Category Archives: Story Structure

What Is Story Structure?

Most writers are not story theorists, and don’t want to be. Still, an understanding of the way stories work can help support a writer’s instincts to make sure a flawed structure won’t get in the way of the creativity.

So what is story structure?  It is a map of the way people go about solving different kinds of problems, and a message by the author as to which methods are better than others.

Where did story structure come from?  Well, for thirty thousand years or so we’ve been telling stories, but nobody every really invented story structure.  Rather, story structure just kind of emerged as a byproduct of the effort to describe how individuals deal with problems and how they interact with others when dealing with problems that affect more than one person.

Story structure first appeared as the conventions of storytelling – certain truisms about the way people think and feel and they behave with one other.  These truisms might not have covered every real world situation, but they were useful enough as general guidelines for crafting a story that would feel real to readers or audience members and make a clear point about personal choices and behavior in general.

Now a lot of writers wanted something a little more tangible – something they could rely on as a framework for a story that really worked.  In addition, a few theorist-types like Aristotle, Jung and Campbell, were interested in seeing if there was some sort of common thread in structure, perhaps an overarching perspective in which it all made sense, or at the very least a way of better connecting what was going on in stories with real life issues and how people dealt (or even should deal) with them.

These kinds of inquires led to the development of everything from the concept of a three-act structure to the “hero with one thousand faces” to the famous and nearly ubiquitous “hero’s journey.”

Some twenty-five years ago, Chris Huntley and I developed our own model of story structure based on one new idea no one had ever proposed before called the Story Mind – as if the story itself had its own psychology, in which every character represents a facet of that larger group mind.

In our research we came to believe that every individual has certain common traits we all share, such as Reason and Skepticism.  And we each use all of them to try and solve our personal problems.  But when we gather together in groups to solve problems of common concern, we begin to specialize so that one person emerges as the Voice of Reason for the group, and another comes to be the group’s resident Skeptic.

In this way, the group can get greater depth or resolution on how to go about solving complex problems than if all the members worked as general practitioners, all trying to do all the jobs, each and every one.

It was our feeling this sort of thing naturally occurs whenever we gather toward a common purpose because, in a sense, it is a good survival trait for the group as a whole, and therefore for everyone in that group.

Well, there’s a lot more to our theory of story structure than that, but armed with this initial breakthrough concept, we spent about three years trying to build a model of story structure.  And the end result was an interactive model of all the different kinds of traits we all share, both large and very small, and how they hang together.  Those, we felt, were the elements of structure, and we created a kind of periodic table of story structure to show their dramatic properties and how they all related to one another.

And beyond that, we discovered that there were dynamics built right into the conventions of story structure that could only be seen if you looked at it as a Story Mind.  We cataloged those and how the whole structure was really a very flexible affair in which truisms were no longer needed because you could create very specific structures for just about any issue you might like to explore as an author.

Eventually, we converted those relationships into a software-based Story Engine in which you could make choices about the kinds of dramatics you wanted to put forth in your story, and the Story Engine would actually be able to determine the ramifications of each choice on the other dramatics in your story.  Ultimately, we used the story engine as the heart of a new story structuring software product called Dramatica.  We got a patent for it, in fact!  I was very proud.

Now, if you own the Dramatica software, you’ve probably noticed it presents a flat chart called the “Theme Browser” that shows how dramatic subjects relate to one another.  Though it isn’t in the software, there is also a 3D projection of the flat chart that looks something like a Rubik’s Cube on steroids, or a super-complex 3-D chess board. You can download a free copy of it in PDF.

The flat chart provides a map of the elements that make up stories and the 3D chart is the best way to understand the  “winding up” process of dramatic tension of your story.  Essentially, when you run into troubles in life, you try one kind of a solution after another – one different item in the flat chart after another until you find one that works.  In the 3D chart, this is like moving the dramatic  element around in a Rubik’s Cube manner.

Whenever you try one solution instead of another, you not only bring the new one to the front but simultaneously push the old one into the background or onto the back burner.  In the 3D chart, we call that “flipping and rotating” because sometimes you flip positions of dramatic items and other times you rotate them to change the order in which they are applied.  After all, some problems are caused by using the wrong process and other problems are caused  by using the right processes but in the wrong sequence.

