Elements of Storytelling
(This article was written for those playing on a MUSH server. Though Underlight is a MMORPG, the principles given here are extremely applicable.)
Elements of Storytelling
There are six basic elements to writing a story: characters, plot, conflict, resolution, setting, and theme. Though comparing conventional writing to creating/playing a MUSH is, in many cases, like comparing apples to oranges, there is merit to considering the elements of writing as applied to a MUSH – after all, the medium is a text-based environment where a story is told, and though the process is different from that of authoring a book (even a collaborative work), the same elements apply. Role-play is a different method from conventional writing, but it is ultimately the telling of a story.
In this article, I would like to discuss the elements of storytelling, and apply them to the creating and playing of a game. Not only do I think these elements are important for a game’s staff to consider, but I think they’re also essential for players to keep in mind, since it is the actions of the players that do (or at least should) drive the story.
Without characters, there is no story. The best setting you can imagine, with the most airtight theme, and a plot that could knock your socks off are meaningless without the people about which the story is told. Characters are the life of the story, and in terms of MUSH they are the life of a player base. While there should be colorful NPCs to drive certain plots, in terms of characters, the most important people here are going to be the PCs. It’s important for staff to keep this in mind, and when they’re writing plots, to use the characters that are there.
Character backgrounds are often written in order for staff to make sure the player has thought about the role, and to make sure the player understands how the stats measure up to a character’s life experiences. They’re also an untapped resource for plot ideas. Is there a shady NPC in the character’s past? Bring him or her alive. Did a sequence of events in a character’s background open the door for far and long reaching consequences? Bring it into being. Mess with your PCs. Sure there are players who might object, but in my experience there are far more who will thank you for it.
One trap too many plotters fall into is creating a plot around an NPC they think is cool, and expecting the players to run along after said NPC to follow through a series of actions that are ultimately not about them, but rather this other character who just showed up and will be gone after the story ends. I’m not saying it’s the worst way to plot, but as a player I’ve got greater investment in things that are happening to my character rather than some NPC. As a plotter, I find that if you do a little digging and pay attention to what the PCs are doing, plots will practically write themselves. The bottom line is, the characters (and in the case of MU* primarily the PCs) are one of the most essential elements to the story – without them, there is nothing to tell.
On the topic of plotting, though some players aren’t fond of the idea of a long-reaching story, and can’t be bothered to take part in TPs, a plot is essential to a story. While it’s nice to have characters, without a plot, there is nothing for them to do. Unlike writing, plotting for a MUSH takes a particular kind of savvy to pull off successfully. Plots should be big enough to capture the interest of the players, but not so big that their resolution will end the game, unless it is a timed game with a predetermined lifespan.
As I mentioned before, the greatest source of plot ideas I’ve ever found comes from the players themselves. Find out what motivates the characters on your game, and create your plots to coincide. For example, if I’m playing an artist who aspires to fame and fortune, that character probably isn’t going to get much out of a ‘find the treasure’ plot, because while treasure is nifty and all, it has very little to do with what my character actually wants – to make it as an artist. The plot therefore becomes a distraction rather than a source of IC investment and OOC interest.
A plot is simply what happens in the story – it doesn’t have to be big or complicated. Every scene should, in theory, be a small plot that might or might not be part of a larger plot. In a MUSH setting, take into consideration that there is at least one subplot (and probably more) for every PC in active play. Everyone is telling a story of some stripe. Sometimes the subplots come together, and a larger plot can be woven from those threads. Sometimes, the individual plots stand alone, and that’s okay. Whatever happens in the story depends largely on what the characters do, and what plot staff does to encourage player action and reaction. The details differ from game to game, but the important thing is that something is happening.
Conflict and Resolution
Which brings us to the element of conflict. Characters and plot are essential to a story, but without conflict to drive them, the story doesn’t go anywhere. You could tell a story about how a group of friends meet at someone’s house, play a game of poker, talk and laugh, and in the end they part ways in good spirits. That sounds like a great evening but a boring story. So they met and played poker – so what? On the other hand, if someone knocks on the door during the poker game, and the host goes to answer it and discovers his estranged wife spattered in blood and holding a smoking gun, things get interesting. Not many of us would want to experience this, but a good number of us would rather read about it instead of a peaceful night’s entertainment where absolutely nothing abrasive happens whatsoever.
