What follows is from an early unpublished draft of the book that ultimately became, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story. This excerpt is a note from me to Chris explaining the layout of the material in the draft to be considered for inclusion in the final relase version.
CHRIS: This material is divided into seven sections. Each is described briefly below:
Section One: The existing book
This is the most complete and updated version I wrote. I have edited in additional essays to fill holes, and changed and updated terms. Aside from the Exploratorial, this approx 200K document contains all our best shots at explaining the whole damn thing.
Section Two: The Storyforming Exploratorial
Much of this material is culled from the book in section one. Still, there are important updates and changes in perspective and terms in this version. In fact, if you choose to use the book material, look to this part of the tutorial for slightly different and sometimes better versions of the same material. There is also much new material here. This section was designed to describe what Dramatica is.
Section Three: The Storytelling Exploratorial
You’ve already read through this one and shared your comments. I have not yet incorporated any changes, pending what your decisions are about what ought to be used of all this material in the book. This section was designed to tell an author how Dramatica will affect their audience.
Section Four: The Dramatica and the Creative Writer Exploratorial
This section describes the relationship between Dramatica and the author in a conceptual, philosphic sense.
Section Five: The Putting it in Motion Exploratorial
This section describes what it feels like when writing from the appreciations, so that an author can tap into their emotional experience of creating.
Section Six: The Scientific American Article
‘Nuf said on this one! I do feel this should be in the book in the back somewhere to give the tenacious reader something to dig into and to document the extent of our work.
Section Seven: Various appendices
I’m sure you have updated versions of these, but I just threw in the Help, DQS and Definition stuff to have my most recent versions all in one place, since these need to be at the back of the book anyway.
When fleshing out your characters, have each one write a short autobiography in their own voice about their lives prior to the beginning of the story, touching on key turning points, memories of special events – both cheerful and tragic, and of the people who meant/mean the most to them.
What are their biggest disappointments, narrowest escapes, greatest triumphs, deepest regrets?
Have them tell you, the author, about their hobbies, religious and political views, hopes, and dreams.
And finally, have your character each write about how the people and events in your story appear to and affect them, from their unique point of view and position in your story.
In this way, your character development will become more organic and more informed.
Keep in mind, however, that our sense of our own selves is usually quite different from how others see us. So, it is a good idea to make sure each character writes about the others in terms of whether they trust them, what they think is their greatest strength, most detrimental weakness, and must fun/frustrating trait. This will not only illuminate how each character sees the others, but how the others see them.
And finally, when you actually sit down to write your characters, don’t just approach them from your author’s view as to what you need/want them to do in the plot, but stand in their shoes and try to understand why they do these things. Is it easy or hard for them to do what they do, compatible or contrary to their nature, and what personal costs or benefits will their actions bring them?
In the end, never forget that we are each the main character or our own personal story, even when we are playing a subordinate role in a larger story involving many others.
Read more writing tips at Storymind.com, the Creative Writing Tips web site.
Story structure is built on fours, not on twos. Though it may seem like conflict is created between two opposing forces, there are two other forces at play as well.
Consider a dramatic circuit consisting of four elements: Potential, Resistance, Current, and Power – just like an electrical circuit.
Every scene has all four elements and if one is missing, the circuit is incomplete and the story won’t flow.
But there’s more to it than that. These four elements have a relationship that we see in many areas of life.
Here are some other sets of four that create the same kind of internal mechanism:
Earth, Water, Wind, Fire
Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb
Red, Blue, Green, Brightness
Universe, Physics, Mind, Psychology
Mass, Energy, Space, Time
Characters, Plot, Theme, Genre
Motivation, Method, Evaluation, Purpose
As you can see, each group of four has a very similar feel. And the last item in each set seems a little out of place compared to the other three.
There’s an important psychological reason for that, but it would require going way too deep for this post. For now, just know that stories reflect how we think, and we think in four dimensions because we perceive four dimensions. So, it is no surprise that story structure is also based on fours, because that is the way we fully explore a topic in fiction or in life.
Most authors think of plot as what their story is about. And beyond that, they recognize key events and turning points in the story that are part of plot as well. That’s a good place to start, because it is how plot appears from the creative perspective as you are developing and writing your story.
