Theory of Story

What is the Fundamental Unit of Story and Roleplay?

With anything complex, I try to see what is most atomic, most essential at its core. Stories and RPGs are like any other complex thing, although many of us resist the urge to peel back the onion, for fear of spoiling the mystery of stories. But if you’re here, you might also be curious about what stories and RPGs are actually fundamentally made of? So my question is: what is the atomic unit – the most fundamental thing that we can play with in roleplay or story design?

I think it’s easy to go straight to mechanics and rules. But in roleplay, most things are not formalized into rules. The setting is arguably more fundamental than the mechanics in many RPGs. The rules are helpful, but not the fundamental basis. They are manipulating something, not the end in itself.

In acting, scenes are broken down into beats, little moments that act as complete expressions of individual thoughts, emotions, or actions. Often, it is just a facial expression that conveys a feeling of guilt or anger or something else. Other times a beat is a more complex back-and-forth exchange between characters that results in some sort of shift. But the question is, can you break down beats further? Another way to put this is: do beats come into being fully formed? No they don’t. Something inspires the beats, after all. And what is that?

The most fundamental component of most roleplay systems, the mother of all beats, is the hook.

The Anatomy of a Narrative Hook

Most of us think of a hook as a larger conceit that generates interest. But really, everything is a hook, albeit sometimes very small ones. Some examples of hooks in roleplay games:

  • A photograph of a missing lover
  • The oldest oak in the world
  • An archer’s capacity to shoot an arrow a full mile
  • A mysterious cache of drugs
  • A deep stubbornness

A hook can be a person, place, or thing, or sub-components of those things (e.g., a personality trait, or a special ability). What it can’t really be is an idea.  Hooks engage with ideas, but ideas are too nebulous, too big, to be hooks themselves. The concept of time is interesting, but how do you engage it? What’s the hook that you can grab onto? The time traveling biker gloves – that’s a hook that encodes the concept of time in an unusual way.

Bear with me for a second with a wonky definition: a hook is composed of sense-detail with latent narrative arc potential, couched in genre or some other context. It is some beautiful, smelly, painful, joyous, whirring, or textural thing that is kinetic and curious. It is specific, actionable and asks questions. It has the capability to have an arc, and it often encodes potential energy for a specific direction to take this arc. Let’s break down these heady concepts. 

But first, an aside: none of this is groundbreaking, and it is heavily influenced by the Story Grid methodology. Essentially, it is an expansion of Chekhov’s Gun principle — that all story details should be as relevant to the story as possible. In improv, they say “everything is an offer.” I’m just elaborating on what an offer really is. Finally, in some ways this is a grand theory of roleplay, but it probably is ultimately rather incomplete as almost any theory ends up being. It is not the “one” way to think about story/roleplay, but for me, it has proven quite useful.

Concrete Sense-Detail of Hooks

All hooks have at least one subjective, experiential quality, and the more specific the better. If your character is angry about how his parents treated him when he was a child, there are several sense-details involved in that. The character experiences anger in some form now, there are memories of his parents of their words and actions, and there are sensations of how the character felt in the past from the treatment. Everyone knows that specificity is the heart of story, but hooky (relevant) specificity is key.

Hooks are more than just sense-detail, however. The smell of lavender perfume is not a hook. It has no real instantiation or relationship with the characters until it is attached in some capacity to an object or character (even if through a memory). A bottle of lavender perfume is a hook, or possibly the application of lavender perfume to a character. In short, all sense-details must have origins and causes, or they are just decoration, or you are just doing sense play (more on that later.)

Arcs and Values of Hooks

There are all sorts of spectrums in reality, such as life vs. death, individual vs. community, nature vs. nurture, good vs. evil, friend vs. foe, truth vs. untruth, and so forth, where things can change from one to the other. As much as we try, it’s impossible to completely quantify any of these things, but arcs are essentially a shift in value, from good to evil, for example. 

When I say hooks have latent narrative potential, I mean some things are naturally inclined to a certain kind of value shift. A grenade is naturally inclined to shift value from life to death, and it takes narrative and player energy (creativity, time, justification) to use a grenade in the opposite direction, or to engage in a completely different spectrum.

How can you use a grenade to produce a scene where somebody moves more from an individual to a community-oriented person? Well, they jump on it to save everyone around them. This only does this sort of individual to community work for characters who would never have jumped on the grenade in the beginning of the story. It took a lot of narrative work to accomplish this. Throwing a grenade and moving on the life -> death spectrum is much easier.

