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A New Theory Of Story
By Melanie Anne Phillips  
and Chris Huntley

Chapter 18

The Progression of Plot

Plot Progression

There are Objective Story Throughline appreciations, Main Character appreciations, Obstacle Character appreciations and Subjective Story Throughline appreciations. There are even appreciations that are the synthesis of all four points of view such as Goal, Requirements, and Consequences. These central appreciations seem the most plot-like because they affect the Concerns of all four throughlines.

As varied as all of these appreciations are, there is one quality they share: they stay the same from the beginning to the end of a story. For example, if a story's Goal is Obtaining, that never changes during the course of the story. If the Main Character's Problem is Logic, then Logic is always that character's Problem from "Once upon a time" to "They all lived happily ever after." True, the Main Character may solve his Problem, but he will never magically stop being driven by one kind of Problem and start being driven by another. Appreciations of this stable nature are called Static Appreciations.

Static Appreciations are thematic in nature because they form a bias or commentary on the story as a whole. Even the eight Plot Appreciations have a Theme-like feel to them, for they describe what the plot is about. But there is more to plot that this. In fact, there is a completely different kind of appreciation that moves from one issue to another as a story develops. These are called Progressive Appreciations, and it is through them that story explores the series of events in the Objective Story Throughline, the growth of the Main Character, the changing nature of the Obstacle Character's impact, and the development of the relationship of the Main and Obstacle Characters in the Subjective Story Throughline.

We can see that each of the four throughlines has, in a sense, a plot of its own, yet they all affect one another in some consistent manner. What is it that makes them separate, yet binds them together? A good way to get a feel for this kind of relationship is to think of a story as a football game being covered by four different referees. The "real" plot of the game is the series of events that take place on the field. Not one of the four referees can truly observe all the events, for each can only see what is visible from his position. A referee on the opposite side of the field, however, might see interactions that were completely masked or hidden from the first position, whereas the first referee would report activities not visible from the other side.

Based on what he believes to be happening from his position, each of the referees will call penalties or allow play to continue. Often, the other referees will simply accept that judgment and play will continue. Occasionally though, two or more referees will disagree as to what transpired simply because the events actually looked different from each of their perspectives. In this case, the umpire steps in to moderate the referees and determine what the call should be, even if he did not see the play himself.

In stories, each throughline is like one of these referees. Each provides an angle on the events of the story as they unfold. When something appears unfavorable from one of those points of view, the characters in that Domain cry foul and invoke a penalty to alter the course of action. Each of the throughlines is affected by the series of events that transpire, and conversely, each throughline can have an impact on the course of future events. This is how all four throughlines seem to have plots of their own, yet affect one another in a consistent manner. And, just as the umpire must sometimes step in to settle disagreements, so the author steps in from time to time to side with one throughline or another and allow a penalty or revoke it.

In the end, the true plot of the story is never seen directly, but simply synthesized as the result of all four throughline plots taken into consideration. As Taoist philosophy would explain it, "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao." As Dramatica would have it, "The plot that can be seen is not the actual plot."

How then shall we know what must happen in a story's plot? This we can learn by examining the mechanism of the Progressive Appreciations that occur in each throughline. In this manner, we can plot the course of events as seen from each point of view. The synthesis of these into a single understanding of the story's central plot is what will then occur in the minds of our audience members as the plots unfolds.

Progressive Appreciations

So just what are Progressive Appreciations? Chances are, you are already familiar with them. They are Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Events. The Progressive Appreciations are not unlike the way we measure time in Days, Hours, Minutes, and Seconds. We can see that a Minute does not stand independently, but is nested within an Hour, which is in turn nested within a Day. Similarly, Scenes are appreciations that happen within an Act. Events are nested in Scenes which are nested in Sequences which are nested in Acts.

