This is excerpted from my upcoming article in Game Wrap Magazine, volume 2– “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” about the tension between narrative design and player autonomy. I pulled this part out because it’s applies structure in all storytelling forms, not just larps.
One of the tools storytellers use to shape narrative is structure. Structure in this case refers to the design of the order, manner, and pacing of events making up the story and the relationships of those events to each other. Narrative is at its fundamental level about change— starting with a thesis, confronting it with its antithesis, and seeing the new synthesis that results. Structure is an important tool for storytellers to choose and arrange events in order to create, control, and facilitate that change.
In much of literature, structure falls into a traditional form. The circumstances are established in a setup, after which a triggering change, the inciting event, propels the protagonist into challenging new situations. As the protagonist struggles to achieve their goals in the face of unexpected obstacles, the tension of the situation is increased by the rising action and its addition of complications. Ultimately, the action builds to the highest point of confrontation, the climax, where the hero faces their greatest challenge, and the changes they have undergone are tested to see if they are sufficient to overcome. This point is usually the most intense action of the story. After this, the tension ratchets down as the consequences of the climax are unpacked, at least to some degree, in the falling action. Finally, we are left with the resolution, which tells us the new status quo, to contrast with the way things were in the beginning.
This pattern of structure is so prevalent in storytelling because of how well it presents conflict and response to conflict in order to prompt development, growth, and change. It offers a steady buildup of the level of challenge in a manner that increases tension and our investment in the stakes of the conflict — the more struggle a goal entails, the more important achieving it becomes — while eventually providing satisfaction by offering a resolution.
Beyond this simple ordering of events, it offers the storyteller the tools to figure out how and at what speed the events should occur in relation to each other to achieve the best effect. By using this framework as a guide, the storyteller can determine at what point of the emotional journey they would like their audience to have reached at any given moment. The teller can then decide how to shape each event in relation to the other events to achieve the desired effect. If the tension needs to go up, intense actions can occur all in quick succession. If the intensity is increasing too fast, the plot-driving moments can occur on a smaller scale, or be spaced farther apart. So the curation of the occurrence of events in the story allows for the best release of information, timing of events, and measured building of tension.
But the key part of that is that curation. To utilize structure to best effect, it requires design— intentional choices made in what events occur when, with specific desired effects in mind. For events to have the greatest impact on the course of the story and, the development of the characters, they can’t just happen in any order or in any relation to each other; story events don’t build properly upon one another or deliver their full effect when they occur in a completely uncontrolled way. For example, iIf you are unraveling a mystery, part of the appeal is acquiring each clue and encountering each complication in turn, with the opportunity to piece everything together and examine the picture step by step as it develops. If all the clues and secrets come together too immediately, the solution feels anticlimactic. If you are on a quest, the challenge of testing your mettle against obstacle and rising to the occasion to achieve your end is a huge part of the fun. If the ultimate prize is simply handed to you, the experience is short-circuited. Even if a character grows too much too easily, without any personal effort or cost, it feels cheap and unrealistic. Indeed, since goals become more important the harder you have to work for them, and easy achievements feel smaller than difficult ones, any resolution that comes too easily or too soon is going to feel less satisfying.