Narrative in the Real World and the Mobius Doughnut

In the early 1990s we developed a new theory of narrative called Dramatica.  Since it touched on the psychology of story structure, we believed that it might also be applied to the psychologies of real people as well as fictional ones.

As background for this hypothesis, Dramatica theory holds that every story has a mind of its own. This Story Mind is made up of a personality created by the storytelling style and an underlying psychology represented by the story’s structure.

This one concept alone, if projected onto real people might help us understand an individual, be it a friend, stranger, or perhaps ourselves. But Dramatica also contends that fictional characters are not only personalities in their own rights, but also must play a second role as a facet or aspect of the overall Story Mind. In essence, each character is a complete mental system, but collectively they join together to form a larger mental system that is not unlike a fractal of the dynamics of each individual character.

From this notion, we developed the concept of fractal storyforms, meaning that not only would characters create a Story Mind when they came together, but a group of story structures coming together would create an even larger Story Mind in which each individual story functioned as a character.

In the real world, we hypothesized, when people come together in groups, they automatically slip into roles that represent different attributes we all possess. For example, one person might become the voice of reason in a group, assuming the role of the group’s intellect, just as there is a Reason Archetype in a fictional story. Another character might adopt the position of the group’s passion, speaking up whenever human feelings are the issue, essentially fulfilling the same character function as the Emotion Archetype.

What’s more, if a number of groups band together in a larger organization, automatically they will begin to adopt roles within the larger organization as if they were characters in a mind, thereby extending the phenomenon up one more fractal dimension. In the real world we call this “fractal psychology.”

Naturally it follows that if Story Minds exist in the real world as well as the fictional world, then might we not best understand their elements and mechanisms by applying the same Dramatica model that has proven itself in the analysis of fictional stories?

Recently, an opportunity has emerged for us to explore the application of our methods for analysis of storyforms to actual situations and organizations. At first, the task seemed simple – just analyze the situations as if they were stories. But it quickly became evident that there are substantial differences in the two endeavors.

Most notably, while the narrative space of a story is a closed system, i.e. a book, a movie or a stage play, in the real world the narrative space is open, limitless. So unlike analyses of fiction, in the real world one must first find the storyform before one can analyze it.

Alas, this brings forth another difficulty. There is usually only one story in a fiction narrative space. Sometimes there can be a sub-story hinged to the main story that is almost wholly independent, yet touches at one point, such as a character who appears in both stories.

In such a case, the character is driven most strongly by its own story, yet still plays a function in the larger story. An example is the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV) in which Han Solo’s debt story with Jabba is hinged (but not part of) the main story about the empire and the rebels.

In this example, Han’s character would never allow him to march into the detention area to rescue the princess EXCEPT that his need for money for his sub-story provides enough sideways motivation for him to act out of character and do something that puts him at more risk. A useful tool for writers, but a complication for analysts of real-world situations.

Further, some fiction narrative spaces can contain more than one complete story, like raisins in rice pudding. For example, in Woody Alan’s movie, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” there is a crime story and a misdemeanor story, each with complete and different structures and different characters that do not affect or interact with the other story. The movie is designed to force the audience to compare the two stories side by side and arrive at a more conundrum.

In the real world, this means that any number of independent stories may co-exist in the same narrative space. One may even conjecture that some real world stories may be sub-sets of others, or perhaps even overlap each other containing some unique and some shared story points.

In short, single storyforms in fiction are idealizations in which there is a single central problem. The unfolding of the story is an argument about the best way to try and solve such a problem. But in real minds and real situations, many problems are constantly emerging, playing themselves out, and passing through each other, like stars in galaxies in collision. Add to this the fractal nature of nested storyforms and you end up with a veritable mess.

And so, the task of identifying and separating a single storyform in the real world, much less the one best suited to answer the questions at hand becomes a daunting proposition.

Decades ago, when we were first trying to model Dramatica’s conceptual structure in some tangible form, we experimented with several physical constructs to represent the elements and their attendant dynamics.

Nowadays, we are all familiar with the recognizable four-tower model representing the four Classes of stories and looking like an odd blending of a three-dimensional chess set and a Rubik’s cube. But how many are actually aware of why Dramatica ended up being presented in this form?

The real story, as it were is that in the very beginning, we began with lists of elements that we observed in story. Then we realized some were higher-level appreciations and others lower-level, like members of a family that all share the same higher-level family name as well as their own. Or, like families of chemical elements in which Fluorine and Chlorine are different elements but have properties similar enough to be in the same chemical family.

But how to build a model of that which satisfied all of the mechanisms that “chemically” connected the elements?

One of the first attempts I made was to get a toroid (a doughnut-shaped piece of Styrofoam about a foot across) and then to wrap a thin metallic foil tape around it in a helix. The foil wrapped around the circumference four times by the time it passed through all four quadrants and returned to the point of origin. This represented one of the four classes.

Three more foil tapes of different colors were added, spaced so that they also wrapped around the toroid in a four-loop spiral without overlapping the others. Each was slightly staggered, so that the beginning of the next color was at the ending of the last color, creating a continuously wrapping “quad-helix” around the toroid until the end of thye very last of the four colored foils connected back to the beginning of the very first, creating, essentially and endless loop.

This was useful because you could see the relationships among elements of different classes when written equally spaced along each of the four colors. But, it was hardly practical to ship a Dramatica Steering Wheel with each software box, it who could use the thing anyway? Besides, this was just an approximation. In fact, to be wholly correct, the toroid would have had to have been wrapped by a mobius strip to include the progressive shift of dynamics in a structure which we came to refer to (in verbal shorthand) as an “inverse with a twist.” Hence, the need for a mobius doughnut.

