What is Story Structure?

Dramatica theory is not just a bunch of words about writing. It is also a very specific model of the elements that make up all stories and the manner in which they can be arranged to create each unique story.

Now, most writers are not theorists, and don’t want to be. Still, an understanding of the way stories work can help support a writer’s instincts to make sure a flawed structure won’t get in the way of the creativity.

If you own the Dramatica software, you’ve probably noticed it comes with chart that looks something like a Rubik’s Cube on steroids, or a super-complex 3-D chess board. If you don’t have the software, you can download a copy in PDF at http://storymind.com/free-downloads/ddomain.pdf

That chart is a map of the elements that make up stories. If you were to twist it and turn it like a Rubik’s Cube, you would be “winding up” the dramatic tension of your story.

The Story Engine at the heart of the Dramatica software tracks all of those elements to make sure no dramatic “rules” are broken. What’s a Dramatic Rule? As an analogy, you can twist and turn a Rubik’s Cube, but you can’t pluck one of the little cubes out of it and swap it’s position with another little cube. In other words, you can create all kinds of patterns, but you can’t break structure. Similarly in stories, you can create all kinds of dramatic patterns, but you can’t just drop story elements wherever you want – they have to MOVE into place.

When you answer questions in Dramatica, you are expressing your dramatic intent – the dramatic pattern you want to create for your audience. That says something about the final arrangement you want with some of the “colors” in the Rubik’s Cube of your story.

Every time you make a choice, you are saying, “I want my story to look like this, as opposed to that.” You are choosing just as much what you DON’T want in your story as what you do.

The choices are cumulative – they pile up. The more you make, the more Dramatica’s Story Engine winds up. Your future choices start to become limited, not by arbitrary and rigid rules, but because you can’t do everything at one time in one place. Some choices or combination of choices simply prevent other options from being possible in that particular story.

Imagine – what would happen if you put anything you wanted into a story? Then anything goes. That means there is no good structure or bad structure, in fact there would be no structure at all.

What is structure? Structure is nothing more than making a point, either logistically or emotionally or both. Many stories don’t need structure because they are not about making a larger point or having a message, but are designed to be experiences without specific overall meaning.

That, in fact, is the difference between a Tale and Story. A Tale relates a series of experiences, a Story brings those experiences together to create an overall meaning. In other words, each experience is part of an overall pattern that becomes clear by the time the story is over.

There is nothing better or worse about a Tale compared to a Story, but authors of Stories take upon themselves a more demanding rigor. When your purpose is to have the sum of the parts amount to a greater meaning, the Structural Chart and the Story Engine can ensure that meaning is consistent and does not contradict itself.