Category Archives: Storyforming Tips

About Dramatica’s Learning Curve….

  A Writer Asks…

I’m finishing up a review of Dramatica Pro and had a quick question I was hoping you could answer for me:

What words of wisdom would you have for writers who want to use Dramatica Pro, but do not have a lot of self-discipline to master the learning curve?

My Reply…

First, keep in mind that writing is a craft in which one is always learning. Every time you pick up a new trick, tip, or technique, your writing improves, even if you haven’t fully grasped the larger understanding. So, the real objective is not to “master” the craft of writing, but to keep your writing skills growing by continually learning new approaches.

Second, keep in mind that Dramatica is both a new theory of story and a line of software products which implement the theory. As a result, new Dramatica users have two different things to learn at the same time.

In terms of the theory, unless you are more interested in being a theorist than a writer, don’t bother trying to understand the whole shebang. The Dramatica theory is HUGE, COMPLEX, and utterly OVERWHELMING. But… it is made up of thousands of simple pieces, each of which provides a truly useful trick, tip, or technique.

For example, just one little part of the theory says that a traditional “hero” is really made up of two parts: the character driving the story AND the character with whom the audience identifies. When you realize that these two functions can be put into two separate characters it opens up a whole new realm of creative possibilities.

You no longer have to make the Protagonist your Main Character, but might choose to tell your story through the eyes of someone to the side of the main action. A good example of this is “To Kill a Mockingbird” in which the Protagonist (Atticus -the Gregory Peck part in the movie) is driving the story forward, yet the audience most closely identifies with his young daughter, Scout. It is really Scout’s story.

Every little part of the Dramatica theory you learn adds to your creative options. So, when approaching the Dramatica theory, look at is as a wealth of useful concepts for writing which one can mine for years without exhausting the supply of new insights, techniques, and ideas. And unless you would rather be a theorist than a writer, don’t worry about trying to master the whole durn thing.

When considering the software, however, a completely different situation arises. Rather than simply picking up interesting concepts, the intent here is to use the software as a tool to fashion the underlying dramatic structure for your story.

The Dramatica software is built around a “Story Engine” which is a “model” of dramatic relationships. In order to use the Story Engine as a tool, one must learn how to run it.

As with any skilful endeavor, it takes time to master. Think of the first time you rode a bike, drove a care, learned to type: each of these skills took time to develop. Why commit the self-discipline necessary to master these skills? Because of the the belief that once the work is done, one will be able to do things that were simply not possible before.

Imagine if you could be sure that your dramatic structure was sound before you ever wrote a word. Or, imagine if you could write a first draft based on inspiration, then use a Story Engine to “check” your dramatic relationships, tell you what isn’t working, what’s missing, and what needs to be done to make it right. That’s what the Dramatic software promises.

But why should you believe? After all, that is a bold claim. The reason to believe brings us back to the Dramatica theory. Read the book. (It is available FREE on the world wide web through The Official Dramatica Theory Web Site at and also comes free with Dramatica Pro.) Try out some of the concepts you can use right away. And, if you find some useful new tools, perhaps you may determine it is worth your while to invest some time in developing the skills necessary to run Dramatica’s Story Engine. It is my belief that authors willing to apply that effort will find that the Dramatica software can take them to whole new creative levels.

Dramatica for Structural vs. Intuitive Writers

There are structuralist writers and intuitive writers. The Dramatica software can be used by both, but in a completely different way.

The software almost insists that you storyform first, then encode. This is fine for a structuralist who wants to draft the blueprints before raising the building. But, it works against the intuitive writer who wants to mold a lump of clay into a meaningful form.

If you are an intuitive writer, encode FIRST and then storyform.

Here’s how to do it:

Open Dramatica with a new file and go directly to the Story Points Window (available through the main Dramatica Desktop) The Story Points Window provides a tabular list of all the story points Dramatica “tracks.”

Even without storyforming, these story points provide a rather complete shopping list of the key dramatic elements of any fully developed story.

Scroll down the list and you’ll notice the story points are grouped into categories like “Main Character,” or “Central Plot Points,” for example.

As an intuitive writer, select the category that is most meaningful to you. Scan through the list of story points in that category and pick the one that is most important or meaningful to you. It might be the Main Character’s Critical Flaw or the Story Goal, for example. (Don’t use the Plot Type Order areas though. In another post, I’ll describe how writers who want to develop the plot progression might first approach the software).

