The Progression of Plot
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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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