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Thoughts on Story Structure

September 30, 2016

From time to time, bloggers give up and quit. Sadly, it seems as if the "Screenwriting Screenwriter", an occasional Dramatica blogger--and one I linked to in the past with my article Dramatica: Mad Libs or Madly Accurate--is now defunct.

I hate seeing stuff like this disappear off the grid.

So now it won't:

From May 15, 2011, at 12:33pm: Another Dramatica post because, frankly, I like it. It has transformed the way I write. It also drives me nuts, but for all the right reasons.

Case in point: I've been working on a story for, like, a year now. I'm convinced it's good. I can see the movie in my head. For whatever reason, though, I just can't write it.

So I lean on Dramatica to help me. I run it through the software's alchemical algorithms over and over. I ask the guys on the Convore discussion group for help, and they are patient with my ignorance. And then I run it through again and again. And it never works. I can get one throughline right, but the others never fit.

This is what's maddening about Dramatica sometimes. You get your main storyline worked out exactly the way you want, and Dramatica tells you "okay, so your main character's problem should have something to do with Perception vs. Actuality". And you thought your main character's problem was about flesh eating bacteria, so you want to kick Dramatica hard in the stupid face it doesn't have.

But here's the thing... somehow, magically, insanely... Dramatica is never wrong. I'm wrong. It just occurred to me this morning... the movie I've been seeing in my head has no middle. It's a bunch of characters discovering something, doing something vague for about an hour, and then wrapping things up. The Underpants Gnomes of stories.

It occurred to me that I don't even really have a clear sense of the what the story's central problem is. I was getting ready to throw Dramatica aside and start writing this thing, and I don't even know what the story's about. It would have been a horrendous waste of effort.

And that is the reason why my Dramatica experiments were not working. If I'm getting the very first question wrong--the Story Problem--how can I possibly expect it to help me with the answers that follow? I need to really stop and think about these answers, not just throw something in that sort of feels like it fits.

I'm sure a lot of people try out Dramatica briefly, get frustrated just as I have, and then discard it forever. I can almost guarantee you, it wasn't Dramatica's fault. It is not madlibs; it demands a lot of a writer to use it properly. And if it's not giving you the answers you want, you really need to stop and examine why that is. It will be worth it.

I'll stop with these posts. Jim Hull is much better at them than I am.

That's right.

The part about Dramatica that is. Dramatica is never wrong. I can guarantee too that it is never Dramatica's fault.

Welcome back, Screenwriting Screenwriter!

September 30, 2016

Going through and cleaning up many of the broken links throughout the site, I ran across this oldy, but goody from 2007: Ratatouille: Why The Film Seems Too Long. I cleaned it up and placed it in the Vault along with some of the other articles I wrote when I first started out.

Please forgive some of the grammar. I would love to go through and rewrite them, but the history of it all is keeping me from following through.

In addition, I found some comments (when this site used to have comments) that I thought would be interesting to share:

On July 10, 2007 at 9:57am Graham asked:

Could you consider the 2 year timelock regarding ownership of the restaurant to be part of a sub-plot, and not the limit of the main story? I didn’t feel any lull or sense of completion before the end of the film. Also, the opening scenes feel like they are more about limited options than limited time (there are only so many ways a rat can try to get food). I don’t remember how early in the film Skinner reveals the will’s 2 year requirement, so maybe it’s sooner than I think. But I think the main story is Remy becoming a chef (or being generally accepted as one), and that story does culminate with the critic’s review. I’d love to hear what you think, and thanks for a great site.

To which I replied (at 10:12am):

Remy’s wanting to become a chef is more of what Dramatica refers to as the Main Character Throughline. Remy’s longing to become something the world will not let him is felt most personally by us, the audience. It’s the “I” perspective on a story’s problems that Dramatica calls the Main Character Throughline.

The Objective Story (Dramatica’s fancy yet more accurate name for main story) is the one that all the Objective Characters are concerned with - the “They” perspective. From this vantage points the Objective Characters can be seen as chess pieces working together and against each other in concert with a common goal. Here it is best to think of characters in terms of their role: the rat, the garbage boy, the head chef, the assistant chefs, the food critic, the patrons, the waiters, etc. The reason being that now you are looking at the characters instead of from within them - an objective view.

