A step by
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your novel or screenplay. More than 200 interactive Story Cards guide
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powerful story structuring software available, Dramatica is driven by a
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advanced screenwriting software available, Movie Magic is deemed a
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Storytelling & Encoding Theme
The trick in encoding theme is to make sure the audience knows what the argument is
about without coming right out and saying it, and also to make sure the argument is made
without the audience ever feeling manipulated or that the point is being made in a heavy
handed fashion. In this section we will explore methods of achieving these purposes for
theme in general and also suggest tips and considerations specific to the themes of each
of the four throughlines.
What Are You Talking About?
Without theme, a story is just a series of events that proceeds logistically and ends
up one way or another. Theme is what gives it all meaning. When encoded, theme will not be
a universal meaning for all things, but a smaller truth pertaining to the proper
way of dealing with a particular situation. In a sense, the encoding of theme moves
the emotional argument of the story from the general to the specific. It the argument is
made strongly enough, it may influence attitudes in areas far beyond the specific, but to
be made strongly, it must limit its scope to precise encoding.
If our thematic conflict is Morality vs. Self-interest, for example, it would be a mistake
to try and argue that Morality is always better than Self-Interest. In fact, there
would be few people whose life experience would not tell them that sometimes Self-Interest
is the better of the two. Keep in mind here that Dramatica defines Morality as "Doing
for others with no regard for self" and Self-Interest as "Doing for self with no
regard for others." This doesn't mean a Self-Interested person is out hurt to others,
but simply that what happens to others, good or bad, is not even a consideration.
As an example, Morality might be better if one has plenty of food to share during a harsh
winter and does so. Morality might be worse if one subjugates one's life rather than
displease one's peers. Self-Interest might be better if a crazed maniac is charging at you
and you kill him with an ax. Self-Interest might be bad if you won't share the last of the
penicillin in case you might need it later. It really all depends on the context.
Clearly, the very first step in encoding thematic appreciations is to check the
definitions first! Dramatica was designed to be extremely precise in its definitions in
order to make sure the thematic structure represented all the shades of gray an audience
might expect to see in a thematic argument. So, before you even consider the conflict,
read the definition which will help define where the real conflict lies.
Unlike other appreciations which really only need to show up once to be encoded into a
story, thematic appreciations will need to show up several times. A good rule of thumb is
that each conflict should be explored at least once per act. In this way, the balance
between the two sides of the conflict can be examined in all contexts appropriate to
Further, it is heavy handed to encode the entire conflict. It is much better to show one
side of the conflict, then later show the other side in a similar situation. In this
manner, the relative value of each side of the thematic conflict is established without
the two ever being directly compared. In each act, then, what are some methods of encoding
the two sides of the thematic conflict? This depends on which throughline is in question.
Encoding the Objective Story Theme
The Objective Story theme is an emotional argument that is story wide. Its connection
to the Objective Story makes this theme "objective", not any unemotional
feeling that may be implied by the title. To encode the Objective Story theme one must
come up with scenes, events, comments, or dialogue that not only pertains to the thematic
conflict, but at least imply that this particular issue represents the central imbalance
in value standards that affects everyone in the story. In fact, it is often better
that the Objective Story theme be encoded through incidental characters or background
incidents so that the message is not tainted by association with any other dynamics in the
For example, our Main Character is walking down the hall of a ward in a Veteran's hospital
with a doctor who is an incidental character whose purpose in the story is only to provide
exposition on a particular point. While they are walking, the doctor, an older man, notes
that he is out of breath trying to keep up with our Main Character. He comments, "I
can't keep up with you young guys like I used to." Moments later, a double amputee
wheels across their path, stops, says cheerfully to the Main Character, "As soon as
they fix me up, I'm going to be a dancer again!" and wheels off. The doctor then
remarks, "He's been like that since they brought him here." The Main Character
asks, "How long?" The doctor says, "Nineteen sixty-eight."
