Star Trek, the Matrix, and Story Structure

As I recently tweeted, I think that Roleplaying Game supplements have some of the best story structure advice I’ve ever read. Not all of them, obviously–there are plenty of supplements with no narrative advice at all, and some of those that do have narrative advice aren’t automatically brilliant just because they’re game supplements. But on the whole, RPGs are a great source of story advice because the games themselves are based on the idea of storytelling; teaching you how to tell good stories is, in a sense, the very product they’re selling.

I’ve always known this, but it didn’t occur to me until recently just how good some of this RPG advice is, and how much I rely on it. A week or so ago someone asked me what my favorite “story structure” book was, presumably hoping to have some kind of deep conversation about, I don’t know, Robert McKee or Orson Scott Card. I thought about it, determined to give the best answer I could, and realized that the only “structure” book I keep next to my desk is an RPG supplement: the Star Trek Roleplaying Game Narrator’s Guide by Decipher.

I love this book; I should probably put together a workshop or something for a convention. Put simply, it’s a twist on 3-act format with seven specific points: hook, plot turn 1, pinch, midpoint, pinch, plot turn 2, and resolution. You start with the resolution: how do you want this story to end? Let’s consider The Matrix, since we already mentioned it earlier: it’s a story about people trapped in an illusionary reality. We want our story to end with the hero becoming The One (a being capable of overcoming and controlling the illusionary reality) and defeating the bad guys. That’s our resolution; that’s what the entire story needs to lead up to. With that in mind we go back to the beginning and establish the starting point, called the hook: Neo is a gifted hacker, but he’s kind of weak and scared and doesn’t know anything about what’s really going on. That sets up a nice, classic arc, where an everyman hero will learn and grow and become a hero. So far, so good.

The next piece we need is the midpoint: a scene or event that turns the story on its head, and moves the hero from a passive to an active role. This is often a discovery of some kind, and an obvious choice in this instance is the hero’s discovery that he is trapped in an illusionary reality. This moves him out of his initial, ignorant state and pushes him toward his final goal of overcoming the illusion and bending it to his own will.

Now that we have a clear idea of our conflict, we use Plot Turn 1 to introduce it; the purpose of Plot Turn 1 is to get the hero out of his starting point and moving toward the midpoint. In this case we’ll have Morpheus, a man outside the illusion, contact the hero and show him that all is not as it seems. Neo still doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s trying to figure it out, and that course of action will eventually lead him to the midpoint discovery.

Plot Turn 2 serves a similar purpose of advancing the hero from the midpoint to the resolution; this usually means that the hero has gained the last vital thing he needs to win, whether it’s an actual object, a bit of information, or a personal decision. In our example story we need our hero to eventually become The One, so we’ll give him an emotional epiphany to show him that the power is inside of him, and all he needs to do is believe. That sounds silly when I phrase it like that, but don’t worry about that: at this stage in the outline, EVERY story idea sounds silly. Once you get it in context, it will work great.

So let’s look at our structure so far:
Neo leads a sad life, trapped in a crappy job but always searching for something more.
Neo is contacted by Morpheus and learns that something weird is going on.
Neo learns from Morpheus that human existence is actually an illusionary prison called the Matrix.
Neo discovers an inner reservoir of power and belief, enabling him to control the Matrix.
Neo uses his power to defeat the bad guys and save the day.

Looks pretty familiar so far, right? We have a solid character arc, exactly reproducing the one they used in the movie, based on nothing more than a clear goal and few logical steps to lead us there. It’s still kind of boring, though, without a lot of conflict, so what we need now are the pinches–points in the story that squeeze everything down and pile on the pressure. The first pinch comes right after Plot Turn 1, when Neo has started to learn about the bad guys controlling the world, so a great next step is to have him be attacked and even captured by those bad guys. A pinch like this serves to drive the story forward by forcing the hero to react, and by proving beyond a doubt that the mysteries he’s started to encounter are all too real. The second pinch comes right after the midpoint, and really makes things look hopeless. Our midpoint has Neo being taught and trained by a mentor, Morpheus, so a great pinch would be to take that mentor away–the bad guys swoop in and capture him. This works perfectly for our story, because not only does it build out of the midpoint, it leads naturally toward Plot Turn 2 by forcing Neo to solve the problem on his own, thus helping him discover his inner power.

