How To Use Dramatica The Right Way: Part Two

The Dramatica theory of story: extra effort not included.

The promise of an application to help construct working narratives incites visions of plug-n-play storytelling. Enter a name and setting here, Command+Print a finished screenplay there. Imagine the consternation and aggravation that arises when one discovers a useful narrative technology only makes writing more difficult.

The technology now exists to weave multiple meaningful narratives into an unbelievably beautiful finished work of art. With the Dramatica theory of story, a rigamarole that once required months, maybe years of writing and rewriting, now becomes a focused process of Deliberate Storytelling lasting only a few weeks.

The trick is not merely copying down what the program provides, but rather interpreting and appreciating the real intent behind the application’s output.

The trick is to take what Dramatica provides and go one step further.

Two Things You Must Do

After twenty years learning and ten years teaching Dramatica, two strong recommendations emerge:

  • Revert and roll back to the original terminology
  • Go above and beyond to illustrate story points as a source of conflict, not merely storytelling

Last week’s article How to Use Dramatica the Right Way: Part One covers the first piece of advice:

The current version of Dramatica Story Expert sets writers down the wrong path right out of the box. Universe is now a “Situation” and Psychology a “Manipulation.” Faced with these two options, is it any wonder that the neophyte gravitates towards defining the conflict in their psychological thriller as a problematic Situation?

Simplifying the process of working with Dramatica reduces comprehension of the theory's concepts. Dramatica is not easy; making it easier nullifies its effectiveness. Return to the lexicon shipped with the original version and begin to appreciate the true nature of the model.

The second recommendation requires further exploration.

The Difference Between Storytelling and Storyforming

Everyone loves Save the Cat! Others profess an affinity for The Hero's Journey, while a select few rely on The Sequence Method. Some even love Robert McKee & Syd Field.

The common ground in all of these rests within a subjective appreciation of conflict. Subjectivity, by definition, breeds inaccuracy. One man's trash is another man's treasure; one woman's freedom fighter is another woman's terrorist.

These popular approaches to identifying the various structural elements of a narrative focus on Storytelling, not Storyforming. They focus on the experience of the narrative, not the essential ingredients. They rely on feeling, rather than meaning and purpose.

The Dramatica theory of story drives the conversation of narrative towards these ingredients—the base elements that form the message, or intent, behind the work. While not as sexy or engaging as a weekend workshop with a curmudgeon, the theory champions accuracy over appeal.

A compelling story requires both—captivating storytelling and a functioning storyform. Who wants to read structure? And who wants a meaningless experience? The effective writer captures the imagination while delivering purpose.

Using Dramatica's Story Points as Storytelling

The mistake of many is to think of the various story points provided by the Dramatica storyform as actual storytelling.

Every December, a group of Dramatica Story Experts gathers to engage in the process of creating an entirely realized story. In less than two hours, the Story Embroidery Class spins a random storyform from within Dramatica’s Brainstorming features and then, in round-robin fashion, begins to encode the story with unique and sometimes hilarious encodings.

A Main Character Problem of Proven might encourage a participant to offer up Steve so badly wants to prove himself a secret agent that he begins to spy on his neighbors. An Objective Story Issue of Experience might inspire Steve and his buddies lack the experience needed to capture the double agent. The expert or writer grab a story point, invents some storytelling, and then passes it off to the person sitting next to them.

Only one problem: Neither of the above is good enough.

It’s not enough to merely take a Problem of Proven and say so-and-so wants to prove himself—it needs to be an actual Problem. Same with the example of the Issue—realizing that a group of amateurs lack the experience necessary to get the bad guy brings zero narrative drive to the development of the story.

This misunderstanding is the single biggest challenge I encounter when mentoring writers or developing stories: everyone fails to encode these story points as sources of inequity, as real indicators of conflict.

Why is Steve’s motivation towards Proven a Problem? Writers assume that their understanding why assuredness in this context would be a problem is enough—but if that were the case, why even bother using Dramatica at all?

Wasn’t the assumption and the opinionated subjectivity involved in that understanding of certainty as a problem already trending their work towards the lifeless and uninspired?

