Dramatica Theory (Annotated) Part 7 “Symbolizing Concepts”

Excerpted from the book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story

It has been argued that perhaps the symbols we use are what create concepts, and therefore no common understanding between cultures, races, or times is possible. Dramatica works because indeed there ARE common concepts: morality, for example. Morality, a common concept? Yes. Not everyone shares the same definition of morality, but every culture and individual understands some concept that means “morality” to them. In other words, the concept of “morality” may have many different meanings — depending on culture or experience — but they all qualify as different meanings of “morality.” Thus there can be universally shared essential concepts even though they drift apart through various interpretations. It is through this framework of essential concepts that communication is possible.


We wrote this section of the book right up front because we were getting a lot of “blow-back” from “artists” who felt that “story” was a magical, mystical thing that could  never be defined.  They believed that any attempt to do so was inherently flawed and, therefore, the whole Dramatica concept was wrong right out of the box.

And in regard to that box, you’ve hear people often say, “You need to think outside the box.”  What Dramatica is saying here is, “Inside or outside: either way you’re still thinking ABOUT the box.”  Which means, that the box is, in the above example, “morality.”  Every human mind has a little box called “morality.”  We can’t help it – its the way we’re built.  But what we put in that box  is guided by culture and unique to each individual.

Thinking outside the box really just means looking into somebody else’s box and seeing what they have in there.  If you consider it, see how that might be seen as, in our example, morality – they you are open-minded.  If you hold that only what you have put into your box is appropriate to be labelled “morality,” they you are close-minded.

Life (if we look outward) and, more accurately, we ourselves (if we look inward) are made of boxes.  Each with a different label and each filled with a whole assortment of things we’ve piled in there over the years through experience and a bunch of stuff that has been piled in out box by others, through personal influence or collectively through cultural indoctrination.

As long as we look at the contents, story structure (and narrative psychology) will make no sense because were are trying to compare what one person believes should go in that box in their life to what everyone else is putting in a box with the same label in their lives.

But if you just look to see if everyone has a box labelled “morality” or any of the other story points that are the conventions of story structure, you’ll see we all have the same boxes with the same labels, but what we put in them is different.

From that perspective, you begin to see that there is also a pattern to the way people stack up those mental boxes for storage.  The box labelled “Hope” is often stacked right next to the one labelled “Dreams.”

The boxes are what we documented as the structure of Dramatica, and how they are organized is described by the dynamics of the Dramatica model.  When people start to stack things in a way that seems out of kilter, such as putting Morality next to Dreams instead of Hope, then you know that something in their lives has caused them to arrange their collections of experiences and responses into an unusual pattern because it helped them deal with unique but ongoing situations they’ve encountered.

Moving boxes around like that, out of category and out of sub-category is like mixing up the periodic table of elements in physics to create molecular substances or like pulling items out of the well-organizerd pantry to add them to a recipe boiling on the stove.

Life requires that we do such things to move efficiently through the trials and tribulations we face and to maximize the results we’re after.  But when we get in the habit of re-organizing things in a particular manner and it sets in place so we never get back to the original, un-biased order…  well, that’s what we call (in Dramatica) “Justification,” and it is the process of being bent by experience to the point you think that crooked path is straight.

It IS kinda straight in a warped world.  But if the world warps some other way or you move to a new environment that isn’t warped or is warped differently, then that pattern you don’t even think about anymore is suddenly out of kilter.  That’s the moment the problem at the heart of a story is born.

The question then is, do you keep your labelled boxes in the same organization that has now worked so well for so many years, or do you rearrange them to adapt to the new situation.  And this is the argument that ensues between the Main Character and the Influence Character, resulting in a climax in which the Main Character will either change or remain steadfast.  Which way leads to success, is unsure.  Maybe sticking with your tried and true will change the immediate world around you.  Maybe you have to change because the world ain’t budging.  Either way, the choice is unavoidable.

This is what stories are all about.  So, if we put “morality” aside in terms of specific content and find the common ground that we all have a box with that label on it, just with different contents – if we stop thinking our way of stacking boxes is right for everyone else, even though our life experiences have been so different – if we just realize we all have the same bag of marbles but group them in different ways, then perhaps, just perhaps, we might have a little more tolerance for other people and other peoples and realize that we’re all the same, even though we’re nothing alike.

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