Story Reception

Chapter 11

Story Reception

About the Audience

What do you have in mind?

Few authors write stories without at least considering what it will be like to read the story or see it onstage or screen. As soon as this becomes a concern, we have crossed the line into Story Reception theory. Suddenly, we have more to consider than our story’s message. We now must try to predict how that message is received.

One of the first questions then becomes, how do we want it to be received? And from this, we ask, what am I hoping to achieve with my audience? We may wish to educate our audience, or we may simply want to bias them. Perhaps we are out to persuade our audience to adopt a point of view, or simply to pander to an existing point of view. We might provoke our audience, forcing them to consider some topic or incite them to take action about a topic. We could openly manipulate them with their informed consent, or secretly propagandize them, changing their outlook without their knowledge.

No matter what our author’s intent, it is shaped not only by who we are, but also by the audience we are trying to reach.

Who are you talking to?

You are reading this book because you want to use the Dramatica theory or software to help you record something you are thinking about or feeling. For whatever reasons, you have decided you want to record something of yourself in a communicable form.

A primary question then becomes: To whom do you intend to communicate? You might simply wish to communicate to yourself. You may be documenting transient feelings that you wish to recall vividly in the future. Or you may want to capture the temporal ramblings of your chain of thought and then stand back to see what pattern it makes. Self-searching is often a primary objective of an author’s endeavor.

Writing for Someone Else

What if you are writing not for yourself but to reach someone else? It might be that you hope to reach a single individual that can be done in a letter to a friend, parent, or child. You might be composing an anecdote or speech for a small or large group, or you could be creating an industrial film, designing a textbook, or fashioning a timeless work for all humanity.

In each case, the scope of your audience becomes more varied as its size increases. The opportunity to tailor your efforts to target your audience becomes less practical, and the symbols used to communicate your thoughts and feelings become more universal and simultaneously less specific.

The audience can thus range from writing for you to writing for the world. In addition, an author’s labors are often geared toward a multiplicity of audiences, including both him and others as well. Knowing one’s intended audience is essential to deciding form and format. It allows one to select a medium and embrace the kind of communication that is most appropriate—perhaps even a story.

Dramatica and Communication Theory

Exploring all avenues of communication is far beyond the scope of this early implementation of the Dramatica Theory. To be sure, Dramatica (as a model of the mind) has much to offer in many diverse areas. However, for the practical purposes, we cannot cover that much ground. Rather, we will briefly touch on major perspectives in the author/audience relationship that can also serve as templates for translation of the Grand Argument Story perspective into valuable tools for other forms of communication. In this manner, the usefulness of this specific software implementation can extend beyond its immediate purpose. (What does this say about OUR intended audience?)

Writing for Oneself

In the Great Practical World of the Almighty Dollar Sign, it might seem trite or tangential to discuss writing for oneself (unless one expects to pay oneself handsomely for the effort). In truth, the rewards of writing for oneself DO pay handsomely, and not just in personal satisfaction. By getting in touch with one’s own feelings, by discovering and mapping out one’s biases, an author can grow to recognize his own impact on the work as being an addition to the structure of the work itself. An author can also become more objective about ways to approach his audience. (And yes, one can gain personal insights and satisfaction as well.)

The Author as Main Character

As an experiment, cast yourself in a story as the Main Character. Cast someone with whom you have a conflict as the Influence Character. Next, answer all the Dramatica questions and then go to the Story Points window in the Dramatica Pro software. Fill in as many of the story points as seem appropriate to you. Print out the results and put them aside.

Now, go back and create the same story again—this time with your opponent" as the Main Character and YOU as the Influence Character. Once again, fill in the story points and print them out. Compare them to the first results. You will likely find areas in which the story points are the same and other areas in which they are different.

These points of similarity and divergence will give you a whole new perspective on the conflicts between you and your adversary. Often, this is the purpose of an author when writing for himself. Thoughts and feelings can be looked at more objectively on paper than hidden inside your head. Just seeing them all jumbled up together rather than as a sequence goes a long way to uncovering meaning that was invisible by just trotting down the path. After all, how can we ever hope to understand the other person’s point of view while trying to see it from our perspective?

