ST 255: The Art of Plotting

There’s one basic problem any storyteller has when it comes to plot: no plot survives first contact with its players. The reason for this is simple; the similarities between running a game and writing a book end when a plot hinges on the decisions and actions of characters, under the control of your players. You can plan all you want to, but the chances are that if your plot consists of anything more than beating up that night’s episodic monster, somebody’s going to do something that you didn’t plan on. Some storytellers attempt to avoid this by “railroading” the plot—finding ways to force things to unfold in a specific manner. This happens because a storyteller has the mentality that he is telling his story.

The real way to avoid this is to accept that a story belongs to the characters. It’s your players’ decisions that will shape the story to come, not the storyteller’s. But, a storyteller has to provide plot, otherwise the characters will sit around playing a game of canasta. Since the two basic elements in setting up any plot—character and setting—have already been decided, then all there’s left to do is define the elements which are in your control.

Conflict & Antagonists

For any plot to work there has to be a conflict of some kind, preferably more than one. Those conflicts usually come in two varieties: internal and external. Since an internal conflict—a protagonist against themselves—is largely the purview of players, it’s these external conflicts that you will focus on. And the way you bring those external conflicts to life is through an antagonist.

Antagonists aren’t necessarily characters themselves, especially within the World of Darkness. Society, nature, and technology can make for some very satisfying, if not very tricky antagonists to deal with, especially when you consider that these things can’t be defeated, and only sometimes changed. These antagonists are simply anonymous, uncaring forces at work. Time, growth, bureaucracy, death: these are all things that everybody fights at some point or another. Sometimes, it’s impossible to change an environmental antagonist in order to resolve a conflict. Sometimes, it’s the characters themselves that have to change in order to get past that hurdle.

The most direct and universally recognized type of antagonist, though, is one or more non-player characters. These can be organized into a structure of bosses, lieutenants, and thugs; or they can be a disorganized mess of things working independently for their own advantage—or, more interestingly, working against each other for their own advantage. It’s up to you if the antagonist is one who changes through the course of a story (dynamic character), or if they remain unchanged as the story progresses (static character). The static variety is more common, but a dynamic villain—maybe even an anti-hero—can be useful in certain themes where the antagonist is redeemable.

Plot Structure

In the 1800’s, a man named Freytag made an important contribution towards understanding story structure: he drew a triangle. Called “Freytag’s Pyramid,” it demonstrates the basic structure of a story. At one point, we have characters and setting which are set into motion, called “rising action,” until they reach a climax. Once that climax is reached, there’s a denouement—a process of resolution—which leads to the end. At that end point, we usually find that the characters have changed through the process of the story. We also sometimes find that the resolution answers an overall “story question,” which has served as a central theme throughout the story.

 250px-Freytags_pyramid.svg

Not all role-playing plots are so simple. Not all players write up their characters with qualities they will allow to be changed. If you try to force them to do so and turn their characters into something they didn’t want, they’ll wind up resenting you for it. Finding those players who allow their characters to change is a boon to any storyteller, but it’s not something you can depend on. All you can do is pick a theme, a story question, and then let that theme play out.

But Freytag’s Pyramid need not be so rigid. When you get right up close to it, a rising action can be filled with little peaks and valleys, as tension increases and decreases in small increments. So long as the net result of each little bump in the road is keeping that rising action moving forward, then we’re still on the right course. Let it fall too far, and it becomes difficult to get that rising action going again.

Dramatic structure also isn’t your only possibility. After all, a role-playing game usually meets at regular intervals, lending itself to a story structure that you’re probably already familiar with. Episodic structure is as its name suggests: a series of episodes. There’s a rise, climax, and resolution in each of those episodes. Or, sometimes, the plot crosses two or three episodes with cleverly-placed “cliffhangers” sitting in between each.

A third type of structure can allow you to jump between both. Imagine Freytag’s Pyramid. Now, along the rising action, add in some episodic structure. Each episode has its own little conflict and its own resolution, but each one ratchets up a bigger plot happening in the background. This is parallelism. With this, you tie together multiple plots in order to make a cohesive whole. Parallel plots don’t necessarily even have to interact with one another, so long as they share a similar theme. Each plot connects to each other through exploring that theme, answering the overall story question by looking at it from several different angles.

Plot Length

Another difference between a role-playing game and a book is that, in a game, after the story is over, the characters are still there thinking about firing up another game of canasta. In a book, when the story has reached its final conclusion, the book is over and is exactly as long as it needs to be. When you’re writing a plot for a game, you want to figure out how long it’s going to last.

At the short end of the scale, we have the one-shot plot. Sometimes, these games can be little punctuation marks riding up the side of a rising action, episodic in that they stand alone just fine, but they fit in with a bigger picture. Other times, they’re the end result of a storyteller having to think on his feet and spit out the first thing that comes to his mind, and not all storytellers are good at doing this. Some storytellers need to have some sort of plan, even if it’s a bunch of roughshod NPC’s that may as well be wearing “kick me” signs when they show up. For these games, structure isn’t terribly important, because it’ll happen on its own. Just give them a conflict that needs an immediate resolution and they’ll bite at it. Or, if they don’t, you’ve got yourself a short-term plot building as they deal with the consequences of not acting on it.

Those short-term plots are nearly always episodic, even if some of the “episodes” bridge multiple sessions. The episodes as a whole run a total length of a few months, until the driving force behind each of the smaller conflicts is resolved. It’s always good to have one or two of these running in the background, making sure that a new one starts before the last one gets resolved. That way, there’s always something going on.

The long-term plot is a much bigger deal. These can go on for many months, and their slow rising action needs to have smaller points of interest in order to work in a gaming environment. As for how long is good for a long-term plot, well, a venue storyteller in Mind’s Eye Society has a one-year term. That’s a pretty good place to start. For longer plotlines, you can control the pacing by varying how close the players are to the principal antagonist. At first, when the tension is low, the antagonist is practically hidden, only visible through the influence they’re having on the game. When they get closer to the climax, or the plot needs a little kick to get it moving again, the antagonist should be more exposed. Then, when it’s time to give the characters a little bit of a setback and pull the tension down just a notch, you draw the antagonist back into the shadows. By doing this, you can control the amount of tension happening in a game, allowing it to build up that rising action until it’s time to allow the climax to occur. Just make sure you have enough time left in your tenure to play out the denouement.

One thing to keep in mind about these different plots is that the most important thing to maintain in any storyline, even more important than managing tension, is suspension of disbelief. That’s the effect that happens when you’re really into a story and have allowed yourself to become emotionally involved in what’s going on. When suspension of disbelief starts to fade, the story starts to feel fake. And when you’re about to change storytellers from one to another, that’s an incredibly sensitive time for suspension of disbelief. One of the tricks you can do in order to avoid this is to work with your potential incumbents on a changeover plot—a short-term plot that starts its build a month or two before the climax of the last plot you are running. This will make it so that you’re not just handing over a blank slate, but an active story.

Goals & Scope

Either a plot has a concrete ending in mind, or it doesn’t. This might seem mind-numbingly obvious at first, but think about it. You can’t set a story up to have a rigid conclusion and yet still allow the characters to find their own ending. And it’s up to the storyteller, before the plot even hits the floor, to determine if there’s a specific story goal in mind.

Static goals have to be clear and amenable to your player base. If you create a static goal of the characters gaining control over the city, but then the players turn out to be perfectly happy playing cloak and dagger, then there’s going to be very little interest in your goal. Before you set up a plot with a static goal, you should sit down with your player base, discuss this overall goal, and find out if this is a story they want to tell.

Another thing to think about is a story’s scope. Not all stories need to involve every character. Sometimes, you can have little stories that are insular to small groups of characters, or even just for one. Providing a little personal touch for an individual character can help them become more involved in the bigger picture, and give them some additional character development that helps them overcome their own disbelief. It can also make a player feel more at home within your game.

Other Elements of Story

These elements combined can help you provide a compelling game for your players and make storytelling a much more fulfilling exercise for you as a storyteller. And these aren’t the only storytelling techniques that can be applied to storytelling. Dramatic irony, motif, tone, and voice can all contribute to a strong game that everybody can enjoy. We as a species have been refining the art of storytelling ever since we figured out how to draw figures on stone. If you find yourself looking for more, then there’s a wealth of information out there, and all it takes is figuring out how to apply them.

But our largest resource is each other. Talking to other storytellers, comparing methods, bouncing plot ideas off of each other, all help the creative process. And the more you do it, you’ll find that this sort of creative application is addictive, and that’s just part of human nature. Story is part of our soul, and sharing our stories with each other is a way of sharing that with others.