What Exactly Is Theme?
It seems every author is aware of theme, but try to find one who can define it! Most will tell you theme has something to do with the mood or feel of a story. But how does that differ from genre? Others will say that theme is the message of the story. Some will put forth that theme is the premise of a story that illustrates the results of certain kinds of behavior.
Taking each of these a bit farther, a story’s mood or feel might be “anger.” A message might be “nuclear power plants are bad.” A premise could be “greed leads to self-destruction.” Clearly each of these might show up in the same story, and each has a thematic feel to it. But just as certainly, none of them feels complete on their own. This is because each is just a different angle on what theme really is.
In fact, theme is perspective. Perspective is relationship. Theme describes the relationship between what is being looked at and from where it is being seen. This is why theme has traditionally been so hard to describe. It is not an independent thing like plot or character, but is a relationship between plot and character.
As a familiar example, think of the adage about three blind men trying to describe an elephant. Each is like a character in a story, and their investigation of the beast is like the plot. One, feeling the tail comments, “It is long and thin like a snake.” Another, feeling the ear replies, “No, it is wide and flat like a jungle leaf.” The final investigator feels the leg and retorts, “You are both wrong! It is round and stout like a tree.” How each of those men felt about the elephant, how they understood it, depended on his point of view, and that it was an elephant each examined. It is also true, that had another animal been the object of study, the perspectives would have changed as well.
Where we are looking from are the four points of view represented by the four throughlines (Overall Story, Main Character, Influence Character, and Relationship Story). In stories, what we are looking at is the problem the Story Mind is considering. So, to understand perspective (and therefore theme) we must be able to describe the nature of the story’s problem accurately, and then see how its appearance changes when seen from each different point of view.
Describing The Story’s Problem
When we seek to classify something, we try to narrow its definition, such as when we ask if something is animal, vegetable, or mineral. When classifying problems that might be of concern to the Story Mind, the first thing we might want to know is if the problem is an external issue (such as an intolerable situation) or an internal one (such as a bad attitude). External problems occur in the environment, a Situation (Universe). Internal problems occur in the mind, a Fixed Attitude (Mind).
Further, some problems don’t have to do with states of things (an external situation or an internal attitude) but are processes that have gone awry. An external process falls in the category of Activity (Physics), which simply means physical activity of some kind. An internal process that results in a problem has to do with Manipulation (Psychology), which simply means a manner of thinking. Note that a manner of thinking (Psychology) is different from a fixed attitude (Mind). Manipulation (Psychology) describes problems like spending too much time with details, whereas Mind problems would be more like a prejudice.
Having identified four categories by which we might classify the nature of the Story Mind’s problem, we can arrange them in a quad pattern, much as we did earlier with the Character Elements.
Since these four categories classify the problem, Dramatica refers to them as CLASSES.
So far, we have been able to show that a problem might be an external or internal state or process, represented by the four Classes. Already we can get a more refined view of the problem we will describe in our story. We need only consider which of these four Classes best describes the problem about which we want to write.
For example, if we have an idea for a story about people trapped underwater in a sunken ship, that would be an external problem, best described as a state of things. An external state is the definition of a Situation problem, so this story idea takes place in the Situation Class.
If we wish to write about a harrowing trek through the jungle to a lost city, we are describing an Activity problem: An external activity from which difficulties arise.
A story exploring a father who will not let his daughter marry below her station in life is a Fixed Attitude problem, for it stems from a fixed attitude, bias, or preconception.
And finally, an author who wishes to comment thematically on a group of friends manipulating one another would select Manipulation as his Class of problem. The thematic issue is changing one’s manner of thinking. Again, this differs from changing one’s Fixed Attitude (about something).
ALL FOUR Classes play a role in every complete Grand Argument Story. As we shall explore a bit later, each Class will describe the problem as it appears from a different throughline.
Earlier we illustrated how one could see four throughlines of Star Wars. Below are illustrations of Star Wars’ four throughlines seen in terms of Throughlines.
Overall Story Throughline: Activity—Star Wars is about a war between the Empire and the Rebellion. There is not any set location where this needs to take place; rather it is an exploration of the feints, attacks, and battles that occur between the two forces.
Main Character Throughline: Situation—Luke Skywalker is a whiny farm-boy from a small desert planet. He has unrealized talent because his father was a Jedi, but everyone sees him as a kid from the edge of the galaxy.
Influence Character Throughline: Fixed Attitude—Obi Wan Kenobi lives in the world of the Force. His attitude about the Force’s power and impact, the existence of the Light and Dark sides of the Force, and the importance of the Force is unshakable.
Relationship Story Throughline: Manipulation—Obi Wan clearly manipulates Luke through psychological means. He tries to pressure Luke to help him get to Alderaan, which Luke resists. Obi Wan does not reveal the fate of Luke’s aunt and uncle to Luke even though Obi Wan is clearly not surprised when he hears the news. Obi Wan purposely keeps Luke in the dark about his resources while bartering with Han Solo, hushing him up when Luke can barely contain himself. Obi Wan keeps Luke under his thumb by doling out information about the Force, the Empire, the Past, and everything else. It is Obi Wan who whispers into Luke’s head at several critical moments, “Run, Luke, run!” and “Trust your feelings, Luke.”
At this point, we have achieved a clearer understanding of our story’s theme by classifying the story’s problem. In our own lives, however, this would be insufficient information to identify the problem clearly enough to begin solving it. The same is true of the Story Mind. We need to dig deeper and be more precise if eventually we are to pinpoint the source of the story’s problem so it can be addressed at the root.
To increase our precision, we can subdivide each of the Classes into different TYPES of problems within each Class, much as the classification “animal” and “vegetable” subdivide into various species.
As you can see, the TYPE level of resolution on our story’s problem is much more refined. Already the names of the Types carry much more of a thematic feel than those of the broad-stroke Classes. Some of the Types seem more familiar than others. This is because our culture has its own built-in biases and favorites and tends to focus on certain kinds of problems more than others.
If we compare the Types in one Class to those in the others, we can see how the chart does not cater to our culture’s biases. Rather, it presents a neutral set of subcategories so any problem an author might wish to address is treated with equal weight.