A wise woman once said, "Don’t tell me what you’d do if you were me. If you were me, you’d do the same thing because I AM ME and that’s what I’m doing! Tell me what you’d do if you were in my situation."

Documenting Oneself

Another purpose in writing for oneself is simply to document what it is like to be in a particular state of mind. In a sense, we jot down the settings of our minds so we can tune ourselves back into that state as needed later. The images we use may have meaning for no one but ourselves, and therefore speak to us uniquely of all people. The ability to capture a mood is extremely useful when later trying to communicate that mood to others. To bring emotional realism to another requires being in the mood oneself. What better intuitive tools than emotional snapshots one can count on to regenerate just the feelings one wants to share. To make an argument, accept the argument. To create a feeling, experience the feeling.

Who is Me?

A simple note sticks to the refrigerator door: "Call me when you get home." Who is me? It depends on whom you are asking. Ask the author of the note and he would say it was myself. Ask the recipient of the note and they would say, It’s him. So the word me has different meanings depending on who is looking at it. To the author, it means the same when they wrote it as when they read it as an audience. To the intended audience, however, it means something different.

In life, we assume one point of view at a time. In stories, however, we can juxtapose two points of view, much as we blend the images from two eyes. We can thus look AT a Main Character’s actions and responses even as we look through his eyes. This creates an interference pattern that provides much more depth and meaning than either view has separately.

My Me is Not Your Me

When writing for others, if we assume they share our point of view, it is likely that we will miss making half of our own point. Far better are our chances of successful communication if we not only see things from our side but theirs as well. Overlaying the two views can define areas of potential misunderstanding before damage is done. Still, "Call me when you get home" is usually a relatively low-risk communication and we suggest you just write the note without too much soul-searching.

Writing for Groups

What Binds a Group?

Groups are not clumps. They are conglomerations of individuals, bound (to various degrees) by an aspect of shared interests or traits. Sometimes the common theme can be an ideology, occupation, physical condition, or situation. Sometimes the only thread of likeness is that they all gathered to be an audience.

Do readers of novels group" as an audience? Not in the physical sense, yet fans of a particular writer or genre or subject matter are bound by their common interest. Regular viewers of a television series start out as individuals and become a group through bonding of experience. They know the classic bits" and the characters’ idiosyncrasies. In fact, the series’ audience becomes a group representing a fictional culture that eventually becomes one more subcultural template in actual society. Works can indeed create groups as well as attract them.

What Binds Us All Together?

What of the captive" audience that has no sense of what they are about to experience, yet are gathered in a classroom or reception room or boardroom or theater? What of the audience attending the first telecast of a new series, knowing little of what to expect?

Underneath all the common threads binding an audience together is a group of individuals. Each one is responsive to the same essential mental processes as the next. It is this intrinsic sameness—not of ideas but of the way in which ideas are formed—that makes us all part of the group we call humans. At this most basic level, we are all part of the same group.

Symbolic Identification

Throughout this book we have stressed the difference between storyforming and storytelling. A clear communication requires succinct storyforming. Communicating clearly requires appropriate storytelling.

What makes storytelling appropriate? The symbols used to encode the storyform are both understood in denotation and connotation by the intended audience. If the audience misreads the symbols, the message will be weakened, lost, or polluted.

Identifying with one’s audience is not enough: One must also identify one’s audience. It is fine to feel part of the group. But it can be a real danger to assume that identification with a group leads to clear communication in appropriate symbols or clear reception by all audience members.

A Quick Lesson in Propaganda

Propaganda, n. 1. any organization or movement working for the propagation of particular ideas, doctrines, practices, etc. 2. the ideas, doctrines, practices, etc. spread in this way. (Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary)

Propaganda: 3. a storyforming/storytelling technique used to impact an audience in specific ways, often employed to instigate deliberation and/or action. (Dramatica)

Propaganda is a wonderful and dangerous story device. Its primary use in stories is as a method for an author to influence an audience long after they have experienced the story itself. By using propaganda, an author can inspire an audience to think certain ways, think about certain things, behave certain ways, and take specific actions. Like fire and firearms, propaganda can be used constructively and destructively and does not contain an inherent morality. Any morality involved comes from the minds of the author and his audience.

