Category Archives: Narrative Psychology

Narrative Psychology: To Know Oneself

By Melanie Anne Phillips

We all have certain fundamental broad-stroke mental traits such as Reason, Initiative, and Skepticism. As individuals, we use the full spectrum of these tools to try and solve our problems. But when we get together in groups, we quickly self-organize so that one person emerges as the Voice of Reason for the group, another as the Goal-Oriented Leader, and another as the Resident Skeptic.

We specialize in this manner because when trying to solve a group problem or advance a group agenda, we are far more productive together is we each focus on just one of these fundamental tools rather than being a collection of general practitioners all trying to do all the jobs. In this manner, the group gets far greater thought, depth, and action in each area, and then we come together to share with the group what we have found in our area – to say, “this is what it looks like from here.”

In short, the group becomes a model of the individual mind, since that is exactly what we do as individuals, but now each of our attributes has become an archetypal role in a group narrative.

And that is where archetypes really come from – not the collective unconscious per se, nor from myth nor dreams, but simply from the attributes that are common to us all.

So in a sense, the narrative of an individual, and the narrative of a group are the same system at work at two different fractal dimensions.

And each of these has identical structural elements and dynamics.

And yet, the purposes of the group, though shared by each individual in the group, may sometimes come into conflict with a given member’s individual purposes. In fact, all the conflict and tension that is generated in stories and in life come from the dissonance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group.

The Dramatica model presents this elegantly. The structural model you see can be the mind of one person or the collective mind of a group. It is the same structure, interpreted in two different ways.

When we look at the four levels of the structure as if it were a group mind, we see (from the bottom up) motivations, evaluations, methods, and purposes. When we look at the same four levels as a group mind we see Characters, Theme, Plot and Genre.

The Dramatica twists and turns like a Rubik’s cube, but not arbitrarily. Rather, there are two “justification wind-ups” – essentially two sets of dynamics that torque the structure, twisting it into a position that best fits that mind to its environment. One of these is the Main Character wind-up – representing the compromises he or she has had to make in their outlook to get by in the world and the other is the Objective Story wind-up, which represents the compromises a group mind has had to make to survive. In fact, it is these compromises that determine personality – all the attractions and repulsions based on our unbalanced minds.

And so, to truly understand one’s personal narrative, one must become aware of how the naturally balanced and neutral mind that exist only conceptually differs from the dynamic tensions that are self-perpetuating within ourselves.

In real life we have hundreds of narratives in which we participate, sometimes as the main character and sometimes as one of the archetypes in a larger group mind.

In the end, as complex as this view of the mind is, it all boils down to the fact that once you learn about the equations that generate Dramatica’s quads and the dynamic algorithms that drive the justification wind-ups, you lose the ability to lie to yourself. You can still choose to lie to others, of course, and you can still do terrible things to others, but you will no longer be able to see it as good in your own mind.

To know Dramatica at the core of its representation of human psychology is see the real reasons for your actions and attitudes, whether you want to or not. And I suppose that is the most accurate form of self-knowledge we are allowed in this world.

Are the Lambs Still Screaming….

In the classes I teach on story structure we often point to Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) in “Silence of the Lambs” as a great example of a Success/Bad story in which the goal (save the senator’s daughter from Buffalo Bill) is achieved, but the personal angst of not being able to save that spring lamb remains, as evidenced by Lecter’s final conversation with Starling over the phone in which he asks, “Are the lambs still screaming?” Her silence in response (plus the somber soundtrack music even though this he graduation from the academy) both indicate she is still holding on to that angst.

We usually leave it there, having served our purpose of illustrating what Success/Bad means. Sometimes we go on to say that the reason she is trying to save all these people today – the reason she got into law enforcement (besides the fact her father was a sheriff) was because she can’t let go of that one lamb she couldn’t save and keeps trying to make up for it.

But now I’m thinking that while that may be true in an objective sense, nobody would carry that weight in their heart and act out that way for those reasons alone. You’d see it, you’d understand it and move on. Rather, I think the reason she does what she does is not to make up for that lamb but to avoid having to carry another similar sense of loss. So every extraordinary effort – even to the extent of putting herself at risk of death – is to keep from adding one more victim to the pain or failure she already carries.

It would seem, then, counter-intuitive to put oneself in a profession where the risk of failure in the exact same subject matter area as your angst. But consider – most of us need to pay penance when we feel we have screwed up. The risk of hurting herself emotionally even more by her choice of profession, therefore, is penance for the first lamb she lost, while the extra-human effort she puts into each case is the attempt to avoid adding another instance to the pain she already carries.

