Blog Post

Stories Are A Model For Survival

Oct 9th, 2015

In a follow-up to my article on Dramatica and What It Means for Story, someone named JAG came to my rescue with an unbelievably intelligent summary of our favorite story theory. I reproduce it here in its entirety under the assumption that it will eventually be removed from the Hatrack Writers Forum. If you have anything to add to the discussion I encourage you to head over there and sign up--they're a very welcoming group.

Here's JAG (emphasis mine):

Dramatica Theory is an independent construct, wherein the creators represent stories as models of the human mind. More specifically, they are models of the activity of the human mind as it struggles to resolve an inequity, anomaly or breach of some kind. They describe a scenario where one of our prehistoric ancestors encounters a bear on the trail. This is an unstable confrontation. Something has to give. Our ancestor has two basic options: either she can change and the world can stay fixed, or the world can change and she can stay fixed. The core categories are self and world, stasis and change (as also examined by Strickland, 1989).

This is a textbook explanation of Dramatica and is something I used to teach the first day of class when I taught story at the California Institute of the Arts. You can tell JAG pays attention! It's better than anything I could write. He continues:

Another way to explore this drama of confrontation is to consider the difference between primary and secondary control. If our ancestor exerts primary control, the she forces the world to change, i.e. she can drive off the bear. If she exerts secondary control, she can change the situation by changing herself, and run away. Whichever way she sets her mind, she has to manage her internal reactions and her external actions. She may also try to influence the internal reactions and external actions of the bear (e.g. by playing dead). If she manages all of these horizons of activity in a successful manner, and she returns to her band’s campsite intact, her bandmates will want to know what choices she made and why, as well as what the challenges and outcomes were in making these choices. They will want to learn about and enhance the controllability of events (Girotto & Rizzo, 1991). Stories impart knowledge about the structured concerns of challenging events, and thus impart survival value, much as other forms of social learning do (Steadman & Palmer, 1997; Sugiyama, 2001a; 2001b).

This is why we have stories. And why we can't stand it when they diverge from this problem-solving model ... they become pointless and scattershot.

This is a base and rough exposition of how the Dramatica theory of story structure represents story Themes. In addition to Theme, the theory of story structure also describes models of Character, Plot and Genre. Dramatica also encompasses other theories besides the theory of structure, such as theories of storytelling, story-weaving (the art of exposition) and story reception. The overall model is very rich, and in some ways it defies summary, given how involving and how unique it is as a framework for understanding and writing stories. Dramatica suggests that a richer understanding of event structure is possible – one that might help us understand much more about the human need and capacity for stories.

I want to cry tears of joy.

Fight or Flight

A grumpy old man countered the story of bear survival with the argument that the decision is simply one of "fight or flight". JAG came back with another doozy:

"Fight or flight" does not render humans automatons, capable of only running or fighting. At best, that's a childlike interpretation. "Fight or flight" manages the release of hormones from the medulla of the adrenal gland, triggered by sympathetic nerves. These hormones can trigger increases in heart rate and breathing, constricting blood vessels and tightening muscles. And while an abundance of the hormones can facilitate some spontaneous or intuitive behaviors of preferred combat or escape, they don't shut down one's cognitive abilities. The human mind does not stop thinking or trying to solve problems.

Characters are either problem-solving or justifying (hiding the problem). Understand this and you'll understand the structure of a story.

Having myself encountered a grizzly bear in the wild, "fight or flight" caused a hyper alertness and awareness and with regard to cognition, it sharpened my thinking process. Hundreds of scenarios played through my head simultaneously. At no point did I become a mindless drone, incapable of thought. I was always problem solving, doing so at a heightened level. Side note: when hiking off the beaten path in Yellowstone National Park, always, always carry bear spray.

Comedy too? This JAG is great!

He ends the entire discussion with a wonderful and salient point:

I can't provide the acknowledgement you're looking for on behalf of Dramatica's creators to Stanislavski, deserved or not. And, truly, I'm not interested in any of that. It won't make me a better writer. However, I believe an appreciation and understanding of the Dramatica theory will.