Storyforming from a Premise

Hi @ArmandoSaldanamora

Moving this to a new thread here because I’m not sure of the status of Michael’s story but I’m very interested in your process.

How much content do you have before you start working on Dramatica? I have a bunch of half-baked ideas but they’re usually things like a situation, or elements of world, sometimes some vague ideas for characters. How do you get from that to, for example, a premise that can be developed (as you lay out in Chapter 3)?

Here’s an example idea I’m working on:

A team of burglars hacks into a city’s electric utility servers and gets data that allows them to determine when wealthy homeowners are on vacation so they can rob their homes. At some point though, the burglars come across information that a foreign government is also hacking the utility, and that this government plans to bring down the grid. The burglars struggle with what to do – expose the plot and incriminate themselves, or allow the foreign agents to shut down the Eastern Seaboard? But before they can take action, the foreign agents strike, and the city is blacked out. Now in an attempt to eliminate loose ends, the foreign agents try to hunt down the burglars. The story turns into a cat-and-mouse thriller in a blacked-out city.

I don’t have a premise for this story. Especially the second half sounds like an OS Physics/Activity story, but I could see it in Psychology or even Universe. I have no idea from this though how to develop what you call a premise (e.g. “Unconditional sacrifice leads to freedom.”


That sounds like Lajos Egri to me. :wink: If you wanted to translate that idea, you might want to try @jhull’s narrative arguments, e.g. “Start being more willing to unconditionally sacrifice yourself, and you will discover freedom.” Egri’s premise is particularly focused on theme, which means you should probably focus on the Variations of your story: The Issues, the Counterpoints, the Unique Abilities and Catalysts.

I don’t know if this helps at all, but I usually come up with my ideas with some key scene I’m really excited about. Sounds like you’ve already got that in mind–the scene where the burglars find the dirt on the government. The next thing (or sometimes the first thing) is I come up with my Main Character, who will be a major player in that scene. I notice all of your character nouns are plural nouns: “the burglars,” “the government*,” “foreign agents.” While I don’t think it’s impossible to write stories with plural Main Characters and plural Influence Characters, I think it’s more achievable for the Main Character to be a specific figure among the group of burglars that you can connect the conflict to. The go-to would of course be the leader of the team, who I imagine is the Protagonist, but it may be possible that one of the henches has the more compelling personal arc. Maybe the Protagonist is the Influence Character, or maybe they’re just the distant leader, and the real emotional weight occurs between two of the team members.

After I have those, usually I come up with the beginning of the story, the end of the story, and a couple of the big intermediate scenes. Provided these all represent the same Driver, they will likely be your Signposts to break up your Acts. With that much, you’re probably ready to start putting things into the formula.

Now, when I usually talk about “premises” for my story, I’m usually thinking about a one-sentence summary of the plot, e.g. “An agent mired in traditional spycraft must hunt down and neutralize a rogue agent before he takes control of an advanced superweapon.” Naturally, that really only captures the Overall Throughline, so maybe we need four premises! :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

  1. [Protagonist**] [must/fails to] [Story Goal] before [Consequence/Limit].
  2. [Main Character] [must/fails to] [Growth] [Problem/Solution] in order to [description of Judgment].
  3. [Influence Character], meanwhile, challenges [Main Character] to consider [MC Solution] by [IC Unique Ability/Problem/Drive?]
  4. Together, [MC] and [IC] go from [start of Relationship Throughline] to [end of Relationship Throughline]***.

*It’s a collective noun! Sheesh, give me a break! :stuck_out_tongue:
**Try to give these descriptions without using names, and introduce that character’s Issue/Concern/Problem while you’re at it.
***Can you tell I have no idea how to describe the Relationship Throughline? :sweat:


Thanks @actingpower. I love your four steps! Super useful. I don’t think I’ve seen the process articulated quite that way before. I’m going to try that.

Yeah, I was writing it that way with just the OS in mind. Definitely needs the other three througlines.

I’m familiar with Jim’s awesome approach to narrative argument. My inspiration for this post was remembering that Armando had a slightly different approach in Chapter 3 of Dramatica for Screenwriters and I was wondering if he might expound on it. (“Unconditional sacrifice leads to freedom” was from the book).

In the book, Armando breaks the premise statement down into character, plot and theme. So “Unconditional” is theme, “Sacrifice” inspires a plot event, and “Leads to freedom” expresses a character condition. These in turn give us OS and MC storyform elements (he explains it better).

I usually don’t have a “argument” (or premise as Armando defines it going in). So I was wondering if there’s a step between vague initial ideas and the argument, or if that’s not the best way to break it down. I guess the question applies to Jim’s approach too.


