What Is This Story About?

What is this story, or this game, about?

It seems like such a simple question. (Then again, so does “Who are you?”) But I ask it, and people start hanging up—not so simple an answer.

Often people will answer first with the characters around whom the plot focuses. It’s about three women who hijack a war with the powers of common sense, improvisation, teamwork and rhetoric. Or about a trio of superhumans and their disillusionment with a world that didn’t live up to their expectations. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonists, either—in his book on writing science fiction and fantasy, Orson Scott Card makes a rather convincing argument that Return of the Jedi was about Darth Vader, as the plot was pretty much shaped by and centered on his choices.

Sometimes (particularly often in games, and even more particularly when the player roster is regularly shifting) they focus instead on the events in determining what a story is about. So this one is about a group of misfits breaking out of jail and falling headlong into a mystery centered around a thirty-Xanatos pileup in a fantasy city full of feuding nobles and unsavory elements. And this one over here is about events that changed the world as seen from the eyes of a god-cat who had befriended one of the key players, and this one about a servant of a servant of god-things undertaking a dangerous journey to determine why his ultimate masters allowed his immediate master to be killed.

Sometimes, a story (or less often, a game) is described as being about the setting, or some defining aspect thereof. So you get stories that are about Pertinent Issues (many of which end up being message fiction), or about social conventions; or you get ones that are about the world itself, and the slow and meandering path of its history, or about institutions that hold secrets.

But ‘about’ might also apply to the themes of the story, whether they directly relate to the main conflict or not. I once wrote something that I’d thought was going to be a love story with a library as one of its primary participants, but it ended up being about possessiveness and romantic obsession. A game I was in ended up being about friendship, trust, and the refusal to let anyone determine one’s path (unfortunately, the last player added to it missed the memo on the first two).

Try asking yourself what the stories and games you’re involved in, or even the ones you’re just experiencing, are about. You’d be amazed what it can tell you.


Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “About” and Defining Features | Exchange of Realities
  2. Impractical Applications (What It’s All About) | Exchange of Realities

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