Author Archives: Melanie Anne Phillips

Narrative Dynamics (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be writing about a whole different way of looking at the Dramatica theory – in terms of dynamics, rather than structure.  In fact, the dynamic model is a counterpart, not an alternative, to the existing structural model with which you may be familiar.

As an illustration of the difference between the two, if you think of the structural model as being made of particles, the dynamic model is made of waves.  If the structural model is seen as digital, the dynamic model is analog.  If the structural model describes a neural network, the dynamic model describes the biochemistry,  If the structural defines the elements of a story (or psychology) and how they relate, the dynamic model defines how the elements transmute or decay into other elements and how relationships among elements are changing.

In usage, the structural model can tell you, for example, that a main character is driven by logic; the dynamic model can tell you how strongly they are driven and how the intensity of that drive changes over time.  The structural model can predict if a story will end in success or failure; the dynamic model can tell you the degree of success or failure.

In a nutshell, the structural model documents the fixed logic of a story’s structure, the dynamic model charts the ebb and flow of its passions.  Cognitive and Affective, Yin and Yang, Space and Time.  Head and heart.

If you are familiar with deep Dramatica theory, you know that all the output of the Story Engine is not made available in the Dramatica software.  In fact, the Story Engine generate quite a bit more information about a story’s structure than it makes available to a user.  What information, and why suppress it?  I’ll answer the second question first.

We suppressed information that was so detailed and dramatically “tiny” that it was beyond the scope or magnification in which authors work.  And, even if someone wanted to work with structure to that microscopic micromanaged level, that information had such little impact that it would almost certainly be lost in the background noise of the storytelling.  In other words, the granularity of that suppressed information was smaller than the resolution of an audience’s understanding.  In short – it would be lost in the translation from structure to finished story.  So, to keep from overcomplicating the story structuring process and having the author do work that would never have a practical impact, we decided this kind of material should not be provided by the Story Engine.

Still, just because authors can’t really apply this suppressed information in a useful manner doesn’t mean the information isn’t accurate, especially when using the Story Engine for psychological analysis rather than just for fictional constructs.  So, here’s a brief description of this information, shared here for the purpose of illustrating the limits of the current structural model at its farthest edges, and then being able to further describe what the developing dynamic model can bring to the table.

What is suppressed: PRCO and 1234.  What the hell does that mean?  PRCO stands for Potential, Resistance, Current and Outcome (or Power).  1234 is the sequential order in which the four items in a quad will come into play.  You see this last part in the sequence of the Signposts and Journeys for each of the four throughlines in Dramatica, but the engine only shows you the output for the “type” level or plot level of a story’s structure – the equivalent of the topics each act will cover in each of the four throughlines.  It is suppressed for all the other levels and all the other quads.  (Though some additional sequential information is also available in the Plot Sequence Report in Dramatica.)

In truth, EVERY quad in the structure appears in every story structure, but some, like the Signposts, are the focus of the story.  And yet, if you watch a story unfold, you’ll see that EVERY SINGLE QUAD in a completely structured story will unfold in a predictable sequential manner.  As a side note, the manner in which we discovered this is an intriguing story I may write about someday, but for the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that every quad in a structure at every level will have a 1234 sequence attached to it, and those sequences will differ from one storyform to another.

But what about the PRCO?  Well, consider ever quad as a little dramatic circuit – not a static thing except in the sense  that an electronic circuit is static – a battery, a resistor, a light bulb and some wire – but the electrons flow through it and the bulb generates light.  Similarly, in a dramatic circuit – a quad – the four items will act as Potential, Resistance, Current and Outcome (Power) and form a flow that moves one moment into the next and generates energy that sparks the next scene or sequence or act.

Now I could go into great detail about how all this works (it is built into the Story Engine after all) – BUT, that’s not the point  All you need to know for this article is that in the process of “winding up” the dramatic potential of the story at large, the model is (conceptually) twisted and turned like a Rubik’s cube so that quads are misaligned in a way that creates the tension that drives the story forward.  Or, in terms of psychology, it describes the conflicting forces that are at work in the mind.

