While I’m well aware that this is primarily a gameplay community, story writing should still be given some thought unless you’re making something like a one chapter hack. I’m sure there are plenty of potential players who could lose interest in a project if the story never goes anywhere or if the dialogue is annoying. To that end, I thought it was worthwhile to share some writing advice.
This was inspired by Xilirite’s similar topic, so check that out if you haven’t as there’s already some good advice in there.
My first article is on plot twists and tropes, and you can check it out below.
Tropes and Twists
Conventional wisdom might tell you that plot twists are good and tropes are bad, but I’m here to tell you that plot twists can, in fact, be quite bad and tropes can actually be quite useful tools in storytelling. I thought tropes would make a good first topic because a lot of hack makers seem driven to change up the typical Fire Emblem formula by staying away from characters who are members of nobility. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s also nothing wrong with sticking with the familiar. In the long run, the overall execution of the story will be much more important to leaving an impact on the audience than background biographical information about the main character.
When thinking about whether a trope is useful or not, a good place to start is whether the trope accomplishes anything. So is there a reason that Fire Emblem protagonists are typically noble born? Fire Emblem is a series where armies clash on a battlefield. It therefore makes the most sense for the protagonist to be the leader of an army because having to follow orders would cut down on the amount of agency available to the protagonist. Having the protagonist be noble born is a simple way to explain why he is in a position to lead an army. While it is certainly possible to have a protagonist from another walk of life, it would take more dialogue to explain why that character is the leader, which risks bogging down those critical early moments when the audience is meant to be drawn in.
This brings us to FE9/10’s Ike, who is notable for not being of noble birth. However, his being the son of the mercenary leader is pretty much identical in function to if he was noble born. He becomes the leader because of who his parents were. It’s easy to understand and avoids bogging the player down in exposition about why one of the younger members is leading the mercenaries.
In my own hack, Deity Device, the starting units are about as basic as can be in Fire Emblem terms. There’s a princess, a Cain and Abel pair, and a Jagen. However, it’s because the characters have that familiar feel that their relationships can be established without needing to write stilted, expository dialogue. Saying that a character is another character’s knight is quick and easy, and having to go into some sort of backstory about why a character follows another will take a lot longer. And what needs to be kept in mind is that the audience does not care about the characters at this point. They have to do things before the audience will care, so time spent expositing is time when the audience could very well be lost. Therefore, establishing relationships quickly in order to keep the action moving is in the writer’s best interests.
The opening scene of Deity Device gives all of this information about the initial units:
Using character tropes was a big part of why this information was able to be communicated without forcing the characters to exposit about a shared past that they would have no reason to talk about outside of informing the player. None of this is to say that it’s a good idea to create bland, stock characters that the audience is likely to have seen before, but it is meant to impart that familiar does not mean bad or even unoriginal. Putting a different spin on an established trope can even be an effective way to make a character memorable.
This brings us to plot twists. I decided to talk about twists together with tropes because the reason for gravitating toward twists comes from pretty much the same place as moving away from tropes: wanting to surprise the audience. If nothing else, I would like to impart that it is not a bad thing if the audience can predict something that happens in a story. It can actually be a very good thing, as in the best case scenario, it means that the story and characters were well established enough that the audience could draw logical conclusions about what was being experienced.
The danger of writing around a plot twist is that, if the primary goal is to shock the audience, clues and foreshadowing will be kept to a minimum. It will therefore be difficult to write the twist in such a way that it doesn’t come across as either out of nowhere or a character making a complete heel turn on what has been established about him. Doing that will likely get a reaction out of the audience, possibly even a positive one in the moment, but that impression will likely sour after any reflection.
Obviously, the goal shouldn’t be to be predictable. The audience should want to see what is going to happen next. But the writer should not be viewing the audience as an adversary that needs to be outsmarted. The writer should be guiding the audience through the story, not trying to deceive it. Leading the audience toward incorrect conclusions in order to create a twist can leave an equally bad taste as a poorly developed twist. Again, doing so will likely get a reaction in the moment, but upon reflection, the story leading up the twist will likely just feel manipulative and will likely induce eyeball rolling upon any rereads.
If the story is well executed, then the audience will stick with the story in order to see how things happen, even if it has a good idea of what kind of ending there will be. And providing a complete experience will contribute to the audience retaining a positive impression of the story after experiencing it.
So let’s put it all together by talking about something concrete. Star Wars is pretty easy to talk about because it’s such a cultural touchstone. And it so happens that the first movie (Episode IV) is full of tropes, to the point that it’s essentially a mashup of of a Western and a King Arthur story with a sci-fi setting. After it made a ton of money, the world building ramped up and sequels were planned, but the original movie is, at its heart, a very simple story that uses well established concepts to make it accessible in spite of its niche setting.
There’s a farm boy who goes off to seize his destiny as a hero, a roguish outlaw, and a wise old wizard, and together, they save a princess. Even though these are all things the audience has probably seen before, the movie does a good enough job of making the journey worthwhile that the familiarity doesn’t diminish the experience.
By contrast, the big twist that came in the the next movie is arguably one of the worst bits of storytelling in the first trilogy (hear me out). It is never, in any way, suggested before the reveal that Vader is Luke’s father. And making it work required retconning Obi Wan’s statement that Vader had killed Luke’s father into a symbolic statement that is true “from a certain point of view.” It also makes Luke and Leia’s interactions up to that point so awkward on a second viewing that even Lachesis feels uncomfortable watching.
And yes, the revelation of Luke’s parentage was certainly a big moment that shocked moviegoers, but did it really contribute anything? The final showdown between Luke and Vader in the next movie could have played out much the same if Luke was trying to redeem a once valiant Jedi even if there was no blood relation between the two of them. It cleaned up the issue of which leading man would wind up with the princess by taking Luke out of the running, and that’s about it. Nowadays, the legacy of the reveal is just a line that your annoying uncle probably thinks is funny to work into his ramblings (if you are that annoying uncle, then shame on you) and that’s about it.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. Basically, don’t feel bad or feel like you can’t use an idea if you think it might be a trope, and don’t be too zealous in concealing information in order to pull off an epic twist. There are always going to be cynical people who will try to say that a storyline or characters are too derivative or too obvious. Just don’t worry about pleasing those people because it’s likely you won’t, no matter what you do.