The Cult of Dramatica

By far, this ["cult"] was the funniest Google search term someone used to find this site. In an effort to provide more of what people are looking for when they come here, I installed a statistics program called Mint a couple of weeks ago. Alongside the countless searches for “children of men analysis” (people seem to really like that film!), this quote - “the cult of Dramatica” really stood out. How can a theory of story be so easily equated with the kind of fervor that sometimes accompanies religion?

I think it all boils down to the notion that you have to believe in the theory in order to use it. Some religions are based on such wild outlandish ideas that non-believers have a hard time understanding why people get caught up in it. How can anyone believe that a man can be crucified on a cross, only to be raised up three days later? Or how about the belief that aliens came to Earth in airplane-like spaceships only to be blown up next to volcanoes?

It’s the same skepticism that plagues Dramatica. There are so many new and unfamiliar dramatic concepts in the theory that it’s easier to simply discount it as some “newfangled” religion. You must have to have an incredible amount of faith to believe that this theory works, right?

Not really.

Dramatica is much more than Protagonist and Inciting Incident because there is so much more going on in a story.

The confusing and overwhelming nature of Dramatica stems from its attempt to accurately describe everything that is going on in a story. In order to do that, very specific terms and appreciations had to be delineated. The Impact Character and the idea of a Subjective Relationship Story did not exist in previous theories of story (at least, not to the extent that Dramatica defines them). Nor did the Main Character’s Unique Ability, the Story’s Preconditions and Dividends, or the Objective Story’s Symptom and Response. But these appreciations do exist in a well-crafted story.

When you see the terms Induction, Prerequisites, Strategy, or Deficiency, you don’t automatically associate them with storytelling. It’s not like reading McKee’s Story where you get bold-faced indented edicts that define a Protagonist or the Inciting Incident. Those terms are easy to accept:

“I remember Protagonist from my Creative Writing class in Junior High. And Exciting Incident [sic]? Yeah, there always is some exciting part at the beginning of a story. That makes sense too.”

But Dramatica is much more than Protagonist and Inciting Incident. Why? Because there is so much more going on in a story. Oh, the theory covers Protagonist and the Inciting Incident as well, but it defines them with more precision. A Protagonist is not always the Main Character and the Inciting Incident needs to be defined as either an action or a decision. Without the latter, the audience will be confused by inconsistent plot points.

Chris has already written extensively about the differences between Dramatica and other more accepted story paradigms. For our purposes here, it is enough to know that Dramatica prescribes a structure for story that works both logically and emotionally. When you see the storyform of your story laid out, you are seeing a holistic view of your story at once.

A holistic view of my story? Well, if that doesn’t sound cultish…But that is what it is!! And that’s what makes it so exciting. When you’re looking at a storyform you’re actually seeing the entirety of time and space for your 120 page screenplay…all on one page!

Silence I think another reason why it seems like a cult is because of the silence among authors who use it. Besides novelist Tracy Hickman, who actually admits to using it, the rest of the Dramatica user base pretty much keeps to themselves. Even I had some reservations at first in starting this blog. I was worried I’d be branded as that wacky wanna-be screenwriter who believes in a hoakey quasi-religious software program masquerading as story theory!

Eventually my enthusiasm for the theory won out.

Besides, how could I keep quiet when I knew of several examples where Dramatica was obviously used in the storytelling! The screenplay for Contact comes quickly to mind. As does an episode of The X-Files where they actually use the word Preconscious! (A very specific Dramatica term describing innate instincts in a person). I even know of one screenwriting book that rips off complete sections from the Dramatica theory book, yet doesn’t even offer the common courtesy of a simple acknowledgment.

It’s just another tool, albeit a powerful one.

The authors of these works would never admit to using Dramatica. To do so would be to admit that somehow you needed a computer program to help you write! Can you imagine admitting that to a fellow screenwriter? What would they think of you? Of your talent? Your story might be wonderful, but it would be discounted without a second thought because of the tools that helped create it.

Contrast this with McKee’s Story book - I don’t know one aspiring screenwriter who doesn’t have it proudly displayed on their writing desk. It’s almost like a badge of accomplishment that says “I know story.” And who hasn’t heard that there “must be a character arc” or that the Protagonist needs an “inner drive” along with his “outer goal”?

So how is the book any different than the computer program? The Dramatica program is necessary because there are so many complicated algorithms that go into the mechanics of a story. To try and figure them out on your own would possibly lead to insanity, and definitely block you from actually writing…which is why you turned to it in the first place. In the end, it’s just another tool - albeit a powerful one.

Join Us So yes, at first glance Dramatica may seem like a cult. The language and the foreign nature of its concepts probably resemble some religion from another land. And it doesn’t help that those who “follow it” hide in the shadows and speak in underground forums.

But I promise you, if you take the time to read the theory book, and to read through some of the analysis provided here and at the main Dramatica website, you’ll find that this idea of it being a “cult” is simply ridiculous. Its no more a cult than Campbell’s Mythic Hero or McKee’s Three-Day Workshop. If anything it’s part of the larger cult of screenwriting - which in my book, is a creatively fulfilling and richly rewarding group to belong to.