Dramatica: The Journey Towards a Better Understanding of Story
With an objective theory as your guide, a path to greater clarity exists.
A productive and meaningful exploration of narrative structure requires a specific strategy. One must be rigid in the application of proven theoretical concepts while simultaneously leaving themselves open to the possibility of merely being wrong about how they see things. To rest on the defense of self-perception is to cut one’s journey of development off before it even begins.
A challenge to the objective nature of the Dramatica theory of story, one often heard, arose on the Discuss Dramatica board:
I think there can be more than one interpretation since unless a writer used Dramatica to structure a story, it is very likely not going to align well. Map versus territory.
This statement is not entirely accurate; if the story "works"—and tells a complete argument—then it will map correctly within Dramatica's model of narrative. Shakespeare didn't have access to Dramatica. But he did have access to all the processes of problem-solving that every one of us possesses: a mind.
A Form to the Structure of a Story
In sharp contrast to the various paradigms of story that base structure on mythical journeys or sequencing of "birth moments," Dramatica outlines seventy-five objective Story Appreciations. These story points—means by which the Audience can appreciate the meaning & intent of a story—broadcast the Author's purpose. These appreciations coalesce to give form to an Author's argument.
This form—or Storyform—is objective. A Dramatica storyform is not victim to subjective interpretation. Given a room full of experts well-versed in the theory and a story complete in execution, one comprehensive and accurate storyform makes itself known. Unfortunately, because of the complexity and space needed to separate storyform from storytelling in the analysis process, many writers default to the "many ways to interpret a story" rationalization. Instead of availing themselves of this deficiency in understanding, they turn a blind eye—and in the process, make the whole world blind.
The Dramatica theory of story assumes that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Assuming everyone possesses a working and functioning mind, the identification of similar techniques of problem-solving will always result in agreement on one accurate storyform.
I don't think it's a very defensible position to say there is only one way to interpret a story, nor to presume all people using Dramatica (or any other theory for that matter) will see a story exactly the same way.
If the analysts understand the Dramatica theory of story with competency and accuracy--and don't fall back on the Well, that's just how I see it defense--then yes, they will arrive the same storyform. For proof of this confirmation in action, listen to the latest Dramatica Users Group analysis of La La Land.
A Chance to Dream
The only two people on the planet who understand Dramatica better than me are the theory's co-creators, Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips. I spent two decades learning the ins and outs of every last concept of this beautiful and sophisticated understanding of narrative, and I still subjectively misinterpreted this fundamental dynamic of story structure.
I look back on that night now and wonder, "How the heck could I ever see that dream sequence as anything more than a fairy tale?" Neither of the principle characters changed their point-of-view in this sequence. The key to a complete argument—to a whole story—is a changed perspective. Without change, there is no argument—no argument, no story. That sequence was nothing more than a tale—an idealized fairy tale of what could have been.
Open to Re-evaluation & Greater Understanding
I could have responded with, ”Well, that's just how I see it. I have so much more experience than everyone else in the room, and I'm entitled to my opinion. Besides, there isn't one way to interpret a story.” But I would have been doing a disservice to everyone in the room, everyone interested in genuinely understanding narrative, and more importantly—to myself. By holding my interpretation as valid as any other, I would ruin the opportunity for greater understanding. My ego soothed, accounts of these different analyses would regress the development of future writers.
By falling back on feeling good about myself, I would have screwed things up for everyone else.
But I didn't. I listened to what EXPERTS in the room we're saying--writers who spend a considerable amount of time learning & understanding what the Dramatica theory of story is all about--and I finally realized my mistake.
Before the meeting I uploaded "my" version of the storyform to the Subtext—a service where I maintain the most accurate catalog of Dramatica storyforms. Did I leave that version up because my subjective interpretation of the film was just as critical? No—because that's silly and ultimately counter-productive to the whole purpose of offering such a service.
I promptly fixed it, republished the most accurate version, and now—when anyone goes to check into the story points of La La Land—they won't be confused by any counter-analyses.
What to Do If You're Wrong
So what should you do when you come up against a group analysis that runs counter to your interpretation? Nine times out of ten this is an indication that you are projecting your life experience onto the story's meaning. In those rare moments when this isn't the case, writers submit their counter-arguments with a logical explanation as to the disagreement. If proven out, we alter the original storyforms to reflect that higher understanding. The Sixth Sense, Captain America: Civil War, The Terminator, and Reservoir Dogs showcase storyforms changed from their original state to reflect a more accurate understanding.
More often than not however, the one doing the challenging often learns something about Dramatica they misunderstood. My revelation above about La La Land's tale ending arrived during a subsequent lunch discussing the analysis with Chris Huntley. My strategy moving forward requires searching out the argument being made within a story; if it's not there, then the story is a tale.
