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This was one of the first articles I wrote for my website, and continues to be one of the most popular. It’s a simple approach based on a small piece of Dramatica theory,  but it’s also one of the most powerful ways to develop a dramatically sound synopsis or plot outline for any story.

Create A Plot Outline In 8 Easy Steps.

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Someone asked me a while ago about how Dramatica theory, developed by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, could explain the major signposts in the Harry Potter series. Here’s my take on it…

Dramatica theory states that each of the four throughlines (those of the Overall Story, Main Character, Impact Character, and the Relationship between the latter two) should be assigned to a different domain. The four domains are:

Situation (external state)

Activity (external action)

Manipulation (psychological change)

Fixed Attitude (psychological state)

Each domain has four signposts (one per act):

Situation: The Past, The Present, The Future, and Progress

Activity: Doing, Gathering Information, Understanding, Obtaining

Manipulation: Being, Becoming, Developing a Plan, Conceiving and Idea

Fixed Attitude: Memory, Impulsive Responses, Innermost Desires, Contemplation

So let’s see how these work in Rowling’s books. Harry Potter is the main character, and for most of the series we see him being thrust into situations he didn’t choose. He didn’t choose to live with the Dursleys, or be the “Boy who Lived.” Nor did he choose to be a Triwizard champion, nor to be Voldemort’s nemesis, Dumbledore’s secret weapon, nor a thorn in the Ministry of Magic’s side.

So I’ll give Harry the domain of Situation.

I also see Voldemort as the Impact Character. Harry’s habitual approach to solving problems (copied from his mother) is to put himself in danger to save others, whereas Voldemort offers the alternative approach of killing others to protect himself (by making horcruxes).

Usually, if the main character’s domain is Situation, the Impact character’s domain will be Fixed Attitude (its polar opposite). Certainly, Voldemort’s attitude remains fixed throughout the entire series. Even at the climax, he refuses to reconsider his actions and shows no remorse.

The Overall story concerns Harry’s evolution from an underdog who sleeps a cupboard and is bullied by his muggle cousin into a confident wizard. That process of becoming something suggests that this throughline belongs in the domain of Manipulation. Certainly, Harry is manipulated and groomed by Dumbledore.

That leaves the domain of Activity for the Relationship throughline.

Now, let’s consider how each domain breaks down into 4 signposts. Please note that the best order for the signposts varies with each story. Below is the order that makes sense to me for this story.

The signposts for the Main Character (Situation) domain are therefore:

1. The Future: A prophecy is made that Harry will become Voldemort’s nemesis and that only one of them will survive. This future fate is sealed when Voldemort kills Harry’s parents.

2. The Past: Harry starts out ignorant of his past, but gradually learns more about it. He finds out how his parents were killed, learns about Voldemort’s past as Tom Riddle, meets his godfather, etc.

3. Progress: Harry starts making real progress when he stops being pursued by Voldemort and becomes the pursuer. This begins in The Order of the Phoenix when he deliberately sets out to rescue Sirius. By the time he encounters Voldemort at Hogwarts in the seventh book, he is fully confident of his abilities.

4. The Present: At the end, we see Harry as a happy family man with a wife and children. His scar never hurts, and all his problems seem safely behind him.

The signposts for the Impact Character (Fixed Attitude) domain are:

1. Memories: As the series begins, Voldemort has become just a bad memory which everyone is trying to forget.

2. Innermost Desires: As Voldemort returns, he starts pursuing his deep desire for absolute power and immortality – which depend upon eliminating Harry Potter.

3. Impulsive Responses: As the climax approaches, Voldemort seems to abandon his habit of careful planning and stealth. Instead, he starts acting on (often murderous) impulses. In The Deathly Hallows, we see him frantically rushing around trying to obtain the Elder Wand, confirm the safety of his horcruxes, and lead a brazen attack on Hogwarts to flush out Harry Potter. In his desperation, he kills Snape (even though he seems a valuable ally) to win the Elder Wand, yet makes only a superficial attempt to confirm Harry’s death.

