Dramatica Theory Book: Chapter 30

Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley

Chapter 30

Storytelling & Encoding Plot

Encoding Plot

Encoding Static Plot Appreciations is very simple. One need only figure out what it is. How and when it is going to actually show up in the story is a completely different issue and is part of Storyweaving.

The way to approach the encoding of Static Plot Appreciations is more or less the same for all of them. As an example, let us consider something fairly conventional: a Goal of Obtaining. Obtaining what? That is what encoding determines. The Goal might be to Obtain the stolen diamonds, a diploma, or someone’s love. In each case, Obtaining has been effectively encoded. Which one you might choose is dependent only upon your personal muse.

Interestingly, there are many ways to stretch an appreciation to fit preconceived story ideas. Suppose that we want to tell a story about a woman who wants to be President. It might be he wants to be elected to the office. That would encode a Goal of Obtaining. Or, he might want to have people believe he was the President on a foreign trip. That would be a Goal of Being. He might already hold the office but feel that he is not authoritative enough and wants to Become presidential. That would encode a Goal of Becoming.

Clearly, there are ways to bend a story concept to fit almost any appreciation. And, in fact, that is the purpose of encoding – to create a symbol that represents an appreciation’s particular bend. So, going around the remaining Types, we might also have a Goal about discovering a president’s Past, how much legislative Progress a president is able to make, the Future of the presidency, whether the president is able to address Present concerns, to Understand the president’s vision, Doing what is necessary regardless of chances for reelection, Learning the President’s hidden agenda, Conceptualizing a new order, Conceiving a new kind of political leverage, trying to evoke the Memory of a past president’s greatness, responding with Preconscious reflexes should the president be attacked, trying to curb a president’s subconscious drives until after the election, making the president Conscious of a problem only he can solve.

Each of the above encodings deals with the presidency, but in a completely different way. This allows an author to stick with the subject matter that interested him in the first place, yet still make sure the Story Goal is accurately encoded. And why even bother? Because the wrong perspective creates the wrong meaning. Anything that is not properly encoded will work against the dramatics of your story, rather than with them, and your story’s overall message and experience will be weakened.

Encoding Progressive Plot Appreciations

Progressive Plot Appreciations are also relatively straight forward. At act resolution there is a simple method for encoding Signposts and Journeys that also establishes the plot aspects of your story’s scenes.

Signposts and Journeys

When we develop a plot, we are in effect planning a Journey for our characters. In this respect, we might imagine our plot as a road. We have already discussed how that road might be thought of as containing four signposts which define three journeys. Our characters’ Point of Departure is marked by the Type at Signpost #1. This Type is the name of the town at which we are beginning our Journey. In our example, the characters are in the good borough of Learning.

We have also planned a destination for our characters. Again, in our example, we wish our characters to arrive at the village of Obtaining. Obtaining’s city limits are marked by Signpost #4.

In order for our characters to experience the Journey we intend, we also want them to pass through the towns of Understanding and Doing along the way. Once they have arrived at Obtaining, they will have covered all the ground we want them to.

Our Plot is not only made up of Signposts, but also the experience of traversing the road between the Signposts.

If we have four Signposts, we can see three Journeys between them. The Signposts merely provide our audience with an impartial map of the checkpoints along the way. It is the Journeys, however, that involve our audience in the experience of crossing that ground.

Some writers have learned to create stories in a Three Act Structure. Others have worked in a Four Act Structure. In fact, both are needed to map out the terrain and involve the audience.

Now that we know the names of the Signposts in our Objective Story, it is time to describe the kinds of Journeys that will take place on the road between them.


In our example, the three Journeys are:

  • Topic 1. Learning —–> Topic 2. Understanding
    Topic 2. Understanding —–> Topic 3. DoingTopic 3. Doing —–> Topic 4. Obtaining.

For a hypothetical story, we might then encode each Signpost and Journey as follows:


  • Type 1. LearningOur characters Learn that a number of robberies have occurred involving diamonds.


  • Type 1. Learning——> Type 2. UnderstandingAs our characters Learn about the robberies that have occurred, they become aware of similarities in the crimes. Eventually, the similarities are too much to be coincidental.


