Plot vs. Storyweaving
A common mistake made when considering plot is to assume that plot refers to the sequence of events in a finished story. A more accurate view considers the difference between the progression of events in a story’s structure, and the order in which these are revealed to an audience.
As an example of the difference between the two, we can look to the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. The book opens with five travelers falling to their deaths as the bridge they are crossing collapses. The rest of the book documents how each of the travelers came to be on that bridge at that time. Clearly, the progression of events for the characters was different from the order of revelation granted to the audience.
In contrast, the novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. follows the adventures of a Main Character who lives his life out of chronological order. In this case, the mixed-up progression of events is part of the plot’s structure, not simply part of the storytelling.
The key difference between these two aspects of plot is that there is an internal logic to the plot’s structure from the character’s point of view, and there is an order in which that logic is revealed to the audience.
Looking toward motion pictures for examples, films such as Pulp Fiction, Memento, or Remains of the Day present their plots in a different order than the order in which events actually occurred. In each of these stories, there is an internal logic to the sequence of events as they occurred in the structure. Then, that sequence is mixed up and presented to the audience in the new order. This new arrangement has a different affect on how an audience responds to each story, yet does not alter the internal logic at all. In other words, if we re-edited Pulp Fiction, Memento, or Remains of the Day to reveal the plot in chronological order, the message of the story’s structure would remain the same, but the viewing experience for the audience would change.
A prime example of this kind of impact shift is in the film and video versions of the movie, Once Upon a Time in America. The story explores the changing relationships of a group of friends from their days as poor children during the Depression to their eventual stations in life as old men in today’s society. In its original theatrical release, episodes from several different periods in their long history together were jumbled up, so the audience would see them as old men, then young boys, old men again, and then teenagers. A large part of the enjoyment in watching this film was to try to sort out how one thing would eventually lead to another, and to discover why some expected things didn’t happen after all. In a sense, viewing the movie was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
In the video release, however, they presented the story in chronological order. All the same pieces were there, but the story lost much of its charm, appearing absurdly simple and predictable in this new form.
The point is the plot of a story describes the internal logic or sequence of events. These events lead the characters from their situations and attitudes at the beginning of the problem to their situations and attitudes when the effort to solve the problem is finally over. Once that has been established, an author may choose to rearrange the order in which those events are revealed to the audience. This rearrangement may be integral to the feel of the finished work, but has no effect on the internal logic. As a result, such a technique falls into the area of storytelling. In Dramatica, we call storytelling techniques of this nature Storyweaving. Storyweaving is explored fully in the portion of this book dealing with The Art of Storytelling. Here, we will only examine the nature of the plot itself.
A Thematic Side To Plot
Plot has two sides: One side deals with the sequence of what happens next. The other side is thematic in nature and controls what the plot is about. Terms that describe the sequence of plot include Acts, Chapters, and Scenes. Terms that describe the thematics of plot include Goal, Requirements, and Consequences. We’ll examine the thematic side of plot first.
Plot Story Points
As with the thematic perspectives we have already explored, plot thematics are also story points. What sets these apart is that they do not fall in any single throughline. In fact, they are scattered among all four throughlines. This is because these plot story points represent the collective impact of all four throughlines combined. So, when we speak of Goal, we are not talking about one throughline’s goal. Rather, we are referring to the Story Goal, which draws from and impacts all four throughlines.
The story-wide effects of plot story points are clear. The Main Character, Influence Character, and Overall Story Characters are all caught up in the ripples caused by the quest for the Story Goal. The nature of the goal and the effort to achieve it even impacts the Relationship Story Throughline.
There are eight Plot Story Points that stand at the center of all four throughlines. They are the story Goal, Requirements, Consequences, Forewarnings, Dividends, Costs, Prerequisites, and Preconditions. All of these story points are at the Type level of the Thematic Structure.
In stories that reflect Western culture—particularly in American culture—the Story Goal is traditionally in the Overall Story Throughline. This results in a story in which the Goal concerns all the Overall Story Characters. The Goal, however, might just as well be in the Main Character Throughline, or either of the other two throughlines. In such a story, the overall Goal could be whatever the Main Character was hoping for or working toward, regardless of what was of concern to the Overall Story Characters.
