The Seven Elements

Table of Contents

I appeal to all computer game project leaders, designers, and writers to consider the issue of the unchecked unsophistication in computer game stories and dialog very seriously and carefully. – Richard “Zdim” Carlson

Chapter 1

Prologue

Much has been said and written about the sorry state of storytelling in computer games, but until Rich Carlson’s on-target prescription, there has been little agreement on ways to improve matters.  Carlson’s appeal goes on to say that game designers should study the art of writing, just like anyone else calling themselves a professional storyteller.  Read the books on the topic, take the seminars if possible, and learn from the real pros if you can.

Yet having slogged for dozens of companies over the years working through hundreds of development projects, I can clearly see how the cultivation of one’s craft is easily shoved aside under an intense pressure to ship products on time.  And despite the clear value of reflection and study, few professional game designers have the time to read the textbooks, attend the seminars, or review their own failures and successes – much less study anyone else’s work.

But what if a handy story-telling manual were published in bite-sized chunks? In just minutes a day, designers might pick up something worth chewing on – if only it were there!

So, enough of why I wrote this book.

Let’s get started!

Background

There is one profession that is actually older than the supposedly “oldest profession” – storytelling. And it’s no accident, either.  Without storytelling we wouldn’t be here today typing books into computers or playing games.

Early clans of humans first told stories to teach their children – as we still do today. Which fruit is worth finding? Which mushrooms should be avoided? Where might one discover water in the dry season?  All of this was critical for their survival – and storytelling was the only way to pass this knowledge along to the next generation.  Those groups of people who could tell and remember stories survived.  Those who couldn’t, died out.  More than mere entertainment, the storyteller’s ability to induce a near-perfect sense of reality is based upon a powerful survival instinct.  We effortlessly immerse ourselves in a book or a movie or a video game because the ability to visual and imagine based on a story is hard-wired into who we are.

Beyond merely watching or hearing the story unfold, we absorb it completely – diving into it and experiencing the events as though they were happening to us alone.  And being such a personal experience, the lessons of each memorable story become rooted in our thoughts to be recalled along with our own personal history.

Then, an odd thing happened on our way to civilization.  Someone finally discovered that stories could be designed based on events that never happened and places that do not exist, and these details could be used to make a point, convey a message, instill fear, entertain, or convince people to accept a new way of thinking – entirely with invented ‘facts.’  Fiction began to enter our thoughts, and we’ve been suffering under its spell ever since.

Until fiction, stories simply retold the most engaging tales of actual events, selected by unconscious preferences while forgetting the rest.  Until fiction, there was no need to understand why people liked one story over another.  People either liked what they heard and retold a story or the story was never told again.  Yet with fiction – the telling of invented stories – it was now incumbent on the successful storyteller to understand the hardwiring – the unconscious structure that makes one story work better than another.  The time had come to learn the nature of the game.  And when it comes to video the games, the same is still true.  To quote Garett “kfgecko” Choy regarding what makes or breaks a good computer game: “It’s the story, stupid.”

How do we create a story?

Thankfully, Aristotle devoted considerable effort to understanding and defining what is required of the storyteller, and his work to this day forms the foundation of every textbook on the subject.  According to Aristotle, our human hard-wiring appears to contain a number of fixed rules, and only those stories that fit within the boundaries of the rules create an immersion experience.  Try as they may, novelists, screenwriters, and game developers are all constrained by the rules set forth by our human this hard-wiring.

What “works” therefore is principally a matter of understanding how people experience stories and what can be done to induce an authentic experience in the audience. A lot is still open to debate.  But a lot more has been settled.

Chapter 1 describes seven elements where most professional storytellers generally agree.  From there I cover structure, intensity (what I call “temperature”), ways to design your story, details to consider, the importance of re-writing (mainly to rip out what needs to go), and finally, how this applies to telling stories in games.

 

SEVEN ELEMENTS OF GOOD STORYTELLING

  1. A central premise.
  2. Strong three-dimensional characters who change over time.
  3. A confined space – often referred to as a ‘crucible.’
  4. A protagonist who is on some sort of quest.
  5. An antagonist in some form bent on stopping the hero.
  6. An arch in everything – everything is getting better or worse.
  7. And perhaps most important – conflict.

