Armchair Linguist: The Gamble

Okay, so now that we’ve defined a few types of story information, what happens when we start putting it together and presenting it to an audience?

As somebody who does a fair bit of writing on his own, questions about structure and content are often on my mind (what? published? pfft, I’m self-published and you’re facilitating it, chumps!) Of course, there are the structural tropes. “There are only X basic plots” (where X ranges from 1 to 36 depending on who you ask), three-act structure, Freytag’s 5-part dramatic progression, etc. Showing versus telling. First-person perspective, third-person omniscience, maybe even second person? And how about an unreliable narrator? Hiding beneath them all, though is a more fundamental question: what makes an effective story?

I believe there are two mechanisms at work, which I’d iterated on several times before finally settling on these terms: Buy-In and Pay-Off. I landed on gambling terms because that’s what any investment of time in a story is, ultimately: a gamble. Though we may have some ideas and expectations at the outset, we don’t know going in what we’re going to get out of it.

Though the level of buy-in and pay-off an individual is receptive to is subjective, as everyone has their own tolerances and thresholds and forgivenesses, there is no escaping that these elements are always at play. Still, I wonder if there are some generally effective proportions to be discovered. Fifty-fifty, four-to-one, two-to-one? And how of quantify it? Number of words, number of scenes, number of informational statements? Deeper questions for a future time, but suffice it to say that a story will be more satisfying the closer the buy-in and pay-off ratio is to this mysterious golden zone. For now let’s establish these terms.

Buy-In

Buy-in overlaps with and is influenced by many other factors. Do we know the characters?  Do we understand their motivations?  Is the setting well-founded?  If we are dealing with a genre piece, are the rules of the world consistent?

Buy-in by another name would be “suspension of disbelief”, but I don’t really like that phrase. It makes the act sound far more antagonizing than it actually is. The audience’s mind is not so stubborn that any engagement with non-real information is blocked by a barricade the author must fight through. “Suspension of disbelief” makes it sound like the audience would absolutely prefer to remain locked in the realm of the real, and the author must do their damnedest to convince them otherwise.

Of course, we know people love stories. Everybody has a level of buy-in at the start of any storytelling experience, influenced by–let’s say–pre-sale information. familiarity with a franchise or genre, real-world mood, recommendations and expectations shaped by trusted sources. It is the author’s job, then, to grab onto that initial chunk, engage the audience and maintain their interest through effective buy-in.

Technical aspects of a story influence buy-in.  Are we given information which helps us understand a setting? Is the prose competent? Are the special effects believable? Is the music complementary to the scene?  Are the illustrations consistent?  Buy-in aims to establish and support the skeleton of the story, and to hang some meat and skin on top of it.  Why do you think they call it “fleshing out” a story?

In games, consistency and feedback are important elements of buy-in.  If a player does not understand what is happening on a mechanical level, they are pulled out of the experience because they have to re-evaluate the fundamental and establishing concepts which have seemingly been violated.  If a player keeps dying to an unexplained mechanic or unseen foe, it’s frustrating, sure, but it’s also an example of insufficient buy-in.  While traditional media aim to establish “these are the things you gotta know about the world and the characters”, games have to additionally establish “these are the things you gotta know about how things affect you and are affected by your actions”.

Character buy-in is established through dimensionality, behavior, dialogue and experiences.  The more we know about a character, and the more coherent the details provided are, the more we buy in.  What’s important to them?  What are their fears?  What are their desires?  What do they want, but what do they need?  If you’ve ever seen one of those character questionnaires, these are the kinds of questions that show up often.  It’s important for an author to know everything about their characters, even if it’s not stated explicitly, because it informs and solidifies the character’s portrayal within the story.  Really, this is basic Storytelling 101 stuff, but I want to be clear about my terms.  Buy-in makes a character relatable, or at least understandable (unsympathetic characters are important too!)

Character relationships, as related to buy-in, are often one of the biggest problem spots I encounter.  Too often, a story will gloss over how characters interact with each other, be it friendships, rivalries, love, hate, indifference, whatever.  These characters live in an imaginary world, but they live in it together.  Showing interactions with others is an easy way to deepen a character… a personality is cavernous, and exploring a cave is much more impactful than having it described to you (or glossed over entirely).  Of course, these interactions should be situations relevant to the story, otherwise the author is setting up pins we don’t get to see knocked over (more on that in another post, which doesn’t exist yet, sorry!)

Boy, do I love analogies!  The buy-in is bowling pins, and the pay-off is the bowling ball.  Buy-in is establishing potential, pay-off is executing action.  Buy-in is building the skeleton, muscle, skin… pay-off is making it move.

Pay-Off

In the relationship of tension and release, pay-off is the release (not in a gross way, eww… well okay, sometimes in a gross way).  It is the movement along the arc of the story, of all the sub-arcs as well.  Pay-off is the sum of the transformative moments throughout a story.  A chase, a fight, a victory, a defeat.  A kiss, a rejection.  A revelation, a reconciliation, a discovery, a decision.

Things happen when buy-in and pay-off are out of balance. If a story’s buy-in outweighs the pay-off, we can feel disappointed. If the pay-off outweighs the buy-in, we can feel manipulated.  In the bowling analogy, a story where many pins have been set up but only a few were knocked over leaves the audience underwhelmed.  On the other hand, picture a bowling ball chucked down an empty lane and given all the gravity and focus of a strike.  Confusing, to say the least!  What were we looking at?  We don’t know.

Whenever I examine a work, I keep in mind the feelings of investment I accumulate, and try to make note of what is feeding into this investment.  By the end of a work, that’s when it’s time to consider pay-offs.  Were there questions left unanswered (which is not always a bad thing, but a tricky thing)?  Was I confused about any particular turn of events?  Were there questions not asked that should have been?  How much extra work would it have taken to balance the loads of buy-in and pay-off?

These concepts translate well into other things, too.  Stand-up comedy (which is really just a rapid-fire delivery of humorous mini-stories (okay, not always but often (aren’t nested parentheses great)))?  Set-up and punchline.  Tension and release.  In music theory, chord progression and resolution.  At root is whatever fundamental psychological process is being engaged that draws our focus into a non-real, non-immediate experience and ultimately releases us from it an affected individual.

So where did this post get us?  Not very far, really, but I want you to know what I’m talking about, at least kinda.  Having laid down these loose definitions, these trademark rambling explanations, I will probably directly refer to the concepts of Buy-In and Pay-Off a bit more freely in future Story Delivery Vehicle articles.

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