Dramatica Theory Book: Chapter 22

Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley

Chapter 22

Storytelling and Plot Dynamics


Plot Dynamics

Plot Dynamics Examples

Story Work

Action Stories: Hamlet; The Silence of the Lambs; Being There; A Christmas Carol; Rain Man
Decision Stories: The Verdict; Chinatown; The Glass Menagerie; Casablanca; The Godfather; The Story of Job; Charlotte’s Web;

A Doll’s House

Story Limit

Optionlock Stories: Hamlet; The Silence of the Lambs; Being There; The Verdict; Chinatown; The Glass Menagerie; Casablanca; The Godfather; The Story of Job; Rain Man; A Doll’s House
Timelock Stories: Charlotte’s Web; American Graffiti; High Noon; 48 hrs;

A Christmas Carol

Story Outcome

Success Stories: The Silence of the Lambs; Being There; A Christmas Carol; The Verdict; Chinatown; Casablanca; The Godfather; The Story of Job; Charlotte’s Web
Failure Stories: Hamlet; The Glass Menagerie; Rain Man;

A Doll’s House

Story Judgment

Stories with a Judgment of Good: Being There; A Christmas Carol; The Verdict; Casablanca; Charlotte’s Web; Rain Man; A Doll’s House
Stories with a Judgment of Bad: Hamlet; The Silence of the Lambs; Chinatown; The Godfather; The Glass Menagerie


Work: Action or Decision?

Action or Decision describes how the story is driven forward. The question is: Do Actions precipitate Decisions or vice versa?

At the end of a story there will be an essential need for an Action to be taken and a Decision to be made. However, one of them will be the roadblock that must be removed first in order to enable the other. This causal relationship is felt throughout the story where either Actions would never happen on their own, except that Decisions keep forcing them, or Decisions would never be made except that Actions leave no other choice than to decide. In fact, the “inciting event” that causes the story’s Problem in the first place will also match the kind of Work that will be required to resolve it. This “bookends” a story so that its Problem and solution are both precipitated by the same kind of Work: Action or Decision.

Stories contain both Action and Decision. Choosing one does not exclude the other. It merely gives preference to one over the other. Do Actions precipitate Decisions, or do Decisions precipitate Actions?

This preference can be enhanced or nearly balanced out by other dynamic questions you answer about your story. It’s really a matter of the background against which you want your Main Character to operate.

The choice of background does not have to reflect the nature of the Main Character. In fact, some very interesting dramatic potentials can be created when they do not match.

For example, a Main Character of action (called a Do-er) forced by circumstance to handle a deliberation-type problem would find himself at a loss for the experience and tools he needs to do the job.

Similarly, a deliberating Main Character (called a Be-er) would find himself whipped into a turmoil if forced to resolve a problem requiring action.

These mixed stories appear everywhere from tragedy to comedy and can add an extra dimension to an otherwise one-sided argument.

Since a story has both Actions and Decisions, it is really a question of which an author wants to come first: chicken or egg? By selecting one over the other, you instruct Dramatica to establish a causal order between dynamic movements in the Action line and the Decision line.

Limit : Timelock or Optionlock?

Limit determines the kind of constraints which will ultimately bring a story to a conclusion.

For an audience, a story’s limit adds dramatic tension as they wonder if the characters will accomplish the story’s goal. In addition, the limit forces a Main Character to end his deliberations and Change or Remain Steadfast.

Sometimes stories end because of a time limit. Other times they draw to a conclusion because all options have been exhausted. Running out of time is accomplished by a Timelock; running out of options is accomplished by an Optionlock.

Both of these means of limiting the story and forcing the Main Character to decide are felt from early on in the story and get stronger until the moment of truth.

Optionlocks need not be claustrophobic so much as that they provide limited pieces with which to solve the Problem. They limit the scope of the Problem and its potential solutions.

Timelocks need not be hurried so much as they limit the interval during which something can happen. Timelocks determine the duration of the growth of the Problem and the search for solutions.

Choosing a Timelock or an Optionlock has a tremendous impact on the nature of the tension the audience will feel as the story progresses toward its climax.

A Timelock tends to take a single point of view and slowly fragment it until many things are going on at once.

An Optionlock tends to take many pieces of the puzzle and bring them all together at the end.

A Timelock raises tension by dividing attention, and an Optionlock raises tension by focusing it. Timelocks increase tension by bringing a single thing closer to being an immediate problem, Optionlocks increase tension by building a single thing that becomes a functioning problem.

One cannot look just to the climax to determine if a Timelock or Optionlock is in effect. Indeed, both Time and Option locks may be tagged on at the end to increase tension.

A better way to gauge which is at work is to look at the nature of the obstacles thrown in the path of the Protagonist or Main Character. If the obstacles are primarily delays, a Timelock is in effect; if the obstacles are caused by missing essential parts, an Optionlock is in effect.

An author may feel more comfortable building tension by delays or building tension by missing pieces. Choose the kind of lock most meaningful for you.

Outcome: Success or Failure?

Although it can be tempered by degree, Success or Failure is easily determined by seeing whether or not the Objective Characters achieve what they set out to achieve at the beginning of the story.

Certainly, the Objective Characters may learn they really don’t want what they thought they did, and in the end not go for it. Even though they have grown, this is considered a Failure — they did not achieve what they originally intended.

Similarly, they may actually achieve what they wanted, and even though they find it unfulfilling or unsatisfying, it must be said they succeeded.

The point here is not to pass a value judgment on the worth of their Success or Failure, but simply to determine if the Objective Characters actually did succeed or fail in the attempt to achieve what they set out to achieve at the beginning of the story.

Judgment: Good or Bad?

Judgment determines whether or not the Main Character resolves his personal angst.

The rational argument of a story deals with practicality: does the kind of approach taken lead to Success or Failure in the endeavor. In contrast, the passionate argument of a story deals with fulfillment: does the Main Character find peace at the end of his journey?

If you want an upper story, you will want Success in the Objective Story and a Judgment of Good in the Objective Story.

If you want a tragedy, you will want the objective effort to fail, and the subjective journey to end badly as well.

Life is often made of trade-offs, compromises, sacrifices, and re-evaluations, and so should be stories. Choosing Success/Bad stories or Failure/Good stories opens the door to these alternatives.

If we choose a Failure/Good story, we can imagine a Main Character who realizes he had been fooled into trying to achieve an unworthy Goal and discovers his mistake in time, or a Main Character who discovers something more important to him personally in the course of trying to achieve the Goal. Each of these would be called a “personal triumph.”

A Success/Bad story might end with a Main Character achieving his dreams only to find they are meaningless, or Main Character who makes a sacrifice for the success of others but ends up bitter and vindictive. Each of these would be a “personal tragedy.”

Because Success and Failure are measurements of how well specific requirements have been met, they are by nature objective. In contrast, Good and Bad are subjective value Judgments based on an appreciation of the Main Character’s personal fulfillment.

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