First of all, why is this important? Well, basically every successful book, movie, whatever follows some kind of three-act structure. Thinking about it is really useful when you're trying to write a story with the right kind of buildup, pacing, twists, etc. Personally, my writing got a lot better once I started seriously thinking about structure, and I think it's a great tool.
Here are a couple questions to kick off discussion:
- Do you let your stories take their natural course or take a more planned approach to structure? If the latter, what kind of methodology do you use? This is probably related to the age-old question of planning vs. discovering a story it, so feel free to discuss your writing/planning/revision process as well.
- Do you think about structure when writing stories with lots of branching? How is planning a nonlinear story different from planning a linear one, and how do you manage the complexity of different paths inside of a single overarching narrative?
Finally, here's a quick rundown of the main structures I'm familiar with. Feel free to skip it if it's tl;dr.
The Three-Act Structure: The basic Western story structure. The first act is setup and exposition, then the main conflict of the story is introduced in the first turning point that leads into the second act, the rising action. A second turning point at the end of act II leads into the climax and falling action. There's a lot written about the three-act structure and its many forms. Personally I like the four-act variant that divides act II in half around a midpoint, which is some kind of major twist or context shift that makes the protagonist go from reaction to proaction. There are other variants as well, for example TV shows, which are written with five acts because of commercial breaks.
The Hero's Journey: Everyone knows about the monomyth: the hero receives a call to adventure, leaves home, defeats evil, and eventually returns transformed. I don't really like it, so I'm not going to discuss it much.
Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet: Basically the bible for writing a Hollywood blockbuster. It's the three-act structure with additional milestones. Blake Snyder's book about it, Save the Cat, has a lot of great practical advice and some useful insights, like using the main relationship subplot (whether that's romantic or not) to teach the protagonist the lesson of the story, how to deliver on your premise, etc. I really recommend it. The downside is that if you rely on it too much, it's easy to churn out formulaic garbage. I try to use the beat sheet more as a tool for pacing and arranging scenes than as a mad libs guide to writing.
Dramatica: I haven't looked into this one too much because it's way too complicated and I dislike their terminology, but some of the high-level ideas are good. Specifically, it represents a story as an argument and characters as different facets of the argument, which I really like. I've felt for a while that all stories send a message whether you intend them to or not, and having tools to help plan that out is useful. I don't know that I like the way they executed that idea, but maybe there's something useful there.
Kishotenketsu: This is a traditional structure from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean stories and is interesting because it relies on contrast rather than conflict to drive the narrative. It separates a story into four parts: introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. Unlike the structures we're familiar with, the narrative is driven by resolving an apparent contradiction or digression introduced in the twist rather than by conflict. I don't know how useful it is to us, but it's interesting to think about. We tend to view conflict as intrinsic to storytelling, but that's more of a Western conceit than a universal truth.
Do you use any of the above structures, and if so, what do you think about them? Also, if you know of others, please share! I'm always looking to expand my knowledge.
Do you merge the other paths back into the main story soon, or do you write large branches? Also, do you go back and edit your stories when you're done? I used to edit as I went, but lately my rough drafts have looked more like bullet points with dialogue when I get to a part I don't feel like writing. I toss out half of it anyway... -_-; I'm on the fifth draft of my current story, and all this editing makes me wanna die.
Personally, I usually start out with a basic structure of a story. A skeleton, if you will. After that, I add on as I go, changing previous ideas for better ones if need be. I could start out with a story about a man going to get milk and end with the eradication of a hostile cat species.
As for your second question, the way I write linear vs nonlinear stories isn't that different. For a linear story, I do what I said above, start with a skeleton and go from there. For nonlinear, I start with the skeleton and wonder "what if the main character did this at that point?" And I add another branch based on that thought.
Finally... Well, although you don't like it, I enjoy "The Hero's Journey", and I'm currently writing a kickass story right now that can be described as that. Although it does tend to be overused, it is for a reason.
Golly, I sure do love procrastinating!