 

  1. PREMISE

A premise is the point of the story, like “power corrupts,” or “bad people can be turned to good,” or “saving the world is worth the effort,” or even things that may not be true in the real world like “good is the same as evil.”  By the time the audience reaches the end of the story, they should get this point and believe that it is true according to the world of that story.  In fact, the whole story nothing but an elaborate case that is built to convince the audience about the premise.  Every game with rules has an objective, and this is the objective in storytelling.

To illustrate this in action, imagine a story that tries to say that “evil is bad,” yet shows evil people getting off without a penalty all the way to the end. At best, this will feel wrong, and more likely downright stupid.  How would you feel if the Empire won at the end of the original three Star Wars movies?  If your point is to say that good triumphs over evil, then in no uncertain terms good must triumph in the end!

Many stories have more than one part to its premise, for example, “power corrupts, but good can redeem the corrupted.” In fact, this combination is perhaps what makes the original three Star Wars movies so satisfying.  There is no greater solution to evil than turning it to good.

Just like the central story, characters also have their own premises – mainly in the form of what they believe about themselves, even if not entirely true.  A personal premise defines a character’s beliefs, convictions, and wants – all of which can be summed up in one or two statements such as “hard work is important” or “I always tell the truth.”  If characters violate their personal premise – for example, a hard-worker who suddenly slacks off for no reason, or a truth-teller who tells a lie – we feel immediately that something is wrong since we are no longer able to match their actions to the stories they’ve been telling us about themselves.  It’s usually considered a contrivance if a character is set up one way by the writer, then suddenly, for no clear reason, abandons their personal premise in favor of actions that are entirely inconsistent – unless, of course, the point is to show how they are self-deceived.

You can see that a story has a clean premise when it is easy to say what the story is about in a few sentences.  If you can’t do that, then it probably has no central premise at all.  And believe me, that’s one of the main reasons why many computer games seem so lame when it comes to storytelling. There is no point!

If a game developer truly wants to induce reality in the mind of the player, then the player must see a point in being inside the game other than “hey, check out all the new ways you can frag these bots before they frag you!”  Pick a premise and then work to prove it from the beginning to the end.

In a game? Yes – especially in a game.

 

  1. CHARACTER

After the premise has been nailed down, you move on to developing strong, engaging, and believable characters who we will come to care about, root for, despise, or even hate – sometimes all at the same time.

We first see the story as undefined names and faces wandering around doing things.  If what they do doesn’t quickly paint a clear sketch of their personalities – especially their personal premise – we won’t care about them.  If the audience doesn’t care about anyone in your story, they will quickly lose interest long before it ever gets off the ground.

A lot has been written about the differences among ‘3D’ characters, ‘2D’ stereotypes, and one-dimensional wallflowers.  All of this has to do with how much of the character is revealed. Main 3D characters need to be as fully explored in your story as time and space will allow.  A lesser 2D, or one-scene supporting character (like a tavern keeper), may only reveal one or two minor aspects of themselves – and this is all the audience will expect.  One-dimensional characters aren’t characters at all, and they merely float around to keep the place from feeling too empty.  Only the important characters do things that matter.  And if a wallflower says or does anything noticeable it would simply distract attention from the main events of the story.

But what is this thing we call ‘character development?’

Quite simply, as an audience, we begin with a blank slate.  As the story progresses, we learn about the main characters from what they do, and to a much lesser extent, what they say and don’t say.  A growing pool of information induces and deepens a sense of the character’s personal premise and broader personality – and this is what storytellers call ‘character growth.’

As actions and decisions are played out, the audience is increasingly convinced of what they understanding about these people and especially what those characters believe about themselves.  Based on this understanding, the audience either roots for them to succeed, or hopes that they will fail.  Either way, the audience cares about what happens next.

The effect of creating a character in the minds of the audience is tricky – perhaps the hardest part of creative writing – because the characters can only reveal themselves during the course of event.  That’s all we have to work with – letting them be quiet, or aggressive, or thoughtful, or stupid, or snarky, or whatever – while events unfold.  If characters behave according to their underlying premises then they will authentically reveal themselves, and when this happens, no one will throw up their hands in disgust saying, “why the hell did he do THAT!”

Being true to a character’s underlying personality is only the beginning, though.

