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Thoughts on Story Structure

September 29, 2015

Looking for an iOS version of Dramatica?

So am I.

There is so much you could do with a touch version of this program that would make it easier for writers to understand how Dramatica works and why they can't make certain choices. Imagine trying to drag the MC Domain of a Do-er down into Fixed Attitude or Manipulation only to have it snap back into place in Situation or Activity ... Or dragging and dropping characters into the Build Characters window ... Or being able to rotate around the model in 3D ... Ugh, if only there was an extra me I would do it in a second!

Earlier this year I wrote about my mobile screenwriting process with Dramatica and my iPhone. I'm still following it to this day with great success. And until they perfect cloning technology it looks like I'll be using it for awhile.

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September 28, 2015

Mike Wollaeger, Dramatica Story Expert and all-around nice guy, had some excellent advice for writers new to Dramatica:

The first time I used Dramatica to storyform a screenplay I was writing, I misunderstood about 90% of everything I was doing. Repetition and throwing yourself headfirst into testing out your understanding (and dealing with the subsequent fallout) is about the best way to move forward.

This is the same experience I had. I didn't understand how a story could be about anything else but Obtaining. Of course every story is about achieving something, what else could it be? Subsequently, I've discovered the difference between the energy to resolve a goal and the actual type of Goal, but absolutely, you have to go into Dramatica knowing you're not going to get it the first couple of years.

It's been almost 20 years for me and I'm just now understanding the Relationship Throughline. Your mileage may vary.

If I could do it again, I would do the impossible, which is focus on fewer things in the theory until I had them down cold. I would be sure to be able to cleave apart the MC and the Protagonist. Even if, especially if, they are played by the same person. I would aim to distinguish Do-ers from Be-ers. I would try to break stories down into their Four Throughlines. I would learn how to identify Story Goals, so I could determine Success & Failure.

This is a fantastic list and really should be the only things newbies see when they first dive into Dramatica. Learn these and then move on to the more complicated stuff.

The tricky part here is that it's hard to know if you've done it right if this is all you focus on. If you try to carry a story all the way to the bottom, then the model starts to fight back if you've got something wrong. At the high levels, there is no feedback yet.

Perfect advice. Not sure why I didn't see this before but you can be sure I will take this approach with new writers in the future.

He left the best advice for last:

Also, bear in mind that Dramatica will help your story, but it will not help you write. So keep writing, daily, while you learn Dramatica.

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September 27, 2015

He [David Fincher], along with Mike De Luca and Brad Pitt and Morgan and Kevin Spacey, fought-fought-fought to save that ending, and they are the reason that that ending was maintained and is the ending that’s in the movie. Without them, no one was going to listen to me, the lowly screenwriter — that’s just the way it goes.

Because who would know better whether or not an ending works well thematically with everything that came before it then the guy who has spent the past couple of years going over it with a fine tooth comb.

The ending of Se7en had to be what it was because everything prior led up to that moment. Pity's character was a hot head and it was Morgan's character who constantly kept him in check. It was only once Morgan finally had his moment of impulsiveness (the slapping of John Doe) that Pitt's character was finally allowed off his chain. Those moments meant something. As despicable as Doe's actions were, they weren't a threat as long as more level-headed men were around.

Once that departed, so did any sense of humanity.

Se7en should always remains shining example of why it is important to have a purposeful complete narrative first. And why it is important to fight every step of the way for that story.

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September 25, 2015

Produced screenwriter and former Sony Studios story analyst Ken Miyamoto has this to say about Dramatica in a Quora answer:

Film Theorists have one thing going for them... hindsight.  They can look at a film or screenplay and pretty much dissect it any way they'd like, in order to fit it in whatever formula or directive they are preaching. 

Ken is way off track here. Chris and Melanie developed Dramatica without looking at screenplays or films. They spent several years asking the right kinds of questions: If a character has a problem, why don't they solve it? and If someone doesn't want to solve their personal problems, how do they go about hiding it from themselves?

Only then, after all the research and theory development into why stories exist, did they then measure their concepts up against films (and novels and plays--story is story regardless of medium). Turns out what they discovered pans it: a complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem.

Yet despite all of the theories that exist in regards to Nostradamus, no one has been able to really apply them and predict an upcoming event.  Only in hindsight can they attempt to prove their point. 

