Conflict - Or How is this a problem?

Scouring the forum, I picked up this clue from @chuntley:

But what is it for change characters? Is the Problem the same or different?

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I wish it were just out of reach, @Gregolas then at least we’d have a fighting chance, lol!

I have looked far and wide for a basic definition of Problem in the materials and it doesn’t exist. It also doesn’t exist in the QnA of this website. The closest a basic definition that exists is in the Dramatica pdf where it says:

‘Finally, we have arrived at the most basic and precise level of understanding in regard to a story’s problem: the Element level. It is here that the source of difficulties experienced in each throughline can be found. The Overall Story Problem is something that will affect all of the characters and all that they do.”

And then it goes on to describe how Problem (whatever that is!) is seen in each of the throughlines.

Anyway, the best understanding I’ve gleaned is from Huntley’s quote (above) about it being a motivation of some sort.

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For Change characters, the Problem is the source of conflict, thought it’s usually hidden from them until they’ve torn down the blinders that hide it from them. The Symptom appears to be their problem, and they react with their Response, until they are able to see the difference between the symptom and problem and realize that only the Solution may resolve their troubles.


How does this differ in a Steadfast character, Chris?

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To quote myself from above:

In Steadfast characters, the ‘Problem’ is better understood as the source of the characters’ motivations than as the source of the characters’ conflicts. (NOTE: Like all things Dramatica, this is a generalization and exceptions are expected.)

For Steadfast characters, the Symptom is treated as the problem and the Response as the solution for that ‘problem’.

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@chuntley , So what’s the secret to showing how a Problem (or Symptom) is problematic within a story? To use Jims example from the article linked above, it’s not good enough to say that a character is driven to prove that he can be a good spy. It’s only good enough once we see how his attempts to prove himself cause his wife to toss his stuff out on the lawn.

Is it a problem then because of conflicting truths (I can prove that I can be a great spy…unless my wife misunderstands and throws all my stuff on the lawn), is it something about motivations or goals (I can’t spy right now because I have to gather all my spy equipment and smiley face undies off the lawn), or is there something else?

I’ve mostly just thought of something as being problematic when it is illustrated within the story as an imbalance regarding the element in question, something that shows why following a given element doesn’t immediately lead to success. So that could apply to Jims spy example in that the character can’t prove he can be a good spy A. Because he’s too busy cleaning the yard to try again, B. Until he can get his wife to stop being suspicious about what he’s doing, C. Because good spies don’t arouse suspicion in their spouses D. Because a good spy isn’t held back by family squabbles, etc.
Edit: come to think of it, that sounds a lot like @mlucas’ description of:

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It must cause conflict. That is why it is a “problem.”

Always remember that there is no “Problem” story point in Dramatica, per se. HOWEVER, there is an OS Problem, an MC Problem, an IC Problem, and a RS (or SS) Problem.

Context is EVERYTHING.


Okay, so yes, saying that a Dramatica element is problematic because it creates conflict seems like it should be much easier than I think many of us have made it.

so just trying the above advice out a little bit to see what happens.

For the MC, being driven to prove that he is a good spy:
-takes too much time away from his family causing his wife to get mad.
-interferes with his current job-filling out paperwork for the real spies-causing him to get behind on his duties meaning he’ll have to work late instead of going to the Christmas party
-leads to the MC getting caught spying on all the neighbors, which makes them mad
-is impossible because everyone is already sharing all of their secrets. His inability to prove himself in this environment begins to drive him mad.
-means he must invent reasons to spy on people, which breaks the spy code
-means he must invent reasons to spy on people, which proves to others not that he is a good spy, but that he is a good gossip, and nobody in this town likes a gossip
-means that no one can ever see him do his job (because a good spy would never be seen spying) which means he can never get any recognition from the boss on his specific technique
-means he must overcome his fear of climbing vertical cliffs if he is to reach the castle and spy on the Cliche Villain Summit.
-means he must escape the monologuing villain and free the hostages before the villain can push the Button instead of waiting for the more experienced spy to show up and save the day.

So do those all seem to meet the criteria of creating conflict, or no?

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Okay, I think, you got the first one but the rest miss the mark a little. I’ve discussed the first few below, but it was going to get repetitive, so I stopped. I think what happened is you changed from but to means…and instead of exploring the conflict you are interpreting it. Deos that make sense?

Anyway, I hope this helps.

SPY A needs to prove he’s got the SKILLZ so he starts spying on his neighbors

[quote=“Gregolas, post:29, topic:1367”]- it takes too much time away from his family causing his wife to get mad.

I think this one does pretty good. I can see a scene where he’s missed some family event and gets the cold shoulder,[/quote]

[quote]- interferes with his current job-filling out paperwork for the real spies-causing him to get behind on his duties meaning he’ll have to work late instead of going to the Christmas party

This one I’m not feeling as much. It seems to be missing the [thing that cannot co-exist] part Does he care about going to the xmas party? Is he supposed to do something important at said xmas party? Is there some consequence for the real spies that he doesn’t manage his workload well? [/quote]

[quote]- it leads to the MC getting caught spying on all the neighbors, which makes them mad

Again I’m not positive this works for the same reason as above, them being mad doesn’t seem to be incompatible with his spying desire. Now if the spying thing is in the OS and he has to get them all to sign a petition to save the local park in the RS, but they all slam the door in his face when he knocks…then…maybe but I changed stuff a bit. [/quote]

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So Jims example was that spy activities leads to his wife throwing all his belongings on the lawn. Is that conflict? Because of course he could be ready for a divorce anyway and if all his stuff is on the lawn, it’s just that much easier to get to! So this is part of the conversation, then, where we just keep asking why every answer is a problem until the heat death of the universe.