Although the main characters need to properly reflect who they are in their actions and words, they do not have to be ‘normal’ to be believable.  In fact, nobody in the audience wants to see a story about average people.  Average people do not change much.  Average people do not get in over their heads.  Average people are boring and should never be the subject of any story unless they are merely starting out as ordinary people only to grow from that point.  When we first meet Luke Skywalker he’s a whiny kid.  But as his past quickly catches up with him, he’s forced onto the path of becoming who he was always meant to be – a Jedi knight.  Had he stayed a whiny kid for much longer, we would have hurled and left the theater in disgust.

The really tricky part is realizing how poorly characters understand themselves – and how the deepest essence of their personality, and most central premise, may lay hidden under a veneer.  The trick is to peel away these more superficial layers by way of events in the story so characters are forced to rely on the core of who they really are.  Finding this core and revealing it to the audience is a very powerful way to ‘develop’ characters.

In fact, it is the only way.

As a writer, it can be exciting to shove characters into all sorts of situations, forcing them to reveal themselves, yet the process is rife with pitfalls.  For example, we may want in the worst way to have our characters stand up and tell the world about themselves.  Yet, some of the most horrendous writing on the planet can be found in self-revealing monologs peppering sci-fi movies and video games.  Pontificating true intentions and thoughts for no reason violates the storytelling hard-wiring.  No character in fiction, worth respecting, publicly reveals their innermost thoughts unless they are compelled by extreme circumstances.

It just doesn’t happen, and should be avoided at all cost.

For characters to become truly believable in the minds of the audience, they must speak almost entirely through their actions – with words spoken or withheld merely to confirm what we already strongly suspect from events.  Princess Leah could have spewed forever over her love for Han Solo – but when she stuck her neck out to rescue him at the beginning of Return of the Jedi only then could we be sure that this was true.

Tons more could said here, but for now I’ll leave you with this to chew on…

  • Dialog is no substitute for action. As much as possible characters should only confirm what we already suspect from events. The audience doesn’t want to find out anything important from characters saying something out of the blue.  If a character does reveal something critical in dialogue – there needs to be a compelling reason for them to reveal this information verbally.
  • The audience must see main characters as distinct and unforgettable. Key characters should be larger than life in at least one noticeable way – but still within the realm of potential human capability and nature (even if the story is about and ogre, a donkey, and a squirrel).  Something about who they are or what they do must be extraordinary.
  • The main characters should barely have the strength to take on their quest at any given point. Characters that are too strong never convince the audience that they’re up against any real challenges. And this goes for both the main hero and the chief ‘bad guy.’
  • Characters that don’t change are boring. Also, characters that get stronger for no reason are not believable.  Characters should only grow as a result of having survived a peril or suffered some sort of loss.  Nobody grows or changes in a significant way except through extreme experiences.
  • Characters must have a life story (or ‘back story’) that leaks into the events of your story. Although this life story is mostly known only to the writer, events from the past add depth and can be summoned to justify why a character exhibits certain behaviors in the present – especially extremely evil behavior.
  • Characters should have some weakness or ghost from the past that threatens to derail them on their quest. Even the most overblown and completely unbelievable hero of all time, Superman, has his problems with Kryptonite.

 

  1. CRUCIBLE

The premise answers the question of what the story is all about. The crucible sets important limits on the size of the story.

To melt metal, the heat must be concentrated.  And in the same way, a story can only heat up if the events are contained within boundaries of some sort. A story that wanders around or unfolds into a set of unrelated circumstances will confuse the audience with useless complexity.

Why is the story happening here?  Why are these particular characters showing up now?  Why do they stay?  What’s so special about this time, this location, and the events that seem to be taking place?  For a story to have a chance at making a point, it has to eliminate extraneous details by focusing on one overall setting and one group of characters.

Imagine if the Stars Wars movies included hours of documentary footage on the aliens living on nearby the planets. Perhaps it could be argued that this would be realistic background information.  But it never works.  There’s no time for it.  And worse, the audience can no longer tell what is important from what is mere window dressing – if they haven’t already passed out in their seats from utter boredom.

Stories must be confined to a well-understood time and place.  And in this way the crucible concentrates the impact and meaning of events.

Life on a sailing ship heading somewhere, or the workings of a small clique of people organized for a fixed purpose – these work well – especially when confined as on an island, or space ships, or a remote town, or culturally confined neighborhood.  Epic stories happen to a lot of people in many interrelated settings.  Simple stories happen to fewer people and usually in just one place.

