Category Archives: Storyforming Tips

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.


Using Dramatica for Short Stories

 A Writer Asks

Hi, I bought Dramatica in January and have been having a great deal of fun with it. I’m probably a bit dangerous, give me hammer and everything becomes a nail, etc. Do you talk to Dramatica users? I hope so. I’ve talked to a video producer about Dramatica and he immediately wondered if it could help with a 10 minute story. Any suggestions? On a broader scale, it has occurred to me that meaning and ‘story’ are inseparable. Everything that ‘means’ something fits into a story of some sort. Have you explored this aspect of story?


My Reply…

Sure, Dramatica can be used for short stories. The key is, every story must be complete WITHIN THE SCOPE OF THE ARGUMENT. So, to have a complete short story, one must have a balanced, but smaller scope.

In Dramatica this is done one of two ways. Either you limit your depth or breadth. If you limit depth, you might tell a story that only examines issues down to the Type level, for example, in the chart of Story Elements. In this way, the more nuanced exploration of Variations and Elements is left un-explored, and the scope of the argument is reduced.

Even though the Elements are what normally create characters, there is no reason why Types or Variations cannot be the basis for characters. So, you might have a Doing character, a Becoming character, or a Progress character, for example. The key is, once a level of the chart is assigned as the Character level, all of the dramatic appreciations (concepts) in that level must be explored as Characters.

In a sense, when you limit depth, you simple don’t explore one or more aspects of a story: Character, Plot, Theme, or Genre. This keeps the argument smaller so that it occupies less media real estate.

The other method, limiting breadth, keeps all four aspects of a story but narrows the point of view. Rather than examining all four throughlines (Main Character, Obstacle Character, Objective Story, Subjective Story) one or more is cut out. In this manner, you might have a single point of view, such as Main Character, but explore it in full depth through Character, Plot, Theme, and Genre.

This will also create a much shorter story, depending upon how many throughlines you explore. A rule of thumb is that you would want one, two, or all four throughlines. Why? Because a single throughline provides a perspective. Two throughlines provide a conflict. But three seems to be one conflict and another superfluous throughline that bounces off nothing. Of course, if that third point of view is important to you, use it, but be sure you telegraph to your audience not to expect conflict from this direction, but only another angle or take on the meaning of the story.

Finally, you can combine both techniques and limit both depth and breadth. In this case, you might have only a Main Character point of view and explore that only in terms of the Types. This will heavily cut down on the three dimensional scope of the argument as mapped out in the structural chart.

So, you have a lot of latitude as to which parts of a Grand Argument Story you wish to explore in a shorter story. The key is that you must let your audience know in some fashion not to expect a Grand Argument Story, and avoid including elements outside the scope of the argument you really want to make. Otherwise, if they see a few other elements creep in, they will demand that you make your point there as well, for they will not give you anything that is not within your scope, unless you fully develop it.

Also, to know which dramatic elements go together in a shorter story, you must still develop a complete story form for the entire Grand Argument Story, even though you don’t intend to tell it all. This is because any limited point of view does not stand alone, but is dependent upon all other points of view to which it is, in a larger sense, connected.

You don’t need to DEVELOP these other parts of the larger story, but you will need to include them in your storyform to make sure the piece you are presenting is consistent with a greater reality.

Since writing a short story is, in a sense, cutting vertical and/or horizontal layers out of the larger Grand Argument Story, in Dramatica we refer to this process as “Slicing and Dicing”.

How To Tell If Your Story’s Structure is Right

  A Writer Asks…

My question is: how do you know when you’ve got your story’s structure (storyform) right?

I Reply…

There is no right or wrong storyform. The Dramatica software makes sure that every storyform is a dramatically valid one. In fact, you could conceivably calculate out all the different storyforms that can be created (32,768) and print them out, and just arbitrarily pick one.

So, why is a storyform “right” for a particular story, but not another? It has to do with what you, as author, are trying to say to your audience. What is the story you have in mind? Which storyform accurately reflects that?

A storyform is just the skeleton or framework of a story, so it is often difficult to determine which one is “proper” for a story you have in mind. What you are thinking of already has a lot of the story telling done: characters, scenarios, plot devices. All of these are a combination of the underlying structure and the manner in which it is expressed by your creative style and inspirations.

So, how can we determine when we have arrived at the best storyform to act as a pattern for our story? By feel. You need to “feel” that the words that crop up as Story Goal, or Main Character Domain express what you have in mind, both logistically and emotionally, for your audience. To do this, you must truly understand what is meant by Main Character Domain, or any of the other dramatic “appreciations” provided by the Story Engine. Also, you must develop an empathy with the words that fill those appreciations, such as Universe, or Psychology.

Getting to know the terminology in Dramatica is the hardest part! The reason it is hard is that our language tends to create lots of words to deal with common concepts, and hardly any to deal with less up front notions. For a story to be complete, ALL essential considerations need to be addressed to prevent holes. So, in the areas in which our culture does not focus, there are few (and sometimes no existing) words to do the job. This means that there will be appreciations and the words that fill them that are easily understood, and a whole range of other terms that are progressively more obscure. But, to have a feel for which storyform is “right” requires becoming familiar with all of these terms. The more you are comfortable with, the stronger your sense of which storyform is best will be. Your choices in creating a storyform will become more precise and meaningful, and the end product will better reflect what you had in mind.

