Screenplay Chat: Chris Huntley

A Conversation with Chris Huntley, 
co-creator of the Dramatica theory and software.

Topic: Act Structure and Act Transitions

<MODERATOR-- Jason Eng> Chris has joined us. Would you like to introduce yourself, Chris?

Hi, I'm Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica theory. Today's topic is Act Structure and Act Transitions. Do you have any questions?

Well, if there are no questions, I'll start.

nau97: how does Dramatica help you write act transitions?

Chris Huntley: There are two ways to look at act transitions. Structurally speaking, Dramatica breaks a story into four pieces arranged as a quad. If you look at the pieces, it looks kinda like a four act structure. If you look at the process of going from one piece to the next, it kinda looks like three act structure.

We call the four pieces in an act structure the Signposts

We call the three process of going from one piece to the next -- journeys.

One way to look at transitions is to think of Journeys as the transitions between Signposts, and Signposts as the transitions between Journeys. Looking at acts this way only takes TIME into account, not the content within each act. Act transitions can frequently be emphasized or minimized by looking at the content examined in each "act". Before I go on much more, is this making any sense to you?

jim: yes

Chris Huntley: OK, then, I'll go on.

A quad is made up of two dynamic pairs.

For example, Doing and Obtaining are one pair and Understanding and Learning (Gathering Information) are the other dynamic pair.

Transitioning from Doing to Obtaining (and vice versa) is relatively smooth and often unnoticable. Likewise with going from Obtaining to Doing.

If we transition from Doing to Understanding, the transition is more abrupt--more noticeable.

One way to think of these two transitions is to look at the noticeable transition as a "bump" and the smooth transition as a "slide." In this way we can get the feel for how a story progresses.

The traditional, Syd Field format would be a Bump-Slide-Bump. The first act would end with a noticeable act transition (bump). The second act would slide into the third and feel like one long act (slide). The last (Syd Field's 3rd act) would begin with a bump and continue to the end.

jim: When I'm outlining my story, I'll use Signposts to get an idea of what I want. But then when I write, I end up writing more "Journey" like. Are there any problems inherent in mixing the two up like this?

Chris Huntley: No problems. Signposts are inherently more analytical. Therefore, they are more noticeable and appropriate to use while looking AT your work.

Journeys are more experiential. More like the way an audience experiences a story. Therefore, emphasizing the journeys during

writing makes a lot of sense.

Jason: You've talked about having a mix between both Signposts and Journeys. How does this work within the act structure?

Chris Huntley: If you're emphasizing Signposts, the Journeys will seem like act turning points in the story -- sort of like the joints holding together the pieces. If you're emphasizing Journeys, the Signposts will look more like....well, signposts along the path of a journey. Sort of like city limits signs. You are leaving Obtaining and now entering Doing...<g>

Jason: You mentioned the dynamic pairs of the Dramatica quads. What other pairs are there?

Chris Huntley: The dynamic pairs are the diagonal pairs.

The companion pairs are the horizontal pairs.

The dependent pairs are the vertical pairs.

The interesting part of this as they relate to act structure and transitions, is that transitions between the components of a dynamic pair are always "Slides." Transitions between companion pairs and dependent pairs are always "Bumps." Therefore, you can figure out the feel of your story by tracing the signpost path through the quad.

Understanding to Doing to Obtaining to Learning is a Bump-Slide-Bump path.

Understanding to Learning to Obtaining to Doing is a Slide-Bump- Slide path.

Understanding to Doing to Learning to Obtaining is a Bump-Bump-Bump path.

jim: Specifically I have a Journey 2: Learning to Obtaining - but some obtaining is slipping in there before the Story Driver that switches to Signpost 3:Obtaining. Is it confusing to an audience's reception of the story if some of Signpost 3 "leaks" into Signpost 2?

Chris Huntley: Not necessarily. It's hard to tell without the specifics.

Actually,a Journey will be a gradual transition so dropping a little Obtaining in in increasing doses is fine. Jim, do you have more specifics?

jim: Good!

Chris Huntley: Nice response <g> If no one has anything else, I'd like to continue with the Bumps and Slides....

jim: ok

Chris Huntley: When we look at the bumps and slides, the patterns that are made are fairly simple. However, when you take into account that there are four throughlines you can end up with rather complex patterns. I played around with some visual representations of these transitions with some of the Dramatica examples and found some pleasant surprises.

Witness, for example, has three of the four throughlines show up as the Syd Fields Bump-slide-bump three act structure. The fourth throughline, the Subjective Story romantic throughline, was a slide-bump-slide progression. This emphasis -- or alignment -- of the OS, MC and IC throughlines is probably why it fits the "classic" three-act structure so well.

Other story examples, such as The Godfather, are more complex. There is greater variety between the throughlines.

Jason: How does having one throughline drastically different in transitions affect the overall flow or feel of the story as a whole, if at all?

Chris Huntley: Well, it depends on how much that throughline is emphasized. For instance, in All About Eve, the OS throughline is a Bump-Bump-Bump progression. This means the OS has very definite act breaks and feels like a four act work. It also happens to be a film that heavily explores the OS.

However...The other three throughlines are classic three act structure which softens an otherwise episodic Overall Story. So, it's not just the progression that counts but what an author chooses to do with it in terms of emphasis.


Jim, do you have any other questions?

jim: So, if I have 3 throughlines that are slide-bump-slide that would make those throughlines feel like a 2-act structure?

Chris Huntley: Yes.

From what I've seen with the dozen or so story examples I've played with, stage plays tend to emphasize the 2-act structure more than other forms. Of course, this is a conclusions drawn from a very small sampling, but the initial findings are interesting.

jim: Any guesses why that is? Any benefits?

Chris Huntley: Not yet. To Kill a Mockingbird has a strongly two act feel except for the OS which is a four act feel. I think that's very noticeable in the film. I think there's even a time transition around the story's midpoint.

jim: I have another question about OC signposts (not necessarily act transitions...)

Chris Huntley: OK. What is the question?

jim: Is it essential that the MC is aware of the OC signposts? If the OC Signpost is Present - the MC needs to see or feel this impact somehow?

Chris Huntley: I don't believe so. Well, let me modify that. I was thinking about transitions, rather than signposts.

jim: But doesn't the MC need to have this impact in order to force him to progress to the next act?

Chris Huntley: Yes. What the STORY needs is that the IC position in each signpost be evident. The IC's position counterpoints that of the MC. For example, if I go from one scene that is all RED to a scene that is all GREEN the audience will pick up on the juxtaposition.

You can do the same with your MC and IC though it might feel a little odd or stagey to your audience. What the story needs to say and what an audience expects to be told are not necessarily the same thing.


If your MC is dealing with his personal issues, then you show the IC in his new signpost have a new type of impact, followed sometime after by the MC dealing with his personal issues in the context of a new signpost, it's likely that the audience will make a causal relationship inference even though you did not specifically show one.

jim: That clears up a lot.

Chris Huntley: Great.

Jason: How do you emphasize one throughline over another? Simply spend more scenes or chapters exploring it?

Chris Huntley: There are several ways to emphasize throughlines. One way is to spend more time on that throughline. Another way is to make the subject matter of that throughline more interesting or relevant to your audience. Another way is to make the events in that throughline BIGGER. And so on.

jim: If the OS Driver is Decision - are the other throughlines driven by Decisions as well?

Chris Huntley: It's best to think of it that the story is driven by decisions but it's easiest to see it in terms of the OS throughline. The MC will be dealing with his own stuff. The driver most likely won't be as important except as it relates to the MC Approach.

With that said, however...these are just my initial thoughts. I wouldn't go to the bank with it.


We've got about 8 minutes left.

Any remaining questions?

Joe Barile: Chris, might we touch on signposts and journies?

Chris Huntley: Hi Joe -- sure. What you'll want to do, most likely, is to look at the transcripts when we post them cause we did do some talking about them, but did you have any specific questions in mind? I'd be happy to answer them.

Joe Barile: Very non specific... a general way to approach them

Chris Huntley: How about this.

When you're wearing your author's hat and looking AT your story, it's best to look at the story by examining the signposts. The signposts show you how the story is put together sequentially.

When you're wearing your audience's hat (which is often done when you're writing) it's best to look at the journeys. Journeys give you a feel for the flow of the story and is the best way to get a sense of the story's meaning.

<MODERATOR> Okay, that's all the time we have for this chat.

We're gald you could show up.

jim: Thanks

Chris Huntley: Thanks. We'll have to do this again soon!

nau97: Thanks

Joe Barile: see you guys back in burbank

Chris Huntley: See you all later soon!