Recipes for Storytelling

It has been said that writing a story is not like baking a cake and there are no recipes to follow.
challenge accepted
Stories do, in fact, have recipes. As you progress as a writer, you’ll be able to spot them, identify them, and even determine where the storyteller went wrong. This isn’t just literature either - the recipes behind movies will be laid bare before you as well. You may find your favorite action movie no longer appealing because you see where the director substituted the wrong ingredient, you may find a new appreciation in a drama where the recipe was executed perfectly.
When I say recipe, I’m not just talking about plot. Much has been written about “the X basic plots”, and depending on the value of X you may find these other writings useful or exhausting. What I’m talking about is more like formula. First, formula is NOT bad. It is only bad when the formula is cliche or because the narrative isn’t interesting enough. All stories are written to a formula - or recipe - of some kind.
There is no better proof that formulas work than Lester Dent, who wrote the “Doc Savage” stories to a formula he created and shared with others. I bring this up because the sort of story he wrote, if you haven’t heard of him or “Doc Savage”, is adventure. I suggest you read the “Master Fiction Plot” for yourself before we continue.
You’ll notice it can be adapted for any genre, with enough work. You’ll also notice that it is based on creating a 6000 word short story. You can make it shorter or longer, but you can’t make a novel out of it without weaving in side plots.
Now, I’ve written a story myself using this formula and it’s a lot of fun. I took it out 6 months later (I like to leave stories to stew awhile) to edit for publication and it’s fun to read. I’ve shown it to people who know about these things and they’ve said it had them at the edge of their seat. What I’m getting at here is that this formula makes for a compelling story and translated as IF should make for a compelling game.
As I describe what I’m doing here, I’ll be writing a game in Inform 7. Note that I’m no expert with that system, or even other IF systems. My focus is on the fiction itself. So let’s begin:
First we need characters. Since this will be story driven IF and not puzzle IF, the protagonist should be more than just a stand in for the player. Yet he (or she) needs to be someone for the player to identify with, so we don’t want him (or her) to be TOO superhuman. I’m making him a “wild west” style gunslinger, with some modern anti-hero grit. NPCs will refer to him as “stranger” (man with no name) and treat him with distrust. We’ll give him a red duster, just for flavor, as well as a revolver in a holster. To make him a bit “bigger than life” we’re going to let the player “shoot” without first drawing his gun and making his aim perfect “from the hip”.
For our villain, let’s call him “Marcus ‘The Thug’ Andrews”. He’s a bank robber, an obvious thug that leads a gang. Let’s define his gang while we’re at it. Remember, we don’t want the mooks to overshadow the Big Bad, so don’t get carried away.
Warren Andrews is Marcus’ brother.
Bill Alexander “the Gambler” is a man that bets on anything.
Steven “Loco” Newman is a peyote user prone to wild hallucinations.
Ron “Gravedigger” O’Brien is a gunslinger known for his “winning” streak.
We can give them props if we want, like Marcus Andrews has a black hat, the gambler has dice, and so on. Don’t get too wrapped up in it though. We’re not making a sidescrolling platformer with a string of mini-bosses - these guys present a threat to the player because they are working together. Gravedigger may be a gunslinger, but he is no match for the player by himself. He’s just better known.
We have a hero and a villain (well, gang of villains). That’s really all we need at this point. We might introduce more characters as we go along, but we have the foundation of dramatic conflict. Whatever goal the hero has, the villains will get in his way.
Now, our setting. Let’s have a typical “wild west” town, with a dusty street running through it. I’m only going to make the rooms as they are needed. The important thing is to give enough detail for the player to feel immersed, without so much they feel overwhelmed.
I’ll start with the saloon, which is where I’ll put the gang. Now, a tricky thing about IF is that keyword “interactive”. If you try to force the player through your story rather than letting him decide what to do next, he’s not going to be happy. But you’ve got a story, how are you going to push him through it. You’re not. But your NPCs are. :sunglasses: Especially your villains. :smiling_imp:
Bartenders that see a lot of trouble learn to demand people disarm in their saloon. Getting the place shot up tends to be bad for business. So the first thing we do is have a bartender ask for the player’s gun. This will give us the opportunity to show the player the hero’s potential, as well as set him up for the inevitable trouble he’s about to get into.
We won’t let the player do anything until he hands over his weapon, but we’ll do it by speaking through the NPCs. If he attempts to leave, the gang can bully him into staying. This way the bartender is just a neutral party - he doesn’t want any shooting in his place of business. The gang are the bad guys, and we’re going to show it by the way they treat the player.
The player can either try to avoid antagonizing the gang, or he can assert himself early. Either way, he’s going to get into a fight, ending with him being thrown through the window of the saloon and waking up in the Sheriff’s jail cell. This last bit is for his protection, of course, and the Sheriff will let him out, giving him back his gun. This starts off the second act.
From here the player can explore the town. If he returns to the saloon, he can drink in peace. But if he enters the bank, he’ll find the gang is holding it up. Naturally, he gets caught in the middle regardless of what he does. He’s outnumbered, the gang is armed, and they have a hostage (the tied up and unconscious banker) so a shoot out is unwise at this stage. The gang get away, and the sheriff shows up just in time to arrest the player.
Back to the jail cell. This time the player will need to solve a puzzle to get out. Important: make sure the puzzle doesn’t rely on the player having picked up an item or talking to someone before this point, or it’s a frustrating restart. That ends the second act.
Note that I’m substituting a puzzle for the violence that Lester Dent would have here. You could easily thrown in another spot of fighting, or do all puzzles.
After the jail break, the player can escape into the desert… and stumble right into the gang’s camp. This time he has the upper hand. Only the gunslinger is armed, and the player can outshoot him. He can dispatch the others easily as they go for their guns. However, Marcus - being the bastard he is - gets away.
Thus ends act three.
The player can return to the town with the stolen money and be received as a hero. That is until Marcus shows up, holding a wanted poster. There is no picture, but the description is of “a tall man, wearing a red duster, and carrying a silver handgun”. The bounty is a substantial amount, more than the take from the bank, and the condition is “dead or alive”.
This should be a tough shoot out between the player, Marcus, and the Sheriff. For distraction, throw in townspeople who can’t shoot straight. Marcus takes two shots to kill and will play possum for 1 round after being shot the first time if the sheriff is still alive.
Wrap it up and serve with a side dish of your choice. Season to taste.
I’ll post my inform game file once I finish it up. The actual coding is taking me a little longer than the plotting, which goes to show how Lester Dent was able to be so prolific.

that link doesnt seem to go to an active file on that page… :frowning:

Here’s a link that’s working right now.

(Looking forward to the OP’s game. I have an idea for a Western-themed IF, and that outline is pretty inspiring.)

finally got around to checking it ert. good read! im glad my story follows a formula similar to that; i.e. keep the reader/player interested, up the stakes, pile on the grief (makes for a better pay-off) sort of what Rowling did in HP book 6 when she kills off Dumbledore. i bookmarked the page for easy reference! :nerd:

She got a little carried away with the grief-dozer at the end there. However, I think it worked well when

Voldemort died with “mudane finality”.

Which of course they’ll completely miss in the last movie, since the rest of them were utterly watered down and abbreviated.