The Keys to the Crucial Element of Screenwriting

A way to see character arc without the perspective of time.

The ultimate most important element of any story. This one part of your story is so important that it was sanctified with the word crucial. Without it your hollow storytelling would crumble like dried leaves…or would it?

How crucial is the Crucial Element to good storytelling? Certainly it has some importance to the way a story works. It’s an unavoidable part of a story that intentional or not, does carry a significant part of a story’s message. But if it is such an important element, how come it takes up such little space in the Dramatica theory book? In fact, it is treated so ambiguously that many an aspiring writer finds themselves lost and unsure what to make of it.

The post Can You Explain the Crucial Element Further explains the Main Character Crucial element clearly:

  • If the MC is change and the outcome is success, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC problem.
  • If the MC is change and the outcome is failure, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC solution.
  • If the MC is steadfast and the growth is stop, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC Focus.
  • If the MC is steadfast and the growth is start, the MC crucial element is the same as the MC Response.

For Steadfast Main Characters, the Problem and Solution are not key to the Crucial Element. Instead we look to the Focus and Response as a Steadfast story focuses more on the work that is to be done. Think of a Steadfast story as more of a process, while a Change story is more of a result.

The Influence Character Crucial Element is the counterpart to the Main Character’s Crucial Element (i.e., if the MC has the Problem element, then the IC has the Solution element, and so on).

Armando’s Explanation - Translated

As mentioned several times in the past, this author respectively bows down before the awesome theory comprehension skills of one Armando Saldana Mora. At the turn of the last century, when I was struggling the most with this material, Armando’s posts on the Dramatica Mailing List were always a firestorm of inspiration for me. I found them so revelatory that I saved each and everyone to my hard drive.

Which is good for you because they are almost impossible to find now.

One of the most important ones - dare I say crucial (!) - was the post entitled “Crucial Element revisited.” I would refer to it constantly when I was embarking on a screenwriting career. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all you need to put the concept of the Crucial Element into action in your own story.

I present it here in translated form. I’ve fixed some of the grammar mistakes and changed the reference to an Obstacle Character to the now more commonly accepted Influence Character.

Crucial Element Revisited

The crucial element is one of the most complicated aspects of Dramatica because, theoretically, it stands right in the middle of the relativistic system. It’s at odds with any of the throughline views and at the same time it’s the intersection. This is the part that is neither wave nor particle, so to speak.

In practice, it’s also complicated because the crucial element is the whole “character arc” presented without the perspective of time. So the question would be, does the Main Character start or end the story with that Crucial Element? A way to understand the Crucial Element is the following:

In Change/Start stories (regardless of the outcome) the Main Character’s “hole in the heart” is the lack of the Influence Character’s Crucial Element, so the story is all about that character’s “internal quest” for that element (the outcome works like this: in a Success story, she will win a Solution, in a Failure story, she will win a Problem).

In Change/Stop stories (regardless of the outcome) the Main Character’s “chip on his shoulder” is the Main Character’s Crucial Element. So the story’s problems are going to be a cause of that damn element until the character loses it (Outcome: Success, she will lose a problem. Failure: she will lose a solution).

In Steadfast/Start stories, it is the Influence Character who has a hole in his heart. The needed element is neither the Main Character’s nor the Influence Character’s Crucial Elements. Instead, those are the elements that will deteriorate the main Character or allow her to endure the Influence Character’s quest for his element.

In Steadfast/Stop stories, as expected, the Influence Character has a chip on his shoulder. As with the previous case, the Crucial Elements here are impeding or helping the Main Character in standing up against the Influence Character’s problematic nature.

For some time, I used the Crucial Element to write the climax scene in every story I wrote. It went like this:

  • In Change/Success stories it was the “The hero saves the day” scene.
  • In Change/Failure stories it was the “The hero messes everything up” scene (I used another word for “messes up”)
  • In Steadfast/Stop stories it was the “I’m sorry, you we’re right, Mr. Hero” scene.
  • In Steadfast/Start stories it was the “You’ve brightened our lives, Mr. Hero” scene (“and here’s a song by British teen sensation Lulu!”)

I don’t use that scene anymore, because I’m just sick and tired of conventional climax scenes. They can be mortally predictable.

The Crucial Element works by itself. That lost or gained element is gonna happen at some point of the story, so if you don’t force it, you may come with better and more original ways to expose that element.

