Narrative structure has, at its core, a code not unlike that of DNA.
We first documented a model of this DNA of story in our 1994 book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story, concurrent with the release of our Dramatica software, which implemented the model as a patented interactive story engine that enabled writers to design the genome of their stories’ narratives.
Today, more than twenty years later, there is still much confusion as exactly what Dramatica is, though the model has been successfully used by more than 100,000 writers around the world, on best selling novels, on motion pictures with billions of dollars of collective box office, and most recently by the CIA and the NSA in applying narrative structure to understand and anticipate the actions of terrorist groups and lone wolves.
To help clarify the nature of the Dramatica model, I’ve prepared the following short list of points that may provide a framework from which to appreciate what Dramatica really is:
First, think of the Dramatica model as the DNA of story.
This is not a loose analogy.
In organic genetics, the model of DNA is not a specific genome but a description of how genomes can be formed.
The model of DNA is (in part) defined by having four bases and a double-helix assembly. And this is the level at which the Dramatica model functions as well.
Dramatica is the DNA of narrative structure. It is a quad-helix arrangement with four bases. It describes how narratives can be formed.
From it, you can build specific narrative genomes for species of stories, just as you can create a human genome or one for a cat.
The model of DNA does not change in the case of a human or cat genome just as the model of Dramatica does not change in the case of any given storyform.
Dramatica is not a specific narrative structure – it is a model of DNA from which specific narrative structure are created.
Just as a specific genome holds the instructions for building a particular creature, so too, a specific storyform holds the instructions for building a particular narrative.
In biology, DNA is not weighted. There is no greater tendency for DNA to create a particular genome over another. That is the job of evolution.
Similarly in story, Dramatica is not weighted. There is no greater tendency for Dramatica to create a particular narrative over another.
However, in biology, there is great genetic variance within, for example, the human genome. So, while we can easily identify a species by its DNA, the genetic variance leads to differences in height, weight, bone structure, hair color, and even unseen attributes such as tendencies toward certain diseases.
In species, genes are specific expressions of their common genome, which creates variance among individuals within a species.
In stories, the subject matter and storytelling style are specific expressions of a common narrative, which creates variance among individual stories told from the same storyform.
And so, systems that seek to understand narrative by finding common traits among finished stories is like trying to understand genetics by finding common traits among all animals.
In 1991, we began our three-year exploration into the nature of narrative structure, eventually having a “Eureka!” moment in which we realized that while each character has a full complement of human mental traits, in the story at large, they each function as but a single facet of an overall mind, the mind of the story itself – a story mind.
This occurs in narrative because it occurs in real life, and narrative is our attempt to map out and find meaning in understanding ourselves and our interrelationships with others.
In real life, we each possess the same basic traits such as Reason, Emotion, and Skepticism. And we use all of them to try and parse our problems and discover solutions.
When we gather together in groups toward a common purpose, we quickly self-organize to become specialists, so one person emerges as the Voice of Reason for the group, and another as the group’s resident Skeptic. This provides the group with much greater depth and detail as it explores its issues than if all the members of the group remained as general practitioners, trying to cover all the bases to a lesser depth as we do for our own individual problems.
So, the group organization becomes a map of how individuals interact in society, and the specialties within the group define the traits within us as individuals, and illustrate how those mental processes interact within our own minds.
This is why in stories characters must do double duty. As individuals when working on their own issues, they are general practitioners, and as members of a group, they are specialists. It is these specialist roles from which character archetypes are derived.
Armed with this new manner of assessing narrative structure, we spent years searching for a model that explained it, ultimately discovering the mechanism of the narrative mind and publishing our theory and model.
Hopefully, this short introduction to the nature of Dramatica will provide some corners to the jig-saw puzzle of cognitive science.
Click here for more information about the Dramatica theory and its ramifications.
You know, my partner Chris Huntley oft has said that the best way to rob a main character of motivation is to give him what he wants. If you fill his need, he has no reason to go off and try to do anything. Conversely, if you want to motivate a main character, take away something he wants. Steal his jewels, rip his heart out, put the love his life in danger, violate his morality, end his way of life. You pick it – you are the Author/God and the actions of your main character are pre-destined by the angst you give him.
