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Spring the Trap

This is going to be one of those partially writing/partially gaming posts, so get ready for some odd leaps in logic on my part. I want to start with a meme I saw on Dungeons and Dragons Memes the other day regarding dungeon crawls in D&D:

I hate this list. Hate it. Hate it hate it. It represents what I consider to be everything wrong with how Dungeons and Dragons is frequently played and it also happens to be a blueprint on how not to write a suspenseful story or novel. Let me explain:

People avoid conflict and tension as much as they can in their daily lives. If something looks dangerous, we are unlikely to attempt it without ample preparation with the (accurate) understanding that doing so increases our odds of survival. This is a sensible and reasonable way to live one’s life.

It also makes for bad storytelling.

Of course, not every moment of our days are devoted to having an awesome story to tell. If it were, we’d take more risks and do more dangerous things because, well, it would make a great story. Yes, we would punch that guy on the train playing his music without headphones. Yes, we would give the sketchy homeless person a ride on the handlebars of our moped. Yes, we would go on solo vacations to distant lands without a hotel reservation on a whim. We’d hitchhike more.

We don’t do all this, for the most part, because we recognize the odds of unpleasant things happening to us in the real world. In a story (or an RPG), however, unpleasant things happening is the express point of the exercise. Nobody reads a story about how a guy wakes up, goes to his job, does his work, comes home, and goes to bed. That isn’t a story (or at least not an interesting one). We need conflict, of course, but conflict is also not enough. A story where a guy goes to work, discovers he has a hugely important meeting in five minutes and he left his materials at home, but then realizes he can just use the backup materials on his work computer, prints them out, and all is well is also a super boring story. Nothing came of the conflict.

Now, to that stupid list up there. When I read that advice, this is what I see:

  1. Research Your Destination: There must be no surprises, unpleasant or otherwise. We must know everything before beginning.
  2. Explore Thoroughly and Cautiously: Everything must be done slowly and methodically so that no surprises crop up and no mistakes are made.
  3. Stay Together: IF something goes wrong, the problem can be immediately solved with little difficulty and at minimal risk to others.
  4. Prepare Accordingly: We must have access to all the appropriate tools at the appropriate times so that obstacles can be smoothly overcome.
  5. Exercise Teamwork: Interpersonal conflicts are forbidden and independent goals must not be pursued.
  6. Check for Secret Traps and Doors: Again, no surprises! Slow down!
  7. Take Everything That Isn’t Nailed Down: Approach this dramatic event with all the drama of a moving company packing up a house.

Everything on that list is devoted to making certain the dungeon crawl is as boring as possible, which is to say they are designed to guarantee nobody gets in trouble and everything goes to plan. This list exists for two reasons: (1) there are people who see D&D as a resource management enterprise and nothing else and (2) there are a variety of bad GMs out there who see it as their job to have an adversarial relationship with the party, forcing the players to adopt these behaviors so they don’t die. In the first case, I would insist everybody is entitled to their own kind of fun and more power to them (though I don’t care for it myself). In the second case, read this list, GMs, and adjust your ways.

What most players refuse to acknowledge, but is nevertheless true, is that the best gaming experiences are when things go wrong. This is because when the players make mistakes, tension, excitement, and conflict abound. When the players sit down and concoct an elaborate plan designed to avoid any kind of trouble, it is the GMs duty – their sacred obligation – to mess those plans up as soon as possible and in the worst of all ways. Players often think the GM is being “mean” or “unfair” when, in actuality, the GM is giving the players the greatest possible opportunity for fun. Because (and this is the other thing players are not aware of) they are going to win! They are! By the skin of their teeth and suffering consequences galore and maybe not in the way they intended, but they totally are and they are going to love it.

If he’d estimated the weight of that bag of dirt right, this scene would have sucked.

This is directly analogous to storytelling. If your characters make an elaborate plot that is almost sure to succeed, then you, as the writer, can’t have that plot go off exactly as planned. You just can’t. Once you do, then you have abandoned all dramatic tension and eliminated all suspense. We all just shrug and go “oh, well, that was a lot of buildup about nothing.” You need things to go sideways! Polonius needs to get his ass stabbed through the curtain! The hyperdrive on the Falcon has to be broken! Indiana Jones needs to spring the trap!

