Storyboard, Act I: Structure and Plot

Early this summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Jonesborough, TN to visit the International Storytelling Center. The ISC is an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the ancient art form of storytelling, and the whole town of Jonesborough seems really excited about storytelling, all the time. I detailed my travel experiences here, if you want to read them (strong language warning, I think? And way too many pictures of old buildings). But that’s a travel summary, not an academic one–the academic one is this:

I went to Jonesborough because that is the best place to find real-life practicing storytellers, people who get up in front of an audience and perform a story multiples times a week, all year long. The craft of storytelling has been the subject of a lot of discussion and debate, and I found plenty of books written on the subject, but I wanted to talk to the people who really knew what they were doing, because I wanted to find out two things:

1) I want to know about the structure of a good story. If I am going to create a set of rules that produces a good story, then how can I promote, encourage, or force a good structure on to the story that is being woven by everyone at the table? Is there a plot structure that works well for this type of interaction? Are the rules to follow that I can hard-code into the ruleset? Essentially, what are the structural elements of an effective story, and how can I design rules that implement them?

2) How do you tell a good story, one that is pleasing and engaging to listen to, with good characters? What are the habits of good storytellers? The goal of this game is to tell a good story, so how can I encourage good storytelling habits in players?

The second question is a lot harder to handle, and it is something I am still working on, so I will address it in a later post. For now, I’d like to talk about the first thing I went to learn about.

As it turns out, professional storytellers and professors of storytelling know a LOT about narrative structure. It also turns out that narrative structure is one of the most thoroughly studied subjects in existence, and there are essentially an unlimited number of ways to structure a story. I knew this going in, of course, but I wanted to see if they could point me toward the right way to do it. Well, they told me, there is no right way. There are only right ways. I said, ok, but how would you do it? It’s your project, they said. You do it.

All of which was very good advice, and I worked with a professor at ETSU to come up with a fool-proof, time-tested formula for a basic story. It’s like a distilled hero’s journey.

Act I: introduce characters, begin the journery (inciting incident)

Act II: descent into the underworld (rising action, things get complicated)

Act III: return to the overworld a changed hero (climax, resolution)

All of this is very predictable and boring, though, so the challenge for me was to figure out how to make things interesting within this framework. I wanted to keep the basic structure, but I wanted things to be different every time, and hopefully interesting and fun, as well. My solution was to create a deck of random “plot points” that could happen in a story, each one assigned to Acts I, II, or II, which I envisioned as different rounds of the game. Each card has a simple description of a plot point that fits the bill–for example, a rising action card could be a complication (the plan goes horribly wrong), a revelation (it was Santa’s elves the whole time), etc. By randomly drawing a number of these (based on the number of players), players can pick the ones that fit the story they want to tell WITHOUT planning out beforehand what will happen, which is key–the surprise involved when you find out your character’s brilliant plan ends up with them facing down a Bengal tiger in a Venezuelan zoo is the most fun part of the game, and forces creativity and thinking on your feet.

I’ve had good success playtesting with this mechanic, and I plan to add a separate deck of action scene cards that are basically plot devices that characters can choose to use to spice up the mid-game (car chases, training montages, romantic rooftop conversations, etc). Those have been harder to implement, but I think at the next playtest the new idea I have will be successful.

Hope this sounds interesting and like something you might want to play. If you want to play a game or two, don’t hesitate to get in touch.


  1. I think it might be interesting to observe what sorts of stories people create regardless of what cards they get, and if there is a cooraliation between age, state of mind, etc, and the general structure of the story. Is someone who has gone through a bad breakup more likely to add a negative end to their narrative (maybe they got the plot card that said their character married their soul mate, but then the player decides to strike the man blind and deaf like some sort of vengeful god). Would an overly positive person try to steer a negative plot card in a positive direction? (ex: maybe being devoured by an apex predator was the only way for the character to ascend to the next level of their spirit journey to become a gandolf the white-type of ultra wizard). I have not read your later posts, but I’m just wondering if you noticed any patterns between in which types if people told what types of stories.