Digesting the Dramatica Structure Chart

Dramatica's Structure Chart 

Claims have been made that Dramatica's structure chart and all the terms it contains are logical, helpful, and tightly consistent. While I want to believe this, without working through it myself, it's difficult. This despite the fact that I've seen numerous wonderful examples, where pieces (or Quads) on the chart are explained. That said, I didn't choose the examples and I didn't explain how they appropriately fit into the Dramatica structure, leaving it all suspect to my doubting mind. I thought, if I can do this myself, with examples of my own, this model warrants further study and no little bit of respect.

Despite the fact that I've got to get up early tomorrow and observe cultural military training at scenic Fort Huachuca, I decided tonight is the night to take an initial stab at this. (And, to give credit where due, I'm inspired both to spend my time and brain power on understanding Dramatica and to write about it by Jim Hull's extensive and insightful work posted on his blog Narrative First [narrativefirst.com] and the wonderful work Chris Huntley and contributors have done on Dramatica's website, dramatica.com.)

So, let's start at the top level of Dramatica's structural chart (which can be found here: http://dramatica.com/downloads/structure_chart.pdf). If you're looking at the Table of Story Elements for the first time, it's probably a bit overwhelming... and for me at least, super intriguing. Could all of this make sense? And could it all help to write a story? How?!

Theory Background

For Dramatica, story is argument -- to be more specific, a complete argument. Leaving that aside for now, it was relatively easy for me to see how, if any of the high level Domains were missing from a story, it would be woefully incomplete:
  • fixed attitudes - what characters believe, think, what values or opinions they hold strongly
  • situations - the situations characters find themselves in
  • activities - the physical activities the characters engage in, what characters do
  • manipulations - this term is the least intuitive of the bunch for me, but makes sense: it's how characters change their way of thinking, or what characters are doing in their heads
Looking at these, it was also clear (and commented on, I believe, by Jim and/or Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica Theory of Story) that there is a difference between states and processes. States are fixed until changed by processes. To apply this to Dramatica's Domains: Fixed attitudes are changed by manipulations. Situations are changed by activities.

You might also note other relationships, for example, that the Domains can be broken into the internal and external. For example, fixed attitudes are internal mental constructs. Manipulating fixed attitudes is an internal mental activity (at least it starts and ends this way). Situations, on the other hand, are external physical constructs. Situations are changed by activities, external physical actions.

You can begin to see how everything relates, and relates well. While some might find this all somewhat mentally indulgent, I'm slowly being convinced that it all has practical merit (in addition to the joy of understanding the puzzle!).

Ways to Use Dramatica

How, you might ask, could you use these Domains to benefit your own story? With almost all things Dramatica, there seem to be two polarities (a dynamic pair, if you will?) or two ways to use the Theory. One: creatively. Here you don't know the answers to your story questions. Creatively, you could ask yourself, "How would I describe one of these Domains in the story I want to tell?"

On the other hand, you can use Dramatica's theory to evaluate what you've already written. From this pole, looking at your story, you can ask youself, "Have I described each of these aspects? Have I described the situation my characters are in? Have I described what they think? Have I described what they're doing? Have I described how they think through things? Looking at what I've written, have I left any of these aspects out?"

Interestingly (and I have a feeling this may happen often), I haven't even gotten to the deeper level of looking at the Quads beneath the Domain level -- which was the entire point of this post. That's where things get far less intuitive for me and where I thought writing about it might lead to enlightenment. And it's where I spent an hour tonight before even starting this post. Ironically, I've only transcribed one little Holiday Inn Express notepaper, while I've got four more here on the bed beside me!


Just because I want to capture it, I'm going to quickly throw the rest down here -- hopefully to be elaborated on later:

To fully describe a SITUATION, you need to talk about:
  • THE PAST - the US won a war of independence
  • THE PRESENT - the US is a superpower
  • HOW THINGS ARE CHANGING - the US's power is slipping
  • THE FUTURE - the potential of the US becoming peripheral
To fully describe a FIXED ATTITUDE (I hate clowns), you must talk about:
  • CONTEMPLATION - Reflections on why I feel this way
  • MEMORIES - My subjective experience of clowns as a kid: terrifying
  • IMPULSIVE RESPONSES - When I see a clown, I shudder, sweat, panic
  • INNERMOST DESIRES - I don't want to be so afraid -- I want to be invulnerable to fear -- so this lack of control really bothers me and needs to be addressed.
To fully describe MANIPULATION (I want to change how people think), you must talk about:
  • CONCEIVING AN IDEA - deciding something should be manipulated, deciding that something should change
  • DEVELOPING A PLAN - How will I change this? Specifically what method will I use?
  • PLAYING A ROLE - Maybe I'm playing a role to make a point, to convince you to change. Maybe you're playing a role, pretending you're buying what I'm selling, but not really convinced.
  • CHANGING ONE'S NATURE - If I was successful, you changed how you think. You've given up what you used to believe.
To fully describe an ACTIVITY (mowing the lawn), you must talk about:
  • GATHERING INFO - What's the lawn's current status? How long are the blades of grass? How does it look compared to other lawns? How do I feel about it?
  • UNDERSTANDING - This is evaluating the info. It's too long. The neighbors will be angry with me. It would look nice shorter.
  • DOING - Cutting the lawn
  • OBTAINING - achieving my goal: I'm satisfied (I've obtained satisfaction) and my neighbor's approval (I've obtained their approval)

Great! I got it all down -- quick and dirty but pretty solid. I can't wait to take this down to the next level, to the even more abstract terms to see if I can create my own examples to help me understand Dramatica's fascinating take on this thing called story.

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