Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story
In The Elements of Structure: Foundations we described four throughlines in a story – the Objective Story Throughline, Main Character Throughline, Obstacle Character Throughline, and Subjective Story Throughline. The Objective Story Throughline describes the relative value of the approaches of the Objective Characters. The Main Character Throughline describes the point of view and growth of the Main Character. The Obstacle Character Throughline describes the alternative point of view and growing impact of the Obstacle Character, and the Subjective Story Throughline describes the ongoing argument between the Main and Obstacle Characters as to whether the Main character should change or not.
A good way to think of these four throughlines is as four different points of view through which the audience relates to the Story Mind — the same four points of view we all use in all of our relationships. The Main Character represents the “I” point of view. The Obstacle Character represents the “you” perspective. The Subjective Story Throughline covers the “we” perspective, and the Objective Story Throughline explores the “they” perspective. Taken together, the four points of view range from the most personal to the most impersonal, and provide all of the angles we use to examine the nature of our problems and the relative value of alternative solutions.
We have previously looked at the Elements of Character from a purely objective perspective. When we stand in the shoes of a character, however, we get an entirely different perspective. Rather than seeing how the events of a story relate to one another, we become more concerned with how events effect us personally. Providing this experience is the purpose of the Main Character.
The Main Character: One of a Kind
There is only one Main Character in a story. Why is this? Because each complete story is a model of the Story Mind which reflects our own minds, and in our minds we can only be one person at a time. At any given moment, we have a position in our own thoughts. Our state of mind in regard to a particular problem reflects the biases of the position on which we stand. If a story is to fully involve an audience, it must reflect this point of view.
Dramatica is built on the concept that the structure and dynamics of a story are not random, but represent an analogy to a single human mind dealing with a problem. We call this concept the Story Mind. A Story Mind is not a character, the author, or even the audience, but the story itself. It’s as if the audience’s experience of a complete story were like looking inside of someone’s head. Every act and scene, the thematic progression and message, the climax, plus all the characters and all that they do represent the parts and functions (or thoughts if you will) of the Story Mind.
A complete story successfully argues all possible sides of its message, thus it will address all the possible human perspectives on that specific issue. That is how the structure and dynamics of a single story create a single Story Mind. This is also why characters are common elements in all stories, along with theme, plot, acts and scenes. Each of these represent the way in which essential human psychology is recreated in stories so that we can view our own thought processes more objectively from the outside looking in.
Now before we go on, it is important to note that there can be many Main Characters in a completed work, but there will be only one Main Character in a completed story. This is because a work is the finished product an author puts before an audience, and may contain a single story, several stories, or several partial and complete stories all woven together or at least nestled in the same fabric of storytelling. This means that a book or a movie, a stage play or teleplay, may have no Main Character at all, or it may have many. But for any single story in that work, there will be only one Main Character.
A Grand Argument Story does not allow the audience to stand in the shoes of every character, every Element, and see what the story looks like from there. Such a work would simply be too big to handle. Rather, the purpose of a Grand Argument Story is to determine if the Main Character is looking at the problem from the right place, or if he should change his bias and adopt another point of view instead.
An Alternative Point of View
There is also one other very special character who represents the argument for an alternative point of view. The character who spends the entire story making the case for change is called the Obstacle Character, for he acts as an obstacle to the direction the Main Character would go if left to his own devices.
As with each of us, the last thing we tend to question when examining a problem is ourselves. We look for all kinds of solutions both external and internal before we finally (if ever) get around to wondering if maybe we have to change the very nature of who we are and learn to see things differently. We can learn to like what we currently hate, but it takes a lot of convincing for us to make that leap.
When a Main Character makes the traditional leap of faith just before the climax, he has explored all possible means of resolving a problem short of changing who he is. The Obstacle Character has spent the entire story trying to sell the Main Character on the idea that change is good, and in fact, pointing out exactly how the Main Character ought to change. The clock is ticking, options are running out. If the Main Character doesn’t choose on way or the other, then failure is certain. But which way to go? There’s no clear cut answer from the Main Character’s perspective.
A History of Success
The Main Character came into the story with a tried and true method for dealing with the kind of problem featured in the story. That method has always worked for the Main Character before: it has a long history. Suddenly, a situation arises where that standard approach doesn’t work, perhaps for the first time ever. This marks the beginning of the story’s argument. As the story develops, the Main Character tries everything to find a way to make it work anyway, holding out in the hope that the problem will eventually go away, or work itself out, or be resolved by the tried and true method.
