Structuring Side Plots (Learn, Explore, Act)

I am re-writing my outline and my mind blanked today on how to structure my plots. So, after reviewing some adventures I’ve designed for various tabletop game systems, I hit on the below. This is partially crossposted on a personal blog.

I am sharing for your thoughts and as the opening salvo in a conversation to learn how others identify and organize key and anchor scenes.

What I am trying is basically: Learn, Explore, Act.

Learn is when the player character (PC) becomes aware of the problem and the stakes. This is also an opportunity for the PC to reflect on the problem and to (re) commit to addressing it.

Choices in the Learn stage focus on how the PC feels about the situation and whether they want to (still) pursue it.

Explore is when the PC investigates or encounters the problem. (For example, the Thing was stolen! (Learn) Then, a man in a grimy cloak thrusts the Thing in the PC’s hands and runs off (Explore-Encounter).)

Choices in the Explore phase focus on the PC’s approach (e.g., how will the PC learn more), obstacles, and opportunities/useful diversions.

Act is when the PC must make a decision about what they’ve learned, gathered, and done. Acting leads to irrevocable change. It is the Point of No Return.

Choices in the Act phase focus on the PC’s decision and completing the steps for carrying it out. These steps may involve choices related to approach, obstacles, and opportunities.

These are not strictly linear. The process is more like this:
LEA_cycle

(Description: A drawing of a system connecting letters with a series of one-directional arrows. L1 goes to E which either goes back and forth with L2 or to A. A goes to L1, L2, or C)

In this case “C” is the conclusion and end of the plot. L1 is the hook for a new problem while L2 is the intensifying of the existing problem. A plot can contain more than one problem, depending on player actions.

As shown here, the Explore stage can lead to Act, but it can also lead to another Learn stage. The Learn stage, though, never leads to Act. While it may make sense to reflect on the problem and stakes before Acting, I think the tension is tighter if Exploration leads to a moment of Must Decide Now.

The Learn stage can lead to ‘this is what I want to do,’ but that triggers an Explore phase for pursuing that action and Explore continues until the Point of No Return.

The Act stage can lead to a conclusion, but may also lead to a new problem or the worsening of the current problem.

Why Is This (Potentially) Useful?

This structure helps me identify the anchor scenes. For each of my side plots, I know I need at least 1 Learn scene, 1 Explore scene, and 1 Act scene. Each of those scenes may contain multiple choices for the player to make.

I can even build an outline shell to fill in with details as I figure them out. For outlines, I like knowing the parameters of my map, but filling it in as I go. I think this will let me do that.

How does this work with Choice of Games?

This structure also maps onto the taxonomy of choices described by Choice of Games

Learn is primarily for flavor and establishing choices. The choices in this stage focus on the character more than their actions.

Explore may start with a forking choice, but is otherwise testing choices of all kinds, including objective testing choices (described in the next link).

Act is for the climax choice or potentially a forking choice (if it is too early for the climax). In the case of a forking choice, the plot loops back to L1 or L2, but the situation or character is fundamentally changed.

Anyway! I’ll try to remember to report back on how this does or doesn’t work once I begin writing.

How have you identified key and anchor scenes for your stories? What processes and structures have you used?

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Thank you, @LisHz, for posting this.

There is a lot here to take in and to digest!

I am going to ponder everything said before adding any thoughts or comments I might have.

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I really like your structure idea (it seems incredibly useful), I’d just like to pick your brain some more with how it translates into interactive fiction!

You mention this specifically in relation to side plots, but I’m curious how you balance it around the common structure and game design aspects that make choicescript different from traditional writing.

A common structure decision I see made in choicescript is to have intermissions between major plot beats where the player can engage with sideplots, but is often limited to only engaging with one or two sideplots per intermission. Since there are a limited number of intermissions throughout the story, it is often the case that unless a player choses to focus on a single side plot they are unable to finish any of the sideplots, leaving them all stuck in the “Explore” phase.

More broadly, a player cannot make every single choice in a single playthrough, there will always be plotlines left unexplored or partially explored.

How do you account for the potential in choicescript games for players to potentially end with a number of plot lines stuck in the “Explore” phase and never reaching resolution or your “Point of No Return”? How do you make the story feel complete if the player reaches the end of the game without resolving that plot point?

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This one works for all kinds of interactive fiction, not just those in Choicescript.

Thanks for the titbits!

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Thanks!

The first thing I should note is that I am not viewing side plots as intermissions. Side plots, to me, are when the player has the most agency. They are the parts that will offer the most variance and the most replayability. I have written out various ways each of these plots can end and those endings vary on both the player’s success and the amount of time they devote toward that plot.

The main plot is, I hope, engaging, but also offers the least agency. Players will get information regardless (though how will vary based on their relationships and other plot engagement). Choices will focus on how they feel about it until the final chapters when they will decide how to act on the information. (Also, every side plot has at least one connection to the main plot–like muscles to the spine).

