Category Archives: Concepts

Examples of Story “Concerns”

In previous classes, we’ve looked at how to zero in on the nature of your story’s central driving problem or issue at the most broad stroke level by seeing it as being an external state or process (situation or activity) or an internal state or process (attitude or chain of thought).  But we can delve even deeper into the story’s problem by further sub-dividing whichever of these four realms the story is in into four even more detailed categories.  For example, we can sub-divide a situation into Past, Present, Future and Progress.  Or, we could sub-divide a state of mind into Memory, Conscious, Subconscious and Preconscious.

Why these words – especially since some like Progress and Preconscious seem out of place or unfamiliar?  I’ll get into that in a minute, but first, consider that Past is to Situation as Memory is to Attitude. And, Present is to Situation as Conscious is to Attitude.  The point is that in order to look at your story at a more detailed level, you need to sub-divide the nature of the problem without bias or warping or changing your point of view.  You must, as an author, remain objective when dealing with structure so that the sub-categories in one realm have exactly the same relationship to the parent category in each of the four realms.  Only by being consistent in examining our structure can we accurately build it.

Finally, in answer to the question of “why THOSE words” – well the simple answer is that the Dramatica theory was built by taking that objective look at structure as deep as we could see with it, sub-dividing and then further sub-dividing the nature of the driving tensions of the dramatics until we could sub-divide it no more.  The names of these sub-categories were chosen to be as unbiased as possible to keep each realm consistent.  But, because every culture has its own biases built right into the language, we found that sometimes we had to slightly redefine a common word to get to the meaning we really wanted, and other times we had to use the closest match or even come up with a new word to fit the meaning that should be at a particular sub-category if it was to not introduce that cultural bias.  So, Progress means how we measure how the situation is changing.  Preconscious is how we measure how our attitude is changing.  Preconscious describes the fixed filters of our mind to which we can compare how our overall outlook is changing.

Story Domain Examples

In previous classes we’ve talked about the problem at the heart of a story that drives all the dramatics – from character growth through plot progressino and even development of the message.  In order to have the best control of our story, we need to know as much as we can about the specific nature of our story’s problem.  In fact, it is the discovery of that nature of the problem and then the attempt to find a solution for it that describes that journey of the characters in the story as well.

As we found, the first thing we can do to zero in on the nature of the problem is to determine whether it is an external problem (like being trapped in a cave) or an internal problem (like having a bad attitude).  Naturally, external problems can cause attitude problems and vice versa.  But the question is: from where does the problem originate – where does it begin: externally or internally.  That becomes ground zero for you story’s dramatics and all that happens in the other realm is best seen as ripples or ramifications of the problem.

Once you know if you are dealing with an external or internal problem, you can further clarify it by asking, “Is the problem with the way things are, or the way things are headed?”  In other words, is you problem (regardless of external or internal) caused by the state of things or by processes that are going awry?  An external state is a situation.  An internal state is an attitude, prejudice or fixation.  An external process is an activity.  An internal process is a manner of thinking or train of thought.  For example, even if someone has a great attitude, if their thoughts lead them down a negative path, they can end up in a depression for no good reason.

This much we learned in previous classes, and we named the external and internal states and processes, Universe (external state), Mind (internal state), Physics (external processes), Psychology (internal processes).  In fact, those are the four top-level categories in the Dramatica table of story elements.  To gain even more clarity about our story’s problem, we can continue to sub-divide the nature of the problem in each of these four areas, going down level after level in detail until we get to the heart of the matter – the elemental kernal that is the grain of sand at the core of the pearl – the big bang that resulted in the entier story world we are exploring.

Again, this much we have covered.  But what we have not yet explored is that no matter how detailed our examination of the nature of the problem and its story-wide ramifications, this only describes what we are lookiing at as both author and audience.  It says nothing about where we are looking from – our point of view, which is (essentially) where the author wants to position the audience in regard to the problem or subject under study.

