Friday, January 3, 2014

Story Game - The Psychology of Plot

Welcome back to The Story Game!

This fall we created The Situation Game (which focuses on everything in place before the story starts -- characters, motivations, conflicts).  I have a few people testing it, and it's shaping up nicely, but there are a few tweaks I'll need to do.

(The last post for the Situation Game -- "Let's Play" -- starts with an index to all posts in that series.)

This Winter we're going to focus on plot.

And even though the game itself focuses on formulaic fiction, the goal is to understand the mechanics that apply to all kinds of fiction. (Or at least more kinds of fiction.)

So though I will, as usual, bring in ideas and examples from literature and movies and comic strips and any storytelling medium, the focus of the game right now is still the "Woman in Jeopardy" Romantic Suspense Story.

(However, I myself will be pushing over into other mystery genres as much as possible soon.)

Plot As Game

When you think of turning story telling into a game, plotting certainly seems to be the most natural part to use.  Especially when you're talking about pulp fiction formulas.  Part of the inspiration for this game was Erle Stanley Gardner's plot wheels.

Oddly, I found when I started this phase of the game, the pieces of this part of the game were just not falling into place.  Perhaps it's because I have a lovely image in my mind as to what a story game should look like:

The image involves a wonderful three-dimensional game board representing the journey of the protagonist through an unknown landscape, with cards and dice rolls and spins of the wheel springing surprises on him as he goes.

That's attractive, because it mimicks the experience of reading formula fiction.  You sorta know where it's going, but the details and twists and turns are a surprise when they happen.  And, if you anticipate those twists and turns too much you get bored.

And I think that's why this magic game board is attractive to me: writers know what's going to happen.  Sure, ideas come at you by surprise sometimes, but the actual process of writing is slow enough that most of the time, you're ahead of any surprises, and far ahead of even the most astute reader.   You have to set the twists and turns up.

Being a writer can be like being an actor.

An actor has to know the play and rehearse his actions long before he presents his art to the audience -- and so he has to find ways to keep it fresh for himself, to keep some sense of spontaneity going.  Of course, live performances have one thing that keeps everything fresh: accidents happen.  Another actor misses a beat, or delivers a line differently, and you have to adapt for that.  Noises in the audience, a missing prop.  All of this keeps live drama from being boring.  Sometimes actors even introduce challenges intentionally -- surprising (an annoying) their fellow actors with unrehearsed twists and turns.

That's what Improv is.  Making it up as you go along, playing with the cards you're dealt (and having no script to fall back on).

For a lot of plotting games out there, that's the purpose of using a random choice generator.  It creates an improvisational freshness.  You never know what's going to happen next, and a choice could throw you off your plans, so you are, in essense, writing on the edge.

It's sort of like writing a round-robin story by yourself.

(You know what a round robin story is, don't you?  One person writes a page or a chapter and hands it off to the next person, who writes the next bit.  Each person taking an equal part, locked into what went before and having to come up with the next bit based on it.)

But there is a problem with this kind of beat-by-beat improvisation, though.  Most round robin stories start off strong, but they quickly go down hill and become boring and dissatisfying.  This is because the parts are equal and there is no opportunity to set up anything. There is never a real arc -- just leaping back and forth of the story line.

The Pulp Plot Formula

If you just look at the standard pulp plot formula, as the Lester Dent formula for pulp short stories, or my own Maverick formula, you see something similar going on.  These descriptions of plot may be useful to seeing structure -- but the fact is they are very straight line descriptions.  Basically, the same thing happens in each act.. only more so.  The hero gets in trouble, then he gets in worse trouble, then in the worst trouble possible, and then gets out of it.

That doesn't really get into what a good plot does.  Even in the most formulaic plot, the pulp hero doesn't just get himself into deeper and deeper trouble at random.  The trouble builds, on piece on another.  Each action affects what happens next.  And more important, each action reveals more information, which changes the perspective of the audience -- what the audience thinks. (This was partly touched on by the Maverick formula -- as Maverick also has his mind changed with each act).

If the story is to feel satisfying, it has to be a psychological unit.  It must lead the character -- and the audience -- through a psychological cycle.

The Psychology of a Story

Stories exist to play "what if?"  The point is to put us through a virtual crisis.  Or maybe I should call it a "Virtual Change in Conditions" -- because the crisis could be a happy one or a terrifying one.  Although all humans react differently to different changes and crises, there is a common pattern that happens inside our heads.  Stories reflect that.

I was thinking about it last fall, and I realized that the standard plot formula -- whether it's the 7-Act Movie-of-the-Week structure I talked about it last summer, or the 4-act structures of Lester Dent and Maverick, or the classic Hollywood 3-Act structure -- all have mild association with Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief.