In fact, it is the Concerns in each throughline that might also double up as the Story Goal. This ties all four throughlines’ Concerns together into the issues central to the story as a whole. The relationship among the eight plot story points remains the same no matter which throughline serves as their anchor point. Therefore, we shall describe the nature of the eight Plot Story Points as they appear when the Story Goal is also the Overall Story Throughline Concern. For other perspectives, one merely needs to shift into a different point of view, such as that of the Main Character. The story points themselves would remain the same; only what they are applied to would change.
The Story Goal will share the same Type as the Overall Story Concern. What then is the difference between a Goal and a Concern? A Concern simply describes the category of the kinds of things the Overall Story Characters worry most about. The Story Goal describes a specific item that is a shared concern. For example, if the Overall Story Concern is Obtaining, then all the characters worry about Obtaining something important to each of them. One might wish to Obtain a diploma, another to Obtain a lost treasure. A Story Goal of Obtaining in the same story might be everyone’s wish to Obtain a pirate map. The map would bring recognition leading to a diploma for one character and a lost treasure to another. In such a story, the audience waits to see if the Goal is Obtained or not because of the character concerns that such an outcome will affect.
To achieve a particular Type of Story Goal, a necessary Type of Requirements must be met. Requirements can come in two varieties. One is a series of steps that must occur in a particular order. The other is more like a shopping list that must be filled, no matter the order in which it is completed. Step Requirements can be accomplishments such as winning a series of preliminary bouts to qualify for a shot at the title. List Requirements can be gathered items such as clues or ingredients. Regardless of the Step or List nature of the Requirements for a particular story, they must all fall into the category described by the Requirement’s Type.
What happens if the characters fail to achieve the Goal? They suffer the Consequences. In some stories, the characters may already be suffering Consequences as the story opens. The Goal then becomes that one thing which will bring an end to the suffering. In this case, the characters’s troubles are the Consequences of not yet having achieved the Goal. Just as in real life, sometimes Goals are a reward, other times Goals bring relief. It all depends on whether the situation starts out good, but needs improvement, or whether it starts out bad and needs correction.
Just as progress in meeting Requirements signals how close the Goal is to being reached, the progress of Forewarnings points out how close the Consequences are to being imposed. Forewarnings can be as simple as cracks forming in a dam or as subtle as an increasing number of missed appointments. Characters are not only running toward the Goal, but trying to outrun the Consequences as well. Tension increases when one is both the pursuer and the pursued. For stories in which the Consequences are already in place, Forewarnings show how close things are to making the Consequence permanent. We find an example of this kind of Forewarning in Walt Disney’s production of Beauty And The Beast. Here, petals falling off a rose forebode the point at which the prince must remain a beast forever.
Driver And Passenger Plot Story Points
Just as there are Driver and Passenger characters, there are Driver and Passenger Plot Story Points as well. Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings are the Drivers and set the course of a story’s plot. The next four story points, Dividends, Costs, Prerequisites, and Preconditions, are the Passengers which modulate the course of the plot set by the Drivers.
During the effort to achieve the goal, certain benefits are enjoyed or accrued along the way. These serve to add motivation for the characters to continue. No one likes to keep his nose to the grindstone for an extended duration in the hope of eventually receiving a reward. Similarly, if one is already suffering a Consequence, simply accepting that torment while working toward relief quickly becomes unbearable. Characters need to enjoy small rewards along the way—little perks that make the journey bearable and the effort tolerable.
Just as positive benefits accrue during the effort to achieve the goal, so do negative costs have to be paid. Every time a character endures some displeasure while trying to achieve the goal, this added price is a Cost. Costs and Dividends modulate the intensity of the Overall Story Character’s drive toward the Goal. These characters cannot know if they will eventually succeed or not. As a result, putting in effort is something of a gamble. Just as with a slot machine in a casino, every spin that simply takes one’s money is a Cost. Every small payout is a Dividend. By properly balancing the two, they can preserve their motivation to continue in hopes of a jackpot. Each Dividend is proof that rewards can be had, and even if the Costs outweigh the Dividends, the Goal would cover those costs and leave much more profit besides. Of course, as with gambling, characters may slowly accrue so many costs that even achieving the goal would not cover the physical or emotional debt.
