When we pull away the curtain of storytelling we finally get a good look at the dramatic mechanism behind it. And one of the first things we notice is that it actually has two parts: dramatic components (such as the goal) and dramatic processes (such as character growth). For clarity, Dramatica refers to the components as Structure and the processes as Dynamics.
Structure by itself delineates the building blocks of dramatics and how they can be assembled together, as if we were constructing a machine, while dynamics put that machine in motion and describe how it works and what it does. Taken together, structure and dynamics outline the psychology of the Story Mind.
As described earlier, the Story Mind is a projection of the workings of the human mind, materialized in an author’s argument. In our own minds, for example, we all have goals. And so, we would expect stories have goals as well, and they do.
Having goals is a quality of all people, but we don’t always have the same kind of goal – that is part of what makes us different. And so it is with stories – while they all have goals, the particular kind of goal is part of what makes one story structure different from another.
Similarly, in terms of mental processes, we all grow but we grow in different areas. So again, we would expect stories to also illustrate growth, yet the particular area in which growth takes place would partially delineate one structure from another. And it is so.
Guided by these concepts, we looked to both the human mind and the subject matter of stories and set about creating a list of different kinds of goals and areas of growth (among other dramatic concepts which we shall explore later).
Eventually, we had compiled quite a set of topics. It quickly became apparent that many of them shared certain general qualities, so we created a table that grouped and organized them in families.
The Dramatica Table of Story Elements
The Dramatica Table of Story Elements is not unlike the Periodic Table of Elements in chemistry. With it, you can create the chemistry of your characters, plot, theme, and genre.
One of the first things you might notice is that the flat projection on the left really does look a lot like the familiar Periodic Table. The 3D projection on the right, however, is likely a bit 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 in the structure while the 3D projection will help us when we explore how story dynamics twist and turn the Table like a Rubik’s Cube to wind up the dramatic potentials that drive story.
So, as you can see already, the Dramatica Table incorporates both the structure that comprises the story’s topics and the dynamics that move them around to make the author’s argument. This is important to note in order to dispel any erroneous first impressions the Table might give that Dramatica is a fixed mechanical system, when in fact (as we shall see in chapters to come) it is completely fluid and organic.
No doubt you’ve noticed the prominent words Universe, Physics, Mind and Psychology on the Dramatica Table. These represent the four fundamental families of topic areas that might exist in a story’s argument. For this overview we’ll introduce each of them briefly, and fully explore them in chapters to come.
First, a word about the terminology itself: 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.
But back when we were naming the concepts in the structure of the Story Mind, 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 Dramatica 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.
Since we’re both stuck with all these names, let’s see if we can illuminate what those first four terms really mean (and what they can do for us) so as to provide an initial feel for the nature and usefulness of the Dramatic Table, before we move on to other things.
Each of the four terms describes one of the basic families of topics that might be explored in a story’s argument.
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)
So, what the Table is telling is that whatever story argument you might want to make can be classed as being about an external or internal state or an external or internal process.
To get a feel for this, try it in real life. Think about any issue or kind or growth you have encountered. No matter what it is, it can best be classified as an external or internal state or process. (Whenever you want to better understand a story concept, it often helps to try it in the real world.)
Right off the bat this four-family approach is a very useful concept. It allows us to take the whole world of arguments we might wish to make in a story and pare it down 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 in our story’s argument and can focus all our efforts on the real case we wish to make.
Universe stories are about the unchanging elements of our external environment. Anything that is a fixed situation falls into this category. For example, being stuck in a well, being held captive, or having only one eye are all situational “Universe Class” arguments.
Physics stories, on the other hand, are all about activities. Honey bees dying off across the country, the growth of a militant organization, and the progress of a cancer are all “Physics Class” arguments.
Mind stories are the internal equivalent of Universe – a fixed internal state. So, any prejudice, bias, fixation, or fixed attitude would be the kinds of issues explored in “Mind Class” story arguments.
Psychology is the Physics of the mind – an internal process. A “Psychology Class” story would be about someone who makes a series of assumptions leading to difficulties, or someone whose self-image and confidence are eroding, for example.
Going into a bit more detail, inside each of those four major families are sub-families into which topics are further sub-divided and then sub-divided again. Eventually, we get down to the smallest topics or, put another way, the tiniest details in the underlying story argument in a feature length movie or stage play, or in the average book.
