Dramatica’s Style & Substance

by KE Monahan Huntley

The buzz on film at the turn of the millennium-loud and clear-touts this time as artistically ingenious and financially flush. A collage of popular culture and mixed media, and utilization of up-to-the-nanosecond new technology has certainly provided wildly imagined, riveting story style. Whatever the current vogue, substance is also essential for a compelling story. Dramatica's four stages of communication address both style and substance, without sacrificing one for the other:

  1. Storyforming--a story's framework of structure and dynamics; the idea or message.
  2. Storyencoding--the symbols selected to illustrate a story. The process of developing scenarios and images to convey the underlying structure and dynamics of a story.
  3. Storyweaving--the order and emphasis used in presenting story elements to an audience over time. Choosing what part of the storyform to relate, and when to relate it, allows an author to fashion the many different dramatic story threads into a potentially unique tapestry.
  4. Reception--how the audience interprets a finished story. Reception explores how a story's impact is changed because of the personality of the audience.

Four films of Dramatica note exemplify cinema's new wave. Being John Malkovich and Election-obvious cutting edginess; Galaxy Quest and Toy Story 2-dashing takes on the traditional. All contain viable storyforms. Symbols, scenarios, and images cleverly woven into these narratives are unconventional yet easily recognizable to the general movie-going population, e.g., Star Wars, Star Trek, TV commercials, video games, faux documentaries, dot coms, music (Donovan's love song "Jennifer Juniper" used in Election is hysterically funny), etc.

Dramatica's first three stages of communication are definitely adhered to in great innovative style, however, it is the audience's reception that puts the groovy in these comedic movies. Particularly, reception of character: Tim Allen, the voice of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 2, is the main character and protagonist in Galaxy Quest -- a throwaway line of dialogue in the latter ties the characters together. The title Being John Malkovich describes the story goal-yet instead of being the star, the actor is a supporting character. In Election, Matthew Broderick reverses one of his best known roles -- that of an errant student -- by playing an earnest teacher. In all four films (plus quite a few others), audience expectations are played with but the filmmakers make sure the audience is savvy enough to be in on the joke.

Popular culture as a collective reference point is pure entertainment. Unpredictable narratives rouse an audience. Will the trendy become tired? Will familiarity breed contempt? Bueller? Anybody? Whatever the latest craze, writers with unlimited imagination-and not to mention 32,768 Dramatica storyforms (software plug!)-can take 21st century multi-media storytelling "To infinity and beyond!"

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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