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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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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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