Story = Personal Change

There are various different theories about the structure and substance of stories but I think one thing that is agreed almost universally is that stories are about personal change. A protagonist embarks or is propelled on a journey at the end of which they are irrevocably changed.

In his book Story: substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting Robert McKee subscribes to this philosophy, stating that a story is made up of acts which are made up of sequences which are made up of scenes (or story events) which are made up of beats.

From each beat to the next there are changes in behaviour; beat 1: they meet, beat 2: they argue, beat 3: there is violence

A scene is a series of beats which result in a minor but significant change (positive or negative) to one or more of the character’s values e.g. self-doubt to confidence. If there’s no change then nothing meaningful happens in the scene and it might as well be omitted.

sequence combines a number of scenes to bring about a more significant change to the character’s values.

An act combines sequences which result in a major change (possibly a reversal of fortune)

And finally a story is composed of a number of acts which build to a climax and bring about an irrevocable change to the character

So the question I’m asking myself is, could this structure be employed in support of roleplay?

Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp, among others, have identified patterns in myth and folk narrative that might form a template for the sequences (and/or scenes). So maybe a player could say “I want my character’s story to be about finding true love” and then that would kind of put them at the start of a “true love” story process-diagram that defined a series of sequences/challenges to appropriate character values that produced an over-arching “true love” storyline.

For example, romantic challenges typically involve a romantic rival who is ultimately revealed to be not all that they appeared. So a “true love” story might entail challenges that result in swings in the love interest’s affections towards the character or towards their rival. Ultimately the sum of these events would result in the love interest being swayed either one way or the other, at which point the next sequence or act could comence, where the rival’s true colours might begin to emerge.

Could this work? I’m still just brainstorming really. If there’s anyone else out there, your thoughts on this are welcome.

The fact that this process might result in some railroading of the story is one concern but I think that it may well be sufficiently mitigated by having fairly general event descriptions and requiring a good deal of interpretation to determine how best to apply them within the context of the current story.

I’ll have to think some more about this, it’s certainly worth considering.


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