Flex Your Creative Muscle: Storytelling for Complex Simulations

By: Cindy McCabe

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Character, plot, foreshadowing, climax… with a quick glance, you might think this post is about the Great American Novel or the next hit indie drama. No, I’m not writing to you from a tiny room in Paris hunched over a typewriter, nor am I in a slick writer’s room in Hollywood. Yet writing for complex simulations does require dusting off those techniques you learned back in creative writing class. After you’ve internalized the business and instructional objectives and gotten a solid grasp on the subject matter, it’s time to turn your inner writer loose. Here are some tips from my experience to help you along.

Got To Be Real: Characters in Simulations

Think about who the “stars” of your story will be. (Let’s see… Brad Pitt… Oh, excuse me, got carried away there.) Put your learner in the position of the protagonist — the main character and the “hero” of the story. Then write the parts for one or more antagonists that pose conflicts. Though the name “antagonist” might conjure up certain feelings (as in the word “antagonistic”), these characters aren’t meant to be evil. They simply have different perspectives or goals that create challenging situations for the learner.

Characters need to feel real in the context of the learner’s experience. By building character profiles, you can create backstories for each of them. These backstories will help explain their unique perspectives and views that are different from the protagonist’s. You’ll want to keep these brief, but they do add depth and richness to the story.

Characters’ actions should remain true to their perspectives. Referring to each character’s backstory as you write will help you frame how he or she should respond in a given situation. A character that behaves in a certain way shouldn’t suddenly change behavior. That’s not to say that a character can’t change his or her mind about something. Hey, we all have realizations and epiphanies, right?

Building the Story: Plot

Think beginning, middle, and end. At the beginning of the story, introduce the learner to the simulation’s setting, most or all major characters, and the overall situation and objective. Bring in your challenges or obstacles in the middle of the story: There may be several minor obstacles to overcome that build toward the major obstacle (the climax, which I’ll describe in a future post). Then use the end to provide a conclusion to the story: Recap how the learner resolved the challenge and reinforce what was learned. Getting creative, you might include “credits” or brief snapshots of the characters’ futures (“where they are now?”)!

Achieve balance when creating obstacles for the learner. Overcoming obstacles should be attainable, but not easy. For example, you might require that learners look up the answer in a knowledge management system, or in a document they’ve picked up along the way in the simulation. (This type of challenge also gives learners exposure to and practice using a tool or reference material they need to use back on the job.) In this case, you want to give enough information to ensure learners can find the answer, but not provide the direct link or page number where the information can be found.

How have you used characters and plot devices in storytelling for simulations?

Check out Part Two, where I discuss foreshadowing and climax!

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