Pretty screwed up, really, but in actuality the only way a mind, a heart, can make up for failing another in a way that can’t be fixed is to try to help others in a similar way. But then the risk of failure is omnipresent, so we give up a life of our own to excel enough to avoid another failure.

It is a never ending cycle of emotional self-flaggilation: trying to make up for the failure by putting oneself in the situation most likely to create a repeat, then devoting one’s life to trying to avoid the failure and thereby punishing oneself for the original failure. That’s how we think and how we feel. Of course, the only way out of this vicious circle is to accept the original failure, call it a clean slate, and move on. But who can easily do that, and how?

Narrative Psychology: How memories work – an example

Narrative Psychology: How memories work – an example

Something I posted today on my Facebook page:

What a magnificent mountain morning. The air is clear, crisp and clean from several days of thunderstorms. Temperature was 40 degrees when we woke up this morning (at the first light of pre-dawn, as usual for us mountain folk). This morning reminds of those wonderful Sunday mornings and a kid and memories of Sunday mornings with my young children- all laid back, casual and comfortable – staying in our robes and/or jammies all morning long, no deadlines, no chores (regular office hours in those days) and school for the kids on the weekdays – Saturdays were either a trip to someplace like Disneyland, the museum or the park or yard work or painting around the house. So on Sunday morning, you didn’t feel you hadn’t done your job – either the week before or at home the day before. Pancakes and bacon were often the order of the day – sometimes homemade hash browns, with orange juice, coffee and milk. And then the day ahead – play (with toys for the kids, perhaps on the guitar or with my coin collection for me) and a nice Sunday dinner, like roasted chicken breasts, white rice and a veggie like my mom used to make or maybe chicken pot pies that the kids liked. Once in a while, when we could afford it, mornings were off to IHOP for a special breakfast. (Still remember how a pack of crackers in cellophane would keep baby Keith busy until his food arrived. Mindi liked to color – and eat the crayons.) And, about once a week, usually on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, we could scrape together $10 and clean out all our money to buy MacDonald’s for us with Happy Meals for the kids. Looking back, I can’t believe how much they enjoyed those little toys that came in the bags, not to mention the burgers or nuggets and fries. So, today reminds me of all that – and much more. But I’ll just leave it here for now…. *More* – My cousin just wrote about this post on my other site: “You could have been writing about our home life back in the day. It gives me warm fuzzies to reflect back on those special times that didn’t seem so special while they were occurring.” To which I replied: “Too many other things going on when the events actually happened to isolate the pearls at the time. Though the recollections are now idealized, lumping all such experiences into one perfect capsule, they are the essence of what life felt like in general in those days. And the power of the “warm fuzzies” informs my emotions today, making me feel as if it is all happening now – creating those feels (or re-creating them) “live” in the present, with an intensity and emotional clarity not possible back when the memories were formed, a bit here and a bit there, over time until the truth they all hinted at can be fully appreciated in their essential nature, all at once, and repeatedly accessed moment to moment, every day when I pause to look back, look up to see around me, and look forward at what may come.”

What if…

A thought exercise for writers:

What if you could be genetically altered to be happy in a miserable life? Would you do it?

Having had a number of private responses to this post in other venues, I offer the following: Some people would choose to lose the ability to see their life as miserable – to become a new person who likes that life, keeping everything else about them the same. Some people would choose the other way and remain who they are inside, even if it meant they could never have happiness in their lives. It is really a choice about identity. Pink Floyd answered this way – you raise the blade, you make the change, you rearrange me ’til I’m sane. You lock the door and throw away the key, there’s someone in my head but it’s not me. In “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam, the message is that it is better to be blissfully happy in a fantasy world than miserable in the real world. And so, these two great artists disagree. Honestly, there is no right answer. It is as individual and personal a choice as one can make. Really, it is simply about being aware that, whatever one’s issues, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

The 15 Cent Happiness Fix

People often shoot themselves in the foot, and so do characters. There’s a narrative reason for it. Happened to me today, but THIS time I dodged my own bullet. Here’s how I stopped following that storyline – something you can use for yourselves and for the characters in your stories as well.

On a diet this morning (as always). Got caught up in conversation and poured too much milk in my Honey Bunches of Oats. It’s only a few calories, but then I know I’m over my limit right from the get-go and it will hang over my head all day: diet ruined at breakfast. So, I feel like I’ve failed and spend the rest of the day trying to make up for it by cutting back everywhere else. In short, I’m miserable all day long.

