Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.
Mention these three words together, and you unlock the accursed genie that is the Hegelian Dialectic. Rising from the mystic ashes of ancient philosophy, the Hegelian promises riches beyond comprehension for those who follow his three-step process towards resolving conflict.
You only have to turn a blind eye to how the other half lives.
Hegelian Dialectic--which, interestingly enough, didn't even come from Hegel himself--is a Linear process of solving problems. A truth, or problem, is introduced. An alternate truth, or Antithesis, enters the scene to maximize conflict. And then the resulting solution, or Synthesis, finds a third truth that takes the best of both to resolve the original problem.
Classic Linear, cause and effect problem-solving.
The Holistic mind takes a different approach. Seeing inequities instead of problems, and equities instead of solutions, the Holistic deals in the consistent application of balance.
Watch, as the vaulted genie-us of the Hegelian dissipates into the ether.
The Method of Balance
My series on The Holistic Premise addresses that train of thought wherein the wheels never stop turning. The Linear believes in the Solution--the resolution that permits one to move on, knowing the problem to be "solved." The Holistic realizes problems themselves are manufactured within the mind and that nothing is ever solved, it's only balanced for the time being.
I read your article about holistic premises and watched your writer's room session, and it made me think about the Hegellian notion of the Dialectic and whether that might apply to Dramatica from the holistic standpoint – that we have thesis (problem), antithesis (solution), and that what you're calling balance (which to me sort of implies just sticking them on a linear scale and going halfway between) might be thought of as synthesis – finding a way to forge a new perspective from the two?
This would be a Linear interpretation of balance—that there is a scale that exists between the two and once the perfect balance point is found (a synthesis), then all potential is resolved, and a solution has been found.
The Holistic knows there is never a real synthesis, but rather a constant cycle of growth and rebirth, continuous attention applied to balancing out inequities that are never truly solved.
I'd argue that they are solved but that every new balance (the synthesis that becomes the next thesis) creates the necessary preconditions for its own antithesis.
The Linear mind needs to argue that problems are solved because it can't function without the recognition of problem and solution.
This is, in part, where "mansplaining" comes from: the Linear-minded person interrupts the Holistic because it believes that what the Holistic is seeing is somehow inaccurate or insufficient, when what they're seeing is, in fact, what they're actually seeing.
The Linear mind sees problems that are solved; the Holistic sees inequities that are met with equities. Neither is more right than the other, but indicative of a baseline for appreciating conflict.
The structure of a story must know the baseline of the mind of the story because it affects the order of concerns in a narrative. If you see everything as a problem that needs to be fixed, you're going to go about solving that in a completely different way than someone who sees everything as an imbalance requiring balance.
The Hegelian Explained
I hear you about the scale being a Linear interpretation of balance. However you wouldn't think of a Hegellian synthesis as being finding a point on that scale.
And neither would the Holistic in the process of resolving an inequity--as that point on the scale doesn't exist for the mind that thinks that way. There are no points to the Holistic account, only waves.
A classic example is the notion of early childhood, where doing everything your parents say is the necessary normal state (the thesis = obedience). You become a teenager and begin to resent the oppressive nature of parental control and so rebel against everything they say (antithesis = rebellion). It's only in becoming an when you reconcile the two oppositions – not through balancing "some" passive acceptance with "some" automatic rebellion, but through the realization that you require true independence which neither involves obedience nor rebellion (synthesis = independence).
So rebellion is the linear response to control, but independence is the synthesis that emerges from the clash of those two forces.
A synthesis is still a Linear-minded approach to solving a conflict. Both perspectives are evaluated separately for rightness—if one is right, or more right, than the other than that perspective is the solution. If neither is correct, then balance is the solution. If balance doesn't work, then neither can exist.
Every thought process is an if...then statement—a primary function found in any programming language (even the most basic of programming language, BASIC).
It's neither the Linear Dramatica move from one to the other nor finding a balance point on that scale, but rather the solution which removes the existence of the conflict (and in doing so, introduces a new thesis which will one day meet its antithesis as the cycles of growth and conflict continue – as you state below.)
Linear in Dramatica refers to the process that sees conflict as a problem to be solved. Moving from Problem to Solution is Linear. Finding a balance point on a scale is Linear. Finding a Solution that removes the existence of conflict is Linear.
The Holistic can never remove the existence of conflict because inequity always exists. It's merely a matter of how much or how little.
The Matrix, which is structured with this Holistic approach to conflict, doesn't serve up an account of synthesis—Neo hasn't become one with his doubts and his beliefs. But he has become one with the overall balance between the two and can literally shape his world accordingly.
I always thought what was going on with the Matrix was:
Thesis: We are waiting for "The One" Antithesis: Neo isn't actually "The One" (when he meets the nice old lady in her house or whatever and she says he's not the one) Synthesis: Neo wasn't The One until he became The One.
So both thesis and antithesis were wrong until Neo changed and made both of them true.
Another way to look at the narrative conflict within The Matrix, one that is closer to the foundational structure of the film, is to see it as a juggling back and forth between Faith and Disbelief.
The Oracle wasn't wrong. She was only confirming what Neo already disbelieved. And Morpheus wasn't wrong either. His belief that Neo was the One was right. Both positions are self-evident as appropriate throughout the film. And we experience the movie as a mind that seeks balance in all and sees all would when facing a similar inequity.
My previous article The Holistic Experience of Watching The Matrix shares an account of what it feels like when you take everything in at once. No judgments. No evaluations. No problems and no solutions. Only the flow of allowing one position in after the other and then back again.
A Matter of Intention
You know that feeling of frustration you sometimes get when someone close to you won't just do what they should to solve the problems in their lives?
That's often someone comfortable with Holistic problem-solving--a method of problem-solving that doesn't recognize the problem, nor the potential solution.
The "solution" for the story inequity is about synthesizing the two opposing forces into a new perspective rather than either picking one or the other or merely compromising between them.
The balance of inequities for the Holistic mind is also not a compromise. Holistic thinkers do not compromise. They don't give this for that, and any suggestion that services rendered are an exchange for goods offends as it suggests some obligation supplants the growth of the relationship.
The Holistic is never at ease with forcing two into one, only at ease with a shift in direction that increases the flow of communication.
To the Holistic mind, there is no real Solution that solves it all—only an Intention. Neo doesn't believe at the end, he is only "beginning to believe." This Intention to balance out his disbelief with a personal truth sets the mind in a different direction—opening it up to receive whatever various sort of inequities that suggest an alternate path.
In a Changed Resolve/Holistic Minded story, the Main Character intends to balance out the inequity of their Throughline with an equitable element. That's why in future versions of the theory, you're likely to see Problem and Solution within Holistic stories adjusted to reflect their real purpose: Inequity and Intention.
The Dramatica theory of story is a holistic appreciation of narrative structure--which is to say that the relationship between Storypoints is as equally important as the structural concerns themselves. The theory develops in the way that all dynamic relationships do, by shifting back and forth, appreciating the lack of a specific solution.
Like the genie who emerged to grant untold fortune, the writer tied to the Hegelian Dialectic is trapped--trapped in the bottle of cause and effect and Linear methods of problem-solving, unable to see the totality of the world around them. Rich, but rich with an even higher cost. Whereas those swayed by the Siren Song of a centuries-old philosophy shackle themselves to ancient knowledge as if truth, the writer familiar with Dramatica appreciates the need for further thought, and if needed--a change in direction.
Synthesis sounds good. It reminds us that we're better together, that 1+1=3, and that a win-win situation is always better than a no-win situation. Reaching a synthesis draws us in because it feels like the very best way to resolve conflict.
Problem is-- it's not the only way.
As demonstrated in the previous article, The Curse of the Hegelian Dialectic, the Linear-minded approach to resolving conflict fails to capture the totality of everyone's experience. The Hegelian Dialectic concept of thesis-antithesis-synthesis works--but only if one accepts the presence of a problem and a solution, and a cause and effect process for dealing with those problems.
The Cause and Effect of Synthesis
The Holistic mind understands problem and solution and can appreciate cause and effect--but its baseline of operation runs on tides and waves, allowance and direction. It sees inequity where one sees a problem and equity where another sees a solution.
Thesis-anti-thesis-synthesis appears in a Linear mindset and context:
In the obedience example [from the previous article]. . .
Thesis: children must be obedient to their parents for their own good
Anti-Thesis: ongoing Obedience is oppressive
These two are fundamentally incompatible notions and thus clash until . . .
Synthesis: We stop being children and thus no longer require the Obedience.
This example of Obedience is cause and effect reasoning. Both thesis and anti-thesis cause problems: if we continue to allow them to persist, then the effect will be higher and greater conflict. Therefore, the answer (solution) is to stop being children, and we will no longer require Obedience.
The Compromise of a Solution
The Holistic is never at ease with forcing two into one, only at ease with a shift in direction that increases the flow of communication.
I agree – synthesis isn't forcing two into one. It's not, "fine, let's have hot dogs and pizza". It's more like, "it's time we stopped having dinner together" or "both our choices are actually bad for us, so it's time we started eating salads"
The result is still a solution.
By forcing two into one, I refer to the Linear concept that a third truth somehow solves two opposing truths. To the Holistic, no solution ever works because those truths still exist. They can never be proven wrong because, remember, the holistic sees the totality of everything all at once. In that snapshot appreciation of duality, all points-of-view maintain their truthiness--throughout the narrative, from beginning to end. Therefore, all one can do is balance the flow of those truths.
There is no solution.
The Matrix is a perfect example of the Holistic approach to resolving inequity. Personal truths are held up against natural skepticism from beginning to end, with no solution that saves the day. Only an intention. A beginning to believe.
Again, this is different from the interpretation I always took from the Matrix, but I'm open to the possibility that I just never really understood the movie properly. I will say that seems a little out of step with the movie itself, which is so often positing pretty strong philosophical perspectives about reality vs non-reality.
There is a difference between what characters talk about and what is driving narrative conflict.
There is a difference between Theme and Subject Matter.
Subject Matter and Narrative Structure
As characters within a story, we could be talking about the indignities of border control and internment camps. But what drives our conversation is an argument between certainty and potentiality. I'm confident that illegal immigrants lead to higher instances of crime, while you see the potential of hostile hospitality to create even greater evil.
Many would assume Safety or Compassion to be the Theme of such a conflict, but they're not. Safety and Compassion are simply the topics of Thematic consideration. It's what you want to say about Safety or Compassion that determines Theme.
When discussing these topics, we could just be arguing about certainty or potentiality. Or we could be exploring the difference between cause and effect. I want to stamp out the roots of terrorism, while you focus on the impact of people fleeing third-world countries. Or we could even be arguing a motivation door logic vs. a motivation for feeling. If we let everyone in, then we're vulnerable--versus the strength of vulnerability that comes from caring for everyone.
Regardless of the specifics, those Elements drive the narrative and determine the order of thematic concerns within a story. Certainty and Potentially are Theme. Safety and Compassion are Subject Matter.
The characters in The Matrix spend an excessive amount of time talking about reality vs. non-reality, but what are the Authors saying about those conversations?
That's where you'll find the necessary information to structure a story.
Are the Authors saying what you're seeing can never fully align with the objective reality of things? Or are they saying perception and reality are simply a matter of juggling your disbelief with a little faith?
Are they arguing that you need to begin to believe?
Know Your Intent
Both synthesis and subject matter play into the development of a dramatic argument. The former requires Authors to dig deep into their creative intentions and unearth the real purpose of their writing. Is it to explore this area of human experience, or is there something you want to say about this particular part of life?
With the latter, writers must question the appropriateness of synthesis given the context of their work. Are you drafting a process that sees problems in need of a solution? Or are you writing about the experience of addressing inequities in our lives?
If you answered yes to the last question, know there is a way to structure your story that honors that intent. One that doesn't force you to undertake the linear process of reaching a synthesis.
You don't need to compromise your understanding of the world.
A Linear mindset finds solutions to problems. It develops hydro-electric power, discovers a cure for polio, and finds a safer spot to land the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. Our human experience requires solutions to problems if we are to endure for the next thousand years.
But our survival also relies on the understanding that problems are simply made up in the mind. They're not any more real than our most fantastic dreams. What we perceive as problems are simple imbalances or inequities. We label them a problem when we think they can be fixed.
Sometimes that imbalance, or inequity, is just what it is--an imbalance--and no amount of solving will ever absolve us of its impact.
We need solutions to survive.
We need an appreciation of inequities to thrive.
Appreciating the Holistic Mind
This series on The Hegelian Chronicles examines the long-term impact of the Hegelian Dialectic on narrative structure. The myopic stance incurred by this centuries-old philosophy leads many astray. Writers inherently drawn to more holistic thought must force-fit their understanding of the world into one much more Linear in nature.
The Holistic thinker knows there is another way to approach holism that isn't merely an appreciation of holism through "synthesis."
What's an appreciation of holistic [thinking] vs. an approach of holistic [thinking]?
The Hegelian might think, or appreciate, their synthesis holistic in nature—but their approach is always decidedly logical.
To the Linear mind, Holistic problem-solving is not even a real thing. It sounds like excuses or laziness or nonsense because it's not addressing the problem directly. Holistic problem-solving is easily discounted because it's literally not logical.
