Friday, September 11, 2009

Keeping the Action Going

Once, when I was in elementary school, my teacher said something that terrified me.

Mrs. Rattenbury (later Mrs. Dexter) was talking about writing short stories. To her, the remark was a simple aside as she talked about what makes a plot engaging: "All plot is conflict."

I wanted an interesting life but I did not like conflict.

For the next week I struggled, privately and quietly, to prove her wrong. Of what else could an interesting plot be made? I finally realized that my effort was its own answer: a plot could be searching. This was immensely comforting.

Since then I have done a lot more writing and living, and found many other building blocks for an engaging plot. Perhaps you can think of one I have not?
conflict - Plot often is built upon a tension that arises from opposition. Characters fight, chase, bargain, sneak, etc.

building/nurturing - Often an known obstacle cannot be overcome until the characters make something or wait for something to grow. As a kid, my favorite part of any A-Team episode was when the team was building that episode's contraption.

exploring - Merely seeing new places and enjoying new scenes can be plot. Anyone who has seen the view open up as the hiking trail finally reaches the mountain's summit knows this.

searching/research - Plot can be looking for what is missing, even when the place is not new. In most detective stories this happens through dialogue.

puzzles - Some plot involves making sense from what is present. The gates to Moria need opening. The clues to the mystery are finally all on the table.

warnings/funkiness - Sometimes the narrator changes the mood without significant action. This may be needed if the protagonist mistakes a new ally for an enemy (the Hobbits are quickly put in their place after attacking Aragorn in Bree) or needs a warning (skeletal remains that indicate the room in an ancient temple contains a deadly trap; the heroes find the bandits they were hired to capture, but as headless corpses in a forest clearing).
In a good story, when a main character fails to do something successfully, or pursues a red herring instead of the true path, the plot does not halt. Instead, the action keeps going because the error introduces a new plot complication.

To someone who writes or runs a role-playing game this concept is vital! Keep the story moving!

But this concept can be helpful to just about anyone. Last week I stopped to chat with three neighbor kids while on a walk with Smiley. They were doing some sort of imaginary game with sticks as props.
"What are those?" I asked.

"Magic wands," one boy answered.

"Oh," I replied. "Are you fighting, building, exploring, or searching?"
The boy answered "searching" but it was his brother whose eyes lit up, who recognized a short list worth remembering.

This morning I read two essays by Philippe-Antoine Ménard (ChattyDM) about his own realization of this concept. (Those two posts of his also lead to some great links about the Two Hit Monster, 5 by 5 adventure design, and the 5 room dungeon.)

UPDATE: The "5 Room Dungeon" concept had a contest. Winning entries are a free download here.

1 comment:

Jonathan Lovelace said...

To quibble slightly: I would argue that interesting searching, building, etc., plots are, at root, conflict. When I was first learning how to write and how to analyze fiction, we discussed three categories of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself. I think that the plots you think of as interesting are most often Man vs. Universe plots, where the protagonists are working against impersonal forces, including limited resources (including limited time).

The only item on your list that doesn't necessarily fit that is the "warnings/funkiness" item, about plot complications. But I tend to find episodic one-complication-after-another plots (and indeed any plot where a complication doesn't eventually serve the author's higher purpose) to be both less satisfying to read and a dangerous trap to avoid when writing. Complications work as a plot device, but not as a plot themselves.