Category Archives: Dramatica

Have Your Characters Write Their Own Autobiographies

When fleshing out your characters, have each one write a short autobiography in their own voice about their lives prior to the beginning of the story, touching on key turning points, memories of special events – both cheerful and tragic, and of the people who meant/mean the most to them.

What are their biggest disappointments, narrowest escapes, greatest triumphs, deepest regrets?

Have them tell you, the author, about their hobbies, religious and political views, hopes, and dreams.

And finally, have your character each write about how the people and events in your story appear to and affect them, from their unique point of view and position in your story.

In this way, your character development will become more organic and more informed.

Keep in mind, however, that our sense of our own selves is usually quite different from how others see us. So, it is a good idea to make sure each character writes about the others in terms of whether they trust them, what they think is their greatest strength, most detrimental weakness, and must fun/frustrating trait. This will not only illuminate how each character sees the others, but how the others see them.

And finally, when you actually sit down to write your characters, don’t just approach them from your author’s view as to what you need/want them to do in the plot, but stand in their shoes and try to understand why they do these things. Is it easy or hard for them to do what they do, compatible or contrary to their nature, and what personal costs or benefits will their actions bring them?

In the end, never forget that we are each the main character or our own personal story, even when we are playing a subordinate role in a larger story involving many others.

Read more writing tips at Storymind.com, the Creative Writing Tips web site.

Story Structure is Based on Fours, Not Twos

Story structure is built on fours, not on twos.  Though it may seem like conflict is created between two opposing forces, there are two other forces at play as well.

Consider a dramatic circuit consisting of four elements: Potential, Resistance, Current, and Power – just like an electrical circuit.

Every scene has all four elements and if one is missing, the circuit is incomplete and the story won’t flow.

But there’s more to it than that.  These four elements have a relationship that we see in many areas of life.

Here are some other sets of four that create the same kind of internal mechanism:

  • Earth, Water, Wind, Fire
  • Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb
  • Red, Blue, Green, Brightness
  • Universe, Physics, Mind, Psychology
  • Mass, Energy, Space, Time
  • Characters, Plot, Theme, Genre
  • Motivation, Method, Evaluation, Purpose

As you can see, each group of four has a very similar feel.  And the last item in each set seems a little out of place compared to the other three.

There’s an important psychological reason for that, but it would require going way too deep for this post.  For now, just know that stories reflect how we think, and we think in four dimensions because we perceive four dimensions.  So, it is no surprise that story structure is also based on fours, because that is the way we fully explore a topic in fiction or in life.

Your Story As A Person

All too often, authors get mired in the details of a story, trying to cram everything in and make all the pieces fit.  Characters are then seen only as individuals, so they often unintentionally overlap each other’s dramatic functions. The genre is depersonalized so that the author trying to write within a genre ends up fashioning a formula story and breaking no new ground. The plot becomes an exercise in logistics, and the theme emerges as a black and white pontification that hits the audience like a brick.

You have days, months, perhaps even years to prepare your story to exude enough charisma to sustain just one 2 or 3 hour conversation with your readers or audience.  They expect all that effort to result in a tightly packed story that holds their interest, transports them to a world of imagination, and also makes sense along the way.

Problem is, if you keep your nose buried too far into the details, you might be undercutting the overall impact if you lose sight of how all the pieces work together.  We all get drawn deeper and deeper into our stories as we massage every little aspect individually.  That’s why it is a good idea to come up for air once in a while, step back, and see how your story plays as a whole.

One of the best ways to do this is to think of your story as a person you’ve invited to dinner, and to let you story tell you all about itself over the meal.

Here’s how it might go.  Let’s call your story “Joe.” You know that Joe is something of an authority on a subject in which your are interested. You offer him an appetizer, and between bites of pate, he tells you of his adventures and experiences, opinions and perspectives.

Over soup, he describes all the different drives and motivations that were pulling him forward or holding him back. These drives are your characters, and they are the aspects of Joe’s personality.

While munching on a spinach salad, Joe describes his efforts to resolve the problems that grew out of his journey. This is your plot, and all reasonable efforts need to be covered. You note what he is saying, just an an audience will, to be sure there are no flaws in his logic. There can also be no missing approaches that obviously should have been tried, or Joe will sound like an idiot.

Over the main course of poached quail eggs and Coho salmon (on a bed of grilled seasonal greens), Joe elucidates the moral dilemmas he faced, how he considered what was good and bad, better or worse. This is your theme, and all sides of the issues must be explored. If Joe is one-sided in this regard, he will come off as bigoted or closed-minded. Rather than being swayed by his conclusions, you (and an audience) will find him boorish and will disregard his passionate prognostications.

Dessert is served and you make time, between spoonfuls of chocolate soufflé (put in the oven before the first course to ready by the end of dinner) to consider your dinner guest. Was he entertaining? Did he make sense? Did he touch on topical issues with light-handed thoughtfulness? Did he seem centered, together, and focused? And most important, would you invite him to dinner again? If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, you need to send your story back to finishing school (a re-write), for he is not ready to entertain an audience.

