The Video Game Principle, Or: How To Up the Difficulty — June 3, 2013

The Video Game Principle, Or: How To Up the Difficulty

The Video Game Principle is thus:

1- Set a goal for your character
2- Place challenges in your character’s way which will test your character in some way
3- Make sure these challenges are slightly above your character’s current skills and abilities
4- Do not set a challenge without also providing a means for your character to overcome it
5- Let your character make mistakes
6- When your character achieves a goal, give them a new one to keep the story moving forward
Now some more in-depth discussion, using The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as an example.
1- Set a goal for your character. In Ocarina, Link’s first goal is to go meet with the Great Deku Tree. It’s as simple as that. Link finds the Great Deku Tree dying and imploring Link for help. So Link enters the tree and clears the dungeon.
2- Place challenges in your character’s way which will test your character in some way. This is two-fold. Before Link can reach the Great Deku Tree, he’s blocked by a fellow forest-dweller who will not let him pass. Not until Link obtains a shield and a sword, since there are strange creatures showing up in the forest. Once inside the tree, Link faces irritating enemies and a dungeon boss. These latter two challenges all stand in Link’s way of helping cleanse the tree of the evil that is killing it.
3- Make sure these challenges are slightly above your character’s current skills and abilities. Link’s sword isn’t quite as good a blade as one would hope. Thus it takes a few strikes to defeat any enemy inside the tree. The dungeon boss is a challenge to defeat but not impossible. It’s not likely you’ll die fighting this boss even with only three hearts of life.
4- Do not set a challenge without also providing a means for your character to overcome it. Let’s take two of the challenges Link faces in the course of this first dungeon: obtain a sword and shield and defeat the dungeon boss. In the case of the former, Link can find a sword hidden in a treasure chest within the forest. There’s also a shop in the forest where he can buy a shield and plenty of in-game currency just floating around for the grabbing inside the forest. To defeat the dungeon boss, Link is presented with the opportunity to find a slingshot inside the dungeon. This not only helps him get to the boss chamber, but also to defeat the boss.
5- Let your character make mistakes. Now, if you’re like me when you’re playing a video game you go straight for a walkthrough somewhere to help you get everything and die the least number of times possible. There are no mistakes made this way. Don’t give your character a hand-holding guide. But do leave breadcrumbs they can find and follow in order to get where they need to be. Also, let your character regress because of their mistakes. It’ll make them stronger. To go with an example in Ocarina, we’ll jump ahead in the game. At a certain point, Link basically hibernates for seven years, growing into an adult. Now he has five temples to clear of evil. In one of them, the sub-boss is Dark Link. Basically a shadow version of Link. It represents the evil side of Link, the evil he’s capable of. Thus, fighting him becomes a fight against Link’s own mistakes, and haunted past.
6- When your character achieves a goal, give them a new one to keep the story moving forward. Link’s first goal in the game is to go see the Great Deku Tree. That done, he’s tasked with saving the tree. When he clears the dungeon, and learns the tree is dying anyway, he’s given the Kokiri Emerald and told to go to the castle and find the princess. She’s got a part in this whole thing to play and Link and Zelda need to meet up. Zelda tells Link to find the remaining spiritual stones (two of them). That done, you wake up seven years later and learn you have to go wake up the remaining five sages to save the land of Hyrule. Every goal completed along the way opens a new goal for Link to accomplish, all of them leading to the ultimate goal of saving Hyrule.
Pacing and Plotting — November 12, 2012

Pacing and Plotting

For me, I think pacing is probably the second-hardest element of writing. (Voice being hardest. It’s so nebulous.)

But pacing and plotting go hand-in-hand. Maybe that’s why I consider pacing so difficult. I lean heavily toward the pantsing end of the plotter-pantser spectrum.

One element of pacing is the reveal of motivations/reasons/logic bits of worldbuilding. (I write fantasy so that last bit really comes into play.)

This new season on television, I’ve culled quite a few shows but I’ve added one (two) shows to my lineup. The CW’s Arrow is one of them. Love this show. (And no, not just because Captain Jack has appeared and is now back on my TV.)

It’s a solid show, in my opinion. Of course it has all the standard comic book/superhero tropes. That’s a given, considering it’s based off a DC comic.

One of the biggest tropes is that no one puts two and two together to figure out the real-life identity of our superhero/vigilante.

At least, in the comics it’s a trope. And it’s one Arrow has attacked head on really early in the season. For those not familiar with the show or the comic (definitely me on the latter), the MC was shipwrecked and lived on a remote island for five years. He was found and returned home and now he’s a bow-and-arrow wielding vigilante by night, rich playboy by day.

The obvious question here is when is someone going to figure out they both showed up at the same time? We’re only five episodes into the season and they’ve already confronted that issue, even going so far as to have the MC state to his lone confidant that he expected people to start suspecting the truth. And that he’s got a contingency plan for when that happens.

To connect it with writing, I encountered a similar situation with Woven. After it came back from betas, I thought hard about some of the issues underlying some of the comments. And I realized that I needed to move up a couple of reveals. Specifically the MC’s father’s absence. The MC refers quite often to the deaths of her parents and the grandmother who raised her from the time she was a baby. She has a lot of resentment over her father’s absence, which is something I wanted to reveal slowly.

But the snail’s pace I originally set for it was causing a bit of hangup in understanding the MC. I had originally written the reveal into one scene, with one of the three love interests, then cut it. Then I added it back into the book, in a different scene and with another love interest. It works better now and it helps with some character development without slowing down the pacing. I just lengthened a conversation the two characters were having in a quiet moment to add it in, but the scene was already there.

Do you struggle with pacing? Do you agree with me that it’s a very difficult part of writing?

If you have a question you’re dying to ask me, something you want me to address either here on my site or over at the Dojo, send it to info(at)stephanie-mcgee(dot)com

Comments and other fun stuff can be sent to stephanie(at)stephanie-mcgee(dot)com

Dealing with Plot Dust Bunnies — July 26, 2011

Dealing with Plot Dust Bunnies

I mean, inconsistencies.

Last week, I posted about my current revisions on Lodestar.  In the comments of that WiP Wednesday post, The Empty Pen asked, “How do you decide what to do with your inconsistencies?”

First off, thanks for asking.  It actually made it a little easier to deal with them because I actually had to think through the process before I started so I knew how to answer.

As to how I decide what to do, it’s a 2-step process.

This works best after a few drafts so you’re intimately acquainted with your dust bunnies.  (Seriously those inconsistencies breed like dust bunnies.  Turn your head for one minute and they multiply.)  I honestly didn’t catch these inconsistencies until I was reading through prior to my sixth draft in order to create a new revision outline.  (Links to my outlining and revising process should be found in the sidebar.)

The first step is to note what the inconsistencies are.  For me, I first noted them in that revision outline.  After that I transferred the inconsistencies to a sticky note on my desktop.  (I’m a Mac girl, sorry.)  This was so that my revision outline was a little less cluttered.

On this draft, after I’d gotten my revision outline and gone through it highlighting as I saw fit and marking the pages with sticky flags, I started in on the revisions.  The first thing I did was take care of any major cuts since those might affect any inconsistencies.  After that was done, I got down to brass tacks.

I opened that sticky note so I could read exactly what my inconsistencies were.  I picked a highlighting color (from the myriad color options in the word processing program I use) and everywhere that inconsistency shows up I highlighted.  Repeat that process for all your inconsistencies, using a different color for each.  (It’s helpful at this point to keep a log of which color specifies what so your color choices are consistent.)

Any random issues that came up (for instance, this book deals a lot with gravity so I did sadly hit a couple of random issues that weren’t really an inconsistency but needed my attention), I picked a color for each type.

After your highlighting is done save.  Save after you fix each inconsistency and have eliminated one highlighter color.

Now it’s time to scan through the moments where your inconsistency shows up.  Read through them all at once so you know which directions you waffled in as you wrote.  You know your story best and after X number of drafts, you’re very intimately acquainted with it.  This knowledge can illuminate exactly how making a decision in any direction you went will serve the story.  Sometimes what serves the story best is taking the option which requires the least amount of words to actually describe in prose.  Sometimes not.

