Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, on the elusive search for perfect story structure:
No one reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a perfect structure. They come to stories to ignite their passions. BUT – if that passionate storytelling is TOO flawed, the readers or audience pop right out of the experience and the passion is lost!
On the other hand, if you try to achieve a perfect story structure, you are going to undercut some of the subject matter and storytelling expressions that give your story life. Then, you compromise the intensity of the experience and, though your story is on solid ground, it just lays there and nobody cares.
As a giant fan of Dramatica and well-structured meaningful stories, I can personally attest to being too caught up in making things fit Dramatica--instead of using the theory's concepts to help refine the story's edges. Most of the time I see what needs to be there, instead of seeing what is there.
If 2017 is about anything, it should be about finding a greater balance between structure and heart, meaning and art.
The solution is to know what the perfect structure would be for your particular story, but to use it only as a guide to tweak your story wherever you can to make the structure stronger without ever making a change that will drain passion from your story.
Films with a rating of five for both Structure and Entertainment should be considered must-sees for the consumate story lover. Those with a rating of one or zero in both should be forgotten and ignored as soon as possible.
High markings in Entertainment but low in Structure often signify an enjoyable fun ride with little intelligence behind it. High markings in Structure but low in Entertainment simply don't exist—a great Structured story is a great film.
The Amazingly Fantastic Films of 2016
Out of the 31 films we analyzed over the past year, these seven stand out as the absolute best:
No surprise that animation features twice in this roundup; with a process that involves years and years of collaboration and pushing writers and story teams to deliver the very best in narrative both Inside Out and Zootopia grab top honors in both Structure and Entertainment.
Our second category features those films that score high in Entertainment but a big goose egg in terms of Structure. Melanie is right—people don't go to to movies to witness "perfect" structure. However, if a film lacks basic narrative cohesion it quickly becomes forgettable and akin to an amusement park ride.
The Revenant will keep you scared of bears forever. The Big Short will make you hate banks forever. And Trolls will keep you dancing and smiling long after you have completely forgotten what the story was about.
The outlier here is Hell or High Water. Many found the film complete and effective. We personally felt dissonance between the Main and Influence Character's Resolves. You might want to check this film out and let us know what you think.
Avoid At All Costs
Interestingly enough the "Avoid At All Costs" category, which signifies a zero or one rating in both Structure and Entertainment, stands completely empty. As this was our first year devoting 100% of our time to Narrative First, you can well understand the decision to choose critically acclaimed or most-likely critically acclaimed films to analyze.
Watching a 0/0 can be a painful experience. Visit our Analysis Showcase for a listing of films to avoid at all costs since 2006.
In the following year we plan on analyzing even more films and perhaps adding a season or two of some popular television series (Westworld for sure!). In addition we will report on those films analyzed at the monthly Dramatica Users Group meetings. If you have any suggestions or recommendations, please don't hesitate to drop us a line.
Every year at Narrative First we write weekly in-depth articles covering narrative structure & analysis. Starting in March and continuing through November, these articles seek to better understand why some stories work better than others. For context we use the complex yet deeply insightful Dramatica theory of story as our baseline.
Dramatica sees every complete story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Character, plot, theme, and genre act as stand ins for the motivations, the methodologies, the evaluations, and purposes of this singular story mind. The closer the narrative mimics the psychological processes of the mind the better and stronger the story.
Looking back over 2016, we found ten articles that stood out as being the most informative and insightful. For a complete listing of articles dating back to 2006, please visit the Narrative First Archives.
Undoubtedly the most important article of the year. Every other paradigm of story--from the Hero's Journey to Save the Cat! To the Sequence Method--looks at story from the Audience's point-of-view. Dramatica stands in sharp contrast to these approaches by looking at story from the Author's point-of-view.
The distinction is important--you don't craft a great meal by analyzing how it tastes. You craft a great meal by understanding the ingredients available to you and appreciating how they interact with each other.
Functioning simultaneously as a great primer on Dramatica, this article shows how some Authors find themselves drawn to the same thematic structures found in the mind. If you catch yourself attracted to certain stories, chances are there is some aspect of problem-solving you personally want to work out.
What began as a simple blog post covering the smallest unit of dramatic structure evolved into our most ambitious article of the year. Refining a series of blog posts on Scene Structure, this article built upon ideas and concepts alluded to by Melanie Anne Phillips in many of her own posts on the Storymind concept.
Most of Dramatica deals with the broadest strokes of narrative: namely, Acts and Sequences. The creators of the theory purposefully avoided smaller units of dramatic structure in an effort to avoid creating a "story-by-numbers" situation. As this article seeks to show, a greater understanding of the minutiae of storytelling leads to an increase in creative possibilities, not a reduction.
As powerful as Dramatica is, it can quickly turn into a colossal time sink. Dramatica's complex concepts grant writers the perfect excuse not to write. If you're given to bouts of writer's block, Dramatica offers the Hoover Dam.