That’s my usual narrative. But then I realized that wasn’t the only narrative I could create. In fact, I didn’t create this one at all. It was all based on being raised not to waste food or money. So even though it was just 15 cents of milk, once it is poured, it must be consumed.

THAT narrative was so long and practiced that it became a given – a storyline that filtered my thinking and eliminated potential options and solutions before I even considered the issue at hand. And so, the simple notion of simply pouring out the extra milk to lose the calories and feel good about my breakfast would normally never even occur to me because it violated the first narrative of never wasting food or money.

You see we, and the characters that represent us, are full of justifications. These are not bad nor good but just narrative that we have learned to rely on to get through life, to protect ourselves, and to streamline our decision making processes. But when we’ve engaged in those narratives long enough, they never come to the conscious mind for reconsideration. They become blinders that limit our alternatives to only those that don’t violate the governing narrative. So, every new issue becomes a subordinate sub-story to the guiding narratives of our lives.

How do you bust out of that storyline? For that matter, how do you even recognize that their might be other alternatives when experience tries to keep you from thinking outside the narrative? Simple. Whenever you encounter a situation that appears to be a dilemma (e.g. I want to diet but there’s too much milk), stop before acting and ask yourself when did the problem start? I had no problem with my diet. The problem only began when I poured in too much milk. So, fixing THAT is the first place to look for a solution.

How can I make my breakfast the way it needs to be? Just pour out fifteen cents worth of milk. But I can’t! But then I think, I eat it as is and am miserable all day. But if I waste fifteen cents of food and money, My bowl of oats will be just the way I want it and I’ll be happy all day. So, in essence, I can buy a whole day’s worth of happiness for fifteen cents, or I can hold onto that money and be unhappy. Gee. Gosh. What should I do? Right.

I can buy a whole day’s happiness for a dime and a nickel. Isn’t my happiness worth fifteen cents?

Imagine, then, as I look back and think about all the times I’ve allowed myself to be in a bad mood for hours or even days when some little inexpensive fix could avoid all that if I’m just willing to violate a narrative code I don’t even know I’m limited by?

Now sure, in case you are wondering, sometimes the right choice is to eat the cereal and go off the diet – there’s no right or wrong choice as it all depends on context. But, if you have a long-term commitment going (like a diet or earning a degree or finishing a jig saw puzzle) one single moment of exception isn’t likely to indicate you need to junk your whole plan. Rather, keep alert to see if a series of exceptions begin to crop up, as that is usually the best indicator that maybe you need to change plans or change course.

But, for a single exception – a dilemma where you face displeasure if you stick to your guns – then consider changing the exception side of the equation – the figurative bowl of cereal with too much milk. Often it will turn out that the only reason you have an apparent dilemma is because you are locking two points, not just one. You won’t go off your diet and you won’t pour out the milk.

Try to listen to your thoughts when you say, “Rats! I poured too much milk in my cereal. Now I have to go off my diet and eat it.” Ask yourself why you have to eat it. “Because I’m hungry.” Why not eat part of it? “Because I can’t waste food.” And the minute you hear yourself say “because” or “I can’t” or especially, “Because I can’t” you know there’s another narrative at work beyond the one you can see.

When faced with a dilemma, always question your givens. Then you choose: Which is worse, making an exception to my diet narrative or making an exception to my “don’t wast food” narrative. Almost always, one narrative will be more flexible than the other – more acceptable for making exceptions.

And if you can’t bring yourself to make an exception in either narrative. Well then you’re pretty much screwed. But how often does that happen? Mostly you just need to train yourself to see that there are two sides that can give on a dilemma. When you find yourself unhappy with a situation, before anything else, identify those two sides: Desire to diet and too much food already served.

Then, test each side to see how resolve the issue – side one, go off diet (at least today) and side two (waste some food).

Today, for the first time ever, I put my hand over the bowl leaving a little open area and poured out the excess milk. I did this without guilt and without regret AND without permanently disbanding the “don’t waste food” narrative. I simply chose in which narrative I would make an exception.

And THAT is the fifteen cent happiness fix: One, identify the conflict that is the source of your displeasure. Two, identify the narrative that drives each side. Three, choose the side in which making an exception will be the least unacceptable.

The character is your story can suffer those kinds of dilemmas forever, because that is what we as real people do ever day and all day long. So use this kind of justification to create characters who are troubled in realistic ways. But in your own life, why not use the fifteen cent happiness fix to unload the gun you use to shoot yourself in the emotional foot?

