Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story
By Melanie Anne Phillips
and Chris Huntley
The Elements of Structure:
What Exactly Is Theme?
It seems every author is aware of theme, but try to find one who can define it! Most will
tell you theme has something to do with the mood or feel of a story. But how does that
differ from genre? Others will say that theme is the message of the story. Some
will put forth that theme is the premise of a story that illustrates the results of
certain kinds of behavior.
Taking each of these a bit farther, a story's mood or feel might be "anger". A
message might be "nuclear power plants are bad". A premise could be "greed
leads to self-destruction." Clearly each of these might show up in the very same
story, and each has a somewhat thematic feel to it. But just as certainly, none of them
feels complete by itself. This is because each is just a different angle on what theme
In fact, theme is perspective. Perspective is relationship. Theme describes the relationship
between what is being looked at and from where it is being seen. This is why theme has
traditionally been so hard to describe. It is not an independent thing like plot or
character, but is a relationship between plot and character.
As a familiar example, think of the old adage about three blind men trying to describe an
elephant. Each is like a character in a story, and their investigation of the beast is
like the plot. One, feeling the tail comments, "It is long and thin like a
snake." Another, feeling the ear replies, "No, it is wide and flat like a jungle
leaf." The final investigator feels the leg and retorts, "You are both wrong! It
is round and stout like a tree." How each of those men felt about the
elephant, how they understood it, depended upon his point of view, and the fact
that it was an elephant. It is also true, that had another animal been the object of
study, the perspective would have changed as well.
Where we are looking from are the four points of view represented by the four
throughlines (Objective Story, Main Character, Obstacle Character, and Subjective Story).
In stories, what we are looking at is the problem that the Story Mind is
considering. So, to truly understand perspective (and therefore theme) we must be able to
accurately describe the nature of the story's problem, and then see how its appearance
changes when seen from each different point of view.
Describing The Story's Problem
When we seek to classify something, we try to narrow its definition, such as when we
ask if something is animal, vegetable, or mineral. When classifying problems that might be
of concern to the Story Mind, the first thing we might want to know is if the problem is
an external issue (such as an intolerable situation) or an internal one (such as a bad
attitude). External problems occur in the Universe (or environment), Internal problems
occur in the Mind.
Further, some problems don't have to do with states of things (an external situation or an
internal attitude) but are processes that have gone awry. An external process falls in the
category of Physics, which simply means physical activity of some kind. An internal
process which results in a problem has to do with Psychology, which simply means a manner
of thinking. Note that a manner of thinking (Psychology) is different than a fixed
attitude (Mind). Psychology describes problems like spending too much time with details,
whereas Mind problems would be more like a prejudice.
Having identified four categories by which we might classify the nature of the Story
Mind's problem, we can arrange them in a quad pattern, much as we did earlier with the
Since these four categories classify the problem, Dramatica refers to them as CLASSES.
So far, we have been able to roughly determine that a problem might be an external or
internal state or process, represented by the four Classes. Already we can get a more
refined view of the problem we will be describing in our story. We need only consider
which of these four Classes best describes the problem about which we want to write.
For example, if we have an idea for a story about people trapped underwater in a sunken
ship, that would be an external problem, best described as a state of things. An external
state is the definition of a Universe problem, so this story idea takes place in the
If we wish to write about a harrowing trek through the jungle to a lost city, we are
describing a Physics problem: an external activity from which difficulties arise.
A story exploring a father who will not let his daughter marry below her station in life
is best described as a Mind problem, for it stems from a fixed attitude.
And finally, an author who wishes to comment thematically on a group of friends
manipulating each other would select Psychology as his Class of problem, for the thematic
issue at hand is changing one's manner of thinking. Again, this differs from changing
one's Mind (about something).
It is important to note that ALL FOUR Classes will ultimately play a role in every
complete Grand Argument Story. As we shall explore a bit later, each Class will describe
the problem as it appears from a different throughline.
Earlier we illustrated how one could see four throughlines of Star Wars. Below are
illustrations of how Star Wars' four throughlines would be seen in terms of
Objective Story Domain: Physics (the Class of Activities) -- Star Wars is about
a war between the Empire and the Rebellion. There is not any set location where this needs
to take place, rather it is an exploration of the feints, attacks, and battles that occur
between the two forces.
Main Character Domain: Universe (the Class of Situations)-- Luke Skywalker is a whiny
farm-boy from a small desert planet. He has a tremendous amount of unrealized talent
because his father was a Jedi, but everyone sees him as a kid from the edge of the galaxy.
Obstacle Character Domain: Mind (the Class of Fixed Attitudes) -- Obi Wan Kenobi lives in
the world of the Force. His attitude about the Force's power and impact, the existence of
the Light and Dark sides of the Force, and the importance of the Force is unshakable.
