Overarching Plots: Why Aren’t We There Yet?

During my riff on overarching plots in general, I pointed out one question that is vital to the writer of the overarching plot at every event (and, for that matter, is one of the few that should be answered event by event, rather than once and for all at the beginning). By this time we’re in the plot, and therefore we know the major conflict, whether our audience does or not, so the question is as follows: “Why can’t we just resolve the major conflict now?” What is it in-plot that’s keeping the major conflict from being just taken care of at this moment?

When concocting an answer to this question, I find it very important to make sure that it’s an answer that the characters can take some sort of action to deal with. I’ll admit, it isn’t always possible–“The lunar eclipse required for the ritual isn’t for another three weeks” isn’t exactly a circumstance under anyone’s control, for instance—but in general, and particularly when dealing with PCs, you’re going to want to make sure that the main characters have something to do that feels like it’s making progress.

There is, however, one exception to this rule, and that’s “Nobody’s figured out what the major problem is yet.” This sort of complication to the major conflict makes for an interesting balance of factors; on the one hand, you might have impatient people trying to figure out where the story is, but on the other hand, if the characters and the situations they’re getting into and out of are engaging enough—or if it wasn’t clear that there was supposed to be a metaplot, maybe a little foreshadowing but nothing more—people are likely to have a lot more patience for events that in a more focused plot would seem like digressions. (I may come back to this later.)

For most RPGs and a somewhat lesser number of stories, “We’re not powerful enough yet” is one of the primary answers. The enemy’s higher level, built on more XP, a greater Rank, pick your poison, and either way any confrontation involving the main characters and their primary antagonists would stand next to no chance of ending in a victory for the forces of protagonism, narrative immunity be hanged. It’s a valid reason, but for the plot-oriented creator/GM for character-oriented players, I would strongly recommend not making it the only reason—unless it makes in-character sense that the characters consider their best option for dealing with the difference between their power and their opponent’s to be running around getting into fights, not having a more actionable reason that just happens to involve racking up the requisite XP in the process can throw off the suspension of disbelief. For writers, the equivalent is probably “The story hasn’t gone on long enough yet”–which I suppose is a valid excuse if you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo, but does demand a little extra justification if you expect the story to go over with an audience.

Why can’t the conflict be resolved immediately? Think about the answer carefully; it’s going to matter!

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