Why Act Order Is More Important Than Time Spent

Most story paradigms emphasize the amount of time spent on an Act over the more important order in which the Acts appear.

An interesting thing happened this week as I began a rewrite on a screenplay.

I was going through Dramatica for Screenwriters, working step-by-step to get a quick look at the story I was developing. Halfway through I realized that I wanted my story to end in a Success, not a Failure. I reset the Story Engine with the appropriate settings and then finished outlining my story.

Problem is, when I finished, it just didn't feel right. There was something about it that just felt wonky.

Turns out I was using the old storyform for three of the four throughlines! The fourth throughline--the Relationship Throughline (or Subjective Story throughline, or Main vs. Impact throughline--whichever you're more comfortable with) felt great--and for good reason--it had the right pieces in the right place.

Coincidentally, as I was searching through my old Dramatica notebooks for interesting things to post here, I came across some notes from a weekend class I took with Melanie in 98:

The amount of time you spend on each act is not as important as the order they are revealed. A slap followed by a scream has a much different feel than a scream followed by a slap.

That's exactly the problem I had run into.

My story has a goal of Becoming. My characters are trying to manipulate their loved ones to be the way they want them to be.

My story originally had this Plot Progression: Conceptualizing, Being, Becoming, and Conceiving.

So my story would start with the characters scheming a diabolical plan. This plan would involve them pretending to be something they are not, which would lead to them having to change their essential natures. And finally, this change would lead them to come up with a new idea.

With my Story Goal in mind, doesn't that just feel like a Failure story?

I think it has everything to do with the way the Acts are ordered. They've got this plan to change their loved ones; they pretend to be a certain way, but it causes them to change and it changes so badly that theyll have to come up with some new idea. Things havent worked out the way they wanted them to.

The new Plot Progression unfolds like this: Becoming, Conceptualizing, Being, and Conceiving.

No matter how hard they try, the characters can't change those around them. Frustrated, they'll start scheming a way to make their goal happen. In order for their plan to work they'll have to pretend to be a certain way. This pretending will make them realize that they'll have to come up with a something new if they want their loved ones to change.

Now that feels much more like a Success story, doesn't it? It's got a happy, optimistic up-ending to it.

Both stories ended with Conceiving as the final Act, but because of the order of the acts that came before it, the stories have very different endings. This could have a lot to do with the way I encoded the two separate stories, but I think you'd be hard pressed to write the Failure story with a happy ending.

Instinctively, that's what I felt the first time I ran through the outline.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some rewriting to do.


Under our old name, Story Fanatic, we left space open for readers to leave comments and questions. The following is a question received in regards to the above article:

I just started using Dramatica and tried to use it with story I am half way through writing. I answered all the questions in the Story Guide but found that the sequence chosen by Dramatica was not what I had chosen for my story. Does that mean I have it wrong or did Dramatica get it wrong? So what causes a particular sequence to be chosen? I tried using the Theme Browser and was able to choose the sequence I wanted on a new story but wasnt able to change the sequence on my existing story. Any ideas on why it is locked in the sequence it is?

The sequence is locked because of other choices you've made in the Story Engine.

Success stories will have a different sequence than Failure stories as will Change stories compared to Steadfast, etc.

Things have to happen in a certain order for your story to have the outcome and feeling you are going for.

I would decide what is most important. Is the act order really that important? Could it be that you could tweak some of the acts to fit Dramatica's model? (i.e, if you really thought the OS would start out with the characters Learning of a global threat, but Dram says Understanding, then have the characters understand the severity of what a global threat really is (or misunderstand it))

Or, if the Act Order is that important, select it first in the Theme Browser, and then work the rest of your story choices around that.

Thanks Jim. I tried completly clearing my storyform and entering the things in order of importance as I see them, rather than the order asked by the Story Guide. I must have chosen somthing unimportant in the original because this time it let me set the thing exatly as I wanted.