While we’re on the topic of software for writers I thought I’d have a look at Dramatica Pro (http://www.dramatica.com, $209 for the download version). Some programs for authors are designed to support the creative process by providing flexible tools that allow the writer to freely explore the depths of their imagination. Then there’s Dramatica Pro.
I’ve tried, I swear to God I’ve tried. I’ve had Dramatica Pro for almost thirteen years now and every once in a while I fire it up and try to build a novel or a script using its unique approach. It really is a bizarre experience. The best way to illustrate this is to walk you through the quick set-up for a piece of fiction.
OK you start with a set of questions about your story – let’s go for the simple list of 60 for beginners. Apparently there are 32,768 different types of story in the Dramatica model, and there are eight archetypal characters but you can mix bits of them up together to make more complex characters. Interestingly they identify a main Character (let’s say Sherlock Holmes) and an Enemy (Moriarty), but also an Impact Character who is the greatest influence on the hero and seeks to lead them astray (so I guess that’s Watson).
Anyway I choose my eight characters (including the Logical one, the Emotional one, the Sidekick, the Obi-Wan father figure etc.) and then it’s onto the story. This is where it starts to feel like I’m being pushed through a very narrow pipe. Dramatica asks a series of increasingly odd questions like “Is the nature of the problem all the characters deal with to do with Situation, Activity, Manipulation or Fixed Attitude?”
This is one of the biggest problems with Dramatica Pro, it has it’s own terminology, or uses concepts in a way that makes it extremely hard to grasp what the program is asking for, even with copious explanatory notes.
OK, I choose Situation. Based on this it then tells me that the struggle between my Hero and the Impact Character is all about Fixed Attitude!
If I want to change this, I have to go back and choose another item from the previous menu to free up options further down the line. At this point I’m starting to rebel but nonetheless I plough on.
Some of the questions, to be fair, are not that odd: is the story driven by a time lock (“Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth”) or an option lock (“If you don’t go out there everybody everywhere will say, “Clint Eastwood is the biggest yellow-belly in the West.”). On the other hand some of them would baffle Aristotle: “Which personal issue affects the hero: Chaos, Knowledge, Order or Thought?”. After a few hours of this you end up with one storyline out of the 32,768, in my case without the faintest clue of how I got there or how I’m going to turn it into a book.
In fact what you have is a bunch of parallel themes, each with several stages. For story ‘completeness’ each of these threads has to be woven through the story and brought to a satisfying conclusion, otherwise the narrative is flawed. How the hell Dickens, the Brontës, Joyce and Graham Greene managed in the days before Dramatica Pro I’ve no idea.
So, the final step is to divide your tale up into sections (28 is the recommended number of scenes) and then make sure that each of the themes get adequate treatment along the way. In case you get stuck the 300+ page guide gives helpful advice like “we might begin with Main Character Signpost 1 and Journey 1, then show Objective Story Signpost 1, then Obstacle Character Signpost 1, Objective Story Journey 1, Subjective Story Signpost 1 and Journey 1, and end with Obstacle Character Journey 1”!
So each scene has a little shopping list of stuff like “Describe how the Impact Character moves from Being to Becoming!” which you have to shoehorn into the tale. This is the point where I seriously start to struggle. Now with a Ph.D in Shakespeare I don’t think I’m that thick, but I find the whole process deeply de-motivating, confusing and counter-productive. The software forces me to follow very strictly delimited paths, with the end goal of producing a treatment from which the actual piece of fiction can be created. My problem is that by this point I’ve lost all interest in the story and characters, and most of the will to live.
Basically Dramatica Pro is Hollywood blockbuster script writing by numbers, and it offers up a very prescriptive idea of what makes a story. It has good reviews from people like Tracey Hickman (author of a handful of Dungeons and Dragons tie-in books) and several script writers, and the site offers workshops for budding authors. If you look at the website you can see lots of examples of the method being applied retrospectively to films, which makes me think that it has more appeal as a rather odd method of formalist critique than as a writer’s tool. One acid test of whether a system like this is any good is to look at how successful the creators, Melanie Ann Philips and Chris Huntley, have been as writers themselves. The only film I could find them credited for is a B-Grade horror film called The Strangeness (1985) which has a 5.5/10 rating on IMDB.
Back to Scrivener then.