By double clicking on the empty column on the far right of the window, you will bring up a screen where you can describe each story point. So, if we double clicked on Story Goal, we see a question at the top asking us to “Illustrate how the central “objective” of the Objective Story (Goal) concerns an unchosen item {an unchosen item}. You can pretty much ignore that or any of the other questions at the top of a story point description window.

Instead, just describe how you see your story’s Goal. “My story is about a guy who wants to be President.”

Go through the entire list of story points, filling in any of them with the subject matter you want to explore in your story. If you don’t know what to put in for a particular story point, leave it blank for now. When you have gone through all story points once, go back and re-consider the blank ones. You may be surprised to find that by virtue of the process of answering the story points you could, you may have already generated ideas you can now enter in the ones you left blank before. Just going through the list helps you marshal your thoughts!

When you have filled in every story point that brought something to mind, read over the whole list. See what you have had to say about your story. See if it feels like what you had in mind, or perhaps even brings the overall big picture into greater clarity than ever. In fact, you may even find that by taking the wider, all-encompassing view, you are now ready to fill in a few more story point descriptions!

When you are finally finished, even if some story points are left blank, you could probably sit down and start writing a fairly complete story. Still, there would be some holes, and it is also likely there would be some story points that really didn’t seem to work with some of the others. That is why it is NOW time to storyform!

What we want to do is to “find” the structure that most closely describes what we have written, then clarify or fine-tune our encoding to become more structurally sound. To do this, open up the Dramatica Query System (also available from the main Dramatica desktop).

At the top left of the Query System Window is a little pop-up menu that shows the word “Home.” When you click on the menu, a list of different question paths appears. Go down a little more than halfway into the list and select an item called “Storyforming—Complete.” This will bring up a list of all the storyforming questions the software has to offer.

Skim over the list to see what questions it has to offer. Then, zero in on the one question that overall it the single most important story point to you, passionately. You see, Dramatica has no preference among story points – any one is just as important as any other. But as an intuitive writer, there are going to be certain aspects of your story’s structure that are vastly more interesting or crucial to your message.

So, pick the most important story point to you, then open its question window by selecting it from the list. Now you’ll notice there is a row of “HelpView” buttons running from left to right across the middle of each question screen. One near the middle is labeled “Storytelling.” If you click that button, then the encoding you already did for that story point in the Story Points Window will show up in the bottom half of the question window.

If we opened Story Goal as the most important story point then, as described in our earlier example, our words, “My story is about a guy who wants to be President.” will show up. To find the structure closest to that story point, we look at the list of available structural choices.

If Story Goal was the first story point we decided to structure, then we would have 16 different descriptive words from which to choose. Among these would be the words, “Obtaining” and “Being.” By referring to the storytelling (encoding) we already wrote, we may decide that our story is about a guy who wants to Obtain the office of president, or alternatively it might be about a guy who wants to Be presidential.

Do you remember the story “Dave” about a man asked to impersonate an ailing president? In that case, the Goal is not Obtaining, but Being. By thinking about the implications of each choice, we are forced to refine what we had in mind, to find the structure closest to our nebulous intent.

We continue to answer questions in the Storyforming Complete list in the order of next greatest importance. Eventually (due to Dramatica’s Story Engine) we may encounter a question for which all the available word choices don’t seem to fit. This is an indication that our storytelling has structural inconsistencies. In other words, structurally, some of what we wanted to talk about in our story doesn’t fit in dramatically with other areas.

If you want to strengthen your structure, then you simply choose the word that is most acceptable and then adjust your storytelling on that point to match that choice. Because you started with the story points that were most important to you, by the time you reach a question with choices that don’t match, it will probably be so far down your list of importance that you don’t mind adjusting the storytelling.

But, if you are really in love with that particular storytelling item, you can simply ignore the structure and go with what excites you as an intuitive writer. An audience is not looking for a perfect structure – they are looking for a fulfilling story experience. Therefore, they are likely to overlook a few inconsistencies if the storytelling is moving. A truly poor structure, however, can distract the audience from that experience.