That last bit is the secret to the lost keys of the Dramatica Crucial Element - you don’t have to worry about it!

The crucial element is not all that crucial

If you encode everything else, and you stay consistent with your storyform, your story’s crucial elements will appear naturally…and your audience will thank you for it. The storyform that is built from the theory will bring it out.

Personally, I don’t worry about the Crucial Element that much anymore. I’ve written enough stories with the theory to know that my author’s instincts will see to its implementation.

However, if you want to check and see how your story works though (and especially as you first work with Dramatica), the above suggestions are priceless.

Dramatica’s Crucial Element in Action

Some time ago someone asked me for some examples of the Crucial Element in action. Here we go:

Change Main Character

A Change/Start story with a Main Character and Objective Story Problem of Expectation (The solution to both would be Determination):

Seth the gossip columnist, stuck at the same pay scale for 20 years because of low personal expectations, works for a popular magazine that ruins lives because it expects to find celebrity scandal everywhere. Seth cynically expects to find dirt even on the nicest of celebrities.

Let’s say the goal of the story is halting the magazine’s predatorial instinct.

In one version of the story, Seth will grow to learn that it is his actions that determine his worth - not how much he is paid. Having gained this new trait, he would then start to realize that he could write positive articles about how determined most celebrities are towards making the world a better place. Seth is lauded for his positive spin and the editor-in-chief calls for a new more uplifiting mission statement.

The Change in Seth’s personal throughline has resulted in success in the overall throughline.

In another version, Seth has determined that the only reason this magazine sells is because people don’t really know how celebrities really are. If he could somehow bring this to light, then the paper would be shut down. However, he still finds himself stuck at the same pay scale because of low personal expectations. He still grows to learn that actions determine worth - and thus comes to the conclusion that this magazine isn’t worth working for. He quits and the magazine continues on.

The Change in Seth’s personal throughline has resulted in failure in the overall throughline.

Steadfast Main Character

Let’s try another example. This time, a Steadfast/Stop story with a Focus of Actuality and a Response of Perception:

It is the culminating last day of the Battle of Gettysburg and the North appears ready to claim victory. But as the sun peaks, strange events being to happen. Soldiers who were once dead now reappear ready to fight. Equipment destroyed the day before now sits poised for action—as if nothing ever happened. The South it seems, is rising from the dead.

Marigold, a Civil War nurse, finds herself so overwhelmed by the violence and death around her that she can barely keep to her feet. How come men who talk of the glory of war, rarely know what it is really like? It upsets her. In fact, the more upset she gets, the faster and more chaotic the changes on the battlefield occur.

Mari’s emotional response to the war is causing a shift between alternating planes of existence. The sheer force of violence is so shocking to her own sense of humanity that it is causing a rip to open in the space-time continuum.

Her primary opposition comes from General Lee—a man dedicated to the perception of the South as victors, no matter what the reality. To him, these inexplicable changes are spiritual proof of the South’s righteousness.

In this kind of story, the Crucial Elements have little to do with the actual outcome of the overall throughline. Whether the rip grows greater and wipes out all evidence of humanity or not is inconsequential (at least to this discussion!)

Instead, it is Mari’s unique knowledge of what is really going on that allows her to counter the charismatic general’s appeal for more bloodshed. She wants both to end. In her personal throughline she knows what war is really like - she has seen firsthand what really happens on a battlefield. She can tell these soldiers what dying is really like. And when her words are shown to be perfectly in line with what is actually going on, she can then have the clout to let everyone know what is really going on universally.

Standing up against her personal experience with death will allow her to stand up against the devastation of war to humanity.

Wow…now I want to write that second one!


Hopefully these examples help to illustrate how the Crucial Element works in a story.

Again, the best way to deal with the Crucial Element is not to deal with it at all. Trust me, I know you want it to work perfectly in your story, and you don’t want to mess it up, but truthfully, it’s not as crucial as its name makes it out to be.

Bill Schindler, in this post on advice for newcomers to the Dramatica theory, put it best:

Take a deep breath. Relax. Have some fun. You’re telling a story, not performing heart surgery. It’s okay to make a few mistakes. Challenge yourself to stretch a little on a couple of the tough points. But it’s okay if your structure isn’t quite perfect. You can fix it on the next draft. Just start writing.

Sage advice.