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Using dice when creating plot outcomes

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Terry Greer, May 11, 2014.

  1. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

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    I was once an avid tabletop RPGer and games master - haven't had much time to do this of late though.

    However, I was plotting out a story a little while back and it suddenly occurred to me that dice (or random events) could be a really useful addition to the plotting process.

    Say you get to a particular point in a journey and two characters square off against each other. One may even be the one that seems to be shaping up to be the main hero (so far anyway).
    Rather than actually decide who wins, turn it into a dice roll - he has - say 80% chance of winning.
    You roll the dice and then as a writer deal with the outcome.
    If he lives - he carries on for now.
    if he dies then the other characters have to react accordingly.

    You don't do this for just big events though - but any meaningful choice in the story. As the author gets to actually assign a % chance of an outcome some chances could be almost certain 99% - with just a tiny chance of failure, others 50:50 or very unlikely. So the degree of randomness can be easily made sensible and contextual for each situation.

    Of course this does force the writer to continually adapt what they were going to do, and be open to an unexpected change in direction - but I think it could be a really good way of adding the unexpected to stories.
    It also means its really only suited to stories with multiple characters and multiple POVs.

    The one thing it does do is force the writer to deal with the unexpected and do things that they may not have done if they just decided for themselves.
    On the face of it it takes away the author's input - but I don't think it does - I think this approach in fact encourages the author to properly explore every choice and decision their character's make, and helps prevent a story from becoming too predictable.

    Of course the author can ignore a result they really don't like - but that would really defeat the objective.

    (If nothing else it would be a fun exercise).

    Any thoughts?
     
    Last edited: May 11, 2014
  2. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

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    Hi,

    You might never finish the story at all. I.e. the final battle dice roll -Hero wins (roll one or two). Bad Guy wins (roll three or four). No one wins and everyone gets away (roll five or six).

    But on a more serious note when you write a story and come to a crossroads in plot you really don't want to leave that to chance. That's what you as an author should be deciding because it is the story you want to tell. It would be as bad as giving your book to an editor and having her sit there and tell you - no he really should lose that battle!

    Cheers, Greg.
     
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  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    As a writing exercise, I think it would be useful and probably fun. But as for using it to tell a story, for me, it wouldn't work. Nothing is random in a story. Each event and outcome must have purpose. If it doesn't, then it should be edited out.

    Having two character's fight, there will be a reason why one wins or loses. The superior fighter will lose because maybe I'm trying to display their arrogance, or that they're injured, or that there maybe be something special about the weaker fighter. It's all in service to executing a plan for the overall story.

    If things just happen randomly then the story will be very disjointed and it's hard enough to edit with a plan in place. It'll be that much harder to smooth things over and make sense of things if they happen just because the dice say so instead of for a good reason.
     
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  4. Lovi

    Lovi Scribe

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    Obviously you'd have to invent the different outcomes for each crossroads where you'd roll the dice. And as I see it, if you can invent that many different possibilities early on, you should definitely analyze the options and design a path through the crossroads to make a good story. The reader isn't going to consider it any more unpredictable than if you just carefully planned the plot twists ahead of time and worked to them, because the experience is the same for them.

    No matter how generic or unpredictable the plot is, there will still be minor things that some won't anticipate, unless they simply guessed. Your foreshadowing clues may make them think that this one thing will be important later, but perhaps you dropped it in there to fool them and go the other way. Some will call that trick and anticipate you going the another way, but they will miss something else, most likely several things.

    So, you can use the dice to come up with different routes, but I would simply compare the routes and change them up to get the optimal one that fits. Would it be more important to prove to yourself that you can indeed follow the dice, or that you cheat them and come up with an awesome plot for a book?
     
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  5. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

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    That's very true - the difference would be that as the writer you would experience the surprise and unpredictability yourself - and have to deal with it. In reality I do agree that the approach is probably is better suited to an exercise than a complete novel, but I'm intrigued by the idea as an experiment and what others think of it.
     
  6. Lovi

    Lovi Scribe

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    Then you should by all means test it.

    I started to think of some way to reduce the amount of having to plot out entire paths only to then roll and choose one of those. You could have a kind of formula that you fill with the variables that you get from rolling the dice.

    Say for example:
    Character + action(=physical/mental/environmental)+ reaction

    You have a group of 3 characters in the scene. You roll and with 1/3 chance you end up with protagonist that is also the viewpoint. Or just have the viewpoint automatically and choose which one of those other characters is affected. You then roll and select the appropriate action that involves that character, let's say it's a sympathetic guard who's with the protagonist. The list of possible events could involve something like ambush, accident, humanizing moment, meteorite (I wonder why no one ever uses meteorites).