Some story points are more impactful to the overall meaning of the story. And, some storytelling that is not consistent may still be close, or may be really off the mark. The key is to recognize the relative value of accuracy vs. passion when the two diverge. And that is a judgment call every author must make for himself or herself.

Either way, you will eventually reach a complete storyform structure which will then “predict” the kind of subject matter which ought to occur in every story point including the story points for which had not done any storytelling. You can then use this structural guideline to fill in the missing storytelling. You can do this by returning to the Story Points Window and reviewing what you had previously written, the structural items which the storyform has now associated with that storytelling, and the structural items suggested for the story points you haven’t yet storytold. With all this information on which to draw, it should help you find the inspiration you need to fill in those remaining story points.

Finally, as an intuitive writer you won’t likely want to use the storyform, or even your own story encoding as a guideline for writing. Rather, you’ll probably want to use that information to understand your story, then put it aside and write from the heart, now that you have that sound background.

When you have completed a draft, it will likely have drifted again from a sound structure. You won’t have noticed it while writing, but as your point of view and interests shifted during the writing process you may have gotten a bit off course.

To bring things back into structural focus, return to the software and go through the process again, but this time with a brand new file from scratch. Instead of describing what you intend to do, this time you need to analyze what you have already done.

Fill in the storytelling you actually did, then answer the storyforming questions based on what you actually wrote. Again, you may find inconsistencies in which case you are faced with the same choice: adjust the storytelling or keep it with the awareness it isn’t structurally on the mark.

Repeat this process as many times as necessary to hone your story into just the structurally sound, passionately strong work you wanted it to be.

The Creative Way to Use Dramatica

Many people get discouraged when they first try to create a story structure in Dramatica. This is because the software directs you to work out your structure first, THEN develop it into a real story. But there is a MUCH easier way….

Located on the Main Dramatica Desktop is a button labeled, “Query System.” When you press it, you’ll be taken to a screen that presents several different buttons, each of which is labeled as a different aspect of the story creation process, such as Character Storyforming or Plot Storyweaving. When you push one, you are taken to a list of story questions pertinent to the aspect you selected. IGNORE THE BUTTONS!!!

Instead, go to the top left portion of the screen and use the pull-down menu to see a list of many other question lists. One of them, near the bottom, is called All Storytelling. Select this choice from the menu. (Don’t select the All StoryFORMING item by mistake!)

The All Storytelling choice brings up a list of every storytelling question available in the Dramatica software.

Now, why did you do this? Well, if you approach Dramatica from any of the normal, easily accessible areas, you are presented with STRUCTURAL questions that you MUST answer before doing any storytelling at all. The StoryFORMING structural questions are multiple choice, and ask you such things as: “Which of the following items best describes your story’s Goal: Obtaining, Becoming, Understanding…”

Answering a question like that before you even know what your story is about is next to impossible! But by going to the All StoryTELLING list first instead, you will be presented with questions such as, “Describe your story’s Goal.” You don’t have any choices to make, just a space to fill in whatever thoughts you may have about your Goal. So, you might enter for example, “My Story’s Goal is that Joe wants to be president.”

Jump around in the All Storytelling list by clicking on any question you feel like answering, in any order you like. Even without Dramatica’s Story Engine feeding you choices, you’ll find the list of questions so complete and cogent that your story almost develops itself. Well, not really, but it sure makes you think and fill in gaps.

NOW… Once you have answered all the questions you care to, THEN you go to the All StoryFORMING list by selecting it from the pull-down menu. Select a question you have already answered in storyTELLING and click on the Storytelling HelpView button (in the middle of the screen between the top box and the bottom box) and the storytelling you did will show up in the bottom box!

You can now refer to your original concepts when making the structural choice in storyFORMING. In our example, suppose you go to the Goal Storyforming question. When you click on the Storytelling HelpView button, your words, “My Story’s Goal is that Joe wants to be president,” appear in the bottom box so you can refer to them while you are making your choice (Obtaining, Becoming, Understanding) in the top area.

In our example, you would look over the list of choices and ask yourself such questions as, “Does Joe want to OBTAIN the office of the presidency or BECOME presidential?” By having your own words in front of you, the storyFORMING choices now help you focus your intent, rather than making you work with logistic choices far removed from the creative process.

