By way of David Farland's "Daily Kick" writer's newsletter (a worthy thing for any aspirant to receive), I yesterday discovered the story-writing theory of Dramatica: the theory that, in short, stories are the complete working out of some problem.
Dramatica is a great tool for any writer. In fact, Dramatica was developed for screenwriters, but its theories are just as handy to the fictionalist. Principally, Dramatica offers a complete set of tools for working stories out in terms of their archetypal form, and for using these archetypes to create the sort of Grand Unified Story that takes a problem, looks at it from every angle, and then resolves it in a way that convinces the reader that the chosen way is the best possible.
I've already found some great uses for Dramatica. Firstly, it's encouraged me to think in a duality of protagonist/main character and objective/subject story, which is an incredibly handy way to maintain a very exciting and engaging story (the subjective adventures of the main character) while still tackling an interesting philosophical issue (the objective trials of the protagonist). All too often, the authors of Dramatica note, protagonist and main character are unified in the same "player," resulting in a sort of narrative schizophrenia. Also, its extensive examinations of archetypes has encouraged me to look at my stories and find where various sorts of views or reactions are underrepresented, or where the addition of some type of character can create more action, more tension, and more excitement (my stories, by the way, are usually terribly underpopulated by interesting characters).
Still, I don't intend to become a Dramatica disciple. This has nothing to do with the shortcomings of Dramatica; in fact, the authors of the theory are very forthcoming with the fact that Dramatica is a theory of story, and that it won't work for everyone (which really made me much more open to the theory to begin with). Rather, I've "discipled" myself in the past, and found it stultifying or ultimately unsuccessful as a development strategy.
But I have no doubt in the capacity of Dramatica to serve as a wonderful device to theorize about stories, and to create a more mature conceptualization of storytelling in an aspiring author. It's already worked wonders for me. If you haven't checked out Dramatica, do it now: the theory book is entirely free!