Dramatica Theory Book: Chapter 17

Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley

Chapter 17

Plot Appreciations

A Thematic Side To Plot

Plot has two sides: One side deals with the sequence of what happens next. The other side is thematic in nature and determines what the plot is about. Terms that describe the sequence of plot include Acts, Chapters, and Scenes. Terms that describe the thematics of plot include Goal, Requirements, and Consequences. We’ll examine the thematic side of plot first.

Plot Appreciations

As with the thematic perspectives we have already explored, plot thematics are also called appreciations. What sets these apart is that they do not fall in any single throughline. In fact, they are scattered among all four throughlines. This is because these plot appreciations represent the collective impact of all four throughlines combined. So, when we speak of Goal, we are not talking about one throughline’s goal. Rather, we are referring to the Story Goal, which is derived from and impacts all four throughlines.

The story-wide effect of plot appreciations can be clearly seen in-so-far-as the Main Character, Obstacle Character, and Objective Characters will all be caught up in the ripples caused by the quest for the Story Goal. Even the Subjective Story Throughline will be impacted by the nature of the goal and the effort to achieve it.

There are eight Plot Appreciations that stand at the center of all four throughlines. They are the story Goal, Requirements, Consequences, Forewarnings, Dividends, Costs, Prerequisites, and Preconditions. All of these appreciations can be found at the Type level of the Thematic Structure.

In stories that reflect Western culture – particularly in American culture – the Story Goal is traditionally found in the Objective Story Throughline. This results in a story in which the Goal pertains to all of the Objective Characters. The Goal, however, might just as appropriately be found in the Main Character Throughline, or either of the other two. In such a story, the overall Goal could appear to be whatever the Main Character was hoping for or working toward, regardless of what was of concern to the Objective Characters.

In fact, it is the Concerns in each throughline that might also double up as the Story Goal. This has the effect of tying all four throughlines’ Concerns together into the issues central to the story as a whole. The relationship among the eight plot appreciations remains the same no matter which throughline serves as their anchor point. Therefore, we shall describe the nature of the eight Plot Appreciations as they appear when the Story Goal is also the Objective Story Throughline Concern. For other perspectives, one merely needs to shift into a different point of view, such as that of the Main Character. The appreciations themselves would remain the same, only what they are applied to would change.

Story Goal

The Story Goal will share the same Type as the Objective Story Concern. What then is the difference between a Goal and a Concern? A Concern simply describes the category of the kinds of things the Objective Characters are most worried about. The Story Goal describes a specific item that is a shared concern. For example, if the Objective Story Concern is Obtaining, then all the characters would be worried about Obtaining something important to each of them. One might wish to Obtain a diploma, another to Obtain a lost treasure. A Story Goal of Obtaining in the same story might be everyone’s desire to Obtain a pirate map. The map would bring recognition leading to a diploma for one character and a lost treasure to another. In such a story, the audience will be waiting to see if the Goal is Obtained or not because of the character concerns that such an outcome will affect.

Story Requirements

In order to achieve a particular Type of Story Goal, a necessary Type of Requirements must be met. Requirements can come in two varieties. One is a series of steps that must be achieved in a particular order. The other is more like a shopping list that must be filled, no matter the order in which it is completed. Step Requirements can be accomplishments such as winning a series of preliminary bouts to qualify for a shot at the title. List Requirements can be items that must be gathered, such as clues or ingredients. Regardless of the Step or List nature of the Requirements for a particular story, they must all fall into the category described by the Requirement’s Type.

Story Consequences

What happens if the Goal is not achieved? The Consequences are suffered. In some stories, the characters may already be suffering Consequences as the story opens. The Goal then becomes that one thing which will bring an end to the suffering. In this case, the character’s troubles are the Consequences of not yet having achieved the Goal. Just as in real life, sometimes Goals are a reward, other times Goals bring relief. It all depends on whether the situation starts out good, but could still be improved, or whether it starts out bad and needs to be corrected.

Story Forewarnings

Just as progress in meeting Requirements indicates how close the Goal is to being attained, the progress of Forewarnings indicates how close the Consequences are to being imposed. Forewarnings can be as simple as cracks forming in a dam or as subtle as an increasing number of missed appointments. Characters are not only running toward the Goal, but trying to outrun the Consequences as well. Tension increases when one is both the pursuer and the pursued. For stories in which the Consequences are already in place, Forewarnings indicate how close things are to making the Consequence permanent. An example of this kind of Forewarning can be found in Walt Disney’s production of Beauty And The Beast. Here, petals falling off a rose portend the point at which the prince must remain a beast forever.