4. Contemplation. In the end, Voldemort proves unable to contemplate remorse, hence he cannot be saved from his own killing curse (whereas Harry can).

The signposts for the Overall Story (Manipulation) are:

1. Conceiving an Idea: In book one, Professor Dumbledore comes up with the idea of leaving Harry with the Dursleys, both for his own protection and so his fame won’t go to his head.

2. Developing a Plan: Voldemort develops his plans to return to power, while Dumbledore develops his plans to defeat Voldemort. He figures out Voldmort’s secret (horcruxes), stages his own death (to prevent Voldemort obtaining the Elder Wand), and equips Harry to fight Voldemort.

3. Playing a role. At the climax, Harry assumes the role of a sacrificial lamb to save everyone – the role he has been groomed for.

4. Changing one’s nature. After Voldemort’s death, Harry has become a much wiser person than even Dumbledore, as illustrated by his rejection of the Elder Wand.

The signposts for the Relationship (Activity) domain are:

1. Understanding: In the first book, Harry and Voldemort come to understand they have a special relationship. Harry’s scar burns in Voldemort’s presence, and Voldemort burns when he tries to touch Harry.

2. Doing: Harry and Voldemort do things to harm each other in the early books. Harry destroys Riddle’s diary (the first Horcrux). Voldemort returns to life by taking Harry’s blood. Yet neither is able to do what they ultimately must: kill the other.

3. Gathering Information. Harry learns the truth about Dumbledore’s past and the Deathly Hallows. Voldemort tries to get information about the Elder wand from Olivander and Grindelwald, but fails to learn when Harry becomes its master.

4. Obtaining: Ultimately, Harry obtains victory over Voldemort.

So, if we were to put these in rough order, the major events of the series would go like this…

Act 1

The Future: A prophecy is made that Harry will become Voldemort’s nemesis and that only one of them will survive. This future fate is sealed when Voldemort kills Harry’s parents.

Conceiving an Idea: Professor Dumbledore comes up with the idea of leaving Harry with the Dursleys, both for his own protection and so his fame won’t go to his head.

Memories: As Harry reaches age 11, Voldemort has become just a bad memory which everyone is trying to forget.

Understanding: Harry and Voldemort come to understand they have a special relationship. Harry’s scar burns in Voldemort’s presence, and Voldemort burns when he tries to touch Harry.

Act 2

The Past: Harry starts out ignorant of his past, but gradually learns more about it. He finds out how his parents were killed, learns about Voldemort’s past as Tom Riddle, meets his godfather, etc.

Innermost Desires: As Voldemort returns, he starts pursuing his deep desire for absolute power and immortality – which depend upon eliminating Harry Potter.

Developing a Plan: Voldemort develops his plans to return to power, while Dumbledore develops his plans to defeat Voldemort. He figures out Voldmort’s secret (horcruxes), stages his own death (to prevent Voldemort obtaining the Elder Wand), and equips Harry to fight Voldemort.

Doing: Harry and Voldemort do things to harm each other in the early books. Harry destroys Riddle’s diary (the first Horcrux). Voldemort returns to life by taking Harry’s blood. Yet neither is able to do what they ultimately must: kill the other.

Act 3

Progress: Harry starts making real progress when he stops being pursued by Voldemort and becomes the pursuer. This begins in The Order of the Phoenix when he deliberately sets out to rescue Sirius.

Gathering Information. Harry learns the truth about Dumbledore’s past and the Deathly Hallows. Voldemort tries to get information about the Elder wand from Olivander and Grindelwald, but fails to learn when Harry becomes its master.

Impulsive Responses: As the climax approaches, Voldemort seems to abandon his habit of careful planning and stealth. Instead, he starts acting on (often murderous) impulses. In The Deathly Hallows, we see him frantically rushing around trying to obtain the Elder Wand, confirm the safety of his horcruxes, and lead a brazen attack on Hogwarts to flush out Harry Potter. In his desperation, he kills Snape (even though he seems a valuable ally) to win the Elder Wand.