One of the first things we can begin to feel about the Types is that their position within each quad has an influence on the nature of the Type, which is reflected in its name. For example, in the upper left hand corner of the Situation Class we find the Type, “Past.” By comparison, in the upper left hand corner of the Fixed Attitude Class we find the Type, “Memory.” The balance of the chart can be easily illustrated in the phrase, “Past is to Situation as Memory is to Fixed Attitude.” In fact, all the categories and subcategories we have explored (and the two remaining levels) share this relationship.
We have found that it helps to get a feel for a story’s problem by running this kind of comparison over in our minds as we examine the chart. Patterns of relationships begin to emerge, and the process of choosing the Class and Type of problem at the heart of our story’s theme becomes almost a game.
Choosing the Type most prominent in a particular throughline sets up the Concerns which is most important from that point of view. To show how this might work, let’s look at the Concerns of Star Wars.
Overall Story Concern: Doing (Engaging in an activity)—The Empire is building the Death Star and searching for the Rebels. The Rebels are trying to keep their location secret by moving it around. The smuggler is trying to transport passengers to Alderaan. The passengers are trying to get the plans of the Death Star to the Rebels who will decipher the plans and launch an attack on the Empire.
Main Character Concern: How Things Are Going (Progress)—Luke Skywalker constantly is concerned with how things are going—“At this rate I’ll never get off this rock!” He is impatient and never satisfied with how things are progressing. Once he gets off Tatooine, he is concerned with how long it will take for him to become a Jedi Knight—the progress of his training. When Darth Vader slices Obi Wan, Luke’s loss is compounded because he has lost a friend and a tutor. When they get to the Rebel base, he is concerned about how preparations are going and eventually with his own progress as a pilot in the Rebel attack on the Death Star.
Influence Character Concern: Impulsive Responses (Preconscious)—To be “one with the Force,” a person must let go of himself and let the Force act through him. This allows the Force to guide one’s unthinking responses and reflexes and to become an unbeatable power for good or evil. This is Obi Wan’s greatest concern and his efforts here impact everyone around him, especially Luke.
Relationship Story Concern: Playing A Role (Being)—Obi Wan wants Luke to be the faithful student. Luke just wants to be a Hero without understanding what good it does to be quiet and controlled like Obi Wan. Luke’s farm-boy lifestyle is not in sync with his true nature as Obi Wan sees him. Obi Wan knows that Luke is the son of a Jedi and therefore he tries to manipulate Luke out of being what he’s not.
Limitations of space prevent us from describing every Type through example. At the back of this book, however, you will find an appendix with a complete definition of each, as well as reproductions of the complete chart of categories.
Even with this degree of refinement, our story’s problem has still not been identified with the precision required to focus our theme. It is time to move into the next level of the problem chart.
When we subdivide the Types, we can set up four different VARIATIONS of each. This creates the extended chart below:
Now we can finally begin to see some familiar thematic topics: Morality, fate, commitment, and hope, for example. We can also see some unfamiliar terms about theme that we may not have considered before. As before, Western culture (as do all cultures) favors certain areas of exploration and almost ignores others. For an author who wishes to explore new ground, these unfamiliar terms provide a wealth of choices. For the author who writes for the mainstream, all the old standbys are there, but with much more detail than before.
You will not find terms on this chart like “love” or “greed.” Although these concepts figure prominently in many discussions of theme, they are more descriptive of subject matter, rather than the perspectives one might take about that subject matter. For example, suppose we decide to write a story about love. All right, what kind of love? Brotherly love? Romantic love? Paternal, lustful, spiritual, or unrequited love? Clearly, love is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, love is shaded by the nature of the object that is loved.
In our chart of Variations, we find terms such as “Attraction”, “Obligation”, “Desire”, or “Instinct”, each of which can be used to describe a different kind of love. For example, love in the context of Attraction could be physical love or puppy love. Love in the context of Obligation could be parental love or familial love. Love in the context of Desire could be passionate love or obsessive love. Love in the context of Instinct could be animal love or love at first site, and so on. Use the Variations to say something specific about Love.
Similarly, you won’t find “Greed” on this chart, but you will find “Self-Interest” (near the lower left corner of the Activity Variations). “Self-Interest” is not as emotionally charged as “Greed.” It more clearly defines the issues at the center of a rich man’s miserliness, a poor man’s embezzlement, and a loving parent who must leave her child to die in a fire to save herself. And other Variations such as “Fantasy”, “Need”, “Rationalization”, or “Denial” each reflect a different form of “Greed”.
It is not our purpose to force new, sterile and unfamiliar terminology on the writers of the world. It is our purpose to clarify. So, we urge you to pencil in your favorite terms to the chart we have provided. Stick “Love” on “Attraction,” place “Greed” on “Self-Interest,” if that is how you see them. In this manner, you create a chart that already reflects your personal biases, and most likely incorporates those of your culture as well. The original bias-free chart, however, is always available to serve as a neutral framework for refining your story’s problem.
As a means of zeroing in on the Variation that best describes the thematic nature of your story’s problem, it helps to look at the Variations as pairs. Just as with characters, the Variations that are most directly opposed in nature occur as diagonals in the chart. A familiar dynamic pair of Variations is Morality and Self-Interest. The potential conflict between the two emerges when we put a “vs.” between the two terms: Morality vs. Self-Interest. That makes them feel a lot more like the familiar thematic conflict.
Later we shall return to describe how each dynamic pair in the chart can form the basis for a thematic premise in your story. We will also show how this dynamic conflict does not have to be a good vs. bad situation, but can create a “lesser of two evils” or “better of two goods” situation as well.
Identifying the Variation of a throughline sets up the Issue of thematic concepts explored from that point of view. To show how this might work, let’s look at the Issues of Star Wars.
Overall Story Issue: Skill (Practiced ability)—Everyone in this galaxy compares themselves to one another in terms of their skills; piloting a spacecraft, fighting their way out of tight situations, and standing up for themselves. The princess immediately evaluates her rescuers (Han, Chewbacca, and Luke) in terms of their obvious lack of skill. The entire war between the Rebellion and the Empire is a match between skills and experience. The Empire has experience in quashing upstart groups, but its skills at doing so are rusty. The Rebellion, which has far less experience, consists of great numbers of raw talent like Luke. Skill is an advantageous quality in this story.