A Main Character Problem of Proven is not a problem until the writer explicitly makes it a problem. Explain the inequity created by this instance of Proven and define it with specific examples.

Steve so badly wants to prove himself a secret agent that he begins to spy on his neighbors—leading his wife, assuming his late-night antics an indicator of cheating, to toss his possessions out onto the lawn. The group’s lack of experience as secret agents blind them to visible signs that someone tracks them--and a group of rival secret agents beats the snot out of them in a dark alley.

Now Steve’s Problem of Proven is a problem. Now the group’s Issue of Experience is a real issue for them.

Now there is motivation. There is narrative drive. There is an inequity driving conflict and seeking some resolution.

There is a story.

Developing an Instinct for Narrative

This need to encode the story point as a problem extends to every level of the model. If the Objective Story Concern of Steve’s story is Progress, the Embroidery Class might arrive at The group of amateur agents is concerned that things aren’t changing fast enough in their careers.


But then why is that an actual problem? How does this instance of Progress create conflict? Any writer worth their salt will tell you that writing about a group of men stewing on and on about their mid-life crisis paves the way for inevitable failure.

Dramatica is not a subjective point-of-view showing where the characters see conflict—the storyform presents an objective view of friction from the Author’s point-of-view, i.e., where the story considers conflict.

The Iron Giant shares an Objective Story Concern of Progress. Dramatica defines Progress as:

Progress concerns itself with change -- what direction and how fast? It is not so important where things were, are, or will be, but rather how the struggle between inertia and change seesaws over the course of the story.

The paranoia surrounding the Red Menace and the impending onslaught of Soviet aggression motivate conflict in that film. Antagonist and government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) incites panic at every turn with his belief that the metal monster will destroy them all. Eventually, that Concern of Progress—of being taken over by an unknown enemy—leads to the premature launch of nuclear Trident missile.

Concrete, objective examples defining Progress as a problem.

It’s not enough to say that the cast of The Iron Giant find themselves concerned about the Soviet Union dominating the Space Race, that they’re worried about Progress (the “easy” terminology for Progress). This instance of Progress, along with all the other story points within the storyform, shapes the inequity that drives the story forward. The fear of Progress motivates Kent explicitly to scream into the walkie-talkie FIRE!!!—initiating a launch sequence that dooms them all.

Writer/director Brad Bird didn’t use Dramatica to write The Iron Giant, but he sure as Hell understood the need for inequity to motivate the narrative in every scene.

Dramatica’s storyform identifies the nature of that inequity.

Your Guide to Developing with Dramatica

Taking Dramatica’s story points as an easy way into storytelling leaves the writer with nothing. Using the “Easy” definitions furthers the disappointment with mass confusion. The result is a first draft that lies prone, dead on arrival.

An effective Author defines how the story point is a problem. They refuse to rely on neutered definitions that obscure the true meaning of the word and they endeavor to move above and beyond a printed report to infuse their work with careful consideration.

Learning Dramatica without a guide is a chore. The Dramatica Mentorship Program and the hundreds of articles, analyses, podcasts, and videos available here on Narrative First address that challenge. Deliberate Storytelling focuses the serious storyteller on capturing their heart’s most actual intent and finishing a masterful first draft.

The Dramatica theory of story does not make writing stories easier—it makes the process harder. That’s why so many writers scoff and flip their writing desks in anger only a few days or weeks into the experience. Why add to the already tricky struggle of committing thoughts and imagination to paper?

The benefit of sticking it through is immeasurable.

Answering the question, will Dramatica make writing easier?:

The intent of Dramatica is to make writing better, and to shorten the amount of development and rewriting necessary to get to a solid draft of your story. However, it is not a tool designed to replace hard work. In fact, the initial work you will put into developing a story using Dramatica will take more time than writing without Dramatica. Using Dramatica can help solve many story structure problems, and thus reduce the amount of rewriting you need to do in order to produce a solid story. Over the life of a project (or several projects), you may find the development process easier -- and the results more compelling.

Follow the advice presented here on How to Use Dramatica the Right Way and find stable footing for those first initial months. Begin to write better. Once those recommendations become second nature, your perception of story will forever change and you will begin to see the hidden code inside every narrative.

And that’s real progress.

New class begins January 2022!