Writing Perfect Scene Structure with Dramatica

Advanced narrative theory now offers writers an opportunity to achieve the ultimate structure for their stories.

The perfectly structured scene. Some writers dream of it, others would never dare dream of it. The likelihood of an Author writing a perfect story increases exponentially with the Dramatica theory of story.

The only question is…is that what you really want?

A Word of Caution

While exciting and fascinating, this deep dive into story structure carries with it an unfortunate side effect. One may lose sight of the original purpose for the deep dive and become entranced with unravelling the intricacies of the minutiae. A former workshop student of mine explains:

…some people need to know everything, they want the theory down to a "T" and want to know all the interactions of each and every facet of a Storyform but those ones tend to not have as much material written when it comes the amount of stories completed albeit having absolutely pristine Grand Argument Stories of course!

This happens occasionally with certain types of writers when they first encounter Dramatica. With insights so compelling and story points that enrich and enliven their original ideas, some writers find themselves lost in achieving completeness over actual writing. They want more of the greatness.

…some people can learn just enough about Dramatica (relative), to incite inspiration and they'll take off and have pages upon pages of material, completing story after story, ultimately becoming a "writer" in the classical sense of the word (blemishes and all). Yes some of the fine details of Dramatica are left behind but these individuals don't really care either, obviously risking accuracy, coherency and filled out arguments.

Although my knowledge of Dramatica is extensive, I am one of those writers who uses the storyform to incite inspiration. Having written several screenplays with Dramatica1 and found a certain amount of success helping other writers and producers do the same, I can attest to the fact that the storyform begins to lose relevance as it breaks down into the structural elements of Scenes & Events. Perfect structure at the Plot, or Act level, is infinitely more important than perfect Scene structure.

As Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story is fond of saying "No one goes to a story for perfect structure.".

The main point is that that no one reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a perfect structure but rather to have their passions ignited. So if it comes to a choice between an exciting thing and a structural thing, go with the excitement whenever you can, but be sure never to break structure completely or your readers or audience will not be able to cross that gap and will cease to follow you on your journey.

Regardless of one's familiarity with Dramatica or the depth of knowledge attained, the balance between perfection and reality is one every Artist must maintain.

Still, this shit is fascinating.

The Spiral and Fractal Nature of Dramatica

In her comprehensive article How Scenes Relate to Dramatica's Story Elements, Melanie describes the spiral nature of the model:

the "spiral" nature of the structure (recently described with insight by Armando) is such that the Type (Plot) level of the structure determines the dramatic circuits of ACTS, the Variation (Theme) level determines the dramatic circuits of SEQUENCES, the Element (Character) level determines the dramatic circuits from one SCENE to the next, and the spiral effect takes us back to the top Class (Genre) level which determines the dramatic circuits of the EVENTS within each Scene.

This spiral, or fractal, nature of the model finds four elements within every level of appreciating a story. Four Acts in every Throughline. Four Sequences in every Act. Four Scenes in every Sequence. And four Events in every Scene.

Again, this is perfect story structure math. Reality rarely plays out the same way.

Our articles The Reason for Acts and Four Acts, Not Three cover the Plot level. The The Wormhole between Author and Audience and Predictable Unpredictability in Story explain Sequences within Dramatica.

This article showcases our first foray into Scene Structure. In the following sections we will define the various appreciations found at this level. In future articles, we will expand on the concept and provide examples of this structure in action.

The Four Modalities of Scene Structure

In that same article, Melanie lists four different modalities of Scene Structure in Dramatica. The first three assign "markers" to each of the Events within a Scene:

…each Event in a Scene will have a 1,2,3,4 for sequential order, a P,R,C,O, for context, and be a Universe (Universe), Attitude (Mind), Activity (Physics), and Mentality (Psychology). In other words, the four required Events for every complete dramatic movement at the Scene level will be something Universeal, Attitude illustrative, Active, and exhibiting Mentality.