Main Character Issue: Fantasy (Belief in something unreal)—Fantasy is an important part of Luke Skywalker’s life. He has no idea what wars are like, but he wants to hear all he can about them because his fantasy is to be a hero in one. He plays with toy space ships, he is intrigued by messages from damsels in distress, and he cares more about these fantasies than about the humdrum life of farming on a desert planet. These fantasies help set him apart from the unimaginative people around him (for example his uncle), yet they also make him seem inexperienced and naive (he is almost killed in Mos Isley cantina). Fantasy is advantageous for Luke.
Influence Character Issue: Worth (A rating of usefulness or desirability)—Obi Wan’s impact forces considerations of what should be thought to have true worth (as opposed to objective value). Obi Wan makes it clear that he believes the Force is what everyone should see as having the greatest worth in the galaxy. He backs up his opinion by using it to get himself and others out of tight jams. He also appears at first to be a nutty old hermit, but is revealed to be a person of great worth in the eyes of Princess Leia, an important leader in the Rebellion. Because Obi Wan shows that things are seldom what they seem, his impact often causes people to reevaluate what they find of worth and what they don’t. These reevaluations of worth lead to a greater understanding—especially for Luke Skywalker. Obi Wan shows Worth to be advantageous.
Relationship Story Issue: Ability (The inherent capacity to do or be)—The most focused aspect of Luke’s and Obi Wan’s relationship has to do with developing the abilities of a Jedi Knight. When Luke is either improving his own abilities or admiring Obi Wan’s, everyone sees this relationship as a positive one for both people involved. Obi Wan’s influence helps Luke see abilities which he didn’t ever allow himself to see, such as the ability to leave home and join the Rebellion. Clarifying these abilities, however, would not be positive to their relationship if these two didn’t also share similar desires. Fortunately for them, every time Obi Wan uncovers a new ability, such as being able to use a light saber without looking, it makes Luke want more. These kinds of demonstrable abilities make others, such as Han Solo, see there is something good happening between this teacher and student—even if it does involve ancient religion. Ability in this relationship is advantageous.
We still have one final level of the thematic chart of a story’s problem to encounter. In fact, we have already seen it. It is the same chess set of sixty-four Character Elements we created earlier:
Each Variation can be subdivided again into four Elements. And, it turns out that when we get to the heart of the thematic issues in a story, no matter what kind of problem we began with it all comes down to the same thing: Character. Not surprising at all, really. Characters represent the different ways the Story Mind can go about solving the story’s problem. The Main Character sits on the Crucial Element, and must either stick with it, if it is the solution, or abandon it if it turns out to be the problem itself.
Identifying the Element at the heart of each throughline puts a specific name on the Problem that drives that throughline in the story.
Overall Story Problem: Test (A trial to find out something’s validity)—Rather than trusting in the design and efficiency of the Death Star, the Empire decides it must have a test run on Alderaan. This clues Princess Leia, Obi Wan, and subsequently the Rebellion, to the terrifying nature of what they are facing. This also allows the Rebellion forces to prepare for the worst, which is the Empire’s undoing. The Rebellion, on the other hand, does not fully trust their information about the Empire’s secret weapon and tests its accuracy by waiting until they have the plans in their hands. Had they trusted their early reports they could have moved the base and remained out of the Empire’s reach.
Main Character Problem: Test (A trial to find out something’s validity)—Luke is constantly driven to test his skills—as a wannabe Jedi, as a daring doer, as a sharpshooter, and eventually as a pilot. By constantly testing himself, he gets into situations that he would have avoided if he had confidence (or trust) in himself. For example, he knew better than to go alone into the Sand people’s territory; the scuffle he created at the bar could easily have been avoided; the messy breakout of the Princess was partially motivated by his testing his limits.
Influence Character Problem: Unproven (A rating of knowledge that has not been tested)—Because of his devout faith in the Force, Obi Wan is driven by the idea that everything remains unproven—even if common sense might dictate otherwise. He finds exceptions to every generality that people mention around him. The impact of his character is to make others draw their most cherished beliefs into question, because the true nature of “the Force” is so unimaginable, yet so powerful.
Relationship Story Problem: Non-Accurate (Not within tolerances)—Obi Wan’s secrecy and misleading comments to Luke keeps their relationship off balance. Obi Wan tries to lure Luke away with him to Alderaan. He feigns indifference when Luke wimps out. Obi Wan warns Luke to be careful at the cantina without giving Luke a real idea of the dangers within. Obi Wan’s vagueness about the necessary “pains” associated with Luke’s Jedi training (like getting zapped by the trainer robot) jostles their relationship.
We need to take a breather here! Much new material has been covered and it takes some time to assimilate. We suggest you put the book down for a while, ponder what we’ve just explored, have a snack, watch a program on TV, and then return once the dust has settled. If we could, we’d provide some soothing mood music right about now. Since that is a bit difficult, we’ll do the next best thing—pull it all together in a simplified image.
Because each level “falls” under the one above it, we can create a “3-D” representation of the thematic chart that illustrates its nested nature:
The Dramatica Structural Model
This projection gives a good feel for how Classes, Types, Variations, and Elements relate to one another. We start at the top by loosely classifying our story’s problem, and then subdivide each Class into Types. Each Type is refined into Variations and then defined in terms of its basic Elements. Remember, our purpose here is only to identify the components of theme. Later in The Art Of Storytelling we will illustrate how to build and develop your story’s theme.
Matching Points Of View To The Chart
To reiterate: Theme is perspective. Perspective is created by the relationship between two things: what is being looked at and where it is being seen from. In stories, what is being looked at is the nature of the problem and its ramifications.
To define the story’s problem we start with its Class, then find out what Type of problem it is within that Class. Next we see what Variation of that Type the problem is. We finally work down to the Elemental nature of the problem, which is reflected in Character.
Now we need to see what each of those aspects of the problem looks like from each of the four points of view an audience will expect in a complete story. Let’s begin with the Class level.
Overall Story Throughline
All four of the Classes of problem (Situation, Fixed Attitude, Activity, and Manipulation) show up in every complete grand argument story. As it turns out, one represents the way the Overall Story view sees the problem. Another represents the Main Character’s view of it. Another represents the Influence Character’s view. The remaining Class tells us how the problem looks from the Relationship Story view.
