How much story?

So, I’m curious. How much development (of story and character) do y’all do before you bring in Dramatica and try to nail down the storyform?


Awesome question Diane! I’ve thought about this a lot in terms of my process and what works best for me.

I allow myself to consider throughline Domains, sometimes even Concerns, from the beginning of the story idea. But just in my head, not nailed down.

I hold off figuring out the full storyform for as long as I can resist. The general idea being, I don’t want my conscious mind to screw up the still-forming subconscious gold. Once some items at the Element level (e.g. Problem, Focus) start to become obvious, it becomes almost impossible to resist. Especially once I feel like knowing something in the storyform will help with the next scene.

The amount of story/character development that has occurred at that point depends on the approach I took with the story (in terms of the pantsing-plotting continuum). But generally I would have developed the main characters and their conflicts, the big picture conflict, some stuff about the world, and outlined anywhere from 5 to 20 scenes that I imagine occurring at various points of the story. (These scene outlines are very sparse, just one sentence per scene, no other details.) Then I start writing the story, and probably end up nailing down the storyform around halfway into Act 1.


I am not doing much development before I start working with Dramatica. Once I have a good idea which speaks to me I am trying to find a storyform.

The main thing before I start is, to look if my main character has a strong drive to reach the goal - whatever it might be.

The process brings up new and funny ideas and interesting questions. The process constantly changes the form. But this is for me the interesting part and part of the character and plot development process.

After a couple of years working with Dramatica I have accepted that it will take a bigger number of storyforms until I have found the right one. Depends on the story this can add up tp 10, 20, 30 or even more different versions. I am even not sure if I can find the right one before the Story is finished.

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For me, it’s all about trusting the fact that every storyform is a complete argument.

That said, I seek out the feeling I want to have and work back from there. If I want a happy ending, etc, I set that up in the storyform and then go on the complete what’s been brewing in my head. I like to work off the notion of “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”. So whatever the storyform brings, I take as a prompt and try to create something exciting from there.

After that, I do Armando’s exercise to re-assess my storyform and then it straight to my Outline template to chart the story.

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Great question @jassnip and interesting answers so far. I would love to hear your own thoughts on this.

I have bounced around with several different approaches but haven’t landed on one true way for myself yet. However, my current project feels like it’s going much better, in large part I think because I am finally understanding PRCO and even more important the new work you and Jim have been doing on competing justifications (I wish I had understood those approaches a couple of years ago). I have also had some recent luck creating characters using the characteristics panel, albeit in a much looser way than I had tried previously.

Currently I have a very rough Subtext treatment of the whole book down to the signpost level and a few PSR illustrations. However, that will probably change. The really productive thing for me now is to use PRCO and the justification exercises scene by scene as I move forward. So this means write-outline-write-outline etc. This is a lot of work and it’s time consuming, but the material I’m coming up with is much, much better than it would have been if I tried come up with it all upfront.

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Agreed, this has a lot of value! Plus you can apply scene-level PRCO and KTAD (Situation, Attitude, Activity, Manners of Thinking) even when you don’t know the storyform yet. Without storyform you won’t have PSR to go off, but it’s perfectly okay to work from any element quad.

Actually, I think PRCO can be valuable even if you just get your thinking clear on what is the potential, resistance etc. in plain english (not Dramatica elements yet). This is actually what other methodologies are doing, with less precision, when they ask about goal, conflict, twist/outcome/disaster, etc.

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So the question is “How long do you work on a tale before deciding it should be a Story?” And the answer is “Until I know what I want to say using that subject matter.” If I’m going to try to present an audience with a message, I want to all the work I do to go toward proving that message, so I bring Dramatica in up front. Otherwise, I’m just developing tales either in hopes that I’ll accidentally stumble upon a cohesive message, or in hopes that I’ll have so many random bits of story thrown together that the beginnings of a cohesive message will start to float to the top and then I can pull it out and get rid of the rest. Both of those seem like a waste of time.

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It isn’t remotely linear. I probably bring up Dramatica within 24 hours of any new idea getting formed, and then it’s also close to the last thing I do before I dive into my final draft.


Hey @Greg, wondering what you think of this idea though … If our minds have an intuitive grasp of story (even if it’s at a subconscious level), that understanding should help us as writers to achieve cohesive messages with more than purely random chance. Granted, we tend to have a lot of blind spots and problems translating between subconscious and conscious – so that’s where Dramatica comes in to help us get past the blind spots and tighten the story. But I think you can get reasonably far on your own (especially if you know some basic principles like four throughlines).