Ah! I see. I was treating “sacrifice” like a theme, i.e. a general concept rather than a specific thing someone does. Now that you mention that, it makes a lot more sense.

I think my point, vis a vis the Main Character, was that it helps to know your frame of reference for the story going forward. If the Main Character is the idealistic leader of the group who brought them together to rob from the rich and give to the poor, that’s very different from the Main Character being the ex-cop face of the group who couldn’t give a crap about what’s right or wrong so long as they get paid. Because I can tell you about the same battle, but if I pitch it with the Main Character on one side of the conflict or the other, suddenly the meaning of the story changes a great deal.

Remember the Crucial Element, which binds the OS and MC together. Once you pick an MC, and you define their Problem, you’ve now determined a relationship between that and the OS Problem. (Or the Symptom/Response, if we’re talking about Steadfast MCs.)

So if you liked my last set of four steps, you’ll love these! :laughing: This was a four-step story premise I gave to my clients for them to summarize their project for me:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What is the solution?
  3. At the start of the story, why can’t the characters reach the solution?
  4. At the end of the story, why can they now reach it?

(That’s for Success stories, btw. For Failure stories, swap steps 3 and 4: “At the beginning, why could they,” and “At the end, why can’t they anymore.”)

So for Wall-E, we might describe it as such:

  1. The problem of the story is that humans have abandoned Earth, believing it to be permanently uninhabitable. Thanks to their “3-hour tour,” they’ve become fat and immobile–metaphorically infants.
  2. The solution to the story is for humanity to reclaim its destiny and birthright as the inheritors of Earth, to stand up on their own two feet and bring back life to a dying planet.
  3. At the start of the story, humanity has been blinded and controlled by autonomous robots. They can’t go back to Earth so long as they’re happy and content with their computer screens and food-in-a-cup.
  4. At the end of the story, the captain releases himself from AUTO’s physical and psychological control. Dave and Mary release themselves from their screens and discover the beauty of the Axiom–and maybe each other?

My goal with this kind of premise is to establish the beginning of the story, the end of the story, and the steps needed to get from part A to part B. I think the “argument” of the story rests a great deal on those four parts.

Like, let’s dig up the old chestnut: I cruise by the local used car lot, and I see a car I want, but it’s too expensive for me. 1. I want to buy the car, but I don’t have enough money. I know what needs to happen if I want the car: 2. I scrounge up the money and give it to the dealer. It’s in 3 and 4 that suddenly we get huge variations in what the story’s “about.” Why can’t I buy the car at the start? Is it because I’d have to sell all of my things, and I’m too materialistic? Is it that I’d have to rob banks to get the money, and I don’t have the courage? Is it because I’d have to go to the blood bank and/or the sperm bank, and I’m afraid of needles/too shy to admit to the hot receptionist that I want to donate sperm? Whichever you pick, now you know what you need the story to be “about” to get to step 4. I have to go through a series of events to become less materialistic, or more courageous, or overcome my phobia or shyness.

Maybe that helps?


Cool! I have story meeting tomorrow – I’ll see if I can use these four steps with my co-writer.

Oh, okay, I think I see what you’re getting at.

Right, so this fits right in with Jim’s approach to the narrative argument. Makes sense to go about it that way.

Thanks for your feedback.

I usually start with half-baked ideas, but I’m ready to accept that the software may change them. In order to accommodate the different perspectives of the throughlines and the conflict necessary for the story, I have to modify and I accept that the software takes me to the necessary places. So a lot of times what started as “the love story of the Samurai and the Royal Gardener” ends up as “burying bodies in the zen stone garden.”


Hey @Lakis, I have started several stories with far less than that.

Now the bad news: until you have something you want to say, I think a storyform is going to be kind of meaningless. Yes, you’ll have a storyform. But will you have anything that connects you passionately to the story? How can you write a story you don’t deeply care about?


That’s awesome!

I think that’s what I struggle with sometimes. Or more often, I realize I’ve chosen the wrong storyform.

I hear you Mike, and I agree. So how do you figure out what connects you passionately to the story? Does Dramatica help with that? Or do you have to write a draft first before you figure it out?

I guess to halfway answer my own question, you could take the half-baked ideas and try to find a Premise (Armando’s approach) or a Narrative Argument (@jhull 's) or something similar (I think Jim had some other exercises adapted from Chris Huntley? I’m not sure) and then create a storyform from that.

Is that a productive approach? Basically I’m looking for a shortcut to a better outline to work from … right now the process seems to take so long :confused:

Anyway thanks to you both for your replies!