The first key to creating thematic perspectives in a story is to assign each of the four throughlines to the four Classes in the structure. Once we do this, the most broad stroke foundations of the author’s biases on the story’s issues have been laid.
As an example, objectively, the problem in a particular story might be a situation. This means the Overall Story point of view and the Situation Class match or link in such a story. When we assign a point of view to a Class, we say that Class is the point of view’s Throughline. In other words, everything we see in our story from the Overall Story view is in the Situation Class, so the Situation Class is the Overall Story Throughline.
Assigning a point of view to a Class creates the perspective, and therefore changes the way dramatic items in that Class appear.
For example, if the Overall Story Throughline is Situation, the story at large is about a situation that affects all the characters in the story to some degree. Such a story might be about people in a post-nuclear holocaust world, prisoners of war in a concentration camp, or two rival gang families stranded together on a deserted island. In each case, the external situation is the cause of the story’s problems, when we see them objectively. Also in each case, the same situation affects all the characters in the story. This is the definition of the problem seen from the “they” point of view, like that of the general on the hill watching the battle. The audience wants to see what the problem looks like from this point of view. It gives them the feel that they explore the issues of the story fully.
In contrast, by assigning the Main Character point of view to the Situation Class, the Situation Class becomes the Main Character Throughline. In a different story with this arrangement, only the Main Character is in the situation. The other characters would be involved in one of the remaining Classes. In such a story where the Main Character Throughline is in a Situation, the situation might be the Main Character as second in command on a battleship. Or, perhaps he has a physical deformity like The Elephant Man, or a particular race or sex. In other words, we describe the Main Character by his personal situation, which is an external condition causing difficulties only for that character. This is different from an Overall Story situation that affects all the characters in a story (including the Main Character).
Before we move to the Type, Variation, and Element levels, let’s take a brief look at each of the sixteen Class/throughline combinations that might be created.
Situation as Overall Story Throughline
When Situation is the Overall Story Throughline, the story’s troubles grow from a problematic Situation. All the Overall Story Characters in the story have the common source of their troubles emanating from an external situation. Just because the situation is external and objective does not mean it must be without feeling. It simply means the audience does not experience the situation personally.
Activity as Overall Story Throughline
An Overall Story Throughline of Activity means an activity gone wrong causes the story’s troubles. This might be an activity engaged in by people or existing in nature. Either way, the “perpetuation” of this activity is what causes all the difficulties faced by the Overall Story Characters. There is often the tendency to think of an activity in the large scale, making it macroscopic—larger than life. But dry rot works as well as a marauding horde in creating problems big enough to drive a story. The only constraint is the activity must be an external one that is causing the difficulties for all.
Situation vs. Activities
It is easy to think of kinds of activities that border on being situations. For example, we might want to tell a story about a disease. If the story’s problem stems from having the disease, it is a situation. If fighting the disease causes the story’s problem, it is an activity. Because all four Classes will show up in a complete story, it is likely that both having and fighting the disease will show up as things unfold. The thematic question here is: which one do we see objectively, or phrased another way, which one do we see as the cause of the problems for all the characters throughout the story—having it or fighting it?
Fixed Attitude as Overall Story Throughline
Fixed Attitude is an internal state, describing problems that come from fixed attitudes. When we choose Fixed Attitude as the Overall Story Throughline, the problems that affect all the characters will stem from internal attitudes, biases, and fixations. For example, an Overall Story Throughline of Fixed Attitude might be about how prejudice affects a town or how a humiliating memory affects a kingdom. In contrast, Situation and Activity Overall Stories deal with external states and processes. A selection of Fixed Attitude as the Overall Story Throughline specifically means the source of the difficulties between all the Overall Story Characters is best seen as a problematic state of mind or conflict between problematic states of mind.
Manipulation as Overall Story Throughline
Manipulation is an internal process, describing problems that come from the ways in which people think. When we choose Manipulation as the Overall Story Throughline, the problems that affect all the characters will stem from manipulations and conflicting processes of thought. As opposed to the fixed attitudes described in the Fixed Attitude Class, Manipulation is about problems that arise from manners of thinking. For example, an Overall Story Throughline of Manipulation might be about the problems caused by a regiment overly trained to follow orders. Another example is a dysfunctional family that tries to manipulate one another into nervous breakdowns.
Main Character Throughline
Because an audience identifies most strongly with the Main Character, choosing a Main Character Throughline is like asking your potential audience, “Where’s your mind at?” This Throughline describes the realm in which the Main Character operates. Each Class, therefore, provides a different mindset for the Main Character.
Situation as Main Character Throughline
Situation is a Class of problematic situations. A Situation Main Character finds himself in a troublesome situation. The situation in question can be a social status issue, such as being a certain race or gender or being queen or king. It could be a predicament such as being a rock star, or it could be a physical condition such as having an extremely large nose or exceptional beauty. Each of these illustrations shows a Main Character defined by the situation in which he is found.
Fixed Attitude as Main Character Throughline
A Fixed Attitude Main Character is defined as holding onto a fixed attitude. Such a character might be suffering from a prejudice, haunted by a suppressed memory, or unable to shake a crush on the kid down the street. In each case, it is a fixed state of mind that causes the Main Character’s difficulties.
Activity as Main Character Throughline
An Activity Main Character is a person of action. For example, he might be doing something just to do it, or he might be trying to get or achieve something. Other activities of an Activity Main Character might be learning or seeking to understand something. At first learning and understanding might seem too internal to be Physics, but consider these activities applied externally. Learning is gathering information about something and understanding is seeking the meaning of something. This is different from coming up with original thought which would be internal.
Manipulation as Main Character Throughline
A Main Character Throughline of Manipulation suggests an individual best described by how he thinks. This could be a flighty person, someone who jumps to conclusions, or even a calculating, manipulative person. In each of these scenarios, the opinions the Main Character holds are not what set him apart, but rather the kinds of mental processes he goes through. Though there may be many Overall Story Characters who represent manners of thinking, only the Main Character will provide the audience with the experience of thinking that way.
