Dramatica’s Semantics Explained

Some words about semantics…

The terminology used in Dramatica is extremely precise.  Each word is designed to convey a very particular meaning.  But this creates a number of problems from a rather obtuse lexicon to an unfamiliar taxonomy resulting in an almost impenetrable syntax.

See what I mean?  Even just talking about Dramatica’s semantics is something of a brain tilt!  So, my task in this article is to explain the purpose of all the different kinds of complex language in the theory and then provide a perspective from which all those words become tools, rather than obstacles.  To that end, let us begin….

Part One – Classification of Concepts (Taxonomy)

To start with, it is important to note that when we developed the Dramatica theory, we didn’t come to the process with a whole bucket of preconceptions about how structure worked, tried to impose them on stories, and then slapped tricky names on them to obfuscate the issues.  (It would be cool if we had, but we didn’t.)  Rather, we intentionally didn’t read or study any other previous theories of story structure, just so we could approach the field with fresh eyes and open minds.

So, we looked for patterns – things that existed in stories and processes that drove them.  We identified the things as being the building blocks of dramatics, the elements of structure.  We identified the processes as the forces that arranged those building blocks, the dynamics of structure.

As these concepts started to pile up, we began to organize them, just to keep it all from becoming a confusing mess.  We soon discovered that things were naturally falling into four broad categories: Structure, Dynamics, How Structure and Dynamics relate to one another, and How to Use Structure and Dynamics to build the underlying dramatic backbone or foundation of a story.  Let me take just a brief moment to elucidate on each of these four categories…


Here we grouped all of the dramatic building blocks of a story – the elements that make up character, plot, theme, and genre.  The end result was the now-familiar Dramatica Table of Story Elements.  Here’s a link to a downloadable PDF copy, if you don’t already have one (and, for that matter, even if you do, it is still a link):

Dramatica Story Structure Chart

As you can see, it is rather reminiscent of the good ol’ Periodic Table of Elements besmirched by generations of chemistry and physics students.  This similarity is not surprising.  Just as the chemical elements are organized in families of like traits, so too the Dramatica Table groups the elements of structure into families as well.  And just as the chemical elements can be combined to create all manner of substances, so too can the Dramatica elements be combined to create the chemistry of characters, plot, theme and genre.

I’ll return to the chart a little later to talk about the specific names of the elements and why they were chosen, but first let’s examine the remaining three categories into which we placed our dramatic concepts as we developed the theory….


Here we grouped  the forces that drove the story – such things as whether the main character would eventually change its essential nature or remain steadfast to its long-held ideals, and whether the effort to achieve the story goal would ultimately end in success or failure.  As with the elements in the structure chart, the dynamics, handily enough, also self-organize in sub-groups or families.  The most familiar of these dynamics (and arguably the most powerful) eventually became known as the 12 Essential Questions (a nice marketing phrase) and you can easily delve into them with a simple search on the internet.

By the time we were done, we had discovered, organized and named several dozen dynamics, each of which is something of a unique point of view from which the elements of structure can be explored.

Relationship of Structure and Dynamics

Our third category held all the dramatica concepts that explored how structure and dynamics could be fitted together to create the jelled structure of a specific story.  In other words, we found that structure just says what the pieces are, dynamics is the set of instructions for how they will come into play, and when you put them together in a particular way you end up the form of a particular story.  Not surprisingly, we called that a Storyform.  Rats!  I’ve jumped ahead and described an actual word.  Well, no matter, there will be plenty more of that to come.  For now, suffice it to say that everything from Acts and Scenes to Points of View and Perspectives fall into this category.


In our fourth box for story stuff we tossed all of the techniques we discovered for how to actually go about choosing which dynamic to be attached to which structural element in order to get a precise effect in the completed story.  We found four stages (or aspects) of communication between author and audience and identified many creative operations that could be applied in each of those four.

Part Two – Vocabulary (Lexicon)

Now we get down to the nitty gritty of how and why specific words were chosen for different kinds of things.  I’ll do this by using examples  from the Dramatica chart.