But plot is quite a bit more than that. Structurally, a plot needs specific story points such as a goal, requirements that need to be met to achieve that goal, and even the price that will be paid if the goal is not met.
In this installment of our series on story structure, we’re going to reveal the key story points of plot and lay out the structural timeline as well.
By the time we’re done, you’ll have a much more refined understanding of what plot structure is, and how to manipulate it to create just the kind of story you want.
Let’s begin with the four most important plot points: Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings. All four of these work together to define what your story is about, what needs to be done, and what happens if the protagonist fails. Taken all together, these are the control knobs that adjust your plot’s dramatic tension.
Let’s investigate each of these four primary plot points:
Goal is really about as straight-forward as it seems: what the characters of your story are trying to achieve. Now, keep in mind that the protagonist is leader of the effort to achieve the goal. And, as we all know, there’s also going to be an antagonist who is working against the protagonist, either to prevent the goal from being achieved, or to achieve it for himself instead.
Without a goal, there is no clear cut destination your characters are trying to reach. So, you’ll need to describe that goal in no uncertain terms of your story will come off as unfocused and without a defined purpose. To your readers (or audience) it will seem to meander.
What kinds of things can be a goal? Just about anything: To escape from something or someone, to complete a task, to obtain something (could be a treasure, a diploma, or someone’s love), to discover something, to become a better person, to come to terms with the past. Really, almost anything can be a goal. It just needs to be something you don’t currently have, and can’t get just by snapping your fingers – you have to work for it.
Requirements describe the specific steps that must be taken or the necessary conditions that must be met for the goal to be achieved. If any step or condition is not completed, the goal will not be achieved.
Why are requirements important? Without them, your characters (and readers) have no idea what is needed to arrive at the goal. So, everything that happens seems arbitrary. And if they are ultimately successful, it comes off as if the characters just magically achieved the goal – it just happened, not because they worked to make it happen, but just because after running around in all kinds of directions, eventually the goal just plopped down in their lap for no apparent reason.
Like goals, requirements can be all kinds of things: getting the approval of all the members of the board of directors to stop an immoral project, gathering all the ingredients for the secret formula to saving the dying princess, searching the rooms in a haunted house to find an close the portal to hell, meeting the conditions necessary to prove you are worthy of someone’s love.
The key point in regard to requirements is that they be a limited set – a specific number of items or steps, well-delineated right up front, so the reader knows exactly what conditions must be met and can, therefore, track progress toward the goal.
Consequences are the bad things that will happen if the goal is not achieved. Why are consequences necessary? Because they double the motivation to achieve the goal. Without consequences, characters, just like real people, are likely at some point to say, “Hey, that goal would’ve been nice, but geesh, these requirements are just too darn hard. That goal ain’t worth it!”
But, with consequences in place, there is a price to pay if you just give up on the goal. If the goal isn’t achieved, you (and/or those you care about) will suffer. Achieving the goal not only obtains a good thing, but also prevents a bad one. And that is why your characters will push on to the end.
Forewarnings are the indicators that the consequences are gaining on you. They could be cracks in the dam that show it is getting closer to the consequence of it breaking and flooding the town if the goal of diverting the water upstream isn’t achieved or some unknown individual buying up more and more shares of stock until the consequence of him gaining control of the company prevents you from the goal of stopping an evil project.
As with requirements, forewarnings need to be clearly specified, but they don’t have to be a specific number of them. For example, how many cracks does it take before the dam breaks? With forewarnings, additional cracks, small pieces of concrete popping out, shuddering do to increasing instability, all these things can indicate the dam is getting closer to breaking, and collectively they ratchet up the motivation for the characters to push harder and faster because time and/or options are running out.
You can easily see how Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings work together as the master controllers of any plot’s structure.
These are the four power-drivers of the plot. However, there are many other plot points that fine tune how the dramatic tension of the Big Four is channeled through your story. But that is a subject for a future installment in our ongoing series on story structure.
This entire story structure series is referenced from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story. Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.
Also, you may wish to try our Dramatica Story Structure Software with the world’s only patented interactive Story Engine. The Story Engine cross-references your answers to questions about your story to generate a structure that perfectly supports your intent, free of holes or inconsistencies.