From this perspective, the first storyline presented to us is that of the transfer of ownership of the restaurant. The problems in this Objective Story are resolved once Linguini is revealed as the heir to the restaurant. The second storyline begins and this one is resolved once the food critic gives the meal his seal of approval.

Again, the lull that I referred to was short lived, but I felt it was enough that it took me out of the picture and made me question where the film was headed.

Andrew Dickson then asked on Jul 11 at 11:22am:

This is an excellent analysis of a movie I really enjoyed. I saw it over the weekend and thought it was easily on par with the Invincibles[sic] and in many ways emotionally richer.

I do however agree with Graham that the two-year timelock is not actually essential to the overall story. For me the overall story goal was to restore the reputation of the restaurant and return it to its five star glory. This was damaged first by Ego who Manipulates public opinion in his review and later by Skinner in his mismanagement of the Gasteau legacy (including frozen foods). The fact that Linguini is Gasteau’s son plays into the Manipulations but is really a complication along the road.

The MC story was about Remy and his gift (Situation), and the pressures to choose between the human world (of cooking) and the rat world (of his father and brother).

The IC character is Linguini, because he’s the person through whom the human world expresses its Fixed Attitudes about cooking and rats. And he’s the one who most worried about what others think about him. But the more he tries to reinforce those attitudes through the manipulations in the OS, the worse things get until the whole edifice comes crumbling down. His confession, and the departure of the cooking staff is the key moment. The dynamic of fixed attitudes is reinforced by the character of Linguini’s girlfriend who struggles to overcome fixed attitudes as the only woman in the kitchen.

The MC/IC relationship is all about Activities in the kitchen. Remy is able to cook by physically manipulating Linguini. Up until then the relationship between rats and humans is defined by chases and violence. The uniqueness of their relationship bonds them together for most of the movie, but when Remy helps Linguini with a kiss, it’s clear that they can’t go on like that forever.

So, for me its a failure/good story. They don’t save Gusteau’s restaurant, but Remy in his own way brings harmony to the world of rats and humans, and fulfills Gusteau’s philosophy that anyone can cook. The ending is set-up by that astonishing scene where Ego bites into the “peasant dish” and his transported. After that, the world never looks the same again.

To which I responded (at 12:28pm):

Interesting. I didn’t see it that way. I do like the OS Goal of “Restoring the Reputation of Gusteau’s” though and the notion of Failure/Good. But was Gusteau’s reputation in the tank from the beginning?

Ahh, yes, it was. Ego wrote the review it dropped to 4 stars, Gusteau fell into depression and died; it dropped to three. I don’t know how I forgot about that.

Something about that moment where Linguini takes over though still doesn’t sit right with me. Now I’m not so sure why. Where do you see the Limit then?

And then after awhile I decided (at 7:12am the next day):

I’ve had some more time to think about this.

I still think there are two separate stories at work here. The first is as Andrew described above: Remy as the Main Character, Linguini as the Impact Character, and their Relationship (or Subjective Story) revolving around their problematic Activities in the kitchen.

The second, and the first one we are introduced to, has Remy as the Main Character and his father Django as the Impact Character. Their Relationship is of the classic father/son type where father knows best, yet the son yearns for more. Whether or not their relationship is a conflict of Fixed Attitudes or one of mutual Manipulation would require further investigation. The important point is that their relationship is definitely not one of conflicting Activities; this relationship and the one with Linguini are significantly different.

Therefore, because the two Subjective Stories reside in different Domains their opposing Objective Stories must also reside in separate domains. In other words - two different stories. While I think the “Restoring the Reputation of Gusteau’s” works nicely with the second story, I’m not really quite sure what the first one would be. It still feels to me like it ends when Linguini acquires the restaurant.

Another interesting observation I had, and perhaps another reason why I felt dramatica tension was resolved at that point: If Remy and Linguini’s relationship is one of Activities, their Plot Progression would consist of Understanding, Doing, Learning and Obtaining. It seems to me that these are all covered by the time Linguini is revealed as the natural heir:

Understanding - Linguini discovers Remy getting “fancy with the spices.” They come to a mutual understanding by the side of the river.

