As a writer, I build scenes. As a game master, I build encounters. There are differences, but there are similarities too…
Encounters and scenes have different requirements and components. I usually introduce outside characters and creatures in an encounter, but not as often in a scene. Scenes might focus on the actions of a single character, alone, while encounters demand someone or something else.
At the same time, scenes and encounters share a purpose and function in the story.
Moving the story forward
“Something needs to happen…” We can’t let the story grind to a stop. So, we make something happen. But is that something doing us any good? Sure, words are said, stuff happens, a couple bodies hit the floor, but does the story actually go somewhere? Or are we back to “Something needs to happen?”
Whether it’s a tender scene between your hero and heroine (or your heroine and your other heroine I ain’t judging here) or a massive battle where your players take on the orc king and his whole army, our scenes and encounters need to move the story forward. There needs to be some point to the thing that helps the story, and the reader/player, move toward the resolution. Otherwise, it’s as Shakespeare said “As a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury that meaneth nothing.”
Our encounter/scene needs to advance the plot. It could give the characters information. It could be a confrontation with the bad guys. It could provide the magic widget that makes winning possible. If we can’t explain why the scene/encounter is there, it doesn’t need to be there. It’s also bogging down the story, or worse, occupying the space that belongs to something more important.
The scene needs to do something. Often, it’s best if the reader doesn’t immediately know what that something is. Often the character(s) might not know what that something is, or even think that it’s a different something.
And if all that isn’t hard enough, the scene/encounter shouldn’t be (or at least shouldn’t feel) forced. The reader/player should never be left to think “you just shoved that in there so X could happen,” or worse, “you just shoved that in there because you wanted it there.” The encounter/scene should flow naturally from what’s going on in the story (the parts the readers/players are aware of and the ones they aren’t).
Sometimes the hardest scenes to write, and the most gratifying when they’re finished, are the ones that are the character’s own #$@#$#!!! fault.
Resulting from character actions
Confronting characters with the results of their actions is a valid thing to do. At times, it’s the point of the story. The ‘natural consequences’ of a character’s actions can be the catalyst that pushes the hero back on course. They could also bring the villain’s world crashing down.
There are other kinds of encounters and scenes, but the ones resulting from a character’s own actions are the “most fair”. You can’t say the GM just dumped an encounter on you if your choices got you there.
Scenes resulting from character actions also result in the most teachable moments and psychological change, the internal stuff many players/readers are looking for.
Sure, something needs to happen. Sometimes we need to goose a player or character out of a rut, but it’s best if we can get them doing something rather than just having something happen to them. And it doesn’t have to be an immediate cause-and-effect situation.
Chekov’s law states that a gun shown in act one must be used in act three. Our story might not have a literal gun, but the characters in our stories can and should do things that come back to haunt them (or help them) later in the story. Sometimes the “get them out of the rut” trigger has to come from the outside. But if we know our characters and what they’ve been doing, they’ll give us the answer that gets them moving again.
It’s a busy world. Nobody, not us, not our readers/players, nor our characters have loads of extra time to be sitting around “letting stuff happen.” In printed books, every page costs. Whether printed, electronic, or live, too much distance between important events can slow the story down, resulting in lost interest and lost reader/player interaction. Every scene or encounter needs to move the story forward. It needs to give our readers/players some form of value and a reason to stay with us a little longer.
It’s ok to cut scenes. It’s ok to rewrite scenes. It’s ok to create new scenes. Sometimes the scene or encounter we create on the fly is exactly what’s needed (sometimes the answers are in the back of our minds, whether the front of our minds know it or not…). No matter what our scene is, we need to make sure it has purpose in the story, that it has a reason to be there and value for the reader/player.
Virtually every thing we do in editing is a value building process, making the story better, clearer, more fulfilling, more interesting, and even more important for our readers and players. We definitely want it to feel more important than the other stuff our player/reader could spend time on.
Now, the question is… How do we do all that? And that depends on the stories we’re building. Good luck with yours, dear reader. I need to work on mine for a while.
Polish those scenes and encounters, make them really worthwhile. And, I’ll see you next post.