# Category Archives: Plot Dynamics

In order to create tension in your audience, you will want to establish a limit to the story. This limit will indicate to the audience what will bring the story to a moment of truth, either running out of time or running out of options. If you want tension to increase as your characters run out of time, choose Timelock. If you want tension to increase as your characters run out of options, then choose Optionlock.

THEORY: Every argument must come to an end or no point can be made. The same is true for stories. For an author to explore an issue, a limit to the scope of the argument must be established.

To establish how much ground the argument will cover, authors limit the story by length or by size. Timelocks create an argument in which “anything goes” within the allotted time constraints. Optionlocks create an argument that will extend as long as necessary to provide that every specified issue is addressed.

By selecting the kind of limit at work in your story, you lock down either the duration of the argument (Timelock), or the ground covered (Optionlock).

USAGE: A Story Limit works to bring the story to a climax and a conclusion. This Limit can be accomplished in either of two ways. Either the characters run out of places to look for the solution or they run out of time to work one out. Running out of options is accomplished by an Optionlock; a deadline is accomplished by a Timelock.

Choosing a Timelock or an Optionlock has a tremendous impact on the nature of the tension the audience will feel as the story progresses toward its climax. A Timelock tends to take a single point of view and slowly fragment it until many things are going on at once. An Optionlock tends to take many pieces of the puzzle and bring them all together at the end.

A Timelock raises tension by dividing attention. An Optionlock raises tension by focusing it. A Timelock increases tension by bringing a single thing closer to being an immediate problem. An Optionlock increases tension by building a single thing that becomes a distinct problem.

Both of these means of limiting the story grow stronger as the story progresses. Optionlocks limit pieces with which to solve the problem and can create a feeling of growing claustrophobia. Timelocks limit the interval during which something can happen and can create a feeling of growing acceleration. Both types of Limits bring the story to a climax.

One cannot look just to the climax, however, to determine if a Timelock or Optionlock is working. A better way to determine which is at work is to look at the nature of the obstacles thrown in the path of the Protagonist and/or Main Character. If the obstacles are primarily delays, a Timelock is in effect; if the obstacles are caused by diversions, an Optionlock is in effect. An author may feel more comfortable building tension through delays or building tension through diversion. Choose the kind of limit most meaningful for you and most appropriate to your story.

This tip was excerpted from:

Dramatica Story Structuring Software

# Male vs. Female Problem Solving

All too often in stories, relationships and interchanges between characters of different sexes come off stilted, unbelievable, or contrived. In fact, since the author is writing from the perspective of only one of the two sexes, characters of the opposite sex often play more as one sex’s view of the opposite sex, rather than as truly being a character OF the opposite sex. This is because the author is looking AT the opposite sex, not FROM its point of view.

By exploring the differences in how each sex sees the world, we can more easily create believable characters of both sexes. To that end, I offer the following incident.

I was at lunch with Chris (Co-creator of Dramatica) some time ago. I had ordered some garlic bread and could not finish it. I asked the waitress if she would put it in a box to take home, and she did. On the way past the cashier, I realized that I had forgotten to take the box from the table. I said, “Rats! I forgot the bread!”

Chris said, “Go ahead and get it, we’ll wait.”

I thought for a moment and said, “No, it’s not that important.” and started to walk out.

Chris: “It’ll only take a moment.”

Me: “Yes, but I have to go all the way back, and I probably won’t eat it anyway, and it probably won’t reheat very well, and…”

Chris then said in jest, “Sounds like a bunch of excuses to me.”

In fact, they really did sound like excuses to him. But to me, the reasons I had presented to him for not going back for the bread were not rationalizations, but actually legitimate concerns.

At the heart of this difference in perspective is the difference in the way female and male brains are “soft wired”. As a result, neither women nor men can see into the heart of the other without finding a lack of coherence.

Here is a line-by-line comparison of the steps leading from having too much bread to the differing interpretations of my response to forgetting the box.

Melanie thinks:

That’s good bread, but I’m full. I might take it home, but I’m not convinced it will reheat. Also, I’ve really eaten too many calories in the last few days, I’m two pounds over where I want to be and I have a hair appointment on Wednesday and a dinner date on the weekend with a new friend I want to impress, so maybe I shouldn’t eat anymore. The kids won’t want it, but I could give it to the dog, and if I get hungry myself, I’ll have it there (even though I shouldn’t eat it if I want to lose that two pounds!) So, I guess it’s better to take it than to leave it.

Melanie says:

“Waitress, can I have a box to take the bread home?”

