Character Development and the 28 “Magic” Scenes

A Dramatica user recently asked a couple of questions about developing characters other than the Main and Impact (Obstacle) and also about Dramatica’s reference to “28 magic scenes” in one place and 24 scenes in another.
Here’s my reply – you’ll find the original questions at the end:
Hi, Heather.
Here’s some quick answers. First in regard to developing characters other than the main and obstacle. To begin with, every character has to do double duty – first, as having a real personality and psychology so we, the audience, can identify with them and – second, to fulfill a role as a facet of the larger Story Mind.
So, even objective characters can be explored as deeply as you like, even to explain how they came to act as they do as objective characters. But, these characters will not be on the cusp of a decision – they will simply have attitudes, approaches and depth. It is the main and obstacle characters who have the potential to truly change their natures and, therefore, their personalities are far more fluid and dynamic as they grapple with the pressures that would lead them to alter their very identities.
Still, even objective characters can been struggling with change if they are the main character in their own sub-plot or their own sub-story. For example, look at Han Solo in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV). Luke is the main character, Obi Wan his Obstacle (or Impact or Influence character). Han is just an objective character – the “skeptic” archetype, in fact. But, Han has his own sub-story with the price on his head from Jabba the Hut. As a result, Han is a more developed character to the extent he will violate his “skepticism” to help Luke rescue Leia from the prison area, because his personal need to pay off his debt leads him to act in a way counter to his objective function.
Further, after Han leaves with his reward, he returns at the end putting his own life at risk to attack the empire ships that are targeting Luke. In other words, he has had a change of heart – he has grown and altered his nature. That is why in the next episodes of Star Wars, he can no longer function as a Skeptic since he has changed, and now he becomes a leader in the resistance.
Putting it all together, though the main and obstacle characters must always be very clearly the center of attention and the most developed so that the audience doesn’t lose sight of what the Big Picture overall story argument is about, as many other characters as you like can be developed considerably and with empathy, as long as they don’t muddy the overall waters.
As for your next question, here is why in some areas we speak of “28 magic scenes” and in other areas “24 scenes.” In short, the 28 scenes are a storytelling technique while the 24 scenes are a structural component.
First, the 28 “magic” scenes. In a story there are four signposts that represent milestones in the progression of the plot. For example, one overall story might follow the progression of Learning, Understanding, Doing and Obtaining. It is the journeys from one to the next that define the acts. So, the first act would be Learning until the characters arrive at an Understanding. Act two would be growing in their Understanding until they are able to begin Doing. And act three would be Doing more and more until they are able to Obtain. This means there are seven dramatic elements in each throughline – four signposts and three journeys. So, four throughlines “times” seven equals 28 plot scenes.
But, Theme can also be explored in 28 scenes. Here’s how it works. In each act, both sides of a throughline’s thematic conflict must be explored. But, they should never be in the same scene because if you compare them directly, it comes off as ham-handedly making your thematic point – essentially hitting the audience over the head with your own moral message. But, if you show each side of the thematic conflict in a separate scene, then the comparison is not direct and rather massages the audience instead. So, if the conflict is “greed vs. generosity,” for example, then you’d need six scenes (three for each side of the thematic conflict – one exposure of each for each act). But, you’d also need a final scene at the very end of the story where the two are finally compared side by side to verify your position as author and drive home the point you’ve more subtly made, act by act.
This leads to 28 scenes needed – here’s how. In each act of each throughline there are four signposts and three journeys. Each gets a plot scene. So, if you look at an act as a signpost followed by a journey, then each act has two plot-specific scenes per throughline. Therefore, you can put one side of the thematic conflict in the signpost scene and the other counter-point in the journey scene. This keeps them separate and gives each scene in that throughline a thematic component as well as a plot component, thereby making it richer. So, by the end of three acts, you’ve done six scenes and illustrated each side of the thematic conflict three times. The final signposts (signpost four) is the end of the story, the denouement or conclusion. It is there where you make the single side by side comparrison of both sides of the thematic conflict. This is the seventh thematic scene in each throughline, and with four throughlines, again you have 28 scenes – only this time they have an element in each of not only plot but theme at all, making them all the richer for it.
And finally, in the 28 scene realm, are the 28 character scenes. This only works if you are using archetypes. In fact, the whole 28 scene concept, as stated earlier, is just a story development trick – a way to quickly build scenes that can later be altered or added to. It provides nothing more than an initial spine to get you a framework from which to diverge.
So, to use archetypes to create 28 scenes, consider there are eight archetypes. They can be divided in pairs such as Protagonist and Antagonist or Reason and Emotion. These pairings create the greatest conflict. Now, each character has to be introduced – that’s eight scenes. And each character has to be dismissed at the end (how they fared, what happened to them) – that’s eight more scenes for a total of 16. And finally, each of the four pairs of conflicts but be introduced, interacted, and resolved. That’s four conflicts times three stages of conflict development and that equals (again!) 28!!
Therefore, if you put one character element in each of your 28 magic scenes, you end up with each scene having an element of plot, theme, and character and a chicken in every pot. But keep in mind, this is just a story development technique. There’s nothing structural about it, though it is based on structure, and what you end up with is a story that is so balanced (every scene having plot, theme, and character equally) that it seems rather plodding and predictable. Still, if you can’t figure out how to create your story’s sequence and get all three aspects of your story completely laid out, this method provides a really good means of creating a “first draft” of your storytelling sequence which you can then expand and alter.
For more info on the 28 magic scenes, try these videos:

64. The 28 “Magic” Scenes (Part One)

65. The 28 “Magic” Scenes (Part Two)

66. The 28 “Magic” Scenes (Part Three)

67. The 28 “Magic” Scenes (Part Four)

Now, dealing with the 24 scenes in the structure, we find there are the same four signposts that delineate the sequence of topics that will be explored act by act. .
But each of the signposts must also be explored thematically. In other words, to make the story argument, the reflections or harmonics of the problem must be felt in the plot. To do this, you look at the thematic conflict for a given throughline (like the overall story) and then explore all of the thematic conflicts in each of the four signposts.
There are four thematic elements in the quad containing the thematic conflict. In every quad there are six different relationships that can be explored, so four signposts “times” six relationships to be explored equals 24 sequences per throughline. In the Dramatica Theory Book, chapter 18, available at about halfway into the chapter you’ll find a section on “Sequences.” Here’s a quote from the chapter that describes the six relationships in a thematic quad that explains it pretty well:

What Is A Sequence?

Sequences deal with a quad of Variations much as Acts deal with a quad of Types. The quad we will be interested in is the one containing the Range, as that is the item at the heart of a throughline’s Theme. Returning to our example story about an Objective Story Throughline in the Physics Class with a Concern of Obtaining, we shall say the Range is Morality, as illustrated in the quad below.

If Morality is the Range, then Self-Interest is the counter-point. Theme is primarily derived from the balance between items. When examining the quad of Variations containing the Range, we can see that the Range and counter-point make up only one pair out of those that might be created in that quad. We have also seen this kind of balance explored in the chapter on Character where we talked about three different kinds of pairs that might be explored: Dynamic, Companion, and Dependent.

Just as with character quads, we can make two diagonal pairs, two horizontal pairs, and two vertical pairs from the Variations in the Range quad. For the Morality quad, these six pairs are Morality/Self-Interest, Morality/Attitude, Morality/Approach, Self-Interest/Attitude, Self-Interest/Approach, and Attitude/Approach. Each of these pairs adds commentary on the relative value of Morality to Self-Interest. Only after all six have been explored will the thematic argument will have been fully made. It could go in a manner as follows:

On face value, which appears to be the better of the two?

When Morality is the issue, how do we rate the Attitude of those espousing it?

When Morality is the issue, how do we rate the Approach of those espousing it?

When Self-Interest is the issue, how do we rate the Attitude of those espousing it?

When Self-Interest is the issue, how do we rate the Approach of those espousing it?

Overall, which should carry more weight in regard to this issue?

By answering each of these questions in a different thematic sequence, the absolute value of Morality compared to Self-Interest will be argued by the impact of the six different relative values.

How Sequences Relate To Acts

Three Act Progressions

With six thematic Sequences and three dynamic Acts, it is not surprising that we find two Sequences per Act. In fact, this is part of what makes an Act Break feel like an Act Break. It is the simultaneous closure of a Plot Progression and a Theme Progression. The order in which the six thematic sequences occur does not affect the message of a story, but it does determine the thematic experience for the audience as the story unfolds. The only constraints on order would be that since the Range is the heart of the thematic argument, one of the three pairs containing the Range should appear in each of the three dynamic Acts. Any one of the other three pairs can be the other Sequence.

Four Act Progressions

The three dynamic Acts or Journeys in a throughline’s plot represent the experience of traversing the road through the story’s issues. The four structural Acts are more like a map of the terrain. As a result, a more structural kind of thematic Sequence is associated with the Types directly.

