How does Dramatica determine Signpost order?

I’ve always been curious about how this works.

Which of my choices is Dramatica looking at when deciding the order of the Signposts in each throughline?

Also, it seems to do the same thing at the Variation level, according to the Plot Sequence Report.

Could it also be doing the same thing at the Element level within each Variation? Dramatica doesn’t seem to offer that much detail at the Element level, but something tells me it exists within the algorithms.

Being a structuralist, I love all the tiny details… so to have the ability to see that deeply under the hood would just be a treat for someone like me.

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You could take a look at some of the articles/files at
But, in short: for the signposts the software looks at all 12 answers you gave to get your storyform (MC Resolve, MC Growth, MC Approach, MC PSS, Driver, Limit, Outcome, Judgment, OS Domain, OS Concern, OS Issue, OS Problem, MC Problem). The actualy methodology seems rather complex, and honestly somewhat arbitrary.

I tried to look into it in the past, and didn’t get anything out of it, so I would recommend not investing much time in it. See also @jhull’s article about this.

It’s not arbitray. But is is proprietary, which is why you won’t find the answers anywhere here on this forum or anywhere else. @bobRaskoph’s link is a good one.

I suppose my original question wasn’t worded correctly. I’m definitely not trying to violate any intellectual property rights… but simply trying to understand how the Signpost order affects my story.

What I really want is to understand why a storyform’s signposts are ordered a particular way, from a story standpoint. We’re told that the software arranges them to support the argument we’re trying to make, but it doesn’t explain why a particular signpost order supports the argument. Without knowing the why, it’s hard for me to know for sure whether it has chosen the right order. I’m not suggesting the software is flawed, just that I sometimes want something concrete that allows me to say (to myself), “Ahh, ok, that makes sense.”

So, to clarify, I guess I’m asking why, rather than how.

So an example of the type of answers I’m looking for might be… Dramatica chose The Present for Signpost 1 because it supports this (xyz) part of your argument leading up to Signpost 2, and better prepares the audience for later Signposts by providing the necessary foreshadowing for those events.

But as it stands, I don’t know why a particular Concern has to be the first Signpost, or second, etc…

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There are reasons why things are ordered in the way they are, but the particulars of that will not be revealed as it violates IP rights. This comes up from time to time–usually during the summer–and soon we will have the usual arguments about open software, etc and then I’ll have to lock the thread.

In short, I don’t think you’ll find the satisfaction you are looking for.

Thanks, Jim… I intended no offense or ill will…

I can accept your answer. I suppose my only option will be to look at a lot of different stories and see if I can reason out what’s going on at the Signpost level, simply for the sake of understanding the theory as fully as possible.

No worries. I understand the want to figure it out. I spent days in the beginning trying to figure it out, then eventually realized I cared more about using Dramatica to help me help others write great stories rather than how Dramatica determines the Signpost order.

Good luck!

Here is my take on it:

  1. Dramatica is so amazingly, mind-blowingly accurate about other things, that I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt about Signposts.
  2. Even if Dramatica is wrong about the Signposts, you still need each part of your story to be about something, and I personally feel that having the limitation to guide my creativity toward the Signpost will actually help me. (it’s a lot easier to take the prompt of “Digging up the past” than a blank slate)
  3. This part I’m still learning… but because everything in Dramatica is only the thematic / structural underpinnings (the skeleton that you can’t directly see), we as authors have a lot more freedom than we might realize. For example I might think that a flashback must be Memories or The Past, but I could still have a flashback about The Present or The Future or anything else. So theoretically you could set aside some of the Signposts when writing, and probably find that your muse hit them in some way anyway.
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Thank you, Mike, for your input.

What you, Jim and Bob have said makes a lot of sense to me. I have to agree about the accuracy I’ve seen in Dramatica. It’s so accurate, in fact, one might be able to plug in a problem they’re having in real life and have Dramatica churn out a big clue as to where to start looking for the solution!

I think i remember reading in the theory book that Dramatica may have applications far beyond just Story… I can easily envision how it could eventually be very helpful in psychology/mental health for example.

