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Monday, March 2, 2009

The Dangers of Micromanaging Your Story

by Melanie Anne Phillips
creator StoryWeaver, co-creator Dramatica

A Dramatica user wrote:

I love the theory. It works. I want it to help me figure out the ending to my pot-boiler.

To do that, I have to figure out more about the relationships between fatal flaw, the shift involved in the four-act variation-level plot sequences from the plot sequence reports, and the overall theme of the story (the three-act plot sequence variations).

Theme, character, and plot must play out in a precise order to integrate at a precise moment of enlightenment for the audience and Main Character, all with a maximum of dramatic tension and release. At least if I want a best seller!!

I replied:

First of all, using Dramatica to that degree is micromanaging your story from a logistic approach. Best sellers are not created because they have a perfect structure, but because they grip the human heart

Audiences will not only forgive, but may not even care if a structure is flawed, as long as the story is gripping. How can you have a gripping story with a bad structure? An actor has to say his lines, but HOW he says them carries the passion. A writer drops exposition in a story, but HOW it comes out builds the intrigue. In short, the story structure is nothing more than the blueprint for a story, the plans for a sports car, but it is not the experience of standing in front of a Frank Lloyd Wright building or driving a Lotus.

If the porch is two inches to the left or the headlights aren’t quite focused on the road, the edifice or vehicle will not perform quite as well. But if it carries the fire of the hearth or the rhythm of the road, then it will captivate and excel nonetheless.

Of course there comes a point where some structural considerations are so huge that a blunder at that level will cause the building to fall or the car to crash. But that level is far above the degree of detail you are seeking to employ.

Still, it is true that Dramatica’s Story Engine can actually predict the order in which events ought to occur in scenes and which characters should be involved in those events. In fact, it DOES predict this. But, you can’t get that information out of the software because we suppressed it.

Why would we do such a thing? Because the level of detail it provides is so "fine" that it gets lost in the storytelling, just like quiet sounds used to get lost in the background noise of an old LP record. The more detailed your structure becomes, the more you are wasting your time - past a certain point.

We picked a "cut off point" for the degree of detail provided by Dramatica. How did we pick that point? By determining the greatest degree of detail we felt an author could explore in any area and still cram all the information into an average novel or feature movie. But, that detail could only be explored if enough storytelling attention were paid to it. Even at the level of detail provided, one could not pay extra attention to more than a few areas before the available "media real estate" is exhausted.

One could not possibly include all of the detail generated by Dramatica as it is, without created a 1200 page book or a mini-series. So, once we reached the "trilogy/television event" level of detail, we suppressed the rest as not only superfluous, but counter-productive. That much detail would just distract writers from the bigger picture, rob them of the passion, and make Dramatica even more complex than it already is.

As writers of fiction, we are usually not out to describe the mechanisms of life dispassionately in excruciating detail. We are out to express the passion of the human heart in bold strokes and subtle nuance. The problems we encounter occur when our author’s hearts meander and the logistic sense of our story is lost.

Stories must have a "heart line" and a "head line" because the audience has a heart and a mind. In a university, the priority is the mind, and the heart comes along for the ride. In fiction, the priority is the heart, and the mind has nothing more than veto power. Only if the head line is violated in such a gross manner that the mind pulls the heart out of the story is there a problem. But anything short of that is fine.

And in fact, the heart and the head often don’t see eye to eye. In such cases, the heart must take precedence. If there is every a choice between something that will make better structural sense at the expense of audience involvement or will captivate the audience but at the expense of the passion - choose the passion!!!

My vision of the Dramatica software is not as a checklist or series of check points which must be met. Rather, I see there being two primary camps of writers - the Structuralists who seek to work out all the details before they write, and the Inspriationists who seek to follow the muse, then find and refine the structure in the story they discovered along the way. And Dramatica is designed to help both.

As a Structuralist (which your comments lead me to assume you are, though I may be misreading) you will want the whole path laid out in front of you, and then to follow that path in your storytelling.

Again, you write how you are searching for an ending for your story, and say:

To do that, I have to figure out more about the relationships between fatal flaw, the shift involved in the four-act variation-level plot sequences from the plot sequence reports, and the overall theme of the story (the three-act plot sequence variations).

In my opinion, you are building you story like you would build an android, rather than hiring an actor.

Where’s the passion in how you describe what you need to conclude your story, what you have to "figure out?"

My suggestions? Step back a bit... Look at the beach, not the grains of sand. Does you story end in Success or Failure? Does the Main Character resolve his or her personal issues or not (Good or Bad)? Does your story brought to a climax by a Timelock or an Optionlock? Is your story driven (and concluded) by Action or Decision?

