Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story
Storyweaving & Storytelling
There are two kinds of storytelling: techniques, those that affect the arrangement of things (spatial) and those that affect the sequence of things (temporal). In Dramatica theory, we have cataloged four different techniques of each kind.
Building size (changing scope)
This technique holds audience interest by revealing the true size of something over the course of the story until it can be seen to be either larger or smaller than it originally appeared. This makes things appear to grow or diminish as the story unfolds.
Conspiracy stories are usually good examples of increasing scope, as only the tip of the iceberg first comes to light and the full extent is ultimately much bigger. The motion picture The Parallax View illustrates this nicely. Stories about things being less extensive than they originally appear are not unlike The Wizard Of Oz in which a seemingly huge network of power turns out to be just one man behind a curtain. Both of these techniques are used almost as a sub-genre in science fiction stories, recently notable in Star Trek The Next Generation.
Red herrings (changing importance)
Red herrings are designed to make something appear more or less important than it really is. Several good examples of this technique can be found in the motion picture The Fugitive. In one scene a police car flashes its lights and siren at Dr. Kimble, but only to tell him to move along. In another scene, Kimble is in his apartment when an entire battalion of police show up with sirens blazing and guns drawn. It turns out they were really after the son of his landlord and had no interest in him at all. Red herrings can inject storytelling tension where more structurally related weaving may be lethargic. (Note the difference from changing size, which concentrates on the changing extent of something, rather than re-evaluations of its power.)
Meaning Reversals (shifting context to change meaning)
Reversals change context. In other words, part of the meaning of anything we consider is due to its environment. The phrase, guilt by association, expresses this notion. In Storyweaving, we can play upon audience empathy and sympathy by making it like or dislike something, only to have it find out it was mistaken. There is an old Mickey Mouse cartoon called Mickey’s Trailer which exemplifies this nicely. The story opens with Mickey stepping from his house in the country with blue skies and white clouds. He yawns, stretches, then pushes a button on the house. All at once, the lawn roll up, the fence folds in and the house becomes a trailer. Then, the sky and clouds fold up revealing the trailer is actually parked in a junkyard. Certainly a reversal from our original understanding.
Message Reversals (shifting context to change message)
In the example above, the structure of the story actually changed from what we thought it was. In contrast, when we shift context to create a different message , the structure remains the same, but our appreciation of it changes. This can be seen very clearly in a Twilight Zone episode entitled, Invaders, in which Agnes Moorhead plays a lady alone on a farm besieged by aliens from another world. The aliens in question are only six inches tall, wear odd space suits and attack the simple country woman with space age weapons. Nearly defeated, she finally musters the strength to overcome the little demons, and smashes their miniature flying saucer. On its side we see the American Flag, the letters U.S.A. and hear the last broadcast of the landing team saying they have been slaughtered by a giant. Now, the structure didn’t change, but our sympathies sure did, which was the purpose of the piece.
Building importance (changing impact)
In this technique, things not only appear more or less important, but actually become so. This was also a favorite of Hitchcock in such films as North By Northwest and television series like MacGuyver. In another episode of The Twilight Zone, for example, Mickey Rooney plays a jockey who gets his wish to be big, only to be too large to run the race of a lifetime.
Non-causalityThere is often a difference between what an audience expects and what logically must happen. A prime example occurs in the Laurel and Hardy film, The Music Box. Stan and Ollie are piano movers. The setup is their efforts to get a piano up a quarter mile flight of stairs to a hillside house. Every time they get to the top, one way or another it slides down to the bottom again. Finally, they get it up there only to discover the address is on the second floor! So, they rig a block and tackle and begin to hoist the piano up to the second floor window. The winch strains, the rope frays, the piano sways. And just when they get the piano up to the window, they push it inside without incident.
After the audience has been conditioned by the multiple efforts to get the piano up the stairs, pushing it in the window without mishap has the audience rolling in the aisles, as they say.
Out of sequence experiences (changing temporal relationships)With this technique, the audience is unaware they are being presented things out of order. Such a story is the motion picture, Betrayal, with Ben Kingsley. The story opens and plays through the first act. We come to determine whom we side with and whom we don’t: who is naughty and who is nice. Then, the second act begins. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that this action actually happened before the act we have just seen. Suddenly, all the assumed relationships and motivations of the characters must be re-evaluated, and many of our opinions have to be changed. This happens again with the next act, so that only at the end of the movie are we able to be sure of our opinions about the first act we saw, which was the last act in the story.
A more recent example is Pulp Fiction in which we are at first unaware that things are playing out of order. Only later in the film do we catch on to this, and are then forced to alter our opinions.
Flashbacks and flash-forwards (sneak previews and postviews)There is a big difference between flashbacks where a character reminisces and flashbacks that simply transport an audience to an earlier time. If the characters are aware of the time shift, it affects their thinking, and is therefore part of the story’s structure. If they are not, the flashback is simply a Storyweaving technique engineered to enhance the audience experience.
In the motion picture and book of Interview With The Vampire, the story is a structural flashback, as we are really concerned with how Louis will react once he has finished relating these events from his past. In contrast, in Remains Of The Day, the story is presented out of sequence for the purpose of comparing aspects of the characters lives in ways only the audience can appreciate. Even Pulp Fiction employs that technique once the cat is out of the bag that things are not in order. From that point forward, we are looking for part of the author’s message to be outside the structure, in the realm of storytelling.
As long as the audience is able to discern the story’s structure by the time it is over, the underlying argument will be clear. Beyond that, there is no law that says if, when, or in what combinations these Storyweaving techniques can be brought into play. That is part of the art of storytelling, and as such is best left to the muse.
The one area we have not yet explored is the impact medium and format have on Storyweaving techniques. Not to leave a stone un-turned, Dramatica has a few tips for several of these.