The Elements of Structure
Foundations: Central Concepts
In Dramatica, there are some central concepts that prove immediately useful. Presenting
these up front reveals the practical side of the theory and provides a firm foundation for
more in-depth explorations to come.
These central concepts are:
1. The Story Mind
2. The Four Throughlines
3. The Objective Story Throughline
4. The Main Character Throughline
5. The Obstacle Character Throughline
6. The Subjective Story Throughline
7. The Grand Argument Story
The Story Mind
One of the unique concepts that sets Dramatica apart from all other
theories is the assertion that every complete story is a model of the mind's problem
solving process. This Story Mind does not work like a computer, performing one
operation after another until the solution is obtained. Rather, it works more
holistically, like our own minds, bringing many conflicting considerations to bear on the
issue. It is the author's argument as to the relative value of these considerations in
solving a particular problem that gives a story its meaning.
To make his case, an author must examine all significant approaches to resolving the
story's specific problem. If a part of the argument is left out, the story will have
holes. If the argument is not made in an even-handed fashion, the story will have
Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre are the different families of considerations in
the Story Mind made tangible, so audience members can see them at work and gain insight
into their own methods of solving problems. Characters represent the motivations of the
Story Mind (which often work at cross purposes and come into conflict). Plot documents the
problem solving methods employed by the Story Mind. Theme examines the relative worth of
the Story Mind's value standards. Genre establishes the Story Mind's overall attitude,
which casts a bias or background on all other considerations. When a story is fully
developed, the model of the Story Mind is complete.
The Four Throughlines
It is not enough, however, to develop a complete Story Mind. That
only creates the argument the audience will be considering. Equally important is how the
audience is positioned relative to that argument.
Does an author want the audience to examine a problem dispassionately or to experience
what it is like to have that problem? Is it more important to explore a possible solution
or to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of alternative solutions? In fact, all of these
points of view must be developed for a story to be complete.
An author's argument must go beyond telling audience members what to look at. I must also
show them how to see it. It is the relationship between object and observer that creates
perspective, and in stories, perspective creates meaning.
There are four different perspectives which must be explored as a story unfolds in order
to present all sides of the issue at the heart of a story. They are the Objective Story
Throughline, theMain Character Throughline, theObstacle Character
Throughline, and theSubjective Story Throughline.
The Objective Story Throughline
The first perspective is from the Objective Story Throughline,
so called because it is the most dispassionate look at the Story Mind.
Imagine the argument of a story as a battle between two armies. The Objective Story view
is like that of a general on a hill overlooking the battle. The general focuses on
unfolding strategies and, from this perspective, sees soldiers not by name but by their
function on the field: foot soldier, grenadier, cavalryman, scout. Though the general may
care very much for the soldiers, he must concentrate on the events as they unfold. Because
it emphasizes events, the Objective Story Throughline is often thought of as
plot, but as we shall see later, plot is so much more.
The Main Character Throughline
For a story to be complete, the audience will need another view of
the battle as well: that of the soldier in the trenches. Instead of looking at the Story
Mind from the outside, the Main Character Throughline is a view from
the inside. What if that Story Mind were our own? That is what the audience
experiences when it becomes a soldier on the field: audience members identify with the
Main Character of the story.
Through the Main Character we experience the battle as if we were directly participating
in it. From this perspective we are much more concerned with what is happening immediately
around us than we are with the larger strategies that are really too big to see. This most
personally involved argument of the story is the Main Character Throughline.
As we shall explore shortly, the Main Character does not have to be the soldier leading
the charge in the battle as a whole. Our Main Character might be any of the soldiers on
the field: the cook, the medic, the bugler, or even the recruit cowering in the bushes.
The Obstacle Character Throughline
To see the third perspective, keep yourself in the shoes of the Main
Character for a moment. You are right in the middle of the story's battle. Smoke from
dramatic explosions obscures the field. You are not absolutely sure which way leads to
safety. Still, before there was so much turmoil, the way was clear and you are confident
in your sense of direction.
Then, from out of the smoke a shadowy figure appears, solidly blocking your way.
The shadowy figure is your Obstacle Character. You can't see well enough to
tell if he is friend or foe. He might be a compatriot trying to keep you from stepping
into a mine field. Or, he might be the enemy luring you into a trap. What to do! Do you
keep on your path and run over this person or try the other path instead? This is the
dilemma that faces a Main Character.
To completely explore the issue at the heart of a story, an Obstacle Character must
present an alternative approach to the Main Character. The Obstacle Character Throughline
describes the advocate of this alternative path and the manner in which he impacts
The Subjective Story Throughline
As soon as the Main Character encounters his Obstacle, a skirmish
ensues at a personal level in the midst of the battle as a whole. The two characters close
in on one another in a theatrical game of "chicken," each hoping the other will
The Main Character shouts at his Obstacle to get out of the way. The Obstacle Character
stands fast, insisting that the Main Character change course and even pointing toward the
fork in the road. As they approach one another, the interchange becomes more heated until
the two are engaged in heart-to-heart combat.
