Dramatica Theory Book: Chapter 11

Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley

Chapter 11

Problem Solving and Justification


Deep Theory:

The following section delves deeply into the inner workings of a Main Character and how that character grows over the course of a story. The material covered will address the following questions: How does a Main Character come to have a particular problem? How does that problem come to relate to the Objective Story as well? If the Main Character has a problem, why doesn’t he just solve it? How can an Obstacle Character bring a Main Character to the point of change?

This discussion can get pretty theoretical at times, and is presented more for those who are interested in details, rather than as essential reading. If you have an interest in theory, read on! If not, you may wish to skip to the next chapter on Theme, or jump ahead to The Art Of Storytelling for a more practical approach.

Problem Solving and Justification

What are Justifications?

At the moment we act in response to a problem, each of us sees our approach as justifiable. If we later regret our actions or are called to task, we all have reasons why we should not be blamed or at least not held accountable. We call these reasons “Justifications.” To us, these justifications legitimize our actions. To others who find our actions unwarranted, our reasons seem more like excuses, and our actions unjustified.

Sometimes, we ourselves may be unsure if we are justified in our actions or not because there is a conflict between what our reason and our feelings are telling us. When we see no clear-cut response, we go with the side of ourselves that makes the stronger case.

Excuses, Excuses!

To convince ourselves (and others) that our actions are justified, we say things like, “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you,” “It’s for your own good,” I had to teach him a lesson,” “She had it coming,” I had no other choice,” “I couldn’t help myself,” “There was nothing I could do,” “It was the right thing to do,” “The end justifies the means,” etc. Each of these statements tries to imply that even though feeling says this is wrong, reason makes a stronger case that it is right (or vice versa).

Whenever the “proper” response is unclear, the legitimacy of our actions is open to interpretation. If there were a way to stand outside of it all and take a truly objective view, we could see absolutely which actions were justifiable and which were not. Unfortunately, we are not afforded this objective view in real life. So, we create stories to try and approximate the objective truth.

The Author Giveth; the Audience Taketh Away

An author builds an argument that the Main Character was either justified or not in his actions, then “proves” the point by concluding the story with an outcome of success or failure and a judgment of good or bad. In this way, the author hopes to convince an audience that actions taken in a particular context are appropriate or inappropriate. The audience members hope to become convinced that when the proper course of action is unclear, they can rely on a more “objective” truth to guide them.

In real life, only time will tell if our actions will ultimately achieve what we want and if that will bring us more happiness than hurt. In stories, it is the author who determines what is justified and what is not. Within the confines of the story, the author’s view IS objective truth.

The author’s ability to decide the validity of actions “objectively” changes the meaning of justification from how we have been using it. In life, when actions are seen as justified, it means that everyone agrees with the reasons behind the actions. In stories, reasons don’t count. Even if all the characters agree with the reasons, the author might show that all the characters were wrong. Reasons just explain why characters act as they do. Consensus regarding the reasons does not determine correctness.

What is Problem Solving?

All characters are driven by their justifications, but only some of the actions they take will end up solving a problem. From the author’s “objective” view, approaches that lead to solutions are “problem solving”. Approaches that do not are simply justifications.

The process of “problem solving” describes the paths an author promotes as being the most appropriate approaches to the story’s problem. The process of justification describes all paths that are not as appropriate.

In a binary sense, the best path of all will be represented by either the Main or Obstacle character. The remaining character of the two will represent the worst path. Of Main and Obstacle, one will be problem solving, the other justifying. All the remaining characters represent alternative approaches between the two extremes.

From an author’s perspective, though it is important to know how things will turn out, it is equally important to know how things got started. How is it that people can become so misguided? How is it that characters can become so justified?

Problems Start Innocently Enough….

It is the nature of people and characters as well, to try and find a source of joy and a resolution to that which hurts them. This hurt might be physical suffering or mental torment. The resolution may be to rearrange one’s environment or to come to terms with the environment as it is. Regardless of the source of the inequity or the means employed to resolve it, all thinking creatures try to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. That is the primal force which drives us in our lives, and the dramatic force that drives a story.