There are, in fact, four points of view: that of the main character who represents the “first person” angle on the story.  It is through the main character’s eyes that the audience most personally and passionately experiences the nature of the story’s problem.  Then there is the “second person” perspective – the “you” angle by which the audience is able to observe the opposing view point to that of the main character, not by stepping into another set of shoes, but by examining it from the outside as we would if looking at someone else and their view point.  In stories, this represents that “devil’s advocate” voice within our own minds by which we consider changing our view on a particular issue or belief, but not by simply trying it on.  If we did, we would have already changed.  Rather, we look AT that piont of view and ask ourselves, “who would I be if I changed my view to that, rather than this?”

If we examine the give and take tug of war between those two views of the main character (“I”) and the influence character (“you”) we can see how each point of view struggles against the other for spremacy in the story’s mind, as it were.  That battle between two ideals is a third point of view – second person plural or “we.”  It is the battle in which boths sides of ourselves (represented by the main and influence character) have it out with each other.  Like fighters circling in the ring, our two view points revolve around one another until we arrive at a decision to stick with our guns and hold on to the old view or to change and adopt the new one.  We call this the “Subjective” view.

So far then, we have “I”, “You”, and “We.”  But there is one more – “They.”  This final view is of all the other characters in the story – those not involved in the philosophical argment because they don’t fall on either side of it.  Rather, all the other characters represent the other aspects of our minds that are trying to solve the logistic nature of the problem while our sense of self (the main character) has it out with the opposite philosophic view that outlines who we might become if we changed (the influence character). In fact, both the main and influence characters also have objective roles.

You might think of it as that our own minds have different facets – a voice of reason, for example, or skepticism.  These are represented by the charactes in a story so we can see, externally, how these different traits fare against one another and thereby the author can make an argument as to which of them is the best place to come from when trying to solve the particular kind of problem at the center of this particular story.  But in ourselves, not only do we have these traits or qualities, but we also have a sense of self (“I think, therefore I am” – represented by the main character who is not a trait but that self awareness of our own existence – that inner eye that can cast itself upon our own nature).

So, the main character may be at any given time coming from any one of those trait positions.  For example, in one story the main character may be attached to the character representing the voice of reason, meaning that the story mind’s sense of self is coming from a position of reason in regard to this particular problem.  Such a main character would be the audience position in the story and would then make the philosophic argument that reason was the way to go about solving the story’s problem.

But, the opposite view, that of the influence character, would argue that emotion was the way to best solve the problem – though passion and humanity.  So this forth and final view point of the objective story – the “they” perspective is about all the traits, as represented by characters.  We do not occupy them, we observe them.  This does not mean we will not care about them, but it is not the same as caring about yourself, which we only do for the main character.

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is that for any given story, each of the four kinds of problems (Universe, Mind, Physics and Psychology) will be explored by one of the four points of view – I, You, We, and They – the main character, influence character, subjective story, and objective story.  When we attach or associate a point of view with an aspect of what we are looking at, we create perspective.  And it is this perspective that holds a story’s meaning – essentially, from here it looks like this, while from HERE it looks like THIS.  And, when it looks like those things from all those points of view, it is better to stick with your original philosophic viewpoint or to change it.

Which is better is not determined by the structure, but simply by the author’s determination as to which messsage he wants to make.  After all, structurally, there is no right or wrong.  Rather, right and wrong come from which traits are appropriate in which contexts.  When a structure is placed in a given context (a particular real-world subject matter) than a given philosophy or trait might be right in one set of circumstances but completely wrong in another.  And that is the author’s message: that in these particular circustances, do this (or, conversely, don’t do that, whatever you do!)

In the end, structure simply makes a complete argument, leaving no stone unturned.  The main character provided a touch point for our own senses of self as readers or members of the audience.  The objective characters show how all the other traits or qualities of our minds come into play in this given scenario.  Determining the nature of the problem tells us what the issue is, and the perspectives created by associated each point of view with a different angle on the problem replicates the way that problem looks in real life to all the different ways we might look at it.

Simple, really.

The Four Story Domains

The subject matter of any story that describes the nature of the central problem falls into one of four domains – Universe (a fixed state), Mind (a mind set or attitude), Physics (an activity), or Psychology (a problematic chain of thought).

All four domains must be explored in every fully developed story, but only one will be see as the source of the story’s problem and the other three will exhibit the ramifications of that problem as it ripples out to affect all of the characters.