First, look at the Dramatica Table of Story Elements (and if you didn’t bother downloading it earlier, you might as well stop reading now, or just bite the bullet and download the sucker).  You’ll note that the highest, most broad-stroke level the Table is divided into four families, each identified by a big boldface block letter name – Universe, Physics, Mind, and Psychology.

Now why in blazes are those names there?  Where in the world did we come up with such things in reference to story structure?  I’ll tell you.

When discovering all the new concepts we talked about in part one, in the structure category we had a whole jumble of words that described human qualities.  Things like faith, denial, learning, or manner of thinking.  At first we thought they were all of the same “weight” – that is to say, that you could put each of these qualities onto a different index card and then just use them almost as topics or aspects of human nature that came into play like playing cards in the course of a story.

But as we began to discover more of these qualities in story and to start to organize them, we discovered that some of them were traits we used to examine ourselves and some we used to interact with our environment.  So, we considered each trait individually to determine whether it belonged in the set of those that looked inward or those that looked outward.

Now we had two groups of traits.  The outward looking one we called “Universe” and the inward looking one we called “Mind.”  Why?  There is an old saying – “What’s Mind? No matter.  What’s Matter? Never mind.”  And that’s pretty much what we were thinking.  Each trait either pertained to something of the physical world or something of the mental one, hence, Universe and Mind.

As for the traits in each of these two groups, we found two interesting things.  One, they weren’t all the same weight.  in fact, some traits were like family names, and other traits were like members of that family.  When working in the Mind group, for example, it is filled with the mental processes we use to solve problems or work things through.  And sometimes certain areas of consideration are just parts of an even larger kind of consideration.  That larger consideration is an umbrella – a family name – for the similarity of the smaller kinds of considerations that fell within it – that made it up, just as individual member of the Smith family all have individual identities, yet also have roles within the family structure at large, making them all Smiths in on to their own identities.  In the Periodic Table of Elements, you have families such as the Rare Earth elements and the Noble Gases (like Argon and Neon) – similar enough to share a family name, individual enough to be separate elements.

The Dramatica Table works much the same.  If you scroll down through your downloaded PDF of the table to page 6, you’ll find a more “3D” view of the table, showing families and sub-families on different levels.  For example, you’ll see in the upper left that the Universe Class (as we call it – a class of elements, as one might classify plant or animal species) is divided into four sub-families: Past, Present, Future, and Progress.  Those sub-families appear in the second level down.  And each of those, in turn, is made up of even smaller (or more detailed) kinds of considerations at the third level.  And finally, you arrive at the bottom fourth level at which you encounter the quintessential elements of which all families are ultimately comprised.

For the moment, let’s go back up to the level just beneath Mind (the class in the lower right of the 3D table: Memory, Conscious, Subconscious, and Preconscious.  To show you how the chart works and why the names in it were chosen, note that the word Memory in the Mind class is in the same relative position to Mind (upper left) as the word Past in Universe (also upper left).  What this is saying is that Past is to Universe as Memory is to Mind.  In other words, position in the chart is indicative of semantic relationship.

Let’s put that in far simpler terms…  When we organized all the elements of structure into families and subfamilies we found that a pattern emerged (and this is the second interesting thing about Universe and Mind I earlier promised to explore): for every element (human trait) in Universe, there was a corresponding trait in Mind.  There was a one to one correlation!  Another example, Present is to Universe as Conscious is to Mind.  Each one deals with the momentary nature of the here and now, one outward-looking, the other inward-looking.

Well now.  Armed with this understanding, we began to organize and re-organize all of the various traits (elements) we had discovered, placing them in identical relative positions to each family and sub-family name.  When we were done, we realized two things: One, that in some cases we had two elements that were really the same thing, just with a different name.  So, we picked the best name and put that in the chart.  Two, that sometimes there was a term in one of the classes with no corresponding term in the other class.  Therefore, we needed to figure out what was that equivalent term that was missing, and then to give it a name.

We did this by looking at the neighbors of the missing term and comparing them to the neighbors of the term that did appear in the other class.  We could begin to sense the semantic difference between the existing term and those around it, and then to calculate what the missing term in the other class would have to be (conceptually) to fill that same space and function.  And so, bit by bit, we were eventually able to discard all the redundant terms and to fill in all the holes with appropriate names.

