Musing about Great Stories

First, a brief linkage: yesterday, I wrote a post on It was supposed to be about what it’s like to live with a literary agent, but it really ended up being about what an agent’s job is like, from the point of view of a writer. People seem to like it a lot, which is kind of a happy surprise. Check it out.

A couple days ago, I blogged/reposted a comment I made about Games and Stories and Could One Be the Other and Other Big Questions Like That.

Today, not so much.


  • Chuck is already talking about that, and
    • I chimed in there (a number of times) and really can’t bear to repeat it all here (twice in the same week)
    • That “can games, which inherently have more than the author creating the end product/story, really produce Something of Meaning, if the creators didn’t really have final say in the end product?” question, while worthy and interesting, wearies me, because I’ve been having that discussion for about (checks game blog)… huh. Almost exactly six years ago, to the day. Interesting.  ANYWAY, it’s all good discussion that I’ll follow avidly, but after thinking about it this morning, I really can’t bear to get into all of that again personally.
  • While the “are games breaking into that high-level of story product” question is interesting, there’s something else I find more interesting. Here’s the quote that got me thinking about it.

Chuck: ME2 is […] a dumb story in a rich storyworld — a generic adventure amidst great characters, fascinating situations, and troubling moral quandaries.

Which got me thinking. (Obviously. I mean, here I am, thinking.) When Chuck talks about ME2’s dumb story, what he’s referring to is “the plot”. I infer this because he then mentions great character, situations, and quandries, so “plot” is about the only other story element left.

I want to make this clear: this post isn’t about/attacking/defending ME2 or Dragon Age or anything. I have a post I want to write for the game blog about those games, but I’m waiting until Kate’s done with ME2, and it’s much more about the games as games, hence the eventual location of the blog post. That’s not what this is about. Suffice it to say I enjoy games and move on.

I like some games more than others.
I like some games more than others.

It’s also not about taking apart Chuck’s statement. I feel like I’ve been picking at his stuff for the last couple days, and that makes me hate myself a little.

In this case, I’m quoting Chuck because he got me thinking about what stories are — what elements they must contain in order to be called a story, and how “concentrated” those elements have to be to be called a good story.

So. I just posed two questions.

One: what elements must a story contain in order to be called a story? I go back to that quote, above, and extract this list:

  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Situation/Setting
  • Quandaries

I’m sure I could google up some kind of official list of story elements that hundreds of literary experts agree on, but frankly I don’t care to; this list works for me. If you have a list you like better, use that one.

Two: How “concentrated” do those elements have to be to be called a good story?

Okay, in order to judge levels of ‘concentration’, we need some kind of rating system.

Hmm. I see where I’m going here. No. No, I don’t think I’m going to use the FUDGE rpg’s “ladder” to rate literature. The end result is going to sound like that horrible essay the kid reads near the beginning of Dead Poets Society. No.

(Even though it would totally work.)

So anyway, let’s just focus on the descriptive words.

“Man, the plot is piss-poor, but the characters, the quandries, and setting/situation? All great.”

Okay… so, looking at that, that’s three elements where the story is ‘great’, and the one where it’s ‘poor’.

Is it a great story at that point? Over all?

I think it is.


Okay, well, what if I told you that that quote above wasn’t Chuck talking about Mass Effect 2, but me talking about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Road?

Because it totally is.

Great characters. Gut-punch quandaries. Very compelling setting/situation. Plot?


A guy and his kid walk from Point A to Point Z. They almost starve and almost freeze to death… about a half dozen times. I mean, I don’t mean to spoil the book for you, but… that’s the plot. The Road is (in my opinion) ALL in the characters and quandaries.

Or I can make it a little more personal: I’ve got a book out with an agent right now where, so far as the plot is concerned, nothing changes. The situation in terms of plot as it exists on page 3 remains completely unchanged at the end. The characters travel from point A to point Z. That’s it. I’m willing to mention this ‘weakness’ because, judged objectively, that doesn’t seem to fucking matter to anyone.