So, here are my competing pieces of dungeon crawling advice:

  1. Do Minimal Research: If the old geezer in the village says the temple is inhabited by vengeful spirits, believe him. He probably knows what he’s talking about, right? No way it’s a death cult disguised as ghosts. That’d just be silly.
  2. Go Directly for the Goal: There is almost certainly nothing of interest in those little side passages. The main thing is to get in, get out, and get on with your lives. Move quickly! The time of the Planetary Alignment is nigh!
  3. Split Up!: You can cover more ground that way. Also, some of you can get in trouble and need rescuing, which gives everybody a chance to look awesome.
  4. Travel light!: Nobody wants to traipse around a dungeon with a donkey in tow or have to pay henchmen to guard your campsite or any of that garbage. Potion of Animal Friendship? Pfft – that probably won’t come in handy anyway. Extra sword? Why? Your favorite sword should do just fine. And leave the rope behind – rope is heavy.
  5. Those Morons Need to Listen to You!: Look, you’re the wizard, right? You are the smartest. Who cares what the paladin thinks is a good plan – you’ve got a better plan and, when it works (it won’t!), then everybody will recognize you as the leader of this stupid little band. Excelsior!
  6. Spring the Trap!: If you don’t spring the trap, nobody will fall into a hole and maybe die. And seriously, what fun is that, anyway?
  7. Gold is Heavy: You know what’s more fun that haggling over objet d’art and divvying up silver pieces? Moving the story forward, that’s what. You’re playing a game, not saving for your retirement. Take the cool magical junk and leave the rest behind. Nobody cares how much money you have.
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But What’s In the Box?

I’m in the middle of reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It’s beautifully written and has a really interesting and unique premise and, as I haven’t finished the book yet, this isn’t going to be a review, exactly. Mostly, reading the book has reminded me of an interesting complication when trying to deal with the mysterious in your writing.

Throughout The Night Circus, there is some kind of mysterious “competition” going on, the details and purpose of which is unknown to the reader and even unknown to the participants. It is, apparently, the driving conflict of the book and the central mystery of the plot, but here I am, halfway through, without any real idea what it is. That worries me.

Mysteries are double-edged swords. They draw the reader in and are also key to creating suspense. The longer the mystery draws out, the more intriguing the solution seems to be. However mysteries, once revealed, lose their magic. There is a danger, therefore, that the longer you draw out the mystery without revealing it, the more disappointing the reveal will be (or the more difficult it becomes to create a satisfying reveal).

There is a clip from Weird Al’s UHF that always comes to mind when I think about this problem:

Weaver, the contestant, is drawn in by the mystery of the box. Indeed, we all are – that’s why the mystery box is a thing in game shows – but the box, in this case, contains nothing at all. The reveal is a let-down and what makes it funny is that it is a deliberate one. UHF is mocking television conceits – it’s the crux of the whole film’s humor – but I also think the warning here is weirdly instructive: just because it’s mysterious, doesn’t mean it’s worth discovering.

So, back to The Night Circus and, by extension, writing in general. The thing that worries me about the central mystery of The Night Circus is that, once I get the reveal, it won’t end up being very interesting at all. It will break the magic that the rest of the book has worked so hard to construct. Now, part of me thinks that maybe this is intentional¬† – the book is all about a magical circus that creates an artificial environment through mystery and subtlety – and that maybe Morgenstern is setting the reader up to have their illusions crushed (and no spoilers, please). However, even if so, that means Morgenstern is deliberately mining the precise pitfall I’m trying to elaborate, here.

Sure, yeah - I get that. But how long do you expect us to care?

Sure, yeah – I get that. But how long do you expect us to care?

Perhaps some more instructive examples will help explain what I mean. The two most obvious ones are the two mega-hit shows The X-Files and LOST. In The X-Files, we are introduced to the idea that there is some global secret conspiracy to conceal the existence of aliens to the public. This is central to the show, and drives it through most of the run. However, every time Mulder gets close to the truth, it gets stolen away again. This works to create great drama through the early part of the run. However, at some point it lost steam. We kept wondering what was in the box so long that, once the box was opened and we looked inside, we just saw a bunch of old, nebulously rich dudes and, well…it was a let down.

