Dramatica: Theory of Story or Software Product?

Recently, a Dramatica user commented that Dramatica is an elegant theory, but it is also a product. As a product, it needs to be easy to use, but is bogged down partly by un-needed complexities of the theory and partly because Chris and I aren’t very good teachers.

My response follows:

One of the biggest problems we have had with Dramatica is an identity crisis: is it a theory or a product? On the one hand, studying the theory leads to greater intuitive understanding of story at a personal, creative level. On the other hand, building a sound non-formula story structure by selecting items from a menu is quite convenient for any author.

The difficulty is that when you make choices in Dramatica, they don’t really help your story unless you understand what you are choosing. Now, if the Dramatica theory was not based on a completely new theory that looks at everything about story in a completely different way, then we could pretty much leave the theory out of the software and make it one whole heck of a lot easier to use!

So, now we have a choice: the theory or the software? In fact, we might create two things…

The Dramatica Theory, which would have no directly practical value other than understanding how to better make stories.

The Dramatica Story Development Software program that would not involve the Dramatica theory and simply provided utilities and proven, universally understood dramatic concepts.

Let’s look at what we would get:

The Dramatica Theory

This theory would be not unlike Zen. One could spend a lifetime studying it and still arrive at new enlightenment. There would be simple explanations that would help the novice gain in understanding, yet these same explanations would appear to masters of the theory as actually being quite wrong, just like Zen. As the novice “grew” in enlightenment, he or she would come to discard the old visualizations in favor of the new, pulling more of what was learned into a larger, more complex grasp of the whole.

The key to graduating to each new level would be the ability to not only to understand the parts of the larger complexity, but also the ability to sense the wholeness of it intuitively. In this way, one might not only draw upon knowledge, but with thought might be able to synthesize new Truth that works at that level of understanding. Eventually, a gifted student might become a master, at which point he or she would fully understand that there is no end to learning and therefore no rush to attain it. As one “master” of quantum theory once said, “No one understands quantum theory.”

The Dramatica Story Development Software

This program would largely be an organizational tool. It would ask you to fill in information about your Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre. It would allow you to create as many scenes or acts as you like, arrange them in any order, and fill them in with Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre story elements. It would provide a checklist of key dramatic elements, generate reports about what you have created, and give you a means of exporting that information into a word processor for further development. It might also have a dictionary of terms, and a help system, including suggestions on how to use the software creatively. In short, Dramatica the Software would be a convenient way to organize your ideas and develop them into the underlying basis for a complete story.

Now, where did we possibly go wrong with Dramatica? We did both in the same product.

If we took the theory out of the product, it would still be a wonderfully creative environment and a great way to organize your story before you write. In fact, every feature I mentioned about the software above is included, plus many other utilities and conveniences.

If we took the product out of the theory, no one would expect anything immediately useful out of it. It would then attract only those who found it fascinating and decided to pursue it out of interest, learning more about the nature of stories and storytelling as they went.

But, we put the two together. And as a result, the practical people are forced to confront new theory concepts that (although insightful and useful in constructing a story) only generate more questions that then require more learning, ad nauseum. And, the theory people get frustrated by all of the “real world” considerations that keep getting in their way: obstacles to the unfettered pursuit of wisdom.

In short (and in our defense), the difficulty in teaching Dramatica lies not, I hope, in a lack of scholarly abilities on our part, but in our attempt to present both the theory and the software at the same time.

How did we end up in this fix? Well at first we were only interested in developing the theory and teaching it. Then we began to uncover concepts that, darn it, seemed just too useful to leave in the realm of the esoteric. So, we thought that putting what we discovered in software form would make the material more accessible. And, if we were going to present useful information, well then what other useful tools for authors could be provide that didn’t pertain to the theory. After all, why not offer everything we could!

As authors and filmmakers ourselves, we didn’t just think about theory, you know. We also lamented the lack of good story development software from a practical sense. What a great opportunity to add that functionality into the mix and fulfill another of our personal frustrations! Now, if we put in some of the theory, well we better put it all in or it will seem incomplete. And, if we add some practical tools, we better not leave any out or the product will seem unfinished.

So, as you can see, we kind of backed into creating a dual-personality software product and a theory that has to pay homage to the practical. And, therein lies the problem. We’re kind of stuck with it. If we offered Dramatica without any of the questions requiring theory understanding, it would lose its unique ability to predict a dramatic structure. But if we just presented the theory without the software we would create even greater frustration in those who keep learning but never figure out how to apply it all.

In an attempt to make the whole package easier to understand, I have just altered the format of my upcoming UCLA class in Dramatica from 9 weeks to 12. Previously, I tried focusing only on the theory and got complaints because it wasn’t practical. So, I tried focusing on the software and got complaints that the theory seemed disjointed. Then, I tried tying every theory point to the software and explaining every software function as to the theory behind it and the whole class became so bogged down that everyone went away confused.

THIS time I’m adding three classes to the nine in the course. The first class does nothing more than explore Dramatica Pro, every nook and cranny. Any theory that creeps in will be incidental. By the end of that class, everyone will know what Dramatica is supposed to DO and HOW to do it! The second class explores the special edition “Dramatica StoryGuide” software which is given out in the class with paid registration. This is a cut-down version of Dramatica that has only one question path, minimal reports, and the theory book in electronic form. It is designed specifically to work with in tandem with the lectures in class and no more. By the end of class two, everyone should understand exactly what they need to do on their own with their own story by the end of the course. In fact, we’ll create a complete class story in that one evening. So, after the first two classes, the practical is out of the way.

Then, nine classes – a theory overview followed by the four aspects of structure (Character, Theme, Plot, Genre) and the four stages of storytelling (Forming, Encoding, Weaving, and Reception). The final class (#12) is an opportunity for the students to present their treatments to the class for feedback from a Dramatica perspective. In this way, I hope to teach both the theory and the software but NOT AT THE SAME TIME!!!

So, if I have one suggestion for Dramatica users it is this:

Don’t ask HOW and WHY at the same time! If you have a question about how to do something in the software, ask that by itself. Then, if you want to know why such a thing should be done in the first place, ask that separately as well. Eventually, you’ll get both answers, but you will find each much more understandable if you don’t look for both concurrently.

When asking about the theory, see it more like Zen – a never-ending quest for enlightenment. When asking about the software, see it more like a user’s manual – what buttons do you push to get it to do this?

As for me, if anything, I’ve been guilty of trying to answer these dual questions with a dual-purpose response. For my part, in the future I will separate my answers into separate replies. This way the mind will not be pulled into two opposite modes of thought simultaneously.