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Dramatica: Software for Dramatic Fiction Writing

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Dramatica: Software for Dramatic Fiction Writing
A Creative COW Product Review


Dramatica Review

Kino Gil Joaquin Gil
.KiNO.digital - CGI - 3D - SVFx
Digital Film Production & Post

©2005 Joaquin Gil and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
CreativeCOW.net contributing editor Joaquin Gil writes, "Dramatica is a computer tool for something nobody realized you could do, computer or not. ... it is one of the most powerful tools available today for the serious fiction writer." Read on to see Kino's further insights into this amazing program...



Writing Complete Stories.

Do you write? Probably you do or would like to and that is why you are reading this. Guess you'd like to have a key to writing solid, compelling stories that were complete and tight. That's what they all say.

But, Where were we? Ah, yes. Complete fiction stories and how to write them.

That's temptation for you: The key to Great fiction. The kind that has no narrative "holes". Good tales where the pace quickens, slows, picks up, the interest is held, belief is suspended and the story soars, unimpeded and satisfying, through our minds...

Ok. Ok. Stop. Rewind.

Exactly how is one supposed to make this marvel? Says who? What magic is available to those guys in Hollywood or Bollywood or wherever, that makes a story a complete story?

More to the point, really, Is there any chance a regular guy like me can hope to write those wonderfully complete yarns that take our breath away? ( Yo, dawg, How do they THINK this stuff!? ) How does one write a complete story without holes or inconsistencies? We're not talking "good" or "bad" writing here but "how" as in "method". That's the thing they didn't teach in scripting class. And they should.

And yeah, it would follow that a complete story would be better than an incomplete one. So again, how? I have no problem when someone says I can't write, but, can I improve?

Well, sit back, little grasshopper, and read on. This is a good one. It will be a twisted one too, but how do you explain any really original, new tool for the first time? You gotta go a bit deeper and see the way it works. That's how.

Let's see if I can do justice to it.



So, What is Dramatica?

Dramatica is really two things: it is (1) a new theory of what a Story is, and It is also (2) a method to put that theory in practice.

This method actually drives the computer program reviewed here that anyone can purchase and use to create his/her own works. Really.

At this point, the reader perhaps doubts... Snake Oil, right? But no. This is the real McCoy. This thing actually does what it says it does.

Dramatica is the brainchild of Melanie Ann Phillips and Chris Huntley. These two smart cookies took the time to carefully analyze a heap this tall of dramatic fiction including hundreds of classical and contemporary dramatic plays, novels, short stories, scripts and many fiction of all sorts until they hit the jackpot (or dug it out with their own sweaty hands, rather) and came up with a very few and very powerful concepts that anyone, yes Virginia, anyone, can use to create dramatic fiction.

But do not expect Dramatica to pre-write or ghost-write any kind of scenario or dialogue for you. That is not the way Dramatica works. Dramatica will allow you, the author, to create a great STRUCTURE for your piece and surf it at will. To know what is going on in the world of your story so well, that you know what goes where. You will know and access everything your story needs to attend to in order to be completely what you want it to be, whatever that is.

But the writing that fleshes that skeleton out... Ah... ! Thar's the rub.

You see, the writing is completely up to you. The program only guides you, more like a good teacher would.

This simple fact sets it apart from any other tool out there. Dramatica takes care of structuring the best skeleton so that you can concentrate in the "fleshing out", the telling of the yarn without the danger of forgetting a required element, not knowing what to write, and so on.


Dramatica Classes Story Elements

(Please click on graphic for a larger image)


The Dramatica Theory of Story

The system is, like most really good ideas, really simple. You should read the complete theory in their website ( www.dramatica.com ) but you may want to really jump in, purchase the theory book from the website and read it in all comfort. It is worth the added time and the 20 bucks. Completely.

The gist of the Theory is that a complete, whole story, whether novel, script or play, is in essence a model of the process through which the human mind solves a problem. A complete problem solution requires that the problem be examined from all possible angles and it is the work of the author to prove to the audience that the chosen solution works... or not. Leaving angles unexamined produces the dreaded "holes" or inconsistencies in the plot.

The model is the way a mind, that is, anyone's mind will examine the issue. This has obvious advantages to the fiction creator, since one creates a map of the mind's workings and then follows it to the "treasure" : the complete story which satisfies all the questions with functional, acceptable answers. This model is what Dramatica calls "The Story Mind".