The end result was a balanced table in which a complete spectrum of human considerations had been mapped.  And position in the table indicated meaning.  In fact (for you mathematically inclined folk) you can draw a vector (line) between any two terms anywhere in the whole table and if you move that line so it connects two other terms completely unrelated to the first pair, the semantic difference between the second two terms will be identical to the semantic difference between the first two.  And that line doesn’t have to be just vertical or horizontal – it can be at any vector angle that connects two terms – even ones in different positions within families and at different levels.

Now that’s a hell of a thing.  Imagine!  We had a chart that mapped all of the principal kinds of considerations we make in our minds, organized into families and named and arranged with such precision that meaning from one space to the next equalled the same distance in meaning, regardless of where it occurred in the table.

We found about one third to one half of those terms in stories, then filled in the holes by comparing similar terms in each class and looking to the neighbors of each to cross-reference what the missing terms ought to be.  So, hundreds of generations of storyteller, though trial and error, had gotten us so close to an accurate map of the human mind that we were able to carry the baton the last leg, fill in the rest of the details in that sketchy image, and arrive at a precise Table of Story Elements.

Oh, and for those new to Dramatica who are wondering why I haven’t said anything about those other two classes in the Table (Physics and Psychology) – well, they were two of the holes we filled in.  At first we thought is was just external and internal with Universe and Mind.  And then we realized that it was also about seeing things in terms of space and time.  Simply put, when we take a flash-photo of our environment, we see the fixed state of things.  That’s what Universe is all about.  And then we turn that camera on ourselves, we get a photo of the fixed state of our minds – things like biases, attitudes, preconceptions or, at a most basic level, our mind set.  But, the mind doesn’t just exist as a bunch of attitudes.  It is also in constant motion, figuring things out, coming up with plans.  So, the mind is partly made up of relatively unchanging things, and also of processes.  Similarly, the external world is partly about how things are arranged (space) and the processes at work (time).

Back to the Table, we eventually had come to refine our notion of Universe and Mind by adding Physics and Psychology so that rather than lumping the substance and processes of external and internal into just two classes, we split it all out, so that Universe is an external state, Physics an external process, Mind and internal state, and Psychology an internal process.  If you stop to think about it, there’s nothing we can consider that can’t be described at the top most level as being either an internal or external state or process.  And that’s why those four class names are at the very top of the consideration table.

It should be pretty obvious that in such a refined chart, choosing just the right word so it fits in its family from the top down, matches the other same-positioned words in the other three classes and is even so precise as to be able to create those vectors of semantic distance I mentioned earlier – well, it was hard.  It took us about two years of full-time effort to polish up the vocabulary with the utmost in precision.

And herein lies both a strength and a weakness.  As it turns out, the English language isn’t evenly spread around all potential meanings.  In fact, it glops together in places where there are many words for the same thing, and then is quite threadbare in other places where there is actually no word at all for a meaning that clearly exists in a class because it exists in the other three.  What to do?

After much discussion, we decided there were only two things we could do: One, find the nearest word to the meaning we were trying to describe and then redefine that word more specifically to our target meaning.  Two, if there was no word of nearby meaning, just invent one of our own.  Depending on the situation, we employed both methods.

Of course, if you are redefining and inventing words, no one is going to know what you are talking about.  So, as part of the effort, we wrote a 150 page dictionary of every single term, including ones of common usage and understanding plus all those redefined and all those invented.  Problem is, so many words and so many alterations for the common understanding….  It creates quite wall to scale if you want to use the theory or the Dramatica software that implements the theory as a tool for story development.

One solution is just to require every user to learn our definitions.  While this is a perfect solutions for accuracy, it isn’t very practical as it makes the learning curve WAY too high to sell more copies than a handful.  So, over the years, some key terms have been replaced with more common usage ones, such as Mind becoming Attitude or Psychology becoming Manipulation.