–Melanie Anne Phillips

A Story is an Argument (Annotated)

A Story is an Argument

In the last lesson we learned how the most simple form of audience manipulation is for an author to tell a tale, such as a fairy tale or cautionary tale in which a statement is made that a particular path is good or bad.

But, how much power would an author have if he could convince his audience that his favored path is not just good or bad, but is, in fact, the best (or worst) of all possible approaches that might reasonably be taken in the situation under study.  In that case, the author is not just changing behavior, but changing minds as well.

Naturally, audience members (readers) are not going to just accept such a blanket statement without some proof.  In fact, for the earliest storytellers around the campfire, blanket statements would be met with rebuttals from his listeners who would ask, “What about this other approach you didn’t mention?  Why isn’t that a better way?”

Being right there, the “author” could attempt to counter that rebuttal by explaining why that other option wouldn’t be as good.  If he made a successful case, the objection would be dropped.  There might be several alternatives brought up by the audience, but if they were all addressed, the author’s original blanket statement would be generally accepted as true.

But once stories began to be recorded in song and manuscript and presented to audiences where the author was not present, there would be no way to counter the rebuttals.  And so, in order to successfully support a blanket statement, authors started to include in the tale itself explanations about why the other major reasonable alternatives were not as good as the proffered one.

It was this action that elevated the tale (a statement) to become a story (an argument) as we know it today.  The collection of necessary supporting arguments required to prove a blanket statement became embedded in the conventions of story structure audiences expect around the world.

Interestingly, these conventions describe all the different ways of reasonably looking at a problem – the full complement of perspectives each of us employs every day when trying to  understand difficulties and seek solutions.  So, in a sense, the structure of stories ultimately evolved from a single perspective to a living, dynamic model of our problem-solving processes – perhaps of our minds themselves.

And even more interestingly, the processes we described in our first two lessons of storytellers trying to accurately document human behavior of individuals in in relationships converge with this model of the mind borne of seeking to support blanket statements.

To recall, when people come together in groups for a common purpose, the begin to specialize insofar as one member emerges as the voice of reason for the group and another as the skeptic, for example.

In time, the group self-organizes without any conscious intent of its members until the complete collection of specialities is identical to the full complement of perspectives every individual uses in his or her own life.  In other words, the group becomes a group mind, structurally, in which each specialist represents (and functions as) one of the facets of any individual mind.  And, in this way, more depth and detail can be discovered by the group in regard to its issue of common concern than if all its members came to the table as general practitioners, trying to solve the problem in all areas at once.

And so, the attempt by thousands of years of storytellers to accurately represent human behavior and the attempt of authors to manipulate audiences through arguments both converge on the same model of the fundamental approaches to problem solving that illuminate the very mechanisms of our individual minds.

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Using Dramatica for Real World Psychological Analysis?

Recently, a Dramatica user sent me a series of questions about the potential use of Dramatica in real world psychological analysis. Here’s his questions and my responses:

Question: If StoryMind is a model of a human mind trying to resolve an inequity (as the construct between one mind communicating to another in the communication process of sender of message and receiver of message encoded in symbols, etc), then I have been working to understand how it reflects my own mind and that of those around me. If it truly is an accurate representation of how we perceive the world according to story being a projection of our mind, then I don’t think it should be kept as a writing application only.

Answer: it isn’t being kept for writing only. For the last four years we’ve been working with industry, business, and government agencies, all under the auspices of a major university to do narrative analysis in the real world. We’ve developed whole new techniques for applying the theory. I hope to be making some of this public soon.

Question: Setting aside the Story Engine, how does the problem (or just a difference between two things positive or negative) start in the elements and create a psychology?

Answer: By itself, the problem element does not create a psychology. It forms the anchor point of a psychology (a storyform). It just describes the common point around which all the other psychological elements are hinged or the common element through which they are all connected.

Question: If the psycho-schematic (clever) is a psychology and we don’t change that much once formed, but we do have many different responses to many different contexts, how can I learn to see the way it fits together?

Answer: You need a separate psycho-schematic (storyform) for each context. Our narrative in our job is not likely the same as that with our mate or in our church or when voting. But, personal narratives are factal in nature, meaning that sometimes some of the narratives are actually elements in an ever larger narrative. This is not absolute, however, because the subject matter of our lives, en toto, is the narrative space in which the galaxies, solar systems, and satellites of our psyches operate. Sometimes they are hinged, sometimes they collide, sometimes they are warped by other near-by non-connected narratives, and sometimes they operate independently of all the rest.

