Unveiling the Narrative Elements of Story Structure

The very words we use hold us back.

The Dramatica theory of story is a complex and sophisticated model of story. Instead of wasting the Author’s time with notions of heroic journeys or requirements to save a cat in an attempt to gather likability, Dramatica seeks to concretize the Author’s purpose—and then graft that intention into the very fabric of the narrative structure.

Elixirs. Bellies of whales. Dark nights of the soul. All pointless and worthless when it comes to breaking down the essential ingredients of a complete story.

One man’s Plot Point is another man’s Refusal of the Call. Gobbledygook to entertain and disinform the masses.

A better approach lies in identifying the Sources of Conflict within the narrative, determining their leverage points, then drafting a narrative structure that works through these essential Elements.

This is where Dramatica comes in.

And it’s where our service built on the theory—Subtxt—assists Authors in writing complete and meaningful stories.

Identify the Source of Conflict. Then build your unique narrative outline around that Element.

No two stories are the same because the meaning at the heart of it all is always different.

Unless, of course, you’re thinking of The Lion King and Black Panther. Those films say the same thing because they’re built on top of the same narrative Element: Avoidance.

The Sliding Scale within an Element

At first, you may think—Avoidance? That’s too narrow a definition of conflict. To which I would respond: your experience with subjective and insufficient story paradigms (like Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat) has clouded your perception of reality.

There are a million different ways to encode Avoidance. Running away. Making an effort to stop someone. Preventing someone. Shirking one’s duties—there’s Lion King and Black Panther again. In fact, the reason why so many rightly point out the similarities between the two films, yet fail to bring Mad Max: Fury Road into the discussion (even though it too argued the same problem about running away) is because the specific Storytelling attached to the narrative Element of Avoid in these two films is exactly the same.

But what about the example of "preventing someone"—how is that an example of Avoid?

The Sliding Scale within a Narrative Element

The narrative Elements defined by Dramatica are less destination and more process. In fact, every Element found within the Dramatica Table of Story Elements is a function, a processing instance similar to functions found within object-oriented programming.

It is the process of avoiding that is creating conflict here—not merely Avoid.

With that in mind, it becomes easier to see that there exists a sliding scale within each of these processes that range from too much of an element to very little, or a lack of that Element.

Avoidance is running away.

A lack of Avoidance is inserting yourself where you’re not wanted.

Too much Avoidance, or an abundance of Avoidance, is preventing something or stopping something from happening.

Multiply this by the hundreds of Storypoints found in the current model and one quickly understands the complexity and sophistication possible within a single narrative.

Elements and their Opposites

Several narrative Elements read as simple opposites. Control and Free. Acceptance and Rejection. Accurate and Deviation.

Faced with these seemingly either/or instances, many Authors wonder where the sliding scale exists. How is a lack of Control not the same thing as Free?

First things first. Free is the closest Chris and Melanie could come to labeling this narrative Element with the elements around it. In truth, Free is meant to embody free or frenzied. Something more out-of-control—

—but again, you see how easy it is to fall back on the opposite, or negative definitions.

The English language was designed by Male Problem-Solvers (males). Its spatial interpretation of imbalance can only approximate force and direction. Our vocabulary of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs is more comfortable identifying the parts and substance.

We're not so comfortable identifying those places in-between.

This reality is reflected in the model. The top half of the model is definite—it’s where the Male male mind finds shelter. Universe. Physics. Obtaining and Doing. Knowledge and Actuality.


The bottom half is alien: Mind and Psychology. Presumption and Thought.


We just don’t have a word that accurately describes this inflection point that isn’t merely a negative, or opposite word. Male thinkers are comfortable with opposites—on or off, black or white, Control or Free. Our foundation is holding us back from a greater appreciation of the totality of conflict.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that understanding the nature of the Elements is more critical than the label applied to the Elements directly.

The Ends of the Narrative Element Scale

A lack of Control is not Free—it identifies a source of conflict emanating from someone not controlling things. And sometimes control is needed. Herding cats for performance requires a fair amount of constraint, and so does a stage mom when she attends a beauty contest involving her children.

These are not examples of Free.

The clearest example of this sliding scale is found between Faith and Disbelief.

A lack of Faith in God does not automatically mean one actively disbelieves in the existence of the Almighty. It merely means they don’t have that belief. They’re agnostic.

Atheists actively disbelieve. God does not exist, and they’re adamantly opposed to that belief. They’re motivated by Disbelief.

Of course, you could argue they possess an overwhelming Faith in the absence of God—which is why it is essential for the Author to set the context for their narrative. Within the context of looking at the existence of God, believers have Faith, non-believers lack Faith, and atheists Disbelieve.

A Look at Equity and Inequity

Two other Elements that seemingly describe opposites are Equity and Inequity. If you don’t have Equity, there must be Inequity, right?


A lack of Equity focuses on the absence of balance or fairness. Inequity describes something unjust or way out of balance for the situation.

Again, context is everything.

Identifying the difference between the two becomes even more challenging when trying to assess which side of the scale is a Problem, and which one is the Solution.

If you can reverse appreciations, how do you know which is the problem and the solution? It seems like you could encode them identically.

Context—the focus of attention in the narrative—is everything.

A lack of Equity is not the same thing as too much Inequity.

Drawing an axis line from the far end of Equity, through the middle of the quad, and extending it out to the far end of Inequity, we begin to develop a more comprehensive understanding of conflict:

  • lack of Equity == favoritism
  • Equity == don't rock the boat
  • too much Equity == participation trophies
  • too much Inequity == slavery
  • Inequity == a splinter in your mind
  • lack of Inequity == I'm ok means you're ok

An Author focusing on the problems of favoritism is not writing about the difficulties of Inequity. In fact, Inequity is how you resolve a lack of balance here. Purposefully treating one child way better than the other resolves circumstances where there was a feeling that things weren’t fair.

Equity is balance. Inequity is imbalance.

They’re not opposites when it comes to narrative, but unfortunately, this is the English language, and these are the constraints Authors need to appreciate.

How else can they be Free in their writing?

I mean, Free.

Originally published 03-26-2019

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