Learning - All the wonderfully entertaining moments as they try to coordinate their cooking skills.

Doing - “Let’s do this thing!” Working their magic in the kitchen.

Obtaining - They acheive success - everyone wants their soup. Remy helps Linguini keep his job and then some, when he steals the will.

A full dramatic loop has been progressed through and their relationship really has nowhere else to go - under this context. This could also contribute to my feeling that something “ended” at or around that moment that the will was made public.

Andrew replied (at 12:24pm that day):

Those are good points and now you’ve got me thinking. I also appreciate the way you fleshed out my version of the relationship storyline with some details I’d forgotten. From that perspective the entire MC/IC throughline seems to be nested in the middle of story - basically the second act (in the old three-act structure) which seems weird. It’s also interesting, because once they achieve that success, the whole thing unravels: they stop doing, they stop learning, and eventually they lose their initial understanding.

On the other hand, since the consequence of failing to meet a goal is always associated with the MC/IC throughline, perhaps having the throughline resolve itself early really just hastens us on to the third act.

I also agree with you that there is still room for a second story. And I’m still not convinced that I’m understanding the Linguini storyline correctly, so maybe there’s three storis? I previously thought of the father/son relationship as part of the MC throughline, but you may be on to something.

One of the things I struggle with in my own stories is understanding how to use secondary characters in the MC, IC, and MC/IC throughlines. I understand how the perspectives work, but how much story can you have in a throughline before it becomes a sub-plot? And what are the limits placed on the MC perspective before you’re really shifted the focus up to the Overall story?

One other thought. I wonder if a completed storyform would reveal that one of the throughlines has an episodic structure (rather than Z or hairpin) which would explain the sense of things stopping and then starting again? (The MC/IC throughline already has a natural break in the middle because it’s a hairpin, I think).

What I’m really getting from this movie is that each of the Dramatica throughlines is so crammed full of character and detail that the throughlines themselves feel like individual stories; storyforms within storyforms.

To answer the question in you’re previous post, I think the story has an option lock related to winning the approval of all the characters in the OS: the restaurant patrons, the critics, the kitchen staff, the rats, and most importantly, the health inspector. Eventually, they run out of options and the restaurant is closed.

And then on Jul 15, 2007 at 8:55pm Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley added:

I saw the movie late last night and really loved it. Here are a couple things that popped out at me.

The story goal seemed to be restoring Gusteau’s reputation with the rat (Remie) acting as complex protagonist. Gusteau’s mantra, “Anyone can cook,” is proven true as illustrated by new restaurant “Le Ratatouille.”

It seemed to me that Remy’s MC throughline was in the Psychology (Manipulation) domain. His main concern is “playing a role:” is he a rat or a cook? Should he walk on all fours or upright? Should he play puppeteer or chef?

Conflict in the OS seems to come from Fixed Attitudes — low brow and high brow. The number of stars is connected to expectations not performance. Ego is biased against the idea of Gusteau. Skinner exploits Gusteau’s image by using it to sell fast food and therefore degrade Gusteau’s image/reputation. The restaurant crowd is snobby contrasted by the super lowbrow attitudes of the rats.

I think there is a “false” limit introduced with the two year anniversary timelock. I say false because the story doesn’t conform to the feel and structure of a timelock. But it is definitely there and chops up the story unnecessarily.

It’s also unfortunate that Skinner is so tightly tied to the timelock. Once it’s up, Skinner is demoted from antagonist to contagonist.

Ego seems to have a substory of his own. We see very little of it except his transformation. It gives a strong emotional moment for the audience but is not imtimately connected to the rest of the story.

Those are just a few of my inital thoughts. All said, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. And IT IS BEAUTIFUL.

Please note that since this article we performed an official Dramatica analysis of Ratatouille that contradicts Chris's original assessment. The Main Character Throughline is in Situation (a Rat who wants to be a chef) and the Overall Story Throughline is in Psychology/Manner of Thinking (Convincing Others that Anyone Can Cook).

