Dramatica: the DNA of story?

NEWSFLASH. Since writing this article I’ve since had the pleasure of interviewing Dramatica co-creator, Chris Huntley for the Shooting Screenwriters podcast, in which we discussed all things Dramatica for an enterataining and highly illuminating 40 minutes. See here.   

Imagine you turn on the news and hear that  a couple of scientists have discovered the DNA of story: that each story,  whether it be a novel, a screenplay, a sitcom script or a Simpsons episode, can  be reduced to a precise sequence of elements, and that that secret formula has  finally been uncovered.

For some writers it’s an horrific thought.  Despite centuries of structural analysis (kicked off by Aristotle) to uncover the  mystery of what it is that makes us feel that very special feeling we get when  we’re experiencing a story, some writers would still have us believe that the  recipe for a great story requires equal measures of blood, sweat and tears, garnished  with a side order of genius. Well, yes, as a writer I’m duty-bound to say it  involves all those things, but none of them explain why most beginners’  screenplays sag in the middle, or why a lot of novels entertain but fail to  move in the way that, say, To Kill a  Mockingbird moves, or feel just right, in the way that works as  diverse as Casablanca, When Harry Met Sally, Boyz N the Hood and Hamlet feel right.


Well, two ‘scientists’ might have uncovered  this DNA of story, but it won’t be on the news because it happened 12 years  ago. Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley set out to write an instruction  manual for screenwriters in 1981 but, ten years later, ended up with a brave  new theory of fiction reduced to a four-tier cube that looks like ‘a Vulcan  crossword puzzle’.

Imagine a matrix of 340 story components, each  one a concept represented by a single word or phrase. Your story plots a path  through this matrix, touching on 84 different appreciations. This means there  are 32,768 different combinations to try out.

May the Force be with you

To give the broad sweep of the theory, a  fully-formed story can be divided into four separate throughlines, each with  its own concerns, issues and problems. There’s a throughline for the main  character, another one for the ‘impact’ (or obstacle) character, a separate  throughline that explores the struggle between these two characters, and  finally the overall story throughline, which maps out the concerns and themes  of the story as a whole.

These four throughlines always fall into  the four main domains of

  • a Situation
  • a Fixed Attitude
  • a Manner of  Thinking/Psychological Manipulation
  • and an Activity

Take Star Wars as an example. The Main Character throughline is Luke  Skywalker’s and he’s trapped in a Situation (can he ever get off this crumby  planet where nothing ever happens and make a name for himself?). Then there’s  the Impact Character, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who represents a Fixed Attitude (in order  to be one with the Force you have to let go of yourself). The third throughline  is about the Manipulations between these two (Obi-Wan wants Luke to be a  faithful student but Luke just wants adventure). The Overall throughline of  Activity is about the battle between the Rebels and the Empire, which all the characters  are caught up in.

You can reduce any grand argument story to  these four domains. Take Titanic. There,  the Main Character is Rose, and her throughline is Psychological Manipulations  (she’s trying to be an independent woman instead of her future husband’s  property); Jack is her Impact Character and he’s involved in the Activity of  ‘obtaining’ (a passage home and an engaged woman’s love); the struggle between  them takes place in the Situation domain, which is perhaps best illustrated by  the bars of a cage (they want to escape to a future together but they’re  trapped by society’s conventions, and on a sinking ship), and in the Overall  Story, we see a Fixed Attitude (‘God himself could not sink this ship’, so  where’s all the water coming from?).

But doesn’t this all lead to formulaic  stories? Well, with 32,768 possible combinations, the answer is no, and, in the  end, it’s how you illustrate all those appreciations that really matters.

Breaking it down

This only scratches the shiny surface of  Dramatica theory, though. Each throughline contains a wealth of elements to be  explored and it can be a pretty complex process dealing with them all.

Attempts to make the theory more accessible  are now well under way. Not only is Dramatica available as a computer programme  that automates your choices, but there’s a theory book (free online), a website  full of handy tips, an email discussion group used by writers from all over the  world, an audio course (free online) and now the work of Armando Saldana Mora,  an early disciple of the theory who first developed ‘Instant Dramatica’ (an  approach that can get your story up and running in no time) and is now  publishing Dramatica for Screenwriters in serial form (available free on the  website), and will follow it with Dramatica for Novelists.

The best starting point, though, is the  excellent comic book (downloadable as a pdf file), which gives the broad  picture in an accessible and entertaining style (i.e. for idiots like me).

A degree in the art of story

But, in the end, writing stories isn’t an  easy business. Dramatica theory is a very steep learning curve, no doubt about  it, and it could take you a year to master, but think of it as a degree in the  art of story, and then marvel as it breathes new life into that old screenplay  gathering dust because it’s still not quite there, or fills the gaps in that  novel that never quite felt right.

If you’re serious about yourself as a  writer of fiction, can you afford to be without it?



Dramatica   software programme

Dramatica   website

Jim Hull’s Daily Dramatica blog

Dramatica User’s Group monthly podcast

Theory book (free online)

Dramatica for Screenwriters

Comic book (right click and ‘Save as’ to download)

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