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a dramatic writing primer for gamers

Hal Barwood

LucasArts Entertainment Company
Game developers are right in the middle of inventing our art form, and the rules are vague. There’s a feeling that we might as well invent the art of dramatic storytelling while we’re at it, since those rules appear vague as well. Doing so isn’t a good idea, however, because that particular wheel was invented 2500 years ago, in Greece (and independently in Asia). In the millennia since, playwrights, screenwriters and TV soap opera hacks have learned a lot about drama, although, judging by some of the primitive titles I see, not that many game developers.
This talk is a primer aimed at designers who need to incorporate drama into their games in order to drive a story, and who have little knowledge of how to proceed. We will rapidly and superficially cover a lot of material in 40 minutes, with questions to follow.
What can we talk about in 40 minutes? Certainly not the craft of writing itself. It takes some knowledge and a lot of practice to compose even a simple expository paragraph in good written English. What we can and will discuss are the strategy and tactics of dramatic writing and their applicability to games. Sometimes the simple realization that you don’t know anything about a subject is enough to get you started up the learning curve. What I’m hoping to accomplish is to confuse attendees enough so they will scurry off to track down and read some good books, referenced below, where they can absorb this material at their leisure.

A note as we begin: I write for a living and have done so professionally for just about thirty years. The organization of the following material reflects the way I’ve come to think about the art and craft of storytelling, not exactly the same as accounts you will read in books or learn from college teachers or other practitioners. In other words, the information is provided “as is,” without warranty or representation of merchantibility or fitness. Your mileage may vary.


Deep down, stories are mysteries. Luckily, people have been curious about their inner workings for centuries, and the major features are well explored.

1. Story

The recapitulation of a set of human events, real or fictional, arranged for entertainment.

2. Drama

The depiction of stories through action.

3. Action

The outward behavior of characters, as opposed to inner mental life. Roughly, what happens in plays, movies and games as opposed to short stories, novels, and poems. Action ranges from frantic gun battles to thoughtful discussions.

4. Function

Stories have a way of working on our imaginations, but one that is subtle and slippery. Appetite for stories appears to be deeply embedded in the human psyche. Why is this? None of us can lead more than one life, and yet it’s enjoyable to dwell upon alternatives and possibilities. Heroism and villainy attract and repel with powerful emotional force. People like to witness extremes of behavior—from a reasonably safe distance. We love to measure ourselves against fictional characters, to picture ourselves in fictional settings, to confront fictional challenges, and as we react to the flow of a story, to learn something about ourselves. For most people, this kind of mental engagement with the unreal seems to enlarge their spirit in mysterious ways.

And that, in short, is the point. Even classical “passive” storytelling generates a response within readers and audiences, a kind of mental “interactivity.” Without it, stories would be about as entertaining as respiration. Note that dramatic storytelling, by focusing on action, takes the matter to extremes. The only way to see into a character, in the absence of direct observation of mental processes, is to guess at what’s going on by noticing how a character acts in tight spots. This guessing draws the audience into a form of participation. Stanislavsky said it best: “The purpose of drama is to arouse the imagination.”


Get ready for a quick and possibly bewildering list:

• Premise—the germ of a story, the governing idea.

• Plot—the ordered events depicted in a story.

• Character—a person depicted in a story; and those governing elements in that person’s makeup that cause him or her to choose one action and reject another.

• Exposition—the background that supports the story.

• Inciting Incident—what starts the plot running

• Setting—where the story is located in time and place.

• The Unities—time, place, and especially action must all be part of the same, single whole.

• Theme (sometimes called motif)—the system of tangible story features.

• Conflict—what happens when two characters both want the same thing, as must be the case with hero and villain.

• Scene—specific actions isolated in time and place. The primary building block of dramatic writing and presentation.

• Complication—as the story unfolds, events and characters are stirred in, our interest is captured.

• Rising Action—the sequence of events that push us toward crisis.

• Reversal—an important change in fortune for one or more of the main characters.

• Climax—the crisis when what is at stake finally becomes clear and the rest of the action is irreversible.

• Falling Action—the sequence of events that push us toward resolution.

• The End—how things turn out.

Enough. The above is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s more than enough for today. Must a writer be consciously aware of these elements? Well, it helps. A writer’ purpose is to generate stories, not simply think about them. Writers need a productive understanding, not a critical one, so a working knowledge of the nuts and bolts is valuable. I want to suggest how to roll up your sleeves and go to work, not how to philosophize. Personally, I find it useful to break writing down into what I call...


Writers perform a number of different jobs in the course of telling a single story. They are so different that it’s possible to be a money-making scribe by mastering just one or two. Considering them together should suggest the variety and complexity of dramatic writing, and offer a path toward accomplishment.