  • Type 2. UnderstandingOur characters arrive at the Understanding that there is one multi-national consortium involved in the heists.


  • Type 2. Understanding ——> Type 3. DoingThe more our characters Understand about the consortium, the more they are able to figure out which smaller organizations are involved, as well as the names of specific individuals. Eventually, the characters Understand enough of the organization of the consortium to try and put someone on the inside.


  • Type 3. DoingOur characters track down and infiltrate the consortium.


  • Type 3. Doing ——> Type 4. ObtainingOur characters get in tighter and tighter with the consortium until they are finally trusted enough to be employed in heist. Through a series of dangerous maneuvers, our characters are able to get word of the heist back to their organization, who alert the authorities.


  • Type 4 . ObtainingOur characters retrieve the stolen diamonds.

As you can see, the Signposts outline the direction events will take. The Journeys help bring them to life.

Main Character Domain Plot Progression

By now you should be familiar with the concept that the Main Character represents a point of view for the audience. In fact, the audience stands in the shoes of the Main Character and sees what he sees and feels what he feels.

In the Objective Story Domain, the Plot Progression concentrates on the kinds of activities in which the Objective Characters are involved. In the Main Character Domain, Plot Progression describes the stages of the Main Character’s Growth.

Each Type in the Main Character Domain reflects the Main Character’s primary concern at that point in his development. Eventually, he will grow enough to deal with the issue closest to his heart: the Main Character Concern. Let’s look at an example of how you might encode this by continuing to develop the story we presented for Type Order Plot Progression of the Objective Story.


In this fictitious story example, the Main Character Domain has been chosen to be Universe. The Type order selected for the Main Character is as follows: Past, Progress, Present, and lastly Future.


  • Type 1. PastThe Main Character is a law enforcement agency Department Chief with political aspirations. He has zero tolerance for officers of the law who have accepted payoffs from organized crime. As the story opens, his chief Concern of the moment is the past history of graft in his department.


  • Type 1. Past ——> Type 2. ProgressThe Main Character investigates Past instances of Consortium influences in his department. Using this historical information, he gets closer to infiltrating the Consortium.


  • Type 2. ProgressThe Main Character decides his agents are too weak to resist stealing money from the Consortium. Therefore, he takes the case himself, going undercover and slowly snaking his way into the heart of the Consortium over a period of some months.


  • Type 2. Progress ——> Type 3. PresentThe more the Main Character gets deeper into the Consortium, the more he is trusted with the Consortium’s funds. Also, he finds himself in something of a Godfather position in which local businesses and organizations come to him for help. For a while, he is able to either deny them or pacify them.


  • Type 3. PresentNow, well established in the Consortium, the Main Character is faced with a situation in which an important Children’s Hospital will be closed… unless he uses some of the Consortium’s ill-gotten gains to provide the necessary funding.


  • Type 3. Present ——> Type 4. FutureThe Main Character gives in to the needs of others, violating his own zero tolerance code of ethics because of the serious needs of the children. Still, he is able to get the goods on the Consortium enough to stop some of their local plans, though not enough to damage the consortium at core level. When he is “brought in from the cold” by his agency, they treat him as a hero for his success. In contrast, he is troubled by his own ethical failing. He gave in to the temptation to take the money.


  • Type 4. FutureThough he is in a better position than ever to break into the political scene and demand strict adherence to a code of ethics, his grand words about his Future are now just ashes in his mouth, as he sits miserably in his office pondering his shortcomings, drained of ambition.

Obstacle Character Domain Plot Progression

The Obstacle Character in a story never stands alone, but is always evaluated in terms of his impact on the Main Character. When encoding the Obstacle Character Domain Plot Progression, this is equally true. Unlike the Main Character Type Order which reflects the Main Character’s Growth from one concern to another, the Obstacle Character Type Order reflects the progression of the Obstacle Character’s impact on the Main Character. In other words, each of the four Obstacle Character Types describes a chink in the Main Character’s armor, a weakness that is exploited by the Obstacle Character. This forces the Main Character to consider issues that will ultimately bring him to Change or remain Steadfast.

