How Dramatica Works

I just received a message from one of my patrons who is a long-time student of the Dramatica Theory regarding how Dramatica actually works. In response, I’m beginning this new series to look deeper under the hood of the theory to explain not only how it works, but why.

To start with, I’d like to address the points of interest in the message I received. First, here’s an excerpt from that note, and then I’ll open the discussion on those topics. Please feel free to add your own comments or message me, which can help guide the course of this new theory.

Here’s the excerpt:

“Something I would really like to understand is how Dramatic actually generates the storybeat order. For example, which element level events are PRCP, EEIT, and SAMS. This information does not seem to exist anywhere online. I’ll be honest, the only tool online that generates this information is paywalled and also does not explain how Dramatica works in any capacity at all.”

Okay – here we go…

There are two parts to these issues – One, how Dramatica works, and two, why it works. The “how” is a lot easier, so we’ll start with that and move into the why in the next post.

The Dramatica software has a lot of bells and whistles that have nothing to do with the theory. Then, there are a lot of textual support materials in the software that explain the various story points and a little about the theory, but not really much about the actual function of it beneath the dramatics.

But the heart of the software is the Story Engine – the computer system that implements the theory as an interactive model. But what really is the story engine, how does it work, and what is it based on?

Simple answers to these three questions:

1. The story engine is a collection of relationships among psychological processes that mirror what go on in our own minds when we try to solve a problem.

2. The story engine works because it is programmed to “understand” the effect on one psychological process on one or more others, so that when one choice is made (in problem solving) future choices are influenced, limited, or ruled out. For example, if you choose to solve a problem by trying to obtain something, you have ruled out trying to solve it by trying to become a different way internally. You might try that later, but not as part of this particular effort.

3. What is the story engine based on? Well, this is going to sound a bit recursive (by the time I get to the end of this section), but it is the actual truth. Chris Huntley and I went to USC together and studied cinema. We went on to make a low-budget horror film and then write another script for a sci-fi film. We were not happy with dramatic problems in our original movie and wanted to solve those before finishing our current script. And so we put writing aside and began to investigate how stories worked.

There’s a long version of this tale of the development of Dramatica on the Internet, and I’ll include a link at the bottom of the post, but for now, let’s just say that in the process of investigating how stories worked, we realized that what drove stories was psychology. Every decision made, every obstinate view held, every leap of faith was a reflection of what goes on in our own heads. Even theme reflected an exploration of our conflicting value standards. Somehow even genre seemed to speak to personality types at a global level – the personality of the story itself. But what about plot? What did a mountain exploding or a train wreck in a story have to do with psychology?

Then, I had this Eureka moment. What if stories weren’t just about the psychologies of the characters? What if they were about the psychology of the story itself, as if the story was a character – a mind in which everything that goes on is but a facet?

Ultimately, we determined this was true and that Characters represent the drives of the Story Mind, Theme describes its conflicting value standards, Genre speaks to its personality, and Plot represents the psychological problem solving processes of the Story Mind, made tangible as events and actions.

Quite a leap, that – story structure is a model of the mind and psychological processes are made tangible as events and actions. Think about that for a moment. Stories are models of the mind’s problem-solving processes. Each individual story is a model of a particular mind dealing with a particular kind of problem. But stories share common dramatic elements with each other such as having protagonists, goals, acts, and scenes, and beats within a scene.

So, now all we had to do was document it, right? And that turned out to be a multi-year full-time effort. What began as trying to understand story structure turned out to be trying to understand psychology.

Now here’s the recursive part. Story structure came to be because it mirrors real life. As individuals, we use all the problem-solving processes we share in common, but use them in different ways due to our unique life experiences and the unique problems we face.

But, when we come together in groups to solve a common problem or to pursue a common interest, we self-organize into a group mind, so that different individuals come to fulfill the role of a given process within that mind. For example, we use reason to solve our own problems, but in a group mind, someone will eventually emerge as the Voice of Reason for the group.