If our environments would instantly respond to our desires and if our feelings would immediately adjust to new attitudes, all inequities between ourselves and our environments would be equalized at once. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Rather, to solve external problems we must apply effort to rearrange the material that surrounds us, and to solve internal problems we must adopt a series of paradigm shifts to arrive at a perspective that minimizes our anguish.

Getting to the Heart of the Problem

Because it takes time to resolve inequities, problem solving can be defined as a process we engage in over time. Step by step we chip away at pieces of a problem until we arrive at a solution. We meet pre-requisites that give us the resources to fulfill the requirements that must be accomplished to clear the way to our goal. Or, we change the nature of the forces at work that determine the processes that sustain the inequity, so that it dissolves when its foundation is eroded.

Problem solving requires identifying the source of the inequity and/or the kind of effort that will bring an end to it. Each of these requirements depends upon an accurate assessment of the mechanism that generates the inequity, and therein lies the opportunity for error.

Characters, Problems, and Justification

Stories are about one character who is truly problem solving and a second character who believes they are problem solving but are in error. One will be the Main Character and the other the Obstacle Character. In terms of the Story Mind, these two characters represent our own inability to know in advance if the method we have chosen to apply to a problem will lead to success or failure. When our approach leads to failure Dramatica does not refer to the process as problem solving, but calls that process Justification.

Why We Justify

It is important to note that no one justifies because they are stupid or mean. They are simply adopting the best approach they can conceive, based on their life experience. Neither justification nor problem solving are intrinsically good or bad. In fact, they are really the same process, the only difference being how things ultimately turn out. With the value of hindsight we can judge if the decisions made and actions taken were appropriate, but we cannot judge this as the effort is happening since none of us can see the future. So, no character or person can be certain whether their approach to an inequity will resolve it, not effect it, exacerbate it, or create another inequity somewhere else that might be even more disturbing. All any of us can do – all any of us EVER do is to make the decisions and take the actions our experience dictates as the best options toward resolving our inequities.

Poor, Misguided Souls….

From this perspective, no character is bad, merely misguided. However, that is not the only perspective. If we step into the story and see a misguided character doing hurtful things to others and even to ourselves, from OUR life experience we determine that character must be stopped. Perhaps we argue with them, try to educate them, fight with or kill them or just write them off, severing our emotional ties and letting them spiral down into self destruction because it is the only way to avoid being dragged down with them.

Or, we might argue with them and find ourselves convinced of their point of view, try to educate them but learn something instead, fight with them and lose or be killed, or be written off BY them or hold on to them and be dragged down as well, or drag them down with us.

The point is, both Main and Obstacle characters will feel they are right, believe in what they do, try to convince or thwart their counterpart and ultimately prove to be correct or misguided.

Uniqueness Means Never Having to Say, “I Agree”

As we are driven by life experiences and since the experiences of each of us are unique, it is no wonder we come into conflict and confrontation over most everything we can think of. Stories are about the incompatibility of two life experiences as they relate to the best way to resolve an inequity.

If a character stands by his life experience, then it stands to reason his approach served him well in other scenarios. Similarly, his counterpart has had different life experiences that served him equally well. In the context of the current inequity in question, each life experience generates an approach incompatible with the other. In one context, each set of experiences was problem solving. In the current context, one will be seen to be problem solving, the other justification.

Tell Me A Message, Mommy….

This is the purpose and function of story: to show that when something has previously served you well one hundred percent of the time, it may not continue to hold true, or conversely, that it will always hold true. Either message is equally valid and depends wholly upon the author’s personal bias on the issue, which arbitrarily determines the slant of the message. Obviously, the outcome is not arbitrary to the author, but it is completely arbitrary to the story.

Whether the Main Character is change or steadfast, the outcome success or failure, and the judgment good or bad, determines the audience’s position in relationship to the correct and incorrect approaches to the problem, and therefore the impact of the message upon them.

Step By Step, Slowly We Argued….

