My last post was about tapping into a mental state to encourage an improvisational approach to writing fiction. I don’t want to give the impression that writing fiction doesn’t take a whole helluva lotta consideration of organization and presentation or forethought.
What I am proposing is that there’s some mental shorthand you can use to make story telling fundamentals a little more intuitive. I learned this through the necessity of being a borderline criminally disorganized person.
What I mean by mental shorthand is a concept you can feel and visualize in your mind in place of a quantifiable, rigid set of rules. Think of it as a nemonic device for the fundamentals.
Let’s start with narrative structure. Fiction demands you pay attention to this. It’s one of the hardest things to grok (especially after you’ve written a complete work) and it takes reading piles of books and scrutinizing their organization with the intensity of a serial killer. If you don’t know where to start, I highly recommend revisiting Shakespeare (5 Act structure) because all of his work is separated neatly into acts and because you won’t be able to understand 70% of what’s being said, you’re more likely to feel how a scene plays out instead of relying on what information is being shared.
There are far better pieces on the basic elements of a story (if you aren’t familiar with The Hero’s Journey, or The Rules of Fairy Tales, or the Act Structure give those links a read. Sorry that the fairy tale link is so crappy. Best I could do.)
So, what serves as good mental forehand for story structure? What about, say, the game design of a dungeon from The Legend of Zelda? (Nerd alert: I’ll be in the cafeteria trading rock collections if anyone wants to give me a justified ass-kicking.) There’s no denying that by any reasonable standard, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is nearly a perfect video game. I like to use it as an example, because I’ve played through it so many times, I can mentally pass through almost every dungeon to the point that I can give somebody a pretty thorough walk through over the phone while I’m cooking dinner. Maybe your mental shorthand, or fundamental allegory, is a movie, or a painting, or a concept album. Maybe it’s a sick skate video. Maybe you’ve got it in your blood. Me? Zelda.
Let’s break down a Zelda dungeon.
- You enter and familiarize yourself with the atmosphere, and are given the task to complete the dungeon.
- You encounter enemies and puzzles of increasing difficulty
- You get to a point where you cannot continue without a specific tool
- You fight a mini-boss and receive the special item
- You utilize this special item to defeat and complete harder enemies and puzzles.
- You face and defeat the boss in an epic battle of Man v Monster
- The Dungeon resolves, you get a heart container and a piece of the plot is revealed
What the game designers knew is that they are driving a story through the format of game. They knew that that having the puzzles that you can’t solve without the item don’t have a place in the beginning. There needs to be build. They knew that you can’t have the mini-boss in the beginning or after the final boss battle. They knew that situations need to be developed such that the player gets better at the game before offering new challenges. they know that they have to offer rewards and they know where and when to place them. That’s what creates the story of a hero overcoming gradual conflicts.
Now let’s write a quick and dirty mystery plot with a few switcharoos.
- A detective is tasked with solving a murder of a senator.
- There are interests, I don’t know, The White House, that don’t want the case solved
- The detective loses a fist fight with another gumshoe
- Suspecting his rival for the murder, our hero follows him and learns that while he’s innocent in the murder, he’d been hired by The White House to jam up his investigation.
- Our hero throws this information in the President’s face, threatening to contact the newspapers and the President backs off
- Free from misdirection, the detective solves the murder. The Senator’s cat did it or something.
- The Detective leaves and contemplates the events of the story, inquiring for meaning in a bleak and cynical world.
It’s not a great story, but you can see how the beats match up to the break down of the dungeon. You can also apply this to the micro level in individual scenes to make sure that the scene stays active. I confess I’m not always on point with this, largely in part because I think it’s funny to let a scene sit awkwardly for an extra beat and have characters argue with each other before proceeding (which is still conflict, so hey).
I bring this up because making charts and lists and spreadsheets is tedious work and if you, like me, are something of an improvisationalist, then it’s a lot easier to feel out your written world in terms of something familiar and fun instead of clinical and boring.
There’s a good chance you’ll have to make a chart or timeline anyway. But that shouldn’t mean you should rob yourself of fun methods in your toolbox. Enjoying writing and producing working fiction needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Hi there! Are you here to see my wicked rock collection?