The Problem with Scientific Analysis and Narrative Theory

A theoretical model of psychology for the best of the best

As a theory of story, Dramatica tends to attract scientists and mathematicians. With its claims of connections to General Relativity and its discovery of "Quad"-ronometry, many find themselves compelled to strike down any claims of viability. Their bias proves to be their undoing: blinded by the God of Deduction they drown in endless proofs, desparately clinging to whatever certainty they can find on the way down.

This series of articles on The Science Behind Dramatica exposes the nature and problems inherent in a justification built on certainty.

I want to elaborate a bit more on the difference between a theoretical model and a model tacked on to experimental data (a practical model). A theoretical model or equation is born in this way: axioms and assumptions are listed, a series of logical steps proceed (a proof), which leads to a conclusion (our model or equation). Many mathematical and scientific conclusions are made in this manner, and they form a fundamental basis for our understanding of reality.

Dramatica is a theory of story. Mental Relativity is a theory of human psychology.ramatica is an extension of MR with an emphasis on narrative structure. Dramatica's understanding of conflict resolution within the mind is a theoretical appreciation of reality.

The above elaboration, like many scientific evaluations of Dramatica, defers to Deduction as a prime directive. Every aspect of investigation must adhere to this certainty-based principle—anything outside the realm of logical possibility is deemed false, or "wrong." This idea that a theoretical model must follow a line of thinking in service of Deduction blinds many to the equally important Induction aspect. Inference is every bit as important as cold-hearted and calculated Deductions. Without it, Deduction would carry little to no meaning—a method of thought that determines certainty encourages a level of thinking in search of potentiality.

A human psychology model must account for both problems of Deduction and Induction if it is to exhibit any level of accuracy.

The Dramatica Model of Psychology

In an attempt to capture the processes of psychology within a narrative model, Dramatica assumes the following:

  • a mind, when confronted with an inequity, must resolve that imbalance
  • addressing inequity is a process of problem-solving or justification
  • passing on this process is an essential component of human evolution
  • communicating this process requires the juxtaposition of both objective accounts and subjective experience
  • the degree to which the provided perspectives are complete determines the quality and strength of the message

If you don't buy into the given that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind resolving an inequity, then Dramatica is not for you. If you can't balance Deduction against Induction, then Dramatica is not for you.

In contrast, a practical model (as I am calling it), looks at a bunch of data points and tries to find a pattern. It tacks on an equation to represent the points given, which seems to describe it pretty well.

Mental Relativity's conceptual equation of K/T = A*D was not "tacked on" a priori. This formula describes both the process of problem-solving and justification. The manifestation of this formula preceded the development of Dramatica.

This technique is used heavily in engineering fields, because engineers solely care about results. I have a background in Chemical Engineering and some of the equations describing flow of chemicals through a pipe have over 20 variables involved. These huge equations have NO theoretical basis, but simply somehow get the right result, and are mostly the effort of trial and error.

"Simply somehow" getting it right is a Linear-biased mind's approximation of Holistic logic. It's the best a mind saddled by Deduction can understand Induction. This blindness arises within the A*D side of the equation—you need to justify the results as "trial and error" because you can't logically break them down. Engineers justify through results and process because deep down, they believe there is an answer, an ending, to all their work. They "believe" in certainty. This unenlightened view will always haunt them—until they resolve that inequity with a healthy dose of real insight: the search for an answer is perpetual.

A theoretical model goes from the bottom-up, and a practical model goes from the top-down. Both are extremely useful.

Your "practical" model of story is what you find in the Heroes Journey paradigm, Save the Cat!, USC's Sequencing Method, Michael Hague's Six Steps, Robert McKee's Story, Syd Field's work, Linda Seger, Pilar Alessandro, The Nut Method, etc. etc. etc.

All of those paradigms look to pattern-match successful stories to subjective concepts of what is right and wrong. The problem with subjectivity is the same problem with opinions: everyone has one.

The creators of Dramatica looked to understand human psychology first, then reached out to validate these theoretical concepts.

Dramatica seems to be a practical model disguised as a theoretical model. It really tries to be theoretical, but the logic doesn't work out. It does not start with axioms and assumptions, or have a clear logical path to its conclusion (if it does, it has not been presented). This is where my questions are concerned. If they can be answered fully, then I may come to accept that Dramatica is actually a theory.

If your givens in life consist of Deductions as the basis for all theory, then Dramatica is not a theory from your biased point-of-view. This desire for logic is only one side of the psychological equation that is a story.

Dramatica does work because it is a practical model. It is a product of looking at a bunch of data and fitting a pattern. But practical models are not fundamental, and they are not always correct. A practical model may only work for a certain range, or for certain examples. In fact, there is really no way to accurately predict for other data points with a practical model, which is why I have a problem with Dramatica. It may work for a lot of stories, but it may not work at all for others.