Your story is a person.  It is your child. You gave birth to it, you nurtured it, you have hopes for it. You try to instill your values, to give it the tools it needs to succeed and to point it in the right direction. But, like all children, there comes a time where you have to let go of who you wanted it to be and to love and accept who it has become.

When your story entertains an audience, you will not be there to explain its faults or compensate for its shortcomings. You must be sure your child is prepared to stand alone, to do well for itself.  If you are not sure, you must send it back to school.

Personifying a story allows an author to step back from the role of creator and to experience the story as an audience will. This is not to say that each and every detail in not important, but rather that the details are no more or less important than the overall impact of the story as a whole.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver

This article is drawn from my
StoryWeaver Story Development Software

Try it risk-free for 90 days and write
your novel or screenplay step by step

 Click for details and free bonus….

You Got Me! (Both Of Us!)



Arthur says:

I’m a great Dramatica fan so I’m a bit reluctant to take up Melanie’s challenge to refute the Dramatica Theory. My question was virtually identical to Armando’s but he put it better. Theory without practical application is not very helpful. Let’s try another. Supposing you wanted to create a story or play about a gifted female whose unique ability was “supreme self-confidence” and her critical flaw was “sophisticated self-deception.” How would dramatica help you arrive at those characteristics in order to get a Storyform? It can’t, can it? I refute the theory thus.

Okay, so I’m halfway into a deep consideration of this issue when suddenly it hits me…

“Wait just a cotton pickin’ minute!” I yell out loud to no one in particular.

Then, no one in particular shouts back, “What’s biting you?!”

I reply with recovered aplomb, “Did you notice the example in Arthur’s question?” “Yeah, so what?” no one taunts. “Think about it.” I bark bemusedly, “Arthur describes “a gifted female whose unique ability was supreme self-confidence and her critical flaw was sophisticated self-deception.” Sound like anyone you know?”

“Sounds like both of us,” No One replied thoughtfully, “but , we’re both the same person and you realize, of course, that you are having a conversation with your self – and out loud, I might add.”

“True, but in fact, you are my Self-Confidence, and I am your Self-Deception (and pretty sophisticated too, “I” might add!”

“I guess that makes ME “supreme” then! Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more—PLEASE say no more!”

“Ah, but that would prove Arthur’s point, wouldn’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if your self-confidence is undermined by my self-deception, then the Dramatica theory is refuted!”

“Whoa, hold on there, pardner! First of all, I believe it is quite the contrary. My Confidence is only bolstered by your self-deception. I mean, think about it. The more Self-Deceived “we” become, the more our confidence grows.”

“Blimey, but you’re right!”

“I was confident I would be…”

“Okay, that was “first of all,” so is there more?”

“But of course!” Suppose Arthur was serious in his question (though I seriously doubt it). Then, the first point he makes is almost to say that a theory is invalid if it isn’t useful.”

“Now just hold on…. He didn’t exactly say THAT.”

“True, but since he was setting up a refutation of the theory, he established a context in which the “value” of a theory is tied to its practical usefulness. Then, by shifting the subject of the question to the validity of the concepts there is an emotional carry-over that appears to strengthen the logistic contention.”

“Oh.”

“So, second of all, there are lots of theories that are almost totally wrong and still have a few concepts of practical value. And there are also a lot of esoteric theories which are almost certainly true, yet have no practical application at all. In conclusion, the ability to USE a theory has absolutely nothing to do with its validity.”

“I’ll give you that one, even though I don’t think it is self-deceptive enough.”

“Fine, let’s press on…. I think we’ve already dealt with the central contention that self-deception is a critical flaw to confidence. Arthur then asks a seemingly rhetorical question, “How would dramatica help you >arrive at those characteristics in order to get a Storyform? ” The rhetorical answer is, since that combination doesn’t work, Dramatica will not provide such a conjunction of story points.”

“’Scuse me…. but isn’t there ANY time in which I, self-deception, might undermine your self-confidence as a critical flaw?

“Sure, but not in a direct manner. In fact, a number of other writers on this list proposed very serious descriptions of how the “feel” Arthur was describing was quite achievable and in much more depth and nuance than his example would seem to indicate. Perhaps one of the most interesting came from Bill, who said:

“- Since the story is about this person, are these two attributes really the Unique Ability and the Critical Flaw? Perhaps self-deception is the Problem and self-confidence is the Focus. (Or some other combination like that.) Consider this mix of appreciations, straight from the Story Engine:

PROBLEM: Non-Accurate
SOLUTION: Accurate
FOCUS: Expectation
DIRECTION: Determination
UNIQUE ABILITY: Experience
CRITICAL FLAW: Fantasy

(It’s interesting that the self-deception gets sort of a double-whammy with the problem being Non-Accurate and the Critical Flaw being Fantasy.)”

“Well, Ms. “Supreme Self-Confidence”… I suppose you’re pretty pleased with yourself.”

“But of course! Still there are yet two remaining points to be made.”

“Pray tell, what are they?”