In the Dramatica theory of story, this disregard of experience finds evidence in the Audience Appreciation of Reach:
- Holistic audience members empathize with both Linear and Holistic thought
- Linear thinkers can only sympathize with Holistic thought
This is the source of the dismissive phrase "chick-flick." Linear thinkers avoid these kinds of stories because the characters within them don't think as they do. They don't make any sense.
The Problem-solving Style Appreciation of narrative structure (Linear or Holistic) is a blind spot for Linear thinkers. This lack of self-awareness explains why you'll find most of them advocating the Hegelian Dialectic approach to synthesis. It's an approach that makes sense to them and appears to be holistic in nature.
Its solution may be holistic, but the way it was arrived at is not.
This is why the Dramatica theory of story stands out from every other appreciation of narrative structure. Dramatica is a theory of how the mind works, not a formula or form for conflict resolution.
The Holistic Approach
Appreciating this difference in resolving inequities requires an understanding of the difference between the Holistic approach and a holistic approach.
To a linear thinker on the Allied side, WWII was a conflict between good (Allies) and evil (Axis). To the Axis it was a conflict between systemic oppression (people keep forcing us down, preventing us from achieving our own greatness) and self-determination (we are justified in doing whatever it takes to achieve our destiny).
WWII was the linear clash of those two perspectives. Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement wasn't a holistic approach. It was still based on the notion that those two perspectives existed on a linear scale. The holistic approach was the Marshall Plan (we'll keep having the same war over and over unless we actually financially step up to ensure Germany and Japan are viable states).
The Marshall Plan, while holistic in nature, was the result of Linear cause-and-effect reasoning. The effect of Chamberlain's policy compels us to find a different approach that won't cause that to happen again. The Marshall Plan was a solution to the problem of Chamberlain's policy.
The solution was holistic. The method, or approach, to that solution, was Linear.
Contrast this with Japan's approach to conflict during the same period. The Linear mindset would have you believe that the reasons for the attack on Pearl Harbor were limited resources and a strike-first policy. This assumes that the people of Japan were driven by a cause and effect methodology.
In fact, the culture in Japan at that time was predominantly holistic in nature. Siding with Germany, manipulating sentiment against the Chinese, and yes, attacking Pearl Harbor were all the actions of a people who only saw inequities—not problems. Their efforts were intentions of balance (or imbalance), not solutions of conquest.
An Intention of Equity
There is no solution at the root level of the Holistic because there is no such thing as a problem—only inequities that are met with equities (Intentions). Sample any of the Holistic-minded narrative structures on Subtext, and you'll find a collection of films and novels that emphasize self-actualization overreaching goals.
For the self to thrive, one must appreciate the inequity for what it is: something that can't be fixed. The balancing of the inequity isn't a solution, it's a shift in direction that opens us up to even higher intentions.
Seen holistically, the synthesis examples of Obedience and WWII are only temporary fixes. Their solutions are fleeting because those inequities always exist, waiting to rise back up to the surface.
Thriving while Surviving
When the Apollo 11 Lunar Module left the Moon behind, it first needed to dock with the Command Module orbiting high above. This was a problem that needed a solution. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong could not return home safely without cause-and-effect Linear thinking and precise calculations.
They succeeded. Miraculously, this tiny two-person vehicle rendezvoused with another spacecraft 239,000 miles away from planet Earth.
Right before they flipped the switch to ignite the rocket on the Moon, tensions were high. No one knew for sure whether their calculations were correct, or if the Eagle Lander would simply explode on the surface.
Houston gave the go-ahead signal and waited.
Buzz responded, "Roger Houston, we're number one on the runway."
A response of jocular equity seeking to level out the inequity of unpredictability. A little humor to dispel the tension, moments before they began their miraculous return back to Earth.
With Linear thinking, we survive. With Holistic thinking, we thrive.
With both, we triumph over the impossible and transform the way we live our lives.
Finding a solution to a problem assumes the presence of a problem. While this approach works great for Moonshots and the building of bridges, its reliance on cause-and-effect reasoning blinds one to a reality bereft of problems. The assumption of problems in the presence of conflict forces the search for a solution that may never present itself.
This series of articles entitled The Hegelian Chronicles seeks to explain the mechanism of thought behind the much-vaunted approach to story structure that is the Hegelian Dialectic. Seeing this simplified process of conflict through the eyes of the Dramatica theory of story makes evident the deficiencies present with the Hegelian methodology.
It’s interesting because it means the Dramatica model doesn’t really account for a dialectical notion of conflict in thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis but either finds a linear choice between thesis and anti-thesis (problem -> solution) or simply failure of the story goal, with the alternative being answering inequity with intentions.
Within the context of the Dramatica theory of story, the thesis is not the problem, and anti-thesis is not the solution. Instead, the process of thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis is a Linear-minded approach to conflict resolution. This Illusion of Fixing Problems unthinkingly marks “synthesis” as its solution.
Dramatica accounts for the dialectical notion of conflict with its appreciation of the Linear mind’s problem-solving process. The theory moves beyond this initial understanding by recognizing the Holistic's preference for inequity resolution over problem-solving This dynamic of narrative—a Linear or Holistic approach to resolving conflict—determines the structure and order of events in a story.
The Hegelian Dialectic is a logical approach towards conflict resolution through cause and effect. Stories written with this approach in mind always set the Problem-solving Style of the narrative to Linear.
Logic is literally in the DNA of the Hegelian Dialectic.
The problem is that this approach always thinks there is a problem in need of a solution.
The Holistic understands otherwise.
Living the Hegelian Lifestyle
With the Hegelian Dialectic, there is a problem (thesis), something that contradicts or negates that problem (anti-thesis), and a solution (synthesis) that results from the conflict between the two. However, the process itself is wildly open to interpretation--Hegel himself didn't even use the formula attributed to him. Instead of problem and solution, think of thesis and anti-thesis as placeholders for the Main Character and Influence Character perspectives.
The Main Character maintains a perspective (Thesis) and the Influence Character counters with the “negation” of that perspective (Anti-thesis). One gives way to the other and loses the unnecessary, or non-essential, components of the Thesis. The remainder mixes with all the good of the Anti-thesis. The product of this interaction then "resolves" the conflict under the banner of Synthesis.
The process appears holistic in that it accounts for all sides. After all, it ends in a holistic "synthesis." This outcome is mere Subject Matter--the topic of the Hegelian process, not the process itself.
The Process of Conflict Resolution
When Dramatica speaks of Linear or Holistic, it is specifically referring to the process the mind employs when it meets an inequity. One, fueled by serotonin, proceeds in a sequence of steps in search of a solution. The other, guided by dopamine, adjusts the relative impact of concerns in allowance of an outcome.
The label “Problem-solving Style” is a bit of a misnomer, as the Holistic mind operates outside of problems and solution. The original terminology for this concept was Mental Sex: Male or Female. Far more accurate in its assignation of the central operating system of the mind, Mental Sex determines the order of concerns when we process conflict.
A Linear, or Male, mind operates in steps. Thesis. Anti-thesis. Synthesis. One, Two, Three. Problem and Solution.
A Holistic, or Female, mind seeks balance first. Inequities and Intentions. Numbers. Imbalance and Allowance.
Hegel, Kant, Fichte, etc. advocate their three-step process as a means of prescribing a logical method for overcoming conflict. A series of steps in search of a solution. The Linear-mind overcomes inequity; the Holistic-mind manages it.
Keeping the good parts of the thesis while overcoming its limitations through the anti-thesis is a step-by-step process of contradiction. It presupposes a linear progression from the less sophisticated thesis to the more evolved synthesis.
But it’s still Linear.
Storyform and Subject Matter
That does a lot to explain why so many of my own books don’t fit comfortably into a Dramatica storyform – the final equation of those books is often success but neither through shifting between the available Dramatica opposition elements (e.g. faith vs. disbelief, proven vs. unproven . . . etc) nor as what you describe as a holistic approach.
The Dramatica storyform offers a series of Storypoints that connect you the Author directly with your Audience. It’s where both writer and reader observe the same thing from two different points-of-view.
The Veil Between Author and Audience is the storyform—tiny holes in the black construction paper of communication where the message shines through.
In other words, if you’re an Author and you have an Audience—you’re going to have a Dramatica storyform. The question is: How well-formed is it?
The “final equation” of your books is Subject Matter, i.e., what you’re talking about in terms of a solution--not the specific method or Element that brought about that solution.
Take, for instance, your earlier example of maturation and Obedience:
A classic example is the notion of early childhood, where doing everything your parents say is the necessary normal state (the thesis = Obedience). You become a teenager and begin to resent the oppressive nature of parental control and so rebel against everything they say (anti-thesis = rebellion). It’s only in becoming an when you reconcile the two oppositions – not through balancing “some” passive acceptance with “some” automatic rebellion, but through the realization that you require true independence which neither involves Obedience nor rebellion (synthesis = independence).
Obedience to Rebellion to Independence.
One thing we know for sure, right off the bat with this example, is that it illustrates a Linear-minded Problem-solving Style story. Not just in the sequencing, but in terms of responses to inequity as well. If this doesn’t work, then this will. When that doesn’t work, later I’ll try this. If I want peace, then I need to recognize I need independence. Once I do that, I resolve my problems from childhood.
Classic thesis-antithesis-synthesis thinking: Problem to Solution. Cause and Effect. Logic.
If Dramatica is a model of the mind’s problem-solving process, then where would we find Obedience within that model? Or Rebellion or Independence?
One mind’s version of Obedience is another’s source of Independence. Those topics describe sources of Subject Matter, not conflict. Context is everything--which is why we developed the need for Throughlines in our storytelling. Assigning perspectives to the source of conflict gives us the grounding we need to understand the context of what we are looking at within a narrative.
To some, Obedience is a solution. To others, it’s a problem. And to many others, often not represented in discussions of narrative structure, Obedience is merely an issue to be addressed—not solved.
Setting the context of your story grants the Audience insight into your particular point-of-view.
Perspective and Conflict
There is no meaning without context.
No meaning exists without knowing what kind of Obedience, or what type of Obedience you seek to explore.
No meaning persists without knowing what specific issue and core motivation drive that particular instance of Obedience.
You need to give your Audience that one single mind to inhabit--the Storymind that is your story. If not, your readers will misinterpret your intentions by shifting the context to suit their individual needs.
Instead of synthesis, seek out context. Instead of thesis and anti-thesis, unearth the source of conflict in your narrative.
But above all, understand the operating system of your story’s mind.
Is your story solving problems in a Male Linear cause-and-effect manner? Is it working in steps from Thesis to Anti-thesis to Synthesis?
Or is Synthesis there from the beginning? Is it possible that the story isn’t seeking a solution to resolve conflict because it doesn’t even recognize the presence of a “problem”?
Consider a film like The Farewell from Lulu Wang. Is there a solution needed to fix Billie's problems, a synthesis that solves thesis or anti-thesis? Or is the story more about what personal sacrifices are worth addressing in allowance of an outcome?
Is it really about finding the balance to meet the imbalance of life?
Perhaps, the only real problem is the assumption that conflict is something that needs a solution.
Perhaps the real problem is applying a centuries-old philosophy to a complex process that requires a more modern understanding of narrative dynamics.
Perhaps it’s time to emerge from the cave and shed the limiting blinders of the Hegelian Dialectic.
When it comes to the structure of a functioning narrative, it should come as no surprise that we know more today than we did in the 1800s. Yes, photography and the steam engine were once modern miracles, but that was then. Today—and much to the chagrin of steampunks everywhere—we don’t continue to uphold the days of old.
Today, we possess supercomputers in our pockets that access the world’s store of knowledge, measuring their speed in milliseconds.
Why on Earth then, do we continue to hold up ancient philosophies like the Hegelian Dialectic as if its age somehow makes up for its gross inaccuracies?
Moving Past the Past
The Main Character maintains a perspective (Thesis) and the Influence Character counters with the “negation” of that perspective (Anti-thesis). One gives way to the other, losing the unnecessary or non-essential components of the Thesis in exchange for all the good of the Anti-thesis, and together “resolves” the conflict with this new Synthesis.
The correlation is functional but not entirely accurate. While it is true that one of the principal characters eventually adopts the other’s point-of-view, this adoption is not the wholesale trading of one for the other.
There is a “synthesis” in the act of adopting a new perspective.
Based on your description, the MC problem story point represents the Thesis, the IC problem story point represents the anti-thesis, but what I can’t envision is either of their solutions being the Synthesis since that’s always just a binary opposition of one of the problem story points. The Synthesis isn’t “MC and IC argued over approach and it turned out IC was right so therefore the MC flips over to solution” as Synthesis specifically doesn’t mean choosing one over the other. So I’m trying to imagine what story point in a Dramatica model would represent the Synthesis between the MC and IC’s drives.
The three-fold Hegelian Dialectic is a logical formula for arriving at a solution. Dramatica is a model of human psychology focusing on inequity resolution. The former presupposes linear reasoning will come at a solution that resolves conflict. The latter makes no such assumptions, yet allows for an interpretation of narrative that fits that particular methodology of resolution.
The Hegelian only tells half the story.
