What about stories where things end up the same?


In some of Harlan Ellison's stories the only consequences for failure to reach the goal seem to be that things will go on exactly as before. Are these Ellison stories breaking the rule? Or am I misinterpreting something?


The Consequences in a story, such as in many of Harlan Ellison's works, are that a potential avenue of relief or escape has been denied or prohibited and therefore the quality of "spirit" has been degraded. There is a limited potential for hope or chance of relief in a story such as that, and when a Goal to escape is thwarted, some of that hope is lost. Consequences do not need to be tangible items. That's why items like Being, Becoming, Memory, etc. can be Consequences.

Can you explain Consequences?

Consequences are the "or else" in a story. The characters had better achieve the goal, "or else" something they don't want will happen, worsen, or continue to exist longer than they want. For example, in The Godfather, the Corleone family must find a new don and reassert themselves as the reigning family, or else they will lose face and become mere puppets of the stronger families. In Howard Hawks' screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, David (Cary Grant) must obtain the million dollar donation or else he will lose his respectability and be labeled a nutcase. In Lawrence of Arabia, the goal is to learn Prince Feisal's political ambitions and how to neutralize any plans of uniting the tribes into an Arabian nation, or else the Arabs might get the idea that they can be independent of the British.

Does Dramatica call for 28 scenes or 24?

I'm confused about Plot Progressions and the Plot Reference. The former has 7 parts for each throughline: 4 signposts and 3 journeys. The latter has six combinations of signpost considerations per four acts. That's 28 versus 24 scenes.

  1.     How do I reconcile the number of plot events (28 vs. 24) when I write a story? Or perhaps I'm comparing apples to oranges.
  2.     Regarding the Plot Reference Comparisons, when I'm asked to contrast, oh let's say an analytical look at Understanding to a passionate look at Becoming, do I have to do that in the same scene (perhaps by finding an issue that combines them both), or do I have to compare them in two separate but juxtaposed scenes?

Signposts and Journeys are a bit like apples and oranges. Signposts are more structurally oriented, while Journeys are more oriented on story dynamics. Signposts focus on content/subject matter; Journeys focus on experiences and transitions. From a COMPLETELY analytical point of view (God's eye view or Author view), each of the four signposts appear to consume the entire "plot" of the story which leaves the journeys to be viewed as "turning points." Conversely, from a COMPLETELY experiential point of view (Audience view), the three Journeys appear to consume the entire "plot" of the story which leaves the signposts to be viewed as, well, signposts that mark progress along the story journey.

The differing interpretations presented by the two approaches is the cause of confusion between the 3 Act and 4 Act methods of understanding stories. The reality is that we, as authors and audiences of our own works, alternate between both views. This alternation has its advantages and disadvantages. The principle advantage is that we can see both the logic and feeling of the story, predict the events and understand the meaning. The disadvantage is the confusion that is created when we get the two mixed up either as author or audience.

Theme tends to be associated with "meaning" more than "prediction." Therefore, the six thematic comparisons are best worked into the journeys (on average 2 per journey). OR, if you prefer the more structural signpost approach, you can weave 3 thematic comparisons for each HALF (2 signposts) of the story. The bottom line is that material for each signpost and journey and thematic comparison (and everything else in the storyform) need to be woven together in the finished product.

We created the Signpost/Journey methodology in Dramatica to accommodate both techniques so that ALL the bases were covered. Authors will naturally emphasize one over the other.


The answer is that you can accomplish the comparison both ways, either by direct comparison or by juxtaposition. That is COMPLETELY a matter of personal preference and is done during the storyweaving process. What Dramatica is trying to say is that a comparison should be made between these two perspectives and the context within which each is to be shown. How you accomplish this is truly up to you as author.

How do Act progressions compare to traditional screenplay rules of thumb?

A way to correlate the 30/90/120 page rule in screenplays to Dramatica is as follows:

  1. Pages 1-30 = Signpost #1
  2. Pages 30-60 = Signpost #2
  3. Pages 60-90 = Signpost #3
  4. Pages 90-120 = Signpost #4

This is a PURELY structural view and does not account for Journeys as independent "pieces." The structural view is also the "author's" view and therefore the least touchy-feely way to analyze a story.