No event stands alone, but will bear something of the flavor or identity of the larger units in which it resides and the smaller units it contains. If this begins to sound like the thematic appreciations we have already explored, it is no accident. Domain, Concern, Range, and Problem narrow the issue of the story when the story is seen as a state. Act, Sequence, Scene, and Event narrow the issue of the story when the story is seen as a process. The Static Appreciations tell us what a story is about. The Progressive Appreciations tell us how a story unfolds. Taken together, the Static and Progressive Appreciations convey a story's meaning.


Each Class in the Thematic Structure has four Types in the level just below the Class. In the Physics Class, for example, the four Types are Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining. Because the Physics Class will be assigned as the Domain of one of the four throughlines, one of these Types will be that throughline's Concern. For this example, let us assume that Physics is the Objective Story Domain, and the Concern is Obtaining.

Because a Concern is a Static Appreciation, it will be felt throughout the story. Therefore, the Objective Characters will remain concerned with Obtaining from the beginning to the end of the story. Even so, these characters do not simply sit around being concerned with possessing something, rather, they proceed through a series of endeavors in the attempt to Obtain it (or get rid of it). As it turns out, each of the four Types in a Domain represents a stage in this attempt.

In our example, the story might begin with the characters Learning something that ultimately brings them to an Understanding. Eventually they Understand enough to start Doing something, and when they have Done enough, they just might Obtain whatever it is they are after. The four stages of this endeavor, then, would be Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining, in that order.

Another story might start with the characters Doing something. Once they have Done enough, they Obtain something. As they come to examine what they have Obtained, an Understanding grows until, after years of accepting what was, they finally begin to Learn again.

The Types in a Domain can be explored in any order. Each different order, however, will create a different meaning. As an analogy to this, imagine two events: a slap in the face and a scream. A slap followed by a scream might seem as if someone were crying out from having been hit. A scream followed by a slap, however, might seem as if someone was hysterical and being brought to her senses. The order in which events occur changes their Progressive meaning, even though their Static meaning might remain the same. This same dynamic holds true for Acts as well, so that the order in which the Types are explored changes the Progressive meaning of that throughline's view of the plot at large.

Each Type in a throughline will be the subject matter of one of four Acts in that throughline. The order in which the Types are explored determines the Progressive meaning of that throughline's evolution.

Another View: 3 Act Progressions

Some two thousand years ago, Aristotle proposed that every functional plot should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since that time, this notion has evolved into a widely held view that there should be three Acts in a complete story. Act one sets up the dramatic potentials. Act two plays these potentials against each other. Act three describes how it all turned out.

At first, a three act progression might seem in conflict with Dramatica's four act view. As we shall see, however, the two actually go hand in hand.

The illustration above shows how a plot that covers four different Acts will automatically generate three different transitions as the subject matter shifts from one concern to the next. In a sense, we might think of a throughline's plot as a road.

At the beginning of the road is the point of departure: City A. At the end of the road is the destination: City D. Along the way are two other cities, B and C. The first leg of the journey begins at City A and ends at City B. The second leg begins at B and ends at C. The final journey begins at City C and ends at the destination, City D.

At each city is a signpost that gives its name. The four signposts in a throughline's plot are the names of the Types. The order in which they will occur in the plot determines where they fall along the road. Between the four signposts are three journeys, each of which can be described as traveling from one signpost to the next.

Returning to an earlier example, Signposts A, B, C, and D might be Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining. The Three journeys in this plot would then be Learning -> Understanding, Understanding -> Doing, and Doing -> Obtaining. With four signposts and three journeys, each throughline's plot actually has seven different Progressive Appreciations that are required for that perspective to be complete.

When Aristotle saw a beginning, middle and end, he was seeing Signpost A, all three journeys lumped together, and Signpost D. When successive generations of writers evolved a three act structure, it became very difficult to determine, "What happens in Act 2?" as all three journeys and two of the signposts were simply blended into "the middle". By adopting a Four Act structure which coincides with three dynamic acts, the true nature of a throughline's plot is far easier to understand and construct.


Just as Theme has appreciations that are more character oriented, some more aligned to plot, others that pertain most strongly to genre, and those that are closest to the heart of Theme itself, Progressive Appreciations also touch on all four aspects of the Elements of Structure.

