So, I’ve been using Dramatica’s newest (and finally mac functioning once again) version of it’s popular story writing software. It’s been an interesting week. And fruitful. I think I can now give an accurate appraisal of the program, so let’s get started.
First though, let’s talk about the basics.
What is Dramatica? Dramatica is a series of programs that have been around for well over a decade now that help writers in creating a very tight story from the ground up. It focuses heavily on plot and theme creation, giving you the ability to basically up and form the structure of virtually any kind of story. Note: it doesn’t give you ideas on topics to write about exactly, but it suggests paths you need to explore given a sort of topic you choose. It’ll make more sense later.
Warning: Dramatica is software based on a theory created by California writers Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips. It’s very thick and involved technical stuff. The software comes with a full 300 page book and dictionary on the theory and terms that go into the software. And here’s the thing: while you may well be able to figure out this and that by button-pressing on the software, you’ll likely be freaking lost if you don’t at least read some of the book. I read the whole thing and I’m still kind of lost a lot. So, you’ve now been warned.
Overall, I would recommend this program if you’re willing to put in the time with it for one reason: it helps you consider things you haven’t included in your story that might well be felt as lacking if it doesn’t make an appearance.
The Dramatica theory can be thought of like a 4 squared-grid with type of stories you might tell. Those types are an characters engaged in an activity, characters in a situation, manipulation, and characters with a fixed attitude. Whenever you make a choice on which type, you’re present with larger, more squared grids that have more options to choose from.
But you don’t get to choose everything. That’s the good part. It takes a lot of your initial choices and, through a very sophisticated way of figuring things, immediately knows that there are certain other things that are going to have to either happen or be explained somehow. For instance, if your main character is involved in a situation, the person that impacts them most will have some kind of issue with a fixed attitude. Again, it’s complicated, but it’s very helpful, because you realize that there are holes in your rather thin story that need to be plugged. And that is the fatal flaw to most writing, in my opinion.
WHAT I LIKED
Making you make choices: The software will force you to take options that you don’t really understand, but are likely correct, meaning you’ll have to rethink things on a deeper level, something that can only lead to good results when creating a story.
Good question system to set up the structure of a story: The software leads you through a number of questions about how your characters do this or that in the plot, how the two main forces interact, what themes come across in your story and much much more. After a week of answering and reanswering questions, I really feel like I know my story better than I did before. And I feel like my character’s motivations will now lead to obvious choices instead of me just directing them where I think they would go because screw it, that’s why.
Good visual representation of things: The theory and software shows graphics of your characters (that you can assign from many casting choices), 4 throughlines as they visually unfold in the story, color codes for different aspects of things, etc. It’s refreshing to be able to quickly interpret your story at a glance, and still have it be thorough.
Plethora of ready made reports: Once you fill in details and answer a number of questions, Dramatica offers a number (and I mean A LOT) of reports about the information developed from your answers. You don’t have to write anything in the report. It takes entries from what you’ve already created. And the reports are quite readable and engaging. A nice touch.
Excellent theory and guide, complete with explanations and examples: Again, Dramatica is difficult to grasp, but the on-board definition, theory and usage buttons help you understand what they’re talking about by referencing stories (usually films) that use referenced terms. So, for instance, if you don’t know what kinds of stories involve a situation, you might click the usage button and see Star Wars explained in terms of how everyone is in some situation.
But also, the whole process is good about trying to explain something very complex to you in small parts that build up over time. It can take a while, but before you know it, you’re being reminded of other choices and why they must lead to X, Y, and Z and you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” In short, it can make you feel like a writer.
The Price!: By far, the most impressive thing about this better version of Dramatic is it’s greatly reduced price. Dramatica pro was coming in at a pricey 250 to 400 dollars in some cases. This bad boy is now down to somewhere around 100 dollars, a steal for such a complex software. And they’ll even let you do a demo for two weeks free.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
It’s Bloody Complicated!: They do a good job of walking you through the process and explaining what they can, but even after all that, it’s very much like learning another langue, and not an easy one at that. It’s not that the terms are all that difficult (except Contagonist, what the hell is that?!) or anything. But they have very specific meanings for very specific words. So “Consider” means X, not Y; because “Reconsider” means Y. It’s mindnumbing at times.
