Returning to The Heart of the Matter
Giving up on Dramatica.
Every writer reaches a point where they eventually reject the Dramatica theory of story. Whether it be a particular concept or this sense that it’s all been a colossal waste of time, forgetting about Dramatica seems like the only alternative when it comes to getting on with life. And they’re right.
Because the one thing that governs our life wants nothing to know about how it works.
Our mind thrives on us not knowing it.
Think about it: motivation stems from justification. We blind ourselves to propel ourselves forward in motion. If we understood and were aware of this every time it happened, how would anything ever get done?
We would all sit peacefully, Zen-like in our own personal caves.
We would be at peace.
Dramatica is a model of how we think.
It’s only natural that we wouldn’t want to know anything about such a theory.
I haven’t been annoying you as much lately because I’ve found myself pulling way back from Dramatica.
How dare you?? Dramatica is life! 😆
There are a couple of reasons for this, one simply being that far too many books and movies that I admire (and are admired by audiences, critics, and other writers) end up being largely dismissed in the Dramatica analysis as flawed when they fail to conform to the storyform you’ve identified for it (see Harry Potter and The Maltese Falcon!) I’m not denying the analysis, only that a model that leads one away from those kinds of stories rapidly becomes problematic for me as an author.
Leading one towards a better version of a story is not the same thing as driving someone in the opposite direction.
A flawed storyform does not mean a flawed book. Or a flawed movie. It means an incomplete work—a signal for improvement.
The Meaning of a Flawed Story
The Dramatica theory of story marks a clear distinction between a complete story and a flawed one. The former encodes all Four Throughline perspectives in a way that maintains thematic consistency. The latter often lacks one, or two, of these essential vital perspectives.
The recognition of a broken or deficient storyform is NOT an invitation to run the other way. If anything, it recognizes the presence of something important being said and recommends ways to enhance the experience. A broken storyform means there is still more work left to do.
A flawed story by Dramatica’s standards is one flawed by structure, not by experience.
Separating Structure from Experience
The first Harry Potter novel fails to illustrate a whole argument; the entire series succeeds. Both deliver a memorable and enjoyable experience.
Interestingly enough, the storyform for all seven books is the same exact one identified as incomplete in the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. By the end of the series, Rowling finally understood the need for both Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughline perspectives. She learned to integrate a solid narrative structure with a great experience. She learned to tell her story.
And that’s because Rowling had too—if she wanted it all to make sense and feel emotionally fulfilling.
The only way to bring all those books together and make them mean something is to craft a compelling and complete argument around them. The books need to add up to something, lest the entire experience merely is a diversionary carnival ride.
Like you, Rowling reached that point through experience and intuition—and without something like Dramatica. Yet, she still wrote what is considered a robust and functioning storyform.
She had no choice, really. A storyform, after all, is simply a model of how we think—not a thing unto itself. If she wanted us to gain something meaningful from the series, then she better put it in a form familiar to that thing between our ears.
Does this mean Rowling wasn’t thinking right when it came to the first Harry Potter book? Of course not. But it does say that she wasn’t fully aware of how to construct a complete argument.
She wasn’t thinking fully.
It’s almost as if she knew what she wanted to say, but needed seven books to get it out there finally. That would explain the identical storyforms found in the first book and the series. Sorcerer’s Stone signaled the intention. The series fulfilled it.
By the end, Rowling finally understood how to say what she wanted to say.
Stories That Just Miss the Mark
An effective story structure is not an on/off switch. An argument is neither broken or unbroken. Realizing narrative structure to be an argument, one sees degrees to the effectiveness of both.
Skyfall is really a perfect example of this. Alongside Casino Royale, it’s the most highly rated Bond film of the post-1960’s era.
That’s because they’re the only two films that come close to presenting complete storyforms.
If we want to use the term “good” or the term “meaningful” to apply to a commercial action movie (both admittedly subjective terms), it’s hard not to apply them to Skyfall – just as it’s hard not to apply them to Harry Potter.
I totally agree.
But there are degrees to good and meaningful. And by meaningful, I don’t refer to the subjective notion of how “meaningful” a kind gesture, or a treasured gift is to the individual. I’m specifically referring to the understanding of a thematic Premise statement as presented by an Author. If you can’t make out the entire argument, are you genuinely hearing all that needs to be heard?
Think of it this way: the message, or meaningfulness, of a story, is like a radio broadcast. Some put it on film, while others place it in a book. And some even take to the airwaves through a radio show (or podcast).
That signal, as well-intentioned as it may be, often encounters static and loss of signal. The Audience struggles to dial in the broadcast because the carrier wave is not strong enough. Skyfall and Sorcerer’s Stone merely suffer from excessive static, and a weak signal.
That doesn’t mean the show can’t be heard and enjoyed—only that it could have been better.
In the case of Skyfall, you identify the underlying premise as being centred around fretting over issues of physicality.
This is incorrect.
The underlying Premise of Skyfall is an imbalance of intolerance. In Dramatica, that specific narrative Element of intolerance is Deviation. Think of it as a fancy way of saying “not good enough.”
This Element of “not being good enough” connects both the subjective Main Character perspective with the objective Objective Story point-of-view. Bond’s not being good enough as a secret agent ties in thematically with MI-6 not being up to the task of dealing with modern-day terrorism.
Complete stories find a way to resonate the objective with the subjective. Skyfall sets this potential up, but then fails to follow through until the very end. The subjective falls prone to static in the middle of the film.
But both you and I recognize that nobody – not the audience, not the critics, not the writers – think that’s the case and that the far more observable thematic question is about “the old ways of spy work versus the realities of the modern age.”
Structure is not a question; structure is the answer to a question. You can’t structure a story around its potential—but you can around both its potential and outcome.
