What is Dramatica?

What is Dramatica?

Dramatica is a theory of story that offers both writers and critics a clear view of what story structure is and how it works. Dramatica is also the inspiration behind the line of story development software products that bear its name.

The central concept of the Dramatica theory is a notion called the “Story Mind.” In a nutshell, this simply means that every story has a mind of its own – its own personality; its own psychology. A story’s personality is developed by an author’s style and subject matter; its psychology is determined by the underlying dramatic structure.

The Story Mind

The Story Mind is at the heart of Dramatica, and everything else about the theory grows out of that. If you don’t buy into it, at least a little, then you’re not going to find much use for the rest of this book. So let’s take look into the Story Mind right off the bat to see if it is worth your while to keep reading…

Simply put, the Story Mind means that we can think of a story as if it were a person. The storytelling style and the subject matter determine the story’s personality, and the underlying dramatic structure determines its psychology.

Now the personality of a story is a touchy-feely thing, while the psychology is a nuts-and-bolts mechanical thing. Let’s consider the personality part first, and then turn our attention to the psychology.

Like anyone you meet, a story has a personality. And what makes up a personality? Well, everything from the subject matter a person talks about to their attitude toward life. Similarly, a story might be about the Old West or Outer Space, and its attitude could be somber, sneaky, lively, hilarious, or any combination of other human qualities.

Is this a useful perspective? Can be. Many writers get so wrapped up in the details of a story that they lose track of the overview. For example, you might spend all kinds of time working out the specifics of each character’s personality yet have your story take a direction that is completely out of character for its personality. But if you step back every once and a while and think of the story as a single person, you can really get a sense of whether or not it is acting in character.

Imagine that you have invited your story to dinner. You have a pleasant conversation with it over the meal. Of course, it is more like a monologue because your story does all the talking – just as it will to your audience or reader.

Your story is a practical joker, or a civil war buff (genre), and it talks about what interests it. It tells you a story about a problem with some endeavor (plot) in which it was engaged. It discusses the moral issues (theme) involved and its point of view on them. It even divulges the conflicting drives (characters) that motivated it while it tried to resolve the difficulties.

You want to ask yourself if it’s story makes sense. If not, you need to work on the logic of your story. Does it feel right, as if the Story Mind is telling you everything, or does it seem like it is holding something back? If so, your story has holes that need filling. And does your story hold your interest for two hours or more while it delivers it’s monologue? If not, it’s going to bore it’s captive audience in the theater, or the reader of its report (your book), and you need to send it back to finishing school for another draft.

Again, authors get so wrapped up in the details that they lose the big picture. But by thinking of your story as a person, you can get a sense of the overall attraction, believability, and humanity of your story before you foist it off on an unsuspecting public.

There’s much more we’ll have to say about the personality of the Story Mind and how to leverage it to your advantage. But, our purpose right now is just to see if Dramatica might be of use to you. So, let’s examine the other side of the Story Mind concept – the story’s psychology as represented in its structure.

The Dramatica theory is primarily concerned with the structure of a story. Everything in that structure represents an aspect of the human mind, almost as if the processes of the mind had been made tangible and projected out externally for the audience to observe.

Do you remember the model kit of the “Visible Man?” It was a 12″ human figure made out of clear plastic so you could see the skeleton and all the organs on the inside. Well that is how the Story Mind works. it takes the processes of the human mind, and turns them into characters, plot, theme, and genre, so we can study them in detail. In this way, an author can provide understanding to an audience of the best way to deal with problems. And, of course, all of this is wrapped up and disguised in the particular subject matter, style, and techniques of the storyteller.

Now this makes it sound as if the real meat of a story, the real people, places, events, and topics, are just window dressing to distract the audience from the serious business of the structure. But that’s not what we’re saying here. In fact, structure and storytelling work side by side, hand in hand, to create an audience/reader experience that transcends the power of either by itself.

Therefore, structure and storytelling are neither completely dependent upon each other, nor are they wholly independent. One structure might be told in a myriad of ways, like West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, any given group of characters dealing with a particular realm of subject matter might be wrapped around any number of different structures, like weekly television series.

But let’s get back to the nature of the structure itself and to the elements that make up the Story Mind. If characters, plot, theme, and genre represent aspects of the human mind made tangible, what are they?

Characters represent the conflicting drives of our own minds. For example, in our own minds, our reason and our emotions are often at war with one another. Sometimes what makes the most sense doesn’t feel right at all. And conversely, what feels so right might not make any sense at all. Then again, there are times when both agree and what makes the most sense also feels right on.

Reason and Emotion then, become two archetypal characters in the Story Mind that illustrate that inner conflict that rages within ourselves. And in the structure of stories, just as in our minds, sometimes these two basic attributes conflict, and other times they concur.

Theme, on the other hand, illustrates our troubled value standards. We are all plagued with uncertainties regarding the right attitude to take, the best qualities to emulate, and whether our principles should remain fixed and constant or should bend in context to particular circumstances.

Plot compares the relative value of the methods we might employ within our minds in our attempt to press on through these conflicting points of view on the way toward a mental consensus.

And genre explores the overall attitude of the Story Mind – the points of view we take as we watch the parade of our own thoughts unfold, and the psychological foundation upon which our personality is built.

Melanie Anne Phillips

This article is drawn from the author’s
Dramatica Story Structure Software

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The First Step In Writing ANY Novel

Before you write your first chapter, ponder your opening sentence, or jot down a single word, there’s one step you should always do first, no matter your genre or style.

First, the problem, then the solution:

When you first come up with a concept for a story your head begins to fill with ideas for it – the genre, setting, year or historic era, a concept for a main character or an intriguing subordinate one, a few twists for the plot, a few examples that illustrate your theme and/or support your message, and many, many more.

Before long, you have hundreds of notions running around in your head bumping into each other.  You don’t want to forget any so you either keep revisiting them over and over again or you jot them down on napkins, sticky notes, or even index cards.

At the same time, you are trying to figure out how to make all these mosaic pieces fit together into the single image of your story, and that just adds to the chaos going on in your creative mind.

You might as well admit it – it’s a mess in there.  And the problem is that there is so much going on you don’t have room to stand back and see the big picture much less space to come up with new ideas either.  This leads to gridlock, anxiety, and frustration, all of which are the breeding ground for writer’s block.

That’s no way to start the story development process.  It might even stall you out before you really get started.

So here’s the solution:

The moment you decide you have enough ideas that you’d like to develop them into a story, sit yourself down and do a “core dump” of everything you already have rattling around in your head.

Just start jotting it all down with no rhyme or reason – every character trait, storytelling trick, plot twist, genre element, dialog or style notion that you are juggling in your mind.

This isn’t the time to try an organize it or make sense of it or try to make it all work in concert.  This is just the time to clear you mind by getting all the ideas into one place, safe and saved in a document.

There’s no limit to how long or short your list of ideas needs to be.  You write them down until you run out of them.  And there’s no rule about how to format them – it can’ be in a list, a series of sentences, or even short descriptive paragraphs that really capture the flavor of what you have in mind.

The magic happens when you are finally done and the myriad of creative notions you’ve been entertaining are all in front of you in one place.  Then, you can finally clear your mind, stand back, and see the big picture.

Just in looking them over you might see connections among the concept that never came to mind before because you’d never been able to directly bring two ideas together in the ongoing stream.

And you also will be able to see where you have lots of development and where it is thin or even missing.  For example, you may find you have a really well delineated plot but only a couple of characters and no message.

It will be different every time you do this for every story you write.  But once your mind is clear and you can get that overview and also start playing one idea against others, you’ll find that from that point forward your story development takes off like a rocket.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Writing Prompt Level: Expert!

Here is a writing prompt picture I posted recently and the amazingly creative response by writer Bill Williams

Bill Williams –

This is actually pretty easy to explain.

*sips coffee*

The cats in the front are feline overlords. They were testing a new human control virus on the people in the so-called “party” (Humans got a fake invitation to a pseudo-party where the drinks were spiked with FeCV (Feline Control Virus)).

Anyway, the cats in the front of the photo are contorting themselves to see if they can get the humans to do the same thing; the humans, forced to attempt to comply, are trying their best even though it’s causing some of them great pain (clearly). The female in the back of the photo with her hand on her head has just come in and hasn’t had a drink yet. She is clearly astonished at what she sees. Of course the infected humans not dancing are controlled to pretend nothing unusual is happening …

*sips coffee, brushes intruding pet cat off the chair*

I saw this once before. I believe it was 1962, San Diego CA. There were no … HUMAN survivors. (No cats were found either, but we all know just how crafty the little bastards are.)

So far their experiments have not been successful – in fact I thought they had given up on it. The photo you have presented is clear evidence they haven’t stopped trying.

My coffee tastes funny … I wonder if – DAMN CAT! OK, that’s it, I’m going national with th-

I have been instructed to tell you it is a photoshopped collage of people and animals. Nothing usual in the slightest ever happened. Please disregard what were clearly insane ramblings.

Yes, Sammie, I’ll get your cat food right now, baby. On my way!!!

You can contact Bill Williams on his Facebook Page

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Smothered in an Avalanche of Ideas

One of the writers I coach recently wrote to me about getting drowned in a sea of ideas for his story, unable to organize his material, make choices, or more forward.

Here is the note I wrote him in response that might have some value for y’all:

I noticed in our previous work together that you often came up with multiple potential plot lines for your story, all equally good, but mutually exclusive. In other words, you have a lot of creativity and keep coming up with a fountain of ideas but they are incompatible with each other if they were placed in a single story, and you have trouble choosing the ones that work together and rejecting the others.

You are not alone in this. Another creative writer I have as a client has the same problem as you. He created a whole universe – a wondrous fantasy world with the potential to be another Harry Potter success but this time in a fantasy land focusing on a young girl – so inventive, so imaginative. But, every time he came up with another great idea, it would shatter the storyline he was working on and break it into pieces like shattered glass. He couldn’t put the pieces back together again and so he came up with a whole new storyline in that world in which the fragmented pieces could be sprinkled.

The sad thing was, each of his storylines was wonderful, but he rejected each because of new ideas he couldn’t fit into them.  I believe that is the same problem you have. Basically, you are so durn creative that you pour out wonderful new ideas all the time. But because they are inspirations, they don’t necessarily fit into what you’ve already written.

Now for most writers who aren’t as inventive as you and my other client, selecting a single plot and a single story is the way to go, simply because they don’t have bushel baskets of other ideas about their story’s world. But for you and my other client, the answer is something else. And it is actually very simple. And, in fact, I’ve already given the secret to both of you, but neither of you has used it, and for the life of me I haven’t figured out why yet.

I’m thinking that your answer is not to reject any of the wonderful ideas but to create a series of books, each of which opens a whole new aspect of what we learned in the previous book. In fact, each new book may completely change what we, the reader, thought was going on in the last book we read, because now a whole new perspective has been created that throws everything into a different context and creates a different meaning.

You just pick the story you want to tell first – make that choice – then pull together all the creative ideas that work around that storyline and put all the other ideas into a sack to be used in later books in the series. That way, no idea is ever rejected, it is just earmarked for down-the-line.

So, with my other creative client, we worked out a master story arc of five books, each of which revealed a different aspect of his story’s world until all his creative ideas were included. And that’s also what you and I did – working out multiple stories that would eventually be able to use all your different storylines and situations.

But, to my surprise, neither of you actually got past that point. I don’t know if the desire to “get it all in one book” is too strong to consider a series or if, perhaps, the idea of the potential tedium of a whole series which requires sticking with a particular story world for a long time is a motivation killer.

In the case of my other client, as soon as he saw he had so many ideas it would take several books to express them all, he dumped his whole story world of fantasy and started a whole new story set in the New York world of high-competition design.

This is the curse of the overly creative mind. It has nothing to do with talent or manner of expression or intelligence. It is just that in some folks the Muse is ramped up so high that the new ideas drown their ability to complete – they are constantly drawn to the next truly wonderful idea and cannot help but lose interest in the idea they ostensibly are supposed to be working on. Once it becomes work, the new ideas are far more interesting because, beneath it all, there is more to being a writer than being creative. It also requires an innate ability of self-discipline – to nail oneself to a chair and write, day in and day out and even when it is deadly boring, unpleasant, unsatisfying, and mind-numbing. That’s how books get written, whereas overly creative minds with equal ability in word play will get nowhere because there is too much to lure them from the drudgery.

That’s the best advice I can muster about why this happens and what to do about it.

One other answer I suggested to my other client was to write his work as a series of short stories. Don’t go for a book-length plot, even if you are aware of every step in that plot. Just write a series of short episodes, each informed by the overall plot line, but each as a stand-alone that doesn’t require the others to be read and enjoyed. In this manner you can muster enough self-discipline to complete something in short form before being dragged away, and eventually can bundle all those short tales in your story world into a single book or series of books.

Other than that, however, unless you can bring yourself to pick one storyline and put in the focus to stick with it until it is done, putting all new ideas into a sack for later, I imagine you’ll continue to be frustrated.

So you really have a choice to keep on going as you are or to create a series of books for all your ideas and new ideas but stick with the first one to get it done, or to go to the short story method and then bundle them into books when you reach a “critical mass.”

Someone once said, “I hate writing; I love to have written.” The choice is really up to you.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 3

Archetypes are the spine of any story, whether you use them in a monolithic manner or sculpt them into more complex variations.  Understanding archetypes will help you to ensure your structure is human and complete.

In part 1 of this series we defined what archetypes are.  In part 2, we discovered where archetypes come from and why they showed up in story structure.  Here in part 3, we’ll define a specific cast of archetypal characters and outline how to employ them to strengthen your story.

How many archetypes are there?  I have my own answer to that question but to see what else is out there I did a quick search and found scores of lists of archetypes, each with its own collection.  One of them promised (and actually provided) more than three hundred different archetypes!

In looking through that group, I discovered something interesting:  There was no consistency to what they considered to be an archetype.  Some were defined by their profession, such as “Chef.”  Now, I suppose if I really twisted my head around, I could see a “Chef” archetype as being a character who goes through life with recipes, trying to bring things together into a finished whatever, though it seems a bit of a stretch.

Another archetype was “Builder,” but how is that much different from a Chef?  The Builder probably has plans (a recipe) that he uses in life to try and make things (like a meal, or a perfect marriage or, again, whatever).

And then there were archetypes put forth by Jung: the Mother, the Trickster, and the Hero, for example.  The Mother is a relationship by birth, the Trickster is defined by what he (or she) tries to do to others, and the Hero is a Hero because of his stout heart, I imagine, or perhaps because of heroic acts.  You can see these kinds of folks in real life, but what is the consistency that defines them or the underlying concept that binds them all together?

The farther I read through this extensive list, the more confusing it became trying to understand what made an archetype an archetype – be they con man, coward, or crone.  And worse, it gave me no idea how a Coward might interact with a Chef, or a Trickster with a Crone.

Honestly, it’s kind of a mess out there in archetype-land.  And that’s what my partner Chris and I discovered some thirty years ago when we first began work on what was to become our own theory of story structure, including our own list of archetypes.

If you’ve read in the first two articles in this series, you know that we came to believe that archetypes – true archetypes – represent the most fundamental human attributes that we all share such as Reason, Emotion, Skepticism, and Faith.

When we are trying to understand what’s happening in our lives and chart a course forward, we bring all of these attributes to bear on the problem so we can see the issues from all angles by using all the mental tools we have to make the best decisions.

That’s how we do it as individuals.  However, when we gather together in groups such as a team or a company or even a family, and we agree to work toward a common cause or purpose, the group automatically self-organizes so that one person emerges as the voice of Reason for the group at large, and other becomes the resident Skeptic. Least ways, that’s our theory.

In other words, we each take on roles representing one of the fundamental approaches we take to solving problems for ourselves.  And in this way, the group benefits from having a number of specialists on the job, rather than a collection of general practitioners, all trying to do the same thing.  It is kind of a natural progression of social evolution when humans bond together.

So, in stories (which try to represent the human issues of real life), every character uses all these traits to solve their personal problems in the tale, but take on the role of representing just one of these traits when working with the group.  And those roles ultimately became embedded in the conventions of story structure as archetypes.

Now our theory of story structure is a lot more detailed and complex than that, but you get the idea.  And based on that idea, here is our list of archetypes associated with the human qualities they represent.

There are four primary or Driver archetypes and four secondary or Back Seat Driver archetypes that influence the primary ones.  First I’ll list them by the human attributes they represent, and then I’ll list them again with their archetypal names as they appear in story structure.

Driver Archetypes:

Initiative / Reticence

Intellect / Passion

Passenger Archetypes:

Conscience / Temptation

Confidence / Doubt

As you can see by the primary attributes listed, the driver archetypes directly try to grapple with the problem whereas the passenger archetypes think about consequences and put the problem in context.  It is just the way the human mind works when it fashions narratives to get a grip on the situation.

Now here are those same attributes again with their archetypal names.

Driver Archetypes:

Initiative (Protagonist) / Reticence (Antagonist)

Intellect (Reason) / Passion (Emotion)

Passenger Archetypes:

Conscience (Guardian) / Temptation (Contagonist)

Confidence (Sidekick) / Doubt (Skeptic)

Let’s take the archetypes one by one just to get a sense of how each human attribute shows up in a story.

First up, the Protagonist.  The Protagonist is the character that keeps on plugging away at the goal, no matter what.  That’s the human quality of Initiative – the motivation to affect change, get up and go, make something happen, shake things up, and so on.

Next, the Antagonist.  The Antagonist is the character that wants to prevent the goal from being accomplished, no matter what.  That’s the human quality of Reticence (reticence to change) – the motivation to keep things as they are, put them back the way they were, quash the fires of rebellion, and so on.

Side note:  In James Bond films, it is the villain who takes the first strike and Bond who thwarts him, so from an archetypal standpoint, the villain is the Protagonist and Bond is the Antagonist, just by the human attributes they represent in structure.  Just think about that for a moment.  It is one reason why Bond seems like a different kind of hero.  There’s a lot more about this kind of thing in our theory, but its a bit off-the-point for now, so lets look at the next pair of archetypes.

The Reason archetype is the character who tries to solve every issue by figuring it out.  They apply logic to the matter, and if it doesn’t make sense, they are against it (rather ignoring the humanity of the situation).

The Emotion archetype is the character who wants everyone to follow their heart – be yourself, if it feels right do it (as we used to say in the 60’s).  Of course, now I’m actually in my 60’s but that’s another story….

Now before we move on to the passengers, consider how these archetypes always travel in  pairs.  Protagonist / Antagonist and Reason / Emotion.  Every archetype has a counter part, and the conflict between the characters in each pair mirrors the conflicts in our own minds as we duke it out between two different ways of deciding what to do so we can have confidence in the last one standing as the approach to take.

In other words, our initiative is weight or pitted against our reticence – should we do something or let sleeping dogs lie?  Which is better?  Well, that all depends on the situation, and that’s what stories are all about: The author is telling us that in this particular situation, it is better to take initiative, or that it is better to try and maintain the status quo.  But the primary decision we have in the world is to act or not to act, and that’s why Protagonist and Antagonist have at each other as the problem-solving effort of the story progresses – to provide evidence for the author’s message about which is the better approach in this specific case that the story explores.

It is the same with Reason and Emotion.  But it is also different in a big way.  Initiative and Reticence are diametrically opposed.  Intellect and Passion can be opposed, but don’t have to be.  Sometimes they can actually agree.  Sometimes what makes the most sense also feels the best.  Sometimes what makes sense feels so-so.  And sometimes it feels like a horrible thing to do.  Both Reason and Emotion might also agree that something is rotten – it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t feel right either.

As you can see, with these two pairs of archetypes we’ve discovered two different kinds of character relationships.  And when you build a story around each of these characters, you’ll see all of these pop up as it unfolds.

Now, let’s take a look at the passengers to get a better grip on those archetypes…

The Guardian looks out for consequences as in, “Where’s this all going to lead to?” or “Fine, but what price might we have to pay later.”  These are the functions of the human quality of conscience.

When you think about it, if you strip away all the moral associations, Conscience is really about thinking about the ramifications and Temptation is going for the immediate benefit (we’ll get around the consequences later..  somehow….)

And so, Guardian and Contagonist are partly about the long term gain vs. the short term gain.  You see folks who lean more to one or the other in real life, but we all have both of those two traits  – even a sociopath weighs the immediate benefit vs. the eventual risk.

And finally we have the Sidekick and the Skeptic.  In stories, think of the Sidekick as the faithful supporter and the Skeptic as the doubting opposer.  These two archetypes are rather like cheerleaders – one representing our confidence in finding a solution and the other representing self-doubt.

Of course in stories, the overall plot is about the group, so these attributes show up like they do in real-life organizations: Confidence says, “Go team!  I know we can do it!” where Doubt is more like Eeyore or the Cowardly Lion, “I think we’d better give up on this because we haven’t got a chance.”

Now I could go on and on about these archetypes and, in fact, I actually have!  Here’s a link to a free online version of the book we wrote about our theory of story structure.

You might also be interested in the software we created based on the theory.  You can try it risk-free for 90 days!  Check it out…

Though this concludes our brief introduction to archetypes, in future articles, we’ll break the archetypes into smaller dramatic elements and show how you can rearrange those to create more complex and deeper characters that will fulfill all necessary structural roles.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Here’s something else I made for writers:

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“Ability” and Story Structure

Warning – Deep Narrative Theory Ahead…

What’s “Ability” have to do with story structure?

In this article I’m going to talk about how the Dramatica Theory of Narrative Structure uses the term “ability” as an element of dramatics, and how it applies not only to story narratives and characters but to real people, real life and psychology as well.

If you look in Dramatica’s “Periodic Table of Story Elements” chart (you can download a free PDF of the chart at http://storymind.com/free-downloads/ddomain.pdf ) you’ll find the “ability” in one of the little squares.  Look in the “Physics” class in the upper left-hand corner.  You’ll find it in a “quad” of four items, “Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire”.

To begin with, a brief word about the Dramatica chart itself.  The chart is sort of like a Rubik’s Cube.  It holds all the elements which must appear in every complete story to avoid holes.  Conceptually, you can twist it and turn it, just like a Rubik’s Cube, and when you do, it is like winding up a clock – you create dramatic potential.

How is this dramatic potential created?  The chart represents all the categories of things we think about.  Notice that the chart is nested, like wheels within wheels.  That’s the way our mind’s work.  And if we are to make a solid story structure with no holes, we have to make sure all ways of thinking about the story’s central problem or issues are covered.

So, the chart is really a model of the mind.  When you twist it and turn it represents the kinds of stress (and experience) we encounter in everyday life.  Sometimes things get wound up as tight as they can.  And this is where a story always starts.  Anything before that point is backstory, anything after it is story.

The story part is the process of unwinding that tension.  So why does a story feel like tension is building, rather than lessening?  This is because stories are about the forces that bring a person to change or, often, to a point of potential change.

As the story mind unwinds, it puts more and more pressure on the main character (who may be gradually changed by the process or may remain intransigent until he changes all at once).  It’s kind of like the forces that  create earthquakes.  Tectonic plates push against each other driven by a background force (the mantle).  That force is described by the wound up Dramatica chart of the story mind.

Sometimes, in geology, this force gradually raises or lowers land in the two adjacent plate.  Other times it builds up pressure until things snap all at once in an earthquake.  So too in psychology, people (characters) are sometimes slowly changed by the gradual application of pressure as the story mind clock is unwinding; other times that pressure applied by the clock mechanism just builds up until the character snaps in Leap Of Faith – that single “moment of truth” in which a character must decide either to change his ways or stick by his guns believing his current way is stronger than the pressure bought to bear – he believes he just has to outlast the forces against him.

Sometimes he’s right to change, sometimes he’s right to remain steadfast, and sometimes he’s wrong.  But either way, in the end, the clock has unwound and the potential has been balanced.

Hey, what happened to “ability”?  Okay, okay, I’m getting to that….

The chart (here we go again!) is filled with semantic terms – things like Hope and Physics and Learning and Ability.  If you go down to the bottom of the chart in the PDF you’ll see a three-dimensional representation of how all these terms are stacked together.  In the flat chart, they look like wheels within wheels.  In the 3-D version, they look like levels.

These “levels” represent degrees of detail in the way the mind works.  At the most broadstroke level (the top) there are just four items – Universe, Physics, Mind and Psychology.  They are kind of like the Primary Colors of the mind – the Red, Blue, Green and Saturation (effectively the addition of something along the black/white gray scale).

Those for items in additive color theory are four categories describing what can create a continuous spectrum.  In a spectrum is really kind of arbitrary where you draw the line between red and blue.  Similarly, Universe, Mind, Physics and Psychology are specific primary considerations of the mind.

Universe is the external state of things – our situation or environment.  Mind is the internal state – an attitude, fixation or bias.  Physics looks at external activities – processes and mechanisms.  Psychology looks at internal activities – manners of thinking in logic and feeling.

Beneath that top level of the chart are three other levels.  Each one provides a greater degree of detail on how the mind looks at the world and at itself.  It is kind of like adding “Scarlet” and “Cardinal” as subcategories to the overall concept of “Red”.

Now the top level of the Dramatica chart describe the structural aspects of “Genre”  Genre is the most broad stroke way of looking at a story’s structure.   The next level down has a bit more dramatic detail and describes the Plot of a story.  The third level down maps out Theme, and the bottom level (the one with the most detail) explores the nature of a story’s Characters.

So there you have the chart from the top down, Genre, Plot, Theme and Characters.  And as far as the mind goes, it represents the wheels within wheels and the spectrum of how we go about considering things.  In fact, we move all around that chart when we try to solve a problem.  But the order is not arbitrary.  The mind has to go through certain “in-betweens” to get from one kind of consideration to another or from one emotion to another.  You see this kind of thing in the stages of grief and even in Freud’s psycho-sexual stages of development.

All that being said now, we finally return to Ability – the actual topic of this article.  You’ll find Ability, then, at the very bottom of the chart – in the Characters level – in the upper left hand corner of the Physics class.  In this article I won’t go into why it is in Physics or why it is in the upper left, but rest assured I’ll get to that eventually in some article or other.

Let’s now consider “Ability” in its “quad” of four Character Elements.  The others are Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire.  I really don’t have space in this article to go into detail about them at this time, but suffice it to say that Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire are the internal equivalents of Universe, Mind, Physics and Psychology.  They are the conceptual equivalents of Mass, Energy, Space and Time.  (Chew on that for awhile!)

So the smallest elements are directly connect (conceptually) to the largest in the chart.  This represents what we call the “size of mind constant” which is what determines the scope of an argument necessary to fill the minds of readers or an audience.  In short, there is a maximum depth of detail one can perceive while still holding the “big picture” in one’s mind at the very same time.

Ability – right….

Ability is not what you can do.  It is what you are “able” to do.  What’s the difference?  What you “can” do is essentially your ability limited by your desire.  Ability describes the maximum potential that might be accomplished.  But people are limited by what they should do, what they feel obligated to do, and what they want to do.  If you take all that into consideration, what’s left is what a person actually “can” do.

In fact,  if we start adding on limitations you  move from Ability to Can and up to even higher levels of “justification” in which the essential qualities of our minds, “Knowledge, Thought, Ability and Desire” are held in check by extended considerations about the impact or ramifications of acting to our full potential.

One quad greater in justification you find “Can, Need, Want, and Should” in Dramatica’s story mind chart.  Then it gets even more limited by Responsibility, Obligation, Commitment and Rationalization.  Finally we end up “justifying” so much that we are no longer thinking about Ability (or Knowledge or Thought or Desire) but about our “Situation, Circumstance, Sense of Self and State of Being”.  That’s about as far away as you can get from the basic elements of the human mind and is the starting point of where stories begin when they are fully wound up.  (You’ll find all of these at the Variation Level in the “Psychology” class in the Dramatica chart, for they are the kinds of issues that most directly affect each of our own unique brands of our common human psychology.

A story begins when the Main Character is stuck up in that highest level of justification.  Nobody gets there because they are stupid or mean.  They get there because their unique life experience has brought them repeated exposures to what appear to be real connections between things like, “One bad apple spoils the bunch” or “Where there’s smoke , there’s fire.”

These connections, such things as –  that one needs to adopt a certain attitude to succeed or that a certain kind of person is always lazy or dishonest – these things are not always universally true, but may have been universally true in the Main Character’s experience.  Really, its how we all build up our personalities.  We all share the same basic psychology but how it gets “wound up” by experience determines how we see the world.  When we get wound up all the way, we’ve had enough experience to reach a conclusion that things are always “that way” and to stop considering the issue.  And that is how everything from “winning drive” to “prejudice” is formed – not by ill intents or a dull mind buy by the fact that no two life experiences are the same.

The conclusions we come to, based on our justifications, free out minds to not have to reconsider every connection we see.  If we had to, we’d become bogged down in endlessly reconsidering everything, and that just isn’t a good survival trait if you have to make a quick decision for fight or flight.

So, we come to certain justification and build upon those with others until we have established a series of mental dependencies and assumptions that runs so deep we can’t see the bottom of it – the one bad brick that screwed up the foundation to begin with.  And that’s why psychotherapy takes twenty years to reach the point a Main Character can reach in a two hour movie or a two hundred page book.

Now we see how Ability (and all the other Dramatica terms) fit into story and into psychology.  Each is just another brick in the wall.  And each can be at any level of the mind and at any level of justification.  So, Ability might be the problem in one story (the character has too much or too little of it) or it might be the solution in another (by discovering an ability or coming to accept one lacks a certain ability the story’s problem – or at least the Main Character’s personal problem – can be solved).  Ability might be the thematic topic of one story and the thematic counterpoint of another (more on this in other articles).

Ability might crop up in all kinds of ways, but the important thing to remember is that wherever you find it, however you use it, it represents the maximum potential, not necessarily the practical limit that can be actually applied.

Well, enough of this.  To close things off, here’s the Dramatica Dictionary description of the world Ability that Chris and I worked out some twenty years ago, straight out of the Dramatica diction (available online at http://storymind.com/dramatica/dictionary/index.htm :

Ability • Most terms in Dramatica are used to mean only one thing. Thought, Knowledge, Ability, and Desire, however, have two uses each, serving both as Variations and Elements. This is a result of their role as central considerations in both Theme and Character

[Variation] • dyn.pr. Desire<–>Ability • being suited to handle a task; the innate capacity to do or be • Ability describes the actual capacity to accomplish something. However, even the greatest Ability may need experience to become practical. Also, Ability may be hindered by limitations placed on a character and/or limitations imposed by the character upon himself. • syn. talent, knack, capability, innate capacity, faculty, inherant proficiency

[Element] • dyn.pr. Desire<–>Ability • being suited to handle a task; the innate capacity to do or be • An aspect of the Ability element is an innate capacity to do or to be. This means that some Abilities pertain to what what can affect physically and also what one can rearrange mentally. The positive side of Ability is that things can be done or experienced that would otherwise be impossible. The negative side is that just because something can be done does not mean it should be done. And, just because one can be a certain way does not mean it is beneficial to self or others. In other words, sometimes Ability is more a curse than a blessing because it can lead to the exercise of capacities that may be negative • syn. talent, knack, capability, innate capacity, faculty, inherant proficiency

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator, StoryWeaver
Co-creator, Dramatica

Author’s Note:  Check out all our Dramatic products here.

And here’s something else I created for writers….

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A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 2

In my previous article, A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 1, I defined what an archetype is, and what it is not.  Here in Part 2, we’re going to expand on that understanding by revealing where archetypes come from and how they came to be in story structure.

Let us consider then the origin or archetypes…

Each of us has within us, regardless of age, gender, race, culture, or language, certain fundamental human attributes such as reason, passion, skepticism, belief, conscience, and temptation.

The qualities are not so much traits and processes our minds employ to try and understand our world and ourselves, to identify problems and seek solutions, and to chart a course forward to maximize the good in our lives and minimize the bad.

When we put a box around some aspect of our lives, such as our relationship to our spouse, our position at work, or our membership in a club or organization, we call it a narrative.  That’s all narrative is, really, is to box in a part of our existence to understand it independently of the rest of our life experience.

Of course, these personal narratives are not really closed systems since what happens in one part of our lives certainly affects the others.  But our lives as a whole are so complex that we need to parse them into smaller, more easily considered pieces  And each of of these is a personal narrative.

And, as we are all aware, we don’t only create narratives about ourselves and the people in our lives, but we also build them around larger issues, such as whether or not we believe in Global Warming, why we believe that, and what (if anything) we think should be done about it.  In short, every opinion we have is a narrative, large or small.

When we consider any of these personal narratives all of our human attributes come into play to try and choose the best path, e.g., reason, skepticism, and temptation.

But when we gather together in groups to explore a common issue or toward a common purpose, very quickly someone will emerge as the voice of reason for the group, another as the resident skeptic, and one other group member will represent the temptation to take the immediately expedient course (even if ill-advised in the long-term).

These roles that form within a group narrative are the basis of archetypes.  It happens automatically as the group self-organizes.  How this happens is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but should you care to dig deeper you may find the social dynamics behind it quite intriguing.

Now that we know how archetypes form, how did they get into story structure?  Well, to answer that we really need to define story structure.  Fortunately, the explanation isn’t all that complex.

To begin with, story structure isn’t artificial and it isn’t imposed on stories arbitrarily from the outside to cram dramatics into some sort of rigid form.  On the contrary, story structure gradually emerged in stories as early storytellers sought to understand the human animal as individuals and also how they interacted together.

Imagine, then, that we all have these fundamental attributes we employ in our personal narratives and that the same attributes rise up as archetypes in our group narratives.  These seminal storytellers would note that the problems we face every day occur when one of our personal narratives is in conflict with someone else’s and also that problems occur when our personal narrative is in conflict with our role in a group narrative.

Simply put – we conflict with others who have different agendas and we also feel pressure when our chosen course is in conflict with our part in the big machine.

Now, as storytellers began to note that the same human qualities (such as reason and skepticsm) kept cropping up in every story that felt complete, they began to include them in every story.  So, a Reason archetype became a required character in every story, as did a Skeptic.  The Protagonist and Antagonist showed up as well.

As more archetypes were identified, they embedded in the conventions of storytelling.  Through trial and error, all the of these “primary colors” of the human heart and mind were noted, made their way into those conventions, and eventually solidified into what we know as story structure today.

It should be noted that story structure is flexible, rather like a Rubik’s cube.  The building blocks are always the same but they can be arranged in a myriad of patterns, as long as they don’t violate the way people really interact.  Just as a Rubik’s cube is always a cube, a story structure is always a narrative.  That’s what gives it form.

Now the archetypes are just part of story structure.  Plot elements such as goal, requirements, and consequences as well as sequential movements like acts, sequences, and beats, describe the different ways folks strive to move a narrative forward to the conclusion they seek.  Thematic items, such as thematic issue, thematic conflict, and message look into our value standards and belief systems, pitting one against another to illustrate the best ways of dealing with different kinds of problems.  And even genre has underlying human qualities represented in the structure which tend to provide perspective and context for the narrative, giving it richness and and overall organic feeling.

All of what leaves us where?  Well, it leaves us with a general understanding of the origin of Archetypes and how they made their way into story structure.

And that is where we close in Part 2 of A Brief Introduction to Archetypes an anticipate Part 3 in which we will specifically list the archetypes, show how to employ them in your story, and then bust them apart into their component elements to illustrate how you can move beyond archetypes to create far more complex and human characters without violating the truth of structure.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Author’s Note: The concepts in this article are drawn from the Dramatica Theory of Narrative I co-created with my partner, Chris Huntley.  All of this and much more made its way into our Dramatica Story Structure Software, which you can try risk-free for 90 days.  Give it whirl!

And here’s something else I created for writers…

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A Brief Introduction to Archetypes – Part 1

Writers and narrative theorists often speak of Archetypes.  When they do, Jung and Campbell and the Hero’s Journey quickly come to mind.  And yet, if pressed, most writers would admit they don’t really have a solid grip on what an archetype is, where they come from, and how they can or should be used in a story.

So, here’s a little exploration into the nature and function of archetypes in narrative to give you something a little more definitive…

First of all, archetypes are structural characters.  That means that a Protagonist is a Protagonist whether they are man, woman, creature, or humanized force of nature.  And it doesn’t matter how old they are, what their goal is, or what personality traits they have.

If you strip away all those storytelling elements, Hamlet is the same as Homer Simpson as Protagonists.

So what is this dramatic function that defines a Protagonist and makes them all the same?  By definition, a Protagonist is the character who will not stop trying to achieve the overall story goal until they succeed or die trying.

Okay, but that is very plot-oriented.  What about stories that focus on a troubled character who has to grapple with all kinds of life issues and perhaps make a decision or take a leap of faith in order to resolve them?

Well, the character in story who dealing with an inner demon or has a point of view (like Scrooge) that really needs changing is called the Main Character.  The Main Character in a story is the one you root for – it is the character you want to find peace and/or happiness.  And all the emotional ups and downs along the way seem to revolve around them.

Often, a Main Character is the same person as the Protagonist.  In this case,  you have a Hero – the guy leading the effort to achieve the goal is also the guy who is grappling with an inner issue.  And in the end, they will either succeed or not in the goal, and they will either resolve their personal issue or not.

The goal and the personal issue aren’t really tied together, so you can have four kinds of endings:

  1.  A Happy Ending in which the Hero succeeds and resolves his angst, as in Kingsman, Frozen, or Wizard of Oz.
  2. A Tragic Endings in which the Hero fails to achieve the goal and does not resolve his angst as in Doctor Zhivago, Hamlet, or Brokeback Mountain.
  3. A Personal Triumph in which the Hero fails to achieve the goal but manages to resolve his angst anyway as in Rocky, How to Train Your Dragon, or The Devil Wears Prada.
  4. A Personal Tragedy in which the Hero succeeds in achieving the goal but does not resolve his angst as in Chinatown, Silence of the Lambs, or The Dark Knight.

Getting back to archetypes, we can see why a Hero isn’t a true archetype but more of a stereotype who is created by making the same person in a story both the Protagonist and the Main Character.

Of course, the Protagonist is not always the Main Character.  Consider both the book and movie versions of To Kill A Mockingbird.  In the story, it is Atticus, the righteous lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie) who is the Protagonist.  He has the goal of trying to get an acquittal for a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in a small southern town in the 1930s.  He fails to do so, and after the conviction the man is killed trying to escape.

But Atticus is not the Main Character of To Kill A Mockingbird.  The Main Character is Atticus’ young daughter Scout. We see the story through her eyes.  And scout is the one with a personal issue to resolve: She believes that Boo Radley, the emotional challenged man who is kept in a basement down the street by his family, is a monster – a boogeyman who would kill children if he ever got hold of them.

Yet Scout has never seen Boo but has only bought into the rumors about him.  In the course of the story, Boo secretly protects Scout and her brother from the wrath of the white girl’s father who seeks to harm them because of Atticus defending the black man.

In the end, Scout realizes that it is Boo who has always looked after them from the shadows.  She had him all wrong, and she now smiles and accepts him for the caring man he really is.

And so, the message of To Kill A Mockingbird is that we (even innocent children) can be prejudiced whenever we prejudge someone based on hearsay and rumor, rather than by our own experience.

Imagine if Atticus were the Main Character instead.  Then the reader/audience would come out of the story feeling all self-righteous by standing in Atticus’ shoes.  Atticus never wavers in his belief in fair justice, so he has nothing to grapple with.  But by making Scout the Main Character, the message strikes home to the reader/audience at an almost subconscious level – deep enough to possibly make us all reconsider our preconceptions about others.

As you can see, a Protagonist is an archetype defined simply by being the character who will never stop pursuing the story goal.  And in this regard, Hamlet is no different than Homer Simpson.

The Main Character is not an archetype but a perspective – a character with whom the reader/audience can identify to provide a first person experience in regard to the story and an opportunity for the author to send a message about a particular outlook, such as with Scrooge.

At the end of part one of our introduction to archetypes we can sum up a few things:

  1. An archetype is a structural character
  2. An archetype is defined by their dramatic function, not their personality
  3. A Main Character provides the first person position in a story to the reader/audience
  4. A Main Character grapples with an inner issue.
  5. A Hero is a stereotype in which the person who is the Protagonist is also the Main Character.

As the final thought for part one, any of the archetypes might be made the Main Character so, for example, we might see the story through the eyes of the Antagonist, rather than the Protagonist, and it would be the Antagonist who is also the person struggling with a personal issue.  In this example, we have created one of the forms of an Anti-Hero.

Are there other kinds of Anti-Heroes?  Yes!  Who are they, and who are the other archetypes, and where do archetypes come from, and how can an author best put them to work?

These and many other questions will we answered in A Brief Introduction to Archetypes ~ Part 2 -coming soon….

Melanie Anne Phillips

Author’s note:  Most of these concepts come from the Dramatica theory of narrative structure I developed along with my writing partner, Chris Huntley.  They became the basis for our Dramatica Story Structuring Software.  Click the link to try it risk-free.

Here’s something else I made for writers…

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Character Development Tricks!

Here are a few of my best tricks for creating characters from scratch and for developing characters you’ve already created.

Though coming up with characters can be as simple as looking to our subject matter and asking ourselves who might be expected to be involved, that only creates the expected characters – predictable and uninteresting.

Building characters that are intriguing, unusual, and memorable is a different task altogether. Here’s a method you can use to start with those standard characters and sculpt them into far more interesting ones, step by step.

To begin, let us look to our subject matter and see what characters suggest themselves. (If you like, try this with you own story as we go.)

Example:

Suppose all we know about our story is that we want to write an adventure about some jungle ruins and a curse. What characters immediately suggest themselves?

Jungle Guide, Head Porter, Archaeologist, Bush Pilot, Treasure Hunter

What other characters might seem consistent with the subject?

Missionary, Native Shaman, Local Military Governor, Rebel Leader, Mercenary

How about other characters that would not seem overly out of place?

Night Club Singer, Tourist, Plantation Owner

And perhaps some less likely characters?

Performers in a Traveling Circus (Trapeze Artist, Juggler, Acrobat, Clown)

We could, of course, go on and on. The point is, we can come up with a whole population of characters just by picking the vocations of those we might expect or at least accept as not inconsistent with the subject matter. Now these characters might seem quite ordinary at first glance, but that is only because we know nothing about them. I promised you a trick to use that would make ordinary characters intriguing, and now is the time to try it.

Of course, we probably don’t need that many characters in our story, so for this example let’s pick only one character from each of the four groups above: Bush Pilot, Mercenary, Night Club Singer, Clown.

First we’ll assign a gender to each. Let’s have two male and two female characters. Well pick the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary as male and the Night Club Singer and the Clown as female.

Now, picture these characters in your mind: a male Bush Pilot, a male Mercenary, a female Night Club Singer, and a female Clown. Since we all have our own life experiences and expectations, you should be able to visualize each character in your mind in at least some initial ways.

The Bush Pilot might be scruffy, the Mercenary bare-armed and muscular. The Night Club Singer well worn but done up glamorously, and the Clown a mousy thing.

Now that we have these typical images of these typical characters in our minds, let’s shake things up a bit to make them less ordinary. We’ll make the Bush Pilot and the Mercenary female and the Night Club Singer and Clown male.

What does this do to our mental images? How does it change how we feel about these characters? The Bush Pilot could still be scruffy, but a scruffy woman looks a lot different than a scruffy man. Or is she scruffy? Perhaps she is quite prim in contrast to the land in which she practices her profession. Since female bush pilots are more rare, we might begin to ask ourselves how she came to have this job. And, of course, this would start to develop her back-story.

How about the female Mercenary? Still muscular, or more the brainy type? What’s her back story? The Night Club Singer might be something of a lounge lizard type in a polyester leisure suit. And the male Clown could be sad like Emit Kelly, sleazy like Crusty the Clown, or evil like Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s “It.”

The key to this trick is that our own preconceptions add far more material to our mental images than the actual information we are given – so far only vocation and gender.

Due to this subconscious initiative, our characters are starting to get a little more intriguing, just by adding and mixing genders. What happens if we throw another variable into the mix, say, age? Let’s pick four ages arbitrarily: 35, 53, 82, and 7. Now let’s assign them to the characters.

We have a female Bush Pilot (35), a female Mercenary (53), a male Night Club Singer (82), and a male Clown (7). How does the addition of age change your mental images?

What if we mix it up again? Let’s make the Bush Pilot 7 years old, the Mercenary 82, the Night Club Singer 53, and the Clown 35. What do you picture now?

It would be hard for a writer not to find something interesting to say about a seven-year-old female Bush Pilot or an eighty-two year old female Mercenary.

What we’ve just discovered is that the best way to break out of your own mind and its cliché creations is to simply mix and match a few attributes. Suddenly your characters take on a life of their own and suggest all kinds of interesting back-stories, attitudes, and mannerisms.

Now consider that we have only been playing with three attributes. In fact, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of attributes from which we might select. These might include educational level, race, disabilities, exceptional abilities, special skills, hobbies, religious affiliation, family ties, prejudices, unusual eating habits, sexual preference, and on and on. And each of these can be initially assigned in typical fashion, then mixed and matched. Using this simple technique, anyone can create truly intriguing and memorable characters.

So, imagine…. What would this story be like if we chose the seven-year-old female Bush Pilot as the Hero. How about the eighty-two year old female Mercenary? Can you picture the 53-year-old male Night Club Singer as Hero, or the thirty-five year old male Clown?

Perhaps the most interesting thing in all of this is that we have become so wrapped up in these fascinating people that we have completely forgotten about structure! In fact, we don’t even know who is the Hero, Protagonist, or Main Character!

Many authors come to a story with a main character in mind and can use this technique to break out of developing a stereotypical one.  Other authors are more interested in the events or setting of their stories and discover their characters (including the main character) in the process of working out the plot.  In that case, using this technique provides them with a whole cast of intriguing characters from which to choose the Hero.

The bottom line is that whether you have some or all of your characters in mind from the get-go or start with a story concept and create your characters along the way, these character development tricks will help you come up with the people you need to populate your story and ensure they are both fresh and real.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Author’s Note:  All of these concepts are drawn from my StoryWeaver software which takes you from concept to completion of your novel or screenplay step by step.  Try it risk free for 90 days!  Click for details…

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Get Out Of My Head!

When beginning a new novel, writers are often faced with one of two initial problems that hinders them right from the get go.

One – sometimes you have a story concept but can’t think of what to do with it.  In other words, you know what you want to write about, but the characters and plot elude you.

Two – sometimes your head is swimming with so many ideas that you haven’t got a clue how to pull them all together into a single unified story.

Fortunately, the solution to both is the same.  In each case, you need to clear your mind of what you do know about your story to make room for what you’d like to know.

If your problem is a story concept but no content, writing it down will help focus your thinking.  In fact, once your idea for a novel is out of your head and on paper or screen, you begin to see it objectively, not just subjectively.

Often just having an external look at your idea will spur other ideas that were not apparent when you were simply mulling it over.  And at the very least, it will clarify what it is you desire to create.

If, on the other hand, your problem is that all the little thoughts, notions or concepts that sparked the idea there might be a book in there somewhere are swirling around in a chaotic maelstrom….  well, then writing them all down will make room in your mind to start organizing that material by topic, category, sequence, or structural element.

For those whose cognitive cup runneth over, the issue is that one is afraid to forget any of these wonderful ideas, or to lose track of any of the tenuous or gossamer connections among them.  And so, we keeping stirring them around and around in our minds, refreshing our memory of them, but leaving us running in circles chasing our creative tales.

By writing down everything your are thinking, not as a story per se, but just in the same fragmented glimpses in which they are presenting themselves to you, you’ll be able to let them go, one by one, until your mental processor has retreated from the edge of memory overload and you can begin to pull your material together into the beginnings of a true proto-story.

Whether you are plagued by issue one or two, don’t try to fashion a full-fledged story at this stage while you are jotting down your notions.  That would simply add an unnecessary burden to your efforts that would hobble your forward progress and likely leave you frustrated by the daunting process of trying to see your finished story before you’ve even developed it.

Sure, before you write you’re going to need that overview of where you are heading to guide you to “The End”.  But that comes later.  For now, in this step, just write down your central concept and/or all the transient inspirations you are juggling in your head.

This tip was excerpted from my free online book,

Write Your Novel Step By Step

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