Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Structure of Story II

DaVinciCodeWhat makes a good character? Certainly you’d want your protagonist to go through some kind of journey. Otherwise you’ll have the kind of short-sighted one-dimensional character that fits in a Dan Brown novel. I’m allowed to poke fun at Dan Brown – he’s laughing all the way to the bank. As interesting as his DaVinci Code novels may be, the characters are one-dimensional and ultimately underdeveloped. Try reading his work and transposing he for she. You’ll quickly find the characters are only there for window dressing, wrapped around a theological essay. His novels struck a chord because contemporary readers are interested in controversy and anything that pokes fun at the establishment from a relatively safe position. The world longs for characters who stick with us, transformative characters who make us examine our own lives. The best stories are filled with characters who feel like real people. It’s the characters who inhabit the story. The rest is window dressing.

Grand Theft Auto 4, despite what the mass media would claim is a murder simulator, tells the story of an immigrant searching for a better life. Nico Bellic comes to America after hearing his cousin tell stories of untold riches and easy women only to find his cousin is in debt and the only woman in his life is a cab-company secretary who has no interest in him. Nico, as an ex-Serbian army officer, finds the new city offers few opportunities for immigrants aside from illicit activities, and soon becomes involved in a number of illegal enterprises. From bank robberies to running drugs and assassinations, GTA IV embodies the story of the shattered American dream. While playing Nico Bellic, the player has few opportunities to gain money or status aside from illegal endeavors, and the story manages to latch together the difficulties of relationships. Nico’s dating life, for example, balances the need for money to impress his dates with the expected external image of success required of American life – you can’t go to a club dressed in shabby clothes and driving a hatchback, you need a sports car and a pressed suit. As the game progresses, Nico quickly compromises his principles to chase the ideal American dream, and eventually he’s forced to make the ultimate sacrifice – forced to choose between his love life or his cousin, Nico’s past comes back with a vengeance.

gta4GTAIV works brilliantly because Nico Bellic is a dynamic character. The player is drawn into the world because Nico, through his commentary during missions and cut-scenes, is constantly evolving. He balances his expectation of the easy living American Dream with the harsh reality of life on the streets. As the game opens, you get the sense that Nico wants to be an honest man, and even tries a few honest jobs before the loan sharks who threaten his cousin, Roman, show up. Faced with a moral decision, Nico sides with family. He’s from the old world where your family name and your reputation mean more than anything, and soon he finds himself pulling small crimes to clear the debt Roman owes.

Nico’s story works for two very important reasons. Rockstar Games understands the use of caricature, particularly emphasized with popular American culture. Nico, from the outset, is a tragic character. He cannot succeed. He regrets his involvement in the Serbian war, and though we never learn enough about his past, we learn enough to know he doesn’t want to become the murderous killer he was. But life in America isn’t so simple. To save his reputation and his cousin, Nico has to choose violence, and the price he pays is more than he expected.

Nico’s transformation is what makes GTAIV such an engrossing story, embodying what made cheesy 80’s action flicks worth watching. The iconic action hero who wants to be good is faced with an option that really isn’t an option. Kowtow to brutal authority, or forge your own path for honor and family. We know from the beginning which path Nico will choose, but the knowing doesn’t detract from the journey.

The Structure Of Story

pacman-2I’m going to talk about video games. If you’re Roger Ebert undead, or you’re of a similar mindset, you can tune out now. Video games as an art form are undergoing a renaissance of design and storytelling (iPhone Fart Simulator aside). For the fiction writer, there’s ample opportunity to deconstruct story into its most basic elements and study what’s working, all while battling dragons in a frozen Nordic landscape. Just as you read and critique a novel to understand how the story was shaped, there are some excellent video games that portray a narrative arc in its most essential elements.