For example, in our sample story, the Obstacle Character Domain is in the Mind Class. As a result, the Obstacle Character Domain Types are Memory, Preconscious, Conscious, and Subconscious. This means that the Obstacle Character will (in some order) force the Main Character to remember (Memory), to respond differently when there is no time for consideration (Preconscious), to become aware of something (Conscious), and to desire something (Subconscious).

Encode the Obstacle Character’s Types by the impact the Obstacle Character has in that area of concern on the Main Character. In this way, your Obstacle Character will force your Main Character to grow to a point of potential Change. That is the function and purpose of the Obstacle Character in a story.

Obstacle Character Domain Type Order Encoding


In this fictitious story example, the Obstacle Character Domain has been chosen as Mind. The Type order selected for the Obstacle Character is as follows: Preconscious, Conscious, Memory, and lastly Subconscious.


  • Type 1. PreconsciousThe Obstacle Character is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. He sees justice and honor as being flexible, dependent upon the situation. His very attitude causes unthinking responses (Preconscious) in the Main Character, who reacts to every instance of the Obstacle Character’s sliding scale of values as if he were shocked with an electric prod. The Obstacle Character’s actions force the Main Character to lose his temper, make threats he later regrets, and smash things in a fit of self-righteous rage.


  • Type 1. Preconscious ——> Type 2. ConsciousAs the Main Character becomes more obsessed with infiltrating the Consortium and edges toward putting himself under cover, the Obstacle Character’s flexible ways infuriate him more and more. Eventually, the Obstacle Character has had enough of this, and begins to intentionally exhibit his easy attitude in front of the Main Character, so he can make him aware of situations in which rigid views just won’t work.


Type 2. Conscious

The Obstacle Character carries the argument to the Main Character that no one is immune to temptation. Going under cover in the Consortium will surely cause the Main Character to break if he does not learn to bend. Prophetically, the Obstacle Character makes the Main Character aware (Conscious) that there are some situations in which a fixed code of ethics creates a paradox where one must re-examine one’s ideals.


Type 2. Conscious ——> Type 3. Memory

Coming to see that even though the Main Character is now aware of the issues involved, he still does not relent in his plans, The Obstacle Character begins to bring up “the old days” when they were both beat cops together, fresh out of growing up in the same neighborhood. The Obstacle Character uses the Main Character’s memories to drive home the point that the Main Character was also flexible in those days, and they laughed at the stiffs who usually ended up getting killed or going crazy.


Type 3. Memory

The Main Character has gone so deeply under cover that no one at the agency has heard from him in days. The Obstacle Character contacts and meets with the Main Character, finding him caught in a web of self-doubt, unable to choose between sticking with his code or helping the children’s hospital. The Obstacle Character forces the Main Character to remember their days growing up together in the same neighborhood. Recalling how the Main Character’s thinking was not always so black and white, he urges the Main Character to learn a lesson from those memories and bend with the wind, rather than snap under the pressures that are upon him.


Type 3. Memory ——> Type 4. Subconscious

Unable to be in further contact with the Main Character who remains under cover, the Obstacle Character gets a few old friends from the early days to cross paths with the Main Character in the attempt to loosen him up. Each has been told by the Obstacle Character to remind the Main Character about “the old days” and how much fun they used to have, how many dreams they shared before they got “locked in” to the system.

(Note to authors: The Obstacle Character need not be physically present in order for his impact to be felt!)


Type 4. Subconscious

Now that the Main Character is back in the agency, the Obstacle Character passes judgment upon him. He tells the Main Character to look to his heart – look to all the noble things the Main Character had hoped to do in the political realm. The Obstacle Character asks the Main Character how he feels now, knowing that he has violated the very ideals he had intended to run on. “What does your heart tell you now?” he asks of the Main Character, then walks out leaving the dejected Main Character alone.

Subjective Story Domain Plot Progression

It is always best to work on the Subjective Story Domain last since it describes the growth of the relationship between the Main and Obstacle Characters, and therefore needs to call upon what was previously determined for them.

Imagine for a moment that the Main Character is a boxer. As an audience we stand in his shoes, effectively becoming him for the duration of the story. We look in the far corner and see our opponent, the Obstacle Character warming up for the bout. As the fight begins, we pass through changing concerns represented by the Main Character Domain Type Order. As the fight progresses, the Obstacle Character lands some telling blows. These are described by the Obstacle Character Type Order.

