Inspired by such humorous, and yet deceptively insightful info-graphics as the Periodic Table of Mad Men, I have become somewhat obsessed with Dramatic Narrative as Chemistry Of late. I’ve been envisioning a table of elemental dramatic chemicals, each with unique properties, that if combined in particular patterns, using various methods, will react… Like alchemists of old, dramatists seek to create gold by combining elemental chemicals in a cauldron hoping to produce rich outcomes.
Thinking like this, in terms of drama as a wide array of base elements to be combined, sifted, distilled and infused, arguably helps see dramatic storytelling in a more open light than it is often cast. There’s a hundred ‘story’ gurus who’ll tell you about their 12 step program to story nirvana (or some other such Campell, Vogler, Hague, Field, McKee remix) Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d be the first to endorse Joseph Campbell and his ilk and a structural approach to narrative - there is compelling value in clearly understanding why the, so called, ‘Classical Hero’s Journey’ is so effective as a narrate scaffold. But, just as Phil confesses in Groundhog Day that he is “A God, not THE God”, So to is the Hero’s Journey A pattern of storytelling, but its certainly not the ONLY pattern.
In this regard, what is perhaps more useful in a broader conceptualisation of constructing narrative experiences - particularly when we are thinking about long-form drama, TV and WebSeries episodic story-telling (which almost never conform to a Hero’s Journey) - is to move past specific patterns and instead focus on the underlying chemical ingredients - ingredients that whilst fundamental to the Hero’s Journey are also just as potently combustable in other forms of story-telling and story-patterns.
events, actions, dilemmas, inversions, thresholds, stakes, risks, secrets, lies, archetypes, flaws, wounds, premises, myths, concepts, themes, inciting incidents…. These are the chemicals of drama. The can be assembled into a Hero’s Journey but they can also be assembled like molecules into all sorts of complex narrative engagements across many mediums - movies, books, games, graphic novels; short, long, episodic or feature in length.
Thus below I present my un-patented PERIODIC TABLE OF DRAMATIC STORYTELLING
The table is a Tool functioning as a template to be filled out by you - the writer. With a logic akin to the scientific periodic table of elements, it provides major groupings of similar elements and positions those elements to indicate relationships. The table flows Top to Bottom and laterally in four major blocks of IDEAS, PLOT, STORYWORLD and CHARACTERS.
At the top edges left and right are the two key elements - Theme and Inciting Incident. Theme forming the macro-level idea the story explores, the unifying topic (revenge, love, honour, parenthood, redemption, identity, truth…) and the Inciting Incident being the event that triggers the story - the event that sets the wheels of the drama in motion, the first domino that falls. These are, in effect, the big ticket items from which everything else stems, references or is drawn from. A Unifying Subject and a Triggering Event.
From there we work down the table in layers and connect groups in relationships like tessellating lego bricks.
In the Ideas block, Theme connects to Concept - a ‘What If’ scenario. This gives concrete specificity to the Theme, a question that unlocks and lays out the possibilities of the theme:
- What if a monster tidal wave hit New York?
- What if a kleptomaniac was put in charge of united nations security?
- what if a mother had to choose between her children?
On the other side of the table in the Plot block, descending from the Inciting Incident and working downward, we have the Events of the story. In effect these are the dominos knocked down by the inciting incident. Events lead to characters taking Actions. Characters in action will have Stakes - things at risk and obstacles to overcome. And these Characters in action will be set on a path that will see them cross Thresholds and encounter Inversions on the road to story Outcomes or endings.
Back in the Ideas block Premise underpins Concept and Theme. Where Theme presents a unifying idea and Concept a What If dramatic question, the Premise grounds your story in a belief, a point of view - your point of view as the author - what do you believe, what does the story believe? Love conquers, all. Good triumphs over evil. You have to believe in yourself to succeed, karma will get you in the end…
These big-picture ideas, themes and concepts, glued by a Premise - a point of view - now connect laterally to the Storyworld block and it is the StoryWorld that is the bridge and substance between Plot and Ideas. The StoryWorld is where the Actions and Events connect and playout with Concept, Premise and Theme.
The Storyworld block itself is made up of 4 elements - Background, Rules, World and Setting - four components to make the Storyworld tangible and compelling; authentic and engaging. The Background is the events that precede the story but which have lead directly to the current circumstances. The setting the time and place of the story’s here and now. The world is the specific nature of the place of the story; its behaviours and the Rules are the governing paradigms that shape behaviours and relationships in that world (both in terms of the story and production concepts) Whilst SciFi and Fantasy genres obviously rely very heavily on the specificity of their world and rules, more real-world genres none the less benefit enormously from clear expectation guidelines on character behaviour and story conventions. The strength, specificity and richness of the storyworld will make your story all the more compelling.
Lastly in the Ideas column we have Myths which are the base level foundation of the whole Ideas block and connect us laterally with Inversions and Outcomes at the level of the greater Human Experience that mythological stories embody.
The Character block is separate form the main blocks and draws together 7 elements of character - wound, flaw, identity, essence, secrets, lies and archetypes.
Who is the character (identity), what has happened in their past which shapes their character (wound), what fault in their character holds them back (flaw), what is the character’s true nature that they are held back from by their flaw (essence), what secrets does the character hold, what lies do they tell (or have been told), and what archetype helps shape their purpose in the storyworld…. (trickster, hero, sage, shadow, etc)
Characters, rich with the fusion of these base elements are then permeated into the chemistry of the storyworld where they combust - undertaking actions, experiencing events, confronting thresholds and inversions, conforming challenging or engaging with the background, rules and setting of the StoryWorld.
Just as the scientific periodic table of elements does not prescribe a particular formula but rather details the ingredients for all formulas, so to is the Periodic Table of Dramatic Elements a way to gather, articulate and survey the dramatic elements of your story in a way that is open and flexible and yet highly functional. The table is designed to help you see and build the relationships in your story between its larger themes and its plot details, between the story world and the characters.
Despite what the story-gurus might imply, great story ideas don’t come from 3-act structure or the Hero’s Journey - these are outward applications of a story idea - and they can be very good ways to deliver an experience of a good idea - but is a mistake to think that a good story originate or germinates in structure. The Periodic table of Dramatic Elements is designed to foster and facilitate the notion that ideas grow like crystals, in unique pattens that find their genesis from all directions. Ultimately a cohesive structure may be the best way to deliver that story but the journey to the structure should not be dictated by the structure. It should be governed by the chemicals and their combinations.
By taking time to think through the elemental groups, testing your story against the different components, the table may allow you to see gaps or missing components, or else highlight strengths and dramatic opportunities that may have otherwise been hidden or obscured. The chemical elements of dramatic storytelling are infinitely malleable, the combinations they can form enormously varied, but ensuring you have a spread of elements and can see their relationships to each other, how they build upon each other, may just give your story the base alchemy it needs to turn lead into gold.
Let me know the table works for you as a way of conceptualising the elements of your story.