Chris understands Melanie to mean:

I want to take the bread home.

The balance sheet:

To me there was only a tendency toward bringing the bread home, and barely enough to justify the effort. To Chris it was a binary decision: I wanted to bring it home or not.

Melanie says:

“Rats! I forgot to bring the bread!”

Chris says:

“Go ahead and get it, we’ll wait.”

The balance sheet:

I’m thinking, “How does this change the way I feel about the situation?” Chris is thinking, “How can she solve this problem.”

Melanie thinks:

Well, I really don’t want to be tempted by it, this unexpected turn makes it easier to lose the weight. If I go back I’ll be tempted or give it to the dog. If I don’t go back I won’t be tempted, which is good because I know I usually give in to such temptations. Of course, the dog loses out, but we just bought some special treats for the dog so she won’t miss what she wasn’t expecting. All in all, the effort of going around two corners while everyone waits just so I can get an extra doggie treat and lead myself into temptation isn’t worth it.

Melanie says:

“No, its not that important.”

Chris says:

“It’ll only take a moment.”

The balance sheet:

I’m thinking that since I was right on the edge of not wanting to take it in the first place, even this little extra necessary effort is enough inconvenience to make it not a positive thing but an irritation, so I’ll just drop it and not pay even the minor price. Chris is thinking that since I made up my mind to take the bread in the first place, how is it that this little inconvenience could change my mind 180 degrees. I must be lazy or embarrassed because I forgot it.

Melanie says:

“Yes, but I have to go all the way back, and I probably won’t eat it anyway, and it probably won’t reheat very well, and…”

Chris says:

“Sounds like a bunch of excuses to me.”

The balance sheet:

I’m trying to convey about a thousand petty concerns that went into my emotional assessment that it was no longer worth going back for. Chris just hears a bunch of trumped up reasons, none of which are sufficient to change one’s plans.

I operated according to an emotional tendency to bring the bread home that was just barely sufficient to generate even the slightest degree of motivation. Chris doesn’t naturally assume motivation has a degree, thinking that as a rule you’re either motivated or you are not.

The differences between the way women and men evaluate problems lead them to see justifications in the others methods.

Making sense of each other:

Now, what does all this mean? When men look at problems, they see a single item that is a specific irritation and seek to correct it. When they look at inequities, they see a number of problems interrelated. Women look at single problems the same way, but sense inequities from a completely emotional standpoint, measuring them on a sliding scale of tendencies to respond in certain ways.

Imagine an old balance scale – the kind they used to weigh gold. On one side, you put the desire to solve the problem. That has a specific weight. On the other side you have a whole bag of things that taken altogether outweigh the desire to solve the problem. But, you can’t fit the bag on the scale (which is the same as not being able to share your whole mind with a man) so you open the bag and start to haul out the reasons – biggest one’s first.

Well, it turns out the first reason by itself is much lighter that the desire to solve the problem, so it isn’t sufficient. You pull out the next one, which is even smaller, and together they aren’t enough to tip the scales. So, you keep pulling one more reason after another out of the bag until the man stops you saying, “Sounds like a bunch of excuses to me.”

To the man, it becomes quickly obvious that there aren’t enough reasonably sized pieces in that bag to make the difference, and anything smaller than a certain point is inconsequential anyway, so what’s holding her back from solving the problem?

But the woman knows that there may be only a few big chunks, but the rest of the bag is full of sand. And all those little pieces together outweigh the desire to solve the problem. If she went ahead and solved it anyway, everything in that bag would suffer to some degree, and the overall result would be less happiness in her consciousness rather than more.

This is why it is so easy for one sex to manipulate the other: each isn’t looking at part of the picture that the other one sees. For a man to manipulate a woman, all he has to do is give her enough sand to keep the balance slightly on her side and then he can weigh her down with all kinds of negative big things because it still comes out positive overall. For a woman to manipulate a man, all she has to do is give him a few positive chunks and then fill his bag full of sand with the things she wants. He’ll never even notice.

Of course if you push too far from either side it tips the balance and all hell breaks loose. So for a more loving and compassionate approach, the key is not to get as much as you can, but to maximize the happiness of both with the smallest cost to each.

All too often, one sex will deny what the other sex once to gain leverage or to use compliance as a bargaining chip. That kind of adversarial relationship is doomed to keep both sides miserable, as long as it lasts.

But if each side gives to the other sex what is important to to the other but unimportant to themselves, they’ll make each other very happy at very little cost.

