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

Chapter 35

Storyweaving Tips
for Short Stories


How to Make Short, a Story


The Dramatica model contains an entire Grand Argument Storyform. There is simply not enough room in a short story, however, to cover all aspects of a Grand Argument. The worst thing to do is arbitrarily hack off chunks of the Grand Argument Story in an attempt to whittle things down. A better solution is to limit the scope of the argument. This can best be done by focusing on a single Class or eliminating a level of resolution (such as Objective Characters or Theme).


Two Ways to Limit Scope

When limited to one Class, the story will be told from only one point of view: Main Character, Obstacle Character, Objective Story Throughline, or Subjective Story Throughline. Because storyforms are holographic, the gist of the argument is made but only "proven" within the confines of that point of view.

When limiting to fewer resolutions, a whole level of examination is removed, effectively obscuring a portion of the exploration and leaving it dark. Again, the gist of the topic is explored but only in the illuminated areas.

In the case of a single-Class story, the argument appears one-sided, and indeed it is. In the limited-resolution story, the exploration of the topic seems somewhat shallow but is complete as deep as it goes.


Ultra-Short Stories

When writing VERY short stories, these two methods of "paring down" the information are often combined, resulting in a loss of perspective AND detail. So how small can a story be and still be a story? The minimal story consists of four dramatic units in a quad. This is the tiniest story that can create an interference pattern between the flow of space and time, encoding both reason and emotion in a way than can be decoded by an audience. However, ANY quad will do, which leads to a great number of minimal stories.

Tips for Episodic Television Series

Characters in Episodic Series

Keeping Characters Alive

Unlike single stories that are told from scratch, television stories have "carry-over." That which is established becomes embedded in the mythic lore of the series, creating an inertia that strangles many fine concepts before their time. This inertia can be a very good thing if it forms a foundation that acts as a stage for the characters rather than burying the characters under the foundation.

To keep a limber concept from succumbing to arthritis in this concrete jungle, creating characters who can portray the full Element level of the structural storyform and making choices that shift the dynamics from episode to episode are required to keep things lively.


Archetypal Characters

Many episodic series rely on Archetypal Characters who can be counted on to respond in the same way from episode to episode. This caters to the strengths of television series with a loyal audience: the ability to create friends and family on which one can rely.

The first few episodes of a series usually bring in the "Villain of the Week" (essentially a new Archetypal Antagonist each time) while the Archetypal roles are becoming established for the regular cast and the mythic lore is being outlined. This formula wears thin rather quickly as the characters fall into predictable relationships with each other. They assume standard roles from which they never vary until the series loses its ratings and is canceled.


Swapping Roles

A solution to this growing inflexibility is to change the formula after a few "establishing" episodes. If one keeps the Objective Characters the same for stability but swaps the Subjective Character roles, the dynamics of the character inter-relationships change even while the structure remains the same. This means the Protagonist is still the Protagonist, Reason is still Reason and so on, but Reason may be the Main Character of the week and Protagonist the Obstacle Character. By shifting Subjective Character roles, several season's worth of character variations can be created without any repeats and the loyal audience's attention is retained.

To further break up the routine, occasional stories can focus on one of the Objective Characters as Protagonist and Main Character in his own story, without the other cast members. For this episode only, a whole new ensemble is assembled as if it were a story independent of the series. Obviously, too much of this weakens the mythic lore, so this technique should be used sparingly.



Characters of the Week

On the other hand, many successful series have been built around a single character who travels into new situations from week to week, meeting a whole new cast of characters each time. This forms the equivalent of an anthology series, except the Main Character recurs from week to week.

A means of generating character variety is to occasionally assign this recurring character to roles other than that of Protagonist. Instead of telling every episode as revolving around the recurring character, have that character be Guardian or Antagonist or Skeptic to some other Protagonist. This technique has allowed many "on the road" series to remain fresh for years.



Plot in Episodic Series

Plot is the aspect of episodic series most plagued with formula. This is because of a predictable Dramatic Circuit. A Dramatic Circuit is made up of a Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome. Each of these aspects must be present to create the flow of dramatic tension.

