If Dramatica’s Options Aren’t What I Want, What Then?

A new Dramatica user recently emailed to say she was stymied when she reached a point in the storyforming procedure and the options she wanted for a particular story point were grayed out and not available, even though she was structuring her already completed book and felt she had a solid “hero’s journey” arc.

My reply:

Here’s some info to set the stage, followed by some steps you can take to solve this problem after you are familiar with the concepts.

First off, story points in a structure are not independent but are interdependent. This means that story points don’t stand alone in a structure but have relationships with other story points. The result of this is that the “options” list only those remaining choices that are consistent with other choices already made that have a collective impact or interconnection down the line. In fact, when you don’t have options you want, this is Dramatica doing the very thing it was created to do: letting you know that the choices you’ve already made in your structure are not truly compatible with the choice you are trying to make now. In short – your structure would be inconsistent. This is the purpose of Dramatica – to alert you when you are drifting in your perspective and therefore undermining the strength of your own message.

You see, most authors come to write a given story because they are interested in the subject matter. But subject matter isn’t structure. Subject matter is the setting, style, background information about your characters and their affectations, for example. In contrast, structure is an argument you are making to your reader or audience that a particular path toward a solution is the best or worst one that might be employed in those particular circumstances that you are exploring. That is your underlying message that gives direction and backbone to everything that happens in your subject matter. But how many different stories – different structures might be created that are all set in the Old West? And just because they share the same subject matter doesn’t mean they belong in the same story.

As writers, we are coming to a story without really knowing how all the pieces will fit together. Even if we have completed a book or a screenplay without Dramatica that seems to work (to us), it may not be actually living up to its potential, or may in fact not really work as well for others as it does for ourselves. This is because people tend to think in terms of topics rather than in terms of structure. So, we look at our subject matter and we discover that a particular topic in that realm dovetails very nicely with another topic in the same subject matter. While this is likely true, that is just the superficial. Beneath that, do they structurally connect as well? It is almost impossible to see if it does with the “naked eye.” But Dramatica puts the structure under the microscope (or into the X-Ray machine) and looks at what’s holding it all together logically. It takes you choices as you make them and instantly calculates how each additional choice impacts all the remaining options – which support what you’ve done already and which work against it, dramatically. It grays out all the options that are not structurally consistent with the other options you’ve chosen.

In short, though your subject matter may be consistent from the opening page to “the end,” and though it make all seem solid and right on the surface, who knows what evil lurks beneath? Dramatica knows.

Now, what to do about it….

Well, the first point is that the StoryGuide (Quick Start) is a way to introduce new users to Dramatica but is not necessarily the best way to use it down the line. If you don’t see the options you want there is usually no single previous choice that can be changed to allow the options you want (as described earlier). But, there are two approaches that will work, one with your existing storyform and one that is a better way to start in the first place.

First, for the storyform you already have partially developed: Go to the Story Engine feature and see all the items that are chosen in your storyform. Find the story point you want to open up to more options. Click on the little lock boxes to the right of each story point you want to keep as is, leaving all the other story points that don’t matter so much to you with the lock box open. Then hit “clear.” This will wipe out all the constrictions other than those imposed by the story points you’ve locked. In this way, you can get rid of any previous choices that aren’t important, keeping only the ones that are essential to you. This should open up more choices on the story point for which you wanted more options. If it doesn’t open up more options, it means that some combination of the story points you locked are still inconsistent (structurally – dramatically) with that story point. Which means you’ll have to uncheck the least important remaining story point and hit clear again and repeat until those options open up.

Now, this is a bit of a pain in the neck, and also can be frustrating because Dramatica 4 doesn’t show all the story points in the Story Engine – just the most commonly addressed ones. So, if your story point isn’t there, or if you have made choices for other story points in the story guide that don’t show up in the Story Engine, then you’ll have to open those up by unchecking them in Story Guide – as described, a pain in the neck. Fortunately, Dramatica 5 (in programming) has an improved Story Engine that includes all the story points for a one-stop job.

And here is where I explain how you can go about structuring your story much more efficiently from the get go. To begin, start with a new story file with no choices made. Then, go directly to the Story Engine OR to the Query System and find the single most important story point to you as author of the story. It might be the Main Character’s Problem (that drives him or her). It might be the Overall Story Domain (that determines if it will be an action story or one about soul-searching, for example). Naturally, this requires an understanding of what the story points are and how they show up in a story (which is why it wasn’t set up for new users). In the Story Guide you can read about each story point and use the helpview buttons to learn about the dramatic theory behind them, see them in context of real stories, learn about their usage in storytelling, and even call up examples of other well-known stories that share that same single story point.

The idea is, to begin with the single most important story point to you. Since it is the first one chosen, all options will be open. Next, you choose the second most important story point to you. Most authors don’t get into structural inconsistencies at this level, but only later when they get down to the less important dramatic choices. Since everyone has a different opinion about which story point is most important to them, there’s no way to set up a single pathway for everyone. Fortunately, Dramatica is nonlinear, so you can start with any story point and then go to any other next and so on.

As you go, story point by story point in order of importance, you’ve likely eventually run up against one in which the options don’t match what you want. That is Dramatica working again, telling you that what you wanted to do at that point is not consistent with what you’ve done already. At that point, you have a few directions to go:

1. Just ignore what Dramatica is saying. Often the passion of an author’s words is enough to carry readers or audience over structural flaws as long as they aren’t glaring. And, in fact, it is sometimes impossible to get excited about writing things in a way you don’t want that is perfect structurally, while it is inspiring to write about a particular part of your story the way you want it, even if it is structurally flawed. And this will translate into heightened involvement for your readers and audience. So, try to see why you are being inconsistent and why the options actually remaining would be structurally better, and then decide to chance your story or ignore that particular structural flaw because it isn’t a particularly critical story point.

2. Go back a ways, undoing choices, and try a slightly different path that may avoid closing down those options.

3. Recognize that structure is important to you at this point in your story, and that it is really shining a light on your structural flaws. Therefore, you change your story to whatever degree is needed to bring it into line dramatically.

In summary, however you decide to approach it, when the options you want are no longer available, that is in fact exactly why Dramatica was created and what it was designed to do: not to force you to conform to structure but to simply alert you to structural flaws and to show you the structurally sound options so that you can choose to fix the problem or let it slide for the sake of the Muse. But, at least you won’t be doing it unknowing and in the dark.

Hope this helps.