Characters and Contextual Retribution

The minds of characters work very much like our own.

People think both in terms of time and of space.  Our time sense gives us the ability to predict what is likely to happen next.  Our space sense gives us the ability to determine what else (unseen) may be connected to what we do see.

For example, “one bad apple spoils the bunch” describes a time-based (temporal) causal relationship: given that there are a bunch of apples with one bad one in the bunch, it will inevitably lead to the spoiling of them all.  Of course, this is meant as an analogy to the effect on a group of people if one person of questionable character remains in their midst.

The space-based (spatial) equivalent is “where there’s smoke there’s fire.”  This phrase does not predict what will be, but describes a here and now connection.  In other words, if you see all the symptoms or indicators that something exists, then it exists, even if you don’t see it.  The concept of circumstantial evidence is based on this concept as well.

In fact, we base many of our social conventions on macroscopic projections of inherent human qualities amplified to the large-scale.  Not surprising since when we gather in groups, we self-organize into external dynamic replicas of the very same thought processes that go on in our own minds so that the group itself takes on a personality and develops a psychology, and members of the group come to specialize in (or represent) all the different principal kinds of thought processes we use within our own minds.  So, in a group there will be an individual who represents the voice of reason while another expresses passion and a third speaks a the conscience of the group.  In my continuing development of the Dramatica theory I named this phenomenon “Fractal Psychology.”

Now because we, as individuals think in both time and space, and because we organize our experience both temporally and spatially (i.e. “if this, then than” for time and “when this, also that” for space), we are constantly evaluating, both consciously and subconsciously, all that we encounter so that we might identify any instances of either of these two forms of causality in our experience base.  In this manner we are able to protect ourselves in the here and now from that we cannot see and in the future from that which has not yet happened.  Simple survival programming.

Normally, this works pretty well.  And though we sometimes make mistakes by misinterpreting or by not being aware of the larger context, overall odds are that temporal and spatial anticipation is more beneficial than it is harmful.  But, when we interact with others, this seemingly positive survival system can really mess up our relationships.

Here’s a typical scenario:

A conversation between two friends or family members is going along quite normally, perhaps even quite pleasantly.  One says something quite innocuous and the other responds with thinly veiled sarcasm or even a blatant barb.  The first person, feeling unduly attacked, responds with a flash of anger and before either party sees it coming, they are a heated argument or perhaps even a full-blown fight.  We’ve all see this and probably experienced it.  But where does it come from? Why does it happen?

This kind of conflict often stems from a disconnect between time and space.  in a nutshell, one party to the conversation is thinking about the interchange in a temporal way and the other is noting it spatially.  What does that mean?  Simply that while the flow of the conversation by one party may be harmless, a particular item of subject matter may be very close to a land mind buried in the other party’s psyche.  In other words, the flow of one person’s time has intruded upon the other person’s space.

As an example, suppose a pleasant conversation is about getting ready for some guest who are about to arrive.  Dinner is discussed, and bringing out the board games and a selection of movies.  Then, the conversation naturally, temporally, progresses to the kitchen counters which need to be cleaned.  The first person is simply going through all the things that need to be done.  But, the second person has a spatial connection to the dirty dishes because a week ago, the first person had, with some irritation,  requested that the second person stop putting the dishes into the sink without rinsing them.

There was no argument at that time.  The second person grumbled and made some retort that it was no worse than the first person leaving their towels on the floor in the shower all the time.  First person just shrugged it off an moved on but the second person stewed awhile about the dishes comment, feeling put upon and unfairly held to task.

Now, a week later, the second person still has a spatial sensitivity – a topical sensitivity not only to the subject of dirty dishes, but by extension to any chores that pertain to the kitchen area, thereby including the cleaning of counters.  While a mention of dirty dishes again would have elicited a harsh response, this tangential topical reference brought only a verbal barb in reply.  But, since that snappy response seemed unwarranted to the temporally thinking first person, they now felt unduly attacked by the second person and respond in kind.