The property I sold in 2009 to Dreamworks Animation was developed with Dramatica. Based on choices I made regarding Main Character Thematics and Story Dynamics it absolutely predicted the order in which I needed to approach my story. It even told me things about my story I didn't even know. "Save the Cat!" and McKee don't even come close to being able to do the same thing. Presenting them in the same context only speaks of someone who simply doesn't get it.

So yes, Dramatica is good food for thought. But like every meal consumed, it provides the energy and nourishment necessary to excel and proliferate. Dramatica offers writers clear and demonstrable potential.

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September 24, 2015

With Mercury in retrograde it's no wonder so many people find difficulty maintaining their relationships1 ... of course, here we mean the relationship between the Main and Influence Character--that bit of a story Dramatica refers to as the Relationship Throughline:

The relationship throughline explores the conflicts inherent in the relationship. The relationship may be well established or new. It may be growing or falling apart. It may be there by mutual agreement, by unilateral choice, or imposed by outside forces. It may end in disaster or blossom into something new. The relationship is exciting in its possibilities.

Many writers new to the theory think this Relationship Throughline is an area where the two principal characters argue over the best way to solve the main story's problem. Rookie move. Taking that approach collapses the breadth of a story and completely undermines the thematic significance of pitting a small intimate relationship against the greater conflict experienced by everyone. In other words, don't do it.

Bob and Helen

In fact, you can write a Relationship Throughline where the two principals barely share any scene time together. In Pixar's The Incredibles Bob the husband is the Main Character and his wife Helen is the Influence Character. Their relationship as husband and wife comes into conflict over Bob's "cheating" activities. His going out and engaging in superhero antics creates a strain on their relationship and in their marriage. It is the stuff he is Doing (their Relationship Throughline Concern), and the things they have agreed not to do, that is the source of the trouble in the relationship.

Many writers confuse the relationship throughline for the characters in it. Though the characters are party to the relationship, the RS is not about the characters as individuals. The RS is about the relationship. This means the RS Problem is about the source of conflict in the relationship. The RS Concern is about the source of general concern in the relationship. The same is true for all other story points in the relationship throughline. Though you may choose to reveal the RS through your characters' actions and words, the RS is always about the relationship.

The argument between Bob and Helen isn't about the best way to stop Syndrome, but it is thematically tied to it. It isn't an argument between one way of solving the main story's problem and another way of solving it, but rather a clash of perspectives that by their nature (opposing sides) creates conflict in the space between them. That space is their relationship--their marriage--and it's an essential component of the story.

The Relationship Throughline is not about two characters consistently making an argument over how to approach the big story problem. It's not about the individuals or their individual takes on the relationship. The Relationship Throughline is about the relationship itself. The sooner Authors recognize the dramatic potential of this Throughline, the sooner we can reap the rewards of emotionally fulfilling storytelling.


  1. No I don't think the optical illusion that is a planet moving backwards has any effect whatsoever on anything. ↩︎

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September 23, 2015

During my writing time this morning my Main Character did something quite unexpected: she took control of my screenplay 2015-02 and moved it in a different direction. Usually this kind of abrupt change is met with anxiety and concern; will this shift upset the tender balance of thematics I have so painstakingly constructed? Or will it turn out to be the best decision for the story I am trying to write?

Thankfully I have Dramatica on my side. As long as I can gently nudge this surprise move to somehow expose the thematics locked away in the Storyform every other scene has followed, the story should hold together. I can indulge these fantasies of my characters, allow them to grow in ways I never expected, and rest comfortably knowing the story will still make sense in the end.

The Storyform provides a thematic schematic of your story letting you know what will happen and in what order. Your only responsibility is to enjoy the writing process. Dramatica makes it possible for those happy accidents to occur without you losing sight of your story.

Freedom with purpose, that's what writing with Dramatica is like.

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September 22, 2015

Many find themselves uncomfortable when faced with the task of unlearning what they have learned. Entrenched in their own beliefs and bias, they refuse to take the time to investigate closely new understandings of narrative. The result is often a sad and disappointing attempt at discounting what is undeniably a breakthrough advance.