Playing a role. At the climax, Harry assumes the role of a sacrificial lamb to save everyone – the role he has been groomed for.

Act 4

Contemplation. In the end, Voldemort proves unable to contemplate remorse, hence he cannot be saved from his own killing curse (whereas Harry can).

Obtaining: Ultimately, Harry obtains victory over Voldemort.

Changing one’s nature. After Voldemort’s death, Harry has become a much wiser person than even Dumbledore, as illustrated by his rejection of the Elder Wand.

The Present: At the end, we see Harry as a happy family man with a wife and children. His scar never hurts, and all his problems seem safely behind him.

Of course, this isn’t  perfect or complete summary of the Harry Potter series, but I think it illustrates how Dramatica can be applied to a series as well as to individual books/stories.

For the original question and answer this is based on, see …Understanding/Identifying Signposts (Harry Potter and Dramatica).

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By Glen C. Strathy

One of the reasons I’m fond of the Dramatica story theory, developed by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Walker, is because it is the most complete description of how stories convey emotional impact.

One of the biggest traps we fall into as writers is the tendency to simplify things. And one of the ways we simplify our understanding of stories is that we try to take several different story points and reduce them to one point. We have to fight this natural tendency because it makes our concept of a story more shallow.

Dramatica helps us by separating all the elements of a story so we can make look at each one and make sure we haven’t left any holes in the plot. For example, most theories include the idea of a climax or crisis, which is the major turning point in a story. This crisis typically occurs in Act 3 of a four-act structure. (Novels may not label parts as “acts,” but a good plot will always have such a crisis.)

Dramatica goes a step further by suggesting that a fully developed third act will actually contain four distinct turning points, because (as it also argues) a complete story needs four separate arcs or throughlines:

1. The Overall Throughline. This throughline concerns the protagonist’s external goal, or the goal that involves most of the characters in some way.
2. The Main Character Throughline, concerning the main character’s inner conflict about whether or not to change and how it gets resolved.
3. The Impact Character Throughline. This follows the impact character, the character who shows the main character a different way of handling problems, giving the main character a reason to think he ought to change.
4. The Subjective or Relationship Throughline, which follows the relationship between the main and impact characters.

Each of these four throughlines will move through four stages:

Signpost #1: Inciting incident
Signpost #2: Complications
Signpost #3: Crisis
Signpost #4: Resolution

So the third signposts of each throughline, taken together, make up the third act of the story.

Here’s how this works in the film, The Return of the Jedi, which I am using because it’s a story most people know, even non-science fiction fans who were dragged to see it by friends.

First, the Overall Throughline in The Return of the Jedi concerns the effort to stop the evil empire from obtaining a new Death Star. This throughline involves almost every character: rebels, storm troopers, and even the little ewoks.

The crisis (signpost 3) of this throughline is the battle in space in which the Death Star is destroyed. Remember big explosion? (The fourth signpost, showing the resolution, is the shot of the ewoks using imperial helmets as drums. So much for the scary empire.)

The Main Character throughline concerns Luke Skywalker. We see Luke at the start of the film, confident in his new Jedi powers as he rescues Han Solo from Jabba the Hut. His second signpost occurs when a dying Yoda tells Luke that Darth Vader is definitely his father and that he must defeat him in order to become a true Jedi. The danger is: will he, like his father, succumb to the dark side?

The third signpost of the MC throughline is the moment when Luke, despite the persuasive powers of Emperor Palpatine, refuses to join the dark side. He tosses aside his light sabre and says, “You’ve failed, your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father.” The fourth MC signpost occurs when we see Luke receiving the approval of the ghosts of Obi wan and Yoda.