Attributing Subject Matter to Perspective
In the James Bond film Skyfall, Bond acts as a proxy for the old way of doing things—and he’s not doing them very well. Having been left for dead by the country he has sworn to protect, Bond returns only to find himself at odds with his environment. With his aim off, his psycho-analysis lacking, and his physicality barely holding on by his fingertips, Bond represents the passing of the old ways.
M also stands for the old way of doing things—and she’s not doing it very well either. She is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the old guard running because that’s the best way she knows how to protect Britain. Unfortunately for Bond as far as M is concerned, the value of an agent’s life ranks below her country and her mission in importance. If she happens to break a few eggs on her way to making the perfect omelet, that is Britain, so be it.
They both share a perspective on the Subject Matter of Duty.
Bond approaches this subject matter seated in a Universe point-of-view. Bond is physically insufficient to fulfill the obligations of his job as a secret agent, and it might be time to quit. That is the inequity and dilemma that motivates him throughout the story.
M approaches the same subject matter from a Mind point-of-view. Mother is calm when it comes to being asked to take early retirement. Quitting is not an option because Britain needs MI6 to persevere—regardless of any fallout, whether political or personnel in nature. That is the inequity driving her influence on Bond.
Universe and Mind. Thesis and anti-thesis.
Diving further down into detail, we see that they are not merely opposites. Bond’s Main Character Throughline Problem Element is Non-accurate—an evaluation of existing outside of tolerances. M’s Influence Character Problem Element is Unending—an assessment focusing on continuation.
The Meaning of the End
The Synthesis of a Changed Resolve is not merely the Main Character Solution of Accurate, nor is it the Influence Character Drive of Unending. The eventual Synthesis is a broader appreciation of inequity resolution. The result is a greater understanding of what is an appropriate response to the same inequity in the future.
At the end of Skyfall, Bond Changes his Resolve and adopts M’s perspective—but he doesn’t simply flip a switch from Non-accurate to Unending. His Main Character Solution of Accurate (“Fit for duty, sir.”) is a synthesis of M’s Unending drive and a new-found appreciation for Accuracy.
Bond moves from Universe to Mind, but it’s not a complete 180 reversal. It’s more growth, or greater appreciation, of how to make sure that Non-accurate isn’t a Problem anymore—brought about by the influence of M’s Unending impact.
So Much More
When discussing the Synthesis portion of the Hegelian Dialectic, early practitioners—and even more modern apostles—illustrate this concept of Main Character Resolve without genuinely understanding their actions. They know the solution to be something beyond what the Main Character or Influence Character fight for, but they’re not entirely aware of the nature of that final resolution.
The Dramatica theory of story accounts for the broader interpretation of conflict resolution afforded by the Hegelian Dialectic—but it doesn’t merely stop there. The theory’s model of the mind’s problem-solving process details the specific nature of that eventual Synthesis, allowing the Author to pinpoint the exact source of conflict in their story.
Most believe narrative structure to be an affectation of a story. Acts exist because a story naturally falls into that kind of arrangement. This presumption that stories "have structure" misses out on the real purpose of structure: communicating an Author's Intent effectively to an Audience.
The previous article Skyfall: Finding the Synthesis in Dramatica established a possible correlation between Dramatica's comprehensive understanding of narrative and the accursed Hegelian Dialectic. What Hegel & Friends saw as synthesis is evidence of inequity resolution.
It's fascinating that you chose Skyfall for your example here because there's a completely different (non-Dramatica) interpretation of that story in which the central theme is about old ways vs. new ways.
Within the context of the Dramatica theory of story, Theme is more than a juxtaposition of incompatible truisms. Yes, the discussion starts there. However, Dramatica's version of this essential narrative concept moves further, providing greater detail and vastly more accuracy for writers wanting to improve their work.
With Dramatica, Theme is meaning. And primary to the establishment of this meaning is the Premise or narrative argument.
As you point out, both Bond and M represent the old ways, which is why both are failing to contend with the new reality. One of the best illustrations of the anti-thesis in the story isn't simply the villain Silva, but Q who says to Bond "I would hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of earl grey than you can in a year in the field."...the underlying thematic conflict from this (again, non-Dramatica) interpretation isn't between Bond and M.
That's because that "non-Dramatica" interpretation is spinning its wheels over a surface-level understanding of the conflict. The iceberg goes much further down. The old way vs. new way "argument" is another case of conflating Subject Matter for meaning—mistaking topic for Theme.
Obedience, Duty, Honor, Love, and Keeping Up with the Times (old way vs. new way) is Subject Matter or storytelling. It's the Topic of the story. What you want to say about Obedience, Duty, Honor, and Love are Theme.
The Totality of Theme
While we find the emphasis on Theme at the Variation level, the entire Dramatica model is Theme. The Domains, Concerns, Issues, and Problems of a Storyform all work together to create the thematic argument (Premise) of the story.
The thing is, what you call "subject matter" (which in almost every case is what I would call theme) is the thing I care about as a writer. When we hit the point where the underlying source of conflict is "accurate vs. non-accurate" we're at a level of abstraction that never shows up in the creative process for me. I'm not saying it doesn't matter, only that it exists whether I want to seek it out or not: you can't write two people in conflict with each other without there being some underlying source of conflict. Saying "they're not fighting about the old ways of being a spy vs. the new ways, it's really about non-accurate vs. accurate" is not a thought that would ever help me create the story.
As you point out, this underlying conflict exists whether you focus on it or not, and you certainly can't write conflict without some underlying source. The keyword here is underlying. The theme is not what the characters discuss, but rather, what motivates the quality of that discussion.
Great stories existed before the introduction of the Dramatica theory of story in 1994 (Lee, Shakespeare, etc.). Dramatica merely helps explain an essential part of why they're so great—a part that you won't find in any other discussions of narrative structure.
That part is what drives the engine of your story—the part that exists in your work, whether you seek it out or not.
Some writers get on the carousel of writing & rewriting at the writing stage. Others get on during the rewriting phase. Regardless of when you jump on, you're going to come to a point where you'll need to determine what is the underlying conflict. You might start at the very beginning of your creative process, or somewhere in the middle.
This jumping-on moment is the point at which issues of "Accurate and Non-accurate" start to matter. You can't determine narrative structure at the Subject Matter level of concern of "old vs. new." You need to know the specific inflection points of imbalance—like Accurate and Non-accurate—before you can begin building a story around them.
The alternative is fumbling around blindfolded--relying on talent and wit alone to see you through to the end.
Structure and Subject Matter
You can't reach structure through Subject Matter—you can only reach the structure, which is another way of saying order, through meaning.
Order is meaning—a slap followed by a scream carries a different meaning than a scream followed by a slap. The same Subject Matter (a slap and a scream) means something different depending upon the order in which they appear.
Meaning is only found within a context. If I hold my arm straight out and ask, Is my hand higher or lower than my feet? your answer would be "Higher."
Unless, of course, I switched the context from an Earth-centric perspective to a point-of-view centered on the Sun. Now—you might not even be able to determine high or low—because, from that perspective, we're spinning like a corkscrew through the galaxy.
Structure is order. And order is meaning. And meaning is context, and context is based on perspective or established points-of-view.
And now you know the purpose of Dramatica's Four Throughlines. The reason why there is an Overall Story perspective. And a Main Character Throughline. And an Influence Character and Relationship Story point-of-view.
Now you know the real purpose of narrative structure.
The Basis of a Story
The four perspectives found in Dramatica establish a context for understanding the meaning underlying the Subject Matter.
- Subject Matter != Structure
- Structure = Order
- Order = Meaning
- Meaning = Context
- Context = Perspective
- Perspective = Throughlines
Therefore, Structure equals Throughlines.
Proper narrative structure is not synthesis—it's perspective.
One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. Is that an overall objective perspective? Then it's part of the Overall Story Throughline perspective. Is it something more subjective, perhaps descriptive of the dynamic within a relationship? Then it belongs within the context of the Relationship Story Throughline perspective.
When it comes to meaning, context is everything--theme is pointless without a point-of-view. Old vs. new is meaningless until put into a specific context. Setting perspective by attaching Throughlines to Domains creates the context for your story.
By allowing the Audience to appreciate your context, you permit them to invest wholeheartedly into your Premise. Your readers will understand that you're trying to say something meaningful and vital to them—and they will listen with open hearts and open minds.
Structure is not a result of story.
Story is a result of structure.
Great writers write without caveats. They don't backtrack, and they don't leave their purpose up to interpretation. Compelled to say something about our world and the experience of living in it, Authors take to characters and plot to state unapologetically: This is how I see the world.
And narrative structure is the carrier wave of that message.
Author and Intention
Some contend that the meaning of a story lies in the experience, that what one says bears little on the final appreciation of their work:
I was realizing the other day that there's an intrinsic incompatibility between reader-response theory, which establishes the story as the product of the reader's experience reading the story rather than anything to do with authorial intention or objective textual interpretation, and Dramatica which posits an objective, observable storyform existing in a kind of metaphysical plane beneath the text.
The Dramatica theory of story sees a functioning narrative as a model of a single human mind trying to resolve conflict. I'm not sure I would refer to this model, and Dramatica's storyform, as "metaphysical" in nature. The theory is not trying to explain a philosophical view of reality ("Evil does not exist"), but rather, theorizes the process one engages in while arriving at those types of conclusions.
Maybe I should've said "epistemological" instead.
While knowledge, justification, rationalization, truth, and belief factor into the Dramatica model, they are not treated as objects of Subject Matter the way epistemology treats them.
Reading this made me realize I'm really not sure what definition you apply to the term "subject matter" in a story. I'm sure we'd both agree that in a film like Moneyball, baseball is subject matter, but whereas to me the theme of the film is being open to new methods vs. being stuck in tradition, I get the sense you'd call that subject matter, too. In Skyfall, spying is subject matter, but for me "the old ways of human beings vs. the new ways of technology" is theme, whereas you've indicated it's subject matter.
Being open to new methods vs. being stuck in tradition is equivalent to baseball when assigning relative value to a narrative. Both are Subject Matter because you haven't said anything meaningful about those things. You've only indicated the topic of conversation within your writing.
Theme is more than focus—it's meaning.
While part of the confusion here lies in simple semantics, clarification of purpose is everything when constructing a story.
We need to differentiate between something as general as "old vs. new" with Theme because there is an infinite number of ways to explore "old vs. new." It becomes the Subject Matter of the argument because there is no indication of perspective or point-of-view. "Old vs. new" is the topic of our conversation.
The Hegelian Dialectic sees ideas in conflict (Thesis and Anti-thesis) as indicators of story structure. A Synthesis related to the topic of conversation is all that is needed to resolve the dispute. This "synthesis" is the meaning of the story under Hegelian rule.
The Dramatica theory of story goes deeper to describe the nature of those ideas and the meaning behind the eventual synthesis. With this approach, an Author gives up talking around what motivates them to write and instead, addresses the true nature of their story's conflict.
The Storytelling Layer
This differential between what we talk about and what we want to say about what we're talking about is the basis for the same story showing up repeatedly under different pretenses. While there is only one way to construct a solid argument given a point-of-view, there are an infinite amount of ways to illustrate the specifics of that argument.
The Lion King, Black Panther, and Mad Max: Fury Road all make the same argument: Give up running away, and you can reclaim a throne. Technically, Max isn't about a throne per se, but it's the same basic concept: winning something back by giving up the motivation to run.
You might think The Lion King about Responsibility, or Loyalty, Family, or Carrying on a Tradition. But are the Authors leaving the interpretations of those issues up to the audience? Or are they explicitly proving something, that if you do this, you're going to get that?
Do they possess a point-of-view?
When you begin to understand the intent of the Authors to make an argument, you recognize their shift towards one side within that discussion. The particulars of that side fall away as you look to what drives their point-of-view. Is it "old vs. new" that drives Skyfall? Or is it that the old is no longer good enough within the context of the new? Is it "Family" that operates The Lion King, or is it running away from your family that proves to be the real problem?
Isn't running away the same core problem in Black Panther and Mad Max: Fury Road?
Finding the Premise of a story is a process of extracting the narrative Elements from Subject Matter, of seeing beyond Storytelling to Storyform.
The Purpose of Structure
The Subject Matter of a story falls into the category of Storytelling. Story Structure is a part of Storyforming. That's why The Lion King, Black Panther, and Mad Max: Fury Road can be vastly different in terms of Storytelling, yet still make the same argument. Their narrative structure is identical.
So for me it feels like "subject matter" becomes far too broad a term – but I may not be catching your meaning correctly.
Subject Matter is more than setting in Dramatica--it's the life force that breathes humanity into the narrative Elements. After all, who wants to read a story about Avoidance, or Non-accurate?
A story is a function of Storytelling and Storyform. No meaning exists without the latter. No connection with the audience exists without the former.
To some extent, I think you've been alluding to this for years when you say that many writers will intuitively come up with a coherent storyform. That may be true, because for me, "subject matter" (e.g., "What purpose is the value of idealism in a world where it's been proven to fail over and over") is everything to me. It's the whole point of getting out of bed and writing.
I get that, but I assume you have an answer to that question. If not, then the last thing you need is narrative structure. Structure exists to convey meaning. If you don't know that meaning or have zero intent to provide a sense of things, then you're not building a narrative argument. You don't have a Premise.