Suppose you have a main character who’s problem is that he doesn’t want anything, doesn’t care about anything, and hasn’t had anything taken from him that he really cares about. This happens to authors far more often than you might imagine. So how to you solve this problem and get your main character moving?
All you need is one thing – one person or place or way of life that got under his skin, and somebody up and violated it. And now, though he is still just as cynical and jaded about everything else, he is in a blood rage because of that one thing and will go to the ends of the earth (or beyond, in some cases) to satisfy his lust for revenge or to try and save that which he holds so dear.
For example, Keanu Reeves as John Wick (great movie, by the way) is a retired assassin. His wife who drew him out of the business dies of natural causes. Before she died, she ordered a puppy to be sent to him after her death to remind him of her and give him something to love. And this incredible killing machine of a man, remains retired, and learns to love more deeply – until the son of a Russian Mob big wig kills his dog for the fun of it. In the end, everybody dies except for Wick who is now back in business.
The options are endless. Just pick one that is meaningful to you. Choose a loss or a threat to something loved by your main character that matches one for yourself, and you’ll find you have no trouble conveying why he is motivated to do whatever you want him to do.
I do personalized story coaching.
First let me define what signposts are in stories and then provide a few hints on how to structure them.
Signposts are the markers that separate one act from another. Think about any well structured story you’ve read or seen on the screen. There are always several points at which you feel that you’ve moved from one act to another, such as in the plot when the characters have finished preparing for a journey and actually embark or in the character arc where the main character finally realizes he has been held back by his best friends good intentions and decides to go solo for the first time.
We intuitively know that a major turning point has been reached and that things will no longer go on as they have and that a whole new direction will reveal itself as the story unfolds.
Now all of that is just felt, but it actually comes from something very solid in story structure: the signpost.
Signposts are like road markers that tell you when you need to turn off the highway you are on and take a side road in order to get to where you’re headed. These signposts are just at the juncture points, yet in between them, you have a lot of ground to cover that is part of your journey.
In a standard three-act structure, there are four signposts. To see this more clearly, hold up four fingers on one hand as in the illustration below:
If each finger is a signposts, then you can see three journeys between them.
Readers or audiences feel the journeys because that is the flow of the unfolding of a story over time. But the four fingers define the direction of each of the journeys. So, the first signpost marks the point of departure of the story. The last signpost identifies the destination. the other two signposts in the middle describe the two major turning points in the story when the set up is complete at the end of the first act, and when the climb to the climax begins at the end of the second.
That’s fine conceptually, but how does it play out in actual story development? As it turns out, all four signposts belong a family which is what gives a story a consistent identity as it plays out.
One such family, as an example, consists of the signposts of Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining. So, in such a structure, the story begins with a general sense that Learning is the undercurrent of what everyone is engaged in. It is the overall background for all that happens. And while not every event or character conjecture has to pertain directly to Learning, there is that feel that establishes that Learning is what the first act is all about.
In practice, the characters in such a story will begin with Learning this or that (the first signpost) and then the act (the first journey) will follow the characters as they learn more and more until they arrive at an Understanding (the second signpost). That’s where we feel an act break as the story changes course from exploring learning to exploring understanding.
In the second act (journey), the characters will progressively grow in their understandings until they are finally able to start Doing (the third signpost). Again, we feel an act break as the internal quest from understanding shifts to the external quest of doing things.
Now the characters do more and bigger things until they are finally able to arrive at their designation, the fourth signpost of Obtaining. End of narrative. End of story.
There are a several families of signposts depending on the kind of story you are telling. And, the signposts don’t always have to be in the same order. In one story, for example, the characters may obtain something that allows them to do something that causes them to learn which leads to an understanding – a complete different order than our first example.
In real storytelling, this second example might be that some kids steal a car (obtaining) and are then able to do (take a road trip across the country), and en route they encounter many people with issues (learning) and eventually arrive home with an understanding about the importance of respecting the property rights of others. Lame, to be sure, but fine as an example of how the signpost order is not locked.
Now as I promised at the beginning, I have now defined what a signpost is. But I still need to explain how to structure them.
To do this, I’m going to share a letter I just wrote to one of my story consulting clients. (Yes, I make my living as a story consultant. Click here to learn more…)
This particular client was taking the precise nature of each signposts way too closely to heart. They were trying to make every single story point in each act tie directly into each signpost, not taking into account that each signpost is just the county you are traveling through and the events in the journey are flavored by that, but not defined by it.