# 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.

# Is your story brought to a conclusion by a timelock or an optionlock?

The following  excerpt is taken from

The Dramatica Class Transcripts

Dramatica : Now, I’ll jump ahead for a moment and look at a couple of plot questions…. First of all, is your story forced to a conclusion because your characters run out of time, or run out of options? This is Timelock or Optionlock. We all know what timelocks are…The ticking clock, 48 hours, etc. But what about stories like Remains of the Day? What was the time limit in that? There was none. So why didn’t the story go on forever? Because it was set up to have a limited number of opportunities for the characters to try and make a relationship happen. And when all the opportunities were exhausted, that’s when the story ends. Its important for the audience to know this right up front… they have to know the scope of the argument.

In Speed, the movie, they actually change from one lock to the other and this is confusing…The set up is, that the bomb will go off at 11:30 no matter what. So, the audience gets their sense of tension from the ticking clock. They expect that to be the moment win or lose will happen. All the other “constraints” about the speed of fifty miles per hour, and not being able to take anyone off the bus, are just that, constraints, but the bus could keep going forever with refueling, if it were not for the time bomb. But at the end of the story, what brings the moment of truth? Not the time bomb…. In fact, the bus slows down below fifty as it hits the plane. The LED numbers that are ticking down are the speed, not the time! So, the timelock is not honored.

Then we don’t know WHEN the story is going to end for sure. We assume maybe when the bad guy gets it. But that wasn’t where our tension was headed. Where the tension was built toward at the beginning, and therefore its something of a cheat and bit of a disappointment.

Dramatica : Actually, barring questions, I’ll have to stop there for now, as I have a class of 30 eager writers coming here to Screenplay for a class tomorrow morning.

Dan Steele : is “reception theory” the psychology of the audience?

Dramatica : Yes, Dan, its like this.. We, as an audience, can see pictures in clouds, wallpaper, constellations…We try to order our world, When we see a finished work, we look for pattern. Sometimes we see what the author intended, Sometimes things the author never intended that may or may not be in conflict with the intended message. And sometimes, we see no pattern at all. It may be the Storyform was flawed, missing apiece. Or it may be that the storytelling just didn’t convey it, or it may be that the audience just isn’t tuned into the symbols the author chose to use.

# Story Judgment – Good or Bad?

The 12 Essential QuestionsEvery Writer Should Answer

8. Main Character Judgment: Good or Bad?

As an author, you can temper the story’s Outcome by providing a Judgment as to whether the Main Character resolves his personal angst or not. Regardless of Success or Failure in the effort to achieve the goal, is your Main Character able to resolve his personal angst? If so, choose Good, and if not, choose Bad.

The notion that the good guys win and the bad guys lose is not always true. In stories, as in life, we often see very bad people doing very well for themselves (if not for others). And even more often, we see very good people striking out.

If we only judged results by success and failure, it wouldn’t matter if the outcome was Good or Bad as long as it was accomplished. The choice of Good or Bad tempers the story’s success or failure by showing whether the Main Character resolves his personal problems or not.

The Story Judgment provides you with an opportunity to address good guys that win and bad guys that fail, as well as good guys that fail and the bad guys that win. It also allows you to comment on the success or failure of your characters’ growth as human beings.

An example of a story where a Main Character’s personal problem — finding inner peace — remains unresolved at the end is The Silence of the Lambs. The abduction of the Senator’s daughter initiates the Overall Story so her rescue provides its resolution. But Clarice’s personal problem — her recurring nightmares of lambs crying as they’re being slaughtered — is emphasized as she plays “cat and mouse” with Dr. Lecter. When he asks her in the end whether “the lambs are still crying,” it is clear by her silence that they are. She will not be at peace until she releases her need to save innocents, so the story ends with a Bad feeling even though the Overall Story is successful and her future as an FBI agent seems bright. This juxtaposition creates a bittersweet ending which is further emphasized by the somber music playing over the final shots.

In contrast, Charlie Babbott (played by Tom Cruise) in Rain Man is seeking to collect an inheritance left by his wealthy father to the autistic brother he’s never met. When Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) turns out to be a “idiot savant” in mathematics, able to memorize an entire phone book and “count cards,” Charlie schleps him to Las Vegas. There he hopes Raymond will make him some fast cash to save his failing business although Charlie’s girlfriend’s protests and ultimately rejects him as he uses Raymond for selfish means. Along the way, however, depth of feeling Charlie discovers for his long-lost brother surprises and changes him. At the end, Charlie is forced to return Raymond to the hospital where he can be cared for properly, but it is clear to the audience that the bond Charlie feels for Raymond is real when he promises to visit Raymond. He has gained both family and self-respect through their journey so although Charlie fails to get the inheritance at the end, what he has gained personally outweighs what he has lost financially. As the story fades out, it is clear the author judges this Failure/Good to be positive and the audience feels hopeful for Charlie even though his money problems remain unresolved.

