Dramatica Theory (Annotated) Part 8 “Communicating Through Symbols”

Excerpted from the book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story

How can essential concepts be communicated? Certainly not in their pure, intuitive form directly from mind to mind. (Not yet, anyway!) To communicate a concept, an author must symbolize it, either in words, actions, juxtapositions, interactions — in some form or another. As soon as the concept is symbolized, however, it becomes culturally specific and therefore inaccessible to much of the rest of the world.

Even within a specific culture, the different experiences of each member of an audi- ence will lead to a slightly different interpretation of the complex patterns represented by intricate symbols. On the other hand, it is the acceptance of common symbols of com- munication that defines a culture. For example, when we see a child fall and cry, we do not need to know what language he speaks or what culture he comes from in order to understand what has happened. If we observe the same event in a story, however, it may be that in the author’s culture a child who succumbs to tears is held in low esteem. In that case, then the emotions of sadness we may feel in our culture are not at all what was intended by the author.


As I read this over, I think our intent was good, but we were a little off the mark.  Here we state in the opening paragraph that to communicate a thought, concept, feeling or experience you need to symbolize it first.  That’s not technically true.  For example, suppose you want your friend to feel terror.  Well, you could just throw him out of an airplane and I’ll bet he’d pretty much experience just what you had in mind.  Nothing symbolic about that!

More accurately, we can communicate by creating an environment that causes our reader or audience to arrive just where we want them.  In other words, we set up an experience that, by the end of the book or movie, positions our reader or audience into just the mindset we want them to have.

More sophisticated, or perhaps less end-product-oriented narratives are designed to position the reader or audience all along the way as well, so that the entire journey is an experience right along the logical and emotional path of discovery the author intended for his followers.

None of this requires symbols, however.  It can all be done simply by creating a series of artificial environments presented in a given sequence.  But, symbols can streamline the process.  If you don’t have to build the environment for the reader or audience but merely allude to it, then you can get your point and passion across simply by invoking an element of common understanding.  A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but a symbol is worth 1,000 experiences.

So, what we wrote above is not wrong per se, but rather is short speak that (though it communicates) is open to criticism because is skips over a number of steps to streamline communication.  And that, is exactly what symbols do – they get the content to the recipient in the quickest fashion possible yet open the message – the story argument – to rebuttal because wholesale parts of the communication are truncated, leaving gaps in the actual flow, though if the author is in tune with the audience’s symbolic vocabulary, the complete extent of the original concept may, in fact, be fully appreciated.

Bottom line – know your audience and you will be able to put far more logical and passionate density into the pipeline than if you had to spell everything out.

–Melanie Anne Phillips

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