How to Build Up Complexity with Layers of Story


Shallower story arcs introduce or build up elements in deeper story arcs.


There are two types of conflicts: plot-based (external) and character-based (internal). External conflicts are outside of the character, whereas internal conflicts are inside him. The classic external conflict is the murder mystery, where the detective must put together clues and reveal whodunnit, something that happens outside of his own psyche. Internal conflicts are frequently seen in romance stories, where interpersonal relationships cause the characters to rethink the way they feel or conquer internal obstacles that have kept them from being fulfilled.

Plot-based (external) conflicts are generally shallower and serve well in smaller arcs. Character-based (internal) conflicts are generally deeper and need to be placed in broader arcs in order to be effective.

Also, plot-based and character-based story threads, though intertwined, are separate, or else the story is confusing. The story will highlight certain things for a plot-based story but others for a character-based one. And intuitively we pick up on these signals as the story is told.

Opening scenes are a great place to see layering, because in the beginning of a story, the writer must establish the characters, setting, and conflicts. In very deep stories, the conflicts are going to be elaborate and possibly based on the characters, established as we learn about and identify with the characters. In the meantime, we want to be entertained and driven as we learn about the characters. Small conflicts can teach us about the characters and provide momentum that carries us into the deeper parts of the story.

These small, shallow conflicts might be close to trivial, because they don’t have to hold our attention for very long. They are there to introduce or build up elements of the deeper story arcs.

Gilmore Girls

In the initial scene of the first episode of Gilmore Girls, Lorelai wants a cup of coffee, and Luke won’t give it to her. That’s the first conflict that faces us. After a few seconds, Luke gives her some coffee, which resolves the conflict, but through it, we begin to learn about the character. Already, we begin to see her as a real human being with real human desires, and she’s already facing obstacles that are keeping her from fulfilling those desires. We also see some of the dynamics between the characters, as Luke shows he cares enough about Lorelai to question whether she should really be feeding her insane coffee addiction.

Ultimately, in this episode, we understand that Lorelai has gone through great pains and personal humiliation in order to make it possible for her daughter Rory to attend the Chilton school, but Rory decides she doesn’t want to, and the reason why is that she’s met a boy.

By the end of the episode, they resolve this conflict, but the characters and situations the episode has set up are a springboard for a series of even deeper story arcs, which last the first three seasons of Gilmore Girls. By the end of the third season, Rory has graduated from Chilton; she has experienced both romance and heartbreak; Lorelai and her friend Sookie are on their way to seeing their big dream come true, to own their own inn. There are other story arcs as well that progress through these three years of Rory’s and Lorelai’s lives. Though the pilot stands as a complete story, it also is a component in an epic story arc.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Robert A. Heinlein’s award-winning, classic science-fiction novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an example of a primarily plot-based story in which we can see layering. As the story begins, the main character, Manny, is called to the Lunar Authority complex to debug a computer problem. This computer printed for one of the janitors a paycheck of AS$10,000,000,000,000,185.15, the last five digits being the correct amount. Through this, we learn that the computer, whom Manny calls Mike, after Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock Holmes’s brother– Mike is self-aware, and he issued this check, not as the result of a software bug, but because he was playing a practical joke.

The novel itself is about a revolutionary war in which Luna breaks away from Earth, lest its inhabitants suffer starvation and death. The story progresses in three phases, each of which provides numerous small conflicts that drive the story forward. Heinlein so quickly and thoroughly pulls you into the story, you don’t even care that Heinlein wrote the novel years before anyone had set foot on the moon, that as a result his lunar science is way off. Instead, you identify with the characters and find yourself believing in them and their culture, and rooting for them in their plight.

Some Moon is a Harsh Mistress links:

Grim Fandango

With bony hands I hold my partner;
On soulless feet we cross the floor.
The music stops as if to answer
An empty knocking at the door.

It seems his skin was sweet as mango
When last I held him to my breast,
But now we dance this grim fandango,
And will four years before we rest.

Grim Fandango was the last of Tim Schafer’s great story-based adventures during his days at LucasArts. Now he’s started his own studio, Double Fine Productions, who produced Psychonauts (available for PC, PS2, and X-Box), which is also a great story-based game, a platform game.

(A note on playing Grim Fandango: Be sure to install the version 1.01 Update patch, which you can download from the LucasArts web site Support section.)

Like most story-based games, Grim Fandango is strongly plotted. (I’m still looking for a good, character-based story game, and perhaps I will someday find one in the interactive-fiction community.) Since they’re plot-driven, most story games are mysteries or science-fiction.

Grim Fandango is based on Mexican folklore, told in a film-noir style. Set in the Land of the Dead, Manny Calavera must earn his way out of the Eighth Underworld so that he can reach the Land of Eternal Rest. He works as a grim reaper, a form of community service, because he lived a less than stellar life. But we later find out that, like many of his clients, Manny actually lived a virtuous life and was robbed of his proper passage.

Some arcs from Grim Fandango:

You the player must discover what actions progress the plot and cause Manny to take these actions, which together form story threads, of which 3 or 4 may be active simultaneously. The story threads are arranged in chapters, each of which brings Manny closer to reaching the Ninth Underworld, the Land of Eternal Rest.

It’s unfortunate that so few deep story games are developed anymore. Psychonauts is one of the only ones currently being published. Most game players, being young, value gameplay; thus the gaming industry concentrates on gameplay as the core of computer and video games. But a gamer captivated by the story aspects of the game will consider the story to be core, and the gameplay to be there to support the story.


Wow, that’s the first time i’ve heard the work of Robert Heinlein being compared to the Gilmore Girls. Interesting stuff indeed.

Hee hee. Yeah, usually they’re kept separate, in different genres. But I almost wonder what’s the point anymore. 🙂

Thanks for writing, Joseph. I hope you enjoy the blog.


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