Thoughts on Justifications and Premise

Hi Everyone,

I’ve been following along with this new discussion of justifications and I love that new Dramatica techniques are emerging. As with all new ideas, there’s questions and suggestion of how to properly employ the techniques and since I’ve been in the background, I thought I’d throw some suggestions into the mix.

Firstly, since we all know that Dramatica side-effects can cause overthinking (true at least for me), my only goal here to find ways to use the software to write more quickly and effectively. And yes, I recognize taking up writing time to create this TLDR post proves my point!

Secondly, I’m a big advocate of reconciling other writing theories with Dramatica. There’s a lot of approaches to story structure out there, and I feel most satisfied when I find commonalities that produce inspiration. However, the best camera is the one you have in your pocket IMHO so everyone must choose his own.

That being said, I was very happy when the justification discussions turned to Lajos Egri (FYI -

The concept he established as Premise has always been a guiding force for me as a writing principle. It’s what we learned in Grad school at NYU Film and feels very clear. Egri has always seemed somewhat limited because his idea of a Premise is simply “a writer’s truth statement” versus a complete argument. He’s saying “speak your truth then formulate a story to argue its merits.” But this doesn’t give you enough information to write quickly and effectively. One of the reasons I like Dramatica is because the model provides the rest of the statement necessary to construct a complete story. In short, Lajos isn’t wrong, he’s just not complete.

So along comes this justification discussion as it applies to the classic premise “Greed leads to self-destruction.” The phrase works because it’s clearly stated, it’s easy to understand, and it represents an author’s POV. I’ve taught screenwriting here in NYC and I’ve used it as a means to help writers understand what a dramatic premise provides; a method to understand the relation between CHARACTER, PLOT, and THEME. Thus, (from my perspective - yours may differ) Greed (Character) leads to (plot) Self Destruction (theme). It’s a subjective cause-and-effect truth statement that must be demonstrated over time to be understood. Egri is simply saying “pick a side you believe to be true and then argue its merits” it’s up to you as a writer to figure out how. And every time, without fail, I get the same question back - “how do I do that?” This, I feel, is where Dramatica steps in to fill the gaps.

I’ll continue in the reply to this post…

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So in the spirit of the justification discussion, I’d like to suggest there are a few confusions that are mucking up the waters.

• There’s a difference between Truth and Fact. Truth tends to be subjective speculation while Fact is generally proven. While we understand nothing in this universe is absolutely true, a premise, as per Egri is constructed to argue subjective truth.

• We authors delve into what Steven Colbert calls “Truthiness.” We’re suggesting our arguments are true from our perspective, and we’re using story to convince others of that truth. As a scientist, Neil Degrasse Tyson delves into provable facts.

• I say this because one of the early justification articles stated “People need air in order to breathe.” This is not a speculative subjective truth. It’s a fact. And it doesn’t make sense to create a premise around a fact. There’s no ‘unless’ statement worth arguing where breathing air in order to live is not immutable. What would be the point? Authors need to make arguments that create compelling stories, not theorems to disprove facts. If you want to disprove facts, become a scientist and make a hypothesis, then prove it using tangible evidence. That’s not storytelling.

• And so the inequity statement, “People need air in order to breathe unless people want to die” is not a justification argument or any kind of premise that would make a good story. The discussion became confused because of this muddling between truth and fact. It’s like saying “Gravity works.” We already know that, so creating an argument against it is pointless. Yes, you can do it, no, I won’t watch it. I think everyone knows this so I’ll leave it there.

Back to the incompleteness of Egri. I thought this last week’s discussion was getting somewhere. The idea of using the quads to create a full premise is a beautiful way to get where you are going fast. I’d like to contribute a couple of ideas if I may.

If you can accept that Egri’s premise provides a way to describe Character, Plot, Theme in a clear statement, then the justification statement should also utilize each of these facets. The articles used something like: SUBJECT (People - I, me, we, you) (TKAD - need, should want, can) + (a BASIS OF TRUTH) in order to (CONTEXT INDICATOR) be (Emotional fulfillment) e.g. People need artistic expression in order to feel fulfilled.

I suggest this is getting very close to Egri’s premise but needs a bit more information to be useful in Dramatica. We tell narrative stories about human behavior (or by way of anthropomorphic representations) in order to understand the world we live in. So I would add:

• Subject (I, me, we, you) + (Character behavior - motivation, methodology, purpose, evaluation) + (TKAD - need, should, want, can) + (leads to/plot/causes) = (thematic conclusion/context/fulfillment/effect)

• I feel vacant inside if I don’t write, so I need to create stories in order to feel fulfilled.
This subjective truth statement creates a cause and effect relationship between Character Behavior, Basis of Truth, and Contextual eventuality that leads to a full thematic statement. Without character behavior, the author’s truth can’t be fully stated.

