In This Issue #96:
Melanie Anne Phillips
When I wrote the
first edition of “Dramatica: A New Theory of Story” in 1991, it was
the intent of Chris Huntley and myself to introduce our model of story
structure in text book format, so as to most accurately document our
editorial skills guiding my prose, and the inclusion of his charts and
illustrations, we achieved our purpose: a dry, dense, technical manual
fit for a college-level course in narrative theory.
Problem is, our approach was so academic in nature that it was a
stunningly horrid read for the writing community to whom it was
editions we sought to soften this stark presentation with real-world
examples of novels, movies and stage plays and, with the inclusion of
Chris’ own brilliant chapter on propaganda, the final edition elevated
its overall manner from impenetrable to stilted.
Which brings us to
the reason for this book. While
it is true that one could not improve on the specificity of the
original, it is equally true that there are far more accessible ways to
convey the same information.
And so, I offer you
“Dramatica Unplugged: A Conversation on Story Structure.”
Introducing the Story Mind
Every story has a
mind of its own, as if it were a person.
Like each of us, this Story Mind has a personality and an
underlying psychology. Its
personality is developed through the storytelling style, and its
psychology is determined by the story’s structure.
theme, and genre, therefore, must do double-duty.
For example, in storytelling characters depict real people so
that the readers or audience might identify with them and thereby become
personally involved in the entertainment and, perhaps, internalize the
however, characters represent our own conflicting motivations, made
tangible, incarnate, so that we might directly observe the mechanisms of
our own minds, see them from the outside in, and thereby gain a better
understanding of how to solve similar problems in our own lives.
Storytelling is an
art, and while there may be generalized rules for how best to relate the
content of a story, they are really more like guidelines.
In truth, there are as many different styles of storytelling as
there are authors.
Story structure, on the other hand, is a science, and though there may be an extensive variety of possible structures, they all must abide by very specific rules as to which dramatic elements must be present and for how they may be cobbled together
A Tale Is a Statement
The Story Mind
concept is interesting, but how would such a thing have come to be?
After all, there was certainly never a convention at which
authors from all over the world gathered to devise a system of story
structure based on the psychology of the human mind!
Imagine the very
first storyteller, perhaps a caveman sitting with his tribe 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, therefore we make the assumption that we also
think similarly. So 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 try and 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.
storyteller is eventually 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
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, and driven by that mood, the storyteller acts to arrive
at a second point, which then makes 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
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.
Still you can’t
jump directly to all emotions from any given emotion. If you could, then
we would 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 no choice but 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 will feel unreal to the audience.
It will feel as if the character has started developing in a manner the
audience or readers can’t 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 of unbroken emotional growth. 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.
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.
In summary, 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.
A Story Is an Argument
To recap, a tale is
a simple linear path that the author promotes as being either a good or
bad one, depending on the outcome.
There’s a certain
amount of power in that. Still,
it wouldn’t take our early storyteller long to realize that if he
didn’t have to limit himself to relating events that actually happened
he might wield even more power over his audience.
Rather, he might
carry things a step farther and create a fictional tale to illustrate
his belief in the benefits or dangers of following a particular course.
That is the concept behind Fairy Tales and Cautionary Tales –
to encourage certain behaviors and inhibit other behaviors based on the
author’s belief as to the most efficacious courses of action in life.
But what kind of
power might you garner if you went beyond merely stating, “This
conclusion is true for this particular case,” but rather boldly stated
“This conclusion is true for all cases?”
In other words, you
tell your audience, “If you begin here, then no matter what
path you might take from that given starting point, it wouldn’t be as
good (or as bad) as the one I’m promoting.”
Rather than saying that the approach you have described to your
audience is simply good or bad in and of itself, you are
now inferring that of all the approaches that might have been taken,
yours is the best (or worst) way to go.
Clearly that has a
lot more power to it because you are telling everyone, “If you find
yourself in this situation, exclude any other paths; take only this
one,” or, “If you find yourself in this situation, no matter
what you do, don’t do this!”
you’ve only shown the one path, even though you are saying it is
better than any others, you have not illustrated the others.
Therefore, you are making a blanket statement.
Now, an audience
simply won’t sit still for a blanket statement. They’ll cry,
“Foul!” They will be thinking of the other paths they might
personally have taken and will at least question you.
So, if our caveman
sitting around the fire says, “Hey, this is the best of all possible
paths,” his audience is going to say , “What about this other
case? What if we tried this, this or this?”
If the author had a
sound case he would respond to all the solutions the audience might
suggest, compare them to the one he was touting and conclusively show
that the promoted path was, indeed, the best (or worst). But if a
solution suggested by the audience proves better than the author’s,
his blanket statement loses all credibility.
In a nutshell, for
every rebuttal the audience voices, the author can attempt to counter
the rebuttal until he has proven his case or at least exhausted their
interest in arguing with him. Since
he is there in person, he won’t necessarily have to argue every
conceivable alternative solution – just the ones the audience brings
up. And if he is successful, he’ll eventually satisfy everyone’s
concerns or simply tire them out to the point they are willing to accept
But what happens if
the author isn’t there when the story is related?
