Witty Wordsmith: Making things better by making them worse

Witty Wordsmith: Making things better by making them worse

Drama and action thrives on ‘raising the stakes.’  This is what keeps readers turning pages in a book and it keeps players excited to read the next set of posts in a game.  But if you’ve been playing for a while, you’ve probably played a storyline where escalation spiraled out of control.  Sometimes raising the stakes can make the threat seem so powerful that players get discouraged.  On the other hand sometimes we raise the stakes so high that the story flies off into the uncharted territory of ridiculous superpowers.  So how can you raise the stakes in a plot – either as a mission planner or as a player – in a way that feels believable and helps develop your character?
One answer is a bit counter-intuitive: consider having one of your characters make things worse.  Making a mistake and having to play out the consequences is a compelling addition to a narrative, especially when used sparingly.  If a character is constantly making mistakes that cost the ship, that character will likely be asked to retire from Starfleet or get remedial training.  But consider the narrative effect on both plot and character development when a normally steadfast officer makes a mistake.  Not only can the mistake heighten the action of the plot overall, but how that character reacts to the mistake and what steps they take to correct it can build and define that character and his or her relationships.
This can be a difficult plot device for some writers to feel comfortable with.  Many players enjoy relaxing by writing idealized characters.  Making mistakes isn’t exactly in the repertoire of the ideal Starfleet officer.  If this is something you have never tried, considering starting with a NPC and see how the story plays out.  Oftentimes writers will find unexpected fun in making an otherwise stalwart character sweat from time to time, or relish the chance to have a naive character go through a learning experience that leaves them older and wiser.
There are also many variations you can work with on the theme of ‘user-created error’ – what if the mistakes that escalated the problem were made by a variety of people, and each decision was in itself solid – but when put together they formed a ‘perfect storm’ that created a bad situation.  How would each person feel upon finding out that they unwittingly put their ship in danger.  Would they accuse the other characters?  Take the blame themselves?  Step up, admit what went wrong and try to solve it?  All of this opens up new roleplaying and interaction possibilities.
Another creative option is to have a character believe they caused the problem, when they are actually innocent of the act.  Sometimes characters can be their own worst judge, jury and executioner – and having them work through mental and emotional pain for a phantom wrong can be a compelling story arc.  It also gives them ample opportunity to sit down and have a talk with fellow crew-members or the ship’s councilor to understand what went wrong and why they were not to blame.
Next time you find your mission stagnating, consider having one of the characters in the action make a mistake that helps escalate the problem.  Try it out and see if you like this plot device and the subsequent character development.

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