Of course, Dramatica does not work for all stories—only those with an intention to argue a particular approach to resolving inequities. Stories are not something that we need to figure out; we created stories to figure ourselves out. The above is nor more a revelation than a recognition of Dramatica's initial givens.

Some data points fit the equation nicely, but without theory, you have no idea if others will.

This assumption is incorrect. The predictive model of Dramatica continues to inspire wonder, even for those familiar enough with the theory known as experts. Case in point: the storyform for Top Gun. During a recent Writers Room class (Season 3, Episode 13: An Introduction to Using Subtxt to Write Stories), Dramatica confounded me again with its innate ability to predict a writer's intuition. Top Gun is no Shawshank Redemption, to be sure, but its narrative structure is simple and solid enough to work as an example of predictive models.

Of course, you'll need a little Induction to put the pieces together.

The Predictive Qualities of Dramatica

Arriving at the storyform for Top Gun is a simple matter of identifying the source of conflict from objective and subjective points-of-view. These Storypoints, when combined with an understanding of vital narrative dynamics (whether the film ends in Triumph or Tragedy, or whether it emphasizes Problem-solving over Self-actualization) and plugged into Subtxt, lead to a Premise that reads:


Abandon being reckless, and you can compete against the best of the best.

Sums up the message of Top Gun entirely.

This Premise leads Subtxt to predict that in the first Act, the conflict in the Objective Story Plot will center around Doing, the second Act will see Conflict shift from Learning to Obtaining. Finally, the last Act will focus on Understanding.


Transit Four


Transit One


Transit Three


Transit Two

This understanding is, in fact, the exact structure of Top Gun.

Subtxt's predictive model is structural—conventional understandings of Acts break down into four Transits. Act One is Transit One. The traditional Act Two is both Transit Two and Transit Three (sometimes referred to as 2a and 2b). And Act Three is Transit Four.

  • Transit One: Maverick's cavalier attitude while flying the opening mission almost gets hiw wingman killed, and leads him to make an embarassing first showing at Top Gun school (Doing)
  • Signpost Two: Mav and Iceman duel it out in a series of training exercises to learn who is the best of the best, with Maverick unintentionally leaving his teammates vulnerable to win that number one spot (Learning)
  • Signpost Three: Mav's continuous pushing of the envelope leads to the loss of his co-pilot and an eventual loss of the coveted Top Gun prize (Obtaining)
  • Signpost Four: on a rescue mission, Mav shows everyone he understands what it means to never ever leave your wingman and in doing so, grants the understanding that he is the best of the best (Understanding)

To transmute "Abandon being reckless and you can compete with the best of the best" into the exact plot-level concerns of a narrative is astounding. To suggest that this predictability is merely practical and dependent upon data is ignorant.

Perhaps seeing Subtxt's prediction of a plot from Premise is not enough—with only four items to choose from, luck must play an integral part in this relationship.

It doesn't.

Diving Down into the Depths of Subtxt

Beneath these plot-level concerns lie thematic issues—meaningful variations on their more broadly-minded plot parents. Here, too, Subtxt astounds with even greater insights into the specifics of the plot.

Act One's Transit of Doing breaks down into four Progressions:

  • Fate
  • Prediction
  • Interdiction
  • Destiny

Based on that Premise above, Subtxt ever having the pleasure of sitting down and watching Tom Cruise fly an F-14 with Kenny Loggins playing in the background--accurately predicts the film's opening Act.


Progression 1


Progression 2


Progression 3


Progression 4

In the first Progression, Cougar was in the wrong place at the wrong time (a conflict of Fate)--spooked by a Russian MiG while Maverick was off having fun. This leads to his commanding officer foretelling all kinds of mayhem that will come of having to send Mav to Top Gun school instead of Cougar (a conflict of Prediction).

In their first couple of meetings, the hot shots jockey for superiority by telling the others they're wasting their time thinking they can somehow alter their destiny to be losers (a conflict of Interdiction). And then Mav shows them all by proving what a loner he is while simultaneously claiming what he considers to be his calling as the best of the best (a conflict of Destiny).

How the heck was Subtxt able to predict that correct sequencing of events from a simple Premise?

For context, there are 64 unique Variations in the Dramatica model of story. Subtxt picked these four because those are the Progressions one must start with when arguing that Premise.

"But Top Gun came out in 1986...surely, the creators of Dramatica used the film as a basis for its model of story..." Are you kidding me? A) I don't think Chris or Melanie (the creators of Dramatica) have even seen the movie, and B) it's not like Top Gun is a cinematic masterpiece...why would they even bother? It was difficult enough discovering those 64 Variations.

