Compelling by Design
There are stories you experience and resonate with you, regardless of media. Stories propelling you ever forward, adventures that keep you on the edge of your seat or turning the page or wanting to press ever onward. Stories making you lose track of hours and grow white-knuckled in the smaller moments.
Today’s question is how do you create them? What alchemy did the creator use to make them stand out?
There are formulae and recipes used to create any dish you can speak of, be they simple or complex. Take an egg dish as simple as a fried egg. The ingredients you leave out are as important as what you add in. Preparing a fried egg, a simple enough thing, is difficult at first. It’s about execution. Learning to put the right amount of oil into the pan, getting the heat just right before cracking an egg into the pan, and even cracking the egg. As experience is gained, you learn to add in other items: a pinch of salt, a touch of cracked black pepper, and maybe a hint of garlic. Recipes provide directions but experience enable you to take something from the formulaic to something truly and uniquely your own. Failure only serves to add to your experience. Diligence enables you to keep going beyond failure.
With those reminders out of the way, let’s examine how to apply some basic principles to create something memorable, be it for private consumption or public enjoyment.
Good story design requires structure. There, I said it. As much as people enjoy open worlds and sandboxes, the amount of time anyone has to spend on any one thing can be severely limited. It’s up to the writers and developers to facilitate the introduction to the world and provide a reason for exploring it. Tolkien did this. He created a massive world and needed to have a reason for people to move through it. Red Dead Redemption handles this masterfully, providing a through line to tell the protagonist’s story while simultaneously retaining the ability to go anywhere and do anything (within its prescribed boundaries).
Create a through line, a series of scenes, describing starting with Point (or state) A through Point (or state) Z. Where do things begin? Where do the end? Connect them with “buts” and “therefores”. If you have two scenes linked with “and then” you likely should cut it or look at it from a different perspective because it isn’t dynamic and is likely dead weight.
For example, let’s take Grant from POINT A: GETTING UP to POINT C: WALKING INTO HIS OFFICE.
Compare “AND THEN…”
A. Grant gets up
B. Has breakfast
C. Walks into his office
D. Meets with client.
with “BUT AND/OR THEREFORE”
A. Grant gets up, but he overslept.
B. Therefore, he madly scrambles to get ready and fix coffee. Therefore in his rush, he spills coffee.
C. Therefore, he walks into his office late, but forgot he had a meeting and goes into the boardroom to greet a new client.
D. But he fails to impress the new client because he was late (A), his clothes are stained and crumpled (B), and he arrived late (C).
This video spells out structure well.
This always bears mentioning, but create interesting characters. Every character has a story. A good rule of thumb to go by is if the character has a name they deserve a story. The smaller the story, the greater the necessity for a name, for detail. In a sweeping adventure, not every person in the marketplace warrants such detail, but having at least one named character per area makes sense. For these purposes, a place can be a character as much as anything: an ocean, a desert, a forest each has its own personality or, if the characters are spending any time there, should.
Provide options for the characters to go with potential outcomes. If you’re developing non-interactive materials (traditional stories, film, or graphic novels), you get to make the choice, but there should be clear choices. They should be tough and change the character and the world in different ways. If you’re developing interactive materials (such as for TWINE, tabletop games, or video games), you need to offer up choices to the players and there should be logic branches with choices. Do they save the village from marauders or rescue their mentor?
Keep in mind, not every choice has to have the same weight, nor should they. Ultimately, the important choices should meaningfully impact the world.
This video stresses the importance of choice.
Presentation is Paramount
Provide the bare essence of detail to create a scene. What you leave out is as important as what you present. These elements should be essential, purposeful. In interactive media, they can raise questions and, in tabletop games, provide an opportunity for collaborative involvement between the players and GM. In stories, they provoke and create questions.
Embrace the Silence
Allow a situation to breathe. You don’t need to fill in every nook and cranny with the sound of your voice (if running a tabletop game) or filled with extraneous detail. If it matters or is going to matter, mention the vase in the corner of the foyer. If not, then don’t.
Juxtaposition of the mundane stimulates the mind. The mind wants to make sense of things. A teddy bear in a child’s room is ordinary and a detail easy explained. The same teddy bear in an empty operating room suggests a completely different story. As does the teddy bear on a gravestone or pristine at the edge of a cliff.
Don’t Overstay Your Welcome
Whether you’re writing a novel, story, or adventure, know when to get in and when to get out. It comes down to one simple rule of thumb: skip the boring bits. Unless it’s essential to the story or reveals something about character, let the mundane happen offscreen. We don’t need to see Darth Vader showering or a travelogue of James Bond on holiday unless it’s relevant to the mission.
Make Them Want More
You want the person(s) interacting with your work hungry to turn the page. Build the desire to turn the page by suggesting questions, answering questions, and raising further questions. This loop rewards the people spending their precious currency of time.