If you do know the answer to your question, then you have a Premise, and you'll need a structure to make that argument. You need to prove to me, for example, that idealism sets one up to fail--assuming, of course, that that is your point-of-view. You could be coming at it from a different angle, in which case the context would shift--along with the structure.
Creating a Context for Your Audience
I can think of several examples where an idealistic mindset saved the world from tyranny, WWII, for instance. But even then, there would be many who would not agree with me. To prove that the naive idealism of the mid-20th century was a good thing, I would need to provide a consistent context. I would need a story where idealism results in triumph (Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, etc.).
When you don't provide that consistent context, you risk losing your audience.
Two Stories, Same Subject Matter
Clint Eastwood made two movies with the same Subject Matter--Duty, Honor, Sacrifice--and even the same setting--Iwo Jima. One film was successful in its portrayal (Letters from Iwo Jima), the other was not (Flags of Our Fathers). While the former kept a consistent context from beginning to end, the latter bounced around from one viewpoint to the next with no real common ground on which to base a solid argument (Premise).
Flags is almost unwatchable. You can't make heads or tails of what the author is trying to say about Duty, Honor, or Sacrifice. And even if you could, the point-of-view is all over the place. Its uneven formation invites criticism, making it easy for anyone to poke holes in the argument.
You can't do that with Letters from Iwo Jima.
One Author wrote Letters--Iris Yamashita. And that film scores a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Flags was written by two Authors separately--and scores a paltry 73% in comparison.
Eastwood felt so compelled to get out of the bed in 2005 that he made two movies about the very same thing. The question is, which one achieved what he set out to say, and more importantly--which one will audiences remember when he can no longer get out of bed?
Stories convey meaning—something important that adds value to our lives. Telling you that resolution resolves conflict is no more additive to your life experience than 2+2=4. Yet, many continue to generate this line of thinking with the Hegelian Dialectic and its "insightful" progression of a thesis to synthesis.
Working towards synthesis is like working towards the end of a meal. We know it's coming, and we know how it will make us feel—but what does it actually mean?
What have you added to your life?
The previous article in this series, Theme Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry, makes a case for Authors to move beyond the superficial elementary understandings of narrative structure found in something like the Hegelian Dialectic:
The Dramatica theory of story goes deeper to describe the nature of those ideas, and the meaning behind the eventual synthesis. With this approach, an Author gives up talking around what motivates them to write and instead, addresses the true nature of their story's conflict.
Hegel's synthesis simply doesn't go deep enough. It's an excellent start, but if you really want to write something meaningful—and know what it is you're writing about—Dramatica is the way to go.
The Failure of Synthesis
The Hegelian Dialectic continues to connect with writers because it offers up the feeling of narrative structure. Like it's brethren the Hero's Journey, the Nutshell, and Save the Cat!, the Hegelian brings comfort to the writer's journey. If you understand thesis and anti-thesis, surely you know how to write the next scene; you know how to finish your book. Unfortunately, these loose approximations of conflict resolution fail to get to the root motivating force of a story.
They support the writing process—they don't help it.
Consider this response from an earlier discussion regarding Skyfall and the "synthesis" that eventually resolves the conflict in that film:
The synthesis in this case comes from the integration of old tactics which gets exemplified at the end when the new M turns out to be the very same guy who was critical of the old M earlier in the movie for being out of touch yet he's willing to work with Bond. Throughout the whole movie we're dealing with this tension between new tactics and old and come to the resolution that you need a blend of both in a modern, dangerous world.
While the conversations between Bond and Q about technology play a part in illustrating the objective view of the conflict in Skyfall, they fail to factor into the conclusion of the story. Same with the conflict between Mallory and M and the strife between Mallory and Bond. Their interactions function as Subject Matter, or topics of conversation, floating on top of the actual narrative argument.
Those conversations are not what is driving the narrative—in large part because ** they're not what resolves the conflict in the story.**
The entire last act of the film is a solely brute force (the set-piece at Skyfall). How do the shootout and ensuing destruction help make the argument that the way to win is to synthesize the old approaches with the new ideas?
Yet the Hegelian Dialectic would have you believe that a synthesis of old and new somehow solves the problem of Silva. I get that Mallory (new M) is going to be doing things a different way—but that's not how the story resolves it's conflict.
My description of the synthesis in Skyfall was a bit weak, and you're right to point it out. That said, the thematic conflict the audience is experiencing is very much "can the old ways survive in a new, technologically-driven world?" In terms of synthesis, we come out the other end with the sense that this has been answered – perhaps merely with a "the old ways are still important but you have to be open to working with those who are part of the new ways, too."
This sounds nice—but how did that stop the bad guy terrorist? More importantly, how did they arrive at this synthesis? The working Authors wants to know what to write next—and a simple notion of synthesis gives no indication of the process that led to it.
Any number of writers could write the same story described revolving around old vs. new, and have it turn out to be a completely different experience. Not simply because they're different writers with varying levels of talent, but rather that their approach towards arriving at that conclusion would be different.
Some would see that synthesis as an issue of Faith, others might see it as a need to let go of the Past. That shift in focus naturally calls for a different approach to narrative structure.
The Dramatica theory of story (and Subtext) is interested in helping the Author identify what approach he or she wants to take on the way towards that Premise, or synthesis. Those choices set the entire structure of their piece, allowing the Author to find and fix weak spots in the narrative.
A Model of Ourselves for Ourselves
When it comes to appreciating the narrative structure of a story, the quality of the resolution is key.
Again, you raise a good point here about what ultimately resolves the conflict, but it's so buried beneath the surface that I wouldn't be able to construct Skyfall from it at all. What my writerly brain sees in that movie is: "Everyone believes the old spy ways are outdated and irrelevant, but now we're going to show Bond going back to even older ways to kick the ass of the guy who represents the rejection of the old ways."
Some writers feel inspired to write because of something they want to say; others feel inspired by a bit of dialogue or an entertaining action scene. Stories need both and Dramatica makes no attempt to capture the essence of the latter.
If you seek an understanding of your story that allows you to write with ease, then choose the one that wants to know your story. Dramatica can't help you structure scenes until it knows for sure what it is you're trying to say with your work. What you mean to say is what holds it all together—and Dramatica brings light to your intentions.
Synthesis just pays lip-service to what is a complex and multi-faceted process.
The process of our mind at work.
Many writers know how they want to end their stories. They know who dies, and who lives. They might even realize why they want things to turn out that way and how it relates to their theme or premise. The question is: does that ending resolve the conflict in a meaningful way?
Is there a reason for that theme beyond something to talk about?
The horse-and-buggy days of narrative structure are long gone. And good riddance. The hours wasted trying to evoke some usefulness out of something like the Hegelian Dialectic are now behind us. And we’re all the better for it.
That 1800s philosophy—of which many still behold themselves to—is no match for the comprehensive model of the mind that is the Dramatica theory of story. “Synthesis” and “Anti-thesis” simply don’t cut it in a world that comprehends the difference between Linear and Holistic thought.
Consider the conversation in this series between a novelist proficient in his craft and yours truly. The Hegelian approach lends one to see “the old ways vs. the new ways” as a theme, and a truism beyond them as a potential solution. Easily transposed from one story to the next (which narrative doesn’t find a meaningful “synthesis”?), this method fails to zero in on the particulars of said conflict.
The Dialectic doesn’t just miss the trees for the forest—it sees a green landscape where there isn’t a blue sky.
The Essence of a Synthesis
The Hegelian Dialectic isn’t all wicked. The thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis methodology works—if you understand the cause and effect linearity of its components.
To the Hegelian, conflict resolution arrives in the form of synthesis. Key to this solution is a relationship with the thesis and anti-thesis proposed earlier on in the narrative. If the thematic argument of a film like the James Bond thriller Skyfall is something as general as “the old ways vs. the new ways,” then a synthesis beyond the old and new would save the day.
But that doesn’t happen.
The only “synthesis” that stops super-villain Silva in Skyfall occurs when Bond stops fretting over issues of his physicality and returns to form—tolerating life-risking behavior without question. Shooting up the frozen ice that keeps him safe exemplifies this meaningful change. It’s a variation of the old vs. new argument, but it’s one that is intimately tied with what actually resolves conflict in the narrative.
It’s also specific and definitive.
I don’t see the connection between Bond no longer fretting over issues of physicality (which honestly I must’ve completely missed both times I watched the film) and the old vs. new argument.
When you're making an argument, you want to make sure you cover all the bases. Leave something out, and you leave yourself open for a ” Yeah, but” exchange with your Audience. You’ll want to craft a complete argument—unless you want to open yourself up to countless conversations about what your story means.
Covering All Your Bases
A complete argument explores life as experienced through the mind. Part of this examination involves the physical expression of conflict. Another, the internal manifestation of what is at odds in the context of thinking processes and fixed attitudes. Cover them all, and you’ve helped us understand a little more about what it means to be human.
Skyfall easily captures the process of physical conflict with its action sequences—there isn't a Bond film around that doesn't do that. However, in contrast to the super-spy pantheon, Skyfall goes the extra distance by exploring the internal side of things with its portrayal of Silva, M, and the dysfunctional relationship between all three principal characters.
Where the film slips up is in its development of the conflict in an external static state.
Recognizing the Missing Piece
It's no surprise to me that you don't remember the scenes where Bond contends with his deteriorated state—what we refer to in Dramatica as a Universe problem. Skyfall efficiently manages conflict in an external process context (Physics), but stumbles with the regard of the external state—namely, Bond's aging out of the spy business.
While the film starts out strong exploring this part of the argument with Bond’s inability to shoot straight, his difficulty with the physical exams, and his consternation over holding on to the elevator, it loses sight of this potential through much of Act 2—only to bring it up for a brief moment again in the final Act when he is out on the frozen lake.
Your inability to recall those scenes and make the connection with the "old vs. new" argument is proof positive that this kind of work is necessary. As a novelist, this is your life's work, and even you can't make that connection—because it was never successfully made for you in the first place.
Bond's physicality is vital to the argument because we need to see how "old vs. new" work out under the context of a fixed external state. We require that exploration of Universe.
The Reason for Four
Context is meaning—but a context is meaningless without an understanding of the totality of meaning. I means nothing without You. They pointless unless juxtaposed We. The fixed mindset domain of Mind is inconsequential unless paired with a stationary external state of the Universe.
The Dramatica theory of story is based on the quad. Its appreciations of narrative structure are meaningless unless all four items of a quad appear within a single context. Physics, Mind, and Psychology are pointless without the Universe to balance them out.
A story is one such single context.
Do you really see this movie as exploring what happens when a secret agent begins to fret over issues of physicality?
I see an attempt to make an argument about the old ways of doing spy work versus the realities of the modern age. I know that argument half-baked and deficient as it fails to encode the Main Character Throughline context of Universe completely.
Writers intuition naturally led the Authors of this film to include this in the story—but without something like Dramatica to keep them focused, the creators of Skyfall wrote an incomplete argument.
We all have minds. And they all work the same—more or less. We see external and internal, understand state and process, and recognize binary and analog. The Authors of the film intuitively sensed the need to address the fixed external state of things and wrote in his struggle with "getting older"—they just dropped it for much of the traditional second Act, making the final argument less convincing than it could have been.
A Meaningful End to Conflict
At the beginning of the film, a Non-accurate and intolerable shot sends Bond to his “death” with a drowning. In the end, he comes back to life by drowning himself at Skyfall’s frozen lake. That is behavior only M would have tolerated in the past—behavior Bond has now “synthesized” into his own repertoire.
His Resolve now Changed, Bond can get to the task of taking down Silva and resolve the rogue agent’s intolerable behavior (more evidence of a Non-accurate problem). Blowing up MI-6 and releasing names of secret agents is unacceptable, but ultimately unavoidable in a world where you can’t tell friend from foe—unless you meet them on the ground and face-to-face.
M was right—and is proven right by the film’s events—in her support of Bond. Her Steadfastness brought down Silva just as much as Bond’s Changed Resolve secured the future of MI-6.
An Objective Appreciation of the Author/Audience Contract
With Dramatica, you have something as simple and concrete as the appreciation of Main Character Resolve—was that Resolve Changed or did it remain Steadfast?
In Skyfall, Bond resolves to not take things so personally in the future. His Resolve is Changed. Put him on that same train in the next film, take the same shot—and he’s not going to disappear off the grid. He would most likely respond with, ” Well, I would have done the same,” because he would have—after his experiences in Skyfall.
It’s interesting because, while maybe this is true,
It is. 😂
I really never noticed it in the film in any significant way. To me it’s as if a smaller, almost trivial aspect of the story is being raised up as the most important while the things that drive me to watch the next scene disappear when looking back at the storyform. You know what I mean? I see a scene in which Silva tells Bond he’s an idiot for trying to still be one of these old-school queen-and-country spies in a new world, and I want to see if he’s going to be proven right. I don’t really care whether Bond is going to think, “Right then, I guess I really am expendable and that’s okay."
That's because when you write your novels, you're 100% locked into the subjective point-of-view of your characters. There's nothing wrong with that—it's obviously worked out quite well for you. And the popularity and success of your work are proof enough that to be a great writer you don't need to understand your work objectively.
If, however, you want to step outside of yourself for a moment, the Dramatica theory of story is your friend.
A Companion while Writing
For you, it looks as if this relationship between Author and objective theory would work best during a rewrite—singularly if you're not inspired enough by what Dramatica offers to include it in your first draft.