Once you’ve decided which route to take, scroll back up to page one.  Scroll page by page through your manuscript so you’re working chronologically.  (Assuming your book is written chronologically.  It doesn’t have to be.  Ooh, shiny.)  Make whatever fixes you need to that earliest instance of the inconsistency to set up why it’s that way and then proceed to bring all the rest of the spots highlighted in that color into line with that decision.  As you fix each spot, remove the highlighter.

For one of my major gravity issues, I decided it would work best if gravity were perhaps a bit malleable for a certain character.  So I went in and added an explanation of how that would work for this character.  I did that early on so that thereafter I wouldn’t have to reiterate the explanation.  It’s established and so the reader can either suspend their disbelief or not.

With each inconsistency, start at page one.  Save after each has been resolved.

More to come on Thursday about the use of highlighter in your word processing program and the manuscript file.

Narrative Dares — June 9, 2011

Narrative Dares

Last night as I sat at my computer contemplating what I would blog about today, I pulled out my notes from an author signing three months ago.  The author was Jasper Fforde, one of my favorites.  (I will warn you that his books do have some language.  So if you want to avoid that sort of thing his books aren’t for you.)

I love going and hearing him speak at a signing.  This was the third signing of his I’d been to, but only the second where he actually spoke prior to signing the books.  He’s just that entertaining.  (What other author do you know who tells you to go to a restaurant and when the waitress asks if you have any questions, ask “In the end of Star Wars, why didn’t Chewbacca also get a medal?”)
One thing that really struck me, and I think that he mentioned it in the last signing of his I went to as well, was the idea of a narrative dare.  In talking about his writing process, he says he always tries to start with an idea, a what if.  That’s the dare.
Then he challenges himself to create the world in which that dare is feasible and even inevitable.  If you read The Eyre Affair you can see it.  His heroine, Thursday Next (isn’t that a great name?), is a police officer over literature.  Then Jane Eyre goes missing from the pages of the book.
That’s the narrative dare, what would happen if a famous literary figure went missing.  (At least, one of the dares as I perceive them.)  So then he had to create a world in which it would be devastating if this happened, where it could happen, and where the resources might exist to fix it.  That’s what he means by creating a world where the dare is inevitable.
I’m not sure if I’ve quite nailed the concept in my own writing but I think I’m getting there with the book I’m currently working on.  Only time and beta reads will tell that much.  How about you?  Do you have a narrative dare that is the influencing factor of everything else that comes into the story?
Footloose and Fancy-free Friday Musings — March 19, 2010

Footloose and Fancy-free Friday Musings

I’m a pantser.  Through and through I am a pantser.

That’s just the truth of it.

I wonder sometimes what it’s like on the other side of the fence, but I just can’t do it.

I try.  But I can’t.

So, I’m going back to my usual vague outline.  Once I get that nailed down, I’ll be able to resume writing.

Oh, and it’s supposed to snow.

I went golfing on Wednesday and it’s supposed to snow.

I hate winter.  I want it to be spring.

That is all.  Full day at work today so I won’t be around until later this evening.

WiP Wednesday 2/10 — February 10, 2010

WiP Wednesday 2/10

This last week saw a ton of progress.  Tons.

Moonrat hosted a WY@O Weekend.  I participated last Saturday and made excellent progress on my book.  I wrote close to 6000 words that day and exceeded my goal word count.

WY@O day included writing the climax of the book.  That was rather exciting to me.

Sunday and Monday I worked really hard to finish the book.  I was so close that I could taste it.

One unexpected plot detour later and I was golden.  Finished the book Monday.  (In case you missed yesterday’s announcement of the same.)  Now I’m in the “let it stew” phase.  My characters were quite demanding in the last couple of weeks.  I laid down the law on them.  My MC and two of her friends remain 10.  The one character who asked to be older, I originally capitulated and he became 16 instead of 12.  I bumped that back 2 years.  He’s now 14.

We’ll see how long my characters accept this new set of circumstances.


Draft 1.5 final word count: 94,452
Largest word in Wordle cloud: My MC’s name.  (Good thing.)
Words that seem to be my echoes: looked, began, around, magic, time

Don’t forget that there’s still time to ask me a question!  I’ll be answering them all on Friday.