I’m satisfied with knowing Dramatica has gotten everything right, that I’ve asked it. I still have other questions, and I’ll probably be posting them to this discussion forum, lol… but I can let this one go and be satisfied that Dram is leading me in the right direction.

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I have used Dramatica several times over the years to deal with personal problems. Once you realize that the $300/hr. therapist is really just your own personal Influence Character, it becomes quite easy to start drilling down to the source of your own personal problems. And much cheaper.

The scary part is when you see that the Signpost order actually works…and that you know what is going to happen next…


I just wanted to make clear that I didn’t say that it is arbitrary, just that it seemed that way. Any complex systems that one doesn’t understand seems to have arbitrary results. Pink Noise looks just as random as White Noise to an untrained eye. I’m sure that there are perfectly fine reasons behind every step of the justification process.

It’s part of Dramatica’s “secret sauce” and not something we share, considering we’ve shared just about every other aspect of the theory. It is determined by a combination of dynamics and relationships that exist between the throughlines.

The mechanism that determines act order also influences many other aspects of the model not exposed in the software, such as the assignment of Potential, Resistance, Current, and Outcome (i.e. Power) with each quad that creates a “dramatic circuit.”

The reason we keep it secret is for commercial purposes. Though much of the rest of the model’s algorithms can be mimicked, it is difficult to reproduce the signpost orders without the proper understanding and algorithms.


Thanks, Chris @chuntley, for your reply.

I’m not interested in exposing Dramatica’s secret sauce, and so really what I would like to be able to understand is the “why” of things, rather than how the order is determined.

For example, in a story where the OS Throughline is Universe, and with all the other story points, the Signpost order is Future, Past, Progress, and Present… rather than trying to decode how Dramatica arrived at that order, I’d just be interested in why that particular order supports the main argument being put forward, whereas a different order might not.

Is there a way to get at least a general sense of the “why” without getting into the “how”?

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In about 2001 a professor announced in a cognitive psychology class that Intel always asked him/her to provide interns for their company, and the students were being encouraging to apply, etc. I was very impressed to learn that computer research worked on and with how the human brain and human personalities interacted in authentic life and science. This witnessed event might help answer why a little.

Not easily because it touches so many different story dynamics and story points.

Here is an overview:

In various different articles, Melanie describes the justification process as flips and rotations, meaning that the items in a quad change position based on storyforming choices and flip (exchange position with another item in a quad) or rotate (the items collectively circle clockwise or counterclockwise one position in the quad) BEFORE the signpost order (1-2-3-4) is assigned to the items in the quad.

The base item – the point of origin for the flips and/or rotations – is associated with the problem/solution elements, the relationship of the MC domain to the OS domain, and several of the character and plot dynamics.

The flips and/or rotations happen at all four levels of the model in a sequence influenced by character and plot dynamics.

The flips and/or rotations are applied in two separate passes: once from the bottom up and another from the top down (or vice versa).

Complicating the matter, for all levels other that the Element level, the “children” of the items (e.g. the Elements under the Variations) may or may not move with the “parent” items – again, this is dependent on character and story dynamics. This creates new associations between items at different levels of the structural model, which is what you can see in the Plot Sequence report.

All that explains the “what.” The WHY has to do with why we justify at all.


Human minds are natural pattern matching ‘machines’. Our minds hate unresolved inequities – imbalances created by unresolved potentials. When our mind receives an unfamiliar or incomplete pattern, especially one that creates an inequity, it must do one of two things: Identify the pattern through problem solving (the resolution of iniquities), or hide the inequity through justification, the process of creating blinders to block the inequity from awareness.

When we cannot resolve an inequity, we turn to justification. Justification hides the inequity by altering the pattern (flips and/or rotations). Difficult inequities may require multiple levels of justification (flips and/or rotations). There is a maximum of four levels of justification that still allow direct awareness of the original inequity. At any time, the levels of justification may be dismantled and the inequity addressed directly through problem solving. However, if a fifth level of justification is applied, the energies needed to maintain the levels of justification collapse the inequity into a blind spot – a semi-permanent, self-sustaining mental black hole. At that point, direct observation of the inequity becomes virtually impossible from the inside (full justification). In most cases, it requires external pressure (in the form of an Influence character) to tear down the levels of justification (directly related to the signposts) before the core inequity is once again visible to the mind.