This might seem an easy question to answer because you’ve been thinking about your story quite a bit and know the essence of what you want it to be pretty well.
Yet if a friend asks you, “What’s your novel about?” it can often be difficult to give them a short answer that does justice to all you have in mind. You might start by explaining about all the key elements of your story – the character and their problems and their quests. Or, you might relate a sequential timeline of all the major things that happen, essentially telling them the plot.
At some point, their eyes begin to glaze over and you know that not only have they lost interest, but you never actually explained the core of your story so that they really know what your novel is about.
This is a symptom of a larger problem for novelists: If you can’t describe the essence of your story in a single sentence, your story really has no core.
Sure, you may have done all kinds of work, have scores of compelling ideas, and a real sense of how it is shaping up. But without identifying the central spine of your story, your tale is likely to meander around aimlessly without a central spine to give it purpose and structure.
To solve this problem, both for you and your friend, you should create a log line for your story. A log line is a short (preferably one-sentence) description of what it’s all about.
The remainder of this article will provide some examples of log lines, methods for creating your own, and a discussion of how to use it, once you’ve got it
A log line sums up the essence of what your story is about in a concise little nugget.
For example, a log line for Hamlet might read:
A prince of Denmark seeks revenge against his uncle for murdering his father and feigns insanity to buy time to plan the best method, but ultimately fails to achieve his goal.
Now clearly everything that makes Hamlet amazing is missing from the log line. But it does serve to capture the gist of what is going on and most important answers the question “What’s Hamlet about?”
For a longer example, here’s a log line for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
At Christmas time, an unhappy and miserly man has isolated himself from emotional attachments as a shield against his own childhood pain of loss and rejections, but through the intervention of three ghosts who force him to confront his past, present and future, he ultimately sees how he has victimized both himself and others, repents, seeks to make amends and rediscovers the joy of Christmas.
Though this log line meets the requirement of being a single sentence, it’s a run-on sentence. That defeats the purpose of refining your story concept until it’s sharp as a tack.
A better attempt would be:
A wealthy but stingy businessman who has become bitter due to great personal losses in his youth learns the value of giving after being visited by three ghosts on Christmas eve.
In this shorter version there’s a lot of important and meaningful material that wasn’t covered, but the longer the log line, the less focused your story concept becomes. Of course, the Log Line Police are not going to bust down your door and confiscate your keyboard if you exceed one tight sentence, but the point here is to boil down the heart of your story to its essence in the least number of words you can manage.
Now it’s your turn to write a log line. After you do, make sure it is only one sentence. And no cheating by trying to cram more information into it by writing a big long convoluted James Joyce sentence. Seriously – you’d be surprised how many writers hate leaving anything out. They hate it so much they would rather bloat their log line to the point it is unusable rather than lose a single thing, which completely defeats the purpose!
Don’t do this! The whole point of this exercise is to get your wonderful, passionate, inventive, compelling story boiled down to one dull, boring (but informative) line.
The example log line we’ll be using for the next few steps is:
“A sheriff is trying to stop a gang of cutthroats from repeatedly robbing his town.”
Sound like dozens of cliché stories you’ve read or seen before, right? Your story’s log line might seem the same way at this stage. Not to worry… As we progress through the next few steps, you’ll see this simple example expand and refine until it becomes a truly rich story world, just as yours will.
And finally, some additional information from StoryWeaver about the log line concept:
Creating a log line centers your story, provides it with an identity, and ensures that all your story development work will be guided by this beacon so your story becomes sharply focused and every element is clearly connected to the hub. It is like when a huge cloud of dust and gas condenses into a solar system and ignites into a sun around which all your story concepts orbit.
Without a log line, a story often remains just a cloud and the telling of such a story tends to meander aimlessly. Rather than forging ahead with a clear direction, it stumbles forward, tripping over its own unfocused feet and landing in the lap of your readers or audience with a dull thud as an amorphous lump with no form, no purpose, and no meaning. Now isn’t that sad, perhaps even pathetic? So let’s avoid that.
