Overarching Plot for People Who Hate Outlines

If you’re the kind of person who plans everything out in advance naturally, big overarching plots probably come relatively easily; they’re all about planning ahead and knowing how to make everything fit together, event by event by event. But not all of us are outliners; I know I’m not and probably never will be! How, then, can those of us who hate doing outlines still manage to come up with overarching plots worthy of our ambitions? I’ve found the best way is to put up a few road signs and guide to them; we can still take advantage of our comfort with improvisation, but this way we know where we’re going and can signal it from the beginning.

If you’re going for an overarching plot, one of the first things you’re going to want to think about is scope. This is particularly important when you’re dealing with a game rather than a story; after all, your characters are going to be steadily progressing mechanically, and you’ll want to make sure that your plans don’t break the story/pacing—and that the story/pacing doesn’t break them. Figure out who the Always Bigger Fish are, and how many of them are going to stay bigger fish; what places people are likely to go, and how far the effects of their actions are going to reach. After all, scope covers a multitude of sins. This will give you an idea how to balance pacing with progression, and what sorts of opponents to center the final confrontation around.

At around the same time, you’re going to want to come up with the major conflict. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to know exactly who your antagonist is, though it helps; it also doesn’t mean you need to know all the details of what they’re doing, though that also helps. What’s necessary is just a vague idea of what kind of opponent they are and the primary threat they pose—and at least one general scenario for what the climax is going to look like and an optimal way to get through it.

Do you know what the biggest difference between an overarching plot and the Issue of the Week is? The overarching plot can’t just be resolved with a few actions. Now, and at every step of the way thereafter, you’re going to have to look at the current situation and ask yourself, “Why can’t this just be resolved now?” While “The enemy is too powerful!” is a good reason, I strongly recommend having another reason in place as well, so the group can be directly working towards their goal while incidentally dealing with the issue of not being strong enough. “The enemy is far away” is a good reason. So is “We haven’t figured out what the conflict is yet”, or “We know who it is but we don’t have proof so they’re still untouchable”, or “We need to find/acquire/destroy X item.” Just make sure that they do have some sort of immediate goal; there’s nothing quite as balky as a PC who can’t figure out what his objective should be!

If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, I strongly recommend coming up with a checklist of things you want to definitely have happen by the time the characters reach the final climax. Sometimes, this is going to take the form of things that they need to do to be able to get through the ending confrontation with something approximating success (like the “find/acquire/destroy X item” condition in the previous paragraph). Other times, it’s the introduction of new characters or settings, events that make more of the storyline make sense, revelations—things you need for the plot, and things you want that are still relevant. If you know what to try to include ahead of time, even if you don’t know when and how they’re going to come up from the beginning, you’ll spend the whole time with the back of your mind working on how to make sure they happen. Never discount the subconscious when it comes to getting your plots to line up.

Not being the kind of person who outlines doesn’t mean you can’t do long, overarching plots; it just means you have to approach them differently.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Overarching Plots: Calibrating Scope | Exchange of Realities
  2. Overarching Plots: The Major Conflict | Exchange of Realities
  3. Overarching Plots: Why Aren’t We There Yet? | Exchange of Realities
  4. Impractical Applications (One Big River Arc) | Exchange of Realities

Leave a Reply