Anatomy of a Story

What makes a good story?

I’m back. I’m on a roll. This will be the culmination of everything I’ve explained up to now, so let’s get to it! I rhetorically ask you again, what makes a good story? Actually, we should be asking, “What makes up a story?” On second thought, maybe it should be, “What is a story?”

What is a story?

I’m not gonna lie. I’m no creative writing scholar. I’m a programmer and an economist. I have no qualms about analyzing “the whole” and logically breaking it down into manageable parts. You can do it with art. You can do it with stories. I’ve been a reader and writer since I was 6. If you knew me and had to choose who loved books more, it’d be hard to pick between me and Twilight Sparkle. I guess you could say I have “real world” experience with stories?

Anyway. What’s a story?

A story is a thing kids will ask their parents to read to them at bedtime, but it is the final product of a collection of things. At the time of this writing, I can really only break a story down into three basic parts. It’s enough for now:

  • Characters
  • Settings
  • Plot

These three things make up a story. Their order is very important. I believe that the reason you even tell a story is (usually) to show how characters grow under certain circumstances. I mean, there are plenty of reasons to tell stories, but I’m specifically talking about purely imagined fiction. (Let’s leave aside historical fiction and allegory and such. They can clearly have other reasons for being told.) The characters depend on settings. Plot is what happens when the characters operate in their settings. As you follow the plot from beginning to end, your story unfolds.

Don’t worry. I’ll explain. You might not agree, but you’ll know I’m not just pulling this out of thin air.

Characters are king.

Let’s break things down even more. Characters are of ultimate importance. They are the whole reason your story exists. When you out and say it, a lot of people seem to bristle at the idea that characters are king. But think about it. You relate to the characters, not the setting or plot.

There’s a reason you root for characters and for good things or bad things to happen to them. You forge a relationship with them. You either like them or you don’t. There’s a reason TV shows preserve the same cast of characters. Nobody wants to spend time rebuilding the relationship between the viewer and the character. There’s a reason nobody likes it when actors are changed for the character. It feels unnatural. People in real life don’t do that. We all put a lot of attention into characters.

What makes a good character?

Here we go. Digging deeper and deeper. I don’t want to go too deeply here, because this question will probably be its own post in the future. Suffice it to say that a good character is a believable character. It’s a simple statement, but extremely difficult to pull off.

Authors are always talking about character design. They’ve got to have a description. They’ve got to have a history. (Even if you don’t disclose that history, they need a history. History determines past experience that shapes their current reactions to settings and other characters.) They’ve got to have long-term goals and short-term goals, and you have to decide how much they’ll sacrifice to achieve those goals. They’ve got to have personal strengths, but most of all they have to have personal weaknesses that they try to overcome. Then you’ve got the map of a believable character.

Once you design the rules of the character, you turn them loose into your setting with other characters you’ve created and the interaction between characters will more than likely happen automatically. You know when authors will sometimes say they started writing one story and it turned into the story they actually finished? That’s because the rules designed for the characters didn’t work out as planned once they started interacting. That’s not bad. That’s believable!

You can’t just have characters.

As much as characters are king, there are still two other parts to a story. The next most important being the setting. What is the backdrop for the character? What year is it? What country is it? What universe is it? Do they live in an apartment? A castle? A motor inn after a zombie apocalypse? This is where the imagination comes into play.

Sure, you have to imagine characters, but you really need to concentrate on believable characters. A character’s reactions to things need to make sense. If they just had their closest friend killed in front of them, they are not going to be fine with that. That’s not a realistic character. A setting, on the other hand, is fully left up to the imagination!

This is where I love to have the most unrealistic things in a story. I want fantasy. I want science fiction. I want a deeply frozen world teeming with magical energy or a space ship orbiting an Earth that’s lost its atmosphere. Maybe it’s a city filled with fairy tale characters living in the real world. The point is, I want to experience something that I simply can’t experience in the real world.

The setting has to make sense in its own way, of course. But with a setting, you just need to define a set of arbitrary rules and stick to them. If you can only use magic by writing spells, then make sure you stick to it. Maybe water floats when it’s heated. It doesn’t make sense in the physics of the real world, but if it’s natural for your world, then make sure you stick to it. For example, if water floats when it’s heated, people would have developed tools to keep water in the pot when they boiled it. (There’s so much nuance with building settings and worlds. I’m going to stop trying to discuss it now or I’ll never stop running cause and effect scenarios to show you how much of a world you’d impact by introducing even the weirdest set of rules…)

Characters and settings are very close-knit and play off each other. A character alone is nothing. Two characters in a white room is something, but not much. Two characters in settings designed for them to react with is what you’re aiming for. Once you have multiple characters and multiple settings all reacting to each other, then you’ve got the beginnings of a story.

In fact, what you’ve got is your plot.

A plot should emerge naturally.

This is me kind of getting into my own ideas now. I’ve taken the next step from what I’ve learned about characters and settings and this, to me, is the logical conclusion. You definitely have manual control over the plot. You have to decide when it starts and when it ends, but, believe it or not, you don’t have as much control as you think over where it starts and where it ends.

The plot is what happens when characters react with characters and settings. This is when you start getting people saying, “I started writing that story, but ended up with this story and it just kind of happened.” That’s because plot is the organic result of believable characters in their settings. All you should be prepared to provide is the general idea of what you want to happen, and an opening scene. If you designed things properly, your characters and settings should naturally propel you through the plot you want.

Chances are it won’t. You are human. You can’t predict everything every character will do. The good story teller will let the plot adapt into its more believable form. (Or change characters and settings so it flows naturally the way they want it to.) The bad story teller will try to force characters into fixed plot and you will have a story that feels like it could have been better.

Let’s take it back to games.

Think about everything I’ve outlined for you:

  • Characters are king.
    • They react to their settings.
    • They react to other characters.
    • Their reactions must make sense.
  • Settings are where your imagination shines.
    • The setting might not make sense in the context of our world.
    • It just has to make sense in context with the world it’s in.
  • Plot is the natural product of character reactions.
    • Things happen when characters interact with characters.
    • Things happen when characters interact with settings.
    • Plot changes in ways you don’t expect based on these interactions.

Now think about everything I’ve said about story-driven games:

  • Games demand interaction from the player.
    • No interaction? Why are you not writing a book, then?
  • Story-driven games demand interaction from the player.
    • Give the player choices that affect the story.

Now step back and consider the player as simply a character in the story you’re trying to tell with the game. If plot is the natural result of characters reacting to the settings and other characters, and your player is simply the main character, it is completely natural that the plot changes to the player’s reactions.

It’s not some forced gameplay mechanic to have players directly influence the story of a game. It fits entirely with everything that makes a story even be a story. They are a character. They react to their environment. The plot changes based on their reactions. It would do this anyway if you designed good characters. Good characters will always react in ways you didn’t expect.

All the game designer has to do is offer the player enough choices!

Simple, right? Haha. Right? Haha. Ha. Haha. Yep.

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