Dramatica Theory Book: Chapter 15

Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley 

Chapter 15

Deep Theme Theory

Deep Theme

What we have done so far is describe the Elements of Theme. Now we have to put them in motion as well. 

The Thematic Argument

What moves Theme forward is the Thematic Argument. Why an argument? Because unless the audience shares the author’s bias on the story’s issues, it will not accept a blanket statement that the author’s proposed way of dealing with a particular problem is the best. The audience really does want to be convinced – it wants to learn something useful in real life while being entertained at the same time. But, unless an author can successfully make an emotional argument supporting his bias through his Theme, he will not be able to change the heart of his audience. 

Premise and the Thematic Argument

One of the most familiar attempts to describe the nature of the thematic argument relies on a concept called the premise. A premise usually takes this form: Some activity or character trait leads to a particular result or conclusion. An example of this would be Greed leads to Self-Destruction. A premise can be very useful in describing what a thematic argument is about in a nutshell, but provides very little information about how that argument will proceed. 

In regard to the example above, there are many ways in which greed might lead to self-destruction. In addition, each of the four throughlines has its own view of the thematic nature of the problem, so each one needs its own thematic argument. The traditional premise looks at a story’s Theme from one point of view only. If greed leads to self-destruction, is this a problem for everyone, just for the Main Character, just the Obstacle Character, or does it perhaps describe the nature and outcome of the relationship between Main and Obstacle? We simply don’t have enough information to determine that. As a result, the traditional premise is fine for summing up a story, but does little to help an author create a thematic argument. 

Dramatica’s view of a thematic argument begins not with a conflict – the thematic conflict. Each of the throughlines has its own thematic conflict which we have already described to some degree during our discussion of Range. 

The Range itself forms one side of the thematic conflict and the Counterpoint forms the other. As indicated earlier, you won’t find Greed in Dramatica’s thematic structure, but you will find Self-Interest. The Counterpoint for Self-Interest is the dynamically opposed to it in the chart, which is Morality. Thus, the premise of a thematic argument dealing with Greed might begin with the conflict, Self-Interest vs. Morality. 

The advantage of the thematic conflict is that it spells out both sides of the thematic argument. Both Range and counterpoint must be played against one another over the course of the story if the author is to make a case that one is better than the other. 

The component of traditional premise which describes growth is reflected in the phrase “leads to.” In some cases this may also be “prevents,” “creates,” “hinders” or any other word or words that indicate the relationship of the topic (such as Greed) to the conclusion (such as self-destruction). Again, this describes what an audience comes to understand at the end of a story, but does not give a clue about how to develop that understanding while creating a story. 

Because it begins with a conflict rather than a topic, Dramatica’s version of a thematic argument supports an author creating as many scenes or events as he may choose in which the Range is weighed against the Counterpoint. Each time the Range or Counterpoint is illustrated it can be a shade of gray and does not have be shown in terms of all good vs. all bad. Using our example from above, in a series of scenes Self-Interest might be shown to be moderately positive, largely negative, slightly negative, then largely positive. At the end of the story the audience can sum up or average out all the instances in which they have seen. 

Similarly, the counterpoint of Morality in its own scenes might be largely positive, moderately positive, largely negative and largely negative again. At the end of the story the audience will sum up the counterpoint and determine whether Morality by itself is a positive or negative thing. 

The audience does not consciously work out these averages. Rather, it is simply affected by the ongoing layering of value judgments created by the author’s bias. In fact, audience members are constantly balancing the Range against the counterpoint in their hearts until the story is over and they are left feeling more toward one or the other. 

The advantage of this approach is that an author does not have to be heavy-handed by saying only negative things about one side of the thematic conflict and only positive things about the other. An audience will be much more open to a balanced emotional argument where decisions are seldom black and white. 