What we know as "Plot", "Theme" and "Characters" are the "thoughts" of this mind, made visible for the audience or the reader. Following them we learn the problem and the exploration of their interaction reveals the solution to the problem. When the exploration is complete end exhaustive we have a "Grand Argument Story" and the problem has been addressed from all possible sides; however there are good stories that follow only some of the relevant explorations completely, merely sketching some of the remaining ways. Even so, Dramatica can guide the author in choosing the best threads to follow, so that the story is strong and as complete as possible.

We have the Story Mind going through the problem using characters, theme and plot as the "visible" thoughts. OK so far?

Dramatica Arena

The ThroughLines seen from the Plot's angle (Plot Progression). Notice the progressions made by each one. You can type anything you want under each section by double-clicking on the white areas and bringing up an appropriate dialog.

(Please click on graphic for a larger image)



The threads of thought the Story Mind follows are always four. No more, no less.

It does not matter if you have set out to write a twenty-season soap opera or ghost-write J.-Lo's coloring book or the next Oscar screenplay, the Story Mind follows these four threads always. Two of these are directly experienced by the audience while the remaining two are experienced by the audience through the story's participants.

The Dramatica creators call these threads of thought "throughlines" and their workings are usually expressed with the metaphor of a battle, but the underlying principles are clear enough and like many truly genial ideas, once you think about it it makes perfect sense.

The Overall Story Throughline is the telling of the battle's incidents as they would appear to a General on a nearby hill. Things are seen as objective reality is seen, logical progression is relatively easy to follow and only real, concrete events matter. The way "all" see that things are.

The Main Character Throughline is seeing the battle trough the eyes of a guy down there. It may be the hero type and be leading the charge or defending the fort, but it could be the cook's apprentice hiding under his cart just as well, or the thoughts of a horse tied to a tree. Although we're still looking at objective reality, it is the reality as it appears to each one of us when it's happening to us. The way "I" sees things.

The Impact Character Throughline appears when the audience's "eyes", the "main character" attention realizes that through the dust and the smoke and the noise and the hoopla another Character comes near. Friend? Foe? Food? Who is this person? What does this Other mean to me? and so on und so weiter. Now we explore reality through the eyes of what each one of us recognizes as the "Others", the "not-me" part of our lives formed because we are sociable animals that live in groups. It is called "Impact" character because of the effect on "I"'s cozy solitude. The way the "Other" sees things, which is always a conflict for "I", even if "Other" is an abstraction or event instead of a creature.

The Main Character vs. Impact Character Throughline is then the passionate "dance" or struggle that follows between the Main and Impact Characters within (a) the immediate surroundings and (b) within the larger picture. Do they butt heads? Who yields the way and who keeps his/her ground? How? Why? What abstractions come into play? What are alternative solutions? What approaches failed? ... This interaction, this "dance" is really about the way the Story Mind progresses through and solves the Problem through the exploration of personal, collective and social solutions. The way that "I", "Other" and "All" points of view interact in the understanding of the reality at hand.

Makes sense, Uh? ... Told you.

So you end up with a discussion of the problem-solving path through three levels of human experience and their transformations. In other words, a structural representation of the tensions in your piece's world. The only thing left is to tell in your own words about all those interactions. It will be you doing the writing, so it's your own voice. Go to town, Hemingway.

There is also the small matter of that structure being a motion of relationships through story time, and its unfolding as part of FOUR possible dimensions:
  1. Situations
  2. Activities
  3. Manners of Thinking
  4. States of Mind.

You need to keep a clear mental image of the groups of alternatives and choices through which the solution is explained and shared. And that is quite a lot to keep straight.

We're talking writing, people. Not programming. The part about keeping your own voice is simply a matter of using it, but the other stuff... I don't know about you, but I don't do too well with keeping track of four-fold polar states in multidimensional math before breakfast, thank you.

Luckily, computers are very good at that.


Making the Theory Tutor You.

In computer geekese, the lingua franca of the world, we are simply in the presence of permutations on a three-dimensional structure through a fourth: a four-dimensional array or matrix. As any computer graphics animation tool maker knows, matrix or array algebra and vector math take care of that, thank you very much, France, for a lot of the algorithms. Incidentally no more complex than the way that programmers handle X, Y and Z shape descriptions through time to animate Gollum scampering about in Lord of the Rings.

And far simpler in fact. There are elections one makes when moving through a 3D structure in a consistent direction that make irrelevant all the path steps at the same level or higher which are not the one of the choice made. So, if you imagine choosing a 16 by 16 by 4 pyramidal stack of cubes among four others and traverse it down starting at the top, you can progress down the array only by choosing a single cube out of four you must consider each time to traverse the increasingly larger sets of options each level presents. As you choose, you also reject alternative routes and in consequence the part of the matrix you have to choose from gets smaller.