“First, Arthur responds to his rhetorical question, “How would dramatica help you arrive at those characteristics in order to get a Storyform? ” with “It can’t.” That’s not quite accurate….”

“Ah, so this is where self-deception comes into play?”

“Sort of… It’s not that Dramatica “can’t” help you do arrive at that combination. It’s that it “won’t.”” If it did, it would be leading you right into an invalid storyform.”

“Is that it, are you FINISHED YET!!!”

“Almost. The final line of Arthur’s post reads, “I refute the theory thus.”

“So?”

“So you don’t refute a theory by refuting an application of it.”

“Meaning?”

“Let’s start at the beginning… Dramatica starts with a hypothesis: Every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind, trying to deal with an inequity.” The hypothesis says “what” but not “how.”

“Go on.”

“The “theory” of Dramatica describes a structure and the dynamics which manipulate it. That winds up the model with dramatic tension.”

“Gotcha.”

“Now, each of the story points is “mapped” onto that structure. Each is determined by a separate formula, each is a separate application. “

“So are you saying some of the algorithms in Dramatica some of the formulas might be wrong?!”

“Sure, they “might” be. I personally don’t think so (remember I AM self-confidence), but of course it is possible. You see, the real value of the theory is to look at every story as a SINGLE mind in which the characters, plot, theme, and genre are but aspects: families of different kinds of thought which interact so as to mimic the internal processes of the mind coming to a solution—it makes them TANGIBLE, so we can watch our own internal mechanism to learn how to best respond under different conditions.”

“Whoa! That’s a mouthful!”

“You bet it is, but it’s really what Dramatica is all about. If writers can just start looking to each story as a complete mind, as a person with a personality (genre), methods (plot), value standards (theme), and driving forces (characters), then the parts of stories would start to work together SO much better!”

“And if some of the particular formulas DO turn out to be in error?”

“Then they need to be re-written so they are more accurate. You see, the “theory” of Dramatica can’t really be proven or disproven. Either stories can be understood as a model of the mind or not. But if they can, then the applications and formulas of the theory need to be constantly questioned, amended, discarded, and added to. The advancement of practical applications and understanding of the theory is an ongoing process which will likely never be completed. After all, how much is there to learn about the mechanism of the mind? The key to improving the theory is to call every suspicious formula into question, lay it out for public viewing. The theory will only “advance” into more practical use if others more skilled than “you” (self-deception) or “I” (confidence) contribute our efforts.”

“That’s quite a concession, Confidence, to admit there are others more capable and you.”

“Hey, you know as well as I do that in spite of our self-deception to believe we are some sort of next-gen Einstein, we’re really just a couple of smart cookies who worked with ol’ Chris for a few years, tripped over a new concept (the Story Mind) because we were too intellectually inept to know better, and then spent the better part of a decade putting in good old-fashioned hard work to try and document it and make something out of it. Truth of the matter is that we’ve gone about as far as we can go! In your heart, you know its true. You keep thinking of yourself as 18, but just because we’re both 46 doesn’t mean we’re each 23!!!”

“Yeah, you’re right. I, of all people, can’t deceive myself on that one. It’s time to hand it off to those with degrees, and practical experience. Time to put it out there, let the world have it and make of it what they will.”

Then, both halves of myself joined in unison, both confidence and self-deception in Greek Chorus “singing”:

“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…”

“Stop it!” I shouted to both of them.”Shut up!”

“And now, the hour is late, and I have reached the final curtain…”

“I said SHUT UP!!! I still have a lot of good, creative years in me. LOTS…. REALLY!”

“Cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon…”

“WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT UP!!!!! I know, I’ll show you! I’ll come up with a whole NEW theory. Something even more extensive and complex than Dramatica! I’m not dead yet!”

“It’s a dead man’s party…”

“Ah, the hell with it.”



Symbolizing Concepts

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.

Excerpted from the Dramatica Theory Book
which you can read free on our web site

Jurassic Park – Building A Better Dinosaur

One way to improve your writing is to look at a good story and learn from it.  Another way it to see what’s wrong with a bad story and think about how to fix it.  But you seldom see writers looking at good stories to see how they might be improved.  Yet, that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.

I wrote the following article back when the original Jurassic Park movie first came out, just as we were finishing up work on our theory of narrative structure.  We figured that anyone can point out the flaws in a bad story and see the shining gems in a good one.  But if we we could show how to improve good stories, then writers might pay attention to our ideas about dramatics.  And so, I penned a whole series of Creative Criticisms where I used our narrative concepts to do just that.

Here’s the first article in that series:

Building a Better Dinosaur

Jurassic Park is wonderfully entertaining. The concepts are intriguing, the visuals stunning. Everything it does, it does well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do enough. There are parts missing, little bits of story DNA that are needed to complete the chain, and these problems go right back to the book the movie is based on.

The structure of a story, is not medium dependent. What works in one medium will work in all others. Storytelling, however, must vary significantly to take advantage of the strengths and avoid the weaknesses inherent in any format. Jurassic Park makes this storytelling translation very well, but the flawed dramatics were lifted intact, shackling the movie, just like the book, with a Pterodactyl hanging `round its neck.