It seems like even the examples you give in the documentation could go other ways just by changing the verbs used in describing them. For example, the story I’m working on is a mystery. The characters are trying to decipher the clues that will help them discover the identity of the mystery person so they can help her. What I can’t decide is: are they concerned with doing (helping someone), obtaining (the answer to the clues), or learning (the identity)? And then I wonder if I’m in the wrong domain—solving a mystery is an external activity, but maybe the mystery itself is an external situation. Is there a general blueprint for mystery stories?

The “mystery” is a genre of story. Some genres describe settings, like “westerns”. Others describe character relationships, such as “buddy pictures”, or “love stories”. A mystery can either describe characters who are trying to figure something out, as in the old “Columbo” series, where the audience knew who the killer was from the very start, or they can be mysteries to the characters AND the audience, such as most Agatha Christie stories, or the Sherlock Holmes stories. A few mysteries have the characters knowing the score, but the audience being in the dark. The one combination that is NOT a mystery is when both characters and audience know the facts up front.

This difference in focus prevents there from being a single, typical “mystery” storyform. If the mystery part resides with the audience, then it comes from the storytelling, not the storyform. If the mystery is at least partly with the characters, then it becomes part of the storyform as well.

The “Types” you mentioned above, Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining, are all from the Physics “class” and describe activities. This does not make them any more appropriate to a mystery than any of the Types in the other three “classes”. For example, in the Universe Class are the Types, Past, Present, Progress, and Future. If one were writing a mystery about finding the killer of a school boy twenty years ago before he can repeat his crime on the twentieth anniversary, these types might best describe the chase.

In fact, all sixteen Types (four from each class) will show up in EVERY storyform. The difference is: from what point of view are they explored? The Main Character Domain will be the Class that contains the Types that best describe what the Main Character is involved in or concerned with. The Objective Story Domain will be the Class that contains the Types that best describe what ALL the characters of the story are jointly involved in or concerned with. So, in creating a storyform that is “right”, you will need to consider which set of Types you want your characters to explore, which are right for your Main Character, your Obstacle Character, and your Subjective Story.

Think about the kinds of things you want each of these four areas to explore, or examine. Think about the kinds of scenes that might be created that revolve around these Types of Concerns. That can go a long way to determining how to make your selections that will lead to a storyform that fits your desires as an author.

What Does Dramatica Mean by the Word “Illustrate”

  A Writer Asks…

I have just recently purchased Dramatica Pro and have a question I hope you can answer….

*Define your use of the word ILLUSTRATE in the various stages of story encoding

I Reply…

“Illustrate” means to come up a real world event or scenario that fulfills a dramatic function in your story.

The encoding stage of story creation has nothing to do with the actual writing that will become a part of a screenplay, novel, or whatever. It has everything to do with conceptualizing the specific implementation of an aspect of your story’s deep dramatic structure by fleshing out the raw idea into a tangible manifestation.

For example, if the goal of your story were to OBTAIN something, that describes the generic nature of the goal from a deep structure standpoint. This kind of information can help make other structural choices for our story, such as the kinds of requirements which might be needed to achieve a goal of OBTAINING, or perhaps help us choose the kind of character who might get caught up in such a goal.

Still, we can’t simply write a story in which we say, “The goal is to OBTAIN.” We must turn that raw structural concept into a real world item. For example, a goal of OBTAINING might be encoded or ILLUSTRATED as finding a treasure, obtaining someone’s love, obtaining a diploma – anything at all that is “obtaining” rather than, say, “becoming”. In this manner, the deep structure becomes the heart and soul of the symbols through which you tell your story. In other words, illustrating story points based on deep structure ensures that the audience will feel an overall sense and logic to what they are seeing. Simply, the story will hang together.

If we look at a storyform as a skeleton, encoding puts flesh and blood on it by ILLUSTRATING each bone and joint. The flesh is the nature of the structural appreciations, the blood is the nature of the dynamic appreciations, such as acts or scenes.

Still, this story/body is not in motion until we incorporate Storyweaving. Storyweaving is a lot like the meaning of exposition. It is the process of doling out your encoded deep structure to the audience. Here, the word “illustrate” takes on a different meaning. Now, instead of illustrating the structure, we have to illustrate the encoding!

For example, suppose the raw structural goal in your story is to Obtain. Further suppose that the goal to Obtain is encoded as Obtaining a treasure. Okay, now how do you tell that to your audience? Do you come right out and say it in the first scene? Do you trick the audience into thinking the goal is something else and then let them in on the secret? Do you illustrate the goal by bringing it up in several different scenes in a story, of is it more like Hitchcock’s McGuffin, getting the chase started and then never being heard of again until the end of the story? Making these choices is the process of storyweaving, and the choices you make are another form of “illustration”.

The Dangers of Micromanaging Your Story

  A Dramatica user wrote:

I love the theory. It works. I want it to help me figure out the ending to my pot-boiler.

To do that, I have to figure out more about the relationships between fatal flaw, the shift involved in the four-act variation-level plot sequences from the plot sequence reports, and the overall theme of the story (the three-act plot sequence variations).

Theme, character, and plot must play out in a precise order to integrate at a precise moment of enlightenment for the audience and Main Character, all with a maximum of dramatic tension and release. At least if I want a best seller!!

I replied:First of all, using Dramatica to that degree is micromanaging your story from a logistic approach. Best sellers are not created because they have a perfect structure, but because they grip the human heart

Audiences will not only forgive, but may not even care if a structure is flawed, as long as the story is gripping. How can you have a gripping story with a bad structure? An actor has to say his lines, but HOW he says them carries the passion. A writer drops exposition in a story, but HOW it comes out builds the intrigue. In short, the story structure is nothing more than the blueprint for a story, the plans for a sports car, but it is not the experience of standing in front of a Frank Lloyd Wright building or driving a Lotus.