Get it? Got it. Good. Here's the clincher, along with a picture of the whole array without "loading" with a story.

Dramatica Theme Browser

(Please click on graphic for a larger image)


Whether you are bewildered by now or not, you need not concern yourself with any of that stuff. The program does all the matrixing and navigatin' and gallivantin' about for you, as it should.

It accomplishes this by presenting the user with a LOT of simple questions about your story (Poetic Justice: after all you're the one who knows about the tale and someone has to fill in enough of that clever matrix with actual writing to get usable results).

The questions are organized according to characters, theme and plot as the "visible" thoughts of the Story Mind and progressing in sections that pertain to (a) the creation of a structure or STORYFORMING, (b) the guiding of the user through organizing the story's ideas in order to flesh the structure out or ILLUSTRATING and (c) the actual writing of these ideas down or STORYWEAVING.


Dramatica Query System for Your Story
(Please click on image for enlargement)

The beauty of this approach: You get what you put in. At the very least you end out with a killer treatment and, if you invest more time answering, you can get to write the complete novel or play as a "blow-by-blow" without leaving Dramatica, that you can then export to finish up in a word processor.

As you get to use the program more, you can actually select to what extent you want to go to into ALL the stuff you discover about your story by answering more or less questions. Once you have gone through the questions a few times, you do get the point of its workings, so you can elect to cut to the chase and hand-pick the "path" through the pyramid. For this you use a remakable device known as the "Story Engine" that we'll talk about in a few.


Dramatica's place in the Tool Chest.

The program does not format the text in any elaborate way beyond clarity: that is out of its scope. The same people who sell it make scriptwriting/formatting, budgeting and scheduling tools for production so that the material created can travel all the way through to production with compatible filetypes. At the same time, exporting text formats like .txt and .rtf allows for easy communication with popular tools like generalized word processors such as Word or dedicated ones like Final Draft.

What Dramatica does, and exceedingly well, is to allow the storyteller to examine a story taking in consideration everything that is relevant to it and at the same time avoiding irrelevant considerations. The storyteller is free, however, to use character, plot or theme to present any and all evaluated, relevant considerations to the audience.

It is like one of those classes where the learned professor completely and stunningly analyzes "To Kill a Mockingbird", only better, because this analysis is being done of YOUR story, and you haven't even written it yet.

In propriety, when you describe a "storyform" you narrow the telling to a single one of a possible 32768 basic mind structural paths that the Story Mind can take to resolve the problem.

So by the time you get down to actually writing it, you can simply tell it to the best of whatever your abilities may be. There's not even a chance of "writer's block" because you know what's going on and if you get tired with one particular point of the path you can choose another moment to write about in the certainty that it is useful material to make your story complete because you have a map which can be used as the recipe of the way it's supposed to be made. Kind of irresistible inducement, you ask me.


Understanding your Story through a computer Interface.

Dramatica opens on a display of twelve buttons corresponding to twelve sections in the program. The first option is a clear "START HERE" button that brings you to the basic info section and then takes you though the Query system, that you can also access directly on it's own button.


Dramatica Buttons

(Please click on image for enlargement)


There's a lot you can learn about your story by making the right questions and writing down the answers in a database so that you can organize it later. The theory dictates which are those questions, and Dramatica's query system will guide beginner and advanced writers alike with enough detail so that you may begin creative writing right inside the database software.

That is the easiest method for first time users, but not the only one. There are pretty powerful tools in there:

First, you have direct access buttons to a Character map, a Plot Progression organizer and a Theme Browser. These allow you to distribute the "appreciations" (the data you type) about each aspect of the piece's array in effective places: either they will be embodied by characters, or they will be demonstrated in the plot's path or the underlying themes of the piece. Each one of these sections is a point of view of the same info in the story's array of relevances, but the different presentation allows you to organize it quickly and start writing your take on them.

The Character Section allows for creation and mapping of characters to the pyramid's cells. It is the deepest section, sporting itself six types of tasks, from building and fine-tuning characters to a "casting" database of faces and drawings of people and things that is helpful in thinking about the character's particular look. The characters can be of the "stereotypical" kind: protagonist, antagonist, contagonist, guardian, reason, etc., which follow traditional mappings in the array, or they can be "complex", which have mixed mappings and can potentially be more interesting (although for example the original "Star Wars: A New Hope" uses stereotypical characters almost exclusively and to great success). Throughout your session you can access the structure of famous plays, scripts and novels that you can examine and play with while you refine your story.