The "audience" view of a story, the MOST touchy-feely way to experience a story, would be to look only at the journeys:

Journey #1 == begins somewhere between pages 1 - 30

and ends somewhere between pages 30 - 60

Journey #2 == begins somewhere between pages 30 - 60

and ends somewhere between pages 60 - 90

Journey #3 == begins somewhere between pages 6 - 90

and ends somewhere between pages 90 - 120

The leftovers before Journey #1 and after Journey #3 become the "prologue" or setup, and the "epilogue" or payoff/author's proof.

The Aristotelian "3 Act" structure is most akin to the 30/90/120 form with which you are familiar. It happens to be a blend of both the author AND audience perspectives and sort of fits the following format:

Pages 1-30 = Signpost #1

Pages 30-90 = An amalgam that consists mostly of Journey #2

Pages 9-120 = Signpost #4

The primary advantage of this approach is that it provides partial author and audience perspectives meaning that you can (to a limited degree) both logic the story and feel the story. The disadvantage to this approach is that it is neither fish nor fowl and therefore you cannot DO anything SPECIFIC with the story. You can only get generalized impressions about the story.

Since a finished work MUST account for both the author AND the audience perspectives, and should work for BOTH of them, there are specific guidelines you should follow. These, however, are not unbreakable RULES and, in fact, the guidelines have pretty fuzzy edges. Specifically, the guidelines I am referring to are both the Signposts and the Journeys provided in the Dramatica approach to story. Where one Signpost leaves off and a Journey begins is a matter of debate. In point of fact, each are coexistent in a story and it is only our perspective (as author or audience) that impinges these "edges" on the seamless continuum of a story.

As tools, use either Signposts or Journeys as your primary act progression reference "aid." Then use the other one to check your work and/or fill in any gaps you may find. By doing this, you are less likely to inadvertently slip into a blended view that might allow for inconsistencies or "plot holes."

How can I reconcile 3 Act Structure with how Dramatica sees plot?

How can I reconcile the 3 Act and 4 Act ways to look at a story's structure using Dramatica? How does this fit with Dramatica's StoryGuide and its Signposts and Journeys?

The short answer is that the paradox or dichotomy between the 3's and 4's (taken to their extremes) is actually like mixing oil and vinegar. The 3's point of view is the experiential (audience) point of view. The 4's point of view is the logistical (author) point of view. The StoryGuide with it's Signposts and Journeys is somewhat of a cheat, kind of like mixing the oil and vinegar. The signposts are 4's and the journeys are 3's. If you mix them up enough they SEEM to blend to create a smooth homogenous consistency, but let them sit still for a moment and they appear to separate back into oil and vinegar, 3's and 4's.

What does Dramatica have to say about subplots?

We refer to them as substories because they can have plot, character, theme, and even genre elements.

The best way to deal with substories in Dramatica is to create a completely separate storyform for it. Then, when you go about creating the finished work, use your storyweaving skills to thread the story and substory(s) together. Substories are particularly good devices to get yourself out of a character or plot corner. Objective characters do not change their characteristics over the course of a story -- they don't grow within the context of the central issue of the Objective Story throughline. However, change the context and they can behave however you want them to.

For example, in Star Wars, Han Solo is an archetypal Skeptic--he disbelieves and opposes everything. The only time he behaves differently is when we pop into his substory concerning Jabba the Hut. Then he is very willing to help--whether it's getting ObiWan et al off of Tatooine, or rescuing Princess Leia from termination. Proper use of substories can really spice up otherwise predictable stories.

What if you can’t decide on “Success” or “Failure”?

I have a hard time assigning a simple "Success" or "Failure" label to many stories, because the success is often tempered with failure, and vice versa, and sometimes it is hard to tell which one predominates. In Rob Roy, for example, Rob stays alive -- success -- but he fails to make life better for his people, which was his original goal. In fact, a tremendous number of his people are much worse off than they were when he first decided to try to change things for the better. I suppose it depends on whether the Story Goal is "Staying Alive" or "Making things better for all of MacGregor's people." (I'm sure you have some specific terminology that covers both of those goals, but I haven't learned it yet.)