This section is not about the morality of propaganda. It is designed as a primer on how to create and employ propaganda in stories. With that in mind, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

The Basics of Propaganda

The human mind seeks to understand itself and the world around it. It does this through various ways including organizing information into meaningful patterns. Depending on the quantity of the information and the accuracy of its interpretation, a mind will identify a pattern (or several potential patterns) and supply the seemingly missing" pieces to make the pattern, and therefore meaning, complete. This pattern matching and filling in of missing pieces is intrinsic to the processes that create the human mind." By choosing which pieces of the storyform to omit, authors can manipulate the impact a story will have on the minds of their audiences.

In its most basic form, propaganda is a way for authors to have an audience share their point of view. Closed (or complete) stories allow authors to present their points of view in the form of an argument that the audience can then take or leave. Open (or incomplete) stories require their audiences to supply the missing pieces to get meaning from the story. Just creating an open story, however, does not create propaganda. There must be a pattern to what is missing.

The amount and nature of the missing pieces have an effect on the story’s propagandistic impact. If you leave too much out of your story, an audience may not make the effort to fill-in-the-blanks." The audience may then interpret the story as meaningless. If, however, you selectively leave out specific pieces of the storyform, the audience may unknowingly fill in those holes with aspects of its personal experience. In this way, the story changes from an argument made by the author to the audience, to an argument made by the author and the audience. Unwittingly, the audience begins to share the author’s point of view and perhaps even becomes a coconspirator in its propagation: Therefore, propaganda.

Since a propaganda story is based on a fragile relationship between an audience and an author, both perspectives should be considered to understand the techniques that can be used and the results that can be achieved.

The Audience

Knowing (or preparing) your audience can have a tremendous effect on how your propaganda will impact them. Here are some rules of thumb:

  • The more specific the symbols you use to encode your story, the more limited an audience it will affect. The less specific the symbols, the greater potential audience.
  • The more specific the symbols used to encode the story, the greater the likelihood it will influence the portion of the audience that understands the symbols. The less specific the symbols, the less impact the story will have.
  • The more familiar an audience is with the symbols used to encode a story, the more susceptible they are to propaganda. The less familiar, the less susceptible.

The Author

Here are the things an author should consider while creating a propaganda story:

1. Nature of Impact

How do you want to influence your audience? Do you wish to play with your audience’s:

  • Motivations (what drives them)?
  • Methodologies (how they go about doing things)?
  • Purposes (what they are striving for)?
  • Means of Evaluation (how they measure their progress — their personal yardsticks)?

Pick only one as the area of primary impact. This will become the area of the storyform that you purposely omit when storytelling. The remaining three areas will be used to support your intent by drawing attention away from the missing pieces.

2. Area of Impact

What part of your audience’s world-view do you wish to influence?

  • View of the world around them — objective reality" (Overall Story)
  • View of relationships (Relationship Story)
  • View of themselves (Main Character)
  • View of others (Influence Character)

Choose one of the perspectives. This will be the domain in which to place the hole" in the storyform. The area of impact determines which part of your audience’s world-view the propaganda will infect."

3. Type of Impact: Specific vs. General

Do you want the impact on your audience to be of a specific nature, or of a broader, more general nature?

The more specific you make the propaganda, the more specific and predictable its impact will be on an audience. The upside (from an author’s point of view) is that specific behavior (mental or physical) can be promoted or changed. The downside is that specific propaganda is more easily identifiable and therefore contestable by the audience.

Specific propaganda is achieved by intentionally not encoding selected story points, such as the Main Character’s motivation or the story Outcome (Success or Failure). The audience will supply the missing piece from its own experiences, for example, the Main Character’s motivation in Thelma and Louise. What happened to Louise in Texas that prevents her from ever going back is specifically not mentioned in the film — that blank is left for the audience to fill.

The more general you make the propaganda, the less specific but all pervasive its impact will be on an audience. Instead of focusing impact on the audience’s motivations, methodologies, purposes, or means of evaluation, generalized propaganda will tend to bias the audience’s perspectives of their world. The upside (from an author’s point of view) is that generalized propaganda is difficult for an audience to identify and therefore more difficult to combat than the specific form of propaganda. The downside is that it does not promote any specific type of behavior or thought process and its direct impact is less recognizable.

