I talk a lot about ways to tell better stories, but one of the aspects I rarely discuss is story structure. That’s because structure is one of those underlying mechanisms that works best when it doesn’t stand out, so it can be hard to find an obviously good example that’s also a compelling tale.
Luckily, I just read a book that should be taught in college writing classes because of its structure alone, but it also happens to be so good that I couldn’t put it down. The book has nothing to do with writing, really; it’s a story about professional videogamers. It just happens to be really, really well-written.
Game Boys: Professional Videogaming’s Rise from the Basement to the Big-Time started out as a New York Post article by author Michael Kane. As he explains in the book’s introduction, Kane and his editors presumed he’d investigate one of pro gaming’s annual competitions, write a casual profile about a wacky American subculture, and move on to the next gig.
But once Kane was exposed to the human drama of the pro videogaming circuit, he found a story he couldn’t let go of, so he flipped his newspaper assignment into a book following two warring Counter-Strike clans over the course of a year, on their quixotic quests for money, fame and legitimacy in the eyes of the mainstream media.
Without giving too much away about the plot — because, honestly, Game Boys is worth reading for the story alone, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you — here are some of the reasons Kane’s book is such a good example of solid story structure, and why having one can benefit your story (and your readers’ experience) immensely.
1. Show Your Audience Their Own Way Into the Story
Unless you’re a professional videogamer (or you aspire to be one), you probably know nothing about the book’s core topic. That’s okay; neither did Kane when he started. Everything he knows about competitive videogaming, he learned firsthand by covering it as a journalist, and he’s practical enough to realize his audience will likely have all the same questions as he did when he began — things like “Who are these people?” and “What are they doing?” and “Why does any of this matter?”
Those questions are universal for any story, but when the milieu involves a subculture with its own rules, lingo and habits, writing (or reading) about it can feel more like cultural anthropology than journalism. So Kane does something shrewd: he boils everything down to conflict.
The story opens at an annual gaming competition in Dallas. The reader enters this world by following a gamer off an elevator and into the hotel ballroom where the competition is being held. Once we understand the physicality of the gamers’ world — playing wargames for profit on video screens wired across cafeteria tables in run-down hotel basements — we’ll naturally want to understand the scope of the stakes. “What’s the best (or worst) possible thing that could happen to these people, within the context of their reality?”
And that’s all we need to keep turning pages until we find someone to root for (or against).
2. It’s Never About the Plot; It’s About the People
Conflict without personality is just numbers. Fortunately, Kane introduces you to his two dueling CounterStrike clans, Team 3D and CompLexity, in the book’s opening anecdote. The contrast in their gaming styles, and the way in which each clan is regarded by their peers, sets the stage for the book-long showdown Kane will document. And most deliciously of all, the clans don’t even square off this early in the book: they’re each, in their own way, underdogs, and Kane gives their rivalry time to pick up speed before their actions really start to matter.
By then, you’ll know all the gamers’ names, personalities and skills. You’ll know what’s really at stake, what each person stands to gain or lose, and the obstacles they need to overcome. But none of that would matter of you didn’t care about who wins, and to care, you need to see these people as individuals, not as one-dimensional names on a page.
3. Every Story Is a Mystery, So Reveal Your Information Strategically
At its core, Game Boys boils down to: “Who wins?” That’s the mystery, and we’re heading toward the answer on every page.
To get there, we need clues. But this isn’t a mystery about unraveling a crime that’s already happened; it’s about providing the right context to shape the audience’s expectations of what’s still to come. If you don’t understand how this world works, you can’t appreciate the actions the gamers take (whether onscreen or behind the scenes). And if you don’t understand each character’s motivation, you won’t appreciate the choices they have to make.
Kane knows that immersing you in this world too quickly would kill the story — too much lingo, too many names, too much exposition all at once would obliterate the story’s human element. So he spends chapter after chapter highlighting certain people and anecdotes that serve a dual purpose: they reveal something about the gaming world that you didn’t already know, while simultaneously clarifying the personalities and needs of the players involved.
In other words, knowing that fRoD is the world’s greatest AWPer on page 2 of Game Boys means nothing, but learning it midway through the book suddenly means everything. And Kane is an expert at knowing which information to reveal at which stages of the book, so that you keep seeing these people and their story in new ways that changes what you already thought you knew. In this fashion, Game Boys reads less like a piece of nonfiction and more like a season of The Wire.