The Story Engine at the heart of the Dramatica software tracks all of those elements to make sure no dramatic “rules” are broken. What’s a Dramatic Rule? As an analogy, you can twist and turn a Rubik’s Cube, but you can’t pluck one of the little cubes out of it and swap it’s position with another little cube. In other words, you can create all kinds of patterns, but you can’t break structure. Similarly in stories, you can create all kinds of dramatic patterns, but you can’t just drop story elements wherever you want – they have to MOVE into place and take others with them or the structure won’t hold up because it doesn’t match the way our own minds work.

When you answer questions about your story in Dramatica, you are expressing your dramatic intent – the dramatic pattern you want to create for your audience. That says something about the final arrangement you want with the “colors” in the Rubik’s Cube of your story.

Every time you make a choice, you are saying, “I want my story to look like this, as opposed to that.” You are choosing just as much what you DON’T want in your story as what you do.

The choices are cumulative – they pile up. The more you make, the more Dramatica’s Story Engine winds up. Your ongoing choices start to become limited as to which options are still available, not by arbitrary and rigid rules, but because some choices or combination of choices simply prevent other options from being possible in that particular story if the structure is to be true to our own way of thinking as human beings.

Imagine – what would happen if you put any combinations of things into a story without limits? Then anything goes. That means there is no good structure or bad structure, in fact there would be no structure at all, just a heap of conflicting dramatic messages.

So, what is structure? Structure is nothing more than making a point, either logistically or emotionally or both. Many stories don’t need structure because they are not about making a larger point or having a message, but are designed to be experiences without any greater overall meaning.

We call experiential structures “Tales” and greater meaning structures “Stories.”  So, if you have an unbroken chain of events that makes sense coupled with a series of emotional experiences that don’t violate the way people really feel, that’s all you need to have a complete Tale structure.  But, to have a complete Story structure, each event and experience is part of an overall pattern that becomes clear by the time the story is over.  There is nothing better or worse about a Tale compared to a Story, but authors of Stories take upon themselves a more demanding rigor.

Historically, it has been easy to miss a step in the events of a tale or a beat in the emotional journey.  And, it has been even harder to ensure that each of those dramatic moments contributes to the greater meaning in a story.  That’s why Dramatica’s Story Engine was built –not to inspire or help you build your story’s world per se, but to ensure that whatever you want to write about, and whether you want to tell it as a tale or a story, the underlying structure will be sound, complete, and tuned to just the message you want to convey to your readers or audience.

You can try out the Story Engine for free!  The demo version of Dramatica is fully functional, other than saving your work.  So if you want to try some of the questions and play around with the other tools, you can download the demo here and get everything the Story Engine has to offer except for saving your work to continue with it in later sessions.

Honestly, you may find Dramatica a little daunting, as it is extremely powerful and wide ranging with all kinds of features and functions.  And, it is built on our theory of story structure, which (though elegant) is also extensive and detailed.  Nonetheless, my feelings are that the more you learn about story structure in Dramatica , the more you have improved your ability to visualize and actualize your story.  So, my advice is to give it a try for free.  All you have to lose is a little itsy bitsy crumb of time, but what you have to gain is a much deeper and powerful understanding of stories and how to structure them.

Melanie Anne Philips

Click here for more Dramatica details and Demo

Here’s something else I made for writers…

The Four Throughines in To Kill A Mockingbird

There are four throughlines that must be explored in every story for it to feel to readers or audience that the underlying issues have been fully explored and the message fully supported.

Throughline 1: The Objective Story

The Objective Story is the big picture – the situations and activities in which all the characters are involved.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Objective Story Throughline explores opinions in a small 1930s southern town where Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white girl . Though he is being brought to trial, many of the town folk think this case should never see trial and the defendant should just be lynched. Defending Tom Robinson is Atticus Finch, a well-respected lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie version).  The father of the ostensibly-raped girl, Bob Ewell, leads a mob to murder Tom Robinson, but Atticus stands firm against them.  Enraged, Ewell seeks to hurt Atticus children in revenge.  This makes Atticus the protagonist of the story and Bob Ewell the Antagonist.