And so, every item in every quad will be assigned a 1234 and also a PRCO.  This means that sometimes a scene will begin with a Potential and other scenes will open with a Resistance or Current or Power.  In other words, 1234 and PRCO are independently assigned because they are not tied together psychologically, nor in terms of fiction.

Back to the dynamic model.  The structural model can only tell you if something is a potential or resistance and the order in which it will come into play.  But, only a dynamic model could tell you how MUCH potential or resistance was present and how long its span of time in the sequence will last: its duration.  Plus, the dynamic model could tell you how the intensity of that potential might be changing and how fast it is changing and whether that speed of change is accelerating.

Stepping back then, it is pretty easy to see the usefulness of this both in charting the collective dramatic intensity of an unfolding story upon an audience’s head and heart, and also the manner in which motivations and decisions, effort and activities reach a flash point or recede in real world individual and group psychology.

Enough for this introductory article.  More soon….

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about narrative science

(Originally published in 2012)

 

No Greater Gift

When they say, “There is no greater gift than to lay one’s life down for another” most people think they are talking about dying, as in sacrificing oneself in war. But I often thought that when we dedicate ourselves to others – family, friends, or a commitment to service – then we are, in a very real sense, laying down our lives for others – one moment at a time.

And which is the greater sacrifice – to have an instant of bravery in which one is not thinking about ceasing to exist and jumps almost instinctively in front of the bullet, the decision to stay behind to run the escape elevator, knowing you will slowly suffocate, or to choose everyday to lose your own life, dreams, even personality, for the benefit of those you love?

I personally believe that later choice is the most noble of all, for it is made alone, within oneself, over and over again each time you awaken.

Sure, we are able to pursue some of our interests to some degree, but the sacrifice is real as we watch the dreams that once drove us pale and fade into impossibility.

Still, the rewards are many – the smiling faces of our children, the peaceful face of our mate when he or she sleeps, the relief (expressed or simply exhibited) by those to whom we have been of service.

I believe we must come to realize that while we may wish our lives had evolved differently or that the choppy seas of fate might have cast us higher on the shore, life is not perfect nor is happiness a right, only the pursuit of it.

And, in the end, if we had chosen any other more self-oriented path we would find the sum total of our lives and the contentment of our hearts would be far less by a magnitude than it is by having laid it down for others instead.

The Dramatica Concept

Over the years there’s been so much sophisticated material written about how the Dramatica theory of narrative structure deals with all kinds of complex story issues that it is easy to forget about the central purpose of Dramatica in the first place.

So, here’s a short article to help those of you new to Dramatica to get a grip on what it is and why its important.

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There’s two parts to stories – the part that gets us all excited (the subject matter and style) and the dry, frustrating part (the underlying structure).

Writers also come in two varieties – the intuitive writers who like to follow their Muse and the logical writers who like to build their stories from the ground up, according to plan.

There are very few folk who do both very well.  We usually call them “Master Storytellers” or John LeCarre or Shakespeare or Aaron Sorkin.

For the rest of us, we usually have some degree of talent in one of the two areas and a noticeable lack in the other.  Me – I’m great at following the Muse, but can’t structure a story worth a darn.

So, twenty years ago, a friend of mine and I went hunting for the answer to story structure.  Along the way, we invented a whole new theory of it called “Dramatica.”

Dramatica says that structure is like the platter on which you serve up your passion and ideas.  Structure is like the carrier wave in radio upon which the program is broadcast.

If structure is done right, it is invisible – just like that carrier way you never hear in a radio program.  But if it isn’t tuned properly, it gets in the way of the program, creating static and drop-outs.  And, you certainly don’t your readers dropping out of your story or stumbling over a logical problem when logic is the last thing you want them to be thinking about.

So, the Dramatica theory deals solely with that dry, uninteresting, but essential underlying “story argument,” because without that sound foundation, even the most interesting subject matter and most intriguing storytelling will collapse.

Well, that’s an introduction to the concept.  What I’m writing these days is like “doctorate level” dissertations – for the following of hard-core structuralists I’ve collected over the years.

