Foreshadowing and climax are two storytelling techniques used for complex simulations.

If you’re an instructional designer who loves a good novel or a compelling movie, writing for complex simulations gives you a great opportunity to flex your own creative writing muscle. The first part of your job, of course, is to get a firm grasp on the business drivers, the performance gap, and the training objectives, and develop a brilliant simulation design. Then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty of the story.

In Part One of this post, I offered some tips for character and plot. Below I’ll dig a little deeper into two techniques you might remember from creative writing classes: foreshadowing and climax.

Give Them a Taste: Foreshadowing

In complex simulations, learners need to make decisions based on multiple choices available to them. They need enough information to make those decisions, but not so much that you’ve given away the answers. The best way to do this is to determine what the decision is and what the possible outcomes are in advance. Then, work backwards to identify what information you need to disclose to learners. Disclose only so much information that learners can reasonably foresee the consequences of their decisions.

Here’s an example: let’s say we have a simulation that focuses on how to handle difficult situations as a supervisor. The learner will need to make a series of decisions about what to say to an employee (let’s call her Judy) in a one-on-one conversation. As preparation, the learner will speak with a few of the Judy’s colleagues to better understand her performance and impact on the team. During these conversations, the learner will glean bits of information about the Judy’s personality and her reactions to different situations. When the time comes for the one-on-one conversation with Judy, the learner won’t know exactly how she will respond and react, but the previous conversations allow the learner to foresee how Judy might respond, which informs the learner’s decisions.

Avoid the Crash and Burn: Climax

What makes simulations such an effective training tool? Well, one reason is simulations offer learners a safe environment to practice – and yes, make mistakes. Learners can try out different techniques without being afraid of harming relationships with colleagues or customers, messing up a system, or deleting important data. Learners learn as much from their mistakes as they do from getting it right!

As discussed in Part One, just before the end of the story, we want introduce the major obstacle and allow learners to use what they’ve learned to bring the story to a positive conclusion. The build-up of drama and major conflict is the “climax” of the story. It should be a challenge to complete, and it’s probable that they will make mistakes. Here’s the key: we don’t want to leave them in a “crash and burn” situation, which is demotivating. We want to give them an opportunity to recover from their mistakes.

In video games, gamers attempt to finish a series of “levels” to successfully complete the game. And in many games, if you mess up too badly, you die. Imagine if that was the end of the story! You’d throw your controller down and give up on the game. Instead, you get to restart and try that level or that challenge again. Take a cue from video games in your complex simulation and allow the learner to try again, or give them a path to recover and learn from their mistakes.

Karl Kapp, author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, offers 12 great ideas for how to help learners who don’t “win” in his blog post, “The Emotional Toll of Instructional Games.”

How have you used foreshadowing in your complex simulations? How have you provided ways for learners to recover from their mistakes? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please share in the comments.

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