What thematic conflict is at work here? The doctor's comments represent Closure (accepting
an end). The patient's comments reflect Denial (refusing to accept an end). By itself,
this short thematic encoding will not make the conflict clear. But as the story continues
to unfold, several different encodings will eventually clarify the item they all share in
What's more, in this example, it is clear by the way we presented the conflict, Closure is
seen as a better standard of value that Denial. It would be just as easy to have the
doctor appear run-down by life and having no hope, while the patient is joyous. In such a
case, the message would have been the reverse. The doctor, representing Closure, would be
seen to be miserable, and the patient who lives in a dream world of Denial would have
Theme encoding is an effort of subtle balance. Simply shifting a word or a reaction, even
slightly, can completely tip a well balanced argument. That is why many authors prefer
more black-and-white thematic statements than a gentle thematic argument. In truth, it is
the ability to get away from the binary that brings richness and depth to the emotional
content of a story.
One other thing we might notice about our example is that we might evaluate whether
Closure or Denial is better by seeing how each camp fared in regard to Hope and Dream. Why
Hope and Dream? They are the other two Variations in the same quad as Closure and Denial.
We can see that the doctor has no Hope, but the patient still has Dreams. By showing that
lack of Hope causes misery and an abundance of Dreaming bring joy, the case is made that
the doctor who represents Closure does not achieve as beneficial a result as the patient
who represents Denial.
Clearly this thematic message is not true in every situation we might encounter in real
life. In the context of our latter example, however, we are saying that for this
particular kind of problem (the Objective Story Problem) Denial is a better way to go.
Our next concern is that even with a more balanced argument, it still seems one-sided. The
way to alleviate this attribute is to have some thematic moments occur in which Closure
turns out to be better than Denial . By so doing, we are admitting to our audience that
even for the kind of Objective Story Problem we are dealing with, neither Closure nor
Denial is a panacea. As a result, the audience begins to be excitedly drawn toward the end
of the story, because only then can it average out all the incidents of Closure and Denial
and see which one came out on top and by how much.
Theme encoding requires skill and inspiration. Because it must be approached by feel,
rather than by logic, it is hard to learn and hard to teach. But by understanding the
nature of the gentle balance that tips the emotional argument in favor of the Range or its
counterpoint, one can consciously consider when and where and how to encode the theme,
rather than simply winging it and hoping for the best. Knowing the storyform for your
theme makes it far easier to draw the audience into feeling as you want them to.
Encoding Theme for the Other Throughlines
The Main Character theme follows many of the same guidelines as the Objective Story
theme. In fact, the basic approaches of illustrating the conflict by indirect means,
calling on the other two Variations in the thematic quad and having the balance between
Range and counterpoint shift back and forth are good rules of thumb for all four
throughlines. The principal difference in theme encoding from one throughline to another
is where the conflict is directed.
For the Main Character Throughline, only the Main Character will be aware of the thematic
conflict in that Domain. It might still be illustrated by contrasts between incidental
characters or in non-essential actions or events, but no one will notice but the Main
Character. For example, our Main Character in a motion picture might be sitting in a diner
and look out the window to see a hungry man sifting through a trash can for some food. The
focus shifts (as the Main Character ostensibly shifts his attention) to bring to clarity
another man sitting in front of the window getting up to leave from his plate of
half-eaten food. No one else is in a position to see this except our Main Character (and
through him, the audience).
The above example would be a VERY subtle beginning of an argument about Morality vs.
Self-Interest. In and of itself, there is not enough to say which is the Range and which
is the counterpoint. Also, this example merely sets up that there are haves and have-nots,
but does not yet place a value judgment, for we do not even know which of the two men is
representing Morality and which Self-interest.
An interesting turn would be to have a Maitre'd notice our Main Character looking at the
hungry man through the window and run over to say, "I'm sorry, Monsieur, I'll have my
waiter tell him to leave." Our Main Character says, "No, wait..." He
reaches into his pocket, pulls out his last hundred francs and, giving it to the Maitre'd
says, "Bring him some food instead."
Still watching from the window, our Main Character sees the waiter taking a plate of food
to the hungry man. As soon as he arrives, the hungry man beats the waiter over the head,
takes his wallet, and runs off. The food has fallen into the garbage. Now, what have we
said through our encoding about the relative value of Morality vs. Self-Interest as
experienced by the Main Character? Also, which one is the Range?
