A few months ago I read about a 2014 middle grade release called Broken Age. The premise struck me as very compelling: two intersecting stories, one from the distant past and one in the far future. Both stories can be summarized in a tantalizing sentence, but the overall the narrative construct is what most captured my imagination. Plus, it has beautiful art. I pre-ordered it.
And so it is that one of the middle grade titles I was most eager to experience this year is not a book; it’s a game. It’s now out, and it’s good, but I’m not here to review the game. I was thinking more — perhaps because the game is a sort of middle grade novel — how game designers know fundamental things about STORY that literary types forget. For example: if I think about my books as games, I have to immediately give my character something to DO. A challenge. It might not be the central challenge of the greater narrative arc, but it will serve to orient the reader to the situation and the player to the controls/environment.
Imagine a game where all you do on the first level is steer the character through a boring, ordinary day with nothing more than a whiff of the action to come. Imagine actually nudging the arrow keys to make the game character walk down the hall, mouse-click a locker to open it, etc. It’s inconceivable, but it’s all too easy for writers to do this. They set up the world with “ordinary day,” hoping that wit and/or voice will carry readers along until [inciting incident]. I fall into this trap myself, and the truth is that my [inciting incidents] often do not require immediate attention. And I think that’s OK, too, but there has to be something for the character to DO, a challenge to be met, an object to be found, etc. (Glowing fungi in the woods? OK, but first comes the football game… you get what I mean).
Games reward their characters with new powers and assets, then level up to new challenges that require the new skills and inventory. Books can do this, too. Other writers–far more successful ones than me–are brilliant at it, The Hunger Games is a text book on scaffolded plotting. I struggle with it, and I can let myself off the hook by saying that real world challenges are not so tidy, but there’s something to be said for paying off readers as they go, of keeping up momentum.
Over the years I’ve started many projects that faltered, and that’s usually why. I have brooded for weeks or even months on characters and their relationships, but they don’t want anything concrete or short-term, and they don’t have much to DO. In a video game world they would be wandering aimlessly, looking for objects that aren’t there, finding things they can’t use. It just doesn’t work. I think you have to respect the creative process as well. It shouldn’t be all strategic, and plenty of great books would make crappy games. But I do think there’s something helpful about thinking of how “playable” a book is, visualizing the protagonist in pixels and asking myself, if this was a game, if readers had control of this character right now, would they know what to do?