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The "Rules" of Story (and When We Can Break Them)

Writers talk incessantly about "the rules" when it comes to storytelling, and we talk equally incessantly about when it's okay to break those rules. Let's examine when it's okay for some of us to break the rules and when we should stick to tradition.

David Kuelz

August 18, 2014

7 Min Read

If you’ve met more than one writer, you’ve probably noticed that we all have wildly different approaches to storytelling.  You’ve also probably noticed how we’re all obnoxiously convinced that our way is the best way.  Some of us believe in rigid, preconceived structures and obsessive planning before we’re willing to touch a keyboard, while others are certain that the only way to tell an organic, original story is for us to sit down and start typing and you’ll get the first draft once our muse has finished singing the song only we can hear.  Each one of us thinks that our unique blend of proven technique and unapologetic creativity is the mix that’s going to create the best story.

The reality is that we’re all right, and to a certain extent, we’re all wrong.  We preach so many different approaches because we can’t actually explain what makes a story work.  We can only explain how we got there.  We can only explain what we claim are "the rules".

Last month, I got the opportunity to teach a workshop on how to create stories for video games, and while I’m one of the obsessive, rule-oriented, structure types, I always start out my classes with two disclaimers: 

  1. My way is not the only way.

  2. Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules.

Which led to one of my students asking: “When is it okay to break the rules?”

I mostly blacked out, but I think I mumbled something intensely pretentious and largely useless, and then everyone nodded and wrote it down.  Not my proudest moment.

Today, I’d like to clean that up into an actual answer.

The “rules” that you hear about storytelling (the hero must be likable, the adherence to plot structures, show don't tell, etc.) don’t actually matter.  What matters is the underlying principles that govern the human mind. 

The best analogy idea I've heard is “story physics”.  Regardless of how you feel about “rules” there are undeniable and unalterable facts (physics) that define how and why the human mind becomes captivated; an experience that the audience can experience vicariously is always superior to an intellectual exercise; a story pulsing with dramatic tension is always superior to an elongated observation; change is better than stagnation.  And there’s nothing we can do about them.  Just like the forces of physics, these principles determine the way our brains work and we’re stuck with them.

The “rules” that I –and so many others– teach are not the goal; they are proven methods of interacting with “story physics” successfully.  Your main character doesn’t need to be likable.  The reason that it’s a “rule” is because it’s much easier to create audience empathy towards a likable character and empathy is a key ingredient in creating a vicarious experience (which is better than an intellectual exercise).  It’s certainly not the only way to make a good story but it’s a “rule” that I teach because I know it will work.

And when someone –anyone– is learning physics you don’t start with rocket science, you start with addition.  You start with the rules that we made and then you work your way up to the reality that caused us to make them.

I bring all this up because game design doesn’t have a whole lot of “rules” just yet.  We have some general principles, but most of us are “break the rules” types that brainstorm and playtest our way to success, which is why I get met with a lot of skepticism and irritation when I insist that game designers learn the rules of storytelling before they experiment.  They want me to teach them how to make non-traditional, new-age masterpieces.

Here’s the deal:  Writers can teach you rules.  Writers can’t teach you story physics.  Why?  Because we don’t actually understand story physics on an intellectual level.  We have a feeling

To summon the best (only) analogy that I can think of, it’s a bit like driving a car with a sealed hood.  You can’t open the hood and study the insides of the car, because the car is our brain.  To quote Emerson M. Pugh, “If the human brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t”.  We can’t explain exactly how story works because we don’t know exactly how it works. 

That said, we writers drive our story cars a whole lot more often than you do.  We’re better drivers, not because we’re special, because we’ve done it more often.  We have a better feel for it.  Underlying physics are determining everything that happens inside my story car, but even though I understand and interact with them while I'm driving I can’t draw the formulas up on a whiteboard.

The reason that the "muse" writers can sit down and plow through a first draft with no prior planning is not because anyone can do whatever they want and get away with it.  It’s because those writers have a really good understanding of the physics, even though it's subconscious.  They didn’t sit down and start pumping out awesome stories the second they took a creative writing class in high school; the first five to ten stories they wrote were probably awful.  (I’m guessing.  Mine were.)  Through years of trial and error they stumbled their way to a feeling of what’s good and what’s bad, which is why they can drive off-road and still get where they’re going. 

The reason I insist on game designers learning the rules?  Most game designers don’t have time for five to ten terrible stories.  You spent the first few years of your design career making five to ten games that were probably terrible and now you have a mortgage and student debt.  Your games are now awesome, but if you’re going to integrate a story with your game you need your story to work right away, which means you need the physics to work right away and I can’t teach you the physics.  I can only teach you the rules.  But rules will get the physics to behave until you learn how it all works for yourself the way everyone else did: over time.

No approach is truly superior to any other in the hands of a master, because what really matters is the underlying sense of what is and isn't compelling.  The “rules” are just one of many means to the same end, but learning and following the rules will allow your stories to function right away.  When you’re a master the rules become irrelevant, but you need time and experience before your instincts are going to get you anywhere other than the nearest ditch.  If you’ve got a trust fund and all the time in the world, the ditch is a fine place to be.  When you have a game you need to sell, you’ve got to stay on the road. 

That’s why I teach game designers to learn a system.  It's going to take multiple stories before you get a feel for the physics and can successfully improvise, so you might as well make sure your first stories are useful.  Learn a plot structure (I prefer the “Save The Cat” structure over “The Hero’s Journey”), and learn character types (I like Briggs Myers more than Carl Jung).  Learn a system that works and follow it, because that’s the quickest way to create a story that will improve your game.  Then, while you’re following a system that works, think about why it works.  Actively question the rules even as you follow them.  Identify the physics problems that the rules intended to solve, and then start to invent your own solutions.

Eventually you want to make stories that are good and unique.  But good is the priority, and getting the two to co-exist comes with time.



David Kuelz is a freelance writer and narrative designer based in New York City.  If you like what he had to say, he has free monthly newsletter with tips and resources that you can sign up for here.

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