How Stories Should Work

What follows is from an early unpublished draft of the book that ultimately became, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story. This excerpt is the opening introduction to the book in which we arrogantly state, “To that end, Dramatica does not just describe how stories work, but how they should work.”



Everybody loves a good story.

“Good” stories seem to transcend language, culture, age, sex, and even time.  They speak to us in some universal language.  But what makes a story good?  And what exactly is that universal language?

Stories can be expressed in any number of ways.  They can be related verbally through the spoken word and song.  They can be told visually through art and dance.  For every sense there are numerous forms of expression.  There almost seems no limit to how stories can be related.

Yet for all of its variety, the question remains:  “What makes a good story, “good”?  What makes a bad story, “bad””?

This book presents a completely new way to look at stories – a way that explains the universal language of stories not just in terms of how it works, but why and how that language was developed in the first place.  By discovering what human purposes stories fulfill, we can gain a full understanding of what they need to do, and therefore what we, as authors need to do to create “good” stories.

To that end, Dramatica does not just describe how stories work, but how they should work.

Storyforming vs Storytelling

Before we proceed, it is important to separate Storyform from Storytelling.  As an example of what we mean, if we compare West Side Story to Romeo and Juliet, we can see that they are essentially the same story, told in a different way.  The concept that an underlying structure exists that is then represented in a subjective relating of that structure is not new to traditional theories of story.  In fact, Narrative Theory in general assumes such a division.

Specifically, Structuralist theory sees story as having a histoire consisting of plot, character and setting, and a discours that is the storytelling.  The Russian Formalists separated things a bit differently, though along similar lines seeing story as half fable or “fabula”, which also contained the order in which events actually happened in the fable, and the “sjuzet”, which was the order in which these events were revealed to an audience.

These concepts date back at least as far as Aristotle’s Poetics.

In Dramatica, Story is seen as containing both structure and dynamics that include Character, Theme, Plot, and Perspectvie, while classifying the specific manner in which the story points are illustrated and the order information is given to the audience into the realm of storytelling.

Storyforming: an argument that a specific approach is the best solution to a particular problem

Storytelling:  the portrayal of the argument as interpreted by the author

Picture five different artists, each painting her interpretation of the same rose.  One might be highly impressionistic, another in charcoal.  They are any number of styles an artist might choose to illustrate the rose.  Certainly the finished products are works of art.  Yet behind the art is the objective structure of the rose itself: the object that was being portrayed.

The paintings are hung side by side in a gallery, and we, as sophisticated art critics, are invited to view them.  We might have very strong feelings about the manner in which the artists approached their subject, and we may even argue that the subject itself was or was not an appropriate choice.  Yet, if asked to describe the actual rose solely on the basis of what we see in the paintings, our savvy would probably fail us.

We can clearly see that each painting is of a rose.  In fact, depending on the degree of realism, we may come to the conclusion that all the paintings are of the same rose.  In that case, each artist has succeeded in conveying the subject.  Yet, there is so much detail missing.  Each artist may have seen the rose from a slightly different position.  Each artist has chosen to accentuate certain qualities of the rose at the expense of others.  That is how the un-embellished subject is imbued with the qualities of each artist, and the subject takes on a personal quality.

This illustrates a problem that has plagued story analysts and theorists from day one:

Once the story is told, it is nearly impossible to separate the story from the telling unless you know what the author actually had in mind.

Certainly the larger patterns and dramatic broad strokes can be seen working within a story, but many times it is very difficult to tell if a particular point, event, or illustration was merely chosen by the author’s preference of subject matter or if it was an essential part of the structure and dynamics of the argument itself.

Let’s sit in once more on our first storyteller.  She was telling us about her run-in with a bear.  But what if it had been a lion instead?  Would it have made a difference to the story?  Would it have made it a different story altogether?

If the story’s problem was about her approach to escaping from any wild animal, then it wouldn’t really matter if it were a bear or a lion; the argument might be made equally well by the use of either.  But if her point was to argue her approach toward escaping from bears specifically, then certainly changing the culprit to a lion would not serve her story well.

Essentially, the difference between story and storytelling is like the difference between denotation and connotation.  Story denotatively documents all of the essential points of the argument in their appropriate relationships, and storytelling shades the point with information nonessential to the argument itself (although it often touches on the same subject).

In summary, even the best structured story does not often exist as an austere problem solving argument, devoid of personality.  Rather, the author embellishes her message with connotative frills that speak more of her interests in the subject than of the argument she is making about it.  But for the purposes of understanding the dramatic structure of the piece, it is essential to separate story from storytelling.

Traditionally, theories of story have looked at existing works and attempted to classify patterns that could be seen to be present in several stories.  In fact, even today, computer scientists working in “narrative intelligence” gather enormous data bases of existing stories that are broken down into every discernable pattern in the attempt to create a program that can actually tell stories.

Dramatica was not created by observing existing stories and looking for patterns, but by asking new questions:   Why should there be characters at all?  What is the purpose of Act divisions?  What is the reason for Scenes?  In short, Why are there stories in the first place?

Read the entire unpublished draft here.

Read the free online edition of Dramatica – A New Theory of Story in its final form.

Get a paperback of the published version for easy reference on Amazon.