Three different modalities:

  1. Setup, Revelation, Conflict, & Aftermath (SRCA or 1234)
  2. Potential, Resistance, Current, & Outcome (PRCO)
  3. Attitude, Universe, Activity, & Mentality (TKAD)

The fourth modality sets the method by which the Author intends to illustrate the first three. A little more on that later.

The Four Modalities of Dramatica Scene Construction

SRCA is NOT Storyweaving

While often presented as the order of events as revealed within the narrative, SRCA (or 1234) is the order of events within the storyform. 9 times out of 10 this translates to SRCA in the real world: a scene will begin with the Setup, then show the Revelation, then the Conflict, and finally the Aftermath.

Some Authors choose to jumble up their way through this order. Films like Memento and Pulp Fiction use time-shifting Storyweaving techniques to obscure the storyform. They may start with the Conflict, then show the Setup, then back to Conflict, and then maybe the Revelation, and finally the Aftermath. As long as the Audience can appreciate the actual order of events at the end of a story, the Author is free to mix and match the sequence any way he or she chooses.

As explained in the original scientific paper on Dramatica:

…once a story has been told, it is no longer appreciated simply as a progression. Rather, a story is similar to a television, scanning its electron gun across the screen. Slowly, through linear progression an image is built up. By the time the entire frame has been scanned a picture has been created that is greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, the progression of a story, though linear in nature, ultimately constructs a greater meaning that is appreciated as a whole.

Authors can change the order in which they reveal the events of a storyform to an Audience and the story will still carry the same meaning.

Setup, Revelation, Conflict, and Aftermath of a Scene

Where does one find this progression of events within Dramatica?

Avoiding Writing by Numbers

Once an Author answers the eight Dynamic Questions or Essential Ingredients of story, the Dramatica engine winds up the model of the storyform creating the potential for a meaningful narrative. As it does this, the engine predicts the order (SRCA) and nature (PRCO) of every element in every quad at every level to achieve the impact set in the Dynamics.

Chris and Melanie purposefully left out the 1234 and PRCO of the dramatic circuits:

the data is so extensive that it takes several hundred pages to print it all out…We determined that this flood of information would drown authors in a sea of numbers, far away from the intuitive sense of writing. And, what’s more, it is SO specific that we thought it might lead to "writing by the numbers." The biggest tragedy would be that the audience is not really concerned with that degree of detail so much, and really tends to "give" that to the author, even if it is out of order, as long as all the pieces are there somewhere. So, why worry about being that accurate when it has so little importance in the grand scheme of things?

They vanquished the monster of perfect story structure before it saw the light of day. A glimpse of the SRCA progression lies within the progression of Transits found within each Throughline—but that's it. Until the day we meet that monster, Authors can simply set the SRCA and PRCO of their Scenes to the best of their abilties and with the purpose of providing meaning to their Audience.

Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome

Dramatica approaches story from the Author's point-of-view. The storyform is a holographic representation of Author's Intent. When appreciating the Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome of a dramatic unit in Dramatica the "message" the Author intends on communicating is the primary object of focus.

Think of the Potential of the circuit as the source of inequity for that dramatic movement as far as the Author is concerned. Instead of simply looking at the point where the Scene begins, the Author identifies where they believe the source of conflict for that scene emanates. If removed, the scene would lose purpose. All Events carry purpose—it's a matter of where the dramatic emphasis is placed that determines PRCO.

The Resistance of a dramatic circuit amplifies or diminishes that Potential. In short, what does the Author believe makes things worse within the context of this dramatic unit? How do they see the vibration of the initial inequity intensifying or dissipating?

The Current of a dramatic circuit shows the play, or interaction, between Potential and Resistance. How does the Author see the escalation or de-escalation of conflict within this unit?

And finally, the Outcome of a dramatic circuit shows where the Author sees Power emanating from this unit. This results in a positive or negative charge that leads to a possible potential for the following dramatic unit.

Potential, Resistance, Current and Outcome of a Scene

PRCO defines the spatial relationship between elements within a dramatic unit. If you look at a physical circuit board, different components account for the Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome of each circuit. The context of their function within the unit defines their relationship to one another.