If you choose Obtaining, the story will be about trying to rise through the party, win the nomination, and then the election. If you choose Becoming, the story will be about trying to grow to become presidential (as in the movie “Dave”).

For help in making your choices, use the HelpView buttons. To do this, first select an item you think best sums up what you have written. Then, click on the Definition, Context, and Stories HelpView buttons to see if that choice matches. If it is perfect, go on to the next question. If not, try other choices until you find the one that best fits the description you wrote.

It is important to begin your Storyforming with the questions that are most important to you. This is because Dramatica’s Story Engine will be working in the background, limiting future choices to be compatible with what you have already chosen. So, by starting with the story points you are most “married” to, you will get all of the key elements into your story that you wanted before you run into dramatic inconsistencies.

What’s a dramatic inconsistency? Well, authors usually come to a story with lots of little pieces that deal with the same subject matter. But just because they all have to do with the same topic doesn’t mean they all fit in the same story! The process of structuring a story is working out which pieces fit together and which need to be discarded.

As you work down the list of questions you filled in for Storytelling, you may eventually find that none of the Storyforming choices remaining come close to describing your words. In that case, you have two options:

Change your words.

Ignore the dramatic inconsistency.

If the Storytelling you did is not really important to you, then you’ll want to return to the Storytelling question list and revise your words to match one of the available dramatic choices. But if your Storytelling IS important, then you may decide to ignore the dramatic inconsistency and leave it in anyway.

Why would you want to create a story with flawed dramatics? Stories are half Structure (meaning) and half Storytelling (audience experience). Sometimes a poor song well played sounds better than a great song poorly played. Only you can determine if the inconsistency is so dramatically wrenching as to derail the audience, or if the Storytelling is so compelling that its power far outweighs a minor dramatic flaw.

Finally, even when you have answered the Storyforming choices for all the Storytelling questions you described, you may still not have arrived at a single Storyform. At this point, you also have two options:

Go back to the Storytelling questions and describe more of them, inspired by what you have now developed for your story

Stay in the Storyforming questions and answer them directly without doing any Storytelling for them first.

In the first case, you should go to the next most important question and work down you list of priorities. Then, go back to Storyforming and proceed as before. Do this as many times as you need in order to finally arrive at a single Storyform structure.

In the second case, go to the most important unanswered Storyforming question remaining and make your choice. Work down your list of Storyforming questions until you arrive at a single Storyform.

(Keep in mind that you can make multiple selections on some items and let Dramatica’s Story Engine narrow those choices, perhaps even pick a single item, based on your continuing input with other questions.)

Eventually, you will have arrived at a single Storyform. At this point, there will be many Story Points determined by Dramatica’s Story Engine which do not yet have any Storytelling. Now it is time to return to the Storytelling areas of the software and fill them in, based on what you have already written.

(It should be noted that you can also fill in your Storytelling choices in the Story Points window as well as in the All Storytelling question list.)

In summary, rather than first approaching a sterile process of story structuring that leaves you cold, uninspired, and frustrated, you can go first to storytelling and express all of your interests and passions, letting them form the basis for your story structuring later. This works even better if you have already jotted down some notes or written a treatment or even a first draft.

Dramatica Software: Assigning Character Elements

 This is in response to a Dramatica user who wondered whether he needed to assign all 64 character elements in the “Build Characters” area in Dramatica Pro software to his characters or if the story might not suffer if he only assigned some of the elements.

A good rule of thumb is to at the least assign all of the elements in the set that contains the Objective Story’s Problem Element.

In other words… The sixty-four elements are broken up into four sets. The sets represent character Motivations, Methodologies, Purposes, and means of Evaluation. One of these sets will contain the Problem Element for you Objective Story. Since these are Objective Characters, they should certainly be developed around that particular set so that the Problem at the heart of your story if fully explored.

This means that in some stories, the characters are primarily identified/explored in terms of their motivations, while in others they are noted by their methods. For example, Sherlock Holmes (and the characters who appear with him) are almost always seen in terms of their methods. Sherlock himself is principally identified by the methodology of “Deduction”, right off the Dramatica element chart.

A “Fall-back” position that is a lot simpler is based on the notion that in Western culture, we normally tend to be more concerned with character motivations than anything else. Other cultures favor other sets. So, even if the problem element is not in the motivation set, if you develop the motivation set and just the problem, solution, focus and direction from the other set, the audience will generally buy it and feel quite comfortable doing so.

