(This week’s post comes to us from Ludovic Bablon, who runs the site Story & Drama. Ludovic is an award-winning author from France, whose unique concept of the “dramatic prognosis” might be just what you need to give life to your latest project.)
Whether you’re planning a story or revising a story draft, the concept of the dramatic prognosis can help you be more deliberate about your storytelling.
One of the reasons writing a good story is so difficult is because audiences already know thousands of stories. So any story you create will come into competition with its contemporaries and all that came before it.
It is therefore best to equip yourself with writing tools and concepts that can improve the overall quality of a story.
One of these tools is dramatic tension: every moment of a story carries a certain level of intensity. You can examine those levels and chart out their ups and downs and see problems with dramatic structure clearly.
Another tool, related to dramatic tension but distinct, is the dramatic prognosis. It does not measure the intensity of the moments in a story, but the chances that the characters have of reaching their goal. Even if you don’t apply a rigid numerical analysis to your writing to graph out the changing dramatic prognosis, understanding this concept can help you elevate your game.
Let’s look at dramatic prognosis in more detail.
What is the dramatic prognosis?
Let us first recall the basics of plot: a plot tells a series of facts during which a character (aka Hero) has a goal, struggles to reach it, against the action of antagonistic forces, and arrives at the result, positive or negative or ambivalent.
We can define the prognosis as follows: the prognosis is the calculation that the audience makes about the Hero’s chances of succeeding in reaching the goal, or conversely about the Antagonist’s chances of succeeding in defeating the Hero or preventing them from achieving the goal.
This prognosis varies depending on the information provided by the story. Yes, information. This can relate to:
- events, actions: for example if the Hero is a soldier whose goal is to win the battle, and he is seen tripping, putting his helmet upside down, failing to load his rifle, and finally taking a bullet in the thigh, then we will conclude that he has little chance of reaching the goal
- context: the characteristics of the characters or the situations, the motivations of the characters, their past, their intentions, etc: if the Hero is Rocky, and we see his old trainer calling him lousy, see Rocky even accuse himself of being a loser, and see that he is challenged to a duel by a champion, even if we have never seen him fight or get knocked out, we say to ourselves that he has little chance of winning. Similarly, if we learn that the soldier in the previous example has pacifist convictions and that he refrains from killing, this drops his prognosis without even having to show him in difficulty as a soldier.
Prognosis is closely correlated with dramatic tension, yet it does not equate to it.
For example, in a horror story, we may see an isolated person and a killer lurking: this increases the tension without changing the prognosis. But if we have seen two horrific murders on victims with a given characteristic, and we see a character with that characteristic, we think that this character has a chance of becoming the next victim: it changes the prognosis without changing the tension.
Like tension, the prognosis should vary frequently, otherwise the audience will get bored and feel like nothing is happening.
In fact, the prognosis directly determines the expectations of the audience in empathy with the story, and it is you the author who directly manipulates their hopes and disappointments, it is you who directs their psychic and emotional activity.
An example of a well-designed dramatic prognosis
We will take an example from Godless, a mini-series in 7 episodes, a beautiful postmodern western.
Its main plots are based on the following facts: (beware of spoilers!)
- Frank Griffin, a cruel and ruthless outlaw, leading a gang of 30 gunmen, had an adopted son, Roy Goode, who betrayed him
- So we have a revenge plot, of which Griffin is the Hero and Goode the Antagonist, and which aims for Griffin to kill Goode, or for Goode not to be killed by Griffin.
- To take revenge on Roy Goode, Franck Griffin and his gang burn down a small town he accused of having given asylum to Roy Goode, and exterminate all its inhabitants.
- This sequence shows that the Hero has the qualities required to achieve his goal: he is powerful, ruthless, violent, determined, the prognosis therefore turns in his favor.
- We see a lone horseman arriving in the night at an isolated house, and a woman armed with a gun shoots him in the throat; we then learn that it is Roy Goode, and that he was already injured.
- It starts badly for this character who, in his first appearance, narrowly escapes death
- We learn that Roy Goode has already faced Griffin and his gang (that’s precisely why he was already injured), and that he managed not only to survive, but to kill 7 of them, he alone against them all.
- This sequence shows that the Antagonist has – contrary to what his pitiful appearance had us predict – the qualities required to achieve his goal: the prognosis meter is therefore approaching equality.
- Learning of the massacre of the small town by the gang in Griffin, the sheriff of a nearby town decides to go and arrest Griffin
- Even if the sheriff acts independently of Goode, his action influences the plot of the conflict between Griffin and Goode, since if the sheriff arrests or kills Griffin, it necessarily resolves the Griffin / Goode plot; but the prognosis is unfavorable to the sheriff, because what can he do against 30 men?
- We then learn that this sheriff is an excellent gunman who successfully stood up to several armed men
- The prognosis tends to level out in part, the sheriff’s odds go up, and his prognosis correlates to Goode’s: the first of the two who meets Griffin will have a chance, if not to defeat him, at least to weaken him, so that the chances of the second encountering Griffin are increased
- But then we see, in several scenes, that the sheriff is going blind – he trips over an object he didn’t see, a yard away from him, and can’t read a sign a few meters away
- This new information crumbles the prognosis of a possible victory for the sheriff: an excellent shooter gone blind is no longer useful
- We then see that the young and fiery deputy of the sheriff is also an excellent gunman… but, the sheriff doesn’t allow his deputy to accompany him
- The prognosis for the sheriff goes up… then collapses again
- The sheriff buys glasses from a street vendor at an inn and gets his sight back
- The sheriff’s prognosis goes up
- The sheriff stumbles upon Griffin and his gang. The sheriff is in a weak position crossing a river and Griffin’s gang have surrounded him by surprise; after a tense and menacing argument, Griffin lets the sheriff get away
- The sheriff’s prognosis falls
- As Griffin and his gang make their way to a town that is home to Roy Goode – a town where only women survive due to a mining accident that killed all the men – the women are seen arming themselves and taking refuge in a house transformed into a stronghold, preparing to face Griffin
- The prognosis for Goode goes up a bit… the house / stronghold gives the defendants an advantage (they will see Griffin without Griffin first knowing where they are hiding), but, can these women challenge the experienced Griffin gang?
- In total, we therefore have this balance of forces:
- Griffin side: 30 armed, experienced, ruthless men
- Goode side: Goode, excellent shooter; the sheriff, excellent shooter; the deputy, excellent shooter; the women, inexperienced except 2 of them who are good shooters, and with the surprise of their fortified position
- The audience can therefore calculate that the odds are quite favorable for the fiendish Griffin – an ideal setup to generate suspense and poignant angst.
- From the start of the attack, the deputy is killed by surprise!
- The prognosis is a little more in favor of Griffin
In this example, we see that the prognosis varies frequently, long before the moment of the final confrontation between the two enemy characters. I mentioned 12 major variations above, but over the 7 episodes, the prognosis changes are much more numerous.
Also note that at the crucial moment (the crisis of the plot which will lead to its resolution), the characters that the audience likes should be losing: it is much better than the reverse because if they are winning, we would not fear losing them, there would be hardly any stakes, and thus suspense and tension would lag.
Build the dramatic prognosis before the plot
Just as the series of variations in dramatic tension can be traced in advance, the better to invent the actions and situations which must correspond to it, so can we trace the series of variations in prognosis in advance.
For example, do you want a heroic struggle story that ends well, the victory of the weak against the strong? If so, start your Hero in the negative, ignite hope and then shatter it, rekindle the faint flame and throw water over it, before resuscitating it one last time for the final great fire! Or in other words: -6 +6 -2 +5 –6 +2 -4 +9!
You can even first draw a graph that you think represents the effect you want to produce on the audience—to discourage them, to excite them, to deliver them higher or lower—and then invent the facts and information that correspond to these variations: it makes the plot design easier because you know exactly what to look for!
We can, for example, write:
- An Antagonist is strong: Hero’s victory forecast = -5
- But the Hero seems just as strong: prognosis +5 = total prognosis 0
- Suddenly, the Antagonist allies with a much stronger character: prognosis -10
- Learning of this alliance, the Hero recruits a team – but they are poorly equipped and not very united: prognosis +5 = -5
- Just before the confrontation, 2 of the Hero’s allies fall into a trap and are killed: prognosis -5 = -10
- And so on
It’s best to avoid accumulating too many changes in prognosis going in the same direction: if a plot tells us “the Hero will win, the Hero will win, the Hero will win,” it will appear monotonous and without stakes. If as the story proceeds, we can predict what will happen, you’ll kill the suspense and lose audience interest. So favor changes in direction, and ensure subtlety by varying the amplitude: small negative change, medium positive change, large negative change, etc.
Last advice: nothing forces you to say things clearly; you can present certain facts or certain information as doubtful, thus you complicate the calculation of the prognosis, you make it less certain and therefore you create suspense. For example in Godless we were first shown the sheriff’s deputy doing acrobatics with his two guns: it looks classy, but that does not guarantee that he is as good a shooter as he is a juggler. We’re left in doubt. Later, we see him confronted with three thugs and he dispatches them easily: there, and only there, is it confirmed that he is an excellent shooter; even if it is not 100% sure since we do not know how formidable these thugs were. The same effect is obtained with troubled characters, or traitors: they can add their strength to either side, so they represent an unpredictable factor in the calculation of the prognosis.
Improving a plot thanks to the dramatic prognosis
Let’s say we designed a story intuitively, because we “felt it.” And once the story is conceived, we realize that it does not turn out well, it does not have the desired effect, it does not gain in strength, it wanders or it stagnates at times, but we do not quite know how to rewrite it because we can’t identify what’s wrong.
Well in this case, we can apply the prognosis filter to the plot to ensure its quality:
- We evaluate and quantify each change in prognosis
- We draw the graph, the curve of the prognosis
- If the prognosis stagnates for too long at the same point, we know that we must correct, add a variation
- If the prognosis leans too much in one direction, we know that we must rebalance it
The next time you “consume” a story, watch the prognosis changes. They should jump out at you now.
Over time, it becomes second nature and you’ll write each scene, each character, each characteristic of the characters, intuitively taking into account their impact on the overall prognosis.
Try it, you will see!