I don't think this makes a good formula for your writing (well, it might) but it does help us see the psychological progression of a story.  We may rational purposes of all kinds for any particular story, but this is about the irrational side of us -- that psychological pattern that needs to be gone through to feel satisfied.

Act 1 - Denial  (The Set Up - What It's Like When Everything's Fine)

Every story starts with set up.  The character and audience believes the world is a certain way.  The story often lets the audience know that something is wrong before the character, but not always.  Either way, there is something wrong, something that the character doesn't realize he has to react to.  Then the inciting incident happens, and the character is forced to recognize it and react to it.

Act 2 - Bargaining (Treating the Problem Rationally, Because Everything is Still Fine)

Usually this is the second half of Act 1.  The character first reacts by thinking they can take ordinary action that fits into their worldview (that is the "denial" worldview that everything really is, basically, fine).  They run around trying to do things the right or habital way.  Aliens attack their house, they try to call the cops, or run away or hide or do those things we plan to do in a crisis.

In other words, they feel the problem is a reasonable one and you can take normal, reasonable actions to "bargain" it away.  But they find they are wrong, and that they must react more strongly than they ever thought.  And that makes them more determined to deal with this problem than ever.

Act 3 - Anger (Expending Energy, Because Things Are Not Fine)

At first glance this section (which Hollywood would refer to as the first half of the second act) would seem like it isn't about anger.  But think about what anger is: a release of stress and energy.  And what triggers anger? Frustration.  When you try to deal with something reasonably, and that doesn't work you get frustrated, and that pushes you to do things you wouldn't have thought to do otherwise.  And maybe that means Hulk Smash!, or maybe that means you set aside your ordinary tasks and go after the problem.  This is the point when the kids screwing around in the basement actually did make Mom come down there and settle it.

So though this equates to the anger part, this is also the most energectic and often fun part of the story.  This is where the characters go all out for something. At least until they crash.

Act 4 - Depression (Failure, Desperation and Truth)

Merely going after the problem with more energy and commitment failed.  You might have achieved some joyously exuberant triumph, but it's a an empty success.  The Thing That Is Not Fine is still there.  And maybe it's not only stronger than you though, it's worse than you thought.  The stakes are higher than you thought... and yuou're not up to it.  You expended all that energy for nothing. You may have even made things worse.  You feel weak, inadequate, and you don't know what to do.

But that's what it takes to give up on denial.  You have to hit bottom before you can see the truth.  

This is the part of the story where all seems lost, and many secrets are revealed -- at least one of which is significant enough to give you some kind of renewed hope.  You don't know if you're strong enough or smart enough, but at last you understand what is going on.

Act 5 - Acceptance (Facing Reality and Conquering It)

When you see and understand the truth, you are at last able to go after the problem in a realistic way that has hope of success.  And because you were wrong about the problem before, this section isn't just about overcoming the biggest problem, it's about surviving and becoming a new person, a wiser person.

This Is Not a Plot Formula

Don't take the psychological points above too seriously in terms of what your character faces or how he or she reacts to it.  It's really about emotional energy -- it's a way of seeing what emotions dig into the "lizard brain" of your audience as the story progresses.  It's what the brain expects to feel:

The opening is logical, then next section high energy, the next low energy, and finally satisfaction and wisdom. (And because this is about emotions, "wisdom" can mean completely dumb things like blowing up the bad guys.)

What does this have to do with The Story Game, then?

Well, first it explains why creating wheels of problems which act like beads on a string won't create a satisfying story.  The difficulties that assail the character from plot point to plot point can't be equal in this kind of story. (There are other structures that don't work like this, or which only deal with part of it -- I'll be talking about some of those later -- probably not within the Friday Story Game posts, but maybe on a Tuesday -- just going into different kinds of story theory.)

What I'm thinking is that the way to approach this part of the game may be to peel it back in layers, or to take it in "modules." We're going to use the above theory, as well as the MoW theory I mentioned last summer as a kind of lens, as we look at our Romantic Suspense genre plot (as well as other kinds of stories) act-by-act in a four act structure.

Next week we'll talk about Act One - the Set Up. Which is a very busy act in terms of things you have to do with it.  You've got to introduce everything, sew the seeds of your ending, "Save the Cat" (and maybe "Kill the Puppy" for you villain), as well as have your hero and heroine "Meet Cute." (Though I think they might also "Meet Suspicious" in a romantic suspense story.)

Before that, we'll have a Sunday Update, and on Monday I'll have an Artisan Writer thoughts on the upcoming year in publishing.

See you in the funny papers.

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