Actually, you should treat the issue of Success/Failure in a completely non-judgmental way. If the goal was achieved: Success. If it was not: Failure.

There is another question in Dramatica which is where you make the judgmental call: the Story Judgment. If the MC resolves their personal angst, then the judgment is Good. If the MC is left having to cope with personal issues, then the judgment is Bad. The degree of Success, Failure, Good, or Bad is completely up to you. Combining the two questions gives you four different kinds of endings: Success/Good = Triumph (Star Wars). Failure/Bad = Tragedy (Hamlet). Failure/Good = Personal Triumph (Rain Man). Success/Bad = Personal Tragedy (Silence of the Lambs).

As far as Rob Roy goes, my take on it is that the general concern (for EVERYONE in the story) is to protect one's honor (abstracted as the honor of the Scottish) and one's own to prevent destruction of the family line. This is true of the peasants (tracking down and killing cattle robbers) as well as gentry (both English and Scottish). More specifically, it is the concern for Rob Roy and his friends and family (Story Goal). If that is the story goal, then it is a Success / Good story. HOWEVER, Dramatica also discusses a story point call the Story Costs. In Rob Roy, the costs are very high. This offsets the "triumph" feel of the story by bringing the value of the goal down

How do the Static Plot Appreciations work together?

Okay, so unless I misunderstand your meaning, for there to be 2 kinds of forewarnings, there may also be 2 different kinds of consequences (sort of); one is things worsening (or getting better) and the other is things not changing--i.e., "the Goal will not be achieved" (which, is a type of worsening or getting better from the audience's point-of-view).

All of the Dramatica story appreciations (or story points) in any single perspective have a relationship to each other. My example involving the story Forewarnings put forewarnings in two different contexts. The first was in terms of the Consequences (forewarnings as indicators of an impending Consequence). The second was in terms of the Goal (forewarnings as indicators that the Goal will not be achieved). Since Consequences are "what happens if the Goal is not achieved," then the second example could be read as: forewarnings as indicators of the Consequence (which is conceptually, if not linguistically, identical to the first example).

I'm not trying to play games with words here. What I'm trying to communicate is that there is a relationship between each of these items and ALL of its compatriot items. You may choose the context in which to look for understanding, but realize that changing the context of your understanding will not alter the relationship between the items.

Here is a COMPLETELY non-story related analogy that I hope gives you a "feel" for what I mean. Imagine a family consisting of one Father, one Mother, and one Child. The Father and Mother are married to each other. We can look at the child in terms of the Father, the Mother, or both (the marriage). Forewarnings are like the child of Goal and Consequences. They can be seen in either context, both of which are valid. The Child can be shown to be related to the Mother directly (the Child is the offspring of the Mother), or indirectly through the Father (the Child is the offspring of the wife of the Father). Both expressions of the relationship are accurate, but convey slightly different information. It's your job to pick which is most appropriate to the way you want to present the information.

Must a new Act begin with a Story Driver?

Dramatica recommends at least five Story Drivers: before (or to start) each Act, and as the closing event. But say a story had six or seven drivers. Would four of them still have to line up as turns into each act, with the fifth as the closing event?

Or could seven drivers be evenly spaced between the four acts, with only the Inciting and Closing events lining up with act breaks?

Short answer: Yes


All act turn driver events must occur between the Inciting and Closing events in the Overall Story thoughline, which means the inciting and closing events cannot line up with act breaks because the open and close the story's argument. You can have material before the inciting event (prologue) and material after the closing event (epilogue) if you want.

The driver events in the Overall Story throughline move the throughline forward. While you can have more than the five drivers, they should be in addition to the locations of the five standard drivers (opening event, first, second, and third act turns, and closing event).


Each of the four throughlines has three act breaks, which gives you a total of twelve act breaks. When all four throughlines are synchronized, the story will seem to have only three act breaks. However, one can easily make them asynchronous and have more act transitions (though the drivers only control the Overall Story throughline). This technique is often used in television so that commercial breaks have the feel of act transitions.

Who are Optionlocks Tied To?