The trouble was, ultimately, that Chris Carter (show creator) let the mystery drag out for too long. So long, in fact, that there was no possible reveal that could justify the delay. Instead of having a revelation that rocked our world, we instead just shrugged. That was it?

 

How mind-blowing was it when you first saw this? I mean, seriously, right?

How mind-blowing was it when you first saw this? I mean, seriously, right?

LOST sought to sidestep this problem by solving mysteries only to lead to larger mysteries. So, yes, they opened the box (literally, in the case of the Hatch) only to reveal another box. This was pretty brilliant, by the way. However, this was ultimately just an act of grand misdirection: the show got most of us to stop asking “what’s with all these boxes” and instead trust that newer and more interesting mysteries would keep revealing themselves until it all made sense.

Of course, the creators of LOST never actually planned to or cared to connect or make sense of all their mysteries. They just kept showing us more and more boxes until the whole thing refused to make any sense and then expected us to just shrug and accept that “life is a mystery.” Yeah, no – if The X-Files disappointed its audience, LOST deliberately cheated it. I still enjoyed that last season, mind you (the character arcs were perfect), but the mystery aspect of the show was a grand betrayal of everything much of the audience had invested.

So, okay – mystery is hard to balance. How, then, do you do it well? I can’t claim to be an expert, myself (though I do try), but generally think the key is that you have to reveal your mysteries before the payoff is eclipsed by the build-up. You can either do this by having a very subtle build-up (The Usual Suspects) or by revealing the great mystery about halfway through (the original Star Wars trilogy). You could even, perhaps, do what LOST was doing, except instead of throwing up your hands and not solving anything, you could roll up your sleeves and try to come up with the most God-awmighty big reveal in the history of storytelling.

But yeah, good luck with that one. No, “they’re all in heaven” isn’t an acceptable plot twist. Nor is a glowing Jacuzzi.

For the Love of the Chase

I can describe the smell of burning rubber, but does it get the adrenaline going then?

I can describe the smell of burning rubber, but does it get the adrenaline going then?

I love chase scenes. I love watching them in movies, I love seeing them on TV, I love reading about them in books, and I love running them in RPGs. There is, however, a problem:

I am a writer, not a movie director or a TV showrunner, and chases are goddamned hard to make work in fiction. The act of description (of showing not telling) runs at odds to the pacing of a good chase. You want the chase to rocket from one moment to the next, you want the reader on the edge of their seat as the chasers/chasees teeter ever closer to disaster as they veer in and around the obstacles set in their path, be they pedestrians, ancient Roman pillars, cliffs, or what-have-you, but describing that in sufficient detail becomes a very delicate balance. Not enough and the reader¬†can’t see what you are trying to convey and too much means the whole things slows down.

I’ve been trying to think of chases in books that work the same way that scene from Bullit does or the ones in any given Fast and the Furious movie. Hell, even the foot chases from The French Connection or Casino Royale would be acceptable. I’m having trouble thinking of one, honestly. There’s the pizza delivery scene in Snow Crash, which is cool (but not really a chase) and Hiro Vs Raven on cyber-cycles (which is okay). There’s some stuff in Tolkien, but Tolkien is anything but an ‘edge of your seat’ writer.

Hmmmm…

Maybe I’ve struck upon something here. Maybe I just don’t read enough of the right genres for these things to pop up consistently. In any event, I’m going to keep trying to figure out the chase and put it in my writing. ‘Edge of the Seat’ is sort of my fiction-writing mantra in many of my projects, and the chase is a key element of any good suspenseful storyline, I think. Chasing and being chased is an ancient and instinctual activity. We dream about it constantly; the thought of the hounds at your heels, baying into the night with the scent of blood in their nostrils, is the stuff adrenaline surges are made of. The fight or flight response is some healthy, powerful dramatic material that needs dredging from time to time. The ‘Fight’ part is well-established in fiction, but where would it be without the flight? Without that sensation of chasing down your enemy, stretching your fingers out to seize his traitorous throat, only to feel your fingertips graze only the hem of his jacket?

I think there’s a little bit of poetry in action scenes, be they chases or otherwise. Good writers need to embrace that balance of economy of diction with properly evocative turns of phrase in order to elicit dramatic effect. It’s damned hard work, but rewarding if you get it right.

Or, at least, I presume so. I’ll let you know when I feel I’ve gotten it right.