Why You Shouldn't Care How the Dramatica Theory of Story Works
A look under the hood proves to be a tremendous waste of energy.
Every author that seeks out Dramatica to help them write better stories eventually comes to a point where they resent it. "Why is this program forcing me to write my story this way?"" they ask. "I never wanted my Main Character to have an issue with Expediency…I don’t even know what that means!" Often this resentment leads to the long and winding rabbit hole that is the attempt to perfectly understand the theory.
There can be no greater waste of an author’s energy.
There is an interesting conversation going on within the Dramatica MailList this week.[^defunct] It’s a topic that comes up every couple of years or so, and is one that many people who come into contact with Dramatica eventually consider sooner or later: namely, what is really going on inside the software? Or, to put it another way--how can I trust what this story-writing software is telling me to do?
For those that don’t know, the software program that is Dramatica employs the theory of Dramatica to help you structure a complete story. It poses several questions to you about your story (like whether or not the Objective Story ends in success or failure, or whether or not the Main Character undergoes a major paradigm shift) and based on your answers to those questions, tells you what pieces are missing and how to make sure that you construct a complete and whole story.
Having been a super-fan of Dramatica for over 10 years now, I can say that I’ve done my fair share of trying to unlock the secrets of the theory. I’ve downloaded the patent, I’ve traversed through the mind-field that is Melanie’s Storymind site, and I’ve even started my own blog about it.[^sf] I find the theory fascinating beyond belief and love learning anything and everything I can about it. Why? Because I love great stories and I want to know why some work better than others.
Suspension of Disbelief
And while I mentioned that many authors eventually come to distrust what the theory suggests to them to make their story better, I have never once questioned its authority. I can remember the first time I went through the StoryGuide and I didn’t understand the difference between an Obstacle Character Throughline[^obst] or why wouldn’t every story have a Goal of Obtaining. “Isn’t that what every story is about,” I would wonder, “trying to acheive something?”
But there was something about the theory that just captivated me and made me question my own assumptions about stories. It gelled with my way of thinking. Now, 10 years later, I can say that that small inkling that told me there was something special within the theory was correct. I have seen enough examples and enough analysis of everything from Shakespeare to short stories to TV series to feature films to know that it simply just works.
You could say I’ve bought in.
Understanding How the Theory Works
But even though I trusted it from the beginning, I did always have a fascination with how it all worked. I thought that perhaps if I knew why the software made the choices it made, that knowledge could somehow make me a better writer. I felt that if I somehow was able to absorb all the model was trying to do with story, then it would follow that my stories would be sound structurally. I wanted to know all I could about Mental Relativity and how it could possibly unlock the mystery of story for me.
But I think that now, looking back, it was all a tremendous waste of energy.
Learning Instead of Doing
If you’re a writer, trying to write a story, your time would be better spent writing. I am absolutely convinced that the best way to use Dramatica is go back and forth from the theory to your writing and then repeat if necessary. Because so many of the choices you make are based on a change in perspective, it becomes way too easy to get lost trying to figure out the perfect answer to the question Dramatica poses to you. How can you pick the right answer if the meaning of that answer changes depending on how you are looking at it?
In other words I can think of the Main Character in the story I am writing now, and I can describe his throughline as being a Problematic Situation, a Problematic Activity, a Problematic Mindset, and a Problematic Way of Thinking. All of them work--it just depends on the way I look at it.
So therefore, the only way I am able to come up with the best answer is to actually write the damn thing. For example, there is a story I’ve been working on for several years now. For the longest time I felt paralyzed to write this story because the storyform for it kept on changing.[^me] Granted, the larger parts of the storyform have stayed relatively the same (the MC Resolve, the Outcome and Judgment), but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve switched back and forth between an Action driver and a Decision driver. It’s been stop and go for years because I always felt like I couldn’t write a word until I had the perfect storyform.
Now I don’t care about finding the perfect storyform.
But now I just go back and forth. Write. Analyse. Rewrite. Analyze. And so on. I’m finding that some of the storyform choices that I thought were absolutely 100% correct were in face completely wrong. My waffling on the Driver choice was easy to see once I actually tried to write the scene. "Of course it was a decision that was made, not an action that happened, of course!" It was too easy to shuffle back and forth between the two before I actually had a concrete flesh-and-blood scene to focus on. The point-of-view was locked once there was a piece of work to interpret--not something that was floating around inside my head.
In the current thread on the MailList, one suggested an alternative to make "incorrect" choices. In other words, instead of the software program blocking out choices that would be incongruent with previous choices, the option would be there to allow the user to select whatever their heart desires--wherever the muse takes them. This way you wouldn’t feel forced into writing a story you didn’t want to. Then, at the end, a report would be provided that shows which choices don’t match up well with others.
Now, at first glance, this sounds like a great idea. The geek in me would love to see that report. But as a writer and a lover of all things Dramatica I can see that as not being entirely productive.
As Melanie, one of the co-creators replied:
Short answer is, if you allow one wrong choice, it is like taking a gear out of an engine, or perhaps more like freezing one gear. The whole engine freezes up because all the gears are interconnected. In a sense, Dramatica already has that capability--it is called "not using Dramatica."
Which is really what I’m talking about when I say write first, then analyze. Forget about Dramatica and write from the heart.[^note] Allow yourself to make mistakes and to write scenes that don’t work together so that you can discover the storyform of your story within the process of writing.
Finishing That Story
But at the same time, I think that all this investigation into the theory is a good idea.
One of the purposes of this blog was to do just that - to dive into the theory and really discover what makes it work, why it seems to describe the structure of story so perfectly, and how making certain choices for your story will inform or predict others. For the last 2 1/2 years I’ve done just that, but on a very inconsistent basis. The reason is because after I say, write a post about the Inciting Incident of a screenplay, I’ll instantly want to apply that newfound knowledge to my own writing, to my own stories. After all, the whole reason for learning about Dramatica or buying the software is to write better stories, right?
So while I’ll say that reading the entire 400-page patent or trying to reverse-engineer the story model is a complete waste of time, being inspired by it to write something great is not.
In the beginning years of the theory, the Dramatica MailList housed many of the discussions you can now find on the [Discuss Dramatica forum](https://discuss.dramatica.com)
[^sf]: Originally the daily dramatica blog and later Story Fanatic. [^obst]:
This was way back in ‘96 after all, when the Influence Character was referred to as the Obstacle Character (which is now referred to as the [Influence Character](/perspectives/influence-character-throughline "Influence Character - Appreciations - Subtext"))
[^me]: As it rightly should, as I have changed in the interim as well. [^note]:
I’m really writing this to myself as much as I am to putting this out there. I would love to spend hours "playing" with the program and trying out different combinations for my story…but then the story would never be written.