Subjective Story Domain: Psychology (the Class of Ways of Thinking) -- Obi Wan clearly
manipulates Luke through psychological means. He attempts to coerce Luke to help him get
to Alderaan, which Luke resists; Obi Wan does not reveal the fate of Luke's aunt and uncle
to Luke even though Obi Wan is clearly not surprised when he hears the news; Obi Wan
purposely keeps Luke in the dark about his resources while bartering with Han Solo,
hushing him up when Luke can barely contain himself; Obi Wan keeps Luke under his thumb by
doling out information about the Force, the Empire, the Past, and everything else; and
it's Obi Wan who whispers into Luke's head at several critical moments... "Run, Luke,
run!" and "Trust your feelings, Luke."
At this point, we have achieved a more clear understanding of our story's theme by
classifying the story's problem. In our own lives, however, this would not be enough
information to identify the problem clearly enough to begin solving it, and so it is with
the Story Mind as well. We need to dig deeper and be more precise if we are to eventually
pin-point the source of the story's problem so it can be addressed at the root.
To increase our precision, we can sub-divide each of the Classes into different TYPES of
problems within each Class, much as the classification "animal" and
"vegetable" are sub-divided into various species.
As you can see, the TYPE level of resolution on our story's problem is much more
refined. Already the names of the Types carry much more of a thematic feel than those of
the broad-stroke Classes. Some of the Types seem more familiar than others. This is
because our culture has its own built-in biases and favorites and tends to focus on
certain kinds of problems more than others.
If we compare the Types in one Class to those in the others, we can see how the chart does
not cater to our culture's biases. Rather, it presents a neutral set of sub-categories so
that any kind of problem an author might wish to address is treated with equal weight.
One of the first things we can begin to feel about the Types is that their position within
each quad has an influence on the nature of the Type, which is reflected in its name. For
example, in the upper left hand corner of the Universe Class we find the Type,
"Past." By comparison, in the upper left hand corner of the Mind Class we find
the Type, "Memory." The balance of the chart can be easily illustrated in the
phrase, "Past is to Universe as Memory is to Mind." In fact, all of the
categories and sub-categories we have explored (and the two remaining levels to be
presented) share this kind of relationship.
We have found that it really helps to get a feel for a story's problem by running this
kind of comparison over in our minds as we examine the chart. Patterns of relationships
begin to emerge, and the process of choosing the Class and Type of problem at the heart of
our story's theme becomes almost a game.
Choosing the Type most prominent in a particular throughline sets up the Concerns
which will be most important from that point of view. To demonstrate how this might work,
let's look at the Concerns of Star Wars.
Objective Story Concern: Doing (Engaging in an activity)-- The Empire is building the
Death Star and searching for the location of the Rebels; the Rebels are attempting to keep
their location secret; the smuggler is trying to deliver passengers to Alderaan to earn
the money he needs to pay off his boss; the passengers are trying to transport the plans
of the Death Star to the Rebels who will decipher the plans and launch an attack on the
Main Character Concern: Progress (The way things are going)-- Luke Skywalker is constantly
concerned with how things are going -- "At this rate I'll never get off this
rock!" He is impatient and never satisfied with how things are progressing. Once he
gets off of Tatooine, he is concerned with how long it will take for him to become a Jedi
Knight -- the progress of his training. When Obi Wan gets sliced by Darth Vader, Luke's
loss is compounded by the fact that he has lost a friend and a tutor. When they get to the
Rebel base, he is concerned about how preparations are going and eventually with his own
progress as a pilot in the Rebel attack on the Death Star.
Obstacle Character Concern: The Preconscious (Immediate responses)-- In order to be truly
"one with the Force," a persons must completely let go of himself and let the
Force act through him. This allows the Force to guide one's unthinking responses and
reflexes and to become an unbeatable power for good or evil. This is Obi Wan's greatest
concern and his efforts here impact everyone around him, especially Luke.
Subjective Story Concern: Being (Temporarily adopting a lifestyle)-- Obi Wan wants Luke to
be the faithful student, while Luke just wants to be a Hero without really understanding
what good it does to be quiet and controlled like Obi Wan. Luke's farm-boy lifestyle is
not at all in sync with his true nature as Obi Wan sees him. Obi Wan knows that Luke is
the son of a Jedi and therefore he tries to manipulate Luke out of being what he's not.
Limitations of space prevent us from describing each and every Type through example. At
the back of this book, however, you will find an appendix with a complete definition of
each, as well as reproductions of the complete chart of categories.
Even with this degree of refinement, our story's problem has still not been identified
with the precision required to truly focus our theme. It is time to move into the next
level of the problem chart.