Now our story looks a lot more dynamic:
Neo leads a sad life, trapped in a crappy job but always searching for something more.
Neo is contacted by Morpheus and learns that something weird is going on.
Neo is captured by the bad guys and sees that the mysteries are more dangerous than he thought.
Neo learns from Morpheus that human existence is actually an illusion prison called the Matrix.
Morpheus is captured, and Neo is left on his own.
Neo discovers an inner reservoir of power and belief, enabling him to control the Matrix.
Neo uses his power to defeat the bad guys and save the day.

Awesome. Now, obviously this isn’t the entire story of the Matrix, but it is a fantastic outline to start from. A great next step would be to add some try/fail cycles to the resolution: we don’t want the problems to be solved too easily, so we’ll have Neo try and fail a few times before finally believing strongly enough to become The One. In the movie he has three such cycles: he raids the office building and almost gets killed by agents, he faces Agent Smith in the subway and barely escapes with his life, and finally he faces three agents in the apartment hallway and gets mortally wounded. Each cycle brings him closer to where he needs to be at the end, developing his belief and ramping up the tension, thus making the story much more interesting than if he’d just solved it all on the first try.

Another thing this story could use is a subplot or two, and we build those in the same way we build the main plot–start with the resolution and flesh it out from there. We’ll weave these subplots into the main plot, and the scenes where they intersect will become much stronger. For example: one subplot is the betrayal of Cipher; the resolution (the climactic scene we want to build up to) comes when Cipher attacks the group of renegades, giving away their position and killing many of them. We’ll line this up with the main plot’s second pinch–the attack that leaves Neo alone and on the run–giving the scene a stronger angle and a deeper emotion. Another subplot is a romance between Neo and Trinity; the resolution, obviously, is when Trinity finally declares her love for Neo. We’ll line this up so that the resolution comes during the main plot’s second Plot Turn (Neo gains enough belief to become The One), once again adding a deeper emotional weight to the scene; thus Trinity’s belief in Neo, and her love for him, become the keys that help Neo take the final step and become The One.

I love this story system, and I use it all the time. Try it out on a few of your favorite storylines to see how well it works; Star Wars is a fantastic example, because it follows the same archetypal hero structure as the Matrix, but you can use it on anything. You an use it on Pride and Prejudice if you want to; it can adapt to any good story. It might be fun to try it on I Am Not a Serial Killer if you really want to expose the architecture behind my writing. Once you’ve got a good handle on it, apply it to your own writing. I guarantee it will be a huge help in any outline you build.

(Which is a better sign off here: “Live Long and Prosper,” or “There Is No Spoon?” Maybe “May the Force Be With You?” Is there a good catch phrase from Pride and Prejudice? The closest thing from my book is “I Like Your Shirt.” I guess I’ll go with that one.)

Thanks for reading. I like your shirt.

23 Responses to “Star Trek, the Matrix, and Story Structure”

  1. Kimberl says:

    You know, I actually feel embarrassed not to have made this connection myself. I was a passionate role-player before I became a mum. It was my creative outlet, and after reading this post I’m feeling a little puzzled as to why I haven’t connected it with my current novel writing.

    Love the story system you’ve discussed here – great insight. Much to ponder upon.

  2. Fiona says:

    Just in time. Starting a new book and I haven’t ruined it yet.

  3. Dave says:

    Midway through reading this post I juuuuuuust about bought a used copy of the Narrator’s Guide online.

    Then my head cleared and I punched the print button in my browser. Pages in hand, to be highlighted at first opportunity. Good stuff!

  4. Sean - Texas says:

    Dan, you are my Morpheus. Seriously. Just reading this put my head abuzz with a thousand ideas for the book I am currently writing.

  5. admin says:

    If I’m your Morpheus, make sure to tell me who your Agent Smith is. I’m probably going to get ganked by him any minute now.

  6. WEKM says:

    Dan, only you could turn Star Trek RPG and The Martix and turn it into a lesson on story structuring.
    Why is Brandon the teacher? I just learned more on outlining a story from this one post than three seasons of Writing Excuses.
    Why have you been hiding your brilliance from us?
    I guess you just mask it with the snarkiness that we have all come to love.

  7. Debbie Hibbert says:

    I would like to offer an official write-in for your “Enterprise” poll.

    I have never seen “Enterprise” and can offer no educated input for this poll.

