In his 1987 book, Role-Playing Mastery, Gary Gygax (famed founder of Dungeons and Dragons) discusses what makes a good role-playing adventure—which, surprisingly, is the same thing that makes a good novel or story. Foremost for Gygax is a plot that contains a central mystery that gives a group of characters (each with his or her own motivations) something to solve, search, and discover. Every story in virtually every genre can be boiled down to a few basic plots, since the point of a story is to delight and amaze the reader, and to frustrate and challenge the characters. To illustrate this, Gygax took a single plot, called “The Disappearing Dwarf” and adapted it to numerous genre-specific scenarios, as seen below:
“Fantasy: The Disappearing Dwarf pertains to an dwarven monarch who vanished before the eyes of his entire court.
Science Fiction: At the very heart of the galaxy, The Disappearing Dwarf, a red star, has vanished, and with it the main scientific base of the League that was located on the dwarf sun’s only planet.
Espionage: Vital information was to be passed from agent to agent, but the main figure was The Disappearing Dwarf, who has vanished from the circus” (Gygax 127).
While each genre requires a slight refocusing of the basic plot, all the treads remain: a ‘dwarf’ has vanished, there is no obvious explanation, and the stakes are high for its recovery. In essence, each storyline is a mystery: what happened to it? who took it? where did it go? how can it be recovered? where can we find it? Nothing excites the reader more than an unsolved mystery, even if you’re not writing a mystery novel. We want to look over the main characters’ shoulders as they try to solve this mystery, since we know the solution won’t be easy or (if the novel is any good) expected. Gygax’s scenarios above are so ingenious because each disappearance has a domino effect in the role-playing world: what would happen to a kingdom without a king? A spy without his secrets? A League without its base? In other words, subtract one thing from the world and watch that world collapse.
While we often overlook the element of plot in storytelling, preferring to discuss characters, style, theme, and genre, story is the engine for everything that follows. Even a seemingly plot-less story has a plot: the motivation for the characters to wake up in the morning, meet one another, and eventually, betray and murder each other. A character without motivation suggests a story without a plot, and if you have a strong plot, strong characters necessarily follow. What excites me most about Gygax’s scenarios is thinking about the rag-tag group of adventurers who could solve each mystery. For the fantasy scenario, wouldn’t it be exciting to throw a young dwarf of the kingdom together with a traditional enemy of the dwarves, someone who normally wouldn’t give a fig for finding their leader, but has a secret reason for helping? Perhaps an elf who knows that an important treaty was due to be signed, and now lies in jeopardy, unless the disappearing dwarf turns up? But he can’t reveal this to his junior partner, an idealistic young dwarf who would be against the treaty if he ever discovered it...and in the course of their adventures, does. And by the middle, he learns more than he bargains for about his leader, to the point where he wants to abandon the quest, and the enemy has to make him understand that we’re all human—er, dwarf—and that even our leaders make mistakes, etc.
In short, the characters, their motivations, their beliefs, their biases, it all comes from a well-oiled plot. With mystery and conflict built in, you no longer have to labor over your protagonists and villains. They’re all right there, waiting to be plugged in to a story that only lacks the human X factor to sing. Gygax also reminds us that story comes before genre; that genre itself is merely a dialect, rather than a language itself. So is the writing itself. The beauty of writing is that we can all take the same plot (and heck, we often do) but make at thousand different novels of it based on how we tell the story. Any one of these scenarios could be serious, or satirical, or romantic, or horrific. It’s totally up to the writer’s imagination to tell the story in his or her way, bringing out different aspects of the plot and introducing unique characters to solve the mystery in unexpected ways.
Gygax encourages his GM’s to “deliberately include information not found in the scenario as originally presented in published form...The GM will add [this information] specifically to mislead the players, so that they will not follow any of the prescribed routes and go wandering off into a limbo that is unrelated to the adventure, even though the game master’s expertise makes it all seem very “real” and part of the whole” (Gygax 131). In other words, a good writer won’t simply lead his or her characters through the plot as it has been written a thousand times before; he or she will make readers think they are reading exactly that story, and then pull a fast one. The best stories, after all, are those that we think we know...until we don’t. Perhaps that’s the best explanation for why we have genres in the first place: it gives you a framework of expectations to be frustrated by the clever author. An author will make the plot, even the most hackneyed plot, seem “ “real” and part of the whole,” and then show us a new way of experiencing and understanding it. However, without the plot, the central mystery of the entire story, we can’t have that moment of surprise and delight.
I often return to Gygax’s book when I write my own stories, since I like to ground my stories in the basic, most conventional elements of mystery and awe. I always start with a simple plot that makes me snap my fingers in anticipation in the same way as “The Disappearing Dwarf.” Recently, I wrote a novel that began with just such a mystery: a sorcerer finds a book that, if you start reading it, begins killing off people in a distant land. I love the idea that books matter—that they can actually change the world for the better...or for the worse. So here is that idea stripped of all its metaphorical baggage, a book that literally kills. So the mystery for the characters is immediately, how do they find out the book is killing real people? And how can they stop it? But even more importantly, I had to figure out where they found such a book—and ultimately, who found it and why. That led me to create my two main characters, whose very creation shaped the entire book and developed the plot beyond a typical mystery of fantasy story. With the addition of each new character (and their resulting motivation) the plot veered further and further away from its expected conclusion.
So as you contemplate your next story, think about the concept of ‘disappearing dwarves.’ Who hid them and where did they go? Why does their disappearance matter—and to whom? Hopefully, even you won’t know the answers as well as you think you do until you write the book. If you find yourself continually surprised and delighted by the twists and turns of your plot, then you’ve successfully pulled a rabbit—er, dwarf—out of your hat.