Dramatica: My Take-Aways
TL;DR: There is some genius in this theory, and possibly some madness. Every writer should at least understand Dramatica's four through-lines, its definition of character archetypes, and the two helpful concepts of character resolve and story limit. If you go deeper, prepare to be confused.
The high-level concept in the Dramatica theory is that a story is a model of a human mind attempting to solve a problem. A "complete story" is a story that examines all possible solutions to a single problem.
Dramatica comes with a bundle of self-imposed caveats. It admits that it is a theory that describes a certain kind of story. It also admits that a good story structure doesn't necessarily lead to a good story, and there are plenty of successful stories in the world with incomplete structures (according to the Dramatica theory). Like several other popular story structure theories, it was developed around Hollywood movies, and doesn't adapt perfectly to other storytelling forms.
This theory is extremely complex. It invents a vocabulary all its own for analyzing stories, which makes it difficult to absorb quickly. I'll be honest and say up front, I don't have a deep understanding of it. If you want to go deeper, see the resources at the end.
That said, this theory has some insights that I have found extremely valuable in constructing and understanding stories. Here they are.
Dramatica's Four Through-Lines
Dramatica identifies four through-lines that intertwine to weave a complete story.
The Overall Story Through-line: This is the "big picture" story, the broad scope, or what I sometimes think of as the plot.
The Main Character Through-line: The story as seen through the eyes of someone in it. The "main character" is the primary point-of-view character, the person we expect the audience to most empathize or identify with.
The Influence Character Through-line: Also called the Impact Character, the IC's perspective on the story is different from the main character's. The IC attempts to influence the MC to change their perspective or approach.
The Subjective Story Through-line: Also called the Relationship, this is the relationship between the main and influence characters in the context of the story.
Explicitly identifying these four through-lines makes it easy to see why some stories seem to have no "heart." Those plot-driven stories focus on Overall Story and give little attention to Character and Relationship.
The interplay of plot, character, and relationship is what makes stories really stick. I like to say: Plot is what happens. Story is how your characters change (or don't) because of what happens.
Speaking of change, another extremely useful concept I picked up from Dramatica is character resolve. In Dramatica the theory focuses on the Main Character Resolve, assigning it either Change (the main character changes their perspective or approach by the end) or Steadfast (the main character retains their original perspective or approach at the end).
This part of the theory addresses what is normally called the character arc. Arcs come in pairs, according to the theory. The Main and Influence character have different approaches to the story problem. At the end of the story, one of them must be proven right, and remain Steadfast, the other must be proven wrong and Change.
There are a lot of story theorists who think that the main character must change, even going so far as to define the main character as the one who changes. Those theories never sat well with me. Dramatica's insight that a character is tempted to change, but may remain steadfast, encompasses a much more diverse set of great stories and dramatic possibilities.
While Dramatica primarily cares about the main character's resolve, it seems to me that any character who has an arc must have a resolve, and probably needs to have their own influence character to reflect the opposite resolve to make the story feel complete.
Character Archetypes: Protagonist vs Main Character
Briefly, Dramatica identifies eight character archetypes: Protagonist, Antagonist, Reason, Emotion, Sidekick, Skeptic, Guardian, and Contagonist. The theory goes into great detail explaining how these archetypes are constructed, and how they can be broken down to create more complex and interesting characters. I can't do the theory justice in a short summary. Go check it out for yourself.
The key insight that I found most useful here is the clear distinction between the Protagonist (the driver of the Overall Story) and the Main Character (the primary POV character).
According to the vocabulary of the theory, the Protagonist is the character who pursues the Overall Story goal. The Main Character is the character the audience most identifies with, the one through whose eyes we see. When these two roles are played by the same character, they are called a Hero. This is a common construction, but not the only one.
A more complex story can separate these roles into different characters. The standard example is To Kill A Mockingbird, where the Main Character is young Scout, but the Protagonist is Atticus Finch.
Finally, Dramatica helped me understand the concept of a story limit. You have seen story limits in action stories where there is a literal ticking clock. If the clock counts down to zero, the hero loses! The ticking clock is called a Time Limit. It's so prevalent that Story Grid creator Shawn Coyne assigned an entire sub-genre to it.
Dramatica clued me that there is another kind of story limit: the Option Limit. This is where the story is given finite scope by allowing limited options: three wishes, and then you're done.
The story limit is the thing that adds dramatic tension to your story and compels the characters to move forward. Without a story limit, stories can just meander on and on, reaching no conclusion, or characters can sit around indefinitely without moving the story forward at all.
Dramatica also has some interesting things to say about act structure, showing how two, three, and four act structures can be derived from the value shifts among the four through-lines and how they are distributed through the story. There's much, much more to Dramatica; too much for me to wrap my head around.
I have found that story limit, character resolve, and the four through-lines have been excellent tools for me to apply in the construction of stories.
To learn more about Dramatica:
- Dramatica Website
- Buy the Book (but the full text is available for free on the website)
- Narrative First Podcast