If the porch is two inches to the left or the headlights aren’t quite focused on the road, the edifice or vehicle will not perform quite as well. But if it carries the fire of the hearth or the rhythm of the road, then it will captivate and excel nonetheless.

Of course there comes a point where some structural considerations are so huge that a blunder at that level will cause the building to fall or the car to crash. But that level is far above the degree of detail you are seeking to employ.

Still, it is true that Dramatica’s Story Engine can actually predict the order in which events ought to occur in scenes and which characters should be involved in those events. In fact, it DOES predict this. But, you can’t get that information out of the software because we suppressed it.

Why would we do such a thing? Because the level of detail it provides is so “fine” that it gets lost in the storytelling, just like quiet sounds used to get lost in the background noise of an old LP record. The more detailed your structure becomes, the more you are wasting your time – past a certain point.

We picked a “cut off point” for the degree of detail provided by Dramatica. How did we pick that point? By determining the greatest degree of detail we felt an author could explore in any area and still cram all the information into an average novel or feature movie. But, that detail could only be explored if enough storytelling attention were paid to it. Even at the level of detail provided, one could not pay extra attention to more than a few areas before the available “media real estate” is exhausted.

One could not possibly include all of the detail generated by Dramatica as it is, without created a 1200 page book or a mini-series. So, once we reached the “trilogy/television event” level of detail, we suppressed the rest as not only superfluous, but counter-productive. That much detail would just distract writers from the bigger picture, rob them of the passion, and make Dramatica even more complex than it already is.

As writers of fiction, we are usually not out to describe the mechanisms of life dispassionately in excruciating detail. We are out to express the passion of the human heart in bold strokes and subtle nuance. The problems we encounter occur when our author’s hearts meander and the logistic sense of our story is lost.

Stories must have a “heart line” and a “head line” because the audience has a heart and a mind. In a university, the priority is the mind, and the heart comes along for the ride. In fiction, the priority is the heart, and the mind has nothing more than veto power. Only if the head line is violated in such a gross manner that the mind pulls the heart out of the story is there a problem. But anything short of that is fine.

And in fact, the heart and the head often don’t see eye to eye. In such cases, the heart must take precedence. If there is every a choice between something that will make better structural sense at the expense of audience involvement or will captivate the audience but at the expense of the passion – choose the passion!!!

My vision of the Dramatica software is not as a checklist or series of check points which must be met. Rather, I see there being two primary camps of writers – the Structuralists who seek to work out all the details before they write, and the Inspriationists who seek to follow the muse, then find and refine the structure in the story they discovered along the way. And Dramatica is designed to help both.

As a Structuralist (which your comments lead me to assume you are, though I may be misreading) you will want the whole path laid out in front of you, and then to follow that path in your storytelling.

Again, you write how you are searching for an ending for your story, and say:

To do that, I have to figure out more about the relationships between fatal flaw, the shift involved in the four-act variation-level plot sequences from the plot sequence reports, and the overall theme of the story (the three-act plot sequence variations).

In my opinion, you are building you story like you would build an android, rather than hiring an actor.

Where’s the passion in how you describe what you need to conclude your story, what you have to “figure out?”

My suggestions? Step back a bit… Look at the beach, not the grains of sand. Does you story end in Success or Failure? Does the Main Character resolve his or her personal issues or not (Good or Bad)? Does your story brought to a climax by a Timelock or an Optionlock? Is your story driven (and concluded) by Action or Decision?

These basic dynamic questions provide the framework for the feel of the ending of your story and kinds of forces that will be at work. Knowing the signposts and journeys tell you exactly what kinds of subject matter will be dealt with in each of the four throughlines at the end of the story. Armed with that much information, the ending should be clear.

The one exception to this is if one is trying to write a plot-oriented story where the logistic interconnections among detailed plot events unfold a conspiracy or a mystery, for example. Sad to say in such a case Dramatica is pretty much useless.

A clever plot is a storytelling overlay of logistics on top of the underlying structure. It is not the structure itself. It does not even grow out of the structure, other than that the subject matter and points of view reflect the story points.

So, ending a story is easy in terms of the feel of the outcome by using the dynamics and signpost/journey system. But working out the conclusion of a plot from a storytelling standpoint is amazingly hard.

A good software program for doing such a thing is Plots Unlimited. It contains a database of thousands of plot pieces, ready made dramatic scenarios that can be stacked together like dominos to create a linear plot with twists, deceptions, red herrings, and surprising conclusions.

Its one limitation is that these pre-fab pieces don’t deal with the story’s structure, but only with the storytelling nature of plot, and is therefore limited to the number of pieces in the database.

In contrast, Dramatica can’t do that at all, because it is not a storytelling generator, but a structure generator. Dramatica will tell you the subject matter and how it will be seen, you might then use Plots Unlimited to select storytelling segments that reflect those structural imperatives.

I feel that a lot of the frustration that comes to Dramatica users is that they have a misconception about what Dramatica is supposed to be doing for them. They feel that they should end up with something like, “We find Joe in school. His teacher asks him for his homework and Joe says “My dog ate it.””

This is the kind of material you might get from Plots Unlimited, but since you piece the parts together, they may make sense logistically, yet create nothing meaningful structurally.

Dramatica will NOT provide that kind of output or guidance. Dramatica will tell you, “Main Character Signpost One: Learning. Main Character thematic conflict: Truth vs. Falsehood.”

