Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story
The Art of Storytelling
Introduction to Storytelling
All complete stories exhibit two principal aspects: an underlying dramatic structure which contains the story’s inherent meaning and a secondary meaning which is created by the manner in which that structure is presented in words and symbols. In practice, neither aspect of story can exist without the other, for a structure which has not been made tangible in some form cannot be communicated and similarly no mode of expression can be created without something to express.
The first half of this book explored The Elements Of Structure. Its purpose was to define the essential components that occur in the dramatic structure of all complete stories. These components fell into four principal categories: Character, Theme, Plot, and Genre.
This half of the book explores The Art Of Storytelling, which documents the process of conceptualizing and conveying a story. This process passes through four distinct stages: Storyforming, Storyencoding, Storyweaving, and Reception.
An author might begin either with Structure or Storytelling, depending upon his personal interests and/or style. If you come to a concept that is unfamiliar or unclear, you may wish to use the index to reference that topic in The Elements Of Structure or to take advantage of the extensive appendices at the back of the book.
There are four stages of communication that stand between an author and an audience when a story is related. Stage one is Storyforming, in which the arrangement and sequence of dramatic appreciations are determined. Stage two is Encoding where the Storyform appreciations are translated into topics and events that symbolize the essential dramatic concepts in terms the author anticipates will have meaning to an audience. Stage three is Storyweaving, where all the independent illustrations are woven together into a synthesized whole that is the story as it will be presented to an audience. Stage four is Reception in which the audience assigns meaning to what they observe the work to be, hopefully decoding the intent of the author with some degree of accuracy.
The Four Stages of CommunicationIn bringing a story to an audience, through any media, there are four distinct stages of communication through which the story will pass. When an author is developing a story or looking for ways in which to improve it, a good idea is always to evaluate how the story is working at each of these stages individually. Problems can exist in any single stage or bridge across into many. Seeing where the problem lies is half the work of fixing it.
Stage 1: Storyforming — at which point the structural design and dynamic settings of an idea are conceived. This is where the original meaning of the story is born, the meaning which the author wants to communicate.
Stage 2: Storyencoding — where the symbols with which the author will work are chosen. Stories are presented through characters, setting, and other particulars which are meant to symbolize the meaning of the story. No symbols are inherently part of any Storyform, so the choices of how a particular Storyform will be Storyencoded must be considered carefully.
Stage 3: Storyweaving — where the author selects an order and emphasis to use in presenting his encoded story to his audience in the final work. The way in which to deliver a story to an audience, piece by piece, involves decisions about what to present first, second, and last. The potential strategies are countless: you may start with the beginning, as in Star Wars, or you my start with the end, as in Remains of the Day, or with some combination, as in The Usual Suspects. What you most want the audience to be thinking about will guide your decisions in this stage, because choices made here have the most effect on the experience of receiving the story as an audience member.
Stage 4: Reception — where the audience takes over, interpreting the symbols they’ve received and making meaning of the story. The audience is a very active participant in its relationship with a story. It has preconceptions which affect how it will see anything you put in front of it. The audience is presented with a finished, Storywoven work and hopes to be able to be able to interpret the work’s symbols and decipher the Storyforming intent of the authors behind the work. The accuracy with which this is accomplished has a lot to do with how the story was developed in the other three stages of communication.
There are many ways to play with any one of these stages and many reasons for doing so. It all depends on what impact the author wants to make with his work.
Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character
In each of the four stages of story communication, authors have recognized four aspects of storytelling at work: Genre, Plot, Theme and Character. In other words, first there must be a Storyforming stage in which Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character are designed as dramatic concepts. Next is the Encoding stage where Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character are symbolized into the language of the culture. Stage three, Storyweaving, sees the author blending the symbolic representations into a seamless flow that presents the symbols for Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character to an audience. The final stage of Reception puts the audience to work decoding the symbols to appreciate the author’s intent as represented in Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character.
Naturally, with so many internal steps and appreciations, the opportunity for miscommunication is considerable. In addition, since the audience members are looking from stage four back to stage one, they are in fact authors of their own Reception. In this role the audience may create meaning that is fully supported by the symbology, yet never intended by the author.
How Dramatica Fits In
The study of Reception theory is well documented in many books, articles, and essays. The process of storytelling is brilliantly covered by many inspired teachers of the art, including Aristotle himself. Dramatica provides a view of story never before seen so clearly: an actual model of the structure and dynamics that lie at the heart of communication – the Story Mind itself. By using the structure of story as a foundation, the process of communication becomes much more accurate, giving the author much more control over the audience experience.
Author as Audience
With the author at one end of the communication chain and the audience at the other, it is not unusual for an author to cast himself in the role of audience to see how the story is working. In other words, many authors approach their story not so much as the creator of the work, but as its greatest fan. They look at the blended result of Storyforming, Storyencoding, Storyweaving and Reception and judge the combined impact even as they write it. This can be extremely valuable in making sure that all stages of communication are working together, but it carries hidden dangers as well.
When an author adopts the audience perspective, he compresses all four stages together. Thus, Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character become complete, yet their components become nebulous and much harder to define. This makes it very easy to tell if something is going wrong, but much harder to determine which part of the process is at fault.