Note that not all Authors are like this. Dramatica is not merely a “tool for analysis,” as many would have you believe. I know several working professionals who, under extreme deadlines, prefer working the narrative structure of their stories out if not a priori, then in tandem as they write.
Dramatica and my practical application of the theory Subtext is key to their productivity.
With or without these tools, the end result is always the same: a meaningful story with something to say. The question is—when do you want to jump on the carousel of writing and rewriting?
With the Hegelian Dialectic, you never know when to get on or off—worse, you don’t even realize the carousel exists. You end up spinning around in circles with no end in sight.
With Dramatica, writers now possess an awareness of how they think—which makes it even easier to get those intentions out and into the form of a great story.
Nothing is more caustic to the conversation of narrative structure than the trope. A breeding ground for meaningless instances of pattern recognition, the trope is the nihilist's playground. The absurdity of life played out in plot devices and genre conventions.
Recall the last article in this series, Writing a Meaningful End to Conflict, and the conversation surrounding Bond's physicality in Skyfall.
Ah, so yes, I did remember those scenes, but I chalked these up entirely to the "you're getting too old for this business" trope which while it shares the word "old" with the question of "the old ways vs. the new" isn't actually relevant except as a kind of metaphor: Bond is getting physically old, and his ways of being a spy are old, therefore Bond's body is a metaphor for the traditional ways of spying. But it's kind of cheap and to me less effective than if we'd had a younger Bond who was discovering the problems with being a traditional spy in a high-tech world.
Bond getting old exists as a metaphor for you in Skyfall because the narrative failed to integrate the Main Character Throughline fully. That's a failure of the structure, not of concept.
Thankfully, the Dramatica theory of story sees beyond the uselessness of the trope. It explains why the "you're getting too old for this" line appears in many stories within this Genre.
A Reason for Trends
The "too old for this" bit is conflict within the context of Universe—an inequity bred from the external state of things. The reason why it appears so often in Secret Agent Action films is due to the juxtaposition of the objective view of conflict and the subjective perspective. The "trope" is a result of an Overall Story conflict in Physics and a Main Character Throughline in Universe. It reflects the difficulties inherent with the work and "I'm getting too old for this."
This arrangement of perspectives contains the added-bonus of the Main Character who prefers to solve problems externally. Dramatica structure identifies this dynamic as a Main Character Approach of Do-er. When you find yourself facing a problematic external situation (Universe), your go-to preference for solving that conflict is taking external action. There aren't too many super spy films concerned with the internal components of their hero—unless you're writing about Jason Bourne.
Bourne is less "I'm getting too old for this," and more "What did I use to do?"
The Main Character Throughline of The Bourne Identity focuses on Bourne's inability to remember his past. Mind instead of Universe. The internal over the external. This thematic relationship is why The Bourne Identity feels different than most Bond films—the sources of conflict differ in a meaningful and measurable way.
A Measure of Success
The virus that is the trope clouds the mind's ability to perceive meaning. Wrapped in the comfort of * "Oh, I've seen this one before,"* the infected focuses on common elements of Storytelling rather than Story Structure. Illustrations over the content.
You see what I mean? Rolling out grandpa in a wheelchair and having him not able to shoot straight is a pretty piss-poor argument for, "see, guns are so passé. It's all about drones these days."
It's not the words themselves, but the meaning behind the words that move an Audience. The characters don't make the argument, the story makes the argument. The narrative Elements underneath define the form of that narrative argument.
Grandpa not being able to shoot straight can be seen as a sign of inadequacy. This inadequacy signals something intolerable. Indiscriminate drones that kill innocents is something unacceptable. Drones, therefore, are inadequate in matters of espionage.
The subtext beneath the Subject Matter Illustrations of "Grandpa" and "drones" connects with a single narrative Element: inadequacy. This connection forms the foundation for that narrative argument. The resonance between them is what signals to an Audience that something more exists here.
Skyfall made this connection, but then dropped it for much of the traditional Second Act.
And yet it got 92% on Rotten Tomatoes (I mention this only because you brought up movies with >90% being representative of complete storyforms).
Generally speaking, yes, this is the case. Occasionally you will find those properties that—resplendent with beloved characters and enduring franchises—skirt by their deficiencies with love and rabid fandom. Frozen is one such example (the franchise being Disney Animation). Incredibles 2 is another. Mission Impossible: Fallout is entirely bereft of meaning, and yet scores 97% amongst critics. Skyfall fits the bill by riding decades of that same goodwill.
Quantum of Solace,—with its 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—is another story.
The Promise of the Premise
One thing I'm developing for Subtext is the ability to compare critical reception with the completeness of the storyform. This process requires a weighting of Storypoints such that you could tell to the degree how competent a film or novel was in completing its narrative argument (storyform). Match that with the admittedly subjective rating from something like Rotten Tomatoes, and you create a system of analytics that accounts for both heart and mind.
Quantum of Solace is a good comparison for Skyfall, if for no other reason than it was a victim of the writer's strike at the time. With the deadline of the release rapidly approaching, even Bond himself (Daniel Craig) took to pen.
It didn't quite work out.
From the look of the trailer, Quantum appeared to be a complete story. The classic "You and I are both alike" is the centerpiece of the advertisement, and features strongly in the Dramatica You and I montage.
When the film arrived, it left the Relationship Story Throughline out wholly. Not a drop of heart or emotion to be found anywhere.
Skyfall at least had the wherewithal to start encoding its deficient Main Character Throughline. They managed to go the extra distance and finish it, but the development of that thread fell by the wayside during the middle of the film.
Maybe they thought they had enough to cover the "trope."
Rating the Meaningless
If I were to weight Skyfall's Main Character Throughline, I would give it a 66% complete. This sufficient showing, along with the 100% development and completion of the Overall Story, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines, would easily explain why it rises above that 90% mark.
If I were to rate the value of a trope in defining a narrative structure, I would give it 2%. Two—instead of zero—because identifying "grandpa has a gun" is one step removed from a Main Character Throughline of Universe. The trope is not entirely useless, but it's close.
The Dramatica theory of story, on the other hand, gets an AAA+ rating.
Tropes are superficial and surface level, almost snarky in their unwillingness to dig down deep and find out why a particular bit of story continues to reappear. Dramatica starts with the why first, then works itself back up to general and commonplace.
The cure for the disease.
Some suggest profundity in the unclear ending—as if ambiguity is its own reward. This recommendation, while enticing to the Author unsure of his Premise, leads to an ultimately forgettable product. The shroud of uncertainty allows one to dodge the challenging work of deep analytical thinking.
When you encounter this siren of meaninglessness, cover your ears. For what is the purpose of being pointless?
Finding The Author's Intent
Whether happened upon by coincidence or the result of concentrated effort, meaningful intent drives the completion of a narrative. Inspiration, while often the genesis of creativity, is fleeting. To be inspired is to give us a glimpse at our true nature—to drive us in the direction of fulfilling our heart's intent.
Even when we don't realize we are doing it.
I wouldn't put a couple of lines of dialogue or an idea for an action scene on the same level as a writer having something they want to say, but I would put it this way: Some writers feel inspired to write because of something they want to say; others feel inspired by something they want to explore.
You write from your personal subjective perspective. Your Audience appreciates your work from an objective point-of-view. The exploration process you refer to is a subjective attempt to find objectivity. It is impossible to solve an objective problem with a subjective point-of-view.
And yet, that is what every single Author does when he writes without knowing his Premise.
Every single Author since the beginning of time.
The Dramatica theory of story allows an Author to step outside of himself--immediately and without the reliance of time to separate him from his work. With Dramatica, the Author observes his work from an objective point-of-view. He sees what his story looks like from a dispassionate standpoint.
He sees his own mind from afar.
Only from without can one ascertain the true meaning and purpose of within.
The Irony of Not Being Ironic
There's a book I quite like called Secrets of Story by Matt Bird which is almost entirely focused on the importance of irony in drama (e.g., "At the end of Alien, the only way for Ripley to survive is to destroy her ship – the very thing meant to help her survive in space"). One of the more interesting points he makes is that it's often important that the Audience not come away knowing the ultimate answer in a definitive way to the thematic question – that they feel at least a little unsettled so that they keep pondering the events of the movie rather than simply file them away. I think you alluded to this with a couple of movies (perhaps Moonlight was your example?)
No, I'm all for narratives and complete arguments and knowing what is being said with a story. That's why the name—Narrative First.
From 1994 until 2013 I worked on countless animated productions where those in charge didn't have an answer to the question, What is this all about? They would hide behind "Trust the process," and we would pay dearly in unreasonable overtime requests to facilitate their uncertainty. That approach may work for the solo novelist; it's a nightmare for any sort of collaborative work.
And that includes the Author's collaboration with his Audience.
Fulfilling their Trust in You
An Audience reaches out for your story in search of something they can't find in their own lives—meaning. Knowing that one man's freedom fighter is another woman's terrorist grants us the appreciation that there can be no meaning without objectivity. And we can't be objective about our subjective experience.
Except in a story.
Life is therefore meaningless without a story.
Furthermore, this juxtaposition only exists in complete stories—stories that manage to communicate their message without falling into ambiguity.
Irony and ambiguity can be powerful tools in storytelling, though the latter is perhaps less likely to be the outcome of a fully-formed Dramatica storyform?
Ambiguity is the presence of two or more storyforms within the same context, with one—or all of them—purposefully incomplete as to their meaning. To be ambiguous is to be open to interpretation—to be open to different purposes. A storyform is one meaning. As we'll see, an Author can leave out parts of a storyform as long as the original intent remains clear. The Audience craves that meaning they can't find in their own lives.
Irony is the juxtaposition of positive and negative values within a single and complete storyform.
It's ironic that Bruce Wayne has to become the villain to save Gotham in The Dark Knight. It's ironic that Robert Angiers has to die himself to reveal the secret of the Transported Man trick in The Prestige. Both films sport bitter endings within the context of a single storyform.
Unless purposefully deceiving an Audience with something incontrovertible, an Author always seeks at least one single and complete storyform with their work.
Ambiguity is a failure on the Author's part to project a complete and meaningful storyform. This doesn't mean one needs to communicate the entirety of the storyform—just enough to ensure a single interpretation.
And this is what happened with Moonlight.
The Responsibility of Ambiguity
Moonlight left out an entire structural Act as a means of manipulating the Audience into becoming a part of the story. The essential argument regarding rejection and acceptance rings loud and clear without this missing piece. Its absence only amplified the story's Premise by drawing the Audience into the discussion—it didn't muddle the story's message.
Bird, like many, conflates ambiguity with irony because he lacks the language to tease apart the two concepts. The Dramatica theory of story makes this confusion a thing of the past.
The Meaning of Ambiguity
A decade after the original release of Inception in 2009, people continue to argue over totems and wedding rings. Was Cobb still dreaming at the end? Or did he somehow find a way to return home?
Or was it somehow both?
Some view the final sequence of the film as evidence of an ambiguous ending. Many in the Audience interpret the cut on the spinning top indicative of Nolan wanting to leave the movie "open-ended." Indeed, he meant never to answer the question of reality—but is that proof of an ambiguous ending? It's certainly not ironic. But what if the ambiguity was the meaning?
The official storyform for Inception found in Subtext identifies Self-awareness as Cobb's ultimate solution. In Dramatica, the narrative Element of Self-aware is defined as couching everything from one's point-of-view. Instead of looking outside for answers, we look from within our own perspective.
Appreciating Self-aware as the film's ending point, we know the meaning of Inception to lie in Cobb's accepting his perception as reality—regardless of whether or not he's dreaming. The ambiguity is part of the argument: self-perception (or deception) is the way out.
Nolan himself confirms this interpretation in his 2015 commencement address to Princeton University:
"The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Cobb – he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality," said Nolan. "He didn't really care any more, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid."
More than a statement—an argument for self-appreciation as a valid method for achieving peace and fulfillment.
Filmmakers and writers do not seek out ambiguity for ambiguity's sake--they seek to grant meaning. And the Dramatica storyform shines a light on their purpose.
And the meaning of something as amorphous as irony.
The Meaning of Irony
Bird's point about Ripley in Aliens is interesting. I would ask, what is the meaning behind it? Was the Author explicitly trying to say something about getting rid of something that is of high self-worth? And if so, where are more examples of this throughout the narrative?
Is it really just this: ¯\(ツ)/¯
Or is it an isolated example where the critic employs reductive thinking to prove an ill-supported claim? Within such a narrow field of vision, everything can mean everything—or everything can say nothing.
The complexity of Dramatica is such that you can't cherry-pick bits of narrative and hope to find meaning in them. Real meaning is located within the appreciation of the totality of our contextual experience.
Meaning is writing with purpose.
Anyway, it made me think of three outcomes I often experience with a book or movie:
- The Author made what they wanted me to think explicit (e.g., Whiplash)
- The Author intentionally wants me to feel an uncertainty about the right answer (e.g., Captain America: Civil War and every Christopher Nolan movie except Batman Begins and The Dark Knight)
- The Author has no fucking clue what they're trying to say (e.g., Batman v. Superman)
Memento, The Prestige, and Inception all possess very clear and very strong storyforms. They don't fit in your second category. Christopher Nolan is the exact opposite of ambiguity when it comes to the central dramatic argument of his films. The explicit intent of his storytelling actually lands him in your first category.