Keep in mind, it is all about form, not formula.  It is more like studying good graphic design than paint by numbers.

If you are still interested, I can point you at some good videos and articles I’ve created over the years on the basic concepts.  Just let me know.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about Dramatica Theory

 

Fractal Psychology in the Real World

Here is an early article about a new aspect of narrative science I was developing.  It is based on a previous concept from our Dramatica theory of narrative structure called the Storymind.

The Story Mind asserts that every story has a mind of its own, as if it were some sort of mega character with its own psychology and its own personality.  Psychology is the deep structure, just as it is with real people, whereas personality are all the traits and attributes that stand on that foundation and give the story identity, again as with real people.

In the Story Mind theory, characters have two aspects.  First, each represents a facet of the overall mind.  That is their dramatic function, and it is from this function that we derive the archetypes, such as the Protagonist, Antagonist, Reason, and Emotion.

But characters also have their own personal stories as well in which they are complete human beings, each with his or her own psychology.  And so, when we look at an individual character, we can see that the same attributes they use for problem solving within their own minds are fractally represented in the overall Story Mind, each by a different character.

This led to the notion of Fractal Psychology in which when people come together in a group toward a common purpose, they quickly self-organize so that one character becomes the protagonist in the group, another the antagonist, one emerges as the voice of reason and another as the passionate emotion archetype.

Yet beyond that, groups might come together to form larger organizations in which each group becomes an archetype within the larger organization, like departments in a major corporation, each with an identifiable story of its own.

Over the years, this initial concept has continued to evolve in detail and substance.  But the seeds were first planted some five years ago as of this posting, and one of the first articles I wrote about how that theory was evolving is reprinted here:

Fractal Psychology in the Real World

What characters represent in the Story Mind is not their own psychology but rather just the small fragment of that overall entity. Essentially, in the story at large characters are nothing more than automatons – going about their functions as “intelligent agents” controlled from above (by the structure of the story as a whole).

The reason we do not easily see this is because we endow our characters with human qualities so that we might identify with them. In a sense, we must give each character at least a rudimentary psychology of its own in order for the reader or audience to empathize or sympathize with it.

But, that psychology does not drive what the character does in the story – it merely defines its personality. Personality is like subject matter or storytelling; it is not structure and does not give the character any psychology at all when it comes to its objective function in the overall story.

Another reason we do not easily see characters as objective is because of something I call “fractal psychology” (see my video on my Storymind YouTube channel). The concept is that when we gather in groups, we form a larger Story Mind as the underlying organization of that group and each adopt roles in the group that correspond to the objective characters. For example, one of us will take the role of the voice of Reason and another will be the Skeptic.

Just as characters can be subdivided into their component elements, so too, in larger groups, its members will refine their functions and specialize until all the elemental positions are taken. Then, if the group grows larger, something really intriguing happens. Individuals will form smaller story mind groups within the overall group. So, there will be one “click” or “faction” within the group that collectively act as the voice of Reason and another that functions as the Skeptical voice. Within each sub-group (sub-story) are similarly-minded individuals who all share the same basic attitude. BUT – within each sub-group, the individuals will take on other objective roles so that, for example, someone will become the Skeptic within the group that stands for Reason – essentially he or she will function as the Skeptical voice of Reason.

And finally, as the original large overall group encounters other similarly sized groups, each group will take on a function and collectively all the groups will form an even larger mind.

This is Fractal Psychology – a pet theory of mine. It explains why we are all in a constant complex web of interrelationships with our peers, our superiors and our subordinates, sometimes being driven by our own psychologies, but socially always acting as objective characters.

And so, we expect every character to have a psychology when, in fact, stories are not complex enough for that. Stories are about dealing with a single central issue with a single Story Mind and the agents that make it up. In this level of magnitude, the objective characters have no real psychology, and yet the reader or audience will expect it, for they see the story as a slice of real life in which everyone they know, themselves included, has a psychology. We, as storytellers, then humanize our automatons so that we fool the audience, sugar coat the functions to make it appear as if they are fully developed people when they truly are not.