In our Main Character example, we did not feel like we were judging the Main Character
himself because of the results of his actions. Rather, we were making a judgment about the
relative value of Morality and Self-Interest. In contrast, the Obstacle Character theme
encoding is designed to place a value judgment on the Obstacle Character himself.
Obstacle Characters are looked at, not from. As such, we want to evaluate the
appropriateness of their actions. Part of this is accomplished by showing whether the
Obstacle Character's influence on the balance between Range and counterpoint results in
positive or negative changes.
Suppose we keep everything from our Main Character example in the diner the same, except
we substitute the Obstacle Character instead. All the events would transpire in the same
order, but our point of view as an audience would have to shift. The question for the
audience would no longer be, "How am I going to respond in this situation?" but
would become, "How is he going to respond in this situation?"
The point of view shot through the window might no longer be appropriate. Instead, we
might shoot from over the shoulder of the Obstacle Character. Further, we would want to
make sure the audience does not get too drawn in toward the Obstacle point of view. So, we
might have another customer observing the whole thing. Or, we might simply choose camera
positions outside the diner to show what happens, rather than staying in the whole time
looking out as we did with the Main Character.
Novels, stage plays, and all different media and formats present their own unique
strengths, weaknesses, and conventions in how one can appropriately encode for a given
throughline. Knowing which ones to use and inventing new ones that have never before been
used comprises a large part of the craft and art of storytelling.
Finally, let us briefly address thematic encoding for the Subjective Story Throughline.
Theme in the Subjective Story Throughline describes the meaning of the relationship
between the Main and Obstacle Characters. There are two distinct ways to evaluate
everything that goes on in the relationship and these two ways don't lead to the same
conclusions. The thematic Range and counterpoint reflect these two different means of
In most relationships, everyone involved seems to have an opinion about what's best to do.
That's the way it always is in a story. As the Obstacle Character Throughline and the Main
Character Throughline have an impact on each other, so do the Objective and Subjective
Stories. Therefore, both Objective and Subjective Characters will have opinions to express
about how the relationship between the Main and Obstacle Characters is going.
Remember, it's this relationship that makes the Subjective Story.
The variety of places to find opinions about the Subjective Story relationship means the
Range and Counterpoint in the Subjective Story need not come exclusively from the Main and
Obstacle Characters. They could be brought up and argued without the presence of either
the Main Character or Obstacle Character.
Of course, these two characters will be involved at some point as well. When they're
together, they're likely to be arguing the two sides of the Subjective Story's Thematic
issue and providing the Thematic Conflict. When they do, however, it is a good idea to
avoid just giving one character the Range and the other character the Counterpoint. That
would lead to a simple face off over the issues without really exploring them. Instead,
have them swap arguments, each using the Range, then the Counterpoint as their weapon.
Neither of them is solely a villain or a good guy from this personal point of view.
Giving your Objective Characters conversations about this relationship is a good way to
express Range vs. Counterpoint without involving the Main or Obstacle Characters. This
will help avoid unintentionally biasing the audience against either of them.
The real issue is, which is the best way to look at the relationship?
We all know stories involving newlyweds where the father of the bride argues that his
daughter's fiancee is not good enough for her since the boy has no job nor means to
provide for her. In these stories, the mother will often counter the father's argument by
saying the two kids really love each other, so what could be better?
In that example, father and mother may be Objective Characters arguing about the best way
to look at the Subjective Story between the Main and Obstacle Characters (the daughter and
son-in-law). In the end, one way of seeing the kids' romance will prove to be the better
way of evaluating the relationship.
The thematic resolution may be that the Subjective Story relationship appears terrible
from one standard of evaluation and only poor from the other, in which case these people
haven't got much of a relationship. Or, a relationship may appear mundanely workable from
one standard and thrilling from the other. Or, one may see it as highly negative and the
other sees it as highly positive. These are all potential conflicting points of view about
a relationship and these discrepancies give the Subjective Story theme its depth.
The important job of the writer is to balance the argument so there is a real question as
to which way of seeing the relationship is using the best standard of evaluation. Then the
audience is not just being sold a biased bill of goods, but is being presented a much more
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