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How To Move the Plot Forward
To keep players' interest, every scene of a story should push the plot forward—or should it?
How To Write a Game is a free publication written by Ryan Matejka, an organic human who loves to write. If you like this, please consider making a small donation.
When you’re writing a video game story, you may feel pressured to make every scene push the plot forward. Perhaps this pressure comes from your assumed player expectations, a lack of confidence in your writing skills, or a literal demand from a supervisor. After all, stories are just plots, so every scene should advance the plot, right?
Actually, that’s wrong. If your scenes exist only to push the plot forward, you are not writing a story, you’re creating content and it will be quickly forgotten. Every scene must not advance the plot, it must contribute to the story.
What Is the Difference Between Plot and Story?
A plot is the sequence of events that make up a story. It is a list of events. For example, the (very summarized and spoiler-free) plot of Bioshock is that a man’s plane crashes in the ocean, he swims to a lighthouse that takes him down to the underwater city of rapture where he explores, battles many opponents, and learns a shocking truth about his own existence in the process. You can read the plot of most popular stories on Wikipedia, but that’s not even remotely as satisfying as reading, watching, or playing it for yourself.
A story includes plot, setting, themes, characters, conflict, tone, structure, and more. The story of Bioshock cannot be summarized in a single sentence or even several paragraphs, it must be experienced to be understood, and even then the details are often subjective — is it a story about free will, a meta-commentary on video games, the dangers of genetic splicing, or something else entirely?
If plot is reading the word “pizza,” story is the act of seeing, smelling, feeling, and tasting it.
How To Make Your Scenes Contribute to the Story
A scene contributes to the video game story when it adds, advances, or removes something in a compelling way. The “something” can be almost anything, but some examples include:
When planning a scene, ask yourself what the scene should add, advance, or remove to enrich the story. To be clear, it's okay if the point is to advance the plot so that a character discovers an important piece of the larger puzzle, but it's far less compelling when that's the only point of the scene.
A scene really comes to life when it contributes to the story in more than one way. For example, if a character discovers an important piece of the larger puzzle, how does that affect their relationships, the themes, tone, or genre? Does a new conflict arise? Does the puzzle piece act as an interesting new object going forward? Is a new location or a memorable character introduced as a result, or are they instead lost or removed?
What if the Scene Is Cool but It Deviates From the Story?
If you like a scene you've planned or written but find that it doesn't contribute to the story at all—perhaps it's really cool but it's basically a complete detour—don’t fret! Even a detour that completely resolves itself can contribute to the story.
The first stories I told in video games—told as in-game emails in Cook, Serve, Delicious ! 2!!—are seemingly inconsequential to the game. They are completely optional to experience and have absolutely no impact on the game itself. In fact, while writing them I felt like a bit of a fraud. I worried that I was taking advantage of the game’s creator by accepting money for my seemingly inconsequential contribution. Thankfully, he knew better than me that the optional stories I provided added layers upon layers of texture and history to an otherwise straightforward setting. Players who read the emails were pleasantly surprised at what they found, and it paid off even more later when those emails set the foundation for the story in the following game.
A more popular example is the third episode of The Last Of Us on HBO, which deviates almost entirely from the main story and conflict while still enriching the world and themes. That said, if some part of the video game story can be removed and without consequence, consider removing it to see if the story improves as a result.
Creating a work of art is much more challenging than producing content, but it is much more rewarding to you and the player to make and eat the pizza than to simply write and read the word itself. In order to write a story that captures the imagination and resonates with players long after they've put their controller down, think carefully about how each scene affects the larger story and try to make it impact the story in more than one way.
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