Plot Development (Part Three)

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INDUCING REALITY The Holy Grail of Storytelling

by Ken "frobber" Ramsley

Part 3





A major element of inducing a sense of reality involves writing the story to match our human hard-wiring for the peaks and valleys of a story -- what I like to describe in terms of its temperature. In order to draw us into an immersion experience, a story must rise and fall according to our expectations.

The temperature of a story is the mood of the audience in response to events as they are revealed at any given moment. Sometimes the setting, or the music, or even a seemingly inconsequential background scene will engender a mood-altering response -- but this feeling does not come into any sort of sharp focus until the audience sees how the protagonist is reacting. This is because our experience of any story is always through the eyes of the protagonist. When the protagonist feels grimly towards his or her prospects -- we feel equally unsettled. When he searches in vain for the lost sacred object, we feel the same growing sense of panic. And when the hero decides to travel to where no one has gone before, we feel as though it is our quest as well.

If one were to plot a story's temperature on a chart, where 0 is no feeling and 100 is where your mind is about to blow, we would see how this temperature changes in the audience as the story progresses -- and at the end we would have a record of how the story affected the audience at any given moment -- a pattern of ups and downs that would plot the entire mood history of the story telling experience.

Some writers chafe at the notion that one particular temperature pattern works better than others. But I must caution you as one who has learned the hard way -- there is a preferred pattern nonetheless. And if the writer attempts to alter this pattern in any significant way, the story will likely induce nothing more than a masse exodus where the audience leaves out of pure frustration. If you want to reach the vast majority of people in a way that does not confuse them or piss them off, like it or not, the temperature at each moment must fit how people are built to process a story ...whether it is told in a book, or inside a computer game, or within a science fiction television series.

Now for an example...


First broadcast in 1967, episode 28 in the original Star Trek series entitled The City on the Edge of Forever is perhaps the best written science fiction television show of that decade -- and possibly ever.

The story begins with the crew of the Enterprise orbiting a planet to investigate strange ripples in time which periodically convulse the ship with each passing wave. During one particularly strong event helmsman Sulu is injured and the doctor (McCoy) is called. A brief injection from McCoy restores Sulu to immediate health and all seems well enough until another time ripple strikes the ship seconds later, causing McCoy to accidentally inject himself with the remainder of the entire hypo. The doctor freaks out from the effects of the drug, fights his way off the bridge, and transports himself to the planet's surface near the source of the time/space disturbance.

A landing party lead by the captain (Kirk) and his first officer (Spock) transport to the surface in hot pursuit, and when they arrive they discover how this planet is in ruins -- and very old ruins indeed -- perhaps as old as 10,000 centuries by Spock's estimation. While the rest of the landing party searches for McCoy, Spock and Kirk take a moment to inspect the ancient relics, among which is an intriguing annulus -- the singular source of the time/space ripples. Since nearly the beginning of time itself the annulus has awaited this moment to disclose its name and purpose: "I am the Guardian of Forever," it announces, part living being and part machine -- a time portal of sorts, able to transport anyone to any place in history by simply passing through the opening at the proper instant as events flash by.

While the Guardian shows the Earth's past, McCoy is discovered and briefly subdued until, with their attention diverted, the crazed doctor awakens under the stimulation of the drug, breaks past the startled landing party and leaps into the opening in time beyond the wild diving tackle of Kirk. He missed him! HE MISSED HIM!!

It will take all of their scientific know-how to unravel this situation -- but there is now no Enterprise orbiting above. In fact, according to the Guardian, all that ever was -- the ship, the Federation of Planets, and even human space travel is totally gone. McCoy has somehow altered the past in a big way.

In one of the most daring acts of human (or vulcan ) capacity Kirk decides that he and Spock will attempt time travel themselves aided only by Spock's tri-corder instrument to guide their proper point of entry. Kirk issues an order to those left behind that each remaining member of the landing party must themselves do the same should he and Spock fail to return within a reasonable length of time --until either McCoy is found and stopped, or until the entire party becomes forever trapped in the past.

There is no other choice.


By sampling the temperature as each event unfolds we begin to see the intensity curve of the story. Initially out of pure anticipation, the audience, or reader, or game-player begins with a temperature of roughly 10 on the scale of 0 to 100. During the prologue and the introduction of the main characters, the story should reach about 30 as anticipations reaches its peak and the initial dilemma or quest is revealed. By the time the characters conclude their splashy entrance about 1/8th of the way into the story, the curve must reach about 50 or else the audience will begin to doubt whether the rest of story has any punch. This is the point in Episode 28 when Kirk and Spock make their jump into the past.

Having reached this early peak, the story should now begin to cool down as the protagonist adjusts to the new situation and begins to learn more about what lies ahead. And as the main characters see more of their predicament, and while all the clues needed for the conclusion are placed, the temperature will meander down to nearly 0 as the story approaches the midpoint.

Kirk and Spock must first find clothes to match their 1930's New York City surroundings. Then they need money so Spock can start to build a memory circuit to help decipher his tri-corder readings (those recorded before McCoy changed time versus those after he screwed things up). They need a place to live. And all along they have to figure out if McCoy is anywhere nearby. They catch a break when their new employer and landlord, a soup mission worker named Edith Keeler, sets them up with a "flop" for two dollars a week and gives Kirk a handy-man job at 15 cents an hour -- hardly enough for food much less the five pounds of platinum Spock would like for his electronics.

Weeks pass, and progress on Spock's tri-corder memory is painfully tedious. McCoy may arrive any time, and as the days pass Kirk is growing more fond of Edith.

By the midpoint of the story the scope and difficulty of the quest has become clear to the protagonist. Little concrete progress has taken place, though, nor has there been any huge crisis yet -- but all of this is about to change.


At the midpoint of the story, a crisis must be reached in accordance with our human story telling hard wiring -- and at this point, as explicitly as possible, the protagonist must face this question: ARE YOU WILLING TO FACE YOUR GREATEST FEAR? Luke Skywalker learns from Yoda that he must face Darth Vader (The Empire Strikes Back), Jim Lovell must face the truth of how he and his crew may never return to the Earth alive (Apollo 13), and in Episode 28, Kirk must face the prospect of choosing between the future for Edith Keeler and the future for all of humanity.

The time for action has arrived.

From his first experiments Spock learns that Edith is killed in a traffic accident, then minutes later both he and Kirk see the alternate version where she lives at least six years longer. But Spock's electronics burn out before they can learn which is the right path of history -- whether Edith must live or die. Clearly, Edith is the focal point in time, and whatever McCoy does or does not do is the key to the future.

But what should they do even if they can find McCoy at the proper time? Perhaps McCoy causes Edith's death, and she should live. Or perhaps he saves her, and for the sake of proper events she should have died. Kirk is furious. The memory circuit must be made to work! He has to know the answer. It is unbearable -- for Kirk is falling in love with Edith -- and he can not rest until they have the answer.

In their desperation for tools, Spock cracks a safe, and when Edith discovers how Kirk and Spock have "borrowed these for the night" she threatens to throw them back onto the street --until she sees how Kirk totally trusts Spock in his honesty, and something about her unique capacity for human understanding allows her to accept Spock's promise to return the tools by morning.

At the peak of the midpoint crisis the protagonist must make a decision to resolve the conflict -- no matter the cost. This decision must ultimately lead to a direct engagement with the true enemy, and the hero must now take the first step in this commitment. Like Luke, he must leave his training to face Vader. Like Jim Lovell he must abort the mission to the Moon and instead work to get his crew home alive. Like Kirk, he must risk breaking into the safe to borrow expensive tools. When the moment for action arrives --and it will arrive in any well-told story-- there can be only one acceptable choice. Apollo 13 Flight Director, Gene Kranz, says it best just as the enormity of the crisis dawns on everyone-- "gentlemen, failure is not an option!"

No story will ever work unless it passes through this sort of midpoint crisis. Without it, the audience never knows if the protagonist is committed -- or just going through the motions. Only when we know for sure that our hero is willing to risk everything do we discover that he or she has a genuine spine, and is therefore worthy of success.

Now the temperature is beginning to rise again because the story has reached the beginning of the end.


Beginning with the mid-point crisis until about 7/8ths of the way through the story, the protagonist will attempt to resolve the conflict, and with each passing engagement the hero will get closer to the goal, first peaking the temperature at around 50, and then reaching about 70 during the last attempt in this section of the story.

Although these early attempts gain ground, they fail to defeat the antagonist in a fitting way -- and as the audience absorbs each new failure, the temperature cools while the protagonist regroups for the next attempt. In this way the action for a time swings up and down from ever rising peaks to ever lower valleys. Finally, at the 7/8th point of the story, the last of these failed engagements leaves the protagonist nearly beaten and devoid of options. He's finished. Doomed. There is no hope in sight.

The temperature now plummets.

In episode 28, Spock finally get's his memory circuit to work again and now the truth becomes clear...

Edith is a genuinely remarkable woman. In the same way that she is accepting of Spock's borrowed tools, she has the ability to convince powerful people in her own time of a peaceful resolution to conflicts. It is a great gift, yet it has arrived at the wrong time in history. In the near future, according to one possible path for her life, she will build a highly effective peace movement right at the beginning of World War 2 in Europe -- thus delaying American involvement in the war and allowing time for Nazi Germany to build their atomic bomb. Germany wins the war and conquers the world!

Spock's alternate tri-corder reading shows a different outcome. In a few days hence Edith is killed in a pedestrian accident. Evidently, McCoy prevents this. And so Spock's conclusion is simple -- To prevent the Nazis from winning the war and ruining the whole future as they know it, Edith Keeler must be allowed to die. Kirk, of course, is shredded by the news, and at first he chooses not to believe it at all. He really loves this woman. How can he stand by and actively intervene to ensure that she dies as scheduled?

Each passing opportunity for an accident now fills Kirk with rising internal conflict. Even he, himself, could now inadvertently save her. But instead --no mater what-- he must allow her to be killed when the time arrives. Time is a cruel master! Time itself is the enemy!! If Edith does not die, then millions of other people will perish in ways that they did not perish before, and all that ever should have happened will be lost in time forever.


At the 7/8ths point the temperature of the story should drop toward 0 as we see the protagonist beaten and hopeless. Once again the human story telling hard-wiring expects this. It is the signal that the conclusion is coming, that the next conflict will be the last, that the story will now bring the protagonist and his nemesis together, that this antagonist will be defeated in some fitting way, and the premise proven most convincingly.

As hope hits rock bottom, some last tidbit, or overlooked resource, or scrap of insignificant information comes to light. Perhaps it was in plain view in the prologue but no one understood its meaning then, or something the antagonist does reveals a hidden weakness, or some "red button" that was once a joke becomes the only way through the blocked tunnel. No matter what it is, the meaning is simple: The protagonist is freed to fight for the victory.

From this point on the temperature must climb as high as it can go -- all the way up to 100 -- without any more dips along the way. Until the antagonist is defeated in a fitting way and the quest is secured, the temperature must not even level out -- for the die is cast. The final battle is engaged. Win or lose, there is no turning back. And just when the penultimate peak is reached, all is held in the balance, teetering between success and failure, death and victory, salvation and doom.

Exactly what happens in this last section does not matter nearly as much as how the tension and excitement keeps growing. It can be a major battle scene, or the point where the truth begins to pour out in a courtroom, or where a mountain climber sees the impending storm and must rescue the others before it hits. In some way this is now the mad dash to the end where no one pulls any punches. Luke begins a battle to the death against Vader. The Apollo 13 command module begins to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere on failing batteries. Kirk reaches his moment of truth.

The conclusion of Episode 28 turns when Doctor McCoy finally shows up. He is delusional at first, but gradually recovers under the care of Edith who leads him away from a coffee line just seconds before Spock arrives in same the kitchen himself.

Several days pass while McCoy recovers fully -- until Kirk hears from Edith about her new friend, "Doctor McCoy," while walking with her to the movies. Kirk knows what he must do. He must find McCoy! NOW!! He tells Edith to stay put while he runs across the street to the mission, and there he finds both Spock and McCoy in the doorway.

In those very moments Edith waves from across the street completely absorbed by Kirk's sudden transformation and the strange sight of McCoy rejoicing at finding a familiar face -- and despite Kirk's warnings she begins to cross the street oblivious to the danger.

McCoy, Kirk and Spock all see her walking into the path of traffic, but before McCoy can even take one full step Kirk does not miss this time -- he clamps onto the doctor as though he were holding back time itself. Then, in plain view of the time travelers, Edith is struck and killed by a passing delivery van. Time is set right again, but the 100 degree temperature momentarily lingers while the meaning sinks into the eyes of our main characters.

"I could have saved her!! -- DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU JUST DID!!!" Screams McCoy.

Kirk turns against a wall clenching his fist in agony.

"He knows, doctor." Spock says to the night air. "He knows all too well."


As promised, the Guardian immediately returns Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to the future upon their success. All is now corrected. The Enterprise is back in orbit again. The Federation of Planets exists as always. The three travellers were only gone for moments.

When the story is over -- Stop. Let the temperature drop like a rock, thus leaving the audience with the feeling of the conclusion, and add nothing new which might distort this feeling.

The story of Edith Keeler ends faster than any other Star Trek episode...

When the Guardian offers Kirk yet another opportunity to travel through time... using the "h" word for the very first time in American television, Kirk ignores the Guardian altogether and simply says, "Let's get the hell out of here!"