There are, of course, two exceptions to this – the Main Character and the Influence Character. They are special because in addition to their objective functions, they also represent our sense of self and that small “devil’s advocate” voice within us with whom we argue about whether we should stick with the tried and true, even if it appears to be failing, or adopt the new and promising, even though it has never been tested.

So these two exceptional characters need to be fully developed with their own true internal thought processes. But that, alas, is another story……

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about Narrative Science

Narrative Space in the Real World

In an earlier post I described how the term “narrative space” refers to the breadth and depth of the subject matter from which you will develop a story.  Like a cloud, the subject matter is just the raw material – a nebulous realm in which many story structures might be found.  Think of a story structure as a construct of tinker-toys about the size of a basketball.  And think of a narrative space as your bathtub.  With a tub full of subject matter, you can drop your tinker ball anywhere in it and encircle a different batch of water.  Without changing the structure at all, you can move it just an inch and still change the nature of the particular subject matter you’ll use in making your point.

Now look at it another way.  You have this tub full of subject matter than intrigues you.  You’d love to cram it all into the same story.  But, your ball just isn’t that big.  In other words, you’d need a book the size of an encyclopedia to cover it all, or perhaps a movie 8 days long.  Could it be done, of course!  But should it?  Not if you expect anybody to read it or go see it.

So, you assess your tub.  You’d really like the rubber duck in your story so you put the ball around that.  But, you’d also like that particular lump of suds – it just intrigues you.  You gently push that little bubbly heap into your ball as well.  In fact, you go all over your basin and pull all the water and floating things you’d specifically like into your ball.  Eventually, you can’t get anything new into the ball without pushing something else out.  That is the story equivalent of the speed of light constant.  I call it the size of mind constant, because it describes the maximum size a story can be and still be held at one time in the mind of your reader or audience.

Of course you can always plop another ball into the same tub to gather in a different collection of subject matter.  Thus, by writing a series of books, penning a television series, or hammering out a bunch of movie sequels, you might be able to get almost all the subject matter that interests you covered in one story or another – just not all in the same story!

(Naturally, you could create an over-arcing story structure in which each of the smaller stories becomes just an element in a bigger structure, but then the read or audience won’t be able to see the subject matter detail in the smaller stories at the same time that they appreciate the subject matter in the over-arcing story – just too many degrees of separation or magnitude from the biggest to the smallest to capture in a single glimpse.)

Some of your tinker balls might actually overlap in the tub, like galaxies colliding, in which they each share some elements of story structure.  Others may carve out sections that are completely separated.  And, some may nudge up against each other just close enough to have a topical point of connection.  In the end, though, you need to decide for any given story what subject matter you will include and what you will exclude.  Or, put inversely, you need to determine where in the tub to drop your ball.

Finally, to the point of this particular posting – narrative space in the real world.  By this I do not mean the practical application of story structure in fiction, but the projection of story structure concepts into the actual, physical world of living, breathing people.  Quite a departure, I know.  But recall that Dramatica is a theory of the story mind.  It holds that every story structure is a model of the mind’s problem-solving processes.  Even more, it goes so far as to contend that story structure represents the underlying structure and dynamics of our own minds upon which our unique experiences fashion our singular personalities.

Hey – too talky…  Let me try that a little more conversationally…  What works in story structure works in understanding everyday life as well.  The story mind is the same as our own minds.  It is a fully functional model of how we think – how we organize things in our own heads.  So it should not come as much of a surprise that the way we organize our stories is all the way we organize our lives.

Everything we do in life is represented in stories, at a structural level.  I’m not talking about whether you like red or blue or whether you play football or go bowling – that’s all just subject matter.  (And when I say “just” subject matter, yes I know that is where the passion lies.  We only care intellectually about structure.  In short, our heads are into structure but our hearts are into the subject matter.  Still, we’re talking about the relationship between structure and subject matter here, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter much anyhow.)

Now one person will organize his life in many story structures.  Your life is your tube and you’ll have lots of balls in it – some bigger (up to the size of mind constant, at times) but mostly smaller structures of various sizes.  You’ll have a structure for your parents and one for your kids.  You’ll have a structure for your job and, within that, one for your boss.  You’ll have a structure for your future, one for each hobby, and one for the concept of hobbies in which each smaller structure is an element in the overall concept.