As you write your log line, think about the story notes and any initial material you may have written into the Notes and Story windows. Think about the reason you want to write this particular story in the first place, and then enter your log line in the Story Development box below.
Once you have your log line, it becomes the seed from which your story can grow with focus and purpose. In the steps that follow we’ll draw on your Notes and also develop new material to expand your log line into a full-blown story concept called a synopsis that includes all your major plot events, your principal characters, your thematic topic and message, and the elements of genre that give your story its personality.
In future steps we’ll explore how you can pull loose threads on your log line to weave a detailed synopsis that will provide a solid foundation for your novel, but you can keep going right now with the interactive online StoryWeaver App. Check out the 14 day free trial at Storymind.com/free-trial.htm
Story Structure | Where Does Story Structure Come From?
In previous installments of this series, we’ve determined that stories do, in fact have structure. And, we explored how each story’s structure is something of a map that shows us how to go about solving a particular kind of problem or how to improve something our lives. This could be by achieving a goal, learning how to cope, learning a new way of looking at life, etc.
But that’s all pretty nebulous. So, if stories have structure, it has to be something more tangible. And yet, it also has to be flexible enough to account for all the different kinds of stories that have been told.
That’s a pretty tall order! And yet, here we are: with an innate sense that some sort of structure does exist, yet a frustrating inability to see it clearly, though we can almost make it out, moving around in the dark waters beneath our subject matter and storytelling style.
In this installment, we’re going to strip all that away and take a good look at the beast. And to do that, we’re going to explore where story structure comes from in the first place.
Story structure begins with us. Not surprising since stories are about people, after all. But more specifically, story structure begins with how each of us, as individuals, go about solving problems and trying to improve our lives.
When confronted by something we’d like to change or something new we’d like to attain, we look at from all sides: with our logic, how we feel about, or with a skeptical eye, for example.
We consider the issue through each of these perspectives (or filters) and see how things look. Do any of these suggest a course of action? Which ones look promising, and which ones set up a red flag: “Best to not do anything at all!”
Then, our mind takes over and collates all those assessments, “This feels right, but it makes not sense at all,” or, “I know it’s the right thing to do, but I just can’t tolerate it.”
At some point, we’ve thought about it enough, and we determine our plan for what we’re going to do and/or how we are going to respond.
That’s pretty much how problem solving works for you (at a greatly simplified level) and for your main character too!
Story structure for your main character (excluding the rest of the story) boils down to this: It shows the timeline of how your main character examines the central issue at the heart of their personal journey and then makes a decision about the best path to take.
But what about the rest of the story? What about all those other characters beside the main character – the ones who are in all kinds of relationships struggling with each other over the goal at the center of the plot? Where does that story structure come from?
Actually, the same place – just bigger.
Here’s how it works…
When people get together around a common issue (like a goal or a cause), after a while that group begins to self-organize. One person will emerge as the Voice Of Reason for the group, another as Passionate Heart, and yet another as the Resident Skeptic.
You see, when we work together to resolve something of common interest, we still use the same tools and perspectives we do as individuals. The difference is, that for ourselves we do all of those jobs like general practitioners because there’s just us to do them.
But in a group, if each individual tried to do all the jobs, it would be a mess! Everyone would be overlapping their effort, and since each one would be doing many jobs, they couldn’t devote all their time to any one job.
So socially, we understand that intuitively. And that’s why in a group, people begin to specialize. One looks at the issue solely through the eyes of Reason. Another is the Skeptic who questions everything. Both are essential perspectives to take, but by specializing, each one can devote all their time to a single perspective and go for a deep dive. They can work their way down into the details that no one person could do if they were trying to do a lot of other jobs too.
In this way, by specializing, the group can see deeper into every issue it encounters, and that serves every member of the group.
But here’s the cool thing… Because all those jobs in the group are the same ones we use as individuals, the structure of the group is nearly identical to the structure we use in our own minds. In a sense, it becomes a map of our own minds’ problem solving processes, but something external to ourselves – visible in the way the group is organized. In short, we can see the workings of our own minds in the workings of any organized group. Whoa…
Just as the structure of the main character is based on the structure of our own internal problem solving processes, the structure of the overall story is based on the structure of how a group goes about solving problems.