General propaganda is achieved by intentionally not encoding entire areas of the story’s structure or dynamics. For example, by leaving out almost all forms of the story’s internal means of evaluation, Natural Born Killers forces its audience to focus on the methodologies involved and questions its own (the members of the audience) means of evaluation.

4. Degree of Impact

To what degree do you wish to influence your audience? The degree to which you can influence an audience is dependent on many variables not the least of which are your storytelling skills and the nature of the audience itself. There are some basic guidelines, however, that can mitigate and sometimes supersede those variables when skillfully employed.

Shock as Propaganda

One tried-and-true method is to control what an audience knows about the story before experiencing the storytelling process so you can shock them. Within the context of the story itself (as opposed to marketing or word-of-mouth), an author can prepare the audience by setting up certain givens, and then purposely break the storyform (destroy the givens) to shock or jar the audience. This hits the audience at a preconscious level by inviting an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction. This type of propaganda is the most specific and immediately jarring on its audience. Two films that employed this technique to great effect are Psycho and The Crying Game.

Psycho broke the storyform to shock the audience’s preconscious by killing the main character twenty minutes or so into the film (the real" story about the Bates family then takes over). The shock value was strengthened through marketing by having the main character played by big box office draw Janet Leigh (a good storytelling choice at the time). They used a marketing gimmick to help set up the shock. No one was allowed into the movie after the first five or ten minutes. This gimmick" was essential for the propaganda to be effective. It takes time for an audience to identify on a personal level with a main character. Coming in late to the film would not allow enough time for the audience member to identify with Janet Leigh’s character and her death would have little to no impact.

The Crying Game used a slightly different process to achieve a similar impact. The first twenty minutes or so of the film are used to set up a bias to the main character’s (and audience’s) view of reality. The girlfriend" is clearly established except for one important fact. That fact," because it is not explicitly noted, is supplied by the mind of the main character (and the minds of the audience members). By taking such a long time to prep the audience, it comes as a shock when we (both main character and audience) find out that she is a he.

Awareness as Propaganda

Another method is to be frank about the nature of the propaganda, letting your audience know what you are doing as you do it to them. This impacts an audience at a conscious level where they must actively consider the pros and cons of the issues. The propaganda comes from controlling the givens on the issues being discussed, while the audience focuses on which side of the issues they believe in.

A filmic example of this technique can be seen in JFK. By choosing a controversial topic (assassinating President Kennedy) and making an excessively specific argument about what parties were involved in the conspiracy to carry out and cover-up the assassination, Oliver Stone was able to focus his audience’s attention on how "they" got away with it. The issue of who "they" were was suspiciously controversial as the resulting media brouhaha over the film showed. Who "they" were, however, is not the propaganda. The propaganda came in the form of the story’s given which is that Lee Harvey Oswald had help. By the end of the story, audiences were arguing over which of the parties in the story were or were not participants in the conspiracy, accepting the possibility that people other than Oswald may have been involved.

Conditioning as Propaganda

Presenting an audience with an alternative life experience is yet another way to influence your audience. By ignoring (or catering to) an audience’s cultural bias, you can present your story as an alternative reality. This impacts an audience by undermining or reinforcing their personal Memories. By experiencing the story, the message or meaning of the story becomes part of the audience’s memory base.

The nature of the propaganda, however, is that the story lacks context, which must be supplied by the audience. Thus personalized, the story memory is triggered automatically when an experience in the audience’s real life summons similarly stored memories. Through repeated use, an audience’s sensibilities" become conditioned.

In Conditioning propaganda, audience attention is directed to causal relationships like When A also B (spatial), and If C then D (temporal). The mechanism of this propaganda is to leave out a part of the causal relationships in the story, such as When A also B and If ?? then D. By leaving out one part, the objective contextual meaning is then supplied automatically by the audience. The audience will replace ?? with something from its own experience base, not consciously considering that a piece is missing because it will have emotionally arrived at the contradiction: When A also B and then D.

