The mad science of story structure

In my introductory post, I talked about the three-act formula for screenplays. Countless books about it have appeared over the years, and more recently “story development” software has popped up based on various competing theories of the One True Way. At a 50,000-foot level, they’re all describing the same thing, but some of them take different (and occasionally drastically prescriptive) approaches.

In my own meandering journey through writing theory, I’ve read Syd Field’s classic Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting, Blake Snyder’s famous/infamous Save the Cat! (I’ll come back to that “infamous” bit later), and futzed around with story development programs Dramatica Story Expert (which I bought) and Contour (which I did not). They’re all useful in their own ways. Do you need to read any of these kinds of books, though, let alone delve into a crazy and possibly expensive development program?

If you’re truly interested in writing solidly constructed stories, the answer is probably yes. Sorry! You don’t need to religiously follow them, but it’s a “know and understand the guiding principles before you break them” deal. Maybe even a “know and understand the guiding principles before you bend them, because if you break them you’re probably doing it wrong” deal.

So I’m going to talk about that program I mentioned above: Dramatica.

Well, I’m going to talk about Dramatica’s theory. Dramatica’s software is…I want to be kind, but I can’t. It’s bad. It’s just bad. It’s clinging desperately to the trailing edge of technology. It looked dated when I bought it 15 years ago; in 2019, it looks positively woeful. Over those 15 years, its developers missed two huge make-or-break software compatibility deadlines on the Mac despite Apple warning they were coming for literally years. They’re on track to miss another one later this year. It’s the only program on my Mac which still renders fuzzy text on high-DPI screens. Could it be greener on the Microsoft side of the fence? Given that the Windows version of Dramatica has been one major release behind for, like, seven years now, I’m guessing not so much.

Sigh. Okay. Rant over. The theory.

Science fiction author/teacher Algis Budrys described a story structure succinctly as a character in a context with a problem. “Context” means the setting and the situation. For my short novel Goddess, I could map them out this way:

  • Character: Russell Rittenhouse, a young cougar gentleman working as a librarian
  • Context: A prestigious west coast university in a furry, alternate history 1930s, when a visiting delegation from a tiny Pacific island kingdom arrives
  • Problem: Russell has a relentlessly ordered life and a specific life plan, all thrown into disarray when he falls in love with the island’s princess

As good as Budrys’s structure is as a 50,000-foot overview (ha! macro joke!), for a story the size of Goddess that’s not enough; Russell and Kailani’s relationship is clearly part of the story, but what’s the rest? We have a character arc, but we also need a plot arc. The plot arc of Star Wars is rescuing Princess Leia and stopping the Death Star before the Empire is able to use it to wipe out the Rebel Alliance; Luke’s character arc is about realizing his dreams of adventure, becoming a Jedi, and learning to trust in himself. In Goddess, the plot arc is the conflict between a millionaire developer and the island residents of Uli Hahape, and the character arc plays out within the context of the plot, just like Luke’s Jedi training plays out within the context of the fight between the Rebels and the Empire.

Dramatica’a theory has the weird but brilliant notion of setting up four characters as complementary pairs for those arcs:

  • The protagonist and antagonist face off over the plot arc
  • The main character and the influence character face off over the character arc

Okay, protagonist and antagonist are obvious, but isn’t the main character the protagonist? And what the hell is an “influence character?” I’ll borrow Dramatica’s definitions for all of those terms:

  • The protagonist is charged with the responsibility of pursuing a solution to the overall story problem
  • The antagonist is diametrically opposed to the protagonist; for one to succeed, the other must fail
  • The main character represents the audience in the story
  • The influence character forces the main character to face their personal problem

Protagonist and antagonist are both character archetypes; main and influence are character roles. Luke is both main character and protagonist of Star Wars, and in practice most stories use this dual role—the hero or heroine). Russell Rittenhouse is both main character and protagonist of my novel Goddess, and we’ll soon meet the woman who’s both main character and protagonist of Red Savina. The classic example of separate main character and protagonist is the “Sherlock Holmes” series: Holmes is the protagonist, but Watson is the main character. It’s fairly difficult to find stories that separate these roles in practice, though; separating them gives you a main character with little to no power to affect the overall plot arc.