Throughline 2: The Main Character

The Main Character is the one we identify with, the one whom the story seems to be about at a personal level.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus’ young daughter, Scout in the Main Character, and her throughline describes her personal experiences in this story.  We see this story of prejudice through her eyes, a child’s eyes, as she watches her father stand up against the town and Bob Ewell.  It is because we stand in her shoes, that makes her the Main Character.  Though the story is about the trial and about prejudice, it feels like it revolves around her impressions of it.  But Scout has many issues of her own as well, not the least of which is Boo Radley, the monstrous child-killing boogey man who is locked in the basement of his family’s home on Scout’s street.

Throughline 3: The Influence Character

The Influence Character is not the antagonist but the character who most influences the Main Characters outlook and feelings.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Boo Radley is the Influence Character, the reclusive and much talked about and dangerous crazy man living down the street from Scout. The rumors surrounding this man, fueled by the town’s ignorance and fear, makes scout concerned for her safety and along with anyone else, tends to hold him in derision.

Throughline 4: The Subjective Story

The Subjective Story is the tale of how the Influence Character and Main Character change each other over the course of the story.  One will be forced by their interactions to grow in their steadfast outlook.  The other will be affected by that steadfastness to ultimately change to adopt the outlook of the other.  This is the heart of a story’s message.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Subjective Story centers on the relationship between Scout and Boo Radley. This throughline explores Scout’s prejudice against Boo’s solely by virtue of heresay. Boo has been constantly active in Scout’s life, protecting her from the background, ultimately saving her and her brother from Bob Ewell. When Scout finally realizes this she changes in her feelings toward him, thereby strongly supporting the story’s message that it is very easy to fall into prejudice for anyone, if we judge people by what we hear, rather than what we have determined from our own first-hand experience.

To further illustrate how these four throughlines work together to create and support a story’s message, watch the following video clip recorded at one of my seminars on story structure:

Melanie Anne Phillips

Want to know more?  Check out my books on story development, my StoryWeaver software for building your story’s world, and our Dramatica software for structuring your story.

The Hero Breaks Down

Groucho Marx once said, “You’re headed for a nervous breakdown. Why don’t you pull yourself to pieces?” That, in fact, is what we’re going to do to our hero.

Now many writers focus on a Hero and a Villain as the primary characters in any story. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But as we are about to discover, there are so many more options for creative character construction.

Take the average hero. What qualities might we expect to find in the fellow? For one thing, the traditional hero is always the Protagonist. By that we mean he or she is the Prime Mover in the effort to achieve the story goal. This doesn’t presuppose the hero is a willing leader of that effort. For all we know he might accept that charge kicking and screaming. Nonetheless, once stuck in the situation, the hero drives the push to achieve the goal.

Another quality of a stereotypical hero is that he is also the Main Character. By this we mean that the hero is constructed so that the audience stands in his shoes. In other words, the audience identifies with the hero and sees the story as centering around him.

A third quality of the most usual hero configuration is being a “Good Guy.” Simply, he intends to do the right thing. Of course, he might be misguided or inept, but he wants to do good, and he does try.

And finally, let us note that heroes are usually the Central Character, meaning that he gets more “media real estate” (pages, screen time, lines of dialog) than any other character.

Listing these four qualities we get:

1. Protagonist.

2. Main Character.

3. Good Guy.

4. Central Character

Getting right to the point, the first two items in the list are structural in nature, while the last two are storytelling. Protagonist describes the character’s function from the Objective View described earlier. Main Character positions the audience in that particular character’s spot through the Main Character View. In contrast, being a Good Guy is a matter of personality, and Central Character is determined by the attention given to that character by the author’s storytelling.

You’ve probably noticed that we’ve used common terms such as Protagonist, Main Character, and Central Character in very specific ways. In actual practice, most authors bandy these terms about more or less interchangeably. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for structural purposes it’s not very precise. That’s why you’ll see Dramatica being something of a stickler in its use of terms and their definitions: it’s the only way to be clear.

