A Story is an Argument

The Dramatica Theory

A Conversation on Story Structure

by Melanie Anne Phillips

1.3   A Story is an Argument

To recap, a tale is a simple linear path that the author promotes as being either a good or bad one, depending on the outcome.

There’s a certain amount of power in that.  Still, it wouldn’t take our early storyteller long to realize that if he didn’t have to limit himself to relating events that actually happened he might wield even more power over his audience.

Rather, he might carry things a step farther and create a fictional tale to illustrate his belief in the benefits or dangers of following a particular course.  That is the concept behind Fairy Tales and Cautionary Tales – to encourage certain behaviors and inhibit other behaviors based on the author’s belief as to the most efficacious courses of action in life.

But what kind of power might you garner if you went beyond merely stating, “This conclusion is true for this particular case,” but rather boldly stated “This conclusion is true for all cases?”

In other words, you tell your audience, “If you begin here, then no matter what path you might take from that given starting point, it wouldn’t be as good (or as bad) as the one I’m promoting.”  Rather than saying that the approach you have described to your audience is simply good or bad in and of itself, you are now inferring that of all the approaches that might have been taken, yours is the best (or worst) way to go.

Clearly that has a lot more power to it because you are telling everyone, “If you find yourself in this situation, exclude any other paths; take only this one,” or, “If you find yourself in this situation, no matter what you do, don’t do this!”

Still, because you’ve only shown the one path, even though you are saying it is better than any others, you have not illustrated the others.  Therefore, you are making a blanket statement.

Now, an audience simply won’t sit still for a blanket statement. They’ll cry, “Foul!” They will be thinking of the other paths they might personally have taken and will at least question you.

So, if our caveman sitting around the fire says, “Hey, this is the best of all possible paths,” his audience is going to say , “What about this other case? What if we tried this, this or this?”

If the author had a sound case he would respond to all the solutions the audience might suggest, compare them to the one he was touting and conclusively show that the promoted path was, indeed, the best (or worst). But if a solution suggested by the audience proves better than the author’s, his blanket statement loses all credibility.

In a nutshell, for every rebuttal the audience voices, the author can attempt to counter the rebuttal until he has proven his case or at least exhausted their interest in arguing with him.  Since he is there in person, he won’t necessarily have to argue every conceivable alternative solution – just the ones the audience brings up. And if he is successful, he’ll eventually satisfy everyone’s concerns or simply tire them out to the point they are willing to accept his conclusions.

But what happens if the author isn’t there when the story is related?  The moment a story is recorded and replayed as a song ballad, a stage play, or a motion picture (for example), then the original author is no longer present to counter any rebuttals the audience might have to his blanket statement.

So if someone in the audience thinks of a method of resolving the problem and it hasn’t been addressed it in the blanket statement, they will feel there is a hole in the argument and that the author hasn’t made his case.

Therefore, in a recorded art form, you need to include all the other reasonable approaches that might be suggested in order to “sell” your approach as the best or the worst. You need to show how each alternative is not as good (or as bad) as the one you are promoting thereby proving that your blanket statement is correct.

A story, then, becomes a far more complex proposition than a simple tale.  Now the author must anticipate all the other ways the audience might consider solving the problem in question. In effect, he has to include all the ways anyone might reasonably think of solving that problem. Essentially, he has to include all the ways any human mind might go about solving that problem. In so doing, as an accidental by-product, generations of storytellers have arrived at our modern conventions of story structure: a model of the mind’s problem-solving process –  the Story Mind.

This is not the mind of the author, reader or audience, but of the story itself – a mind created symbolically in the process of communicating an argument across a medium. It is a mind for the audience to look at, understand, and then occupy.

Once this is understood, you can ensure perfect structure by psychoanalyzing your story as if it were a person. And in so doing, you find that everything that is in the human mind is represented in some tangible form in the story’s structure.

That’s what Dramatica is all about. Once we had that Rosetta Stone, we set ourselves to the task of documenting the psychology of the Story Mind. We developed a model of this structure and described it in our book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story.

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