I like how disgusted you are even having to acknowledge the hero's journey is a thing in literature.
But it's my assumption that most stories written on sites like this are going to fall into either the three act structure or hero's journey even without the author knowing of those terms or doing it intentionally, just because they're so intrinsic to the stories most of us are familiar with it's hard to conceive of a satisfying one without those elements.
I've never actually heard of Kishotenketsu, but that's interesting. I have a hard time picturing a story without some form of conflict, I always thought it was just a given that conflict was such an integral part you couldn't have a story without it. Got any good examples?
Here are some short examples from the Wikipedia article.
The same pattern is used to arrange arguments:
And yeah, I read an unbelievable amount of bad fantasy as a teenager. I am very over the hero's journey.
Generally, my stories tend to fall into the Three-Act Structure, although they are built more around the characters' personalities than anything. An idea for a character will settle in my head; I'll slowly construct the aspects of that character; and, eventually, a plot will form around them, although it kind of goes back and forth -- coming up with a character and a story for them, forming the story more, adding on character traits to complement or contrast it, etc....
A young girl, who is a member of a near extinct African tribe, prefers to cut her hair short to balding. Maybe the tribe is completely against this. It's forbidden, but she does it anyway, without any explanation. Why does she do this? Perhaps a tragic past event related to someone she loved has caused her to do so. Why is the tribe so against it? Maybe it signifies rebellion. Okay. So they don't like that. Let's make the girl a generally rebellious character then to greatly contrast the tribe's laws and viewpoints. We could even make her someone who actually prefers to follow the rules, but will disobey this one rule for some reason. She knows the consequences and is afraid for her life, but something else acts as a stronger pull to drive her to rebellion. We should know something more about our character, so let's craft a personality shelf for her. Maybe she only lives with one relative, and her loneliness and isolation at home only fuels her discomfort. Or perhaps it's the opposite? Perhaps she has a large family and has little privacy, which would also fuel her discomfort. Does she have any friends? What are her favorite foods? Are her favorite foods things that the tribe can rarely pilfer/find? What are her greatest fears? What's her biggest accomplishment, if any? What dreams does she have for her life?
We take the character and we build around them and form a structure for both them and the story through a back-and-forth dance. This is generally how I craft my stories, and it takes a long time, but is something that I find fun and effective.
I do agree with Mizal in that the Three-Act Structure and the Hero's Journey, while certainly not the only ways to tell a story (as you've very nicely listed and explained), are so ingrained into the tales we tell that we might be telling one without even realizing it at first. Never heard of Kishotenketsu, by the way. Interesting!
Is this something I should know for writing? Goddammit, I already have to deal with things like "flow" and "themes" which I still don't understand, now there's story structure? Bah, this is too much to deal with. I'm going to go eat some turkey.
I would kill everyone I know for a few strong pints right now, in all honesty.
I suppose. I would question whether any of these actual structures even apply to storygames, or need to at least. I mean, When you can decide the path you're going down, I think there needs to be a certain leniancy of structure.
I imagine the right way to apply structure to a branching story is to make sure that each divergence hits the right story points. Like if you have different routes, they each follow their own structure. If you only have minor branches that rejoin the main plot, then all versions of an event fit the same story beat or plot point.
Yep, it's absolutely a thing you should know about writing. I can recommend some useful books if you're interested. That said, for the purposes of writing stories on this website, it's really not a big deal to ignore it. If you ever want to publish a novel, though, you should definitely read up on structure imo.
Someone was complaining about it being boring around here (Don't know why they think that, people are currently getting banned, losing points and shit around here so I'm not bored), so necroing this thread in the efforts of stirring up writing discussion.
I imagine Stryker and some others might have some thoughts on the topic.
I like how you actually sound like a real writer and shit.
In general I plan most of the story out, but the stories I write tend to get larger as new possibilities crop up.
So I end up making some of it up as I go along, but I still fall back on planning so I’ll often stop and organize all the new ideas and material before proceeding.
