Michael Brown

The Paradise Wars and Clark Ransom Thrillers

Dramatica, Part Five

Dramatica Story EngineTWELVE ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS (continued)

To give proper credit: I am deeply indebted to Dramatica software and to The Dramatica Theory of Story as presented by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley.

They are in no way responsible for my understanding or lack thereof of such theory.  For the real deal, please go to:




As we pick up our discussion of the 12 Essential Questions, keep in mind that as we answer each question we are reducing our Great Gatsby storyform down to one out of a possible 30,000 plus possible combinations of practically countless permutations of elements.

Because of this complexity, Dramatica wasn’t possible until software –the Dramatica Software–was developed which could use the power of a computer to calculate the effects of any choices we make.

I’m spending a little time discussing this to dispel any notions that somehow what we are doing is formulaic. Realty is that from the patterns of petal distributions on a flower to the arrangement of galaxies, reality is numbers. Why should our creations be any different?

Before our first choice—the answer to our first question—is made, there are 32,768 possible storyforms that logically combine these elements in a way that makes the reader feel the story is complete and satisfying.  With each question answered, the number of storyforms is reduced, as are possible subsequent choices.

For example, once we answer our questions for the Main Character–what is his resolve, growth method, problem-solving style, and approach–our choices for Overall Story Domain have been reduced from four to two, and Overall Story Problem, Issue, and Concern from 64 to 32.  By the time we’ve answered the Main Character Questions and the Plot Questions and arrive at our final group of questions, the possible choices for each Thematic question have already been made for us (that’s why I don’t show any choices for each question; I just explain the choices that the software has made in order to keep the storyform logically consistent).

With that in mind, let’s consider our final group of questions:


Question Nine:  Choosing the Overall Story Domain:

How do Fixed Attitudes relate to everyone’s troubles in the story?

The objective characters in The Great Gatsby hold a fixed attitude about people and society.  Tom’s prejudice about people with ethnic backgrounds other than Nordic, and his certainty of the part they will play in the downfall of western civilization, is illustrated as follows:

“‘Civilization’s going to pieces,’ broke out Tom violently.  ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things.  Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?’

‘Why, no,’ I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

‘Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it.  The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be-will be utterly submerged.  It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.'”

Question Ten:  Choosing the Overall Story Concern:

How does everyone in the story have a general concern with Innermost Desires?

All the objective characters are concerned with their own and others’ romances.  Gatsby’s concerns include Daisy leaving Tom and becoming his wife; Daisy’s concerns include a chance at reliving her girlhood through a romantic fling with Gatsby–yet retaining her secure marriage with Tom; Tom is concerned with retaining both his wife, Daisy, and his mistress, Myrtle.  Myrtle would like to leave her husband, Wilson, and become the next Mrs. Tom Buchanan; Wilson is concerned with keeping his wife Myrtle; Nick and Jordan are halfway in love with each other.

Question Eleven:  Choosing the Overall Story Issue:

How does the thematic issue of Dream affect everybody?

Gatsby’s dream of obtaining Daisy went far beyond mere hope:

“He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity.”

Question Twelve:  Choosing the Overall Story Problem:

How does everyone’s general problems come from Faith?

Gatsby believes he can become a myth of his own making — a myth that only causes him unhappiness and unfulfilled dreams:

“He invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

Tom’s unfaithfulness with Myrtle, and Daisy’s unfaithfulness with Gatsby, causes problems in their marriage, as well as problems in Myrtle and Wilson’s marriage.

Nick is appalled to find that Gatsby’s mentor, Meyer Wolfsheim, fixed the 1919 World’s Series, and played “with the faith of fifty million people…”

Let’s say that the Essential 12 Questions are actually a baker’s dozen, here is one more:

Question Thirteen:  Locate Your Main Character’s Problem:

How does Nick Carraway’s problems stem from Faith?

Nick has too much faith in his fellow men and women: “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments…”

Making choices and selecting one storyform from out of the 32,768 possible, completes the first step in the Dramatica process: Storyforming.  Even if we were to stop here, if we made sure all subsequent work we did on the novel didn’t contradict the choices we’ve made here, we would know that we would have a solid, satisfying story, with no essential gaps.

Great writers probably do this intuitively or through a method of their own–grokking out gaps and holes in the underlying structure of their work.  Even if you are blessed with this intuitive sense, going through this exercise in Dramatica, gives you the confidence to know your intuition is correct, saves time, and lets you understand your work on a deeper level.

In later weeks, I’ll pick up the Dramatica series again and continue on with the other stages in the process: Storyencoding, Storyweaving, and Story Reception.

However, next post, I’d like to show how I take the highly abstract, theoretical musings obtained from Dramatica and begin to make it my own using Notetake HD.

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