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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

More on dramatic structure

As a follow-up to my presentation at the NLGD games conference, a couple of attendees have asked for further ideas on dramatic structure. For some reason, the Hero's Journey seems to be more prevalent in the consciousness of contemporary creators than more traditional paradigms like the three-act structure. This blog entry is sort of a laundry list of some of the classic dramatic structures, with occasional references to their usability in video games.

A first idea is a basic seven-point story writing structure from Algis Budrys, SF writer and educator. His article is here.

What is interesting for game design is that, for Budrys, the first three elements can be introduced in any order (character, context, problem). While this remains, of course, an entirely linear structure, any whiff of non-linearity is music to my nostrils.

Another interesting link is to this article on the three-act structure by Stephen J. Cannell, written for an on-line screenwriting course. How can you go wrong with the guy who brought us the A-Team?

Of course, there are many articles out there lambasting the three-act structure as simple, unnecessary, derivative, limiting, etc. -- pretty much how I feel about the Hero's Journey. But it does have the advantage of providing an approach to constructing and telling a story.

What is also interesting about the three-act structure, and which underlines its universality, is the classical Chinese and Japanese approach to narrative, the Kishotenketsu. Though this is a four-"act" structure, it is essentially (and unsurprisingly) identical in flow and in the order in which events occur to Western dramatic theories.

For those of you who really like to be spoon fed, here is one person's view of mapping the Hero's Journey into the Three-Act Structure, and another that maps the Hero's Journey specifically into game development.

And, of course, there are infinite resources dealing with the four- or five-act structure, as well as the seven-act structure for hour-long US TV shows and their commercial breaks. The winner, of course, is David Siegel's Nine-Act Structure. His web site no longer seems to have the information, so here is a link to another site that sums it up.

One interesting point that Siegel makes is the idea of a second goal: What the protagonist wants or thinks he wants at the beginning changes at some point during the movie. He presents this as being "non-linear", though for someone working in video games the idea of a non-linear movie is a bit risible... However, what is interesting is that it opens up the idea that one could tell a traditional mass-market story, and tie two entirely credible main throughlines to it, and let the player choose which one "happens." If the idea that the goals of the protagonist can change at midpoint is accepted and credible, why not write a game that allows you to play it out either way? Or even add more?

A final interesting point is the idea of "story arc" in televised drama. This is the idea that there are certain evolutions in the characters and environment that take place over a period of several episodes; each episode is no longer hermetic but may have consequences on future episodes. Daytime soaps, of course, have been doing this forever, so it is hard to call it "new." But to see it crawl its way in a looser form up the food chain to mainstream and prime time is interesting. And, pat on the back to SF and innovation, Babylon 5 and The X-Files were among the first to adopt this style of storytelling.

This idea of plot arc ties immediately and obviously to video game structure, where various missions or levels can have quests or objectives that are unique to the level and provide entire story arcs within each sub-section of the larger game. At the same time, the level can feed bits of the larger, overall story arc which comes to frution at the climax of the story and the gameplay.



Stephen J. Cannell

Stephen J. Cannell will be my guest on News Talk Online on Paltalk.com Friday July 11 at 5 PM New York time.

You can talk to him by going to www.garybaumgarten.com and clicking on the link. There is no charge.

Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

December 2011

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