When we sub-divide the Types, we can establish four different VARIATIONS of each. This
creates the extended chart below:
Now we can finally begin to see some familiar thematic topics: morality, fate,
commitment, and hope, for example. We can also see a number of unfamiliar terms that we
may not have considered before in regard to theme. As before, Western culture (as do all
cultures) favors certain areas of exploration and virtually ignores others. For an author
who wishes to explore new ground, these unfamiliar terms provide a wealth of options. For
the author who writes for the mainstream, all the old standbys are there, but with much
more detail than before.
One thing you will not find on this chart are terms like "love" or
"greed." Although these concepts figure prominently in many discussions of
theme, they are more descriptive of subject matter, rather than the perspectives one might
take about that subject matter. For example, suppose we decide to write a story
about love. All right, what kind of love? Brotherly love? Romantic love? Paternal,
lustful, spiritual, or unrequited love? Clearly, love is in the eye of the beholder. In
other words, love is shaded by the nature of the object that is loved.
In our chart of Variations, we find terms such as "Attraction",
"Obligation", "Desire", or "Instinct", each of which can be
used to describe a different kind of love.
Similarly, you won't find "Greed" on this chart, but you will find
"Self-Interest" (near the lower left corner of the Physics Variations).
"Self-Interest" is not as emotionally charged as "Greed" but it more
clearly defines the issues at the center of a rich man's miserliness, a poor man's
embezzlement, and also a loving parent who must leave her child to die in a fire in order
to save herself. And other Variations like "Fantasy", "Need",
"Rationalization", or "Denial" would each reflect a different kind of
It is not our purpose to force new, sterile and unfamiliar terminology on the writers of
the world. It is our purpose to clarify. So, we urge you to pencil in your favorite terms
to the chart we have provided. Stick "love" on "Attraction", place
"Greed" on "Self-Interest", if that is how the most seem to you. In
this manner, you will create a chart that already reflects your personal biases, and most
likely incorporates those of your culture as well. The original bias-free chart, however,
is always available serve as an neutral framework for refining your story's problem.
As a means of zeroing in on the Variation that best describes the thematic nature of your
story's problem, it helps to look at the Variations as pairs. Just as with characters, the
Variations that are most directly opposed in nature occur as diagonals in the chart. A
familiar dynamic pair of Variations is Morality and Self-Interest. The potential conflict
between the two emerges when we put a "vs." between the two terms: Morality vs.
Self-Interest. That makes them feel a lot more like the familiar kind of thematic
Later we shall return to describe how each dynamic pair in the chart can form the basis
for a thematic premise in your story. We will also show how this kind of dynamic conflict
does not have to be a good vs. bad situation, but can create a "lesser of two
evils" or "better of two goods" situation as well.
Identifying the Variation which is most suited to the central explorations of a
throughline sets up the Range of thematic concepts to be explored from that point of view.
To demonstrate how this might work, let's look at the Ranges of Star Wars.
Objective Story Range: Skill (Practiced ability)-- Everyone in this galaxy compares
themselves to one another in terms of their skills; piloting a spacecraft, fighting their
way out of tight situations, and standing up for themselves. The princess immediately
evaluates her rescuers (Han, Chewbacca, and Luke) in terms of their apparent lack of
skill. The entire war between the Rebellion and the Empire is a match between skills and
experience. The Empire has a great deal of experience in quashing upstart groups, but its
skills at doing so are rusty. The Rebellion, which has far less experience, is made up of
great numbers of raw talent like Luke. Skill is an advantageous quality in this story.
Main Character Range: Fantasy (Belief in something unreal)-- Fantasy is an important part
of Luke Skywalker's life. He has no idea what wars are really like, but he wants to hear
all he can about them because his fantasy is to be a hero in one. He plays with toy space
ships, he is intrigued by messages from damsels in distress, and he cares more about these
fantasies than about the hum-drum life of farming on a desert planet. These fantasies help
set him apart from the unimaginative people around him (e.g. his uncle), yet they also
make him seem exceedingly inexperienced and naive (as he is almost killed in Mos Isley
cantina). Fantasy is advantageous for Luke.
Obstacle Character Range: Worth (A rating of usefulness or desirability to oneself)-- Obi
Wan's impact forces considerations of what should be thought to have true worth (as
opposed to objective value). Obi Wan makes it clear that he believes the Force is what
everyone should see as having the greatest worth in the galaxy, and then he backs up his
opinion by using it to get himself and others out of tight jams. He also appears at first
to be a nutty old hermit, but is revealed to be a person of great worth in the eyes of
Princess Leia, an important leader in the Rebellion. Because Obi Wan shows that things are
seldom what they seem, his impact often causes people to reevaluate what they find of
worth and what they don't. These re-evaluations of worth generally lead to a greater
understanding -- especially for Luke Skywalker. Obi Wan shows Worth to be advantageous.
