Series of Articles

How to Use Dramatica the Right Way

Taking the easy route only makes it more difficult to grow as a writer

The Dramatica theory of story makes writing harder, not easier. To make the experience of learning Dramatica easier, I recommend two important tasks at the outset: discard the training wheels and go above and beyond what seems to be the purpose of the theory. A great narrative requires careful consideration—the development of your understanding of narrative requires even more.

How to Use Dramatica the Right Way: Part One

Make it harder to learn in order to make it easier to understand.

The Dramatica theory of story is a complex and sophisticated model of narrative. Abstract and seemingly arcane to many, the concepts and terminology repel artists used to feeling their way through a story. And for a good reason—without that distancing effect, the theory loses all sense of its ability to accurately predict the mechanism behind a great story.

Here at Narrative First, writers learn a practical approach to the Dramatica theory of story through the Dramatica Mentorship Program. Part of the program involves traversing the Table of Story Elements from top to bottom to give the student a greater understanding of the feeling behind the terms. The writer learns by sensing the meaning, rather than relying on specific definitions.

At the top of the chart, we find the four Domains, or areas, of conflict in a story. By assigning a Throughline perspective to each of these regions the writer crafts the personality—or Genre—of the narrative. Action/adventure stories feel different from psychological thrillers because their respective areas of conflict fall into separate categories—the former in Physics, the latter in Psychology.

Assuming, of course, you’re using the original terminology.

A New Theory of Story

The Dramatica theory of story sprang out of nowhere in 1994. Conventional thinking at that time relied heavily on the cultural mythos, blended Main Characters with Protagonists, and broke plot down into three Acts. Beyond explaining the deficiencies in each of these axioms, Dramatica brought terms like Universe and Physics to the conversation.

To say it alienated the power base is an understatement.

Even writers—the ones who stand to benefit most from a greater understanding of the story—challenged the theory’s “obscure and inaccessible” terminology, leading Melanie Anne Phillips, one of the co-creators of Dramatica, to answer their concern:

I agree. I believe that any words which are difficult to understand in the semantic chart should be replaced immediately with more accessible words that are just as accurate. For example, Conceiving and Conceptualizing are much too obscure to be of use to the vast majority of writers. They should absolutely be replaced. Unfortunately, I have personally been unable to come up with alternatives. What is needed is an approach whereby writers themselves, having a command of the vocabulary, might suggest replacement words which we could consider.

Enter Situation, Manipulation, Conceptualizing, and the entire family of “Easy” Terminology.

Enter the confusion and degredation of accuracy.

The Blinded Leading the Blind

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?

Section One Part One of the Table of Story Elements Tour in the Dramatica Mentorship Program requires students to watch American Beauty, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, and A Simple Plan. Afterwards, the student determines the four areas of conflict in each film and attach those to the four Throughline perspectives: Objective Story, Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story. The only hint? Each film, though vastly different in subject matter and approach, shares the same alignment of Throughlines.

A recent student, like so many before, confidently placed the Objective Story Throughline of A Simple Plan in a Situation. How else would you define a story about a group of characters who come into possession of a large sum of money that more virulent men seek to recover? An Activity? No, that’s too general. A Fixed Attitude? Certainly not. Manipulation? No way, maybe the older brother. But, if you had to choose one, it seems like they’re all stuck in a no-win Situation.

Seems is the operative word here.

The Lie of Simplicity

As mentioned in the Throughline Analysis of The Prestige:

Remaining locked within the subjective perspectives afforded by the individual characters blinds the observer to an accurate account of the source of conflict.

The “easier” terminology only makes it easier to stay trapped in the subjective point-of-view of the characters. The article The Fugitive: When a Situation Isn't a Situation clarifies this point. It just makes it easier for the writer to be wrong.

Consider the original terminology for the four Domains:

Obscure? Yes. Inaccessible? Thankfully, yes—because that “inaccessibility” keeps us objective about the story.

Writers find it almost impossible to think of their characters suffering through any conflict that is not a situation. Situation, Activities, Manipulations, and Fixed Attitude? You couldn’t find a character that didn’t, at one time or another, consider one or all four of these areas as sources of conflict in their lives. Universe, Physics, Psychology, or Mind would never even remotely enter into any of their conversations.

And that’s just it.

Dramatica’s Domains don’t define where the characters see conflict; they identify where the story—and the Author—sees the conflict.

A Better Sense of the Word

That same writer and student in the Program, when supplied with the original terminology, quickly and accurately identified the source of conflict in A Simple Plan: Psychology. The film is, after all, a psychological thriller. Where else would you identify the battle? Universe?

Same thing happened with his analysis of American Beauty. At first, it seemed as if all the characters in that Academy Award-winning film found themselves in a problematic and inescapable Situation. Once the writer commanded an understanding of the original terminology and had a better sense of those terms, he accurately identified the Domain of conflict in Psychology.

Melanie explains the need to sense, or feel the meaning behind the words in that same post:

the Psychology Class is the hardest to see in a logical mode. But, since Conceiving and Conceptualizing are down at the Type level, they are already two levels into the area in which logic works least well. That means that these areas are really best understood in terms of emotion. I don't mean words describing emotion, but in terms of actually FEELING the meaning, rather than THINKING the meaning.

Those that think the meaning turn to the Dramatica Dictionary and various Storyform Analyses for answers. Those that feel the meaning and separate their experience from the structure by switching to the original terminology find the answers.

The Right Path

The first step towards using Dramatica the right way involves rolling back the program and your understanding of the original terminology. Erase from your mind Situation and Manipulation. Discard Conceptualizing and Changing One’s Nature and Impulsive Responses. Even get rid of Activities—Physics so clearly and elegantly describes the entire spectrum of possible conflict available in this Domain. Why limit yourself to the general and blandly reductive Activity?

Melanie and Chris put a lot of time and effort into delivering an accurate model of narrative.

By all means, we MUST make things more accesible, but I firmly believe we do writers a better service by providing slightly obscure absolute accuracy than by providing slightly accurate absolute understanding. With an accurate model, a certain amount of learning can ultimately provide complete understanding, but with an inaccurate model, the more one learns, the more obscure it becomes.

The more accessible terminology supports an inaccurate model and widespread misunderstanding.

Roll back to move forward.

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.