Why is it a problem for Andy to be innocent in prison? Why’s it a problem that guards threaten him and inmates rape him? Why’s it a problem that he doesn’t like those things?

I think the question of :muscle: should only refer to the setup of “X is a problem.” The answer then is the proof that X is a problem, but not another problem in itself.

For instance, we know it’s a problem for Andy to be innocent in jail because he tries to escape, or because he’s threatened by the guards, or because some of the inmates rape him. We know it’s a problem for the spy to Prove he’s good because his stuff ends up on the lawn. Or because the neighbors get mad, or because he’s going to miss the Christmas party.

But why are those things problems? They’re not. And even if they are problems, it’s not about why that answer is a problem now. It’s just about proving that the setup is a problem. If there’s anything else to show in order to prevent anyone from assuming a problem i’d think it would just need to be illustrated in the story.

If this spy is the only one merrily wishing other’s a Merry Christmas and wearing festive (some might say ugly) Christmas sweaters on missions, and setting up the office Secret Santa gift exchange, then the audience will see that missing the Christmas party is what makes proving himself a good spy a problem. If we see him ignoring his wife’s angry cussing while gathering secret documents off the front lawn, then the audience knows he’s not okay with his stuff being easier to get to.

(Sorry, I think I’ve veered off topic a bit, and maybe got a bit convoluted in some of that as well, and I’m not even done yet! You can blame a slow morning at this office for this long post)

As far as the thing that cannot co-exist I’d say that proving ones self a good spy cannot co-exist with leaving at 5pm on the dot and making it in time for Secret Santa. Or proving ones self a good spy cannot co-exist with having happy neighbors. It’s not world-ending conflict, but there’s still conflict between those things, isn’t there?

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All that’s really missing was to make it explicit that he wanted to go to the Christmas party, but I think you can kind of infer that from Greg’s words. Unless you’re working with a Dramatica mentor or writing partner, usually you’ll be doing these illustrations just for yourself, so just make sure it’s clear to you why it’s a problem. e.g. that he actually wanted to go to the party.

Same with Jim’s example, you can infer the guy doesn’t want his wife to throw his stuff on the lawn and divorce him, even though that’s not stated.

So, making something a problem :muscle: isn’t rocket science – it’s a reminder to you as a writer to make sure the Appreciation is a source of conflict. AND more importantly, it’s where your creativity really comes in. You get to take the cold structural point (“MC Problem of Proven”) or slightly-less-cold gist (“proving you can be a good spy”) and have something emerge that totally speaks to YOU as a writer. Like imagining what it’s like to have your wife turn on you just because you were desperate to prove something that mattered to you. That’s the secret sauce, making all these conflicts meaningful to you.


Yes and no. For example, here is one that works:

His inability to prove himself in this environment begins to drive him mad

It has both MC Problem + Proven = Conflict.

Here is an example that doesn’t work as well:

takes too much time away from his family causing his wife to get mad

This example has MC Problem = Conflict. Where is proven in that example? It is simple to say that the header says "being driven to prove that he is a good spy", but the example should INCLUDE Proven to make the point and show a specific example of Proven creating personal conflict as the source of the MC personal difficulties.

It is easy to forget to include all of the pieces when detailing them, which becomes a greater problem when you then flesh out those examples and forget to indicate ALL of the ingredients.


Ah, excellent advice, Mr. Huntley. I was totally just looking for conflict without considering the source! So maybe…Avoiding family time in order to work on being a spy makes the wife mad…MC Problem of Avoid?

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Here’s a way to keep it focused on Proven, just extrapolating from Jim’s example: When his wife catches him sneaking back home after a late-night spying expedition, she takes it as proof that he’s being unfaithful, and throws him out. Now he has to prove his love to her, but how can he do so without breaking the spy’s code to tell her the truth? Doing so would prove – to himself and the other spies – that he’s not cut out to be a spy…

For your Avoid example, try to make it so that Avoidance is also a drive for the MC. And if you’re feeling energetic, dig into the “wife is mad” result to find some Avoidance-related difficulties there (that are still personal to the MC).


Wow, you really knitted those together quite well, Mike. So now he’s in a dilemma, needing to prove both he’s a good spy and his love for his wife. In this context you’ve made them mutually exclusive. Binary. Heads or Tails. Both can’t exist in the same place at the same time. Of course, he wants both to exist simultaneously: being a good spy and a loving husband. Now, the context you describe, it could be fun story to solve and tell.


Works for me.

Not including the full context while illustrating the story points is a big problem for losing sight of the underlying story dramatics.


@mlucas Your problem explanation /formula is awesome. Please keep it up.


So, I’ve been noodling on this…still.

Is it fair to say that something isn’t a problem UNTIL a character is willing to do something about it?

So for example, Piper is hungry, but it isn’t a problem until she’s willing to do something to change it? Like follow Mama to the surf and pull a shell from the sand herself. Or face the waves that swamped her?

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A problem is just expectation incongruent with occurence. Remove one and there is no problem.

Occurence is not a problem

Expectation is not a problem