On Nov. 8, 2007 at 5:28pm John Ludwick commented:

Hello, Mr. Hull. You have a remarkable way of disseminating story.

I’m considering Ratatouille as a top 5 of all time - it has simmered on its little stovetop and served up on DVD, and I still relish its scenes in the same way Anton Ego relishes the ratatouille dish.

I looked at the entire piece as an Optionlock depicting the journey of an artist. Remy is a rat - the antithesis of the kitchen standard. How will he even be able to get in a kitchen to practice his craft? When he does, he can’t do it in the open - enter Luigi. Luigi doesn’t have control, how will they continue? Briefly exit Skinner. Luigi falls for Collette - how can Remy keep Luigi focused for his own dream? I see Ego not as a different story, but as the last in a series of hurdles to Remy’s dream - the man who brought his mentor down.

That’s my take; thank you for your excellent article. I’ll definitely return to this site!

September 28, 2016

Continuing our exploration into the structure of scenes within Dramatica, consider three different modalities of events within a single scene:

  1. Setup, Revelation, Conflict, & Aftermath
  2. Potential, Resistance, Current, & Outcome
  3. Situation, Activity, Fixed Attitude, Manner of Thinking

The first two have been adequately explained in prior articles, the last has not.

Until now.

Note: The following represents preliminary thought and investigation into constructing a scene with Dramatica. For a complete and detailed explanation please read Writing a Perfectly Structured Scene with Dramatica.

Progression and Dramatic Circuit

Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley explains the difference between the first two:

This was originally identified as Setup, Interaction, and Aftermath, but was expanded to further describe Interaction as Revelation and Conflict to more accurately reflect the Potential, Resistance, Current, and Power or Outcome of a 'dramatic circuit'. The difference is, SRCA (Setup, Revelation, Conflict, Aftermath) is a linear description of a scene, while PRCP or PRCO is a list of components in the scene that do not necessarily have to follow that linearity. For example, you might lead with the Outcome (A large wall with a bunch of unconscious horses laying in a pile around it), then then follow with the Potential (A runaway horse pulling a buggy), then focus on the Resistance (Someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reigns trying to stop the horses), and Current as the horse and buggy rapidly approaches the wall.

SRCA is the temporal progression of events while PRCO represents the spatial progression of the dramatic circuit.

The third modality?

  • Situation: a bunch of unconscious horses laying in a pile
  • Activity: horse and buggy rapidly approaching a wall
  • Fixed Attitude: a runaway horse pulling a buggy
  • Manner of Thinking: someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reins

These four describe the area of conflict inherent within each event. Touching each Domain within different events gives a scene the same feeling of completeness the Four Throughlines do within a complete story.

Identifying Sources of Conflict

A runaway horse pulling a buggy is an example of a Fixed Attitude? And someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reins is an example of a Manner of Thinking? The first two examples make sense, but the last two seem like confirmation bias.

Until you remember that--as will all things Dramatica--the dramatic elements identify the source of trouble.

The source of trouble within the event of a runaway horse pulling a buggy is the Impulsive Responses or Fears of the horse--not the running away. The running away is a result of the problematic fear.

The source of trouble within the event of someone in the buggy madly pulling the reins is the Conceiving or Conceptualizing or even Changing One's Nature--the manipulations existing as driver tries to coerce animal. The pulling on the reins is a byproduct of the problematic manipulation.

While the relationship between the three modalities still exists within a shroud of mystery beneath Dramatica's story engine--a means by which to construct solid scenes around meaningful and purposeful events now exists.

The Fourth Modality

Dramatica theory is quad theory. If you can find three of something, you can usually identify a fourth--it just takes a little time to wrap your head around it.

The context of SRCA to an Author is Time: the Setup happens before the Revelation which happens before the Conflict which happens before the Aftermath. You could replace SRCA with 1-2-3-4 and the meaning would remain the same to the Author. This is simply the order of presentation of the Events.

The context of PRCO to an Author is Space: the spatial relationship between the components of the dramatic circuit. In other words, if you think of the individual parts of an actual circuit board there is a place where the Potential is carried, where the Resistance is found, the Current, and the Power (or Outcome).

