The Mysterious Mountain of Story

Table to Page 1: My Secret Technique is Killing Me

My writing has been a source of frustration for me, especially recently, and I’ve only just realised that the thing making it the most difficult for me is the very thing that has made another story-telling craft very successful for me: being a good GM.

Two Paths Up the Same Mountain

The Mysterious Mountain of Story

The Mysterious Mountain of Story

Running a great game is about putting together a great story. A story that players love and talk about years later, just like they do their favourite novels. I love both writing and GMing, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time doing both. It’s made me a great GM, if I do say so myself. And all that practice GMing naturally means I have picked up instincts and tactics that make my games fun.

And those instincts are killing me as a writer.

I have always thought of GMing and writing as simply two different approaches to the same basic story-telling drive. Two different paths up the same mountain of narrative, if you will. And while that may be true, in the past couple of years it has really been brought home to me the extent to which the key technique that makes me successful as a GM are making it impossible for me to write compelling stories.

My Secret Technique is Unstoppable

As GM, my instinct is always to keep the situation fluid. What I want is a game session or a campaign that ties up neatly, that leaves the players feeling like they’ve been part of a grand, satisfying tale. That requires their input, of course, since part of that feeling comes from the players believing that their choices are important, that their decisions influence the course of events. Right down to the final confrontation, there need to be new revelations that give the players an expanded view of their actions and force them to make tough decisions.

This is impossible to achieve if I have defined all the important truths of the world and the story ahead of time. The back story in particular, the events that have brought things to the point such that only THESE heroes at THIS moment can possibly bring about the necessary change, has to be flexible. Because when the story begins, I have no idea who these heroes are, or what sorts of choices they’re going to make. I need room in my history to adapt things to them and allow their choices to have impact.

This is a thing I learned over decades of running games: to keep my history full of open, empty spaces, where I can fill in details as needed, to make an apparent bad guy into a courageous good guy with a single new fact, to provide the surprises and reversals necessary to bring an interactively-created tale to a satisfying conclusion. It’s my number one secret weapon as a GM; the tactic that makes everything else in running the game easier.

Open space. Undefined truths. There must always be truths that cannot be expressed. It’s my Gödelian approach to interactive story-telling.

And it’s death to my writing.

 The Tedious Flatness Of Being

I’ve been stepping up my narrative writing over the past year or so, first with a comic book and now with some longer, experimental narratives. As I said earlier, I’ve been writing a long time, and I’ve done a lot of it. But lately I’m struggling, and with one basic issue: leaving the back story undefined.

This instinct is killing my writing.

I’ve approached a couple of stories now with the same “lots of empty space” sort of back story I described above, that’s worked so well for me as a GM. But in writing, where I’m not needing to scramble and make sure the world and the history are relevant to in-development characters, this leads to a tedious flatness in the story.

Interest comes out of details. Star Wars isn’t just a story about a kid who flies around and blows up a space station; it’s a story about LUKE. And there are important, specific details that make Luke who he is: he has been raised by his aunt and uncle, his father was a Rebel pilot and a Jedi Knight, he knows how to fix robots, all that stuff. Without those specific details, what would define Luke? It’s those details that make him interesting. So when I, as a writer, leave the past of my story and my characters indistinct, I make it impossible for my characters to become properly interesting.

In a game, the characters become interesting because they are handled by different players. Their personality comes through from the personality of the player, and it’s in the mix of personalities that a game really comes alive. But in writing, there’s just me. Just me, sitting here, trying DELIBERATELY to not do the one thing that will make my story interesting — define specific concrete details.

And therefore I have tedious flat characters in a tedious flat world, and I move the story forward with another of my favourite GM tricks — having OTHER characters do stuff that affects the main characters. It works great in a game, where the players can be ceaselessly surprised by the fact that NPCs take action when “offstage”. But in my writing it means I’m now producing a story that is propelled mechanically, through plot contrivances, rather than by the needs of the main characters.

In other words, dull as dry toast.

This is Why I Fail

This lesson has been really hard for me to learn. It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that it sunk WHY I was having so much trouble creating exciting stories. Why no matter what I did, my characters didn’t light up the page and my stories seemed to grind with one disconnected event after another. I could, through tremendous effort and tons of rewriting, instill some vim and vigour into my stories, but until I started going back and getting concrete on the details of the history, it was never going to come easy.

Not that I think simply piling up random assemblages of data is the right approach.  I know I have to be strategic and only nail down the things that really need to be nailed down.

But that’s exactly what I was failing to do — I was resisting the urge to get specific about the very fundamental truths of my story, and as a result, making way more work for myself. Making myself climb the steep cliffs instead of the already-sufficiently-difficult paths.

GMing and writing may be two ways up the same story-telling mountain, but they require very different approaches.

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  1. Pingback: Math, Magic, and Storytelling Shell Games - Scott Walker

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