While the Objective Story battle rages all around, the Main and Obstacle Characters fight
their private engagement. The Subjective Story Throughline describes the
course this passionate battle takes.
The Four Throughlines Of A Story You Know
Here are some examples of how to see the four throughlines of some well known stories.
Completed stories tend to blend these throughlines together in the interest of smooth
narrative style. From a structural point of view, however, it is important to see how they
can be separated.
Objective Story Throughline: The Objective view of Star
Wars sees a civil war in the galaxy between the Rebels and the evil Empire. The
Empire has built a Death Star which will destroy the Rebels if it isn't destroyed first.
To even hope for a successful attack, the Rebels need the plans to the Death Star which
are in the possession of a farm boy and an old Jedi master. These two encounter many other
characters while delivering the plans, ultimately leading to a climactic space-battle on
the surface of the Death Star.
Main Character Throughline: The Main Character of Star Wars is Luke
Skywalker. This throughline follows his personal growth over the course of this story.
Luke is a farm boy who dreams of being a star pilot, but he can't allow himself to leave
his foster parents to pursue his dreams. He learns that he is the son of a great Jedi
Knight. When his foster parents are killed, he begins studying the religion of the Jedi:
the Force. Surviving many dangerous situations, Luke learns to trust himself more and
more. Ultimately he makes a leap of faith to trust his feelings over his computer
technology while flying into battle as the Rebel's last hope of destroying the Death Star.
It turns out well, and Luke is changed by the experience.
Obstacle Character Throughline: The Obstacle Character of Star Wars
is Obi Wan Kenobi and this throughline describes his impact (especially on Luke Skywalker)
over the course of the story. Obi Wan is a wizened old Jedi who sees everything as being
under the mystic control of the Force. He amazes people with his resiliency and ability,
all of which he credits to the Force.
Subjective Story Throughline: The Subjective Story throughline of Star Wars
describes the relationship between Luke and Obi Wan. Obi Wan needs Luke to help him and he
knows Luke has incredible potential as a Jedi. Luke, however, needs to be guided carefully
because his desires are so strong and his abilities so new. Obi Wan sets about the
manipulations which will help Luke see the true nature of the Force and learn to trust
To Kill A Mockingbird
Objective Story Throughline: The Objective view of To
Kill A Mockingbird sees the town of Maycomb with its horns locked in various
attitudes over the rape trial of Tom Robinson. Due-process has taken over, however many
people think this case should never see trial. As the trial comes to fruition, the people
of the town argue back and forth about how the defense lawyer ought to behave and what
role people should take in response to this alleged atrocity.
Main Character Throughline: The Main Character of To Kill A Mockingbird
is Scout and her throughline describes her personal experiences in this story. Scout is a
young tom-boy who wants things in her life to remain as simple as they've always been.
Going to school, however, and seeing the town's reaction to her father's work introduces
her to a new world of emotional complexity. She learns that there is much more to people
than what you can see.
Obstacle Character Throughline: The Obstacle Character point of view in To
Kill A Mockingbird is presented through Boo Radley, the reclusive and much talked
about boy living next door to Scout. The mystique surrounding this boy, fueled by the
town's ignorance and fear, make everyone wonder what he is really like and if he's really
as crazy as they say.
Subjective Story Throughline: The Subjective Story view of To Kill A
Mockingbird sees the relationship between Scout and Boo Radley. This throughline
explores what it's like for these two characters to live next door to each other and never
get to know one another. It seems any friendship they might have is doomed from the start
because Boo will always be locked away in his father's house. The real problem, however,
turns out to be one of Scout's prejudice against Boo's mysterious life. Boo has been
constantly active in Scout's life, protecting her from the background. When Scout finally
realizes this she becomes a changed person who no longer judges people without first
trying to stand in their shoes.
Summary - The Grand Argument Story
We have described a story as a battle. The overview that takes in
the full scope of the battle is the Objective Story Throughline.
Within the fray is one special soldier through whom we experience the battle first-hand.
How he fares is the Main Character Throughline.
The Main Character is confronted by another soldier, blocking the path. Is he friend or
foe? Either way, he is an obstacle, and the exploration of his impact on the Main
Character is the Obstacle Character Throughline.
The Main and Obstacle Characters engage in a skirmish. Main says, "Get out of my
way!", and Obstacle says, "Change course!" In the end, the steadfast
resolution of one will force the other to change. The growth of this interchange
constitutes the Subjective Story Throughline.
Taken together, the four throughlines comprise the author's argument to the audience. They
answer the questions: What does it feel like to have this kind of problem? What's the
other side of the issue? Which perspective is the most appropriate for dealing with that
problem? What do things look like in the "big picture?"
Only through the development of these four simultaneous throughlines can the Story Mind
truly reflect our own minds, pitting reason against emotion and immediate advantage
against experience in the hope of resolving a problem in the most beneficial manner.
Now that you've added Story Mind, Objective Story
Throughline, Main Character Throughline, Obstacle Character Throughline, and Subjective
Story Throughline to your writer's vocabulary, you have all the background you need to
explore a whole new world of understanding: the Dramatica Theory of Story.
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