Dramatica Theory Book: Chapter 38

Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley

Chapter 38

Storytelling: Reception and Adaptation



A Word About Adaptation

“Read the book; see the movie!” “Now a major motion picture!” “A novelization…” “A new musical based on the stage play…” “…based on the book…” “…based on the hit movie!” “The timeless story of…” “…a classic tale…” “…updated for today’s audience…” “…colorized…” “…reformatted to fit your screen…” “edited for television.”

It’s the same old story. Or is it? Is a story really the same when translated from one medium to another and if not, how is it different? What qualities must be changed to maintain a story’s integrity? To adapt adeptly an author needs to know the answers to these questions.

Before we can investigate answers, it would be prudent to define some terms. First, what do we mean by “adaptation?” Simply, adaptation is the process of translating a story from one medium to another. What is a “medium?” A medium is a physical facility for storing information and the processes involved in retrieving it. Finally, what is “story?” For our purposes we shall define story as any information an author wishes to communicate to an audience (including considerations, experiences, and feelings).

So, putting it all together, adaptation is the process of translating information from one physical facility for storage and retrieval to another in such a way that it can be communicated to an audience. Sounds pretty cold, doesn’t it. That’s because this is simply the logistic description of adaptation.

A more organic description might be: Adaptation is the process of reproducing an audience experience in another medium. That has a better feel to it, but is much less precise. Also, we can clearly see a difference in the purpose of each approach, as indicated above when we spoke of the new story’s identity versus its integrity. One seeks to maintain the parts, the other to be true to the whole. And that is the paradox at the heart of the adapter’s dilemma: should authors strive to accurately recreate the structure or to faithfully reproduce the dynamics? More to the point, why can’t we do both?

The answer lies with the media themselves. Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. Often what can be easily accomplished in one medium is either difficult or even impossible to achieve in another. Books are not very good at directly communicating sounds or visual atmospheres. The motion picture, on the other hand, is a poor medium for directly communicating a characters’ inner thoughts and feelings.

In each case, indirect means must be employed to accomplish what might be directly communicated in the other medium. To successfully adapt a work, an author must determine what to add or remove in order to achieve the same effect as the original medium.

It would seem that adaptations will always fail to capture some aspect of the original, either in substance or essence. That is true, but it does not have to be a fatal problem. An audience tends to regard certain aspects of a story as being essential. As long as an adaptation retains and/or recreates those essential elements, the audience will find the effort successful.

Beyond the essential, other elements may be more or less fully developed than in the original, providing something of the same flavor while allowing the latitude to tailor the piece for the new medium. The question then becomes how to determine which items are essential and how deeply they need to be developed, on a case by case basis.

The first step is to do a complete analysis of the original work. Just reading the book a hundred times or watching the movie until images are imbedded on your retina is not good enough. You don’t want to know a work just from the inside out, but you want to know it from the outside in as well — the way the audience sees it. To develop both an understanding and an empathy for the story, it helps to examine it in terms of the Four Stages of Communication.

The Four Stages of Communication describe the manner in which the author’s original intent makes its way from his mind into the minds of his audience. Stage one is Story forming, in which the author first defines the message for himself. Stage two is Story encoding, where the author comes up with images and events to symbolize the message. Stage three is Story weaving, which is the process of arranging these images into scenes and acts. Stage four is Story Reception, which describes the relationship of the audience to the work. By analyzing how each of these stages functions in a story, an author can make sure that the adaptation will connect at all levels of appreciation.


A key concept of traditional narrative theory is that the narrative itself is transportable among media. The narrative is not the complete story, but simply the essential dramatics of the deep structure. In Dramatica, we call this the Storyform. Dramatica is very precise about what this underlying dramatic argument contains.

Each of the elements that must appear in a complete storyform is called an appreciation, because it is necessary for the audience to appreciate the story from that perspective to prevent a hole in the dramatic argument. Some appreciations are structural in nature, such as the story’s goal, or the Main Character’s unique ability. Others are more dynamic, such as the Main Character’s mental sex, or the story’s limit through the imposition of a timelock or an optionlock.

When analyzing a work to be adapted, it is sometimes difficult to separate the storyform from the storytelling. A good rule of thumb is to think of the storyform as the author’s logistic argument and the storytelling as the emotional argument.