Conventions have been established that often follow the order indicated above. Each episode begins with the potential for trouble either as the first act in a half-hour series or as the teaser in an hour series. In half-hour series, the next act brings in a Resistance to threaten conflict with the Potential. Hour-long series present an act establishing the status quo that the Potential is about to disrupt, then present an act on the Resistance. Next follows the Current act in which Potential and Resistance conflict. In the final act, Potential and Resistance "have it out" with one or the other coming out on top. Some series favor the Potential winning, others the Resistance, still others alternate depending on the mood of the producers, writers and stars.

Some feel this kind of formula is a good pattern to establish because the audience becomes comfortable with the flow. Sometimes this is true, but unless the Character, Theme, and Domain of each episode varies the audience will wind up getting bored instead. More interesting approaches vary which function of the Dramatic Circuit comes first and jumble up the order of the others as well. Starting with an Outcome and showing how it builds to a Potential, then leaving that Potential open at the end of the story can make plots seem inspired. Many a notable comedy series has its occasional bitter-sweet ending where all the pieces don't come together.



Theme in Episodic Series

Often in episodic series, "themes" are replaced with "topics." Although Dramatica refers to the central thematic subject as a Topic, common usage sees topics as hot subjects of the moment. This makes topics an element of storytelling, not storyform. Frequently, the actual thematic topic is missing or only hinted at in the exploration of a news topic.

For example, the "topic of the week" in a typical series might be "Babies for Sale." But is that a Theme? Not hardly. What is interesting about Babies for Sale? Are we exploring someone's Strategy or Worry or Responsibility or Morality? Any of these or any of the 60 other Variations could be the thematic topic of "Babies for Sale."

To involve the audience emotionally, the theme of each episode must be distinct, clearly defined and fully explored in essential human ways -- not just revolving around a news item.



Genre in Episodic Series

Series can be comedies, action stories, love stories -- whatever. The key point to consider is that Dramatica Domains work in any Genre. To keep a "high" concept from bottoming out, rotate through the Domains, using a different one each week. There are only four Domains: a Situation, an Activity, a Manner of Thinking and a State of Mind. A Situation Comedy (Situation) is quite different from a Comedy of Errors (a Manner of Thinking). Whatever Genre the series is cast in, bouncing the episodes through the Domains keeps the Genre fresh. In addition, jumping among genres from time to time can spice up the flavor of a series that has begun to seem like leftovers from the same meal, week to week.



Tips for Multi-Story Ensemble Series and Soap Operas

Subplots

The least complex form of the Multi-Story Ensemble Series employs the use of subplots. Subplots are tales or stories drawn with less resolution than the principal story. They hinge on one of the principal story's characters other than the Main Character. This hinge character becomes the Main Character of the subplot story.

Subplots are never essential to the progression of the principal plot and only serve to more fully explore issues tangential to the principal story's argument. "Tangent" is a good word to use here, as it describes something that touches upon yet does not interfere with something else.

Subplots may begin at any time during the course of the principal story, but should wrap up just before the principal climax, or just after in the denouement (author's proof).



Relationships of Subplots to Plot

Since subplots are essentially separate stories, they may or may not reflect the values and concerns of the principal story. This allows an author to complement or counterpoint the principal argument. Frequently a subplot becomes a parallel of the principal story in another storytelling context, broadening the scope of the principal argument by inference to include all similar situations. In contrast, the subplot may arrive at the opposite conclusion, indicating that the solution for one storytelling situation is not universally appropriate.

There can be as many subplots in a story as time allows. Each one, however, must hinge on a character who is essential to the principal story (as opposed to a character merely created for storytelling convenience). Each character can only head up a single subplot, just as the Main Character of the principal story cannot carry any additional subplots. However, the Main Character can (and often does) participate in a subplot as one of its objective characters.



Multi-Story Formats

Other than subplots, Multi-Story Series can contain several stories that are not related at all. In this case, there may be two or more completely independent sets of characters who never cross paths. Or an author may choose to interweave these independent stories so that the characters come into contact, but only in an incidental way. In a sense, this form is sort of a "spatial anthology" wherein multiple stories are told not in succession but simultaneously.