I think the trick is to keep doing something until you find it. Armando’s method or Jim’s method will work if they work. Sometimes they do, because you end up getting grabbed by what you are saying. Sometimes it takes writing an entire draft or two or three or four (for example: my current project) before you finally find the thing you want to say. And in my case, it didn’t change the storyform. But now I can really write it.

I think the trick is to keep moving. Try a premise. Try a narrative argument. Try putting that person you are staring at on the subway into the role of the MC. (You don’t have an MC, btw.) Sitting at your desk trying to get some tool or another to work when it is not working is demoralizing. Try something else. You can always circle back.


Thanks Mike. This is good, honest advice. :slight_smile: Which I know already but always forget.


Imagine that a big Hollywood producer asks you to write a story about something you find boring (“the saga of how shoeshine was invented!”) or even something that you actually hate (“a story to justify why there’s nothing better than working in a cubicle”). Eventually, all writers learn to find passion in items that we initially thought we didn’t care about.

Dramatica is way less restricting than a Hollywood producer (or a London editor, if you want). You can twist and turn abstract concepts like “Desire” until you find something that really attracts you.


@ArmandoSaldanamora so how important is the specific storyform you choose? Of course I understand that using a single storyform to tell a complete story, and that there might be genre reasons for choosing Psychology for a psychological thriller. But other than that, if I have an idea (like the one above), does it really matter which specific storyform I choose to try to develop it? Or does it make more sense to choose a storyform without so much thought and then as you say, “twist and turn” the concepts until I connect with them?

From reading these boards I think a lot of us spend a ton of time thinking and rethinking which storyform is right for our ideas and I’m of two minds as to how useful that is (as opposed to just committing to one and focusing on the encoding).

When it comes to one’s own stories, I feel like there is a kind of “storyforming continuum”.

On one end of the scale is when you have a very strong story idea, developed enough that the throughlines are recognizable. In this case there probably already is a storyform* even if you don’t consciously know what it is, and your subconscious may resist you if you try to cram it into a different storyform. (I say may but I know mine would!) Generally what you want here is to find the storyform that represents the structure you’ve already got in mind. That storyform can still help you develop your idea further and write it, since even though your idea was complete enough to get down to one storyform, you may not have considered all the story points, and probably won’t grasp one or two of your throughlines as well as the others.

* or a small subset of storyform variations, e.g. the same basic storyform with different Outcome.

On the far other end is something like the Story Embroidery exercises, where you start with a storyform and make a story from that. (YouTube videos are available for some of the DUG Story Embroideries, or here’s an online example that we took pretty far: Story Assembly II)

In between would be things like your idea at the start of this thread, which might fit best in a certain OS Domain, and/or a certain Concern quadrant, but the rest may be wide open.


As I mentioned to Greg on the other thread, my current story (which you helped with) started closer to b) the story embroidery approach, but in development was pulled toward a) a different storyform that my subconscious wanted to tell.

So is that an inherently inefficient way to go about it? Will the story embroidery approach get easier and faster the more you do it and understand Dramatica? Or am I just the kind of writer who needs to follow the approach that assumes that there is already a subconscious storyform there?

I guess the answer (as always) is “know thy (writer) self”. And maybe know the project.

I’ve never tried that (other than the online exercise that we didn’t finish, and that was a group thing). But I don’t think it’s inherently inefficient if it helps you come up with ideas that lead you to a story you want to tell. Working with the building blocks of a complete story may help you get there faster, even if you end up deviating from the initial plan.

Sort of like you started with the instructions for a Town Lego Police Station, then halfway through building it your sister sticks a Chewbacca figure in the partially complete jail, and you suddenly realize you want to make it a Space Pirate Hideout-Base. It ends up as something else, but the Police Station helped you get there.


Actually I think this point is super important and might alleviate the fear/procrastination of writers (of whom I have been one) who can’t finish an outline without “getting the storyform right”.

1 Like

In my experience it’s more important how you handle the storyform than the items you chose.

I’ve written psych-thrillers with Psychology OS Domain, but also with Universe OS Domain or Activities OS Domain…

It’s some sort of a tug-of-war between finding the right storyform and telling it right. In the end (and after several drafts) you’ll find the right form and the right telling.

Sigh! Nothing however saves us writers from doing several drafts!


:slight_smile: Glad I’m not alone!

1 Like

Absolutely! That’s why I say you have to keep moving – eventually, you will find something.


@Lakis Armando makes the point I was coming here to make – you seem to think there is something linear about how you can write your story. I think progress happens over here, then over then, then back over here… it’s a feedback loop that settles in on the right idea and construct.

The advantage Dramatica provides is one of additional tools. When a story feels off, you can put your intuition aside and look at something objective. When that creates a seed, you can jump back to inspiration. It’s all very give and take.