At this juncture, you may be wondering why we even bother breaking down a hero into these pieces. What’s the value in it? The answer is that these pieces don’t necessarily have to go together in this stereotypical way.

For example, in the classic story of racial prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Protagonist function and the Main Character View are separated into two different characters.

The Protagonist is Atticus, played by Gregory Peck in the movie version. Atticus is a principled Southern lawyer in the 1930s who is assigned to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. His goal is to ensure justice is done, and he is the Prime Mover in this endeavor.

But we do not stand in Atticus’ shoes, however. Rather, the story is told through the eyes of Scout, his your daughter, who observers the workings of prejudice from a child’s innocence.

Why not make Atticus a typical hero who is also the Main Character? First, Atticus sticks by his principles regardless of the dangers and pressures brought to bear. If he had represented the audience position, the audience/reader would have felt quite self-righteous throughout the story’s journey.

But there is even more advantage to splitting these qualities between two characters. The audience identifies with Scout. And we share her fear of the local boogey man known as Boo Radley – a monstrous mockery of human form who forms the stuff of local terror stories. All the kids know about Boo, and though we never see him, we hear their tales of his horrible ways.

At the end of the story, it turns out that Boo is just a gentle giant, a normal man with a kind heart but low intellect. As was the custom in that age, his parents kept him indoors, inside the basement of the house, leaving him pale and scary-looking due to the lack of sunlight. But Boo ventures out at night, leading to the false but horrible stories about him when he is occasionally sighted.

As it happens, Scout’s life is threatened by the father of the girl who was ostensibly raped in an attempt to get back at Atticus. Lo and behold, it is Boo who comes to her rescue. In fact, he has always been working behind the scenes to protect the children and is not at all the horrible monster they all presupposed.

In a moment of revelation, we, the audience, come to realize we have been cleverly manipulated by the author to share Scout’s initial prejudice against Boo. Rather than feeling self-righteous by identifying with Atticus, we have been led to realize that we are just as capable of prejudice as the obviously misguided adults we have been observing.

The message of the story is that prejudice does not have to come from meanness, but will happen within the heart of anyone who passes judgment based on hearsay rather than direct knowledge. This statement could never have been successfully made if the elements of the typical hero had all been placed in Atticus.

So, the message of our little story here is that there is nothing wrong with writing about heroes and villains, but it is limiting. By separating the components of the hero into individual qualities, we open our options to a far greater number of dramatic scenarios that are far less stereotypical.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Also by Melanie Anne Phillips…

Finding Your Story’s Core

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Every story has a core – that concept at the center that pulls all of the story elements into a cohesive whole, establishes meaning and message, and provides the story with an overall identity.

There are four fundamental kinds of cores, though each has endless variations.

1. Universe stories that are all about a fixed situation people must grapple with, such as being stuck in an overturned ocean liner, locked in a high-rise building with terrorists, being handcuffed to a murder, being the only member of a group with a particular gender or race, having a physical deformity.

2. Mind Stories that are all about fixed mind sets such as exploring or overcoming prejudice, belief in something that defies all evidence to the contrary, an unreasonable fear, a determination to accomplish something even if the reason for doing it has vanished.

3. Physics stories that are all about activities such as a trek through the jungle to obtain a lost treasure, the attempt to build the first self-aware artificial intelligence, a race across a continent in the 1800s, the effort to find a cure for a virulent new disease.

4. Psychology stores that are all the the thinking process, such as trying to come to terms with personal loss, grappling with issues of faith, overcoming addiction, growing to become a true leader.

Which of these four kinds of cores best describes what you want your story to be about and how you want it to feel?

By picking a core, you will have a central defining vision for your story that will keep it on track during development, and your completed story will come across with a powerful unified impact on your readers or audience.

The “Core” concept is part of the Dramatica Theory of Narrative Structure

Read the Dramatica Theory Book for Free in PDF

Try Dramatica Story Structuring Software risk-free for 90 days

The Story Mind (Part 2) – A Tale is a Statement

Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica

The Story Mind concept is interesting, but how would such a thing have come to be? After all, there was certainly never a convention where authors from all over the world gathered to devise a story structure based on the psychology of the human mind.

