Do Stories Have 28 or 24 Scenes?

In the Dramatica Theory Book, we lay out a method of story development that results in 28 scenes, each with a component of Character, Plot and Theme.  We also describe a 24 scene perspective of story structure. 

Recently, a Dramatica user was having trouble seeing how the two apparently contradictory approaches related to one another.  I responded with an article ( Character Development and the 28 “Magic” Scenes ).

She just sent another email saying it still wasn’t quite clear.  So, here’s another stab at explaining how the 28 scene and 24 scene views peacefully co-exist:

Hi, Heather.

The 26 scenes only come up when looking at how plot and theme relate. In plot, when you have a single signpost, it is like looking at a single topic. The whole act is about that topic – for example, if the signposts are Learning, Understanding, Doing and Obtaining, then the second “act” is all about Understanding.

You see, there are two ways to look at stories and two ways to look at acts. When the audience looks at an act, they see it as a process that unfolds before them, so they focus more on the journeys, such as Understanding more and more until the characters are able to start Doing. But, when an author looks at a story, he or she will see the whole thing spatially, rather than temporally – see all the parts and pieces and how they fit together all in one view, all at one time.

So, the author focus is on the topics and how they relate to one another. So, he or she will focus more on the signposts, such as act one is about Learning, act two is about Understanding and so on. Both author and audience views are valid, just different because the audience doesn’t know the whole story until it is finished playing out, but the author does.

But, as a story plays out, the audience gradually builds up the same “after the fact” view of the author, act by act and scene by scene. So, the audience will see the journeys as they unfold, but will gradually see the topic shifts as act breaks when, for example, the characters have arrived at an Understanding and finally begin Doing. That marks the end of focusing on Understanding, which is no longer a topic of consideration in the story, having been fully explored.

When you consider the story as a done deal and look at the signposts as “topic acts,” then you can consider how theme relates to plot, act by act. Theme is not just a single item, such as Self-Interest. Nor is is just a simple conflict, such as Skill vs. Experience (the sort of story where a talented youth is pitted against a less-talented but far more experienced oldster). Those kinds of conflicts are explored over time, weighing one against the other, as described in the 28 scenes method.

But, in the spatial view of the story as a done deal, then you need to look at all four items in the thematic quad for each act. For example, the whole Skill quad, in addition to Experience, also contain Enlightenment and Wisdom. By Dramatica’s definitions, Enlightenment is knowing a higher truth, Wisdom is knowing when to use it.

You can see how all four fit together as part of a complete thematic exploration, Skill, Experience (externally based) and Enlightenment and Wisdom (the internal equivalents). In other words, Skill is to Enlightenment as Experience is to Wisdom.

If this is the thematic quad that was structurally associated with the signpost “act” of Understanding, for example, then all four of these thematic issues would be used to explore Understanding. In this example case, Understanding would be explored in terms of Skill, Experience, Enlightenment and Wisdom. But, in structure, the individual thematic issues are not applied to a signpost directly and individually – that is too cut and dried, too ham-handed, to unlike our own thematic investigations in our own lives in which we are constantly weighing one attitude or approach against another.

While in the 28 scene method, this “balance scale” is created when only the direct conflict between the thematic issue and its counterpoint (such as Skill vs. Experience) are measured against each other (though never directly against each other in the same scene), in the spatial view (the after-the-fact analysis of what the story means), every item in the thematic quad needs to be compared against all three of the others.

So, Skill will be weighed against not only Experience, but also directly against Enlightenment and Wisdom as well. This creates six different balance scales per act. In this case, they would be Skill vs. Experience, Skill vs. Enlightenment, Skill vs. Wisdom, Experience vs. Enlightenment, Experience vs. Wisdom and Enlightenment vs. Wisdom.

In real life, we just don’t see what the real thematic issue is directly, and there are always contextual considerations such as, it is wrong to steal, but it is right to steal bread for your starving child if there is no other way to feed him, but it is wrong to steal bread for your starving child if taking the bread will cause two other children to starve. The contextual considerations go on and on. That is why we have a jury of our peers – to cut some slack or conversely to throw the book at a criminal because of context.

This unclear view must be part of the Story Mind if it is to truly mirror the operation of our own minds. And so, for each of the four signposts in a given throughline, there will be all six balance scales for the thematic quad. By the end of the exploration of that signpost, the audience (and author) will know all there is to say about how, for example, Skill, Experience, Enlightenment and Wisdom stack up; how the affect and are affected by Understanding, for example. Then, it is on to the next signpost in which all six balance scales are played against Doing, for example.

By the end of a throughline, the thematic quad will have been played against all four signposts, and only then is there enough data to see how all the balance scale measurements add up, showing us which is the best (most effective) thematic item in trying to solve the story’s problem, and by how much it stands above the others, i.e. much better, or just a little better.

Six balance scales times four signposts equals twenty four “scenes” or more broadly put, twenty four sequences – twenty four thematic measurements. Now, with four throughlines that means there are 96 of those moments or thematic sequences. If you wanted to write a theme-focused story, that pretty much lines out all of the beats you need to create a complete story, especially when you consider you still have to add in character growth and plot progression, not to mention the structural components of genre as they develop act by act as well!

I hope this give you a better look at the twenty four “scene” approach to understanding the meaning and thematic message of a story, as opposed to the experiential 28 scene method of outlining your story’s progression.

As always, let me know if you have any other questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.