We don’t think about structure, we think in topics and organize in structure.

So, one person will have many nested and isolated structures all bouncing around in his or her head all the time, shifting around the the subject matter of our lives, driven by the passions of our personalities.  But underneath it all, logistically, organizationally, there is sense in the midst of the chaos when you recognize the structures of your life and don’t try to create a “life story” but more like a “life pageant” of the ongoing progression, collision and evolution of all the little stories that make up your pitiful existence.  Oops…  got a little carried away there with the rhetoric….

Point is, one person has many stories.  And within themselves, they can see all the characters you find in stories – the Reason character who represents our intellect, the Emotional archetype who stands for our passion, the Protagonist who is our initiative, the Antagonist (our reticence), the Sidekick (our confidence) the Skeptic (doubt), the Guardian (conscience), and the Contagonist (temptation).

But here’s the fun part – when we get together in groups, us humans take on the role of characters in the group story.  In short, we organize ourselves as part of a a larger group-story because story structure is how we organize.  Sounds recursive, but when you consider that the whole point of stories is to show us how to deal with situations that reflect (at some tiny or grandiose level) our own lives, add to that the notion that story structure evolved because it represents the way we think, and add to that the fact that of course we try to organize our world they way our heads are organized – well then maybe it isn’t so much recursive as it is fractal.  In fact, when I first thought of this concept, I called it “fractal psychology” – that’s my name for it and I’m sticking to it!  (Check out my videos on fractal psychology on YouTube.)

Every time you join a club, participate in a class, get involved in a political party or show up to work, you are taking a role in a bigger story than yourself, but completely like the way your own mind is organized.  So, one of us will be the voice of Reason, another the Emotional (passionate) perspective.  By each taking a role, we cover all the ways we can possibly think about the issues the group faces, we create a “big giant head” a la the old television show Mork and Mindy and populate its roles.

Now if you join an already existing organization, there might not be the position open to which you are best suited.  And, because of seniority (or lack thereof) you have to take a role that isn’t all that natural to you.  But if you don’t, you won’t have a place at the table.  So, you cram yourself into that position as best you can in the hopes that if somebody else leaves or dies or gets kicked out or whatever, when the musical chairs of reorganization occurs you may be able to snag yourself a better seat.

Though these things are always to some degree in flux (like molecules, heated, agitating and vibrating to one extent or another), there is a general inertia to each story system that holds the group together.  In time, like a person, a group may grow old and die, lose its vibrancy, or simply go to pieces.  And then, the pieces will gather together or be sopped up by other groups (again like solar systems forming from the remnants of a super nova) and the process will begin all over.

Now the last notion I’ll lay upon you (hallelujah!) is that even groups gather together in groups.  Cities become States become Nations.  Factions become Movements become Parties.  All of humanity is arranged as nested or separated groups, vibrating and evolving and overlapping as they pass through one another in the great subject matter tub of life.  Seems largely like a mess (if you watch the evening news or try to find a job) but beneath it all, very sound, stable, predictable and consistent patterns are a work, all fractally related to that little bitty brain stuffed into each of our puny heads.  A world within and a world without.

Finally, just to poke the bear one more time, go ahead and write your fictions, shoot your movies, and tell your tales.  But wouldn’t it be interesting to try and apply these same Dramatica principals not only to the realms of your creation but to all creation?  What’s the story with your spouse?  Your job?  Your future?  Which of those countries is the Skeptic in this particular international melee?  How does what happens in my town fit in with what happens in my county, and how does it mesh with the next burg over?

You want to think about it.  You know you do.  (That’s just me falling into the role of Contagonist….)

Narrative Analysis – American Student Released by DPRK (North Korea)

American student released from DPRK (North Korea) – What’s the narrative?