1. The Idea

Call this the Premise, or High Concept, the Magic What If, it doesn’t matter. In order to write at the conceptual level, your fingers never need to hit the keyboard. It’s all a matter of having ideas. Got any ideas that would make a good story? Then, hey, call yourself a writer.

2. Structure

Can you take the basis for a story and fill it out with a coherently developed plot in which interesting characters become entangled in gripping scenes? If you can, you’re a writer.

3. Prose

Once you have the ideas, can you express the details in well-constructed sentences and paragraphs? If you can, you’re a writer. Should all else fail, you can spend a productive career churning out recipe books and multimedia projects.

4. Dialogue

Drama doesn’t allow the audience into characters’ heads. Everything we find out about them has to be expressed in dramatic action, primarily speech. Now that you have the rest of the elements, can you make your characters talk in an entertaining way? If you can handle this superficial but important task, bless you, you’re a writer.


How to get going? Of course there are no guaranteed methods, which is why we call creative writing an art. You must know what to do without firm rules. For me, it’s like science—first hypothesize, then test:

1. Conceiving a Premise

Out of your experience and imagination you must come up with some element, an incident, a scene, a character, a theme, that seems intriguing. Now practice the “what if...?” mantra and ask yourself some questions:

• Is the idea unusual? Stories aren’t history. They’re fiction. Part of what makes them interesting is contrast with ordinary reality. (The concept of dramatic reversal first noticed by Aristotle.)

• Is it one thing or many? Don’t get confused. Stories add up to meanings that depend upon the functional relations of the parts. Unrelated parts rob meaning.

• Does your premise suggest characters? Who are they? How many?

• Is something important at stake? Justice, love, wealth, power, wisdom, redemption? If not, you’re engaged in a trivial task.

• Does your premise suggest an ending? In other words, the completion of its action, a plot?

• Does your premise suggest scenes? The best stories seem to write themselves.

• Does your premise suggest a theme or motif (what McKee calls an image system)?

• Does your premise suggest game play?

Good premises suggest all of the above. If you don’t generate a lot of yesses here, think of something else.
2. Developing Structure

To begin with, you need to understand three dramatic elements:

• First, dramatic structure involves CHARACTERS—you need to populate your story with the good and the bad guys. For a story to resonate, characters must not only function but charm your audience as well. What is charm? Whatever allows the audience to interpret what they observe about the character as a revealing feature of inner life. Saints and thieves, heros and villains, should all beguile.

• Second, dramatic structure involves PLOT—by themselves, characters go nowhere. They need goals and they need to reach those goals by going into action. Remember this: Plot is not a list of things that occur between the beginning and the end. Instead, think of Plot as the record of what happens when characters collide. Pick events that force character choices.

• Third, Character and Plot are abstract ideas. Their actual expression only occurs inside the fundamental unit that combines them: THE SCENE. This is the only way you get to show off the ideas you’ve cooked up. Let us witness the hard choices of your characters and the fateful consequences that flow therefrom.

How do you generate characters? Think about the nature of your premise. Is it about the end of the world (an event story)? Growing up (a character study)? Ballroom dancing (a sports story)? Credentials, how characters fit into the stories you want to tell, are important. The end of the world through the eyes of a ballroom dancer—maybe not. How about an astronomer who discovers an asteroid on a trajectory to collide with Earth and tries to warn the authorities instead? Who impedes his progress? A disbelieving bureaucrat? Who helps? A sympathetic journalist? Much better. These characters are well-positioned to effect the action, so they’re useful.
How do you generate plot? Start by thinking of your story as a bunch of “scenes you’d like to see.” The more unusual, the more vivid, the better. You can’t make a story attractive to others if the plot doesn’t stir their interest. Then be self-critical—you don’t really want to see any scenes that don’t perform at least two functions:
• Scenes must depict characters in conflict. Preferably, scenes in which one character is behaving unfairly toward another.

• Scenes must advance the story; in other words, after each one, something important—whether an attitude, a condition, knowledge, state of the universe—changes.

Try to figure out which scenes work as exposition, as rising action, as climax, and organize them into a chain. When holes appear, at least you know they have to be filled. Cook up the beginning first, ending second, middle last. It’s much easier to write the bulk of your story once you know how things turn out.

Pro tip: the audience must understand your plot, so you have to explain some of it. But dramatically, exposition is bad. Why? Because all stories are interactive—people watch and read and enjoy them because their faculties go to work decoding their meaning. If you simply explain everything, your audience won’t have anything to do, and you’ll bore everyone silly. So find ways to hide things, to foreshadow others, to slip and slide.