Now for most story purposes, these work okay.  And this is because most structure is innately sloppy.  After all, no one reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a flawless structure.  Rather, we wish to excite our passions.  And, driven by our emotional involvement (especially in the storytelling, subject matter and style) we are apt to not even notice a few slightly false beats, as long as they are in the ballpark.  In short, show us a good time and we’ll forgive a few things that don’t quite ring true.  For purists, however, the original terminology is still there in the software and you can swap it in and out ’til your heart’s content.  There’s even two different versions of the Table of Story Elements – the accurate one I provided the link to and the revised, less accurate, more accessible one that I won’t provide a link to because I’m a freakin’ purist, okay!!!

There’s a move on now to make the software even more accessible by providing the capability to employ even more conversational and subject matter oriented language instead of the original terms for purposes of creating a storyform structure in the software.  This also has advantages and disadvantages….

Consider if a story is about a problem caused by trash that is left all over the place.  Well, the new approach would ask you what the problem of your story was and you’d type in “trash.”  The software would bring up all the common phrases that had the word “trash” in them.  So, it might then ask you, is your problem about the fact there is trash all over the place, or that people are leaving trash all over the place?  Most writers would just answer “yes” and have a hard time picking between the two because, in common usage, they seem pretty much the same.

But, if the problem is that the trash is all over, it is a Universe (fixed state) problem, while if the problem is that people are dropping trash all over, then it is a Physics (activity) problem.  In other words, picking one of the common usage phrases over the other could throw your whole story into a completely different class, which would alter where your main character was coming from, the kinds of story goals that might be appropriate to such a story and so on.

Now, add to that a long succession of such choices, each one based more on the subject matter than on the underlying structural position indicated by the original precise nomenclature and you can see the errors in meaning multiply until the final structure presented by the software bears no resemblance to story the user originally wanted to tell.

Still, using common language makes the theory and software so much more accessible an less daunting.  And so, many folks who would never buy the product with the difficult original names might be wholly drawn in with the replacement phrases, thereby getting over the rejection hurdle and giving them time to explore, learn, and eventually come to use and understand the accurate original language.

So, it is something of a paradox – the more accurate the terminology, the fewer people will try, stick with, or come to use these valuable concepts.  But, the more easily accessible the language becomes, the more inaccuracies will come into play.

The solution, of course, is that common language must be presented with the accurate terms side by side to at least provide guidance at the time the choices are made.  And, there needs to be a statement at the very beginning that, as with any complex endeavor, there are levels of skill and accuracy one can achieve.  You don’t learn about scarlet, cardinal and vermillion before you learn about red.  And you can do an awful lot with red before you find within yourself the need for any of those more refined colors.

And, perhaps it is just a justification on my part, but even with the inaccurate accessible language, Dramatica still provides a clearer picture of the underlying structure and how it works than any other system yet devised.

Part Three – Grammar (Syntax)

Now this section is going to be REALLY short – mostly because I’ve made my points and also because I’ve been writing this in one long marathon session and I’m getting tired and hungry.  So I’ll keep it to this – the grammar of story structure describes how you go about creating dramatic sentences.  In other words, every time you write a scene, movement, sequence or act you are structuring the dramatic equivalents of phrases, sentences, paragraphs and arguments.

Discovering the exact nature of those “rules” in story structure was another rather intense quest on our part, but it was only possible because we already had the Table of Story Elements to serve as a map.  In terms of semantics, suffice it to say that many of these rules were never observed before, and so a whole new set of terms was required to describe the parts and process of how dramatic elements are assembled in such a guided yet flexible manner as to create form without formula.

Conclusion and Summary

I imagine by now you’ve got the idea.  We weren’t going out of our way to make Dramatica difficult or to put any layers of confusion into the mix to mask errors or faults with our model.  Quite the opposite.  We went out of our way to be accurate and complete and, in so doing, could not help but make the learning of Dramatica a daunting prospect.

Twenty years after we began this effort, none of the underlying concepts has changed.  Once the model was originally fully built, it was both elegant, complete and true.  It is only the wording we use to describe it and the concessions we make to provide the easiest possible entry into it that alter as we consider progressively better means of striking a balance between understanding and usability.

Fair enough.