I’ve done seven full revisions on the story at this point, as requested by my agent, a publisher, and others, and not once did anyone say ‘this lack of plot kills it for me.’

You know what they ask for? Over and over? More stuff with the characters. More psyche delving.

So I have to wonder: if some of the elements are strong enough, does it matter if one of the others is weak? Or absent?

Or… dare I say it… unimportant?

Another example: I love reading Greg Rucka’s stories, in part because he writes really good yarns that I could never write myself, not in a thousand attempts. Densely packed international intrigue, these things, with double- and triple-crosses and international political ramifications you need the CIA Factbook to comprehend, let alone create.

I wouldn’t say moral quandaries are very important to the story, though. They’re there, but the characters don’t sit there and agonize over them. They might drink themselves into a coma about what they did later, but at the point of decision, they just pushed the button/flipped the switch/pulled the trigger and walked away.

Does that matter? Nnnnoo… actually, it’s a spy story; that’s sort of the point.

Slightly different example: Neal Stephenson and Dan Brown don’t hinge their (quite amazing) stories on great, deep characters. In my opinion.

Hell, neither does Tolkien. Compelling archetypes and “great characters” aren’t the same thing.

I’m not saying you couldn’t have a wonderful, amazing, mind-blowing story that really gets all these four elements up in the “great” range. Certainly you can.

But… certainly you must?

I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it. But I don’t think so.

11 Replies to “Musing about Great Stories”

  1. I think your points are valid, but Chuck’s criticism of ME2 may not be relevant. In The Road and your novel, there is *no* plot–the plot is completely irrelevant to the story being told, which is about character, situation, and quandaries.

    I thick Chuck’s problem in ME2 is that you’ve got great characters, interesting setting, and moral quandaries–and a very plodding and not interesting adventure plot that you are required to follow and devote attention to. What plot there is in ME2 is distracting from the stuff that’s really interesting.

    Just my theory on what’s going on there.

  2. Huh. Brennan, you’re a smart dude. You may be right.

    I’ve already noticed that Chuck and I have some different experiences with those games as games. Specifically, the game (and gameplay) seems to intrude more for him than it does for me.

    Chuck’s experience, I should point out, is in the vast majority.

    I mean, I’m aware that ME2 and ME1 (and Dragon Age) have dirt-simple plots. I just don’t… care? In Mass Effect 2, I blast through “the plot” to get back to the ship and talk to characters. Each of my full play-throughs take a fraction of the hours-of-play that I see most people mention.

    I cheer at the end not because the crew is kicking ass, but because “Tali’s shields held” or “Jacob got his shit together well enough to lead the 2nd team.” I’m celebrating the characters, I guess.

    Then there’s Dragon Age, where my first play through took three weeks clocked in at 81 hours. FULLY HALF of which I firmly believe was spent in camp. Not all in talking — I lost HOURS to tweaking equipment — but a lot of it was — that, and reading the Codex.

    And I probably overstate the lack of plot in The Road or Hidden Things. (There’s the only time you will EVER see those two books mentioned in the same sentence.) It’s not that there’s no plot, but it’s largely incidental.

  3. I’m definitely coming from somewhere closer to Chuck’s perspective, I think. I found ME1 interesting until I had to actually play through planetary encounters. I really suck at most video games, and when they are the least bit hard I just quit because I’m not interested in spending the time to get good at it. The characters and such in ME1 were interesting and I had a good time interacting with them, but as soon as I need to blast zombies and sand worms I got bored.

    This is definitely not a criticism of the game part of the games! I just personally don’t like it, so I don’t play. It’s not for me.

  4. Man, I’m starting to worry that I’m rubbing you the wrong way.

    Lemme clarify a few things —

    I don’t agree that what I was saying (re: ME2, “story”) is married to the plot. And I don’t agree that The Road (or presumably your novel) lacks in plot, either.

