Why Dramatica Works – Part 1

Over the past twenty years I have written innumerable articles and recorded over one hundred hours of video explaining what the Dramatica is , how to use it and even how it works, but I have never made a concerted effort to describe why it works.

Understanding the difference between “how” and “why” is both a subtle endeavor and a crucial one.  For the “how” just deals with the nuts and bolts of Dramatica’s model of story structure, but the “why” describes the reasons behind the form and elements of that model.  In other words, rather than trying to teach Dramatica for what it is, perhaps the best way to learn Dramatica is to understand why it is as it is.

To this end, I considered where to begin.  What concepts should I start with?  Perhaps an overview of the “big picture” view of the model or maybe with elements that most closely connect with more traditional approaches to story structure.  And then, the obvious slapped me upside the head: I should begin my explanation right where Chris Huntley and I began our exploration so many years ago.

At that time, we knew virtually nothing about how stories worked and came to the problem with fresh and ignorant eyes.  We dabbled in structure for a couple of months, then put it away for ten years before returning to it again, but this time in a nearly four year full-time effort.  Each day posed new questions about the elements and forces that drove the underlying framework of stories.  We struggled to make sense of what we saw, to grasp why it should be that way, and then to conceive of some manner of documenting it, modeling it, fashioning a function system that described, measured, and predicted it.

Still, I realized that the focus of this approach should not be to create a documentary of our efforts but rather to create an idealized path of discovery inspired by the steps we took but refined and guided by our current understandings having finished our journey and having arrived at the comprehensive perspective we enjoy today.

And so, while I will refer to the questions we asked and the answers that were ultimately revealed, the purpose of this initial article and its successive siblings is to seek the essence of story structure in its pure form, both by its nature and by the natural laws under which it self-organizes.  With this as our direction and destination, let us begin our journey….


To set the stage.  In 1979 and on into 1980 Chris Huntley, Mark Sawicki and I wrote and produced a feature motion picture.  We had all met at the University of Southern California in the Cinema department.  I had left before completing my degree and was working in the industry.  Chris and Mark were still attending when we began.  The result was a modest horror movie called “The Strangeness” which, while something of an accomplishment for a budget of thirty thousand dollars, suffered from some rather glaring story problems.

Shortly after its completion, Chris and I decided to write the script for our next effort.  But before we did, we thought we should seek to understand what was actually wrong with our previous story so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the new one.  To that end, we reviewed our characters and plot.  Though we could clearly feel that it was sometimes diverging from some unseen track or dramatic river channel, it was far more a sense of something wrong than a true grasp of what was wrong.

So, we went back over our notes from writing classes we had taken while at the university.  What we soon discovered was that every instructor had their own vague notion of story structure, but in terms of anything truly definitive, they were all lacking.  The best they had to offer were specific tips, tricks and techniques for story development which they had derived from many years of personal trial and error.  In short, our instructors were as clueless as we were.

That being the case, we briefly considered studying the writings of famous investigators of the nature of story – folks such as Joseph Campbell and even Aristotle, not to mention a number of contemporaries who were proselytizing their own brands.  But before taking such steps, we determined that if our instructors (who were already familiar with these systems and explanations) had no clear answers, then perhaps it might be better to approach the subject untainted by the conclusions of others.  Though we might waste our time re-inventing the wheel, we argued, we also would have the best chance of uncovering something new in places everyone else “knew better” than to look.  And so, we met in a small one-room studio “granny house” in the backyard of the home I was renting to ponder the unknown and seek some better grip on the mechanics of story than we had so far encountered.

In regard to our movie’s story, we sensed that our plot, while not excessively clever, wasn’t too far off “the mark” – whatever that was.  But when it came to characters, though we had an interesting assortment of personalities, there was something false about the way they acted and interacted with each other.  No fault of the actors – we could clearly see that in some cases parts of their scripted personalities seemed to be missing, while in other cases their conversations and actions seemed unmotivated, untrue or inconsistent.

Now we come to the first “why” we asked -“Why do characters ring true in some stories and ring false in others?”  We gave it some thought, but try as we may, we could not fathom what was wrong, we could only sense it.  So, we attacked the other side of our question and decided to look at  really successful characters in other stories that were in a similar genre to ours.  It was our assumption that perhaps we might solve our problems by measuring our characters against the template of characters that worked.

To this end, we decided to first investigate the characters in what wast the most popular film of our time: the original Star Wars movie (now called “Episode IV –  A New Hope). As a first step, we listed the principal characters – the ones who seemed to be central to the forces that drove the story – the ones the story seemed to revolve around.

Our initial list included the following:  Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C3PO and R2-D2.  In our writing classes we had been taught about the Protagonist and the Antagonist – two archetypes that we were told must be present in every story.  It made sense to us, so we figured we’d look over our list and identify the Protagonist and Antagonist, which seemed a pretty easy task with something as melodramatic as Star Wars.

It seemed pretty obvious to us and the rest of the movie-going world that Luke was the Protagonist and Darth the “over-the-top” villain.  For now, let’s go with that, as it was our initial understanding though it later proved to be massively incorrect in regard to Darth.  Turning our attention to the other principal characters in our list, we wondered if the fact that there was a Protagonist and Antagonist in every story might indicate that there were also other character types that must, or at least commonly exist in stories.