Before starting I make a document that lists all the important characters, places, and events. A timeline of all the major planned events is really important to me most of the time, since it’s usually these events that play a big part in the story and depending on the character’s choices, will severely be altered. Or maybe they won’t be altered at all, but the character’s past choices will allow them to deal with them in a different manner. Usually these events are dictated by what year they will occur. But sometimes I use other milestones depending on the story scope.
Of course I often end up adding more characters, places and such to the list, but I try to get all the main ones I definitely have in mind first. I also usually already have most of the endings in mind before I start. It’s just writing all the stuff in the middle that takes time.
I find the easiest way to write the story in general, is to write one major branch at a time and do all the “correct” choices first. Write it from beginning to end as if it was a linear story. Then go back and write the other successful paths, then focus on the lesser paths that lead to failure or death.
As you know, this is all a lot of record keeping, so I have another document listing all the choices I haven’t written out yet and I put an asterisk by them in the text itself as an extra reminder. I delete them off this list as I complete them.
After completing one major branch, I move on to the next major one and repeat the process until eventually I finish the damn story.
While I have done it a few times in the past, in general I don’t really like looping my stories back to a “main path.” I’d rather have each path as its own entity even if they might be a bit similar as far as the outcome is concerned.
I envision the main path (Which consists of “set events”) as a timeline and then each choice alters from that timeline and then other choices alter that new timeline and so on. You never really get back to the original again. The best you can do is alter things so things end up similar, but not quite.
Its like going to an alternate world and everything is the same except the stop lights are blue instead of red. Yeah it’s not a major difference, but the path that lead to that difference is still different enough that it shouldn’t just loop back to the original main path.
Honestly, I have a hard time even writing a short CYOA, let along a regular linear story anymore, I just always see the “What If?” possibilities popping up. I usually have to cut content from stuff I do plan, because otherwise I’d never finish the damn thing.
So that’s how I do it with this stuff. I see it all as some weird alternate reality jumping in writing form. Not sure if that’s actually a structure or what, but there you go.
I find the easiest way to write the story in general, is to write one major branch at a time and do all the “correct” choices first. Write it from beginning to end as if it was a linear story. Then go back and write the other successful paths, then focus on the lesser paths that lead to failure or death.
This is what I did with my Chaos entry and, other than running out of time halfway to the end, it worked out really well. I just stuck notes in red text here and there where I knew branchpoints would be, but otherwise didn't even bother separating it all out into pages for the editor until I started copy and pasting.
Anyway I won't even attempt to write a story without an outline anymore, even a short story for the prompt threads. Since you mentioned timelines I do a lot of those too. If we're talking major events, there's certain stuff that's always going to happen the player can't necessarily prevent, and I want to keep it all consistent regardless of when the character's path actually intersects with it.
I like the 'alternate reality' hopping interpretation, but I still struggle with making paths that are massively different, unless the choice itself forces it. ie: traveling to completely different geographical locations and getting caught up with completely different people and adventures.
Firstly, I'm assuming this discussion is in the context of intentional narrative driven experiences (The Witcher series, the Bioshock series, visual/kinetic novels, Planescape Torment, CYoAs), instead of emergent narrative experiences (RimWorld, Dwarf Fortress, the Civilization series, most anything from Paradox), for structuring a narrative in the latter is significantly harder. The closest thing to a structure in emergent narrative would be something like Total War Warhammer's Chaos horde, which arrives as a major threat from the North near the end of the game as an 'end boss.' Another example would be Stellaris' endgame Crises (Rampant AI, Reapers, and wormhole invasion). The issue with both is that they can be fairly jarring to players as they involve a genre shift and priority reorganization in the late game, if you're not expecting such challenges.
That said, I'd like to assert that conflict (a difference between two or more elements) is the heart of any story. Contrast is a form of conflict, so I consider Kishotenketsu to be just a more specific version of conflict. An example of a story with no conflict would be a stone lying around somewhere (end of story). It's not compelling, for it lacks a modulation of tension, and in effect it ends up with the viewer creating their own story about matters in any case. Conflict need not involve physical violence, a clash of wills (A beautiful mind), of music (Whiplash), with time (coming of age stories), and many other settings can provide interesting stories.