Salient narrative facts:

1. The student is in a coma since March due to botulism, according to DPRK sources.

2. The DPRK has launched 16 missiles in the last few weeks, garnering international concerns.

3. The DPRK recently threatened a first strike nuclear attack against the United States to “protect itself.”

4. The student has been in custody for 17 months and his condition was not known.

Narrative assessment:

The release of the American student, especially in a coma from a cause that creates suspicion of foul play or at least lack of expected protections, is not an olive branch but a further provocation designed to additionally fan the flames of American sentiment against the DPRK.

Clearly, the DPRK is trying to provoke some sort of preemptive action on the part of the United States beyond merely tightening sanctions.

Narrative question:

What is the motivation of the DRPK in attempting to provoke preemptive action against it by the United States, and what are their likely reactions to alternative potential actions?

In previous work we have done for the CIA, NSA, NRO and Joint Chiefs of Staff, this would be the starting point for full-scale narrative analysis of potential scenarios including the creation of a motivation map of the DRPK and specifically of KIm Jong-un, as well as a narrative projection of future behavior , leading to a recommendation of the most effective action plans for United States policy officials.

Most of our analyses, ranging from our presence in Afghanistan to psychological deterrents against Chinese cyber incursions, are largely based on open source material, which holds a wealth of narrative data, hidden within the subject matter, invisible to those untrained in the science and methods of narrative analysis and narrative creation.

Contact us for information about narrative analysis and creation services at narrative@storymind.com

Narrative in the Real World and the Mobius Doughnut

In the early 1990s we developed a new theory of narrative called Dramatica.  Since it touched on the psychology of story structure, we believed that it might also be applied to the psychologies of real people as well as fictional ones.

As background for this hypothesis, Dramatica theory holds that every story has a mind of its own. This Story Mind is made up of a personality created by the storytelling style and an underlying psychology represented by the story’s structure.

This one concept alone, if projected onto real people might help us understand an individual, be it a friend, stranger, or perhaps ourselves. But Dramatica also contends that fictional characters are not only personalities in their own rights, but also must play a second role as a facet or aspect of the overall Story Mind. In essence, each character is a complete mental system, but collectively they join together to form a larger mental system that is not unlike a fractal of the dynamics of each individual character.

From this notion, we developed the concept of fractal storyforms, meaning that not only would characters create a Story Mind when they came together, but a group of story structures coming together would create an even larger Story Mind in which each individual story functioned as a character.

In the real world, we hypothesized, when people come together in groups, they automatically slip into roles that represent different attributes we all possess. For example, one person might become the voice of reason in a group, assuming the role of the group’s intellect, just as there is a Reason Archetype in a fictional story. Another character might adopt the position of the group’s passion, speaking up whenever human feelings are the issue, essentially fulfilling the same character function as the Emotion Archetype.

What’s more, if a number of groups band together in a larger organization, automatically they will begin to adopt roles within the larger organization as if they were characters in a mind, thereby extending the phenomenon up one more fractal dimension. In the real world we call this “fractal psychology.”

Naturally it follows that if Story Minds exist in the real world as well as the fictional world, then might we not best understand their elements and mechanisms by applying the same Dramatica model that has proven itself in the analysis of fictional stories?

Recently, an opportunity has emerged for us to explore the application of our methods for analysis of storyforms to actual situations and organizations. At first, the task seemed simple – just analyze the situations as if they were stories. But it quickly became evident that there are substantial differences in the two endeavors.

Most notably, while the narrative space of a story is a closed system, i.e. a book, a movie or a stage play, in the real world the narrative space is open, limitless. So unlike analyses of fiction, in the real world one must first find the storyform before one can analyze it.

Alas, this brings forth another difficulty. There is usually only one story in a fiction narrative space. Sometimes there can be a sub-story hinged to the main story that is almost wholly independent, yet touches at one point, such as a character who appears in both stories.

In such a case, the character is driven most strongly by its own story, yet still plays a function in the larger story. An example is the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV) in which Han Solo’s debt story with Jabba is hinged (but not part of) the main story about the empire and the rebels.

In this example, Han’s character would never allow him to march into the detention area to rescue the princess EXCEPT that his need for money for his sub-story provides enough sideways motivation for him to act out of character and do something that puts him at more risk. A useful tool for writers, but a complication for analysts of real-world situations.