The third category is just funny.
The only filmmakers I know that perhaps fit in the second would be Terrence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson. Maybe even Quentin Tarantino. But even then, the intent is less about being ambiguous, and more about focusing on the experience over meaning.
I love Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. The experience, particularly in a theater, is phenomenal. I will never know the "answer" to that film, and yet I'll watch it several times over again before I die. That unsettled unknowing feeling exists because that was his intent—he wasn't trying to argue a particular point-of-view. Contrast that with his film, The Hidden Life. The trailer spells out the film's purpose in no uncertain terms: to argue the importance of meeting the tyranny of your day.
What you refer to as ambiguity might be something else, something closer to what you might consider irony. That said, irony only works when in support of a grander argument.
Purpose in the Seemingly Undefinable
When writing from Premise, an Author seeks to prove the appropriateness of a course of action. Communicating this dramatic argument is the purpose of his story.
He offers two clues as to the eventual result of engaging in the Premise: one logistical, one emotional. The Dramatica theory of story recognizes the former as the Story Outcome and the latter as the Story Judgment. The Story Outcome determines Success or Failure; the Story Judgement assesses whether that Success or Failure was Good or Bad.
What you refer to as ambiguity might be your recognition of a Story Outcome of Success and a Story Judgment of Bad. These stories of Personal Tragedy often leave one quite unsettled—as we end up feeling "bad" about our "success." This is what you're referring to with the idea that Nolan "intentionally wants me to feel uncertain about the right answer." The Dark Knight, Memento, and The Prestige all end in Personal Tragedy.
The uncertainty of Inception actually lies in the unsettling circumstances of feeling "good" about falling into our subjective experience. We're taught from birth that objectivity reigns supreme—that the rational always supersedes the emotional. Inception argues the opposite—and it does so by illustrating Cobb's dive into subjective reality a Triumph.
This triumphant ending is yet another reason why people continue to debate the conclusion: they find it difficult to accept an argument that runs counter to everything they believe.
Cobb succeeds by choosing his self-awareness over everything else. He gives up his awareness of the spinning top, turning away from the certainty of reality.
This works excellent for Cobb—and for many others struggling to resolve personal issues of guilt—but it's no bueño for Authors struggling to write a meaningful story. For them, a balance between the subjective and objective holds the key to resolving the inequity of the unrealized story.
Ambiguity is the result of failing to think deeply enough about a story. Irony is the juxtaposition of Storypoints intended to nudge the Audience out of their preconceptions.
A great story is a balance between the objective and subjective—a chance to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless experience.
Recognizing the terror of story structure for story structure's sake is not hyperbole—its essential knowledge for the continuation of our species. Stories keep us alive. They teach us the most appropriate course of action given a particular set of circumstances, and they do in a way that affects both the heart and the mind.
If the Authors writing them realize that story structure is more than a way to organize their folders in Scrivener.
So one fascinating aspect of your perspective is that for you (and Dramatica), structure defines meaning. I can completely see the logic behind this (e.g. if we explore a situation in a particular order we're going to come out with a particular result in the same way that where we place the variables in an equation defines which answer appears after the equal sign.)
Structure is meaning. In other words, if you mean to write something meaningful, you naturally structure it. That organization of your personal Truth is the meaning of your story. The relationships between the Storypoints within your structure communicate your intention—not the decision where Act Two starts and Act One ends.
Story structure is not folder organization—story structure is Truth organization.
However, I'd argue you're going a bit too far in a couple of these sentences: "Again, if you don't have the answer to this question, then you don't need Dramatica—and you don't need structure. If you're not providing meaning, then things like Acts and Main Characters and Influence Characters and Climaxes and Resolution are pointless."
The fluid morass of alternative narrative paradigms—the Hegelian Dialectic, the Hero's Journey, Save the Cat!, the Nutshell Method, the Sequence Method, etc.—continue to bog us down because of the insistence on a structure for structure's sake. Acts hold no more significance than Chapter breaks—a convenient spot to end the day's work or start anew the next. One man's Break into Two is another woman's Refusal of the Call. Take a look at any of the Save the Cat! Books, and you'll find several inconsistencies that belie a disconnect from meaning.
Structure becomes a target, a page-count to hit, rather than the guiding force of your writer's intuition.
In the most banal, plot-centric sense, acts for me are units of story where a particular engine of conflict appears, generates its problems, and is then eliminated to be superseded by something else. From a character perspective, I write an act as a unit of story where a character is attempting to approach the underlying problems through a particular lens and ultimately finds it stops working
Can you perceive the story structure of your life? From your point-of-view right now, whether you're sitting in a chair or walking down the street, can you see the narrative of your life at work? Of course, you can't.
It's the same thing when writing a story from a character's perspective.
You are never going to see the Matrix because you're part of the Matrix. Even when you recognize the existence of the system, you're still eternally locked in that system. You might see seasons or stages of life, but even then, you're not understanding the true nature of that narrative structure. What you see is always colored by what you think.
Dramatica gives you a way to step outside of yourself. Astral projection for the modern age.
Our Intuitive Sense of Story Structure
Experienced and established Authors write with an intuitive sense of story structure. Even the one-off story blurb you sent captures the essence of meaningful and purposeful storytelling:
Joe discovers a vampire in his neighbourhood. He tries to act as if he's just nuts (ignores the evidence, goes to see a shrink, stops smoking weed) until that archetypal approach has failed him because his girlfriend's turned up dead with two fang marks. So he changes his approach to be an amateur detective (researches vampires, follows the vampire, breaks into its house) until the vampire burns down Joe's house and kills his family, sending Joe on the run where he tries to survive as a fugitive (leaves town, gets new identity, tries to make money) until that fails when it turns out vampires are taking over the whole world and he now as to become a vampire hunter . . . etc.
You just used Dramatica theory to structure your sample—and you probably didn't even know you were doing it:
Understanding (ignores the evidence, goes to see a shrink, stops smoking weed) Doing (researches vampires, follows the vampire, breaks into its house) Obtaining (leaves town, gets a new identity, tries to make money) Learning (it turns out vampires are taking over the whole world and he now as to become a vampire hunter)
You intuitively structured your example story with the four Types of conflict found within the Physics Domain. Writing from character, you had no idea you were writing a little mini-story—yet, you couldn't help to make it complete.
Many would-be Authors skip one or two of these Types when trying to do the same.
Competent and prolific writers such as yourself can't help but write Dramatica-structured engines of conflict. After all, Dramatica is a model of how we think, and great writers intuitively understand how we feel. That's why they're able to connect so well with their Audiences.
Beginning with Structure
Would you have written the same mini-story if you started out with a storyform that said:
- Signpost 1: Understanding
- Signpost 2: Doing
- Signpost 3: Obtaining
- Signpost 4: Learning
Possibly, if you understood how these four Elements work to provide engines of conflict that exist within the context of Physics.
The above is what you might find with the Dramatica Story Expert application. After deciding the fundamental dynamics of your novel, the app responds with the storyform of your story. Choose Tragedy or Triumph, and Dramatica Story Expert responds in kind. The above might not lead you to the same exact vampire story—but it will lead you to tell the same story.
What if you opened up Subtext, with the same narrative dynamics and storyform, only to find:
- Act 1: Joe is dense about someone
- Act 2: Joe culls
- Act 3: Joe gets a reward
- Act 4: Joe researches war criminals
(This is precisely what Subtext gave me on the first try, uploading the same storyform)
Act 1 is scary close to your version. Act 2 and 3 are close if you consider Joe's actions to be geared towards "culling" away misunderstandings. And if you flip "getting a reward" on its head towards losing something...or who knows, maybe Joe considers losing his family a reward? It definitely spins the story in another direction.
And Act 4 certainly clues one in on the kind of information gathering that conflicts Joe at the end. Maybe somehow, these vampires are "war criminals."
Whether or not you write with Dramatica in mind is irrelevant, you're always writing with Dramatica in mind. The question is one of intent. Do you know what it is you want to say? If yes, then a Dramatica storyform can help tell you the order of things that works best with what you want to communicate with your story. Not quite sure yet? Then ask your question, write as usual, then check your work after, confident that the feedback you receive is not based on opinion.
Developing with Structure
You may look back and decide, instead, that Act 2 is more about Learning rather than Doing.
You can switch the two of them—just know that it's going to affect the meaning of your story. Remember the Act order difference between Star Wars and The Dark Knight? Replacing Doing with Learning switches the feeling and meaning of the story. What I originally suggested may help prove your eventual narrative argument better than this alternate version.
Know, too, that interpreting the second Act as Learning doesn't mean you get to keep the remaining balance. You can't just flop Signpost Concerns as if they're widgets. When you start with Understanding and Learning, the 3rd Signpost must be Doing.
Nothing else makes sense.
You can't make something understood—only to teach how serious you are—to then start dominating and controlling things—only to end by doing something.
That doesn't even make sense. It's an incomplete story—incomplete because of its broken narrative structure.
You can, however, make something understood—only to teach how serious you are—to start doing what must be done—only to end by dominating and controlling the situation.
That feels complete. And it feels that way because the progression makes sense to a functioning mind.
Story structure is Truth organized for the purpose of communicating meaning.
Making Sense of Story Structure
Why can't you go from Understanding to Learning to Obtaining to Doing? Because that's not how our minds make logical sense of things. Dramatica won't let you write an illogical story.
Trying to write your story in that order feels weird:
- He misunderstands his girlfriend
- So he learns all he can about vampires
- Only to lose his family
- So he fights them
I'm kind of left with a sense of Ok, so then what happens? Which is not the kind of feeling or experience you want to give your Audience.
Contrast that deficient story with:
- He misunderstands his girlfriend
- So he learns all he can about vampires
- They track his family down as he hunts them
- Joe kills ever last one of those bastards
Slightly more satisfying, right?
Dramatica theory won't let you write a broken or incomplete story. It allows you to know why that plot progression with Learning to Obtaining in the traditional 2nd act just won't work. And it suggests an alternate path that both satisfies and fulfills your Audience. Dramatica helps make sense of the stories we tell ourselves.
The Intuitive Side of Things
So while I see your reasoning behind structure as "order which defines meaning", I use aspects of structure all the time without knowing my ultimate premise but as a way to ensure the story is always moving forwards and I'm not looping back over and over.
Beyond merely keeping up momentum, Dramatica tracks down inefficiencies—missing pieces—in your stories. What you're doing intuitively, Dramatica spells out discretely. That's all Understanding-Doing-Obtaining-Learning is: an appreciation of narrative that helps Authors prevent themselves from looping over and over chasing the wrong thought.
Some call it writer's block.
While your original example touched on all the contexts of Physical conflict, the last barely made the grade. You hinted at Learning in the end (when Joe finds out that vampires are taking over the world), but it wasn't enough. You would still need to encode it with as much detail and care as the previous Acts for the rhythm and momentum of the narrative to feel consistent. What he does he, in turn, teach these vampires?
When I fail to incorporate that sense of "acts" in the way I've described, I always find myself with a big problem in the rewrite that forces me to eliminate or move big chunks of plot. And when I read novels or watch movies where they've failed to effectively use act structure to delineate approach or engine of conflict, those stories always feel scattered to me.
That's because we naturally work through these various Act-sized concerns as we solve problems in our lives.
As the Author of this narrative, you are not trapped within the minds of the characters, unable to see objective reality the way we can't see objective reality. You are the Author. Which means you are God. Which means you can't help but indicate various strictures that form the narrative. It's there in the "I can't help but write in terms of Acts," but there's even more just beneath the surface begging to come through. You're painting the tip of the iceberg when you know full well there's a mountain of meaning hidden from view.
Dramatica simply flips your point-of-view so that your feet are at the top, and your eyes are at the bottom. The ocean of your story's purpose and all its wonders spread out before you, beckoning you to recognize their splendor above the flash and glam of sunlit peaks.
Rational thinking reigns supreme in traditional Western culture. The observation of cause and effect fuels our economy and drives the engine of innovation. How impractical is it then, to be burdened with emotion? You would think, by now, these weights of progress to be bred out of us by evolution.
Unless, of course, they serve a significant and meaningful purpose.
A Narrative Model of Linearity
Anytime you lock down the narrative dynamics of a story, you shut out an appreciation of the alternative. This zeroing in on intent is a natural part of writing a story. You can't say everything—only everything appropriate for your particular premise.
But when it comes to explaining the totality of narrative storytelling, reductive philosophies limit the artist and increase the likelihood of self-doubt. If I don't fit naturally into this one particular wedge, am I a wedge at all?
The Hegelian Dialectic describes a small sliver of our human experience with a narrative. The three-step thesis/antithesis/synthesis process works—but from a narrow point-of-view that invites misattribution error and subjective interpretation.
The current model of the Dramatica theory of story offers 32,767 different unique narrative structures. The Hegelian, as practiced for centuries, limits those options to 2,048. That's a bias that shuts out 97% of what is possible.
The Hegelian Dialectic is more than a curse—it's a scourge that devours clears thinking.
To be fair, there isn't anything wrong with being a part of the Hegelian 3%-er Club. Casablanca, Star Wars, The Shawshank Redemption, Good Will Hunting, and The Princess Bride all claimed membership and remain in good standing.