Any effort requires supplies, often called essentials. The effort to achieve the Goal also requires these essential Prerequisites. You can’t make progress without meeting the Prerequisites. Only by gathering the needed materials can you try to meet a story’s Requirements. Prerequisites might be a certain kind of transportation, a specific amount of money, a grade point average, or the approval of a bureaucrat. As long as the item in question is essential to mounting the effort to achieve the Goal, it is a Prerequisite. Prerequisites themselves do not bring the Goal any closer, which is why they are not Requirements. All they do is define the raw materials or foundations that must be in place before the quest for the Goal can advance.
In contrast to Prerequisites, Preconditions are like riders tacked on to the ends of bills voted on in Congress. With such a bill, the Goal might be to help an endangered species. One of the Requirements would be to pass a bill that gives the species legal status as endangered. One of the Prerequisites would be to get enough votes to pass the bill. One of the Preconditions for getting a block of votes would be to add a rider on the bill that provides subsidies to the tobacco industry. Clearly the rider has nothing to do with the original bill, and might even be philosophically at odds with its intent. But, to get the job done, concessions must be made.
Similarly, Preconditions in a story are non-essential constraints or costs placed on the characters in exchange for the help of someone who controls essential Prerequisites. This might be the only Bedouin who can supply camels so an expedition can cross a desert, who insists they take his uncontrollable daughter with them.
In the movie, The Karate Kid, the Protagonist is a young boy who wants to be a Karate Champion. To achieve this goal, he must meet the Requirements of winning preliminary bouts. To win these bouts, the Prerequisites are that he receives extra training from a master. The master, who controls this Prerequisite, adds a precondition. He insists the young boy learn new moves by doing chores around the master’s house that incorporate those moves, “Wax on… Wax off.” Clearly, there are other ways to learn Karate than doing chores, but this Precondition comes from the master’s desire for the boy to learn humility with his skill.
These eight Plot Story Points are the touch points between plot and Theme. Without them, the plot would simply be a series of events that held no particular meaning. With them, the plot supports the thematic argument, and through it touches the other Thematic Story Points such as the Main Character Problem. In this manner, Theme stands as a bridge connecting character to plot so what characters do thematically impacts the progression of events, and events that occur thematically impact the way characters think.
There are Overall Story Throughline story points, Main Character story points, Influence Character story points and Relationship Story Throughline story points. There are even story points that are the synthesis of all four points of view such as Goal, Requirements, and Consequences. These central story points seem the most plot-like because they affect the Concerns of all four throughlines.
As varied as all of these story points are, there is one quality they share: They stay the same from the beginning to the end of a story. For example, if a story’s Goal is Obtaining, that never changes during the story. If the Main Character’s Problem is Logic, then Logic is always that character’s Problem from “Once upon a time” to “They all lived happily ever after.” True, the Main Character may solve his Problem, but he will never magically stop being driven by one kind of Problem and start being driven by another. We call Story Points of this stable nature “Static Story Points.”
Static Story Points are thematic in nature because they form a bias or commentary on the story as a whole. Even the eight Plot Story Points have a Theme-like feel to them, for they describe what the plot is about. But there is more to plot that this. In fact, there is a different kind of story point that moves from one issue to another as a story develops. These are called Progressive Plot Points. Through them the story explores the series of events in the Overall Story Throughline. They reveal the growth of the Main Character and the changing nature of the Influence Character’s impact. They also show the developing relationship of the Main and Influence Characters in the Relationship Story Throughline.
We can see that each of the four throughlines has, in a sense, a plot of its own, yet they all affect one another in some consistent manner. What is it that makes them separate, yet binds them? A good way to get a feel for this kind of relationship is to think of a story as a football game covered by four different referees. The “real” plot of the game is the series of events that take place on the field. Not one of the four referees can see all the events, for each can only see what is visible from his position. A referee on the opposite side of the field might see interactions that were masked or hidden from the first position, whereas the first referee might report activities not visible from the other side.
Based on what he believes to be happening from his position, each of the referees calls penalties or allows play to continue. Often, the other referees will simply accept that judgment and play will continue. Occasionally though, two or more referees will disagree about what happened simply because the events looked different from each of their perspectives. In this case, the umpire steps in to moderate the referees and settle what the call should be, even if he did not see the play himself.