Building off this, it goes to my principle that any storyform work will get you to a GAS, even if you end up at the wrong storyform, because the thought process is the same. So it doesn’t matter if you plug it into the model correctly.


Here’s another theory. Maybe the process of coming up with a story is analogous to our own minds trying to solve a central inequity that we’ve identified. Could that explain why, at least for some writers, the minute they iron out the storyform and outline, they lose interest in writing the story? (i.e., once you’ve articulated the argument, why tell it again?)

On the other hand, it sure is helpful to have a tool that helps figure out the argument faster so you don’t have to waste thousands and thousands of words getting to it.


Interesting idea. So maybe we’re better off not knowing how to tell a story, so we don’t give up on writing it? Nah…


I agree entirely. My point in my last post was that either you have a message to work toward or you do not. If you have a message to work toward, you have brought Dramatica into it even you haven’t yet opened the software. And if you do not have a message to work toward, then you are essentially working on a tale that you hope will become a story.

If our subconscious has a message to work toward, then I suppose we have brought Dramatica into it subconsciously. In that case, even though we think we are trying to drag a story out of a tale, we are not for though we are not conscious of it, we are working toward a message.

I place no judgment on working on a tale until it becomes a story for this reason. If you have no message to work toward, it’s not particularly useful to wait around until one pops into your head. Whether we have some subconscious drive to write a particular story or we are just developing strands of tales until we start to see a story we can pull from it, all of the work we put into it goes toward deciding what we want to say. It all potentially gets us closer to having a message.

So yeah, from one perspective, either we have a message to work toward or we do not. But from another perspective, everything we do is potentially getting us closer to coming up with that message. We can develop a tale without developing a message. We can develop a message without developing a tale. Or we can develop a message by developing tales until a message begins to form.

We can do it subconsciously, as well. It’s just that if we rely on our subconscious to have something to say, we also run the risk of doing all that work when our subconscious doesn’t have anything to say. And who wants to write three or four drafts of a screenplay or a novel before finding out that they have nothing to say? Or before deciding that they do have something they want to say, but ninety percent of the words on the page do not support that message and need to be deleted?


Ah, that makes complete sense Greg. Very well said. (Do you ever wish you could double-heart a post?)

One thing working with Dramatica (including story analysis) may give us, is the ability to sense when our subconscious has something to say. So that may be a case where it’s less risky to hold off on determining a storyform, if you can sense that message hiding in your idea. Obviously this may vary from writer to writer.

One of the really cool things though, is that you can know your whole storyform but not totally grok your message until you’re well into writing your story. That moment of enlightenment when you do get it, all the way, is priceless. (One sign of that “all the way” understanding, I’ve found, is when words no longer suffice to explain it. That is, when you grasp your message so well that the only way to convey what’s in your head is with the story itself.)


I agree with everything you’ve said here and this ^^ 100% – this has happened to me, and this is why I came to Dramatica.

However, there is another risk, in which you spend huge amounts of time setting and resetting your storyform, or trying to nail down every PSR variation in all four throughlines for your entire trilogy … only to realize that if you don’t have something to say, Dramatica isn’t going to provide it for you.


I reread an old script yesterday, based on an idea that I looooove, only to realize that I said nothing—or said nothing well. And I used Dramatica (in my early days) and really thought I had something. Good news now though is that I recognize how short it fell, and that alone is a) great and b) evidence of growth.


In regard to character, I used to obsess about character… until I didn’t. I realized it was an excuse to not tell the story.

I make one choice. I pick one adjective (or archetype) to describe the character in question, then use that adjective (archetype) to come up with an action verb to drive them forward – how they do things.

Actions speak louder than words right?

In regard to Dramatica, I remind myself that it is a theoretical representation of a natural phenomenon.

For example, when I write, I naturally avoid creating scenes, sequences, or acts that are the same as something I’ve already done. This is reflected by the shift in perspective in Dramatica’s theory. Don’t write the same scene twice.

So, my short answer is not very much. It’s like bungee jumping or sky diving. If I think about it too much, it won’t happen.


Thanks @Jeremy this is great and is a powerful tool to focus on writing the first draft. In case where your Protagonist and the MC is the same character do you use two different adjective/active-verb combos?

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Unless the pen is mightier than the sword. :smile:

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I don’t.

I’m not sure if it is a powerful tool, but it is a simple one.

“Simplicity is the end result of long, hard work, not the starting point.”

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

“Simplicity is the friend of execution.”

“Simplity is hard to build, easy to use, and hard to charge for. Complexity is easy to build, hard to use, and easy to charge for.”

Simplicity is my mantra in writing.

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