This Story Design Tips column is here to help you design better stories in your games as well as highlight the importance of a good story designer. We’ve already covered the art of dialogue, the craft of world-building, the techniques for creating good surprises, †comedy theory, and more. In this four-article series, we’re talking about the basic rules of timing.
As I said last time, timing covers everything that happens, not just the big things. It’s important to note, though, that designing good timing doesn’t just mean that you put everything you planned in, and just change the timing. To create good timing, you sometimes need to change the plot a bit.
Last time we talked about the first law of timing. One of the three answers to ‘When does something happen?’ is At the very last minute. The second law of timing requires more from the story designer. You’re going to have to change characters and change your plot, to fit events into this law of timing. But whatever you are required to change will change your story for the better.
So: When does something happen?
Law of Timing #2: At the worst possible time.
Anything can happen at the worst possible time. Doesn’t matter if it’s a big event or a small event. It needs to happen at the worst possible times for someone.
For example: The detective is called in to check a murder or a terrorist event that starts the entire plot rolling. He could just be sitting at home when he’s getting the call (bad timing) or he could just be starting the car, taking his entire family on vacation.
Another scenario: Maybe his wife just gave him an ultimatum that says: either you quit the job or I leave. That’s a really bad time to get a call. Maybe he’s chasing down his own mystery, which he’s keeping to himself, and he’s about to witness a big thing when he’s called off. That’s a bad time, too. In this case, a bad time to call means good timing for the story.
Look at all the examples above, and check: What does this law of timing affect? It doesn’t affect the speed of the story or even the ticking clock sensation of a story. No: this rule of timing creates better drama. In each of these cases, the drama is more powerful than if the rule had not been used (and the detective had just gotten a call).
This means that the story is more powerful, that the characters’ investments are more powerful, and that the players’ investment in the drama is stronger. Improving the timing of a story improves the bare bones of the story itself.
This law of timing is true for tiny events: A policeman bringing policewoman a cup of coffee. (Is it when bonding with a suspect, saying she believes everything the suspect believes, including that caffeine is bad for you); missing an event at the worst time; coming to a realization at the worst time; meeting a person at the very worst time (the policeman sees the suspect, but the policeman is with his kid in the car); saying the right thing at the worst time, etc. etc.
This law is just as true for big events: The bomb is about to explode just when the president is there. The chase is not through an abandoned warehouse but through a party with hundreds of people (or a children’s event). The good guy gets into a car to chase the bad guy, but it has almost no fuel. Etc, etc.
Note that every time you change the timing according to this law, you have to change the story. When creating a story, take this law into account, and build the story’s events with this law in mind. Your story will automatically become more dramatic and powerful.
Next week, we’ll cover the third law of timing.
[If any of you have any questions for future Story Design Tips columns, please write them in the comments or send me an email to guyhasson at gmail dot com.]