The Main Character has Class
Clearly, the nature and concerns of a Main Character change radically from Class to Class. If your main interest is to explore your Main Character in a story, then choosing the Main Character Class before any others is the way to approach developing a story. Keep in mind, though, that once you assign a Class to one of the four Throughlines in a story, you cannot assign it to any of the others. So whatever you might pick for your Main Character’s Class will not be available for the Overall Story, Relationship Story or Influence Character throughlines.
Influence Character Throughline
It is important to be clear about the difference between the Main Character and the Influence Character. The audience looks through the Main Character’s eyes, and through them looks at the Influence Character. Through the Main Character, we feel what it is like to be in a particular predicament. With the Influence Character we see an external view of what someone else looks like in the same predicament. Since we cannot climb into and become this character, we can only judge him by how he affects the characters and events around him.
As an example, imagine a handicapped Main Character. During the duration of the story, the audience members also feel handicapped. They suffer the problems the Main Character’s handicap creates as if it is a problem in their own lives. By contrast, if the Influence Character has a handicap, the audience would examine the problem from the outside, learning more about the difficulties logistically, not experientially. The focus would be on how this handicap impacts others. “Impact” is the key word to keep in mind when examining the story’s problem in the Influence Character Throughline.
Situation as Influence Character Throughline
An Influence Character with a Throughline of Situation will impact others because of his social status, race, gender, physical qualities, position or station. Whatever the situation might be, it provides the alternative paradigm to the Main Character’s view of things.
Activity as Influence Character Throughline
An Activity Influence Character is a person who acts in the areas of Learning, Understanding, Doing, or Obtaining (the four Activity Types). The Influence Character makes a case against the Main Character’s point of view. At the end of such a story, the audience will not have experienced what it feels like to engage in these activities, but will know a lot about what impact these activities have.
Fixed Attitude as Influence Character Throughline
The Fixed Attitude Influence Character displays a fixation or attitude dealing chiefly with memories, desires, immediate responses or considerations. It is this attitude that causes the Main Character to reconsider or justify his position.
Manipulation as Influence Character Throughline
A Manipulation Influence Character influences others through direct manipulation or may just have an impact because of the way in which he thinks. In either case, the focus of this Throughline is an external view of how thought processes affect those whom interact with them.
Relationship Story Throughline
The Relationship Story Throughline is the story’s Passionate Argument. This is where the author creates meaning for the audience’s emotional appraisal of a story’s message. The primary focus is on the relationship between the Main and Influence Characters. Since the Main and Influence Characters are, by definition, at odds with each other, the Relationship Story Throughline forms the background against which the battle between them is fought. As a result, choosing a Class as the Relationship Story Throughline affects how a story feels to an audience.
Situation as Relationship Story Throughline
A Relationship Story Throughline of Situation has the Main and Influence Characters in conflict over a situation that exists between them. This includes a marriage contract, a business partnership, or a chain of military command. It also includes being a caregiver to an invalid, any kind of employment situation, and all other relationships “stuck” in the real world. To illustrate a Relationship Story Throughline of Situation properly, you need to create a situation principally limited to a relationship between the Main and Influence Characters. It should involve the past, present, progress, or future.
Activity as Relationship Story Throughline
If Activity is the Relationship Story Throughline, the Main and Influence Characters grapple over an activity. This could be an activity that is leading toward a purpose or just something engaged in for its own rewards. It might even be a harmful activity engaged in as a means of punishing oneself to relieve guilt. Both Main and Impact may be striving to outdo each other at this activity. Or, one may be for the activity and the other against it. Anyway, the activity lies at the heart of the difficulties between them and forms the subject of the story’s passionate argument of Activity is the Relationship Story Throughline.
Fixed Attitude as Relationship Story Throughline
When you select Fixed Attitude as the Relationship Story Throughline, fixed attitudes or mindsets form the battleground of the Main and Influence Characters. How many fixed attitudes can we see as a personal point of conflict between two people? A prejudice, political view, religion, an attitude toward a child or parent, or a feeling of worthlessness does the trick. A scenario that portrays the troubles between the Main and Influence Characters revolving around a fixed state of mind, successfully represents Fix Attitude as the Relationship Story Throughline.
Manipulation as Relationship Story Throughline
Manipulation as the Relationship Story Throughline has the Main and Influence Characters diverging over a manner of thinking. They do not conflict over what they think, but how they think. Phrases like, “You always get this way when we argue,” and “No, I don’t - it’s you that keeps changing subjects,” suggest a psychological conflict between the Main and Influence Characters. When how someone works something out becomes the issue between the Main and Influence Characters, the Relationship Story Throughline most likely is Manipulation.
Throughlines and Beyond
As we have seen, each of these sixteen perspectives has a slightly different flavor because of the particular point of view linked with a specific Class. This alone is a more quantitative way to look at Theme than has previously been available, yet we still have three more levels of the thematic structure to explore! Each level has its own kind of perspectives. For convenience, we call the thematic perspectives created at any level story points (appreciations), which simply means that is how we understand a problem at that level from that point of view.
Because of practical constraints on the size of this book, we won’t be able to go into as much detail for story points at the Type, Variation, and Element levels as we might like. What we can do is provide a general description of the story points found in each throughline. Once one gets a feel for how a throughline changes the meaning of a structural item in general, one can apply that understanding to any item in the structure and arrive at an accurate dramatic appreciation.
To recap, the Main Character Throughline represents the audience point of view in a story. The Influence Character Throughline is the opposing point of view the audience is asked to consider. The Relationship Story Throughline contains the passionate argument tied to the relationship between those two points of view. The Overall Story Throughline encompasses the practical argument about the relative value of all possible approaches to solving the story’s central problem including those of the Main and Influence Characters.
So, a Main Character Throughline explores what it looks like and feels like to have a particular kind of problem (often seen as drive). The Influence Character Throughline explores what kind of impact someone with that kind of problem (or drive) has on the people and events around him. The Relationship Story Throughline explores how the problem affects the relationship between Main and Influence Characters. The Overall Story Throughline explores which is the better position to be in for the benefit of everyone.
Keeping these points of view in mind, let’s see what other story points are created at the Type, Variation, and Element levels.
Just as combining a throughline and a Class creates a Throughline in which the problem appears from that point of view, combining a throughline and a Type creates an area of Concern. So, there will be an Overall Story Concern, a Main Character Concern, an Influence Character Concern and a Relationship Story Concern in every complete story. As its name implies, a Concern reflects the area in which the problem will be of greatest concern for each throughline.