Driver And Passenger Plot Appreciations

Just as there are Driver and Passenger characters, there are Driver and Passenger Plot Appreciations as well. Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings are the Drivers and set the course of a story’s plot. The next four appreciations, Dividends, Costs, Prerequisites, and Preconditions, are the Passengers which modulate the course of the plot set by the Drivers.

Story Dividends

During the effort to achieve the goal, certain benefits are enjoyed or accrued along the way. These serve to add motivation for the characters to continue. No one likes to keep his nose to the grindstone for an extended duration in the hope of ultimately receiving a reward. Similarly, if one is already suffering a Consequence, simply accepting that torment while working toward relief quickly becomes unbearable. In a like manner, characters need to enjoy small rewards along the way – little perks that make the journey bearable and the effort tolerable.

Story Costs

Just as positive benefits accrue during the effort to achieve the goal, so do negative costs have to be paid. Every time a character endures some displeasure as a result of trying to achieve the goal, this additional price is a Cost. Costs and Dividends modulate the intensity of the Objective Character’s drive toward the Goal. These characters cannot know if they will ultimately succeed or not. As a result, putting in effort is something of a gamble. Just as with a slot machine in a casino, every spin that simply takes one’s money is a Cost. Every small pay-out is a Dividend. By properly balancing the two, motivation to continue in hopes of a jackpot can be maintained, for each Dividend is seen as proof that rewards can be had, and even if the Costs outweigh the Dividends, the Goal would cover those costs and leave much more profit besides. Of course, as with gambling, characters may slowly accrue so many costs that even the achievement of the goal would not cover the physical or emotional debt.

Story Prerequisites

Any effort requires supplies, often called essentials. The effort to achieve the Goal also requires these essential Prerequisites, without which progress cannot be made. Only by gathering what is needed can an attempt be made to meet a story’s Requirements. Prerequisites might be a certain kind of transportation, an amount of money, a grade point average, or the approval of a bureaucrat. As long as the item in question is essential to mounting the effort to achieve the Goal, it is a Prerequisite. Prerequisites themselves do not bring the Goal any closer, which is why they are not Requirements. All they do is define the raw materials or foundations that must be in place before the quest for the Goal can proceed.

Story Preconditions

In contrast to Prerequisites, Preconditions are like riders that are tacked on to the ends of bills being voted on in Congress. With such a bill, the Goal might be to help an endangered species. One of the Requirements would be to pass a bill that gives the species legal status as being endangered. One of the Prerequisites would be to get enough votes to pass the bill. One of the Preconditions for getting a block of votes would be to add a rider on the bill that provides subsidies to the tobacco industry. Clearly the rider has nothing to do with the original bill, and might even be philosophically at odds with its intent. But, to get the job done, concessions must be made.

In a like manner, Preconditions in a story are non-essential constraints or costs placed on the characters in exchange for the help of someone who controls essential Prerequisites. This might be the only Bedouin who can supply camels so an expedition can cross a desert, who insists they take his uncontrollable daughter with them.

In the movie, The Karate Kid, the Protagonist is a young boy who wants to be a Karate Champion. To achieve this goal, he must meet the Requirements of winning preliminary bouts. To win these bouts, the Prerequisites are that he receive additional training from a master. The master, who controls this Prerequisite, adds a precondition. He insists that the young boy learn new moves by doing chores around the master’s house that incorporate those moves, “Wax on… Wax off.” Clearly, there are other ways to learn Karate than doing chores, but this Precondition was brought about by the master’s desire that the boy learn humility along with his skill.

In Summary

These eight Plot Appreciations are the touch points between plot and Theme. Without them, the plot would simply be a series of events that held no particular meaning. With them, the plot supports the thematic argument, and through it touches the other Thematic Appreciations including those such as the Main Character Problem, which lie at the heart of what drives a story’s characters. In this manner, Theme stands as a bridge connecting character to plot so that what characters do thematically impacts the progression of events, and events that occur thematically impact the way characters think.

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