The circuit board carries the dramatic logic of the relationship between the Events, but the order in which the Author looks at them--or presents them to an Audience can change.

The context of TKAD to an Author is Mass.

TKAD what?

The Dramatica Quad

In Dramatica, every quad is really another way of looking at Thought, Knowledge, Ability, an Desire (TKAD). Dramatica is a model of the storymind--an internal representation of our external universe:

  • Thought is the Energy of the mind
  • Knowledge is the Mass of the mind
  • Ability is the Space of the mind
  • Desire is the Time of the mind

These four bases find themselves at the Class level within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements:

  • Fixed Attitude classifies problems of Thought/Energy
  • Situation classifies problems of Knowledge/Mass
  • Activity classifies problems of Ability/Space
  • Manners of Thinking classify problems of Desire/Time

When classifying the Events at the Scene level--at the point where the Dramatica model loops back onto itself--Authors look to Fixed Attitudes, Situations, Activities, and Manners of Thinking.

The Fourth Modality

With Time, Space, and Mass accounted for, only a context for Energy remains. This is where Active, Passive, Increasing, and Decreasing Tension exists.

Update on Sep. 29: After sleeping on it, the real answer hit me while I was running this morning: the final and fourth modality is Proactive, Reactive, Passive, and Defensive. Dramatica experts will recognize the lineage of these terms in the Proaction, Reaction, Inaction, and Protection quad under the Issue of Strategy in the Activity Domain.

  • Proactive: horse and buggy rapidly approaching a wall
  • Reactive: a runaway horse pulling a buggy
  • Defensive: someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reins
  • Passive: a bunch of unconscious horses lying in a pile

The Four Scene Appreciations

With the fourth and final modality set, Authors can now develop their scenes by identifying the area of conflict in each event, the order in which they appear, their relationship to each other in terms of the dramatic circuit, and the flow of energy through that particular event.

Returning to the horse and buggy scene from above, an Author might recreate Huntley's example by writing:

Setup: (a Passive Situational Outcome) A large wall with a bunch of unconscious horses laying in a pile around it

Revelation: (a Reactive Fixed Attitude Potential) A runaway horse pulling a buggy

Conflict: (a Defensive Manipulation Resistance) Someone in the buggy madly pulling on the reigns trying to stop the horses

Aftermath: (a Proactive Activity Current) the horse and buggy rapidly approaching the wall.

This is, of course, not the only way a scene plays out in Dramatica. With four modalities and four options in each, 24 permutations exist. Add to that the infinite varieties of ways to split-up a scene across several different logical scenes, and those options multiply exponentially.

This excerpt from the Dramatica theory book on Events Masquerading as Scenes gives a hint as to the possibilities:

Changing locations during a scene obscures this temporal division of twenty-four scenes. For example, imagine an Activity Event (action) taking place in the jungle. Follow that with a Manipulation Event (deliberation) back home in England. The change in location makes one feel that two different scenes have occurred. Yet, if you design the story well, the Fixed Attitude and Situation Throughlines will also be represented just before, during, or just after changing locations.

In the coming days and weeks, we will explore these various combinations in our Dramatica Scene Analysis feature, soon to begin here at Narrative First.

September 27, 2016

Apparently Daniel Williams, the writer previously quote in a post on mapping the story genome, told a similar positive story to Dramatica co-creator Melanie Anne Phillips earlier this year.

Working with Melanie to deliver the Storymind Presents online workshops was one of the highlights of 2016 for me. There really is nothing like being in the same room with her as she discusses our favorite story theory:

After all these years I sense a real ground-swell in interest and activity among those who have found some useful truth in Dramatica. There’s a real sense that something is building - not a movement or a cause or anything like that (at least not yet), but a growing shared understanding of a relatively new way of looking not only at stories but at our world, at others, and at ourselves as well.

September 27, 2016

From writer Daniel Williams:

I’m just getting back into Dramatica and using it to help with my Novelettes. I'm using a shorter story form to get used to Dramatica and trying to understand it. All I can say is that the first thing I produced using it has been a winner with my circle of readers and is far and away the best thing I’ve written from a structural and meaning standpoint.