After that, we shifted to a much more doable visualization of the very same elements and mechanics as a pyramid for each Class of story (for each of the four towers you see today).

To illustrate that each pyramid represented a point of view that the peak that fanned out into a perspective of the “Truth” at the base, we decided to put two pyramids together at the base so they formed a crystal – real new age visualization, that!

This worked much better, but we came to realize that because both points of view were looking not at different sides of the same coin but at the same side from different places, then we ran into problems because the common base that was the interface between them couldn’t be itself and also its mirror image at the same time. And besides, there were four classes, so how could they all share the same interface in a three dimensional model?

We were pretty frustrated. So, we took a clue from Crick and Watson when they were trying to be the first to discover the molecular structure of DNA. At first, they were using X-ray micrographs of DNA to try and see the structure. From that method, DNA appears to be a crystal, just as our model could. And, as we all now know, DNA is a double-helix, while our temporal component is a quad-helix.

We figured with that kind of correlation we were probably on the right track. But, since all that was still too complex for writers, we ended up simply making four towers, sub-divided into smaller and smaller components to illustrate all the familial relationships among the story points. And when we flattened it down to a two-dimensional grid, we presented this alternative view as the Dramatica Table of Story Elements that tens of thousands of writers use today.

And here we were now, twenty years later, looking at an open-system narrative space in the real world, once more trying to visualize a storyform. But not the same as in the closed system of fiction – an inverse version of that. But worse. Because the in fiction, analysis is a closed set and creation is an open set, but in the real world analysis AND creation are BOTH open sets. So, it wasn’t just an inverse, but an inverse with a twist AGAIN! Durn concept keeps coming ‘round to haunt us.

Okay, let’s take that toroid again and stick it in the middle of the real-world narrative space. We have to make it a mobius doughnut in our minds because this doughnut is a very special doughnut because to see the storyform inside, you have to turn the doughnut inside out.

And here, then, is the real problem. You can see the data inside until you turn it inside out, but you can’t turn it inside out because it is genus one with no opening on the surface. You see, if you take an inner tube and take off the valve, you can actually (or at least theoretically) pull the entire inner tube through the valve hole until the inside is on the outside and vice versa. But without a hole, in a true doughnut, there’s no loose thread, no handle, no place to get a grip or begin the process of inversion.

The mobius strip aspect indicates that it would only lay flat upon the toroid if we had one more dimension than three in which to build such a visualization. But, we don’t – not for practical purposes.

And so, we bashed our heads against the wall for some time until after many days of conjecture, we realized that the key was not in finding the best storyform in the real-world narrative space by objective standards, but the best storyform by subjective standards.

In a world of infinite overlapping structures, none is more important than any other until you impose importance upon it. Essentially, as the singer/composer Don MacLean said, “The more you pay, the more its worth.”

As an analog, consider the story creation process in fiction. It is an open system for the subject matter of interest to the author has no limits. Theoretically, this makes it impossible to pick the best story structure because it cannot be objectively determined.

But in practice, who the hell is objective? Rather, authors come to the story creation process because of their subjective interest in the subject matter. Many years ago I used to teach authors that we all get excited by the subject matter, but in truth, all of those bits of information can’t possibly live together in peaceful coexistence in the same story structure. The job of the structuring author is to pick the most important subject matter first, boil it down to story points in the structure and then continuing picking until you hit the point where something you want won’t fit into the structure. This is when the Dramatica Story Engine in the software is doing its job by telling the author, “if you include that extra piece, you’re weakening your own structure – working against yourself.”

So, when Dramatica doesn’t match what you want to do at the lower levels, its not broken. In fact, that what it was designed to do – save you from yourself (save your subjective self from making a big objective mistake!)

Now if we apply that same principal to the open-system real world narrative space, then (using the inverse with a twist) analysis should work the same way. And durned if it doesn’t.

You can’t find a story form in the real world, you have to impose one, just like an author does in creating a fiction. Essentially, what is it you want to know? What question do you want to answer, what process do you want to explore?

In practice, you simply look at the narrative space and decide what you want to know first. Then you turn a data point into a story point that will explore that for you. Then you pick the next piece and the next. You continue picking pieces until you’ve fully populated a storyform.

Of course, in the real world, you’ll never get to a complete storyform before you run out of visible data points. But thanks to the Story Engine, by the time you’ve run out of data that belongs in your subjectively defined story structure, Dramatica will suggest the kinds of data that “should” be out there in the gaps.

If you are writing a fictional story about real events, these gaps will be filled by your own creation. But in an analysis of real world data, these gaps are already filled – you just haven’t observed that data yet, but its out there somewhere, hiding for now.

Therefore, Dramatica is able to tell you more about the real world than you can see for yourself.

In summary then, in both fiction and the real world, no storyform is better than any other until you have a preference for one. In either case, you need to look to the subject matter and build a storyform that best represents the subject matter you’d like to explore.

In short, when building storyforms in the real world, forget all the pyramids and towers and mobius doughnuts – all you have to do is make the one you want.

And in conclusion, it took us weeks of work and took me six pages to describe find and describe logically something every writer worth his or her salt knows intuitively:

Build the story you want to tell.

And Dramatica? It just keeps you honest when your own preference for the subject matter gets the better of making sense.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Originally published in 2011

Learn more about Narrative Science