Further, some fiction narrative spaces can contain more than one complete story, like raisins in rice pudding. For example, in Woody Alan’s movie, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” there is a crime story and a misdemeanor story, each with complete and different structures and different characters that do not affect or interact with the other story. The movie is designed to force the audience to compare the two stories side by side and arrive at a more conundrum.

In the real world, this means that any number of independent stories may co-exist in the same narrative space. One may even conjecture that some real world stories may be sub-sets of others, or perhaps even overlap each other containing some unique and some shared story points.

In short, single storyforms in fiction are idealizations in which there is a single central problem. The unfolding of the story is an argument about the best way to try and solve such a problem. But in real minds and real situations, many problems are constantly emerging, playing themselves out, and passing through each other, like stars in galaxies in collision. Add to this the fractal nature of nested storyforms and you end up with a veritable mess.

And so, the task of identifying and separating a single storyform in the real world, much less the one best suited to answer the questions at hand becomes a daunting proposition.

Decades ago, when we were first trying to model Dramatica’s conceptual structure in some tangible form, we experimented with several physical constructs to represent the elements and their attendant dynamics.

Nowadays, we are all familiar with the recognizable four-tower model representing the four Classes of stories and looking like an odd blending of a three-dimensional chess set and a Rubik’s cube. But how many are actually aware of why Dramatica ended up being presented in this form?

The real story, as it were is that in the very beginning, we began with lists of elements that we observed in story. Then we realized some were higher-level appreciations and others lower-level, like members of a family that all share the same higher-level family name as well as their own. Or, like families of chemical elements in which Fluorine and Chlorine are different elements but have properties similar enough to be in the same chemical family.

But how to build a model of that which satisfied all of the mechanisms that “chemically” connected the elements?

One of the first attempts I made was to get a toroid (a doughnut-shaped piece of Styrofoam about a foot across) and then to wrap a thin metallic foil tape around it in a helix. The foil wrapped around the circumference four times by the time it passed through all four quadrants and returned to the point of origin. This represented one of the four classes.

Three more foil tapes of different colors were added, spaced so that they also wrapped around the toroid in a four-loop spiral without overlapping the others. Each was slightly staggered, so that the beginning of the next color was at the ending of the last color, creating a continuously wrapping “quad-helix” around the toroid until the end of thye very last of the four colored foils connected back to the beginning of the very first, creating, essentially and endless loop.

This was useful because you could see the relationships among elements of different classes when written equally spaced along each of the four colors. But, it was hardly practical to ship a Dramatica Steering Wheel with each software box, it who could use the thing anyway? Besides, this was just an approximation. In fact, to be wholly correct, the toroid would have had to have been wrapped by a mobius strip to include the progressive shift of dynamics in a structure which we came to refer to (in verbal shorthand) as an “inverse with a twist.” Hence, the need for a mobius doughnut.

After that, we shifted to a much more doable visualization of the very same elements and mechanics as a pyramid for each Class of story (for each of the four towers you see today).

To illustrate that each pyramid represented a point of view that the peak that fanned out into a perspective of the “Truth” at the base, we decided to put two pyramids together at the base so they formed a crystal – real new age visualization, that!

This worked much better, but we came to realize that because both points of view were looking not at different sides of the same coin but at the same side from different places, then we ran into problems because the common base that was the interface between them couldn’t be itself and also its mirror image at the same time. And besides, there were four classes, so how could they all share the same interface in a three dimensional model?

We were pretty frustrated. So, we took a clue from Crick and Watson when they were trying to be the first to discover the molecular structure of DNA. At first, they were using X-ray micrographs of DNA to try and see the structure. From that method, DNA appears to be a crystal, just as our model could. And, as we all now know, DNA is a double-helix, while our temporal component is a quad-helix.

We figured with that kind of correlation we were probably on the right track. But, since all that was still too complex for writers, we ended up simply making four towers, sub-divided into smaller and smaller components to illustrate all the familial relationships among the story points. And when we flattened it down to a two-dimensional grid, we presented this alternative view as the Dramatica Table of Story Elements that tens of thousands of writers use today.

