Dramatica and The Grand Argument Story

by KE Monahan Huntley

"I can't write." said Chance.

Steigler smiled deprecatingly. "Of course-but who can, nowadays? It's no problem. We can provide you with our best editors and research assistants. I can't even write a simple postcard to my children. So what?"

"I can't even read." said Chance.

"Of course not!" Steigler exclaimed. "Who has time? One glances at things, talks, listens, watches."-Jerzy Kosinski

"I'm not concerned how close the adaptation is. It's whether it's a good movie or not."-Elmore Leonard
"'Well, there are never enough entertaining movies. . . . But there's entertainment, and then there's engagement. And ideally both can happen."-Todd Solondz

The Dramatica narrative theory, created by writer/director Melanie Anne Phillips and film and television software developer Chris Huntley, suggests for a movie to entertain and engage its audience, its story contain, at the very least, sound structure and dynamic storytelling.

The impetus for developing Dramatica came about after Phillips and Huntley, then University of Southern California cinema school students, made a film that failed commercially. To discover why, they chose to study the nature of literature using films as texts. Phillips and Huntley's endeavor can be compared to narratologists who undertake to "discover the language of narrative, the underlying system of rules and possibilities of which any narrative parole (text) is the realization" (Lodge 25). Developed over the course of 16 years, Dramatica addresses all components of a story-from the underlying deep structure to an audience's reception of its meaning.

As in structuralism, Phillips and Huntley perceive a literary work as a construct "whose mechanisms could be classified and analysed like the object of any other science" (Eagleton 106). According to Chatman, the basis of structuralism is "that each narrative has two parts: a story (historie), the content or chain of events (actions, happenings), plus what may be called the existents (characters, items of setting); and a discourse (discours), that is, the expression, the means by which the content is communicated" (19-20).

Formulated apart from major theoretical paradigms, the Dramatica theory may prove compelling for academic scrutiny. It is not the intention of this paper to analyze existing narrative and screenwriting theories, its purpose is simply to intrigue scholars to further peruse the theory of Dramatica for its potential use in story creation and analysis (screenplays, teleplays, novels, short stories, and so forth). As an exposition of the entire theory is beyond the scope of this paper, the focus is confined to one basic aspect of the Dramatica theory's foundation-the four throughlines of a grand argument story.

First, the basis of the Dramatica theory, what Phillips and Huntley call the Grand Argument Story, will be introduced. Next, its four throughlines will be defined. Finally, applying the fundamental concept of the four throughlines to two works each of three different authors will serve to explicate what, and what not, constitutes the framework of a Dramatica grand argument.

Grand Argument Story

The grand argument story is a specific type of work that is conceptually complete and emotionally and logically comprehensive. Qualities that substantiate a grand argument appear in the story's structure (the underlying relationships between the parts of a story), dynamics (the moving, growing, or changing parts of a story), and the manner in which the grand argument is relayed through character, plot, theme, and genre.

Critical to the grand argument story is the idea of the story mind. Phillips and Huntley assert that every complete story is a model of the mind's problem-solving process. The story mind does not work like a computer, performing operations in sequence to arrive at a solution. Rather, like a human mind, it works holistically to bring many disparate considerations to bear on the problem at hand. In a grand argument story, the author investigates all significant approaches to resolving the story's specific problem-and provides the most appropriate solution to solve it.

Four Throughlines

The four throughlines are the objective story throughline, main character throughline, influence character throughline, and relationhip story throughline. They are four different perspectives that delve into the issues presented over the course of the story.

The objective story throughline is the story's overall, dispassionate viewpoint -- it contains the action and events of which all the characters take part. An objective character is defined as a specific collection of dramatic characteristics that remain consistent throughout the story. Objective story characters may be archetypal, e.g., the classic protagonist and antagonist, or complex.

The main character is the character to whom the audience emotionally relates -- the heart of the story is what is explored in the main character's throughline. The main character may additionally fulfill the protagonist function in the objective story, for example, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He is in pursuit of the objective story goal to destroy the Empire's powerful new battle station, the Death Star. The audience observes Luke's heroic quest, and at the same time identifies with his personal issues of trust, and concerns with the progress he is making as a Jedi knight. An example of a main character that is not the protagonist is Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. The protagonist is instead her father, Atticus Finch. Atticus is defending a black man unjustly accused of rape -- the entire town is involved in the story of his trial. The audience, however, is emotionally connected to Scout's main character throughline -- her attempts to understand prejudice and face her own preconceptions, particularly those of neighborhood bogeyman, Boo Radley.

