‘I’d pay to hear Kaufman or Mamet,’ I said. ‘But I reckon they’d start off by saying there is no magic formula.’
‘I knew you’d scoff. Here, I’ll prove it works. Give me one of your Knightmare novellas.’
He counted pages to the plot points, the mid-point, the break into two. ‘See? Fits the three-act story structure exactly.’
‘That’s not proof of your point, though -- quite the opposite. 'Cause I just wrote that book. I didn’t map out where I should put the inciting incidents and reveals and reversals. If you tell a story, sure, it may very well fit the structure - but that doesn’t mean that knowing the structure will help you tell better stories.’
Here’s an analogy you may have heard me use before. Toss a ball and it follows a parabola. But there is no rule in nature that fits the ball’s trajectory to the equation for a curve. The universe doesn’t do equations. Instead the parabola emerges because of the force of gravity making incremental changes to the ball’s velocity. Then we look at it, get our maths on, and say, "Ooh, a parabola."
So too with stories. The changes in velocity are the deep rules of human interaction. The three-act structure is just one curve that you might perceive from a specific set of interactions.
People are suckers for an easy fix. Hence snake oil, superstition, and Trump. And hence also role-playing game design, which has been tempted off into the shrubbery with the seductive promise of a formula for better stories. Things like this:
"Each player around the table gets to write one of the fifty-six Johari adjectives in one quadrant of your character’s Johari window. Pick your character's primary defining adjective from the façade quadrant. The player who gave you that adjective that now assigns your character a Goal, a Grudge and a Geis of her choice. Every time you evoke one of those, the player who assigned it to you takes over as GM to direct you in a scene with potential for a Character Development roll…"My view on this kind of malarkey is that I turned up to play my character, not to author yours. More importantly, you’re going to get better stories – more interesting, more complex, more surprising, more emotionally affecting, and more transformative – by setting out simply to inhabit the characters rather than by sitting at arm’s length and pulling their strings.
I would never try to shoehorn an RPG session into story shapes when I’m running the game, much less when I'm playing. Let the game take the course it wants without self-consciously imposing story templates and from time to time it will really amaze you. OK, so it probably won’t end up with the tidy three-act form of a blockbuster movie. But what’s more compelling: watching a precision-crafted screenplay tie everything up with a bow, or experiencing life with its shifting, overlapping, unexpected patterns?
The other day I heard somebody talking about a ‘crafted narrative’ RPG system. ‘We enjoyed creating the characters more than playing the game!’ he said – as if that was a good thing. But it’s not, it’s a fail. If you enjoy creating characters, fine. Become a writer. Though, if you do, for pity’s sake don’t subject us to stories wrangled through a Hollywood paradigm. Writers soon learn that it’s more fruitful to let the characters drive the story organically than to try to corralling them with reductive mechanics like goal achievements and epiphany moments.
Human beings evolved to perceive in events the shape of a story, because then it becomes a lesson we can learn. The events themselves aren’t a story, they’re just a cascade of cause and effect. The universe doesn’t do stories any more than it does equations. The story is the parabolic curve mapped onto the events afterwards.
Likewise, the experiences you have while playing the game are the uncollapsed wave function, and all the more interesting for that. When players recount their adventures later, that’s when the storytelling happens. Each character will come away with a different story – for example in this write-up, which describes things from my character’s point of view. If you asked another of the players you’d hear a very different tale. You get it. You’ve seen Rashomon.
In short, you’ll get better stories if you don’t try to create ‘stories’. Because it really is the case that truth (or a simulated life) is stranger than fiction.