But why limit yourself to this small subset of narrative?
If you want to write about fixing problems, and you hold fast to the idea that solutions exist, then, by all means, sign up.
If, on the other hand, you see the world differently—yet, still want your point-of-view to communicate meaning effectively—then you must seek out a more Holistic approach.
Holistic, Not Holism
When we speak of Holistic problem-solving in the context of the Dramatica theory of story, we're not talking about Linear problem-solving with a broad or holistic mindset (the Marshall Plan referred to in the article, The Illusion of Fixing Problems). Instead, we refer to holism at the root level—the core system at the level of the Preconscious mind.
Think of a mind like a computer. The Preconscious is the root kernel of that mind. This is the boot sector of our inner drive—the part that can't be overwritten or erased.
We refer to it as the Preconscious, because it represents those thought processes that occur before conscious consideration. It colors our perceptions, blinds us to certain circumstances, and protects us through what many refer to as a "fight or flight" system.
The solution of the Marshall Plan describes holistic thought at the level of the Conscious mind. That's two steps removed from the Preconscious (the Subconscious sneaks its way in-between the two). What the Hegelian sees as holistic synthesis is really an understanding preconsciously filtered by Linear cause and effect rationality.
In other words—it's not holistic thinking at all.
Hegelian Dialectic is a Linear interpretation of holism.
An Introduction to the Road Less Traveled
Within the Preconscious level of the mind, the Holistic measures space between two perspectives. This approach resembles our appreciation of the Relationship Story Throughline perspective within a story. Less, "he said/she said" (Hegelian), and more the dynamic between he said, and she said. This space contains direction, growth, flow, and resistance, and the rate of growth within the growth (the delta of the dynamic).
A synthesis is nowhere to be found.
There's a lot of terminology (direction, growth, flow, resistance, rate of growth) there, but I'm wondering what that look like in practical terms?
Holistic problem-solving, by definition, is impractical. In fact, even the idea of "Holistic problem-solving" is a bit of a misnomer, as the Holistic doesn't engage in solving problems.
The Holistic manages imbalances.
For someone set on clearing a forest or collecting rent, managing imbalances is decidedly impractical. For another determined to create a nurturing environment where creativity and personal expression flourish, this approach is a no-brainer.
As someone saddled with a Linear boot-drive, I can only approximate the experience of Holistic thinking at the Preconscious level. I see, and understand, the purpose of intention—but I still find it alien and yes, at times, impractical.
The very best way I found to appreciate this alternate reality is to immerse yourself in Holistically structured narratives. Gaining familiarity with the emphasis on self, over the more practical considerations of accomplishments, develops your awareness of a life without "problems." An experience apart from thesis and antithesis.
A couple of my favorites:
- Moulin Rouge!
- The Farewell
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- Leave No Trace
The list goes on and on. And if you're interested, you can find a comprehensive list here in Subtext: Main Character Mental Mindset of Holistic. (Note that the Appreciation of Mental Mindset replaces the misleading Problem-Solving Style found in Dramatica theory.)
A Life without Solutions
When it comes to writing a story with a Holistic-minded structure, I would first ask why?
Is your purpose to replicate the impractical experience of managing balances in an alignment of self? Or are you merely attempting to do something because it's different, and appears more sophisticated than the traditional Linear way of thinking?
Are you trying to do something you're ill-equipped to perform?
The Holistic author writes both Linear and Holistic-structured stories with ease. Comfortable with the notion that all antithesis is genuinely just another thesis, the Holistic transposes solution with equity and goes about her day.
Mention direction, intention, or manifestation to a Linear author, and the only -ion you'll receive in response is mass confusion. A solution isn't a balance—it's a solution.
In your example of The Matrix, you note the premise as: "Address doing right by others by balancing your self-doubts with your personal truth." The keyword here, of course, is "balancing" – accepting that this neither means compromising between the two nor picking a point somewhere between self-doubts and personal truth, what then does "balancing" look like?
Imagine you have self-doubt. Now imagine you believe in yourself. Now imagine both never ever going away.
That's the Holistic appreciation of conflict.
With The Matrix, It really is as simple as bouncing back and forth between the two AND seeing how that juggling act resolves the film's sense of being out-of-alignment.
Just like a Holistic would in real life.
To get a sense of what this feels like, compare the endings of Star Wars and The Matrix. The former ends with a trophy ceremony, the latter with a phone call of intention. Linear thinkers accomplish goals and give themselves awards. Holistic thinkers balance issues and set new intentions. The Purpose of an Ending: Star Wars and The Matrix Revealed dives deeper into this revelatory moment of narrative structure.
A predominantly Holistic thinker wrote in response to my development of The Holistic Premise. Her appreciation of someone finally understanding her thought process is captured in The Holistic Experience of Watching The Matrix.
Lastly, my series on The Holistic Premise offers a comprehensive insight into this other way of seeing the world.
A New Beginning
There is no solution at the root level of the Holistic because there is no such thing as a problem—only inequities that are met with equities (Intentions). This reality drives the final nail into the sarcophagus of the Hegelian Dialectic. How can one continue to espouse a philosophy that effectively shuts out half the population?
Many would-be authors struggle to write their stories. Raised on a system of linear thinking in a world constructed almost entirely by linear thinkers (even the words and letters of this sentence proceed left-to-right in a linear sequence), these writers eventually give up on their dreams. My story is worthless without an antithesis.
Imagine all the stories left behind for fear of not living up to the Hegelian.
That's a real monster.
I meet many Authors who manage to work up the courage to face this beast late in life. They finally feel confident enough to write their story because, for once—someone gets them.
I'm grateful for all this talk and writing about holistic, and this great new way to encode a premise, I believe it's going to encourage and help writers to write holistic stories, thus allowing holistics to understand and appreciate how they solve problems and linears to appreciate and understand how their wives/children/friends/business partners solve problems…I have a dream!
A greater understanding of narrative structure improves the quality of our lives. It helps write better stories—and it helps us right the stories of our lives with one another.
Every writer reaches a point where they eventually reject the Dramatica theory of story. Whether it be a particular concept or this sense that it’s all been a colossal waste of time, forgetting about Dramatica seems like the only alternative when it comes to getting on with life. And they’re right.
Because the one thing that governs our life wants nothing to know about how it works.
Our mind thrives on us not knowing it.
Think about it: motivation stems from justification. We blind ourselves to propel ourselves forward in motion. If we understood and were aware of this every time it happened, how would anything ever get done?
We would all sit peacefully, Zen-like in our own personal caves.
We would be at peace.
Dramatica is a model of how we think.
It’s only natural that we wouldn’t want to know anything about such a theory.
I haven’t been annoying you as much lately because I’ve found myself pulling way back from Dramatica.
How dare you?? Dramatica is life! 😆
There are a couple of reasons for this, one simply being that far too many books and movies that I admire (and are admired by audiences, critics, and other writers) end up being largely dismissed in the Dramatica analysis as flawed when they fail to conform to the storyform you’ve identified for it (see Harry Potter and The Maltese Falcon!) I’m not denying the analysis, only that a model that leads one away from those kinds of stories rapidly becomes problematic for me as an author.
Leading one towards a better version of a story is not the same thing as driving someone in the opposite direction.
A flawed storyform does not mean a flawed book. Or a flawed movie. It means an incomplete work—a signal for improvement.
The Meaning of a Flawed Story
The Dramatica theory of story marks a clear distinction between a complete story and a flawed one. The former encodes all Four Throughline perspectives in a way that maintains thematic consistency. The latter often lacks one, or two, of these essential vital perspectives.
The recognition of a broken or deficient storyform is NOT an invitation to run the other way. If anything, it recognizes the presence of something important being said and recommends ways to enhance the experience. A broken storyform means there is still more work left to do.
A flawed story by Dramatica’s standards is one flawed by structure, not by experience.
Separating Structure from Experience
The first Harry Potter novel fails to illustrate a whole argument; the entire series succeeds. Both deliver a memorable and enjoyable experience.
Interestingly enough, the storyform for all seven books is the same exact one identified as incomplete in the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. By the end of the series, Rowling finally understood the need for both Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughline perspectives. She learned to integrate a solid narrative structure with a great experience. She learned to tell her story.
And that’s because Rowling had too—if she wanted it all to make sense and feel emotionally fulfilling.
The only way to bring all those books together and make them mean something is to craft a compelling and complete argument around them. The books need to add up to something, lest the entire experience merely is a diversionary carnival ride.
Like you, Rowling reached that point through experience and intuition—and without something like Dramatica. Yet, she still wrote what is considered a robust and functioning storyform.
She had no choice, really. A storyform, after all, is simply a model of how we think—not a thing unto itself. If she wanted us to gain something meaningful from the series, then she better put it in a form familiar to that thing between our ears.
Does this mean Rowling wasn’t thinking right when it came to the first Harry Potter book? Of course not. But it does say that she wasn’t fully aware of how to construct a complete argument.
She wasn’t thinking fully.
It’s almost as if she knew what she wanted to say, but needed seven books to get it out there finally. That would explain the identical storyforms found in the first book and the series. Sorcerer’s Stone signaled the intention. The series fulfilled it.
By the end, Rowling finally understood how to say what she wanted to say.
Stories That Just Miss the Mark
An effective story structure is not an on/off switch. An argument is neither broken or unbroken. Realizing narrative structure to be an argument, one sees degrees to the effectiveness of both.
Skyfall is really a perfect example of this. Alongside Casino Royale, it’s the most highly rated Bond film of the post-1960’s era.
That’s because they’re the only two films that come close to presenting complete storyforms.
If we want to use the term “good” or the term “meaningful” to apply to a commercial action movie (both admittedly subjective terms), it’s hard not to apply them to Skyfall – just as it’s hard not to apply them to Harry Potter.
I totally agree.
But there are degrees to good and meaningful. And by meaningful, I don’t refer to the subjective notion of how “meaningful” a kind gesture, or a treasured gift is to the individual. I’m specifically referring to the understanding of a thematic Premise statement as presented by an Author. If you can’t make out the entire argument, are you genuinely hearing all that needs to be heard?
Think of it this way: the message, or meaningfulness, of a story, is like a radio broadcast. Some put it on film, while others place it in a book. And some even take to the airwaves through a radio show (or podcast).
That signal, as well-intentioned as it may be, often encounters static and loss of signal. The Audience struggles to dial in the broadcast because the carrier wave is not strong enough. Skyfall and Sorcerer’s Stone merely suffer from excessive static, and a weak signal.
That doesn’t mean the show can’t be heard and enjoyed—only that it could have been better.
In the case of Skyfall, you identify the underlying premise as being centred around fretting over issues of physicality.
This is incorrect.
The underlying Premise of Skyfall is an imbalance of intolerance. In Dramatica, that specific narrative Element of intolerance is Non-accurate. Think of it as a fancy way of saying “not good enough.”
This Element of “not being good enough” connects both the subjective Main Character perspective with the objective Overall Story point-of-view. Bond’s not being good enough as a secret agent ties in thematically with MI-6 not being up to the task of dealing with modern-day terrorism.
Complete stories find a way to resonate the objective with the subjective. Skyfall sets this potential up, but then fails to follow through until the very end. The subjective falls prone to static in the middle of the film.
But both you and I recognize that nobody – not the audience, not the critics, not the writers – think that’s the case and that the far more observable thematic question is about “the old ways of spy work versus the realities of the modern age.”
Structure is not a question; structure is the answer to a question. You can’t structure a story around its potential—but you can around both its potential and outcome.
Besides, I wouldn’t be so sure to say that the writers of Skyfall were not trying to connect Bond’s personal issue of aging out with MI-6’s approach to counter-terrorism. Whether or not they fully understood the mechanics of that decision, the fact remains that the relationship between the objective and subjective exists within the film.
And to further address of what approach is more appropriate for building a story—I would never try and cook a meal only thinking of how well it tastes.
I would want to know the ingredients, sauces, spices, and how much to put into the pot and when.
I would want to know the recipe.
The storyform is a recipe for meaning.
Giving Form to Purpose
Suppose, for a second, that the creative process is 100% intuitional, and the writers of Skyfall never once stepped back to look at their work objectively. The point of studying narrative from this objective Dramatica point-of-view is to understand why one story works better than another. It’s an understanding of the Author’s intuition.
Why wouldn’t you want a better understanding of yourself?
But if the Dramatica response to this is simply – as you put it – “I know that argument half-baked and deficient as it fails to encode the Main Character Throughline context of Universe completely”, then how is any serious writer of fiction to view that other than to say, “well, if I’m choosing between satisfying Dramatica and satisfying my own artistic impulses, critical sensibilities, audience enjoyment, and financial success, then adios Dramatica”?
Because there is more to writing a story than a solid narrative structure.
And because you don’t choose one over the other.
In fact, you have no choice—you are always forming the meaning of a story when you set out to tell a story.
The Journey of a Story
Dramatica theory categorizes the journey of a story from Author to Audience into four parts:
- Story Reception
The first two fall under the broader category of Storyforming, the second under Storytelling.
Artistic impulses, critical sensibilities, audience enjoyment, and financial success are all factors of Storytelling, not Storyforming. You may think your sensibilities a part of forming a story, but they’re really just an amalgamation of all the stories you’ve experienced in your life. They are your Reception of other Authors’ work.
