Before you can begin construction of a computer RPG you need to
lay the Virtual Groundwork. This article discusses the third major
area of Virtual Groundwork: plot. It's an area I expect to return to
in the future, examining plot structures in movies, mythology,
television, comic books, and RPGs--and seeing how they relate to the
CRPG medium. In the meantime, enjoy an overview of the topic -SA.
by Kimberly Appelcline
Plot is the element of stories that people are often most aware of.
We stay up until 2 a.m. to finish a novel because we cant wait
to see what happens to characters we have come to care about. Who
will live and who will die? Who will behave heroically, and who will
prove themselves cowards? Which secrets will be revealed, and how?
Will the characters overcome their personal limitations to triumph in
their quests, or fail tragically as a result of their own foolish
choices? Even if a story doesnt have the most exciting
characters or setting, if the plot is strong, most people will be
So what is this miracle ingredient that an audience pays such
attention to? As discussed in the first article in this series, The
Elements of Good Storytelling
, plot is dependent on all of the
other elements setting, character, backstory, details
but it is also a distinct element which we can study separately. In
that article, I described plot as a three-step process, composed of
set-up, build-up, and pay-off (which could also be called situation,
complication, and resolution). The article also discussed three
points to bear in mind while creating plots: 1) Keep things moving,
2) Make sure that your characters actions have significant
potential consequences, and 3) Keep the plot coherent. While these
points inform and underlie this article, here I focus on strategies
What Is Plot?
Many describe plot as the skeleton that holds a story together. Just
as a skeleton connects the bodys knee-bone to its ankle-bone,
connects them both to the more distant wrist-bone, and keeps them all
part of one functioning, coherent organism, so also plot
the murder at the end of a story linked to a conversation in the
first scene, and keeps them both logically linked to the precious
statue that was stolen somewhere in the storys middle, and even
links everything to the flashback about the protagonists
childhood events. A good, well-structured plot connects the various
events in a story into a coherent whole, flowing smoothly and
logically, no matter how surprising the characters behavior.
If we look at the bare outlines of plot, we can see a variety of
formulae underlying the stories events. Many films, for
example, use the three-part "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy
gets girl" plot structure. Some say, on the other hand, that
there are only two real story plots:
- someone goes on a journey
- a stranger comes to town
And, if you look closely at these two plots, you might even say that
they are only two ways of looking at the same plot! Others say that
there are nine basic plots; some say thirty-six. But none of this
matters as much as bearing in mind this one basic idea:
- "Plot" doesnt just tell
what happened; it tells why it happened.
It isnt enough to come up with delightful and surprising twists
and turns of events. If thats all youve got, at the end
your audience will think, "So? Whats the point?" You
need to structure your plot such that certain events lead characters
to make choices, and those choices lead to other events, which lead
to other choices, etc. Your entire plot should be interdependent. To
explain what I mean, well start with Aristotles view.
Aristotles Approach to Plot
Aristotle wrote the first known analysis of plot, in his
. Though written some 2300 years ago in Ancient Greece,
his approach to plot has yet to be surpassed and is still widely
studied as the primary authority.
Aristotle said that a plot should have an appropriate beginning,
middle, and end. This may sound simple and obvious, but it bears
By this, Aristotle did not mean that you should start with a
characters birth, or with the creation of the universe, but
that you should find the proper beginning for the specific story you
want to tell. You should begin with some interesting moment, some
event or decision or information that will be crucial to the story as
a whole. For example, Oedipus Rex
, which Aristotle uses as his
main example, begins near the end of Oedipuss life, just before
he begins his quest to find the man who murdered the previous king.
Though this moment is not the beginning of the "story" of
Oedipus which might have begun with his birth, or even his
parents births it is
the dramatic moment that
initiates the plot of the play, which will follow Oedipuss
quest to its tragic conclusion.
In another example, the classic film "Casablanca" begins
with the police search for the murderer of two Nazi couriers. This
search certainly is not the beginning of Ilsa and Ricks love
story, but it is
an exciting, dramatic, interesting moment
which begins the string of events that will end with two lovers using
those Nazi couriers "letters of transit" to fly to
freedom in America.
The appropriate beginning for a story depends on the ending.
Sometimes, you might not be certain of the right beginning for your
story until youve written the entire thing, or at least a full
and detailed outline. Just try to stay open-minded, and not feel
anchored to the starting place where you began writing. It may not be
the right starting place for your audience to begin reading!
The middle of your story, of course, needs to get your audience
smoothly and believably from the beginning to the end, building the
tension along the way. This doesnt mean that the story must be
linear, since many stories are not. In the middle of
"Casablanca," we see scenes of Ilsa and Ricks prior
love affair in Paris. Even in the most linear of stories, like
, characters can uncover information about the past
which changes their interpretation of events, changes the choices
they make, and therefore changes the path of the plot.
Many of the things I wrote about beginnings also apply to endings.
The key is to find the appropriate ending for your plot, the true
resolution of the events begun in the first scene. Bear in mind that
your beginning and ending are completely interdependent. You
cant start with the search for the murderer of the Nazi
couriers if their "letters of transit" wont be
important to the ending. And so, when you find either the true
beginning or ending of your story and this is largely an issue
of intuition it will help you figure out the other.
Many writers sit down to write a story with an ending in mind. There
is nothing wrong with this tactic, as long as you keep your mind open
and flexible. You may find, once you begin writing, that your
characters develop in directions you hadnt intended, that they
make different choices than you had planned, and that the ending you
originally had in mind no longer works. Or, alternatively, you may
find that your intended ending still seems right, but you started in
the wrong place to get there. Some writers find it helpful to outline
their plots in advance, while others prefer to just write and see
where the story takes them. You might want to try both strategies, to
figure out which works best for you.
Aristotles Elements of Complex Plots
In addition to his theory about beginnings, middles, and endings,
Aristotle described a number of elements that he considered crucial
to the creation of a complex, fully developed plot:
Four Common Plot Structures
- reversals Characters should find themselves going
from good fortune to bad, and back again, etc., as both result and
cause of their choices and actions. These reversals serve as
climactic moments in the plot.
- discoveries Aristotle said that characters should
make discoveries, especially about themselves. These discoveries may
be about their pasts, their flaws, or even their own motivations.
(For more information, see also the third article in this series,
"Creating Vivid Characters.")
- complications Something should stand between the
protagonist and his objective. (For more on motivation and
objectives, see "Creating Vivid Characters.") Characters
with different objectives, for example, may find themselves in
conflict with each other, which helps to create plot tension. Bear in
mind that an even battle is more interesting than Bambi vs. Godzilla,
but also that an underdog effect (as in the first "Star
Wars" film) can be most thrilling. In any case, your
characters efforts to resolve the situation should create
further complications, allowing the tension to escalate. And, when in
doubt, follow Raymond Chandlers advice: "When things get
slow, bring in a man with a gun." (It doesnt have to be a
literal gun, of course. It could be anything that will raise the
tension level a few notches.)
- catastrophe It neednt be an earthquake or a
mass murder; it might be an emotional catastrophe, completely
internal to your characters psyche. But no plot will be
interesting if things go too smoothly. Bad things should happen, even
to good people. Its how your characters deal with
catastrophe that produces plot.
- resolution The plot should reach some satisfactory
conclusion that continues logically from the events of the story. (In
other words, dont rely on coincidences, or a deus ex
machina device, in which some new element gets introduced
suddenly at the end to resolve the plot.)
There are many different ways to structure a plot while still
incorporating the elements recommended by Aristotle. Ill
discuss four of these common plot structures: the
"episodic" plot, the "heros journey" plot,
the "mountain" plot, and the "W" plot.
The Episodic Plot (see figure 1)
The episodic plot is often used in
picaresque novels common in the 18th century such as
and Moll Flanders
, which follow one lively
and resourceful character through a series of adventures. If we were
to chart the plots rises and falls Aristotles
"reversals" we would see something like a horizontal
zigzag, as the tension does not generally increase as the story
progresses. This is the plot structure that most closely resembles
real life, with its endless series of largely unconnected adventures.
Though still common in video games, it has fallen out of fashion in
fiction writing, due to its usually less intense emotional impact on
The Heros Journey (see figure 2)
As described by Joseph Campbell in his
numerous books, the heros journey plot is common in fairy
tales, folk tales, and myths. It involves a specific pattern of
stages, which might be graphically represented as a circle, since
this plot begins with the heros departure and ends with his/her
return to society:
- call to adventure
- journey through unfamiliar world; hero is tested
- supreme ordeal
- return and reintegration into society
One example of this plot is the first "Star Wars" film, in
which Luke gets the call to adventure when he finds Princess
Leias recorded plea for help. He resists, but finally does
leave with his guide, Ben Kenobi, to travel through unfamiliar lands,
learn new things, and have his strength and character tested in
various adventures. His supreme ordeal culminates in the explosion of
the Death Star, and Luke is then rewarded and reintegrated into
society in the final ceremony scene.
The Mountain Plot (see figure 3)
Common in literary novels and stories, as
well as many independent films, the mountain plot consists of a
structure of increasingly significant mini-climactic moments, with
increasing tension leading to a final climax of the plot. Its name
comes from its graphic representation, which resembles the side of a
mountain, climbing in jagged peaks to a summit:
- the story begins, and tension begins to build
- the protagonist reaches the first complication, and things take a
- the protagonist finds a way to overcome the first complication,
and things begin to look up (steps 2 and 3 are then repeated at
varying intervals, with the tension building higher and higher)
- the story reaches its climax, the plot tension is resolved, the
protagonist has either succeeded or failed at his/her super-objective
- some small amount of conclusion after the climax eases the reader
out of the story
An example of this plot structure might be Jane Austens
, in which an English gentlewoman finds various obstacles
(seps 2 and 3) in the way of her matchmaking for a young friend and
for herself. She finds herself increasingly at odds with a close
family friend, and the tension between them builds greater and
greater. Emma gets herself into increasingly unpleasant social
situations, and then eventually realizes that she is in love with the
man who has been her friendly adversary throughout the plot. They
tell each other of their feelings, and marry.
The "W" Plot (see figure 4)
Common in popular novels, television, and
Hollywood films, the "W" plot structure is named for its
graphical representation, which resembles the letter "W."
In the "W" plot, the protagonist encounters a series of
obstacles to achieving their objective:
- First Barrier: The protagonist begins work toward his objective
and encounters the first barrier.
- First Barrier Reversal: Things dont look good, but the
protagonist manages to overcome the first barrier
- Second Barrier: At the high point of the action, just when it
looks like the protagonist has it made and his objective is within
reach, the rug is suddenly pulled out from under him in the
unexpected second reversal.
- Second Barrier Reversal: At the low point of the action, when
things look very grim, the protagonist still has an opportunity to
overcome this catastrophe and achieve his objective.
- Resolution: The protagonist either does or does not pull out of
the catastrophe, resolving the plot either tragically or triumphantly.
Mike Meyers film "So I Married an Axe Murderer"
displays a good example of a "W" plot structure. Charlie
meets Harriet, the woman of his dreams, and wants to live happily
ever after. But he has intimacy issues, so (in the first reversal) he
convinces himself that she is the infamous "Honeymoon
Murderer," and he breaks up with her. But then he learns that
the true murderer has been arrested, and so he convinces Harriet to
give him another chance, and they get married. Unfortunately (in the
second reversal), on the wedding night, Charlie finds out that the
true murderer was not arrested, and that in fact very strong evidence
points to Harriet, his new bride! He spends his wedding night fleeing
an axe-wielding maniac on the roof of their hotel. But in the end he
survives, and finds his true love, and everyone lives happily ever
Embedded Plot Structures
All four of these plot structures, of course, are open to sub-plots
and combining and embedding. For example, any major battle scene
includes numerous reversals and mini-climactic moments. So it is with
most plots. In most "W" plots, for example, the protagonist
encounters more than two barriers, but encounters two primary,
significant barriers. Play around with plots. Play with the frequency
of events and climactic moments (if climactic moments are rare, your
story may be slow; but if climactic moments are too frequent, your
audience may feel bombarded and unable to absorb the significance of
each individual event). Most good stories achieve a sort of rhythm of
tension and climax. Give it a try!
Plot is like a skeleton that holds your story together, connecting
all of the pieces so that they form one coherent organism. Plot tells
not only what
happened, but why
Aristotle said that a complex plot should have a proper beginning,
middle, and end. He also listed elements of complex plots: reversals,
discoveries, complications, catastrophe, and resolution.
Four common plot structures which you may want to experiment with in
your own writing are: the episodic plot (common in picaresque
novels), the heros journey plot (common in fairy tales, folk
tales, and myths), the mountain plot (common in literary novels and
stories, and some independent films), and the "W" plot
(common in popular novels, television, and Hollywood films). All of
these plot structures, however, are open to combining and
- Write five mini-stories (maximum: 200 words each) to account for
a single event or situation (e.g., a man and a woman meeting in a
bar). Make each story different from the others in characters, plot,
backstory, and theme.
- Outline a plot for each of the following:
- Using an episodic plot structure, outline what happened
to you last year. Try to include all significant events, even if they
didnt lead toward one coherent climax in your life. Watch for
and underline any repeating elements (fire, snow, food, family,
birth, etc.) that could be turned into themes if you were to write
this as a story.
- Using the heros journey plot structure, outline a
plot about a character on a quest for something important and
specific (food for a baby, medicine for a dying grandmother, the
Fountain of Youth, the name of the heros birth mother, etc.).
- Using the "W" plot structure, outline another
plot about the same character as in 2b.
If possible, look at a game (or story) youve already
written. Can you identify any of the plot elements discussed in this
article? What sort of plot structure did you use? Was it a
combination of styles? Can you see any ways to improve the game,
based on the plot structures summarized in this article?
Kimberly Appelcline, a creative writing student at SF State,
originally wrote the five-part series The Elements of
Good Storytelling for Skotos Tech.