So you have two identical maps of the problem solving process in a story: 1. The individual trying to work out what’s best for him or her. 2. The group trying to figure what’s best for it (and all its members).
But here’s the clincher:
What’s best for an individual is not always what’s best for the group he belongs in. In other words, the needs of the one are often in conflict with the needs of the many. And the truth of the matter is, all dramatic tension is created by that conflict between what the individual wants to achieve for himself or herself and what their group’s agenda demands of them as a member of the group. Again, whoa.
Think about that. Story structure is like a wheel within a wheel. The individual is struggling to navigate their life to resolve their issues, all the why trying to negotiate their participation the the group effort.
Kinda feels like everything from A Christmas Carol to Hamlet and touches on genres from Romance to Action to Buddy Stories, Comedies, Westerns, Spy Thrillers, you name it.
And that is why story structure was so hard to see: Since stories unfold over time, everyone was looking for a timeline kind of structure. But the truth is, stories are only timelines from the perspective of the reader or audience, because that is how they are exposed to it.
From an author’s point of view, the story is a done deal. They see it complete – beginning, middle, and end all at once. An author stands outside of time and works out his or her structure as if it were a framework for the story – scaffolding that supports their message or intent.
A tweak here, and adjustment there, and the dramatic forces that represent the kinds of things we encounter in everyday life are fine-tuned to provide just the point of view the author wants the reader or audience to arrive at, once the storytelling is over and they look back at everything they experienced to understand what it meant.
Well that’s quite a journey we’ve taken here ourselves. But it led to a new way of looking at story structure that brings brings it into greater focus by seeing where it came from in the first place.
In other installments in this series we’ll talk about the specific dramatic elements and components that make up structure, and how you can use them together to create just the impact you want to have.
This entire series is drawn from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story. Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.
Here’s a short poem I finished up at 4 a.m. this morning, followed by some creative notes that you might find valuable in developing your own stories:
Can I find some peace of mind, to dull the horrid daily grind, or should I taste the bitter rind, whose poison quells all pain?
Will I fight another day, am I the one my Id will slay, and what will be the price to pay, to end this sad refrain.
From time to time I am compelled, to neuter what I cannot geld, that which never can be held, melting in the rain.
Driven by the summer breeze, to dash against the leafless trees, then thrust to ground on brittle knees, and never walk again.
Lifeless dreams through sightless eyes, dance across the heartless skies, and sing a ghastly last reprise, that burns into my brain.
Empty husk of parasites, humbled by a thousand bites, drained of self and filled with mites, resistance is in vain.
Flaccid with my stuffing gone, darkness now defies the dawn, time stands still, then marches on, a pointless trackless train.
Into earth my substance crumbles, while the time train clacks and rumbles, all I was is lost to mumbles, neither sharp nor sane.
Now as if I wasn’t there, self is shadow, breath is air, nothing left to be aware, a terminal moraine.
So, you see, it is about the death of a glacier. But the weird part is, I didn’t know that until after I wrote it.
All through the creative process I thought I was describing a despondent burned-out person, though I, myself, am in quite a positive mood of late.
It felt strange writing this – different than usual. Each stanza came together organically, and though each was about the same issue of loss of self, each was also centered around a completely different kind of imagery.
The stanzas really didn’t seem connected by a central spine or theme, just that sense of loss of self. In fact, taken together, I felt they were just chaotic glimpses into the storyteller’s psyche.
In terms of the creative process, all went smoothly until I arrived at the very last line. After every previous rhyme falling easily into place, I couldn’t (for the life of me) figure out how I wanted it to end.
So, for the first time on this project, I opened the rhyming dictionary and scanned through hundreds of multi-syllable words that rhymed with “pain.”
Nothing jumped out at me until I stumbled across “terminal moraine.” That was it! Perfect ending – terminal having the double meaning of mortality, which seemed to fit with this poor narrators description of his life experiences.
So, I plopped in that last line, re-read it a few times and published it on my blog under the title “A Way Out,” still believing it to be about this person.