Acts are the most plot-like of the Progressive Appreciations, and accordingly fall in the Type level of the structure. Sequences, on the other hand, occur at the Variation level and therefore, like the Range, are the most Theme-like of the Progressive Appreciations.

What Is A Sequence?

Sequences deal with a quad of Variations much as Acts deal with a quad of Types. The quad we will be interested in is the one containing the Range, as that is the item at the heart of a throughline's Theme. Returning to our example story about an Objective Story Throughline in the Physics Class with a Concern of Obtaining, we shall say the Range is Morality, as illustrated in the quad below.

If Morality is the Range, then Self-Interest is the counter-point. Theme is primarily derived from the balance between items. When examining the quad of Variations containing the Range, we can see that the Range and counter-point make up only one pair out of those that might be created in that quad. We have also seen this kind of balance explored in the chapter on Character where we talked about three different kinds of pairs that might be explored: Dynamic, Companion, and Dependent.

Just as with character quads, we can make two diagonal pairs, two horizontal pairs, and two vertical pairs from the Variations in the Range quad. For the Morality quad, these six pairs are Morality/Self-Interest, Morality/Attitude, Morality/Approach, Self-Interest/Attitude, Self-Interest/Approach, and Attitude/Approach. Each of these pairs adds commentary on the relative value of Morality to Self-Interest. Only after all six have been explored will the thematic argument will have been fully made. It could go in a manner as follows:

On face value, which appears to be the better of the two?

When Morality is the issue, how do we rate the Attitude of those espousing it?

When Morality is the issue, how do we rate the Approach of those espousing it?

When Self-Interest is the issue, how do we rate the Attitude of those espousing it?

When Self-Interest is the issue, how do we rate the Approach of those espousing it?

Overall, which should carry more weight in regard to this issue?

By answering each of these questions in a different thematic sequence, the absolute value of Morality compared to Self-Interest will be argued by the impact of the six different relative values.

How Sequences Relate To Acts

Three Act Progressions

With six thematic Sequences and three dynamic Acts, it is not surprising that we find two Sequences per Act. In fact, this is part of what makes an Act Break feel like an Act Break. It is the simultaneous closure of a Plot Progression and a Theme Progression. The order in which the six thematic sequences occur does not affect the message of a story, but it does determine the thematic experience for the audience as the story unfolds. The only constraints on order would be that since the Range is the heart of the thematic argument, one of the three pairs containing the Range should appear in each of the three dynamic Acts. Any one of the other three pairs can be the other Sequence.

Four Act Progressions

The three dynamic Acts or Journeys in a throughline's plot represent the experience of traversing the road through the story's issues. The four structural Acts are more like a map of the terrain. As a result, a more structural kind of thematic Sequence is associated with the Types directly.

Beneath each Type is a quad of four Variations. From a structural point of view, the Act representing each Type will be examined or judged by the four Variations beneath it. In our ongoing example, the Act dealing with Obtaining would be examined in terms of Morality, Self-Interest, Attitude, and Approach. The difference between this and the thematic sequences we have just explored is that Obtaining is judged by each Variation in the quad separately, rather than each Variation in the quad being compared with one another. It is an upward looking evaluation, rather than a sideways looking evaluation.

In this manner, a thematic statement can be made about the subject matter of concern in each of the four structural Acts. The six Sequences constitute an argument about the appropriateness of different value standards.


By the time we get down to scene resolution, there are so many cross-purposes at work that we need to limit our appreciation of what is going on in order to see anything in the clutter. First, however, let's touch on some of the forces that tend to obscure the real function of scenes, then strip them away to reveal the dynamic mechanism beneath.