The Impact Character of this film is Darth Vader, who provides Luke with an example of another life someone with his abilities could have. In the beginning, we see Darth as the messenger/enforcer/lapdog of the Emperor. His second signpost is when he reveals (or confirms what he said in the previous film) that he has ambitions to overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy himself. He just needs another force-user to be his ally. If not Luke, then perhaps his sister would do. This suggestion, more than anything, comes closest to influencing Luke to give in to his anger and join the dark side.

Obviously, Darth’s third signpost is the moment when he chooses to sacrifice his ambition to save Luke. He kills the Emperor at the cost of his own life.

The IC’s fourth signpost shows Darth’s redemption. His ghost appears in Jedi robes. He is Anakin Skywalker once more.

Finally, we have the Relationship throughline. In the beginning, we see that Luke and Darth have a connection. They can sense each other’s presence.

At the second signpost, when they finally meet face-to-face, they argue about whether they should be on the dark side or the good side. Curiously, there is no talk of going their separate ways. It seems they want to be on the same side, whatever that is. The conflict builds as they end up fighting each other with light sabres.

The climax of their relationship is when Luke defeats Darth, settling the argument and establishing himself as the new dominant male of the family.

The final signpost shows Luke and Darth, having reconciled their differences and relinquished the dark forces, behaving like father and son for the first time. Darth asks to see Luke just once with his own eyes rather than through his mask. (Symbolically, “his own eyes” means not through the eyes of the dark side.)

Luke then takes on the role of a good son. He saves his father’s body from the exploding Death Star II and gives him a proper cremation.

So the climax, or Act III of the story, follows a four-part sequence:

Relationship Signpost #3: Luke defeats Darth.
Main Character Signpost #3: Luke refuses to join the dark side, risking his life as the Emperor attacks him.
Impact Character #3: Darth kills the Emperor to save Luke, sacrificing his own life.
Overall Signpost #3: The rebels destroy the Death Star.

According to the theory, it doesn’t matter what order a writer puts the four Signpost of Act 3 in. All that matters is that Signpost #3 of any throughline comes after Signpost #2 of the same throughline and before Signpost #4. It would make little sense for Luke to defeat his father before their conflict arises or after their conflict has been resolved.

I think you’ll agree that if any of the third signposts had been left out of The Return of the Jedi it would have created a hole in the story. It would have made one of the throughlines incomplete.

You will also note that more than one signpost can appear in a scene. Sometimes the signposts are crowded together, especially near the crisis. In other stories, they are more separated in time and space.

Sometimes a signpost consists of a sequence of scenes that takes up a lot of pages. Other times, a signpost can just be one sentence. That’s also okay, as long as each signpost is illustrated separately so that the reader/audience appreciates that it has occurred.

Incidentally, here’s how I see all the signposts in Return of the Jedi:

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On my other website, How to Write a Book Now, I sometimes field questions from writers on the subject of novel writing and story structure. In particular, I try to make Dramatica Story Theory more accessible to beginners.

One of the most common questions people ask is how to write a good opening chapter. In particular, they want to know where the story should start. And one of the most unfortunate myths they seem to have picked up is the idea that the first chapter of a novel should present an average, normal day for the main character.

I believe this idea originates in the work of Joseph Campbell, who argued that the monomyth (supposedly the archetype of all great stories) begins by showing the hero in his ordinary life, just prior to his receiving “the call” or invitation to begin his journey. The word “journey” here refers not necessarily to a physical journey, but to the quest or pursuit of the Story Goal, the objective on which the entire plot hangs.

The problem with this idea is that, for most people, an ordinary day is just that… ordinary. It’s a day when nothing special happens. That’s a problem for a writer who wants the first chapter of his novel to hook a reader’s interest.

In fact, most agents and editors demand that a novel grab the reader’s attention on the very first page. So an ordinary day just won’t do. Something extraordinary must happen at the start of a novel in order to entice a reader to continue reading – let alone an agent who habitually rejects thousands of manuscripts a year.

One way writers can solve this dilemma is to postpone any depiction of the main character’s everyday life and delve straight into the quest. You can start the story with the inciting incident of the main plot – the big threat or goal.