The influence character, wittingly or unwittingly, has the most impact on the main character. Unlike the antagonist who is directly attempting to stop the protagonist, e.g., Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, the influence character throughline offers an alternative approach to the main character's -- compelling the main character to change their essential nature or remain steadfast in their own philosophy. In To Kill a Mockingbird, main character Scout's influence character is Boo Radley -- the character who ultimately compels Scout to face her individual bias.

The story's passionate exchange is articulated in the relationship story. The relationship story throughline examines what happens between the main and influence characters -- fastening attention on the pressure that intensifies within the relationship until one ultimately defers to the other's way of thinking.

Taken together, the four throughlines comprise the author's argument to the audience. Whether or not the audience is in agreement depends upon the individual, however, as long as the argument is made completely and consistently, it cannot be dismissed on its own terms. An author's statement that accommodates a full exploration of a problem becomes a full-fledged argument -- a grand argument made manifest in the story mind.

Being There: Novel and Screenplay

Jerzy Kosinski's novel Being There affords only two points of view key to a grand argument -- compared to that of the film that does furnish the objective, relationship, main and influence character throughlines. One point of view in the novel is that of main character Chance, a slightly retarded adult who has grown up insulated in a rich man's home and garden: "I have always been the gardener here. I have worked in the garden in back of the house all my life. As long as I can remember" (14). His knowledge of the world is what he has gleaned from watching television:

The thought that he might have to leave did not upset him; he knew that eventually he would have to go but that, as on TV, what would follow next was hidden; he knew the actors on the new program were unknown. He did not have to be afraid, for everything that happened had its sequel, and the best that he could do was to wait patiently for his own forthcoming appearance.(32)

The other standpoint in the novel is explored in the objective story throughline -- the world Chance encounters after his benefactor dies. Upon venturing out, Chance is hit by a chauffeured limousine that belongs to the immensely wealthy and influential financier Benjamin Rand -- a powerful man who has the skills and abilities to manipulate presidents and stock markets. Once Chance happens into the Rands' life, he ingenuously effects political and economic change.

All that communicate with Chance attribute greater meaning to his pronouncements than they actually warrant: "I have seen ashes and I have seen powders," said Chance. "I know that both are bad for growth in the garden." "Hear, hear!" the woman sitting on Chance's right cried out . . . "Mr. Gardiner has the uncanny ability of reducing complex matters to the simplest of human terms." (88)

In adapting his novel to the screen, Kosinski further develops the character of the doctor who treats Chance after the auto accident, into a viable influence character -- thus expanding the throughlines contemplated by the grand argument story. In the novel the private practitioner is dismissed from the story after one scene. In the film, directed by Hal Ashby, he is given the name Dr. Allenby and he remains throughout the course of the story, questioning Chance and ascertaining if Chance is a threat or not to the Rands and society at large.

The conflict addressed in Chance and Dr. Allenby's relationship story is ultimately resolved when the good doctor is finally appeased that Chance is a well-intentioned innocent.


You've become quite a close friend of Eve's [Rand], haven't you, Chance?


Yes, yes. I love Eve very much.


And you really are a gardener, aren't you?


I am a gardener . . .


I understand, I understand.

Kosinski's esoteric novel is a modern parable open to interpretation. With the addition of an influence character and therefore relationship story in the screenplay, Being There evolves into a grand argument more accessible to its audience.

Out of Sight and Get Shorty

Out of Sight and Get Shorty are slick film adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, both written for the screen by Scott Frank. The storyweaving for both -- the method of revealing exposition and blending symbols to affect an audience -- plays out in high style. In Out of Sight, all four points of view are fully developed. Get Shorty attends to its objective and main character throughlines, however, the influence character and relationship story throughlines are only vaguely indicated.