In stories, each throughline is like one of these referees. Each provides an angle on the events of the story as they unfold. When something appears unfavorable from one of those points of view, the characters in that Throughline cry foul and invoke a penalty to alter the course of action. Each of the throughlines is affected by the series of events that occur, and conversely, each throughline can have an impact on the course of future events. This is how all four throughlines have plots of their own yet affect one another. And, just as the umpire must sometimes step in to settle disagreements, so the author steps in to side with one throughline or another and allow a penalty or revoke it.
In the end, we never see the true plot of the story directly. We see it synthesized as the result of all four throughline plots considered. As Taoist philosophy would explain it, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” As Dramatica would have it, “The plot that can be seen is not the actual plot.”
How then shall we know what must happen in a story’s plot? This we can learn by examining the workings of the Progressive Story Points that occur in each throughline. In this manner, we can plot the events as seen from each point of view. The synthesis of these into a single understanding of the story’s central plot is what occurs in the minds of our audience members as the plots unfolds.
Progressive Story Points
So just what are Progressive Story Points? Chances are, you are already familiar with them. They are Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Events. The Progressive Story Points are not unlike the way we measure time in Days, Hours, Minutes, and Seconds. We can see that a Minute does not stand independently, but nests within an Hour, which in turn nests within a Day. Similarly, Scenes are story points that happen within an Act. Events nest in Scenes that nest in Sequences that nest in Acts.
No event stands alone, but bears something of the flavor or identity of the larger units in which it exists and the smaller units it contains. If this begins to sound like the thematic story points we have already explored, it is no accident. Throughline, Concern, Issue, and Problem narrow the issue of the story when we see the story as a state. Act, Sequence, Scene, and Event narrow the issue of the story when we see the story as a process. The Static Story Points tell us what a story is about. The Progressive Story Points tell us how a story unfolds. Taken together, the Static and Progressive Story Points transport a story’s meaning.
Each Class in the Thematic Structure has four Types in the level just below the Class. In the Activity (Physics) Class, for example, the four Types are Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining. Because the Activity Class will be assigned as the Throughline of one of the four throughlines, one of these Types will be that throughline’s Concern. For this example, let us assume that Activity is the Overall Story Throughline, and the Concern is Obtaining.
Because a Concern is a Static Appreciation, it is felt throughout the story. Therefore, the Overall Story Characters will remain concerned with Obtaining from the beginning to the end of the story. Even so, these characters do not simply sit around concerned with possessing something; rather, they go through a series of endeavors in the attempt to Obtain it (or get rid of it). As it turns out, each of the four Types in a Throughline represents a stage in this attempt.
In our example, the story might begin with the characters Learning something that eventually brings them to an Understanding. Eventually they Understand enough to start Doing something, and when they have Done enough, they just might Obtain whatever it is they are after. The four stages of this endeavor, then, would be Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining, in that order.
Another story might start with the characters Doing something. Once they have Done enough, they Obtain something. As they come to examine what they have Obtained, an Understanding grows until, after years of accepting what was, they finally begin to Learn again.
The Types in a Throughline can be explored in any order. Each different order, however, will create a different meaning. As an analogy to this, imagine two events: A slap in the face and a scream. A slap followed by a scream might seem as if someone were crying out because of hit. A scream followed by a slap, however, might seem as if someone was hysterical and hit to bring him to his senses. The order in which events occur changes their Progressive meaning, even though their Static meaning might remain the same. This same dynamic holds true for Acts as well, so the order in which we explore the Types changes the Progressive meaning of that throughline’s view of the plot at large.
Each Type in a throughline will be the subject matter of one of four Acts in that throughline. The order in which the Types are explored controls the Progressive meaning of that throughline’s evolution.
Another View: 3 Act Progressions
Some two thousand years ago, Aristotle proposed that every plot should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since then, this notion has evolved into a widely held view there should be three Acts in a complete story. Act one sets up the dramatic potentials. Act two plays these potentials against one another. Act three describes how it all turned out.
At first, a three-act progression might seem in conflict with Dramatica’s four act view. As we shall see, however, the two naturally go together.
The illustration above shows how a plot that covers four different Acts will automatically produce three different transitions as the subject matter shifts from one concern to the next. In a sense, we might think of a throughline’s plot as a road.
At the beginning of the road is the point of departure, City A. At the end of the road is the destination, City D. Along the way are two other cities, B and C. The first leg of the journey begins at City A and ends at City B. The second leg begins at B and ends at C. The final journey begins at City C and ends at the destination, City D.