Of course, the problem with plunging straight into the main plot is that the reader does not get properly introduced to the main character. Yet you want the reader to develop empathy with the main character early on. So writers will sometimes use Chapter Two to backtrack and introduce the main character in his normal environment. You see this technique in films as well. The first scene often shows the start of the main plot. The villain commits some terrible crime or hatches a scheme. Then the story cuts to the main character in his ordinary life, totally unaware of the threat, until a messenger arrives who delivers the call.

An example of this would be the first Star Wars film (Episode IV, A New Hope). The film opens with the attack on Princess Leia’s ship and shows her successfully stopping the Empire from recovering the Death Star plans. Later, we are introduced to the main character, Luke Skywalker, and his frustrated effort to get his uncle’s permission to leave the farm.

However, it is important to note that in Star Wars, the viewer’s introduction to Luke does not occur on an ordinary day. Viewers would be completely bored if George Lucas had made them watch an ordinary day in Luke’s life – a day of farmwork that led to nothing more than another day of farmwork. Instead, we see Luke on a very special day which brings his frustrations to a head and changes his life forever.

Take note: if you ever find yourself writing about an “ordinary” day in the main character’s life, you’re probably wasting time and paper that could be spent on something more interesting. You want to focus on important events, because they make the reader keep reading to see what happens next. By an event, we mean a change, after which things are never the same. A real event sends the characters in a new direction. It is the opposite of ordinary.

So far, I’ve mentioned two possible events you could present in your first chapter – either an event involving the main character or the inciting event of the main plot. But if this sounds a bit formulaic, the theory of Dramatica, developed by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, offers writers some other options.

Dramatica proposes that a complete story will have four key throughlines. The Overall throughline (what most people consider the main plot) concerns the pursuit of the Story Goal. It’s the plot that affects or involves the majority of characters.

Second in importance is the Main Character’s arc. This throughline concerns the main character’s inner conflict. The main character begins the story with a habitual way of dealing with problems. In the course of the story, he faces a dilemma about whether or not he needs to change his approach in order to achieve the Story Goal. (Luke Skywalker’s problem is that he has no self-confidence, hence he can’t stand up to his uncle.)

In addition, the Impact Character throughline concerns the character who will pressure the main character to change by presenting an example of a different approach to dealing with problems. (In Star Wars, this role is played by Obi wan Kenobi, who teaches Luke how to have confidence.)

Finally, the Subjective or Relationship Throughline concerns the progress of the relationship between the main and impact characters.

Each of the four throughlines has its own beginning, complications, climax, and resolution – four major turning points. That makes 16 turning points or “signposts” for a complete story.

How you weave the four throughlines together is entirely up to you. If you’re looking for an important event for your first chapter, you can choose the first signpost from any of the throughlines:

1. Overall Throughline, Signpost #1. This is the inciting incident of the main plot. As I mentioned above, this is a frequent choice in action stories.

2. Impact Character Throughline, Signpost #1: This will be the first time that the main character sees or becomes aware of the impact character. It is an event where the Impact character tackles a problem or handles a situation in a way that is totally unlike how the main character would have handled it. It is the act that starts the main character on the road to questioning his approach. In romance stories, this is often the first encounter between the main character and the man she is destined to fall in love with. For instance, think of the moment in Casablanca when Ilsa walks into Rick’s bar, or Bridge to Teribithia when Leslie walks into Jesse’s classroom for the first time.

3. Relationship Throughline, Signpost #1: This will be an event that illustrates the relationship between the main and impact characters at the start of the story. It is a relationship that will be tested and change as the story progresses. It could be the moment when they first become friends, or enemies, or when one becomes the mentor to the other, etc. In Star Wars, this is the sequence in which Obi wan Kenobi offers to teach Luke the ways of the Force and Luke (after his aunt and uncle are killed) accepts.

4. Main Character Throughline, Signpost #1: This is where you introduce the main character and his inner conflict. It will be an event in which the main character tackles a problem using his typical approach. The outcome of this event could be success or failure, but the aim is to show the reader who this person is by showing them in action. In Star Wars, this would be the scene in which Luke accepts Uncle Owen’s decision that he must stay on the farm for another year.

Any one of these signposts can be the basis of a great first chapter. The secret is to make sure that the event, the change, that occurs is a significant event to the characters involved.

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For any writers who may be reading this, the website Book Marketing Buzz offers information and comments by writers on the subject of book marketing. Today, I am making a contribution to the site. Below is an excerpt. I realize I sound as if I disapprove of writers who blog (and yes, I get the irony). But I’m not actually against blogging or blogs about writing. I just acknowledge that it’s harder now to make your writing blog different from everyone else’s, yet you must if you want to stand out.

“What’s your opinion on blogging? Do you see that it is helping sell your book or is it not making much difference in terms of sales?

“I have a few concerns about blogging. Every writer these days is told to blog, which means they have to be constantly writing blog content, which is time they take away from writing their next book. And if they have a family and a day job, they don’t have a lot of time to start with. On top of that, fiction writers’ primary expertise is writing fiction, so that’s what they blog about. The result is thousands of blogs on fiction writing – which makes it hard to stand out.

“Now, I have a website rather than a blog on writing. It’s How to Write a Book Now. I try to present tips and advice on it which you don’t see everywhere else. I’m a big fan of dramatica story theory, which is a powerful tool which few people understand. So I try to present it in a simple, easy-to-use format so beginning writers can get a leg up. The site now gets a good amount of traffic. In fact, my article, “Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps” has been the number one search result for “plot outline” on google for a year or so.

“I also have a blog which I started for this book. You can find it at https://glencstrathy.wordpress.com/. But I confess I don’t post as often as I should, nor have I done everything I should to make it an effective marketing tool. (See, I’m much better at promoting things other than myself.)”

To read the read of this interview, or to find out more about effective book marketing practices, check out…

Book Marketing Buzz

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I attended Robert J. Sawyer’s workshop on “Writing the Future” today at the Kingston Writers Festival and received high praise from him for being first person in any of his workshops who correctly identified what the most recent Star Trek movie was all about (parent/child relationships in case you hadn’t noticed). Yes, I’m bragging a little.

The point Robert was making by asking the question was that science fiction is a genre that is very much about the message. It’s about ideas. It’s about thematic premises that are illustrated by the scenario of the story.

As a long-time science fiction reader, this was no surprise to me. In fact, it’s not limited to science fiction. Most stories regardless of genre require a message – something to say – in order to make them meaningful.

Of course, a great many people can watch a film or read a book and remain totally oblivious to the message. That’s all right. Some people just like to escape into a good story and are not looking for a philosophical point to ponder or debate afterward.

However, it does surprise me how many writers seem to care little for the message they are sending, albeit unintentionally. There was another participant in the workshop who said he wrote fantasy stories, but could not articulate any particular message his work conveys. And I’ve read articles by other writers who say they don’t believe in theme – or, at least, they don’t give theme any thought when they are writing.

And yet, all stories have messages, even though, as Sawyer pointed out, sometimes only the reader may perceive the message and the writer does not.

It is true that some writers write primarily by instinct, making up a story as they go along. We call them “pantsers” because they write by the seat of their pants. I suspect they are the ones more likely to pay little attention to theme. Other writers are “plotters” who plan and outline their stories before they write. They often begin with a premise – a short statement of the thematic message their story will convey. Then they construct the story around the message in a very conscious and intentional way.

But even if you use something other than premise as your starting point – character, for instance – I think a writer should at least know what his or her message is, if only to make sure it is a message he or she agrees with.

If your interested in how this works – perhaps because you’re a budding writer yourself – here’s a link to an article I wrote on working with theme, based on Dramatica story theory…

Choosing a Theme for Your Novel

As for Robert’s other secrets to writing award-winning science fiction, you’ll just have to catch one of his other appearances.

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