# Story Outcome – Success or Failure?

The 12 Essential QuestionsEvery Writer Should Answer

7. Story Outcome: Success or Failure?

Success or failure is solely determined by whether or not the story goal is achieved, regardless of how your characters feel about it. If you want the Goal to be reached in your story, choose Success. If you want a story in which your characters do not reach the Goal, then choose Failure.
Although it can be tempered by degree, Success or Failure is easily determined by seeing if the characters (in general) have achieved what they set out to achieve at the beginning of the story.
Certainly, the characters may learn they really don’t want what they thought they did and choose not to pursue it any longer. Even though they have grown, this is considered a failure because they did not accomplish their original intention. Similarly, they may actually achieve what they wanted, and even though they find it unfulfilling or unsatisfying, it must be said they succeeded. The point here is not to pass a value judgment on the worth of their success or failure. It is simply to determine whether or not they achieved their original objective.

Examples of Success and Failure:

# Story Limit – Timelock or Optionlock?

The 12 Essential Questions Every Writer Should Answer

6. Story Limit: Timelock or Optionlock?

In order to create tension in your audience, you will want to establish a limit to the story. This limit will indicate to the audience what will bring the story to a moment of truth, either running out of time or running out of options. If you want tension to increase as your characters run out of time, choose Timelock. If you want tension to increase as your characters run out of options, then choose Optionlock.

Every argument must come to an end or no point can be made. The same is true for stories. For an author to explore an issue, a limit to the scope of the argument must be established.
To establish how much ground the argument will cover, authors limit the story by length or by size. Timelocks create an argument in which “anything goes” within the allotted time constraints. Optionlocks create an argument that will extend as long as necessary to provide that every specified issue is addressed.

By selecting the kind of limit at work in your story, you lock down either the duration of the argument (Timelock), or the ground covered (Optionlock).

For example, in the film 48 Hours more time would indeed change the nature of burned-out cop Cates’ efforts to track down a serial killer. If he had enough time for a leisurely search on his own, Cates (played by Nick Nolte) might not need to “borrow” fast-talking convict Reggie (Eddie Murphy) from jail. Thus the story contains a Timelock, stated clearly in its title, to propel the non-stop action along.

In Midnight Run, however, bounty hunter Jack Walsh’s “easy job” of flying bail-jumping accountant Jonathan Mardukas (played by Charles Grodin) from NYC to LA becomes a logistical nightmare as his options become increasingly limited. Walsh (Robert De Niro) tries every available means of transporting Mardukas to LA, but Mardukas nixes each one for good reason. More delays are caused, allowing the mobsters, FBI agents and rival bounty hunters on their tail to catch up as the chase intensifies. If a Timelock were at work here, Walsh would ignore Mardukas’ professed fear of flying at the start and force him to stay on the first plane to LA, arriving before the deadline runs out… but that would be another story.

Examples of Timelock and Optionlock

# Story Driver – Action or Decision?

The 12 Essential QuestionsEvery Writer Should Answer

5. Story Driver: Action or Decision?

Some stories are driven by actions. Others are forced along by decisions. All stories have some degree of both. This question determines which one “triggers” the other, but does not determine the ratio between the two.

If actions that occur in your story determine the types of decisions that need to be made, choose Action.

If decisions or deliberations that happen in your story precipitate the actions that follow, choose Decision.

Story Driver: The mechanism by which the plot is moved forward.

Action or Decision describes how the story is driven forward. The question is: Do Actions precipitate Decisions or vice versa?

Every story revolves around a central issue, but that central issue only becomes a problem when an action or a decision sets events into motion. If an action gets things going, then many decisions may follow in response. If a decision kicks things off, then many actions may follow until that decision has been accommodated.

The Action/Decision relationship will repeat throughout the story. In an Action story, decisions will seem to resolve the problem until another action gets things going again. Decision stories work the same way. Actions will get everything in line until another decision breaks it all up again. Similarly, at the end of a story there will be an essential need for an action to be taken or a decision to be made. Both will occur, but one of them will be the roadblock that must be removed in order to enable the other.

Whether Actions or Decisions move your story forward, the Story Driver will be seen in the instigating and concluding events, forming bookends around the dramatics.

Examples of Action and Decision: