Here’s the transcript of a talk on Dramatica I gave in 1997 – another archival discovery on some old back-ups of a long-ago computer that no longer exists…
LAAC Conference Room Transcript
A Meeting with Melanie Anne Phillips
February 23, 1997
Today’s meeting is a moderated interview with Melanie Anne Phillips. This is a private conference open only to members of Word Spinners’ Ink and the Internet Chapter of Sisters in Crime.
Please join me in welcoming Melanie Anne Phillips. Melanie is co-developer of Dramatica, both an extensive theory of story structure and a popular line of software products that use those theories for story creation and development.
In addition to co-developing Dramatica, Melanie is the former Director of Research and Development at Screenplay Systems, Inc. Prior to her association with Screenplay Systems, she amassed some 200 credits in non-union film production, including the directing of two independent features, editing of features and larger budget industrials, and writing work for various productions ranging from features to television commercials.
Melanie, do you have any opening comments you would like to make before we start accepting questions?
Well, greetings to everyone, and thank you all for driving so far to be at this conference! I hope you find it useful and interesting, and feel free to ask me anything (within reason!)
If you like, I can just jump in and talk about the theory and software…
Melanie, we have two Dramatica owners in the Room. For those who aren’t, can you summarize how Dramatica, the software, is intended to function as a story aid?
Sure, Mr. Moderator…
Most tools for creating stories mix up the story structure and the story telling. They are blended together, making for a good description of the finished story, but hard to use for creating one. So, the first thing the Dramatica software does is separate the two into completely different stages of story construction.
Now, this is not how authors normally operate. We come up with a bit of dialog, a setting, a piece of action or a favorite concept, and off we go without even considering if it is structure or
So, in that respect, Dramatica takes a bit of getting used to, but when you consider that West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet have almost the same structure but completely different storytelling, then you can see the advantage in the writing stage to separate them.
Now, if you are looking just at structure alone, it is a very bare-bones affair There is none of the flavor of the story, but just a raw skeleton. For example, we might say that structurally, the goal of a story is “Obtaining” something. But Obtaining WHAT? The WHAT would be the storytelling. It might be to Obtain a diploma, someone’s love, the stolen treasure, etc. But in each case, the structure is about Obtaining.
It is this underlying deep structure that determines the “mind set” of a story. For example, a story with a goal of “Obtaining” would be structurally different from a story with a goal of “Becoming” something. But either of these could be expressed in an infinite number of ways through storytelling.
Now, the Dramatica software says, instead of looking at a story as a series of events that leads from one point to another, look at stories more like a sphere made up of interconnected storypoints. In fact, to make sense, story must be three dimensional, rather than simply linear. In this way, you can wrap around an idea and explore it fully.
If you take the linear approach, you have a “tale” rather than a story, which is not bad, but just more simple. A tale says that this event led to the next and the next and ended here. It
works as long as the chain is unbroken in both logic and feeling.
A Tale is just a “statement”. But a Story is an “argument”. A story must show context, and examine the issue from all sides, rather than just one. If a point of view is left out, it becomes a plot hole, an inconsistent character, or a warped theme.
The Dramatica software has in its memory, a model of the storypoints that make up the sphere of an argument, as if it were one of Bucky Fuller’s geodesic domes. This model is much like a Rubik’s cube… It has specific pieces that must show up in every story, but they can be arranged in a myriad of ways and still remain a viable cube or a viable story argument.
By making choice about how dramatic items should come into conjunction to create
potential, an author uses Dramatica to arrange the story’s structure while
always maintaining a valid story argument.
Thanks, Melanie. THAT gets off and running.
Melanie, can you explain the differences between Archetypal and complex characters for us?
Sure. In a nut shell, all characters, be they Archetypal or Complex represent different elements of the drama that must appear in all stories. In a sense, these Elements can be arranged in something of a Periodic Table of Story Elements. When you put all of the elements that fall in the same family into a single character, you have created an Archetype. When you distribute elements from the same family in different characters, they become Complex.
In either case, the same dramatic functions must be performed, but it is just a question of who is going to do it. The advantage to archetypal characters is that the audience will assume
archetypal unless told otherwise by the author.
So, rather than having to illustrate each element separately, you can illustrate only the family the archetype belongs to, and the audience will assume the rest, giving you more media real estate for other things, like special effects or theme. The disadvantage is that the archetypes are so evenly constructed internally, there are no surprises there..
You wouldn’t want conflicting elements in the same character, would you? I mean, would you want a skeptic or also sometimes functioned as a sidekick? Wouldn’t those be mutually exclusive, or would they?
Well, there are some elements that mix to create sparks, and others that work more like oil and water. In Dramatica, we have charted out the Periodic Table of Story Elements to help us determine which characteristics will successfully go together and which won’t.
In Dramatica, families of elements fall into “Quads”, such as “Pro-action, Re-action, Inaction, and Protection”. The point of the whole quad is to illustrate how, in this particular story, these different approaches fare against the story’s problem. A rule of thumb it, that no single character should contain more than one element from the same quad.
It is important to note that this does not prevent internal conflict. Dramatica separates characters into two types: Objective and Subjective. Objective characters are like – suppose a general is watching a battle from a hill and sees the soldiers down below. He can’t tell who is who as individuals because he is so removed from the situation. But he can identify them by function. He’ll see the horse soldier and the cook and the guy leading the charge. To fulfill their “story function” each character has a job, or jobs. The jobs need to be consistent with one another to make any kind of sense.
But, if the audience swoops down and occupies the shoes of one of the soldiers on the field, we get a second kind of character – the Subjective character, who represents a point of view, rather than a function. Note that a single “player” on the field can function as an Objective character and also represent a point of view.
The Subjective aspect is where you see the pathos of inner conflict and changing attitudes. The Objective aspect is where the structural integrity of the argument is maintained in a logistic sense.
So, in this manner, a “Hero” is a Protagonist (objectively) who is also the Main Character (subjectively), but there is no reason why the audience cannot be positioned elsewhere. We may want our audience to see things from the water boy’s position rather than from the quarterback’s.
Hi, Melanie . . . we also have a couple Collaborator owners on board here today, and the debate has been mildly ranging for a couple months now about the pros and cons of both. Your opinions, if you’re familiar with Collaborator?
Also you may want to comment on the differences between Dramatica and Dramatica Writer’s Dream Kit, and what you really get for the extra money in the full Dramatica system.
Okay, this is a multi-part question. Collaborator, and the two version of Dramatica. Here goes…
I know the Collaborator creators. Sadly, once of them recently passed on. Collaborator bases its approach on Aristotle’s “Poetics”. It asks a series of questions that are really good ones every author should know about a story. It also provides tools for organizing material in a storytelling sense.
Where it differs from Dramatica, is that although it is a useful organizational tool, it doesn’t tell the author anything the author has not told it. In contrast, Dramatica’s “Story Engine” is not a data base, but a “live” model of the relationships among dramatic elements. That is the real value of the software and what sets it apart from anything else. As an author answers questions about the story, the story engine begins to “predict” other dramatic items that must also be present as a result of those choices.
In fact, with as few as 12 questions (the 12 essential questions) Dramatica can predict a complete dramatic argument. Now, I know that is a way out statement, but here is why it works…
Some choices about a story have only marginal impact on the structure, others have wide ranging impact. You can approach Dramatica’s sphere or Story Engine in any order through the
dramatic items. For authors who like to sculpt their stories, they can choose more nuanced
dramatics to play with, and slowly build up a complete structure.
But for those who know what they want and wish to get right to the point, they can answer the 12 essential questions and have enough broad influence to have predicted all else that must follow.
So, although Collaborator is very good in making sure you cover your bases and in making you think, Dramatica is more like a knowledgeable critic who will make suggestions and notice when you leave something out or put it in the wrong place.
The difference between DreamKit and Pro is simply how many dramatic story points the engine gives you to work with. The both have the same engine, but Pro accesses more story points than DreamKit, making it more complex, and more powerful.
And of course, Pro costs more than twice as much as DreamKit!
That answers a lot . . . I never really thought Dramatica and Collaborator were mutually exclusive, and I’ve been using Collaborator successfully as a thought organizer. The only other concern/question I have about Dramatica is what appears to be a relatively high learning curve. This learning curve has elicited a somewhat negative response with some reviewers of the software. Would you care to comment?
Well, nobody ever said story structure was a simple thing. When you see it as a flexible structure, it becomes both simply yet complex in its variety. Dramatica was not built to make writing easier, but to make it harder, by forcing the author to address ALL the issues that can undermine a solid structure.
Because of its range and depth, to understand all the elements at work requires a LOT of study. But, none of us learned to ride a bike or use a word processor in a snap. Believe me, if we could make it less extensive and still have it be as accurate, we would, but the human mind is not that simple an affair, and stories must fill the human mind.
I went through several storyforms before I narrowed things down to one that seemed to work. In the final storyform (which I approached through the Story Engine from the middle out), Dramatica automatically assigned a Purpose characteristic to both my Main and Obstacle characters. How common is this, and why didn’t it happen with the preceding storyforms I tried?
Also, according to the “Quad” structure, my MC’s Purpose fell under Skeptic, and my OC’s Purpose fell under Emotion. Does this make sense, and will it work?
Well, I’ll need a little more information here. Also, the answer may be a little too specific for the general audience, but here is a bit of info that might help…
For those who don’t know, Dramatica sees all complete Objective characters as having four aspects: Motivations, Methodologies, Purposes, and Means of Evaluation.
Each of these four aspects will have its own set of elements. But, which elements fall in which set is not always the same, as it depends upon other dramatic choices.
When you are creating a dramatic structure, there are two special characters that rise above simply being functions. One is the Main Character, representing the audience position in the story, and the other is the Obstacle Character, representing an alternative paradigm to the Main Character’s belief system.
