One of the most difficult things for someone new to Dramatica to understand is the difference between problems found in the Situation Domain and conflict present in the Activities Domain. Part of this has to do with the switch in terminology designed to make things easier (yet, more confusing), and the other part has to do with how difficult it is for writers to split up the different ways they perceive conflict.
When most writers write, they waste little time thinking about the latter—which makes it easier to misunderstand and confound the former.
The Jungle and an Experiential Point of View
If you’re like most writers, you don’t consider what kind of conflict you write when you begin a story. You find something interesting and compelling to your heart—perhaps an untenable situation for your characters—and then have at it. You keep writing and writing until you exhaust everything about that situation, and then you create another more desperate situation for them to encounter.
All along you focus on what the characters see and how difficult it is for them to work their way through this situation. You look at your story from the point-of-view of experience.
When you bite into a hot dog, you don’t want to know what went into making it. All you care about is that delightful snap the moment you break the skin and the delicious and satiating flavors of the meat snack as it passes over your palette. All that matters is the experience of how it tastes.
You don’t want to know how to make a hot dog.
Most writers feel the same about telling a story. After subjecting his screenplay for Reservoir Dogs to many in the Sundance Film Festival Workshop, writer/director Quentin Tarantino vowed never again to solicit thematic interpretations of his work, leaving the bulk of that work to more qualified minds. Discovering that the relationship between Mr. Pink and Mr. Orange too closely resembled the relationship between a father and son hit too close to home and Tarantino wanted never to hear of such revelations again.
He didn’t want to know how to make a hot dog.
The Dramatica® theory of story looks at narrative from the perspective of process—the factory floor of storytelling. Not as stomach-turning, but just as revealing, this insight into the composition and construction of a complete narrative confuses many used to only experiencing a great read because of its focus on the ingredients of a story.
When a Situation is Not a Situation
A complete story evaluates the four kinds of conflict our minds perceive from four critical perspectives. Skip an area or combine two aspects into one and the narrative will feel lopsided and insufficient. The argument will feel one-sided and confused.
The four kinds of conflict:
- a problematic Situation
- problematic Activities
- a problematic Fixed Attitude
- problematic Manners of Thinking
The four key perspectives:
- the Main Character perspective (I)
- the Influence Character perspective (You)
- the Relationship Story perspective (We)
- the Overall Story perspective (They)
Each perspective, or Throughline, perceives a single area of conflict as the source of inequity in the story. Once complete, the narrative presents a totality of experience our real lives fail to afford. The Reader, or Viewer, soak in the conflict of the story both from within, and without.
Writers new to Dramatica take to this insight with confidence and verve and begin casting their story into the various Throughlines. They take one look at the word Situation, make the connection congruent with their experience of writing one problematic situation after the next, and assign the Overall Story Throughline to the Situation Domain.
And from there, the entire experience of working with Dramatica and this new way of thinking falls apart.
Terminology Made Easy
Towards the end of the 20th century, marketing imperatives drove the creators of Dramatica to establish an “easy” and more approachable lexicon for the program. Believing terminologies like Conceptualizing, Being, and Universe culprits for the theory’s low adoption rate, they traded accuracy for ease of use and set the conversation of actual narrative structure back several years.
The original terminology identifies four key areas of conflict:
Manner of Thinking is an approximation of Psychology. Activities are less scary than the memories of a failed Physics AP test. Fixed Attitude replaces the esoteric Mind and Situation lends itself to a wealth of different scenarios.
Or does it?
The First Stumbling Block for Most Writers
The Dramatica Story Expert application packs close to 60 example storyforms. Designed to ease the writer into an understanding of the theory based on popular and critically-acclaimed films, television shows, novels, and plays, the example files provide context for the conflict. Chief among them is the 1993 film The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford as a man hellbent on finding the man responsible for murdering his wife.
Kimball (Ford) struggles to apprehend the killer while Deputy US Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) and his compatriots seek to stop and secure the fugitive before he kills again. Naturally, this reality calls for the Overall Story Throughline to fall under the Activity Domain and correctly, the Concern of Obtaining.
But it doesn’t.
One look at the example file and the writer begins the tumble down the dark rabbit hole that is a comprehensive understanding of narrative structure.
The Overall Story Throughline of The Fugitive rests under the Domain of Situation.
I Don’t Get It
As they fall, many writers struggle to rectify the example file and official Dramatica analysis with their appreciation of dramatic structure. These writers cast Kimball’s Main Character Throughline in Situation and the Overall Story Throughline in Activities:
The MC is in a tough situation, but everyone else is concerned with finding him. What situation are the Marshals in? What situation is the real killer in?
Here, we begin to see the implications of making Dramatica’s precise terminology easier to understand.
Situation describes a narrow slice of Universe and, as evidenced above, obstructs the flow of greater understanding. One would never ask What Universe are the Marshals in? or What Universe is the real killer in? An appreciation of Universe as an area of conflict corralling concerns of the Past, Present, Future, and Progress would preclude the tendency to see all conflict as an untenable situation.
The term Universe removes the writer from a position of subjectivity by forcing them to consider the meaning behind of that Domain.
It’s not about what situation the Marshals are in, or what situation the killer is in. The entire film is about a man unjustly accused of his wife’s murder. The Universe is unbalanced because of this injustice.
It’s the same exact Overall Story Throughline found in The Shawshank Redemption. And the same exact Overall Story Throughline found in The Prestige. Every character in each of these examples experiences conflict because of some imbalance in the Universe—some inequity that refuses to budge. Breaking free of the bonds of that fixed imbalance resolves the conflict of their story.
Andy trades the injustice of Shawshank for a lifetime of freedom. Borden pays the price for his crime, allowing his brother to deliver justice to competing magician Angier. And Kimball returns balance to the Universe with the identification and apprehension of his wife’s actual murderer.
Justice returns the Universe to a place of rest, and balance.
The Universe and Resolution
To see the real nature of conflict within the Overall Story perspective, one looks to the area upset by the initial Story Driver. Whether Action or Decision, if the result upsets the natural order of the Universe, then the Domain of the efforts to resolve that conflict will reside in Universe.
…in the case of The Fugitive the entire movie is about the efforts to capture the main character and his efforts to escape. In The Shawshank Redemption, the entire story is about the nature of being incarcerated–how people deal with it, how sometimes they can’t deal with it.
The resolution of the Overall Story Throughline brings an end to the inequity motivating conflict within a story. In the case of The Fugitive, apprehension of Dr. Kimball or his eventual permanent escape would fail to return equity. The unjust label of wife-murderer would continue to persist.
Reducing conflict within the Universe Domain to a Situation leaves too much to personal and familiar understandings of characters in “problematic situations.” From the character’s perspective, yes it appears as a problematic Situation, but this is not a concern of Dramatica.
As far as a Dramatica storyform is concerned, it’s not what the story is about or what the characters sense, but rather how the problem in a story manifests itself.
and a reestablishment of equity.