Genre and Context of Hooks

To complicate things further, there are no objective, universal qualities to hooks. They all require a context, which involve relationships to other hooks, and to a larger context of genre. If you have a murder mystery, a shell casing is going to be a lot hookier than in a war story. Occasionally a shell casing might be relevant to a WW2 story, but given they are much more common, an individual casing is extremely unlikely to register. If it does, it will probably be doing other kinds of narrative work. That is, the shell casing’s latent narrative potential is different because of the context of the genre.

Let’s take an extreme example: nuclear missiles are often used as the ultimate weapon and symbol of destruction. In the vast majority of story contexts, they are. But in a story universe of gods, they may simply play darts with them. Suddenly, the narrative potential of the nuclear weapons, and even the way they can be experienced at a sense level, is vastly different. A god might experience a nuclear blast as a ticklish prick. Nuclear weapons would be the equivalent of throwing a thumbtack at someone.

How Hooks are Used in Roleplay: Resolution and Value Shifts

When a hook has definitively changed value (e.g., a cowardly character becomes slightly braver), we can say some sort of resolution has occurred. Potentially, that hook can then be reversed back to its original state, or do work on other value types, or progress further on the value shift, but resolution entails at least some change. Often in play it is worth acknowledging a shift in value if it is not clear. If you always try to leave hooks open, with no definitive shift, everyone will eventually get confused and disengaged because nothing really happens.

The difference between improvised roleplaying and a movie is that things are much messier in roleplay, and a lot of your hooks are going to go partially or completely unresolved. But you should design systems, sessions and campaigns for the maximum chance that a satisfying number of hooks get some resolution. There’s no hard rule, but a rough goal would be to resolve a ¾ of your hooks.

Fortunately, leaving some hooks untouched or incomplete is essential to that verisimilitude of reality many people desire in all stories. The most perfectly crafted story, in roleplay or any medium, where everything is resolved is nearly impossible, and frankly feels strange and forced a lot of the time when attempted. Leaving hooks (slightly) unresolved gives you room to ponder the what-if of that person or object, even once the story is over.

Qualities of Hooks

In addition to the values hooks work on, the means by which hooks actually do that work are numerous. It may be a bit fuzzy what counts as a hook quality and what as a spectrum. Spectrums are more essential to the human experience, and qualities are more functional in the ways hooks actually work.

For example, hooks might tend to expand a situation, moving it forward and adding elements, or they might reflect on a situation, making the players look backwards. A weapon is a dramatic, expansive hook, while things like food, tents, or campfires, tend to be reflective hooks. It’s possible to use a weapon reflectively on a situation, or a tent expansively, but again, that takes effort. These qualities are tendencies, rather than immutable aspects. Here are some hooks doing the opposite of their obvious utility:

A samurai is sharpening his sword and sees the reflection of scars he has suffered in previous battles. You use a tent to fashion a makeshift hang glider, expanding your possibilities.

Here’s a list of some hook qualities I’ve noticed so far. Surely there are many more I haven’t yet considered. I keep on coming up with new ones as I ponder hooks.

  • Agency — is this a hook that is actively part of a character (an emotion), or more functional in the story (a teleporter)
  • Duration — more transient (food) or fairly permanent (a memory)
  • Power — limited effect in what it can do (a thumbtack) or very potent (a nuclear weapon)
  • Randomness — a highly predictable effect (a weighted dice), or highly random (a deck of many things)
  • Transgression — How offensive is this to social norms, either not at all (a shirt) or extremely (a rapist). 
  • Intuition — something typical (a sword) or something that has un-intuitive effects (a sword that heals people on striking them)
  • Obviousness — how clear something is (a detailed map), or how obtuse it is (a puzzle map)
  • Versatility — can it do one thing (a screwdriver) or a lot of stuff (a multi-weapon)
  • Engagement — does this hook mainly encourage focus on the self (stealthy rogue), or social or outward behavior (the party therapist).
  • Reflectiveness — does a hook tend to expand a situation (summoning a genie), or reflect on previous ones (a mirror that shows you from three days ago).
  • Identity — does it convey genericness (a plastic spoon) or identity (dreadlocks or a branded hat)
  • Combinatory — can different hooks merge (puzzle pieces), permanently or temporarily.
  • Cynicism — is this hook probably going to be more cynical (innocent boy in a warzone), or more optimistic (creating your magnum opus)?
  • Sublimity — can this hook be engaged and comprehended easily (a small painting), or is simply too large to appreciate as an individual except by breaking it down into smaller hooks (a massive skyscraper)

Every hook is working with all qualities on all value spectrums at once, but usually the focus is mostly on one or two aspects. The point isn’t to analyze every hook until it’s worn down to a nub, but to pay attention when things jump out. If your story or game has zero reflection in it, it might come off as exhausting. You can also use this as a tool to generate hooks. How can you have a reflective, combinatory, and un-intuitive hook?