Outside the ring sit the judges. They do not stand in the shoes of the Main Character, nor are they concerned, fearful, or impacted by the Obstacle Character’s attack. Rather, the judges watch two fighters circling around the issues – maintaining the same relationship between them as adversaries, but covering different ground in the ring.

So it is with the Subjective Story Domain Type Order. As the first round begins, the Main and Obstacle Characters converge on a particular issue. They argue the issue, each from his own point of view. Once they have thrashed that topic into submission, they move on to another area of friction and continue sparring.


In this fictitious story example, the Subjective Story Domain has been chosen to be Psychology. The Type order selected for the Subjective Story is as follows: Conceptualizing, Conceiving, Being, and lastly Becoming.


  • Type 1. ConceptualizingConceptualizing means working out a plan, model, belief system, or paradigm. In the Subjective Story, the Main and Obstacle Characters quickly come into conflict about how to look at the relationship between organized crime and law enforcement. The Main Character argues that law enforcement is like a breakwater, holding back an ocean of anarchy. The Obstacle Character sees the system more like an ecology, where each kind of activity has its place in an ever-changing environment.


  • Type 1. Conceptualizing ——> Type 2. ConceivingAs new information about the increasing number of diamond heists builds, both the Main and Obstacle Characters approach the problem, arguing over how to put the clues into a meaningful pattern. When they discover the international Consortium, the Main Character looks for ways to stop it completely, while the Obstacle looks for ways to divert it. Based on his views, the Main Character Conceives of the need to place one of his agents deep within the Consortium as a mole. The Obstacle Character argues that the Main Character is thinking about it all wrong. They should be working out how to make the heists too difficult and costly a venture so the Consortium will go elsewhere to greener pastures.


  • Type 2. ConceivingConceiving means coming up with an idea or determining a need. They finally come up with the idea of using the Main Character as the mole in an undercover operation, agreeing that this will be the best way to proceed given their two points of view. They both believe that this plan will not only achieve their purposes, but will also make the other see the error of his ways. The Main Character believes he will be able to prove that he can stop the Consortium dead in its tracks, and the Obstacle Character believes the Main Character will be forced to compromise and change his point of view.


  • Type 2. Conceiving ——> Type 3. BeingAs the Main and Obstacle Character come up with more ideas to help him rise among the Consortium, they realize they are still not seeing eye to eye on how to run this operation. The Main Character starts acting more and more impatient with the Obstacle Character, being more and more like the role he is playing to be in among the sting. The Obstacle Character starts taking on a different role, that of the Main Character’s nagging conscience.


  • Type 3. BeingBeing means acting a role or playing a part. With the Main Character now on the inside of the Consortium, he adopts the role of an up-and-coming organized crime boss. The Obstacle character is only allowed to see him while playing the role of his long-time friend and priest. Having to meet under the gaze of criminals, their relationship becomes one of play-acting.


  • Type 3. Being ——> Type 4. BecomingIn their meetings, the Obstacle Character argues that if the Main Character is determined to follow through in his plan, and successfully become a mole in the Consortium, the Main Character needs to play the role better than he has been. This will mean acting ruthlessly and letting a few people get hurt. The Main Character argues that he will not cross his personal line, even if that choice blows his cover: if he acted like them, he says he would be no better than they are. The Obstacle Character points out that if the Main Character doesn’t bend his own code a little more, they will both become suspected narcs and probably be exposed. This comes down to the choice between letting crime money be used to save the children’s hospital or letting the hospital be shut down, and the Main Character chooses to save it.


  • Type 4. BecomingBecoming means truly transforming one’s nature. The Obstacle Character points out to the Main Character that The Main Character is no longer the self assured champion of righteousness he once was. He points out that there was no escaping the change that the Main Character made in his personal code to be able to bring the Consortium to some measure of justice. The Main Character responds that the angst he is suffering is a test of his moral fiber. Those who stand against the pressure and survive Become stronger for it. He throws the Obstacle Character out of his office yelling that they will never work together again, but it is clear that the Main Character has seen too much in himself and has become convinced that his moral ethics are no longer as powerful as they used to be.

Leave a Reply