The reason for this is easy to see if we consider a problem in real life.  We might first ask ourselves, “Is the problem caused by something external (like the creature in the original Alien movie) or by something internal (like Scrooge’s outlook and attitude in A Christmas Carol).

An earthquake, an asteroid, and a shark are all external problems, but with one caveat – any of these might be seen as characters if they are imbued with human traits as opposed to being viewed as forces of nature.

So, if you actually try to get into the head of the shark in your storytelling or if you portray the asteroid as having a mind of its own – literally – then it becomes a character and as such whatever is driving it is an internal issue.  But, under most circumstances these things would be seen as just that – things – and therefore would be appreciated by both author and audience as external problems.

Naturally, then, any story in which the central problem is caused by a character – by any entity that is host to human traits and considerations – then it is an internal problem.  Essentially, the concept is, is it mind or matter.  Or, as has been said, “What’s mind?  No matter.  What’s matter?  Never mind.”

Once you have determined if your story’s problem (or any problem you encounter in real life) is caused by something external or internal you have a much better grasp of the nature of the beast, and therefore of which tools you’ll need to bring to bear in the attempt to find a solution and implement it.

That, in fact, is the real underlying message of a story – for this particular kind of problem, here’s the best tool set (means or methodology) for solving it.  So, stories are about first identifying and then determining the best way to solve a problem.

Still, while we can learn much about a problem just by ruling out external or internal so we have a better focus on where the real issue resides, we can learn much more, even at this most broad stroke initial level of parsing the problem in our dramatics.

To do this, we can sub-divide both external and internal into two other categories: State or Process.  An external state is a situation; an external process is an activity.  The difference between the two is that a situational problem is unchanging, like being stuck in an overturned boat under the water, whereas an activity problem is like a bridge that is crumbling while you try to get your troops across it to safety.  Both are external, and yet they are different “flavors” of external, and therefore will require different approaches and skill sets to solve.

Similarly, an internal problem can be a fixed state such as an attitude, outlook, fixation or prejudice that essentially never changes (at least until possibly at the climax of the story).  While, on the other hand, an internal problem might be an activity – a manner of thinking or a process or chain of thought – that causes problems.

Hamlet, for example, is defined by the trait that he overthinks the plumbing.  For example, he finds the kind kneeling alone in prayer and could easily kill him at that moment.  But, he begins to reason, point by point, that he cannot act then because the king, being in prayer, would go to heaven and that is not sufficient for his revenge.

In another example, imagine a fellow about to interview for a job for which he  is perfectly qualified and completely confident.  But, he begins to think that maybe he is too perfectly qualified and therefore will be seen as not having growth potential and….  if he isn’t seen favorably, it will make him nervous and… if he gets nervous, he’ll become tongue-tied and…   if the becomes tongue tied they won’t think he can communicate very well and…  so on.  Clearly, he didn’t have the wrong attitude, but the problem is because of the path his thoughts take – the process or activity of thinking itself: an internal activity.

To be clear, all four of these domains will be explored as the story unfolds, as we usually first become aware of the true nature of a problem by examining its symptoms.  And only when we have used those symptoms to triangulate on and diagnose the problem are we certain of which of the four is the actual source.  Only then can we bring to bear the proper tools to solve it, and, again, the story’s message, ultimately, is an argument as to which is the best set of tools for the job.

Story Perspectives

Genre, Theme, Plot and Character: each of them is a different level of appreciation of story structure.  But each one needs to be seen from four different points of view in order to fully explore them.

As described in previous classes, the four essential points of view in any story structure are Main Character (I), Influence or Obstacle Character (You), Subjective Story (We), and Objective Story (They).  These represent the four “voices” we have within ourselves – First Person, Second Person, Second Person Plural, and third Person.

To completely understand any issue or problem, we need to consider it from all four of these points of view.  But what are we really looking at?  Again, as described earlier, there are four primary kinds of subject matter – External States, External Processes, Internal States and Internal Processes.  In Dramatica, we call these Universe (the fixed nature of a situation), Physics (external activities), Mind (a fixed mind set such as an attitude, fixation or prejudice), and Psychology (a manner of thinking or path of thought).

So, when we examine one of these as the potential source of a problem and, therefore, where we might best look for the solution, we are going to see it from one of those four points of view.  In other words, Universe might be the domain of the Main Character or it might be the domain of the Objective story or of the other two points of view.