So, if the Story Mind concept is real and valid, how would such a thing come to be? Here’s one possibility….

Imagine the very first storyteller, perhaps a caveman sitting around a campfire. The first communication was not a full-blown story as we know them today. Rather, this caveman may have rubbed his stomach, pointed at his mouth and made a “hungry” sound.

More than likely he was able to communicate. Why? Because his “audience” would see his motions, hear his sounds, and think (conceptually), “If I did that, what would I mean?”

We all have roughly the same physical make-up, we make the assumption that we also think similarly. Therefore when that early man encoded his feelings into sound and motion, the others in his group could decode his symbolism and arrive back at his meaning.

Buoyed by his success in communication, our caveman expands his technique, moving beyond simple expressions of his immediate state to describe a linear series of experiences. For example, he might relate how to get to a place where there are berries or how to avoid a place where there are bears. He would use sign language to outline his journey and to depict the things and events he encountered along the way.

When our storyteller is able to string together a series of events and experiences he has created a tale. And that, simply put, is the definition of a tale: an unbroken linear progression.

We call this kind of tale a “head-line” because it focuses on a chain of logical connections. But you can also have a “heart-line” – an unbroken progression of feelings. For example, our caveman storyteller might have related a series of emotions he had experienced independently of any logistic path.

Tales can be just a head-line or a heart-line, or can be more complex by combining both. In such a case, the tale begins with a particular situation in which the storyteller relates his feelings at the time. Then, he proceeded to the next step which made him feel differently, and so on until he arrives at a final destination and a concluding emotional state.

In a more complex form, emotions and logic drive each other, fully intertwining both the head-line and hear-line. So, starting from a particular place in a particular mood, driven by that mood, the storyteller acted to arrive at a second point, which then made him feel differently.

The tale might be driven by logic with feelings passively responded to each step, or it might be driven completely by feelings in which each logic progression is a result of one’s mood.

And, in the most complex form of all, logic and feelings take turns in driving the other, so that feelings may cause the journey to start, then a logical event causes a feeling to change and also the next step to occur. Then, feelings change again and alter the course of the journey to a completely illogical step.

In this way, our storyteller can “break” logic with a bridge of feeling, or violate a natural progression of feelings with a logical event that alters the mood. Very powerful techniques wrapped up in a very simple form of communication!
We know that the human heart cannot just jump from one emotion to another without going through essential emotional states in between. However, if you start with any given emotion, you might be able to jump to any one of a number of emotions next, and from any of those jump to others. But you can’t jump to all of them. If you could, then we all just be bobbing about from one feeling to another. There would be no growth and no emotional development.

As an analogy, look at Freud’s psycho-sexual stages of development or consider the seven stages of grief. You have to go through them in a particular order. You can’t skip over any. If you do, there’s an emotional mis-step. It has an untrue feeling to the heart.

A story that has a character that skips an emotional step or jumps to a step he couldn’t really get to from his previous mood it will feel wanky to the audience. It will feel as if the character started developing in a manner the audience or readers can follow with their own hearts. It will pop your audience or readers right out of the story and cause them to see the character as someone with home they simply can’t identify.

So the idea is to create a linearity. But doesn’t that linearity create a formula? Well it would if you could only go from a given emotion to just one particular emotion next. But, from any given emotion there are several you might jump to – not all, but several. And from whichever one you select as storyteller, there are several more you might go to next.

Similarly with logic, from any given situation there might be any one of a number of things that would make sense if they happened next. But you couldn’t have anything happen next because some things would simply be impossible to occur if the initial situation had happened first.

Now you can start from any place and eventually get to anywhere else, but you have to go through the in-betweens. So as long as you have a head-line and/or a heart-line and it is an unbroken chain that doesn’t skip any steps, that constitutes a complete tale.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

Origins of Story Structure

Imagine the very first storytellers. Actually, what they told would certainly not be considered a story by today’s standards. Rather, they probably began with simple communications with but a single meaning at a time.

