Excerpted from the book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story
The question arises: Is telling a story better than telling a non-story? No. Stories are not “better” than any other form of communication — just different. To see this difference we need to define “story” so we can tell what a story is and what it is not. Herein lies a political problem. No matter how one defines “story,” there will be an author someplace who finds his favorite work has been defined out, and feels it is somehow diminished by not being classified as a story. Rather than risk the ire of countless creative authors, we have limited our definition to a very special kind of story: the Grand Argument Story.
As its name indicates, a Grand Argument Story presents an argument. To be Grand, the argument must be a complete one, covering all the ways the human mind might consider a problem and showing that only one approach is appropriate to solving it. Obviously, this limits out a lot of creative, artistic, important works — but not out of being stories, just out of being Grand Argument Stories. So, is a Grand Argument Story better than any other kind? No. It is just a specific kind.
Ever since we wrote this section, It’s bugged the hell out of me. Here’s why we wrote it, and then why it bothers me:
Dramatica is the first comprehensive model of the underlying components of story structure and how they hang together. Those components are WAY below the level of what most people think story is. We’re talking about the pre-conscious level of story – the deep-dive framework that resonates with the minds of the readers or audience right in the operating system.
So forget about writing about topics or people or events – structure, really DEEP structure bears no resemblance to anything anybody thinks about, any more than we consciously query out neurons when we are trying to decide between chocolate and vanilla.
Now to fully describe how a decision is made, you’d have to have a map of each neuron and the state it is in. But how far away from story is that? Still, that’s structure – a description of the nuts and bolts and pulleys and gears of the mind – a mechanical take on the organic flow of our thoughts and feelings, explored and made manifest in a tidy package called a story.
When you just blurt out a thought, is that a story? Not hardly; it’s just a notion. And when you follow a stream of consciousness from one notion to another, is that a story? Again, no. It is just a train of thought. A story is a complete examination of a problem, inequity or issues from every conceivable side and to as much depth as you can keep in your head at one time. THAT’s a story. And the list of all the angles and all the components from the largest concept to the smallest illumination – that’s story structure, and we call it a Grand Argument Story because it makes not just an argument, but the biggest most complete argument about the best (or worst) way of looking at or responding to the core consideration we’re trying to get a grip on.
That means that any work of clever word play or one that simply meanders through the subject matter, picking little thought daisies and turning over experiential stones may be the most magnificent read every created. But it isn’t a story.
And this is why we wrote the section of the original theory book quoted above – we knew if we precisely defined story (which you kinda hafta do if you are outlining a theory of story) writers in all genres and media would rise up in arms to drive us from the village because we defined their favorite works as non-stories.
Heck, we were just scared of the blow-back which, in fact, did not happen. And so all that “Oh, please don’t hurt us – we aren’t saying anything bad about your darlings – we’re just redefining what the whole world thinks story is, so its okay if your candidate didn’t make the cut,” all that self-protective crap – well, it’s so whiny and pandering. Makes me feel all smarmy that we put this section in there, which is why I hate it.
So here’s the god awful truth in straight talk, all these years later: Call it story or call it a dog with a fluffy tail – fact is, the most complex form of structure is when an issues is explored all the way from the biggest perspective on it to the smallest; when every yardstick in a human being’s mental arsenal is brought to bear in course of that exploration, and when the way all that stuff is arranged matches the way we put it together in our own heads, as thinking, feeling creatures, regardless of culture, race religion, age, gender or smarts. A complete Lego-set of all of our mental marbles, excluding any subject matter, just the building blocks of pondering that is so foundational, so elemental and so invisible to the naked mind that you can’t see it unless someone holds a microscope to it (like this book) and makes you stare at it: that’s story and, specifically, that’s a Grand Argument Story. Take it or leave it.
–Melanie Anne Phillips