Storytelling and Cognitive Modeling

Recently, an associate suggested a tie-in between cognitive modeling of cultural storytelling preferences and Dramatica that might, someday, provide guidelines for “writing the next Star Wars.”

This, for me, opened the whole discussion regarding the relationship between story structure and storytelling – specifically in this case, between our Dramatica theory of narrative and cognitive modeling of audience reactions to stories.

Here is my reply to my associate:

To me, it is important to think of stories as having layers:

The first layer is the structure

The second layer is the subject matter

The third layer is the storytelling style

The fourth layer is the target audience, which will be pre-primed with its own expectations.

In Dramatica theory, Chris and I have named these stages:

1.  Storyforming

2.  Story Encoding

3.  Story Weaving

4.  Story Reception.

Returning to my earlier analogy where I referred to the Dramatica model as the DNA of story structure, these stages have the following correlation:

1.  Species Genome (human, house cat)

2.  Individual Genetics (height, hair color, predilection toward specific diseases.

3.  Clothing, body building, style, and presentation

4.  Surrounding culture, societal norms and expectations, etc.

In terms of characters:

1.  Psychology (The underlying functioning of the mind below the conscious mind – i.e. neuroses, biases)

2.  Personality (The true nature of one’s identity – charismatic, timid, natural leader, joker)

3.  Persona (The image we wish to project to others – i.e. appearing confident, though really fearful)

4.  Presentation or Perception (How the persona is tailored to a particular audience and/or how the audience is pre-loaded to perceive the persona).

Dramatica theory and the story engine function only at the first of these stages – creating a map of the dramatic potentials of a story or a character – the psychology of the story mind or the character mind.

Chris and I have written extensively on the other three in order to provide a means of connecting the raw framework of narrative psychology to the finished product of stories as they are presented to an audience.

And it is in this realm that the suggestions made in your note might be extremely useful.

What makes Dramatica unique is that all previous attempts to understand story structure looked at the way people were dressed and trying to determine from it the underlying psychology.  While there can be some generalized correlation between, for example, people who wear red and a given neurosis, Dramatica can map the psychology directly.

Yet that map is sterile and bears no passion with it.

And so, while essential for creating a sound foundation that is a true functional narrative, Dramatica can never provide all the emotive aspects that make stories (and characters) so attractive.

Conversely, while work on cognitive models of story reception can be extremely useful in establishing guidelines for storytelling, such guidelines will always shift as the culture changes and need to be updated regularly.  Attempts to find absolutes through cognitive modeling can never discover the underlying DNA of character any more than we can determine a person’s individual genome from their wardrobe.

The key to developing a fully connective methodology for “writing the next Star Wars” is to build a bridge between Dramatica and cognitive modeling from the other side of the storytelling/structure divide so that both the underlying psychological functioning of a story and the cultural/societal preferences for substance and style are maximized to create a finished work that is both accurate to human nature and responsive to human desire.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

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