The benefit of blindness to inequities is that one may ignore unresolvable inequities, big or small. The downside of this blindness is that circumstances may change and one’s response to the initial stimulus may no longer be appropriate. For example, you may not be able to cure a sickness, so hiding the sickness from oneself and treating the symptoms may be sufficient for a time. However, if the sickness worsens or metastasizes into something lethal, being blind to it no longer serves its purpose and may be fatal unless the blind spot is dismantled in time to cure the disease.


Thank you, Chris @chuntley. You have been so kind to indulge my question… and your answers have helped me considerably.

What you’ve said makes complete sense to me, now. The information about the justification process has cleared up a lot of things in my mind.

I just want to reiterate that my intent wasn’t to go poking my nose where it doesn’t belong, or step on any toes, with regard to the software and how it makes decisions.

I’ve mentioned in other threads, that I’m absolutely in love with Dramatica. It’s your baby (yours and Melanie’s wonderful creation). My questions are always about understanding the theory better because the more I learn about it, the richer and deeper it seems, and the more in-love I become.

Thank you again for your kind and well-considered response. :slight_smile:

My pleasure. I never considered your question to be driven by anything more than curiosity.

Dramatica is a strange and convoluted set of hypotheses intimately tied to an innately human creative process. It is disconcerting that something so internal can be externalized as effectively as Dramatica appears to quantify the human problem-solving process AND the underpinnings of effective narrative development.

Even though Melanie and I “discovered” the basis for Dramatica over twenty-five years ago, we are still learning how to improve our communication of its concepts to those who have no interest in knowing how or why it works. They just want to use it to tell better stories or understand how to resolve personal problems. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.


Thanks for going into the detail of it, that is really helpful!

I would love to be in a whole in depth class that focuses on the justification process. Is there a way to get a feel for first level justifications vs second, third and fourth? Is there a way to write a paragraph for an MC or an IC that lets an author plan out just how deep the justification goes? It seems like some of the eight essential questions influence this more than others, like problem solving style (mental sex). Is that right? I’m guessing the Story Driver is a major factor in signpost order.

I’m still having trouble with the cause and effect relationship of the story drivers. Does each scene have a story driver, too? Does the catlyst accelerate the story driver and the inhibitor decelerate it? Kind of like a gas pedal and a brake?

If I could wave a magic wand, I would understand Justifications, signpost order and story drivers :wink:

As a possibility, Are the signposts the four levels of reversing the justification and there are just always four levels to reverse in a grand story argument?

Does this help expose my blind spot? I can definitely see in my own personal life how the signposts of my life unwound justifications.

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Just think of it like juggling balls.

  • With the first ball, all of your attention is on the one ball and keeping it in the air.

  • With two balls, your concentration is now on keeping them both cycling through the air.

  • With three balls, your awareness of any single ball is diminished by comparison to juggling all three.

  • With the fourth ball, you cannot tell one ball from the rest and you are barely able to keep them under control. In fact, at this point it doesn’t matter which ball you started with because it seems insignificant compared to the task of juggling four balls.

This is the point where you’re stuggling to maintain the juggling, but you know you are juggling. In the justification process, the next step might be akin to pretending to be someone else – someone who has no business juggling balls – all the while sort of putting the ball juggling on auto-pilot so you don’t have to use any brain space to think about it.

You can imagine that this person might react poorly to someone who comes along and asks, “Why are you juggling those balls?”, when this person has successfully “hidden” this from himself.

This is an inexact metaphor (understatement of the year), but you should get a feeling for what the justification process seems like in the most general sense.


Yes and no. All storyforms represent the processes of justification and problem solving. It’s nearly impossible to tease them apart when speaking of the process generically.