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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Back and Forth: Plot Twists and You

I really, really, really hope you understand what this picture has to do with this post. But if you don't, I guess that's okay. SPOILER ALERT! ;) At any rate, we're here to talk about plot twists. They're hard to do right, really bad if done wrong, and incredibly satisfying when they work. I'm here to talk a bit about how to do them well, and also about how they're not just for GMs. (Yeah, I just said that.)

Setup and Payoff: Traditional Beats
In the traditional paradigm of setting up a plot, the flow of drama is divided into "beats", little pieces of action and information-revealing. Some of those beats are considered to be "setups", and some are "payoffs". Setups put information in place ("I was once a Jedi knight, same as your father." and "A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father."), and payoffs make something happen with that information ("No, I am your father.").

Sounds cool in practice, but there's some problems with this way of doing things. Reducing plot points to "setup"/"payoff" is problematic because audiences know how to spot setups and payoffs. It's the "Chekhov's Gun" problem: if the audience sees a gun in the first act, they'll be watching to see it fired before the end of the story. The most clear solution to this issue is to throw lots of plot points into the story, so that the audience can't tell which ones are meant to pay off at what times. This unfortunately has a twofold problem.

The first half of the problem is that it makes things confusing. With so many setups in play, it can be easy for the audience to forget a setup, and that means the resulting payoff will seem to come out of nowhere. There's also the second part: as the story reaches its conclusion, the benefit of having many setups vanishes, because you have to start tying off loose ends, narrowing the field. You'll get to the point where there's so few unresolved setups left that it's very apparent where the story must end.

The Art of Potential
There's another way to do it. It's inspired by something I read a while back (and which I recall very little else about), which advised "Don't think about what your characters would do; think about what they could do." Thinking in terms of "would" is a very directed, narrow, and predictable method. The stupid character will act stupid, and the evil character will be evil. To change their actions, you have to change the character (the evil character develops a soft spot, the femme fatale starts acting nasty), which still means that their actions are predictable.

But what about "could"? In reality, both plots and characters have traits that let them go in a great many ways. A brave character isn't programmed to always do the brave thing; a brave character is always looking for ways to be brave. In a mature plot, plot points don't have one single possible use. Any element in a clever, hard-to-guess plot will have more than one possible application. When you stack them all together, it's impossible to say how they'll all interact in the end.

A character with multiple strong motivations and character traits (a soldier who believes in the restoration of an ancient kingdom and is devoted to his sister, who also has traits like aloofness, efficiency, and recklessness) will see all of those elements played against one another, and different character attributes will win out at different times. Likewise, a plot with many facets (for instance, various groups that want to succeed at their own respective goals) will develop in many potential ways.

Plot Zen
When you start viewing plot points as a matter of potential, instead of as a set direction, the plot itself becomes more organic, plausible, and interesting. The applications for GMs are quite evident: design plots not as cause-effect chains, but as clusters of plot points, each one capable of causing a reaction when something happens, each one starting in a specific direction, but always able to shift believably.

Let's take this one step farther. Remember how I mentioned the idea of setups and payoffs? Time for one of those quasi-mystical mantras: There is no setup or payoff, only plot. Every plot point advances things, and can be a payoff of sorts. Every plot point can also be called on as a setup, but this is not required. Because every plot point is a payoff/consequence, it carries with it a sort of resolution, so you don't have to tie them all up at the end. They're already tied up. Instead, you just springboard off of prior plot points to resolve your current plots.

Oh, and when I say "you", I'm not just speaking to GMs out there. The GM isn't the only one in charge of plot twists. In fact, it could be said that the players are the largest engine of plot twists in an RPG world. Many a GM has pulled their hair out, trying to deal with players who introduce unexpected elements. The players are also the ones who know which plot points they care about the most. So, they're actually in some ways better situated to handle plot twists.

Most importantly, make things happen. Time for the second and most important mantra: Make everything matter. If every major action causes things to happen, then you don't have to scramble to pull up plot twists out of nowhere.

(Season 3 of Heroes, looking right at you. Don't be that guy.)

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