Picture a fanatic, and the mind fills with images of single-minded zealots forcing their way of thinking upon the great unwashed. Unreasonable and extreme, these often irrational creatures strike fear in the hearts of many.
…kind of like what happens here on a weekly basis.
Wisdom may begin with the fear of God, but wise storytelling begins with an understanding of why stories exist. One theory lights the way.
21st Century Story Theory
Eavesdrop on a conversation surrounding story structure and you’re bound to hear the same names: Snyder, McKee, Truby, Seger. Rarely, if ever, do you hear the names Huntley or Phillips. Yet these two theorists have done more to change the face of meaningful storytelling than all those others combined. Released to the public in early 1994, the Dramatica theory of story gives a comprehensive understanding of narrative fiction unlike anything that has come before. It also happens to sit as the cornerstone for 95% of the articles on this site.
Based on the concept of a story serving as a psychological model of the human mind at work, the Dramatica theory can not simply plug the holes in your story, it can predict the order of your story points. More than simply a MadLibs Choose-Your-Own-Adventure 35 Master Plots device, Dramatica encourages hard concentrated thinking about your story, requiring the writer to dive deeply into their purpose for writing.
The feint of heart should find comfort elsewhere.
Attention Deficit and Story Structure
Save the Cat! takes a day to read. Story? Maybe two. But The Dramatica Theory Book? Weeks. Months. Maybe even years to fully comprehend what exactly the theory offers. And it’s not that Huntley and Phillips don’t write as well as the others, it’s that the work demands concentration—a quality of human life in severe decline given the requirements of everyday modern life. Yet, regardless of these shorter attention spans the mind continues to function the same way. The mind’s ability to assess meaning stays the same. With great persistence, the mind seeks out analogies to itself.
Story and Psychology, More than Fun and Games
The idea of story as a model of the human mind shines as a brilliant new concept, worthy of further investigation. Hollywood mega-mogul Peter Guber understands this. In his May 2011 article in Psychology Today, he categorizes stories far more than simply entertainment:
in four decades in the movie business, I’ve come to see that stories are not only for the big screen, Shakespearean plays, and John Grisham novels. I’ve come to see that they are far more than entertainment. They are the most effective form of human communication, more powerful than any other way of packaging information. And telling purposeful stories is certainly the most efficient means of persuasion in everyday life, the most effective way of translating ideas into action, whether you’re green-lighting a $90 million film project, motivating employees to meet an important deadline, or getting your kids through a crisis.
Without specifically mentioning it, Guber goes on to describe Dramatica and that theory’s approach to understanding story:
We literally create ourselves through narrative. Narrative is more than a literary device—it’s a brain device. Small wonder that stories can be so powerful.
That power relies on how effectively the work in question mimics the mind’s problem-solving process. Figuring out what a Main Character wants versus what a Main Character needs only launches the initial salvo towards the story beast; understanding why that dichotomy exists between the two assures that the beast will fall, decimated and conquered.
Reliance on the Past
Why Dramatica? Aristotle figured this whole story thing out centuries ago. Same with Campbell. The Hero’s Journey paradigm explains it all. Stop reinventing the wheel.
Only, we’re not talking a wheel here. We’re talking a rocket-ship. A supersonic jump-ship powerful enough to escape the stifling atmosphere of reductive half-baked thinking and ancient practices. Light speed for storytelling.
Why question these revered thinkers and their embedded ideas that have worked for so many years? As if fearing sea serpents at the edge of a flat world should persist as a viable mindset because it worked for the thousands of generations that came before. Legacy pales in comparison to accuracy.
Complicating the Simple
Certainly great stories thrive without the influence of Dramatica. Chinatown, Casablanca and even Hamlet capture the imagination in spite of their author’s simplistic understanding of story structure. Yet, the problem-solving process that propels the engine of Dramatica—the human mind—works the same way it always has. Lack of conscious usage of the theory does not automatically discount subconscious or instinctive utilization.
Buckminister Fuller, engineer and systems theorist, said “The flow of energy through a system tends to organize that system.” Writers—in conveying meaning to an audience—will tend to organize their work in the same way they created it, i.e. story replicates the mind at work.
Knowledge of that process during the creation phase is not a prerequisite.
Some deem Dramatica too difficult. A scam to sell books or seminars to the idiots who fall prey to it. Some even question the purpose of this site and the articles within. While recognizing the wariness towards whatever dark purposes lurk behind the words here, the determination that somehow an exploration of the psychological processes that drive a meaningful story masks a secret monetary motivation lacks rational thought. The entirety of everything written for Narrative First sits on the server at no cost to the reader. Yearly compilations merely offer convenience for those in a hurry. Financial gain? Religious indoctrination? Hardly.
Likening the Dramatica theory of story to Scientology takes the lead as one of the more common and certainly more ridiculous claims by those uncomfortable with some of its terminology. A defense tactic for the fearful. Main Character Benchmark. Overall Story Prerequisites. Is this Physics or Story Structure?
The idea of story as a model of the human mind is a new concept, one that requires new terminology to describe it. Dumbing it down by using old fashioned concepts already agreed upon—like the notion that Protagonists are always Main Characters—would run against the one unavoidable force in the world: progress.
Those interested in how the mind works and its usage in the creation of a story will find the study of the theory compelling and insightful. This site aids and encourages those willing to expand their mind. Those who wish to carry on fumbling around in the dark may continue to do so, no complaining when they find themselves right back where they began several years down the road.
Why All This Matters
This publication was originally titled Story Fanatic for a reason.
For many, livelihoods depend on telling a good story. Not only those who make a living off their words, but more importantly the countless hundreds below the line who rely on those words having some kind of meaning. Dramatica addresses most, if not all, of the bad and meaningless storytelling in Hollywood. By actively engaging with the theory’s concepts, writers and producers alike could improve the lives of those who work in the industry and the families they support.
Fanatical? Yes. Irrational? No.
The Dramatica theory of story offers the most accurate model of meaningful storytelling available to us today. Those of us intrigued and fascinated by what the theory has to say aren’t doing so out of religious conviction, but rather out of the recognition that it could make things better.
What harm could come from that?