Overall Story Concern
The Overall Story Concern is the area in which all the characters share a common concern. This might be a single item they are all concerned about, or it might be that each of them has a personal concern of this nature. For example, if the Overall Story Concern were the Type “Obtaining,” then all the characters would be concerned with Obtaining (or losing) something. In such a story, everyone might be trying to Obtain the same thing, such as a buried treasure. In another story with an Overall Story Concern of Obtaining everyone might be trying to Obtain something different. The Protagonist might want to Obtain the treasure, but the Reason Character might want to Obtain a diploma. The Overall Story characters share the nature of the Concern, though not necessarily the specific expression of it.
Later, in the Plot and Encoding sections, we will touch on how one can pull these different items of Obtaining together into the same story. In the example above, the Protagonist could be a treasure hunter wanting to Obtain the treasure. The Reason Character who wants to Obtain a diploma in archeology joins the Protagonist’s team because he seeks the quest for the treasure as the basis for his doctoral thesis. Tying items together in this manner is not a structural aspect of story, but one of storytelling, and is therefore beyond the scope of this section on The Elements of Structure.
Keep in mind that a Concern of Obtaining might also mean a Concern of getting rid of something. Whether one wants to Obtain or wants to stop Obtaining does not change the nature of the area of Concern. So, for this appreciation and all the following, remember to consider it as either meaning not enough of something or too much of something.
Main Character Concern
As one would expect, the Main Character Concern is of interest only to the Main Character. This appreciation describes the area that most worries or interests the Main Character. It suggests the way the Main Character sees the problem without being as specific as the problem.
If Obtaining were the Main Character Concern, the Main Character alone would be trying to get or get rid of (hold on to or refuse to hold on to, gain or lose) something. None of the other characters would share this Concern because the other throughlines are all in other Classes with different Types. This divergence is what gives a story some breadth and a sense of completeness for an audience. Rather than focusing on just one issue, every point of view on the story’s problem falls into a different Throughline with its own unique Concern.
Similarly, a Main Character with a Concern of Memory would be trying to remember, to forget, to fix a memory, or to prevent one from forming.
Influence Character Concern
Because we explore the Influence Character Throughline in terms of its impact, the Concern explores the area in which the Influence Character has its greatest effect. A way of phrasing this is to say the Influence Character’s impact chiefly Concerns this area. So, an Influence Character Concern of Obtaining here would describe an Influence Character who changes what is or can be Obtained (or refused) because of his impact on the people and events around him.
Relationship Story Concern
The Relationship Story Concern describes the area of greatest conflict or divergence between the Main and Influence Characters. They might see eye-to-eye everywhere else, but when it comes to the Relationship Story Concern, they always come to blows. The Concern of the Relationship Story Throughline grows out of the Main and Impact Concerns.
If the Relationship Story Concern were Obtaining, the Main and Impact would argue over whether they should have something. It might be something only one of them has or can have. Who should have it? It might be something they must either have together or not. Obtaining is not only gaining. It can also refer to something lost or missing.
Wrapping Up Our Concerns
As we have seen, matching a Type with a throughline creates a Concern. Each Concern provides a deeper appreciation of a different side of the story’s problem for the audience.
Variations On A Theme
Moving down to the Variation level, we find story points that further refine the story’s problem as seen from each throughline. We call each of these an Issue. The Issue describes the subject matter explored in context of the Concerns in a given Throughline. In a sense, think of the Issue as the thematic topic for each throughline.
Overall Story Issue
This story point describes the kind of value judgments that apply to all the characters and events in a story. For example, an Issue of Morality will have a dynamic counterpoint of Self-Interest. This means the thematic conflict in the Overall Story Throughline would be Morality vs. Self-Interest. Because Morality is the Issue, it would be in the forefront and appear as the topic or subject matter of the Overall Story Throughline’s Theme.
Because Morality is the Overall Story Issue, it will appear almost everywhere. In a hypothetical story, we might see a man taking candy from a baby, a headline proclaiming that a company’s profits are up, while behind the newsstand we see the company dumping toxic waste in the background. Illustrations of the Overall Story Issue can focus on the characters or can act as a flavoring for the story as a whole. We shall explore this in greater detail in the Encoding section.
NOTE: The Overall Story Issue is the closest touch point with the traditional use of the term, “theme.”
Main Character Issue
The Main Character Issue (and its counterpoint) represents the thematic conflict of personal interest to the Main Character. You see it in the kinds of things this character notices that no one else does. Because it is a personal value judgment, the author can use this appreciation to whisper his point of view, rather than shouting it overtly, as might happen with the Overall Story Issue. Because it is so personal, the Main Character Issue helps bring humanity to the Main Character. It is through the issues explored through the Issue the audience can identify not only with the Main Character’s head but his heart as well.
Influence Character Issue
The Influence Character Issue provides a way of evaluating the appropriateness of the Influence Character’s impact. The Influence Character Issue and Counterpoint act as a balance or scale to measure the results of the Influence Character’s point of view. This is where an author can tip the balance to favor one point of view over another. Later we shall explore how to tip that balance back and forth over the course of the story, making a more realistic and less heavy-handed statement of the author’s bias.
Relationship Story Issue
The Relationship Story Concern describes the area of shared concern for the Main and Influence Characters. The Relationship Story Issue and Counterpoint describe why they conflict over it. The Main Character will believe the Relationship Story Issue (or counterpoint) is the value standard to use when looking at the Relationship Story Concern. As a result, The Main Character will see the Concern in a particular light. In contrast, the Influence Character will believe the other Variation (Issue or counterpoint) is the proper way to evaluate the Concern. Since this standard of measure results in different conclusions about the Concern, the Main and Influence Characters come into conflict. They use these two points as they argue over two issues: What to do about the Concern, and which is the best way to look at it?
Finally, we have arrived at the most basic and precise level of understanding about a story’s problem: The Element level. It is here we find the source of difficulties experienced in each throughline. The Overall Story Problem is something that will affect all the characters and all that they do.
In contrast, the Main Character’s Problem will be the source of his drive. Eventually, it may turn out to be (or reflect) the Overall Story Problem, or have the potential to solve the Overall Story Problem, if only the Main Character can bring himself to apply it.
