The Dramatica Theory of Storytelling

There are several storytelling theories that have been developed through the course of human history. Perhaps the most popular of these is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. In Campbell’s theory, a protagonist embarks on an epic (in the classical sense of the word) journey.

Along this journey, he or she will come into contact with certain archetypal characters, undergo a climactic challenge of some sort, achieve victory, and return from the journey changed for the better (or occasionally worse). Most of the great epics of literature, of which the works of Homer are perfect examples, follow the Hero’s Journey format. Storytelling, though, like every other form of artistic expression, has come a long way over the millennia. The sudden onset of film and TV media in the past century has pushed the art of storytelling to evolve to exciting new levels. Enter the Dramatica Theory of Storytelling and its highly-developed Grand Argument Story.

The Dramatica Theory, along with its accompanying story development software, was developed over a period of 15 years by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, both of whom are experts in literature, storytelling techniques, and software development. The majority of this relatively new theory was formed primarily with film and TV scripts in mind. However, the theory can be easily used for any kind of storytelling. The concept of the Grand Argument Story essentially involves the telling of a complete story, encompassing every imaginable facet of the characters’ interactions with each other, with the story’s plot and various throughlines, and with the story’s underlying themes. Because of the intricate detail involved in formulating a Grand Argument Story, the Dramatica theory itself is difficult to separate from its accompanying computer software. Where many of the great storytellers of ages past probably filled several rooms with important notes, narrative events, and various other scribblings, all interconnected to each other through a spiderweb of yarn or string, the Dramatica software makes complex storyforming much easier for the author to organize and efficiently reference while writing.

It’s much easier to explain the Dramatica Theory of Storytelling with well-known examples from famous movies and novels, so this brief tutorial will use several cinematic examples in order to illustrate certain elements of the theory. A good place to start in this task is where most authors tend to begin their storyforming process; with a list of key players and primary story elements. Dramatica refers to these elements as throughlines. First, you’re going to need a main character. The main character throughline deals primarily with your chosen main character’s point of view as he, she, or it progresses through the story throughlines. From this perspective, we see the story’s conflict from the proverbial front lines. In the well-known film The Matrix, the main character is Neo and his throughline involves his personal experience with escaping the Matrix and his joining the fight against the machines.

Next, you need an influence character. This important influence character throughline represents a person (or in rarer cases an object, event, or situation) that comes into contact with the main character in such a way as to present an obstacle which must be cleared if the main character is going to be victorious. More often than not, this influence character takes the form of a classic bad guy or antagonist. To stick with our Matrix example, Neo’s influence character is the Matrix itself, personified by Agent Smith. In the film, the Matrix is a computer program run directly into the brains of nearly every human being on Earth in order to convince them that they are living in a modern day, normal world when, in fact, they are all plugged into a massive power plant, generating bio-electricity to keep the machines running. Agent Smith is a Matrix software entity programmed to keep everyone within the Matrix unknowingly imprisoned and ignorant of the truth. In this capacity, Agent Smith exerts influence on all of Neo’s major decisions.

This brings us to the relationship story throughline, which explores the nature of the interaction between the main and influence characters. This may seem redundant, but it isn’t. Essentially, this throughline tackles the subjective story elements. If the story was a battle, the main character would be the troop(s) on the ground in a forward position on the battlefield. The influence character would be the opposing troop(s), and the relationship story would be the actual events of the battle from the point of view of those on the battlefield. In The Matrix, the relationship story throughline is represented in Neo’s efforts against the Agent Smith and the rest of his agents, his training by Morpheus and his crew, and all of plot points brought about by their actions while “hacking” into the Matrix.

Finally, we come to the overall story throughline, which can most accurately be described as a God’s-eye-view of the entire story. In the battle analogy, the overall story refers to the objective view of the entire war, not just one, particular battlefield. The Matrix’s overall story throughline is summed up by Morpheus’s explanation to Neo: In the early 21st Century, humanity gave birth to A.I., an artificial consciousness which, independent of human involvement, created a race of intelligent machines. These machines turned against the human race and enslaved them in order to supply the “fuel” for their power plants. This explanation describes the universe in which the subjective characters find themselves. Interestingly, there are times when the sudden exclusion of overall story throughline information can lend to a sense of suspense. Think of the film Signs (with Mel Gibson). For the first part of the film, TV news reports bring us information concerning the overall story throughline. There is an alien invasion taking place. Then, suddenly, the news is gone. Now we’ve been robbed of knowing how the rest of the world is faring, and the movie’s sense of suspense is heightened.

In addition to the four story throughlines, there are specific archetypal characters involved in Dramatica’s Grand Argument Story. Each character is juxtaposed against another character who is diametrically opposed to him or her. The protagonist drives the story forward and is more often than not also the main character. The antagonist exists to directly oppose the protagonist’s efforts and is typically also the influence character. A protagonist needs support and guidance, which he or she will receive from the guide character. However, as the guide attempts to help the protagonist to move forward, the contagonist exerts an effort to indirectly oppose the protagonist by throwing up obstacles or distracting the protagonist from the story goal. Every hero needs a sidekick, and that sidekick throws all of his faith and loyalty behind the protagonist at every term. But loyalty and faith must be countered by the skeptic’s lack of faith. Finally, the emotion character reacts to everything with quick-tempered passion while the reason character employs pure, emotionless logic to every dilemma.

In The Matrix, Neo is the protagonist and Agent Smith (and the machines he represents) is his antagonist. Morpheus is Neo’s guide, although he also seems to represent certain elements of the sidekick character’s function as well. Cypher, who sells out Morpheus’s crew in order to return to the ignorant life of the Matrix, is the contagonist. Trinity is the resident skeptic, and has trouble accepting the Neo is the “One” until the film’s climax. Tank takes on the sidekick role as he immediately accepts Neo as the “One” without need of proof or explanation. Mouse provides the primary function of the emotion character, although some of the other characters bear a part of that responsibility, too. Finally, the Oracle is the reason character, and operates with a smooth, almost-robotic efficiency as she predicts events with an eerie accuracy. It’s hard to imagine The Matrix without all of these necessary characters and elements, isn’t it?

Each of these eight, primary characters’ functions relate to each other and to each of the four story throughlines in one way or another. These interrelations between every character and story element are what a Grand Argument Story is all about. Every aspect of the story’s problems, goals, characters, points of view, and conflicts is explored thoroughly in a textbook Grand Argument Story. The Matrix is a perfect example, as is Star Wars: Episode IV, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Casablanca, The Sting, Independence Day, and many other hugely successful films. Your story could be the next, great example of Dramatica’s Grand Argument Story. When you start writing, remember that Dramatica’s software helps the storyforming process immensely. Many people shy away from these types of writers’ aides because they are afraid that creativity will be stifled or pigeonholed into an assembly-line format of some sort. This couldn’t be further from the truth in this case. Dramatica’s software actually bolsters the creative process by forcing an author to take into consideration certain elements they may never even have occurred to him or her otherwise. Also, on Dramatica’s website, several books are available as free downloads. These books present the entire theory in precise detail and are a veritable wealth of valuable information for all writers.

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