Managing Hook Types and Cognitive Load

Is there some magic number of hooks that each player should have for a session? How many hooks of each type should be available to each player character? How many hooks should the GM present in a scene?

The “right answers” to those questions depends on the genre and kind of people you are with. Sometimes you want a more comfortable, easy session that runs through tropes. That is entertainment. Other times you want a more challenging experience, whether it demands creativity, causes discomfort, or just causes you to think and feel unexpected things. That is more on the artistic, teambuilding, or even therapeutic side of roleplay.

As discussed before, presenting lots of hooks and not resolving many of them can prove unsatisfying, though this is probably better than not adding enough hooks. Unless, of course, you want to explore a small number of hooks with a lot of depth. Too many hooks also results in a heavy cognitive load, as people want to build coherence, and more hooks means more complex plots. Certain types of hooks will reduce cognitive load, such as combinatory hooks that permanently combine together (an underutilized technique in my experience).

Cognitive Overload from Too Many Hooks

Here’s an example of a scene probably trying to work on too many hooks at once. Let’s say this was the first scene of two player investigative game:

You’re a private investigator with addiction problems, a feisty ferret sidekick, and an estranged lover. You arrive at the murder scene, and you find a witness who happens to be a drug dealer, a small crack in the wall your ferret could fit through (maybe the weapon is stored there), and a pendant the victim dropped that reminds you of your former lover.

Could you make all of that work together with the right pacing? Definitely, but it’d be delicate. The most satisfying way to work this scene (in my opinion) would probably be to somehow tie the pendant together with the drug dealer, aligning the internal narrative of the investigator’s addiction problem with their estranged lover with the external plot of solving the mystery. There’s an elegant symmetry there. It would work well in a novel or short story.

But doing all of that on the fly is difficult. It would easy to just get overwhelmed with what are essentially seven hooks: a murder mystery, addiction, your ferret, your lover, drug dealer/witness, the wall crack, the pendant. Since this is the first scene, all the hooks are primed to do work, which is just too many. Generally, I would say seven is too many for a scene, unless your players are really quick (and fresh. Seven hooks is probably too many to work with near the end of a three hour session.)

Sense Play and Arc Play

Not all roleplay has to do narrative work. Sometimes your character just has a nice meal, enjoys a song, feels a twinge in their foot, plays with a cat, and moves on. Pure description is sense-play, although most people will usually do narrative work anyway with what they are given — our brains are wired for narrative.

Conversely, pure arc play is when values shift without any sense components. If you roll a dice, and get a 5, and say, well I guess I’m moving 5 points towards community from individual, with no basis in sensory detail, that would be pure arc play. Essentially, pure math. This is almost impossible in a roleplay game, and even exceedingly rare in a board game unless you’re completely going through the motions and are having no experiential quality.

Like almost everything, sense play vs. arc play is a spectrum, and most things occur somewhere in the middle of the two. Just be aware when you are approaching one extreme or the other. If you’re finding things are getting too abstract, you may need to add sensory qualities. And if you need more structure to your story, you may have to either sit down and nail what values you really want to work with, or add rules that work on these spectrums.

What to do with this Theory of Hooks?

Theory is only useful if you can practice it. So to offer some usefulness, consider the following exercises:

  • Evaluate the general number and novelty of obvious hooks in your system, story, or campaign. Are the sense details potent?
  • Consider the actual human values you want to work on and represent with mechanics. That is, what is actually changing in your game. Power level is just one thing that might change, and arguably a not very interesting one. What are you actually doing with increased power?
  • Try writing a mechanic to reduce hook numbers when necessary. For example: on level up, you may combine two similar spells, such as a enhanced plant growth and a speak with plants, into one ability, speak with invigorated plants.

By Ryder

I am a writer, furniture designer and a musician. I enjoy synthesizing information because it helps me (and hopefully others) understand subjects in a systematic way.

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