Friday, November 22, 2013

Story Game - Let's Play!

At last! We get to the moment we've all been waiting for: we get to just play the game.  It's a lot quicker to play the game than create it.  Once you have the story materials in hand, you can play it over and over again -- adding to it, tweaking it or just using it at is.

To review: The series starts with an Introduction and an explanation of the concept of "Character Structure" which we use to create the game.  This game works better with a formulaic story, so we've created a game around the "Woman-in-Jeopardy" type of Romantic Suspense.   (We also talked a little about Erle Stanley Gardener's Plot Wheels, which inspired the game.)

But if you want to get down to the game itself, start with these posts:

*The Situation Worksheet - which we'll fill in using the story wheels.
*Heroine and Hero Wheels
*Villain and Nature of the Crime Wheels
*Titles and Title Words

Today, I'm just going to play the game from scratch, and show you how it works for me.  I will tell you a little about how I solve various issues as they come up.

I rolled a story just before sitting down to write this post -- what follows is real-time brainstorming.  (As it happened, the rolls came out easy -- they don't always do so.)

So here we go... Let's Play!

Here are the Story Wheel results

Title Words: Kept, Melody, Justice, Scorch, Crossfire, Guitar, Duet, Breathless, Night, Know.
Theme: Insiders
Heroine Type: On a Secret Mission (such as: revenge; needs to retrieve something; investigative reporter; must prove someone innocent; etc.)
Hero Type: Mysterious Background Figure - Undercover Cop
Villain Cover Type: Authority Figure - Cop
Crime Type: Blackmail, Version 3 (person being blackmailed is the bad guy, third party the primary victim)

Wow, this is the most consistent roll I've done with this game.  Insider theme; multiple cops; and a heroine on an undercover mission -- this screams "Police Procedural."

And yes, there is a brand of Woman-in-Jeopardy Romantic Suspense which overlaps with police procedural (although it tends toward military right now I think) - but it's one I don't happen to read.  Furthermore, though I love to read regular police procedurals, especially regional ones, I don't feel adequate in writing them.

But that works for this blog series because I'm unlikely to write this story -- and that means I don't have to hold back for fear of spoilers or anything like that.  I can do this as a "writing in public" exercise.

(NOTE TO EVERYONE: if this roll and the ideas for it I come up with in this post excite you, feel free to write it.  Consider it an "Open Source" story idea.  We can all play with it if we like. Note also: I do mention some other stories I am actually writing -- such as "Hours of Need." If those idea inspire you, please change them enough so they don't seem like the same story I'm writing.)

Pushing Boundaries

An ideal story roll will push you a little bit where you don't want to go.  That's why we include some contrary choices and things we don't like on our wheels.  But it's also why you have Full Veto Power over any roll in the game. However, my rule is that you can't ditch or re-roll any element until after you have worked through the choices and found what actually is a stumbling block.

Since pushing boundaries is important though, I believe the best place to start is to glance over the worksheet to see where those most difficult spots will be, and then to really dig in and think about that.  Spend a little time to see if you can find a way to make the problems work for you.  You may not find it at once, though, so if you can't find a solution right off, look to the other elements to see if they have any hooks to help you out with this.

For example: The first roll I ever made with this game came up with an element I had thrown in to give myself trouble:  The heroine type came up "Secret Baby."  Ugh!  That element just does NOT click with me.  I don't empathize with the emotions involved in keeping a baby a secret.  However, when I'd rolled all the other items I found a hook into the concept that really worked for me.  The Theme was "self-sacrifice" and the hero type was "Mr. Perfect she runs away from." And a title words gave me "Hours of Need."  And the crime type was related to a clandestine affair.

All those elements pushed me to stick with the "secret baby" trope -- and so I pushed until I had a variation I could work with:  A young woman who runs away from Mr. Perfect because she has to take care of her dysfunctional family, a family where someone is always in their "hour of need."  The secret child is her wild younger sister's child -- and nobody knows who the father is.

And that gave me a character I could empathize with, so that story is on the shelf "in development" to actually write.