It can take quite a while: Developing a good story should take a while, I guess. But I spent quite a bit of time staring at a screen saying, “Uhhhhhh….uhhhhhh.” I think a lot of those issues come from 2 things. For 1, you’re answering questions at a ridiculously more and more detailed level (not just what he’s concerned about, but what is his problem? What’s his issue too?). So you’re writing more and more and just setting up. I realized how much I didn’t get done while filling out so much prep info. But for 2, the program forces you to think about some of the forced choices that are likely accurate that you haven’t considered, and don’t even fully understand. For example, you may find that characters that act this or that way and are engaged in this or that activity can only be someone that is a do-er rather than a be-er (told you the definitions got crazy). This makes you poke yourself in the eyes trying to not just answer unthought of questions, but to figure out what the questions actually mean.
The forced choices make it hard to get an accurate story structure that feels right: The biggest issue I had, by far, was considering what my main character was doing mentally during the story, not because I didn’t know, but because when I answered questions about the overall story, the software told me my character had to think about these issues I didn’t envision him thinking about. It felt sort of wrong that he was considering things in a way that didn’t go with his actions. And those forced choices happen a great deal.
I wanted my character that influenced my main character the most (the impact character) to make her biggest impact about the main character making a choice. But the software was certain (so certain that it wouldn’t let me change it) that the biggest impact was on how my main character was rationalizing things. Again, it didn’t feel right. So you end up doing the whole structure (what they call “spinning the model”) over and over and over again, trying to get something that feels right. And when you get something that sort of feels right, there are still 5 to 6 things that just don’t quite fit the bill, but you’ve gotten frustrated and decided to go ahead and just explain your way around the weirdness. For instance, it told me my impact character had to think in this holistic manner because my main character thought in a linear manner, but because of the story, the truth is that they both think in a linear manner, one just better than the other. So I just let the model have its way and did what I wanted. The point is though, it’s already complicated, and when things don’t add up over and over again, it can make you go a little nuts.
It’s an upgrade from 4 but it’s not the massive upgrade I was expecting: To be sure, its’ much better than Dramatica pro 4, but it’s really just putting dressing on a very familiar process. It would be very much like if 5 years passed and Photoshop only looked very slightly different. I suppose that has to do with having a good model, but still. I was expecting flash animation and talking parrots ( I ‘m hard to please).
It tells you to consider things, but doesn’t give you ideas about creative techniques enough: Dramatica doesn’t claim to be software that teaches you to be an artist. It claims to be a program that will help you consider some of the right things about the structure and theme of a story. But I would’ve liked at least a little bit more of a crash course on different techniques of good writing and pitfalls to avoid when exploring certain subject matter. I can’t complain too much though as that’s really just what’s on my wish list.
There are many other good things and bad things about the software: lots of example stories to plug into the program to teach you what it should look like, silly blacked out character pictures to use in your casting, nifty character creation and random story structure generation features, etc. A lot of stuff. But these have been my favorite and not so favorite features.
Again, it’s good stuff if you want to nail down what you should be focusing on and the kinds of questions you really need to address somewhere in your story for it to feel complete. It will take some time for most people, but it’s well worth it in my opinion as you’ll truly know your story when you’re done and be damn near ready to write each scene that has already been laid out. So check it out.
One final piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to tell the software to go screw itself every now and then. Be careful, but don’t be a slave. Focusing so heavily on structure is a good idea, but you shouldn’t let it strangle your ability to break the mold and do things in a creative way. Memento (though they analyze it on their site) could not have been done with this software without imagination. The software would’ve kind of been like, “But no, you gotta do it his way.” I think Memento maid it’s point better though. (PS, your analysis of Memento is wrong. Time/memory itself is the impact character. Everything makes sense once you realize that).
So, yay writing software.