So, here’s the note to my client with some tips for structuring signposts:
Structure should not be applied as rules but as guidelines. Structure gives you the sense of where the meaning is – where the center of the message is.
So in regard to the four signposts, they are like real signposts: they tell you when you have crossed the border from one kind of conjecture to another.
Stories are all about exploration in order to find the narrative because the narrative will provide the understanding of how all the pieces fit together, and therefore what one needs to do to get things to end up in the best possible arrangement.
If a story travels through learning, understanding, doing, and obtaining in that order, it means the story begins with learning. That is the first signpost – the point of departure on their journey. And from there, it starts off on its exploration to learn more and more until it arrives at an understanding (the second signpost). From that point forward, learning is behind and the characters grow more and more in their understanding of what they already learned until they have understood so much that they are finally able to start Doing something about it – the third signpost. From there, learning and understanding are pretty much behind them and their focus is to do more and more until they are finally able to Obtain when they reach the fourth and final signpost: their destination.
As you can see, signposts just mark the dividing lines when the story shifts its focus from one kine of endeavor or outlook to another. You can also think of the four signposts as four rooms in a house. You begin by exploring the first room in which you learn a lot. When you have learned all you can, you move on to the next room where you put all that learning together to arrive at an understanding. When you finally understand all you can, you move on to the next room and begin doing until you have done all you can, and then you move onto the last room to Obtain what you want by taking what you learned, organized into your understanding, turned into the action of doing that results in Obtaining.
Again, in terms of rules vs. guidelines, the signposts give you a general sense of what is going on in each act – what’s the focus or the area of interest. But, that’s not the only thing going on in each act – just the overall background against which everything happens.
Don’t feel that everything that occurs in an act has to somehow connect to the signpost. The signpost is just like the broth in a soup into which all the other stuff is cooked. It gives each act an identifiable flavor but can be filled with all kinds of individual tastes that have nothing to do directly with the flavor of the broth.
Now, looking at your recent work, that is actually WAY too detailed and WAY too focused on each signpost. It is good to have so many opportunities to relate to the signpost – that shows great consistency in your thinking about that act. But, you don’t need nearly a tenth of that many references to the signpost as you have there to convey the overall perspective in that act – you only need enough to clearly establish in the mind of your reader the general background of the kind of exploration that is going on in that act – the kind of activity, interest, or concern.
In other words, don’t try to tie everything that happens in your first act into Learning – that would be forcing the structure and taking structure way too literally. Rather, find as many opportunities as you can in your existing story material for each signpost in each throughline that already is tied into that signpost without forcing it.
W all think in narrative patterns. Our interests are the topics we explore, but we organize the way we appreciate a topic in narrative, which is nothing more than a framework of meaning that ensures we’ve looked at all the meaningful parts of a topic from all the pertinent points of view.
And so, when we write, as with all authors, we automatically organize our story elements into narrative patterns so they make the most meaningful sense. But, we do this by intuition so the perspective is often a bit fuzzy and sometime a little off-true. Structure allows us to focus that already-existing proto-narrative so that each signpost becomes a little more clear as the overall flavor of the background so that all that happens can be seen through that filter before moving on to the next. Like Red, Blue, Green and Brightness, each signpost provides part of the picture through a different filter until we get the full-color version after the last scene at the end.
Don’t put so much effort into each signpost. Just find the elements of your story that already point at each signpost and then polish them up a bit so they better reflect it. Let your remaining story elements play against that without trying to force them to direct connect.
A writer in the Ukraine recently wrote me with some questions about the Dramatica theory of narrative structure. First, his questions (indented) and then my answers below each.
I’m a big “Dramatica” fan from Ukraine!
Recently I was struggling with understanding some “Dramatica” aspects and especially with translating “Dramatica Dictionary”.
Can you, please, help me? Unfortunately, I haven’t found answers to my questions on your web-site.
Hello to the Ukraine!
Nice to meet you.
Here are some answers to your questions. I’ve put my answers right below each question for easy reference:
1. I agree, that we need Overall Story as bird’s eye view, Main Character Storyline to get to know more about MC, to sympathize and even empathize with him, to see the Story through his eyes nd of course we need MC/IC Storyline to see the battle between two alternate Approaches and Worldviews.
