Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Boards & Pieces

This'll be a short one. I'm heading off to Dragon Con in a couple of days, and I have a million things to do. Just wanted to sneak this in before I left town, because it's been bothering me.

Last time, I wrote about how to combat writer's block if you're already underway. I stand by that advice: it's precisely the method I used to get over my problem that day. However, I may have been getting a little ahead of myself. The first hurdle anyone faces when they're writing or telling a story is the first line, not somewhere in the middle. I'm sure you've all been there: just you and a blank page, either on paper or a computer screen, and... it's very intimidating. You're probably armed with a dim idea of what you'd like the finished product to look like, but you don't have any idea of how to get from here to there.

Getting over that is, well, the difference between telling your story and not, so I'm going to devote a series of posts to the whole thing, hopefully offer some things to think about.

Now, the classic method is to have a pretty good idea of what you're after before you ever start writing: get yourself an outline, profile your characters... get a skeletal version done and fill in the details. As with my last advice about writing, I'm going to go ahead and advise you to Google if you're interested in hearing more about doing things that way. Lots of people have already covered that ground better than I could ever hope to.

Instead, I'm going to focus on my method of improvisation, informed by experience with collaborative storytelling in games. Just to get the whole thing going, that's exactly what I'm doing when I write: I imagine that I'm playing a game, like in the Solitaire example, and I narrate the various twists and turns. Except it's more like solo chess than cards. You need everything a board game would:

Some Pieces:

That is, characters and other large plot elements (MacGuffins, etc.) that are 'movable.' They can make or affect decisions, and their capabilities and ranges of motion will differ from piece to piece.

The Board:

That is, the space that the characters and other important plot elements occupy. This can range from the simplicity of a single room to elaborate stellar empires.

The Rules:

Basically, how these elements interact with each other. How can the pieces move around the board? Are there shortcuts, like transporters on Star Trek? How can the characters influence each other? By what reasoning will you solve the problem of two characters who come into verbal or physical conflict?

Of course, I don't write all this stuff down. That'd be... well, horribly silly. But this is my personal metaphor for what I'm doing: I really think about storytelling in terms of a series of discrete plot elements and how they interact with each other in a particular space, then try to reason out what happens next given that information. This is why the whole exercise is fun for me: I can't know how it'll turn out until I've done it, except in the broadest terms.

I'll get into how to construct each of these tools later. After the con, catching up on school from the con, and getting in a little of the latest book, anyway. :)

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