Fro this story, I'm going to start by thinking about the police procedural element:  How could I actually write a cop-centered story?  And even if I can't think of a hook that works for me up front, I'll keep a watch for options as I go through the rest of the items too.

My first thought is that two police characters doesn't a police procedural make.  I can make this a small town psychodrama (that is, a soap opera of the individuals in their personal lives, not about the police elements).  This is especially possible since the hero is the Mysterious Background Figure, so we don't have to be privy to his investigation.

I don't have to stick to that if I find another hook in the other elements, but as I look at my title words, I'm thinking there may be a hook that helps me along with this....

The Title Words

We've got no less than THREE music-oriented words in our title word choices: Melody, Guitar and Duet.  The rest are mostly evocative suspense or romance words which will work with the genre.  Great!  Unfortunately, after pausing to generate some titles with these words, I didn't come up with anything exciting.

My top three ideas were pretty simple combinations:  "Crossfire Duet," "Breathless Duet" or "Breathless Melody." But I'll hold out hope for something more resonant after I come up with the story.  (The Night Guitar, Keep to the Melody, Justice in the Night....)

But even if I don't have a title yet, the idea of "Music"gives me a hook into the subject of the story:  Instead of the story surrounding cop culture, it could be surrounding something to do with music.

The heroine could be a musician, the hero's undercover identity could be a musician.  The heroine's secret mission could be to clear the name of a musician friend/relative, or to find out what happened to a missing or dead musician friend/relative. Or she could be an investigative reporter, out to get the straight dope on a famous musician's dark past.  Or maybe there was a mishap covered up, when the "Singin' With The Stars" TV show came to town, and she's investigating.

The mystery/crime could surround a local night spot -- a tavern where there is live music or an open mic.  It could be the center of a local music community.  This could be a community of professional musicians, or just a community of enthusiastic fans.

So the hero and heroine could both be undercover as musicians, hanging out at this tavern.  And that fits with the "insider" theme.

Blackmail #3

Next problem: the villian is a cop who is being blackmailed, and the primary victim is the "third party" (the person the blackmailer threatens to tell), that's a tricky one.  That means the blackmailer is not the most relevant person.

Which means the blackmailer will be a red herring of one kind or another.  He or she could be someone killed before the story opens, which incites the story.  Or he could be a real Red Herring, in that he or she is lurking and doing suspicious things.  He could even be the hero: The heroine's investigation puts pressure on the situation, and that gives the hero an opportunity to put the screws to the badguy (behind the scenes).  This could take on a swashbucklery cloak-and-dagger aspect as the heroine is caught in a deadly game between these two men.

I think the key to this one, though, might be the Victim.

The crime we rolled, Blackmail #3, means that our villain's leading motive is to keep the information from the victim.  What could our cop villain want to keep from someone such that he's willing to become a full blown Suspense Villain over it?  And WHO might he want to keep things from?

This motivation doesn't have to stem from him being a cop.  It could be something completely personal.  However, seeing that he is in law enforcement, two obvious things come to mind: He's an elected official (sheriff) and he wants to keep politically unpleasant facts about himself from the public (with the Public being the victim). OR ... He helped cover up the death of a young music star during a local festival, and this person's mother or grandmother wants to know the truth.

I like the second because that gives our heroine an undercover assignment.  The grandmother asked her to look into it, or the heroine is a relative who is upset about her own grandmother's grief over a dead cousin.  They don't suspect the cop.  They suspect the other musicians. (Hence, the hero.)

Well.... that's a story concept right there.  But there's one more issue that itches at the collar...

What About That Hero?

If the hero is an undercover cop, what is he investigating?  Is he a member of the same department as the villain?  Does the villain know he's a cop?

The simple answer is that he's investigating the death too, for the same reason the heroine is.  (That does not satisfy me.  Too repetitive.)  Also, if this is a small town, it is unlikely that he's a member of the local police, because everybody would know the local cops.  So, if he's undercover, he's got to be a state trooper, or on a task force, or a fed.