Along the way, the Obstacle Character comes into the picture. He tells the Main Character there is a better way, a more effective approach that not only solves the same problems the Main Character’s tried and true method did, but solves this new one as well. It sounds a lot like pie in the sky, and the Main Character sees it that way. Why give up the old standby just because of a little flak?
As the story develops, the Obstacle Character makes his case. Slowly, an alternative paradigm is built up that becomes rather convincing. By the moment of truth, the long-term success of the old view is perfectly balanced by the larger, but as of yet untried, new view. There is no clear winner, and that is why it is a leap of faith for the Main Character to choose one over the other.
Main Character Resolve: Does the Main Character ultimately Change or Remain Steadfast?
In completely empathizing with the Main Character of a story, we practically become this person. There are certain dynamics we expect to be able to determine about a Main Character as part of experiencing things from his point of view. One of these is called Main Character Resolve.
Main Character Resolve answers the question “Does the Main Character ultimately Change or Remain Steadfast?” At the beginning of the story the Main Character is driven by a particular motivation. When the story ends, he will either still be driven by the same motivation (Steadfast) or have a new motivation (Change).
Main Character Resolve really describes the relationship between the Main Character and the Obstacle Character. The impact of the Obstacle Character is what forces the Main Character to even consider changing. If the Main Character ultimately does change, it is the result of the Obstacle Character’s effect on the Main Character’s perspective. If, on the other hand, the Main Character remains steadfast, then his impact on the Obstacle Character will force the Obstacle Character to change.
Star Wars: Main Character: Luke Skywalker (Change)
Obstacle Character: Obi Wan Kenobi (Steadfast)
The Story of Job: Main Character: Job (Steadfast)
Obstacle Character: The Devil (Change)
To Kill A Mockingbird: Main Character: Scout (Change)
Obstacle Character: Boo Radley (Steadfast)
The Fugitive: Main Character: Dr. Richard Kimble (Steadfast)
Obstacle Character: Agent Sam Gerard (Change)
It should be noted that the Obstacle Character need not even know he is having that kind of effect on the Main Character. He may know, but he may easily not even be aware. Main Characters are defined by the point of view, Obstacle Characters by the impact on that point of view.
A Leap or a Creep?
As a final thought in this brief introduction to Subjective Characters, the “leap of faith” story is not the only kind that occurs. Equally reflective of our own mind’s processes is the slow change story where the Main Character gradually shifts his perspective until, by the end of the story, he is seen to have already adopted the alternative paradigm with little or no fanfare.
Usually, in such stories, a particular dramatic scenario occurs near the beginning of the story and is then repeated (in some similar manner) near the end. The Main Character reacted one way in the first scenario and then the audience gets a chance to see if he responds the same way again or not. In the Slow Change story, the Main Character may never even realize he has changed, but we, the audience, are able to evaluate the worth of the journey the Main Character has been through by seeing whether the Main Character has been changed and whether that is for better or worse.
In our current Western culture, especially in Hollywood-style motion pictures, the leap of faith story is favored. In other media and cultures, however, the Slow Change story predominates. In theory, each reflects the way our minds shift belief systems: sometimes in a binary sense as a single decisive alternation, and other times in an analog sense as a progressive realignment.
and the Objective Story
One of the most common mistakes made by authors of every level of experience is to create a problem for their Main Character that has nothing to do with the story at large. The reasoning behind this is not to separate the two, but usually occurs because an author works out a story and then realizes that he has not made it personal enough. Because the whole work is already completed, it is nearly impossible to tie the Main Character’s personal problem into the larger story without a truly major rewrite. So, the next best thing is to improve the work by tacking on a personal issue for the Main Character in addition to the story’s problem.
Of course, this leads to a finished piece in which either the story’s issues or the Main Character’s issues could be removed and still leave a cogent tale behind. In other words, to an audience it feels like one of the issues is out of place and shouldn’t be in the work.
Now, if one of the two different problems were removed, it wouldn’t leave a complete story, yet the remaining part would still feel like a complete tale. Dramatica differentiates between a “tale” and a “story”. If a story is an argument, a tale is a statement. Whereas a story explores an issue from all sides to determine what is better or worse overall, a tale explores an issue down a single path and shows how it turns out. Most fairy tales are just that, tales.