Besides, I wouldn’t be so sure to say that the writers of Skyfall were not trying to connect Bond’s personal issue of aging out with MI-6’s approach to counter-terrorism. Whether or not they fully understood the mechanics of that decision, the fact remains that the relationship between the objective and subjective exists within the film.
And to further address of what approach is more appropriate for building a story—I would never try and cook a meal only thinking of how well it tastes.
I would want to know the ingredients, sauces, spices, and how much to put into the pot and when.
I would want to know the recipe.
The storyform is a recipe for meaning.
Giving Form to Purpose
Suppose, for a second, that the creative process is 100% intuitional, and the writers of Skyfall never once stepped back to look at their work objectively. The point of studying narrative from this objective Dramatica point-of-view is to understand why one story works better than another. It’s an understanding of the Author’s intuition.
Why wouldn’t you want a better understanding of yourself?
But if the Dramatica response to this is simply – as you put it – “I know that argument half-baked and deficient as it fails to encode the Main Character Throughline context of Universe completely”, then how is any serious writer of fiction to view that other than to say, “well, if I’m choosing between satisfying Dramatica and satisfying my own artistic impulses, critical sensibilities, audience enjoyment, and financial success, then adios Dramatica”?
Because there is more to writing a story than a solid narrative structure.
And because you don’t choose one over the other.
In fact, you have no choice—you are always forming the meaning of a story when you set out to tell a story.
The Journey of a Story
Dramatica theory categorizes the journey of a story from Author to Audience into four parts:
- Story Reception
The first two fall under the broader category of Storyforming, the second under Storytelling.
Artistic impulses, critical sensibilities, audience enjoyment, and financial success are all factors of Storytelling, not Storyforming. You may think your sensibilities a part of forming a story, but they’re really just an amalgamation of all the stories you’ve experienced in your life. They are your Reception of other Authors’ work.
Now, there is a part of you formed by those experiences, that does know the letter of your Storyform. The specifics elude you because they seem lost in “the subconscious.” Dramatica codifies those seemingly impossible to understand impulses and helps you better understand what it is you want to say with your story.
Dramatica theory makes manifest your subconscious.
Can you – through the lens of Dramatica – devise an argument that fretting over issues of physicality (apologies for the poor phrasing of your premise so feel free to correct me) is more accurate than the underlying conflict being about “the old ways of doing spy work versus the realities of the modern age”? Sure, I guess. But this to me points to a critical flaw in that form of analysis: it will privilege the premise statement that appears logically perfect over the one everybody actually sees and – more importantly – cares about.
Everyone cares about meaning. “Old vs. new” means nothing—it’s not even a statement. “Old vs. new” is just a juxtaposition of two competing truths.
Knowing that giving up being good enough leads to Triumph is a truth. It’s one truth that can be argued explicitly within the context of a single story. Show instances where coming from a place of not being good enough leads to conflict, and then offer examples where giving that up solves problems.
And that’s precisely what the Authors of Skyfall did.
Instead of “logically perfect,” think fully-formed and complete. “Old vs. new” provides a jumping-off point, a diving board for exploration.
The storyform makes sure you fill the pool with water first.
The Privilege of the Premise
Many Authors mistake the purpose of the Premise. They assume the message to be for the Audience. If that were the case, then why not tell them directly, instead of wasting everyone’s time with a story?
The Premise is for the Author, not the Audience.
The privilege of the Premise, therefore, lies in the process.
If you write with a vague understanding of “old ways of spy work vs. the modern age,” you are no better off than writing from a blank page. That “theme” gives you nothing more than a moving target to hit.
And that’s why it takes several drafts to figure out what it is you want to say about “the old vs. the new.”
Knowing the specific narrative Element of the Premise to be “not good enough,” Dramatica lays out a detailed structure from beginning to end. You know the exact content of thematic exploration in the second half of the Second Act, just as much as you know how the central relationship of the story will develop over time.
All from a single Premise.
It’s merely a matter of how much time you want to spend finally getting to that point.
You’re going to end up doing that work anyways (if you want your story to mean something), why not use a tool specifically designed to help you get to the heart of the matter?
You can make the argument all day long that Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone is an incomplete storyform because from Dramatica’s perspective it lacks a relationship story that fits Dramatica’s definition. But everyone who’s ever watched that movie or read the book is going to come back with, “The relationship is between Harry and Ron + Hermione in which three semi-outcasts (Ron = poor, Hermione = half-muggle, Harry = awkward new kid) form a friendship so strong they’re willing to risk their lives for each other". Does that satisfy the Dramatica definition? Maybe not, but it’s incredibly moving and satisfying to readers and audiences on many levels.
To be clear, the most significant deficiency in the narrative structure of Stone is the weak Influence Character Throughline perspective. The Relationship Story Throughline between the kids is fairly well illustrated.
Past analysis of the book and film may have conflated Influence and Relationship Story perspectives. Before my work earlier this year, the assumption was that the Relationship perspective always consisted of the relationship between the Main and Influence Characters. We know now (or, at least, understand better) that these are perspectives first, characters, and relationships second. Harry’s friends function well as part of the Relationship perspective—not so much as the challenging Influence point-of-view.
Lastly, the “satisfying and moving” quality of the kid’s relationship in the first Harry Potter is again a factor of experience. It means nothing within the context of narrative structure.
And Dramatica is all about narrative structure.
Audience Reception is the furthest thing removed from the storyform. It’s important to the fans and Authors who want to sell books, but in the formation of a story, it’s the one thing least in control of the Author.
Forming a coherent argument and realizing integrity throughout its construction?
That’s 100% in the Author’s hands.
As Authors, we set out to say something about the world. Dramatica theory helps us return and realize the original source material for that impulse: our mind.