Question: Do you teach this in a class?

Answer: I am planning a whole series of upcoming classes and courses in the application of Dramatica in the real world. I’ll announce them in our newsletter and on our blog as they are completed and become available.

Question: Are there exercises that determine how it works?

Answer: Not sure what you mean here – exercises to show how it works? Nope, not until the classes start to be released.

Question: So, with the chart, we could sit down with someone and chart out their current psychology and be able to determine the best course to take in treating that problem (whether the mind is looking in the wrong place or focusing in too much to see the problem, etc)??

Answer: You can only do this in regard to specific contexts (issues). In fact, Dramatica is a model of our complex web of motivations and the tensions that pull upon them. From this motivation map you can project likely behavior. But it must be done in regard to specific problems, situations or contexts. If you have multiple context, you need to prepare a separate storyform for each.

Question: If I started with a single element, what would it do to create a psychology?

Answer: It would provide the seed of motivation from which a psychology can grow, much as a grain of sand provides the seed for a pearl to form.

Question: I know that the Story Engine is biased, and it works fine for most stories, but if your purpose is not storytelling, but narrative of an individual trying to see a clear path, those other Signpost orders that are not allowed would be available too, right?

Answer: Nope, not right. The Story Engine is not really biased. It just takes a point of view. You cannot see anything without a point of view. So, in looking at narrative, the Dramatica model needed to choose a perspective from which to see it. As a result, certain things cannot be seen – BUT – that is only as a fine degree of detail where the perceptual “shadow” leaves an area that cannot be seen directly. But, as with looking a constellations in the night sky, some stars are only visible if you don’t look at them directly, but next to them. In other words, astronomers are able to determine the existence of planets they cannot see by perturbations in the orbits of the parent stars they can see.

So, while certain sequential orders of events are not “allowed” by Dramatica’s story engine, the CANNOT be allowed in a viable psychology from the point of view Dramatica takes of it. Otherwise, it would violate the “laws” of psychology – the rules by which the mind must operate. Again, in other words, Dramatica provides a complete view of motivation and behavior from its chosen point of view – that of the western culture, but it provides all that can be seen from that point of view – like a hologram: if you cut off a corner, the corner will still contain the complete image, just not from every angle available in the original.

Question: And the K-based bias of the model being M/E=S*T is part of being in the world, so it would encompass all of the psychologies (looking from that perspective), right?

Answer: Yes, correct. But, there are all the other permutations of the equation in the model as well, each representing a different part of the process of considering a problem from all available sides in the hunt for a solution. It is the order in which we move from one perspective to the next that creates the DNA sequence of our individual psychologies – in the real world, the memome (based on “meme”) of the mind as opposed to the genome of our bodies.

Question: I mean, as a scientific, mathematical model, trying to apply scientific rigor to a “soft” science like psychology, it would be very valuable (if it changed the way we approach therapy), which would expand the attention Dramatica would get and the theory would grow much faster – or is there no scientific journal where Dramatica would be publishable (if in fact it is not observable, repeatable, testable)??

Answer: A multi-headed question, so here is a multi-headed answer: Psychology is currently a soft science only because it seeks to understand the internal through external observation alone. Narrative structure was created through trial and error to describe individual and group behavior. The conventions of narrative structure turned out to have a pattern that transcended the specific and illustrated the fractal relativity of the mind. Dramatica documented and refined that existing natural pattern to form the first model of the functioning of the mind not based on statistical observation. When this internal “hard” model is used in conjunction with statistical “soft” science psychology, the result is a collaboration of the mechanics and tendencies of psychological issues, forming a “firm” science between the two.

Question: Any exercises you could share as a teacher to a student would be appreciated. 🙂

Answer: Alas, no time. Working on future online classes to explain it all, and can’t break away.


There is no truth…

Dramatica (narrative) reflects how the mind operates in all its myriad processes. And from it, we can learn much about life, as we can from all structurally sound stories. For example: There is no one “capital T” Truth, but many small “t” truths that are all angles on the actuality that cannot be directly seen. As is said in the East, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao.” Meaning, those who have one definition or understanding of things are, by definition, wrong. No one can be right, because none of us can see things from every possible angle. But, for those who break away from a single view and begin to adopt two – Yin and Yang, the binary opposite, the journey has begin to eventually see everything from as many viewpoints as possible and thereby come ever closer to the unattainable Truth.