorporate these plot points into your story, you begin with the Prerequisite. While driven by the bigger question of understanding this disturbed kid, the Audience initially experiences tension in the story by wondering Will Malcom get the idea that there is something more going on here than the usual diagnosis?
Perfect. This subjective interpretation of Conceiving generates for you a multitude of ideas for scenes in the first half of the film. Everything from their therapy sessions together to instances of strange unexplained occurrences at home contributes to this Prerequisite of Conceiving—All by positioning yourself within the characters and looking out at the story structure, or storyform, of your story.
Cole reveals his secret halfway through and suddenly the tension shifts. Suddenly, the Audience finds itself wondering Will Malcom learn why Cole has this ability and help the kid communicate the truth before it is too late? And now you have ideas for the scenes with the tape recorder, the visit to the funeral, and the accident at the side of the road.
And it is only once Malcom finally learns the true extent of Cole’s ability that he is able to finally really understand why the sullen kid entered his life.
Dramatic tension is not random and it is not happenstance. It flows naturally from the combination of story points carefully laid out to deliver a message of purpose—or Author’s Intent—to an Audience. Decipher your story’s unique storyform and you find the basis for accurately depicting tension in your own story.
This approach carries down into the various Sequences and even into individual Scenes. The relationship between items at the top levels of story stay consistent all the way down to the very smallest. It wouldn’t be surprising to find that connection within individual lines of dialogue.
Wherever you find the order of events being called into question look to the linear relationship that grows from Story Consequence to Story Prerequisite to Story Requirement to Story Goal. In truth, these items relate holistically—but we tell our stories sequentially. This follows that and that follows this and tension found between this and that stems from the relationship between the two.
In Part Two of this article, we will explore further this idea of generating dramatic tension within individual Acts and offer suggestions for stories with varying degrees of thematic material.
The Storyform, Acts, Overall Story Requirements, and Overall Story Prerequisites
The Goal of a story demands a specific progression of events from beginning to end. Drafting tension onto these events involves less guesswork and more precision if the Author hopes to completely enthrall the Audience. Great tension demands greater intention.
Our previous article Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act of Your Story: Part One introduced the idea of looking to the Static Plot Points in Dramatica for answers. By understanding the fractal nature of the theory, we explored the concept of dialing in the appropriate resolution of the storyform for the task at hand. While Requirements and Prerequisites work within the story at a global scale, they also function as indicators of the growth of tension from Act to Act.
The first major movement of a story looks to the Story Prerequisite, the second the Story Requirements. When seen within the greater context of the larger Story Goal, these two Static Plot Points create a natural progression from beginning to end. Trapped within the structure of the narrative, the characters (and therefore, the Audience) look out and sense tension based on these points of structure.
The article Identifying the Number of Acts in Your Story made the case for properly assessing the number of Acts in a story:
Act turns feel like major turning points because they represent a shift into a decidedly different dimension of conflict.
Depending on the narrative, these dimensions of conflict break down into two, three, or four Acts. Once you isolate these major shifts, generating tension becomes a simple matter of refactoring the appropriate Static Plot Point into these Acts.
This technique of using Requirement and Prerequisite to answer questions of dramatic tension works great for Two Act structures: two Acts, two questions, two Static Plot Points. Films like The Sixth Sense, Star Wars, The Matrix, Unforgiven, and The Dark Knight fit this schematic perfectly as they operate under the dramatic tide of rise and fall, or fall and rise.
Central Dramatic Question: “Will the Rebels find a way to fight back against the Empire?”
Like the example of The Sixth Sense in the previous article, the Story Prerequisite of Star Wars is Conceiving and the Story Requirement Learning. The Conceiving leads to Learning which eventually makes it possible to accomplish the Goal of Doing: namely, to stand up and fight against the Empire.
In The Sixth Sense, Conceiving led to Learning which eventually allowed the Goal of Understanding to occur. This duality is key to Dramatica: no story is the same, but every story is made up of the same parts. The message and Author’s Intent dictate the focal points of the narrative, the storyform holds it all in focus.
The Goal of Understanding in The Sixth Sense and the positioning of Malcom as a character who prefers internalizing problems before taking action calls for Prerequisites of Conceiving and Requirements of Learning.
Luke prefers taking external action before internalizing which positions him against the Story Goal of Doing in Star Wars in such a way that again, the story requires Learning to get there and Conceiving to precede the Learning.
A character like Luke in a story like The Sixth Sense might require a different set of Requirements and Prerequisites; likewise for a character similar to Malcom in a story like Star Wars. Discovering which type of static plot point works with what Story Goal necessitates a complex web of relations between the story’s Main Character Dynamics (like Approach and Problem-Solving Style) and Plot Dynamics (like Story Outcome and Story Judgment).
Note that in the example of Star Wars, the question of dramatic tension includes both Luke the Protagonist and the Empire—an Antagonist. Most look to the central character of a piece to the exclusion of others in order to determine tension. As the Audience’s representative within a story, the Main Character rightly appropriates this attention as he or she offers the most subjective experience.
Static Plot Points, however, apply to all characters within a story. The Overall Story Throughline—the context where one finds the Story Goal, the Requirements, and the Prerequisites—takes an objective look at all the players within a narrative, the Main Character included. From this vantage point, both Protagonist and Antagonist, Skeptic and Sidekick, and everyone in-between faces these plot points on the way towards the resolution of the Goal.
They may face various interpretations of the Prerequisites and Requirements, but they will always remain of the same Type. Luke and the Empire must first conceive or make others conceive before they can learn. And they must do both before they find themselves ready to fight one another.
While every story calls into play these Static Plot Points, not every story faces Requirements of Learning and Prerequisites of Conceiving. Some stories, like Unforgiven and The Dark Knight require greater understanding or transformation on their journey towards resolving their issues.
In The Sixth Sense characters conflict over the shared Goal of Understanding What Is Wrong with Cole? In Star Wars the Goal of Fighting Each Other (engaging in war amongst the stars) brings everyone into conflict. In Unforgiven, revenge takes center stage.
Central Dramatic Question: “Will Munny take revenge on those who would do wrong?”
William Munny (Clint Eastwood) must struggle with imagining himself as a killer before he can muster up enough courage to put his previous victims to rest. Only then can he exact revenge for both the prostitutes and his friend.
The Dark Knight:
Central Dramatic Question: “Will Batman fight the Joker without becoming the Villain?”
Batman must first work against Joker’s attempt at manipulating Gotham’s population into turning against one another, before he can actually save them. He must contend with the vigilantes and the mob before saving his girlfriend and the people on the boat. And he has to do these things in this specific order because it adds up to this concept of him doing villainous things. If he didn’t, or if he skipped a step, the progression to bad guy would feel unnatural and deficient. Dramatica guarantees thematic coherence with the order of events in a story.
These examples fit nicely into a Prerequisite/Requirement approach as they feature two major dramatic movements. What happens with a story like Witness or L.A. Confidential that function on a three-Act structure? In our next article, we look to additional Static Plot Points to help support the effort to tell the most thematically rich and compelling story.