To the first person who was thinking temporally, they now switch to spatial thinking so that their comment seems to them to be a fair and balanced response to unjustified irritation and levels the score.  But, to the second person who was thinking spatially about the topic, they now switch to temporal thinking and see a trend defining itself in which the first person will not let them balance the remaining emotional distress they had been carried.  Projecting that sequence, the second person now responds with even greater anger.

And so, both parties, switching between time sense and space sense, find themselves becoming angrier as the other person (while really just trying to even the score according to their own needs and assessments) keeps undermining their own attempts to establish an equitable balance within their own hearts.  Each roadblock to satisfaction layers more irritation upon the last, increasing the amount of compensation required to balance the books.

And, since both sides are alternating their consideration of the conversation both temporally (how it is progressing as each seeks the last word to achieve temporal equity) and spatially (what old wounds are being re-opened in the attempt to find spatial equity), like a brush fire the flames move more and more quickly and cover more and more ground, thereby increasing both the pace of the mutual attacks and the extent of the topics begin brought into play.

Usually such interchanges continue either until they burn themselves out or spark a fire storm so great it creates its own weather and destroys the relationship landscape beyond any hope of regrowth.

This is contextual retribution.  It is the attempt to seek equity that is justifiable in one of either space or time, but seems inappropriately out of context in the other.  Such conflicts lead to broken relationships, alienated family members, feuds, wars, and even ethnic cleansing.  It is human nature.  But it is also human nature to have a choice.  Each individual may choose to accept that there is more than one valid perspective, more than one valid context in which the world and all that happens in it can be interpreted.  Space and time, logic and emotion, male and female, your experience and the other guy’s – each is valid in his or her own context – as valid as your is invalid from their experience base.  If we can train ourselves to recognize the occurrence of contextual retribution when it happen, either in the other party or, even more important, in ourselves, we can interrupt the temporal and spatial escalation of hostilities, allow the dust to settle, and then find a common solution that will bring equity to all parties at once, thereby avoiding the downward spiral of one-up-man-ship.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

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Predicting Human Behavior with Narrative

By Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica Theory of Narrative Structure

Human behavior cannot be predicted by observation alone.  No matter how deep the statistical database, no matter how sophisticated the algorithms, accuracy derived from observation falls short because it is unable to see the inner mechanism of the mind itself.  All that can be catalogued is simply the external impact of internal mental processes, and therefore observation can only chart the progress of ripples in the pond and speculate as to the nature of the pebble that produced them.

Human behavior cannot be predicted solely by internal self-examination.  No matter how deep we focus our inner eye, no matter how extensive our thoughts, accuracy derived from self-examination falls short because it is unable to see the mechanism of its own sentience.  All that can be grasped is simply the results of inner mental processes, and therefore self-examination can only map our attitudes and speculate as to the nature of the feelings that produced them.

To predict human behavior, a true model of the mind is required – one not derived from external observation nor internal self-examination.  The question arises as to how such a model can be created.  The answer is that such a model already exists.  It is called Dramatica and it was discovered in the structure of narrative.

The creation of narratives – both as stories and in the real world – is a uniquely human endeavor with two primary purposes:  one, to move an audience to adopt an attitude or point of view and, two, to describe human truth as best we can, so that we might better know ourselves and understand our relationships with others.  The first purpose is directed toward subject matter – the real world issues about which an author might wish to move an audience.  But the second purpose is accomplished below the level of subject matter for it documents human nature itself.

When you strip away the subject matter, the structure is laid bare and reveals itself as a model of the mind.  Why should this be?  Because when humans gather in groups to address a common issue, they tend to self-organize into specialties that represent different attributes of the human mind.   For example, one will emerge as the voice of reason while another will express skepticism and yet another might express the considerations of conscience.  In this way, each specialist is able to bring greater depth to the collective discussion than if each individual was a general practitioner, all trying to do the same job – a shallow exploration of every perspective.  It is a simple societal survival technique.

Simple stories, the first stories, addressed this and established the archetypal characters and how the fundamental human attributes they represented interrelated.  In fact, the interaction of one character with another is analogous to the way these attributes interact in the mind of an individual, as if our own mental processes had been projected outward and made tangible in a macroscopic manner.

When groups grow even larger, the fundamental attributes attract additional followers so that they become sub-groups within the larger group.  In this manner, each perspective on the problem is represented by many individuals.  And, when a sub-group grows to a critical mass, it will itself self-organize, just as did the original master group.  One member of the specialty group will emerge as the leader with the others falling into the roles of the other human attributes.   And, similarly, if a number of master groups come together to address and even larger issue of common interest, each master group will shift off center as they all self-organize into specialty roles as well.

As thousands of generations of storytellers documented what they saw in the way people and groups of people organized themselves, though trial and error they gradually refined the conventions of story structure until it accurately represented the functioning of the mind itself.  Recognizing the correlation of structure to the mind, Dramatica further refined the structural elements and the dynamics that drive them.  Conceptually, this model of the mind is the substance of the Dramatica theory and, practically, it is re-created in the Dramatica software.

Dramatica’s model of the mind is comprised of two principal components.  The first is a periodic table of narrative elements in which the nested nature of human attribute self-organization is presented as families within families, much as the periodic table in physics gathers elements into families such as the rare earth elements or the noble gasses.  The second is a set of algorithms that describe the manner in which these mental attributes interact and interrelate.

In combination, the algorithms describe mental dependencies in which the action of every human dynamic has impact or influence upon other closely related dynamics.  The dynamics form a web that can be interpreted to reveal the tensions and forces at work in the mind and how they warp the shape of the mind and focus motivation in predictable directions.

In conjunction with the table of narrative elements, these algorithms of dynamics can pinpoint the sources of motivation and, conversely the location of blind spots into which one’s own consciousness, or that of a group, cannot see.

The model as whole is able to determine the relationship between a state of mind and the sequential progression of considerations, both conscious and subliminal, which must follow from such an arrangement.  This process is commutative, for if one knows the order in which a sequence of considerations occurred one can regressively ascertain in great detail the mental arrangement that must have existed to drive such a progression.

In theory, if one identifies in the real world an individual or group mind of any number of nested levels of sub-groups, one can accurately determine the drives, areas of focus, purposes and methods of that mind.  By applying the sequential algorithms, one can also predict the progressive behavior of the mind under study.

In practice, both individual and group minds are constantly coming into conjunction, in conflict or collusion.  Since they are not joining in a common purpose for a sufficient period of time, they do not reach the flash point at which they would self-organize into a single predictable system.  Rather, their interactions are only partial facets of a mental model and operate more according to the procession of chaos than an orderly progression.  Nonetheless, the impact of such encounters leaves an identifiable impact upon both parties that enables a revised accurate assessment of each altered mind and its future behavior.

The domain of chaos can be somewhat reduced by the application of those same standard statistical and algorithmic approaches that have been unable to predict human behavior, for they take into account environmental considerations, essentially the subject matter of medium in which the minds encounter one another.

In conclusion, human behavior can be predicted with significant accuracy through narrative modeling.  But when narratives are only partially present in volatile scenarios, statistical modeling can be used in conjunction with narrative to achieve the best possible predictive algorithm.

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Narrative Dynamics (Part 2)

In this second article in the Dynamic Model series, I’m going to explore really intriguing problem – how particles can be transmuted into waves and vice versa.

Why this important to writers and even more important to psychologists and social scientists may not be immediately apparent, so first I’ll outline its potential usefulness and also how it is essential to the expansion of the Dramatica theory into a whole new realm.

Stories might end in success or failure of the effort to achieve the goal.  But how big a success, or how great a failure.  Now you are talking a matter of degree.  What’s more, is it a permanent success/failure or a temporary one?  And if temporary, does it always remain at the same level or does it vary, getting bigger, smaller, or oscillating in a symmetrical cyclic or complex manner?

Now, apply this to a character’s motivation.  It may be motivated by one particular kind of thing, but is that motivation increasing or decreasing?  It is accelerating or decelerating?  Is it cyclic or complex, is it transmuting from one nature of motivation to another?  And for that matter, how does a character actually change from one nature to another in a leap of faith?  Up the magnification and ask, “can I see the exact moment a character’s mind changes from one way of looking at the world to another?”

When is that magic moment at which Scrooge changes?  How long does it last?  Can we find the spot at which he is one way now and another way a moment later?  Is the change a process or an immediate timeless shift from one state to another?  What exactly is the mechanism – not the mechanism that leads him to the point of change, but the exact time at which that change occurs?

When can we say that a light switch is off versus being on?  Is it how many electrons are crossing the gap, is it the position of the switch at a visual resolution?  Is it the light getting brighter?  How bright?  How fast?  How about a mercury light that fades on and off at 60 Hz?  When it is on the nadir of the down cycle is it off?  And therefore, does the exact moment of a character’s change depend upon momentum?  Inertia?  Zeno’s paradox?

If writers could follow the rise and fall, the ebb and flow of dramatic potentials, resistances, currents, and powers discreetly for every element, every particle in a story’s structure, one could predict the cognitive and affective impact on the readers or audience as a constantly changing bundle of waveforms, each one thread or throughline in the undulating unbroken progression of experience.

Now project this into psychology, societal concerns, stock market analysis, weather prediction – such a dynamic model would enable incredibly accurate projections as well as far more detailed and complete snap analyses.

BUT

In order for these applications to be realized, we need not only a dynamic model, but also the means of connecting it to the structural model.  In other words, we need to develop a particle/wave continuum in which particles can become waves can become particles in an endless flow of cascading shifts and transmutations.

So how does this interface work?  What stands between particle and wave that alters one to another?

In the next installment of the Dynamic Model series, I’ll offer some conjectures.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Get Into Your Characters’ Heads

One of the most powerful opportunities of the novel format is the ability to describe what a character is thinking. In movies or stage plays (with exceptions) you must show what the character is thinking through action and/or dialog. But in a novel, you can just come out and say it.

For example, in a movie, you might say:

John walks slowly to the window and looks out at the park bench where he last saw Sally. His eyes fill with tears, yet he manages a half-smile. He bows his head and slowly closes the blinds.

But in a novel you might write:

John walked slowly to the window, letting his gaze drift toward the park bench where he last saw Sally. Why did I let her go, he thought. I wanted so much to ask her to stay. Though saddened, he reflected on happier times with her – days of more contentment than he ever imagined he could feel.  And slowly, his mood brightened ever so slightly.

The previous paragraph uses two forms of expressing a character’s thoughts. One, is the direct quote of the thought, as if it were dialog spoken internally to oneself. The other is a summary and paraphrase of what was going on in the character’s head.

Most novels are greatly enhanced by stepping away from a purely objective narrative perspective, and drawing the reader into the minds of the character’s themselves.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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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

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(Originally published in 2012)

 

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Finding an Idea for a Theme

Every story benefits from a theme – a concept of life that is explored over the course of the narrative.

Finding a theme of interest to you as an author is easier than you think.  In this age of social media, we speak to others of life, deep passions, inequities, and triumphs – the whole range of human pathos and joy that is often so sorely missing from stories that focus solely on characters, plot, and genre.

Often, we don’t realize we have sent a tweet or posted a comment that holds the seeds of a fully developed them, for we see these communications as momentary and transient.  But if you look back at the end of a day and read through your cyber communications, you are likely to find a wealth of material generated by your own natural writerly assessments of life, from the grand overviews to the tiniest experiences, elevated as you related them to another.

As an example, here is a note I dashed off on Facebook to my cousin some time ago that, in re-reading, I realized could be the basis of an entire novel or screenplay:

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.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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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.

*************

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

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