    You end up with accident. You could pick which kind of accident from a list, or just think of something. The guard hurts his back and can't continue.

    Then you roll for the reaction. Does the protagonist leave the guard behind in the wilderness to die, or stay there to help him and also slow down the quest he's on? If he stays and you make the guard very sympathetic, you make your protagonist very likable, and the guard owes him his life. You could cash in this favor later in the story and have it be satisfying. If he leaves him behind, you make him seem ruthless, and the reader will either not liek him or think of him as a badass. Perhaps the guard begged him to stay, telling about his family, and the protagonist still left him behind to continue. He could hate himself for this later and start losing sleep over it, and so on.

    Now, these paths are entirely different and will shape the rest of the story dramatically. I like both of them, but you could choose which one you prefer and not roll and develope an awesome plot, or roll it and continue like this.

    I got to say, just plotting this like this is pretty interesting and easy, as I normally struggle with plotting in detail like this. This could be a powerful tool, I'll have to try this with my WIP, since my plot outline is still very vague. Thanks for the idea.
     
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  7. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    I've used the I Ching to develop story ideas. More depth than dice, the I Ching provides stimulating motivations to story.

    You ask a question and receive an answer.

    Example question from a story I am working on:

    Cast Hexagram:

    55 - Fifty-Five
    Fêng / Abundance

    Thunder and Lightning from the dark heart of the storm:
    The Superior Person judges fairly, so that consequences are just.

    The leader reaches his peak and doesn't lament the descent before him.
    Be like the noonday sun at its zenith.
    This is success.

    SITUATION ANALYSIS:

    You are in a position of authority in this situation.
    Archetypally, you are the New King, returned from your quest to claim your throne.
    However, you are enlightened enough to realize that you are merely a part of a cycle, and that you must someday yield your throne to the new kid in town, the younger, faster gunslinger, the young turk, the next returning hero, the next New King.
    Fretting about the inevitable descent is senseless.
    For now you must play your role to the hilt and use this gift of power to govern your world as best you can.
    You are the best person for the job.
    That's why you were chosen.
    Give it your personal best.

    Story analysis

    In terms of the character, I get these impressions. Daelin feels he has discovered a power, he has succeeded because of his intellect and perception and persistence, he has unlocked a secret of power. This goes to his head, and he feels he will use this knowledge to wrest power away from the unjust and into the hands of the just. He feels like the new hero.

    Another example

    Question:
    Cast Hexagram:

    50 - Fifty
    Ting / The Caldron

    Fire rises hot and bright from the Wood beneath the sacrificial caldron:
    The Superior Person positions himself correctly within the flow of Cosmic forces.

    Supreme Accomplishment.

    SITUATION ANALYSIS:

    Your needs are coming into harmony with the requirements of the Cosmos.
    Blending brilliantly with the Dance of Life, you are becoming an actual element of Cosmic Law.
    Your goals will now be realized because you no longer cut against the Cosmic grain; you are no longer swimming against the flow of the Tao.
    You are acquiring an intuitive sense of what can and cannot be, and aligning your efforts accordingly.

    Story analysis:

    Daelin sought to command the power of the cosmos through the symbols of power, and that landed him in trouble, conflict. He realizes that his will must become one with the universe, that he is the conscious expression of it, and comes to understand that he and the universe are written in the same language... and so by abandoning the will for power he gains power: the walls are no longer there, he simply walks through them.


    Thoughts...

    I find this is a wonderful source of story stimulation, give it a try!

    I Ching Online - the Online Book of Changes
     
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  8. Nobby

    Nobby Sage

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    Didn't Douglas Adams (gently) lampoon the I Ching method? By which I mean he almost certainly tried it, giggled to himself, then whacked it in, just for rule of funny?
     
  9. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    It does feel kind of goofy, but in a way, the I Ching is no less arbitrary a source of ideas than any other. All the things that have happened in my life, the things I have observed, are all in a way chance. Of course, I see patterns in all of it, sometimes because there are patterns to be perceived, sometimes because I am a pattern-perceiving machine with no off-switch.

    I'm a fan of Adams, not just his writing but the person himself, I admire his activism as well as his intellect.

    I am also a scientific person, and non-spirit-believing, as Adams was - but, he was of a generation that was struggling out of superstitious thinking, I was born into a generation that did not believe in superstition, thus, I can dip into the mumbo-jumbo for inspiration without actually believing in it.

    People, when they did not know what to do, consulted oracles, threw yarrow stalks, or what-have-you... and ideas popped in their heads, I argue, using basic story-stringing mechanisms they came out of their own heads, but these tools provided the stimulus. I don't believe the powers of universal Change would write my story for me, rather it is a tool of inspiration, just like walking outside, listening to people's conversations, noodling through a history book, that puts ingredients in the pot of creativity.

