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Monday, March 2, 2009

Z Patterns & the Theme Browser

by Melanie Anne Phillips
creator StoryWeaver, co-creator Dramatica

A word on the difference between the arrangement of Variations in the Theme Browser and that in the Plot Sequence Report:

The Theme Browser is nothing more than the "neutral" structural chart stuck into the software. In contrast, the Plot Sequence Report verbally describes the structural chart once it has been "wound up" to create dramatic tension.

I hate to keep going back to the "Rubik’s Cube" analogy, but if you picture a Rubik’s cube as if is brand new, right out of the box, each side is a single color. All the yellow squares on one side, all the red on another. Things are orderly and balanced. This is how things are arranged in the Theme Browser and in that position it represents a complete lack of dramatic tension.

Now, twist up that cube a few times in different directions and the colors become mixed on each side. After several different twists, the patterns look more random or chaotic, even though they were created by a sequence of simple moves. This is the view illustrated by the position of the Appreciations (story points) as they show up listed on the Theme Browser.

Then there is the Plot Sequence Report. It describes the sequence of moves necessary to create that particular dramatic pattern of your story’s tension.

So if you are keeping score, we have three things:

1. The model of the Storyform at Rest (the structure as seen in the Theme Browser)

2. The model of the Storyform twisted up with dramatic tension (the position of the story points as they appear in the Theme Browser).

3. The sequence of exploration of the items in the structural chart (as indicated the Plot Sequence Report.

The discrepancy between the Browser and the PSR is this:

The Browser shows which "colors" on the cube ended up next to each other in arrangement at the end.

The PSR shows which "colors" on the cube were next to each other in sequence during the process.

So, use the Browser to see what pattern your story seems to make for the audience when it is over and they look back and appreciate the meaning of the dramatic predicament. Use the PSR to figure out how the Types and Variations show up as the story unfolds.

Part of the confusion is due to including the Signposts in the Theme Browser. The Signposts are the only "time oriented" story points shown there. Everything else relates to the story’s meaning when it is completely told. There was some discussion in the engineering stage that perhaps the Signposts shouldn’t be included there. That is why there is a separate selection necessary in the Theme Browser window to specifically request them.

When the Signposts show up there, it can erroneously seem that the Variations associated on the Browser chart with each Signpost are supposed to be explored when that Signpost is explored in the unfolding of the story. This is simply not true! In fact, including the sequential Signposts in with the structural items is like mixing apples and oranges.

The only way to find out which Variations go with which Types in the sequence of the story is through the Plot Sequence Report.

Similarly, for a while just before release of 3.0, we removed the Plot Sequence Report from the software. It was felt that with the Signposts and Journeys being more emphasized in this version, it might be confusing to talk about Types and the Variations through which they are explored. In the end, those who really liked the report successfully lobbied for it to be added back.

Story Structure is half logic and half feeling. That’s why we use both our minds and hearts as authors when figuring out what works and what to do next. Dramatica’s structure describes the logic of it and the sequence describes the feel. Dramatic tension is created when our logic and our feelings come up with different and incompatible answers. So, it is not surprising that when the Story Engine’s output in the structural Theme Browser is compared to that in the sequential Plot Sequence Report it creates and SHOULD create an APPARENT discrepancy. In fact, that discrepancy is what holds the message of your story.

The end product provides the meaning; the experience as the story unfolds provides the context. The discrepancy between the two is the dramatic tension.

We try to keep this discrepancy in the storyform and out of the mind of the author by having the structural output in one area and the sequential output in another. In the Theme Browser we may have made a mistake by mixing them. But, if you dig deep enough into Dramatica’s theory or software output, it will always be there, as it must, to fully describe the Story Mind you are asking your audience to inhabit.

In creating software tools that delve so deeply into the subtleties of the drama, we encroach on the threshold of a paradox. This is best explained by looking at the nature of light. Light can be seen as a particle or a wave depending upon the context. But it is always light. Story can be seen as a structure or a sequence, but it is always story.

Particles of light interact in spatial arrangement. Waves of light flow in temporal progressions. The Structure of a story is a spatial arrangement showing the interconnections among story points. The Sequence of a story is a temporal progression showing the order in which story points come into conjunction as they move past each other on the way to the final arrangement.

Both views must be accurate and each must reflect and support the other. Sequence must lead to Structure and Structure must reflect Sequence. Yet, both cannot be appreciated at the same time.

Normally, we keep those two approaches separate in the software. By virtue of including the Signposts in the Theme Browser, however, the paradox rises to the surface. The only reason for the Signposts being there is to give quick access to them if you want to build your Storyform by graphically picking the Signposts, or to use the Browser as a quick reference to the Signposts in your existing Storyform.

So, my feeling would be that when working with the Signposts in the Theme Browser you should ignore all the other story points and just focus on the Signposts by themselves. When working on the other story points in the Browser, ignore the Signposts. And, to get a feel for the way Types and Variations come into conjunction as the story unfolds, use the Plot Sequence Report and keep the Theme Broswer far from your mind.

Finally, to reiterate, Dramatica goes into such a degree of detail that trying to follow it faithfully runs into the law of diminishing returns. By the time you get into information such as that in the Plot Sequence Report, you are dealing with subtleties so nuanced that they might not even be noticed.

Western culture is much more concerned with the spatial arrangement of things than how it came to be that way (i.e. "The end justifies the means" - just look at all the violence "heroes" are "allowed" to inflict to right a wrong!) So, as long as all the story points end up in the right place at the end (e.g. the right item is the goal, the right item is the Issue or Range) then the audience is satisfied.

For purists, perfectionists, and structuralists, you can stick with the PSR order if you like. But if you want to diverge, it probably won’t have any measurable negative effect at all on how a Western audience receives your story.

In conclusion, just make sure you illustrate all the key story point appreciations in your story and that you at least work the Signposts and Journeys in there. (They are on such a large scale then kind of have to be in the right order). Do that much and then only worry about the PSR and the minor story points to the level of your own eye for detail.

P.S. You’ll note that Chris and I focus on different aspects of Dramatica. He concentrates on explaining the theory in terms of story, I concentrate on explaining the theory in terms of psychology. So, be forewarned (Forewarning of Conceptualizing) that my postings will tend toward the esoteric. For those interested in the psychology behind Dramatica (called Mental Relativity), I keep an extensive web site with scores of articles on the subject at These original essays delve into the workings of the human mind, based on what we learned from the Story Mind model, and cannot be found anywhere else.

If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of using Dramatica to analyze your friends, family or self, you might enjoy exploring there.