Didn’t like the title though. Seemed mamby pamby. I decided to re-read the poem a few more times and after perhaps half a dozen readings, going from the end back to the beginning, I read “terminal moraine” immediately followed by “daily grind.” And that’s when it hit me – those two phrases sound like they are describing a glacier!
“No….” I thought. “It can’t be….” So I read it once more with “death of a glacier” in mind and holy crap! Every stanza – every WORD rang true to that theme, as if it had been intentionally written all along to describe the last days of a glacier’s life.
Now that has never happened to me before, and I’m kind of blown away by it. The poem is good and the imagery works with any title, but “Glacier” is that missing thread that elevates the poem from a collection of images to a single topic, explored.
I’d say at least half of the artistic impact of the poem derives from seeing it as the end of a glacier. And so, I really don’t feel right taking credit for that since that didn’t happen until the poem was already completed. Hence, this “apology” for the quality of the work.
Still, this brings up an interesting aspect of the writing craft. I’ pretty sure my subconscious knew full well what it was writing about from the get-go. It just didn’t fill me in on it until the end.
I’e read many accounts where readers find so much meaning in a poem, a story, or a song that was never intended by the author, who denies that meaning intently.
And yet, as creators, we all know we have over-active imaginations, and a lot of what goes on with that comes from the subconscious. That’s where inspirations come from and it is the source of those moment of epiphany that pop up in Eureka moments.
It is my belief that the truly great writers are those whose subconscious works to instill far more meaning in their stories than that of which the author is ever consciously aware. THAT is the quality that infuses depth and complexity into the piece and draws the readers into a multi-level multi-faceted experience.
This latest effort has driven that home to me yet again – that the best way to construct a story is to let your mind set the destination and your heart chart the course.
Welcome to our new series that explores the elements of story structure and describes how they work together to form a framework for your story.
We begin with a fundamental question:
Does Story Structure Exist?
It might seem a silly question on its face, but dig a little deeper and it is worthy of an answer – especially if you want to justify putting time into studying it!
Some folks feel stories are so organic and fluid that they can’t possibly described by a fixed and restrictive structure.
Other folks note that the same elements and forms keep showing up such as protagonist, goal, and acts, and figure there must be some Great Wheel that drives a story forward.
Over the years theorists like Joseph Campbell championed the concept of the mythic Hero and his relationships with other archetypes who helped or hindered him along the way (based on archetypes of the Collective Unconscious originally outlined by Jung).
Other theorists, such as Chris Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey, adapted and extended Campbell into a practical guide for story development.
Many have found these perspectives useful forming and refining stories, but many others have found them limiting and incomplete. Still, the bottom line is that most writers sense there is some underlying mechanism that gives stories their spines, but they also tend to feel that the truth of it is foggy at best and obscure at worst.
And that is where we will leave things (until next time) with this conclusion: Story structure probably exists, but no one has ever gotten a really good look at it nor laid out a complete explanation for it much less a practical guide for employing it.
In our next installment, we’ll take our first step into a new way of looking at story structure that incorporates but also transcends the other theories mentioned here so far.
Step 1 | Introducing a new approach to story development
For most authors, the hardest part of writing is the raw invention needed to come up with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, a meaningful theme, and an involving genre. Once you have that all worked out, the actual writing is the fun part.
In this weekly series we’ll be using a new approach to story development called StoryWeaver. StoryWeaver is so named because it employs a technique for drawing story threads from your original concept much as a weaver might draw threads from wool. Step by step you grow and clarify your story as you twist your threads into yarn, spin that yarn, and eventually weave it into the tapestry of your story.
There are four stages in StoryWeaver’s story creation path, and you can see them as the top-level categories in the navigation menu to the right (or just below this text on smaller screens). They are:
The Inspiration Stage helps you draw new story threads for your plot, characters, theme and genre from your original concept. The Development Stage twists those threads to deepen and expand your ideas into greater detail. The Exposition Stage helps you spin your ideas together into a full bodied yarn. The Storytelling Stage weaves everything that happens in your story as it unfolds over time.
By the end of the path, you’ll have a completed story, fully developed and expertly told.
Step two will be coming next week but you can keep going right now with the interactive online StoryWeaver App. Check out the 14 day free trial at Storymind.com/free-trial.htm