Jul 14, 2009

Rule of Thumb: One Step Ahead

Jul 14, 2009
Here's an extra beefy Rule of Thumb just for you guys.

This post is a spiritual successor to the Rule of Thumb: Fleeting Details posted by Luke - addressing methods of creating a world of depth, one that viewers could lose themselves in for a couple of hours or even half an hour a week. Hinting at behind the scene stories and showing realistic everyday foibles are two excellent ways to flesh out your universe.

I think I have another to add to this hopefully growing list.

Have a look at this teaser for I Am Alive, a game to be released August this year:

This could have easily been a forgettable post-apocalyptic rehash, but there was one thing about it that drew me into the world: They are desperate for drinking water. Of course they would be! Instantly I believed that these people lived there, that they had real struggles and real needs. The writer's were one step ahead of the audience. Details like this say to an audience "Trust us, this is a living, breathing world."

Recently, watching Prince of Thieves (1991) reminded me how effective use of this method can be in a movie, and how much it strengthens the Creativity Pillar.

Prince of Thieves constantly took me places I couldn't have anticipated. For example, Morgan Freeman's character Azeem stopping to pray towards Mecca - or Kevin Costner's confusion, having never used a telescope before. Or even the classic 'Robin-fighting-Little-John-on-a-bridge' scene, which they chose instead to have on a ford. A strange yet interesting and plausible choice.

And they don't have to be actions. In one scene, Alan Rickman has to be alerted to some trouble. I would have just had some messenger poke his head in the door, but they had a bell connected to strings running throughout the castle. If you lived in a large castle like that, you would use such an item. It feels like people actually live there.

Unfortunately, this can work in reverse as well. We've all been in a movie and thought, 'Surely they would do this instead' or 'Surely, in this world it wouldn't work like that.'

I remember watching a short film about a toy monkey that kills people and as this Dad runs around frantically trying to save people, Luke and I could think of several much better and really obvious ways to fix his problems - and just like that, we were one step ahead of the writers. There's really no situation I can think of where a cynical audience is a good thing.

Really, it's about smart unpredictability. I know to some people these might seem like obvious points, but I like to write these things down anyway, so I can use them like a check-list.
For more examples of One Step Ahead, read all of Order of the Stick.


  1. I love that trailer so much. It doesn't a fantastic job of hiding the reason for the chase until just the right moment.

  2. I wonder if that game will be on PC.

  3. I don't think they were chasing him for his water.

    It is cool.


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