It’s easy to argue that the video game as an interactive story has limited potential. With most games, your interaction primarily consists of listed pre-programmed options, or in the case of the first-person shooter, your interaction with the world is limited by the caliber of gun you’re aiming. The modern media consumer has transitioned, and the single greatest impact of our hyper-driven always on society is the shortened attention spa- Oh hey, cupcake wars marathon! It’s painfully apparent that fiction is competing with a number of storytelling methods, from movies and television to video games. As a writer, we should play to the strengths of creative fiction – the ability to weave a mental picture that pulls the reader further into the story. Video games tell stories through user-driven interaction, but still manage to convey compelling characterizations when done well. I’ll be examining the story components of three specific games: Gone Home, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Spec Ops: The Line. Spoiler alert – I’ll be ruining all three if you have any interest in playing them, and playing isn’t required for understanding. This first post will focus on Gone Home.

gonehomeGone Home tells the story of a young woman who returns home from a semester in Paris only to find the new house her parents and little sister have occupied is eerily empty. The story plays out like a first-person puzzle game with few puzzles to solve. You begin on the front porch of a mansion your parents have inherited from your uncle – your crazy cultist uncle who died under strange circumstances. The player navigates through the empty house while a storm rages outside. Story is conveyed through answering machine messages, diary entries, mixed tapes from the younger sister, and newspaper clippings sprinkled around the house. Though the gaming elements of Gone Home could be argued, at two to three hours of content it’s not a terribly long game and there aren’t any enemies to shoot or monsters to fight. The entire game consists of the player navigating a huge empty mansion searching for clues to where her parents and her sister have gone. Examining the storytelling elements reveals an underlying brilliance to Gone Home; having the player (the narrator) stumble on diary-entries of the younger sister proves an excellent method to reveal back story while still pulling the player (or reader) into the experience. The younger sister is in high school, experiencing all the troubles and tribulations of senior year and latent sexuality, eventually ghcassettelatching on to a girl in her class who’s chastised for being a lesbian. The sub-plot devolves quickly into an emotional struggle between conformity and self-discovery as the narrator’s sister finds herself facing a difficult choice: side with the popular kids and make friends, or follow the heart and chase a same-sex relationship. The sister chooses to follow her heart only to have it bruised when the girl she’s interested in joins the army and suppresses her emotional desire. Gone Home proves to be a compelling and engrossing coming-of-age tale set around a vaguely horror-themed haunted mansion, complete with newspaper clippings hinting at a darker history in the old house.

Gone Home achieves something most popular TV shows aim for: making the reader/viewer believe they’re smarter than the storyteller. If you can accomplish this in your fiction, it comes off as brilliant. Case in point: consider your favorite TV show. I’ll use the new modernized Sherlock as an example. sherlockSherlock Holmes is a brilliant detective who solves crimes through observation. In nearly every story, the observations are presented to the viewer with carefully scripted close-up scenes, often with an overlay of text as Sherlock examines the scene. The astute observer is often one step ahead of Sherlock, and it’s not by accident. The best television shows, particularly the mystery and suspense shows like Sherlock, hinge on the viewer being manipulated into believing they’re more intelligent than the protagonist. With Sherlock, the viewer is often shown hints – visual and textual – of clues. Sometimes it takes Sherlock and Watson a few minutes to absorb and digest these clues and take the viewer to the next scene. And more often than not, a careful viewer has derived the outcome and determined the course of action, often before the protagonist has a chance to voice the answer. The next crime is at location x! As a result, the viewer believes they’re more intelligent than Sherlock, and they’re instantly drawn into the story. It’s brilliant storytelling when it works.

When it doesn’t, you have CSI Miami.

Think about how you can achieve this in fiction, regardless of your genre. Good literary fiction leads the reader to a conclusion without beating them over the head, showing them an answer without outright spelling the conclusion. Genre fiction that works best does this very well. Nearly all mystery fiction relies on this element to achieve synchronicity with the reader – start a mystery, lead the reader to the answer, and have the protagonist arrive there half a second later. Regardless of the medium – TV, video game, or literary fiction, you achieve the same result: you make the reader feel as if they’re smarter than your protagonist, and as a result, more involved in your story.

Gone Home is dirt cheap and should appeal to even those who hate video games. It’s an exploration-based simulation that strives to achieve storytelling elements through atmospheric visualization and sound. It achieves this brilliantly by making the player think they’re smarter than the protagonist. At the core, that’s what good storytelling is about.

Don’t insult your readers – show them how smart they are. Trust them to understand. You won’t get it right the first time – that’s what your reading group is for. But when you achieve it, your story will succeed.