In the end, all our our psychological traits are represented in the larger organization which becomes, all by itself, a model of human psychology outside ourselves. And, it turns out that all dramatic tension is cause by the dissonance created between the needs of the individual to solve his or her own problems and the needs of the group for him or her to fulfill their roles or responsibilities within the group mind.

It took us years – decades to fully understand this. But, in the early days, we simply knew the Story Mind was like a super character and was a model of our own minds as humans, and though all the other characters within it are facets, they also have their own problems they are dealing with, which makes them human and allows an audience to identify with them

So now, we had to work out what those characters were, and we discovered the eight archetypes – four that focus on the external aspects of the core problem in the story and four that focus on the internal aspects of the problem. It took a long time to understand why things started showing up in fours as we mapped out the components of the Story Mind. More on that in another post. For now, just know that as we began to document the dramatics of a story, we found those elements always showed up in fours.

We started with a bunch of post-it notes on the wall of the conference room, organized in groups four.  After we had enough complete groups derived from stories, we realized they had an internal relationship among the four items.  And so, if we only had three items in a group, we knew there’d be a fourth, and by understanding those internal relationships, we could calculate what the fourth should be if we had three already.

We even began to see that the groups of four (which we called “quads”) also organized into groups of four quads.  That told us that story structure had a fractal nature to it.  And groups of four quads would also organize into four groups of four quads.  You see that in the Dramatica chart today – that has never changed.

Then we realized that by virtue of the names in each quad – things like pro-action, hope, and learning, that some quads appeared to be children of a single term in another quad.  For example, the quad of Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire, falls under the single item of State Of Being.  And so, those four items are what make up State Of Being (psychologically) and State Of Being is the umbrella that describes how those four “children” work together.

Once we understood the parent/child nature of quads and sub-quads, we changed our chart into a 3D model to illustrate those relationship by vertical position.  And so, today, you see the flat chart, which was the original, and the 3D chart, which provides a more clear perspective.

The next interesting thing was when we realized that the model we were building not only spoke to stories, but back to human psychology from whence it had originally come.

And this is where it gets recursive (as mentioned earlier).  Story structure was derived through trial and error by hundreds of generations of storytellers trying to reflect what they saw in human behavior in the real world.  When we started the development of the Dramatica theory, that representation was still rather fluffy, muddy, or soft-focused in story structure.  The concept of the Story Mind and our quads refined what was already there in a general way in story structure.  And, because of that extra clarity, it allow the model to then be predictive of human psychology in areas that had not yet been documented in science!  Recursive.  There you have it.

But, creating that model was only part of how Dramatica works, because at this point, it didn’t work – it just explained in chart form what the elements of dramatic structure were and how they related to one another.  It hadn’t been put into motion yet.

Stories are not fixed: they unfold over time.  Therefore, a complete understanding of how they work requires not only the elements of structure but the dynamic forces that drive those elements into a sequential process.

Keep in mind, now, that every one of the elements is actually a process.  Learning, for example, is the process of gaining information.  Hope is the process of hoping.  As I understand it, in object oriented computer programming, processes are treated as objects.  Each process becomes a building block that can be assembled with others to create a sequence of processes.  And so it is with story structure.

(Believe it or not, we’re getting very close to describing how PRCP works from the original note I received…)

Once we had our model of all the quads and quads within quads, we went back to stories to map their dramatic sequences against the chart and see if we could understand how to predict what sequence the items in any quad would come into play and at what level.

After analyzing many stories, we discovered that the sequence of plot at the act level was best charted on the Type level in the chart.  Sequences in the progression of theme were best seen on the Variation level.  Sequences of character growth best seen on the element level.  And, counter-intuitively, the beats within a scene were best understood at the Class level where the structure components of genre are described.  (More on that in another post).

But try as we might, though we could see that all four items in every quad needed to be addressed in every complete story (and if they weren’t, there was a dramatic hole), we could not find any consistency when we plotted the sequence of the items within a quad.

