Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story
The Elements of Structure
Foundations: Central Concepts
In Dramatica, there are some central concepts that prove immediately useful. Presenting these up front reveals the practical side of the theory and provides a firm foundation for more in-depth explorations to come.
These central concepts are:
1. The Story Mind
2. The Four Throughlines
3. The Objective Story Throughline
4. The Main Character Throughline
5. The Obstacle Character Throughline
6. The Subjective Story Throughline
7. The Grand Argument Story
The Story Mind
One of the unique concepts that sets Dramatica apart from all other theories is the assertion that every complete story is a model of the mind’s problem solving process. This Story Mind does not work like a computer, performing one operation after another until the solution is obtained. Rather, it works more holistically, like our own minds, bringing many conflicting considerations to bear on the issue. It is the author’s argument as to the relative value of these considerations in solving a particular problem that gives a story its meaning.
To make his case, an author must examine all significant approaches to resolving the story’s specific problem. If a part of the argument is left out, the story will have holes. If the argument is not made in an even-handed fashion, the story will have inconsistencies.
Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre are the different families of considerations in the Story Mind made tangible, so audience members can see them at work and gain insight into their own methods of solving problems. Characters represent the motivations of the Story Mind (which often work at cross purposes and come into conflict). Plot documents the problem solving methods employed by the Story Mind. Theme examines the relative worth of the Story Mind’s value standards. Genre establishes the Story Mind’s overall attitude, which casts a bias or background on all other considerations. When a story is fully developed, the model of the Story Mind is complete.
It is not enough, however, to develop a complete Story Mind. That only creates the argument the audience will be considering. Equally important is how the audience is positioned relative to that argument.
Does an author want the audience to examine a problem dispassionately or to experience what it is like to have that problem? Is it more important to explore a possible solution or to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of alternative solutions? In fact, all of these points of view must be developed for a story to be complete.
An author’s argument must go beyond telling audience members what to look at. I must also show them how to see it. It is the relationship between object and observer that creates perspective, and in stories, perspective creates meaning.
There are four different perspectives which must be explored as a story unfolds in order to present all sides of the issue at the heart of a story. They are the Objective Story Throughline, theMain Character Throughline, theObstacle Character Throughline, and theSubjective Story Throughline.
The first perspective is from the Objective Story Throughline, so called because it is the most dispassionate look at the Story Mind.
Imagine the argument of a story as a battle between two armies. The Objective Story view is like that of a general on a hill overlooking the battle. The general focuses on unfolding strategies and, from this perspective, sees soldiers not by name but by their function on the field: foot soldier, grenadier, cavalryman, scout. Though the general may care very much for the soldiers, he must concentrate on the events as they unfold. Because it emphasizes events, the Objective Story Throughline is often thought of as plot, but as we shall see later, plot is so much more.
For a story to be complete, the audience will need another view of the battle as well: that of the soldier in the trenches. Instead of looking at the Story Mind from the outside, the Main Character Throughline is a view from the inside. What if that Story Mind were our own? That is what the audience experiences when it becomes a soldier on the field: audience members identify with the Main Character of the story.
Through the Main Character we experience the battle as if we were directly participating in it. From this perspective we are much more concerned with what is happening immediately around us than we are with the larger strategies that are really too big to see. This most personally involved argument of the story is the Main Character Throughline.
As we shall explore shortly, the Main Character does not have to be the soldier leading the charge in the battle as a whole. Our Main Character might be any of the soldiers on the field: the cook, the medic, the bugler, or even the recruit cowering in the bushes.
To see the third perspective, keep yourself in the shoes of the Main Character for a moment. You are right in the middle of the story’s battle. Smoke from dramatic explosions obscures the field. You are not absolutely sure which way leads to safety. Still, before there was so much turmoil, the way was clear and you are confident in your sense of direction.
Then, from out of the smoke a shadowy figure appears, solidly blocking your way. The shadowy figure is your Obstacle Character. You can’t see well enough to tell if he is friend or foe. He might be a compatriot trying to keep you from stepping into a mine field. Or, he might be the enemy luring you into a trap. What to do! Do you keep on your path and run over this person or try the other path instead? This is the dilemma that faces a Main Character.
To completely explore the issue at the heart of a story, an Obstacle Character must present an alternative approach to the Main Character. The Obstacle Character Throughline describes the advocate of this alternative path and the manner in which he impacts Main Character.
As soon as the Main Character encounters his Obstacle, a skirmish ensues at a personal level in the midst of the battle as a whole. The two characters close in on one another in a theatrical game of “chicken,” each hoping the other will give in.
The Main Character shouts at his Obstacle to get out of the way. The Obstacle Character stands fast, insisting that the Main Character change course and even pointing toward the fork in the road. As they approach one another, the interchange becomes more heated until the two are engaged in heart-to-heart combat.
While the Objective Story battle rages all around, the Main and Obstacle Characters fight their private engagement. The Subjective Story Throughline describes the course this passionate battle takes.