  8. junefaramore says:

    This made me smile. Excellent advice on getting a tight story going-will use it as I reread and hopefully come up with some sort of outline to help bring structure to my book.

    Reason two is because my favorite person to flesh out story ideas with is my brother, an avid roleplayer who writes every campaign he DMs.

    My fiancee is slowly building a campaign in the Star Wars universe. If I buy him this book for Christmas, is that cheating?

  9. Donna says:

    Dan, Dan, Dan!! When I read posts like this I wonder why I spent all those thousands of dollars on a degree in English literature and the last 5 years practicing writing fiction when the entire time I could have just been playing games and watching movies??? I would have learned the story structure faster and I could have been a contender in the literary world by now.

    Also I’d like to thank you in advance for the sleepless night I am about to have as I try to apply this story structure to Pride and Prejudice. THANKS!

    The 3rd to 6th graders in my upcoming writing class will also thank you (with less sarcasm) as I blatantly plagiarize this post for our outlining class…I think I’ll use a more kid friendly movie example though…something tells me that the Matrix is a little too mellow for the kids these days. Perhaps a little Friday the 13th part 20. =)

  10. Arlene says:

    I knew you were brilliant the first time I met you. I’m pretty sure you thought I was a serial killer, though. Thankfully, I’m just an unabashedly rabid fan. :)

  11. admin says:

    Arlene, I needed a name for the chapter I just wrote, and I used “Arlene.” So, yay!

  12. ToriB says:

    Kudos from a former coworker. Now I know your secrets to brilliant writing–well, some of your secrets. I wanted to give you the offical review of I am Not a Serial Killer (I got one in London this summer and passed it around the office.) The consensus was “great writing, excellent suspense, talented guy, will go far” although none of us are sci-fi/fantasy aficionados and learned more about embalming than we ever wanted to know. Hope all is well, looking forward to your next book (when is it out in London?).

  13. Arlene says:

    Hooray! I’m in Dan’s book! My climb to success and popularity can end. haha! :)

  14. Callisto says:

    I bought Dan bacon last year, can I be in the book, too?

  15. The hell. Every time I write something on the writing excuses site I find that someone has already been talking about it afterwards. XD I was just saying over there that roleplaying would be an excellent way to train for eliciting emotions while writing.

  16. Sam says:

    Genius! Thank you so much for that, it happened to be the phase in my story I’m struggling with right now!

  17. [...] Excel spreadsheet, as geeky as that sounds–and listed out the seven points of the Star Trek RPG story structure system I’ve blogged about before: Hook, Plot Turn, Pinch, Midpoint, Pinch, Plot Turn, Resolution. By [...]

  18. [...] and you want to be there. I’m going to present a larger, more interactive version of my Star Trek RPG structure system. (Dan [...]

  19. [...] presentation itself was a greatly-expanded version of my Story Structure system, based on a system I found in the Star Trek RPG Narrator’s Guide. For all of you who’ve [...]

  20. johann says:

    Hi, Something I didn’t understand. In your videos when you had the grid for The Matrix, maybe video five on youtube, you had “gaps” in the grid. Not all the spaces were filled in. In earlier videos, I don’t remember the story, you had all the cells in the grid/worksheet filled in.

    Do all places in the worksheet get filled in?

    Also, were the column headings all subplots?

    Thanks for any help. Oh, I have Decipher’s LoTR RPG. You think it is the same as ST’s method?

  21. admin says:

    I fill in all seven points, but then in the process of shuffling multiple plots together they get spaced out, so there are gaps in between. And yes, the column headings are subplots, at least the way I do it:)

    Decipher’s LotR RPG uses the same game system, but doesn’t have the same GM information and thus doesn’t talk about this structure system. I’ve since learned that this structure system is a common screenwriting tool, which explains why it shows up in the TV game but not the book game.

  22. Laura Holst says:

    Five years since you wrote this blog, and it’s still helping newbie writers. I’ve read a myriad of writing books. I took a college course specifically focused on the Hero’s Journey. Yet, I was still struggling. Understanding something as a concept is entirely different from making it something functional and usable.
    This explanation is much more simple. It’s still just a tool for deconstructing a story, but it’s a simple tool. One, I feel in time, I could grow comfortable using and coloring outside the lines with. :) Thank You.

  23. admin says:

    Thanks, Laura!

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