The Influence Character Problem is the source of his drive as well, but rather than experience it, the audience examines it from the outside. “What is driving him or her?”
Lastly, let’s examine the Relationship Story Problem. Unlike the Problems in each of the other throughlines, this one is not about an item, but a relationship—the relationship between Main and Influence Characters. What is at the heart of their disagreements? What is the most essential subject from which all their conflict grows? The Relationship Story Problem describes the most refined view of what drives (or pulls) the Main and Influence Characters apart.
At this point we have defined all the principal thematic perspectives in a story. We have determined that any Problem might be understood in terms of its Class, Type, Variation, and Element. We have further described the story’s central Problem itself can never be seen directly, but is approximated by exploring how it appears from four different points of view. Each view provides its own understanding of the nature of the Problem’s Class, Type, Variation, and Element. Each of these is called a story point. When all the story points are considered together in the mind of the audience, the author’s bias on the issues at the heart of a story is established.
What we have done so far is describe the Elements of Theme. Now we have to put them in motion as well.
The Thematic Argument
What moves Theme forward is the Thematic Argument. Why an argument? Because unless the audience shares the author’s bias on the story’s issues, it will not accept a blanket statement the author’s proposed way of dealing with a particular problem is the best. The audience does want to be convinced—it wants to learn something useful in real life while being entertained at the same time. But, unless an author can successfully make an emotional argument supporting his bias through his Theme, he will not be able to change the heart of his audience.
Premise and the Thematic Argument
One of the most familiar attempts to describe the nature of the thematic argument relies on an idea called the premise. A premise usually takes this form: Some activity or character trait leads to a particular result or conclusion. An example of this would be Greed leads to Self-Destruction. A premise can be useful in describing what a thematic argument is about in a nutshell, but provides little information about how that argument will advance.
For the example above, there are many ways in which greed might lead to self-destruction. In addition, each of the four throughlines has its own view of the thematic nature of the problem, so each one needs its own thematic argument. The traditional premise looks at a story’s Theme from one point of view only. If greed leads to self-destruction, is this a problem for everyone, just for the Main Character, just the Influence Character, or does it perhaps describe the nature and outcome of the relationship between Main and Impact? We simply don’t have enough information to decide that. As a result, the traditional premise is fine for summing up a story, but does little to help an author create a thematic argument.
Dramatica’s view of a thematic argument begins with the thematic conflict. Each of the throughlines has its own thematic conflict that we have already described to some degree during our discussion of Issue.
The Issue itself forms one side of the thematic conflict and the Counterpoint forms the other. As suggested earlier, you won’t find Greed in Dramatica’s thematic structure, but you will find Self-Interest. The Counterpoint for Self Interest is the Variation dynamically opposed to it in the chart, which is Morality. Thus, the premise of a thematic argument dealing with Greed might begin with the conflict, Self-Interest vs. Morality.
The advantage of the thematic conflict is that it spells out both sides of the thematic argument. Both Issue and counterpoint must be played against each other over the course of the story if the author is to make a case that one is better than the other.
The component of a traditional premise that describes growth is in the phrase “leads to.” Sometimes this may also be “prevents,” “creates,” “hinders” or any other word that shows the relationship of the topic (such as Greed) to the conclusion (such as self-destruction). Again, this describes what an audience comes to understand at the end of a story, but does not give a clue about how to develop that understanding while creating a story.
Because it begins with a conflict rather than a topic, Dramatica’s version of a thematic argument supports an author creating as many scenes or events as he may choose in which the Issue is weighed against the Counterpoint. Each time the Issue or Counterpoint is illustrated does not have to be shown in terms of all good vs. all bad. The illustration can be shades of gray. Using our example from above, in a series of scenes Self-Interest might be moderately positive, largely negative, slightly negative, then largely positive. At the end of the story the audience can sum up or average out all the instances in which they have seen it.
Similarly, the counterpoint of Morality in its own scenes might be largely positive, moderately positive, largely negative and largely negative again. At the end of the story the audience will sum up the counterpoint and decide whether Morality by itself is positive or negative.
The audience does not consciously work out these averages. Rather, it is simply affected by the constant layering of value judgments created by the author’s bias. In fact, audience members are constantly balancing the Issue against the counterpoint in their hearts until the story is over and they feel more toward one or the other.
The advantage of this approach is that an author does not have to be heavy-handed by saying only negative things about one side of the thematic conflict and only positive things about the other. An audience will be much more open to a balanced emotional argument where decisions are seldom black and white.
Finally, as reflected in traditional premise, an audience will want to see the results of adhering to one value standard over another. In our example of Greed, it led to Self-destruction. This is a generic conclusion. It could mean either a failure in one’s goals or a personal loss of the heart.
Dramatica sees goals and yearnings as two different things: One born of reason and one born of emotion. How completely we achieve our goals controls our degree of satisfaction. How well we accommodate our yearnings controls our degree of fulfillment. So, one thing we need to know at the end of thematic argument is whether our goals ended in success or failure, and whether things feel good or bad.
The degree of success or failure, good or bad, is determined in storytelling. The thematic story points of Success, Failure, Good, and Bad simply suggest on which side of the fence the conclusion settled. As a result, there are two different parts to the conclusion of a Dramatica thematic argument—the Outcome (Success or Failure) and the Judgment (Good or Bad).
From these considerations we can see that four broad conclusions to a thematic argument are possible:
- The Success/Good conclusion = Happy Ending
- The Failure/Bad conclusion = Tragedy
- The Success/Bad conclusion = Personal Tragedy
- The Failure/Good conclusion = Personal Triumph
A Failure/Good story, for example, does not mean the Failure is Good but that despite a lack of satisfaction, the feel of the story is fulfilling. Such is the case in the motion picture Rain Man in which Charlie (Tom Cruise) fails to get the inheritance, yet overcomes his hatred of his father. This is a Personal Triumph.
Similarly, Success/Bad stories are like Remains of the Day in which Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) successfully preserves the household through wars and owners, yet in the end finds himself empty and alone. This is a Personal Tragedy.
Another Success/Bad story is “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare. It is Success because the families cease their feud after the death of their favored children. It is Bad because Romeo (the Main Character) dies unhappily.