So how can we avoid being blinded by great storytelling to see beyond it into the underlying dramatics that are working against an every more powerful story?  To find out, let’s lay a little groundwork about how the structure of stories works.  I’ll keep it to a minimum because, after all, writers aren’t narrative theorists and most don’t want to be.

First up, to the audience the message of the story is about an ethical or philosophic conflict such as greed vs. generosity that is at the heart of A Christmas Carol by Dickens.  It is this message conflict the gives the story meaning beyond action, pathos, and good storytelling.  To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, it is the force that gives binds the story together.

For that message to work, this conflict shows up both in the overall story in which everyone is involved and in the personal story the Main Character.  So, in A Christmas Carol, the overall story is about Bob Cratchet’s family, and whether or not Tiny Tim will live.  In the personal story, it is about Scrooge’s belief it is every man for himself, and that no one is obligated to help others – in fact, it is a bad idea.

Because the message conflict is reflected both in the big picture and in the small picture, success or failure in a the attempt to achieve the goal is dependent on whether or not the Main Character is able to overcome his or her personal demons, often through a leap of faith just before the climax.  So, to be dramatically strong a story must explore an the problem both objectively and subjectively, weigh one side of the conflict against the other, and then show the final result of choosing one side over the other.

Jurassic Park attempts to do this but does not quite succeed because its exploration of the personal side of the problem is lacking.  The issue at the heart of the story is order (control) vs. chaos.  Hammond believes you can build a system that is safe, Ian Malcolm (the chaos expert) responds that “life will find a way” – in other words, you can’t achieve complete control.  Things go wrong at Jurassic Park because unexpected interference with the system comes out of left field – chaos.  This is well represented in the overall plot.

At the other level, Dr. Grant is the Main Character of the story – the one who is supposed to grapple with the personal aspect of the message conflict, but though the groundwork is laid, it is not fully developed and never comes into play at the end as it should.

As the film opens, the entire first scene with Grant at the archaeological dig illustrates his displeasure with chaos. All the elements are there: a disruptive boy, a randomly sensitive computer, a helicopter that comes out of nowhere and ruins the dig. All of these things clearly show Grant’s frustration and displeasure with Chaos, but they don’t directly show the counterpoint: if you are against chaos, you like things orderly – you strive for order.

As a result, these events come off more as simple irritations that anyone might feel, rather than establishing Grant’s personal issue that he so prefers an orderly life that he seeks to prevent the forces of chaos from entering his realm.  Alas, without any direct allusion to Order being his primary concern, Dr. Grant comes off simply as finding disruptions inconvenient, faulty equipment annoying, and kids as both.

Yet just stating that Dr. Grant shares the message conflict with  the overall story is obviously not enough. The relationship between his view of the problem and the overall story view of the problem is what explores the concept, makes the argument, and allows the Main Character to grow. Ultimately, it is the differential between the two that brings a  Main Character to suspect the error of their ways and make a positive leap of faith and change. They see the problem outside themselves, then find it inside themselves.  They change the inside, and the outside follows suit.

What does this mean for Jurassic Park? In the movie as it is, Doctor Grant’s attitude toward John  Hammond’s ability to control the dinosaurs is one of skepticism, not because he promotes order but because he is wary of chaos. Grant simply agrees with Ian Malcolm, the mathematician. This makes the same point from two characters. But Grant’s function should not be to sound a warning about Chaos just as Malcolm does, but to promote even more control to ensure Order. Only this point of view would be consistent with his feelings toward the children, and why he doesn’t want any of his own.

The following scene rewrites the dialog of Grant, Hammond, and Malcolm to illustrate how the overall story conflict between Hammond and Malcolm regarding order and chaos could have easily been reflected at a personal left in Grant, who initially favors order above all things, but later (should have) come to embrace chaos and thereby changed.

GRANT

How can you be sure your creations won’t escape?

HAMMOND

Each compound is completely encircled with electric fences.

GRANT

How many fences?

HAMMOND

Just one, but it is 10,000 volts.

GRANT

That’s not enough….

HAMMOND

I assure you, even a T-Rex respects 10,000 volts!

GRANT

No, I mean not enough fences. It’s been my experience that Dr. Malcom is right. You can’t count on things going the way you expect them. You need back-ups to your back-ups. Leave a soft spot and chaos will find it. Put three fences around each compound, each with a separate power source and then you can bring people in here.

MALCOLM

That’s not the point at all! Chaos will happen no matter how many fences you build. In fact, the more you try to control a situation, the greater the potential that chaos will bring the whole thing down.

In the above scene, Grant stresses the need for even MORE control than Hammond used. This clearly establishes his aversion to giving in to chaos. But Ian illustrates the difference in their points of view by stating that the greater the control you exercise, the more you tighten the spring of chaos.