This type of propaganda is closest to the traditional use of the term used with stories, entertainment, and advertising. For example, look at much of the tobacco and alcohol print advertising. Often the Main Character (the type of person to whom the advertisement is supposed to appeal) is attractive, has someone attractive with them, and appears to be well placed in life. The inference is that when you smoke or drink, you are also cool, and if you are cool then you will be rich and attractive. The connection between cool and rich and attractive is not really in the advertisement but an audience often makes that connection for itself. In Conditioning propaganda, more than in the other three forms of propaganda, the degree of impact on your audience is extremely dependent on your audience’s life experience outside the story experience.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is a film example that employs this conditioning technique of propaganda. The unusual aspect of the film is that it has two separate stories in it. The Crimes story involves a self-interested man who gets away with murder and personally comes to peace with it (a Success/Good story). The Misdemeanors story involves a well-meaning man who loses his job, his girlfriend, and is left miserable (a Failure/Bad story). By supplying two competing stories instead of one, the audience need not supply its own experiences to arrive at a false context while viewing this work. Audiences will come to stories, however, with a particular cultural bias. In our culture, Failure/Bad stories which happen to nice people are regrettable, but familiar; Success/Good stories about murderers are uncommon and even morally shameful.

The propaganda comes into effect when the audience experiences in its own life a Failure/Bad scenario. The experience triggers a recollection of the Success/Good story about forgetting the grief of having murdered. This is an alternative the audience would not normally have considered. Lacking an objective contextual meaning that sets one over the other, both stories are given equal consideration as solutions. Thus, what was once unthinkable because of a cultural or personal bias is now automatically seen as a possible avenue for problem solving.

Misdirection as Propaganda

The most subtle and possibly most effective form of propaganda from a single exposure is the use of misdirection as a way to influence an audience’s Subconscious. Like smoke and mirrors" used by magicians, this form of propaganda requires focusing the audience’s Conscious attention in one place while the real impact is made in the Subconscious. Fortunately for propagandistic-minded authors, this is one of the easiest forms of propaganda to create.

This technique comes from omitting parts of the storyform from your storytelling. What you leave out becomes the audience’s blind spot, and the dynamic partner to the omitted storyform piece becomes the audience’s focus. The focus is where your audience’s attention will be drawn (the smoke and mirrors). The blind spot is where your audience personalizes the story by filling-in-the-blank." The story’s argument is thus linked directly to the audience’s subconscious, based on the context in which the story is presented.

Let’s look at some dynamic pairs of partners that appear in a storyform. The following pairs concern the nature of the impact on your audience:

Motivation <–> Purpose

Means of Evaluation <–> Methodology

Should you wish to influence your audience’s motivations, omit a particular motivation in the story. The audience, then, focused on the purpose they can see will automatically supply a motivation that seems probable to them (for example: Thelma and Louise).

Here are the storyform dynamic pairs that relate to story/audience perspectives:

Overall Story Perspective <–> Subjective Perspective

Main Character Perspective <–> Influence Character Perspective

Combining a nature with a perspective gives an author greater control over a story’s propaganda. For example, if you wish to influence your audience in how they view the means of evaluation employed by the world around them, omit the Overall Story means of evaluation elements and the audience’s attention will be distracted by focusing on the methodologies employed (such as in Natural Born Killers).

A Word Of Warning

Propaganda is powerful but using it involves risks. It is like a virus or engaging in germ warfare. Once an audience is exposed to a propagandistic message, the only way they can neutralize it is to balance it with an equal but opposite force. Audiences often don’t like to think they are being manipulated. If the audience becomes aware of the nature of your propaganda, the equal but opposite force can take the form of a backlash against the author and the propaganda itself. Look at the strong reaction against advertisers who target" their advertising to specific demographic groups (for example African-Americans, women, Generation X, and so on). Strong reactions occur particularly when vendors try to sell liquor, tobacco products, or other items considered vices" in America.

Once released, propaganda is difficult to control and often becomes subject to real world influences. Sometimes propaganda can benefit from real world coincidences. The China Syndrome’s mild propaganda about the dangers of nuclear power plants got a big boost in affecting its audience because of the Three-Mile Island incident. The media coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder case may not have tainted potential jurors, but Natural Born Killers’ propaganda against the media’s sensationalization of violence got a little extra juice added to its punch. Often real life or the passage of time can undermine the effectiveness of propaganda. Reefer Madness may have been effective when it first came out, but audiences today find its propaganda against drug use obvious, simplistic, laughable and, more importantly, ineffective.