Beneath each Type is a quad of four Variations. From a structural point of view, the Act representing each Type will be examined or judged by the four Variations beneath it. In our ongoing example, the Act dealing with Obtaining would be examined in terms of Morality, Self-Interest, Attitude, and Approach. The difference between this and the thematic sequences we have just explored is that Obtaining is judged by each Variation in the quad separately, rather than each Variation in the quad being compared with one another. It is an upward looking evaluation, rather than a sideways looking evaluation.

In this manner, a thematic statement can be made about the subject matter of concern in each of the four structural Acts. The six Sequences constitute an argument about the appropriateness of different value standards.


By the time we get down to scene resolution, there are so many cross-purposes at work that we need to limit our appreciation of what is going on in order to see anything in the clutter. First, however, let’s touch on some of the forces that tend to obscure the real function of scenes, then strip them away to reveal the dynamic mechanism beneath.

Resolution and Sequence

Earlier we spoke of plot in terms of Types. We also speak of plot here in terms of four resolutions: Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Events. Both of these perspectives are valid appreciations depending on the purpose at hand. Because all units in Dramatica are related holographically, no single point of view can completely describe the model. That is why we select the most appropriate view to the purpose at hand. Even though looking at plot in terms of Types is useful, it is true that “plot-like” twists and turns are going on at the scene resolution as well. However, these dynamics are not truly part of the scene, but merely in the scene. An Act, Sequence, Scene, or Event is really a temporal container — a box made out of time that holds dynamics within its bounds. Much like filters or gratings with different-sized holes, the resolutions “sift” the dynamics trapping large movements at the highest levels and allowing smaller nuances to fall all the way down to the Elements.

What’s in a Scene?

At the scene resolution, the effects of Types and Variations can be felt like the tidal pull of some distant moon. But scenes are not the resolution at which to control those forces. Scenes are containers that hold Elements — anything larger cannot get crammed in without breaking. So the richness we feel in scenes is not solely due to what the scene itself contains, but also to the overall impact of what is happening at several larger scales.

What then does a scene contain? Scenes describe the change in dynamics between Elements as the story progresses over time. And since Elements are the building blocks of characters, scenes describe the changing relationships between characters.

Characters and Scenes

Characters are made up of Motivations, Methodologies, Means of Evaluation, and Purposes. These terms also describe the four major sets of Elements from which the characters are built. The driving force of a character in a given scene can be determined, such as whether their argument is over someone’s motivations or just the method they are employing.

6 Goes Into 24 Like Theme Goes Into Scenes

We have spoken of the three and four act appreciations of story. It was illustrated how both divisions are valid to specific tasks. When dealing with scenes, we find that no scenes ever hang between two acts, half in one and half in the other, regardless of a three or four act appreciation. This is because there are exactly 24 scenes created at the Element level: six per act in a four act appreciation, eight per act in a three act appreciation. In both cases, the scenes divide evenly into the acts, contributing to the “feel” of each act break being a major turning point in the progress of the story.

Sequences, on the other hand, exist as a six part partition of the story. Therefore, they divide evenly into a three act appreciation but not into a four. Since the four act view is objective, sequences — as they define Thematic movements — are truly an experiential phenomenon in the subjective appreciation and lose much of their power objectively.


Here’s the original email from the Dramatica user:
Hi Melanie,


I’ve watched the 12 hrs. and just watched the storyweaving seminar. I was wondering if you could clarify a couple points for me please. I understand the four through lines, four P.O.V’s. M.C., O.C., S.S., O.S. (I, you, we, they) Can I write a scene(s) centred around a character that is not the main or obstacle character and is separate from all through lines. I realize I could do from the objective story P.O.V., but that limits me to an eagle eye view. For example, if my antagonist is not my obstacle character, can I include a scene(s) that is intimate from his/her P.O.V. without having either the main or obstacle character present in those scenes? It seems to me that would give my story/audience a disjointed feeling, but I would like clarification. My second question is, in the 12 hr. class you talked about the 28 magic scenes. I get that. It makes perfect sense to me. However, when I started rooting around your blog page I found an article that spoke of 24 scenes. That there are 6 scenes in each act for a 4 act body of work and 8 scenes in each act in a 3 act body of work. The latter makes sense, just add on the addition 4 scenes in the fourth act, but the six scenes each in 4 acts confused me. Could you please clarify. Or point me in the right direction for either of my questions.


Thank you,