The Reasoning Behind Dramatica 1

I’m starting this new series of posts to provide a glimpse into our thought processes as we developed the Dramatica theory and the software implementation of the story engine.  It is my hope that sharing the reasoning behind key theory concepts will help provide perspectives others can employ to refine and expand the theory further.

Keep in mind the posts in this series are not intended to explain the concepts but to describe how we came to them.

The Story Mind

How and why did we come to the belief that the underlying structure of every story is the psychology of a single mind, that of the story itself, as if every story is something of a super character of which all the other characters are facets?

Here’s the quick version of how our thinking evolved, and below that a more detailed description of the pathway that got us there.


Chris and I had been discussing story structure every morning over coffee for months before we each went off to our respective jobs. One day, Chris asked a question that would directly lead, years later, to the discovery of the story mind.  He asked, “If a characters, such as Scrooge, are the cause of a story’s problems, how come they can’t see it?”

We pondered that a bit and concluded that characters like Scrooge must have some sort of blind spot – a psychological filter that actually prevents them from seeing the real problem and in fact, causes him to believe the problem comes from somewhere else.  If that was true, how would something like that come to be, and more, how is that remedied by the end of a story?

At this point in our discussions we shifted gears from looking for structural patterns in stories to trying to understand the psychology of the main character, and when I eventually joined Chris at his company to work on the problem, that is where we focused.

So, we started looking at all manner of movies, books, plays, etc. to find anything in those stories that pertained to the main character’s psychology.  As we found them, we put each on on a post-it note and stuck it to the wall in the conference room.

Eventually that wall was plastered with these individual points.  But, as we mulled them over, we began to realize that some of them seemed like they belonged together, as if they belonged to the same family.  And so we grouped them as best we could, chipping away at all the remaining post-it notes that hadn’t been yet assigned to a group of similar items.

In time, it became clear that some of these psychological attributes of the main character were more like an umbrella under which a family of similar items resided.  We thought of them as parents and children.

We arranged and rearranged the notes, groupings, parents, and children, until we’d used up most of original notes on the wall.  But there was this one collection of all the remaining psychological aspects that just didn’t seem to be part of the psychology of the main character, though they were certainly psychological attributes within the story.

Our next thought was that perhaps these other points were part of one of the other kinds of characters than the main character – but which one, and how were they related.  I spent days staring at the notes on the wall, looking for a pattern that might explain what these orphan notes were and how they fit into stories.

And then, one day (and I actually recall this moment so very clearly) I was looking at all those loose notes and reading them over when I thought, no, those aren’t part of the main character’s psychology, and they really don’t fit with any of the other characters either.  So what are they?

And as I examined them more closely, reading the names of each attribute, I suddenly realized that what tied them all together as a group were that they were “higher-level” concepts than the ones in the main character group.  They were more broad stroke, more expansive.

And at that moment I said to myself, I wonder if these aren’t about the characters at all, but about the psychology going on in the story itself.  And then the next thought was the Eureka moment, it popped into may head that, “maybe the story has a psychology of its own.”

I snapped out of my thought as if out of a trance and ran down the hall to Chris’ office blurting out, “Maybe those extra post-its aren’t about the characters, maybe they are about the psychology of the story itself!”

As he often did when confronted with a wholly new concept, Chris said “Wait a minute…” got up from his desk, lay down on his back on the carpet, folded his hands on his chest and closed his eyes to let his subconscious wander around the new idea and take stock.

After what seemed five minutes (though was probably shorter) he opened his eyes saying simply, “I think you’re right.”  And from that moment forward we re-approached all the work we had previously done, dividing it into the psychology of the main character and the psychology of the story at large, which we came to refer to as the story mind.

Hopefully, that short (ish) description of how the story mind concept first emerged can help any of you who want to grok the wholeness of the theory.  It’s not so much about what’s i the theory but about how to have to see things to perceive the theory – the truth of it – to know when something is accurate to it and working as it should.  For in the end, the ability to almost intuit the structure and dynamics is what drives new concepts, rather than building them from extensions to a chain of logic alone.


Now, here’s how the evolution in our thinking that led to the story mind happened, step by step:

1.  In the early 1980s Chris and I had just finished producing a feature length horror movie and we about to start another script.  We recognized problems in our last story and decided to investigate if there were any truisms we might employ to solve those problems and prevent others.  So basically, we had no idea why problems in stories happened or how we might avoid them – no understanding of story at all – that’s where we were coming from.

2.  Our instructors at the USC Cinema Department didn’t seem to have a clue either.  Oh, they had some tips, but no system, no overview that hung together.  So, we weren’t sure if anybody anywhere really understood how stories work or even, for that matter, if there was any rhyme or reason to it.  We speculated that either no one had found the answer yet or maybe there was no answer and stories were just result of unfathomable intuition.

3.  We decided to cast a wider net and see what had been written about story structure throughout history.  We encountered Aristotle, of course, and his seminal work, Poetics, and we also ran into Jung and Joseph Campbell.  But we never went too deep before we became dissatisfied with inconsistencies, incomplete reasoning, and contradictions.  So, we figured we should either drop the who thing or strike out on our own to understand what was going on in stories a little better.  We were in our twenties, so of course we were filled with hubris and arrogance and decided to chase after the prize on our own.

4.  We were so full of ourselves that we decided not to read anything about story structure by anybody else, except for the little bit of skimming we’d done.  We reasoned that maybe we’d end up reinventing the wheel, but we might just go off in a direction everyone else knew would not be productive and actually find answers they never had because they had blinders on.  Yes, we actually had that conversation and then put our own blinders on to not look elsewhere while we worked on our own quest for understanding.

5.  We actually came up with a few good ideas (such as “the rule of threes” that you’ll hear about in a later post) by looking at stories that we knew worked (you could feel which stories worked or didn’t work without an inkling why).  We got lots of little original bit and pieces, but in the end, we stalled out and without any kind of an overview about structure.  We spent a few weeks stalled and then Chris wisely said we probably hadn’t had enough life experience, and perhaps we should put it all on hold until we later.  That made sense, so that is what we did, agreeing we wouldn’t pollute our virgin thinking in the meantime with other people’s ideas about story structure until we reconvened some time in the future.

6. About ten years later, Chris called me up and said, You know that old story structure project we were working on?  I think we’re ready.”  And so we met for breakfast at a booth near the door in the Coral Cafe near my home, and from that point we were off to the races and never looked back.

7. Our first order of business was to decide to meet over coffee at my home for about an hour every day before we went to our respective jobs.  Then, we went over all our old material from ten years ago, reorganizing it to suit our more experienced point of view, and beginning to ask new questions.

And that is where this long version of the story connects to the short version at the top.

Next time, we can dispense with a lot of this background material as we look into the thought processes behind the next Dramatica concept.