Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story
The Elements of Structure
Previously, we have seen that the characteristics which build the Objective Characters reside at the Element level of the Thematic Structure. Theme itself emanates most strongly from the Variation level. Plot is generated in the Types. It should not be a surprise, therefore, to find that Genre is most influenced at the Class level. In fact, matching a point of view to a Class creates a story’s Domains, and it is these Domains that have the greatest structural impact on Genre.
As one moves up the Dramatica structure, looking from Character to Theme to Plot, the structural components (the Elements, Variations, and Types) take on a decreasing significance to the finished work compared to the storytelling aspects involved. Objective Characters are very easy to define solely in terms of their Elemental dramatic functions. Theme is a bit less tied to the structure as it explores the comparison between two dramatic Variations whose balance must be established by the author in the process of storytelling. Plot can be looked at rather precisely in terms of Acts, but is less so when it comes to thematic Sequences. At the Scene resolution of Plot a large part of what goes on is storytelling. At Event resolution, determining exactly what events ought to occur is almost exclusively storytelling, with the events falling into four broad structural categories.
Following this progression it stands to reason that Genre, which centers on the Class level just above where Plot is found, would be the least structural of story aspects and also the most influenced by storytelling. And so it is.
In a casual sampling of traditional Genres, we immediately notice that Genre sometimes refers to the setting of a story, as in Westerns or Science Fiction. Other times, it describes the relationships between characters such as Love Stories and Buddy Pictures. Genre might pertain to the feeling an audience gets from a story as in Comedy and Horror Stories. Even styles of storytelling can have their own Genres like Musicals or
Writer: “O.K. What do you want, something like M.A.S.H. or Platoon or The Great Escape?”
The traditional concept of Genre is most useful to writers by keeping them mindful of the “flavor” of their story, no matter if they are working on character, plot, or theme. Genre would be a lot more useful if it could be clearly defined. This is where Dramatica can help.
Dramatica intends to help writers construct the deep structure which underlies their stories. This framework functions as the dramatic skeleton upon which the specifics of a story are built. Story encoding then places muscle on the skeleton, Story weaving clothes the creation, and Reception affects how the audience might react to such a thing.
When considering Genre from an author’s point of view — rather than the traditional audience point of view — the most critical aspect will be structural. That is where the foundation is laid, upon which the storytelling will be built. The first step of seeing Genre this way is to look at the four Classes. These four Classes indicate the nature of the subject matter that will be covered in a story’s Genre. To recap, the four Classes are:
- Universe p; an external state; commonly seen as a situation.
- Physics p; an external process; commonly seen as an activity.
- Mind p; an internal state; commonly seen as a fixed attitude or bias.
- Psychology p; an internal process; commonly seen as a manner of thinking or manipulation.
Modes of Expression
Next, we want to consider a new concept: four modes of expression through which the story’s structure can be conveyed to an audience. The four modes of expression are:
- Information p; focusing the audience on knowledge.
- Drama p; focusing the audience on thought.
- Comedy p; focusing the audience on ability.
- Entertainment p; focusing the audience on desire.
The Dramatica Classes describe what the audience will see. The modes describe in what light they will see them. When we match the two categories, we begin to control the feel our story will generate within the audience.
This is analogous to the manner in which Domains are created by attaching a point of view to a Class. Domains are part of the Story Mind itself and represent how a mind shifts its perspective to consider all sides of an issue. Genres, while also creating perspectives, do so outside of the Story Mind and represent the four different ways an audience can look at the Story Mind as a finished work they are receiving.
The following “Grid of Dramatica Genres,” shows the four Dramatica Classes along one axis, and the four modes of expression along the other.
Grid of Dramatica Genres
- Where/What it is p; (Information/Universe) p; an examination of events and situations with an emphasis on the past, present, progress, and future “state of things” (e.g. Documentary, Historical and Period Pieces).
- How it works p; (Information/Physics) p; an examination of how specific processes work with an emphasis on instruction (e.g. Educational, Informational, Instructional).
- What it means p; (Information/Mind) p; an examination of opinions and points of view with an emphasis on the context in which they are made (e.g. Inspirational, Motivational).
- Why it’s important p; (Information/Psychology) p; an examination of value systems with an emphasis on providing context relevant to the audience’s personal life (e.g. Persuasion, Propaganda).
- Exploration Drama p; (Drama/Universe) p; a serious exploration of how the “state of things” is unbalanced (e.g. Courtroom, Crime, and Classroom dramas).