So many mistakes, misunderstandings and half-truths concerning the Dramatica theory of story in this post from the Hatrack Writers Forum. The usual "I don't like to be told what to do" defense masking for a failure to truly investigate the complex concepts of the theory. You know you're in trouble when Aristotle's Poetics is sighted as a superior text.

What Dramatica Sees

Dramatica is an incomplete model of the narrative form. The model makes the assumption problems can be and are meant to be solved.

This is half-true. Yes, one of the givens from Dramatica is the idea that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Whether or not that problem is actually solved, however, is determined by the story's dynamics. Some problems are solved (as in Mad Max: Fury Road, Lord of the Flies and Romeo and Juliet), others are not (Rain Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Hamlet).

That is but one narrative type ... other types ... include puzzle, revelation, the joke, and a non-story story type he labels "plotless," though such stories are not plotless, only their structural features are experimental and unconventional, making them challenging to comprehend.

We could quibble over the meaning of plot, but yes--if your purpose in writing a story is to write something challenging to comprehend, then Dramatica theory is not for you. Dramatica helps writers communicate meaning to audience with clarity and purpose. Experimental narrative types, like those sampled in films like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, are best left to other understandings of story.

The Reason for New Terminology

Dramatica Theory also assumes name spaces which are mere deviations, derivative, that is, of ancient labels and concepts. "Impact character," for example, is derived from an older theory, unnamed, from "influence character."

Not sure why this is a bad thing. New terminology needed to be created in order to more accurately describe the forces and points-of-view present in a complete story. As for the last bit, citing unnamed sources is a difficult tactic to counter.

An influence character influences a narrative's action, positively or negatively, or both, and is not limited to personas, could be setting features and objects as well as events.

This is beginning to look like an argument of semantics--one of the prime reasons for Dramatica's newly imagined and "rebranded" definitions. Old definitions are vague and deficient and require updating if any progress is to be made in our collective understanding of story.

An Influence Character, by Dramatica's definition is that character, or more accurately that point-of-view, that challenges the Main Character to address their personal problems. This point-of-view cannot be held within a feature or object or even an event as one of its primary features is the ability to change over time (Act by Act). The Influence Character's point-of-view must be able to shift in order to better challenge the Main Character's further avoidance of his or her own personal issues.

So no, the Influence Character of a story cannot be a mountain, a lake or a rock. It needs to have a point-of-view.

It is apparent this person is confusing Antagonist for Influence Character. An Antagonist, by Dramatica's clear definition, is an objective character role--a function--whose sole purpose is to prevent the Protagonist from achieving the Goal of the story. The Influence Character is a point-of-view whose purpose is to challenge the Main Character's personal issues. Sometimes these two can be found in the same player (as with the Joker in The Dark Knight) but usually are found in separate players (Ben Kenobi is the Influence Character in Star Wars, the Empire is the Antagonist; Boo Radley is the Influence Character in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bob Ewell is the Antagonist).

Here you can see the reason for new terminology. Reading the original post one gets the idea that the contributor lacks focus in the concepts he or she presents. Definitions are all over the place and seemed to be jumbled up with competing contexts of narrative. This may explain the hostility towards Dramatica as the theory's purpose is to bring clarity and greater understanding to narrative, not continue the confusion proffered for centuries.

The Difference between Objective and Subjective

Two other character types contained therein are objective and subjective characters. "Objective character" describes an observer persona, though "objective" is also a type of attitude: a shared unbiased value and belief perspective. "Subjective character" is an observed subject persona, though likewise is also a type of attitude: a personal, subject-to-bias value and belief perspective.

Here the author stamps his own erroneous interpretation onto Dramatica's elegant concepts. As mentioned previously, Dramatica sees the Antagonist and Protagonist of a story as Objective Characters. Objective because we stand back and look at them removed from the conflict; we don't assume their position. These two only represent a small fraction of the total amount of Objective Characters one may find in a story, yet they are the most important. The Antagonist and Protagonist represent the drive towards resolving and not resolving a story's central problem.

The Subjective Characters differ from the Objective Characters because of their ability to grow and shift their point-of-view during a story. The Protagonist of a story will always pursue the Goal; the Main Character may eventually change how they see the world. In Star Wars, Luke the Protagonist never ceased finding a way to fight the empire; Luke the Main Character eventually learned to stop testing himself all the time and instead, trust in something outside of himself. This dichotomy helps provide the meaning of a story.