But I can’t understand one thing – why do we need separate IC Storyline? I thought we are interested in IC as long (and as much) as he has direct connection and influence on MC. Yes, we need Impact Character to show MC an alternative way, but having separate IC Line – is it so necessary?
Here are some thoughts on that. First of all, in the mind, the MC represents our sense of self – our identity – “I think therefore I am.” The IC represents the person we might become if we decide to change. And so, in the course of our internal exploration as to whether to retain our identity exactly as it is or to alter it in regard to a particular issue represented by the IC we need to know as much about the IC as we can, in order to make our best educated guess as to whether to stick to our guns or alter our outlook.
Also, the four throughlines represent I (mc), You (ic), we (mc vs. ic) and They (OS). We need all four points of view to understand the environment in which we make our decisions.
2. If we have a Story where there are Main Character and Protagonist (separate characters) – MC goes through a mental emotional journey and decides: he will Change or remain Steadfast. But does Protagonist go through such inner journey or he just goes from Event to Event in a Story (goes only through Outer Journey)? Protagonist doesn’t need to choose between Change and Steadfastness, right?
Correct. Protagonist is only concerned with achieving the goal, though he or she may have very personal and passionate reasons for doing so. But, they are not internally conflicted and do not question their chosen point of view on the matter.
3. When we separate Main Character from Protagonist – does Main Character still have a Goal? Or the main Story Goal is only in hands of Protagonist?
The MC still has a personal goal – it is the kind of angst or anguish they are trying to overcome. The MC’s Concern and Issue and Problem give us some indications as to the nature of that angst. But, keep in mind that the MC, if not the protagonist, must be one of the other characters. If you are using archetypes, the MC could be any of the other 7 archetypes. This is important because the MC’s choice to change or remain steadfast is the lynchpin between the personal issue and story goal that the protagonist is after. The way the MC chooses will determine if the Protagonist finds success or failure, even if the MC is not directly involved in that effort.
4. In the Story Climax there is a battle between Protagonist and Antagonist. But when we have separate Main Character – should he also be involved in this battle? Or he has his own – battle between him and Impact Character?
You suspect correctly, the MC will have a battle of morals or outlooks with the IC in the climax. BUT because the MC will also be one of the objective characters, in that role the “player” that is both MC and an objective character may be involved with the Protagonist in the battle with the Antagonist.
5. If we have a Story with separate Protagonist character and Main Character and also have Complex characters with swapped characteristics like in “Wizard of Oz” – is there a possibility, that Protagonist and Main Character would seem like cardboard cutouts in comparison? Can we accidentally make our supporting character More Interesting than our Main Character or Protagonist? The Only way we can make Main Character complex – is to combine him with Protagonist? The Only way we can make Protagonist complex – is to combine him with Main Character?
Well, any characters can swap characteristics, so if you want a complex “player” then assign the role of MC to a complex objective character. Still, consider that the MC gets a whole class by himself and so does the IC. Also, the MC/IC conflict gets a whole class. But the OS only gets one class and that is where all the objective characters live. So, just by the set-up, stories are designed to give far more exploration to the MC, IC, and their relationship than we find in the OS. You’ll find that this depth of personal, internal exploration makes the MC plenty complex, no matter if their objective player role is archetypal or complex.
6. What came first: Action or Decision? For me it’s really hard to judge. It’s like asking “What came first: Chicken or Egg?”. They are so interconnected. I thought that what if the answer is hiding in Inciting Incident – what Event pushes the Story Forward? If we answer this – we’ll know: Action or Decision, right?
That’s pretty spot on. But, you’ll find that the inciting incident of Action or Decision keeps repeating itself throughout the story. In other words, the inciting incident (action or decision) will occur prompting a response of the remaining item. For example, if an earthquake happens, it prompts decisions about what to do next. If a princess DECIDES to marry someone by the end of the week, everyone springs into action to win her hand. But, once the inciting incident has been dealt with, immediate potential is neutralized. But then, a new inciting incident will crop up requiring a new response. In this manner, .the “driver” will always be the same, throughout the story – in other words, the causality between action and decision is maintained.