Developing as a Writer
"There isn't one way to interpret a story" defense always indicates a person who refuses to learn.
Many paradigms of story and gurus of story seek to "empower" or encourage writers through techniques refined in self-help circles. Dramatica is not a theory of making writers feel good about themselves, it's a theory of narrative—the most accurate and comprehensive theory of narrative structure around—IF used correctly.
Subjective misinterpretations occur because the story points—those appreciations of story structure—are being seen as indications of storytelling, not storyforming. The Objective Story Concern isn't merely what everyone in the story is concerned with; it's a means by which the Audience appreciates how those concerns indicate conflict. Without inequity(conflict), a story point is not attached to the storyform.
To continue with the rationalization that all analysis is equal paints a picture of mass confusion and dissolution of the accuracy of the Dramatica model of story. By maintaining the validity of your interpretation shift move away from the objective nature of a storyform—and move away from what Dramatica defines as a story. Experts in the theory, like me, leave themselves open to being wrong because an accurate storyform is infinitely more important than their self-worth.
Allowing Dramatica to Get in the Way of Writing
Some writers, faced with the reluctance or inability to change, rely on artistic self-defense to justify a refusal to learn:
Nor is it helpful if it discourages me from trusting my own process of making meaning to the point that I rely on the consensus to tell me what a story means. In such a case, I would be allowing my own creativity and critical thought process to be sidelined, and myself to be disempowered.
Many writers turn to Dramatica as a means of enlightening and inspiring their own creative muse—confirming their own intuition and expanding their own understanding to improve the quality and breadth of their storytelling.
Under my guidance, I've seen Dramatica help novelists expand the world of their characters and give form to the hundreds of pages awaiting their care & engagement, and I've seen television series and animated features snatch green lights with little to no resistance. In every case, the heart of the artist reigns supreme—it's merely a matter of knowing how to connect that intent with an accurate storyform.
The biggest mistake people make with dramatica is believing that they have to follow the theory or a given storyform to the letter, and in doing so lose touch with their own creative, meaning-making process. People give up on dramatica when they feel they have to choose between the theory and their own creativity.
Writers also give up when they think there isn't an objective basis by which to measure the various story points when constructing their story. "Well, there isn't one way to skin a cat dilutes what is otherwise a compelling and enlightening theory of narrative.
If I start worrying about doing everything "right" according to the theory or the software, or if it compels me to replace meaningful ideas with bland ones, and as a consequence I experience writer's block or end up with a less meaningful story, then dramatica has ceased to be helpful.
Every writer is free to break structure and do whatever their heart tells them. The writer/director behind Get Out purposefully broke structure at the end of that phenomenal hit. He didn't worry about doing something "wrong" with his film.
It is a complete misunderstanding to suggest that the Dramatica theory of story is trying to tell writers what is "right" and "wrong" with your story—the Dramatica theory of story is showing you how to write a convincing and reliable argument—whether or not one feels it is right or wrong to do so is entirely up to the writer. Writers should feel confident enough to break structure whenever they want.
Losing touch with the creative process isn't the issue here--inaccurate storyform analysis is.
Psyching Oneself Up for the Road Ahead
Putting the label of "Dramatica" on an analysis when it is grossly inaccurate does a disservice to other writers. It leads them down the wrong path, fooling themselves into thinking they're using Dramatica when they're just inventing their own theory--no better off than they were without it. "Well, that's just how I see it" makes everyone think they can come up with whatever they want when it comes to analyzing a story. They certainly can—they just can't call it Dramatica.
This "alternative interpretations" crowd advocates the same Tower of Babel that existed long before Dramatica came along. Hero's Journey, Sequence Method, Save the Cat!, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Lajos Egri, and Aristotle—each came close, each missed the mark. The Dramatica theory of story brings sanity to an area self-expression relegated for much of human history to something resembling the dark arts, held in secret esteem by a privileged few.
Dramatica possesses the ability to help improve the quality of your storytelling for all time—if used as intended. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve arrived at the end of your understanding of narrative structure merely because you acknowledge the difference between a Main Character and Protagonist. Challenge yourself—challenge what you hold to be true by measuring up against like-minded experts in the field.
The journey towards a greater understanding of narrative structure is a long and ever-changing road with stunning vistas and deep and dark chasms. Just when you think you have it all figured out, your own justifications rise to the surface. Faced with the awareness of your own blind spots, you must make the decision: persist in my own self-delusion, or free myself from the shackles of my own limited perception.
The answer determines your lifelong growth as a writer and an artist.