Finally, don’t get sentimental. Think of characters as cogs turning the plot wheel. Only create as many as can be made useful driving the plot. What’s a character? Usually, you just need to identify a single dramatic trait, a feature that is incomplete within the character, and one which demands action for completion. Remember Robocop? He has about three characteristics that matter: he’s strong & well-armed, he has a license to kill & maim, and he wants to know his name. The first two are his credentials, the last his only dramatic trait, the element that sends him into action and propels the story.
3. How To Write Expository Prose

This task is beyond the scope of this talk. Still, here are a few practical rules:

• Find your own voice. Don’t use ready-made phrases and ideas.

• Strive to be clear & concise.

• Make outlines.

• Revise and revise and revise.

• Don’t be fooled by fine words. Screenplays must describe action, but the important information is in construction and dialogue. Work to perfect the important stuff.

• You may be telling a story, but if you’re also designing a game, there’s plenty of prose needed to list and explain the game elements. In writing a document, ask yourself:

> Is it clear?

> Is it concise?

> Does it hold attention?
Note that writing is really a form of thinking, and words and paragraphs are the tools of thought.
4. How To Write Dialogue

Another topic too deep to address adequately within this talk. Again, some practical tips:

• Dialogue comes from a character embroiled in a scene that is part of a plot. No one can write colorful dialogue for a pale character.

• Get interested in aspects of character that yield color, and are related to the themes of the story. In the movie Big, the naïve Tom Hanks needed to transform the world around him to have any function: so the leading lady is a fatigued corporate climber who knows toy-biz jargon and finds redemption.

• Color comes from:

> backgrounds (lower east side of NYC suggests accent and idiom)

> credentials (being a professor suggests vocabulary)

> needs (being underpaid suggests a willingness to bend ethical standards)

> dreams (desiring to be a TV weatherman suggests cynicism)

These factors should be fitted to a character’s function within your story. They are the wellsprings of dialogue. An out-of-work Latino immigrant will express herself differently than the CEO of Ford Motor company.

• Pay attention to your characters’ level-of-consciousness. How much do they know? Watch out! No character should be aware of the plot, or his situation in it. This is especially true of melodrama, the natural dramatic form of most movies and games.

• If you find yourself writing a lot of reference humor, take care! That means your dialogue springs from the real world and not your fictional creation. Sometimes that’s fine, but often it signals a failure to generate sufficient plot, character, setting, theme. It might mean you’re writing satire, but usually it means that the fictional underpinnings of your characters are inadequate, and you don’t know how they should talk.

Practice & Study

Don’t worry, no one gets everything right the first time. A lot of writers, myself included, like to practice continuously, just like piano players. When you take writing courses the teachers will tell you to keep a journal. And they’re right—keep a journal! Learn to observe yourself and convert your insights into prose. Finally, and most importantly—read a lot of material! Find some expository, dramatic and literary achievements you consider worthy and study to understand why you like them. Study is, after all, a form of mental practice.


Games are a unique dramatic form. The reason, of course, is interactivity. Generally, plots don’t advance in a game unless the player causes something to happen. This leads to some important consequences.

• Stories can’t readily be glued onto a game for cosmetic reasons. Be careful; when stories are at work, they shape and define the game experience—even if you don’t want them to.

• In a game, scenes very often look like puzzles. In the movies, we watch in admiration as Jones outwits the bad guys and dodges the traps, but in a game, the player must figure everything out for himself.

• To a player, except in cinematic interludes, what a character can do is more important than who a character is. Indy’s whip is more important than his credentials, for example.

• Games, unlike movies, generally last a long time. The story must reach across many hours and unify an epic experience. Think of plot complication, crises and reversals, in boss monster terms.

• The psychology of gaming is different from the psychology of watching and reading. Both engage our minds and emotions, but games have a sporting element, and they’re usually difficult challenges. Game designers must work hard to compel attention when play is inherently frustrating. For example...

» In a movie or a book, the situation is generally easy to understand, even if some of the details remain unclear. But a game player must absorb detailed information and act on it. Confusion leads to failure, so exposition is more important in a game than a film.

» In the absence of overall goals, challenges may appear to be overly difficult, so a clearly defined story arc is a crucial tool for maintaining player involvement.

Finally, don’t let your story get in the way of game play. If the player wanted to watch TV or read a book, he wouldn’t be playing your game. Be a minimalist. Tell enough, but never too much. In general, this means you should plan for one or two scenes of each type: inciting incident, complication, reversal, climax, falling action, ending.
Dramatic Writing:
The Poetics

translated by S.H. Butcher

Hill & Wang, 1989; ISBN 0 80 900527 1


edited by Stephen Halliwell

University of Chicago Press, 1999, ISBN 0 22 631394 8

Note: Aristotle was wrong about biology, geology, gravity, you name it, all subjects that require a grasp of the material world. But not about drama, a subject that only requires a grasp of the human heart. His analysis remains the indispensible standard, still in print in multiple editions 2300 years after he wrote it.