One of the things that connects the Objective and Subjective stories dramatically, is that the issues over which Main and Obstacle diverge are elements which form the heart of their personal issues and also appear in the Objective story overall.
So, when you create a storyform (structure), it will include in it the Main and Obstacle Character’s personal problems. Since those problems show up in the Objective story, the
Main and Obstacle characters must represent those issues in the overall plot as well.
And that is why you will find that certain elements in building your characters are already assigned to your Main and Obstacle. Hope this clarifies
1) How does Dramatica compare to StoryLine Pro?
2) A while back you spoke of a three dimensional matrix of plot points that form a sphere. What are these plot points and how does Dramatica help the writer merge them into a story?
Tom, here’s the answer to question one…
I also know John Truby (creator of StoryLine Pro), as all us story folk hang out at the same conventions! StoryLine Pro is based on John’s classes in story structure. His approach is not so much an overall theory, but a series of really useful tips – templates, if you will, that form the foundations of successful story structures. His templates combine both the story structure and the storytelling to an extent, so that you efficiently create both at the same time. This is much more the manner in which writer’s normally work, rather than Dramatica’s approach to separate the two.
The advantage to John’s system (StoryLine) is that it gives you a solid road map. All you need to do is follow one of the templates and you will arrive at a well structured story. The disadvantage is that if you want to do something even a bit off the path, there is no accommodation for that, and no way to predict what kind of dramatic impact that will have on your overall story.
So, I suggest using StoryLine for telling those specific kinds of stories, and using Dramatica for stories that diverge from the beaten path. Dramatica will be harder to use, but offer more opportunity for doing something different.
Now, for the answer to question 2 – Dramatica story points, what are they and how Dramatica helps writers merge them into stories…
There are over sixty story points in the current Dramatica software. Why this number? It depends on how “refined” you make the framework around your story as to how many “joints” you need where dramatics intersect.
The current version of the software is designed for creating the amount of detail needed in a story of novel or screenplay length. These story points (called “appreciations” in Dramatica) include elements of Theme, Genre, Character, and Plot. To name some, there will the story Goal, Requirements, PreConditions, and PreRequisites. There will be the Main Character Domain (where the point of view resides). There will be dynamic appreciations such as “Does the Main character CHANGE or REMAIN STEADFAST in his or her belief system by the end of the story?”
You will encounter the Thematic RANGE and COUNTERPOINT, a choice of TIMELOCK or OPTIONLOCK to draw the story to a conclusion. There are many more, of course, but you get the idea. Now to merge them into a story, first you take the raw appreciation in your structure, such as the example – a goal of “Obtaining”, and flesh it out into a real story item in storytelling.
To assist you in this, Dramatica has given each story point its own window in the software with a series of buttons to help. The buttons bring up examples of short dramatic scenarios using each story point. Another button shows you any well-known stories which have been analyzed and use that same story point the same way.
There is a button for the theory behind why that story point even exists, and another usage button to show how to employ it. Overall, there are literally thousands of examples and help scenarios, for these items. Finally, to merge them into the linear progression of your story, there is the StoryGuide, which will take you through the whole process of turning a holistic structural model of your story into a progressive linear pathway, much like unraveling a ball of twine into a long string. Hope this answers your question.
Melanie, this has been terrific. But could you explain more about which elements
are in DreamKit and which are reserved for Pro?
Sure! First of all, they both have the same engine running the software. Pro just “taps” it at more points. They also both have the exact same StoryGuide book and path, so new users can
get right into it. Pro has additional appreciations and more examples.
Some of these appreciations unique to Pro are:
The CATALYST that gets each throughline moving when it bogs down. The INHIBITOR
that slows things up. These two work like an accelerator and brake pedal on your
There is the Main Character’s UNIQUE ABILITY which makes them uniquely able to
solve the story’s problem – if they make the right choice!
Balancing that is the Main Character’s CRITICAL FLAW which always screws them
up, just when they almost get things solved.
In addition, DreamKit allows only for character Motivations, and not the other three aspects.
Also, PRO dynamically determines the kinds of relationships which will exist among your characters.
There are a few other bells and whistles to Pro. but I would say that DreamKit
has everything you need for the average novel or screenplay, Pro is more geared
toward heavy character oriented stories or those with complex plots.
Melanie, on behalf of everyone, thank you very much for taking time to be with
us today. It was an informative session.
And thank you, Ed et al, it has been loads of fun!
Melanie, this has been wonderful! I appreciate so much your taking the time to come here. I’d just like to say here that I’ve learned more about story structure using Dramatica for the last two months than I have in the last 5 or 6 years of reading books about writing, taking writing classes and workshops, and writing.
Let me echo that sentiment. I’m *still* learning. It’s tough work, but every time a door opens, it leads not to a room, but to an entirely new corridor. It’s really, really, helpful. And bless you for putting up the worksheets. I’d already typed them into Winword, but having them on the website is terrific for those who haven’t!
Let me also lead a long, sustained round of applause for the creator of this conference center and our moderator today. Thank you, Ed. We’re much richer because you’re with us!