Even animals recognize a cry of pain or a coo of love from another creature, even across species. So it is not a great leap to imagine that rather than just crying out in immediate response, early man might have come to intentionally make sounds to indicate his physical and emotional conditions. Ask any cat or dog owner if their pets don’t speak with them!

Nevertheless, a grunt, coo, scream or growl does not a story make. First we need to ratchet things up a bit and take one small step away from simple sounds that have direct physical or emotional meanings.

For example, if you are hungry you might make a “longing” sound and point at your belly with a wistful pointing motion. As simple and silly as this seems, it is actually quite a leap in communication. No longer are we tied to single symbols or single experiences; not we can string them together to create more complex meanings.

What about jumping up another level and stringing a few complex meanings together? Well, before you know it, early humans were chatting in non-verbal sentences, describing journeys, experiences, and even warnings.

And, of course, language would evolve as more and more people had more and more to say and discovered the benefits of a common vocabulary.

Now such a sophisticated communication is still not a story. But it is a tale. A tale is simply a statement that starting from a particular place and state of mid, if you follow a particular path, you’ll end up at a particular destination.

That’s what fairy tales are all about. Paraphrased, they all basically say, “If you find yourself in a given situation, you should (or should not) follow this given path because it will lead to something good (or bad).

As long as the physical and emotional journey is credible, the statement is sound. Now, your audience may simply disagree with your conclusion as author of the tale, but if your statement is sound, at least they can’t argue with your logic.

Of course, the very first tales were probably true stories about someone’s encounter with a bear or directions to find the berry bush that makes everything look funny when you eat them. But it wouldn’t take long or our early storytellers to realize that they could create fictions that summed up the value of their experience in a single, message-oriented tale.

But beyond this, a clever storyteller with an agenda might realize that he could influence people to take (or avoid taking) particular actions in specific cases. No longer were tales just descriptions of real events, means of imparting the value of experience, or entertaining fictions. Suddenly then became a tool with which to manipulate others.

To do this, there must be no gaps, no missed beats, no emotional inconsistencies. And in addition, the tale must be captivating enough to grab and hold the intended audience – to pull them in and involve them so deeply that they are changed by the experience.

And yet, despite all its power, the tale has limitations. Primary among these is that the tale speaks only to a single specific situation and a single specific course of action. So, as a storyteller, you’d need to fashion a whole new tale for each specific path you wished to “prove” was a good one or a bad one.

But wouldn’t it be far more powerful to prove not only that a path was good or bad but that of all the alternative paths that might have been taken, the one is question is the best or worst?

Now, the simplest way to do this is to simply say so. You write a tale about just one course taken from a given situation, and then state at the end that it is the best or worst. So, rather than being a simple statement, this new kind of tale has become a blanket statement.

If your tale is being told just to your own village, to the people you grew up with, then there is a good chance they will accept such a blanket statement since your tale probably reflects a local truism – some “given” that is already accepted by your audience as true. The tale simply serves to reinforce existing beliefs, and at the end everyone nods their heads in agreement with the outcome.

But what happens when the tale is told in another village. What if their givens are not the same. There may be one or two in the crowd who question the storyteller and ask, “I can see why that path is good, but why would it be better than xxxxxx?”

When confronted with an alternative approach, the storyteller might then briefly describe how the suggested path might unfold, and why is it not as good (or bad) as the one presented in the tale itself.

Again, being among friends (or at least among those who share a similar if not identical world-view) they will likely be easily convinced. And, it is also likely that due to that similar outlook, only a few alternative paths might be suggested, and all rather easily dismissed.

The development of story structure probably languished in this form for centuries, as nothing more advanced or sophisticated was really needed.

Enter that advent of mass media. As soon as books began to circulate across micro-cultural boundaries, ad soon as plays were performed in traveling road shows, to important things happened that forced the further development of the tale into what has ultimately become the structure of story.

First, the audiences became wide, varied and was no longer drawn from a homogeneous pool of consensus. Rather, they cam from many walks of life, with a variety of beliefs and agendas. And so, as the tale traveled, blanket statements were not nearly as easily accepted. Many more alternative approaches would be suggested or considered individually by audience members. So, such a tale would be considered heavy-handed propaganda and discounted unceremoniously.

