Storium Theory: Inaction in Action

This post originally appeared at Gaming Creatively on April 13th, 2017.

Sometimes, I see players make comments in a game, explaining why they haven’t made a move in a challenge so far:

“I don’t think this is something my character knows how to deal with.”

“I’m not sure she cares about this.”

“I think he’s just kind of stunned right now.

“She doesn’t know what to do.”

Sometimes these are indications of a problem in the story – if all of a narrator’s players are telling him their characters don’t care about the current situation, it is probably time to revise the situation and figure out how to better relate it to the story at hand.

But…more often, they’re a statement that is actually pointing directly at a very interesting opportunity for the character: A chance to make inaction your action.

When you’re writing the story of a challenge, things are happening, whether your character is acting on them or not. Each move drives the timeline of the challenge forward. When a card is played, something happens, and the challenge moves positively or negatively, or just towards the end of its story.

So…if your character, for instance, doesn’t know how to deal with something, and chooses not to act…that’s a choice. And that’s his “action” for that moment in the tale.

So let it be an action! Make your move! Show your character’s uncertainty or confusion about what to do! Show how your character hasn’t cared about the situation, if that’s the case, and chooses to ignore it! Show how the situation has left your character stunned, or how he’s tired and needs rest, or how his injuries prevent him from joining the battle!

Sometimes, those things are treated as reasons not to make a move, but…that’s not what they should be. They are, in fact, excellent opportunities to make moves.

Especially…especially…if you have either Weakness cards to play, or a Subplot.

I’m stunned. I’m confused. I’m shell-shocked. I’m injured. I’m exhausted. I just plain don’t care about this.

Those are all excellent weakness plays.

When a situation is ongoing and your character chooses not to do anything about it, that’s a great opportunity to show what starts going wrong with the situation because your character is not preventing it. Philosophically, there’s nothing really different here from if things start to go wrong and your character tries to prevent it and fails because of a Weakness, right? Something goes wrong either way. The difference is just that your character, in this case, didn’t do something to stop it instead of doing something but getting it wrong.

What about Subplots? Well, Subplots are great for these situations too! When a character is shocked into inaction, when she finds something she doesn’t care about, when he struggles to understand what he’s supposed to do in a situation…those are great times to explore the other mysteries in a character’s life or the things the character does care about. There are some excellent subplot moves available that show how the character withdraws into themselves, or starts thinking about how all this ties in with their personal problems, or tries to examine where they are right now…and because of all that, something starts to happen in the current situation, and they’re not really sure what to do in the face of it…or even if they should do something.

A subplot isn’t a weakness play, mind, so chances are nothing ends up going outright wrong right away, but you can certainly hint that something will! While your character is distracted by his own thoughts, or full of self-doubt, or struggling with what he’s supposed to do, or disinterested in what is happening, how does the situation evolve?

If your character doesn’t seem certain of what’s going on, or doesn’t know what to do, or just plain doesn’t care…don’t just drop out of the challenge. Use that to advance the challenge.

Now…one more point on this. Especially in the case of a character that “doesn’t care” about a challenge, this can actually be a great way to figure out what would make them care, and therefore explain how a Strength comes into play, or at least how they get involved in the challenge despite their feelings. If you find yourself thinking that your character just wouldn’t get involved for some reason or another, put a little time into thinking about what might happen because of that decision.

Then, write a move based on that…and maybe, maybe midway through the move, you’ll realize the character now does know what to do, or does care about the situation, as she sees what is about to happen, or starts watching something she does care about slip away.

Maybe that leads to the character using a Strength and turning things around after all. Or maybe the character ends up doubling down on fear or uncertainty, or just takes the wrong action, using a Weakness. Or maybe, the character’s Subplot drives him forward, making him engage with the challenge now that he’s seen what it could mean if he doesn’t.

Now…this isn’t something you need to pull in all the time. (And to be clear, if you find yourself constantly trying to figure out why your character would get involved in something, it may be time to talk to the narrator about how to make your character mesh better with the story.) But there are times when an inability to think about something that your character would do can itself be precisely what drives the story forward and makes an interesting situation.

Don’t overuse this, but…keep it in the toolbox. It’s a handy trick to pull out and it can lead to some astonishingly interesting moments for a character if used properly.

Remember Spider-Man and Uncle Ben…sometimes, when your character doesn’t take action, that ends up driving his story more than anything else.