Dramatica Theory Book: Chapter 29

Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley

Chapter 29

Storytelling & Encoding Theme

The trick in encoding theme is to make sure the audience knows what the argument is about without coming right out and saying it, and also to make sure the argument is made without the audience ever feeling manipulated or that the point is being made in a heavy handed fashion. In this section we will explore methods of achieving these purposes for theme in general and also suggest tips and considerations specific to the themes of each of the four throughlines.

What Are You Talking About?

Without theme, a story is just a series of events that proceeds logistically and ends up one way or another. Theme is what gives it all meaning. When encoded, theme will not be a universal meaning for all things, but a smaller truth pertaining to the proper way of dealing with a particular situation. In a sense, the encoding of theme moves the emotional argument of the story from the general to the specific. It the argument is made strongly enough, it may influence attitudes in areas far beyond the specific, but to be made strongly, it must limit its scope to precise encoding.

If our thematic conflict is Morality vs. Self-interest, for example, it would be a mistake to try and argue that Morality is always better than Self-Interest. In fact, there would be few people whose life experience would not tell them that sometimes Self-Interest is the better of the two. Keep in mind here that Dramatica defines Morality as “Doing for others with no regard for self” and Self-Interest as “Doing for self with no regard for others.” This doesn’t mean a Self-Interested person is out hurt to others, but simply that what happens to others, good or bad, is not even a consideration.

As an example, Morality might be better if one has plenty of food to share during a harsh winter and does so. Morality might be worse if one subjugates one’s life rather than displease one’s peers. Self-Interest might be better if a crazed maniac is charging at you and you kill him with an ax. Self-Interest might be bad if you won’t share the last of the penicillin in case you might need it later. It really all depends on the context.

Clearly, the very first step in encoding thematic appreciations is to check the definitions first! Dramatica was designed to be extremely precise in its definitions in order to make sure the thematic structure represented all the shades of gray an audience might expect to see in a thematic argument. So, before you even consider the conflict, read the definition which will help define where the real conflict lies.

Unlike other appreciations which really only need to show up once to be encoded into a story, thematic appreciations will need to show up several times. A good rule of thumb is that each conflict should be explored at least once per act. In this way, the balance between the two sides of the conflict can be examined in all contexts appropriate to story’s message.

Further, it is heavy handed to encode the entire conflict. It is much better to show one side of the conflict, then later show the other side in a similar situation. In this manner, the relative value of each side of the thematic conflict is established without the two ever being directly compared. In each act, then, what are some methods of encoding the two sides of the thematic conflict? This depends on which throughline is in question.

Encoding the Objective Story Theme

The Objective Story theme is an emotional argument that is story wide. Its connection to the Objective Story makes this theme “objective”, not any unemotional feeling that may be implied by the title. To encode the Objective Story theme one must come up with scenes, events, comments, or dialogue that not only pertains to the thematic conflict, but at least imply that this particular issue represents the central imbalance in value standards that affects everyone in the story. In fact, it is often better that the Objective Story theme be encoded through incidental characters or background incidents so that the message is not tainted by association with any other dynamics in the story.

For example, our Main Character is walking down the hall of a ward in a Veteran’s hospital with a doctor who is an incidental character whose purpose in the story is only to provide exposition on a particular point. While they are walking, the doctor, an older man, notes that he is out of breath trying to keep up with our Main Character. He comments, “I can’t keep up with you young guys like I used to.” Moments later, a double amputee wheels across their path, stops, says cheerfully to the Main Character, “As soon as they fix me up, I’m going to be a dancer again!” and wheels off. The doctor then remarks, “He’s been like that since they brought him here.” The Main Character asks, “How long?” The doctor says, “Nineteen sixty-eight.”

What thematic conflict is at work here? The doctor’s comments represent Closure (accepting an end). The patient’s comments reflect Denial (refusing to accept an end). By itself, this short thematic encoding will not make the conflict clear. But as the story continues to unfold, several different encodings will eventually clarify the item they all share in common.