And second, due to the mass distribution of the tale, the original storyteller would not be present to defend his work. Whatever other paths might occur to the audience would not be addressed, robbing the work of its previous ability to be revised on the spot as part of the performance.

In response to this reception, many authors no doubt retreated from the blanket statement form of the tale to the simple statement, thereby avoiding ridicule and strengthening the power of the tale. After all, is it not better to make a smaller impact than no impact at all?

And yet, there were some authors who took another tack. They tried to anticipate the alternative approaches that other audiences might suggest, and took the radical step of including and disposing of those other paths in the tale itself. A brilliant move, really. Now, even when the storyteller wasn’t physically present, he could still counter rebuttals to his blanket statement.

Of course, the key to the success of this approach is to make sure you cover all the bases. If even one reasonable alternative is left un-addressed, then at least part of your audience won’t buy the message.

As mass-distribution moved tales farther a field from the point of cultural origin, more and more alternatives we required. By the coming of the age of recorded media, a tale might reach such a wide audience and cross such boundaries that every reasonable alternative would come up sometime, somewhere.

Eventually, the tale had been forced to grow from a simple statement, to a blanket statement, to a complete argument incorporating all the ways anyone might look at an issue. This effectively created a new and distinct form of communication that we recognize as the story structure we know today.

By definition then, a tale is a statement and a story is an argument. And in making that argument, the structure of a story must include all they ways anyone might look at an issue. Therefore, it certainly includes all the ways a single mind might reasonably look at an issue. And, effectively, the structure of a story becomes a map of the mind’s problem solving processes.

No one ever intended it. But as a byproduct of the development of communication from simple tale to complex story, the underlying structure of a story has evolved into a model of the mind itself.

Back in 1991 my writing partner Chris Huntley and I set out to document that model of the mind as a means of discovering the elements that would ensure perfect story structure.  The result was a whole new theory of narrative called Dramatica.

We published our findings in a book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story, and along with our partner Stephen Greenfield, developed a software tool (also called Dramatica) that employs the theory to help writers structure their novels or screenplays.

You can read all about the theory and how we developed it here, and you can check out the Dramatica software and all our products and programs for writers here.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Know Your Story Points: Overall Story Concern

Excerpted from our Dramatica Story Structuring Software:

Overall Story Concern:  the purposes or interests sought after by the characters overall.

Within the scenario in which your story takes place, there is an area of shared importance to all the characters in your story.  Select the item(s) that best describes this Concern.

THEORY:  Problems can manifest themselves in several ways.  Therefore, simply defining the nature of a Problem does not necessarily predict its effect.

For example, if the Problem is that there is not enough money to pay the rent, it might motivate one person to take to drink but another to take a second job.

The effects of a Problem are not necessarily bad things, but simply things that would not have happened quite that way without the existence of the Problem.  So it is with Concerns.

The choice of Concern determines the principal area affected by the story’s Problem and serves as a broad indicator of what the story is about.

USAGE:  The Concern of a story tends to revolve around a definable area of activity or exploration.  This central hub may be internal such as Memories or Conceiving an Idea (coming up with an idea).  Or, it may be external such as Obtaining or How Things are Changing.

When choosing a Concern it is often useful to ask, “Which of these items do I want the characters in my story to examine?”

Keep in mind that the Concern only describes WHAT is being looked at.  HOW to look at it is determined by choosing the Issue.

The choice of Concern sets limits on how much dramatic ground the Theme can potentially encompass and therefore includes some kinds of considerations and excludes others.

Know Your Story Points: Overall Story Domain

Excerpted from our Dramatica Story Structuring Software:

Overall Story Domain:  The scenario against which a story takes place.

Every story is set against the issues which arise from a single problem.  The problem itself will fall into one of four broad categories.  If you want the problem to grow out of a situation, then choose Situation;  if you want the problem to emanate from an activity, then choose Activity.  If you want the problem to evolve from fixed attitudes and states of mind, then choose Fixed Attitude; and if you want the problem to result from the characters’ manipulations and ways of thinking, then choose Manipulation.

