Recently I finished reading Chris Crawford’s book Chris Crawford On Interactive Storytelling and found Crawford’s explanation on how to emphasize storytelling really compelling.
Storytelling is important when it comes to relaying cultural information. Its language, culture, and the story itself are formulated together to build a linear sequence of events. Emphasizing that linear sequence is highly crucial to storytelling because readers (or listeners) aren’t capable of fully understanding a story without a step by step sequence to gain the scope of its entire content.
Why are people so attracted to storytelling? I like how Crawford mentioned that humans “are the social animals that later developed complicated languages to explain our environment and things that happened in our life.”
Our minds have 2 mechanisms of thinking:
Crawford mentioned that “language is sequential in structure,” meaning that a word is a sequence of sounds, a sentence is a sequence of words, and a book is a sequence of sentences.
Crawford’s 4 Storytelling Must-Haves
Crawford’s 7 Elements For A Good Story
- People: Stories highlight narratives about people, not objects. That’s what makes them so engaging and relatable. Even if a story refers to humans in an indirect, or symbolic, way. I think it’s safe to assume that we all have heard of Disney’s “Winnie-the-Pooh,” where the main character is Pooh Bear or Pooh for short. We are all aware that it’s clearly not human. But despite it being a fictional character, children grow fond of Pooh because of its human-likeness where Pooh evokes various emotions.
- Conflict: Crawford noted that “stories are about conflict, most commonly social conflict. Violent conflict is for simple stories.” Social and violent conflicts are different. While we can generally say that all conflict generates from a story, certain conflicts provide a better, more engaging context. Social conflicts carry on from the beginning to the end of a story. However, violent conflicts are only highlighted as a cameo scene within a story sequence. It only works as a part of the story’s resolution.
- Puzzles: If your story lies within the Mystery genre, then puzzles can play a large role to help make it better. You can utilize puzzles by approaching this element with strong character interactions. Again with our first element in highlighting people, emphasizing interactions between characters is at the heart of great storytelling. Instead of focusing on the logical, or scientific facts, the greatest stories provide challenges personal or social in nature.
- Choices: Storylines can be heightened when the protagonist needs to make a big decision in a dire situation. The sequence of a story can become even more interesting from a single key choice that the protagonist makes. Smaller choices, on the other hand, are building the characters in the story. The iconic sci-fi action film, The Matrix, is the perfect example if you remember Neo’s key decision to sacrifice himself. That one choice makes a compelling story.
- Spectacle: This element isn’t particularly necessary, but it’s one of those “nice-to-haves.” A “spectacle” is referred to when people’s eyes are refreshed. This is when someone feels like they gained a new outlook or experience. For example, the films Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and The Matrix brought new visual effects to the world and became iconic symbols in Hollywood history.
- Spatial Thinking: We need to think about spatial when we create characters inside the story. For instance, two characters won’t fight if they are not close together. Stories take place on stages, not maps.
- Interactivity: Crawford defines “interactivity” like,
“A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks — a conversation of sorts.”*
In the interactive game world, players want to call the shots themselves. Decision-making is important to them. There are some games where players can become the hero within the game if they make good decisions throughout the whole game. And vice versa. If players choose to make bad decisions, they end up being the enemy of the kingdom.
In games, all the decisions add up towards the end-game. A player’s free-will may be just a facade since they are still within the guidance and control of a well-designed game. When the player wants to get familiar with the game world, the best way is to search for specific “gossips” (referencing the popular board game Clues) around him. For example, if the player saw blood on the floor, other players, or game avatars, nearby might provide clues like, “I heard some noise yesterday”. Another gossip could go like, “Someone came out from the door last night. He seemed in a hurry and ignored me when I greeted him.” By interacting like this, the player could begin conducting the whole story and gain a better understanding of the situation, its culture, and the other characters around him.
“The greatest obstacle to the advancement of interactive storytelling is the difficulty of verb thinking.” — Chris Crawford
After reading the quote above, I wondered, “how can verbs be useful to good storytelling?” And found that having a clear approach to verbiage is actually really important to storytelling as well.
Above all, try to think about what “things” do, and not what they are. In verb thinking, you can create a lively story using verb/action thinking — describing things in their verb term rather than the things itself.
(Noun → Verb)
- Goods → Services
- Particles →Waves
- Assets → Operations
- Data → Processing
When we play games, we perform more actions as opposed to other activities like reading books. Using verbs initiates the players to be more motivated to be ready to continue moving. This psychological approach is what Crawford emphasizes to utilize in storytelling. Verb-thinking opens the floor for players to become more motivated.
Interactive Storytelling for Video Games also shares 5 different storytelling types:
- Constipated Stories: When a storyline is fixed and the player has to level up by following the game’s guide to reaching the final ending. A lot of good games have only one storyline and require the players to level up to reach the end.
- Multiple Endings: Endings are dependent on what choices the player makes in the game. The video game “Heavy Rain” is a good example of multiple endings.
- Branching Trees: Several events may or may not happen depending on the player’s choices. An example will be “ The Banner Saga” — a role-playing game that features an interactive story that changes depending on players’ decisions.
- Open-ended stories: These are non-linear stories, meaning that their endings are open worlds or a sandbox. A good example will be Red Dead Redemption.
- Fully player-driven stories: Players can look around the game without finishing a certain mission or follow a certain storyline. A great example is “The Sims”.
Crawford’s 5-Factor Model On Building Character Personalities:
- Open: Curious and Creative
- Conscientious: Organized, Disciplined, Dependable
- Extraverted: Gregarious and Sociable
- Agreeable: Sympathetic, Cooperative, Helpful
- Neurotic: Emotionally unstable, Anxious, Poor impulse control.
In overview, Crawford incorporates a lot of creative ways to point out different methods of creating interactive storytellings: pattern-based thinking, sequential thinking, key must-haves to storytelling, and his most popular character personalities. I found that by implementing these helpful tips will benefit any story we are trying to develop for an audience. Even starting from a simple change in words like focusing on “the verb” to tell a story. It will make the interactive story dynamic and fun.
Crawford, Chris. Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. New Riders, 2013.
LEBOWITZ, JOSIAH, and Chris Klug. INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING FOR VIDEO GAMES: a Player-Centered Approach to Creating Memorable … Characters and Stories. CRC Press, 2017.