Essentially, if Universe is the domain of the Main Character in a particular story, it means that we are looking at the external situation through the eyes of the Main Character – the most personal view point, the “I” which represents or provides the audience position within the story.  This means that one of the other three remaining kinds of subject matter will be associated or attached to one of the three remaining points of view.  In any complete story, therefore, all four points of view and all four kinds of subject matter will be explored.

In this way, every angle of the problem can be examined in the hunt for a solution.  But, each point of view will only look at one of the four kinds of subject matter in any given story.  It is this connection between where we are looking from and what we are looking at that creates perspective and therefore defines how the author positions the readers or audience in relation to the issues, thereby establishing the story’s message.

Story Outcome and Judgment

Your story’s “Outcome” is determined by success or failure in the attempt to achieve the overall goal.  But this is independent of whether or not everyone is feeling good about the outcome, even if success is achieved.  Often the costs of achieving a goal outweigh the benefits.  And in some stories, achieving a goal may turn out to be a hollow victory.

Similarly, failing to achieve the goal may not be an emotional distaster as well if the characters learn something of greater value or grow in ways that is far more meaningful than the failed attempt to achieve.  Put these in combinations and you get the Success/Good story (a triumph), the Failure/Bad story (a tragedy), the Success/Bad story (a personal tragedy), and the Failure/Good story (a personal triumph).

Using the two dramatic elements of Outcome and Judgment and adjusting the degree of success or failure and of personal fulfillment or devestation , one can create any variety of conclusion for a story from the “happy ending” to the “sad ending” and every bitter-sweet combination in between.

A Tale is a Statement

Dramatica Unplugged Home

Transcript of the soundtrack from this video:

Dramatica Unplugged

Class One: Introduction

1.2 A Tale is a Statement

Imagine the very first storyteller, maybe a caveman sitting around a campfire. Perhaps the very first communication was not really a story but just a physical need, like this caveman was hungry so he rubbed his stomach and he pointed at his mouth, and he said ‘ah-hah’. In addition to making an idiot of himself, he also might have communicated. He might have let the other cavemen around the campfire know that he was hungry, and why, because they would look at him and they look themselves; they’ve got two arms, he’s got two arms, and he looks like they look and they see him doing things physically and they think to themselves, ‘if I did those things, what would that mean to me?’, and they ‘decode’ his ‘encoding’, his symbolism, and they say, ‘well if I was doing that it would mean that I was hungry’ and they get his message, because there is a basic underlying similarity between the two.

Later on, we will talk about how the Story Mind works because all of us have the same basic operating system; it’s just our experiences that are different.  And because we have the same operating system it forms a carrier wave so that when we communicate and see in the Story Mind anything that’s the same as the operating system we can pull that out and get the information that was attached to that carrier wave which is the storytelling, the message.

Now this caveman communicates that way. After awhile he gets a little more sophisticated he is able to do such things as describe a linear series of experiences. Perhaps he wants to describe how to get to a place where there are berries or how to avoid a place where there are bears. Well he might say (with hand gestures) that he went down by the river and then he went over the hill and then he found these berries perhaps it took him several days to go from one place to another. Some sign language is complex; some is a lot easier to understand but it’s usually based on a representation of visual things that you find in the real world.

Eventually he is able to string a number of points together rather than just making a single point like pointing to his mouth and saying ‘ah-hah’. So, if he puts together a line of logic, that says ‘this happened and then this happened and then this happened’ and there are no breaks in it and there are no pieces missing, in that case, he has created what we call in Dramatica a “Tale”. That’s our definition of a tale: an unbroken linear progression. That’s a “head-line” because it deals with your logic.

But you could also have an unbroken progression of feelings; how he felt at one time whether he was happy or sad, whether he found something funny, whether he found something disgusting. This would be a “heart-line”.   He might convey those emotions just to express what he went through without even talking about the territory that he covered and with no “head-line”  at all.

So, a tale could be just an emotional progression, or it could just be a logistic progression, or a tale could be a logistic and an emotional progression running along side-by-side, perhaps affecting each other, perhaps not.