That said, the typical exposition> rising action > climax > falling action > resolution structure tends to hold steady because most forms of media are in essence trying to ask and answer a main question, the resolution of that question or its proxy become the climax, and all acts before and after set up the context. Trying to hit a three act structure is stable, because the audience expects it and won't be confused at what's going on (see Mind Screw as a genre for an inversion - you have barely any idea what's going on there). Speaking of tension, I'd argue that's the key ingredient in narrative design, you want to modulate it to precision if you're trying to build great stories. Further, I like how the fireworks industry does things - you have what looks like a climax at what's really the middle of the program (with more explosions / effects during a short time than the average till then), and as the audience starts thinking it's over, you pull off a large new set of fireworks and announce that the story is still rolling, to a final conclusion that's even larger than the middle one. It's an interesting modulation of tension that works in that case, and it's also relevant for longer narratives. The Witcher 3 Kaer Morhen fight would have been the climax for any lesser game, but to go beyond it, to take the fight to the Wild Hunt in the actual climax was storytelling genius.
For my own work, I tend to do an unhealthy amount of background research to get a mental model of the setting and what the conflicts in it would look like, then I sketch out the story and how it builds around my chosen themes of exploration, and then craft characters who would fit the setting. All of these are fairly malleable however, for no plot template survives contact with writing - you get a lot more interesting and nuanced ideas while in the 'writing zone' which then make me shift certain plotlines or add/remove some as I figure out interesting interactions.
One interesting case for study that's a mix of planned and emergent narrative is 80 days - all the content in the cities is pre-written, but the order in which you reach the cities, and which events you encounter within the cities is entirely unknown to the author, so there's no possibility to write acts in the traditional sense. To balance this, the game designs story outcomes that are favorable or unfavorable based on your choices (don't have enough money to return to Europe? Take a cheap boat to Africa, but it's a slaver boat and you are not welcome on arrival). 80 days creates a sort of persistent tension (get back in 80 days) and lets the individual city-wise content be the bread and meat of the story, instead of gated chapters. I prefer this form of narrative amongst many others, even though it's a beast to write and manage.
As for my own independent thoughts, I wrote my own interpretation of story plot a year or two back, which I'm reposting here for thoughts.
In my experience, there are four phases of experiencing a game, which I will try and roughly equate to the steps of a magic trick outlined in Christopher Nolan’s 'The Prestige'. These are the Pledge, the Turn, The Prestige, and my own addition: The Aftermath. We’ll go into detail over these below, but it is worth mentioning that no one part is more important than the others on its own. Each plays a part towards the overall experience, much in the same way the elements of a four-course meal synthesize into a worthy culinary experience, or fail trying. Also like a four course meal, a game with bad starters and a dull main course may still be redeemed by an excellent desert at the end, but in that case there is always the risk of the player losing interest before ever reaching the exquisite desert. For the stages themselves:
The Pledge is the promise made at the beginning of the game, between the game and the gamer, laying down the essence of experience to come. What’s the game about? What’s the theme and the setting? Who are you? Your role? What kind of challenges lie ahead? What’s the objective? The Pledge lays down the framework of what the gamer should expect, the skeleton of the game’s structure. In business lingo, this would be the on-boarding.
In most cases, the Pledge will not end with the end of the formal tutorial, but with the player having a mental picture, an imprint of sorts, of what lies ahead. Where Assassin’s Creed 4 drags this on-boarding out over nearly laborious ten hours, the lighter mobile delight 80 Days makes itself clear in a much smoother twenty minutes. Effectively, the Pledge becomes the litmus test by which a player decides whether or not to invest their time into playing the whole game. In MOBAs like DOTA the pledge has been meticulously crafted to give a new player both a fair view of the game, and to incentivise them to play on with item gifts for completing the tutorial.