(Later, we shall see that the Story Mind actually has a maximum size and learn why, but for now, simply think of the size of the Table as being sufficient for the typical full-length story.)
Naturally, a full explanation of how to apply the Table to story development will be the subject of a great number of the chapters to follow, but to continue this brief introduction to what lies behind the curtain of storytelling let us now turn our attention to the 3D projection of the chart.
Imagine that you printed out the flat projection of the Dramatica Table onto a piece of paper, then crumpled that paper into a ball in a random fashion. If you could look inside that ball, you’d see that some of the items in the Table come into close contact, while others may be separated by many layers of crunched paper.
This is a rough analogy to how a human mind, starting out all nice and balanced, is rearranged by the experiences and inequities of life. It also illustrates how a perfectly happy and contented Story Mind manages to get all bent out of shape and full of dramatic potential.
If you were to print out five copies of the Table (or five hundred) and crumple them one at a time, you’d find that while some of them may share a few dramatic conjunctions, no two are exactly alike. In fact, you could arrange them almost like a spectrum of all the different kinds dramatic potential that can be created from that original potential-free Table.
Now rather than crumpling a new chart each time you wanted a new story structure (and a random one at that), what if you made a master list of all the possible ways that the items in the chart might come together and then simply plotted them on a nice flat uncrumpled Table?
That’s pretty much the purpose and function of the 3D projection of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. As you see in the illustration at the head of this section, the 3D projection appears orderly and stable. But looks can be deceiving….
When we first created the Table, we tried plotting on it these different dramatic items (like goal) and progressions (like character growth). Sure enough, there were patterns. Some patterns looked like circles. Others looked like the letter “N” or “Z” as we followed how one topic gave way to the next over scenes, sequences, and acts. And still others resembled a hairpin. And there were scores of such patterns scattered all over the Table even for just one story structure.
Though we could clearly see we were on the right track, it soon became evident that there were no obvious “rules” that dictated where and when which pattern would best describe the dramatic relationships in a particular story: at least, due to the complexity of the patterns, none that we could readily see.
And then we had a breakthrough. It occurred to us that rather than plotting complicated dramatic patterns on a fixed and static Table, what if we continually rearranged the table itself so that the patterns became simple?
You see, the flat table we had created was just a visualization of what was going on in the story’s psychology. For structural purposes, the flat projection works best because it makes it easiest to see such things as how goals and the requirements needed to meet them are related to a character’s motivations, for example. In other words, the flat projection works best for plotting the relationships among the components of structure.
But to understand story dynamics, you need to stop thinking of the families just as groups and see them more like spokes on a wheel. Then, you can much more easily observe dramatic progressions, such as character growth, by the turning of the wheels in each specific area of growth.
And so, the 3D projection of the chart was born to show how all the families and sub-families of dramatic topics functioned like wheels within wheels. This new view enabled us to show how an obstinate character who refuses to change perhaps causes the wheels to rotate in one direction while a character who embraces change rotates them in another.
(Now keep in mind nothing is really rotating here – it is just a handy way to visualize how dramatic items come in and out of conjunction based on the kinds of pressures that are applied to the Story Mind’s psychology.)
In addition, we discovered that the items in each family could also flip or exchange positions. As an example, think about a character or a real person who tries everything he or she can to solve a problem with logic, only to ultimately realize they must follow their heart. In that case, they have essentially substituted feelings for logic or, in a sense, those two qualities have exchanged positions with feeling now becoming their motivation or drive instead of logic.
On the Dramatica Table, this can be represented by actually flipping the relative positions of logic and feeling (both of which terms appear in one of the families, by the way).
And so, each family can flip and/or rotate like a wheel as well. And in this way, the Dramatica Table is able to not only plot but also to analyze the effect of dramatic pressures on the story mind. And even more usefully, the Table can also predict such things as whether a character should change or remain obstinate in order to create a particular kind of dramatic effect.
This, then, is the real power of the Table. It can be used both for analysis of structures to find holes and inconsistencies, but can also be used for the creation of structures to ensure consistent completeness.
Of course, that is all pretty sophisticated stuff that is enough to make your head spin (and flip). And that is why we programmed it all into a Story Engine that became the heart of the Dramatica story development software.
But this book isn’t about the software – just the story theory behind it. So, suffice it to say in this introductory chapter that, in the end, the Dramatica Table is very detailed and very powerful, yet when all is said and done, the Table is just a map of dramatic topics and the story’s dynamics are what drive the reader or audience on a journey across that territory.