So far we have only identified the difference between problem solving and justification in terms of the results they create. From this point of view, no character can tell for sure if he is on the right or the wrong track until he sees the results. This is fine for the characters, but an author will want to fashion a story so that judgment is passed on each action and decision as it is taken. This is what constitutes the theme of the story and builds the emotional side of the story’s argument event by event until (hopefully) the audience is buried under overwhelming evidence to support the author’s message and contentions.

Note the difference between the result-oriented rational argument and the more holistic passionate argument. In a story, when all is said and done, the author hopes to convince the audience of his point of view both in terms of its reasonable nature and that it simply feels good as well. In this manner, the audience members adopt the author’s bias on the issue and are moved to alter their behavior accordingly in their everyday life. In a broader sense, participating in the story has added to the life experience of the audience and will affect their future choices for problem solving.

To carry an emotional appeal to an audience, a story must not only show the results of a method of problem solving, but must document the appropriateness of each step as well. To do this as an author requires an understanding of the process of problem solving and its justification counterpart. Let us examine both.

A Simple Example of Problem Solving

Imagine a waitress coming through the one-way door from the kitchen into the restaurant. Her nose begins to itch. She cannot scratch her nose because her hands are full of plates. She looks for a place to lay down the plates, but all the counter space is cluttered. She tries to call to a waiter, but he cannot hear her across the noisy room. She hollers to a bus boy who gets the waiter who takes her plates so she can scratch her nose. Problem solved! Or was it justification?

What if she could have solved the problem just by shrugging her shoulder and rubbing her nose? Then there were two possible solutions, but one was much more direct. Rationally, either one would serve as well in that particular context, yet one was much more efficient and therefore more emotionally satisfying because it required less unpleasant work than the other method.

There’s a Problem In Your Solution!

If the waitress could not use her hand to scratch her nose, then using her shoulder was another potential solution to the same problem. However, trying to find a place to put down the plates is a generation removed from solving the original problem. Instead of trying to find another way to scratch her nose, she was using her problem solving efforts to try and solve a problem with the first solution. In other words, there was an obstacle to using her hand to scratch her nose, and rather than evaluating other means of scratching she was looking for a place to get rid of her plates. When there was a problem with that, she compounded the inefficiency by trying to solve the plate problem with the solution devised to solve the problem with the first solution to the problem: she tried to flag down the waiter. In fact, by the time she actually got her nose scratched, she had to take a round-about path that took up all kinds of time and was several generations removed from the original problem. She made one big circle to get to where she could have gone directly.

But, what if there was a limit: her itching nose was about to make her sneeze and drop everything. Then, going on that long circular path might mean she would sneeze and fail, whereas the only appropriate path would be to use her shoulder to scratch before she sneezes. But what if her stiff uniform prevents her shoulder from reaching her nose? AND what if the extra time it took to try the shoulder actually delayed trying the round-about method just long enough to make her sneeze before the waiter arrived? If she had only taken the great circle route in the first place, she would have had just enough time to solve the problem.

Paying the Price For a Solution

Clearly, problem solving turns into justification and vice-versa, depending on the context. So how is it that achieving results in the rational sense is not the only determining factor as to which is which? Simply because sometimes the costs that must be paid in suffering in a long, indirect path to a goal far outweigh the benefits of achieving the goal itself. When we try to overcome obstacles that stand between us and a goal (pre-requisites and requirements) we pay a price in effort, resources, physical and emotional hardship. We suffer unpleasant conditions now in the hope of a reward later. This is fine as long as the rewards justify the expenses. But if they do not, and yet we continue to persevere, we cannot possibly recoup enough to make up for our losses, much as a gambler goes into the hole after losing her intended stake.

My Kingdom for a Solution!

