Dramatica Theory Book: Chapter 25

Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley

Chapter 25

Thematic Appreciations


Selecting Thematic Appreciations

Selecting a Range

A Range is the thematic focus of a throughline. The focus, when explored with its counterpoint and then coupled with a conclusion, creates a premise. A throughline’s Range is found at the Variation level of the thematic structure. Variations, as part of the balanced structure, do not provide value judgments to thematic foci as to whether they are good, bad or indifferent. These interpretations are deciphered by the audience from the interaction of all the dynamics of a story. For example, whether or not the Main Character succeeds or fails can have a big influence on the value of a thematic focus, even though success and failure are not Variations.

Focus and Point of View

An author might select the Variation “Morality” as the thematic focus, making the thematic conflict Morality vs. Self-Interest. But which is better between the two? Both are. And both are worse. It really depends on the context. The author’s message might be to speak out in favor of putting others first, or that one must first take care of oneself before one can help others. Either point of view can be argued, as long as it is argued completely and makes sense in context.

Because it is simply the point of focus, one might argue for a Range of Morality by either showing that Morality is a good thing or that Self-interest is bad. Of course, both Variations will take their turn at the forefront in the exploration of the pair, yet one will seem to be the pivot point around which the throughline revolves. Is the throughline’s message about Morality or about Self-Interest? The answer to that question determines the thematic Range.

Thematic Quads

Although the exploration of a thematic focus will develop nuance and detail, the focus itself (as well as the thematic counterpoint) must be pure so the issues at stake are clear. This provides a balanced, delineated argument at the heart of the thematic exploration, much as there must be a clear storyform at the heart of the storytelling. To accommodate this need for clarity, one must zero in on the specific Range at the heart of a throughline’s argument. With so much balance involved, choosing the right one for your story is not always an easy thing to do. There is a method one can apply, however, that makes it a bit easier and even rather fun.

As described earlier in the section on Theme, there are 64 Variations, grouped into four sets of 16. Each set has four quads as illustrated below. We can start by selecting a set, then a quad, then a conflict and finally a Range, similar to the manner in which we originally explored the thematic structure by starting with the broad stroke Classes and then sub-dividing each into Types, then Variations, and finally Elements.

Dramatica’s 64 Thematic Variations

Universe Variations ———————————-Physics Variations

Psychology Variations —————————-Mind Variations


Perhaps the easiest way to get a feel for one’s theme is to take each quad by itself, and experience the four Variations all at once to get a sense of the relationships between them. In the Morality/Self-Interest quad, for example, the other two Variations are Approach and Attitude. It is the nature of these Variations that the good or bad nature of one pair will be measured by the other pair. In this case, if either Morality or Self-Interest was selected as the focus, the contrast between them would be measured in terms of Attitude and Approach. If Attitude and Approach were to be explored, they would be measured by Morality and Self-Interest.

Grazing for Themes

Let’s assume you have not yet selected any other appreciations. Begin by picking the throughline you want to work with, i.e., Objective Story, Main Character, etc. Don’t consider what Class that throughline might be attached to. Then, keeping that throughline in your mind, get a feel for the Variations in each Class by simply letting your eyes wander over each set of sixteen and treating them as a single item. Eventually one set should emerge as having the best overall feel for that throughline. In other words, the Variations in that set best express the kinds of thematic issues you will want to explore in that throughline.

Now, think of the sixteen Variations in that set as four groups of four. Each group is called a quad, and has a unique flavor that defines the four Variations in it as being part of the same family. Consider all four quads in the set, getting a feel for each one. Then zero in on the quad that best exemplifies the family of subject matter you wish to address in that throughline.

In the quad you have selected there are two different diagonal pairs of Variations. Pick the diagonal pair (dynamic pair) of Variations that illustrates the thematic conflict you wish to explore. Finally, choose one of the two Variations in the pair to be the focus of your theme, and you have your Range. The other Variation in the pair is your thematic counterpoint.

In this manner, you can begin with a feeling and end up with a specific dramatic choice that will affect not only theme, but character and plot as well.