These basic dynamic questions provide the framework for the feel of the ending of your story and kinds of forces that will be at work. Knowing the signposts and journeys tell you exactly what kinds of subject matter will be dealt with in each of the four throughlines at the end of the story. Armed with that much information, the ending should be clear.

The one exception to this is if one is trying to write a plot-oriented story where the logistic interconnections among detailed plot events unfold a conspiracy or a mystery, for example. Sad to say in such a case Dramatica is pretty much useless.

A clever plot is a storytelling overlay of logistics on top of the underlying structure. It is not the structure itself. It does not even grow out of the structure, other than that the subject matter and points of view reflect the story points.

So, ending a story is easy in terms of the feel of the outcome by using the dynamics and signpost/journey system. But working out the conclusion of a plot from a storytelling standpoint is amazingly hard.

A good software program for doing such a thing is Plots Unlimited. It contains a database of thousands of plot pieces, ready made dramatic scenarios that can be stacked together like dominos to create a linear plot with twists, deceptions, red herrings, and surprising conclusions.

Its one limitation is that these pre-fab pieces don’t deal with the story’s structure, but only with the storytelling nature of plot, and is therefore limited to the number of pieces in the database.

In contrast, Dramatica can’t do that at all, because it is not a storytelling generator, but a structure generator. Dramatica will tell you the subject matter and how it will be seen, you might then use Plots Unlimited to select storytelling segments that reflect those structural imperatives.

I feel that a lot of the frustration that comes to Dramatica users is that they have a misconception about what Dramatica is supposed to be doing for them. They feel that they should end up with something like, "We find Joe in school. His teacher asks him for his homework and Joe says "My dog ate it.""

This is the kind of material you might get from Plots Unlimited, but since you piece the parts together, they may make sense logistically, yet create nothing meaningful structurally.

Dramatica will NOT provide that kind of output or guidance. Dramatica will tell you, "Main Character Signpost One: Learning. Main Character thematic conflict: Truth vs. Falsehood."

Dramatica ensures that all mental considerations regarding the central issues of the story are full explored in the one context that will create a unified perspective on the issues by the end of the story. But, trying to squeeze the storytelling material out of the structure leads to getting lost in software and ultimately becoming frustrated.

For example, you use the term "fatal flaw" and want to discover its relationship to "the shift involved in the four-act variation-level plot sequences from the plot sequence reports, and the overall theme of the story (the three-act plot sequence variations). "

"Fatal Flaw" isn’t a Dramatica term at all. There is the Main Character’s problem, there is the Main Character’s Critical Flaw, and several other dramatics that might be what you mean. But the real question is, how do you want the ending of your story to feel?

Logistically, Journey 3 in each of the four throughlines will tell you what is going on subject matter-wise in each of the four key forces that converge on the ending. The dynamics will tell you how the climax is forced and the feel of the outcome. The four Signposts will tell you what subject matter is touched on in each of the four throughlines in the denouement. ANYTHING that you write in the plot will work fine structurally, as long as it falls within those structural guidelines.

Then, if you want to bring your Main Character’s Critical flaw into play, you can drop it in anywhere you want. Have them overcome it and then be able to save the day. Or have them save the day and then discover that as a result, they have overcome their Critical Flaw. But Critical Flaw is not sequential at all.

Progressive Plot Appreciations are sequential (the signposts and journeys). The Plot Sequence report describes the order in which the Types are repeatedly cycled through as the story progresses, and what thematic shadings come into play. Anything else is a static story point which is true for the overall story and can be peppered in anywhere you want it. A good rule of thumb is to include each static story point at least once per act so that it can be appreciated in all the major different contexts of the story’s points of view.

So, for example, you’d want your Main Character’s Critical Flaw to appear once in each act to "prove" that it doesn’t matter what the context, the Main Character is really and truly screwed up by this.

It is also a good rule of thumb to bring a story point into play (which is part of what we mean by "illustrate") in the throughline to which it pertains. So, if you have a scene with the Main Character or even ABOUT the Main Character though he or she is not actually present, that is where you want to play the "Main Character Critical Flaw Card."

Story points like "Goal" and "Forewarnings" apply to the whole story, so may easily be played in scenes pertaining to any of the four throughlines.

Well, I’d like to go on further with more specific information, but time grows short. This little note just took an hour an a half to write, and that is 90 minutes I won’t be able to spend on recording the material from my UCLA class on CD! Everything is a trade-off when you work for yourself!

In any event, and (as you say) with all due respect, I might suggest you step back from the details a bit, don’t try to find the Nth degree of interconnectivity among logistic structural considerations. Reconnect with the passion, take in the overview, don’t try to get Dramatica to suggest the storytelling aspects of your plot, and focus on the elements of the ending of your story that excite you about it as your own first and best audience, as every author truly is with his or her own work.