Plot Development (Part One)
INDUCING REALITY The Holy Grail of Storytelling
by Ken "frobber" Ramsley
SEVEN ELEMENTS OF GOOD STORYTELLING
I appeal to all computer game project leaders, designers, and writers to consider the issue of the unchecked unsophistication in computer game stories and dialog very seriously and carefully.
Richard "Zdim" Carlson gamespy.com September, 2000
LEARNING ABOUT STORYTELLING ON LINE
Much has been said and written about the sorry state of storytelling in computer games, but not much has been done to improve matters until Rich Carlson's recent on-target prescription. Game designers, Carlson argues, should study the art of writing just like anyone else calling themselves a professional storyteller. Read the books on it, he admonishes, take the seminars if possible, and learn from the real pros if you can.
Yet having worked for dozens of companies through hundreds of development projects over the years, I understand how the study of one's craft can get shoved aside under the pressures to ship real products. Despite the potential value, few professional designers have the time to read the textbooks, attend the seminars, or even study their own successes -- much less anyone else's work.
But what if the material were posted on-line in bite-sized chunks? Perhaps in five or ten minutes a designer might pick up something worth chewing on -- if it were there!
So let's get started!
PEOPLE ARE HARD-WIRED FOR STORIES
There is one profession that is actually older than the supposedly "oldest profession" -- storytelling. And it is no accident, either. Without storytelling we wouldn't be here today typing on computers and playing games over the internet.
Early clans of humans first told stories to teach their children -- as we still do today. Which fruit was worth finding? Which mushrooms should be avoided? Where could one discover water in the dry season? All of this was critical for their survival -- and storytelling was the only way to pass this knowledge to the next generation. Those groups of people who could tell and remember stories survived. Those who couldn't died out. More than simple entertainment, the storyteller's ability to induce a near-perfect sense of reality is based upon a powerful survival instinct. It's a hardwired element of who we are.
For this reason the storytelling experience has become a central part of our human experience and the very reason why we can so easily immerse ourselves in a book or a movie or a video game. Beyond merely watching or hearing the story unfold, we absorb it completely -- diving into it and experiencing the events as though they were happening to us alone and not to somebody else. And being such a personal experience, the lessons of each memorable story become rooted in our thoughts to be recalled along with our own personal history.
But now for the tough part.
To quote Garett "kfgecko" Choy regarding what makes or breaks a good computer game: "It's the story, stupid." But even after 100,000 years of storytelling, it's still fairly difficult to create a memorable one. Thankfully, Aristotle devoted a considerable effort to understanding and defining what is required of the storyteller, and his work to this day forms the foundation of every textbook on the subject.
According to Aristotle, the human hard-wiring appears to contain a number of fixed rules, and only those stories fitting within the boundaries of those rules create the immersion experience. Try as they may, fiction writers, screenwriters, and game developers are all constrained by this wiring.
What "works" therefore is principally a matter of understanding how people experience stories and what can be done to induce this experience in the audience. A lot is still open for debate. But a lot more has been settled. So here I will begin with seven elements where most professional storytellers agree.
SEVEN ELEMENTS OF GOOD STORYTELLING
1. A central premise.
2. Strong three-dimensional characters who change over time.
3. A confined space -- often referred to as a crucible.
4. A protagonist who is on some sort of quest.
5. An antagonist of some sort bent on stopping the hero.
6. An arch in everything -- everything is getting better or worse.
7. And perhaps most important -- Conflict.
A premise is the point of the story, like "Power corrupts," or "Bad people can be turned to good," or "Saving the world is worth the effort," or even things that may not be true in the real world like "Good is the same as evil." By the time the audience reaches the end of the story, they should get this point. In fact, the whole object of everything in the story is to build a case for this point.
To illustrate this, imagine a story that tries to say that "evil is bad," yet shows evil people getting off without a penalty. This will feel wrong at best, and most likely downright stupid. How would you feel if the Empire won at the end of the original three Star Wars movies? If your point is to say that good triumphs over evil, then damnit, by the end of your story it had better triumph!
Many stories have more than one part to the premise, for example, "power corrupts, but goodness can redeem the corrupted" -- in fact, this very combination is perhaps what makes the first Star Wars movies so satisfying.
Characters have their own premises as well -- mainly in the from of what they believe about themselves, even if it's not entirely true. It defines their beliefs, convictions and wants -- all of which can be summed up in one or two statements such as "hard work is important" or "I always tell the truth." If characters violate their premise --for example, a hard-worker who suddenly slacks off for no reason, or a truth-teller who tells a lie-- we feel immediately that something is wrong, since we no longer are able to match their actions with the stories they have been telling us about themselves. (It is usually considered a contrivance if a character is set up one way by the writer, then suddenly abandons this premise in favor of something entirely different -- unless the point is to show how they are self-deceived).
You can tell that a story has a clean premise when it is easy to say what the story is about in just a few sentences. If you can't do that, then it probably has no central premise at all. And believe me, that is one of the main reasons why many computer games seem so lame when it comes to storytelling. There is no point!
If a game developer really wants to induce reality into the mind of the player, then the player has to see a point in being inside the game other than "Hey, check out all the new ways you can frag these robots before they frag you!" Pick something you want to say, and then say it in as many ways as you can from the beginning to the end. Unless you make your point, your game will get raked for having no reason for existence.
After the premise has been nailed down, the story design process moves to developing strong, engaging, and believable characters who we will come to care about, root for, despise, or even hate.
We first see the story as characters who show up and do things. If we do not care one way or the other about the people in the story, we will certainly fail to care about anything that's happening to them -- or in the case of computer gaming, the player will have no desire to continue the game.
A lot has been written about the differences among 3D characters, 2D stereotypes, and one-dimensional wallflower extras. All of this has to do with how much a character is developed. Main characters need to be as fully developed as the time and space of the story will allow. A lesser "2D" or "one-scene" character (like a tavern keeper) may only reveal one aspect of themselves --and this is all the audience would expect. The rest float around as a backdrop to keep the place from feeling too empty -- and if they were to say or do anything very noticeable it would simply distract from the story.
But what is this thing called character development?
Quite simply, the audience starts out blank and as the story unfolds they learn more about the main characters. And what they learn, and how this begins to induce a sense of the character's personality, is what writers call character development. If done well, the audience quickly comes to understand who these people are, and based on this understanding they will either root for them to succeed, or hope for them to fail.
The effect of creating a character in the minds of the audience is tricky -- perhaps the hardest part of creative writing -- because the characters can only reveal themselves during the course of events -- that's all we really have to work with -- letting them be quiet, or aggressive, or thoughtful, or stupid, or evil, or whatever -- as events unfold. If characters behave according to their underlying premises then they will reveal themselves properly, and when this happens no one will throw up their hands in disgust saying, "why the hell did he do THAT!"
Being consistent is only the beginning, though.
Although the main characters need to be true to themselves, they do not have to be "normal" to be believable. In fact, nobody in the audience wants to see a story about average people. Average people do not change much. Average people do not get in over their heads. Average people are boring and should never be the subject of any story unless they're merely starting out as ordinary people only to grow from that point. When we first meet Luke Skywalker he is a fairly whiny and boring kid. But as his past quickly catches up with him he is forced onto the path of becoming who he was always meant to be -- a Jedi knight. But if he had stayed a whiny kid, we would have hurled and left the theater.
One of the classic problems of a writer is how to reveal these extraordinary characters. We want in the worst way to have them stand up and tell the world about themselves -- but some of the most terrible writing on the planet is the self-revealing monologs peppering Sci-Fi movies and games. It simply violates a basic rule of human hardwiring for someone to launch their guts for no reason. No character in fiction --worth respecting-- publicly reveals their innermost thoughts unless they are compelled by extreme circumstances.
For characters to become truly believable in the minds of the audience, they must speak mostly through their actions. Princess Leah could have spewed forever over her love for Han Solo -- but when she stuck her neck out to rescue him at the beginning of Return of the Jedi only then could we be sure it was true.
Tons more could said here, but for now I'll leave you with this to chew on...
- Dialog is no substitute for action. For the most part characters can only get away with saying what we already could have figured out from what they do. People experiencing a story don't want to find out anything new by simply hearing the characters tell us out of the blue.
- The main characters should be larger than life in some way -- but still within the possibilities for humans (even if the story is about and ogre, a donkey, and a squirrel). Something about who they are or what they do must stand out as being unique or extraordinary. The audience must see them as distinct and unforgettable.
- The main characters should barely have the strength to take on their quest at any given point. Characters who are too strong never can convince the audience that they are up against any real challenge. And this goes for both the main hero and the chief "bad guy."
- Characters that don't change are boring. Also, characters that get stronger for no good reason are not believable. Characters should only grow as a result of having survived a peril or suffered some sort of loss. Nobody changes in a significant way except through extreme experiences.
- Characters must have a life story (or back story) that gives some sense for their origins. Who they are comes into focus best when we have some sense for their past. Also, events in the past often can be used to justify how a character might exhibit certain behavior in the present -- especially extremely evil behavior.
- Characters should have some weakness or ghosts from the past which threatens to derail them on their quest. Even the lamest, overblown, and completely unbelievable hero of all time --Superman-- has his problems with Kryptonite.
The premise answers the question of what the story is all about. The crucible answers the question of why it is happening with these particular characters.
For a story to have a chance at making a point, it has to eliminate all extraneous details, focus on one overall setting and on one group of characters who have a good reason for being there.
It is very difficult to induce a believable feeling of reality if the wrong people show up, or if the setting is out of place. Why is the story happening here? Why are these characters here? Why do they stay? And what is so special about this time, this place, and the events that seem to be happening?
If one wishes to melt metal, the heat must be concentrated. And in the same way, a story can only heat up if the events are contained within boundaries of some sort. A story that wanders around, or unfolds into a set of unrelated circumstances, will confuse the audience with useless details.
Imagine if the Stars Wars movies included hours of documentary footage on the aliens living on all the planets in the area of the action. Perhaps it could be argued that this would be good background information. But it never works. There is no time for it. And worse, the audience can no longer easily tell what is important from what is mere drivel -- if they haven't already passed out in their seats from utter boredom.
Good stories can be confined by many things such as a time period, or life on a ship, or the workings of a small clique of people organized for a purpose. Islands and small towns work well, too. Epic stories happen to a lot of people in many interrelated settings. Simple stories happen to fewer people and usually in just one place.
The size of the crucible is not as important as how there must actually be a crucible. At its time of production, Heaven's Gate was the most expensive fiasco in Hollywood history because of how the movie was nothing more than an assemblage of disconnected settings and events. At the other extreme, Apollo 13 had a nearly claustrophobic setting for much of the movie, and it worked well because it confined the vast danger of space travel into a volume far smaller than my office -- an inescapable world unto itself and the central focus of everyone's desire to get these astronauts home alive.
The role of the protagonist is to carry the audience through the story -- which is why this is the most important character. The protagonist sees more clearly, understands sooner, makes the good guesses more often, and takes the right path when everyone else says he's crazy.
Traditionally, this is the main "good guy" character -- but not always "good" in a conventional way. In fact, we may not even find him to be very likable at all, such as Harrison Ford's character in Blade Runner who is dark and brooding while on the case, but we root for him anyway because if nothing else he is the most likable person in the film -- given the other characters.
Sometimes the protagonist is astounding by simply doing what is sensible in the face of evil -- despite the risks. In Schindler's List, for example, the factory owner is hardly a saint, but compared to the Nazis, he is someone worth caring about given how he has chosen to resist them.
The most believable protagonists always have problems and flaws that gnaw at them constantly. The battle for them is as much against the demons within as any hurdles in the outside world. And as the hero struggles forward against the demons from both directions, it somehow gives eyes to the audience through the magic of our human storytelling hardwiring While the main character pushes ahead in the quest, the audience experiences the same relief and satisfaction as though they were their own quest.
Here are some things to consider when creating your protagonist...
- The protagonist most wants the object of the quest, has the best reason for wanting this goal, and is the one most often willing to work the hardest to get it.
- The protagonist starts out mostly ignorant of what lies ahead, and must learn and grow in order to survive long enough to get to the end of the quest.
- The protagonist can not be passive, nor can this character whine too much or seem too wimpy -- at least not for very long. The audience will only root for a potential winner willing to work for it, and someone who wins by accident, or while not giving a hoot, will still be viewed as a loser.
- Sometimes the "protagonist" is a group of like-minded people all working for a common goal. But usually, it is much easier to set things up with one main hero and a strong supporting cast, rather than confuse the audience with having to follow and root for more than one lead character.
- The protagonists is best understood as simply the main person we want to see win rather than "good" in any absolute sense.
