The Confirmation Bias of Pattern Matching

A concept-first approach to understanding narrative structure

Many paradigms of story structure look at stories and identify common patterns. The Dramatica theory of story runs against the grain by looking to the psychological concept first and then looking to published works for confirmation. The resultant differential in each suggests a superiority of the latter over the former: Pattern-matching finds the same story over and over again; psychology-first sees different stories told within the same framework--the framework of the mind.

This series on The Science Behind Dramatica explains the approach of looking to the mind first and then applying it to produced works of fiction. Dramatica's concept of the Storymind--that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind working to resolve an inequity--allows writers to see structure in stories divergent from cultural norms and tendencies. If we all possess the same composition that is a mind, wouldn't it stand to reason that we would structure our stories using the same process?

Engineer-heretic completes his imagined takedown:

Well, I question Dramatica's perfect theoretical structure. Here's what I think is the deal. Dramatica has a great idea of the Story Mind and comparing a story to how human minds learn about solving problems. Another great idea is the Grand Argument Story, where all theoretical viewpoints are considered. But that's pretty much where the theory ends (which is admittedly a nice breakthrough in its own right).

Funny that you appreciate the breakthrough, yet go on to discount the concepts that arrived at that conclusion. It's easy to get the bigger picture; anyone can do that; understanding the details takes more work.

After that step most of the quad structure, relationships, and assignment of vocab, seems to have been arranged instinctively, or by whatever method produced results.

That process was the furthest thing from instinct. It took countless hours and several years of concentrated study where Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips put their lives on hold to figure everything out. While perhaps not apparent to those glancing at the decades of support material, the truth lies in the fact that the intention was something more significant than merely pattern-matching and guessing.

Once that was established, the creators (consciously or not) backtracked to fit a theory to the aggregated data that did not really fit.

Unlike every other single paradigm of story, Dramatica was theory first, then corroboration. Joseph Cambell sampled hundreds of cultural myths to write A Hero with a Thousand Faces. Blake Snyder (of Save the Cat!) wrote one film that worked, then back-tracked to apply that same paradigm to other successful works. Chris and Melanie tried something different. They didn't look at movies and novels in the hope of finding patterns; they saw patterns in psychology, and then looked to film and books for validation.

They compared the Dramatica model to mental relativity, or Einstein's e=mc2, or psychology without ever getting too concrete.

Dramatica is Mental Relativity. That came first. The base Elements of Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire correlate directly with Mass, Energy, Space, and Time—so, of course, there will be comparisons to Einstein's formula of General Relativity.

Dramatica takes it one step forward to explain why Einstein blends Space and Time into a constant.

It sounds like it is based in science, but it's really just a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

That is, of course, your professional opinion.

That is why the Dramatica Theory seems vague and confusing. That is why "Dramatica experts" are still pretty confused about it all.

As an expert in the theory, I occasionally misread individual narratives. These mistakes are always a result of me arriving at a narrative set deep in my preconceptions—they have nothing to do with the accuracy or utility of the theory. The nice thing about having an objective perspective on a narrative structure is the ability to step outside of my preconceptions and blind spots to see the hole in the story and the missing piece of my understanding.

Dramatica makes it possible for me to admit mistakes while continuing to learn and develop a greater appreciation of the stories we tell ourselves.

That's why these logical gaps exist.

Logical gaps do exist—both in Dramatica and in human psychology. Dramatica's "failings" are failings of the latter. You could say that Dramatica is more "human" than any other paradigm of narrative structure.

And you would be right.

When it comes down to it, Dramatica is pretty much an advanced story paradigm, like Hauge's 6 Stages for example, except with the pretension of thinking it is a sound, logical, fundamental theory of psychology or another science.

One's inability to grasp certain concepts does not reflect a deficiency within what is being observed—but it does signal a lack of comprehension in the observer. This entire diatribe against the efficacy of Dramatica is merely a projection of ignorance: the inequity can't possibly be you, so it must be the model. An inability to recognize one's deficiencies is a core proficiency for those who don't get the Dramatica theory of story.

Dramatica models this ignorance from within the Main Character Throughline. If you open up the Plot Sequence Report for any story, you find some instances where the Main Character projects their issues into a Domain entirely separate from their own. That's what's going on here—you're blind to your justifications as much as the Main Character is at a story's beginning.

And there's no way Hague's Six Steps model defines--or even comes close to addressing--this observable behavior of human psychology.

Dramatica is mostly based on the same principal of fitting patterns to what we see in stories, which is useful but not revolutionary or comprehensive.

Dramatica was not developed by observing patterns in films or novels or Shakespeare's plays. Dramatica bases its model of the Storymind on the theory of Mental Relativity—a theoretical concept of justification and problem-solving. Dramatica's validation against famous and grand works happened after the fact. This approach is why some films, while universally beloved (Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon), sometimes fall outside the model.

I'd argue that proponents of Dramatica have way too much Faith in the theory.

Is it that we have too much Faith, or do you possess too much Disbelief in the theory?

And if you still don't get that, I'd be more than happy to go over it with you all over again.