We ended up with C shaped journeys through all four items in a quad, starting at any one and going clockwise or counterclockwise through them all.  Then there were Z or N patterns that zigzagged through all four in one direction or the other.  And finally, there were hairpin patterns that could have any orientation within the quad and go in either direction.  But none of it was predictable.

We had just about given up hope of our theory being able to offer any kind of sequential help when I went to the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry with my young math-oriented daughter (back in 1991 or so).

They had an exhibit of a line of 21 four-inch bar magnets mounted on posts on a 2×4.  If you rotated the first one at just the right speed, you could get the second one to flip.  And if you kept point at the right speed,  you could move the third one too.  And if you were REALLY good, you could get the whole line of 21 moving at once, just by turning the first one.

And then it hit me.  Maybe the sequence wasn’t something that should be plotted on the chart – maybe the CHART had to move!  (Years later, in the first Star Trek movie with Chris Pine, Scotty says in regard to the transporter technology he is shown that he would later invent if they hadn’t shown him first – “Imagine that!  It never occurred to that space was the thing that was moving!”)

And so, it wasn’t the items that were moving in sequence, it was the model that was moving, and  that determined the sequence.  Whoa.

The question now was, how does the model move.  Well, looking at the 3D chart, I realized that there were two kinds of movement possible.  One, two items in a quad might switch position.  Two, all four items might rotate around the quad like a knob being turned (like the magnets).  The first way I called a “flip” and realized it was a spatial repositioning that changed the internal order of the items.  The second way I called a “rotate” and that changed the temporal starting point of the sequence.

Quickly we saw that the combination of a flip and/or a rotate could generate any of the sequences we were seeing in stories.  Again, whoa.

So we had the mechanism, but we had no idea what it meant.

To solve that problem, we went back to psychology.  Suppose in a quad you have Logic in one corner and Feeling in the opposite corner, diagonally.  Suppose in real life, you try to solve a problem with reason and can’t do it and then determine maybe you should try following your heart instead.  That is the real-world equivalent of flipping the position of Logic and Feeling to put Feeling up front and to bench Logic on the backburner for a while.

What about the rotates?  Again, we went back to psychology. When you are cooking pasta, it is important to get the water boiling before you add the noodles.  If you put the noodles in first, they turn into mush by the time the water boils.  And so it is with psychology: you have to get the order of your mental processes right in order to generate motivation, quash motivation, or effect change.

And next, the new question of the day, what drives the choice of flip and/or rotate and of which quads it is applied to?

That was the biggest question we’d ever asked.  And it became the biggest question we ever answered.

Chris and Steve (the company president and chief programmer of the software) said it was taking too long to try and figure this out.  It was almost Christmas.  They gave me a deadline of the end of the year to work it out or they were pulling the plug on the sequential part of Dramatica and we’d finish the software with what we had figured out already.  YIKES!!!

I had Christmas plans with my family for a vacation, but I had to cancel that and go in every day to try and have some sort of epiphany, standing in the conference room along, looking at the charts and post-it notes on the wall and making notes on the dry market board.

And then I had my next Eureka moment.  I realized there was a direct connection between each kind of flip or rotate and the kind of psychology that would be exhibited by the story mind in a storyform.  In other words, the meaning and flow of a story are determined by flips and rotates and where and how they are applied to the model.

Ah – but what combinations of flips, rotates, and locations led to what meanings and flow?

Now, to be honest, the answers to that question were largely intuitive, but not without connection to the theory.  You see, every quad is identical to every other insofar as the position of items within the quad imparts meaning.

The whole quad represents Mass, Energy, Space, and Time in the physical universe, and/or Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire in the mental universe.  Mass and Knowledge  are always in the upper left.  Energy and Thought are always in the lower right.  Space  and Ability are always in the upper right, and Time and Desire are always in the lower left.

