The Dramatica Chart

The Dramatica Theory

A Conversation on Story Structure

by Melanie Anne Phillips

1.4 The Dramatica Chart

As a part of that book, we developed the Dramatica Chart of Story Elements which is not unlike the Periodic Table of Elements in chemistry. With it, you can create the chemistry of your characters, plot, theme, and genre.

Nonetheless, in chemistry it is not only knowing what the elements are but understanding how they can be put together that allows a chemist to design all of the amazingly varied substances we have today.  So fortunately, the Dramatica theory did not stop with the chart, but when on to discover and organize the dynamics of story as well.  We’ll cover these in later chapters, but for now a brief introduction to the structural side of Dramatica is that point at hand.

The Dramatica Chart

  Flat Projection

  3D Projection

The Dramatica chart lists and organizes all the psychological processes that must exist in a Story Mind (that, in fact, exist in the human mind).  The first thing you might notice is that the flat projection on the left really does look a lot like the familiar Periodic Table of Elements.  The 3D projection on the right is likely a lot more unfamiliar.

The reason there are two versions is that the flat projection makes it easier to see how the elements of story fall into families while the 3D projection will help us later when we explore how story dynamics twist and turn the model like a Rubik’s Cube to wind up the dramatic potentials that drive story.

At its most simple level, the chart can be seen as having four principal areas (called classes): Universe, Physics, Mind, and Psychology. These represent the four fundamental kinds of problems that might exist in stories (or in life!)

Universe is an external state (any fixed situation)

Physics is an external process (any kind of activity)

Mind is an internal state (any fixed attitude)

Psychology is an internal process (any manner of thinking)

Essentially, whatever problem you might confront can be classed as either an external or internal state or an external or internal process.

Right off the bat this is a very useful concept.  It allows us to take the whole world of problems we might encounter in a story and initially classify them into one of four broad categories.  In one stroke, we are able to eliminate three fourths of the issues we might have had to explore and can center our search for solutions in a much smaller realm.

In later chapters, we’ll use the chart to continue to refine the nature of the story’s problem by sub-categorizing its nature into smaller and smaller sub-families in the chart until we get down to its elemental nature (the smallest units in the flat projection which also appear on the very bottom level of the 3D projection.

But for now, let us focus on those four broad categories at the very top of the chart so that we can get a sense for how the Dramatica organizes the elements of story.

Universe then is our external environment. Anything that is a problematic fixed situation falls into this category. For example, being stuck in a well, being held captive, or missing a leg are all situational “Universe Class” problems.

Physics, on the other hand, is all about activities that cause us difficulty. Honey bees dying off across the country, the growth of a militant organization, and the growth of a cancer are all “Physics Class” problems.

Mind is the internal equivalent of Universe – a fixed internal state. So, any prejudice, bias, fixation, or fixed attitude would be the kinds of problems found in the “Mind Class”.

Psychology is the Physics of the mind – an internal process.  A “Psychology Class” problem would be someone who makes a series of assumptions leading to difficulties, or someone whose self-image and confidence are eroding.

In stories, as in real life, we cannot solve a problem until we can accurately define it. So, the first value of the Dramatica Chart is to present us with a tool for determining into which of the four fundamental categories of problems our particular issue falls.

Now you may think that the terms Universe, Physics, Mind, and Psychology, are a little antiseptic, perhaps a bit too scientific to be applying them to something as intuitive as the writing of stories.  We think so too.

Back when we were naming the concepts in the Dramatica Theory, we were faced with a choice – to either use extremely accurate words that might be a bit off-putting or to use easily accessible words that weren’t quite on the mark.

Ultimately we decided that the whole point of the theory was to provide an accurate way of predicting the necessary components of a sound story structure. Therefore, we elected to use the terms that were more accurate, even if they required a little study, rather than to employ a less accurate terminology that could be grasped right away.  Sorry about that.

Returning to the chart itself, the 3D version appears as four towers, each representing one of the four classes we’ve just described and each class having four levels.

As we go down the levels from top to bottom we subdivide each kind of problem into smaller and more detailed categories, thereby refining our understanding of the very particular kind of problem at the core of any given story.

There is far more power, meaning, and usefulness to the Dramatica Chart than so far described, just as the understanding and application of the Periodic Table of Elements doesn’t stop at simply noting that it divides elements into families.

We’ll explore all of these aspects in later chapters, but in this introductory overview, suffice it to say that the Dramatica Chart accurately lists and organizes all of the dramatic elements necessary to contrast any effective story structure.

From The Dramatica Theory