Perhaps the most complex form of the Multi-Story Ensemble Series is when both subplots and separate stories are employed. Often, the subplots and the separate stories both use the principal story's characters as well as characters that do not come into play in the principal story.



Stretching Time

An over-abundance of storytelling becomes difficult to conclude within the limits of even a one-hour show. Therefore, single episodes can be treated more like acts with stories sometimes running over four or more episodes. Each episode might also contain subplots staggered in such a way that more than one may conclude or begin in the middle of another subplot which continues over several episodes.

Obviously, a lot of cross-dynamics can be going on here. It is the author's job as storyteller to make sure the audience is aware at all times as to which story or subplot they are seeing and what the character's roles are in each context. This is essential, since no internal storyform is controlling all of the independent stories. They are held together here only by the connective tissue of storytelling.



Tips for Novels

Novels, like all forms of prose, employ "stretchy time" where (unlike plays) individual audience members can proceed through the work at their own pace. They can also re-experience important or personally meaningful sections and skip sections. As a result, in novels an author can play with storytelling in ways that would be ineffective with the audience of a stage play.

More than most formats, the author can meander in a novel without losing his audience. This is a wonderful opportunity to explore areas of personal interest, develop a particularly intriguing character, harp on a message or engage in a fantasy in public.

Of course, if you intend to tell an actual story in your novel, then the storyform has to be in there somewhere. However, with stretchy time in effect, time is not of the essence and one can afford to stray from the path and play in the fields on the way to Grandmother's house.



Tips for Motion Pictures

The Rule of Threes

Many rules and guidelines work fine until you sit down to write. As soon as you get inspired, creative frenzy takes over and the muse bolts forward like a mad bull. But there is one rule of thumb that sticks out like a sore thumb: the Rule of Threes.



Interactions and the Rule of Threes

Objective Characters represent dramatic functions which need to interact to reflect all sides of solving the story problem. The first interaction sets the relationship between the two characters. The second interaction brings them into conflict. The third interaction demonstrates which one fare better, establishing one as more appropriate than the other.

This is true between Protagonist and Antagonist, Protagonist and Skeptic, Skeptic and Sidekick -- in short, between all essential characters in a story. A good guide while writing is to arrange at least three interactions between each pairing of characters. In this manner, the most concise, yet complete portrayal can be made of essential storyform dynamics.



Introductions

Each of the characters must be introduced before the three interactions occur, and they must be dismissed after the three interactions are complete. These two functions set-up the story and then disband it, much like one might put up a grandstand for a parade and then tear it down after the event is over. This often makes it feel like there are five acts in a story when three are truly dynamic acts and two have been "borrowed" from the structure.

The introduction of characters is so well known that it is often forgotten by the author. A character's intrinsic nature must be illustrated before he interacts with any of the Objective Characters. This is so basic that half the time it doesn't happen and the story suffers right from the start. (Keep in mind that an author can use storytelling to "fool" his audience into believing a character has a given nature, only to find out it made assumptions based on too little information in the wrong context.)

Introductions can be on-camera or off. They can be in conversation about a character, reading a letter that character wrote, seeing the way they decorate their apartment -- anything that describes their natures.



Dismissals

The Rule of Threes should be applied until all of the primary characters are played against each other to see what sparks are flying. Once we get the picture, it is time to dismiss the company. Dismissals can be as simple as a death or as complex as an open-ended indication of the future for a particular character. When all else fails, just before the ending crawl a series of cards can be shown: "Janey Schmird went on to become a New Age messiah while holding a day job as a screenplay writer."

The point is, the audience needs to say good-bye to their new friends or foes.



Hand-offs

Hand-offs and Missing Links

Often we may find that a particular point of view needs to be expressed in a given scene but the character that represents that view has gone off to Alaska. Why did we send him to Alaska? Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But now... Do we go back and rewrite the entire plot, have him take the next flight home or blow it off and let the lackluster scene languish in his absence?
None of the above. We could do those things, but there are two other choices that often prove much more satisfying as well as less destructive to what has already been written. One method refers to characters in absentia, the other is the hand-off.



Characters in Absentia

The function of characters in a scene is not to establish their physical presence, but to represent their points of view on the topic at hand. As long as they fulfill that mandate and throw their two-cents into the mix, their actual presence is not required.

