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Story Archs

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Right now I''m working on a new game and I was wondering how you go about breaking the story down to show the story archs and where I might be able to to find references or detailed information on creating acts or story outlines for a game. I''m looking for the proper format to present such an outline. thanx -Sage13 Liquid Moon Team Project X2

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Not sure, but I would think you would use screenplay format when writing out the direction of a game. Just do a search on screenplays.

Hope that helps

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the simplest way to get started is probably to think of your story in terms of important events ie:

1) boy meets girl
2) boy and girl fall in love
3) something tragically seperates them
4) they either get back together or do something less cliched

write the details of each of these major events on seperate papers, divide the time up evenly between them.

repeat for all sub-plots and interweave them

story or character "arcs" is a bit misleading, the changes usually happen in a linear importance/time way.

watch ANY half-decent hollywood film. every 10 minutes there WILL be an important event, i garuantee it. the most major changes happen at the beginning and end of acts, evert 30 or 40 minutes.

this encourages good structure and pacing aswell as forcing you to pay more attention to how it all comes together.

screenwriting is probably the best resource stepping stone. try screenwriting.about.com and wordplayer.com which has some excellent articles although not all are relevant.


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Having been a screenwriter for several years, I have developed my own approaches, but let me give you some guidelines.

Arcs are related to character arcs, the emotional/personal change curve a character goes through in the story.

The story is comprised of acts. These acts have turning points at the end of act one, and act two. Acts are comprises of sequences which are a series of scenes. Scenes are comprised of chosen shots.

Somewhere after the turning point in act two, though sometimes it occurs earlier in the story, the main character, often called the protagonist, though if he is going to fail in his goal, he is called the antihero, comes a thing called the point of no return, where the character''s ''fate'' or course of action is set for the rest of the story until it''s conclusion.

Now that we have covered the basic plot structure of the three act play (beginning, middle and end) which works well for both stage plays and feature screenplays, though not television formats, let''s address your actual question.

Start with the spine of your story. Like other posters said, a dry third person narrative of the main through line of action of your plot. Boy meets girl, they marry, live happily ever after.

Sub plots are branches off of that spine like ribs, these would be things like, boy meets girl, but girl has bully boyfriend who become nemesis (or antagonist to use the proper term), boy eventually conficts with bully and overcomes (or not) him.

Other subplots could be like, friends of protagonist aid him, abandon him, rib him, have their own troubles that inadvertantly (or by design usually, but can appear inadvertant) aid or hinder protagonists dilemma.

Another subplot could be: girl sees protagonist, is interested, but is dominated by bully, reasoned with or inspired by protagonist, and rides the fence until she sees or does not see her love lies with another man.

Another subplot could be: parents of everyone totally interfere or support as needed by dramaturlogical design to aid or interfere with protagonists goal to win his girl.

These are rough examples, but illustrate the next level of breakdown. Remember everything flows from and must lead back to the main plot, or core assertion if you were trained in writing that way. You can take the characters and settings as far away from the main plot as you want, as long as you eventually bring them back. The plausibility of how you do this is directly related to how much ''suspension of disbelief'' you create with the reader/user/audience.

The next level of breakdown is called the outline. The outline can be described on several screenwriting sites better than I can go into here, but it is just again a narrative describing the sequence of events within each act. Sequences in scripting terms , as I have indicated is the transitional structure between acts. Examples of this are all over, and watching the same movie several times will make these sequences clear. Sequences can be linear, one action leading to another logically, or interspersed, jumping from one setting or subplot to another as a tension buidling tool, as conflict is at the heart of plotting, some would advocate.

So the outline is just that. A narrative of everything that happens whether moving away from or advancing the main plot by setting, character and action. No dialogue is necessary at this point, thank god. That is it''s own dragon. Besides, you want to show, not tell. Action runs the show, and dialogue can support this or colorize it or characterize it. There is not much deviance from these purposes of dialogue.

The next step is your treatment, which is basically another LOD (level of detail) of the outline, describing settings in more detail, devices that are used, and detailing the action some more.