At each city is a Signpost that gives its name. The four signposts in a throughline’s plot are the names of the Types. The order in which they will occur in the plot controls where they fall along the road. Between the four signposts are three Journeys, each of which describes traveling from one signpost to the next.
Returning to an earlier example, Signposts A, B, C, and D might be Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining. The Three journeys in this plot would then be Learning—>Understanding, Understanding—>Doing, and Doing—>Obtaining. With four signposts and three journeys, each throughline’s plot has seven different Progressive Story Points required for that perspective to be complete.
When Aristotle saw a beginning, middle and end, he was seeing Signpost A, all three journeys lumped together, and Signpost D. When successive generations of writers evolved a three-act structure, it became difficult to figure out, “What happens in Act 2?” All three journeys and two of the signposts blended into “the middle”. By adopting a Four-Act structure that coincides with three dynamic acts, the true nature of a throughline’s plot is far easier to understand and construct.
Dramatica Act Structures
Dramatica Signposts And Journeys
If we examine the second level of the Dramatica structural model, we see that each throughline has a quad of four items. Dramatica has labels for the quad components of both the three-act structure and the four-act structure.
- The components of the four-act structure are called Signposts.
- The components of the three-act structure are called Journeys.
- There are four Signposts in a four-act structure.
- There are three Journeys in a three-act structure.
MERGING DRAMATICA SIGNPOSTS AND JOURNEYS
Even though signposts and journeys can be seen and understood independently from one another, there are several ways to use them together, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Writers have a tendency to naturally gravitate toward one of the following methodologies:
Signpost Biased Four-act Structure
In this form, the structure emphasizes the signposts and de-emphasizes the journeys. The signposts take up the bulk of the timeline, breaking the timeline into four not-necessarily-but-usually equally explored acts. The three journeys take the form of transitions between the four signposts, like the joints connecting the bones of an appendage. Even if you do not explicitly explore the journeys, they will be implied by the inherent differences between the explorations of the signposts. This form caters to linearity over holism, emphasizing a writer’s use of logistics over a writer’s feel for the overall meaning of the story.
Journey Biased Three-act Structure
In this form, the structure emphasizes the journeys and de-emphasizes the signposts. The journeys take up the bulk of the timeline, breaking the timeline into three not-necessarily-but-usually equally explored acts. The four signposts take the form of markers that identify the vague boundaries of the three journeys, like signposts identifying state lines in a cross-country drive. Even if you do not explicitly identify the signposts, they will be implied by the natural changes in “direction” that the journeys make. This form caters to holism over linearity, emphasizing a writer’s use of intuition over an attempt to predict the order of events.
Blended Signpost/Journey Seven-act Structure
In this form, the structure gives even weight to the signposts and journeys. The timeline is broken into seven not-necessarily-but-usually equally explored acts. This string-of-pearls approach provides a catchall format that blends the two different approaches together. This form offers the best and worst of the three and four-act structures. On the one hand, it ensures that all aspects of the story are explored. On the other hand, it potentially obscures the meaning in the story by providing two, equally balanced contexts. Fortunately, most writers have a natural bias toward the three-act structure or the four-act structure and that bias is usually made evident by an unthinking emphasis of signposts or journeys.
NOTE: The Dramatica software presents the Blended Signpost/Journey structure as a “one-size-fits-all” format, but mitigates it by calling it a four-act structure and emphasizing the signposts.
The transitions between acts as they appear in a quad can be seen as either “straight” or “diagonal.”
BUMP AND SLIDE
When we look at the straight and diagonal transitions in terms of the dynamic pairs in a quad, we begin to get a “feel” for how smooth or jarring the transition might be.
As was mentioned earlier, the components of a dynamic pair are designed as two ends of a spectrum. The nature of the spectrum is quad content specific. The components of the co-dynamic pair represent a related but different spectrum. Because of this difference, transitioning from a component in one dynamic pair to a component of the co-dynamic pair is more noticeable than transitioning between two components within a dynamic pair.
Straight transitions, which move from a component of one dynamic pair to a component of the co-dynamic pair, are relatively noticeable. We describe this transition as a “bump.”
Diagonal transitions, which move from one component of a dynamic pair to the other, are relatively smooth. We describe this transition as a “slide.”
