Overarching Plots: Calibrating Scope

Yesterday, I talked about landmarks and steps that a plotter who isn’t interested in full-on outlines could use to guide herself through an overarching plot. Today, I’m going to go into more detail on one of the steps: determining a plot’s scope.

Scope is, as plot variables go, somewhat messy; there are a lot of things that it can encompass, all of which we need to take into some degree of account.

Particularly in a roleplaying game, the first thing we need to consider is scope of power level. With the system causing the characters to constantly improve, it’s necessary—we have to figure out where they’re starting, who we need them capable of going up against by the end, and what we’re going to have to do with the pace to get them from the first to the second without accidentally killing them en route or making the whole thing into one gigantic cakewalk. My emphasis on the necessity for a roleplaying game doesn’t necessarily mean a writer shouldn’t take it into account, either; you don’t have to look far to find examples of series in any medium that haven’t suffered from some degree of insufficiently thought out or excessively open-ended scope.

On the other hand, there’s the kind of scope that determines just how much of a given setting is affected. Some stories stay entirely within one region, or even one city; some encompass entire worlds, and even go beyond into alternate planes. This type, geographic scope, is an important consideration for a worldbuilder, since it gives her a sense of how large a map to draw, how many different places to detail out, and how important those places are going to be.

Then there’s how the plot affects other characters, or population scope. Sometimes this twines with geographic scope; theoretically, you’re going to be touching the lives of more people if you’re on a quest to save the world than if you just plan on solving mysteries in a large city. On the other hand, sometimes it’s inversely proportional to geographic scope; while they’re in the same general location as thousands of people over the course of their travels, the protagonists never stick around long enough or get thoroughly enough involved with the people in the places they’re visiting to actually leave much of an impact. (Heck, think about all those video games in which you’re saving the world and the shopkeeper can’t be bothered to give you even a five percent discount!)

If you know what sort of scope you expect your plot to take, you’ll find it easier to know what to do about the way your plot expands itself—when to speed up, and when to stomp on the brakes. Don’t neglect it!

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