How I Use Dramatica

by Erik Bork

Dramatica has been a key resource for me in better understanding the elements of a good story, and is by far the most comprehensive tool I know of for taking apart what makes a successful screenplay or novel work. It goes miles beyond anything else I know of in breaking down the mechanics of how character and story components ideally fit together, and its software helps writers to understand the deeper levels of virtually every creative choice they make, and how these dramatic underpinnings fit together. By feeding it some of your key story elements, it processes them in accord with its theory and tells you what all the other key elements should be, which can be extremely helpful in developing your material into something sophisticated, complete and satsifying.

I recently met the theory's co-creator Chris Huntley, and was intrigued to learn that his analysis of one of my favorite movies, JERRY MAGUIRE, led him to conclude that its story is really two "stories" (as Dramatica defines "story") in one, something that is done rarely in movies, but somewhat more often in novels. So it's not the perfect model of a typical and complete Dramatica story, but for the most part it works, anyway. In other words, Chris doesn't try to crowbar every successful movie into his theory and try to prove that somehow they all use every story element Dramatica presents. Instead, the theory and software provides a kind of idealized analysis of all the puzzle pieces that make up a complete story, which one is free to depart from as much as one chooses.

This to me is the key to how to best use Dramatica. Like many others, when I first started using it, I took a very left-brain approach to this quite complicated system of how stories work – trying to answer every single question in the software about a burgeoning story I was trying to write, in the hopes that it would somehow "create" the elements that weren't there yet. It doesn't create; it simply suggests underlying elements of different aspects of your story for you to then illustrate. But before you really have a firm grasp on what your story is, these can become like frustrating homework, on a subject (your story) that you don't know enough about yet to really answer. And filling in the blanks on these questions when your concept is still quite sketchy may not be the best way to create.

Eventually, I came to believe that the software is better used as a tool to find what might be missing or not working in a story that's already been developed a bit. It can get in the way or become a crutch if you focus on answering its endless questions in an organized, controlled, "completist" way. But those same questions can lead you to deepen and improve what you're writing endlessly once you have a basic concept and creative take on what you're writing – it can help you take the skeleton of the story to the next level, if you can find a way to balance the left-brain analysis with the more right-brain creative process from which inspired ideas tend to come.

That said, the most basic tenet of Dramatica can be useful early in the process, after the premise has been developed to the point where you have a workable concept that ideally could hook people in a one- or two-sentence or "logline." This basic tenet is that a complete story tends to have four distinct "throughlines": (1) an Objective Story that all the characters are involved in, which includes a protagonist, antagonist, and a number of other characters with unique dramatic functions, seen from a bird's eye view; (2) a Main Character throughline that is about the emotional perspective of the person whose eyes and emotions we predominantly see the story through (who is usually also the protagonist, but not always); (3) an Impact Character throughline, about the person whose presence challenges the Main Character to consider changing in some key way (who is not necessarily against the Main Character achieving their desires); and finally, (4) the Subjective Story of these two characters' evolving relationship, which is what challenges the Main Character to go beyond trying to solve what they think is the real problem of the story and confront some deeper more important problem, at which point the story ultimately resolves with either the Main Character or Impact Character changing in some key way. Finding these four throughlines and the basic arc of this relationship can take a premise beyond an effective logline to something that suggests a complete and emotionally satisfying story.

It was really a revelation to me to realize that the main character doesn't have to change in a significant way – which other story theories seemed to suggest. They are impacted by events and grow and evolve, but their basic approach on the central story situation can remain "steadfast" while their Impact Character changes. For example, Jerry Maguire remains "steadfast" in his basic desire to be a better kind of sports agent – ending with success at what he had identified as a key goal in the beginning. But his client Rod Tidwell – his Impact Characer – changes in his approach to the game, thanks to Jerry's influence. In the "other" story in this movie (the romantic one), Main Character Dorothy Boyd remains steadfast in her approach to Jerry as a romantic partner, whereas Jerry – her Impact Character – changes in his approach to relationships, including their marriage. Because it is two stories in one, the movie is a bit long, and seems to go back and forth a bit, without developing either story in as complete and convincing a way as it might've. But I think most people would agree that the movie still basically works.

When I was working on true stories about Apollo astronauts or World War II paratroopers for episodes of FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON and BAND OF BROTHERS, I was definitely aware of the value of paying attention to these four different throughlines, and finding a subjective story where two characters impact each other, and one changes. The limitations of the format and the nature of the true stories and characters limited the extent to which I could fully pull this off, but I felt my scripts and my approach to how to tell those stories were greatly helped by Dramatica, and it positively influenced both miniseries as a whole. I came to believe strongly that having a clear main character point-of-view was essential, and was drawn to those episodes where such a character could be explored at some depth – as opposed to just telling an Objective Story only about the larger movement of the story that affects everyone, which might be powerful and entertaining on one level, but could lack the emotional heart that a singular subjective point-of-view (and key relationship with an Impact Character) can bring.

I also used Dramatica in other projects I wrote for HBO, Playtone and other producers I worked with on these miniseries, that didn't end up getting produced, but were still "successful" for me in moving my writing career forward – scripts I was not only paid for, but which acted as writing samples to help me secure future work in different formats and genres than I had been known for. For instance, I wrote the first two hours of an aborted six-hour miniseries about the founding of Apple Computer Co., the first of which pitted Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak against each other as Main and Impact Characters conflicting over the question of whether "Woz" would let Jobs join him as a partner in Woz's creation and turn it into business. I wrote an episode of another potential HBO miniseries based on a comedic novel about a senior executive having a mid-life crisis that used a colleague of the Main Character who has a heart attack as an Impact Character causing him to question his life choices. And finally, I adapted the true story of a drug-addicted jockey who almost won the Triple Crown as a feature (for HBO Films), in which the jockey's long-time agent acted as an Impact Character to the jockey Main Character.

This only scratches the surface of how I used the theory and software in these and other projects, as it only addresses the basic concept of the Four Throughlines. In all of them, I went far beyond this to explore all elements of othe Dramatica Theory and apply it to the stories I was writing, as well as my work as a producer helping to oversee other writers on other episodes, at times. In my opinion, this work helped to benefit the projects in significant ways, even if nobody but me knew I was using this theory in my writing!

About the Author

Erik Borkhas won multiple Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for writing and producing HBO's BAND OF BROTHERS and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, and has written features and pilots (and worked on series staff for a long list of major networks, studios, and production companies. He's also a long-time Dramatica user! Visit his site to receive a complimentary Ten Key Principles, where you can also learn more about his consulting services for writers.

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