Also, objective, subjective, and influence characters are not per se fixed for those roles, any can be another at any time, and can be more than one or could be all at the same time.

True, the point-of-view of the Influence Character may be handed off to different players as it is with the Ghosts in A Christmas Carol, but to think this appropriate for all story points sets an Author up for disaster.

This is where Dramatica shines as a powerful tool. By running counter to this popular notion that everything is everything and meaning constantly shifts, Dramatica helps a writer focus the intent of their story. Context creates meaning, if that meaning is constantly shifting then the end result is a meaningless mess.

Audiences crave a consistency of purpose.

Why the Old No Longer Works

The most ancient term for the functions of an influence or impact character is agonist, to mean a contestant that shapes the action such that the agency of a character or setting or event is transformatively influential. Antagonism is at least two forces in congruent opposition such that they are both unequivocally and irrevocably transformed by their direct and indirect interactions.

A prime example of collapsing the function of the Antagonist into the point-of-view of the Influence Character. This is why old outdated understandings of story serve only to confuse and destroy coherent and moving narrative. Modern precise terminology, like that found within Dramatica, grants greater clarity and sophistication of purpose. Mashing two clearly separate narrative concepts into one diminishes the power of both.

This same mistake happens when you find those convinced Protagonist and Main Character are one and the same. They often are, but they don't always have to be. Andy is the Protagonist in The Shawshank Redemption (the one trying to escape the system), but Red is the Main Character (the institutionalized man whose point-of-view we assume). Furiosa is the Protagonist of Mad Max: Fury Road (the one trying to run away), yet it is Max himself who we become personally involved with (we know what goes on inside his head, we never find out what is going on inside hers). And finally, Atticus is the Protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird (the one fighting for justice) while Scout is our way into the story. Atticus fights against prejudice while we as Scout don't even realize we're prejudice ourselves to the boogeyman across the street.

A clear understanding makes these kinds of sophisticated stories possible for everyone.

What?

Dramatica Theory painfully subverts and misses entirely essential implication appeals -- the artfully implied intangible action of moral human condition struggles and crises, which is the more significant and appealing overall feature of a narrative: what a narrative is actually about. The tangible action is mere package for the moral human condition appeal and invariably superficial.

I confess I have no idea what any of this means, but it sounds like a vain attempt to discount Dramatica with nonsense.

Update: Chris Huntley, co-creator of Dramatica, offered this explanation after reading this article:

I think the part that you didn't quite understand is about the values espoused about a story's subject matter -- the real world contextual meaning expressed through story encoding -- rather than the part that Dramatica provides, which is the framework that provides the author a means to evaluate the subject matter objectively and subjectively, linearly and holistically, in an effort to provide a meaningful narrative about the subject matter.

In other words, the author chooses that she wants to say about a subject matter, but she uses Dramatica to provide a comprehensive and understandable framework to argue the point using the narrative form.  For example, I may think that throwing battery acid on dogs is despicable, but Dramatica lets me make a case for WHY it is despicable, and perhaps even points out contexts in which it may not be despicable in order to make the point better.

I have a tendency to assume that everyone is open enough to take the time to really understand what Dramatica is all about and what it offers to story. Thankfully, Chris has explained it enough times to people who don't that he recognized what was being discussed here. Hope his update clears things up about what Dramatica is, and what it isn't.

Storyform vs. Storytelling

Dramatica Theory emphasizes structure over content and expression or discourse mode.

Yes! But only insofar as it explains how narrative works. Dramatica clearly states that it is teaching the ingredients of story; it's up to the Author to combine them into a memorable and lasting meal.

A structure is the skeleton and is troublesome if exposed. The flesh, so to speak, is the meat of the matter and, though dramatic structure (plot) is pertinent and near universal of shape, is not a universal shape and can only fundamentally be defined as the moral human condition, which approaches infinite. They say beauty is only skin deep and ugly goes all the way to the bone; artful narrative goes inside the bone, too, and naturally and appealingly, artfully, sublimely, beautifully drapes the skeletal structure.