I started off thinking the Optionlock applied to the Protagonist in the OS, then just the OS itself, but a comment by Chris about the antagonist in Ghostbusters having options made me go through podcasts and realize actions of both should be realized in terms of the optionlock, not just reactions to each other. Thirteenth Floor has an MC seemingly with options of tracking down whodunnit, but he's not the protagonist. The optionlocks seem tied in with the driver turning points. I wondered if the driver characters (protagonist, antagonist, contagonist, guide) each tend to have optionlocks. The Passenger usually wouldn't, otherwise they wouldn't be passengers in the story.

Since the Story Limit brings the story to the climax, it seems easiest to tie the limit, optionlock or timelock, to the Story Goal in the Overall Story throughline. Once the limit has been reached...CRISIS, CLIMAX, CONCLUSION.

What is the reason for seeing Act Transitions as Bumps and Slides?

I've been reading your presentation of Dramatica Act Structures, with some fascination. However, in among the bumps and slides is a basic question: To what end? By analyzing color changes brought on by these patterns, are you providing a way of instantly knowing where dramatic patterns are most effective?

I'll tell you what the bumps and slides mean to me.

Dramatica is a VERY logical and objectified view of story. It presents a way to analyze and structure stories in a manner that allows me to build stories like I might prepare a cooking recipe. It gives me categories of ingredients, procedures, order of preparation, etc. What is does NOT do well is give me the FEEL of the story (a view almost exclusively that of the audience).

The bumps and slides logically indicate to me what I can FEEL is going on in a story when I view it. It provides a fairly concrete connection between how the story is put together logically, and the feel of it when experiencing it. So for me, the patterns of the bumps and slides helps me connect the way I want the story to feel (or not feel) with the overall structure of the story. This gives me a general ideal of how my story may play with an audience.

For example, the Z-pattern (bump-slide-bump) explains the FEEL of a traditional three-act story BETTER than the three Journeys Dramatica uses. It does not negate the value or use of Journeys, it just explains the feel of a story more accurately than the explanation of Journeys ever did (which is one of the reasons I continued looking for other explanations in the first place.) Secondly, I can use the "feel" of the story an another standard of measure when I analyze a story. If it feels like an episodic story but is structured like a z-pattern, then that might indicate I should recheck some of my storyforming choices--as well as look to which throughlines are emphasized and which are not.

The short answer is that bumps and slides give me more ways to understand what goes on in a story, whether I'm creating one from scratch or analyzing a finished work.

Story Goal vs. Signposts

I have always thought a goal of the story should show up at the end of the story. However after playing around with Dramatica I often find the goal showing up as the first second or third signpost. How should I interpret this?

The story goal is a SPECIFIC instance of the Overall Story Concern (or Signpost) about which the Overall Story characters represent differing approaches to achieving it by resolving the underlying conflict.  The Story Goal should be explored in each of the four acts (signposts) of the Overall Story throughline followed by the resolution of the effort to achieve the goal identified by the Story Outcome (Success or Failure) somewhere toward the end of the story.

The Overall Story Signposts describe the various approaches toward achieving the goal while also exploring the alternatives, one of which is of the same nature (Type) as the story goal. 

For example, your story might have a Story Goal of OBTAINING, such as Finding the Lost Treasure.  It will also have an Overall Story Concern of OBTAINING, which is a more generalized concern that might include finding a map, winning the lottery, losing an election, losing a job, etc.  The various Overall Story Characters, some concerned with one thing while the others concerned with the other things, explore these in general. 

The signposts provide a broad context for a period of time in the story (an Act) that frames the effort to achieve the specific Story Goal, broad Overall Story Concern, and resolve the story's OS Problem(s). The Signpost that explores Obtaining might be thought of as "what do the characters gain or lose while trying to find the lost treasure?"  Another signpost -- such as Gathering Information/Learning -- might be thought of "what do the characters learn or what information is gathered while trying to find the lost treasure?" Thus all four acts are explored through the signposts within each throughline. 

There is no general difference if the Type (the structural item associated with the Story Goal and OS Concern and one of the Overall Story Signposts) shows up in the first, second, third, or last signpost.  The difference is the context in which the Type is found: whether it is the narrow focus of the Story Goal, the general area of the Overall Story Concern, or the temporary context provided by the Overall Story Signposts.