Also, for writers raised in Western culture, it is probably a lot more comfortable to work with the motivation set than any other.

So, if you illustrate the Objective Problem quad (problem, solution, focus, direction) and then either the rest of that set, or if it is not the motivation set, just the quad and the motivation set, then you have done the minimum for an average length novel or screenplay.

The next most important items would be to fill in the rest of the problem quad set if it is not the motivation set.

Beyond that it is not really necessary to explore the rest of the elements unless you have something artistically to say about them. Your argument to your audience will have been sufficiently made without them, and the audience will “give you” the rest.

You can use the remaining elements to good effect, however, by assigning one or two to incidental characters who may enter your story purely for plot convenience or entertainment purposes. It gives them more of a reason to be and also strengthens your overall argument. Also, assigning some of the remaining elements to those characters you wish to feature can make them more well rounded and help draw audience attention to them.

Selecting Your Story’s Preconditions

Preconditions are non-essential steps or items that become attached to the effort to achieve the Goal through someone’s insistence. A keen distinction here is that while Pre-requisites are almost always used in relation to the Requirements in a story, Preconditions are likely to apply to either Requirements or the Goal itself. As such, both Goal and Requirements should be taken into account when selecting Preconditions.

Think about the sorts of petty annoyances, frustrations, and sources of friction with which your characters might become saddled with, in exchange for assistance with some essential Prerequisite. If you were one of your characters, what kind of Preconditions would most irritate you?

Appreciations of this level are usually presented as a background item in storytelling. Draw on your own experiences while making this selection so that the level of nuance required can grow from your familiarity.

From the Dramatica Theory Book

Selecting Your Story’s Prerequisites

Prerequisites determine what is needed to begin meeting the Requirements. When selecting Prerequisites, keep in mind they are to be used in your story as essential steps or items that must be met or gathered in order to attempt a Requirement. As such, the appropriate Type of Prerequisites is much more heavily influenced by the Type of Requirements than the Type of Goal.

Prerequisites may open the opportunity for easy ways to bring in Dividends, Costs, or even Preconditions (which we shall discuss shortly.) Certain Types of considerations may be more familiar to you than others as a result of your personal life experience. As such, they will likely be a better source of material from which to draw inspiration. Choosing a familiar Type will help you later on when it becomes time to illustrate your appreciations in Storyencoding.

From the Dramatica Theory Book

Selecting Your Story’s Costs

Costs function much like negative Dividends. They are the detrimental effects of the effort to reach the Goal. Look at the Requirements for your story and see what Type of Costs might make that effort more taxing. Look at the Consequences for your story and see what Type of Costs might seem like an indicator of what might happen if the Goal is not achieved. Look at the Forewarnings and determine the Type of Costs that enhances, or possibly obscures the Forewarnings from your characters. Finally, look at the Dividends and try to find a Type for Costs that balances the positive perks. To balance Dividends, Costs need not be an exact opposite, but simply have the opposite (negative) effect on the characters.

From the Dramatica Theory Book

Selecting Your Story’s Dividends

Dividends are benefits accrued on the way to the Goal.  Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings are all Driver Appreciations in Plot. Dividends are the first of the Passenger Appreciations. As such, we see it used in storytelling more as a modifier than a subject unto itself. Still, since authors may choose to emphasize whatever they wish, Dividends may be lifted up to the forefront in a particular story and take on a significance far beyond their structural weight.

No matter what emphasis Dividends are given in your story, they are still modifiers of the Goal. As such, when selecting the Type of Dividends for your story, consider how well your choice will dovetail with your Goal. Sometimes Dividends are very close in nature to the Goal, almost as natural results of getting closer to the Goal. Other times Dividends may be quite different in nature than the Goal, and are simply positive items or experiences that cross the characters’ paths during the quest.

As with the Driver Appreciations, this choice is not arbitrary. The dynamics that determine it, however, are so many and varied that only a software system can calculate it. Still, when one has answered the essential questions, it is likely one’s writing instincts have become so fine-tuned for a story as to sense which kinds of Dividends will seem appropriate to the Goal under those particular dynamic conditions.

From the Dramatica Theory Book