- Action Drama p; (Drama/Physics) p; a serious take on how problems are created by ongoing activities (e.g. Espionage and War dramas).
- Bias Drama p; (Drama/Mind) p; a serious take on what types of conflicts arise from incompatible attitudes (e.g. Obsession and Prejudice dramas).
- Growth Drama p; (Drama/Psychology) p; a serious take on the attempts to overcome difficulties resulting from manipulations and/or evolving identities (e.g. Coming of Age and Dysfunctional Family dramas).
- Situation Comedy p; (Comedy/Universe) p; humor derived from the difficulties created by placing characters in some sort of predicament (e.g. TV Sitcoms).
- Physical Comedy p; (Comedy/Physics) p; pratfalls, slapstick, and other forms of humor derived from physical activities gone awry (e.g. The Three Stooges and much of Charlie Chaplin’s work)
- Comedy of Manners p; (Comedy/Mind) p; humor derived from divergent attitudes, biases, or fixations – frequently noted as drawing room comedies (e.g. Jack Benny or Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest).
- Comedy of Errors p; (Comedy/Psychology) p; humor derived from misinterpretation or, in psychological terms, attribution error (e.g. Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First and several Shakespeare comedies including Twelfth Night).
- Entertainment through Atmosphere p; (Entertainment/Universe) p; entertainment derived from new, unique, or interesting settings or backgrounds (e.g. Disaster, Fantasy, Horror, Musical, and Science Fiction)
- Entertainment through Thrills p; (Entertainment/Physics) p; entertainment derived from new, unique, or interesting activities/experiences – much like thrill rides at an amusement park (e.g. Action Adventure, Suspense)
- Entertaining Concept p; (Entertainment/Mind) p; entertainment derived from new, unique, or interesting ideas (e.g. High Concept piece)
- Entertainment through Twists p; (Entertainment/Psychology) p; entertainment derived from new, unique, or interesting forms of audience manipulation (e.g. Mysteries, Thrillers)
This grid illustrates how the mode of expression can change the impact a Class will have on an audience. If the Physics Class is expressed in terms of Information it would seem like a “How to” story. If Comedy is chosen as the mode of expression, however, the Physics Class looks more like a story involving physical humor or “slapstick.”
The beauty of the grid is that it provides authors with a “shopping list” of the kinds of impact they may wish to have upon their audience. Take time to fully examine the table. Look at the brief explanation of each mode/Class combination. Unlike most of the previous information in this book, this table lends itself to an intuitive feel that ties in much more closely with the Art of Storytelling than with the Elements of Structure.
Taken together, Classes and modes of expression determine the feel of the subject matter in a story. Still, there is one aspect of Genre remaining: positioning the audience in relationship to the subject matter. To do this, we can make use of the four Dramatica Domains. As a brief recap, they are:
- Main Character Domain p; the first person point of view (I) matched with a Class, this Domain provides the audience with a “down in the trenches,” personal view of the story.
- Obstacle Character Domain p; the second person point of view (you) matched with a Class, this Domain provides the audience with a “what’s impacting me,” impersonal view of the story.
- Subjective Story Domain p; the first person plural point of view (we) matched with a Class, this Domain provides the audience with a “what’s it like to be in this type of a relationship,” passionate view of the story.
- Objective Story Domain p; the third person point of view (they) matched with a Class, this Domain provides the audience with a “big picture,” dispassionate view of the story.
By positioning the audience’s four points of view on the Class/modes of expression grid, we can accurately predict the feel our story will have.
Suppose we wanted to write a Comedy with the Objective Story Domain of Universe and the Main Character Domain of Physics. We could assign all of the Domains to the grid in the Comedy mode of expression like above.
If we are good storytellers, all four throughlines would have a consistently humorous (comedic) feel to them. The Objective Story would be a situation comedy; the Main Character would be a physically goofy or funny person(e.g. Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask); the Obstacle Character might be someone who is constantly being mistaken for someone else or mistaking the Main Character for someone else; the Subjective Story relationship between the Main and Obstacle Characters would be conflicting over silly or exaggerated differences of opinion.
Though a story like this covers all of the storyforming bases, its single mode of expression lacks the emotional depth that comes from variety. This monotone form of storytelling is fine (and often preferable) for some forms of storytelling. Many audiences, however, prefer to have greater variety of expression in their stories. As it stands, this example story lacks any educational intent (Information), any sense of seriousness (Drama), and any pure diversions (Entertainment).