However, I would caution against thinking that role-play should consist entirely of conflict. There is absolutely nothing wrong with spending a night role-playing an uneventful poker game among friends. This allows for characterization – a chance for characters to simply be themselves. It is a golden opportunity to get to know the characters in their environment, and to discover new things about them. This is a great tool for both writing and RP, but eventually conflict is going to have to come into the picture, or the day-to-day actions of the characters ceases to entertain. Another way to think about this is in terms of contrast – what is the character like in peaceful moments compared to what s/he is like in times of trouble or crisis? How does the character evolve as the conflict is addressed? Without conflict, the events and people exist, but with nothing to drive them. Conflict gives a story motion.
Yet conflict without resolution becomes as static as a story without conflict. In writing, the resolution is usually the end of the story, but in MUSH it can’t be (unless the game has a predetermined ending date wherein the resolution wraps it up). This presents a difficult challenge to staff and player alike – how does one resolve the conflict without ending the story? On a small scale, this isn’t a problem. Like plots, conflict doesn’t have to be big or complicated. It can be as simple as being cornered by a mugger in an alley. Conflict can also be end-of-the-world important, and this is where the major changes to the story need to be handled carefully. When presenting conflict in your stories, realize that the conflict will eventually need to be resolved, and keep in mind how this changes the opportunities for future play within the game. It’s a tricky balancing act, but it can be done.
Setting and Theme
Regular readers of this column will know that these two concepts are my favorite to harp about, and I just can’t get enough of talking about them. While the other elements of storytelling are just as important, I believe that these two require the most clarification generally because people tend to get them confused with each other, and while they are definitely related to one another they aren’t the same thing.
Setting is easy to grasp – it’s where and when the story is taking place. For a standard WoD MUSH the setting would be a city in modern times. For a fantasy game, the setting might be the world of Krynn roughly fifteen years after the War of the Lance (to use Dragonlance as an example). This is such a simple concept as to be pretty much intuitive. The framework for most games starts with the idea of a setting, and few people have trouble understanding the idea of a place and time in which a story takes place.
Theme is the concept that seems to give people trouble. I once conducted a private little test and asked a few game developers what the theme of their games were. All but a small few replied telling me where the game was set or giving me a standard ‘fantasy’ or ‘modern horror’ answer. Theme is more than that, however. In simple terms, theme is the point you’re trying to get across. In a MUSH this can be difficult, since theme sometimes requires a moral imperative, and values differ from person to person. Even taking a broad theme, like modern horror, you can create a dozen games wherein the only difference is the interpretation of what modern horror means, and you’ll end up with a dozen games that are vastly different from one another.
A friend of mine put it concisely when she said, “Setting explains where and when, but theme explains why.” Look at the other elements of your story, and then ask yourself what it all means when they come together. That defines your theme, and without it, a story lacks the sense of meaning that brings it alive. I think too many games lack of cohesive theme, finding the idea of putting out what may seem like a moral imperative to be too restrictive to the players. I disagree – I think a theme is a necessary framework in which players may construct their characters to fit into the setting. Without it, the other elements exist without rhyme nor reason, and the spirit of the setting is lost.
Putting it Together
Characters are who the story is about. Plot and conflict answer the questions of what the story is about, while resolution details how the story unfolds. Setting describes where the action takes place, and theme explains what it all means. Though I don’t recommend players get bogged down in these elements to where their RP is driven by the filling out of a simple formula, I do believe that paying attention to these elements, and being creative within the framework they provide, is a great tool to creating an interesting story and keeping a game cohesive and meaningful.
This medium is an interactive environment, and within that interaction is an unspoken need for cooperation and collaboration. Think of these six elements as a roadmap, with plenty of side paths ripe for exploring. Whether you’re writing a book or playing/developing a text based game, these elements are the foundation upon which a good story is built.
Original Article by Karrin Dailey