Storytelling games such as computer and pen-and-paper role playing games (RPGs) rely on a story structure that funnels the characters along a single line of action. The characters must go to this inn, must speak to this barkeep, and must slay this dragon before the action can progress any farther. This tendency is occasionally disparagingly known as the “plot wagon”, or a means to get the characters from one plot point to another without diverging or chasing rabbit trails along the way. It makes for streamlined storytelling, but can seem very contrived if not handled correctly.
Every plot twist leading to the conclusion of the story must be seen as inevitable by the reader. Only when the reader is convinced that this story could not have possibly happened any other way may a plot be truly effective. This means systematcally erasing rabbit trails and divergent plot branches from the character’s list of options. Often, this means allowing the character to play out these departures from the main plot in order to emphasize the necessity of following the central story. This divergence is acceptable as long as it doesn’t damage the pacing of the story.
There are a few ways in which this plays out in popular genre fiction. In many action novels, the must be a reason the hero can’t just shoot the bad guy and call it a day. In romance, the must be a reason the heroine doesn’t simply embrace her leading man from the very beginning. In a mystery, there must be a reason that the police don’t see the same evidence as the detective and make an immediate arrest. Most important of all, these reasons must be compelling. The reader must side with the action hero in not shooting the bad guy. He must empathize with the heroine in her suffering for unattainable love. He must be as baffled as the police as to the identity of the criminal. If the reader grows frustrated with the behavior of the characters and sees a simpler solution to their dilemma, he will quickly lose interest in the story.
The plot wagon is all about the journey. The story will eventually end. The reader must have enjoyed the trip for the story to have been successful. At every crossroads, the reader is asking the character, “Is there any other choice you can make that would be better?” The writer had better be asking that same question, and if he can come up with a good answer, chase it. The plot wagon will trundle on with or without the characters. The reader won’t mind diverging every now and then if it means an interesting plot point or character moment, but each of those rabbit trails needs to feed back to the main road, or the reader will feel cheated out of the story that has occurred along the way.