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A Thematic Side To Plot
Plot has two sides: One side deals with the sequence of what happens next. The other side
is thematic in nature and determines what the plot is about. Terms that describe the
sequence of plot include Acts, Chapters, and Scenes. Terms that describe the
thematics of plot include Goal, Requirements, and Consequences. We'll
examine the thematic side of plot first.
As with the thematic perspectives we have already explored, plot thematics are also called
appreciations. What sets these apart is that they do not fall in any single throughline.
In fact, they are scattered among all four throughlines. This is because these plot
appreciations represent the collective impact of all four throughlines combined. So, when
we speak of Goal, we are not talking about one throughline's goal. Rather, we are
referring to the Story Goal, which is derived from and impacts all four throughlines.
The story-wide effect of plot appreciations can be clearly seen in-so-far-as the Main
Character, Obstacle Character, and Objective Characters will all be caught up in
the ripples caused by the quest for the Story Goal. Even the Subjective Story Throughline
will be impacted by the nature of the goal and the effort to achieve it.
There are eight Plot Appreciations that stand at the center of all four throughlines. They
are the story Goal, Requirements, Consequences, Forewarnings, Dividends, Costs,
Prerequisites, and Preconditions. All of these appreciations can be found at
the Type level of the Thematic Structure.
In stories that reflect Western culture - particularly in American culture - the Story
Goal is traditionally found in the Objective Story Throughline. This results in a story in
which the Goal pertains to all of the Objective Characters. The Goal, however, might just
as appropriately be found in the Main Character Throughline, or either of the other two.
In such a story, the overall Goal could appear to be whatever the Main Character was
hoping for or working toward, regardless of what was of concern to the Objective
In fact, it is the Concerns in each throughline that might also double up as the Story
Goal. This has the effect of tying all four throughlines' Concerns together into the
issues central to the story as a whole. The relationship among the eight plot
appreciations remains the same no matter which throughline serves as their anchor point.
Therefore, we shall describe the nature of the eight Plot Appreciations as they appear
when the Story Goal is also the Objective Story Throughline Concern. For other
perspectives, one merely needs to shift into a different point of view, such as that of
the Main Character. The appreciations themselves would remain the same, only what they are
applied to would change.
The Story Goal will share the same Type as the Objective Story Concern. What then is the
difference between a Goal and a Concern? A Concern simply describes the category of the
kinds of things the Objective Characters are most worried about. The Story Goal describes
a specific item that is a shared concern. For example, if the Objective Story Concern is
Obtaining, then all the characters would be worried about Obtaining something important to
each of them. One might wish to Obtain a diploma, another to Obtain a lost treasure. A
Story Goal of Obtaining in the same story might be everyone's desire to Obtain a pirate
map. The map would bring recognition leading to a diploma for one character and a lost
treasure to another. In such a story, the audience will be waiting to see if the Goal is
Obtained or not because of the character concerns that such an outcome will affect.
In order to achieve a particular Type of Story Goal, a necessary Type of Requirements must
be met. Requirements can come in two varieties. One is a series of steps that must be
achieved in a particular order. The other is more like a shopping list that must be
filled, no matter the order in which it is completed. Step Requirements can be
accomplishments such as winning a series of preliminary bouts to qualify for a shot at the
title. List Requirements can be items that must be gathered, such as clues or ingredients.
Regardless of the Step or List nature of the Requirements for a particular story, they
must all fall into the category described by the Requirement's Type.
What happens if the Goal is not achieved? The Consequences are suffered. In some stories,
the characters may already be suffering Consequences as the story opens. The Goal then
becomes that one thing which will bring an end to the suffering. In this case, the
character's troubles are the Consequences of not yet having achieved the Goal. Just
as in real life, sometimes Goals are a reward, other times Goals bring relief. It all
depends on whether the situation starts out good, but could still be improved, or whether
it starts out bad and needs to be corrected.
Just as progress in meeting Requirements indicates how close the Goal is to being
attained, the progress of Forewarnings indicates how close the Consequences are to being
imposed. Forewarnings can be as simple as cracks forming in a dam or as subtle as an
increasing number of missed appointments. Characters are not only running toward the Goal,
but trying to outrun the Consequences as well. Tension increases when one is both the
pursuer and the pursued. For stories in which the Consequences are already in place,
Forewarnings indicate how close things are to making the Consequence permanent. An example
of this kind of Forewarning can be found in Walt Disney's production of Beauty And The
Beast. Here, petals falling off a rose portend the point at which the prince must
remain a beast forever.