The other key point is that whatever the driver is at the beginning that sets things off in a tizzy (action or decision), the plot will be brought to a conclusion by the same driver as the inciting incident. So, action driven stories will end through an action taken at the end that stops the domino effect of the causality. Similarly, decision driven stories will end through a decision that ends that causality.
But that’s just my assumption. For example, first scene in movie “Armageddon” (1997) shows that Meteor “Shower” destroys satellite = Action. Then they are talking about it and trying to develop a plan for rescuing Earth = Decision. Then they arrive to the oil derrick, train men to be an astronauts = Action and so on. So, maybe, in this movie Action is primary.
You pretty much have it. Even though the Bruce Willis character “decides” to sacrifice his life by setting off the bomb, it is the action of the bomb exploding that ends the causal runaway domino effect.
In detective story (like Colombo, Poirot, Sherlock) first we see the Murder = Action and then we see Investigation = Decision.
Yes. And it is an action that is required at the end as well.
In “Ocean’s Eleven” during the whole movie they are trying to develop a plan of the robbery – so it’s Decision Story? But there are plenty of Action (actually performing what they planned).
Yes – keep in mind that the choice of action or decision only determines the causal order of what drives the story. How MUCH of each is in a story is completely up to you and your storytelling. So, a story that begins with a decision, such as The Godfather, can have a tremendous amount of action in it but it ends in the decision to accept Michael as the new Don.
Then what are Decision-movies? Maybe “12 Angry Men”? The whole movie is a Decision-making process. But Inciting Incident was the Murder – Action again.
Well, we never see the murder in 12 Angry Men. It has already happened in the back story. The story begins with the charge to come to a decision. Still, you have to be careful. A story with a decision as the goal does not necessarily mean that it begins and ends with a decision. You really have to look at the back and forth alternation of decision and action to see which one triggers a sequence and which one wraps it up: which creates a potential and which neutralizes that potential.
Yes, I remember that when deciding A or D we don’t need to look at how much A or D there are in a Story.
Indeed. In fact you not only don’t need to look at that, you shouldn’t.
But what is the best, quick and accurate way to identify A or D then?
Look for the moments when a story seems like all the forward momentum has been halted or all the potential has been resolved or all the momentary frenzy has been satisfied. What satisfied it – an action or decision? And what throws another monkey wrench in the story forcing the characters to respond – an action or a decision?
7. Can the Contagonist slow down the Protagonist by accident, can C even not know that he’s doing it? Or he should always be aware about his function and be consciously willing to slow down the Protagonist?
Objective characters, like the protagonist, antagonist and contagonist, are defined by their function in the story. They are defined about how the “work,” not by their opinion of themselves. For example, you could have someone who prides himself on being logical but is actually making all his decisions based on passion. This would be the Emotion archetype, not the Reason archetype for though he things of himself as Reason, his actual function is as passion.
Objective character are objective because we seen them from an objective point of view, like a general on a hill watching a battle. You identify them by their function in the story, not by their awareness of non-awareness of that function.
8. Who can be an Impact Character in a Story:
– Love Interest?
All of the above. Any of the Objective Characters can be the IC. Objective characters are identified by role, IC (and MC) are identified by point of view. You can attach a point of view to any of the Objective charactrs.
Seems like each of then can be IC.
9. What is the difference between Preconditions and Prerequisites? What are real-life examples (or from movies)? Is it like: if I want to become a student of Oxford, for example, I need to know English not lower than a certain level (this is Precondition). And for this I need to take some necessary steps (Prerequisites) like watching more movies without translation, engage with English tutor or even living in UK for some time to listen to the native speakers. Is my understanding correct?
Best way to think of it is prerequisites are logistically necessary to advance the effort toward the goal. But preconditions are only necessary because someone insists those things are added on. For example, to meet one of the requirements of a goal, the protagonist needs a boat to get across a river. There’s only on person who has a boat and he will let the protagonist use it if the protagonist will take his daughter along. So, the boat is the prerequisite, the daughter is the precondition.
10. What is the difference between Inaction and Protection? It’s the same for me. What real-life or movie example illustrates these terms?
Protection can be like building up defenses or standing between danger and someone else or fighting to keep harm from coming to something or someone. Inaction is not doing anything at all. But, sometimes, just standing by, as in passive resistance, can be a tool for change for it causes forces to change directions to go around you into a new course.