Why is it that we (as characters) throw good money after bad? This occurs because we are no longer evaluating what we originally hoped to achieve but are trying to solve the problems that have occurred with the solutions we have employed. In the case of our waitress, she wasn’t thinking about her nose when she was calling to the waiter or yelling to the bus boy. She was thinking about the problem of getting their attention. Because she lost sight of her original objective, she could no longer tally up the accruing costs and compare them to the benefits of resolving the inequity. Rather, she compared each cost individually to the goal at hand: putting down the plates, calling to the waiter, yelling at the bus boy. And in each case, the individual costs were less than the benefits of resolving the individual sub-goals. However, if taken as a whole, the sum of the costs may far outweigh the benefits of resolving the original problem. And since the pre-requisites and requirements have no meaning except as a means to resolving that original problem, any benefits she felt by achieving those sub-goals should have had no bearing on determining if the effort was worth the benefits. But, as she had lost sight of the original problem, that measurement could not be made. In fact, it would never occur to her, until it was too late to recoup the costs even if the problem came to be resolved.

Does this mean the only danger lies in the round-about path? Not at all. If it were to turn out that there were NO direct paths that could work, ONLY an indirect one could resolve the problem at all. And if the existence of the problem is such that its inequity is not just a one time thing but continues to cause friction that rubs one physically or mentally raw, then the inequity itself grows the longer the problem remains, which justifies ANY indirect method to resolving the issue as long as the rate at which the costs accrue is less than the rate at which the inequity worsens.

Accelerating Inequities!

But let’s complicate this even more… Suppose the inequity doesn’t worsen at first, but only gets worse after a while. Then what may have been the most appropriate response for problem solving at one stage in the game becomes inappropriate at a later stage. In such a complex web of changing conditions and shifting context, how is an individual to know what choices are best? We can’t. That is the point: we can never know which path is best because we cannot predict the future. We can only choose what our life experience has shown to be most often effective in similar situations and hope for the best. It does not matter how often we re-evaluate. The situation can change in unpredictable ways at any time, throwing all of our plans and efforts into new contexts that change their evaluation from positive to negative or the vice versa.

Stories serve as collective truisms, much like the way insurance works. Through them we strive to contain the collective knowledge of human experience so although we cannot predict what will happen to any specific individual (even ourselves) we can tell what is most likely the best approach to inequity, based on the mean average of all individual experience.

Strategy vs. Analysis

Although we have covered a lot of ground, we have only covered one of two kinds of problem solving/justification: the effort to resolve an inequity. In contrast, the second kind of problem solving/justification refers to efforts made to understand inequities so that we might come to terms with them. In a sense, our initial exploration has dealt with strategies of problem solving whereas this other area of exploration deals with defining the problem itself.

Defining the Problem

We cannot move to resolve a problem until we recognize the problem. Even if we feel the inequity, until we can pinpoint it or understand what creates it, we can neither arrive at an appropriate response or act to nip it at its source.

If we had to evaluate each inequity that we encounter with an absolutely open mind, we could not learn from experience. Even if we had seen the same thing one hundred times before, we would not look to our memories to see what had turned out to be the source or what appropriate measures had been employed. We would be forced to consider every little friction that rubbed us the wrong way as if we have never encountered it. Certainly, this is another form of inefficiency, as “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In such a scenario, we would not learn from our mistakes, much less our successes. But is that inefficiency? What if we encounter an exception to the rules we have come to live by? If we rely completely on our life experience, when we encounter a new context in life, our whole paradigm may be inappropriate.

You Idiom!

We all know the truisms, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” “guilt by association,” “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” “the only good (fill in the blank) is a dead (fill in the blank).” In each of these cases we assume a different kind of causal relationship than is generally scrutinized in our culture. Each of these phrases asserts that when you see one thing, another thing will either be there also, or will certainly follow. Why do we make these assumptions? Because, in context, they are often true. But as soon as we apply them out of context they are just as likely false.

Associations in Space and Time

When we see something occur enough times without exception, our mind accepts it as an absolute. After all, we have never seen it fail! This is like saying that every time you put a piece of paper on hot metal it will burn. Fine, but not in a vacuum! You need oxygen as well to create the reaction you anticipate.

In fact, every time we believe THIS leads to THAT or whenever we see THIS, THAT will also be present, we are making assumptions with a flagrant disregard for context. And that is where characters get into trouble. A character makes associations in their backstory. Because of the context in which they gather their experiences, these associations always hold true. But then the situation (context) changes, or they move into new areas in their lives. Suddenly some of these assumptions are absolutely untrue!

Hold on to Your Givens!