• When we add the UNLESS portion to create conflict, we then have a full inequity statement that completes Egri’s premise in a useable way.

• I feel vacant inside if I don’t write, so I can create stories in order to feel fulfilled UNLESS delving into storytelling causes me anguish and leads to further depression.

• This may not be the most polished example, it’s just a way to make my point. You can probably do better. My point is that Character behavior forms the basis of truth in narrative storytelling and forms the roots of conflict.

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And since we all love to know how to apply the Dramatica Model directly I offer/ask this group:

• I read all the time on these threads that most writers only use Motivation in storytelling. I feel this is incomplete and perhaps, like all parts of Dramatica progression, character behavior should be arched across a full story ala: Motivations = Act 1 leads to Purpose = Act II leads to Methodology = Act III leads to Evaluation = Act IV. This is not a definite linear order, just my easy method to describe cause and effect relationship via character. Your mileage may vary, and these can be mixed up in any order in each of the throughlines. You story-weave however you see fit.

• My point is these causalities allow a writer to break up a premise across a story so the audience can absorb the character arc one piece at a time through a variety of characteristics.

• Because the Dramatica Model is holographic, I also believe a premise statement can be applied at all levels of story. Like many of you, I use the PSR to create my stories so I’m keenly interested to see how this discussion applies at the scene level. I would argue it works the same way just as a smaller picture of the greater whole. That way it becomes a useful tool to create conflict fast at the scene level.

And finally, Jim, you suggest conflict in quads can be formed either linearly or holistically.

• Linear seems easy to interpret - conflict statement equals competing Truths formed by dynamic opposites.

• Being can lead to Becoming unless Conceptualizing leads to Conceiving.
In this case, there are only two options to form a statement.

• But in the holistic argument, you have four different possibilities.

• Being leads to Conceiving, Conceiving leads to Becoming, Becoming leads to Conceptualizing, Conceptualizing leads to Being. How is the inequity argument constructed with these options?

• As with all things Dramatica, I suspect the answer is “choose what works best for you” but I’d love some further clarification if possible.

Apologies for the long read. Just figure it’s a good way to keep the discussion going.

Thanks all!

Happy writing.

Chris Grant

Hey @Brohawk.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but just to look at one of your points:

I’m not sure if something got truncated in the wording of the example, but I think it makes more sense if you write it as something like “People need to breathe if they want to keep living.”

Now if you break it up:

People need to breathe

Seems like an objective truth.

“If they want to keep living,” however, suggests that if someone doesn’t want to keep living, then they no longer need to breathe. One could (for example) imagine stories having to do with ventilators, rationing end-of-life care, the dilemmas of euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide and whether or not “heroic measures” should be taken to save someone’s life under all circumstances.

But the point is to highlight how even the most “common sense” assumptions we have are embedded in an assumed context that we’re probably blind to. Figuring out what this context is, and imagining a circumstance where it might not be true (if not for me, then for someone) is where the story potential is.

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Hey Lakis,

Thanks for your reply and thoughts. I was afraid I scared everyone off with a TLDR post.

I’m always interested in hearing how writer’s interpret this kind of material. It’s funny that concept, premise, and all of these short phrases we use to guide our stories are the most challenging to create. I think this is because we try to create them before we write and often they are incomplete. I usually wait until I’ve created a draft to really define my premise. That way I can go in any direction I please unencumbered by the guide rails. Then I come back later to define it and sculpt my story accordingly. I know others are different. And this new justification concept as a way to create conflict is a new way to approach the structure in advance. I’m really hoping to make it work for my writing.

Regarding the “air in order to breathe.” I was just taking that example from one of the articles on Subtext. I didn’t create it, but I may have quoted it incorrectly. However, your correction also sort of proves my point. The phrase “if someone doesn’t want to keep living” is not contained in the original example and needs to be there in order for the premise to be complete. As I mentioned, narrative storytelling is about human behavior (even if it’s a fish in the sea like Nemo.) Someone who is suicidal suggests a character with a behavior to examine. If you simply write “People need air in order to breathe” there’s nothing to examine because it’s understood to be a universal fact. I say fact rather than truth because truth is not universal. One person’s truth might be another person’s lie. In order for a premise to be clear, it needs to contain some aspect of human behavior. And I would argue further that it’s easier if that human behavior is more akin to a sin/folly/bad judgment… Why? Because it makes conflict easier to spot. “Greed leads to Self-Destruction” gives the writer something to examine that others will understand. When you say “Piety is good for the soul” it makes it harder to generate narrative conflict. I don’t say this as a rule, rather as a way to generate ideas faster. Hope that clarifies.

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I think fact vs. truth is a fair distinction.

I think we’re in agreement and it’s probably better for storytelling to hew closer to truths than facts – although it might be a useful exercise to occasionally question whether something we accept as a fact is only true in a particular context (ie is really only a truth).

Hmm … I’m not sure about this. In my experience, it’s easy argue that we should stop Hindering and stop Helping, or stop being unjust (Inequity) and start being just (Equity) and the illustrations are probably obvious. There are, however, plenty of examples where you could argue the reverse. But of course, Dramatica doesn’t prescribe value judgements for story points.

I guess the point here would be to find contexts where piety is not good for the soul, or even better, where piety is good for the soul, but bad for other things. That has a lot of potential for conflict.

I think bringing Egri/Premise into this is actually confusing things for a few reasons:

  1. Outside of Dramatica, Premise is slippery concept which can mean all manner of different (useful) things. Egri’s use sounds a lot like what @jhull used to call the Narrative Argument in Subtext (I understand why, but I kind of wish he had kept that instead of switching to “Premise”).

  2. Subtext’s premise could be seen as a more precise way to express what Egri is getting at – as you say, a complete argument. It totally makes sense to me that you could start with an Egri premise and then refine it into a Subtext Premise that would not only be a more complete argument but would tell you how to structure the story. (Regarding your character/plot/theme approach – doesn’t Armando have a chapter where he applies this to Dramatica? I need to look this up).

  3. However, I don’t quite see how any of this actually applies to the justification exercises (which need a new name I think as Jim has clarified what justification is).

It’s either an Inequity Illustration or a Source of Conflict exercise…

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It was just the way the example was used in the source of conflict Writer’s Corner this week. I was happy to see it being applied this way because I’ve always used that kind of premise in my writing. Not sure if it totally applies yet.

I don’t think I’m doing the justification thing correct just yet. But it’s all a good learning experience. I’m a big fan of “ease of use.”

Jim, do you have any new insights based on this week’s explanations on how to phrase/use the source of conflict? I’m not sure which approach is the correct one at this point and my illustration is probably wrong. Would love to know more. Especially as it applies to a given Storybeat.

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I think you might be right about Armando. It’s been so long since I read his book I may have just coopted it. It’s become a screenwriting classic!

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Thank you for keeping the discussion going, I am really enjoying it.
I want to take a sidestep here and look at this:

I feel that the sense of a temporal progression here makes this not an inequity but a complication. And I feel that the similarity of contexts makes this a negation and not an inequity.
So a rewrite might be:

People can create stories in order to feel personally fulfilled.
Writing fiction right now is like fiddling whilst the titanic is sinking.

I haven’t got my head around the quad thing from the last writer’s room but that is my thought. I felt that the progressive complication, negation mental checklist was one of the most helpful things for me to get a true inequity.

I still feel like I have just one very fragile thread I’m holding to get this though.
But in the spirit of continuing the discussion!

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Yes, I agree. It’s not a perfect example. I"m still struggling on how to use this material. It’s interesting that you mention temporal progression. I’m not sure where I stand on that being a problem or not. As a screenwriter, I need these techniques to be useful at the scene level where you need to have some kind of progression in development. So phrasing something in this manner helps me to see where I’m going. The abstract quality of these justification statements isn’t really all that helpful in my work. But that just may be me. Others may find it very useful.

Thanks for the reply. The learning continues!


Yes totally of course! I think that one is giving me pause too, a bit. I’m thinking of it as one being an inequity which is a structural, spatial thing, like a quad. And then when it comes out in a scene ot turns into a dynamic thing, where one element of the inequity forms the resistance or the pattern interrupt that gives the story its drive.
But I am also confused about whether a progressive complication is a dynamic that stems from an inequity or if it is something different.
I am someone who loves theory and also teaches a bit so I tend to like the theory a bit too much to be useful :joy:

I am concerned with this as well, but it does seem like enough writers get something out of all this…but just so you know, I am mindful that it might be all too much. The DUG meeting last night was a nice reminder about how much fun Dramatica can be when you don’t get caught up in esoteric arguments about what “unless” means :slight_smile:


Jim you are doing the right thing by continually delving into the mysteries of drama. Your fearless exploration is a guiding light for the rest of us. There’s always more to learn about Dramatica and the craft of narrative storytelling in general.