Fantastic news. Daniel's experience matches that of many "getting back into Dramatica" after some time away. For some reason, that time away is important in the development of the Author's storymind.

I felt it was co-written with the software, and I’m amazed how accurately it assess the meaning of my story after I’ve only put in a few core details. It reminds me of Watson and Crick finding the DNA double helix. The science and art of story, underpinned by human experience and the laws of story.

Dramatica, in fact, does describe the DNA double helix of story. If you can visualize the structural model as one helix, then the dynamic model should easily slide into that view of the other helix.

Can't wait to start building visual representations of these as-of-yet esoteris and underdeveloped concepts.

September 27, 2016

Developing more material to look at how to structure Scenes within Dramatica, I stumbled across commentary from a former workshop student of mine:

The best thing I've personally heard on the topic of how much of Dramatica to try and pin down was from Jim Hull when I attended his workshop last spring. He said (paraphrasing) some people need to know everything, they want the theory down to a "T" and want to know all the interactions of each and every facet of a Storyform but those ones tend to not have as much material written when it comes the amount of stories completed albeit having absolutely pristine Grand Argument Stories of course! But they mainly become teachers of the craft, Jim included himself in that category. Stories are still generated but you can go 10+ years and still be learning the theory.

This is very true. I discovered Dramatica 22 years ago and my personal portfolio today consists of three screenplays and one treatment. Contrast this with the 500+ articles, blog postings, podcasts, and analyses covering Dramatica and narrative structure and you can see where in-depth theory diving leads you.

Now, I much prefer working with different writers and producers and directors on a variety of different films, novels, and plays in contrasting genres and formats…but not everyone wants to start their own narrative science consulting firm.

Most just want to write.

He also mentioned that some people can learn just enough about Dramatica (relative), to incite inspiration and they'll take off and have pages upon pages of material, completing story after story, ultimately becoming a "writer" in the classical sense of the word (blemishes and all). Yes some of the fine details of Dramatica are left behind but these individuals don't really care either, obviously risking accuracy, coherency and filled out arguments.

Melanie Anne Phillips, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, recently became a champion of this attitude. "No one goes to a story for perfect structure" is her latest idea—one painful for someone like me with the amount of truth it contains. As she puts it:

The main point is that that no one reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a perfect structure but rather to have their passions ignited. So if it comes to a choice between an exciting thing and a structural thing, go with the excitement whenever you can, but be sure never to break structure completely or your readers or audience will not be able to cross that gap and will cease to follow you on your journey.

I struggle with this daily in my own writing, and in working with writers and producers alike. They love the idea that Dramatica can help them to get to that perfect structure—but some spend so much time getting everything perfect, that they forget why they started writing in the first place.

They forget their passion.

The choice comes down to the individual. I appreciated this choice. Not only did it unburden me from worrying that there was only one option, one way to complete this journey but it helped me position myself down the path I saw for me personally. A way to navigate both ends of the spectrum and land on coordinates that feel best for me.

Regardless of one's familiarity with Dramatica the balance between perfection and reality is one every Artist must contend.

September 26, 2016

Started reading Brain Pickings over the weekend based on its popularity and the enthusiasm of its author, Maria Popova. Though it's too early to say for sure, the blog feels more like a Tumblr quote blog than anything else. Not sure about the format of putting a blockquote within a blockquote, but here it goes with a piece on storytelling and poet Jane Hischfield from July of this year:

But the aspect of concentration perhaps most widely relevant beyond poetry is that of narrative — our supreme hedge against the entropy of existence. Hirshfield writes: Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require — it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.

Real life is meaningless, until you put it into the context of a story. The Dramatica storyform organizes and holds the message of the meaning. Using it as a guide aids the Author in combatting life's "arbitrariness" by delivering a message of "deepened coherence."

If Popova's purpose would is to find the meaning behind the connections, then an elevated understanding of Dramatica and its unique take on the elements of story may prove to be the very last puzzle piece.