Robert McKee

ReganBooks imprint, HarperCollins NY, 1997, ISBN 0-06-039168-5
Note: An in-depth philosophical and practical approach, with the faint perfume of 12-step program, tent-show enthusiasm wafting from the pages. Hollywood considers this to be the very book aspiring screenwriters should read. Read it anyway.
Story Sense

Paul Lucey

McGraw-Hill NY, 1996, ISBN 0-07-038996-9
Note: another in-depth, more or less exhaustive practicum. Also recommended.
Storytelling Background:

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Joseph Campbell

Princeton University Press, 1990; ISBN 0691017840

Note: Archetypical material by a culture hero now slightly in disgrace. George Lucas certainly likes this book, and he took it to heart, so check it out.
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance of Fairy Tales

Bruno Betelheim

Vintage Books, 1989; ISBN 0679723935
Note: Every now and then Freud rocks, and this book is proof. Stunning analysis of some of the deepest stories ever concocted by a weird psychiatrist whose reputation, previously high, was ruined by revelation of his harsh methods in schooling autistic children. Out of Print, but well worth tracking down.
Writing in General:
The Elements of Style

William J. Strunk & E.B.White

Allyn & Bacon, 4th Edition, 1999, ISBN 0 205 30902 X
Note: “The little book,” an inspiring, authoritative, and best of all, concise guide to prose composition.
The Writer’s Grammar Guide

Jane Walpole

Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster; ISBN 0-671-53046-1
Note: Where do those damn commas go anyway, and what’s all that about gerunds? Out of print. Suggest tracking down alternatives or check out online book auctions.
A Glossary of Literary Terms

M.H. Abrams

HBJ College & School Division, 7th Edition,1998; ISBN 015505452X
Note: just in case you can’t remember the difference between metonymy and synecdoche.
General Writing Background:

Stanislavsky Directs

Nikolai Gorchakov

Proscenium Pub, 1985; ISBN 0879100516

Note: The great Russian stage director closely observed by one of his students; an excellent introduction to dramatic writing, acting, directing, stagecraft. The discussion of melodrama by itself is reason enough to own this book.
The Orwell Reader: Politics and the English Language

George Owell (Eric Blair)

Harcourt Brace, 1961; ISBN 0156701766
Note: you can’t write unless you understand everything in this essay. Read it and see why.
Hollywood Lore:
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

How The Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ’N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood

Peter Biskind

A Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, 1998; ISBN 0 684 85708 1
Note: So they didn’t save Hollywood after all; so sue ’em. This book is still a good read.
Adventures in the Screen Trade

William Goldman

Warner Books, 1983; ISBN 0-446-37625-6
Note: A famous screenwriter’s take on La-La-Land.
Final Cut

Steven Bach

An Onyx Book, New American Library, 1985; ISBN 0-451-40036-4
Note: Hollywood executive watches his studio, United Artists, sink under the weight of Heaven’s Gate while reading hundreds of screenplays in a desperate attempt to mine movie gold from a mountain of paper.

François Truffaut

Touchstone Books, Simon & Schuster, 1985; ISBN 0 671 60429 5
Note: Informative conversations with a famous director, conducted by another director

Conversations with Wilder

Billy Wilder, Cameron Crowe

Knopf, 1999; ISBN 037506603

Note: More Informative conversations with another famous director, also conducted by a director
Growing Up In Hollywood

Robert Parrish

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977; ISBN 0-15-637315-7
Note: About the most entertaining memoir of the entertainment biz ever written; a gem. If you want a glimpse of Hollywood at its most absurd and romantic, with portraits of famous directors John Ford, Robert Rossen and Raoul Walsh thrown in, read this book.
General Knowledge:
The Language Instinct

Steven Pinker

William Morrow, 1994; ISBN 0-688-12141-1
Note: An MIT linguist discusses real grammar, as opposed to the etiquette your teachers told you about. One of the dozen or so best popular science books ever written.
The Story of English

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil

Elizabeth Sifton Books, Viking, 1986; ISBN 0-670-80467-3
Note: a slightly sentimental journey through the history that thrust the language of a small island off the coast of Europe onto the world stage as the most popular second language in the history of our planet. If you love English, this is excellent lore.
The Split Brain Revisited

Michael S. Gazzaniga

article in Scientific American, July 1998; back issue available from www.sciam.com
Note: Storytelling appears to be hard-wired into the left hemisphere of our brains and likely has evolutionary utility. Read this fascinating article and find out why animals, which don’t confabulate, predict random light patterns better than humans, who do.


I’m a writer, filmmaker and game builder with multiple published credits. Among my films are Sugarland Express, Dragonslayer, Warning Sign. Among my games are Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Big Sky Trooper, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Cinema-Television at USC.

Hal Barwood

January 2000

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