There is nothing wrong with a tale. You can write a tale about a group of people facing a problem without having a Main Character. Or, you could write a personal tale about a Main Character without needing to explore a larger story. If you simply put an Objective Story-tale and a Main Character tale into the same work, one will often seem incidental to the real thrust of the work. But, if the Main Character tale and the Objective Story-tale both hinge on the same issue, then suddenly they are tied together intimately, and what happens in one influences what happens in the other.
This, by definition, forms a Grand Argument Story, and opens the door to all kinds of dramatic power and variety not present in a tale. For example, although the story at large may end in success, the Main Character might be left miserable. Conversely, even though the big picture ended in failure, the Main Character might find personal satisfaction and solace. We’ll discuss these options at great length in The Art Of Storytelling section. For now, let us use this as a foundation to examine the relationship between the Subjective Characters and the Objective Story.
The Crucial Element
The point at which the Objective Story and the Main Character hinge is appropriately called the Crucial Element. In fact, the Crucial Element is one of the sixty-four Objective Character Elements we have already explored. When we look at the Objective Character Elements as the soldiers on the field (from our earlier example), there is one special Element from which the audience experiences an internal perspective on the story. This is the Main Character position in the Objective Story, and the Element at that point is the Crucial Element. As a result, whichever Objective Character represents the Crucial Element should be placed in the same player as the Main Character. In that way, what happens during the Main Character’s growth will have an impact on his Objective function. Similarly, pressures on his Objective function caused by the story’s situations will influence his decision to change or remain steadfast.
We can see that a Protagonist will only be a Main Character if the Crucial Element is one of the Elements that make up a Protagonist. In other words, a Protagonist has eight different Elements, two from each dimension of character. If one of them is the Crucial Element, then the player containing the Protagonist must also contain the Main Character. This means that there are really eight different kinds of heroes that can be created. An action hero might have a Crucial Element of Pursue, while a thinking hero might have a Crucial Element of Consider. Clearly, the opportunities to create meaningful Main Characters who are NOT Protagonists are also extensive.
The Obstacle Character has a special place in the Objective Character Elements as well. We have already discussed Dynamic Pairs. As it turns out, the point at which an Obstacle Character will have the greatest dramatic leverage to try and change the Main Character is the other Element in the Dynamic Pair with the Crucial Element. In simpler terms, the Main and Obstacle Characters are opposites on this crucial issue. Often one will contain the story’s problem, the other the story’s solution.
In the Objective Character Element set, if the Main Character (and Crucial Element) stands on Pursue, the Obstacle Character will occupy Avoid. If the Main Character is Logic, the Obstacle Character will be Feeling. In this manner, the essential differences between two opposite points of view will be explored both in an objective sense, looking from the outside in, and also in a subjective sense, from the inside looking out. All four throughlines come into play (Objective Story, Main Character, Obstacle Character, and Subjective Story), and by the end of the story, the audience will feel that the central issue of concern to the Story Mind has been fully examined from all pertinent angles.
To summarize, a complete story requires that both the Objective and Subjective views are provided to an audience, and that they are hinged together around the same central issue. This is accomplished by assigning the Main and Obstacle Characters to the Objective Characters who contain either the story’s problem or solution Elements. The Element held by the Main Character becomes the Crucial Element, as both the Objective and Subjective Stories revolve around it.
The Crucial Element will be an item which is at the heart of a story from both the Objective and Subjective points of view. How this happens depends greatly on the Main Character. The Crucial Element is the connection between the Main Character and the Objective story and makes the Main Character special enough to be “Main.” This issue at the heart of the Main Character is thematically the same issue which is at the heart of the Objective Story.
To Kill A Mockingbird Crucial Element is INEQUITY
Inequity is the problem which is causing all of the conflict around the town of Maycomb. The trial of Tom Robinson brings all of the towns’ people into squabbles about inequity in the treatment of different races, inequity among the social classes of people, their levels of income, and their educations.
Scout, as the Main Character, is driven by her personal problem of inequity. This is symbolized most clearly in her fear of Boo Radley. Kept at the margins of the Objective Story dealings with the problem of inequity, Scout however comes to see her prejudice against Boo Radley as being every bit as wrong.