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Thinking Virtually

#30: Revising Stories, Deriding Plots: Closing Notes

by Shannon Appelcline
October 29, 2001


TV logo  

I have never plotted any story I've ever written
--attributed to Robert Heinlein

Unlike television, movies or museums, gaming is a participatory medium; any story arc, photo-realistic graphic or game system is just a backdrop and tool for the player to create his own story and legend. That's why we're there.
--Biting the Hand, Jessica Mulligan

Welcome one and all, to the final article on plot in MCRPGs--the final article for now, at least, as I make no promise that I won't return to this topic at some far-future time. I have, I feel, nearly exhausted the topic, having hit almost all of the main points I wanted to discuss. Singular plots, episodic plots, multiple players, multiple gamemasters, and allowing for change--they've all been a part of Thinking Virtually in the last three months.

I do, however, have a few minor topics that I want to cover before I finish up my plot discussions, and that's what this week's article is about. Loose ends. More specifically: the art of revision and the purpose of plots in MCRPGs.

Let's get started.

The Art of Revision

Back in Movies: A Structure for Plot, Part Two I offered up a fresh and original MCRPG plot for Skotos Tech's Castle Marrach game. But, as I noted there, it was a single brainstorm from start to end, and I hadn't taken much effort to polish the piece.

I thought it worked well as an example, to show how a plot could be quickly constructed using the movie plot structure, but I would have been pretty embarassed to actually run the plot as it stood. It was pretty good, I think, but the focus was just a little soft, and so the plot didn't carry as much impact as I would have liked.

In other words, it needed to be revised.

This is going to be true of just about any plot you ever write--if you're a first time MCRPG story plotter or a vastly exprienced novelist and short story writer. No matter how well you write the first time, you can dramatically improve your stories by revising them.

So, I've collected a few suggestions on how to best revise your online plots:

Foreshadow Plot Twists. There's an old saw in writing that says, "If there's a gun above the fireplace in act one, it should go off by act three; if a gun goes off in act three, it should be above the fireplace in act one." Basically, this rule is saying that you should always set up your plot twists. If something is going to become important late in your story, it should be visible early on. (And, if you want to write a really good plot, don't just make your gun visible, but rather an integral and ongoing part of your story.)

The flipside of this is what is known as the deux machina, which literally means "machine from the gods." A deux machina is when some totally unexpected and unforeshadowed plot twist lifts the heroes out of harm's way. It could be that the plot twist is actually a fine one, but the lack of foreshadowing destroyed any continuity of plot. So, guns above fireplaces avoid machines from the gods. Easy enough.

When revising your MCRPG plot you should look carefully at the things that have impact or twist the plot late in your story and make sure they were there early on too.

Keep Your Focus Tight. It's another maxim in fiction that you never want an unnecessary scene. (In short story writing you don't even want an unnecessary word, because your medium is so tightly limited.) To a certain extent, this is another aspect of the "gun" rule that I mentioned above: you shouldn't have that gun above the fireplace if it isn't going to be used.

You can be a little more lax about this maxim in an online environment: sometimes players will want to just hang around and have fun even if it doesn't advance a plot. What you need to make sure you don't do, however, is confuse players with unimportant scenes.

You should look at your plot and see if there are any scenes which explicitly look like they're part of your plot--because they feature the themes, include the main characters, whatever--but don't actually advance anything. Take those out, as they'll just frustrate players trying to follow your story.

Keep Your Focus Constant. Another closely related idea: once you've put the focus on certain characters or places within a plot, you should try and keep it there. How satisfying would Star Wars have been if the first half of the story had been about Luke Skywalker, and then we'd run off with Han Solo for the second half of the movie, never knowing what happened to the young kid who was learning the Jedi ways?

Similarly, for the length of any singular plot you should figure out who the heroes are, what their main conflicts are, and how they're going to be pushed into those conflicts.

If, on revision, you find that your focus shifts, you need to resolve that.

Close Up Loose Ends. In Episodic Plots, Part Two: Comics Books I mentioned that Chris Claremont was one of the best authors for character arcs in just about any medium, as highlighted by his innovative work on The X-Men in the 1970s and 1980s. However, Clarement was oft criticized about leaving plots hanging for months, even years on end--and that was because he didn't close up his loose ends.

Do taunt your audience, leaving unresolved questions hanging, but don't piss them off for doing so for gross amounts of time. Whenever you look at a singular plot you should be very aware of which plot threads you're leaving hanging; think about them, and decide whether it's OK to leave them unresolved. At the least, if you really don't want to tie a plot thread, offer a benchmark. Let your players know that you remember the plot read--that you're still aware of it--and, if you can, advance it just the smallest bit.

Think About Theme. Theme can be a bad word to creative artists of just about every type, and that's often because High School English classes drilled it into our heads in ways that seemed ludicrous. Try and put those old prejudices aside, and be aware that theme can actually be a very powerful tool for creating moving stories.

When you're revising a story, try and be aware of whether there are any thematic elements in your plot. Is it about abandonment? Second chances? Destroying relationships? Building new ones? Peace? War? Love? Hate? Theme is really just a classification of what your story is about--a description of a second, more universal story, which slightly underlies your more obvious one.

Once you've identified your theme, consider if there is any way to increase its prominence. Could you make changes to your plot to make your theme more important or more moving? Could you introduce a subplot which counterpoints the main plot by looking at the same theme from a different direction?

Theme is an "Element of Good StoryTelling" that hasn't been discussed much in this column; it might be worth another look in the future.

Plotting: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Enough about revision. Before I close up, however, I want to address one final question: whether plot is actually a good thing in an episodic medium. I suspect you don't have much doubt that I think plot is great. Actually, I think plot is great; otherwise I wouldn't have spent 30,000 words to date talking about it (half a short novel!).

I think that plot adds meaning to otherwise unconnected events. I think that it makes events which might have been boring when scattered and singular interesting because they form a bigger picture. I think that it allows for meaningful change which can be emotionally impacting.

But, not everyone is in agreement with me.

In general, I think that most people do agree that plot is, in and of itself, a good thing. But, many people think it should grow organically rather than being carefully crafted. Stephen King and Robert Heinlein have both claimed that they never plot their stories. They say their plots grow out of their characters.

Likewise, I've heard some gamemasters decry plot. They say that by trying to apply plots to MCRPGs, you're using the wrong tools. They say that MCRPGs should be "gamist", which is to say based upon the mechanics of the games and the actions of the players, not "storyist" or "plottist",which is to say based upon the manipulations of some godlike gamemaster.

Plots do eventually seem to appear in the works of non-plotting writers and gamist gamemasters alike--growing organically just like they claim. But, I think these organic plots can sometimes be a poorer thing than their more carefully planned cousin. Sure, plots shouldn't be the end-all and be-all of a story, but characters can't be either. In actuality, you need balance.

Particularly in the field of MCRPGs, however, you need to be careful, and so I'd like to offer one last piece of advice on plots, one last thing that speaks to the interactive genre you're writing for. I've said it before:

Respect Your Players. It's that simple. If a player does something to totally destroy your plot, let him. If a player derails 50% of your story, jumping straight from Act I to Act III, allow him to do so. If a player goes off in a totally unexpected direction, be prepared to improv like hell.

Sometimes you'll later be able to return to the themes and plots that you'd originally laid out; sometimes you won't. Sometimes the story that arises from the player's unexpected actions will be better than your own; sometimes it will be worse.

That's all OK.

Your purpose as a MCRPG gamemaster, storybuilder, worldbuilder, or whatever, is to entertain players. I believe that one of the best ways to do so is through carefully considered and well thought out-plots ... but if your players break your plot you'll entertain them more by playing along than by railroading them into the story you planned.

An Ending Note

And that, finally, is the end of my discussion of plots.

I am, once more, taking a single week off before returning to this column. I need a little bit of time to build up the steam for the next long series of articles. So, expect to see me back in two weeks when I begin a discussion of engineering issues ... and the biggest problems with MCRPGs.


Shannon regularly writes the column Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities for Skotos Tech, an online gaming company. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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