The Truth about Dramatica and the X-Files
The conspiracy to keep secret the hidden code of narrative structure.
Nowadays, photographic evidence isn’t enough. With the advent of Photoshop and digital photography, anyone can claim ownership of the truth. In order to convince someone that a conspiracy exists, even one related to something so inconsequential as story theory, the whistle-blowers of today need cold hard facts and an airtight case.
There were always two kinds of X-Files episodes: the Myth, or Conspiracy episodes and the Monster, or Stand-Alone episodes. While the Myth stories were always enthralling (especially since I was in my early 20s and therefore believed in the reality of conspiracies whole-heartedly), it was the Monster episodes that were always my favorite. Even to this day I can remember story lines that I haven’t thought of in almost 10 years. Why? Because most of those episodes were complete stories in and of themselves. They provided me with a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling conclusion - the hallmark of a Dramatica structured story.
That being said, this one episode, entitled “Milagro” was all about one word to me…
Why this one word?
The dictionary defines Preconscious as:
The memories or feelings that are not part of one’s immediate awareness but that can be recalled through conscious effort.
Contrast this with Dramatica’s definition of Preconscious, which, if you haven’t “moused-over” the easy-definition above, is:
immediate responses — Built into the mind is an instinctual base of reactions and attitudes that cannot be altered but merely compensated for. When a story’s problem revolves around the unsuitability of someone’s essential nature to a given situation or environment, the central issue is the Pre-Conscious. The solution lies in the character conditioning himself to either hold his tendencies in check or develop methods of enhancing areas in which he is naturally weak in reason, ability, emotion, or intellect. — syn. unthinking responses, immediate responses, impulse, impulsive response, instinctive response, innate response, reflex
I posted the entire definition so you could get a feel for what Dramatica is really going for with this word, and, so you could see the difference between it and the commonly accepted definition. The former concerns itself with memories or feelings that are brought about through conscious effort. The latter concerns itself with immediate, instinctive responses to a stimulus.
So how does this tie back into the X-Files episode?
The Truth Exposed
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
As a brief recap, this episode is about a writer, Phillip Padgett (John Hawkes), who has a rare supernatural ability: whatever he writes about, happens. This would be fine if it were not for the fact that Padgett is writing a murder mystery and that his Main Character is none other than Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). The serial killer in his story could or could not be the Stranger, a mysteriously hooded figure who captures Scully’s interest. A romance develops between them - a romance that can only end in murder.
In this first scene, Padgett writes about Scully’s reaction to a charm that was mysteriously left for her:
(Original video cutscene not available)
Note the use of the word Preconscious!
Here’s a screen cap with the subtitles turned on:
This whole scene is about Scully trying to fight her impulse to accept this token in the manner in which was given - as an act of love:
Preconsciously, she knew this wasn’t her strength as an investigator. She was a marshall of cold facts, quick to organize, connect, shuffle, reorder and synthesize their relative hard values into discreet categories. Imprecision would only invite sexist criticism that she was soft, malleable not up to her male counterparts.
The conflict here revolves around her “girlish” impulses and how giving into those would affect the opinions of the men in the office around her. She wants to give in, but doesn’t want to be thought of as an “impulsive” stereotypical female.
Even now, as she pushed an errant strand of titian hair behind her ear, she worried her partner would know instinctively what she could only guess. To be thought of as simply a beautiful woman was bridling, unthinkable. But she was beautiful… fatally, stunningly prepossessing. Yet the compensatory respect she commanded only deepened the yearnings of her heart… to let it open, to let someone in.
Sounds more like Dramatica’s definition, doesn’t it?!
I remember so clearly that, when this episode first aired, I turned to my wife and said, “Did he just say what I think he did?!” Of course, she looked back at me like I was an idiot (”Why can’t you just enjoy a movie instead of analyzing it all the time?”), but I couldn’t help myself. The use of the word Preconscious just blared out to me…and it was used as an adverb! You could easily replace “preconsciously” with “instinctively” and the line would mean the same. But the writer of this episode was going for “flowery” prose with Padgett’s character and “preconscious” probably just seemed to fit better.