What would this mean for the middle of the story? Plenty. Once Grant and the children are lost in the open with the thunder lizards, he might learn gradually that one must allow chaos to reach an equilibrium with order. Several close encounters with the dinos might result in minor successes and failures determined by applying whether an orderly or chaotic approach is taken. This should have been Grant’s learning experience in order to reach a point of change at the climax.

As it stands, Dr. Grant simply learns to care about the children. But what has that really changed in him at the core? What did he learn? And how does that relate to the message conflict in the overall story?

Would it not have been more dramatically pleasing to have his experiences with the children teach him how chaos is not just a disruptive element, but sometimes an essential component of life? And would it not make sense for someone who has spent his whole life imagining the way dinosaurs lived to be surprised by the truth when he sees them in person?

What a wonderful opportunity this was to show how the orderly interactions he had imagined for his beloved beasts are anything but orderly in the real world. So many opportunities to teach him the value of chaos, yet all we get is “They DO travel in herds… I was right!” Well, that line is a nice place to start, especially if you spend the rest of the story showing how wrong he was about everything else. Truly a good place to start growing from.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the personal story line is the manner in which they all escape in the end. Grant and the kids are sealed in the control room, but the raptors are right outside. The girl struggles to get the computer up so they can get the door locked. This of course, merely delays the Raptors until the helpless humans can escape into another Raptor attack. Then out of nowhere, T-Rex conveniently barges in, kills the Raptors and allows the humans to escape? Why? Why then? Was T-Rex just waiting in the wings for his cue?

Let’s propose one possible ending that would have tied in chaos in the overall story with Dr. Grant’s personal issue of order in the Subjective story and set up the entire dramatic framework for his growth as a character in a leap of faith.

Imagine that earlier in the story, when the power went down at the beginning, it only affected some of the compounds, rather than all. So though dinos are roaming in all sections of the park, they can’t get from one section to another.

Near the end, Dr. Grant and the kids make it back to the control room, barely escaping the T-Rex who is trapped by one of the electrified section fences. In quick action, they climb over the fence on a tree knocked down by the Tyrannosaurus. The Raptors are at the door of the control room, the girl goes to the computer to lock the door. She locks it, then tells Grant she can bring up the rest of the fences.

As she works, Grant sees a painting on the wall that shows two dinosaurs fighting.  As he watches the girl work with the painting behind her and the raptors at the door, we realize he is thinking about how he and the kids were saved earlier because a dino attacked the one that was about to kill them.  Grant looks back and forth and then makes the connection. “No!” he yells.  “Take them down, take them all down!”  The girl is incredulous and refuses but he insists and she cut the power on all of the fences, expecting the worst.

Just as before, the Raptors break in, the humans escape onto the dino skeletons. NOW, when T-Rex comes in to save the day, it is solely because of Dr. Grant’s decision to cut the power to the fences allowing the T-Rex to get into this sector. Having learned his lesson about the benefits of chaos and the folly of order, he is a changed man. The author’s proof of this correct decision is their salvation courtesy of T-Rex.

Grant and the kids make for the helicopter.  Now, when Grant suddenly gets cuddly with the kids, we understand his feeling about having children has changed because of his changed mind regarding keeping order and shutting out chaos.  As a result, this removes the obstacle that stood between Grant and his love interest and kept them from being together – the desire to have children.  Grant saves the kids, gets the girl, and equilibrium is restored on the island.

So, as you see, just a few small changes in a story, even a good one, can power boost its impact and make the whole thing resonate.  Now our narrative theory has even more suggestions for Building a Better Dinosaur, but, leapin’ lizards, don’t you think this is enough for one Constructive Criticism?

Now all the concepts in this article are drawn from our Dramatica Story Structure Software, based on our narrative theory.  You can try it risk free for 90 days and see if you can improve your novel or screenplay as well.  Just click here for details or to download the demo.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Here’s something else I made for writers…

What Is Dramatica?

What is Dramatica?

Dramatica is a theory of story that offers both writers and critics a clear view of what story structure is and how it works. Dramatica is also the inspiration behind the line of story development software products that bear its name.

The central concept of the Dramatica theory is a notion called the “Story Mind.” In a nutshell, this simply means that every story has a mind of its own – its own personality; its own psychology. A story’s personality is developed by an author’s style and subject matter; its psychology is determined by the underlying dramatic structure.

The Story Mind

The Story Mind is at the heart of Dramatica, and everything else about the theory grows out of that. If you don’t buy into it, at least a little, then you’re not going to find much use for the rest of this book. So let’s take look into the Story Mind right off the bat to see if it is worth your while to keep reading…

Simply put, the Story Mind means that we can think of a story as if it were a person. The storytelling style and the subject matter determine the story’s personality, and the underlying dramatic structure determines its psychology.

Now the personality of a story is a touchy-feely thing, while the psychology is a nuts-and-bolts mechanical thing. Let’s consider the personality part first, and then turn our attention to the psychology.

Like anyone you meet, a story has a personality. And what makes up a personality? Well, everything from the subject matter a person talks about to their attitude toward life. Similarly, a story might be about the Old West or Outer Space, and its attitude could be somber, sneaky, lively, hilarious, or any combination of other human qualities.

