Tag: plot

Too Much Story

Bard by BlueInkAlchemist, on Flickr

Storytelling is (sometimes literally) my bread and butter. I lean towards games with strong story emphasis. I often value story of spectacle in movies and television. I write stories in the hope they will be enjoyed by others. A question, however, has occurred to me: is it possible for a game or novel or film to have too much story?

I’m not talking about the content of a narrative, per se. Multi-volume epics like A Song of Ice and Fire or The Vampire Chronicles have a lot of story to them. That, however, is the medium of novels. In films and video games, audiences tend to expect more expedient segues into the action. Front-loading the running time of such media with exposition can lead to a negative audience experience.

This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with a tale that paces itself. 2001: A Space Odyssey may be a long-winded narrative that seems preoccupied with its own visual stylization, but at its core there is a thought-provoking story that is couched purposefully within those images. For all of its run-and-gun presentation, Spec Ops: The Line slowly reveals the thrust of its tale and the true purpose of the narrative without feeling rushed no matter how intense the shooting becomes. Pacing is important to good storytelling, just as important as developed characters, a nice sharp hook, and a payoff that is both satisfactory and leaves the audience hungry for more.

What I mean when I say “too much story” is the aforementioned problem with exposition. A storyteller that feels they have too much story to tell, even if they don’t realize that is their sentiment, will fill their character’s mouths with stilted, expository dialog rather than words that inform relationships, motivations, and emotions related to those characters. The characters in your story should exist for reasons beyond the advancement of the plot. No narrative through-line is so vital that you need to sacrifice your characters’ agency at its altar.

In some types of games, a little expository dialog is inevitable. Role-playing games have NPCs to fill the player or players in on their quests, the world in which they live, and what’s at stake. Even here, though, it’s important to flesh out those NPCs, to give them lives of their own, and make the world come to life for your players. Never forget that the word character is part of the NPC acronym. Like characters in any other narrative, the audience (in this case, players) should be enabled to make connections between and towards these individuals. The more you create these opportunities, the more chances you have for your narrative hooks to sink in nice and deep, and the better the experience will be for those you’ve ensnared.

It’s never enough for your characters to tell the audience or each other how important the story that’s unfolding is supposed to be. At best, this comes off as pretentious; at worst, it makes the entire proceeding drab and uninteresting as well. Man of Steel fell into this trap. It broke what many would consider a cardinal rule: Show, don’t tell. Your narrative is best conveyed through action and well-informed dialog, in subtext and purposeful characters following their motives in rational ways, even if those ways are only rational to them. In narrative fiction, let your characters inform the story; in games, give your players important choices; in both cases, let these variables shape the tale’s path to its outcome, even if you believe you know what that outcome should be.

Even if you outline your tale from start to finish long before you type the first word of the story itself, you should give the appearance of having no idea what will happen next. Hide your structure behind the masks of characters who come to life and events that will be difficult to forget. The more organically your plot points unfold, the less they’ll feel like plot points. Obfuscate the story behind its players; hide the strings upon which your characters dance.

This is merely a baseline guide for narratives, of course. Sometimes, genius comes from showing the strings – Slaughterhouse-Five comes to mind. However, if you feel like your story is mired in something you are unable to discern, try removing the structure from it and letting the characters guide you, rather than the other way around. You may be surprised at what you find; you may find yourself in a situation where you simply had too much story.

Let Your Characters Speak

“Because I say so.” How many times have we heard that phrase? Parents say it to children. Employers say it to their employees. Unfortunately, writers also say it to their characters. When a character does something that seems entirely unreasonable, or makes a sudden change to their behavior based on little more than impulse, or there is a drastic change in an adaptation between the original character and what we as the audience experience now, it’s because the writer says so. The plot or the writer demands it.

To me, there are few things lazier.

Letting the plot dictate the actions of your characters robs them of their agency. Without agency, your characters become even more difficult for the audience to engage with on a meaningful level. If your audience is disengaged, how are they supposed to care about the story you’re trying to tell? Just like a good Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons acts more like a guide for their players than a dictator, so too does a good writer gently guide their characters rather than imposing themselves upon events, undermining the characters’ wills and reducing their significance.

Even more egregious, to me, is the writer who seems to preserve the agency of a character but railroads them into something that goes against their development for some author-centric reason. If you ever find yourself saying “This character wouldn’t do that” or “Why did this scene happen in this way? It makes no sense for them to do this,” you’ve seen what I’m talking about in action. I’m avoiding specific cases in the name of avoiding spoilers, but that’s what the comments are for! Let’s talk about some of these things, especially ones that piss you off.

We need to be on the lookout for this sort of thing. There’s no excuse for lazy writing. Not even a deadline is an excuse for a story that makes no sense or does not engage us. If you are writing to inform, to inspire, or even just to entertain, it is worth taking the time to get the words right, set the scene just so, and let your characters speak for themselves, rather than cramming words into their mouths that don’t necessarily fit.

Your characters are more than pistons in your story’s engine. Remember that, and your story will be that much better for it.

Execution by Plot

Gears

If you want a surefire way to kill your story and slay any interest a potential reader will have in it, let the plot drive.

Looking back on some of the books I’ve read in my formative years, a host of franchised novels many of which I’m likely to donate to a library when I move, I realize that only a few are truly driven by character growth and conflict. A good story based around characters, like Brave (here reviewed brilliantly by Julie Summerell), many of the later Dresden novels, or Chuck Wendig’s Bad Blood (the sequel to Double Dead, short version: almost as good as the full-length novel), doesn’t need all that much of a plot. If a character is going through a change, and that change is going to be opposed for some reason, you have plenty of fuel for conflict, drama, interaction – story. The narrative will breathe without assistance. The tale will live.

If, on the other hand, your story is the product of some non-character formula or relies on contrivance, the result will not be as favorable. I’ve seen it happen in lots of stories. Usually, you can see it coming. When technobabble or new powers as the plot demands or deus ex machina moments begin to crop up more and more, it’s sign that the story has a terminal illness. The execution of the plot means the execution of the story, hooded-headsman style, as potential interest and characters put their necks on the block to feed the axe of convenience.

The story may click along without fault or pause, merrily going from one plot point to the next as if nothing’s wrong, but if there’s no characterization beyond the very basics, if the conflict isn’t rooted in our characters and what makes them who they are, the story has no life of its own. A lot of video games have this problem. Lacking character depth, they move the player from one set piece to the next with the certainty of a commuter rail line. A game like Portal can get away with this because of good writing, characterization, and unique gameplay, but something like Space Marine has to work extra hard to overcome this problem.

I guess what I’m saying is this: if you want to tell a story, your characters are your most important allies. Even if you hate some them, even if you know some are going to die horribly, spend time with them and make sure you know them before you approach your plot. Get the balance wrong, or make the characters little more than cogs in the plot’s machine, and the metaphorical headsman will be waiting.

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