The Four Throughlines Of A Story You Know
Here are some examples of how to see the four throughlines of some well known stories. Completed stories tend to blend these throughlines together in the interest of smooth narrative style. From a structural point of view, however, it is important to see how they can be separated.
Objective Story Throughline: The Objective view of Star Wars sees a civil war in the galaxy between the Rebels and the evil Empire. The Empire has built a Death Star which will destroy the Rebels if it isn’t destroyed first. To even hope for a successful attack, the Rebels need the plans to the Death Star which are in the possession of a farm boy and an old Jedi master. These two encounter many other characters while delivering the plans, ultimately leading to a climactic space-battle on the surface of the Death Star.
Main Character Throughline: The Main Character of Star Wars is Luke Skywalker. This throughline follows his personal growth over the course of this story. Luke is a farm boy who dreams of being a star pilot, but he can’t allow himself to leave his foster parents to pursue his dreams. He learns that he is the son of a great Jedi Knight. When his foster parents are killed, he begins studying the religion of the Jedi: the Force. Surviving many dangerous situations, Luke learns to trust himself more and more. Ultimately he makes a leap of faith to trust his feelings over his computer technology while flying into battle as the Rebel’s last hope of destroying the Death Star. It turns out well, and Luke is changed by the experience.
Obstacle Character Throughline: The Obstacle Character of Star Wars is Obi Wan Kenobi and this throughline describes his impact (especially on Luke Skywalker) over the course of the story. Obi Wan is a wizened old Jedi who sees everything as being under the mystic control of the Force. He amazes people with his resiliency and ability, all of which he credits to the Force.
Subjective Story Throughline: The Subjective Story throughline of Star Wars describes the relationship between Luke and Obi Wan. Obi Wan needs Luke to help him and he knows Luke has incredible potential as a Jedi. Luke, however, needs to be guided carefully because his desires are so strong and his abilities so new. Obi Wan sets about the manipulations which will help Luke see the true nature of the Force and learn to trust himself.
To Kill A Mockingbird
Objective Story Throughline: The Objective view of To Kill A Mockingbird sees the town of Maycomb with its horns locked in various attitudes over the rape trial of Tom Robinson. Due-process has taken over, however many people think this case should never see trial. As the trial comes to fruition, the people of the town argue back and forth about how the defense lawyer ought to behave and what role people should take in response to this alleged atrocity.
Main Character Throughline: The Main Character of To Kill A Mockingbird is Scout and her throughline describes her personal experiences in this story. Scout is a young tom-boy who wants things in her life to remain as simple as they’ve always been. Going to school, however, and seeing the town’s reaction to her father’s work introduces her to a new world of emotional complexity. She learns that there is much more to people than what you can see.
Obstacle Character Throughline: The Obstacle Character point of view in To Kill A Mockingbird is presented through Boo Radley, the reclusive and much talked about boy living next door to Scout. The mystique surrounding this boy, fueled by the town’s ignorance and fear, make everyone wonder what he is really like and if he’s really as crazy as they say.
Subjective Story Throughline: The Subjective Story view of To Kill A Mockingbird sees the relationship between Scout and Boo Radley. This throughline explores what it’s like for these two characters to live next door to each other and never get to know one another. It seems any friendship they might have is doomed from the start because Boo will always be locked away in his father’s house. The real problem, however, turns out to be one of Scout’s prejudice against Boo’s mysterious life. Boo has been constantly active in Scout’s life, protecting her from the background. When Scout finally realizes this she becomes a changed person who no longer judges people without first trying to stand in their shoes.
Summary – The Grand Argument Story
We have described a story as a battle. The overview that takes in the full scope of the battle is the Objective Story Throughline.
Within the fray is one special soldier through whom we experience the battle first-hand. How he fares is the Main Character Throughline.
The Main Character is confronted by another soldier, blocking the path. Is he friend or foe? Either way, he is an obstacle, and the exploration of his impact on the Main Character is the Obstacle Character Throughline.
The Main and Obstacle Characters engage in a skirmish. Main says, “Get out of my way!”, and Obstacle says, “Change course!” In the end, the steadfast resolution of one will force the other to change. The growth of this interchange constitutes the Subjective Story Throughline.
Taken together, the four throughlines comprise the author’s argument to the audience. They answer the questions: What does it feel like to have this kind of problem? What’s the other side of the issue? Which perspective is the most appropriate for dealing with that problem? What do things look like in the “big picture?”
Only through the development of these four simultaneous throughlines can the Story Mind truly reflect our own minds, pitting reason against emotion and immediate advantage against experience in the hope of resolving a problem in the most beneficial manner.
Now that you’ve added Story Mind, Objective Story Throughline, Main Character Throughline, Obstacle Character Throughline, and Subjective Story Throughline to your writer’s vocabulary, you have all the background you need to explore a whole new world of understanding: the Dramatica Theory of Story.