Character List for Your Story

(Please click on image for Enlargement)


The Plot Progression allows you to map the temporal structure of the piece, either Four-Act or Three Act, to more of these cells, and the Theme Browser lets you explore the relationships among the cells, which will map the driving forces in your story.

The Dramatica creators claim that there are a key group of twelve (12) questions that quickly narrow down the array to explain and thus "define" the path that your story embodies. These questions and a few other arcana are directly accessible in the Story Engine, another button. At heart is a way to select a "storyform" out of the 32K (32768) of possibilities in the array in a few central choices, and it takes the shape of a card full of multiple selection choosers.

Story Engine
(Please click on image for Enlargement)

STORY ENGINE with the settings corresponding to the Bette Davis classic "All About Eve". See if you can recognize the story.


At the start, your choices are completely open, but as you select a few alternatives, the selection ranges decrease until you are presented with two or four choices for the last choices you set. Many are decided from certain combinations of choices, so you fill the whole crucial points in the array from a single place. You can even lock certain things so they are not changed and explore alternative that include those locks.

Once you know how to swim with that puppy, you find yourself cackling alone in the best Frankenstenian style. Giddy with knowledge, you know which things make sense in the tale and which can take it to the cleaners, so to speak. You drive with a good map.

The remaining sections and buttons take care of a "Dictionary", which is more of a reference tool for the single-word terms that represent cells in the matrix ("elements" and "appreciations" in Dramatica-speak), The Story Points display, a complete and editable list of every dramatic situation in the story, the Help panel of real examples of usage and strategy and the Reports module which is the one which knows all about arranging and presenting the information you have typed in into useful structural units you can use to build your story, from treatments to character studies to finished piece in more than 20 different forms. There is a "Brainstorming" button that lets you map randomized storyforms so you can play "WHAT IF" scenarios and the like. You can save and load templates for scenes, chapters, cantos or whatever format of presentation suits your fancy or needs.

What all these tools have in common is the flexibility of ways you have to access the snippets of story you write in response to the questions or prompts and reorganize the way you want to weave their interaction. The "storyweaving" section alone is worth the trip, as it allows you to distribute all your matrix points among the chapters of a novel or the scenes of a stage or screenplay, so you pretty much can follow that to the finished story.

I've heard that this works better for very organized people, but judging by myself, who am not, it does not matter which way you work, once you use these tools you can come up with a variety of useful groupings that let you work your way. Mexican Daytime TV Writer Armando Saldaña has developed a way to use Dramatica's "gestalt": to use the analytical world of Dramatica itself in a synthetical manner he calls "Instant Dramatica", best suited for experienced writers who are used to the theory of Dramatica and comfortable with its terms but prefer to access the core arrays directly. Pretty impressive and pretty hardcore. I stay somewhere in between, surfing the Query system but jumping to input plot points directly as a good film geek and writing the "motives" of my scenes in the Dramatica boxes. So whether you are an organized writer or a mess like yours truly, everyone can get the benefits of perfect structure.


Reports for Your Story
(Please click on image for Enlargement)




CONCLUSION

Dramatica is a computer tool for something nobody realized you could do, computer or not. Nevertheless it performs its job admirably, although you need to become familiar with the frame of reference of the tool, the "Dramatica Theory". Not everyone will take to it, and as all truly good tools, it does not pretend to be everything to everyone. However, it is one of the most powerful tools available today for the serious fiction writer.

As I said before, what it does, it does really well. It is not, however, a tool of casual nature. It requires dedication and work, but what worthwhile project doesn't? You don't have to become even good with the Theory, since the program will show you all there is in the piece you are working on and guide you through, but you have to be able to take advantage of the information in your writings, and that is basically the result of becoming at least familiar with the Theory.

When I found Dramatica I was in need of something serious and I found it, almost having given up with the slew of canned-phrase offerings out there. The structural tools the program puts at your beck and call are solid and do result in easier writing and banishment of the writer's "block" provided you do have the discipline and the need to write, which is kind of a given if you really are a writer. Once you get used to it, you sort of wonder how to deal with a fiction work without Dramatica. It has been constant companion for any and all fiction I've written the last six years and I know of no substitute.

But do not take my word for it. It has been used in a LOT of A list films and novels too, so one is in good company. For a staggering list of works which use this tool, just go to the website (www.dramatica.com) and see the testimonials. Then take it out for a serious spin.

For those who need writing guidance, here's your fix.

Even tho this is not for everyone, those who need the tool will find it excellent.

Five
cows for an original and imaginative usage of computers and for coming up with yet another useful tool for the creative mind.






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