Timing isn’t something that’s only used in music or comedy. Stories have good timing and bad timing, too. A good story design has timing. A good plot has timing. Even games that leave it all up to the player can pace themselves in a way that obeys the laws of timing.
Let’s find a loose definition to timing that’s also usable: ‘timing’ is when you, the story designer, decides that something happens in the story. That ‘something’ that happens in the story can be anything. It can be a big event, smaller events, and even tiny events. Anything that happens – anything! – can be timed right. If you make sure that everything that actually happens in your story, big or small, obeys one of the three laws of timing, you’ll have a better story.
Yes, it’s that simple. The more the events in your game obey the laws of timing, the better the game’s story feels.
Let’s begin. There are three laws of timing that answer the question: “When does something happen?”
Law of Timing #1: At the Very Last Minute
When does something happen? At the very last minute.
We’ve all seen the movies in which the bomb is stopped, literally, at the very last minute. We’ve all seen the movies, read the stories, and played the games, in which the hero saves the day when the clock as practically run out. So, sure, the law applies to those events, as well. Although you’ll have to be pretty clever to create a situation in which the players don’t see it coming, you’ll still have to obey that rule when it comes to it.
But this rule applies to all events, not just the big ones. I’ll give you a couple of examples. But as I do so, I’ll also compare to what you could have done it without obeying the law. Hopefully, you’ll see that every time you obey the law, you make your story marginally tighter, slightly more interesting, purely on a subconscious level in the players.
For example. Suppose you’re in the middle of the story, but the scene you’re in has no particular tension. It’s just two characters talking. You need one of the characters to say something important, to remember something important, or to remember something that seems unimportant to him but will be important to the player.
So, on the one hand, you can just have the character give that information away as part of the conversation. But, on the other hand, you can end the conversation without having said it, and have the character that has the information start to leave. At the very last minute, when that character is out the door, he’ll turn back and suddenly remember he has something more to say.
It’s a very small thing, but it makes your story more interesting. It makes the ‘getting of the information’ slightly more evocative, and it makes your plot feel tighter and better.
Another example. A character has come to do something. He needs to say a magic word, to reveal information, to leave a gun. The player knows the character needs to do X during this scene. If he doesn’t, the player can’t finish his mission, and the plot doesn’t advance. You, the story designer, could have the character come and hand whatever it is to the player. The character comes and does what he’s supposed to.
But, on the other hand, you could choose to look for a solution that obeys the first law of timing. Here’s my solution, though you may think of another: The character comes in, and looks and acts as if there’s nothing he needs to do, to convey, or to leave. He acts as if it’s the last thing on his mind (which it is). The longer this lasts, the more the player begins to sweat and stress. Then the character leaves, not having done whatever he was supposed to do.
For a second, the player is flummoxed or in shock, and half a second later, the character returns, does what he’s supposed to in two seconds, and leaves. It slipped his mind. The effect, in the story, is so much stronger than what it would have been had you simply had the character walk in and hand it over.
This law works on anything: A conversation between a son and a mother, chasing down a bad guy, opening the chute while falling, and anything else you can put in a story. You can try and practice the use of it by choosing an event that doesn’t inherently happen at the last second and find a way to force the law on it. Do this a dozen or two times and it will become second later.
This, however, is only one of the three laws of times. Next week, we’ll cover the second.
[If any of you have any questions for future Story Design Tips columns, please write them in the comments or send me an email to guyhasson at gmail dot com.]