Dramatica ensures that all mental considerations regarding the central issues of the story are full explored in the one context that will create a unified perspective on the issues by the end of the story. But, trying to squeeze the storytelling material out of the structure leads to getting lost in software and ultimately becoming frustrated.

For example, you use the term “fatal flaw” and want to discover its relationship to “the shift involved in the four-act variation-level plot sequences from the plot sequence reports, and the overall theme of the story (the three-act plot sequence variations). ”

“Fatal Flaw” isn’t a Dramatica term at all. There is the Main Character’s problem, there is the Main Character’s Critical Flaw, and several other dramatics that might be what you mean. But the real question is, how do you want the ending of your story to feel?

Logistically, Journey 3 in each of the four throughlines will tell you what is going on subject matter-wise in each of the four key forces that converge on the ending. The dynamics will tell you how the climax is forced and the feel of the outcome. The four Signposts will tell you what subject matter is touched on in each of the four throughlines in the denouement. ANYTHING that you write in the plot will work fine structurally, as long as it falls within those structural guidelines.

Then, if you want to bring your Main Character’s Critical flaw into play, you can drop it in anywhere you want. Have them overcome it and then be able to save the day. Or have them save the day and then discover that as a result, they have overcome their Critical Flaw. But Critical Flaw is not sequential at all.

Progressive Plot Appreciations are sequential (the signposts and journeys). The Plot Sequence report describes the order in which the Types are repeatedly cycled through as the story progresses, and what thematic shadings come into play. Anything else is a static story point which is true for the overall story and can be peppered in anywhere you want it. A good rule of thumb is to include each static story point at least once per act so that it can be appreciated in all the major different contexts of the story’s points of view.

So, for example, you’d want your Main Character’s Critical Flaw to appear once in each act to “prove” that it doesn’t matter what the context, the Main Character is really and truly screwed up by this.

It is also a good rule of thumb to bring a story point into play (which is part of what we mean by “illustrate”) in the throughline to which it pertains. So, if you have a scene with the Main Character or even ABOUT the Main Character though he or she is not actually present, that is where you want to play the “Main Character Critical Flaw Card.”

Story points like “Goal” and “Forewarnings” apply to the whole story, so may easily be played in scenes pertaining to any of the four throughlines.

Well, I’d like to go on further with more specific information, but time grows short. This little note just took an hour an a half to write, and that is 90 minutes I won’t be able to spend on recording the material from my UCLA class on CD! Everything is a trade-off when you work for yourself!

In any event, and (as you say) with all due respect, I might suggest you step back from the details a bit, don’t try to find the Nth degree of interconnectivity among logistic structural considerations. Reconnect with the passion, take in the overview, don’t try to get Dramatica to suggest the storytelling aspects of your plot, and focus on the elements of the ending of your story that excite you about it as your own first and best audience, as every author truly is with his or her own work.

Does Dramatica Limit Your Story

Sometimes authors run into problems with Dramatica not because of what the software is actually doing, but because of what they THINK it is doing! Used properly, the software can offer a myriad of create opportunities. But used improperly, it can seem limiting and confining.

For example, a Dramatica user recently complained that the software was limiting his story by making choices for him.

He wrote:

When you make choices about the roles characters will play, the theory begins to make other choices for you from its possible storyforms, and certain choices become impossible.

My response:Thanks for the comment, but that is simply not true.

Neither the theory nor software makes other choices for you about anything in your story no matter what role you choose for your characters.

Try it out for yourself. Go to the Build Characters area, create a character. Give that character any role like Protagonist, Antagonist, or create a completely complex, non-archetypal character.

If you check throughout the software, you’ll find that absolutely nothing has been limited by your choices.

Go to any other character development area in the software. Assign any role. Nothing will be limited.

In fact, there is not a single programming connection anywhere in the software that will make any dramatic choices for you based on assigning a character role.

This is why I feel compelled to respond to some of the postings about Dramatica in this forum: to address complaints about the theory or software that describe things that aren’t even a part of the theory or software.

To go into more detail, in both theory and software you can also assign characters any name, create any background, any human or physical traits, and any storytelling role (like Doctor, Mercenary, or Joe’s Wife) and nothing will be chosen for you or limited in your story or in what roles are available for other characters.

So, I really don’t know how you have come to the conclusion that the Dramatica software makes choices for you when you assign a character role. I’m sure there is something the software that appeared to you as if this was happening. And, I’m sure your conclusion was based on an honest interpretation of whatever it was.

Therefore, the problem with the software in this particular regard is not in what it is actually doing, but what it appears to do, at least to some authors.

My job, then, is to find out what gave you the impression that Dramatica made choices based on assigning character roles and then correct the way the software presents itself so that mistake is no longer made.

To that purpose, I would appreciate it if you could (almost tech support style) list a specific instance in which you felt the software was making or limiting choices based on assigning character roles.

Then, perhaps I can find a way for the software to better present itself.Your next comment was:

In other words, to be analytical about it, many valid narratives (and every single one I have tried to form with Dramatica) fall outside the theoretical space of possible storyforms within Dramatica, just as most real numbers >fall outside the space of natural numbers.

Again, this really isn’t specific enough for me to determine the actual problem you were having as a Dramatica user. What valid narratives did you try to form with Dramatica that were not allowed?

I think if you can describe the problem more precisely, I can obtain a better understanding from you about where Dramatica is not connecting with some authors. Then, since the development of Dramatica is an ongoing project, we can improve the software tool and even revise the theory if necessary in order to make something more valuable to more authors.

While awaiting your reply, let me offer the following, which may help clarify things.

