Following in the footsteps of last week’s thought concerning the novelist’s struggle with Dramatica, we examine more closely the need for incorporating context into our story-encoding.
For those unfamiliar with the Dramatica process, the StoryEncoding stage is where we take the individual story points found during the initial StoryForming phase and “encode” them with storytelling unique to our story. This how one accounts for the differences between similar stories like Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story; while the form itself may be the same, the individual encodings of each story point can be vastly different. In this way you can tell stories with similar meanings to different cultures and different generations.
Context and Meaning
Without context, there is no meaning. if I hold my hand out and ask Is this high or low? there is no true answer…until I put it into some other context. Is this hand higher or lower than my feet? At which point you’ll tell me higher…until I graft on another context wherein we are spinning in a spaceship equipped with artificial gravity. No context, no meaning. Shifting context, shifting meaning. And for the Author trying to say something—still no meaning.
Story Points and Context
For example let us assume that the Dramatica storyform you are working with offers up these two story points:
Main Character Throughline: Situation, Main Character Concern: The Past
Inspiration hits so you quickly write out:1
An astronaut goes on an archeological dig on Mars.
And then you quickly move on to the next story point, thinking you have successfully crafted a meaningful piece of your narrative. But you really haven’t—not yet.
Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators of Dramatica had this to say about context and our astronaut:
The description might fit the definition of “Situation” and “Past”, but it does not include any of the aspect of the Story Points of Domain and Concern. This is a common problem. They look at the setting (or the gist) and forget that is only one half of the storyform setting. The other part is the context in which each is explored.
In our example, the Situation is explored within the context of the Domain of the Throughline and the Past is explored within the context of the Concern of the Throughline. You miss out on the significant improvement Dramatica adds to your writing when you leave out the context bit. Honestly, you’re not even using it right if you forget to use it in your encoding.
Encoding with Context
How would the above storytelling look placed within the proper context? First, one would need to address the stuck nature of a Situation Throughline. There is perhaps an implied situation in the original storytelling, but it is not clear. The more definite your encoding the stronger the conflict, the stronger the narrative.
A Domain is the general area in which a problem exists. The Concern narrows this area down to a specific area of focus. Understanding these contexts a successful encoding might read something like this:
While on an archeological dig on Mars, an astronaut is marooned by his team. Discovering evidence of an unsuccessful, and unknown, previous expedition the astronaut begins to take greater and greater risks fearing history might repeat itself.
Now we have a story. Do you feel the increase in conflict there? Can you see the difference in motivation? The former lacks energy, lacks drive; the latter presents the potential for great conflict by presenting an inequity be resolved.
Writing with Purpose
Perhaps you’ve spent years working on the same story, toiling away with a great idea that you know is special but for some reason always sputters to a stop. Consider the possibility that your encoding lacks the proper context. Consider that you only have one half of an inequity. There is no motivation without inequity—and this holds true for your own writing. If your narrative lacks an inequity seen within the proper context, you will never have the motivation to see it through. Craft meaningful conflict into your work and insure years and years of productive success.