What’s more, in this example, it is clear by the way we presented the conflict, Closure is seen as a better standard of value that Denial. It would be just as easy to have the doctor appear run-down by life and having no hope, while the patient is joyous. In such a case, the message would have been the reverse. The doctor, representing Closure, would be seen to be miserable, and the patient who lives in a dream world of Denial would have happiness.

Theme encoding is an effort of subtle balance. Simply shifting a word or a reaction, even slightly, can completely tip a well balanced argument. That is why many authors prefer more black-and-white thematic statements than a gentle thematic argument. In truth, it is the ability to get away from the binary that brings richness and depth to the emotional content of a story.

One other thing we might notice about our example is that we might evaluate whether Closure or Denial is better by seeing how each camp fared in regard to Hope and Dream. Why Hope and Dream? They are the other two Variations in the same quad as Closure and Denial. We can see that the doctor has no Hope, but the patient still has Dreams. By showing that lack of Hope causes misery and an abundance of Dreaming bring joy, the case is made that the doctor who represents Closure does not achieve as beneficial a result as the patient who represents Denial.

Clearly this thematic message is not true in every situation we might encounter in real life. In the context of our latter example, however, we are saying that for this particular kind of problem (the Objective Story Problem) Denial is a better way to go.

Our next concern is that even with a more balanced argument, it still seems one-sided. The way to alleviate this attribute is to have some thematic moments occur in which Closure turns out to be better than Denial . By so doing, we are admitting to our audience that even for the kind of Objective Story Problem we are dealing with, neither Closure nor Denial is a panacea. As a result, the audience begins to be excitedly drawn toward the end of the story, because only then can it average out all the incidents of Closure and Denial and see which one came out on top and by how much.

Theme encoding requires skill and inspiration. Because it must be approached by feel, rather than by logic, it is hard to learn and hard to teach. But by understanding the nature of the gentle balance that tips the emotional argument in favor of the Range or its counterpoint, one can consciously consider when and where and how to encode the theme, rather than simply winging it and hoping for the best. Knowing the storyform for your theme makes it far easier to draw the audience into feeling as you want them to.

Encoding Theme for the Other Throughlines

The Main Character theme follows many of the same guidelines as the Objective Story theme. In fact, the basic approaches of illustrating the conflict by indirect means, calling on the other two Variations in the thematic quad and having the balance between Range and counterpoint shift back and forth are good rules of thumb for all four throughlines. The principal difference in theme encoding from one throughline to another is where the conflict is directed.

For the Main Character Throughline, only the Main Character will be aware of the thematic conflict in that Domain. It might still be illustrated by contrasts between incidental characters or in non-essential actions or events, but no one will notice but the Main Character. For example, our Main Character in a motion picture might be sitting in a diner and look out the window to see a hungry man sifting through a trash can for some food. The focus shifts (as the Main Character ostensibly shifts his attention) to bring to clarity another man sitting in front of the window getting up to leave from his plate of half-eaten food. No one else is in a position to see this except our Main Character (and through him, the audience).

The above example would be a VERY subtle beginning of an argument about Morality vs. Self-Interest. In and of itself, there is not enough to say which is the Range and which is the counterpoint. Also, this example merely sets up that there are haves and have-nots, but does not yet place a value judgment, for we do not even know which of the two men is representing Morality and which Self-interest.

An interesting turn would be to have a Maitre’d notice our Main Character looking at the hungry man through the window and run over to say, “I’m sorry, Monsieur, I’ll have my waiter tell him to leave.” Our Main Character says, “No, wait…” He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his last hundred francs and, giving it to the Maitre’d says, “Bring him some food instead.”

Still watching from the window, our Main Character sees the waiter taking a plate of food to the hungry man. As soon as he arrives, the hungry man beats the waiter over the head, takes his wallet, and runs off. The food has fallen into the garbage. Now, what have we said through our encoding about the relative value of Morality vs. Self-Interest as experienced by the Main Character? Also, which one is the Range?