Influence characters, by contrast, don’t have any common association with a specific character type or archetype. They might be a mentor, like Obi-Wan in Star Wars, or they might be the romantic interest, like Kailani in Goddess. They could even be the antagonist, like Tallulah in my short story “The Sea Monster of Dorgissey Harbour.” (Tallulah is also the romantic interest, because giant otter girls are wow hot.) Regardless of their function in the overall story, their role in the character arc is to take a contrasting viewpoint from the main character’s. Just like how the protagonist winning means the antagonist loses or vice-versa, the influence character remaining steadfast in their beliefs means the main character changes in theirs, or vice-versa. The main character is almost always the one who changes, but the main characters of ongoing series like James Bond or John Wick tend to stay largely steadfast.

Like any good crazy professor, Dramatica goes a step further and argues there are also four arcs in a story, not just two. It insists on calling them “throughlines”:

  • The Overall Story Throughline (the plot arc)
  • The Relationship Story Throughline (the character arc)
  • The Main Character Throughline
  • The Influence Character Throughline

Eek! The important takeaway is that it’s not just your main character who has motivations. Dramatica’s model puts the most weight on the main and influence characters rather than protagonist vs. antagonist, but that MC/IC relationship encapsulates your story’s theme.

You use Dramatica to construct a “storyform” by answering questions about the story that progressively narrow down possibilities. (In theory, there are over thirty-two thousand forms, although in practice I suspect only a fraction truly make sense.) Some of these questions are straightforward: “does your main character prefer to solve problems linearly or holistically” and “does the overall story result in success or failure” (and “does the main character resolve their personal problems,” the corresponding question for the character arc). Many of the more seemingly esoteric ones revolve around choosing “domains” for each throughline, to describe broad areas of concern those throughlines explore. After you nail down a storyform, you’re prompted to illustrate your characters and story based on the choices you’ve made. This is where Dramatica seriously flies its freak flag compared to other theories. Here’s a few real prompts it gave me for “Red Savina”:

  • “Describe how [main character]’s troubles grow from a manner of thinking or demeanor.”
  • “Describe how all the characters try to reach the same specific goal relating to The Future.”
  • “Describe how the relationship between [main character] and [influence character] comes into conflict over Innermost Desires.”
  • “Describe how [influence character]’s influence on [main character] concerns Obtaining.”
  • “Describe how it feels when you throw your computer out the window.” (Okay, I just thought that last one.)

These are not questions you’d think about on your own, at least in that language. But they do force me to think about the story! Sometimes my answer is “wait, that character’s troubles don’t come from that all,” which tends to mean either Dramatica is right and it understands the structure of my own story better than I do, or I have the wrong storyform and should go back and answer earlier questions differently. (There’s also the possibility that what you’re constructing is a story Dramatica can’t describe, but you’ll probably know that before you start. Saida & Autumn doesn’t fit Dramatica’s approach, but that was a conscious choice on my part.) 

One of the maddening wonders of Dramatica’s theory is that while it seems crazily specific compared to the “How to Write a Screenplay” advice books I’ll talk about in a later article, in practice it’s a lot less prescriptive than it first appears. You can read the whole Dramatica Theory Book online if you want, but be warned: it invents terminology, uses familiar words in weird ways, and throws around diagrams like “Motivation Element Quads.”

But you know what? Don’t read it. Take away just these two points, and it’ll make your storytelling stronger:

  • Your story’s plot is driven by the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist.
  • Your story’s theme is driven by the argument between the viewpoints of the main character and the influence character.

Don’t just figure out who your protagonist and antagonist are. Figure out who your main character and your influence character are. They’re just as important—maybe more so.

Next up: delving into The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and how I can get from Mr. Hyde—who is, in the original story, shorter than Dr. Jekyll—to Red Savina, who is…not shorter than Dr. Jekyll.

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