Resolution and Sequence

Earlier we spoke of plot in terms of Types. We also speak of plot here in terms of four resolutions: Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Events. Both of these perspectives are valid appreciations depending on the purpose at hand. Because all units in Dramatica are related holographically, no single point of view can completely describe the model. That is why we select the most appropriate view to the purpose at hand. Even though looking at plot in terms of Types is useful, it is true that "plot-like" twists and turns are going on at the scene resolution as well. However, these dynamics are not truly part of the scene, but merely in the scene. An Act, Sequence, Scene, or Event is really a temporal container -- a box made out of time that holds dynamics within its bounds. Much like filters or gratings with different-sized holes, the resolutions "sift" the dynamics trapping large movements at the highest levels and allowing smaller nuances to fall all the way down to the Elements.

What's in a Scene?

At the scene resolution, the effects of Types and Variations can be felt like the tidal pull of some distant moon. But scenes are not the resolution at which to control those forces. Scenes are containers that hold Elements -- anything larger cannot get crammed in without breaking. So the richness we feel in scenes is not solely due to what the scene itself contains, but also to the overall impact of what is happening at several larger scales.

What then does a scene contain? Scenes describe the change in dynamics between Elements as the story progresses over time. And since Elements are the building blocks of characters, scenes describe the changing relationships between characters.

Characters and Scenes

Characters are made up of Motivations, Methodologies, Means of Evaluation, and Purposes. These terms also describe the four major sets of Elements from which the characters are built. The driving force of a character in a given scene can be determined, such as whether their argument is over someone's motivations or just the method they are employing.

6 Goes Into 24 Like Theme Goes Into Scenes

We have spoken of the three and four act appreciations of story. It was illustrated how both divisions are valid to specific tasks. When dealing with scenes, we find that no scenes ever hang between two acts, half in one and half in the other, regardless of a three or four act appreciation. This is because there are exactly 24 scenes created at the Element level: six per act in a four act appreciation, eight per act in a three act appreciation. In both cases, the scenes divide evenly into the acts, contributing to the "feel" of each act break being a major turning point in the progress of the story.

Sequences, on the other hand, exist as a six part partition of the story. Therefore, they divide evenly into a three act appreciation but not into a four. Since the four act view is objective, sequences -- as they define Thematic movements -- are truly an experiential phenomenon in the subjective appreciation and lose much of their power objectively.


One of the fascinating aspects of the Dramatica model is that it is recursive. It represents one full cycle of the consideration of a problem. In fact, a story's dramatics are such that at the end one has returned to reconsider the beginning. Mirroring this looping effect, the smallest dynamic units in the model merge right back into the largest structural units. Time doubles back to meet Space so a decision can be made as to which one really contains the solution.

Events and Domains

In Plot, the most defined resolution -- Events -- is actually described by the most broad stroke structural units: Classes. To recap, there are four Classes: Universe, Mind, Physics, and Psychology. Each is represented as an Event. An Event is an occurrence -- something that changes (or remains the same) enough to be noticed by an audience. The dynamics of that incident create dramatic meaning at its most delicate level.

There are four Events within the boundaries of each scene. This means that in addition to character relationships, each scene must also describe a Situation, an Activity, a Manner of Thinking and a State of Mind. All four Classes should be represented to complete a scene. Immediately, one thinks of action "scenes" that just show something blowing up or deliberation "scenes" where nothing moves. How can these be scenes if they don't contain all four Classes? They can't. In fact, they are Events.

Events Masquerading as Scenes

Twenty-four scenes are required for a complete Grand Argument Story. However, if one breaks down those scenes a bit farther, it can be noted that 96 Events occur in a complete story as well.

The "red herring" that obscures this temporal division is caused by changing locations. For example, if a Physics Event (action) takes place in the jungle, then is followed by a Psychology Event (deliberation) back home in England, the change in location tends to make one feel that two different scenes have occurred. Yet, if the story is well designed, it will be noted that the Mind and Universe Domains are also represented just before, during or just after.

This is all part of storytelling: to bring emphasis to certain aspects of the argument or exploration and to diminish others. Three Events may occur in one location, to be followed by the fourth in another. Still, they have filled only one Scene.

Proceed to the Next Section of the Book-->

How to Order Dramatica: A New Theory of Story

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