Discourse on Plot Structure
The structure of one's plot is often the most overlooked piece of the narrative puzzle. Commonly, there exists a misconception that a good story will tell itself, that merely unfolding the tale with good pace and interesting characters will be enough to drive the plot. While it is certainly true that thought-provoking personalities, twists galore, appropriate atmosphere, and other qualities are necessary components of whole work, it is imperative not to forget that the manner in which these pieces are crafted, the structure of the plot, is the glue that holds the narrative together.
In this guide, we will be analyzing two of the most successful methods in telling a good story with respect to the realm of game development: event based structure and theme based structure. Do not think of these entities as adversarial, as opponents struggling for superiority over the other, but rather as your literary guides, friends wanting to take your hand and lead you from the plot's imaginative beginning to its poetic end. Like any choice you will make with your project, choosing either of these routes will net some disadvantages, as well as their own inherent benefits. Hopefully, by fleshing out what makes these routes well traveled, by extrapolating their prospective impact on the plot itself, we can make that decision a little easier on you, the developer.
What makes a Event Based or Theme Based plot structure?
Before answering such a question, we must first address what exactly plot structure consists of. Put most simply, plot structure is the manner in which the occurrences of a story are tied together. A boat sinks, a princess is kidnapped, an ancient curse lifted, all of these events will not stand alone as their own plot, but rather we have to bind them to some structure. Another way of thinking about plot structure is like a road that connects a few cities and towns together. While the cities and towns by themselves might not have too much in common, there is something there to make a coherent whole, say, a state in our example. And just like our road, plot structure does not exist independently of the events within the story. Instead, it is intertwined, weaving through the busy avenues of dialog and description before exiting the city limits and making headway toward the next adventure.
There are one of two ways that we can pour the pavement for our road, so to speak. Mingling the two methods always results in the failure of the whole compound, the whole story, so take care in your writing. The first of these methodologies will be the theme based plot structure. It is absolutely essential that you choose this route from the beginning. Why? The theme based plot structure makes its success in connecting the happenings of the story into one central idea. Pick an idea. Whether it is love, imagination, optimism, moral decay, or any other countless abstracts, it does not matter, just pick one! From this theme you will pull out character reactions to events. Take Final Fantasy VII as a paradigm example, whose theme was identity. A few red herrings exist, to be sure, but nearly every event that transpired within Square's masterpiece heralded back to the central theme. Red XIII discovers his father's identity; we follow Aeris as more and more of her identity is revealed; Sephiroth violently seeks to redefine his own identity; and Cloud's search for purpose, for his own self, is the driving mechanism that makes the whole plot go.
So how do we follow suit? Interesting plot design will not only address the central theme, but address that theme from a variety of angles. Back to Final Fantasy VII, we can look to the characters of Sephiroth and Aeris as great examples. We could contrast for days the violence and madness of Sephiroth with the kindness and altruism of the last remaining Ancient, but what makes them irreplaceable cogs in the plot machine is that their own stories are about redefinition, about identity. Heroes and villains are a great place to start in establishing your theme, but do not forget about the minor characters, about the settings, about the events themselves. The more elements you can connect to the central theme, the stronger your message will be and the more coherent the story will be by the end. After all, discovering the nature of the planet itself, Barrett's past, or Cait Sith's artificial existence were some of the more captivating portions of our example. By your stories end, your player needs to have a firm understanding of the importance of your central theme and be able to explain, through your examples, the various ways in which that thematic idea can be approached. A theme based game stimulates discussion and opens eyes, anything less is a misuse of the technique.
The event based plot structure is probably best epitomized by the Suikoden series. While yes, I would yield to the fact that there were strong instances of thematic development within these games, the larger portion of the plot very much belongs in this category. So what makes this method tick? As opposed to theme based plot structure, which uses all of the nooks and crannies of the story to connect to a single idea, an event based plot structure works in the opposite direction; it takes an event, an occurrence, and shows the effects of that event on a broad scale. This is why Suikoden is a perfect example. We have a war. Who does this war effect? How does it effect them? How do characters grow within the context of the war, and how does the war grow within the context of the characters? It is said that trauma and catastrophe both reveal and build character, and you should approach an event based plot structure the same way. For this to work, emphasize the ripple effect. By this, I mean you need to reach out to facets of the world, primarily society, and demonstrate the impact of your happening. War takes its toll not only on the soldiers, but the merchants caught in an embargo, the peasants struggling making ends meet as taxes are raised to finance the battles, and the evil sorcerer from afar waiting for the perfect opportunity to exact his vengeance.
At first glance, it may seem that large events make better use of this plot structure. And in some ways that is true. After all, events that directly impact people are much easier to illustrate than those that work in subtle ways. But do not let the challenge of using a small, local event as the center of your event based plot structure. Imagine the power of a story centered around a small child and his illness, and how this creates proverbial earthquakes across the globe. By stressing the interconnectedness of people, by showing the human (or inhuman, depending on your genre) capacity for change, event based plot structure even on a small scale can have the same provocative impact as the theme based structure.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of these plot structures?
Strengths of Theme Based Plot Structure:
1. Strong central message gives the story the ability to teach a lesson.
2. Similarities and differences between characters are often easier to hash out.
3. Dialog is always purposeful, designed each time to convey something specific.
4. Central theme gives the author solid direction.
5. The emotional is often preferred to the logical or rational.
Weaknesses of Theme Based Plot Structure:
1. An inflexible structure, there is not much movement outside the realm of the theme.
2. Sloppy writing could result in characters sounding too much alike.
3. Expressing the theme as an abstract is often ambiguous for the reader.
4. Limited to linear game play; too much choice runs the risk of masking the theme.
5. Runs a greater risk of cliche or preachy endings than event based structure.
Strengths of Event Based Plot Structure:
1. Encourages exploration; more choice is certainly a positive.
2. Structure has the ability to dissect more specific social issues than a theme based structure.
3. Dialog is generally more natural.
4. Writing becomes easier as a logical event sequence is certainly encouraged.
5. Traumatic events produces dramatic character development.
Weaknesses of Event Based Plot Structure:
1. Author may be prone to fleshing out groups of people rather than individuals (groupthink).
2. Pacing is often difficult as exploration must be balanced with advancement.
3. Complex responses to the event are often dropped for simple ones, a definite mistake.
4. Lacks the central idea that connects the occurrences of the theme based plot structure.
5. More difficult to convey a specific message or teach a specific lesson.
A Conclusion: Why Do I Care?
Unorganized plots come off as unprofessional. Without a direction, without a road connecting the happenings of the story, events often seem random or unprecedented. Everything within a narrative happens for a reason; there is not enough room on our canvasses to encompass more than that. And so, it is absolutely essential for an author to select a lens in which readers can view his work. In this guide, I have presented you with two such materials from which you can construct that lens. There are other methods, to be sure, but these are the dominant forms in the game design industry today, and with good reason. The flexibility of the event based plot structure allows developers to create vast, expansive worlds in which more and more things are possible. The more traditional theme based plot structure gives writers the opportunity to express themselves regarding the human condition, to make a lasting impact that extends far beyond the game itself. I can only hope that some of the words you have read here today can help spark the next great story, in game or on paper. Good luck, lovers of the written word.