Just so we’re clear, I’ll share two examples of pledges - Spec Ops: The Line pledges to be a gritty 3rd Person cover based military shooter set in a disaster struck Middle East, where finding out the cause of the current situation is the game’s purpose. In Terraria, the game’s pledge is to be a fantasy themed 2D platformer where the onus is on the player to figure out what to do next, and the eventual goal is to thrive off the randomly generated environment and defeat the creatures that attack you.
The Turn is where the ordinary concepts outlined in the pledge come together to create something truly extraordinary. The Turn is where the bulk of gameplay happens, it’s the stage in which you figure out how you want to aim for victory and set out doing that, interacting with the games systems and other players as you do it. Here the game matures and fleshes out its systems, introducing new and novel characters, places, items, challenges, and corresponding rewards along the way.
In Pokemon, this is the time you spend travelling from Gym to Gym, building your team, evolving your characters, and making a lot of memories on the way (A Safari! A Boat! Fossils!). In Sid Meier’s Civilization series, this is where you grow your nation, expanding your cities, researching technology, and waging war or promoting culture on the road to victory.
The systems outlined in the Pledge also get upgraded, twisted and subverted during the Turn. A great example of a twist is the Fanatic’s Tower in Final Fantasy VI. Up till the Tower, the game gives you the opportunity to attack enemies with physical attacks, magic, or through abilities. In the Fanatic’s tower, you cannot select physical attacks from the menu, and are expected to use the other two methods to damage your enemies. The catch? The enemies in the Tower are highly resistant to magic damage, and abilities take time to use. This twist in combat structure inspires the player to question the approach that got them this far and change their team and strategy to adjust. In my own play-through, this shakeup in the fundamental pledge made me stop and relook at every system, and think about how to face the new challenge. I distinctly remember my train of thought at that stage - Are there any resistance bypassing spells I can use? (Yes, Ultima) Is there a way to use physical attacks without selecting them from the menu? (Yes, for one character through specific items, also through a spell) Is there a store in the tower? (No) Do I have enough Mana Potions to reach the top of the Tower in one go? (No, so I went to a store and stocked up) Was there any way to bypass the regular enemies entirely on the way to the top? (Yes, but that approach would have deprived me of both the larger challenge and the experience points on the whole). Going through the tower with my strategy and defeating the Boss at the top was an extremely satisfying victory, derived from using the knowledge I already had with me, but through relooking at what I knew in new and novel ways. This twist added greatly to both the depth of the gameplay and the lasting experience of the game itself.
The Turn is where the game designer has free reign to challenge the player, to express his creativity, and to make the ordinary extraordinary, bit by bit. The actions made during the Turn build up towards the second last phase of the experience, The Prestige.
The Prestige is where everything that has been built towards comes to a crescendo. It is the final chapter in the story, where plot threads align, and decisions make their pay off. In Mass Effect 2, this was the Assault on the Collector Ship, where the time you had invested in building your crew and your ship either paid off (no casualties, a clean mission), or failed miserably (with the option of no survivors, not even the player character himself/herself). All the effort put in the earlier phases, the time spent learning the moves, the time invested into learning the lore, and the mastery of the underlying systems and decisions are challenged more than ever before in the Pledge.
Players tend the remember the Prestige very strongly when recalling the game, as it was the convergence of their experience and choices, and as such developers do well to focus on the quality of this segment. Many games go all out at this point with extremely challenging missions and/or bosses, defeating which gives the player a mental jolt of satisfaction in having become better players at the game than they were when they began the journey. At the same time, a carnival ending isn’t required everywhere to still be poignant and memorable, Gone Home’s final revelation brought together all the pieces of the story and explained why the titular home is empty and was none the less for it. Achieving the Prestige is the goal set up in the Pledge, and when done well, it is a powerful catharsis of elements in the minds of the player.
