I believe it was the late Rosalind Russell who gave this wisdom to a young actor: “Do you know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theater happy.” I think she was right. And if you’re lucky enough to write a movie with half a dozen moments, make damn sure they belong to the star.
I’ve been mulling over this for a while, and talked a bit about it in the “Lessons from LARP” talk I gave at AdventureX. I realised that over the years I and the people I regularly collaborate with have developed a particular way of working with story, and that I’ve now used this method successfully for all sorts of different types of media; I’ve used it for video games, movies, LARP, books and all sorts of other types of story.
I’m not claiming any of this is new — a lot of the process I present below is often called breaking a story in screenplay parlance. I do find it interesting that we developed it as a result of the interactives we were working on, and I think there are some interesting reasons why this works.
I’m also not claiming it’s the only way to do things — it’s simply a method we’ve developed almost accidentally that works for some types of stories, games, and experiences.
In particular, I think it’s a good technique for putting a player at the centre of the story — making it about them and their experience rather than coming up with a story and then showing it to them as a more passive observer. Particularly with interactive media — games or immersive events — I’ve too often seen the latter approach, where the writers and designers fail to consider the audience’s role in the story until it’s far, far too late.
War, What Is It Good For?
It starts, fundamentally, with what comes out the other end of a story. What are we in this business of storytelling for? For me, I get a kick out of the experience we put the readers/players through. My measure of that is simple. I call it “War Stories”*.
It’s something I first noticed after LARP events. For weeks, months, even years afterwards, people would be sitting in pubs recounting stories of what had happened to them. “That bit when…” “Aww, but did you see what happened where…” “And then, my god, I was running from that thing, I’ve never been so scared…”
Almost all of those stories had been provoked by moments of intense experience, of intense emotion. Fear, shock, hilarity, love, or even in one notable case extreme, hypothermic cold. These people had been put through the mill, and those were the moments that stood out to them, moments that would live on in their heads forever, and moments that they wanted to share. Having shared them, they became iconic stories, and were passed on second or third hand.
I was doing some analysis on this for a talk, and I realised that the ‘War Stories’ phenomenon is also common to watching movies, playing video games, even reading books. “When Hulk punches Thor!” “When Bruce Willis realises what’s going on.” They’re what binds people together in pubs or on forums or at book clubs. A need to share the things that really affected them, that etched those experiences into their minds.
In my experience, those moments, those highs (and extreme lows), are the things you remember, the things you take away. The most important things. You tend to blur out the connective tissue.
And then I realised that it’s how I approach shaping stories. I write them by coming up with moments that I hope they’ll talk about afterwards.
‘A box of 1000 live crickets & locusts falls on them as they open the tomb’
So how do we approach a story? With the collaborators I work with it’s a case of looking at the genre and setting we’re working with, the mood of the piece, and then brainstorming. In that brainstorming session we’ll throw together a collection of wild ideas about what we want the player to experience. In a live game, that could be stupid stunts or effects builds we’ve always wanted to try, or stage magic or technological tricks we can play to dumbfound a player; in a video game it could be as woolly as ‘feel intense loneliness’ or as detailed as ‘has to climb up a dark well shaft, only just clinging on by their fingertips, slipping a couple of times but ultimately triumphing’. These could be drawn from inspirational moments in movies, books, films, games, or history. Or just made up on the spot.
Often, it’s things that the other people in the room react to with “No, we can’t possibly do that to them. Can we?” or giggling with ‘Wow, that would be amazing!’.
These are the moments that we’ll build the rest of the story around.
It’s Not All Michael Bay
There’s a temptation to say ‘oh, this is just about set-pieces’. I don’t believe that’s the case. Yes, absolutely, some of these moments could be ridiculous pyrotechnic explosion-feats, car chases, whatever. But equally, these moments can be intensely private one-on-one emotional conversations. The important thing is that they target a participant (player, or viewer), and are emotionally affecting. (And that they emotionally affect the player/viewer, not just the character, but that’s a whole other article…)
Nor am I talking about game cut scenes. Again, some of these moments could be cut scenes. But equally they could be gameplay sequences inextricably entwined with mechanics which try and deliver the experience you want to the player to have.
It may not even be a concrete moment at all, particularly in an interactive. It may simply be doing all you can to give the player the opportunity to experience a moment, and it might not always come off.