When we look at the 1-2-3-4 patterns in terms of their spatial arrangements in a quad, they fall into three distinct patterns: Z’s, Hairpins, and U-Turns.
A Z pattern is created when the transition between act 1 and 2 is a BUMP, the transition between act 2 and 3 is a SLIDE, and the transition between act 3 and 4 is a BUMP. Here are some examples of the Z pattern in various orientations:
The four-act, Z-pattern structure most closely matches the screenplay/story structure put forward by Syd Field. In his earlier descriptions, he identified a three act structure consisting of an Act 1, a long Act 2 (the slide), and the final Act 3. In a later, modified description of the screenplay act structure, he split the long Act 2 into two parts, thereby more accurately describing the four-act Z-pattern Dramatica structure. This is a popular act progression for modern, American-style, motion picture screenplays.
HAIRPIN or “X” PATTERNS: SLIDE-BUMP-SLIDE
A Hairpin or X pattern is created when the transition between act 1 and 2 is a SLIDE, the transition between act 2 and 3 is a BUMP, and the transition between act 3 and 4 is a SLIDE. Here are some examples of the Hairpin pattern in various orientations:
The four-act, hairpin x-pattern structure most closely matches the typical rise and fall story pattern. The first half of the story moves along somewhat smoothly, then there is a noticeable change in the story flow (what we refer to as a “hiccup”) and the story goes on in a completely different direction.
U-TURN PATTERNS: BUMP-BUMP-BUMP
A U-Turn pattern is created when the transition between act 1 and 2 is a BUMP, the transition between act 2 and 3 is a BUMP, and the transition between act 3 and act 4 is a BUMP. Here are some examples of the U-Turn pattern in various orientations:
The four-act, U-turn pattern structure most closely matches stories that have an episodic feel to them, such as road stories. Each act transition is pronounced which makes the separation of each act noticeable, emphasizing the segmented nature of the story.
ACT PATTERNS AND THE DRAMATICA THROUGHLINES
Up until now we’ve referred to the act structures and patterns as if they described an entire story. On the whole, that’s the way a story may seem. The reality is far more complex.
- In a Dramatica Grand Argument Story, there are four throughlines.
- Each throughline will have its own act pattern.
- Sometimes these patterns will align and create a predominant pattern.
- Other times the patterns will be wildly different, creating a relatively complex set of act patterns.
The four throughlines in Dramatica are the Overall Story (OS) Throughline, the Main Character (MC) Throughline, the Influence Character (IC) Throughline, and the Relationship Story (SS) Throughline. In the quad structure, the MC and IC throughlines are a dynamic pair, and the OS and RS throughlines are a dynamic pair.
The complexity of patterns is best illustrated through the use of real story examples. The following examples are a sample of the story analyses shipped with the Dramatica Pro software:
IDENTIFYING SOME FAMILIAR PATTERNS
Some familiar act patterns become apparent when looking at the color-coded, visually blended story timelines. Here is the color coding of the quad we’ll use as the color key for the following examples:
TRADITIONAL “SYD FIELD” SCREENPLAY THREE-ACT STRUCTURE—VARIATION I
One of the film’s held up as classic proper three-act structure is Witness. When we look at it’s act break structure timeline the reason becomes obvious:
Three of the four throughlines are the bump-slide-bump type—act 1, long act 2, act three. Not only that, but the relative nature of the three act 1’s and act 3’s are identical, emphasizing the first and last act turns even further. The relationship in the RS throughline gives a nice accent (and nod) to the midpoint of the story by being a slide-bump-slider.
The Fugitive and Harold and Maude also fall into this mold, The Fugitive being slightly simpler and Harold and Maude slightly more varied:
THREE-ACT STRUCTURE-VARIATION II
A popular variation on the traditional three-act structure can be seen in Lawrence of Arabia and All About Eve.
In both these examples, the Overall Story throughlines appear to be more segmented, seemingly more episodic than the traditional three-act structure. Their other throughlines, however, show a remarkable compliance with the bump-slide-bump form. Though more examples will need to be gathered to make anything more definitive, it’s possible that this Variation II form is nearly as popular a screenplay form as the Variation I.
OTHER NOTABLE ACT PATTERNS
There are two other “styles” that should be noted at this time. The first one might be tentatively called the “Complex Act Pattern.” This pattern is complex because of the highly varied combinations of act transition patterns and strong content juxtapositions involved. The two examples from our limited sampling that seem to fit this classification best are Chinatown and The Godfather.
