Cracking Open the Mind of the Storyteller
Breaking a few eggs on the path to greater understanding
Many Authors write because they enjoy the process of becoming someone else. They embody their characters and imagine what it would feel like to live in another space and time. Rarely do they consider that it is the characters themselves taking on the persona of the Author—the quality of that characterization relying on the level of self-awareness.
Writing a story is therapeutic, a chance to work out personal issues through the guise of character and plot. The theme becomes our therapist, guiding us to a better understanding of ourselves. Writer’s block, it would seem, is less something that happens to us, and more a matter of something that happens because of us.
We don’t know what to write next because that internal work remains unexplored.
Thank you for the wonderful resources this site presents. I am having some muddy thoughts about story inequity, meaning and the nature of Dramatica.
Then you have come to the right place. 🤫
Your views on Dramatica, story and probably life itself, about establishing the beginning/ending of inequity seem to be very paradoxical in a sense. But I think that's how it is supposed to be.
Yes. An inequity, by definition, is a paradox. The mind’s inability to resolve something establishes an inequity within. Where that mind goes from there forms the basis for all stories.
You seem to differentiate between rationalism and holistic thinking which seems false to me, as I think that holistic thought is simply an aspect of rational thinking. Rational thought, to me, is the dialectic from a microscopic point of view whereas holistic thought, to me, is the dialectic from a macroscopic point of view, a more intuitive picture of the whole. But I think they are simply two equally valid perspectives of the same thing: dualism.
Rational-based thinkers can’t help but make everything rational.😁
Holistic problem-solving is not merely thinking of the big picture. It’s not even problem-solving at all—it’s inequity resolution. Linear rationalists interpret this approach as “intuitive” because to do the same thing they need to guess at, or feel for, the best solution.
They need to look at the bigger picture.
And so, they develop definitions of holism that make sense to them:
Holism is a theory that the universe and especially living nature is correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes (as of living organisms) that are more than the mere sums of elementary particles
The Holistic does not need to adjust the scope to find balance. There is a balance in all things and at every resolution or magnification. Rationalists, on the other hand, require the context of scale to find the best solution for all.
That’s why they’re so obsessed with the size of things.
We can only break problems down into smaller parts in order to grasp it with our rationality. Holism might propose that when we have looked at each part individually, we can try to hold them all in view, in a single instant, hoping to get a flash of the greater truth. A truth that is larger than the mere sum of its parts. But I believe this can only happen when one can manage to glimpse through and beyond the phantasms of our own rational perception.
The above passage is what it sounds like when a mind with a Linear operating system tries to describe what it’s like for someone with a Holistic operating system. The two trains of thought are merely incompatible—and trying to read data off the other when you don’t even recognize the format will only result in a fatal system crash.
Of course, by “rationalist” and rational thinking, you mean to refer to Dramatica’s identification of the Linear-mindset in terms of problem-solving. Thinking it solely sensible is a common assumption made by those locked in the Linear camp. Both Linear and Holistic approaches to inequity resolution are rational in their way, regardless of how impractical or irrational they may seem to the other side.
A Linear mindset sees holistic thought as macroscopic—as if taking in everything all at once and proceeding to solve a problem is somehow holistic. Its approach to rational linearity is holistic, but it’s not the kind of Holistic approach to inequity resolution that Dramatica recognizes in the narrative.
Dualism in Dramatica
If, by dualistic, you mean to say that Dramatica theory differentiates between two approaches to resolving inequity, then yes—the theory identifies this dualism of a Linear and Holistic approach.
If, instead, you refer to dualism as the recognition of two things that cannot exist within the same space and time, then yes, you are correct about the relationship between inequity and Linear and Holistic thought. What you refer to as dualism, Dramatica identifies more objectively as an inequity.
And here comes the paradox. On the one hand you state the importance of structure from which meaning is born. But on the other hand, you seem to understand the irony of the Hegelian dialectic which kind of shows that (absolute) meaning through pure rationalism does not lead to absolute truths.
You may see that irony but to the predominantly Linear thinker? Not so much. Many turn to the Hegelian as a means of understanding how to structure a narrative. The irony you refer to is lost on them.
And I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the result of the Hegelian Dialectic is “absolute” truth. Truth, yes, but only one truth. The Hegelian/Linear understands the presence of several different competing realities in a holistic appreciation of the world.
He just chooses to ignore them to find a solution to his problem.
But as I stated before, if my assumption is correct, if holistic thought is another perspective on rationalism, then how is it possible to be truly faithful to the ambiguity of meaning, structure and Dramatica itself? If we don't encode the ambiguity of the system itself into the system, the recipient may likely misinterpret the true message!
The ambiguity of the system is already an essential part of Dramatica’s model of the mind—coded into the theoretical formulas that make the theory work. Inequity is the mother of all motivation. The level to which we wrap our heads around this concept determines how well the Audience will receive our message.
I am currently trying to code this meaning (it's ironic, yes) into a story. But when I read the Dramatica manual, they always seem to fall into dualistic thinking: is your story a success or failure? Does it have good judgment or bad judgment? Who wins the thematic argument, IC or MC? Problem vs. solution, one vs. the other. So right now, to me it seems that Dramatica wants you to take a side. Or am I interpreting the manual falsely?
Yes, Dramatica wants you to take a side.
And so does your Audience.
The Effect of Premise on Narrative Structure is such that if you don’t take a side, then no one will have any idea what it is you’re trying to say. They won’t bother with your story.
Costs and Dividends
Story Costs and Story Dividends enhance the kind of dualism you sense from the Story Outcome (Success or Failure) or the Story Judgment (Good or Bad). The impact of a Failure lessens when one experiences positive Dividends. Likewise, the negative Costs associated with Success often are not worth paying.
