When Synthesis is Not Enough (Hint: Always)

The model of our mind that is a story.

Stories convey meaning—something important that adds value to our lives. Telling you that resolution resolves conflict is no more additive to your life experience than 2+2=4. Yet, many continue to generate this line of thinking with the Hegelian Dialectic and its "insightful" progression of a thesis to synthesis.

Working towards synthesis is like working towards the end of a meal. We know it's coming, and we know how it will make us feel—but what does it actually mean?

What have you added to your life?

The previous article in this series, Theme Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry, makes a case for Authors to move beyond the superficial elementary understandings of narrative structure found in something like the Hegelian Dialectic:

The Dramatica theory of story goes deeper to describe the nature of those ideas, and the meaning behind the eventual synthesis. With this approach, an Author gives up talking around what motivates them to write and instead, addresses the true nature of their story's conflict.

Hegel's synthesis simply doesn't go deep enough. It's an excellent start, but if you really want to write something meaningful—and know what it is you're writing about—Dramatica is the way to go.

The Failure of Synthesis

The Hegelian Dialectic continues to connect with writers because it offers up the feeling of narrative structure. Like it's brethren the Hero's Journey, the Nutshell, and Save the Cat!, the Hegelian brings comfort to the writer's journey. If you understand thesis and anti-thesis, surely you know how to write the next scene; you know how to finish your book. Unfortunately, these loose approximations of conflict resolution fail to get to the root motivating force of a story.

They support the writing process—they don't help it.

Consider this response from an earlier discussion regarding Skyfall and the "synthesis" that eventually resolves the conflict in that film:

The synthesis in this case comes from the integration of old tactics which gets exemplified at the end when the new M turns out to be the very same guy who was critical of the old M earlier in the movie for being out of touch yet he's willing to work with Bond. Throughout the whole movie we're dealing with this tension between new tactics and old and come to the resolution that you need a blend of both in a modern, dangerous world.

While the conversations between Bond and Q about technology play a part in illustrating the objective view of the conflict in Skyfall, they fail to factor into the conclusion of the story. Same with the conflict between Mallory and M and the strife between Mallory and Bond. Their interactions function as Subject Matter, or topics of conversation, floating on top of the actual narrative argument.

Those conversations are not what is driving the narrative—in large part because ** they're not what resolves the conflict in the story.**

The entire last act of the film is a solely brute force (the set-piece at Skyfall). How do the shootout and ensuing destruction help make the argument that the way to win is to synthesize the old approaches with the new ideas?

They don't.

Yet the Hegelian Dialectic would have you believe that a synthesis of old and new somehow solves the problem of Silva. I get that Mallory (new M) is going to be doing things a different way—but that's not how the story resolves it's conflict.

My description of the synthesis in Skyfall was a bit weak, and you're right to point it out. That said, the thematic conflict the audience is experiencing is very much "can the old ways survive in a new, technologically-driven world?" In terms of synthesis, we come out the other end with the sense that this has been answered – perhaps merely with a "the old ways are still important but you have to be open to working with those who are part of the new ways, too."

This sounds nice—but how did that stop the bad guy terrorist? More importantly, how did they arrive at this synthesis? The working Authors wants to know what to write next—and a simple notion of synthesis gives no indication of the process that led to it.

Any number of writers could write the same story described revolving around old vs. new, and have it turn out to be a completely different experience. Not simply because they're different writers with varying levels of talent, but rather that their approach towards arriving at that conclusion would be different.

Some would see that synthesis as an issue of Faith, others might see it as a need to let go of the Past. That shift in focus naturally calls for a different approach to narrative structure.

The Dramatica theory of story (and Subtxt) is interested in helping the Author identify what approach he or she wants to take on the way towards that Premise, or synthesis. Those choices set the entire structure of their piece, allowing the Author to find and fix weak spots in the narrative.

A Model of Ourselves for Ourselves

When it comes to appreciating the narrative structure of a story, the quality of the resolution is key.

Again, you raise a good point here about what ultimately resolves the conflict, but it's so buried beneath the surface that I wouldn't be able to construct Skyfall from it at all. What my writerly brain sees in that movie is: "Everyone believes the old spy ways are outdated and irrelevant, but now we're going to show Bond going back to even older ways to kick the ass of the guy who represents the rejection of the old ways."

Some writers feel inspired to write because of something they want to say; others feel inspired by a bit of dialogue or an entertaining action scene. Stories need both and Dramatica makes no attempt to capture the essence of the latter.

If you seek an understanding of your story that allows you to write with ease, then choose the one that wants to know your story. Dramatica can't help you structure scenes until it knows for sure what it is you're trying to say with your work. What you mean to say is what holds it all together—and Dramatica brings light to your intentions.

Synthesis just pays lip-service to what is a complex and multi-faceted process.

The process of our mind at work.

Originally published 09-10-2019

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