THEORY:  An author cannot successfully make an argument promoting a solution until he or she has identified the Problem.

In stories, Problems can be identified as falling into four broad categories: Situations, Activities, States of Mind, and Manners of Thinking.  These categories are named by the four Classes, Situation (a situation), Activity (an activity), Fixed Attitude (a state of mind), and Manipulation (a manner of thinking).

Situation represents an External State,

Activity an External Process.

Fixed Attitude is an Internal State and

Manipulation an Internal Process.

Since they are related, all four of these Classes will figure in every story as the Problem works its influence into all areas of consideration.  However, only one Class will ultimately prove to be both the source of the Problem’s roots and therefore the place it must ultimately be solved.

USAGE:  The Overall Story Domain is the throughline which describes how all of the story’s characters have been brought together.  By choosing this Domain, the author sets the background against which the story will be told.  Therefore, its influence is gently felt throughout the story.

A SITUATION story deals with an unacceptable situation – one in which the external environment is seen as problematic.  This could be a job situation with poor working conditions, being trapped in a sunken ship, waking up as someone else, living next to an orphanage that keeps you awake at night with its screaming waifs or any other intolerable state of affairs.

Often, the best way to see a Situation Overall Story is in terms of the Types below the Class of Situation:  The Past, How Things are Changing, The Future, and The Present.  These Types will be of primary importance to all the Overall Characters in a Situation Overall Story.

A ACTIVITY story employs an activity that needs to arrive at a solution.  This might be the effort to steal the crown Jewels, win the love of your heart’s desire, make the Olympic team, or raise the money to buy the orphanage and evict all the screaming waifs.

Note that if the existence of the orphanage is the focus of the story, it is a Situation (Situation) Domain.  However, if the effort to buy it is the focus, it is a Activity (Activity) Domain.

Often, the best way to see a Activity Overall Story is in terms of the Types below the Class of Activity:  Doing, Gathering Information, Understanding, and Obtaining.  These Types will be of primary importance to all the Overall Characters in a Activity Overall Story.

In a like manner, the Fixed Attitude Domain reflects a state of mind and the Manipulation Domain describes a mental activity (or manner of thinking).

Fixed Attitude Domain stories might be about prejudice, a lack of self-worth (if it is a fixed view), or a refusal to see the value of someone’s desires.  Remember that, as an Overall Story Domain, these fixed states of Mind will be the source of the problems that everyone in the Overall Story deals with.  This would be an Overall view of problems of fixed states of mind, and not looking at how it feels to have these fixations.

Often, the best way to see a Fixed Attitude Overall Story is in terms of the Types below the Class of Fixed Attitude:  Memories, Impulsive Responses, Innermost Desires, and Contemplation.  These Types will be of primary importance to all the Overall Characters in a Fixed Attitude Overall Story.

MANIPULATION Domain supports stories where people take too many risks, are egocentric, or make light of serious situations.  Overall Stories of this Domain will look at the effect of a person’s or persons’ thinking in these ways to manipulate others.  Placing the Overall Story in this Domain means in essence that the story will objectify Manipulation, taking an Overall view of these ways of thinking and their effects.  The problems that everyone in the Overall Story deals with will come from ways of thinking and their manipulations.

Often, the best way to see a Manipulation Overall Story is in terms of the Types below the Class of Manipulation:  Developing a Plan, Playing a Role, Changing One’s Nature, and Conceiving an Idea.  These Types will be of primary importance to all the Overall Characters in a Manipulation Overall Story.

As a final note, it is important to keep in mind that stories are often not about a problem that exists but a desire to be fulfilled.

Stories of this nature can create a much more positive feel as exemplified in a Situation story in which an heiress must spend a million dollars in 24 hours to inherit 30 million more, a Activity story where a mountaineer hopes to be the first to scale a mountain on Mars, a Fixed Attitude story of unconditional love, or a Manipulation story about overcoming a dependence on sedatives.

The choice of Domain narrows the playing field of a story.  Without actually putting up walls, choosing a Domain shifts the focus of audience attention by establishing the center around which broad scale dynamics will revolve.  The Dramatica engine is calibrated to this center.