Writing Short Stories with Dramatica

Your Audience knows you're not telling them a complete story.

How do you possibly squeeze in all 75 storypoints of a Dramatica storyform into a story 6,000 words long, or a short film that runs less than 5 minutes?

You don't.

The Dramatica theory of story reveals an approach for creating effective arguments. Straw-man or one-sided arguments? Dramatica can't help you there.

There's a reason most films run close to two hours: that's the shortest amount of time required to form a complete and well-balanced argument. Anything longer and you might have two storyforms in there; anything shorter and compromise the integrity of the debate.

That said, sometimes the purpose of a work of fiction isn't to argue a particular approach or message—but rather, to just entertain or inform.

To tell a tale, instead of a story.

An Approach for Short Stories

If the scope of your work is shorter than is required for a full argument, then "slice and dice" your way through the Dramatica model to find a quad of elements that resonate with you.

Keep it to one quad—any quad—and use that to help guide your story.

So it seems like the best use of Dramatica in my case may be due to a "cross-cut"? Taking part of say... the MC and IC since I have that dynamic set up? Just trying to wrap my head around what this actually looks like in practice--do I narrow down a complete story form, then just use the one quad as my guide? Or parts from two? As far as the one quad... how does one assign the different POV's using one quad?

In a short story, you don't have enough story "real-estate" to work through the various POV's (by POV the writer above means the Four Throughlines of Main Character, Influence Character, Relationship Story, and Objective Story Throughlines).

Consider this post, Short Stories from Big Time Writers, from our first incarnation Story Fanatic. In that early blog post, I explain the minimalist story structure at work behind Scott Frank's short story, The Flying Kreisslers.

Frank won an Academy Award for writing Logan.

Unfortunately at this time, I can't seem to find a copy of the actual story (please write to me if you see it!), but you can appreciate a sense of the story structure in the blog post.

UPDATE: A reader sent in a copy of the original text! You can read it here: Resurrecting The Flying Kreisslers.

The Flying Kreisslers is a short story about a dysfunctional family of trapeze artists that eventually turn to murder. While there is no sense of an actual defined Throughline, you can still see a Plot Progression of sorts:

  • Being
  • Conceptualizing
  • Becoming
  • Conceiving

From pretending to be OK with things, to come up with an idea for murder—with scheming and Becoming mixed in the middle—that’s the basic structure of Frank’s story.

These four Types exist at the Plot level in the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. And you find them under the larger Area of Psychology—which is where you always find problems of dysfunction.

The Psychology Domain

But then, how did Frank come up with that Act order? Did he build a Dramatica storyform and then take the Plot Progression from the Objective Story Throughline?

Most likely not.

Letting the Storyform Go

Writers use Dramatica storyforms to make their arguments, they don't argue Dramatica storyforms.

But one still does narrow down to one Objective Story form, yeah? Just ignore the other parts?

No. By writing a short story, you're making an incomplete argument. Audiences get that. The contract is already set with them, and they'll be OK with the arrangement.

What you can do, however, is use the plot progression of a quad to help set up the structure of your story and make it feel like there is something more there.

Make it read like you've put some thought into it.

Look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements (or use Subtext), find a quad that seems interesting to you, and use those elements to give your narrative a sense of flow.

One last thing... so if I'm just looking at the raw Dramatica Chart and picking a quad to help my short story... do I have to worry about how Memory actually deals with the elements in Subconscious? Or do I just write about Memory in terms of Truth, Evidence, Suspicion, Falsehood as they exist under that part of the quad?

It depends on how far down you want to go—how much time you have with your short story. Use the size of your story to determine your scope.

And don't worry about shifting quads and seeing them in different contexts.

Writers familiar with Dramatica will know that once a story is set, the nicely balanced Table of Story Elements is all jumbled-up. You could be faced with Being in terms of Fate, Prediction, Interdiction, and Destiny (all issues found within a context of the Past, not Being) or Conceiving in terms of Prerequisites, Strategy, Analysis, and Preconditions (issues found under Learning). This “screwed-up” version is what your story looks like before you tell it—when tension is at its highest.

And when you’ve set up the potential for a complete argument.

When you shoot for something less, you can screw the model up any way you want—it won’t make a difference because the model is intended to build an argument.

When it comes to short stories, use sets of quads that resonate with your artist's intuition.

Back to what you said about how with a short you're just emulating what appears to be a complete story form, yeah? So... it's not necessary, but would it hurt an author to have figured out a larger story and use that "fully solved storyform" only focusing on one bit? I guess it wouldn't matter cuz you just said you can do literally anything, haha

He pretty much answered the question himself. You can develop a storyform and then take a slice or dice of that…or you cannot prepare one and merely search the Table of Story Elements for issues that work for you. If you do the former, the Audience may or may not have a sense of the larger storyform— depending on how much you're able to communicate and squeeze in—and of course, how much they're actually paying attention. But the Audience will still be merely guessing at what it is you're trying to say.

And if you have something more substantial to say…then why not write a complete story?

Delivering the Goods

With a short story, you're not making a complete argument, so it really doesn't matter which quads you use for your story. With short stories, there aren't any rules because you're not trying to make the one thing that Dramatica helps you make—an argument.

You're merely using bits and pieces to kind of guess at how the narrative should flow. And when it comes to guessing, the quads could be screwed up or correctly balanced—in the end, it's entirely up to you.

Dramatica’s quads of quads of Elements can help you frame the narrative of your short story. Gather up a family of four and write something awesome. Bouncing from one Element to the next will give a semblance of completeness—a “short” version of a grander story.