Dramatica DOES have a “Story Engine” which is designed to make suggestions about how to strengthen and make more complete the structure of your story.

The Story Engine does not insist that you follow its suggestions. The theory does not say the suggestions the only way to go.

In fact, you don’t even have to use the Story Engine to use Dramatica.

In my U.C.L.A. class I tell my students to ignore the Story Engine to begin with. Structure is dry, it is lifeless, it is the underlying logistic mechanism of a story. It is necessary for the story to make logistic sense but it will also kill your creativity faster than anything else.

We, as authors, don’t come to stories because we want to write a great structure. Rather, we want to move our audience, to excite them, to excite ourselves in the process of sharing our vision. The best way to kill that enthusiasm is to put structure first.

In Dramatica, you can begin by ignoring structure, work on your ideas with guidance, but no limits. Only when you have fully expressed those things that excited you about the story in the first place should you seek the structure in the story.

There are several places do that in the software. One of my favorites is the Story Points window:

The Story Points window lists scores of key dramatic points that can be used in most any story such as: Goal, Consequence, whether the story ends in Success or Failure, the nature of the Main Character’s personal drive, the thematic conflict or issues of the overall story.

If you begin in the Story Points window, you won’t even get suggestions from the Story Engine. Instead, you can look at all those story points as dramatic elements you may wish to include in your story.

There is a place for you to fill in whatever information you want to write about each of the story points. So, you might write in the space next to Goal, “The Goal of the story is to retrieve the stolen diamonds.” Or, you might write, “The Goal is for Joe to find true love.”

What you write is up to you – no limitations. And you can fill in only those story points in which your interested, ignoring the rest.

Are there other valid story points beside those which Dramatica lists? Of course! And there is no reason in the software why you can’t develop those as well. Since some of the listed story points are unique to Dramatica, they can perhaps trigger an inspiration by offering a different tack.

I tell my students to first fill in information about every story point for which they already have something in mind. Then, by the very process of getting those thoughts down in an organized list, new ideas come up when all those original ideas are seen in one place, side by side.

This often gives an author a new inspiration for another story point in the list that can help bring richness to a story. But the key is to ignore any story points that don’t speak to you and to look over all the ones you have filled-in to cross-reference your own creative work for new inspiration.

Now that you have “de-briefed” yourself about all of the ideas that are attracting you to your story, it can be useful to see what kind of a structure you are creating, and also perhaps to find some missing parts in the overall logistic mechanism of your story.

If, and only if, you want that kind of help, then you fire up the Story Engine and ask it for some suggestions.

For me, the best way to do this is to go into the Dramatica Query System. The Query System is nothing more than a number of different lists of questions about the structure of your story.

Each question is a single screen, and there are HUNDREDS of questions because Dramatica looks at stories in great depth.

You don’t have to answer all of the questions. You don’t even have to answer any of the questions. In fact, if you don’t want suggestions at all, just skip the Story Engine and go directly to the Scene or Chapter area (available as one of the Query System Lists).

There, you can create as many scenes or chapter as you like with the click of a button. Each scene becomes a separate window that is like a high-tech 3×5 card. There is a top part to the window where you describe how the scene unfolds and a bottom part where you can refer to your notes. What notes are these? The ones you created in Story Points, and in other places where you describe what you have in mind.

So, you can select any of what you have already written in Story Points and elsewhere and have those words appear in the Notes area of each scene card. You can add as many or as few story points to each card’s notes as you like. In this way, for each scene you can draw on your own creative ideas and bring them into play as each scene develops.

The notes become kind of a shopping list or wish list of the story points you might like to address in that scene. You might use them all in the scene description you write in the top part of the window, or you might only use some of them. In fact, if you just want a particular scene to be for entertainment only, you don’t have to include any story points if you don’t want.

You can arrange and re-arrange the “cards” in any order and they automatically re-number themselves, keeping the drudgery out of the process.

When you have completely designed the flow and unfolding of your story on the cards, you can print out a report that puts all of your scene descriptions in order as an outline of your entire story. And, you can export that report to any wordprocessor or script formatter.

Now, that whole process, from first creative idea to finished outline doesn’t involve the Story Engine at all. Dramatica makes no suggestions and limits nothing. The software used that way is nothing more than a series of utilities that help an author organize his or her material and tries to inspire them with lists of potential story points.

Up to this point, Dramatica is not unlike Collaborator, and is far less suggestive than Plots Unlimited.

I think it is clear so far that Dramatica does not insist you follow any cult-like dogma nor does it go out of its way to limit your choices or options or impose any kind of approach to story on an author at all.

But, if you WANT to get some structural suggestions, then and ONLY then, do you fire up the Story Engine. The Story Engine is what makes Dramatica different from any other software tool for writers – BUT, you don’t have to use it!!! It is an addition to the utilities, not the only thing the software does.

To get the structural suggestions, go to the Query System again. Open up the question list with the complete list of all the structural questions.

Now, DON’T go through the list in order. The order of the questions in arbitrary, and the story points at the top are probably not the ones of most interest to you in this story.

Instead, scroll down the list and find the story point that is most important to you in this story. How do you know which one that is? Look over all that you have written in the Story Points window already. Read your own words without even bothering to look at what story point they pertain to. See which subject matter is most exciting to you in what you’ve already developed. Then, look over to the side of the story points window to see which structural story point those words happen to pertain to. It might be your Goal, or your Main Character’s drive, for example.

Whatever that story point turns out to be, you find that story point in the list of structural questions in the Query System. That should be the first question you ask the Story Engine about regarding the underlying structure. Why? Because it is most important to you and because the structure is wide open at this point and there are no limitations.