Once you are there, and have thought everything through very objectively and thoroughly (I consider this one if the great secrets of writing), you are ready to start scripting scenes.

There are standard formats everywhere, and some of them conflict on smaller points like CONT''D and the like, but the rules of thumb I use is that if it is written well, the reader should know that the scene is continuing by virtue of a well defined perception brought about by tight writing, and, when you are actually reading the script, you ought to be ''seeing'' the action in your mind''s ability to visualize. I often think if you cannot, it''s not a very good script. Film is a visual medium, as are games, though games have so much more to them than films, as I''m sure most will agree.

Now that you have the basics down, let me give you some advanced pointers. The first two most powerful supportive tools you can are good character biographies, often a very underdeveloped tool. There are classic works out there on how to develop a character bio, but you will be wise to really not neglect this aspect.

Another tool I use is story environment definition. It is basically all your settings in each shot/scene/sequence/plot highly defined, right down to the color of paint on the walls. What this does is help you set the mood of the scene visually, via design and architecture. This aids in writing in ways hard to put into words, but trust me, after twenty years of writing and fifteen years of screenwriting, it works for me.

The last and probably most important piece of advice I can give you is to rewrite. Now, a lot of people can say that ''writing is rewriting'' but they don''t really know what that means, and I am not a professor of creative writing at Harvard (don''t know if I''d want to be; but I would give a lecture or two if invited and paid well ), but let me explain what it means to me.

Rewriting means that once you have your story to where you want it, most writers will call that the first draft. Then they edit for style, usage and grammar and spelling, and think they are done. To me, that is still first draft. You have to rewrite your story many more times to get it to evolve to what it wants to be instead of what you intended. I call this writing oneself out of the story. The reason this is important is because if you do not write yourself and your pov out of the story, the story will only appeal to people like you, and film and games are a mass medium.

Also, along about the fifth or sixth draft, the story begins to tighten up in ways you never imagined, no matter how well you scripted and researched and outlined. It''s the nature of the beast. This is where most people run out of steam. It is also the reason, imo, that most writers go unpublished or unproduced. Don''t underestimate the power of rewriting. You have to stick with it.

Now, this entire post has been about screenwriting, and games are a different critter, but not entirely different. Both have an introduction(s), both have a beginning and and end, I just think that the middle is much larger for a game, with many, many more subplot deviations and branches, but they all lead or don''t lead back to the through-line of action, so they share a lot in common.

I have discovered while learning game design that an interactivity chart in excel, such as the one illustrated in Game Design and Architecture, is an important tool, as well as other aspects of the game design process such as a story bible, art bible, hardware abstraction, etc. These are all additional tools to develop and employ if you want to have a fully rounded dev, imo.


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I don''t. Although I don''t necessarily agree with everything written, it''s good to have people who will go to the trouble of explaining the issues involved in writing, rather than just posting their latest game idea or whatever. And the original poster asked for detailed information, which he got.

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Yeah, I''ll say.

Thanx for the breakdown.

Oh yeah, and that writers web site has some awsome articles. I think I printed out the whole thing heh.



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Adventuredesign...I think your post should be left somewhere obvious in perpetuity for all the aspiring game writers out there. It sums up many of the basic concepts and principles, and would answer 99% of the ''so I have this idea for a game story'' posts.

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Original post by Tacit
Adventuredesign...I think your post should be left somewhere obvious in perpetuity for all the aspiring game writers out there. It sums up many of the basic concepts and principles, and would answer 99% of the 'so I have this idea for a game story' posts.

Thanks, maybe I'll get paid someday! You know, I used to teach these very same principles at the Berkeley Filmmaker's Forum last year, and after having thought I had gotten it through to all the 'aspiring filmmakers', all they ended up doing after the lectures was wander up to me and ask me to read their script, or could I help them write their script. At least you guys, as vanguards of the new art form, have the wisdom to use what I say, and I sure do appreciate that.

Edit: just fixed up the quote for you. All text left intact. -- Kylotan

[edited by - Kylotan on August 24, 2002 10:02:47 PM]

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