Edited to add: (after a great response from Harry Harrold): This doesn’t necessarily mean ‘have a cool effect on a plate’. It might equally be making sure that you provide all the conditions you can for the players to generate and experience their own memorable moment. Pile on the emotional fertiliser, as it were. In many cases we’ll create opportunities for moments by carefully tailoring the rules system to provoke the players creating those moments themselves — see my article on All for One for a number of examples.
Putting Knots In Your Rope
Then it’s a case of talking through the moments in greater depth, figuring out how they might be achieved, and arranging them in a rough order. At this point you’ll start to get an idea of how the story might shape up, when you see them all together like this.
And maybe — if you don’t have one already — you’ll start to spot the mood and the theme of your piece. It’ll make itself known.
It’ll become clear which moment ideas are really good fits, and which ideas just don’t work for this story — maybe they can go back into the pot for another time. Some moments will clearly be great gut-punch setups for other moments if you just shuffle the order a bit. Other moments will occur as you go through the process.
Now they’re in a vaguely chronological order. Your plot is now like a pencil sketch of something which’ll finally be inked and coloured. We’ll talk through the story a few times all together, to start to connect up the logic, spot the problems, have inspirations for how to fix it, to smooth it, to shape it.
This isn’t to eschew standard story structure. These moments tend to get placed in the places where you’d expect to find highs and lows — you’ll see the arcs appear. It also doesn’t solely apply to linear story arcs; these moments can easily be placed off on optional side branches or reordered on the fly via gameplay.
In something like a LARP, the structure can be even looser — it can become a list of things we’d love to happen, we’re set up for, but which can be rearranged or discarded. Experiences we’d love to achieve if the cards fall in our favour.
Take A Break
It’s a really good idea to walk away at this point and do something else. Possibly for a few days. Then come back to the story, and go through it again — talk everyone in the room through it. Suddenly you’ll spot flaws you hadn’t thought of, or you’ll hit sections where you go ‘why the hell were we going to do that?’ and everyone will talk it through until it suddenly makes sense again. Or you’ll re-arrange it all. In the intervening time new ideas will have occurred to people, new connections between the moments; something which may have started out quite disparate will start to knit together. The brain seems to be pretty good at coming up with those connections when you’re thinking about other things entirely.
Like A Kipper
What happens next really depends on the medium. I find it very valuable at this point to write out a longer treatment of the whole story as one document; that tends to show up any major issues (and treatments are always handy when you’re trying to get ideas across to other people).
However you do this, though, you’ll be firming up the connective tissue between the moments, and keep doing it again and again, and then you’ll have your story.
And then, of course, the important thing is to turn it into something that people can actually experience.
What If No-One Sees?
For interactive games, obviously different people will encounter different content.
When it comes to live games or theatre, it’s not the case that everyone has to see your amazing moment. It took me years to learn this — it doesn’t matter, so long as someone sees it. Because they’ll talk about that moment forever, and it’ll spread, and become legend. One day there’ll be outlandishly exaggerated stories about that thing that happened, and all sorts of people will claim to have been there who weren’t.
In video games it’s even easier — so long as a small proportion of the population encounter your content, the story will spread on forums and others will play again to try to get it. Think about the power of Easter eggs in games. It’s all about “That bit when…”
Memories Are Made Of This
It’s my contention that if you work this way, if you concentrate on the highs and lows, on delivering war stories, you’ll have a memorable film/game/event/book. It almost doesn’t matter what goes between them, so long as it makes some sort of sense. Honestly. I know that sounds crazy, but most people have terribly fuzzy memories and the bits they didn’t enjoy or found bland fade away, leaving the bits that excited them. Sure, the quality of your whole piece will be vastly improved by good joining-of-the-dots, but to turn it on its head, if you don’t have the memorable moments, you have nothing. I’ve lost count of the number of movies I’ve seen or books I’ve read that I can’t recall anything about a couple of months later.
But people in pubs still talk about the time we had a WW1 tank**, ten years later.
*My brother reminds me that in the world of TV, these are ‘water-cooler moments’.
**We didn’t. It was two-sides of a tank faked up out of plywood + paint with a couple of pilots inside and some carefully positioned pyrotechnics, so that when a puff of smoke came out of the barrel, a piece of the ground exploded. But we still hear about ‘that game where they had a real tank’.