Is this a useful perspective? Can be. Many writers get so wrapped up in the details of a story that they lose track of the overview. For example, you might spend all kinds of time working out the specifics of each character’s personality yet have your story take a direction that is completely out of character for its personality. But if you step back every once and a while and think of the story as a single person, you can really get a sense of whether or not it is acting in character.

Imagine that you have invited your story to dinner. You have a pleasant conversation with it over the meal. Of course, it is more like a monologue because your story does all the talking – just as it will to your audience or reader.

Your story is a practical joker, or a civil war buff (genre), and it talks about what interests it. It tells you a story about a problem with some endeavor (plot) in which it was engaged. It discusses the moral issues (theme) involved and its point of view on them. It even divulges the conflicting drives (characters) that motivated it while it tried to resolve the difficulties.

You want to ask yourself if it’s story makes sense. If not, you need to work on the logic of your story. Does it feel right, as if the Story Mind is telling you everything, or does it seem like it is holding something back? If so, your story has holes that need filling. And does your story hold your interest for two hours or more while it delivers it’s monologue? If not, it’s going to bore it’s captive audience in the theater, or the reader of its report (your book), and you need to send it back to finishing school for another draft.

Again, authors get so wrapped up in the details that they lose the big picture. But by thinking of your story as a person, you can get a sense of the overall attraction, believability, and humanity of your story before you foist it off on an unsuspecting public.

There’s much more we’ll have to say about the personality of the Story Mind and how to leverage it to your advantage. But, our purpose right now is just to see if Dramatica might be of use to you. So, let’s examine the other side of the Story Mind concept – the story’s psychology as represented in its structure.

The Dramatica theory is primarily concerned with the structure of a story. Everything in that structure represents an aspect of the human mind, almost as if the processes of the mind had been made tangible and projected out externally for the audience to observe.

Do you remember the model kit of the “Visible Man?” It was a 12″ human figure made out of clear plastic so you could see the skeleton and all the organs on the inside. Well that is how the Story Mind works. it takes the processes of the human mind, and turns them into characters, plot, theme, and genre, so we can study them in detail. In this way, an author can provide understanding to an audience of the best way to deal with problems. And, of course, all of this is wrapped up and disguised in the particular subject matter, style, and techniques of the storyteller.

Now this makes it sound as if the real meat of a story, the real people, places, events, and topics, are just window dressing to distract the audience from the serious business of the structure. But that’s not what we’re saying here. In fact, structure and storytelling work side by side, hand in hand, to create an audience/reader experience that transcends the power of either by itself.

Therefore, structure and storytelling are neither completely dependent upon each other, nor are they wholly independent. One structure might be told in a myriad of ways, like West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, any given group of characters dealing with a particular realm of subject matter might be wrapped around any number of different structures, like weekly television series.

But let’s get back to the nature of the structure itself and to the elements that make up the Story Mind. If characters, plot, theme, and genre represent aspects of the human mind made tangible, what are they?

Characters represent the conflicting drives of our own minds. For example, in our own minds, our reason and our emotions are often at war with one another. Sometimes what makes the most sense doesn’t feel right at all. And conversely, what feels so right might not make any sense at all. Then again, there are times when both agree and what makes the most sense also feels right on.

Reason and Emotion then, become two archetypal characters in the Story Mind that illustrate that inner conflict that rages within ourselves. And in the structure of stories, just as in our minds, sometimes these two basic attributes conflict, and other times they concur.

Theme, on the other hand, illustrates our troubled value standards. We are all plagued with uncertainties regarding the right attitude to take, the best qualities to emulate, and whether our principles should remain fixed and constant or should bend in context to particular circumstances.

Plot compares the relative value of the methods we might employ within our minds in our attempt to press on through these conflicting points of view on the way toward a mental consensus.

And genre explores the overall attitude of the Story Mind – the points of view we take as we watch the parade of our own thoughts unfold, and the psychological foundation upon which our personality is built.

Melanie Anne Phillips

This article is drawn from the author’s
Dramatica Story Structure Software

Try it risk-free for 90 days and write
your novel or screenplay step by step

 Click for details and free bonus….

Narrative Science and Dramatica

Every once in a while I write an article about the Dramatica theory of narrative structure that zooms right down to the subatomic level.

Such articles have absolutely no practical value to writers but, being a narrative scientist, it is a means demonstrating the depth and complexity of the Dramatica theory to my fellow self-proclaimed wizards of space and time.

Case in point: here is a reprint of the very first post I made to my Dramatica blog so many years ago…

~ Caution – Deep Narrative Theory Ahead ~

What’s “Ability” have to do with story structure?

In this article I’m going to talk about how the Dramatica Theory of Narrative Structure uses the term “ability” and how it applies not only to story structure and characters but to real people, real life and psychology as well.

Ability is one of the dramatic elements that the Dramatica software define your story’s message and thematic conflict.  There are sixty-four thematic elements in Dramatica – a whole spectrum of human traits and qualities that might be good or bad ones to have, depending upon the story.