11. What is the difference between Proven and Unproven? It also seems the same for me. Is it just shifted emphasis? Like first i concentrate on what is proven and make my assumptions and decisions based on it. But then I look at clues and shady relationships that are still unproven and try to find evidence to prove they really exist.
Proven and unproven are ways of evaluating. Those focusing on Proven seek to build an understanding based on what is actually known, leaving out anything that is not yet certain. Those focusing on Unproven seek to widen consideration to what might be since it has not yet been ruled out.
“We have proven he was in the same city as each of the three murders at the same time they were committed.” “Sure, and so were 10,000 other people. What you haven’t proven is why he was there.”
Sorry for long letter. I just want to figure out “Dramatica” and, hopefully, successfully use it to make full Stories.
No problem. Always happy to help a seeker.
Thank you for your time and can’t wait to read answers)))
Another of my compositions
Here I wanted to write something that was reminiscent of a cathedral more more ethereal, kind of stoned, more like a suggestion of religion without spirituality, laid on the foundation of ceremony and built out of traditions whose original purposes are long forgotten and no longer relevant.
Since violence seems to be the hot topic on everyone’s mind, can’t we just all agree that violence is bad, but sometimes necessary in self defense? In the heat of passion all it takes is one person on any side to strike the first blow and the whole group he belongs to is blamed for all that follows. Consider the “shot heard round the world” in which one shot, perhaps even an accidental discharge from a British soldier’s musket triggered the Revolutionary war. Or the ramifications of Lincoln bing cagey and resupplying Ft. Sumter with a publicized cargo not including munitions, thereby forcing the South to take the first shot if they were to claim sovereignty. And then there is the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that triggered WWi.
While it is easy to blame a whole group for the actions of a few, what is more important is to understand the agendas of the forces that are coming to blows. In this case, it is those who would create a society in which only white people have full rights, vs. those who feel all races should be treated with equal rights. Simple as that.
Now, there is one complication. There are many Southern folk who value to wonderful traditions of Southern hospitality, and the essence of true gentlemen such as Robert E. Lee. Lee was a man of honor – he was offered command of the Union forces and declined out of honor to accept command of the Confederate forces instead.
It is that kind of honor, and the true courage of going into battle against superior numbers and protecting one’s family and heritage that leads many in the south to stand against the removal of statues that they see has monuments to those noble attributes of their culture.
The problem is, that slavery was all tied up in it. Arguments can be made that it was really an issue of states’ rights, or that the South was unfairly economically oppressed by the North to its own advantage. And even that it was the North’s oppressive economic policy brought about by the higher population centers giving the North more political power in a democracy that forced the South to maintain slavery or to become an economic wasteland. But there is also solid evidence of the horrors or slavery and the dehumanizing of our fellow human beings and of those who fought to preserve slavery because they actually believed it was right and it was how God intended it to be.
So when the non-slavery non-racists heritage folks show up to protest the removal of a statue, and the white nationalists are there chanting against minorities, with a stated agenda of hate, then what are the heritage people to do?
If they leave, their monuments are gone. But if they stay, their Confederate flag waves along side the Swastika – two banners held over the same mingled group in a rally.
What message does this send? What taint does it put on the non-racist heritage folk?
Personally, I do believe those who were joining the protest rally who we not racist probably left, rather than stand under the Nazi banner. And those that remained may have wanted to preserve their heritage, but were also racists.
And so, we all have a choice to either let those voices of intolerance and hate have their say, unopposed, just as it was in Germany so many years ago. Or, perhaps this time, we stand against what we have seen before. We stop them in their tracks.
And by what right do we do this in a nation that proclaims freedom for all? Because those under that banner proclaim there should not be freedom for all, but only for their kind. And this is not just free speech, it is a call for revolution against the Constitution of the United States, and that give us the right to stand against them. They can say what they want. But when they incite actions against the Constitution, that moves along the slippery slope of Treason.
The protestors speak in terms of hate, race war, exclusion and supremacy. The counter-protestors speak in terms of love, social peace, inclusion, and equality.
But we are all human, and when impassioned, we can become violent. And that is unfortunate for it clutters the true battle between those who would do harm to others not like themselves and those who would help everyone who loves peace.