This sounds wonderful. What the Author is describing is what Dramatica refers to as the second stage of narrative communication: Storytelling (or Story Encoding). The first stage, or Storyforming process, is the stage the Dramatica Theory focuses on. The Storyform is indeed the skeletal structure of a story and is not the kind of thing any reasonable human being would want to sit through. As I tell everyone I have ever taught or consult with, you don't get points for writing the perfect Dramatica story. The theory is there to help writers strengthen their communication skills and to effectively balance their story with a holistic understanding of the issues at hand. It's not a form of narrative unto itself.

Finally, something we can agree on.

Common Ground

Dramatica Theory best practice may be appreciated as yet another emphasis on structure that accesses fundamentals, that asserts structure matters and is a part of a well-crafted narrative. The structure itself hasn't changed since the first story ever told, only the names and principles and theories and values and beliefs have been variably enumerated over time, and are adaptive and adoptive to an era's culture and technology, and even, yes, language sciences and arts.

And I agree with this as well, though I would say that Dramatica's new terminology and most importantly, its concept of the Four Throughlines, elevates it beyond anything that has come before.

Including Aristotle.

Only Good for Screenplays

Other writers chimed in:

a quick look at the Dramatica website, and the focus seems to be screenplays.

True, but that's only because of the time required to analyze a film compared to the time necessary to accurately analyze a novel. We focus on film because that is where our passion lies. That does not discount the theory's ability to better understand narrative in alternate forms.

Story is story regardless of medium and you can find coherent complete storyforms in plays as well as novels. The aforementioned To Kill a Mockingbird joins Lord of the Flies, Sula, Washington Square and Pride and Prejudice round out Dramatica's collection of novel analyses. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello and Ibsen's A Doll's House offer a collection of play analyses.

One clarification which should make this easier to understand: a work can have more than one Storyform. Like the Sports Storyform and Romance Storyform found in Jerry Maguire, The Lord of the Rings contains many many different storyforms: Frodo and Samwise, Frodo and Gollum, Aragorn and Arwen and so on. Anytime you find two characters with competing points of view that grow over time and challenge each other, you will find a new Storyform. Most films only have time to explore one Storyform, the novel affords a great many more. Though you'll note that the truly great novels only focus on one (Mockingbird and All The Light We Cannot See working as two wonderful examples).

More than Spin

Well, I clicked on the link, started reading the blurb about how much of a paradigm shift Dramatica is and promptly closed the page. To me it appears as a classic case of what the boffins and spin-meisters call re-branding. Lets use all the same literary constructs but update them so they're hip and sound flash, right Dude? Id rather study Aristotle, Freytag, and Egri, just to name a couple.

While Egri identified the two principal characters within story he failed to recognize the most important aspect of them: that one changes their resolve while the other remains steadfast. The resolve of both principal characters is essential towards providing the meaning of the story to the Audience.

Dramatica is more than rebranding, more than name deviation. It is a comprehensive understanding of story without caveat and without exception. Its foundation of the Four Throughlines found in every complete story and its assertion that not every Protagonist is a Main Character clearly delineates it from everything that came before. Take the time to truly understand what it is saying before you discount it; you might find something worthy of applying to your own work.

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September 22, 2015

Paul Jarvis shares his views on landing that big break--something every aspiring screenwriter dreams of:

That’s how creative life works. No secret tricks you just don’t know yet. No hacks that save you so much time that clocks run in reverse in your presence. It sounds about as sexy as golf pants because it’s just lots of work.

Many think Dramatica is a cheat, a way to quickly hack together a formula-driven Hollywood screenplay. Dramatica may help you figure out what to write, but you still actually have to sit down and write the whole thing.

Your Big Break

We just need to do the work that’s in us to do. We just need to keep making what we’re making. To not wait for someone else to tell us it’s ok, or good enough, or launchable, or valid. Yes, it could fail or only be a moderate success, but that’s outside of our control any way.

Sound advice for anyone working in a creative field, particularly writing. No use waiting around for that validation you have no control over.

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September 21, 2015

Been far too long since I've worked on 2015-02--at least a week. Work responsibilities and preparation for last weekend's Dramatica Guided Tour Workshop drained me of all my writing time and energy.

As I recall I was finishing up the Main Character's Third Signpost and was about to wrap it all up with the Fourth. Looking forward to switching gears and doing a pass on the Influence Character Throughline next, if only I can muster up the proper motivation ...

... So difficult getting yourself back in that mindset after being away from it for so long.

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