As authors, how can we represent a character's point of view in a scene without having to haul him in and place him there? Perhaps the easiest way is to have other characters talk about the missing character and relate the opinion that character would have expressed if he had been present. For example, one character might say, "You know, if Charlie were here he'd be pissed as hell about this!" The conversation might continue with another character taking a contrary position on what old Charlie's reaction might be until the two have argued the point to some conclusion much as if Charlie had been there in spirit.

Other techniques might use an answering machine message, a letter, diary or video interview from the character in question that is examined in the course of a scene. Many current stories use a murder victim's videotaped will to include him in scenes involving his money-grubbing heirs. More subtle but potentially even more effective is for one character to examine the apartment, studio, or other habitat of a missing character and draw conclusions based on the personality expressed in the furnishings and artifacts there. Even the lingering effect of processes a character started before he left, or other characters' memories of the missing character can position him in the midst of intense dramatic interchanges without his actual attendance.

Still, for some storytelling purposes, a live body is needed to uphold and represent a point of view. If there is just no way to bring the character who contains those characteristics into the scene personally, an author can assign a proxy instead. This is accomplished by a temporary transfer of dramatic function from one character to another called a hand-off.



What is a Hand-off?

A hand-off occurs when one player temporarily takes on the story function of a missing player. This new player carries the dramatic flag for the scene in question, then hands it back to the original player upon his return.

Doesn't this violate the Dramatica guideline that every Objective Character is the sole representative of his unique characteristics? Not really. Having one character be the sole representative of a characteristics is a guideline, not a law. The essential part of that guideline is that a character does not change his internal inventory of characteristics during the course of the story. A player, however, is not bound by that restriction.

In a hand-off the player is not actually giving up a characteristic because he isn't around when another character is using it, so technically the first player is never seen without it. But due to this, he cannot share characteristics with other players at the same time. If he did, two characters might be trying to represent the same point of view in the same scene, making dramatic tension just go limp.



How to Do Hand-offs

When we employ the hand-off, we actually create two players to represent the same trait at different times. It is reminiscent of time-sharing a condo. In any given scene, a single point of view might be represented by character "A" or by character "B," but never by both in the same scene.

Most often, one of the players will be a major player and the other just a "plot device" player of convenience who appears for one scene and is never heard from again. Such players just fill in the gaps. Sometimes, both players prove intriguing to the author and each becomes a major player. The difficulty then arises that at the climax of the story, both players might still be alive and kicking and therefore suddenly converge in an awkward moment. No matter what you do, it's going to be klunky. Still, if you must have both present, it's best to either make a statement in the story that they have the same characteristic(s), thereby binding them in the mind of the audience, or deal with them one after another.

A special case exists when (for whatever reason) an author decides to terminate a player from the story. This can be a result of sending the player to its death, to the Moon or just having it leave at some point and not return. Often, this technique is used to shock an audience or throw them a red herring. Unless the functions represented by the discontinued player reappear in another player, however, part of the story's argument will disappear at the point the original drops out. In the attempt to surprise an audience by killing off a major player, many an author has doomed an otherwise functional storyform.

There are two primary ways in which a discontinued player's functions can continue without him. Certainly the easiest is to bring in a new player who is dramatically identical to the first, although its personal attributes are usually quite different. Often the storytelling requirements of a plot deem one player more suited to part of a story and another player to be more in line with the rest. By killing off the first player but continuing its dramatic function through a new player, both purposes can be served to the best storytelling effect without a loss of dramatic continuity. The major caveat is that the audience must be made aware that this "dead hand-off" has occurred so it does not suddenly sense a vacuum in the story's argument. This may require a fair amount of introduction to solidly place the new player in the old role.

The second technique for replacing a player yet continuing the character's functions is to divide the functions among several new players, each representing only a portion of what had previously been contained in one. Naturally, these new players would be less complex than their predecessor, which may diminish nuance at certain levels of the story. On the plus side, this method scatters the functions into new bodies, allowing for external conflicts between functions that were previously blended into a single individual. Once again, informing the audience of who got what is essential to the smooth progression of this type of hand-off.


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