A good example of this can be seen by comparing Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story, Cyrano de Bergerac to Roxanne, or Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now. In each pair, the storyform is very nearly the same, while the storytelling is quite different.

An example of a poor adaptation that failed at the storyforming level was the translation of A Christmas Carol into the motion picture Scrooged, starring Bill Murray.

In the original Dickens story, Scrooge is a character who must start doing something, rather than stop doing something. Scrooge is not best described as pro-actively hurting people but more as allowing suffering to continue due to his lack of action. He has a hole in his heart. The ghost of Christmas Present presents him with two children, Want and Need. They serve to illustrate the problems Scrooge perpetuates through his lack of generosity.

In the modern adaptation, Bill Murray’s character is portrayed as someone who must stop doing something. He is show as pro-actively harmful to a number of people. But when the argument is made for him to change, he is still presented with those who want and are needy. That argument is simply not appropriate to a character who needs to stop. As a result, the attempt to make a more pro-active villain, updated for our time, failed because the supporting argument contained in the remainder of the storyform was not adjusted accordingly.

Use your Dramatica software to arrive at the single storyform that best describes the work you are adapting, and then make sure that if you decide to change anything, you run another storyform to learn what else must be changed as well. You may discover that only minor changes need to be accommodated, or you may find out that the storyform needs to be altered so heavily that the item you intended to change would scuttle any sense of familiarity with the original.


If the storyform is the skeleton, the story encoding is the meat. Let’s take a single storyforming appreciation and see how encoding can flavor its meaning. Suppose the goal of the original story is to obtain the stolen diamonds. Without changing the storyform, we might adapt that to obtaining the stolen gold. We could also change it to obtaining a diploma, obtaining someone’s love, or obtaining the office of President of the United States. Each and every one of these examples has a goal of obtaining, but each also has a different flavor depending solely upon the encoding.

Often, encoding is more important to an audience than anything else. Encoding determines the setting, the subject matter, the size and scope of the issues. Substituting stolen gold for stolen diamonds would probably be interchangeable to most audience members. Substituting obtaining a diploma would not.

Encoding is the first stage that is open to authors’ interpretation. As such, it is important to fully illustrate the original story’s storyform completely, so that all the specific symbols used by the original author can be documented. Then, the process is to sort through the list, see which are essential, which are peripheral but must be given lip-service, and which can or even should be cut, due to the specifics of the new medium.

It is important to note that when delving into this much detail, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. For example, if we elected to change “stolen diamonds” to “stolen gold” but still had our Main Character working for De Beers, we might have created a problem.

This is not to say that every encoding appreciation must be consistent with all the others in flavor. In fact, many stories are appealing simply because the juxtapose contrasting symbols. The key is to make sure you maintain the same relationship between the flavors. Much like adapting a recipe for a culinary feast, you might substitute salt for sugar, but then you must also substitute vinegar for sour cream. The overall flavor would be completely different, but the relationship between flavors is maintained. That level of pattern-recognition is well within the grasp of most audiences. How many times has The Simpsons replicated famous scenes from famous movies in a completely different context? This works because the internal relationships remain consistent.


Storyweaving is the process of unfolding the symbols of your story for the audience. It is where suspense, tension, mystery, and surprise are created. When adapting genres such as horror, thriller, and murder mystery, it should be noted that the experiential mood is almost storyform and storyencoding dependent. It is the weaving that takes center stage, and is therefore the most crucial aspect to maintain in an adaptation.

With murder mysteries particularly, the manner in which the cat is let out of the bag defines the audience experience. A great deal of the appeal of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, for example, is due to the steps through which the chase becomes afoot. Holmes has been successfully translated to virtually every time and place in human history changing both storyform and storyencoding until nothing remains of the original because the feel remains the same due to the way the case unravels. In many respects, the Holmes stories are identified by their exposition template, and that is why the audience comes to the work.

This is the same stage of communication that is emphasized in The Twilight Zone (the first series, the movie adaptation, and the adapted second series), The Outer Limits (first series and adapted series), and virtually every Stephen King book and movie. Did you ever wonder why some of King’s best works don’t translate well to the screen? The adaptations that don’t work change the storyweaving, which is the identifying trademark of the King experience.