Let’s look at that in a little more depth. We know that the human heart cannot just go from one emotion to another without going through steps in between. There are feelings that you have to go through to get from one mood to another mood. Now if you start with one emotion you may be able to jump to any one of a number of emotions and then from any of those, jump to others, but you can’t jump to all of them. If you could, then we would just be bopping about from one feeling to another. There would be no growth, there would be no emotional development.  But we know there is, and that’s an indicator that we can’t go from any one thing to any other thing but, rather, there is direction to it.

You look at Freud’s psychosexual stages; you look at the stages Seven Stages of Grief. You have to go through them in a particular order. You can’t skip over any. If you do, there is an emotional misstep. It feels untrue to the heart, and a story that has a character go through and miss a step, skip a step or jump to another emotion that they ‘couldn’t get there from here’, that will then feel wanky to the audience. It will feel like the character stopped developing in a way that they could follow with their own hearts and it will pop the audience right out of the story, and they will look at the character as being a fabrication rather than someone they identify with.

So the idea is to create this linearity.  But doesn’t that linearly create a formula? Well it would if you could only go from one emotion to a particular next one to a particular next one and so on. Then there would be only one path you could take, but as mentioned earlier, from one emotion there are several – not all but several – that you might go to. When you go to one of those, there are several others you might go to next.

Similarly, in points of logic, from a single point there might be any one of a number of things that might happen next that would be Kosher to happen with what already happened, but you couldn’t have anything happen next because some things would just be impossible to happen if this had happened first. There would be missing steps, or this would preclude that from happening. Now, you can start from any place and eventually get to anywhere else, but you have to go through the in-betweens.

So as long as a tale has either a head-line or a heart-line and it’s an unbroken chain that doesn’t skip any steps, it constitutes a complete tale.

Transcribed by Marc O’Dell from
Dramatica Unplugged by Melanie Anne Phillips

The Dramatica Concept

Over the years there’s been so much sophisticated material written about how the Dramatica theory of narrative structure deals with all kinds of complex story issues that it is easy to forget about the central purpose of Dramatica in the first place.

So, here’s a short article to help those of you new to Dramatica to get a grip on what it is and why its important.


There’s two parts to stories – the part that gets us all excited (the subject matter and style) and the dry, frustrating part (the underlying structure).

Writers also come in two varieties – the intuitive writers who like to follow their Muse and the logical writers who like to build their stories from the ground up, according to plan.

There are very few folk who do both very well.  We usually call them “Master Storytellers” or John LeCarre or Shakespeare or Aaron Sorkin.

For the rest of us, we usually have some degree of talent in one of the two areas and a noticeable lack in the other.  Me – I’m great at following the Muse, but can’t structure a story worth a darn.

So, twenty years ago, a friend of mine and I went hunting for the answer to story structure.  Along the way, we invented a whole new theory of it called “Dramatica.”

Dramatica says that structure is like the platter on which you serve up your passion and ideas.  Structure is like the carrier wave in radio upon which the program is broadcast.

If structure is done right, it is invisible – just like that carrier way you never hear in a radio program.  But if it isn’t tuned properly, it gets in the way of the program, creating static and drop-outs.  And, you certainly don’t your readers dropping out of your story or stumbling over a logical problem when logic is the last thing you want them to be thinking about.

So, the Dramatica theory deals solely with that dry, uninteresting, but essential underlying “story argument,” because without that sound foundation, even the most interesting subject matter and most intriguing storytelling will collapse.

Well, that’s an introduction to the concept.  What I’m writing these days is like “doctorate level” dissertations – for the following of hard-core structuralists I’ve collected over the years.

Keep in mind, it is all about form, not formula.  It is more like studying good graphic design than paint by numbers.

If you are still interested, I can point you at some good videos and articles I’ve created over the years on the basic concepts.  Just let me know.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about Dramatica Theory


Definitive Scientific Article on Dramatica Theory

Here is a link to the definitive explanation of the Dramatica theory (in PDF) from 1993, that explains all of the key concepts in text and graphics, including descriptions of non-story uses of the psychological model and the functioning of the model in terms of the dramatic circuit created by Potential, Resistance, Current, and Power (Outcome) and its relationship to the prediction of temporal story progression in terms of a quad-based 1 2 3 4 sequence.