The second notable act pattern is tentatively called the “Dramatic Arc Pattern” or “Rise-and-Fall Act Pattern” because of its emphasis on the mid-point transition. To Kill A Mockingbird is a striking illustration of this act form:
This visualization of To Kill A Mockingbird is a particularly accurate view of the film/book. The overall story is segmented, somewhat episodic, while the other throughlines change direction rather rapidly at the story’s mid-point. (The film even has a time transition to identify the story’s mid-point.)
Just as Theme has story points that are more character oriented, Progressive Story Points also touch on all four aspects of The Elements of Structure. Some story points are more aligned to plot, others that pertain most strongly to genre, and some are closest to the heart of Theme itself.
Acts are the most plot-like of the Progressive Story Points, and therefore fall in the Type level of the structure. Sequences, on the other hand, occur at the Variation level and therefore, like the Issue, are the most Theme-like of the Progressive Story Points.
What Is A Sequence?
Sequences deal with a quad of Variations much as Acts deal with a quad of Types. The quad of interest is the one containing the Issue, as that is the item at the heart of a throughline’s Theme. Returning to our example story about an Overall Story Throughline in the Activity Class with a Concern of Obtaining, we shall say the Issue is Morality, as illustrated in the quad below.
If Morality is the Issue, then Self-Interest is the counterpoint. Theme draws from the balance between items. When examining the quad of Variations containing the Issue, we can see the Issue and counterpoint make up only one pair out of those created in that quad. We have also seen this kind of balance explored in the chapter on Character where we talked about three different kinds of pairs: Dynamic, Companion, and Dependent.
Just as with character quads, we can make two diagonal pairs, two horizontal pairs, and two vertical pairs from the Variations in the Issue quad. For the Morality quad, these six pairs are Morality/Self-Interest, Morality/Attitude, Morality/Approach, Self-Interest/Attitude, Self-Interest/Approach, and Attitude/Approach. Each of these pairs adds commentary on the relative value of Morality to Self-Interest. Only after we explore all six pairs will the thematic argument be fully made. It could go in a manner as follows:
On face value, which is the better of the two?
When Morality is the issue, how do we rate the Attitude of those espousing it?
When Morality is the issue, how do we rate the Approach of those espousing it?
When Self-Interest is the issue, how do we rate the Attitude of those espousing it?
When Self-Interest is the issue, how do we rate the Approach of those espousing it?
Overall, which should carry more weight about this issue?
By answering each of these questions in a different thematic sequence, the absolute value of Morality compared with Self-Interest is argued through the six different relative values.
How Sequences Relate To Acts
With six thematic Sequences and three dynamic Acts, it is not surprising that we find two Sequences each Act. In fact, this is part of what makes an Act Break feel like an Act Break. It is the simultaneous closure of a Plot Progression and a Theme Progression. The order in which the six thematic sequences occur does not affect the message of a story, but it does determine the thematic experience for the audience as the story unfolds. The only constraints on order would be that since the Issue is the heart of the thematic argument, one of the three pairs containing the Issue should appear in each of the three dynamic Acts. Any one of the other three pairs can be the other Sequence.
The three dynamic Acts or Journeys in a throughline’s plot represent the experience of traversing the road through the story’s issues. The four structural Acts are more like a map of the terrain. Therefore, we associate Types directly with a structural kind of thematic Sequence.
Beneath each Type is a quad of four Variations. Structurally, we examine or judge the Act representing each Type by the four Variations beneath it. In our current example, the Act dealing with Obtaining would be examined in terms of Morality, Self-Interest, Attitude, and Approach. The difference between this and the thematic sequences we have just explored is that we judge Obtaining by each Variation in the quad separately, rather than comparing each Variation with the other Variations in the quad. It is an upward looking evaluation, rather than a sideways looking evaluation.
In this manner, we make a thematic statement about the subject matter of concern in each of the four structural Acts. The six Sequences form an argument about the appropriateness of different value standards.
When we get down to scene resolution, there are so many cross-purposes at work that we need to limit our appreciation of what is going on to see anything in the clutter. First, however, let’s touch on some of the forces that obscure the real function of scenes, then strip them away to reveal the dynamic mechanism beneath.