WiP Wednesdays 2/3 — February 3, 2010

WiP Wednesdays 2/3

February already.  Time flies by, doesn’t it?

I tried so hard to finish before today’s WiP update.  But I just couldn’t do it.  Homework got in the way.

In other news, my characters seem to be taking over the story right now.  It’s crazy.

And they’re starting to make me rethink my big twist at the end of book 2, Oracles Veil.  Seriously rethinking it.  I mean, it’s just weird how much they’re taking over.  (Same character that demanded I age him four years is also the one yelling at me to reconsider the plot.)

So, yeah, that’s where I’m at right now.

Oh, and that—>; in the sidebar.  See that word count?  So dang close!

Not to mention that my MC is now demanding I age her, too.  Which would mean I’d have to age all my characters.  And that sort of messes with the dynamics of certain things in the book.  Why can’t my characters be happy being 10/11?

What makes a compelling story? — January 19, 2010

What makes a compelling story?

We all have to ask ourselves this at some point in our writing careers.  Probably multiple times in a single draft or book.  What makes our stories compelling?  Is it the plot?  The characters?  What makes that magic spark which helps our books speak to readers?

For me, it’s the characters.  If I can’t care about the characters, I can’t care about the story.  Period.

There is a recent movie, I won’t name it, which is a fail for me.  I absolutely cannot care about the characters.  Couldn’t tell you one name of a character from the film.  It’s a so-so film for me because the story isn’t compelling to me.

Compelling and sympathetic characters make even the oldest plot line become fresh and exciting.  They create the magic spark which can land us an agent, get a publishing house to back us up, and ultimately get our books into homes around the world.

So, while plot is important and you should spend a decent amount of time developing it and trying to make it seem somewhat unique on its own, really focus and worry about the characters.

Because if you don’t, your story might not stick with anyone.  Then where will we be?

(Probably still typing away at our computers.)

How to know when it’s time to change — December 10, 2009

How to know when it’s time to change

How do you know when it’s time to change MCs?

1- You would rather write the book about a different character
2- To make the book saleable you have to cut the characters that you feel are better and more alive than your MC so you can focus on the MC
3- You just can’t stand your MC anymore, you don’t fell she’s a viable character, etc.
4- Your tired of trying to sound like a 10 year old when you don’t know how to make a 10 year old sound believable.

Can you tell what I’m having issues with?

I don’t believe it! — November 10, 2009

I don’t believe it!

I want to talk about suspension of disbelief.  We all know that in our writing, especially in fiction, we need to push the limits of what could really happen in order to tell a compelling story.  This is also necessary so that we can ensure that our readers know what is needful to follow the story.

This requires a sometimes significant suspension of disbelief on the part of our readers.  We have to convince them to say, “I’ll buy that.”  It’s a tough balance to strike.

Take last night’s episode of Castle as an example.  (I know I use the show a lot, but I do watch it pretty close to when I write up Tuesday’s blog posts.)  The show started out with a murder that eventually (spoiler warning) led to our intrepid group of detectives re-opening a decade-old murder.  In the course of the new investigation, and the investigations into the two present-day murders, they begin to interview people connected to that original murder.

They start asking these characters for their alibi from a night 10 years in the past.  And the characters can give alibis that are capable of being corroborated.  Everyone sure has an amazing memory in the world of this show, don’t you think?

While watching the show, my mom asks me, “What were you doing ten years ago?”

My answer, “You could have been in Boston.”

Except, that whole ordeal was a 11 years ago.  Sigh.  I guess we should all just live in the fictional world where everyone remembers everyone and has perfect recall of every minute of their lives.

What’s my point in all this?  We have to watch ourselves and watch where the limits are.  I’m not saying that those lines can’t successfully be crossed, but when you cross them you risk losing your readers’ suspension of disbelief.  Suddenly, they’re pulled out of the story and repeat to themselves, “That would never happen.”

Q4U: What were you doing 10 years ago?  For those of you who journal regularly, try to think it up on your own, then go check the journal and see how memory compares.  Do you struggle with suspension of disbelief in the plot twists you throw at your readers?

I won’t be around much today.  I’ve lots to do before work starts.  I’ll swing back through tonight, though.  Have a great day everyone!