The size of the crucible is not as important as how there must actually be a crucible.  For example, Heaven’s Gate – at its time of production, the most expensive fiasco in Hollywood history – was nothing more than an assemblage of disconnected settings and it left audiences bewildered and lost.  At the other extreme, Apollo 13 had a nearly claustrophobic setting for much of the movie, and it worked supremely well because it compressed the vast danger of this space mission into a volume far smaller than my office – an inescapable world unto itself and the central focus of everyone’s desire to get these astronauts home alive.

When in doubt shrink the size of the size of your setting, limit the time of events, and reduce the number of characters involved – because all of this will let you produce the greatest amount of heat when you need it most.

 

  1. PROTAGONIST

The protagonist is the character who carries the audience through the story as a surrogate.  The protagonist roleplays on our behalf and thereby offers a gateway to experiencing the story nearly firsthand.  This is why the protagonist is the most important character.  Traditionally, this is the main ‘good guy’ character – but not always ‘good’ in an absolute sense.  In fact, we may not even find him to be very endearing at all, such as Harrison Ford’s character in Blade Runner who is dark and brooding while on the case.  But we root for him anyway because if nothing else he’s the most likable person in the film – given the other characters.

To properly fulfill this role of surrogate, the protagonist must see more clearly, understand events sooner, make the best guesses more often, and take the right path when everyone else is ready to jump ship.  Sometimes the protagonist is astounding by merely doing what is sensible in the face of evil despite the risks.  In Schindler’s List, for example, the factory owner is hardly a saint, but compared to the Nazis, he is someone worth caring about considering how he has chosen to resist them.

The most believable protagonists always have problems and flaws that constantly gnaw at them.  The battle is often against demons within as much as hurdles ahead.  As the hero struggles forward against specters from all directions, the struggle itself somehow opens our eyes through the magic of our human storytelling hardwiring and places us bodily into the story – what we call an immersive experience.  While the main character grinds ahead, the audience experiences the same dread, fear, relief, and satisfaction along the way – as though this were our own quest.

Here are some things to consider when creating your protagonist…

  • More than anyone else, the protagonist wants the object of the quest, has the best reason to seek success, and is willing to work the hardest to get there.
  • The protagonist starts out mostly ignorant of what lies ahead, and must learn and grow in order to survive long enough to succeed.
  • The protagonist is never passive, nor can this character whine or appear wimpy – at least not for very long. The audience will only root for a potential winner who is willing to work for success.  A protagonist while not giving a hoot will still be viewed as a loser.
  • Sometimes the “protagonist” is a group of like-minded people all working for a common goal. But usually, it is much easier to set things up with just one main hero and a strong supporting cast, rather than confuse the audience with a band of protagonists.
  • The protagonist is the person in the story we most want to see succeed because he or she has worked the hardest, laid it all on the line, and deserves it the most. Success must be earned.
  • Who do we most care about? – The protagonist.
  • Why do we care? – That’s what the story is about.

 

  1. ANTAGONIST

The main role of the antagonist is to stand in the way of the protagonist.  The story can not end until the protagonist defeats this guy or what he represents in some fitting way. Unfortunately, antagonists are often under-created, and so the desire to see the antagonist fail is poorly induced. Worse are the antagonists who are not even human – like a computer or alien showing no human characteristics.  Can fully non-human ‘bad guys give us a believable reason for why they would want to defeat the hero?  Not usually.

But this is not to say that the antagonist has to look human.  It can be a computer programmed with a replication of human personality.  It can be a god who is half human.  It can be a dark force with human characteristics taken from the mind of a very evil human.  It can even be terrible whether that is experienced in a personified way.  So long as the antagonist is experienced by the protagonist in terms of human evil, or human pride, or a human corruption, or the human need for power – and as long as there is a solid back story underpinning this – then the hero is up against something the audience can believe and understand in its human terms. Otherwise, there is no way to see why the antagonist is standing in the way of the hero.

Just as the protagonist has the biggest reason to succeed in the quest, the antagonist has the biggest reason to prevent this success. And it can’t just be that the antagonist is a ‘bad person.’  The hero must threaten to upset his quest for power – preventing him from fulfilling his lifelong goals.  It has to piss the antagonist off way down deep where it hurts the most.  Darth Vader took it very personally when Luke Skywalker stood in his way because he had a galaxy to conquer.