Oh, and C) this magical predictive ability repeats itself across all narratives—regardless of Premise.

But then, maybe Subtxt just got lucky again, let's look at the next Act...

The Magic Continues

Instead of focusing all of our attention on just one of the Throughlines present in this complete story, let's shift our attention to the Main Character Throughline of Maverick himself.

The Main Character Throughline is the personal view of the conflict in the story and gives the Audience a firsthand look at what the central inequity of the story looks like from a first-person point-of-view (the I perspective to match against the more objective They perspective of the plot).

As with the Objective Story Throughline, the Main Character Throughline of a complete story also maintains a set of four Transits.


Progression 2


Progression 1


Progression 3


Progression 4

Transit 2--where all the "Fun and Games" of fighter pilot antics takes place--breaks down into three significant Progressions within the Main Character Throughline:

  • Rationalization while Past
  • Commitment to Responsibility while Past
  • Obligation while Past

Incredible. You probably can't see it, but that is the exact narrative structure of the 2nd Act until the traditional Midpoint.


Progression 1


Progression 2


Progression 3


Progression 4

Again, remember that we are only looking at Mav's personal journey through this next Act. While it weaves into the Objective Story Throughline plot, these Progressions describe Mav's emotional journey from hot-shot to sad friend.

After the first training sortie, Mav buzzes the training tower. While reprimanding him for breaking two rules of engagement, his instructors rationalize keeping him on-board because of his natural talents (a personal conflict of Rationalization).

Iceman challenges Mav, calling to question the hot-shots dedication to his teammates. This lack of commitment is dangerous and will likely get them killed (calling to mind a personal conflict of Commitment). Mav ignores this warning, and in the next training sortie takes it upon himself to show his instructors that the rules don't apply to him. He loses, and his wingman "virtually" dies (a failing of personal Responsibility).

Having realized his colossal mistake, Mav promises his co-pilot Goose that he will do better. This obligation proves to be too much for Mav to handle—during the third training sortie, he pushes yet again, resulting in a catastrophic accident that kills Goose (a conflict of Obligation).

Rationalization sets up the Potential for conflict in this Transit. Commitment adds the Resistance, which then manifests the Current of Responsibility. And then finally, Obligation steps on to signal the Power of this Act, and set up the Potential for the next Transit.

Of course, this all could be a coincidence. 🙄

In Need of A Helping Hand

The deductive mind tosses and turns at night when confronted with the magic of Induction. Unable to see the forest for the trees, it screams out for someone to take their hand and guide them to the other side.

Dramatica is NOT comprehensive. And Dramatica makes up for its limitations as a practical model by being vague and general, much like a Psychic reading Tarot cards but perhaps more effective.

If you mean that Dramatica possesses psychic powers, then yes, I would agree with you. If you intend to insinuate that the theory is some con, or relies on the strength of suggestion to make its predictions, you're willfully turning a blind eye.

That sampling of Subtxt's ability above is not random luck. Those Progressions perfectly encapsulate the thematic topics of Top Gun, but they also do it an order particular to that film and that Premise. Search out any other Premise, and you'll find those same issues in a different part of the story and a completely different order.

Dramatica is the first theory of story to say that order is essential—coincidence plays little part in its sequencing of narrative events.

If this is the case, and Dramatica is not a theory, then it should stop pretending or trying to be. The Dramatica Theory book should be completely rewritten to reflect its limitations. It should dump vague, weird logic and blanket terms (such as multidimensional) that do not apply and just be real with us. (I took a few multi-dimensional calculus classes and Dramatica does not include anything concrete). Dramatica should stop being advertised as a revolutionary and fundamental theory, because it is misleading.

It's only misleading to those who assume their education to be enough. It's only vague and weird to those blinded by Deduction. As mentioned in earlier articles, this post is yet another individual justified in his Knowledge, seeking out even more Knowledge. If you took the time to dive into Dramatica, you would realize that your quest for Knowledge entrenches you deeper in your justifications. Knowledge is no Solution for a Problem of Knowledge—the only viable Solution is Thought.

And I can see you have a lot more thinking to do before you get out of this story.

Instead, Dramatica should embrace that it is mostly just a practical model that works but no one really knows why. In fact, I believe that Dramatica is probably the best practical model for story structure I have ever seen. But as a practical model, you have to use Dramatica with caution. And you certainly can get a well-structured and completely satisfying story by breaking its "rules" because there is no theoretical basis for the rules in the first place.

Well argued. We can break Dramatica's "rules" because you've decided there is no theoretical basis. Your cries for certainty shine a light on your justifications and problematic preconceptions. I'm curious, were you holding your breath at the end like a petulant child, or did you grab your ball and leave?

Judging by the lack of response in the forums after seven years, I would guess the latter.