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The Basics of Plot


Dialectical Hermeticist
Welcome to another tutorial with the Meanest Senpai, wherein I’m going to try and teach you to assemble a plot for your RP. I’ve provided a number of tools for this in the past, but today I’m going to focus on the very basics because there’s some evidence those foundations have sailed over your head rather than settled under your feet.

To that end, if you consider yourself experienced enough not to need this feel free to skip right to disagreeing with me.

The Three Act Structure

The three act structure is practically a myth, a better analytical tool than a storytelling guideline. But fuck it, it’s simple and a good place to start. When you can see the problems with this model, you’ve learned enough to leave it behind.

The first act is the introduction. We get to know the setting and the characters, get a feel for their lives, goals, and relationships. Act 1 ends when a problem is introduced; a disaster, an antagonist, a bad decision.

Act 2 is concerned with facing this problem, which escalates across the act until the characters have suffered a loss or setback.

Act 3 follows the climax - the characters have defeated the villain, saved the town, exposed the mayor’s corruption, whatever. Now the resolution of events takes place, we see how the experience has changed characters, we get a glimpse of the future ahead of them. Typically we are satisfied by this scene, sometimes we are saddened.

So applying this to a roleplay, Act 1 is where the characters are established, meet each other, and interact with the setting. As a GM, you can simply engineer situations that allow for this, while foreshadowing future events. In a group RP without a GM, you all have to make a point of telling the reader - and your fellow players - something about the setting, communicate some things about your character, and find ways to bring characters together.

In Act 2, you introduce the villain or whatever the catalyst for the central conflict will be. Characters confront the problem, they suffer losses or Pyrrhic victories, and when they seem at their lowest some revelation allows them to overcome the obstacle in a climactic scene. This requires a lot of communication - characters might die, they’ll definitely lose, so it’s important for the group to agree on limits, and more importantly agree that for drama, their characters need to lose, have moments of weakness, and so on.

In Act 3, everyone deals with the repercussions of the climax. Not a bad point to skip ahead a few years, write personal epilogues, that kind of thing. Set up for a sequel, if you like.

Simple, relatively short, this is the summer blockbuster of structures. Hopefully you can make use of it; really think about what you want to happen where in the structure, use it as a guideline with your fellow roleplayers to keep the plot moving forward. The break between acts should always move things forward in some way.

The Journey of the Hero, which I’ll talk about some other time but goddamn you’re on the internet and Wikipedia is right there, fits pretty neatly into this structure. With some pruning.

Right. Let’s talk about a more advanced method.

The Five Act Structure - or, Shakespeare’s Wheelhouse

Did I say advanced? I meant ‘the one that actually works.’ I like this structure. This has a ton of fun stuff and importantly grabs the audience - or players - by the throat from the beginning.

The first act establishes characters and a pre-existing point of conflict. This is a world-in-progress. A cold war, gang warfare, Gary from Human Resources out to fire you, there’s a conflict in place. A sense of time, place, and action. Something interesting is already happening.

The second act reverses or worsens that conflict. A reveal, a surprise, a relationship, something that challenges or escalates the conflict.

The third act is where something complicates the situation, a turning point that alters the arc of the story. People die, good intentions go awry, things get worse. This can allow for minor wins by the characters, though, and even uncharacteristic behaviour by the cast in light of unusual circumstances.

The fourth act, or spiral, is a quickening of pace. Many decisions being made, character flaws exposed, moments of reflection. You can set up the climax from here. Keep it short, if you can.

The fifth act resolves things, the conflict is ended, but it’s more important than just an ending. That statement thing I keep harping on about comes into play here - the fifth act should encapsulate your plot, it should definitively make your statement.

How do you apply this to an RP? Similarly to the above, honestly. Gives you much more room to work, and clearer delineations between acts. I’d argue the five-act structure is the better choice, but it’s up to you.

Frankly, you should use as many acts as you need to tell your story, and have an ending in mind.

The eight-point arc is an interesting model I’ve only recently read about; it’s like a less mythologized Journey of the Hero. I’ll probably explain how to use this one later.

User @Chiken has devised an even simpler but more detailed guide that is also worth looking at.

Join me next week when I’ll explain tone, theme, foreshadowing, and other fundamental techniques like a condescending jerk.

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