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?
Theory book (free online)
Comic book (right click and ‘Save as’ to download)