With whichever story point you begin, you will be presented with a little list different kinds of subject matter. So, if you started with Goal as the most important story point to you, you might have already written in Story Points “The Goal is to retrieve the stolen diamonds.” Now, you refer to your words and compare them to the lists of kinds of subject matter. You pick the item or items that best describes the underlying structural significance of what you have already written.

Why do you do this? Because as you make choices about the kinds of subject matter with which you are dealing in your story, you are also telling the Story Engine that other kinds of subject matter are NOT in your story.

The Story Engine is not limiting your choices, it is asking you to MAKE choices.

As you continue to make choices by going through the second most important story point, the third, and so on, eventually you’ll come to a story point question in which none of the remaining choices sound like what you have already creatively written about that story point.

This is not Dramatica trying to limit you to only those choices. In fact, it is the primary reason the Story Engine was created.

When none of the available choices match what you already creatively wrote, the Story Engine is telling you that it “believes” this particular story point is thematically inconsistent with what you’ve already told it about earlier story points.

So, do you have to change what you wrote to follow what Dramatica says? Of course not. It’s just a suggestion.

You have a choice. You might look at what the Story Engine suggested and say, “Hey, that makes more sense.” And then you might rewrite how you intended to put that story point into play in your story.

But, you might just as well say, “Hey, that doesn’t make any sense at all,” and leave things just as they are. Dramatica won’t “force” you to change your words. It just offered you a suggestion, like any good writing partner. But it’s your story, do what feels right to you!

The third possibility is that you might say, “Hey, Dramatica’s suggestions make better sense, but they don’t inspire me. If I write it to have a stronger structure, I’m sure it will come out dry. But the way I originally had it was very exciting to me, even though I can now see that it isn’t as strong as it could be structurally. Still, if I write it the way I originally wanted, I’ll be so enthusiastic that it will really come to life and the minor detriment to the structure will be more than compensated for by the added energy.”

You see, structure helps a story make sense. But audiences don’t primarily go to movies or read fictions to only increase their intellectual understanding. Rather, the audience wants to be made to feel, to be provided with emotional experiences that excite and move them. The experience doesn’t come from the structure, but from the way you tell your story. And if you aren’t writing about what is important to you, you won’t likely write with enough energy to involve your audience.

In my opinion, it is far better to have a flawed structure (as long as it is not SO flawed that it drags the audience out of the experience) than it is to have limp, dry storytelling.

So, the purpose of the Story Engine is not to force you to toe-the-line with perfect structure. Rather, it is designed to bring flaws in the structure to your attention so you can decide for yourself whether to fix the structure or go with your own inspiration.

To conclude, I personally think that most of the flak Dramatica receives is because authors think we are trying to tell them they HAVE to adhere to a structure or that the Story Engine’s suggestions are the only valid ones.

I wish they wouldn’t do that!

Dramatica is special because it is the first and only software product for writers to be able to offer those kinds of suggestions. The technology behind the Story Engine is so revolutionary that is has received a patent.

But:1. The software has MUCH more to offer than the Story Engine.

2. You don’t have to even use the Story Engine for Dramatica to be a really useful tool.3. The Story Engine just makes suggestions to help alert you to potential weaknesses in your structure.4. What you do about those suggestions is completely up to you.

Do Dramatica’s Specific Questions Limit Story Richness?

  A Writer Asks…

Dramatica requires authors to make specific decisions about their story. In contrast, most great artists prefer to keep things ambiguous so that the audience is left with a richer experience. Doesn’t this indicate a limitation of Dramatica?

I Reply…

According to Webster, “ambiguous” means, “having more than one meaning”:. By this definition, Dramatica would agree that ambiguity is a hallmark of great art. Please note that “ambiguous” does NOT mean “unclear”, “cloudy”, nor “obscure”. Most artists do not desire to create a work that holds no meaning because no one can figure it out. If the audience doesn’t get ANY feeling from the piece, then why create it in the first place? However, if the audience experiences CONFLICTING feelings, we have not only moved it, but created a potential within it that forces it to address an issue of interest to us as authors. The audience is forced to consider all sides of the issue logistically and/or emotionally. We, as authors, have then accomplished our intent.

If the point of “great” art is to create multiple meanings, then first we must build single meanings. Next, we combine them together – some on this side of the fence, some on the other. In this way, we temper the “emotional argument” of the work so that it falls somewhere in the range between one-sided and evenly balanced, thereby creating an overall ambiguous meaning. This is one of the concepts upon which Dramatica is based.

The choices an author makes in working with Dramatica have been designed to represent these essential or “elemental” meanings that can be combined to create more complex meanings. This is not unlike the periodic table of elements in chemistry. Similar to the scientific chart, in stories there are “families” of emotions. Some react together, some do not. And just like elements, they all have individual identities. Lead is very stable. Gold is chemically inert. Both are malleable. One is dull, the other shiny. Both are heavy. But place Hydrogen and Oxygen together and they will quickly form water, which has properties that don’t resemble either parent. Sometimes catalysts are needed and other times inhibitors will slow down reactions. Both “catalysts” and “inhibitors” can be found in the terminology of Dramatica, and these story equivalents provide much the same function.