A Word About Adaptation

"Read the book; see the movie!" "Now a major motion picture!" "A novelization…" "A new musical based on the stage play…" "...based on the book…" "...based on the hit movie!" "The timeless story of…" "...a classic tale…" "...updated for today’s audience…" "...colorized…" "...reformatted to fit your screen…" "edited for television."

It’s the same old story. Or is it? Is a story the same when translated from one medium to another and if not, how is it different? What qualities must be changed to preserve a story’s integrity? To adapt adeptly an author needs to know the answers to these questions.

Before we can find out answers, it would be prudent to define some terms. First, what do we mean by adaptation?" Simply, adaptation is the process of translating a story from one medium to another. What is a medium?" A medium is a physical facility for storing information and the processes involved in recovering it. Finally, what is story?" For our purposes we shall define story as any information an author wishes to communicate to an audience (including considerations, experiences, and feelings).

So, putting it all together, adaptation is the process of translating information from one physical facility for storage and retrieval to another in such a way that it can be communicated to an audience. Sounds cold, doesn’t it. That’s because this is simply the logistic description of adaptation.

A more organic description might be: Adaptation is the process of reproducing an audience experience in another medium. That has a better feel to it, but is much less precise. Also, we can clearly see a difference in the purpose of each approach, as pointed out above when we spoke of the new story’s identity versus its integrity. One seeks to preserve the parts, the other to be true to the whole. And that is the paradox at the heart of the adapter’s dilemma: Should authors strive to recreate the structure accurately or to reproduce the dynamics faithfully? More to the point, why can’t we do both?

The answer lies with the media themselves. Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. Often what can be easily carried out in one medium is either difficult or even impossible to achieve in another. Books are not very good at directly communicating sounds or visual atmospheres. The motion picture, on the other hand, is a poor medium for directly communicating a character’s inner thoughts and feelings.

In each case, indirect means must be employed to accomplish what might be directly communicated in the other medium. To adapt a work successfully, an author must determine what to add or remove to achieve the same effect as the original medium.

It would seem that adaptations always fail to capture some aspect of the original, either in substance or essence. That is true, but it does not have to be a fatal problem. An audience tends to regard certain aspects of a story as being essential. As long as an adaptation keeps or recreates those essential elements, the audience will find the effort successful.

Beyond the essential, other elements may be more or less fully developed than in the original, providing something of the same flavor while allowing the latitude to tailor the piece for the new medium. The question then becomes how to decide which items are essential and how deeply they need to be developed, on a case-by-case basis.

The first step is to do a complete analysis of the original work. Just reading the book a hundred times or watching the movie until images are imbedded on your retina is not good enough. You don’t want to know a work just from the inside out, but you want to know it from the outside in as well—the way the audience sees it. To develop both an understanding and empathy for the story, it helps to examine it in terms of the Four Stages of Communication.

The Four Stages of Communication describe the manner in which the author’s original intent makes its way from his mind into the minds of his audience. Stage one is Story forming, in which the author first defines the message for himself. Stage two is Story encoding, where the author comes up with images and events to symbolize the message. Stage three is Story weaving, which is the process of arranging these images into scenes and acts. Stage four is Story Reception, which describes the relationship of the audience to the work. By analyzing how each of these stages functions in a story, an author can make sure the adaptation will connect at all levels of appreciation.


A key concept of traditional narrative theory is that the narrative itself is transportable among media. The narrative is not the complete story, but simply the essential dramatics of the deep structure. In Dramatica, we call this the Storyform. Dramatica is precise about what this underlying dramatic argument contains.

Each of the elements that must appear in a complete storyform is called a story point, because it is necessary for the audience to understand the story from that perspective to prevent a hole in the dramatic argument. Some story points are structural in nature, such as the story’s goal, or the Main Character’s unique ability. Others are more dynamic, such as the Main Character’s mental sex, or the story’s limit through imposing a timelock or an optionlock.

When analyzing a work to be adapted, it is sometimes difficult to separate the storyform from the storytelling. A good rule of thumb is to think of the storyform as the author’s logistical argument and the storytelling as the emotional argument.