    So, why not I Ching?
     
    Last edited: May 12, 2014
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  10. Nobby

    Nobby Sage

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    Why not, indeed!

    I get my best ideas cutting the grass. Do I expand that to the 'I Mow' method?

    Sorry, I couldn't resist.

    Seriously, though, I've heard that other writers knit, because once the muscle memory has developed it allows other parts of the mind to wander :)
     
  11. Scribble

    Scribble Archmage

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    Why not I Mow?

    I used to have a very long commute to work cross-town and through some of the nastiest city driving to be found in North America. During my descent into madness, I began to see coded messages in license plates. 1G9 F7K. What can it mean? Is it a message? A clue? No, it's crazy.

    Just from remembering that, I got a story idea about a guy who goes fully mad (or does he?) as he begins seeing coded messages in license plates and it leads him to uncover a plot that doesn't exist (or does it?) and he ends up stopping a murder (by killing the killer) ... or does he? so was it madness, or what was it?

    How did I get that job across town? I let a headhunter place me. So, that was kind of random, a roll of the cosmic dice.
     
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  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    If this method intrigues you then go for it. The toughest part of it IMHO will be to justify all those twists and turns, so the reader doesn't go bullspit. We're all wired different, so you never know what will or won't work for you until you give it a go. For all anyone knows it will work like a gem and in a blink you'll have a mantle full of Hugos and Nebulas.
     
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  13. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

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    Yes it will - I agree completely. Though I doubt that it will be high literature - it could be fun - I'll blog it and post the outcome when iget around to it. :)
     
  14. Lace

    Lace Troubadour

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    R.A. Salvatore did this in his novels, at least the Drizzts novels anyway. He would roll out character sheets to give his characters unique strengths and weaknesses. Then he would use the dice D&D style to help with his fight scenes. The hubs read an article where Salvatore said that he always knew what the outcome would be, but used to dice to heighten the fight scenes. If you did something similar to this it would be feasible to finish your story, but also challenge you as a writer. I like the idea. :)
     
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  15. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Sorry, doesn't appeal to me. I don't speak as a great plotter, but I would prefer that my story proceed according to some theme (e.g. a moral message) instead of randomly twisting and turning as a result of dice throws.
     
  16. Asura Levi

    Asura Levi Sage

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    Well, I often use this 'system' myself. But mostly to create characters relationships.
    "Does Laos knows Nara from the past?" (y/n)
    If Yes, how? They work together, were at opposite sides, on wronged the other (who? was it knowingly?)

    As said before, is an exercise, and a damn good one. It kind of open a range of possibilities that may open to even more choices. The challenge is to work with what you got, being creative with the results.
    So Nara once drove her horse over Laos without noticing him. How is his feelings now, etc..

    It also helps in 'dead ends', when you don't know how to proceed.

    But I agree, to use it as a resource for a whole novel, don't think it would work. You probably would discard most of the results.
     
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  17. Malik

    Malik Archmage

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    I don't understand how you can write anything if you don't know what the story is going to be.

    Seriously.
     
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  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Being a discovery writer who turned into an outliner, I don't think it's going to veer too far off what discovery writing does. After the first draft, there's going to be a draft consisting of a series of events that may or may not fit well together, but there will be a rough shape to a story and something to build on. The difference IMHO being that the heavy randomness of it is going to put a lot more pressure on the editing to justify the twists and turns and to find to find the emotional through lines. And it will be that much more difficult to pull everything together into a cohesive whole. I suspect there will be a lot of stuff thrown out and rearranged during editing, but that's par for the course for anything that's really rough, planned out or not.
     
  19. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I agree that developing a sense of direction sooner or later is useful if not essential to writing. You don't necessarily have to write the whole outline down before writing (if anything, it seems much more malleable when you don't), but even a mental outline is still a game plan.
     
  20. Malik

    Malik Archmage

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    I wasn't being snarky; I just had to sit back and seriously wonder how you could start a story without knowing what story you wanted to tell.

    I mean, yes, sometimes scenes play out by themselves and I'm at the point now where my MC's are developed enough that I can just put them in situations and write down what they do, but I always have an idea of what I'm going to write before I write it. The idea for the story -- or the scene, or the subplot, or whatever; hell, I do this at work with research papers and briefs -- happens first, then I put it down on a beat sheet, and only then -- only once I know for sure what I'm going to write -- do I perform the act of selecting words to put on paper.

    I literally can't imagine writing forward into a blank space. It has never occurred to me to try. Maybe it would be a good exercise once in a while.
     
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