Resolution and Sequence
Earlier we spoke of plot in terms of Types. We also speak of plot here in terms of four resolutions: Acts, Sequences, Scenes, and Events. Both of these perspectives are valid story points depending on what you need to accomplish. Because all units in Dramatica relate holographically, no single point of view can completely describe the model. That is why we select the most appropriate view to fit the purpose. Even though looking at plot in terms of Types is useful, it is true that “plot-like” twists and turns are going on at the scene resolution as well. However, these dynamics are not truly part of the scene, but merely in the scene. An Act, Sequence, Scene, or Event is a temporal container—a box made of time that holds dynamics within its bounds. Much like filters or gratings with different-sized holes, the resolutions “sift” the dynamics trapping large movements at the highest levels and allowing smaller nuances to fall all the way down to the Elements.
What’s in a Scene?
At the scene resolution, the effects of Types and Variations are like the tidal pull of some distant moon. But scenes are not the resolution at which to control those forces. Scenes are containers that hold Elements—anything larger cannot get crammed in without breaking. So the richness we feel in scenes is not solely because of what the scene itself contains, but also to the overall impact of what is happening at several larger scales.
What then does a scene contain? Scenes describe the change in dynamics between Elements as the story progresses over time. And since Elements are the building blocks of characters, scenes describe the changing relationships between characters.
Characters and Scenes
Characters are made up of Motivations, Methodologies, Means of Evaluation, and Purposes. These terms also describe the four major sets of Elements from which we build the characters. Discovering the driving force of a character in a given scene is valuable, such as whether their argument is over someone’s motivations or just the method they are employing.
6 Goes Into 24 Like Theme Goes Into Scenes
We have spoken of the three and four act story points of story. We illustrated how both divisions are valid to specific tasks. When dealing with scenes, we find that no scenes ever hang between two acts, half in one and half in the other, regardless of a three or four act appreciation. This is because there are exactly 24 scenes created at the Element level: Six an act in a four-act appreciation, eight an act in a three-act appreciation. In both cases, the scenes divide evenly into the acts, contributing to the “feel” of each act break being a major turning point in the progress of the story.
Sequences, on the other hand, exist as a six-part partition of the story. Therefore, they divide evenly into a three-act appreciation but not into a four. Since the four-act view is objective, sequences—as they define Thematic movements—are an experiential phenomenon in the subjective appreciation and lose much of their power objectively.
One of the fascinating aspects of the Dramatica model is that it is recursive. It represents one full cycle of considering a problem. In fact, a story’s dramatics work in such a way that when you reach the end of the story, you return to reconsider the beginning. Mirroring this looping effect, the smallest dynamic units in the model merge right back into the largest structural units. Time doubles back to meet Space forcing you to decide which one contains the solution.
Events and Throughlines
In Plot, Events are the most defined resolution, yet best described by the most broad stroke structural units: Classes. To recap, there are four Classes: Situation, Fixed Attitude, Activity, and Manipulation. Each is represented as an Event. An Event is an occurrence—something that changes (or remains the same) enough to be noticed by an audience. The dynamics of that incident create dramatic meaning at its most delicate level.
There are four Events within the boundaries of each scene. This means that besides character relationships, each scene must also describe a Situation, an Activity, a Manner of Thinking and a State of Mind. All four Classes should be represented to complete a scene. Immediately, one thinks of action “scenes” that just show something blowing up or deliberation “scenes” where nothing moves. How can these be scenes if they don’t contain all four Classes? They can’t. In fact, they are Events.
Events Masquerading as Scenes
Twenty-four scenes are required for a complete Grand Argument Story. However, if one breaks down those scenes a bit farther, note that 96 Events occur in a complete story as well.
Changing locations during a scene obscures this temporal division of twenty-four scenes. For example, imagine an Activity Event (action) taking place in the jungle. Follow that with a Manipulation Event (deliberation) back home in England. The change in location makes one feel that two different scenes have occurred. Yet, if you design the story well, the Fixed Attitude and Situation Throughlines will also be represented just before, during, or just after changing locations.
Changing locations is part of storyweaving. You have flexibility to bring emphasis to certain aspects of the argument or exploration, and to reduce others. Three Events may occur in one location, followed by the fourth in another. Together, they have filled only one Scene.