A good example of this can be seen by comparing Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story, Cyrano de Bergerac to Roxanne, or Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now. In each pair, the storyform is nearly the same, while the storytelling is different.

An example of a poor adaptation that failed in the storyforming was the translation of A Christmas Carol into the motion picture Scrooged, starring Bill Murray.

In the original Dickens story, Scrooge is a character who must start doing something, rather than stop doing something. Scrooge does not proactively hurt people. Scrooge allows suffering to continue because of his lack of action. He has a hole in his heart. The ghost of Christmas Present presents him with two children, Ignorance and Want. They serve to illustrate the problems Scrooge perpetuates through his lack of generosity.

In the modern adaptation, Bill Murray’s character is someone who must stop doing something. He proactively harms several people. But when the argument is made for him to change, he is still presented with those who want and are needy. That argument is simply not appropriate to a character that needs to stop. As a result, the attempt to make a more proactive villain, updated for our time, failed because the supporting argument contained in the balance of the storyform was not adjusted to support the change.

Use your Dramatica software to arrive at the single storyform that best describes the work you are adapting. Make sure that if you decide to change anything, you run another storyform to learn what else must be changed as well. You may discover that you need to make only minor adjustments. Or you may find out the storyform requires so much altering that the item you intended to change would scuttle any sense of familiarity with the original.


If the storyform is the skeleton, the storyencoding is the meat. Let’s take a single storyforming story point and see how encoding can flavor its meaning. Suppose the goal of the original story is to obtain the stolen diamonds. Without changing the storyform, we might adapt that to obtaining the stolen gold. We could also change it to obtaining a diploma, obtaining someone’s love, or obtaining the office of President of the United States. Each and every one of these examples has a goal of obtaining, but each also has a different flavor depending solely on the encoding.

Often, encoding is more important to an audience than anything else. Encoding determines the setting, the subject matter, the size and scope of the issues. Substituting stolen gold for stolen diamonds would probably be interchangeable to most audience members. Substituting obtaining a diploma would not.

Encoding is the first stage that is open to authors’ interpretation. It is important to illustrate the original story’s storyform completely, so all the specific symbols used by the original author can be documented. Then, the process is to sort through the list, see which are essential, which are secondary but must be given lip service, and which can or even should be cut because of the specifics of the new medium.

When delving into this much detail, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. For example, if we elected to change stolen diamonds" to stolen gold" but still had our Main Character working for DeBeers, we might have created a problem.

This is not to say that every encoding story point must be consistent with all the others in flavor. In fact, many stories are appealing simply because the juxtaposition of contrasting symbols. The key is to make sure you preserve the same relationship between the flavors. Much like adapting a recipe for a culinary feast, you might substitute salt for sugar, but then you must also substitute vinegar for sour cream. The overall flavor would be different, but the relationship between flavors is upheld. That level of pattern-recognition is well within the grasp of most audiences. How many times has The Simpsons reproduced famous scenes from famous movies in a completely different context? This works because the internal relationships remain consistent.


Storyweaving is the process of unfolding the symbols of your story for the audience. It is where we create suspense, tension, mystery, and surprise. When adapting genres such as horror, thriller, and murder mystery, the experiential mood is almost storyform and storyencoding dependent. It is the weaving that takes center stage, and is therefore the most crucial characteristic to preserve in an adaptation.

With murder mysteries, the manner in which the cat is let out of the bag defines the audience experience. Much of the appeal of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, for example, is because of the steps through which the chase becomes afoot. Holmes has been successfully translated to almost every time and place in human history changing both storyform and storyencoding until nothing remains of the original because the feel remains the same because of the way the case unravels. In many respects, the Holmes stories are identified by their exposition template, and that is why the audience comes to the work.

This same stage of communication is highlighted in The Twilight Zone (the first series, the movie adaptation, and the adapted second series). It is also used in The Outer Limits (first series and adapted series), and almost every Stephen King book and movie. Did you ever wonder why some of King’s best works don’t translate well to the screen? The adaptations that don’t work change the storyweaving, which is the identifying trademark of the King experience.

Make sure you examine the manner in which the audience is let in on the secrets of the story to be adapted. Is the story an Extrovert that lets it all hang out from scene one? Is it a Flirt that flaunts it but takes its time in delivering? Is your story an Introvert that must have its secrets coaxed out one at a time, or is it a Liar that fools us with red herrings and misdirections?