And finally, a quote for all lovers of great narrative:

Story remains a basic human path toward the discovery and ordering of meaning and beauty.

September 25, 2016

Continuing our deep dive into Scene Creation with Dramatica, we take a look at How Scenes Relate to Dramatica's Story Elements:

One more bit of information, the "spiral" nature of the structure (recently described with insight by Armando) is such that the Type (Plot) level of the structure determines the dramatic circuits of ACTS, the Variation (Theme) level determines the dramatic circuits of SEQUENCES, the Element (Character) level determines the dramatic circuits from one SCENE to the next, and the spiral effect takes us back to the top Class (Genre) level which determines the dramatic circuits of the EVENTS within each Scene.

I've heard Melanie, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story, describe this spiral effect before--where the bottom of the model loops back onto itself. Not sure exactly why that happens, or how one visualizes that, but it is interesting that each scene carries a Situation, Attitude, Activity, and Mentality.

So, each Event in a Scene will have a 1,2,3,4 for sequential order, a P,R,C,O, for context, and be a Situation (Universe), Attitude (Mind), Activity (Physics), and Mentality (Psychology). In other words, the four required Events for every complete dramatic movement at the Scene level will be something Situational, Attitude illustrative, Active, and exhibiting Mentality.

I'll try and cover a few examples this week to illustrate this concept. Again, it's strange to me to go into this much detail when it comes to writing. And Melanie herself explains in the article her fears over it leading to "writing by the numbers".

However, if a greater understanding of the elements of scene structure leads to greater storytelling--why not look into it? Isn't that what Dramatica is all about?

September 24, 2016

Researching potential ways to develop scenes with Dramatica, I came across an interesting insight that I wanted to share.

In Armando Saldańa Mora's book Dramatica for Screenwriters, he explains a process by which one can use Dramatica's Plot Sequence Report to develop sequences and eventually scenes for a particular narrative.

Typically, I do this by flying by the seat of my pants. After spending so much time diving into the various structural story points within each Throughline and laying out the larger dramatic movements found in the Signposts, I feel like I want my imagination and personal creativity to take over.

Basically, I want to have fun writing.

But I can see how this might be difficult for some, especially when you consider the fact that Dramatica is so specific when it comes to the ingredients of story. Why would Chris and Melanie leave out specific information regarding sequence & scene development?

An Explanation for an Oversight

The short answer is that, at that level, the interference pattern between the various Throughlines is such that if you mess up the order of the micro-events in a Scene or misplace one Scene in another Sequence, the overall message of the story—or storyform—remains the same.

This is how Finding Nemo and Collateral operate from the same storyform, yet tell that story in vastly different ways. Same with Star Wars and Birdman. Though the latter ventures on breaking form with its use of magical realism, the base storyform functions with the same collection of storypoints as Lucas' space opera.

They wanted to leave Scene Creation and Sequence Building up to the Muse of the Author. But what about those who want, or need, more detail in order to tell stories dear to their heart?

A Quad of Scene Construction

In Armando's book he speaks of True Events and False Events when it comes to scene creation. A True Event—one made of "one-hundred percent pure Dramatic change"—consists of four base elements:

  1. It's irreversible.
  2. It changes the characters' circumstances.
  3. It gives the characters new and more important purposes.
  4. It's meaningful to the characters (and, therefore, to the Audience)

Reading this again recently, it struck me what quad these four elements came from:

The Conceptualizing Quad in Psychology

Irreversible? That's Situation under Developing a Plan.1 Changing the Character's Circumstances Well that's clearly Circumstances. New and Important Purposes? Probably gives someone a new Sense of Self. And finally, Meaningful to the Characters…that gets to the essence of the characters, or their State of Being.

And when you consider Sequence-based writing methods like The Mini-Movie Method that ask Authors to imagine What is the protagonist's plan? or How does he plan on getting what he wants? or What new plan does he or she come up with?, it only makes sense that the issues sprung by inquiries of this nature would be Situation, Circumstances, Sense of Self, and State of Being.

Extrapolating the Concept

Directly across from Developing a Plan we have Conceiving an Idea—which consists of the ever popular Needs and Wants of a character (Need and Deficiency respectively).