The questions asked of authors in Dramatica that have the greatest impact on a story (and therefore limit out more alternatives) were placed so as to come right up front in the software where the new user can see them before anything else. They are designed to let the new user become familiar with Dramatica concepts while having some powerful tools to use right off the bat. But there are HUNDREDS of other much more subtle, sophisticated and complex questions later like “Subjective Story Catalyst” and “Objective Story Inhibitor”. Experienced alchemists (authors) who understand these concepts, even intuitively, can jump right in and create magic. For the novice, like the Sorcerer’s apprentice, he or she will need to work up to that level of sophistication.

Just as with the great masters, it is not only in their subject matter that we appreciate their work, but in the nature of the brushstrokes as well. The brushstrokes are the storytelling, the creative, intuitive, organic part of communication. Although Dramatica offers some insights into this part of the creative process, it is specifically designed to focus on the exploration of the rational or emotional topic of a work and provide a “periodic table of story elements” from which to fashion complex and, yes, “ambiguous” meanings.

Why would a master storyteller have an interest in such a program? Because not all works by a great master are great masterworks. It is not that intuition fails or skills diminish, but that each of us carries our own biases, givens and preconceptions to the creative process. If our purpose is simply to document these, then there is no need for Dramatica. But if our intent is to impact our audience in ways we can predict, then Dramatica is an extremely valuable tool for creating both complex and ambiguous meanings.

Can You Skip Questions in Dramatica?

  A Writer Asks…

Can you skip over some of the story encoding questions to answer one’s further down the list that you know or at least understand? Also, do you have to answer all the story encoding questions, or does Dramatica fill in the blanks at a certain point?

My Reply…

Because the Dramatica Story Engine is non-linear, it is more like a Rubik’s Cube of Story Elements you can twist and turn by answering questions. The pattern you create is completely in your control, yet you may not be able to predict what is going to happen on the backside of the cube after a few moves until you look to see what’s there.

As a result of this holistic approach to a model of story, you can answer the questions in any order and skip over any questions you would like. As you answer questions, Dramatica fills in the answers to other questions you have already chosen by your previous answers in a round about way. When you have answered enough questions, the cube “freezes” because you have made enough choices about your pattern that only one combination of pieces can do the job. That is your Storyform.

As for filling in the encoding (storytelling), Dramatica will never do that. It can fill in the Storyforming to make sure the “cube” is accurate, but since any given dramatic appreciation (story point) can be encoded in an infinite number of ways, there is no way for Dramatica to draw on that potential without a huge database. In fact, Dramatica is not driven by database at all, but by a Story Engine which is based on the relationships among essential dramatic elements.

In contrast, at the MIT Media Lab, they have worked toward building such a mammoth database, effectively trying to create viable story structures with the electronic equivalent of one million monkeys pounding on one million typewriters. Looking to the future, someday this approach might come to work in conjunction with the story structuring capacity of Dramatica, but for now, what MIT’s Cray supercomputer models need gigabytes of databases to do for Storyencoding (storytelling), Dramatica is able to do for Storyforming (structure) on your desktop with its revolutionary Story Engine core that is actually only 27 kilobytes in size! (Keep in mind, a Rubik’s Cube has only 27 pieces, but creates forty trillion trillion combinations!)

Where to Start: Story Engine, Theme Browser or Query System?

Many people are confused about where to go in the Dramatica software to create a story. There are a number of choices from the Main Desktop, but which one should be used FIRST?

Actually, it’s just a matter of personal preference. You see, the Dramatica software is built around a single story engine that keeps track of the dramatic relationships among your characters, plot, theme, and genre. All the different ways of creating a story that the software offers are just different ways to tap into the same engine. In fact, whatever work you do in one area automatically shows up in all the other areas as well.

Three popular areas in the software for constructing a storyform are the Story Engine, Theme Browser, and Query System. The Story Engine you get to from the Main Desktop, is NOT the same story engine that runs the software – they just share the same name. Why? Because the Story Engine area taps into the underlying story engine most directly.

The Story Engine area lists a number key story points and then asks you to select the thematic content of each story point through the use of pull-down menus. In a sense, the Story Engine is telling you that every story has the same “empty” story points, such as Goal, Main Character Problem, and Outcome. But, the thematic nature of each differs from story to story. For example, the Goal in one story might be Obtaining something, while in another story the Goal is Becoming something. Both have a Goal, but each with a different thematic nature or content.

While some authors prefer to develop a story by adding thematics to a raw structure, others prefer to choose their subject matter first, and THEN figure out how it works structurally. This is why the Theme Browser was created.

Rather than listing story points and asking you to choose the thematics for each, the Theme Browser lists the thematics (subject matter) and asks you to choose where it shows up in the structure (as which story point.). So, in the Theme Browser and author can scan through all kinds of subject matter, picking out the topics he or she wishes to explore in a story and THEN determine where it shows up.

For example, an author might want to explore the nature of possessing things, and pick Obtaining on the Theme Browser as the subject matter. Then, by using the pop-up menus, he or she could select Obtaining as the Goal, the Requirement, or even the Signpost (main topic) of Act 1.

So, the Story Engine says, “Here are all the key story points. Choose the thematic subject matter each will explore,” whereas the Theme Browser says, “Here is all the thematic subject matter. Choose the story point which will explore each topic.”

Finally, Dramatica offers the Query System as a third way of constructing a storyform. The Query System was designed to provide extensive help to the author while making choices about story structure.

The Query System is actually divided into two areas: the Query System proper, available through its own button on the Main Desktop, and the StoryGuide, also available through a button on the desktop.

The Query System is just a collection of different question paths that focus on different areas of a story, such as the Main Character, or the plot. Each question provides either a fill-in area for such things as the story’s title or the Main Character’s name, but more importantly provides questions that are much the same as choosing an item in the Story Engine or the Theme Browser. To re-iterate, the choices made in the Query System simply go to the same background story engine at the heart of the software.