Make sure you examine the manner in which the audience is let in on the secrets of the story to be adapted. Is the story an Extrovert that lets it all hang out from scene one? Is it a Flirt that flaunts it but takes its time in delivering? Is your story an Introvert that must have its secrets coaxed out one at a time, or is it a Liar that fools us with red-herrings and mis-directions?

Unless you strive to maintain the original’s personality, much of the charm may be lost in the translation. A recent example of this kind of mistake occurred in bringing The Beverly Hillbillies to the big screen. In the original series, the storyweaving personality was much like a British comedy of manners in which the cultured and proper are forced by circumstances to accommodate unsophisticated bumpkins. Enter Politically Correct storyweaving. Suddenly, the focus of comedy shifts from manners to physical comedy.

The slapstick gags are funny enough, but that is not what the audience expected. The Beverly Hillbillies the audience grew up with, was nowhere to be found in this movie. The personality associated with the title was not maintained. Interestingly, if there had been no original series, the motion picture would likely have been much funnier to an unbiased audience. When creating an original work, storyweaving considerations can be limited to exposition of the storyform. When adapting a work, storyweaving must also take into account the expectations of the audience, described in the fourth stage of communication, Story Reception.

Story Reception

We started in Storyforming with the message, encoded it into symbols, transmitted those symbols through storyweaving, and now that multi-plexed signal arrives at the receiver: your audience. Problem is, they all might be tuned to a different channel!

Some members of your audience will be familiar with the original work itself. Some may have experienced it many times. Others will have heard about it from a friend, but never actually saw or read the original. Many have only seen the advertisements, or the book review, or the trading cards, or the lunch box. A few have never heard of it at all and just stumbled upon your adaptation. You may want to play on in-jokes and setups that require prior knowledge. How about that scene in Superman: The Movie when Clark runs up to the phone booth to change and there’s somebody using the phone? It would not be very funny to someone who does not recognize it as a twist on the expected pattern.

In addition, there is really no such thing as an audience, except when defined as a collection of individuals who experience a work. They may have nothing else in common, so you can’t expect them to respond as a single unit. What buzz words can you safely use? Which obscure buzz words do you want to use anyway because you expect they will catch on and become all the rage? How much biased, special-interested, politically correct, atheistic, agnostic, faithful, black, brown, white, red, yellow, young, old, middle-aged, female, male, gay, straight, bi, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, brilliant, stupid, insane, and emotionally-challenged baggage are audience members going to carry to your adaptation?

Part of the adapter’s job is to identify the audience. An equally important job is to identify with the audience. This puts a burden on the author of an adaptation that the author of an original work usually does not share.

When creating an original story, one often has the luxury of writing whatever one wants, and then hoping the finished piece finds its audience. In contrast, the adept adapter must consider the full spectrum of the new audience. Usually, if a work is being considered for adaptation, it is because there is some following for the original. The adaptation is intended to not only appeal to that audience but exceed it and attract a wider crowd.

How do you adapt a work for the masses? Simple. Make sure the story works not only as an adaptation, but on its own merits as well. Never violate dramatic integrity solely for the sake of adaptive integrity. Better to disappoint a few diehard fans than to disappoint the potential legions of new fans.

Conversely, there are those projects where the size of the new audience is unimportant. The purpose of this kind of adaptation is to supply those few diehard fans with a new medium of enjoyment for their favorite story. In this case you must be faithful to every detail, even if it turns out a work that can’t stand on its own merit.

Either approach is reason enough to shape the nature of the adaptation. Seldom can both be done at the same time. More than anything, Story Reception is where the author decides for whom they wish to write. Once you have identified that group, you must get into their heads, to get into their hearts.

In Summary

Adaptation is no simple task. It requires familiarity with both the logistics and passion of the original, from the inside out and the outside in. To achieve this familiarity, one must resonate with the original on many levels, best examined through the Four Stages of Communication.

  • Storyforming: Storyform the original and then create a new storyform to reflect any changes you make in the adaptation.
  • Storyencoding: Delineate the original encoding and determine what must be lifted verbatim, what might be altered, and what could or should be eliminated.
  • Storyweaving: Reproduce the storyweaving personality to faithfully reproduce the dramatic flavor.
  • Story Reception: Determine the prior knowledge and expectations of your audience.

In conclusion, and above all, to your new audience be true, for then how canst thee be false to the original?

Leave a Reply