I was also aware of the connection between X-Files and the concept of Mental Sex. In short, Mulder and Scully used the opposite problem-solving process from their gender; Scully was a Male Linear thinker, while Mulder was a Female Holistic Thinker. And I was aware of another episode (my favorite one of all time) that was also a complete story in and of itself - Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. So I knew that the X-Files fit quite nicely into the paradigm of Dramatica.
But this is only one example. It could be tossed away as a fluke, a surprising, yet undeniable coincidence…unless there was some other kind of evidence….
How about three more pieces of evidence?!
As explained in part one of this X-Files analysis, Dramatica sees four structural acts in a Throughline. For this example we’ll be focusing on the Main Character Throughline of Dana Scully. In this episode, Scully’s throughline exists in the Mind, or Fixed Attitude Domain. Why? Problems arise for Scully because someone has developed a creepy obsession with her. This fixed attitude is the source of her problems in this story. The Mind domain looks something like this:
As you can see there are four Concerns, four acts that will be traversed in the course of her throughline. You can go in any order you want, but each concern will only be visited once.
The first act consisted of her dealing with the problems of her Preconscious and her attempt to quell those instincts. Let’s move forward in the episode to find out what her second act deals with:
(Original video cutscene not available)
Well, well, well…does someone own a copy of Dramatica?!
Here’s a screen cap with the subtitles:
Now we’ve moved into the Subconscious which Dramatica defines as:
Subconscious — basic drives and desires — Subconscious describes the essential feelings that form the foundation of character. These feelings are so basic that a character is often not aware of what they truly are. When the Subconscious is involved, a character is moved right to the fiber of his being. — syn. libido, id, basic motivations, basic drives, anima
Sounds exactly like what Scully is dealing with in this scene.
You’d have noticed this church in passing and though parking is always a problem in this part of town, your special privileges would make it easy to visit… not as a place of worship, but because you have an appreciation for architecture and the arts… and while the grandeur is what you’d take away from your visit… this painting’s religious symbolism would have left a subconscious impression, jogged by the gift you received this morning.
This is Padgett talking, but remember, Scully is a character in his story. This is clearly a Main Character moment. Scully is trying to reconcile her developing feelings and desires for this weird “stranger” with her basic drive to be cool and collected.
Scully’s throughline has now moved into the Subconscious. The other throughlines (the Objective Story, the Influence Character, and the Subjective Story) would all have moved into their second concern as well. But again, for the purposes of this argument Scully as Main Character is what we are most interested in.
We’ve traversed the Preconscious and the Subconscious, which only leaves us the Conscious and Memories. Wonder which one will show up for Act 3?
(Original video cutscene not available)
This is more creepy than the episode itself!
Scully’s character has now moved into her third concern: the Conscious.
She’s dealt with fighting her instincts, and then fighting her growing desires, to now, where she’s actively considering this “stranger.” How can she be falling for this writer? It’s not like her to be thinking these things.
She’s performing an autopsy but her mind is obviously somewhere else.
But if she’d predictably aroused her sly partner’s suspicions, Special Agent Dana Scully had herself… become simply aroused. All morning the stranger’s unsolicited compliments had played on the dampened strings of her instrument until the middle ‘C’ of consciousness was struck square and resonant. She was flattered. His words had presented her a pretty picture of herself, quite unlike the practiced mask of uprightness that mirrored back to her from the medical examiners and the investigators and all the lawmen who dared no such utterances.
Scully finishes the autopsy and looks at the charm.
She felt an involuntary flush and rebuked herself for the girlish indulgence.
Dramatica’s definition of Conscious describes this scene well:
Conscious — considerations — When one has all the facts, knows all the impact — both positive and negative; when one is fully aware of detrimental consequences and still decides on the poor course of action, there is something wrong with the way one arrives at conclusions. This is the subject of stories focusing on the Conscious. The key here is not to redefine who a character is but to lead him to relearn how to weigh an issue so his conclusions are less destructive to himself and/or others. — syn. considerations, sensibilities, cognizant, ability to consider, sensible, informed contemplation, contemplation
The Final Act
So it would follow that, if we’ve moved from Preconscious into the Subconscious and then into the Conscious, the only Concern left to visit would be Memory.