Certain aspects of the theory remain hidden. Dramatica's "secret sauce"--the algorithms that determine Act order--remain locked away deep within the program. Many find themselves drawn to the prospect of revealing this secret--typically the same kind of person given to bouts of writer's block.
It is only once the writer lets go of the skepticism driving this treasure hunt that they finally begin to see the monumental gains possible with Dramatica.
Our most controversial article of this year provides verifiable proof that the way you structure your story determines the gender makeup of your Audience. Often derided as sexist or misogynistic, Dramatica's concept of the Main Character's Problem-Solving Style explains why men feel drawn to certain stories and women to others. Read with an open mind and understand: there isn't an ounce of sexism or gender politics in Dramatica--only a fascinating insight into the different operating systems found between us.
Dramatica isn't just for fiction. Based as it is on the mind's problem-solving process, it only makes sense that the theory can be applied to narratives in the real world as well. Once you understand the fractal nature of story and how we self-group into character types in our families, communities, cities, states, and nations you begin to see how Dramatica can help us solve the problems we face in our everyday lives.
The Dramatica theory of story is a powerful insight into the proper structuring of effective narratives. Whether through fiction or in the real world, an appreciation of the mind's problem-solving process can help us better understand the kind of solutions needed to achieve our greatest goals.
We appreciate you taking the time to read more about what we offer, and we look forward to expanding our potential to help you in the New Year.
The Storyform is what the author knows, not what the characters in the story know. So if they are trying to avoid intimacy, but you as an author are telling a story about finding intimacy, your goal is probably along those lines.
The storyform represents what the Author is trying to communicate to the Audience.
Dramatica sets itself apart from all other paradigms of story by taking an objective look at a narrative. Hero's Journey, Save the Cat!, the Sequence Method, Bob's Twenty Five Ways to Write a Novel--these are all subjective Audience-based interpretations of the dynamics found within a narrative.
The problem with subjective interpretations of story is that they are, by definition, subjective--and open to all sorts of inaccuracies and biases. An objective view of narrative avoids opinion and preconception by telling it like it is--it might be harder to swallow and understand, but it is always accurate.
Researching the Dramatica theory of story and its reception as of late led me to an old post from last year entitled Dramatica and What it Means for Story. In it, I quote a science fiction forum with strange ideas about copyright law and accepted methods of participation.
The theory is overly complex, its terminology baroque, its rigidity of form a flaw and not a feature, and overblown claims notwithstanding it does NOT offer a complete theoretical approach to solving development of all storyform. Not even close.
One of the indicators that this MUST be so can be found at Jim Hull's web site. He sells his skills as a Dramataica expert, particularly in screenplay form. I expect he's actually good at that. But if one digs into his published film analyses, there are several 'scratch your head' moments in the division between his "Story Score" and "Entertainment Score".
I am, actually, really good at it. I'm also really good at helping build television series, novels, and plays. Story is story regardless of medium, but I realize some feel screenplays are more "structured" than other forms of storytelling.
However, the attempt to misguide people with lies about how I present my analyses is inexcusable. I don't divide up my critiques into a "Story Score" and "Entertainment Score". How the Hell woud anyone give a rating in regards to story? People have a hard enough time differentiating between a story and a tale, why would I rate on a differential in semantics?
Instead, the analyses on Narrative First offer two ratings: Entertainment and Structure. I do this because I recognize that there are some films that offer amazing experiences, yet don't come close to providing a meaningful narrative to go along with it. I love Terence Malick's The Tree of Life and I really enjoyed the recent animated film Trolls—but both are functionally broken in terms of narrative.
As it turns out—and this should be no surprise to anyone who has spent any time actually investigating Dramatica—the closer a film approaches an accurate storyform, the better and more critically acclaimed the film. Check out our showcase of Narrative First analyses:
her. Whiplash. Zootopia. These are all films universally lauded for their artistry and great storytelling. They also happen to all score 5/5 for Structure and a 4/5 or 5/5 for Entertainment here on Narrative First. A complete storyform, or high Structure rating, guarantees critical acclaim and universal praise. The converse is not true: a high Entertainment rating guarantees nothing except popularity—a quality that is both temporary and fleeting.
The writer on the forum refers to our analysis of Guardians of the Galaxy, taking umbrage at our "story" score of 1/5 (again, this is a rating of its narrative structure) yet failing to mention our 5/5 rating for Entertainment. Guardians is a really fun movie—hilarious, well-acted, and exciting. Unfortunately the lack of a proper story structure makes it something that is easily forgotten. Who here remembers what happened in Guardians of the Galaxy? I recall some gem and funny moments with the big muscle-bound guy. Now who here remembers what happend in To Kill a Mockingbird or Whiplash?
It's not 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it's not a terrible movie either. In fact, audiences loved it. And the fact that Jim Hull rated it so poorly in Story terms should say something about Dramatica Theory. Because if the theory can't predict which stories will emotionally impact audiences, it's not a useful theory for crafting story. By definition. Right?
Structure and Entertainment. Please think about and understand the difference. I believe and recognize that Guardians entertained audiences…I'm not quite sure it emotionally impacted them on the level of her or Zootopia or Inside Out.
