Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Outline Structure via Feedback from "Anatomy of a Sea Story"

Great write-up.

Which brings me to an idea: do you ahve or know of any tools for 'storyboarding' adventure or fiction design? I'm thinking an easy way to plot out major plot points, identify the critical path, as well as side quests/stories, etc.

I'm thinking of something like starting with a mindmap, then organizing into a \"PERT" type diagramming, and applying critical path analyses to keep major connections sound.

My answer went so long that I decided to make it a new post:

First off, thank you.

I think this is actually two questions:

1) What tool(s) do I use to make sure that my story ideas tell an actual story instead of seemingly like a series of randomly connected events?

2) Once you have a story concept, how do you lay out story-events, complications, and side-plots in a way that keeps them logically organized?

Question 1) is easy.  I use an outline format that I learned at a writing class in Manhattan a few years ago, the ABCDE format.  Many of WotC's published adventures use this format as well, including The Lost Mine of Phandelver.  My write up on that is linked below.  If you haven't read the article, do that first, or the rest of this might not make any sense.

D&D: Campaign and Story Structure via the Lost Mine of Phandelver

If you like the story structure stuff, you may also enjoy D&D: Monomyth Structure & Campaign Design.  D&D--and especially the 4th Edition--generally follows the Monomyth by default, so understanding the design can help you create campaigns that have an "Epic D&D" feel.  That's an important trick for writing at higher levels.

Question 2) is more complicated.  A lot of times when I write, I start with an image in my head and then write around it.  For example, The Crown of Pluto started with the idea of Sneax plummetting through the rigging of a burning ship, short sword in hand & bent on revenge.  I then wrote the rest of the story around that initial image, using my outline format and a lot of brainstorming.  Similarly, The Mystery of Malvern Manor started as an image of PCs fighting an octopus monster in the basement of a mad wizard's lair.  The rest of the writing process revolved around figuring out how to get to that ending.

This method produces two issues, though.  First, we have to figure out what our story is about.  Second, we have to come up with some complications.

I'm still really pleased with how
Mordecai's Monster came out.
Knowing what the story is about keeps you on task.  Malvern Manor is about investigating the dilapidated house of a mad wizard.  The Crown of Pluto is a chase; our heroes have to get away.  The Fall of Cahokiantep is about closing a rift to the Astral Plane, and if there's a sequel, Chaokiantep: Journey to the End of the Universe will be about trying to get back to the Mortal World given the way the PCs wound up closing the rift in Fall.  I mention this because it doesn't matter so much what events happen in our story as long as they tie back somehow to the ultimate goal of what our story is about.  We know that complications need to take up 80% of our story space, so a lot of crazy shit can happen.  That's good.  Somehow, though, it all needs to link back to the basic goal.

Coming up with complications is, for me, just an exercise in brainstorming.  I ask myself "What can go wrong?" and write down at least seven things.  Then I pick one or two and go through it again.  "What can go wrong now?"  Whether it's a story or a D&D adventure, the characters stumble through the complications, slowly failing towards their goal.  What's tough about D&D is that the party is going to win most of its fights, but you still want them to feel like they're in constant jeopardy.  This means adding complications that they can't control or bringing in reveals that they had no way of seeing ahead of time.  As an example, Fall of Cahokiantep has no easy or obvious rest points.  The PCs have to search for a safe place, and even then, there's still a 50% chance that their rest gets interrupted.  This makes the meta-game of managing resources critically important.  Similarly, the party has no way of knowing what it's getting into in Mystery of Mordecai's Monster.  I called it a "mystery", but it's more like an episode of Fringe.  There aren't any actual clues, there's just a little foreshadowing and an unholy mess that slowly unwinds as things start going wrong.  With this style, it is perhaps no surprise that I usually write event-based adventures rather than sandbox.

I don't use any special outlining tools.  Mind-mapping is fine, but truth be told, I'd rather just use a standard outline.  If there's one thing I do that helps keep me on task, it's repetitive brainstorming.  I start with an idea, develop a conflict, and then come up with crap that can go wrong.  Then I come up with more crap that can go wrong--entirely new crap!--based on the developments I just built.  Three iterations of that, and I'm usually asking myself how the story ends.  I know what the story is about, so the last complication has to somehow lead to the final conclusion.  That's the one time where everyone gets to walk away happy, and I try hard to make sure that there's exactly how it goes.  A lot of times I find myself wondering if the finish is going to be good enough or exciting enough to blow off the rest of the story, but reality is that if you built enough complications, the finish will feel amazing regardless of how it actually goes down.

Does that help?  If I didn't answer your question, please please please clarify what you meant.

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