    The Road has a plot. A plot is simply a sequence of events. Things happen in that novel, and so it has a plot. Presuming that your novel does not stay in a single room that fails to change, I suspect your novel has a plot, too. Maybe not a robust one or a complex one, but that doesn’t make it any less of a plot.

    Now, with ME2, I believe that story isn’t just the presence of all those elements (plot, characters, setting, etc), but rather how it all comes together.

    And, in ME2, those elements don’t hang together for me. I love them individually, and it makes me care, and the individual stories of the characters intrigue me, but as a story, those elements aren’t necessary. The story doesn’t require them.

    So — for me — the game’s story is the aggregation of all these elements, and that aggregation is sort of dumb. It’s limp, it hobbles.

    Now, to be clear, I don’t know that it matters. The game still worked for me. I still loved the hell out of it (as opposed to ME1, which made me want to throw things through my television screen).

    But, I just wanted to clarify those points a wee smidge, see if I couldn’t shine a light on ’em.

    — c.
    .-= Chuck´s last blog ..Karate Kicking Your Way Into The Game Industry =-.

    1. It’s an irritating discussion to have, isn’t it? We keep going round and round, and not in a super-fun way.


      Here’s the thing: I don’t disagree with any individual part of what you’re saying. Not one. Objectively, clinically, I see the truth in every one of your statements.

      (Which means, probably, that it’s not worth gnawing at for too much longer.)

      The only real disconnect is that the bad parts affect the end product more for you than for me.

      I don’t know why that is. Obviously, it’s as much how I’m wired as how you are.

      For me, the plot in ME2 exists pretty much to get me to the next set piece battle, or the next bit of drama with one of the characters – for that purpose, it works admirably.

      I suppose I immediately approach the thing in kind of a “Summer Movie” mindset, so my expectations of plot are low, and also makes me especially value those things happening in the game that go above and beyond a summer movie (the characterization, the backstory for the characters, the great story setting, the (seven) hundreds of little trivia bits that are scattered throughout the game to dig into.

      So maybe it’s because I’m expecting a “4”, and I get a “7”, so I’m really impressed? I dunno. I think that’s probably it.

      I mean: I’ll be honest – I’m not comparing it to The Road or The Book Thief. I’m comparing it to stuff like Avatar (against which, for me, it comes out well ahead), which… well, yeah, not an especially deep plot either. Popcorn movie. Really GOOD popcorn movie, but still.

      Anyway: bottom line, I just don’t disagree with any point you make, which might be why the debate is frustrating for both of us.
      .-= Doyce´s last blog ..Updates for the week of 2010-03-28 =-.

      1. I actually don’t believe it’s exactly *separate* — only that it maybe demands a second look at what story means in terms of games. Because “story in games” comes weighted with a lot of new fiddly bits and shiny parts: experience, choice, divergence, and so forth. Which goes back to my original point: you try to tell a “traditional story” using games, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You’re failing to utilize what’s awesome about games and what’s awesome about interactive (or collaborative) storytelling.

        — c.
        .-= Chuck´s last blog ..Painting With Shotguns XXIX =-.

        1. Absolutely — plus, if you do go for a traditionally-told story, via a game, people probably won’t like the game much, because to tell a story in the traditional sense, the game will have to be on some pretty severe rails — “I felt like I was just along for the ride” and “It was a game, it was a guided tour” might be commonly heard complaints.

          In fact, I can think of a few games that have attracted such comments.
          .-= Doyce´s last blog ..Updates for the week of 2010-03-28 =-.

  5. It’s kind of what Rob D said in the first place: “I don’t know exactly what these things are, or what to call them, but I’m willing to call them whatever they like, provided I get MORE of them.”

    That’s kind of where I am as a consumer.

    Where I am as a creator is, I think, where you are: How can I use these shiny bits in some wild new thing?
    .-= Doyce´s last blog ..Updates for the week of 2010-03-28 =-.

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