4. Use Backstory to Fuel the Plot
The central conflict in Game Boys takes place on computer screens, but the games themselves are just a MacGuffin. The gamers’ play would mean nothing if the gamers themselves didn’t have something deeper at stake than simple wins and losses.
To truly appreciate (or predict) their choices in-game, or in practice, or when they’re negotiating deals, the readers benefit from knowing who these gamers are and where they come from.
Jason Lake may be CompLexity’s coach, but he’s also been funding them out of his own pocket for years, to the tune of $300,000 that he may never earn back. Team 3D’s manager, Craig Levine, is the born hustler that Lake isn’t built to be, which means CompLexity is always playing catch-up on the business end even when they’re better at the game itself. And each of the gamers has a personality quirk or family history that directly informs his in-game performance and his off-screen aspirations — all of which creates a variety of soap opera-like storylines worth getting immersed in.
5. Kick Every Ball Forward at Its Own Pace
Keeping track of each gamer’s individual story, plus each clan’s goals, plus the business of professional videogaming as a whole, could be overwhelming to any reader. But Kane’s pragmatic strategy is to nest smaller stories within the larger set pieces of each head-to-head competition, so the primary plot is fueled by — and, in turn, directly affects — each “minor” story happening in its shadow.
For example, when we first meet Team 3D, Ronald “Rambo” Kim is their undisputed leader. But shortly after their loss in the book’s opening tale, Rambo is replaced by Dave “Moto” Geffon, which creates immediate tension within the group. Meanwhile, fRoD’s reputation as the best Counter-Strike player in the world is colored by his own family’s perception of his “work,” and the uphill battle he fights to earn his father’s respect in an industry his family disregards.
These kinds of mini-conflicts evolve throughout the rest of the story, as new facts and incidents color the reader’s opinion of these situations and constantly challenge our own expectations of what we think (or hope) will happen next.
6. Use Lingo to Unite Your Audience, Not to Alienate Them
Frags. Strats. AWPs. Dust 2. None of these terms means anything if you haven’t read the book (or played Counter-Strike), but they (and countless others) are integral to understanding the story Kane is telling. But instead of drowning you in useless acronyms or endless glossaries, he explains the terms as they come up, and only as needed.
As we study Team 3D at practice, we’re bombarded with necessary details about Counter-Strike, but they’re presented within the conflict between Rambo and Moto. We barely realize we’re learning anything important until Team 3D’s next match, when all the lingo we just learned comes flying off the page and we realize — exhilaratingly — that we get it. We’re “in.” And our ability to understand all these terms without needing footnotes means Kane’s story can race ahead at the speed he intended.
7. Establish Dueling Expectations Within Your Audience
In theory, there are only four ways Game Boys can end: Team 3D wins, CompLexity wins, both teams win, or no one wins.
To his credit, even after he establishes CompLexity as the outsiders and Team 3D as the team to beat, Kane continually tinkers with our expectations through his strategic use of narrative and clues. If Team 3D is so good, why do they have such a hard time winning? If CompLexity really is the better team, why can’t they ever catch a break? If fRoD is the best player on the planet, why is he with CompLexity in the first place? Every question opens another door, and gives us an opportunity to second-guess our own presumptions about how the story — and each subplot — will end.
8. Harvesting the Seeds You Planted Long Ago Creates Closure
One of my favorite aspects of Kane’s writing is his Wire-like ability to introduce characters, situations and details that won’t pay off for dozens of pages, which creates increasing levels of enjoyment as a reader realizes that paying attention to all these little details really does pay off. Kane’s narrative benefits from all kinds of seemingly insignificant structural choices, like…
- the order in which the key characters are introduced
- the “colorful” details revealed in the gamers’ backstories
- “side commentary” about the ethics, culture and public image of gaming
- descriptions of the locations where the games are played
- the functional operation of Counter-Strike’s in-game navigation
… and much more.
Described in a different order, or with other details emphasized (or missing altogether), the plot points in Kane’s story would still be compelling. But Game Boys elevates itself above other nonfiction books through a structure that simultaneously makes its story and its characters more interesting and less “alien” to an outsider.
And if that keeps you turning the pages as fast as I did, you’ll appreciate Kane’s greatest trick of all: by the time you’re done, you’ll feel like you’re part of this culture, and you’ll wonder why everyone else isn’t obsessed with it — which is the same thing the gamers themselves have been wondering all along.
Perhaps Game Boys will help solve that riddle, one new reader at a time…
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