Interactive story beats

In my exploration of interactive storytelling I’ve concentrated on computer games, because I’m exploring the digital delivery of story. But I’ve already decided that for my experiment at Chawton next year, I’m going to “wizard of Oz” it – use actual people instead of trying to write a computer program to deliver the interactive narrative.

I’ve been thinking about the issues around that. People are natural storytellers, though some are better than others, so I have a double edge problem. As I recruit and train people to be my “wizards of Oz”, I need to train the poor story-tellers to be better, and weirdly, I need to train the great storytellers to be worse! My reasoning is this, I want to prototype what a computer might do, there’s little or no experimental value in simply enhancing a great storyteller’s natural ability with some environmental bells and whistles. So part of what I’m trying to learn is about how to systematize (is that a word? It’ll do) story.

I’ll explain about Kernels and Satellites of course, but I need (I think) some sort of simple system of identifying how different story elements might fit into the emotional journey the visitor is going to take.

So, I’m reading Robin D. LawsHamlet’s Hit Points. Laws is a game designer but mostly of tabletop, or “pen and paper” role-playing games (though he has written for some computer games too). This book attempts to systematize (I think it is a word) story, with an audience of role-playing gamers in mind. I think it may be useful for me, because it attempts to train the Game Master of such games (the “referee” who, together with the players, makes the story) to be aware of the emotional impact of each scene or action (which he calls, using a screen-writing term, “beats”) on the players, and better choose which element to serve up next to keep everyone emotionally engaged. Tabletop Roleplaying Games must be the most interactive, responsive, stories ever created. In a way, my “wizards of Oz” will be like a Game Master, not telling a story they prepared earlier, but working with their visitors to create a story on the fly, but keep it emotionally engaging.

In a handy short opening chapter called “How To Pretend You’ve Read This Book” Laws explains “With its system of beat analysis, you can track a narrative’s moment-to-moment shifts in emotional momentum. Beat analysis builds itself around the following very basic fact:

Stories engage our attention by constantly modulating our emotional responses.”

Sadly though, I can’t get away with reading just this chapter. It’s only later that he actually shares the classification of beats that he uses in his analysis.

Hamlet’s Hit Points Icons and Arrows by Gameplaywright LLP and Craig S. Grant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

He begins with two types that he says will make up the majority of beats in any story, Procedural and Dramatic beats. Procedural beats move the protagonist towards (forfilling the audience’s hopes) or away from (realizing the audience’s fears), his practical, external goal. Dramatic beats do the same for the protagonist’s inner goals. “We hope that the beat moves him closer to a positive inner transformation and fear that it might move him towards a negative transformation.”

Laws talks a lot about hope and fear. In fact he simplifies the audience’s emotional response to every beat (which he describes as its resolution) as being a movement towards one of these poles. I’ve got fear on my nascent emotional affect and affordances diagram, its one of Panksepp’s primal emotions, but I’m not yet sure where hope sits – I wonder, is it in care?

In both types of beat, Laws describes two parties, the petitioner, who wants the thing, and the granter, who must be negotiated with. Dramatic beats are mostly actual verbal negotiations, procedural beats might also be fights, tricks, races or other challenges.

From the way Laws describes them, I’d expect that most kernels in a story are likely to be one of these two types of beat. And the other types are more likely to be satellites. He lists:

Commentary – “in which the protagonist’s movement towards or away from his goal is momentarily suspended while the author underlines the story’s thematic elements.” Laws uses Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet as an example.

Anticipation – which “create[s] an expectation of coming procedural success, which we look forward to with pleasure.” The example here is “Popeye has eaten his spinach. (any given episode of Popeye)”

Gratification – “a positive emotional moment that floats free from the main narrative. They often appear as rest breaks between major sequences. A musical interlude often acts as a gratification beat (unless it also advances the story, as it frequently does in musical genre).”

Bringdown – the opposite of gratification. “Jerry Lundergaard’s car alone in a desolate parking lot, is completely iced over after his father-in-law bars him from a promising business deal. (Fargo)”

Then Laws offers us three “informational beats”:

Pipe – “A beat that surreptitiously provides us with information we’ll need later, without tipping the audience to its importance.”

Question – “introduces a point of curiosity we want to see satisfied […] a question usually resolves as a down beat.”

Reveal – “provides the information we were made to desire in a previous question beat, or surprises us with new information. In the latter case it might come out of the blue, or have been set up with one or more pipe beats laying the groundwork for the surprise.” The example he uses is the Revelation that Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense is dead. “We tend to be more engaged by exposition when it has been teased to us by a prior question, or can clearly see its impact on our hopes and fears.”

(Laws explains that literary fiction makes much use of question/reveal cycles to manipulate emotion, rather than the procedural / dramatic beats that fill genre fiction and thrillers.)

Laws goes on to analyse three scripted narratives in full, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the films Dr No and Casablanca, but that’s not what I’m discussing now, though having recently rewatched Casablanca as part of my children’s continuing cinema education, I was  interested to read his analysis of that. It is worth pointing out, however, that the “curve” of a story like Casablanca is inexorably downward. Laws compares the maps his analysis creates with “the classic chart you may recall from secondary school literature classes” (which I’ve touched on before) and notes that the lines his analysis creates are “flatter overall. It tends to resemble a stock tracker measuring the progress over time of a slowly deflating security […] Even stories that end happily […] tend to move downward over time.” He explains that narratives build up fear with numerous incremental steps, before sudden uplifting moments of hope. So in most stories, there are simply more down beats than up beats, given that the up beats are more intense. I think there is also a point that Laws misses, in many of those narrative curves the absolute value of emotional intensity is being measured, with no thought as to whether the emotion is hopeful or fearful.

So, is all this useful to me? Well I think at the very least I think I can get my “wizards of Oz” to think about up beats and down beats, and make sure not to pile on too many down beats in a row without the occasional up beat. Whether or not heritage interpretation lends itself to procedural and dramatic beats, there is definitely room for question/reveal beats, and it could be argued that too much interpretation goes straight for the revelations without asking the questions or laying the pipes first. So I think it is something that may prove useful.

4 thoughts on “Interactive story beats

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