Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Building Your Own: These Things Gotta Start Somewhere

As the title says, nothing starts from nothing. If there's a big problem, it was set in motion by a smaller problem, and that started from a single event. Walk it back and determine what that event was, and you've got a good start writing your next adventure.

But First, a Matter of Semantics

I got about two sentences into writing this thing when I realized I was using the word "story" with two separate meanings, so I'm going to start with the discussion of those and substitute a term from there on so you know what I'm going on about.

One story, which I'm calling the "story"

One version is the sequence of events from start to finish. Leave out any fancy storytelling, allusion, flashbacks, flash-forwards, foofy literary devices, etc. This version is just a series of events, from start, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, to finish.

The other story, which I'm calling the "narrative"

I felt the need to separate these because once the author has the story to tell, the narrative is not going to be so straightforward. He could start at the beginning, the end, or anywhere in between, and from there may go anywhere else. Furthermore, there may be flashbacks, foreshadowing, and other trickery to attempt to build interest in whatever story (the first definition, above) is unfolding, because sometimes the narrative is needed to perk up a slack story.

Distinct words, distinct concepts. Simple.

This is why I felt the need to differentiate them. The story focuses on the events in sequence. The narrative focuses on putting those events forth in such a way that they entice the reader to read more.

And obviously, we're focusing on the story here, rather than the narrative.

(Though to be fair, there may be tricks to be learned from the narrator too. I'll save those for another column.)

Where These Things That Gotta Start Somewhere Start

Here's another way to look at story: It's a series of events undertaken to deal with a change in peoples' situation. We're looking at the whole series of events ultimately, but we want to focus now on that initial change.

Business As Usual

Before the first event, the system is in equilibrium. Things are likely still happening, but they have measured, more or less predictable responses and reprisals. Nothing is happening out of measure with other events.

As an example of this, imagine a cold war between two nations. They station guards along their borders, they check papers fervently, they watch for spies, maybe they catch some, a few otherwise irrelevant civilians get shot trying to cross over to relatives, and so on. Yes, things are still happening, but the situation is stable, and those things that happen daily don't threaten that stability.

Note also that stable doesn't necessarily mean civil; the guards on either side of the "no-man's-land" in the middle might hate each others' guts, but neither side is actively fighting out-of-measure with the situation. They may not respect each other in any meaningful way, but there's still a relative peace between the two sides. They hate each other, but they see no reason to cross those extra boundaries and stir up additional trouble.

Then Something Happens

The first event in the story is the one that changes things. It creates an inequity, an instability, a problem… there's a whole bunch of words for it. And deep down, there are always at least two solutions to the problem: Resign yourself to living with it, or change it. (I say at least two solutions, because there might be more than one change that also resolves it to someone's satisfaction. Thus, multiple fixes.)

Interestingly, nobody's willing to live with the change to begin with. They're always going to fight for some version of stability that better benefits them. And they typically want their solution enough to fight for it. Or to take actions out of measure with the previous stability to achieve it.

It's a common storytelling thing. The longer the inequity goes on, the greater the actions each side takes to secure their version of the equilibrium until one side finally realizes that it's not worth it, and resigns itself to live with the other guy's version of the equilibrium.

And Then Other Things Happen

But before things get better, things will get worse. Possibly much worse. After Problem A crops up and Factions A1 and A2 start maneuvering and doing bigger and badder things to each other and everyone around them pushing for Solution A1 or Solution A2.

It's that "everyone around them" where things get worse, because in fighting for Solution A1 or Solution A2, Factions A1 and A2 may inadvertently create Problem B, which creates a new argument as Factions B1 and B2 try to push for Solutions B1 and B2 respectively. And this tableau might be played out in half a dozen other Problems, a dozen other Factions, and a dozen other Solutions.

About this point, the PCs should meet in a bar somewhere.

Well, now you've done it. I hope you're proud of yourself.

You started with an inciting event, and both sides have squabbled over it, taking increasingly drastic actions against the problem (and the other side) to realize their preference of solution.

The situation has gotten so out of hand that one of two things has happened:

  1. Someone has taken the step of hiring adventurers to sort this mess out
  2. The problem has gotten so bothersome to so many that at least one of the adventurers is personally invested in finding an equilibrium.
  3. Someone has taken the step of hiring adventurers to make the scapegoat of the problem (and putting their equilibrium in place at the adventurers' detriment)

There's also a variation of (1) where someone hires an adventuring party, but doesn't give them all the information they need to solve the problem. See most noir fiction for that. Obviously they want someone to solve the problem, but not enough so that they want to embarrass themselves by revealing the truth.

Then stuff happens.

And for purposes of this writing, I don't really care what that stuff is. The whole point of this was to get you thinking about where trouble begins, and I hope I did that. Endings are another post.

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