If you look in Dramatica’s “Periodic Table of Story Elements” chart (you can download a free PDF of the chart at http://storymind.com/free-downloads/ddomain.pdf ) you’ll find  “ability” in one of the little squares.  To locate it, look in the family called the “Physics” class in the upper left-hand corner of the chart and examine the very smallest items listed there.  You’ll find it in a group of four dramatic elements, “Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire”.

To begin with, a brief word about the Dramatica chart itself.  The chart is sort of like a Rubik’s Cube.  It holds all the elements which must appear in every complete story to avoid holes.  Conceptually, you can twist it and turn it, just like a Rubik’s Cube, and when you do, it is like winding up a clock – you create dramatic potential.

How is this dramatic potential created?  The chart represents all the categories of things we think about.  Notice that the chart is nested, like wheels within wheels.  That’s the way our minds work.  And if we are to make a solid story structure with no holes, we have to make sure all ways of thinking about the story’s central problem or issues are covered.

So, the chart is really a model of the mind.  When you twist it and turn it represents the kinds of stress (and experience) we encounter in everyday life.  Sometimes things get wound up as tight as they can and get stuck there.  And this is where a story always starts.  Anything before that point is backstory, anything after it is story.

The story part is the process of unwinding that tension.  So why does a story feel like tension is building, rather than lessening?  This is because stories are about the forces that bring a person to change or, often, to a point of change.

As the story mind unwinds, it puts more and more pressure on the main character (who may be gradually changed by the process or may remain intransigent until he changes all at once).  It’s kind of like the forces that  create earthquakes.  Tectonic plates push against each other driven by a background force (the mantle).  That force is described by the wound up Dramatica chart of the story mind.

Sometimes, in geology, this force gradually raises or lowers land in the two adjacent plate.  Other times it builds up pressure until things snap all at once in an earthquake.  So too in psychology, people (characters) are sometimes slowly changed by the gradual application of pressure as the story mind clock is unwinding; other times that pressure applied by the clock mechanism just builds up until the character snaps in Leap Of Faith – that single “moment of truth” in which a character must decide either to change his ways or stick by his guns believing his current way is stronger than the pressure bought to bear – he believes he just has to outlast the forces against him.

Sometimes he’s right to change, sometimes he’s right to remain steadfast, and sometimes he’s wrong.  But either way, in the end, the clock has unwound and the potential has been balanced.

Hey, what happened to “ability”?  Okay, okay, I’m getting to that….

The chart (here we go again!) is filled with semantic terms – things like Hope and Physics and Learning and Ability.  If you go down to the bottom of the chart in the PDF you’ll see a three-dimensional representation of how all these terms are stacked together.  In the flat chart, they look like wheels within wheels.  In the 3-D version, they look like levels.

These “levels” represent degrees of detail in the way the mind works.  At the most broadstroke level (the top) there are just four items – Universe, Physics, Mind and Psychology.  They are kind of like the Primary Colors of the mind – the Red, Blue, Green and Saturation (effectively the addition of something along the black/white gray scale).

Those for items in additive color theory are four categories describing what can create a continuous spectrum.  In a spectrum is really kind of arbitrary where you draw the line between red and blue.  Similarly, Universe, Mind, Physics and Psychology are specific primary considerations of the mind.

Universe is the external state of things – our situation or envirnoment.  Mind is the internal state – an attitude, fixation or bias.  Physics looks at external activities – processes and mechanisms.  Psychology looks at internal activities – manners of thinking in logic and feeling.

Beneath that top level of the chart are three other levels.  Each one provides a greater degree of detail on how the mind looks at the world and at itself.  It is kind of like adding “Scarlet” and “Cardinal” as subcategories to the overall concept of “Red”.

Now the top level of the Dramatica chart describe the structural aspects of “Genre”  Genre is the most broadstroke way of looking at a story’s structure.   The next level down has a bit more dramatic detail and describes the Plot of a story.  The third level down maps out Theme, and the bottom level (the one with the most detail) explores the nature of a story’s Characters.

So there you have the chart from the top down, Genre, Plot, Theme and Characters.  And as far as the mind goes, it represents the wheels within wheels and the sprectrum of how we go about considering things.  In fact, we move all around that chart when we try to solve a problem.  But the order is not arbitrary.  The mind has to go through certain “in-betweens” to get from one kind of consideration to another or from one emotion to another.  You see this kind of thing in the stages of grief and even in Freud’s psycho-sexual stages of development.

All that being said now, we finally return to Ability – the actual topic of this article.  You’ll find Ability, then, at the very bottom of the chart – in the Characters level – in the upper left hand corner of the Physics class.  In this article I won’t go into why it is in Physics or why it is in the upper left, but rest assured I’ll get to that eventually in some article or other.

Let’s now consider “Ability” in its “quad” of four Character Elements.  The others are Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire.  I really don’t have space in this article to go into detail about them at this time, but suffice it to say that Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire are the internal equivalents of Universe, Mind, Physics and Pyschology.  They are the conceptual equivalents of Mass, Energy, Space and Time.  (Chew on that for awhile!)