That is because each quad is a logic equation of the form T/K = DA, which means when T and K are played against each other, mentally, as a technique of problem solving, A and D are blended as Desirability.  In other words, Reason is guided (evaluated) by desirability.  In OTHER other words, we don’t bother to use  our reason to solve problems that mean nothing to us.

Interestingly, with a little algebraic manipulation, by multiplying each side by K to solve for T, you get T = K (DA), which bears a striking relationship to E = MC2, and that is not coincidental.  (Mostly, that is why we call this part of Dramatica Mental Relativity and it works the same way – the big difference is that we all live in one external universe and can’t see it from the outside, but each of us lives in an identically functioning mental universe and we can see millions of them from the outside in every single other person.  And that leads our equations to add an extra dimension of perspective that, shall we say, changes things and offers implications to a larger physics as well.)  I’ll include a link at the bottom of the post to a video in which I have described this.

So, change the position and the sequence and you change the dramatic/psychological meaning.  And, armed with my familiarity at the time with the equations of the quads, I was able to infer what drove these repositionings.

I have a previously hidden page on the internet that explains what I came up with, based on theory, pretty well.  I’ll include a link to that at the end also.

First, it turns out that all levels of the model are involved, from bottom to top.  If you think of the 3D model, the process is conceptually like twisting and turning a Rubik’s Cube.  Every twist or turn winds up the dramatic tension.  And once all the choices have been applied to the model, it is locked in place for that storyform.

The unfolding of a story is the unwinding of that tension, which can never happen the way it was built.  It must take another path due to our justifications in assuming we are seeing things correctly based on our unique and limited experience.  More on that in other posts.

In a nutshell, the model winds up twice – once around the objective story and once around the main character, first one, then the other.  Which happens first is a result of what meaning one is trying to instill in the story mind.

After you read the information on the Internet page, it will be very clear.  For now this short explanation will suffice:

There are four Bias questions that determine how the main character winds up.  There are four Skew questions that determine how the objective story winds up.  There are four Alignment questions that determine where these forces will be applied.

So, Bias questions like Main Character – Change or Steadfast, Skew Questions like Objective Story – Timelock or Option Lock, and the four Alignment questions of Domain, Concern, Variation, and Problem all determine how the windup will occur, and even which will be first.

Seriously, check out the link provided below and magic will appear.

Keep in mind that link is a preliminary form.  Some things changed after that document was made, mostly in terminology, but it really explains the process.

Now, finally, we get to the PRCP of it.  (Thought we never would, didn’t you!)

It turns out, every quad is a psychological circuit or perhaps a dramatic circuit if you limit it to that.  LIke every circuit, it also has four items – Potential, Resistance, Current, and Power (or Outcome).

In stories, in a quad, these things might appear in any order, but they all must appear for the audience to understand, by the end of the story, what it means.  That’s the whole game – to grok how all the dramatic circuits are set to understand the function of the whole mind and how it is wound up.  In fact, another name we privately use for a storyform is a psychoschematic.

Every quad also has a sequential order – 1,2,3,4.  And so Potential is 1, Resistance is 2, Current is 3, and Power is 4 – but only in the model at rest, before the wind up.  Once the dramatic tension is all wound up, the relationship between the spatial PRCP and the temporal 1,2,3,4 is all catty-wampus.

As it turns out, for reasons too deep to go into here, either the PRCP or the 1234 is overlaid on the first wind-up (objective or main character) and the 1234 is overlaid on the second wind-up.  So, one is out of whack with the other, which is a logistic representation of the process of justification by which we all see our own actions and decisions as being reasonable and never see that we ourselves might be the cause of problem, which is what stories are about, half the time.

So, character arc is determined by element level of the wound-up PRCP and 1234. The sequence of exploration of thematic issues is determined at the variation level of the wind-up. Act order plot is determined at the Type level, and the beats of PRCP and their 1234 order are determined at the Domain level.

And that’s all there is to it.

Here’s the links:

Dramatica – How We Did It

The Dramatica Quad and Narrative Equations

The Dramatica Model Justification Wind-Up

Ask your questions…