The moment a story is recorded and replayed as a song ballad, a
stage play, or a motion picture (for example), then the original author
is no longer present to counter any rebuttals the audience might have to
his blanket statement.
So if someone in
the audience thinks of a method of resolving the problem and it hasn’t
been addressed it in the blanket statement, they will feel there is a
hole in the argument and that the author hasn’t made his case.
Therefore, in a
recorded art form, you need to include all the other reasonable
approaches that might be suggested in order to “sell” your approach
as the best or the worst. You need to show how each alternative is not
as good (or as bad) as the one you are promoting thereby proving that
your blanket statement is correct.
A story, then,
becomes a far more complex proposition than a simple tale.
Now the author must anticipate all the other ways the audience
might consider solving the problem in question. In effect, he has to
include all the ways anyone might reasonably think of solving
that problem. Essentially, he has to include all the ways any human
mind might go about solving that problem. In so doing, as an
accidental by-product, generations of storytellers have arrived at our
modern conventions of story structure: a model of the mind’s
problem-solving process - the
This is not the
mind of the author, reader or audience, but of the story itself - a mind
created symbolically in the process of communicating an argument across
a medium. It is a mind for the audience to look at, understand, and then
Once this is
understood, you can ensure perfect structure by psychoanalyzing your
story as if it were a person. And in so doing, you find that everything
that is in the human mind is represented in some tangible form in the
That’s what Dramatica is all about. Once we had that Rosetta Stone, we set ourselves to the task of documenting the psychology of the Story Mind. We developed a model of this structure and described it in our book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story.
How do stories created with Dramatica play in other world cultures? To find out, we need to return to the core of what Dramatica really is - how and why it works in the first place.
Conceptually, what defines Dramatica from all other theories and/or systems is the Story Mind concept.
In a nutshell, every story has a mind of its own, as if the story itself was an individual person. Like each of us, every complete story has a personality and an underlying psychology. The story's personality is developed in the storytelling style and subject matter. The story's psychology is represented and determined by its structure.
What is the difference between personality and psychology (or between storytelling and story structure)? That is a discussion that can lead to fighting words among psychologists, psychiatrists, neural network designers and even the clergy. I'll try to avoid pushing any buttons, but Dramatica is what it is, not the least of which is controversial, as it breaks considerable new ground. Usually, any negative reaction to Dramatica is due to a knee-jerk impression of what one thinks it is proposing, but that reaction turns to intrigue when the actual proposal is eventually understood for what was intended.
So, what is the difference between personality and psychology - and where do culture and language fit in?
Psychology is like a carrier wave that transmits a radio signal. Personality is like the program that is being transmitted. Though there are many different frequencies of carrier waves, they all have the same function: to literally "carry" the program material from the transmitter to the receiver.
To the task at hand, you can have a claustrophobic Egyptian and a claustrophobic American. What makes them the same is their underlying psychology. What makes them different are their cultural indoctrination, individual experiences and attitudes.
So, from a Dramatica perspective, culture is the equivalent of a Story Mind's personality - it is storytelling. For example, every human being has a sense of morality - right and wrong. That is what makes us the same. What makes us different is exactly what we hold to be right and what we hold to be wrong.
To continue our example, even in the United States the "party lines" for Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and Tea Partiers are often very passionate about what is right and wrong and share their views (at least in general terms) with their comrades. And so, having a sense of morality and being passionate about it is part of what makes all Americans more or less the same, but specifically what we hold to be right or wrong is what separates us.
Dramatica works because it is able to separate the story structure from the storytelling, the psychology from the personality, the mechanics of a society from its culture. It is this quality that makes Dramatica uniquely suited to analyze, anticipate, and influence stories in and from societies other than our own by working at a level beneath culture.
One must keep in mind, however, that once you understand the dynamics beneath a culture, in order to affect the course of those dynamics - i.e. to create a fictional story designed to alter attitudes or behavior in a given culture - one cannot adjust them directly. Rather, a new psychology (storyform) must be built and then clothed in the trappings of the target culture as the author must turn a story structure into people, places and events that seem real, even while the dynamics that drive their interactions are completely contrived. Otherwise, how could readers and audiences come to love characters as if they knew them and to laugh or shed a tear, even while a calculated mechanism is driving the gears beneath it all, behind the curtain, as it were?
Therefore, once Dramatica has analyzed the underlying forces driving a movement or a culture, to alter the course of that culture's social outlook and influence events through storytelling, a new mechanism must first be created and then fleshed out into memes that are delivered into the target culture unobtrusively in the storytelling, disguised as ordinary occurrences and points of information, but targeted at specific lynch-pin points of the cultural dynamics in such a way that they collectively drive the realignment of the structural system beneath it all.
Clearly, something to think about.
I leave you with these links to selected resources that may provide additional illumination on the topic:
From the Dramatica Theory Book - The Story Mind
From Dramaticapedia - Category: The Story Mind
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