Sewing Together The Themes
In this section we have learned the traditional premise is too blunt a tool to do more than describe the gist of a finished work. In contrast, Dramatica explores the idea of a thematic argument through thematic conflict, development of the relative value of different standards, and ends with an assessment of both the level of satisfaction and fulfillment. Such an approach is much more in line with the organic flow of a story’s emotional impact as felt through Theme, and is much more accessible as a creative guideline.
The Storyform: How Does All This Stuff Hold Together?
In our present exploration of Theme we are looking at Thematic Story Points one by one. From this point of view Story Points can appear rather independent, with each carrying its own meaning which needs clarification and development.
This point of view is deceptive, however. The meaning, which Story Points hold, is partly in their individuality and partly in their relationships to each other. The nature of any single Story Point has an impact on how to see every other Story Point in that story. Altogether, the collective impact of a specific arrangement of Story Points describes the underlying structure of a single complete story.
The connections these Story Points have with one another is complex. Beyond the obvious links between such items as Throughlines/Concerns/ and Issues, the web of dramatic relationships between the Story Points of a single story can only be kept fully consistent using a computer.
The purpose of this section, The Elements of Structure, is just to catalog the pieces of story structure. The second half of this book, titled The Art of Storytelling, will explore exactly how creating a story controls what relationships will exist between a story’s Story Points.
Additional Story Points
Throughline, Concern, Issue, and Problem are not the only story points in Dramatica. In fact, there are six other story points for each of the four throughlines, plus others that affect the whole story. Whether an author consciously considers them while writing, these story points will clearly appear in every complete story.
Additional Element Level Story Points:
At the Element level where we already found each throughline's Problem, each of the four throughlines also has three more story points. Since each throughline has a Problem, it is not surprising that each also has a Solution. We find the Solution directly opposite the Problem in the thematic structure. For example, the Solution for too much or too little logic is more or less feeling.
If a Problem were a disease, its Solution would be a cure. A disease will also have symptoms, and treatments for those symptoms. This is reflected in the same quad as the Problem and Solution in each throughline, where one of the remaining Elements will be the Symptom and the other the Response (treatment). The reason we call them Symptom and Response is that characters, like real people, find their attention drawn to the difficulties caused by a problem more than to the problem itself. Whether the Symptom and Response we are considering falls in the Overall Story, Main Character, Impact Character, or Subjective Story Throughline, they represent the symptoms of the Problem that draw attention (Symptom) and what the characters try to do about it (Response).
In the Overall Story Throughline, the Symptom is where all the characters concentrate, as that is where their troubles are most clear. The Response is how they respond to try to reduce those troubles. If the story were a body with a disease (Problem), sometimes a cure must be found and one must ignore the symptoms, not worry about a treatment, and concentrate on a cure. Other times, one cannot find the cure, but if one simply treats the symptoms, the body will recover enough to heal itself.
In the Main Character Throughline, the decision whether to change is intimately tied to whether the Main Character is driven by the Symptom toward a Response effort, or whether he seeks the cure. The Main Character cannot tell which is the correct approach. A final decision at a leap of faith (or the more gradual shift from one approach to the other) will finally settle whether the conclusion of the thematic argument ends in Success or Failure and Good or Bad.
In the Impact Character Throughline, the Symptom is where this character hopes to have the greatest impact, and Response is how he wants things to change because of that impact.
Symptom in the Subjective Story Throughline is the topic over which Main and Impact Characters argue because it gets their attention. The audience sees the real Problem between them, but the Main Character and Impact Character only see the Symptom. Subjective Story Response describes the direction in which the argument leans.
In practice, the Symptom is seen by the characters as the source of the problem before they grow enough to recognize it only as a symptom. If you walked up to a Main Character and asked him, "What's causing your troubles?" he would say something like, "All my problems come from _____," where the Main Character Symptom fills in the blank. The same is true of the other throughlines and their characters.
Likewise, the Response is seen by the characters as the best way to respond to the Symptom to fix things. It is an apparent "solution" for what they see is the problem.
Additional Variation Level Story Points
At the Variation level each of the four throughlines has two more story points. They function roughly the same way in each throughline, but are most similar between the Main and Impact Character Throughlines and between Overall Story and Subjective Story Throughlines.
Both Main and Impact have a Unique Ability and a Critical Flaw. In the Main Character, the Unique Ability represents some trait or quality that has the potential to allow that character to resolve the story's Problem. The Critical Flaw, however, undermines that Unique Ability. If the Main Character is ever to solve his troubles, he must overcome his Critical Flaw to employ his Unique Ability fully.
Because we see the Impact Character in terms of his impact, his Unique Ability describes the quality that enables him to have a special impact on the Main Character's point of view. The Impact Character's Critical Flaw is a quality that undermines that impact.
In the Overall Story and Subjective Story Throughlines, these same two items take form as the Catalyst and Inhibitor. Catalyst and Inhibitor act as the accelerator and brake pedal on the forward progress of each throughline. In the Overall Story Throughline, bringing in the Catalyst moves the plot forward more quickly; applying the Inhibitor slows things down. This is a structural aid in pacing a story.
In the Subjective Story Throughline, Catalyst and Inhibitor control the rate at which the relationship between Main and Impact Characters develops. More Catalyst brings a confrontation to a head; more Inhibitor delays it. Because Catalyst, Inhibitor, Issue, and counterpoint are all Variations, the proper choice of these items insures the story's pacing to come from inside the structure, rather than imposed arbitrarily by the author.
Additional Type Level Story Points
At the Type level, each of the four throughlines has one more story point, a Benchmark. It gets its name because it is a measure of the growth of each throughline. The Benchmark provides a category in which the progress of each throughline can be charted. For example, an Overall Story Benchmark of Obtaining might be characters gathering cash receipts in their efforts to afford tuition. In the Main Character Throughline, a Benchmark of Obtaining might be the unused concert tickets on a shy man's bed stand from all the times he bought them but then was too afraid to ask someone out to the show.
What about the Class level?
The Class level has no added story points, since it only has four items: The four Throughlines.
Is That About It?
Please keep in mind that this section of the Dramatica Theory Book deals with The Elements Of Structure. It describes what the pieces are, not how to put them together. That comes later in The Art Of Storytelling.