The Action Thriller Snowpiercer ends in Tragedy: the characters Fail to break out of the past—the old world that the train represents—and Curtis (Chris Evans) does not end up in a good place (in fact, no one does). The storyform for Snowpiercer reflects this Story Outcome of Failure and a Story Judgement of Bad.
Despite this tragedy, there exists a modicum of hope in the understanding that life continues, regardless of human intervention. This endpoint illustrates a Story Dividend of Understanding, granting the Audience some slightly good feelings at the end. As Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story explains:
there is the Dividend of Understanding, which I think is illustrated by Yona's escape from the train with the boy with the understanding that the killing freeze is over, the world is warming, and that life has survived outside through the disaster (as evidenced by the polar bear).
Story Dividends signal positive gains throughout a single narrative. Story Costs, naturally, spell out the negatives. Both exist tangentially to the Story Outcome and Story Judgment; they offer a chance to temper what some see as black and white thinking.
A Different Dividend for Every Story
You might think every story ends with a Dividend of Understanding—Tragedy or Triumph, and the characters always learn something. But this is not what is meant by a Story Dividend.
Only a story with the particular set of story dynamics found in something like Snowpiercer finds meaningful positive balance with Understanding. The only positive Dividend to be found in something like Manchester by the Sea is an opportunity for the characters involved to get what’s been bothering them for so long off their minds. That collective release illustrates a Story Dividend of Memory.
Every argument carries a type of Dividend specific and unique to that argument—it’s not always a blanket “understanding.”
Chris goes on to explain these Dividends of Snowpiercer in the context of the Story Goal and the Story Consequence. The Goal represents the endpoint of Success, Consequence the Failure:
[The Story Dividends of Understanding] is where I think the positive sense of the ending is, even though the Consequences of Memories (the re-contextualizing of the protagonist's best memories into phases of his manipulation by the antagonist(s)) clearly win out over the Story Goal of the Past (Rescuing or Reviving Humanity's Past as identified in the microcosm of the Snowpiercer train and its inhabitants) indicating the Story Outcome Failure.
That brief sense of hope lies in the tiny sliver of Understanding meant to balance the rather tragic and depressing argument.
The Purpose of Holism
The Premise of Snowpiercer argues the tragedy of failing to align oneself with the outside world:
Allowing the uncertainty of repressed memories into your experience disconnects you from the outside world, clouding your volatility with shades of continuing along the same path.
Taken at face value, Curtis represents volatility, Wilford and Gilliam (Ed Harris and John Huey) symbolize contentment or inertia. Allowing those memories to seep back in clouds the Storymind with an inability to resolve the forces of change (volatility) with those of inertia (contentment). The result is an overall sense of disconnection.
This Holistic Premise argues tragedy in the form of personal disconnection. Holistic “problem-solving” is not about stepping back and looking at the bigger picture; it’s a function of misalignment.
And misalignment is not ambiguity.
The Meaning of Ambiguity
You can’t be unaligned from something ambiguous. Alignment requires standards of measurement—rules not present within an enigma.
...in my story I want the meaning to be about the ambiguity of meaning itself. About how the only certainty about meaning is that it is uncertain and that even this conclusion is uncertain itself.
Then you wish to write a story about Certainty. You might position Certainty as to the Problem and have it end in Failure the way Snowpiercer did with its problem of Inertia. Or you might take the other route, and show how a Solution of un-Certainty breaks down the walls of communication between those locked in their point-of-view.
Certainty and unCertainty are the same things when it comes to narrative structure. While one reflects abundance, the other shows lack—yet each remains focused on the same touchpoint—Certainty.
The opposite of Certainty, or the Solution, is Potentiality. Someone certain of their path in life finds that interrupted when they discover their Potential for something else. Another uncertain about engaging in a dangerous act find their fears weaken when the potential for greater disaster fades away.
When writing a story about ambiguity, you first need to identify the nature of that ambiguity. Lock that reference point down, whether it be Certainty or unCertainty, or any number of narrative Elements, and write to that purpose. It’s the only way to ensure that your Audience won’t be left lost and confused with your work.
Finding Out What Lies Inside
Whether rational or holistic, the process of learning how your mind works takes time.
I've known about Dramatica for about 5 years and have been studying it off and on during that time. When reading about it I often get these short, sudden bursts of insight, little moments of illumination when it all seems to click into place but it's very hard to maintain that picture of the whole. Everyday it's gradually becoming stronger, though it remains a daily effort.
This feedback is a pervasive experience for those starting to learn Dramatica. I’ve been studying it for close to 25 years now, and I’m still learning something new every day.
If you consider that every story is a model of a mind at work, and that model only works when the mind is blind to particular motivations—you can begin to understand why learning that process is so elusive.
Your mind doesn’t want you to know how it works.
If you did, you would lose all sense of motivation. Its mechanism for getting you to do things and be someone would fail to function correctly.
You would be at peace. But you would cease engagement.
...it's kind of difficult for me to start the storyform. I have the story mostly in my head, partially written out, but it's not in stone. It seems difficult to situate the inequity. Is it about ambiguity or do I need a more specific, more tangible inequity?
Anytime you set out to write a meaningful story, you begin the process of creating a storyform. You cannot avoid it. The storyform is simply organized Truth; it’s meaning split out into seventy or so related Storypoints.
Continue to hone in on the essence of what you want to say, and the storyform will present itself to you.
And is Dramatica even the right tool for the job I'm trying to do?
It is. It just takes time.
Awareness is not a switch you flip—it’s a process that continues until you reach that final light switch.
I know I took some liberty here, going on a romp. And since it is a skull-cracking subject I won't expect you to go deeper into it but if you feel like sharing some thoughts, I would be glad to read them.
I love the analogy of skull-cracking here in this context.
Let me know what you find inside.