So the smallest elements are directly connect (conceptually) to the largest in the chart.  This represents what we call the “size of mind constant” which is what determines the scope of an argument necessary to fill the minds of readers or an audience.  In short, there is a maximum depth of detail one can perceive while still holding the “big picture” in one’s mind at the very same time.

Ability – right….

Ability is not what you can do.  It is what you are “able” to do.  What’s the difference?  What you “can” do is essentially your ability limited by your desire.  Ability describes the maximum potential that might be accomplished.  But people are limited by what they should do, what they feel obligated to do, and what they want to do.  If you take all that into consideration, what’s left is what a person actually “can” do.

In fact,  if we start adding on limitations you  move from Ability to Can and up to even higher levels of “justification” in which the essential qualities of our minds, “Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire” are held in check by extended considerations about the impact or ramifications of acting to our full potential.

One quad greater in justification you find “Can, Need, Want, and Should” in Dramatica’s story mind chart.  Then it gets even more limited by Responsibility, Obligation, Commitment and Rationalization.  Finally we end up “justifying” so much that we are no longer thinking about Ability (or Knowledge or Thought or Desire) but about our “Situation, Circumstance, Sense of Self and State of Being”.  That’s about as far away as you can get from the basic elements of the human mind and is the starting point of where stories begin when they are fully wound up.  (You’ll find all of these at the Variation Level in the “Psychology” class in the Dramatica chart, for they are the kinds of issues that most directly affect each of our own unique brands of our common human psychology.

A story begins when the Main Character is stuck up in that highest level of justification.  Nobody gets there because they are stupid or mean.  They get there because their unique life experience has brought them repeated exposures to what appear to be real connections between things like, “One bad apple spoils the bunch” or “Where there’s smoke , there’s fire.”

These connections, such things as –  that one needs to adopt a certain attitude to succeed or that a certain kind of person is always lazy or dishonest – these things are not always universally true, but may have been universally true in the Main Character’s experience.  Really, its how we all build up our personalities.  We all share the same basic psychology but how it gets “wound up” by experience determines how we see the world.  When we get wound up all the way, we’ve had enough experience to reach a conclusion that things are always “that way” and to stop considering the issue.  And that is how everything from “winning drive” to “prejudice” is formed – not by ill intents or a dull mind buy by the fact that no two life experiences are the same.

The conclusions we come to, based on our justifications, free out minds to not have to reconsider every connection we see.  If we had to, we’d become bogged down in endlessly reconsidering everything, and that just isn’t a good survival trait if you have to make a quick decision for fight or flight.

So, we come to certain justification and build upon those with others until we have established a series of mental dependencies and assumptions that runs so deep we can’t see the bottom of it – the one bad brick that screwed up the foundation to begin with.  And that’s why psychotherapy takes twenty years to reach the point a Main Character can reach in a two hour movie or a two hundred page book.

Now we see how Ability (and all the other Dramatica terms) fit into story and into psychology.  Each is just another brick in the wall.  And each can be at any level of the mind and at any level of justification.  So, Ability might be the problem in one story (the character has too much or too little of it) or it might be the solution in another (by discovering an ability or coming to accept one lacks a certain ability the story’s problem – or at least the Main Character’s personal problem – can be solved).  Ability might be the thematic topic of one story and the thematic counterpoint of another (more on this in other articles).

Ability might crop up in all kinds of ways, but the important thing to remember is that wherever you find it, however you use it, it represents the maximum potential, not necessarily the practical limit that can be actually applied.

Well, enough of this.  To close things off, here’s the Dramatica Dictionary description of the world Ability that Chris and I worked out some twenty years ago, straight out of the Dramatica diction (available online at http://storymind.com/dramatica/dictionary/index.htm :

Ability • Most terms in Dramatica are used to mean only one thing. Thought, Knowledge, Ability, and Desire, however, have two uses each, serving both as Variations and Elements. This is a result of their role as central considerations in both Theme and Character

[Variation] • dyn.pr. Desire<–>Ability • being suited to handle a task; the innate capacity to do or be • Ability describes the actual capacity to accomplish something. However, even the greatest Ability may need experience to become practical. Also, Ability may be hindered by limitations placed on a character and/or limitations imposed by the character upon himself. • syn. talent, knack, capability, innate capacity, faculty, inherant proficiency

[Element] • dyn.pr. Desire<–>Ability • being suited to handle a task; the innate capacity to do or be • An aspect of the Ability element is an innate capacity to do or to be. This means that some Abilities pertain to what what can affect physically and also what one can rearrange mentally. The positive side of Ability is that things can be done or experienced that would otherwise be impossible. The negative side is that just because something can be done does not mean it should be done. And, just because one can be a certain way does not mean it is beneficial to self or others. In other words, sometimes Ability is more a curse than a blessing because it can lead to the exercise of capacities that may be negative • syn. talent, knack, capability, innate capacity, faculty, inherent proficiency

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica