Thursday, June 24, 2010

Storyteller: Story Structure: Levels, Bosses, and Rising and Falling Action

Ah, plot. It makes you tear your hair out. You have great characters, a fabulous setting and clever world building…but now they need something to do. Fight crime? Slay dragons? Rescue the princess? Something needs to happen to get them from “Once upon a time” to “And they lived happily ever after.”

In a RPG, your character starts out at level 1 in a simple setting, sometimes referred to as the “newbie zone.” She doesn’t have much in the way of powers, spells, and abilities. She’s probably wandering around half nekkid with a rusty weapon and a crust of bread, chasing down giant rats and bunny rabbits. As she gains experience, she learns new powers and acquires better equipment, and she begins to face tougher opponents. Bigger, stronger ninjas, if you will. In World of Warcraft, my warlock started out fighting itty bitty wolves with her whiny imp minion complaining the whole time. Now after many quests and adventures she’s reached the end of the game, and she fights dragons with her big, burly (but still whiny) fel guard demon minion.

So how does this apply to your plot? No matter what genre you’re writing, there’s a basic structure to any story. Just like in a RPG, you start out small, gain experience/knowledge by overcoming a few obstacles, and then you defeat the end boss. At some point during your educational career, you probably encountered a Dramatic Structure chart like this in an English/creative writing class:

In a video game, the rising action takes place over a series of progressively more difficult levels—the ninja level, the underwater level, the outer space level, the dream sequence level—you make your way through by fighting the monsters, solving the puzzles and whatnot to get to the end, where you fight the boss for that level before moving on to the next. In a story, each scene/chapter is like a level your characters must get through, and this is where Goal, Motivation and Conflict come in again. Say you’re not fighting monsters in your story. What is the goal for your hero/heroine? Why are they pursuing that goal? And what’s keeping them from achieving it?

Often it’s the boss monster that stands between them and the end of the game, like Bowser in the Super Mario series. In some games, like the first Mario, you fought Bowser several times before the end, but in others you fought his minions before getting to him. Your heroes might face a few minions during the rising action before getting to the villain, whether it’s actual bad guys or hypothetical ones like personal conflict. (Remember the personal ninjas? Good.) However, sometimes instead of fighting the level bosses, an author will have a cut scene to describe what Team Evil is up to. This is fine, well and good, but if you’re going to do this, please make these cut scenes interesting. I won’t name any names, but there’s one series out there that I follow that has villains I can’t get into. They’re boring. They’re evil because someone had to be. So when I come to a chapter with them, I skip it. The whole thing. Next! It makes the books more enjoyable for me, but I also end up skipping 1/4 to 1/3 of the book. Therefore, my word of warning is to please be careful with your bad guys, because they may not be as fascinating as you think they are. Villains need GMC too, and "just because" isn't really a good motivation, unless they're toddlers. (Aside: When BFF Diana proofread this, she asked me if I was dissing a completely different series, so make that 2 series where I skipped the bad guys. Actually, I may have to do a Storyteller Side Quest post on alignments now, hmm…)

The heroes complete level after level. They suffer through a sea of storm troopers and tie fighter pilots before getting to Darth Vader, but once they get to Darth Vader, that’s the Big Deal. The music swells and the audience knows that this is it! It is on like Donkey Kong! It should be epic, climactic…thus why it’s the high point on the chart. It’s not the end, it’s the big bang that brings about the end. Even if it doesn’t have actual explosions, your boss fight should have dramatic impact.

Next week I’ll be discussing how to steer your party down the right path, even if they don’t want to get on the airship. However, my birthday is Wednesday and I’ll be out celebrating (at the Cubs game! Go Cubs go!), so the Storyteller post might be Friday instead of Thursday. We’ll see how hungover I am. ;)

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