Premise and the Thematic Argument

What moves Theme forward is the Thematic Argument. Why an argument? Because unless the audience shares the author’s bias on the story’s issues, it will not accept a blanket statement that the author’s proposed way of dealing with a particular problem is the best. The audience really does want to be convinced – it wants to learn something useful in real life while being entertained at the same time. But, unless an author can successfully make an emotional argument supporting his bias through his Theme, he will not be able to change the heart of his audience.

Premise and the Thematic Argument

One of the most familiar attempts to describe the nature of the thematic argument relies on a concept called the premise. A premise usually takes this form: Some activity or character trait leads to a particular result or conclusion. An example of this would be Greed leads to Self-Destruction. A premise can be very useful in describing what a thematic argument is about in a nutshell, but provides very little information about how that argument will proceed.

In regard to the example above, there are many ways in which greed might lead to self-destruction. In addition, each of the four throughlines has its own view of the thematic nature of the problem, so each one needs its own thematic argument. The traditional premise looks at a story’s Theme from one point of view only. If greed leads to self-destruction, is this a problem for everyone, just for the Main Character, just the Obstacle Character, or does it perhaps describe the nature and outcome of the relationship between Main and Obstacle? We simply don’t have enough information to determine that. As a result, the traditional premise is fine for summing up a story, but does little to help an author create a thematic argument.

Dramatica’s view of a thematic argument begins not with a conflict – the thematic conflict. Each of the throughlines has its own thematic conflict which we have already described to some degree during our discussion of Range.

The Range itself forms one side of the thematic conflict and the Counterpoint forms the other. As indicated earlier, you won’t find Greed in Dramatica’s thematic structure, but you will find Self-Interest. The Counterpoint for Self-Interest is the dynamically opposed to it in the chart, which is Morality. Thus, the premise of a thematic argument dealing with Greed might begin with the conflict, Self-Interest vs. Morality.

The advantage of the thematic conflict is that it spells out both sides of the thematic argument. Both Range and counterpoint must be played against one another over the course of the story if the author is to make a case that one is better than the other.

The component of traditional premise which describes growth is reflected in the phrase “leads to.” In some cases this may also be “prevents,” “creates,” “hinders” or any other word or words that indicate the relationship of the topic (such as Greed) to the conclusion (such as self-destruction). Again, this describes what an audience comes to understand at the end of a story, but does not give a clue about how to develop that understanding while creating a story.

Because it begins with a conflict rather than a topic, Dramatica’s version of a thematic argument supports an author creating as many scenes or events as he may choose in which the Range is weighed against the Counterpoint. Each time the Range or Counterpoint is illustrated it can be a shade of gray and does not have be shown in terms of all good vs. all bad. Using our example from above, in a series of scenes Self-Interest might be shown to be moderately positive, largely negative, slightly negative, then largely positive. At the end of the story the audience can sum up or average out all the instances in which they have seen.

Similarly, the counterpoint of Morality in its own scenes might be largely positive, moderately positive, largely negative and largely negative again. At the end of the story the audience will sum up the counterpoint and determine whether Morality by itself is a positive or negative thing.

The audience does not consciously work out these averages. Rather, it is simply affected by the ongoing layering of value judgments created by the author’s bias. In fact, audience members are constantly balancing the Range against the counterpoint in their hearts until the story is over and they are left feeling more toward one or the other.

The advantage of this approach is that an author does not have to be heavy-handed by saying only negative things about one side of the thematic conflict and only positive things about the other. An audience will be much more open to a balanced emotional argument where decisions are seldom black and white.

Finally, as reflected in traditional premise, an audience will want to see the ultimate results of adhering to one value standard over another. In our example of Greed, it led to Self-destruction. This is a generic conclusion. It could mean either a failure in one’s goals or a personal loss of the heart.

Dramatica sees goals and yearnings as two different things: one born of reason and one born of emotion. How completely we achieve our goals determines our degree of satisfaction. How well we accommodate our yearnings determines our degree of fulfillment. So, one thing we need to know at the end of thematic argument is whether or not our goals ended in success or failure, and also whether or not things feel good or bad.

The degree of success or failure, good or bad, is determined in storytelling. The thematic appreciations of Success, Failure, Good, and Bad simply indicate on which side of the fence the conclusion settled. As a result, there are two different aspects to the conclusion of a Dramatica thematic argument — the outcome (Success or Failure) and the Judgment (Good or Bad).

From these considerations we can see that four broad conclusions to a thematic argument are possible:

1. The Success/Good conclusion or Happy Ending

2. The Failure/Bad conclusion or Tragedy

3. The Success/Bad conclusion or Personal Tragedy

4. The Failure/Good conclusion or Personal Triumph

It is important to note that a Failure/Good story, for example, does not mean the Failure is Good but that in spite of a lack of satisfaction, the feel of the story is fulfilling. Such is the case in the motion picture Rain Man in which Charlie (Tom Cruise) fails to get the inheritance, yet overcomes his hatred of his father. This is a Personal Triumph.

Similarly, Success/Bad stories are like Remains of the Day in which Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) successfully maintains the household through thick and thin, yet in the end finds himself empty and alone. This is a Personal Tragedy.

Sewing Together The Themes

In this section we have learned that the traditional premise is too blunt a tool to do more than describe the gist of a finished work. In contrast, Dramatica’s concept of a thematic argument is explored through thematic conflict, development of the relative value of different standards, and concluded with an assessment of both the level of satisfaction and fulfillment. Such an approach is much more in line with the organic flow of a story’s emotional impact as felt through Theme, and is much more accessible as a creative guideline.

From the Dramatica Theory Book