The Dangers of Multiple Personality Disorder in Story
The writer moves on with more disinformation and misunderstanding:
So what attracted me to spend the time digging through Dramatica theory? At its core is one insight that authors should consider seriously. That story characters and events symbolically represents divergent and competing psychological states within the author. Much like multiple personality disorder. That the process of reading evokes the same in the audience. And from this insight one can learn something useful about successful craftsmanship.
Ugh. Not even close. Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre represent different aspects of a singular mind trying to solve a problem. One mind, one personality.1 Multiple personalities suggests multiple storyforms and is a huge problem when collaborating with several different Authors with several different ideas of what a story should be about. A Dramatica storyform keeps everyone on track with the purpose and original intent of a narrative.
In fact, Dramatica sees Genre as the personality of the mind. ↩︎
In response to a question I posed regarding Holistic Problem-Solving assassins, I received a link to a story on Reddit entitled Operation Duplex Destruction. In this story, the poster relates a compelling--if not twisted--account of using manipulation to bring his neighbor and landlady down:
I do my research and learn about my state's childcare laws. I learn that there is a limit to how many children an unlicensed facility can care for, which is also based on how many caregivers there are. I also learn that there are certain requirements, such as state workers inspecting the facilities and doing background checks on the caregivers...After that I do some research on housing equality laws in my state. Turns out it's illegal for anyone, even a private owner, to discriminate against potential tenants on things like race, sex, religion etc.
He then calls CPS on his neighbor and the NAACP on his landlady. Certainly not a Holistic approach to "taking someone out", but most definitely in the Domain of Manipulation and a Concern of either Developing a Plan or Conceiving an Idea.
You really can't hear enough about how different the Dramatica story of theory is compared to other story paradigms. Theory co-creator Chris Huntley gives an interesting explanation regarding the Table of Story Elements and its relation to "story structure":
The structural chart is one of the unique aspects of Dramatica as a theory and practical tool for story development because it represents the natures of the conflicts/resolutions explored. However, it is not part of what most paradigms consider "story structure".
A brief reminder as to what the Dramatica Table of Story Elements looks like:
The chart above helps Authors determine and set the nature of conflict within their story. Four different Domains, four different Throughlines, four different ways of looking at conflict.
The Dramatica equivalent to what other paradigms see as story structure are the story points, e.g. story goal, main character problem, etc. You will not find those on the Dramatica structural chart because they are not part of it. They are LINKED to the chart and the story dynamics deform the chart (from its default state) to represent the dramatic potentials created by making storyforming choices.
Structure is tied to the nature of the conflict within a story, but it is not conflict itself.
So studying the chart alone is insufficient to understanding how Dramatica (or narrative) works. One needs the chart, the story points, and the interaction between them to understand how a narrative really works.
I also took the liberty of doing some fun editing back and forth at the end between Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley and his monitor. Hopefully that makes the presentation clearer and more beneficial towards your understanding of Dramatica.
In narrative structure, there are two forces that converge to create a sense of rising tension that culminates at the climax: the quest to achieve a goal and the increasing pressure to change a deeply held conviction. Each of these forces informs the other so that, ultimately, the choice to change one’s nature or remain steadfast in one’s views and potential success in achieving the goal depend upon one another. In some stories, success depends upon the personal choice. In other stories, one’s nature is determined by success or failure. But in all cases, the interrelationship between the outcome of the plot and the culmination of the main character’s growth, builds the potential that drives the story forward to its conclusion.
Defining it as the nexus between the Main Character Throughline and Overall Story Throughline, Melanie defines two key story points:
Main Character Resolve: the increasing pressure to change a deeply held conviction
Story Goal: the quest to achieve a goal
This is not an If..Then statement beginning with the Main Character's Resolve and ending with the Overall Story Goal. A story doesn't always end in Success as a result of the Main Character's Resolve, but it very often does (Luke in Star Wars, Neo in The Matrix). Sometimes the nature of the Resolve is determined by the story's Success or Failure (Hamlet in Hamlet or Elliot in E.T.). The latter category of Main Characters often find themselves Changed by a story's events, rather than Changing to effect a story's events.
The structural model you see can be the mind of one person or the collective mind of a group. It is the same structure, interpreted in two different ways.
When we look at the four levels of the structure as if it were a single mind, we see (from the bottom up) motivations, evaluations, methods, and purposes. When we look at the same four levels as a group mind we see Characters, Theme, Plot and Genre.1
Fascinating insight, and one I hadn't considered before. By making the connection between a single mind and a group mind within the model, Melanie proves that archetypes are not born of our "collective unconscious."
...that is where archetypes really come from – not the collective unconscious per se, nor from myth nor dreams, but simply from the attributes that are common to us all.
In short, the group becomes a model of the individual mind, since that is exactly what we do as individuals, but now each of our attributes has become an archetypal role in a group narrative.
Character Archetypes simply function as group attributes of ourselves.
Note that I actually corrected her original post to show the difference between the two contexts of singular and group mind. ↩︎