Driver And Passenger Plot Appreciations
Just as there are Driver and Passenger characters, there are Driver and Passenger Plot
Appreciations as well. Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings are the Drivers
and set the course of a story's plot. The next four appreciations, Dividends, Costs,
Prerequisites, and Preconditions, are the Passengers which modulate the course of
the plot set by the Drivers.
During the effort to achieve the goal, certain benefits are enjoyed or accrued along the
way. These serve to add motivation for the characters to continue. No one likes to keep
his nose to the grindstone for an extended duration in the hope of ultimately receiving a
reward. Similarly, if one is already suffering a Consequence, simply accepting that
torment while working toward relief quickly becomes unbearable. In a like manner,
characters need to enjoy small rewards along the way - little perks that make the journey
bearable and the effort tolerable.
Just as positive benefits accrue during the effort to achieve the goal, so do negative
costs have to be paid. Every time a character endures some displeasure as a result of
trying to achieve the goal, this additional price is a Cost. Costs and Dividends modulate
the intensity of the Objective Character's drive toward the Goal. These characters cannot
know if they will ultimately succeed or not. As a result, putting in effort is something
of a gamble. Just as with a slot machine in a casino, every spin that simply takes one's
money is a Cost. Every small pay-out is a Dividend. By properly balancing the two,
motivation to continue in hopes of a jackpot can be maintained, for each Dividend is seen
as proof that rewards can be had, and even if the Costs outweigh the Dividends, the
Goal would cover those costs and leave much more profit besides. Of course, as with
gambling, characters may slowly accrue so many costs that even the achievement of the goal
would not cover the physical or emotional debt.
Any effort requires supplies, often called essentials. The effort to achieve the
Goal also requires these essential Prerequisites, without which progress cannot be made.
Only by gathering what is needed can an attempt be made to meet a story's Requirements.
Prerequisites might be a certain kind of transportation, an amount of money, a grade point
average, or the approval of a bureaucrat. As long as the item in question is essential to
mounting the effort to achieve the Goal, it is a Prerequisite. Prerequisites themselves do
not bring the Goal any closer, which is why they are not Requirements. All they do is
define the raw materials or foundations that must be in place before the quest for the
Goal can proceed.
In contrast to Prerequisites, Preconditions are like riders that are tacked on to
the ends of bills being voted on in Congress. With such a bill, the Goal might be to help
an endangered species. One of the Requirements would be to pass a bill that gives the
species legal status as being endangered. One of the Prerequisites would be to get enough
votes to pass the bill. One of the Preconditions for getting a block of votes would be to
add a rider on the bill that provides subsidies to the tobacco industry. Clearly the rider
has nothing to do with the original bill, and might even be philosophically at odds with
its intent. But, to get the job done, concessions must be made.
In a like manner, Preconditions in a story are non-essential constraints or costs placed
on the characters in exchange for the help of someone who controls essential
Prerequisites. This might be the only Bedouin who can supply camels so an expedition can
cross a desert, who insists they take his uncontrollable daughter with them.
In the movie, The Karate Kid, the Protagonist is a young boy who wants to be a
Karate Champion. To achieve this goal, he must meet the Requirements of winning
preliminary bouts. To win these bouts, the Prerequisites are that he receive additional
training from a master. The master, who controls this Prerequisite, adds a precondition.
He insists that the young boy learn new moves by doing chores around the master's house
that incorporate those moves, "Wax on... Wax off." Clearly, there are other ways
to learn Karate than doing chores, but this Precondition was brought about by the master's
desire that the boy learn humility along with his skill.
These eight Plot Appreciations are the touch points between plot and Theme. Without them,
the plot would simply be a series of events that held no particular meaning. With them,
the plot supports the thematic argument, and through it touches the other Thematic
Appreciations including those such as the Main Character Problem, which lie at the heart
of what drives a story's characters. In this manner, Theme stands as a bridge connecting
character to plot so that what characters do thematically impacts the progression of
events, and events that occur thematically impact the way characters think.
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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
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About Dramatica and
Hi, I'm Melanie Anne Phillips,
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What They Do
Dramatica is a tool to help you
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Dramatica has the world's only
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How They Work
By itself Dramatic appeals to
structural writers who like to work out all the details of their stories
logically before they write a word. By itself, StoryWeaver appeals to
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But, the finished work of a
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