And yes, I’ve long realized you have to put the structure down and just write. So that’s what I’m doing. However, I’ll stay tuned for any new discoveries you may reveal!


So… this made me think of two things. And maybe we’re saying the same thing here, but… The first is that I’ve found the more myopic approach to writing at the scene level has the tendency to trap the writer in the trees, unable to see the forest. One thing I love about Dramatica is that it doesn’t consider scene level writing. The story beats are what matters. Chop them up and present them in whatever way you see fit. But, I’ve encountered the scene level trap time and again on every feature I’ve worked on… and the solution always seems so easy. Don’t worry so much about that specific scene level progression and take solace in the fact that plot and plot progression are emergent properties of the storyform–which is to say, all those abstract inequities under the hood.

The second thing is that… yeah… I can see how this stuff feels too abstract to be useful, at first… and it is, especially without context. But I’ve found that power lies in the relatable universality of the abstract. An audience might not relate to the specifics of your story or storytelling, but I’m guessing there’s some “Golden Theme” as Brian McDonald puts it in his book. It’s been quite a while since I read it, but I remember (as the cover says) it being about how to “make your writing appeal to the HIGHEST common denominator.” In Dramatica/Subtext terms… to me that means unlocking those competing, abstract truths.

I’ve found that whenever I uncover what’s really at play in my work, I become less of an audience member and more of the author. More than just realizing what truth I personally stand by or see conflict in, I actually find myself a bit embarrassed to realize what it’s all about and why I felt so compelled to write. You sort of become your own psychologist. I find it cathartic and highly informative.

It also always helps to rephrase the “People need… in order to” in basic english, or better yet–some well-known basic philosophy. The way I tend to work is to break things apart to see how they work, come up with a sort of metaphor for the truths at play… and just keep that bare-bones version to the side of my writing as a reminder or touchstone. Something to consider and help guide my scene, inspire me as I work through the scene.

There’s really nothing that beats a writer’s intuition, and I think a lot of writers are much more holistic than they might realize or want to admit. Writers can definitely rely on their intuition to practice the art of writing. But working toward a mental mastery over your craft makes you more of an expert.

There’s no reason you can’t have it both ways.


I suspect this is already on your plate, but I’d love to get some more details/examples on how to create an inequity illustration more conversationally using Conceptualizing or Becoming in the second half (which I think is what you were explaining in last week’s Writer’s Room).


Hey John,

Thanks for your thoughts on this. I’m not sure how to reply to snippets of a post. How do you do that?

I can appreciate your thoughts on myopia at the scene level. Back before Armando wrote his book I used to pepper Chris with questions about the software regarding these topics. I almost stopped using it because I couldn’t figure out how to make it work employing screenwriting structure. I’m pretty classically trained to use the Story–>Act–>Sequence–>Scene–>Event–>Beat structural alignment. And I was attracted to Dramatica when it was originally released because it offered the potential for insight at all levels. It revealed a more precise understanding of Aristotle’s Universal/Particular which we argued ad nauseam in film school; not just for screenwriting but for narrative storytelling in all forms. To me, Dramatica is revelatory because it illuminates the inner workings of any kind of narrative from poetry to fiction to film by way of dynamic alignments. But it’s complex as hell because it doesn’t spell out how to do it easily. I know a lot of writers who don’t use it for that specific reason. Their loss.

I say this because I respectfully disagree with your point about scene level writing. As a holographic model, I feel Dramatica covers all levels of dramatic structure no matter what you choose to call them. This could be a chapter, scene, stanza… What I’m guessing you’re referring to is what filmmakers call Montage theory - the meaning of a message is found in the comparison between ideas, not the ideas themselves. And this makes a lot of sense. If you rearrange your story beats they will produce a different meaning. However, I would also argue that rearranging your story beats might also change the content and flow of drama within your scenes because they are also inflected by the arrangement.

I also know there have been 1000 requests on this forum to provide insight at the element level, so it doesn’t surprise me the answer is often “get back to work and write your scenes as you see fit.” At some point, you do have to trust your intuition. However, I also know the road to cliche is paved with stale ideas because intuition is based on familiarity, and too often we choose the easiest answers first. For my money, I love that Dramatica challenges you to look deeper. And I will also say conversely, it’s a huge mistake to use Dramatica to create ideas from scratch. It’s too abstract and this can lead to the opposite of intuition where writers aren’t basing ideas in tangible reality. “Thou Shalt use Reference” is a strong motto of mine, and it took me two early way-too-esoteric screenplays to discover this about the software.