How does one diversify? Assign each Domain to a different mode of expression.
A story of such a completely mixed arrangement has no single, overriding feel to it. What it gives up in consistency, however, it gains in variety.
The Objective Story (Universe/Entertainment) would be set in some unique or viscerally intriguing setting (perhaps a Western, the distant future, or the dark side of the moon) in which something is amiss. In this setting we find our Main Character (Physics/Comedy), perhaps clumsy (e.g. Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther), or overly active like Ace Ventura. Providing a nice contrast to the humorous nature of the Main Character are the serious impact of Obstacle Character’s manipulations (Psychology/Drama). Finally, we add the Subjective Story relationship (Mind/Information) as it describes how the Main and Obstacle Characters’ fixed attitudes conflict over “what it all means.”
This is the heart of Dramatica’s approach to Genre. At its most basic level it is a choice between four modes of expression. At its most exciting and elegant, it concerns the sophisticated relationship and dynamics that are created when the four modes of expression, the four structural Classes, and the four Domains are brought together. The Class/modes of expressions grid allows authors to select Domains using their feelings and intuition. By carefully setting these Dramatica relationships in a story, you can create a powerful Genre experience for your audience with exactly the impact you intended.
Finally, there is a greater depth to Dramatica theory that offers more information about what is really going on in Genre. It may be more than you really need to consider for your style of writing and the kinds of stories you create. If you’d like to explore this final aspect of The Elements of Structure, read on.
The Class/modes of expression table we have been using makes it appear as if a throughline must remain in one mode for the duration of a story. In fact, this is only the Static Appreciation of Genre. In actual practice, the Genre of a story develops as the story unfolds, so that it may appear to be simply a Drama as it begins, by the time it is over it will have defined exactly what kind of Drama it is.
In this respect, beginning as one among a broadly identifiable group of stories and ending up where no other story has gone before, each and every story develops its own unique Genre by the time it is over. The manner by which this happens pertains to the Progressive Appreciation of Genre, which we will now explore.
First of all, once a throughline is assigned to a Class, thereby creating a Domain, that particular combination will remain for the duration of the story. Therefore, when we examine how the Mode/Class table is laid out, we can see that each Domain will fall in a vertical column and stay there. The Progressive nature of Genre is seen when each Domain slides up and down its particular column so that during the story it may touch on all four modes of expression. The fact that each Domain is always in its same Class gives them consistency; the ability to shift modes of expression gives them versatility.
Just as with Progressive Plot appreciations there are limits to how a Domain can move from one mode to another. Like the Acts in Plot, Domains must move through modes of expression in a particular order. The rule of thumb is that a Domain cannot skip over a mode (according to the order used in the table) but must go through each mode of expression in between to get to the desired one.
The reason for this limitation is that neither the human mind nor the Story Mind can shift mental gears from, say, first gear to third gear without going through second gear. Modes of expression are largely emotional concerns, and as such, the human mind must be allowed to experience the transition from one emotional state to the next if it is to feel natural.
A good example of the awkwardness that results from ignoring this rule of thumb can be found in the motion picture, Hudson Hawke, starring Bruce Willis. The filmmakers made a valiant effort to break convention and have a serious heist thriller jumbled up with comedy and even song and dance numbers in the middle of a robbery! This might have worked, had the audience been taken through the intermediate modes. Alas, such was not the case and therefore the story simply came out jumbled and impossible to get a grip on emotionally.
It should be noted that sometimes in the process of storytelling an author will want to shock an audience. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including breaking structure or skipping the transitional modes of expression. These kinds of techniques are fully explored in the Storyweaving section of The Art of Storytelling. For now, our discussion is limited to what a consistent progression of Genre would be.
If you have closely examined the table, you may have wondered if the mode at the top (Information) could ever connect to the mode at the bottom (Entertainment) without having to go through both Drama and Comedy first. The answer to this question is, “Yes.”
If you were to clip the Class/modes of expression table out of this book (not recommended!) you could bend it around from top to bottom to make a cylinder. When presented in this form, it can be seen that Information is actually right next to Entertainment. So, during the course of a story, a single Domain might shift up or down or all around, as long as it stays within its Class column.
Taken together, all four Domains could shift from scene to scene into different relative positions, not unlike a combination lock, making the story all comedic at one time, serio-comic at another, and so on. By the end of the story, the progressive shift of Domains provides the combination for the unique Genre of a story.