Thought, Knowledge, Ability, and Desire

If SRCA represents the temporal progression of a dramatic unit, and PRCO represents the spatial relationship between the components, then TKAD defines the knowledge base—or area of conflict—within each event.

The Dramatica Quad Structure

In Dramatica, every quad is really another way of looking at Thought, Knowledge, Ability, and Desire (TKAD). Dramatica is a model of the storymind—an internal representation of our external universe:

  • Thought is the Energy of the mind
  • Knowledge is the Mass of the mind
  • Ability is the Space of the mind
  • Desire is the Time of the mind

These four bases find themselves at the Class level within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements:

  • Mind classifies problems of Thought/Energy
  • Universe classifies problems of Knowledge/Mass
  • Activity classifies problems of Ability/Space
  • Manners of Thinking classify problems of Desire/Time

Thought, Knowledge, Ability and Desire of a Scene

This is the point at which the model spirals back onto itself. When classifying the Events at the Scene level--at the point where the Dramatica model loops back onto itself--Authors look to the Classes of Minds, Universes, Physics, and Manners of Thinking (or Mentalities). In this way, the very smallest accounts for the very largest.

The Fourth Modality

Dramatica theory is quad theory. If you can find three of something, you can usually identify a fourth--it just takes a little time to wrap your head around it.

Melanie describes the difference between a Structural Scene and a Storytelling Scene:

Structural Scenes illustrate these four Events in terms of Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre.

If the Author wishes to communicate structure, he or she assigns Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre—one of each—to the Events within a scene. By doing so, the Author conveys the storyform to the Audience.

Storytelling Scenes illustrate these four Events in terms of audience impact (impacting the audience’s sense of their own Universe, affecting their Attitude, involving them in a vicarious Activity, or exploring the way their minds run by illuminating the Mentality).

These are the fun scenes. The ones that have very little to do with structure or the storyform itself. They thrill, chill, or perhaps tickle as they convey an experience to the Audience. Remove them and the meaning of the story would remain the same—it just wouldn't be as much fun.

Both Structural and Storytelling Scenes can be presented in Active or Passive fashion. Passive Scenes illustrate these Events in the Story or Audience. Active Scenes put them into motion, moving the story forward or invoking changes in the nature of the audience itself.

With this final explanation, Melanie completes the quad of modalities by presenting PASS:

  • Passive Structural Scenes illustrate the Events in terms of Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre
  • Passive Storytelling Scenes illustrate the Events by impacting the Audience's sense of Universe, Attitude, Activity, and way of Thinking
  • Active Structural Scenes use the four Events to move the story forward through Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre
  • Active Storytelling Scenes use the four Events to invoke changes in the nature of the Audience's Universe, Attitude, Activity and Psychology

PASS (Passive, Active, Structural, Storytelling) is not an Audience Appreciation—it is the Author’s determination of how they want to illustrate the scene. Their purpose in presenting the scene to an Audience.

Passive, Active, Structural, and Storytelling Scenes

If TKAD represents the knowledge base of the storyform and delivers the Understanding to the Audience, then PASS teaches that storyform to the Audience—the Learning to the storyform's Understanding. In effect, the Author PASSes on the information contained in the storyform through this final modality.

Intention and Meaning

With the fourth and final modality defined, Authors can now develop their scenes by identifying the area of conflict in each event, the order in which they appear, their relationship to each other in terms of the dramatic circuit, and a means by which they intend to illustrate that unit of dramatic conflict.

While the relationship between the modalities still exists within a shroud of mystery beneath Dramatica's story engine--a means by which to construct solid scenes around meaningful and purposeful events now exists.

Rather than decry the trappings of perfect story structure, perhaps the conversation should veer more towards the ability Dramatica provides writers to construct powerful scenes that effectively communicate their deepest intentions.

This, every writer wants.

  1. And run more than one Dungeons & Dragons campaign using Dramatica. 

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