Out of Sight, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is populated with cons and cynics who do not second-guess their decisions even as they repeat mistakes. There is an undercurrent of doom -- violence has no punchline, humor is gallows. Main character Jack Foley is a gallant "famous bank robber" who makes a jailbreak with no intention of returning. Standing directly in Foley's path is his influence character Karen Sisco: "Like Cisco the Kid, except with an S" -- a federal marshal determined to follow the letter of the law. Intermittent, casual conversation with her father clues the audience in to Karen's personal issue, her basic drive for love, undermined by always falling for the bad boys.

In the objective story throughline, Foley, along with fellow ex-cons (a hapless stoner, whacked out psychopaths, and Foley's spirituality seeking sidekick, Buddy), endeavors to steal five million in uncut diamonds from Ripley, a Mike Milken type who has done jail time as well.

In the relatinoship story throughline, Karen and Jack focus attention on romantic interludes, playacting roles to rationalize their illogical behavior. Wildly attracted to each other, yet aware of outside obligations, Karen questions how it all will end.

The burglary is a success, but before making a clean getaway, Foley has an attack of conscience. He sends Buddy and the jewels off with the understanding they'll meet up later. He returns to protect the victims, Ripley and his mistress, from certain brutality at the hands of his cohorts.

Facing off at the scene of the crime, Jack and Karen can no longer ignore their different ways of thinking. Resolute in his decision to remain at large, Jack pulls a ski mask over his face, making it easy for Karen to pull the trigger. How does a federal marshal, confronted with the perpetrator at the scene of the crime, fulfill her duty to the law and yet remain true to her heart? She shoots, shackles, and personally escorts him back to the slammer. As her dad comments: "My daughter, the tough babe."

Riding with Foley in the back of the paddy wagon is his future cellmate, hand picked by Karen. An escape artist, certain to teach Jack how to make an "exodus from an undesirable place."

Out of Sight is captivating, particularly with its out-of-order snapshot style of storyweaving. As a grand argument, it draws the audience in because it delivers a smart story that is structurally sound and emotionally and logically fulfilling. It contains believable characters to fear, and those to embrace.

Get Shorty, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, amuses with its animated cartoonish characters, witty dialogue, and clever multiple plotlines. What is not offered, however, is enough information to determine a grand argument.

The film opens with main character Chili Palmer looking fixedly through a Miami diner window at the movie theater marquee across the street -- he may work for New York mob boss Momo, but he'd rather be in showbiz. As the objective story throughline commences, Momo unexpectedly dies of a heart attack and Jimmy Capp, Momo's Miami counterpart, takes over the deceased's "book." Ray "Bones" Buboni, who answers to Jimmy Capp, has ordered Chili to find Leo, a deadbeat dry cleaner.

The unfinished business with "The Martinizing King of Miami" is just the excuse Chili needs to leave Miami vice for Hollywood via Vegas. As a favor to the casino connection, and as an entrée into the film community, the loan shark promises to lean on a high roller who has skipped on his marker: "Hey, Chill, if you decide to go to L.A., this guy owes a 150,000 grand. Sixty days over-some movie producer . . . Harry Zimm."

Chili finds the Roger Cormanesque Zimm holed up with scream queen Karen Flores, the actress from Grotesque Part 2 and the Slime Creatures series. He quickly dispenses with business, then pitches an idea for a movie to the producer and Karen -- based on his own adventures.

What happens after that is Chili glides through the rest of the objective story with graceful economy of movement, unfazed by minor (and some major) obstructions. Chili Palmer takes power meetings with a Napoleonic actor and gets his movie made. Because as one character avers: "What's the point of living in L.A. unless you're in the movie business?"

Absent from Get Shorty is a clearly defined influence character, essential to provide a different worldview to that of the main character. The closest possibility is Karen, whom he romances:


What about your story?


I'm still working on that one. I'm still getting the 'visual fabric' together. But I have added to it. There's a girl in it now. She looks a lot like you.

As a horror actress, Karen dreams of reciting classic Bette Davis lines: "I'd kiss you but I just washed my hair." Instead of pursuing this goal, she abandons acting altogether and with Chili decides to produce Harry's script, diffusing tension between the two. Without an obstacle character to set forth an alternate worldview for the main character, a passionate argument cannot play out in the subjective story. The main character throughline is well defined, and as convoluted as the objective story is, it is a neat trick resolved nicely at story's end.