This is one of the most powerful aspects of Dramatica - the ability to predict a story’s throughline. And it isn’t just random happenstance that produced this plot progression. There are numerous other factors involved - the Main Character’s Resolve, the Story Driver, the Subjective Story Problem - all these things come together to create this one storyform. If you’ve seen this episode you know how right it feels. Granted, it’s not going to save the world, but as a story, it simply sings.
I knew the story had to end in Memories for Scully, but as I discussed in my article on brainstorming your way through Dramatica, I had difficulty finding it. Now, my “A-Ha!” moment from that article was not about this final concern, but it did help solidify my understanding of the story. I was looking for the correct item, but I was looking in the wrong place.
Towards the end of the story, Mulder apprehends Padgett under suspicion of murder. They take him in for questioning, with Mulder playing bad cop and Scully playing good cop. There is a moment where Padgett catches Scully lightly touching Mulder’s arm. She’s trying to keep Mulder from attacking Padgett, but it’s the kind of gesture only shared between intimate friends. It’s a beautiful moment that speaks of an unrequited love that will, unfortunately, remain unfulfilled. Padgett realizes that there is no way Scully would ever love him, she’s already in love with Mulder.
As Scully goes over Padgett’s paperwork, she is handed a note:
There it is…Memory. The final concern in Scully’s Four Act Structure.
As Dramatica defines it:
Memory — recollections — The Past is an objective look at what has happened. In contrast, Memories are a subjective look at what has happened. Therefore, Memories of the same events varies among individuals creating many different and possibly conflicting recollections. Often one’s current feelings come from memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. Many a taut story revolves around a character’s effort to resolve open issues from his memories. — syn. linear reasoning, rationality, structural sensibility, syllogistics
And that’s precisely what Scully is dealing with here at the end.
It’s a sad scene - one that speaks of loss and the recollection of “promises” now rescinded. While the young teenage girl is the victim in this murder, it is obvious that it is Scully he is referring to. Padgett wanted her to read the note because he knows that for all intents and purposes, their potential love affair is now over. Scully’s brief encounter with a love she instinctively wanted will now only live as a fleeting memory.
Grief squeezed at her eggshell heart like it might break into a thousand pieces, its contents running like broken promises… into the hollow places his love used to fill.
EXT. GRAVEYARD - NIGHT
Maggie stands alone in the darkness beside Kevin’s flower covered grave, crying softly. She looks up and sees the stranger approaching her.
How could she know this pain would end? That love, unlike matter or energy, was in endless supply in the universe… A germ which grows from nothingness which cannot be eradicated even from the darkest of hearts. If she had known this â€” and who could say she would believe it? â€” she would not have chanced to remain at his sad grave until such an hour, so that she might not have to learn the second truth before the first; that to have love was to carry a vessel that could be lost or stolen… or worse, spilled blood-red on the ground. And that love was not immutable, it could become hate as day becomes night, as life becomes death.
(Milagro Act Order - image missing)
The throughline is complete. We’ve travelled with Scully along her emotional journey - one that took her from her instincts to her desires to her thoughts and finally, to her memories. The story is over and we, as an audience, are emotionally fulfilled.
What more could a writer hope for?
The point of all this is not that the writers of this episode cheated or that Dramatica wrote the story for them. The point of this whole article is to point out how seamless and how smooth the transitions feel between these acts. The act progressions feel natural.
For all I know, Chris Carter and his excellent writers may have never even heard of Dramatica. But the move from the Preconscious into the Subconscious, then into the Conscious and finally Memory is deliberate. If they were unaware of the theory, their natural instincts as writers served them well, and produced a wonderful story. Either way, it’s the only path they could have taken to give us this satisfying and heart-warming ending.
Dramatica only helps to clarify it.