The Query System allows an author to concentrate on one facet of his or her story and work there, then skip to another and continue. For example, the Main Character might be the most important element of a story to a given author. This author could first work in the Main Character Query System path until satisfied, then move on to the second area of interest, which might be the Obstacle Character, Plot, or Theme. There’s even an “All Storyforming Questions” path for authors who want to see everything in a long list and jump from one question to any other while storyforming.

The StoryGuide path is really just another question path in the Query System. The big difference is that the StoryGuide has been specifically designed for first time users.

The StoryGuide comes in two lengths: a 50 question path which usually takes 3 or 4 hours to complete, and a 200 question path, which usually takes 3 or 4 weeks! As with all other areas of the Dramatica software, any work you do in one path automatically shows up in the other as well. So, you can start with one, then change your mind and go to the other, or just jump back and forth among ANY of the question paths whenever the mood strikes you.

The StoryGuide path pulls key questions from all the other Query System paths, then presents them in an order that requires the least possible explanation of the Dramatica theory of story in order to create a storyform.

Because it has been designed to be the quickest, most painless way to a story structure for a new user, the StoryGuide button on the Main Desktop is in the upper left corner for prominence, and is labeled, “Start Here!”

In summary, there is a single story engine at the heart of the Dramatica software that keeps track of the relationships among your characters, plot, and theme. No matter how or where you enter the information and make dramatic choices, it all goes to the same central engine.

Of the three main areas in which one can make dramatic choices, the Story Engine is designed for the experienced structuralist, the Theme Browser is designed for the experienced intuitive writer, and the StoryGuide is designed for new users to ease them into the software and theory with the quickest results.

Dramatica Tid Bit:

Although the Dramatica software program is over 7 meg in size, the story engine at the heart of the software is a series of complex interrelated algorithms taking up only 28K of space! This story engine is so revolutionary it was awarded United States patent number 5,734,916.Just as a Rubik’s cube has just 27 moving pieces, yet creates 40,000,000,000,000,000 combinations, the patented Dramatica story engine has is only 28K in size, yet generates 32,768 completely different dramatic storyforms.

What is the Best Way for a New User to Approach Dramatica?

First and foremost, Dramatica is a theory of story. The software serves to implement aspects of the theory in a handy and practical manner. Personally, I feel that a writer using Dramatica solely to create a blueprint for a story is missing a big part of the power of the theory.

As one becomes more and more familiar with aspects of the theory, these new concepts begin to take hold in a writer’s mind at a subconscious level – right where his or her creativity springs forth. In a sense, the theory explanations become subliminal patterns of thought in the author’s mind that fine tune his or her writer’s instincts, help him or her avoid holes in the story’s logic and feeling, and offer a way around writer’s blocks.

The Dramatica software can be thought of as “training wheels” in the craft of writing. When one is up to speed, the wheels can come off. Unlike riding a bike, however, one DOES forget how, in the craft of writing. This occurs because every day we assume new and different givens, become accustomed and conditioned to new ideas and environments, and as a result we lose touch with how others might view our work. If our intent is to communicate and to move our audience to feel specifically what we have in mind for their hearts, we must hone our skills in getting the message across. That’s where the Dramatica software comes in.

Both Dramatica Writer’s DreamKit and Dramatica Pro come with a special question path called the StoryGuide. This path is designed to get new users up to speed with the theory while creating a complete scene order or chapter order treatment for a story along the way. Buy using the StoryGuide, the new user can put the theory to work immediately and get to know the software at the same time. Once this path has been taken the first time, most writers will want to chart their own path through Dramatica, tailoring their use of the software tool to match their personal writing styles.

The way I use the software myself is as a periodic tune-up. I like to write the first draft of a work without using the software. Then, I go into the software and fill in all the storytelling information first. Next, I go to the Storyforming section, click the “storytelling” button and make my Storyforming choices based on what I read on the screen of my own storytelling.

I don’t go through the lists in order, but rather start with the dramatic items of most importance to me in this particular story. That way, when I finally get down to storytelling I’ve done that doesn’t fit ANY of the available Storyforming choices, it is usually not a pet concept, and I can alter my storytelling approach to fit the overall argument of my story.

Finally, when I have arrived at a complete Storyform and brought my storytelling into line, I add any additional storytelling for Storyforming items I had not addressed in my first draft. I then print out the “kitchen sink” report for a record of my ENTIRE Storyform, and use that as a reference while I write.

During the original writing process and the re-writing process then, I don’t actually use Dramatica at all. I prefer to follow my instincts, once they know where they are going. For the first draft, I don’t want to be hindered by analysis, no matter how accurate the feedback may be. Then, between drafts, I want to hear what Dramatica has to say. And finally, during the re-write, I again want to go with my now-refined instincts, and only refer to the “kitchen sink” report when I am at a loss. In this manner, I retain the immediacy and serendipity of my work, and still take advantage of the unique insights provided by Dramatica, which keeps my work honest for the audience.

The StoryGuide system was designed to familiarize novice writers with many useful concepts in the Dramatica theory that should have an immediate positive impact on their skills. It is my hope that once a writer’s creative feet are wet, he or she will wade out a little farther toward the deep water, leave the floats behind and take the plunge into his or her own inspirations. When one feels the currents pulling one out to sea, however, that is when Dramatica can throw out a life preserver and help you find your way back to shore.

Well, I wax poetic. Sorry! Just my Muse pulling me around by the nose.