Selecting Character Appreciations

A Bridge between Subjective and Objective…

What is so special about the Main Character? The Main Character is uniquely qualified to illustrate both the Objective and Subjective problems. This is because he contains the one character Element that is central to both the Objective and Subjective problems. As a result, neither problem can be resolved without his participation. Therefore, selecting the Main Character’s Problem requires the consideration of other Elements as well.

The Main Character need not be the source of the problem, but might contain the Element crucial to the solution. This is why it is so easy to make the Protagonist the Main Character. The Protagonist is pursuing the Objective Story goal already; why not have him pursue the subjective one as well? If he is taking the correct approach in the author’s view, he contains the solution. If he is taking the incorrect approach, he contains the problem. Either way, the Main Character, as Protagonist or not, is the linchpin that holds the Objective and Subjective Stories together.

The act of pursuing a goal and being crucial to achieving it are two completely different things. For example, it might be the Main Character’s insight or resolve that spurs the Protagonist on to success or distracts it into failure. Either way, the Main Character precipitates the outcome of the story by changing or by remaining steadfast in regard to that crucial Element.

The Problem Quad

In the quad of Elements containing the Problem Element, there is also its counterpart, the Solution Element, which is indeed the solution to that particular problem. There are also two remaining Elements in the quad: the Focus and the Direction. If the Problem is a disease and the Solution the cure, then the Focus is the primary symptom of the story’s problem and the Direction is that symptom’s most appropriate treatment.

As indicated, Main Characters do not have to contain the Element that is the cause of the problem. But if they do not contain the Problem Element, they will contain one of the other Elements in this crucial quad.

For example, we might determine that we want the problem and solution to be found in the quad containing Logic, Feeling, Control and Uncontrolled. Any one of these can be the problem. If we select Feeling as the problem, then Logic will be the solution. If we select Control as the problem, then Uncontrolled will be the solution. Once we determine one pair to be the Problem-Solution pair, the other pair is the Focus-Direction pair.

Focus is simply descriptive of what the Main Character believes the problem to be; Direction is what they feel the solution is. So, for every actual Problem and Solution, there is a corresponding Focus and Direction. Which Element is focus and which is direction is determined by other dynamics at work in the story.

Change Characters and the Crucial Element

In the case of a Change Main Character, he will either contain the Problem or Solution Element. In the case of a Steadfast Main Character, he will either contain the Focus or the Direction Element.

Why would a Change Main Character contain the problem or solution? In a sense, the inequity of the story is not just in the Main Character or in their environment, but exists between the two. It is created out of an imbalance in the distribution of Elements. When a Main Character solves a problem by changing, he restores balance either by taking an Element from himself and placing it back in the environment where it belongs, or by grabbing an Element out of the environment and putting it within himself where it is needed. If he must give up an Element, he contains the solution to the problem. If he must receive an Element, he contains the problem. Either way, the Main Character must change his internal make-up: his very nature.

Steadfast Characters and the Crucial Element

For a Steadfast Main Character, the imbalance is not seen by him to be between himself and the environment, but wholly within the environment. In this case, the Main Character takes an Element from one place and moves it to another to restore balance. If the story is built around the Element that needs to be moved, the Main Character contains the focus. If the story is built around the hole that needs to be filled, the Main Character contains the direction.

The real essence of the Crucial Element is that the Main Character is responsible for either getting rid of something undesirable or obtaining something desirable, either within himself or in his environment. If accomplished, the Main Character restores equilibrium and both the Objective and Subjective problems are resolved.

Wrapping Up The Selection Of Appreciations

We could write endlessly on how to evaluate each appreciation. But in truth, there is no mechanical way to make these choices. Any choice is just as good as any other. It is only when the author’s feelings and intents come into play that one selection proves better than another.

When previous selections have already been made, however, then the logistics of the story’s argument begin to take a degree of control. The more selections that are made, the greater that control becomes until all remaining selections have already been pre-determined by the author’s earlier choices.

Understanding which appreciations have the greatest influence on others goes a long way to helping an author make appropriate choices that keep his message and the feelings generated by his story’s structure consistent. Still, such considerations are intuitive in nature, and when intuition fails, it helps to employ the model of the relationships between appreciations contained in the Dramatica software.

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