Thoughts on Dramatica Pro 4

Before I offer my views on Dramatica 4.1, especially in light of my Contour review, I want to express an important frustration sure to vex other Apple fanatics. I’ve been an Apple user since the IIe, and an OS X user since version 10.1 shipped. So, this is the complaint of a loyal Mac user:

Dramatica has not been updated since 2004. It looks like an ancient Apple System 7 application. Heck, it reminds me of a GEOS application, going back to the old MS-DOS 4.x days. It is that ugly. It’s barely better on Windows, where it feels like a Windows 3.11 application. Seriously, the publisher wouldn’t even have to update the logic — just update the interface to something like other OS X Leopard (10.5+) and Windows Vista/7.

I realize an interface shouldn’t matter so much, but Write Brothers have been promising updates to Dramatica since 2006. The forums last discuss Dramatica 5 shipping in 2008. It’s now 2010. Write Brothers even had to post special instructions for Windows Vista/7 and Snow Leopard users. Sorry, but software should work on two-year-old operating systems without fuss.

Okay, end of ranting on the cosmetics. The interface is lousy, and I’ve warned you about it.

Before I delve into the substance, there is a Dramatica article I suggest everyone read:

How and Why Dramatica is Different from Six Other Story Paradigms
by Chris Huntley, Revised July 2007

Dramatica is at least 16 years old. The guide to using Dramatica is Dramatica: A New Theory of Story Special Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley. There is a reason it hasn’t been updated — it works for so many writers.

Huntley writes:

“Though the six non-Dramatica story paradigms I studied are different in their specifics, I was surprised to find that most more or less fit into one of two broad categories. The first category I call the post-Aristotelian story paradigm. This category finds its roots in the work of Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing!) who significantly expanded the function of Character in story beyond Aristotle’s Poetics. Its adherents include Syd Field, Michael Hauge, and Robert McKee. The second category I call The Hero’s Journey story paradigm and finds its roots in adaptations of Joseph Campbell’s work (Hero with a Thousand Faces). Its devotees include John Truby and Christopher Vogler. Linda Seger falls mostly into the first category, but acknowledges and incorporates the concepts of the hero’s journey as one of several “myth” forms a story may use.”

“By contrast, Dramatica does not fall neatly into either category. It appears to be a much broader story paradigm—one that encompasses elements from both categories and then some.”

“Another generalization is that each of the non-Dramatica story paradigms assumes your story has a Main Character (or Hero) who Changes and is also the Protagonist in a story with a happy ending (Success/Good). With Seger the exception, lip service was given to the idea of steadfast main characters. These structural elements seemed somewhat rigid and overly specific. I assumed that there was more to their understanding of story, so I dug further.”

Dramatica is not for the faint of heart. To really get the benefits of the program expect to spend at least 20 hours, probably more, using Dramatica to plan a screenplay or novel. You will have to answer somewhere between 50 to 250 questions, in some detail, to complete a story outline. By the time you finish with Dramatica, you have more than any traditional “outline” — you have much of the story in place and ready to go.

For screenshots of Dramatica:

When you start Dramatica, a toolbar offers a dozen options, from “Help” to “Brainstorming.” However, the program (and I) suggest you start with the “StoryGuide” process.

The StoryGuide allows three levels of Guide, from the “Level One” 50-60 question quick outline to the “Level Three” 250 question outline. I don’t agree with the software’s insistence that there are 32,768 “story forms” — that’s exactly 32K (2^15 = 16 bits), clearly reflecting a computational limit of 1993 more than writing theory of any time. I’m assuming that’s also why there are 256 actual questions (8 bits). Maybe a rewrite of the software would expand this array of potential stories, but I also can’t imagine writers need more than 32,768 possible outlines from which to create something.

The level of detail required by Dramatica forces you to consider writing in ways you might not have in the past. Dramatica isn’t for the writer who likes to sit and write, inspired by muses — or the writer who sits and waits for inspiration that never comes. This software is for those not only who want to plan, but can plan.

There are four major stages, or groups of questions, a writer works through in Dramatica, plus an optional epilogue:

  1. Setting the Stage: The basics of the characters, plot, and theme.
  2. Storyforming: The “Story Engine” guides you through the characters’ problems and choices.
  3. Illustrating: The details that propel the story, such as “time vs. option” formulas.
  4. Storyweaving: The various actions and choices of characters are “woven” together.

Comparing Dramatica to Mariner Software’s Contour 1.2 is almost unfair. Contour offers only a single, simplistic story model: the Hero’s Journey. Contour is fine for that one story template, but it seems forced when you load the sample analyses of various movies and novels. Dramatica, however, handles almost any imaginable story structure.

If you want to learn Dramatica, load the sample stories, from the film classic Casablanca to the Toni Morrison novel Sula. Loading a story and then stepping through Dramatica helps make sense of the complex theories behind the program.

I had a half-finished manuscript sitting around that I decided to fix through Dramatica. It took a week to enter the characters, their personality traits, and various plot points. What Dramatica revealed to me was a problem with the characters: they were not distinct enough. There were minor differences, but not nearly enough contrast.

That is what Dramatica does best: point to the conflicts and contrasts necessary for a compelling story. If you have a logical character, you should have an emotional character to provide contrast. If you have a guide, you also need someone trying to mislead other characters. Sure, it seems simple and obvious, but it is easy to write what seems like a great story until you discover something is missing.

Dramatica forced me to realize I had a single story, instead of the “weave” necessary to make the characters more complex and compelling. Yes, my main character followed the Hero’s Journey from fall to redemption, but the other characters were boring. The story was also predictable, a common problem with first drafts. There was never any question the hero would choose self-sacrifice and redemption, but there should have been.

When I finally reached the “Illustrating” step of Dramatica, I was surprised that there were only two forms of climactic action: “Time Clock” and “Option Clock.” However, once you read the theory guide, which is included with Dramatica 4.1, you realize that most decisions in life are one or both of these: a definite clock running down or options slowly vanishing. Either way, the character(s) making choices are facing pressures to act. Even inaction is a choice that leads to consequences.

Dramatica is not cheap, certainly not attractive, and it requires time and effort to use. It can be overwhelming. Yet, I do believe the program is valuable. While I think anyone could use the Contour outline without any software, there is no way I would try to follow the Dramatica theories without software guidance.

There are many things I would change to make the software easier to use and understand, since even the terminology is unusual, but I believe most people will be comfortable with the software after two or three complete stories.

Here’s hoping that an upgrade does appear in 2011.

– Scott