The second thing is something else I’ve borrowed from tabletop game design. Side plots will happen no matter what. The player, though, can intervene, change how they happen, stop them, etc. If a player does not engage, the predetermined ending happens. If they do engage, their level of engagement and success (as well as their engagement with other plots) will determine the endings they experience.

Even if a player does not hit the Point of No Return, something is going to happen in that plot.

So how am I using this?

The main plot provides the overall structure (like a spine in a body).

Every player experiences the first Learn scene for every plot. They then have the option to engage with the first Explore scene. At this point, players can engage with every plot.

Players experience the Learn scene for every plot they Explored. Exploring automatically triggers a Learn or Act scene. In the Learn scenes, the players re-commit to the plot or not. As the story continues, the Explore scenes are more complex and so players cannot do all of them.

Eventually, the players hit a subset of Act scenes. Their actions in the Act scenes, decisions in the spine plot, and progress toward the plots they could not conclude form the ending.

Does that help?

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Thank you!

I find it pretty interesting to see how people approach the problems that interactive fiction has, especially compared to traditional writing! Reading about your perspective and game design decisions is helpful since it is an entirely different design philosophy from what typically comes through in 2024 choicescript games.

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I like this a lot! I think I am doing something like it for sideplots in my current project, where players are given some seeds of information, or a character expresses a need, or a problem arises, and then the player has a limited amount of opportunities for more in-depth exploration before then moving into action/decision-making.

I like what you say about Learn scenes not skipping into Action scenes straightaway - I think that will help plots feel fully formed and considered, and enables players to understand them and the stakes fully rather than rushing to a quick decision.

And I really enjoy when side plots progress without player input - it feels more dynamic that way.

I think tabletop adventure writing or GMing is really useful to bring alongside IF writing because, for me at least, it helps me think dynamically about what players might want and giving space for it, rather than getting too hemmed in by what I consider necessary steps. It also helps me make sure I’m putting in enough chances for me to drop hints or directly provide information.

I hope the structure helps you in your planning and then down the line at the writing stages!

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Just search gdc and inkle on YouTube. All their talks about interactive storytelling are chock full of little wisdoms. Anyway, this one in specific may be useful to you.

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They are the ones who developed Ink, a popular alternative to Choicescript and Twine for choice-based IF. (There is also Texture, and one whole list of authoring systems you can choose from.

Thank you! I admit, I did not even think of looking on YouTube. Video, to me, means ‘brain goes off.’ Even if it is informative, I take in a lot less than I would if I could just read it.

I read a lot of inkle’s blog entries when I first started writing IF. There’s a pretty basic one on conditionality that definitely affected how I write conversations.

(Note: As I stated at the very top, I’m re-writing. I actually have over 85k of this story written. I just wrote it directly into a major and catastrophic plot hole. While I hope to use a lot of that draft in my new one, too much had to change on a very fundamental level for me to just edit it).

I’m watching the video now. I like how he describes current states implying previous states and on how anyone in the world can provide a clue. That’s not as present in the side plots, but that is something I’m wanting to with the main/spine plot. No matter what the player does, they get the next clue in my list. Most of what inkle can do with states, though, doesn’t feel well-aligned with CoG’s stats approach.

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As I ponder everything, this tid-bit of info is leading me to ask: Has your approach changed at all while rewriting?

My personal experience after rewriting my initial copy of my project is that my practices and procedures were more validated and firmed up. I am wondering if you had the same type of experience I have had.

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Yes, my approach has definitely changed. To start with, I did not use this approach prior. Nor did I approach the main plot as a spine (composed of smaller units, holding everything else together, enabling the muscles to move).

I still have my old approach. I listed out every scene I thought was important to tell the story of the plot, color coded them, and then shuffled them together in order. This led to some bad balance issues. It also made the story a lot more linear. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

Where I really let myself down was my loose approach to world-building and character building. I didn’t answer all my questions before I started writing. I thought I would answer them while writing. (I really thought I was more of a pantser writer than I am). Then, when I realized I wasn’t answering them, I ignored my doubts and just plowed on.

So, this time, I wrote down everything that had to be true. Then I wrote down a long list of questions. If X, then why not Y? How does Z work? etc. I spent the past week answering those questions.

Over this weekend, I created a basic world-book so that the setting has more life to it. I should have realized when I commissioned an artist to draw some art for my story and realized I hadn’t set anything other than the key plot elements. The setting lacked details.

I’m now firming up my characters. One character wanted to be a doctor. Why? I needed a doctor. It was the flimsiest of goals and, worse, I couldn’t change it because, beyond that, all the character had was a collection of traits and written-in history as your friend. Now, though, I know they want to be a doctor to help their older brother who has a chronic illness that requires frequent hospitalization. They were supposed to go to medical school, but life intervened violently and now their dual senses of guilt and responsibility are holding them stuck. Now the character has a reason for their cynicism, goal, and everything. Now they have something to talk about.