In our Main Character example, we did not feel like we were judging the Main Character himself because of the results of his actions. Rather, we were making a judgment about the relative value of Morality and Self-Interest. In contrast, the Obstacle Character theme encoding is designed to place a value judgment on the Obstacle Character himself.

Obstacle Characters are looked at, not from. As such, we want to evaluate the appropriateness of their actions. Part of this is accomplished by showing whether the Obstacle Character’s influence on the balance between Range and counterpoint results in positive or negative changes.

Suppose we keep everything from our Main Character example in the diner the same, except we substitute the Obstacle Character instead. All the events would transpire in the same order, but our point of view as an audience would have to shift. The question for the audience would no longer be, “How am I going to respond in this situation?” but would become, “How is he going to respond in this situation?”

The point of view shot through the window might no longer be appropriate. Instead, we might shoot from over the shoulder of the Obstacle Character. Further, we would want to make sure the audience does not get too drawn in toward the Obstacle point of view. So, we might have another customer observing the whole thing. Or, we might simply choose camera positions outside the diner to show what happens, rather than staying in the whole time looking out as we did with the Main Character.

Novels, stage plays, and all different media and formats present their own unique strengths, weaknesses, and conventions in how one can appropriately encode for a given throughline. Knowing which ones to use and inventing new ones that have never before been used comprises a large part of the craft and art of storytelling.

Finally, let us briefly address thematic encoding for the Subjective Story Throughline. Theme in the Subjective Story Throughline describes the meaning of the relationship between the Main and Obstacle Characters. There are two distinct ways to evaluate everything that goes on in the relationship and these two ways don’t lead to the same conclusions. The thematic Range and counterpoint reflect these two different means of evaluation.

In most relationships, everyone involved seems to have an opinion about what’s best to do. That’s the way it always is in a story. As the Obstacle Character Throughline and the Main Character Throughline have an impact on each other, so do the Objective and Subjective Stories. Therefore, both Objective and Subjective Characters will have opinions to express about how the relationship between the Main and Obstacle Characters is going. Remember, it’s this relationship that makes the Subjective Story.

The variety of places to find opinions about the Subjective Story relationship means the Range and Counterpoint in the Subjective Story need not come exclusively from the Main and Obstacle Characters. They could be brought up and argued without the presence of either the Main Character or Obstacle Character.

Of course, these two characters will be involved at some point as well. When they’re together, they’re likely to be arguing the two sides of the Subjective Story’s Thematic issue and providing the Thematic Conflict. When they do, however, it is a good idea to avoid just giving one character the Range and the other character the Counterpoint. That would lead to a simple face off over the issues without really exploring them. Instead, have them swap arguments, each using the Range, then the Counterpoint as their weapon. Neither of them is solely a villain or a good guy from this personal point of view.

Giving your Objective Characters conversations about this relationship is a good way to express Range vs. Counterpoint without involving the Main or Obstacle Characters. This will help avoid unintentionally biasing the audience against either of them.

The real issue is, which is the best way to look at the relationship?

We all know stories involving newlyweds where the father of the bride argues that his daughter’s fiancee is not good enough for her since the boy has no job nor means to provide for her. In these stories, the mother will often counter the father’s argument by saying the two kids really love each other, so what could be better?

In that example, father and mother may be Objective Characters arguing about the best way to look at the Subjective Story between the Main and Obstacle Characters (the daughter and son-in-law). In the end, one way of seeing the kids’ romance will prove to be the better way of evaluating the relationship.

The thematic resolution may be that the Subjective Story relationship appears terrible from one standard of evaluation and only poor from the other, in which case these people haven’t got much of a relationship. Or, a relationship may appear mundanely workable from one standard and thrilling from the other. Or, one may see it as highly negative and the other sees it as highly positive. These are all potential conflicting points of view about a relationship and these discrepancies give the Subjective Story theme its depth.

The important job of the writer is to balance the argument so there is a real question as to which way of seeing the relationship is using the best standard of evaluation. Then the audience is not just being sold a biased bill of goods, but is being presented a much more realistic tableau.

Leave a Reply