The Psychology or Manipulation Domain in Dramatica

Advocates of the Needs and Wants Committee for Writing a Story often leave out the other two—Can's (or Cannot) and Should's (or Should Not), but they're equally as important when seeking out the drive or intent of a character within a scene.

Thought, Knowledge, Ability, and Desire probably speak of the storyform itself, or the motivation of narrative driven by the storyform.

And Responsibility, Commitment, Rationalization, and Obligation call to mind the development and transformation of character from scene to scene.

More on this as it develops.

  1. Or Conceptualizing if you prefer the original terminology from '94 (I do). ↩︎

September 23, 2016

Want to know how to save hundreds of hours, possibly years, in terms of development time for your television series?

This morning I looked over a client's plan for her four-season television series. The brief loglines were clear and full of dramatic potential:

  • Season One: In the Dark Ages, a discovery of the lost art of swordsmanship leads four teenagers on a journey of self-discovery and what is required to be a true knight
  • Season Two: Successfully acquiring the skills, they fight in justice and apprehend evil, securing a place for themselves at the Table. But at the cost of shutting themselves from one another.
  • Season Three: Alone and spread out, they each begin to discover a New Way—a way that would unite all within the next generation. Only the Elders stand in their way and silence them.
  • Season Four: They retreat and work to create a small circle of compatriots and like-minded folk. Day by day they do their best to inspire others to walk into the Light.

I changed the genre/subject matter to protect the innocent, but maintained the narrative movements of each individual season.

Can you pick out the Act order? She wrote this without the aid of Dramatica, but the Signposts are clear as day:

  • Season One: Gathering Information about the Lost Art
  • Season Two: Apprehending Evil and Securing a Seat
  • Season Three: Understanding a Different Way
  • Season Four: Retreating and Working

Learning. Obtaining. Understanding. Doing.

Pretty incredible, right? That someone would naturally, instinctively, craft four seasons that hit the four Types found under the Activity Domain in the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. It's almost as if there is this concept of the Storymind that each and every one instinctively gravitates towards.

Unfortunately, that Act order is not permissible in the current version of Dramatica. The application won't let you choose that order It could be that this plot progression would work under a D-based or T-based system, but the model we have now is K-based—or Knowledge based.1 And you can't progress through a narrative by starting with Learning and ending with Doing.

It simply doesn't make sense.

Unless you switch Understanding and Obtaining, but that doesn't feel good. In fact, the last half where she moved from Understanding to Doing is the best and most meaningful part. Why change that?

Order Creates Meaning

What kind of feeling did you get reading those four loglines? Did you feel like it was a robust, happy ending where everything worked out for everyone? Or did you feel like maybe things didn't turn out so well and the kids ended up doing the very best they could with what they had?

To me, it felt very bittersweet, almost tragic in the way they succeeded but then ultimately understood a different way and retreated back into themselves. I feel down when I read those four loglines, and you want to know something crazy?

So does Dramatica.

A Forced Tragedy

The red Story Points signify those points of narrative that Dramatica predicted should be there in order to fit in with the Act order I chose elsewhere. An Overall Story Throughline in Activity with Understanding in the 3rd Signpost and Doing in the 4th Signpost forces the narrative into a tragic endingFailure/Bad.

And isn't that what the story feels like?

This is an incredible example of how order carries with it meaning. Other models of story and paradigms of narrative might play with the order of events as if it is only the steps that matter—not the order in which they appear. Dramatica sees things differently.

A happy triumphant lark like Star Wars or The LEGO Movie carries with it a specific order of thematic considerations to bring about that Success/Good ending. Contrast that with the sad and depressing tragedies one finds in stories like Hamlet or Sicario. The order of thematic events will be drastically different.

Knowing that her series arc ends in tragedy before she even writes the first word is an incredibly powerful thing to know. Imagine the weeks of rewrites and panics she would have felt two years in…

  1. If you look in the upper left hand corner of every Domain you will find Knowledge seated in the same position. This is on purpose and helps signify to you the kind of bias present in the model. ↩︎


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