I’m now working on outlining. I have my spine of clues, but I need to firm up the final get proof action/confrontation. I have my side plots summarized with goals, potential end states, and L-E-A scenes. Next I’m going to work on the romances.

I think the process I’m going to use for them is Meet → Show Interest → Shenanigans → Confession → Shenanigans → Test / Reveal → Commit or Split → HEA if Commit.

This is based lightly on Romancing the Beat with Setup, Fall in Love, Retreat from Love, and Fight for Love.
Setup: Meet, Show interest, Shenanigans
Fall in Love: Confession, Shenanigans
Retreat: Test/Reveal
Fight: Commit or Split

Shenanigans could be a wager, a date, getting trapped together, etc. Anything where they’re spending time together. The first set of shenanigans should connect with a side plot. The second set should connect to the LI’s primary motivation.

Etc.

So I’ve changed a lot about my approach based on what I’ve learned working on other projects since I set this one aside.

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Thank you for sharing everything so openly and with clarity!

The romance stuff is an area I am still learning a lot from others and I still have more to learn, before I can get to the point where you are at. I really like this:

With your permission, I’d like to see if I can incorporate this in my efforts. Just by reading how you approach this, I have things I need to consider.

Again, thank you for starting this wonderful discussion, and I hope you continue to be a part of the community.

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Of course!

And please, feel free to use whatever seems helpful. I will note that in Romancing the Beat, as I understand it, the ‘retreat’ usually involves a full-on separation. However, I did not think players would appreciate being forced to do that. So, instead, I want to create a test, basically, where each LI shares something or asks the PC to engage in something that may go against what the PC wants. For example, the character who wanted to attend medical school is going to share that they have applied for medical school.

And then that’s the full scene, right? The PC gets a reflection beat after that (not listed in previous post) and they can decide how to engage with that LI going forward until they reach, well, that Point of No Return. Do they commit to the relationship or do they end it? And each of those would have conclusion scenes.

But! Like I said, I’m still fixing my characters. I’ve not started really planning the romance yet. If you do try this, please share how it works for you!

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I am now outlining and I am using LEA to help me.

I have an early scene–an attack from the monsters in my setting. I initially labeled the entire bit (being told, racing to intervene, stopping in the attack, dealing with the injured person afterward) as one Learn unit. After all, the choices in this scene are mostly about identifying how the PC is going to act and setting stats.

So my first lesson learned is that Choicescript choice types aren’t perfectly aligned.

Also, that initial unit is both Learn (be told about the attack) and Engage (race to intervene and fight). If I split them up, I can easily add an intro to a love interest in between as a possible LI tries to stop you from being the one to run off. On the fence if I want to do that, but I now see where I can.

My other lesson learned is that sometimes a Learn Unit is just a mention in another scene.

I am also realizing how helpful this framework is in asking questions about the units of writing.

  • For Learn units: What does the PC know now that they didn’t before? What options do they have to act on or ignore this knowledge?
  • For Engage units: How is the PC’s commitment or resolve being tested? What resources can they gather (or lose) by pursuing this route? What do they get in return (leads to Learn)?
    If a scene isn’t answering one of these questions, then I think more about why I think it is necessary.

Also, for the romance stuff, I have realized that it would be nice to add a Moment of Awesome for each LI. While I’d love to embed that in their intro, it isn’t always easy to do. But, within the first 1-3 chapters, it’d be great to have a moment where each character gets to show off their essential traits.

Like, one character is kind and believes that everyone has a right to autonomy and agency. I’d love a moment where he makes other people shut up so a kid can speak and then he backs the kid. Another character is very athletic and a good leaders–let’s see her teaching novices or breaking a personal best or something.

Anyway. I’ll update again if more arises.

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Y’all are so structured! I am impressed.

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Sort of? I can’t write without something but I also can’t write with a strict structure of everything. I need an outline and the ability to fall off my outline. When I write traditional narrative, I think of my story as a map. I know the map and the major landmarks, but I don’t know the details. So I fill those in as I write.

A CoG story, though, needs more than that to make sure the various plots remain balanced and moving. (Mine ended up imbalanced before). So my mental image now is a grid of buckets. The buckets are types of scenes. I haven’t defined what those scenes are exactly, but I know when I reach chapter 3, for instance, I need a moment for the reader to learn more about the monsters. Maybe that is noticing a weakness in a fight or finding a book in the archives or talking with someone who remembers fighting them from long before, etc. I’ll go with the options that make sense when I reach that point.

It is more like I’m building a template for myself.

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@NMCannon This might be of interest to you as you mentioned Romancing the Beat elsewhere!

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Oooo, it seems have a lovely forum thread to read over lunch today :grin: Thank you!

If you have a deeper understanding on Romancing the Beat, I’d love your ideas on structuring romances in choice-based stories.