Like its bright L.A. setting, there are no shadows in Get Shorty. A delightful diversion that lacks depth, in that all four positions requisite to present the issues at hand are not considered.

Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness

Todd Solondz, an original voice in the independent film world, creates family relationships that are immediately-if not uneasily-recognizable. Welcome to the Dollhouse is a grand argument story; Happiness is not, it is instead ". . . five separate tales of modern alienation, romantic woe, and shocking transgression into a merciless critique of American lifestyles . . ." ("That Lovin' Feeling" 37).

The title Welcome to the Dollhouse, serves as ironic commentary on main character Dawn Wiener's throughline-neither welcome nor a pretty doll the eleven-year-old is put in her place and must stay there. She is the quintessential middle child of a middle class family in suburbia, New Jersey.

Dawn's main character throughline is an exploration of her present situation. Ignored at home and designated "dogface" at school, she is not accepted. Typical conversation is "Why do you hate me?" "Because you're ugly." Nevertheless, when confronted with a dilemma, Dawn takes immediate, external action. In one scene, she shoots a spitball back at the boys who had antagonized her. Unfortunately, it hits a teacher right in the eye. When she explains to her parents in the principal's office: "I was fighting back!" -- her mother's response is "Who ever told you to fight back?"

The influence character function is handed off between two characters -- Brandon, a junior high classmate of Dawn's, and Steve, lead singer of Dawn's older brother Mark's garage rock band. They each contend with issues of image. Brandon puts on a cool juvenile delinquent act; Steve is a longhaired wannabe rock star popular with the girls-high school and junior high. Neither is onscreen at the same time; both irrevocably impact Dawn.

In the relationship story throughline, teen crush takes on new meaning when Steve, adored by Dawn, humiliates her after weeks of encouraging the infatuation:


I was wondering if . . . Well, I've been thinking seriously of building another clubhouse, and I wanted to know, would you be interested in being my first honorary member?


What are you talking about?


The "special people" club.


Special people?


What's the matter?


Do you know what "special people" means?




Special people equals retarded. Your club is for retards.

Dawn and Brandon continue on in the subjective story throughline, learning the "mechanics of the dance" -- a courtship ritual that necessitates vicious dialogue to protect their vulnerability:


Brandon, are you still going to rape me?


What time is it?


I don't know. But I guess I don't have to be home yet.


Nah, there's not enough time.


Thanks, Brandon.


[Holding her closely] Yeah, but just remember, this didn't happen. I mean no one . . . because if you do, I really will rape you next time.



The objective story throughline satirically addresses what happens to those who have ideas about what makes them unique-ideas that differ from the accepted norm. They fail. Steve goes off to New York:


He dropped out of school and left town. He wants to try making in New York as the next Jim Morrison.


Stupid idiot kid. He'll never make it.


Yeah, that's what I told him. He'll never get into a good school now.


Oh, he won't make it.


Never make it.



Brandon is unfairly expelled for drug dealing (a crime he does not commit), and his father's reaction is to send him to the reformatory. Instead, he ends the obstacle character throughline by running away to New York, after first asking Dawn to accompany him. An offer she cannot take.


Wait-I'm so sorry.


Well, it's too late. I'm getting' outta here. And who knows, maybe I will deal drugs now.

Dawn takes a trip to New York as well, but unlike Steve and Brandon, it is not to make a new start-it is a reaction to her little sister's kidnapping. She searches for Missy to bring her desolate family back into balance-and hopes it will finally give her the love and acceptance she desperately needs. The Wieners barely notice her absence:


Is mom really upset?


Not really, actually. They found Missy this morning.

Todd Solondz' grand argument against conformity concludes when, unlike Ibsen's Nora, Dawn doesn't leave the dollhouse. She instead takes a school bus to Disneyworld -- just one of the Benjamin Franklin "Hummingbirds" numbly singing her junior high school song: ". . . now put on a smile then wipe off that frown . . ."

Solondz next film, Happiness, is anything but. His disturbing depiction of American life (carried over from Welcome to the Dollhouse) stings with caustic humor as it attacks pretension and reveals bad behavior behind closed doors. Happiness is fleeting, illustrated when one sad sack announces -- "I am champagne" -- then later commits suicide.