And I'm thinking that he wouldn't be investigating a closed case that everybody thinks is an accident.  (And if this is a crime that has been successfully covered up, it needs to appear to be an accident.)  So I'm thinking he's investigating something else.  Something that will turn out to be what lead to the starlet's death.

And maybe, given that the theme is "insiders," the starlet was an outsider who discovered something, or an insider who wanted out -- maybe even someone who fought to become an insider, only to discover something she wanted no part of it.  And she was killed as a part of the cover up.

So she might be the blackmailer after all.

Furthermore, that means our heroine is unwittingly headed down the exact same path.

Now I think I have a story.

It's Never This Easy

I swear to you, none of my other rolls this far have gone this easily.  On the other hand, we haven't done an actual plot yet.  I don't know why the starlet was killed. (I may yet decide that she had an accidental overdose and there is some other non-conspiracy thing going on -- like a rich kid or drunk senator caused an accident.) I don't know what is going on with that tavern, who the people are.  They will be red herrings and helpers.

However, I am glad I changed the game from my first version, and I now hold back on dealing with red herrings and helpers until I get the story concept nailed down.  Creating them can go more smoothly once I know where the holes in the story are.

Other Problems

In the past I've often found I have to tweak the choices to find a story that works for me.  I might have to swap some characters, for instance.

For instance, in "Hours of Need" the villain rolled out as a young woman.  And I kept getting stuck on that. But when I swapped her with another character, that gave me the chance to create the concept about a younger sister with a chiild.  And in the current story I'm working on, "In Flight," I had to dump the title (secrets and journeys) and the theme isn't working out.  (The title words might make a good theme, though.) Also, I think I'm swapping some characters.

That actually happens a lot with a mystery.  It helps to create a twist.  You build a story on one person being the villain, but as you write, you realise this other innocent person also has a motive and could be a great twist.

The changes were good for the story but... with every element I dropped or changed, I did it only after I pulled a story idea together.  I changed them not because they bored me or I didn't like them, but because they got in the way of something good that was taking shape.

Creating More Wheels

One thing that I did with In Flight is make up some mini-wheels to help me move beyond blank spots.  For instance, the hero rolled out as the "Authority Figure - Non-Cop" type -- a guy who gets dragged into the story with her.

That option sounded like a great idea when I put it on the list, but once I was face-to-face with it, I realized that that was a difficult one to make work on a practical level.  But I wanted to make it work, so I had to break out of my "box" in my thinking.

So I broke it down, and came up with a list of kinds of authority figures it could be -- lawyers, trustees, estate managers, bosses -- and rolled a random choice from that. Came up with Boss.  Then, because I still had the issue of how he would be dragged into the story, I broke that down into different kinds of work/romance relationships. (Ones with a vibe I liked.)  He's secretly in love with her, she with him, both secretly with the other, neither notices the other, both hate the other.  Different kinds of bosses.  When I rolled it, I ended up with the kind of boss who barely knows she exists: the suit from the main office.

(I think I'll keep that wheel, by the way. It was a fun way to throw in more variations.)

After I finally decided those things, I was able to start playing with ideas of how he could be dragged into the story, and I decided that it was in his nature to get involved.  My imagination took off, and I realized the guy had a very interesting back story.

Moving from Concept to Story

Right now, I could take the concept of our musicians and cops and cover ups and make it a novelette, or a full novel.  I could make it serious or funny.  Though the hero is supposed to be a mysterious background figure, I could make it very romantic or more a mystery with a romance ending.

It will take another brainstorming session for me to get started.  I wouldn't have to do a whole plot before then...

However, I could also play this into a next game: a Potting Game.  Something like the one Erle Stanley Gardner created.

So over December, I'll be creating a new game, maybe even with Plot Wheels.  I might post one or two interim things in the meantime, but I don't expect to get to plot until January.

In the meantime, a lot of what I'll be doing with plot will come from the Movie-of-the-Week plot structure I talked about this summer.  You can check it out if you want to roll some stories and try outlining a plot.

See you in the funny papers.

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