Finally, as reflected in traditional premise, an audience will want to see the ultimate results of adhering to one value standard over another. In our example of Greed, it led to Self-destruction. This is a generic conclusion. It could mean either a failure in one’s goals or a personal loss of the heart. 

Dramatica sees goals and yearnings as two different things: one born of reason and one born of emotion. How completely we achieve our goals determines our degree of satisfaction. How well we accommodate our yearnings determines our degree of fulfillment. So, one thing we need to know at the end of thematic argument is whether or not our goals ended in success or failure, and also whether or not things feel good or bad. 

The degree of success or failure, good or bad, is determined in storytelling. The thematic appreciations of Success, Failure, Good, and Bad simply indicate on which side of the fence the conclusion settled. As a result, there are two different aspects to the conclusion of a Dramatica thematic argument — the outcome (Success or Failure) and the Judgment (Good or Bad). 

From these considerations we can see that four broad conclusions to a thematic argument are possible: 

1. The Success/Good conclusion or Happy Ending 

2. The Failure/Bad conclusion or Tragedy 

3. The Success/Bad conclusion or Personal Tragedy 

4. The Failure/Good conclusion or Personal Triumph 

It is important to note that a Failure/Good story, for example, does not mean the Failure is Good but that in spite of a lack of satisfaction, the feel of the story is fulfilling. Such is the case in the motion picture Rain Man in which Charlie (Tom Cruise) fails to get the inheritance, yet overcomes his hatred of his father. This is a Personal Triumph. 

Similarly, Success/Bad stories are like Remains of the Day in which Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) successfully maintains the household through thick and thin, yet in the end finds himself empty and alone. This is a Personal Tragedy. 

Sewing Together The Themes

In this section we have learned that the traditional premise is too blunt a tool to do more than describe the gist of a finished work. In contrast, Dramatica’s concept of a thematic argument is explored through thematic conflict, development of the relative value of different standards, and concluded with an assessment of both the level of satisfaction and fulfillment. Such an approach is much more in line with the organic flow of a story’s emotional impact as felt through Theme, and is much more accessible as a creative guideline. 

The Storyform: How Does All This Stuff Hold Together?In our present exploration of Theme we are looking at Thematic Appreciations one by one. From this point of view Appreciations can appear rather independent, with each carrying its own meaning which needs to be determined and developed. This point of view is deceptive, however. The meaning which Appreciations hold is partly in their individuality and partly in their relationships to each other. The nature of any single Appreciation has an impact on how to see every other Appreciation in that story. All together, the collective impact of a specific arrangement of Appreciations describes the underlying structure of a single complete story. 

The connections these Appreciations have with one another is exceedingly complex. Beyond the obvious links between such items as Domains/Concerns/ and Ranges, the web of dramatic relationships between the Appreciations of a single story can only be kept fully consistent using a computer. 

The purpose of this section, The Elements of Structure, is just to catalogue the pieces of story structure. The second half of this book, titled The Art of Storytelling, will explore exactly how creating a story determines what relationships will exist between that story’s Appreciations. 

Additional Appreciations

Domain, Concern, Range, and Problem are not the only appreciations in Dramatica. In fact, there are six other appreciations for each of the four throughlines, plus others that affect the whole story. Whether or not an author consciously considers them while writing, these appreciations will clearly appear in every complete story. 

Additional Element Level Appreciations:

At the Element level where we already found each throughline’s Problem, each of the four throughlines also has three additional appreciations. Since each throughline has a Problem, it is not surprising that each also has a Solution. The Solution is found directly opposite the Problem in the thematic structure. For example, the Solution for too much or too little logic is more or less feeling

If a Problem were seen as a disease, its Solution would be a cure. A disease will also have symptoms, and treatments for those symptoms. This is reflected in the same quad as the Problem and Solution in each throughline, where one of the remaining Elements will be the Focus (symptom) or Direction (treatment). The reason they are called Focus and Direction is that characters, like real people, find their attention drawn to the difficulties caused by a problem more than to the problem itself. Whether the Focus and Direction we are considering falls in the Objective Story, Main, Obstacle, or Subjective Story Throughline, they represent the symptoms of the Problem which draw attention (Focus) and what the characters try to do about it (Direction). 