As we had not read historical explanations of archetypes, we had no grounding from which to begin our considerations, so we simply set about trying to ascertain the “essence” of each character.  In my notes from a writing class I took from Professor Irwin Blacker, he proposed the concept that every character in a screenplay should be a “one hundred percent” character, meaning that each character should embody some essential human quality so that all that it thought or did was exemplary of that quality.  For example, one character might be 100% “hate” while another was 100% “hope.”  In this way, Blacker explained, we are able to examine the value and flaws of all our own shared traits.

With this small thread as our guide, we sought to label each of the characters in Star Wars as to that quintessential quality they represented and explored.  Beginning we those we knew, Protagonist represented our drive to achieve a goal at all costs.  Antagonist represented our drive to prevent that effort from succeeding – an enemy with an agenda in total opposition to that goal.  Now, this didn’t quite ring true to us, even then, for the Protagonist was for something (destroying the empire) but the Antagonist wasn’t so much trying to prevent the empire from being destroyed as to destroy the rebel alliance.  In other words, they were both protagonists, weren’t they?  What was the difference?  What different human qualities did they represent?

For a moment we thought maybe it is as simple as Hero and Villain – that the Protagonist was just a good guy while the Antagonist was a bad guy.  But that also didn’t hold up since there were many characters who represented the quality of “goodness” and quite a few who represented “badness.”  So, we left that one unresolved for a while and moved on to other characters figuring that just identifying Luke and Vader as Protagonist and Antagonist was sufficient for now and we could work out their specific qualities later more easily, perhaps, once we discovered what the other characters’ 100% qualities were.

Obi Wan, for example, appeared to be a mentor, teacher, or protector.  But this confused us, as those labels didn’t really describe human qualities so much as the jobs he did.  Han Solo, on the on hand, was pretty much a cut and dried skeptic.  He didn’t believe in the force, didn’t believe in the rebel’s cause, and was only out for himself.  So skepticism and perhaps selfishness were in his potential trail list.

Around this time we began to suspect that perhaps not all characters were 100% but might be fifty/fifty such as Han might be half skepticism and half selfishness.  If so, then things were a bit more complicated than we had been led to believe.  (If we had only know JUST how much more complicated, we would likely have given up right then and there and taken jobs in some other industry where we had some natural talent!)

We strove on, however, and considered the other principal characters.  Chewbacca seemed to be all emotionally driven and wild, in contrast to Princess Leia who was the “ice-princess” – pretty much devoid of emotion and also the opposite of wild: staid and controlled as the two hairballs on the side of her head.  Perhaps we were onto something here.  Just as Protagonist and Antagonist were opposites, maybe Chewbacca and Leia were also opposites.  But who was Han’s mirror image?  Well, it had to be Obi Wan or one of the droids, C3PO or R2-D2.

It might be Obi Wan.  After all, he believed in the force and Han didn’t.  And the two of them argued a lot, so it made a certain amount of sense.  Yet they didn’t particularly seem a balanced pair.  And then there were the droids.  What quality did each represent?  And though they bickered, were they really in opposition? For that matter, did characters always have to be in opposition?  Did each character need a mirror image opponent who exemplified the opposite human quality, such as greed and generosity or kindness and meanness?  And finally, did all human qualities have an opposite one, or did the human mind itself have “orphan” qualities that stood alone, without opposition.  In short, is there symmetry in stories; is there symmetry in the mind?

Well these questions were clearly too tough for us to answer, so we put aside characters for a bit to focus on plot instead.  And here we also made some progress.  One of the first things we discovered was something we called the “rule of threes.”  This notion was that when you had two characters in opposition, they would meet three times in a story: First, to introduce their conflict, second to engage in conflict and part with no clear winner, third to have it out in a battle royal until only one remains alive, or in power, or simply just left standing.

After trying out the rule of threes we discovered that opposing characters might meet more than three times if their relationship and/or opposition was extremely powerful or complicated, but they had to meet “at least” three times or there would be a plot hole.  So we revised our rule to so state.

And then we hit a brick wall.  We couldn’t get a step farther in understanding plot and couldn’t see anything new in characters.  After a few hapless days, Chris wisely suggested we simply hadn’t had enough life experience to crack this nut, so we should put it aside for a few years until we did and then revisit it.  I agreed, and we turned our attention to that second screenplay which, when completed, contained most of the same problems as our first script and even some new ones we hadn’t had before.  While interesting, we kinda figured that our time trying to understand story structure was wasted.  And so it lay for almost ten years while Chris and I went on to our individual careers in the business.

That’s the end of this first installment in “Why Dramatica Works.”  It illustrates how structure is not easy to see and, prior to Dramatica, was more an intuitive endeavor than an intellectual one.  Now I may have gotten a few incidental facts out of order or perhaps ahead of where we actually were at the time, but give me a little slack – it was almost a third of a century ago.  The important thing is noting the questions that arose:  Is there a fixed structure to stories, or at least a fixed set of dramatic building blocks?  Do things have to be in opposition (is there symmetry)?  Do characters represent jobs or human qualities or both, and which is best used to identify them?  If there are other archetypes beside Protagonist and Antagonist, what are they, and do they have to be in all stories or just CAN be in any story?  And finally, are there rules of plot that determine how things will come into conflict, how conflicts will resolve, and the order in which events should or even must happen?

In the next installment we’ll come back ten years later in 1991 when we once more picked up the quest which, within six months, had turned into a full-time effort lasting three more years and become (so far) a twenty year career of finding new ways to explain and employ the Dramatica model of story structure we ultimately designed.