Stories are defined by a basic structure – a skeleton on which the flesh of creativity can be added.
The Arrow of Time
In Star Trek (the original series) the crew and ship were identical in all regards at the start of the very first episode as they were at the end of the very last. With only a few exceptions, you can show the episodes of original Trek in any order without continuity problems. The series lacks an arrow of time whereas within each episode there is one. Randomly swapping the order of scenes in an episode will end in a nonsensical mess because there is a sequence of causes and effects.
By the time Star Trek:TNG came along, things got a little better with some attempt at story arcs but we had to wait until Babylon 5 a SF show with a true story arc and real continuity across seasons. Note: Saying Babylon 5 had a better story across its run than Star Trek is not the same as saying Babylon 5 is a better show than Star Trek. The over-arcing story is just one part of a show. The same is true for RPGs. One game may have better stories but this does not mean it is a better game.
Establish, Invest, Change
A stories are about change over time. To have change the audience needs a baseline, a known starting point from which the arrow of time can flow. Establishing the baseline introduces the characters and the world the characters exists in. Done well this processes quickly gives the audience key pieces of information – this character is a good person because they rescued the cat from the tree; this world is magical because people ride on a flying motorbike.
Having established the situation the audience need to be made to care about the characters by investing ‘screen time’ on those characters and stimulating the audience’s emotions. (See Making Players Care for more on this).
Finally we can make a change to the characters / world and create a story. Frodo / Luke Skywalker start as innocent and vulnerable people living normal lives (the baseline) and through a series of adventures we learn to care about them. Then the change – the ring / the empire is destroyed and the heroes are now very different people.
Within those big stories there are smaller stories which follow the same story structure. Each episode of Babylon 5 (or Star Wars or Lord of Rings) is a story which establishes a situation, invests time in it and then something changes. Sometimes those changes will effect the whole story arc (the death of a character) and sometimes they will be only important to the episode. Like Russian dolls, each episode can be further broken down to reveal scenes which follow the same story structure of establish, invest and change.
Execution Trumps Structure
A story can have the right structure but still be rubbish. ‘Establish, Invest, Change’ only defines a story in the same way four walls and roof define a building. It says nothings about how nice a building it is or its function. The pleasure of a story comes from its execution. Without a great writing, acting and directing to flesh it out, no one would care what happens to the characters in Game of Thrones despite the show’s well crafted underlying structure.
Lessons For Gamers
The structure of story is a product of our neurology (See Why We Don’t Eat Red Berries From Spiky Leafed Plants) and cannot be ignored. All players of tabletop role-playing games must think about how they establish their characters, how they invest screen time to make the audience (other players) care and how they make meaningful changes to the character. Strategies for this will be covered in more detail in later posts.
Photo Credit: Jack Torcello