Continued in my next reply…

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The reason I say this is because scene writing, as you know, is the screenwriter’s bread and butter. It’s where we struggle the most and it’s also where we need the most insight. I chugged along for years with Armando’s ideas about Sequence and Scene writing content that seemed to work. But I always suspected there was more to know about how scenes were constructed at the Element level. When Jim elaborated on the idea of PRCO, it was like a breath of fresh air. PRCO perfectly aligns with the holographic model. It works at the Act level and (at least for me) at the scene level. If you work classically by way of Setup, Crisis, Conflict, Resolution then the non-linear quality of PRCO suggests at the scene level you can find even more insight by messing with the dynamic arrangement. I’ve been using this for some time now. I managed to get into the Sundance Lab with a script using this technique so I know it works (woohoo.) I simply choose my PRCO arrangements within scenes using the Element levels from the PSR scene suggestions. And I also agree with Jim that 95% of the time PRCO is the obvious order. Makes sense given how it aligns with Setup, Crisis, Conflict, Resolution… (By the way I LOVE the InstaScene for this specific reason)

But I’ve also discovered once you’ve set this order, if you go back and jumble up the PRCO, there is even more meaning to be discovered. The “scene-trap” as you call it is solved by understanding the dynamic model provides meaning within the scene as each element is addressed. Thus Certainty, Acceptance, Non-Acceptance, Potentiality is about the relation between the ideas, true. But when you mix up the order, I find it also changes your interpretation of each specific element. And, yes, I understand this may just be me. Your mileage may vary.

I’m making this long-winded point because this new idea of justification/conflict analysis suggests to me that each element in a scene can be examined to make conflict arguments by way of ‘beats.’ FYI - I use the term ‘beat’ as a unit of action/reaction within a scene as it turns from event to event. I do so because this is still the way actors interpret the flow of drama in a scene so it makes sense to stay on the same page. I know Subtext has been using the term Storybeat to describe associated story points and development execs like their “Beat Sheets.” But for purposes of discussion, please know I use the term ‘beat’ at the scene level.

Continued in my next reply…


If you think of the justification/conflict analysis for each story element as a way to construct beats, then once again the order drives meaning. But the way you state them ALSO means something. That’s why I said the current phrasing all feels too abstract for me. Stating conflict arrangements as “This unless That” doesn’t offer much insight about construction. It’s simply a way to shine a light on your particular understanding of the given truth. As an aside, I suggest you should probably use OR instead of UNLESS for that reason. ‘Unless,’ to me, suggests one truth is contingent upon the other, but we already know the dynamic arrangements in a quad work in a non-linear way. I think the justification makes more sense if you phrase it as Either This Truth OR that Truth. Only one can be true in the moment so when you argue them against each other, one should prevail. If you refer to how actors establish an ‘objective’ in a scene by way of beats, this truth vs truth is a simple definition, at least in part, of what they are pursuing.

I completely understand your use of People Need…as a way to provide philosophical clarification. Anything that makes your drama clear is a winner in my book. As I said, I’m hoping for that same clarity within a scene. So the whole (need, should, want, can) idea is intriguing, but still feels incomplete to me; like a theorem that needs more values to feel whole. When you apply it at the element level, the phrasing gets confusing (just try it with something like ‘Inertia.’) In the meantime, perhaps foolishly, I’m still using it to look at particular scene elements - finding truths on both sides of the element to create context/content in my beats. As with all things Dramatica, it works in some mysterious way. But I suspect, given this week’s discussion there is still a better method for applying it. This justification discussion about levels and context is a good start. I humbly believe there’s more to it so I’ll stay tuned.

Hope that all makes sense. I’m wasting too much writing time so I’ll leave it there. Thanks again for the deep dive. It does give me great insight.



Lest this be overlooked in your giant paragraphs and your special ability to somehow circumvent my one post at a time setting: :rofl:

Congratulations!! That’s awesome. (To reply inline, select text to reply to and a “Quote” button pops up).

The whole “Dillemniquy” approach is just meant to get writers to think in terms of inequity for the various points throughout a story.

We’ll eventually get there, but the same process is helpful at the scene level.

For example, for Inertia:

People should stick with traditions in order to feel a part of something UNLESS being apathetic towards disturbing customs keeps you emotionally centered

Is one way to illustrate an inequity of Inertia.

The problem with “OR” instead of “UNLESS” is that the condition exists separate from context: it’s either one side or the other.

Unless ties to the two sides together through contextual juxtaposition. Either side of an OR statement is true in and of itself—which is where you get the apparent conflict of “I want an ice cream” and “you can’t have an ice cream.”

Either side of an UNLESS statement fails in isolation. You need both because you’re describing the inequity that appears between them.