Now, there is a part of you formed by those experiences, that does know the letter of your Storyform. The specifics elude you because they seem lost in “the subconscious.” Dramatica codifies those seemingly impossible to understand impulses and helps you better understand what it is you want to say with your story.
Dramatica theory makes manifest your subconscious.
Can you – through the lens of Dramatica – devise an argument that fretting over issues of physicality (apologies for the poor phrasing of your premise so feel free to correct me) is more accurate than the underlying conflict being about “the old ways of doing spy work versus the realities of the modern age”? Sure, I guess. But this to me points to a critical flaw in that form of analysis: it will privilege the premise statement that appears logically perfect over the one everybody actually sees and – more importantly – cares about.
Everyone cares about meaning. “Old vs. new” means nothing—it’s not even a statement. “Old vs. new” is just a juxtaposition of two competing truths.
Knowing that giving up being good enough leads to Triumph is a truth. It’s one truth that can be argued explicitly within the context of a single story. Show instances where coming from a place of not being good enough leads to conflict, and then offer examples where giving that up solves problems.
And that’s precisely what the Authors of Skyfall did.
Instead of “logically perfect,” think fully-formed and complete. “Old vs. new” provides a jumping-off point, a diving board for exploration.
The storyform makes sure you fill the pool with water first.
The Privilege of the Premise
Many Authors mistake the purpose of the Premise. They assume the message to be for the Audience. If that were the case, then why not tell them directly, instead of wasting everyone’s time with a story?
The Premise is for the Author, not the Audience.
The privilege of the Premise, therefore, lies in the process.
If you write with a vague understanding of “old ways of spy work vs. the modern age,” you are no better off than writing from a blank page. That “theme” gives you nothing more than a moving target to hit.
And that’s why it takes several drafts to figure out what it is you want to say about “the old vs. the new.”
Knowing the specific narrative Element of the Premise to be “not good enough,” Dramatica lays out a detailed structure from beginning to end. You know the exact content of thematic exploration in the second half of the Second Act, just as much as you know how the central relationship of the story will develop over time.
All from a single Premise.
It’s merely a matter of how much time you want to spend finally getting to that point.
You’re going to end up doing that work anyways (if you want your story to mean something), why not use a tool specifically designed to help you get to the heart of the matter?
You can make the argument all day long that Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone is an incomplete storyform because from Dramatica’s perspective it lacks a relationship story that fits Dramatica’s definition. But everyone who’s ever watched that movie or read the book is going to come back with, “The relationship is between Harry and Ron + Hermione in which three semi-outcasts (Ron = poor, Hermione = half-muggle, Harry = awkward new kid) form a friendship so strong they’re willing to risk their lives for each other". Does that satisfy the Dramatica definition? Maybe not, but it’s incredibly moving and satisfying to readers and audiences on many levels.
To be clear, the most significant deficiency in the narrative structure of Stone is the weak Influence Character Throughline perspective. The Relationship Story Throughline between the kids is fairly well illustrated.
Past analysis of the book and film may have conflated Influence and Relationship Story perspectives. Before my work earlier this year, the assumption was that the Relationship perspective always consisted of the relationship between the Main and Influence Characters. We know now (or, at least, understand better) that these are perspectives first, characters, and relationships second. Harry’s friends function well as part of the Relationship perspective—not so much as the challenging Influence point-of-view.
Lastly, the “satisfying and moving” quality of the kid’s relationship in the first Harry Potter is again a factor of experience. It means nothing within the context of narrative structure.
And Dramatica is all about narrative structure.
Audience Reception is the furthest thing removed from the storyform. It’s important to the fans and Authors who want to sell books, but in the formation of a story, it’s the one thing least in control of the Author.
Forming a coherent argument and realizing integrity throughout its construction?
That’s 100% in the Author’s hands.
As Authors, we set out to say something about the world. Dramatica theory helps us return and realize the original source material for that impulse: our mind.
"Know thyself" is a phrase well-understood by Authors. The process of writing a story often turns out to be more of a revelation of self, rather than an exploration of imaginative worlds and characters. The greatest struggle, then, is not of plot and theme—but rather, of exposure to introspection.
Dramatica and its recognition of storyform require Authors to step out of their comfort zone. Understanding the intricacies of one's creative impulse leads to an abandoning of the process—a measure meant to protect one's internal drive.
There's only some much cognitive dissonance one can process before the model itself stops being useful for the thing that actually matters to me, which is writing the best books I can. And this brings us to the problem of Dramatica's notion of Premise and a novelist's writing process.
Dramatica is a model of the mind engaged with inequity resolution. The path through this model is not a simple process, and assumptions about it can lead one to jump to incorrect conclusions about the theory. This series of articles on The Hegelian Dialectic hopes to make sense of the dissonance felt by many learning this theory for the first time (or the hundredth).
Let's agree right off that there are as many ways of writing a book as there are writers, so what doesn't work for me might work brilliantly for others.
We touched on this in some earlier e-mails, but Dramatica's notion of Premise is one in which the writer has to know exactly what they want to say, formulate it in a highly didactic and (for the less than expert in Dramatica's terminology) semantically obtuse fashion.
Yes. The only way you can effectively structure your story is if you know what you want to say. You can't structure an idea. Meaning is organized Truth, and unless you know that Truth—you can't structure your story into something meaningful.
As far as terminology goes, they are "semantically obtuse" because they describe concepts of inequity in motion—not real things unto themselves. They require one to step back and appreciate the meaning of the word. It's the only way a model of the mind can work.
Knowledge in Dramatica is not just what you know, but rather knowing. The Past is not merely what happened, but past-ing—always concerning oneself with what happened. Both appear as imbalances, or inequities, within the story.
Obtuse, perhaps. But ultimately necessary when modeling the subtle complexities of the mind's problem-solving process.
Starting with a Question
Questions do not require structure; practical answers to them do. The "didactic" nature of a Premise is necessary to understand when it comes to choosing the right arrangement for a particular solution. Without it, an Author can never be sure exactly what it is he wants to communicate.
But I'm a novelist, not a polemicist.
Is Romeo and Juliet just a good love story?
The purpose behind great stories is their Premise. Unlike polemicists who attack through debate, the storyform makes the appropriate response to conflict apparent through reason and emotion.
No debate—only recognition.
The storyform is not an active dialogue; it's an answer to the Authors purpose in writing his or her story. Dramatica says stories are more than merely a place to entertain an idea—they're opportunities to make those ideas meaningful.
I start with a thematic question I want to explore: "if all your ideals fail you, should you hold onto them or adapt to the pragmatism of the world around you?" or, in the case of Skyfall "the world has changed so much that it no longer seems to need old-school spies anymore. It's computer hacking and drone missiles now, not fisticuffs and cunning, So should they all retire, or is there still something important about the old ways of doing things?" Those are questions that can make one get out of bed to write the next chapter.
Some writers look at a blank page and see a blank canvas full of infinite possibilities. Others see a wall, impenetrable and overwhelming. Motivation by question works great for the former group. Motivation by Premise aids the latter.
As you mentioned, what works for one Author might not work for another.
Regardless, there will come a time when both have to reckon with the meaning of their story. The wall-people get that work done first.
"Stop being non-accurate and you can obtain" or even the slightly friendlier, "When you get out of your way and give up being inadequate for a particular group you can fight global terrorism", don't give me much of an impulse to write. That doesn't mean Dramatica is intellectually wrong, but it does stop it being useful for me as a novelist.
Imagine you just finished your first draft. A couple of people read it and offer their notes. Your editor takes a look at it. She says a lot of the same things. Even you take the time to go through it and markdown recommendations to make it better.
Wouldn't it be nice if you could make sense of all that feedback? Wouldn't you like to know why the same problems pop up? How about knowing the content of the argument you ended up making to your Audience?
Sure, you can address problems of entertainment and humor and characterization on your own. But what about what it all means? If you couldn't figure that out from the outset, who's to say you managed to bring it all together in the end?
It would be nice to have an objective friend there, reflecting your artistic impulses.
Dramatica and Subtext are those friends.
Cafeteria-style Story Theory
Dramatica is a sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of narrative theory. As it deals with the intangible processes of the mind, applying all the concepts can be challenging even for the most talented writers. Cherry-picking the essential parts at least sets you off in the right direction.
So here's what I still find useful about the Dramatica model:
One: The four throughlines. Making sure I've got an overall story, a main character story, and influence character story, and a relationship story that all tie together makes the stories not just clearer but better.
Setting up the Four Throughlines is the absolute most crucial step. If you do this, you will be better off than 90% of the stories out there.
Two: The idea of conflict taking place predominantly within four domains of activities, situations, fixed attitudes, and manipulation (or their older names) also brings opportunity for clarity and focus, even if I've never quite been able to successfully "slot" my throughlines into those domains conveniently.
This balance of conflict exists at all levels of your story. Acts, Sequences, Scenes. Each offers an opportunity to examine the different areas of inequity we encounter in our daily lives.
Our minds see conflict in terms of situations, activities, fixed attitudes, and manipulations. That's why it's so important that a story deal with all four. Leave one out, and the Audience starts to feel you're not telling them the whole story.
- Recognizing that in each of those domains, I'll need to explore the four concerns at the level below gives both inspiration and a sense of finding completeness.
That sense of completeness is part of the model.
We look at a narrative Element, and our minds instinctively break it down into four children Elements. These sub-Elements represent the situation, activity, fixed attitude, and manipulation of the parent Element above.
- The Past is the situation of the Universe
- Progress is the activity of the Universe
- The Present is the fixed attitude of the Universe
- The Future is the manipulation of the Universe
And this fractal relationship continues down the model.
- Fate is the situation of the Past
- Prediction is the activity of the Past
- Destiny is the fixed attitude of the Past
- Interdiction is the manipulation of the Past
Down and down in greater detail for every single Element in every single quad. When you get to the bottom, you loop back to the top and start all over.
And this continues for all eternity.
Which likely explains your next point.
Motivation and the Mind
Establishing a story "mind" for your Audience is the absolute best thing you can do for them. How detailed you want to take the exploration of that mind is up to you.
Those are pretty helpful concepts when writing a novel. But the moment I push deeper into Dramatica, I face one of two situations: either it's telling me something I know works must be wrong, or the contortions required to "fit" what I'm actually writing into the conceptual framework of the various elements that Dramatica identifies becomes so baroque as to become semantically meaningless to me.
Knowing Fate to be the situation of the Past, which is itself a situation of the Universe, is a lot to consider while writing a story. Thus, my impetus for creating Subtext. Focus on the most meaningful most significant gains from Dramatica theory so that Authors can get back to doing what they do best—write stories.
Put differently, ten novels into my career as a full-time novelist and I still couldn't positively identify the storyform for even one of my own books. Doesn't mean there isn't one, only that if you stapled it to my forehead I still wouldn't recognize it.
Inequity is the mother of motivation. Your mind fears to lose that drive by knowing what it is you want to write about while you're writing it. And it's right—without that imbalance, there is no doing, only being.
Remaining oblivious to our subconscious is everyone's superpower. If we understood it completely, it would no longer be a source of motivation. We need it to set out on new adventures.
There's another aspect in which Dramatica has been useful to me, of course: the fact that it never perfectly describes my own book as I'm writing it. This gives me avenues to explore and consider, such as "if I try to say the influence character's issue is 'Sense of Self' then that means the main character's issue has to be 'Conditioning', only I don't think the main character's issue is 'Conditioning', so how do I feel about this and does it spark ideas for changes in the story?"
In other words, you're beginning to define your subconscious.
The recognition that an issue of Conditioning doesn't fit for your story is your conscious mind becoming aware of your subconscious artistic impulse.
That is precisely the purpose of Dramatica—to bring an Author face-to-face with an objective appreciation of his or her intuition. The more you dive into this area of yourself, the more you realize you need to make some tough decisions about your story. That understanding begins to restrict some of the freedoms enjoyed by the previously hidden subconscious.
And that's why you don't want to go any farther.
But that's as far as I can take it before the model breaks down for me, my writing process, and ultimately, the stories I write.
Dramatica is a model of the mind. It can only reflect what you put into it. That breaking down process is your mind deconstructing itself—
—and for some, that's too much to ask.
The Story Engine Between Your Ears
In a perfect world, there would be an application that recalculates storyforms on the fly. Something that could follow along with your subconscious and adjust context as your intuition explores another avenue of expression. Eventually, it would require you to make some tough decisions to make sense of it all finally, but at least it wouldn't be hampering your writing process.
Of course, that application already exists.
And it's sitting right between your ears.
Again, none of this means Dramatica is wrong or that a particular analysis is wrong– after all, there's a real possibility that String Theory is a better description of the structure of the Universe than any of the other models we have despite how hard it is for us to conceptualize. But to an architect, Newtonian physics isn't simply an easier to follow model; it's the one that actually lets you design workable buildings. And in this regard, writing a novel for me is a lot more like building a house than it is describing the Universe or designing a model of a human mind solving a problem.
With that analogy, Dramatica is both blueprint and hammer. A way to sculpt your house out of the edges of your artistic impulse.
That next board you reach for is not just another piece of wood—it's a part of you.
The question is—do you want to pick it up?