To avoid this problem, Dramatica suggests first building a Storyform that spells out the dramatic appreciations necessary to fashion a complete argument in line with one’s intent. Then, referring to this structure while encoding (or symbolizing) the storyform, an author can make sure that missing or inconsistent pieces of the storyform are not masked under clever storytelling.
Emphasis Where Emphasis is Due
Encoding simply creates scenarios and events that illustrate the Storyform’s dramatic appreciations. In the Encoding stage, no illustration is more important than another. The emphasis is provided by the nature of the illustration. For example, a Goal of Obtaining might be encoded as the attempt to win a fifty dollar prize or the effort to win the presidency of a country.
Further emphasis is set in the third phase of communication, Storyweaving, when the illustrated appreciations are actually written into the work, favoring some with extended coverage while de-emphasizing others with mere lip service. In this manner, the portions of a Storyform structure which are more central to an author’s personal interests rise to the surface of the work while those of less interest sink to the bottom to form a complete but minimalist foundation for the story’s argument.
In short, it is fine to stand back and admire one’s handiwork, criticize it, and see if all its parts are working together. The audience point of view, however, is not a good perspective from which to fashion a work.
In keeping with this philosophy, this book began by outlining The Elements Of Structure. Now it is time to shift mental gears and outline the process of communication itself as expressed in The Art Of Storytelling.
The Art of Storytelling
Introduction to Storyforming
When an author begins work on a story, he seldom has the whole thing figured out in advance. In fact, he might start with nothing more than a bit of action, a scrap of dialogue, or perhaps only a title. The urge to write springs from some personal interest one wants to share. It could be an emotion, an experience, or a point of view on a particular subject matter. Once inspiration strikes, however, there is the compelling desire to find a way to communicate what one has in mind.
Another thing usually happens along the way. One creative thought leads to another, and the scope of what one wishes to communicate grows from a single item into a collection of items. Action suggests dialogue which defines a character who goes into action, and on and on. Ultimately, an author finds himself with a bag of interesting dramatic elements, each of which is intriguing, but not all of which are connected. It is at this point an author’s mind shifts gears and looks at the emerging work as an analyst rather than as a creator.
The author as analyst examines what he has so far. Intuitively he can sense that some sort of structure is developing. The trick now is to get a grip on the “big picture.” Four aspects of this emerging story become immediately apparent: Character, Theme, Plot, and Genre. An author may find that the points of view expressed by certain characters are unopposed in the story, making the author’s point of view seem heavy-handed and biased. In other places, logic fails, and the current explanation of how point A got to point C is incomplete. She may also notice that some kind of overall theme is partially developed, and that the entire work could be improved by shading more dramatic elements with the same issues.
So far, our intrepid author has still not created a story. Oh, there’s one in there somewhere, but much needs to be done to bring it out. For one thing, certain items that have been developed may begin to seem out of place. They don’t fit in with the feel of the work as a whole. Also, certain gaps have become apparent which beg to be filled. In addition, parts of a single dramatic item may work and other parts may not. For example, a character may ring true at one moment, but turn into a klunker the next.
Having analyzed, then, the author sets about remedying the ailments of his work in the attempt to fashion it into a complete and unified story. Intuitively, an author will examine all the logical and emotional aspects of his story, weed out irregularities and fill in cracks until nothing seems out of place in his considerations. Just as one might start with any piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and in the end a larger picture emerges, so the story eventually fills the author’s heart and mind as a single, seamless, and balanced item, greater than the sum of its parts. The story has taken on an identity all its own.
Looking at the finished story, we can tell two things right off the bat. First, there is a certain logistic dramatic structure to the work. Second, that structure is expressed in a particular way. In Dramatica, we call that underlying deep dramatic structure a Storyform. The manner in which it is communicated is the Storytelling.
As an example of how the Storyform differs from the Storytelling, consider Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. It is easily seen that dramatics of both stories are essentially the same. Yet the expression of those dramatics is completely different. Storytelling dresses the dramatics in different clothes, couches the message in specific contexts, and brings additional non-structure material to the work.
The structure of a story is like a vacant apartment. Everything is functional, but it doesn’t have a personality until someone moves in. Over the years, any number of people might occupy the same rooms, working within the same functionality but making the environment uniquely their own. Similarly, the same dramatic structures have been around for a long time. Yet, every time we dress them up in a way we haven’t seen before, they become new again. So, part of what we find in a finished work is the actual Grand Argument Story and part is the Storytelling.
The problems most writers face arise from the fact that the creative process works on both storyform and storytelling at the same time. The two become inseparably blended, so trying to figure out what really needs to be fixed is like trying to determine the recipe for quiche from the finished pie. It can be done, but it is tough work. What is worse, an author’s personal tastes and assumptions often blind him to some of the obvious flaws in the work, while over-emphasizing others. This can leave an author running around in circles, getting nowhere.
Fortunately, another pathway exists. Because the eventual storyform outlines all of the essential feelings and logic that will be generated by a story, an author can begin by creating a storyform first. Then, all that follows will work together for it is built on a consistent and solid foundation.
To create a storyform, an author will need to make decisions about the kinds of topics he wishes to explore and the kinds of impact he wishes to have on his audience. This can sometimes be a daunting task. Most authors prefer to stumble into the answers to these questions during the writing process, rather than deliberate over them in advance. Still, with a little consideration up front, much grief can be prevented later on as the story develops.