In the Objective Story Throughline, the Focus is where all the characters concentrate, as that is where their troubles are most apparent. The Direction is how they respond to try and alleviate those troubles. If the story were a body with a disease (Problem), sometimes a cure must be found and one must ignore the symptoms, not worry about a treatment, and concentrate on a cure. Other times, the cure cannot be found, but if one simply treats the symptoms, the body will recover enough to heal itself. 

In the Main Character Throughline, the decision as to whether or not to change is intimately tied to whether the Main Character is driven by the Focus toward a Direction of effort, or whether he seeks the cure. The Main Character cannot tell which is the correct approach, but a final decision at a leap of faith (or the more gradual shift from one approach to the other) will ultimately determine whether the conclusion of the thematic argument ends in Success or Failure and Good or Bad. 

In the Obstacle Character Throughline, the Focus is where this character hopes to have the greatest impact, and Direction is how he wants things to change as a result of that impact. 

Focus in the Subjective Story Throughline is the actual topic over which Main and Obstacle Characters argue because it gets their attention. The audience will see the real Problem between them, but the Main Character and Obstacle Character will only see the Focus. Subjective Story Direction describes the direction in which the argument tends to lead. 

Additional Variation Level Appreciations

At the Variation level each of the four throughlines has two additional appreciations. They function roughly the same way in each throughline, but are most similar in between the Main and Obstacle Character Throughlines and between Objective Story and Subjective Story Throughlines. 

Both Main and Obstacle have a Unique Ability and a Critical Flaw. In the Main Character, the Unique Ability represents some trait or quality that has the potential to allow that character to resolve his Problem. The Critical Flaw, however, undermines that Unique Ability. If the Main Character is ever to solve his troubles, he must overcome his Critical Flaw in order to fully employ his Unique Ability. 

Because the Obstacle Character is seen in terms of his impact, his Unique Ability describes the quality he possesses that enables him to have a special impact on the Main Character (in trying to change the Main Character’s point of view). The Obstacle Character’s Critical Flaw is another quality that undermines that impact. 

In the Objective Story and Subjective Story Throughlines, these same two items are better described as the Catalyst and Inhibitor. Catalyst and Inhibitor act as the accelerator and brake pedal on the forward progress of each throughline. In the Objective Story Throughline, bringing in the Catalyst moves the plot forward more quickly, applying the Inhibitor slows things down. This is a structural aid in pacing a story. 

In the Subjective Story Throughline, Catalyst and Inhibitor control the rate at which the relationship between Main and Obstacle Characters will develop. More Catalyst can bring a confrontation to a head, more Inhibitor can delay it. Because Catalyst, Inhibitor, Range, and counterpoint are all Variations, the proper choice of these items insures that the pacing of the story will seem to come from inside the structure, rather than being arbitrarily imposed by the author. 

Additional Type Level Appreciations

At the Type level, each of the four throughlines has one additional appreciation. It is called a Stipulation, because it stipulates how the growth of each throughline will make itself known. The Stipulation provides a category in which the progress of each throughline can be charted. For example, an Objective Story Stipulation of Obtaining might be seen in the characters gathering cash receipts in their efforts to afford tuition. In the Main Character Throughline, a Stipulation of Obtaining might be the unused concert tickets on a shy man’s bed stand from all the times he bought them but then was too afraid to ask someone out to the show. 

What about the Class level?

The Class level has no additional appreciations, since it only has four items and each is already spoken for as the four Domains. 

Is That About It?

Please keep in mind that this section of the Dramatica Theory Book deals with The Elements Of Structure. It describes what the pieces are, not how to put them together. That comes later in The Art Of Storytelling. 

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