I once wrote in this blog that regardless of a story’s length, I find it useful to structure its plot as a three-act outline. In fact, I have a specific formula for how the acts are written.
Act 1. The hero (that is, the PC) becomes aware of a problem to be resolved.
Act 2. The hero tries to attain an objective, to which a strong antagonist is opposed. At this point, the hero gets a complication that makes it more difficult to attain the objective.
Act 3. It seems that the hero has no chance to defeat the antagonist. Nevertheless, the hero can still prevail, but only with the help of one or more third parties that tip the balance in the hero's favor.
The three acts, as written above, are expressed in general terms. Nevertheless, writers need to make their plots more specific. Where does the hero come from? What is the problem that the hero seeks to resolve? Why would the hero care to resolve this problem? Who is the antagonist, and why is this person opposing the hero? These questions and more need to be answered.
In the first act, heroes may or may not be aware of their antagonists. They may not even know what their objectives are at this point. Nevertheless, antagonists may make their influence felt in Act 1 even if they don’t make an appearance yet. By the second act, however, heroes usually know who their antagonists are and will take on a number of increasingly difficult challenges to thwart them.
The complication that occurs in the second act is a curve ball that gets thrown to the hero. It is an unexpected event, one that the hero may not be prepared to deal with. Complications make it more difficult for heroes to accomplish their goals and raise the level of excitement in stories. They can drastically change the relationship of certain characters with each other. The betrayal of a trusted ally, for example, is an oft-used complication in many stories.
The third party that helps the hero in the third act is not necessarily a person, although in non-interactive stories such as movies and novels, it generally is. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Frodo would never have destroyed the One Ring without the unwelcome intervention of Gollum. In video games that make use of this plot device, however, the third party is often an object that makes the final encounter with the antagonist easier. In the NWN2 OC and in MotB, this object may have been the Sword of Gith, although for many players, it is actually the set of items that the player creates that help save the day.
In non-interactive stories, if the hero loses, it’s usually because of some tragic flaw in the hero’s personality. In video games, however, the hero losing is generally the fault of the player, a situation that is easily resolved by reloading a saved game.
To some degree, plot structures can be sort of fractal in nature. Writers can add more depth to their plots by putting miniature three-act structures within each main act. Some of the mini-acts may also have their own three-act structures within them. How far to take this is up to the writers to decide.
So far, this discussion has been very abstract. I’m going to make it more concrete by providing an example. Here is the top-level three-act structure for the movie The Matrix starring Keannu Reeves.
Act 1. Neo becomes aware of mysterious agents trying to capture him.
Act 2. Neo seeks to awaken his power, of which the Oracle has foretold. Agent Smith seeks to stop Neo by killing him. Cypher betrays Neo and the rest of the Nautilus crew by attempting to kill all of them while they are helpless.
Act 3. In his final encounter with Agent Smith, Neo almost dies. Trinity confesses her love for Neo just as he is dying, thus inspiring him to unleash the power of The One.
In the above example, Neo is the hero, and his objective is to awaken his power. His antagonist is Agent Smith, with whom Neo has a series of encounters. The complication comes when Cypher manages to kill some of the members of the Nautilus crew but is fortunately thwarted before he can kill Neo. Their numbers reduced, Neo and the Nautilus crew stand less of a chance against Agent Smith and his cohorts. In their last fight with the agents, Neo almost dies. It is only when Trinity confesses her love to Neo that he becomes The One who is able to single-handedly defeat Agent Smith and put the entire Matrix at risk.
The formula for creating plots that I expounded on here is one that I have observed in many non-interactive stories. It is possible to deviate from this formula, but whoever does so had better be a very good writer to pull it off.
Since plots are situated in time and place, the setting naturally arises out of the development of the plot. Most of the time, writers create their plots with a specific setting in mind, but sometimes, a better setting might suggest itself as the plot is created. This was what happened in the course of our discussions. Although we had initially set out to create a module in the Forgotten Realms, we eventually wound up creating a custom setting.
Stay tuned for the final chapter in this story writing series.