Happiness is not a grand argument story -- it is an indictment against adults who are egocentric and perversely afflicted. The objective characters are loosely related to three sisters, Trish, Helen, and Joy, and not a jot of fun is to be found in this family's dysfunctions. Solondz' denouncement of grown-ups can be inferred from a scene in which Trish's husband Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, allows to his psychiatrist:


My patients are ugly. Their problems are trite. Each one thinks he is unique. On a professional level they bore me. On a personal level I have no sympathy. They deserve what they get.

The relationship between Bill and his eleven-year-old son, Billy, has the makings of a relationship story, but it is not fully developed. What is certain is an unhappy ending -- Bill's stoic countenance masks his anguish, as he admits his pedophilia to the shattered boy.

Solondz does concede a hint of hope for humans and their frailties, indicated in an exchange between Kristina and Allen:


(while eating her sundae)

Anyway, so then I had to cut up his body, plastic bag all the parts . . . I've been throwing it out gradually ever since. There's still a little left in my freezer.


So you cut off his . . .


No. I left it attached. I didn't want to have to touch it again. . . . Can we still be . . . friends?


Um . . . I guess . . . Yeah . . . I mean, we all have our . . . you know . . . pluses and minuses . . .

Happiness is a bold statement -- brave in its subject matter, however, it is not a grand argument that examines the problems from the objective, relationship, main and influence character points of view. Without these perspectives it remains just one writer's provocative opinion.


The six stories reviewed have all received some measure of critical acclaim and all, in this author's estimation, are entertaining. From a Dramatica point of view, however, the novel version of Being There is devoid of an influence character, therefore has no relationship story; Get Shorty offers an influence character who has an outlook similar to its main character, dissipating the conflict wanted for a relationship story, and Happiness relays tales that are discrete-only loosely connected by plot contrivance. What truly differentiates Being There's screenplay adaptation from the novel; Out of Sight from Get Shorty; Welcome to the Dollhouse from Happiness, is they provide the Dramatica grand argument's four perspectives that permit the audience to simultaneously engage in all sides of the story, in particular, the problems presented and solutions considered and employed.

In applying the fundamental concept of the four throughlines to a story, structure is clarified. For the purpose of analysis, this allows insight vital to understanding author's intent. For original story creation, it aids in constructing sound structure, the foundation from which to build dynamic storytelling. For the audience, they can participate in all four points of view necessary for a Dramatica grand argument -- an experience that conveys a familiar context within which to find individual meaning in their own off-screen lives.

Works Cited

  • Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th ed. Orlando: Harcourt, 1993.
  • Being There. Dir. Hal Ashby. Screenwriter Jerzy Kosinski. FOX, 1979.
  • Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of MN P, 1983.
  • Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. New York: Vintage, 1991.
  • Hilary and Jackie. Dir. Anand Tucker. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce. 1998.
  • James, Henry. Washington Square. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982. (Washington Square first published in 1880)
  • Kosinski, Jerzy. Being There. Orlando: Harcourt, 1970. 87.
  • Lee, H. To Kill a Mockingbird. London: Mandarin, 1960.
  • Lodge, David. "Analysis and Interpretation of the Realist Text." Modern Literary Theory. Eds. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. 2nd ed. Edward: London, 1992. 24-42.
  • Phillips, Melanie A., and Chris Huntley. Dramatica: A New Theory of Story. 3rd ed. Burbank: Screenplay Systems, 1996.
  • Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Ed. Louis A. Wagner. 2nd. ed. Austin: U of Texas P, 1968.
  • Solondz, Todd. Happiness. Screenplay, 1997.
  • Solondz, Todd. "That Lovin' Feeling." With Scott Macaulay. FILMMAKER 7 1998: 37-39, 104-05.
  • Welcome to the Dollhouse. Dir. Todd Solondz. Screenwriter Todd Solondz. COL, 1995.

About the Author

KE Monahan Huntley is an editor and publisher based in Southern California. As one of the original contributors to Dramatica, she helped edit and analyze many of the examples. In addition, her numerous articles provided an insightful "conversational" approach to the theory. Today she can be found at Write Between the Lines or follow her on Twitter @kemhuntley.

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