Introduction to Dramatica Theory


What is it about story telling that has survived throughout humans’ entire existence? Stories in their various forms have been present in every culture, era and language known to man. What is about the story that makes it so irresistible? Is it our need to escape reality? To see the world through someone else’s eyes? To travel to places and times beyond our own?

The narrative theory Dramatica goes one step further to suggest that the methodology of story telling imitates natural processes within our universe and even within the human mind itself. It is this, Dramatica claims, which draws humans to the art of story telling.

Dramatica was developed by Screenplay Systems in the early 1990’s and provides a story-telling structure suitable for use in the creation of novels, short stories, theatre works and screenplays. Dramatica’s central concept is that a story mirrors the problem-solving processes of the human mind. In order for a plot to be coherent and believable, its author must examine all the possible solutions to a character’s dilemma and provide logical reasons as to why each potential path is eventually chosen or discarded.

By addressing every possible solution, the author creates what is essentially a chart of how the human mind would explore a problem. Dramatica calls this ‘chart’ the story mind. If any plausible solutions are neglected during the course of the story, it ceases to become a realistic map of the mind’s problem-solving process. More importantly for writers, it also becomes a story full of plot holes, inconsistencies and implausible characters.

Dramatica varies from other theories of story structure analysis by viewing the story as a whole, rather than as a linear progression. Although most stories are linear in nature, Dramatica argues that, once told, a story is appreciated as a whole, with a meaning much greater than the sum of its parts.

To fully grasp the meaning or ‘big picture’ of a story, it is necessary to recognise the difference between story-form and story telling. The term story-form refers to the particular structure and dynamics used within a story and the message these dynamics deliver. Story telling refers to the tools and setting used to illustrate such an arrangement. For example, think of the scene in the 1999 film The Matrix in which Keanu Reeves’ character Neo discovers he has been existing in a fake, holographic world.

The broad concept of Neo moving from falsehood to truth constitutes part of the story-form. Conversely, the act of him swallowing the pills and waking to the real world is the story telling; the method used by the writers to convey their message. Story-form, according to Dramatica, deals with a limited number of universal concepts including morality, temptation and faith. The infinite possibilities of story telling are what makes each narrative different.

This story mind is made tangible through the use of characters and plot. In the Dramatica theory, characters are seen to represent the various possibilities and options the human mind considers when tackling a problem. Throughout the story-telling process, the audience are given access to numerous points of view. The first of these is overall story view, in which a reader or audience member is able to appreciate the unfolding events with a sense of detachment.

Even in the case of a novel told in the first-person, or a film viewed solely through the eyes of one person, such as Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, the nature of story telling allows the audience to step back and see things as they really are. Appreciating a story from this point of view is akin to approaching a problem from an unbiased and objective state of mind.

Throughout the course of a story, the audience also views the events from the main character’s point of view. This character is usually, although not always, the protagonist of the story. When viewing events through the eyes of the main character, we see the unfolding action as though it was happening to us. Our concern shifts to the immediate future and we are no longer able to appreciate the story as a whole. Experiencing a story from this point of view mirrors the way the human mind reacts when facing a problem of a personal nature. We are often too caught up in the dilemma and its immediate repercussions to dispassionately appreciate the big picture.

To appreciate the coexistence of these two points of view, consider Sam Mendes’s 1999 film American Beauty. Although the film is narrated by Kevin Spacey’s character Lester Burnham, the audience are able to appreciate the deeper workings of the whole neighbourhood and all its characters, with their dysfunctional relationships and secrets. All this action equates to the big picture of the film. As the big picture develops however, the audience is also taken on a more personal journey; following Lester through his own transformation and passage of self-discovery.

In the Dramatica theory, conflict is represented by an impact character. An impact character is not necessarily the story’s antagonist, but rather a character that forces the protagonist to consider a change or alternative path to their goal. The impact character is not necessarily an obstacle for the main character. They are just as likely to be an ally or love interest that inspires the main character to behave in a different way. By necessitating changes in course and providing alternative options for the main character, impact characters represent the different approaches the mind considers when tackling a problem. Impact characters in American Beauty include Lester’s wife Carolyn, his daughter Jane and neighbour Ricky.

The crux of an effective and powerful story is the developing relationship between the main and impact characters. It is this relationship that motivates the main character to move past trying to solve the original problem and confront a deeper issue. It is following this final confrontation that a satisfying story will resolve, leaving one or more of the characters altered in some way.

Dramatica calls this crucial relationship the subjective story throughline. It is interesting to note that it does not have to be the main character that changes as a result of the story’s events. In Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, main character Dr Alan Grant remains steadfast in his negative view of the park throughout the film. Instead, it is the impact character Dr Hammond whose opinions are significantly altered following the disaster. Alternatively, in films such as The Piano (Jane Campion), the events of the story have a wide-reaching effect on all the characters.

In the same way that characters symbolise different options and possibilities, Dramatica claims plot events are representative of the methodology used to solve a problem. Each act, scene or sequence equates to a mind shift, new point of view or discovery of a new possibility. As the story unfolds over time, it imitates the way our mind-set develops and changes over the course of solving a problem.

Taking into account the above considerations is a great way for writers to begin a new work, or to go about editing an existing piece. By considering a story’s overall ‘big picture’, main and impact character’s points of view, and the relationship between them, the story-telling process begins to truly reflect the workings of the human mind.

Functions of Character Within Dramatica Theory


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