The main role of the antagonist is to stand in the way of the hero. The story can not end until the protagonist defeats this guy or what he represents in some fitting way. Unfortunately, this character is often under-created, and so the desire to see him or her fail is poorly induced. Worse are the antagonists who are not even human -- like a computer or alien being showing no human characteristics. Can fully non-human "bad guys" give us a believable reason for why they would want to defeat the hero? Not usually.
But this is not to say that the antagonists has to look human. It can be a computer programmed with a replication of human personality. It can be a god who is half human. It can be a dark force with human characteristics taken from the mind of a very evil human. So long as the antagonist has human evil, or human pride, or corrupted ego, or the need for power, then the hero is up against something the audience can understand. Otherwise there is no way to figure out why the antagonist would want to stop the hero.
Just as the protagonist has the biggest reason to succeed in the quest, the antagonist has the biggest reason to prevent this success. And it can't just be that he is a bad person. It has to upset his plans for conquest. It has to prevent him from fulfilling his lifelong goals. It has to piss him off way down deep where it hurts the most. Darth Vader took it very personally when Luke Skywalker stood in his way because he had big plans.
Both the protagonist and antagonist must desperately wish to succeed, and their will to succeed --and even their abilities to do so-- must be very closely matched. If the antagonist is too strong --and loses anyway-- then the hero's success is absurd. And if the antagonist is too weak, we have no need to root for the hero.
As hard as it may feel, the writer must put as much effort into designing a formidable and believable antagonist as creating a capable and realistic hero.
Here are some things to chew on when creating your antagonist...
- The antagonist has a reason for being who he or she is. Bad, evil, and corrupted people are usually made, not just born. The antagonist will be far more convincing if there is a good reason for why they have become this person.
- What the hero wants must be the opposite of what the antagonist wants, and must stand in the way of the antagonist just as much as how the antagonist stands in the way of the hero.
- The antagonist should have a soft spot or "human" side -- a sort of weakness for being good in some way. He can not be entirely evil and still be believable.
- The antagonist must grow in the same way as the hero -- through adversity and struggle. An antagonist can not grow stronger for no good reason.
- Sometimes the antagonist is merely a powerful concept or idea, rather than an expressed character. But even still, it must have human qualities of some sort, and in some way seem to exist almost purely to stand in the way of the hero.
For a story to feel satisfying to the audience, everything and everyone must change from "pole to pole" -- as they say in the biz. If the protagonist starts out clean-cut and snooty, then he must end up grubby and humble. If he starts as a drunk, then he must end the story sober. If he is angry in the beginning, he must wind up a Mr. Nice Guy. If he is physically strong at first, then in the end he must be beaten up and hardly able to walk.
Nothing tells a story more clearly than change. Not a single element should be allowed to stay the same as the story develops. The weather must get colder or rainier or darker. The sound must get louder or softer or more sinister. The phases of moon must change. The snow gets deeper. The plans of the antagonist must become more evil. The protagonist must face ever harder challenges.
This change from one extreme to the other is often called "the arch" of the story. It is the shape of a continuous line drawn from the North pole to the South pole. In ET, for example, Stephen Speilberg uses flowers to convey the failing health of the alien. In Apollo 13, the Earth keeps getting bigger as time is running out. In Gone with the Wind, the mansions of the South fall into disrepair, and with all the slaves gone, the plantation owners themselves have to plant their own vegetables. The weak-minded get smarter. The wise get stupid. The unlucky catch a break. And the hidden evil is brought to justice.
Nothing stays the same.
There is no satisfaction in a story where someone says what is on their mind for no reason at all. But during an argument or a fight people will say just about anything -- including huge lies, the naked truth, and a whole lot of other things they might not like other people to think about or remember. If you need to have a character say something important, first make sure that he or she is angry or upset in some way. That is when characters let things slip out in the most believable way.
Overall, people should not get along very well in stories. Conflict and tension increase suspense since we have no idea how these people will behave with each other in the next moment. In the Perfect Storm, two fishermen are at each other's throats for most of the voyage. But when one of these guys gets snagged overboard on a long line, his nemesis is first into the water to save him. These two longliners may have hated each other, but when push comes to shove we learn how true Gloucestermen will do anything to save each other's lives at sea.
Use conflict to give your characters a good reason to say something important, and also use it to create opportunities for characters to transcend our expectations of them. If you want to induce a powerful sense of reality, then give your characters a chance to prove themselves in a tough situation.