Both the protagonist and antagonist must desperately wish to succeed in their own ways. Their will to succeed – and even their abilities to do so – must be very closely matched.  If the antagonist is too strong – and loses anyway – then the hero’s success is absurd.  And if the antagonist is too weak, we have no need to root for the hero.

In short, you need to put as much effort into designing a formidable and believable antagonist as creating a capable and realistic protagonist.

Here are some things to chew on when creating your antagonist…

  • The antagonist has a reason for being who he or she is. Obsessed and corrupted people are usually made, not merely born. The antagonist will be far more convincing if there is a good reason for why he has become this person.  Only make the antagonist as evil or bad or corrupt as needed for the story.
  • What the protagonist wants must be the opposite of what the antagonist wants, and the goal of the hero must stand in the way of the antagonist just as much as how the antagonist stands in the way of the hero. A story isn’t about the antagonist’s ‘evil plans.’ It’s about how the antagonist is committed to something that makes sense to the antagonist, and yet somehow directly blocks the way of the hero.  The antagonist is ‘evil’ mostly because his plans stand in the way of the protagonist.
  • The antagonist cannot be entirely evil and still be believable. In the same way the protagonist is encumbered by a thorn in his side that hold him back, the antagonist should have a soft spot or “human” side – a human frailty, weakness, or gentler side in some gnawing way.
  • The antagonist must grow in the same way and at the same rate as the protagonist through adversity and struggle. An antagonist grows stronger for a reason.
  • Rather than an expressed character, sometimes the antagonist is a powerful idea or a terrible set of circumstances or a faceless organization. But even still, the antagonist must have human qualities as much as possible, and offer a believable reason to stand in the way of the hero.

 

  1. ARCHES

For a story to fully satisfy the emotional state of an audience, everything and everyone in the story must change from “pole to pole” – as they say in the biz.  If the protagonist starts out clean-cut and snooty, then he must end up grubby and humble. If he starts as a drunk, then he must end the story sober.  If he’s angry in the beginning, he must wind up a Mr. Nice Guy.  If he is physically strong at first, then in the end he must be beaten up and hardly able to walk.  And the same should happen to the setting and every other element and character in the story.

Nothing implies progress in a story more clearly than change.  The weather must get colder or rainier or darker. The sound must get louder or softer or more sinister. The phases of moon must progress.  The snow gets deeper.  The plans of the antagonist become more sinister. The protagonist faces ever harder challenges.

This change from one extreme to the other is often called “the arc” of the story.  It is the shape of a continuous line drawn from the North Pole to the South Pole.  In ET, for example, Stephen Spielberg uses a pot of flowers to convey the failing health of the alien because the alien itself is too hard to read.  In Apollo 13, the Earth keeps looming larger while time is running out. In Gone with the Wind, the mansions of the South fall into disrepair, and with all the slaves gone, the plantation owners themselves have to plant their own vegetables.

The weak-minded get smarter. The wise become stupid.  The unlucky catch a break. Rampant evil is brought to justice.

Nothing stays the same.

 

  1. CONFLICT

There is no satisfaction in a story where a character speaks his mind for no reason at all. However, during an argument or a fight people will say just about anything, including huge lies, the naked truth, and a whole lot of other things they might not want other people to really think about or remember later. If you need to have a character say something important, first make sure that he or she is angry or severely upset and distressed in some completely obvious and legitimate way.  Only when a character is distressed do they let things slip out in believable ways.  Even still – not too often, because actions will always speak louder than words.

Characters should not get along very well in stories.  Conflict increases tension and suspense because it produces uncertainty where we have less of an idea for how these people might behave with each other in the next moment.  In The Perfect Storm, two fishermen are at each other’s throats for most of the voyage.  But when one of these guys gets snagged overboard on a long line, his nemesis is first crew member into the water to save him.  These two long-liners may still hate each other, but when push comes to shove we see just how much a Gloucesterman will risk to save another Gloucesterman at sea.

Use conflict to give your characters a good reason to say something important, and ramp up conflict to create opportunities for characters to transcend our expectations of them. If you want to induce a powerful sense of reality, give your characters a chance to prove themselves in a tough situation.

 

Next Time: The Structure of the Story

Table of Contents


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