Subjective Story Range: Ability (The innate capacity to do or be)-- The most focused
aspect of Luke's and Obi Wan's relationship has to do with developing the abilities of a
Jedi Knight. When Luke is either improving his own abilities or admiring Obi Wan's,
everyone sees this relationship as a positive one for both people involved. Obi Wan's
influence helps Luke see abilities which he didn't ever allow himself to see, such as the
ability to leave home and join the Rebellion. Clarifying these abilities, however, would
not be positive to their relationship if these two didn't also share similar desires.
Fortunately for them, every time Obi Wan uncovers a new ability, such as being able to use
a light saber without looking, it makes Luke want more. These kinds of demonstrable
abilities make others, such as Han Solo, see that there really is something good happening
between this teacher and student--even if it does involve ancient religion. Ability in
this relationship is advantageous.
We still have one final level of the thematic chart of a story's problem
to encounter. In fact, we have already encountered it. It is the very same chess set of
sixty four Character Elements we created earlier:
Each Variation can be sub-divided again into four Elements. And, it turns out that when we
get to the heart of the thematic issues in a story, no matter what kind of problem we
began with it all comes down to the same thing: Character. Not surprising at all, really.
Characters represent the different ways the Story Mind can go about solving the story's
problem. The Main Character sits on the Crucial Element, and must either stick with it, if
it is the solution, or abandon it if it turns out to be the problem itself.
Identifying the Element at the heart of each throughline puts a specific name on the
Problem which drives that throughline through the story.
Objective Story Problem: Test (A trial to determine something's validity)-- Rather
than trusting in the design and efficiency of the Death Star, the Empire determines it
must have a test run on Alderaan. This clues Princess Leia, Obi Wan, and subsequently the
Rebellion, as to the terrifying nature of what they are facing. This also allows the
Rebellion forces to prepare for the worst which is the Empire's undoing. The Rebellion, on
the other hand, does not fully trust their information about the Empire's secret weapon
and tests its accuracy by waiting until they actually have the plans in their hands. Had
they trusted their initial reports they could have moved the base and remained out of the
Main Character Problem: Test (A trial to determine something's validity)--Luke is
constantly driven to test his skills -- as a wannabe Jedi, as a daring doer, as a
marksman, and eventually as a pilot. By constantly testing himself, he gets into
situations that he would have avoided if he had confidence (or trust) in himself. For
example, he knew better than to go alone into the Sand people's territory; the scuffle he
created at the bar could easily have been avoided; the messy breakout of the Princess was
partially motivated by his testing his limits.
Obstacle Character Problem: Unproven (A rating of knowledge that has not been tested)--
Due to his devout faith in the Force, Obi Wan is driven by the idea that everything
remains unproven -- even if common sense might dictate otherwise. He finds exceptions to
every generality that people mention around him. The impact of his character is to make
others draw their most cherished beliefs into question, because the true nature of
"the Force" is so unimaginable, yet so powerful.
Subjective Story Problem: Non-Accurate (Not within tolerances)-- Obi Wan's secrecy and
misleading comments to Luke keeps their relationship off balance. Obi Wan attempts to lure
Luke away with him to Alderaan, then feigns indifference when Luke wimps out; Obi Wan
marginally warns Luke to be careful at the cantina without giving Luke a real idea of the
dangers within; Obi Wan's vagueness about the necessary "pains" associated with
Luke's Jedi training (like getting zapped by the trainer robot) jostles their
We need to take a breather here! Much new material has been covered and it takes quite
some time to assimilate. We suggest you put the book down for a while, ponder what we've
just explored, have a snack, watch a program on TV, and then return once the dust has
settled. If we could, we'd provide some soothing mood music right about now. Since that is
a bit difficult, we'll do the next best thing - pull it all together in a simplified
Because each level "falls" under the one above it, we can create a
"3-D" representation of the thematic chart that illustrates its nested nature:
The Dramatica Structural Model
This projection gives a good feel for how Classes, Types, Variations, and Elements
relate to one another. We start at the top by loosely classifying our story's problem,
then sub-divide each Class into Types. Each Type is refined into Variations and then
defined in terms of its basic Elements. Remember, our purpose here is only to identify the
components of theme. Later in THE ART OF STORYTELLING we will illustrate how to construct
and develop your story's theme.
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A New Theory of Story
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Copyright 1996, Screenplay Systems, Inc.
The Dramatica theory was developed by
Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley
Chief Architect of the Dramatica software is Stephen
Dramatica is a registered trademark of Screenplay Systems Incorporated