And here we were now, twenty years later, looking at an open-system narrative space in the real world, once more trying to visualize a storyform. But not the same as in the closed system of fiction – an inverse version of that. But worse. Because the in fiction, analysis is a closed set and creation is an open set, but in the real world analysis AND creation are BOTH open sets. So, it wasn’t just an inverse, but an inverse with a twist AGAIN! Durn concept keeps coming ‘round to haunt us.

Okay, let’s take that toroid again and stick it in the middle of the real-world narrative space. We have to make it a mobius doughnut in our minds because this doughnut is a very special doughnut because to see the storyform inside, you have to turn the doughnut inside out.

And here, then, is the real problem. You can see the data inside until you turn it inside out, but you can’t turn it inside out because it is genus one with no opening on the surface. You see, if you take an inner tube and take off the valve, you can actually (or at least theoretically) pull the entire inner tube through the valve hole until the inside is on the outside and vice versa. But without a hole, in a true doughnut, there’s no loose thread, no handle, no place to get a grip or begin the process of inversion.

The mobius strip aspect indicates that it would only lay flat upon the toroid if we had one more dimension than three in which to build such a visualization. But, we don’t – not for practical purposes.

And so, we bashed our heads against the wall for some time until after many days of conjecture, we realized that the key was not in finding the best storyform in the real-world narrative space by objective standards, but the best storyform by subjective standards.

In a world of infinite overlapping structures, none is more important than any other until you impose importance upon it. Essentially, as the singer/composer Don MacLean said, “The more you pay, the more its worth.”

As an analog, consider the story creation process in fiction. It is an open system for the subject matter of interest to the author has no limits. Theoretically, this makes it impossible to pick the best story structure because it cannot be objectively determined.

But in practice, who the hell is objective? Rather, authors come to the story creation process because of their subjective interest in the subject matter. Many years ago I used to teach authors that we all get excited by the subject matter, but in truth, all of those bits of information can’t possibly live together in peaceful coexistence in the same story structure. The job of the structuring author is to pick the most important subject matter first, boil it down to story points in the structure and then continuing picking until you hit the point where something you want won’t fit into the structure. This is when the Dramatica Story Engine in the software is doing its job by telling the author, “if you include that extra piece, you’re weakening your own structure – working against yourself.”

So, when Dramatica doesn’t match what you want to do at the lower levels, its not broken. In fact, that what it was designed to do – save you from yourself (save your subjective self from making a big objective mistake!)

Now if we apply that same principal to the open-system real world narrative space, then (using the inverse with a twist) analysis should work the same way. And durned if it doesn’t.

You can’t find a story form in the real world, you have to impose one, just like an author does in creating a fiction. Essentially, what is it you want to know? What question do you want to answer, what process do you want to explore?

In practice, you simply look at the narrative space and decide what you want to know first. Then you turn a data point into a story point that will explore that for you. Then you pick the next piece and the next. You continue picking pieces until you’ve fully populated a storyform.

Of course, in the real world, you’ll never get to a complete storyform before you run out of visible data points. But thanks to the Story Engine, by the time you’ve run out of data that belongs in your subjectively defined story structure, Dramatica will suggest the kinds of data that “should” be out there in the gaps.

If you are writing a fictional story about real events, these gaps will be filled by your own creation. But in an analysis of real world data, these gaps are already filled – you just haven’t observed that data yet, but its out there somewhere, hiding for now.

Therefore, Dramatica is able to tell you more about the real world than you can see for yourself.

In summary then, in both fiction and the real world, no storyform is better than any other until you have a preference for one. In either case, you need to look to the subject matter and build a storyform that best represents the subject matter you’d like to explore.

In short, when building storyforms in the real world, forget all the pyramids and towers and mobius doughnuts – all you have to do is make the one you want.

And in conclusion, it took us weeks of work and took me six pages to describe find and describe logically something every writer worth his or her salt knows intuitively:

Build the story you want to tell.

And Dramatica? It just keeps you honest when your own preference for the subject matter gets the better of making sense.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Originally published in 2011

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