Why doesn’t a character (or person) simply give up the old view for the new? There are two reasons why one will hold on to an outmoded, inappropriate understanding of the relationships between things. We’ll outline them one at a time.

First, there is the notion of how many times a character has seen things go one way, compared to the number of times they’ve gone another. If a character builds up years of experience with something being true and then encounters one time it is not true, they will tend to treat that single false time as an exception to the rule. It would take as many false responses as there had been true ones to counter the balance.

Context is a Sneaky Thing

Of course, one is more sensitive to the most recent patterns, so an equal number of false items (or alternative truths) is not really required when one is aware he has entered a new situation. However, situations often change slowly and even in ways we are not aware. So context is in a constant state of flux. If something has always proven true in all contexts up to this point then one is not conscious of entering a whole new context. Rather, as we move in and out of contexts, a truism that was ALWAYS true may now be true sometimes and not true at other times. It may have an increasing or decreasing frequency of proving true or may tend toward being false for a while, only to tend toward being true again later. This kind of dynamic context requires that something be seen as false as often as it has been seen as true in order to arrive even at a neutral point where one perspective is not held more strongly than the other.

Building Paradigms

The second reason characters hold onto outmoded views is that they have built other views upon the outmoded ones. In fact, this is how we learn. We see something as an unerring truth, stop considering it every time we see it and accept it as a given. Then, we assemble our givens, look for patterns and accept the relationships between givens as being givens in their own right. Layer upon layer we weave an intricate web of interconnections, some based on the order in which things are expected to occur, some based on items or activities we associate as always occurring together.

Strength in Paradigms

When we encounter something at the top level of the most recently determined givens, it can be a relatively small feat to rethink our conclusions. If one of our base assumptions was wrong, however, there may be no way to reconcile the occurrence with our understanding without completely dismantling the foundations of our whole belief system. Not an easy task! It is much easier to discount the variance as an exception. Even more important, because we have not added the unusual incident to our knowledge base, but simply let it bounce off, the next occurrence of the same “new” truth will meet with the same strength of resistance as the first. We can hold onto our old paradigm unless so many different new truths hit us all at once that it becomes easier to create a new paradigm than to try and dismiss them all.

The Justified Main Character

This is the nature of the Main Character’s struggle in a story. He has either built up an understanding of how to try and solve problems that no longer fits, or he has built up an understanding of what causes problems that is no longer correct. The backstory builds upon one of these scenarios. A context is established that creates one kind of problem solving regarding a specific problem. The story begins when the context changes and the problem solving technique is no longer appropriate. The question then becomes whether the Main Character should Change to conform to the new situation or remain Steadfast until things get back to “normal.”

Dancing Toward Neutral Ground

The story unfolds as the Main and Obstacle Characters argue over direct vs. indirect, repetition vs. framework, strategy vs. analysis, and problem solving vs. justification. As the story progresses, it is the Obstacle Character’s function to force the Main Character through all four of these conflicts, each representing a different “level” of justification (problem solving) until they both stand at the neutral point where one means of problem solving/evaluation is as good as the next. This is the moment of the Leap of Faith, where life experience has been completely counterbalanced by what has been recently learned. This is the moment the Main Character must step into the void with absolutely no personal experiences to guide him, and choose to continue with the path he has always taken or adopt a new one.

The story then resolves in Success/Good, Success/Bad, Failure/Good, Failure/Bad. These four resolutions are the “Author’s Proof,” wherein he states his personal bias as to what the most appropriate and inappropriate choices were.

Sequence and the Passionate Argument

From this perspective, we can see how the sequence in which dramatic events occur has tremendous impact not on the structure of a story, but on the meaning derived from that structure. The “feel” of the passionate argument will be determined by the order in which the Main Character passes through the levels of justification to face the real source of the story’s inequity.

This sequence affects not only character, but plot and theme as well, and is therefore a complex series of cycles within cycles that is unpredictable during the viewing of a work, but falls into understanding at the conclusion or denouement. Because it is so complex, this is the part of Dramatica best left to computer calculation or to the intuition of the author himself.

Leave a Reply