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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Do Dramatica’s Specific Questions Limit Story Richness?

by Melanie Anne Phillips
creator StoryWeaver, co-creator Dramatica

A Writer Asks...

Dramatica requires authors to make specific decisions about their story. In contrast, most great artists prefer to keep things ambiguous so that the audience is left with a richer experience. Doesn’t this indicate a limitation of Dramatica?

I Reply…

According to Webster, "ambiguous" means, "having more than one meaning":. By this definition, Dramatica would agree that ambiguity is a hallmark of great art. Please note that "ambiguous" does NOT mean "unclear", "cloudy", nor "obscure". Most artists do not desire to create a work that holds no meaning because no one can figure it out. If the audience doesn’t get ANY feeling from the piece, then why create it in the first place? However, if the audience experiences CONFLICTING feelings, we have not only moved it, but created a potential within it that forces it to address an issue of interest to us as authors. The audience is forced to consider all sides of the issue logistically and/or emotionally. We, as authors, have then accomplished our intent.

If the point of "great" art is to create multiple meanings, then first we must build single meanings. Next, we combine them together - some on this side of the fence, some on the other. In this way, we temper the "emotional argument" of the work so that it falls somewhere in the range between one-sided and evenly balanced, thereby creating an overall ambiguous meaning. This is one of the concepts upon which Dramatica is based.

The choices an author makes in working with Dramatica have been designed to represent these essential or "elemental" meanings that can be combined to create more complex meanings. This is not unlike the periodic table of elements in chemistry. Similar to the scientific chart, in stories there are "families" of emotions. Some react together, some do not. And just like elements, they all have individual identities. Lead is very stable. Gold is chemically inert. Both are malleable. One is dull, the other shiny. Both are heavy. But place Hydrogen and Oxygen together and they will quickly form water, which has properties that don’t resemble either parent. Sometimes catalysts are needed and other times inhibitors will slow down reactions. Both "catalysts" and "inhibitors" can be found in the terminology of Dramatica, and these story equivalents provide much the same function.

The questions asked of authors in Dramatica that have the greatest impact on a story (and therefore limit out more alternatives) were placed so as to come right up front in the software where the new user can see them before anything else. They are designed to let the new user become familiar with Dramatica concepts while having some powerful tools to use right off the bat. But there are HUNDREDS of other much more subtle, sophisticated and complex questions later like "Subjective Story Catalyst" and "Objective Story Inhibitor". Experienced alchemists (authors) who understand these concepts, even intuitively, can jump right in and create magic. For the novice, like the Sorcerer’s apprentice, he or she will need to work up to that level of sophistication.

Just as with the great masters, it is not only in their subject matter that we appreciate their work, but in the nature of the brushstrokes as well. The brushstrokes are the storytelling, the creative, intuitive, organic part of communication. Although Dramatica offers some insights into this part of the creative process, it is specifically designed to focus on the exploration of the rational or emotional topic of a work and provide a "periodic table of story elements" from which to fashion complex and, yes, "ambiguous" meanings.

Why would a master storyteller have an interest in such a program? Because not all works by a great master are great masterworks. It is not that intuition fails or skills diminish, but that each of us carries our own biases, givens and preconceptions to the creative process. If our purpose is simply to document these, then there is no need for Dramatica. But if our intent is to impact our audience in ways we can predict, then Dramatica is an extremely valuable tool for creating both complex and ambiguous meanings.