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Story Design Tips: The Third Law of Timing

A few tips to help construct your game’s timing.

This is the third Story Design Tips column covering the 3 basic laws of timing in storytelling.

Timing in storytelling isn’t like timing in music or comedy. Timing in storytelling is about changing the basic elements of a plot. When you ask yourself, ‘When does X happen’ (X being big events, tiny events, and every type of event in-between), two of the best answers are: At the very last minute and at the worst possible time.

As we saw last time, you can actually manipulate the personality of a character, their personal relationship, their motives, and their lives, to make the events fit the laws of timing. The more your events fit these laws, the better your story feels to the players. The third law of timing also requires, at times, changes in the plot’s basic elements.

So, one last time: When does something happen?

Law of Timing #3: At the Most Unexpected Time

Your story design requires a wife to tell her husband she wants a divorce. Following the second law of timing (at the worst possible time) you could manipulate events so that she tells him a second after they find out she’s pregnant or calls him on the phone and tells him when he’s on the way to defuse a bomb, causing his head to not be in the game.

But if you follow the third law of timing (at the most unexpected time), she can tell him when he’s having friends over for a barbecue and having fun. Suddenly, she drops this bombshell on him. Or she could tell him as he’s preparing a surprise anniversary party for her.

Both these options are powerful and effective on the players experiencing the game’s story. However, as they are quite different from the options given by the second law of timing (or the first for that matter) you get a different effect.

You can choose which effect you want for every event that happens in your story. Any event in your story can be placed in a position as to follow one of the three rules. If it doesn’t, that means it could have been and you missed an opportunity to make your story tighter, better, and more dramatic.

Another example that comes to mind for the third law happens in the beginning of Lord of the Rings, in Bilbo’s birthday party. He gives a speech to all the Hobbits that know him, and is about to put on his ring and become invisible in front of their eyes. At the most unexpected time for him (just as he does it), Gandalf puts on a big lightshow, making his disappearance seem like a trick and not real magic.

As you can see from this example, it’s not only the big events that answer the laws of timing. Now that you know how timing works, start reconstructing your stories, and see what happens. When things need to change, don’t fight it, go with it, and see where they lead you.

We’ve covered the big three timing do’s. Next week, we’ll cover timing don’ts.

[If any of you have any questions for future Story Design Tips columns, please write them in the comments or send me an email to guyhasson at gmail dot com.]

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