Unless you strive to keep the original’s personality, much of the charm may be lost in the translation. An example of this kind of mistake occurred in bringing The Beverly Hillbillies to the big screen. In the original series, the storyweaving personality was much like a British comedy of manners in which the cultured and proper are forced by circumstances to accommodate unsophisticated bumpkins. Enter Politically Correct storyweaving. Suddenly, the focus of comedy shifts from manners to physical comedy.

The slapstick gags are funny enough, but that is not what the audience expected. The Beverly Hillbillies, with whom the audience grew up, was nowhere to be found in this movie. The personality associated with the title was not maintained. Interestingly, if there had been no original series, the motion picture would likely have been much funnier to an unbiased audience. When creating an original work, storyweaving considerations can be limited to exposition of the storyform. When adapting a work, storyweaving must also consider the expectations of the audience, described in the fourth stage of communication, Story Reception.

Story Reception

We started in Storyforming with the message, encoded it into symbols, relayed those symbols through storyweaving, and now that multiplexed signal arrives at the receiver: Your audience. Problem is, they all might be tuned to a different channel!

Some members of your audience will be familiar with the original work itself. Some may have experienced it many times. Others will have heard about it from a friend, but never saw or read the original. Many have only seen the advertisements, or the book review, or the trading cards, or the lunch box. A few have never heard of it at all and just stumbled on your adaptation. You may want to play on in-jokes and setups that require prior knowledge. How about that scene in Superman: The Movie when Clark runs up to the phone booth to change and there’s somebody using the phone? It would not be funny to someone who does not recognize it as a twist on the expected pattern.

In addition, there is no such thing as an audience, except when defined as a collection of individuals who experience a work. They may have nothing else in common, so you can’t expect them to respond as a single unit. What buzzwords can you safely use? Which obscure buzzwords do you want to use anyway because you expect they will catch on and become all the rage? How much biased, special-interested, politically correct, atheistic, agnostic, faithful, black, brown, white, red, yellow, young, old, middle-aged, female, male, gay, straight, bi, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, brilliant, stupid, insane, and emotionally challenged baggage are audience members going to carry to your adaptation?

Part of the adapter’s job is to identify the audience. An equally important job is to identify with the audience. This puts a burden on the author of an adaptation that the author of an original work usually does not share.

When creating an original story, one often has the luxury of writing whatever one wants, and then hoping the finished piece finds its audience. In contrast, the adept adapter must consider the full spectrum of the new audience. Usually, if a work is being considered for adaptation, it is because there is some following for the original. The adaptation is intended to not only appeal to that audience but also exceed it and attract a wider crowd.

How do you adapt a work for the masses? Simple. Make sure the story works not only as an adaptation, but on its own merits as well. Never violate dramatic integrity solely for the sake of adaptive integrity. Better to disappoint a few diehard fans than to disappoint the potential legions of new fans.

Conversely, there are those projects where the size of the new audience is unimportant. The purpose of this kind of adaptation is to supply those few diehard fans with a new medium of enjoyment for their favorite story. In this case you must be faithful to every detail, even if it turns out a work that can’t stand on its own merit.

Either approach is reason enough to shape the nature of the adaptation. Seldom can both be done at the same time. More than anything, Story Reception is where the author decides for whom they wish to write. Once you have identified that group, you must get into their heads, to get into their hearts.

In Summary

Adaptation is no simple task. It requires familiarity with both the logistics and passion of the original, from the inside out and the outside in. To achieve this familiarity, one must resonate with the original on many levels, best examined through the Four Stages of Communication.

  • Storyforming: Storyform the original and then create a new storyform to reflect any changes you make in the adaptation.
  • Storyencoding: Delineate the original encoding and determine what must be lifted verbatim, what might be altered, and what could or should be removed or added.
  • Storyweaving: Reproduce the storyweaving personality to reproduce the dramatic flavor faithfully.
  • Story Reception: Determine the prior knowledge and expectations of your audience.

In conclusion, and above all, to your new audience be true, for then how canst thee be false to the original?

Dramatica Story Expert

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