When players meet and talk games, they may or may not share their experience of the Pledge or the Turn, but they readily share how a game’s Prestige impacted them (I survived the Mass Effect 2 Collector mission with my entire team alive, Woohoo!). However, the Prestige itself is not always the concluding experience of a game.
The Aftermath. With the commitments made during the Pledge either resolved or intentionally left open, the Aftermath is what happens after the main story has concluded.
The Aftermath can happen in a number of ways –
Limit the player to the game as it was just before the final chapter or a require the player start a new game from the start
Allow the player to replay the game from the start but with accrued benefits (including the intangible benefit of experience of what will happen in the game) from completing the first play through (the New Game + option)
Let the player continue the game where he left off, though by this point they’ll usually be strong enough that challenges laid out during the Turn will tend to be far less difficult
Open up and reveal new content that was hidden till now.
An example of each of the types of Aftermath is as follows:
Mario and Luigi: Superstars Saga stops after you’ve defeated the final boss, the only way to continue is to replay the game from either the final battle or the very start again. This option does reduce the scope for replayability, as each playthrough will be more or less the same as the last in a linear game.
Fire Emblem, on the other hand, gives new save files a handful of powerful and handy weapons for completing an existing savefile, which allow the player to play the core game faster or more enjoyably, or in some cases, in a different manner entirely.
In GTA V, the Aftermath of the final heist is a strange endgame driven by completing side quests, collecting meta-game achievements and for a large part trying to figure out that entire UFO business.
An example of the fourth kind, in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, after beating the main story, an entire new character with new gameplay mechanics and a new boss were unlocked, which added an extra layer of narrative and depth to the game.
Among genres, Roguelikes are heavily dependent on the Aftermath to deliver the full range of their experience, as continual upgrades across one play provide bonuses to the next which enable the player to progress ahead and over time tease out the full content of the game.
What’s notable is that gameplay and the objectives in the Aftermath are often very different from the gameplay and experience during the Turn, as the raison d’etre of the game has changed, either because you already know the end to the story, or because you are playing more for diversity than for novelty. Linking back to Nolan’s Prestige, the Aftermath was what happened after we found out the identity of the man who had adopted the magician’s daughter. The Aftermath itself is an entity unique to games, where all other forms of media would effectively shut down, games continue in their aftermath mode. Nier:Automata plays with the Aftermath concept by having the game mode change after each complete playthrough (for the first 3-4 playthroughs) till the final 'true/ultimate ending' at which point you'll have seen the credits maybe four times. The aftermath often lacks the tension and buildup of the Turn, but in other regards is like a perpetual Turn environment, with there being no new climax/crescendo. At this point, it's often better to start a new game to get back into the structured part of the experience. Aftermaths are often grindy, requiring increasing levels of inputs to progress (e.g. Metal Gear Solid V's last few weapon upgrades which offer a measly 5-10% improvement in your gear's performance cost more than the cost of every gear upgrade till that point). The grind is taken as a proxy for a rise in tension, leading to a climax of buying the upgrade. In my opinion, this is fairly unsatisfying as an experience, but to each their own.
To summarize, building stories with tension and experience as the building blocks can lead to interesting outcomes.
I know you wanted me to give some sort of feedback, but I'm not sure what exactly I'm supposed to be giving you feedback on.
Sounds like you've got a system that works for you and I already explained in another post how I go about my story structure so I don't think there's much more to add.
I felt a little like Captain Picard when the Enterprise encountered the Tamarians in the "Darmok" episode.
IAP and Stryker at Cystia, when the thread fell.
I suppose this kind of relates to story structure, so, @EndMaster how many words do you average on each page? Or if you don't know, how many words would you guess?
I really wouldn't know where to guess. I never really keep track of how many words I'm writing, so much as I'm keeping track of how many story passages I'm writing and how many pages it is taking.
When I first started doing it, it probably was about two full Microsoft Word pages.
Then my estimate for a single passage for awhile was about four full pages on Word.
Nowadays it's more like six full pages on Word per passage and I'm trying hard to not let it creep to eight.