April 25, 2012 You're Lucky it All Falls into Place, Josh
I believe that I have admitted before that I do not always plan for certain events to transpire in my work. I will write a bit of something and then it will sit there, and only later will it dovetail into something else and make much more sense than it did on it's own. I'm doing it all of the time. Case in point is a deadly encounter involving some new friends that Josh met in the Umbral Intentions blog. It has proven, and will continue to be a focal point of discussion for several topics and themes that I wanted to address in Josh's blog entries. However, it did present me with a difficulty to which I found an answer in something that I had introduced previously almost seemingly on a whim. Suddenly a dead end, that may have required odd acrobatics to get out of, instead has an elegant solution that opens up another series of discussions that seem less like a data dump than they do a natural outcropping of what has transpired.
While this is handy for work on the fly like a weekly blog, there should be a way to make these kinds of connections on purpose. The easy answer of how to do that is extensive pre-planning. Plot outlines, character dossiers, understanding the processes of events--like standard operating procedures--and understanding what you want the story to do before you begin putting it together. You can also put in scenes and ideas that do not bear fruit immediately and see where they lead later. Then if those scenes and ideas go nowhere you can pull them back out again. That is not a very efficient practice though. The blog format, or a "series of correspondence"-style of story telling is more flexible in allowing this. It allows for minutiae and material without any real substance otherwise to add realism, help massage the timeframe of events, and provide pacing contrast.
This is not to say that even these kinds of additions should not serve a secondary purpose such as filling in setting details, foreshadowing, introducing characters for later use, and creating or managing the mood. Those character introductions provide a relationship context that the readers are already familiar with, rather than hinting at it or flashing back to it when that character returns. This is a place to let things hang out. Let those normally deleted darlings live if they're not going to mess up the flow. If they are disruptive then find a different spot for them or leave them out. Just remember all those setting bits, bit characters, and sundry details. They could be useful later. You could elevate their status. Imaging something akin to product placement where a particular brand (safer to make them up yourself) shows up frequently and is a signature for a character or just generally indicative of the setting.
I see a quote making the rounds online every so often. It says, "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good" and is attributed to Samuel Johnson in 1762. Think about that next time you have what seems like a throwaway character. What does their treatment by more important characters say about those characters? With a little thought there isn't anything that needs to be a pointless waste, even as they don't have to be earth shattering or intrinsically plot-tied in and of themselves either.
Music: Where The Rubber Meets The Road by Meat Loaf and Billion Dollar Babies by Alice Cooper.
When I started thinking for last week's post the obvious example of what to do with multiple endings based on decisions by the audience are the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Up the level of interactivity are the pseudo-role-playing games where the reader makes their choices but also uses dice/game mechanics to further decide outcomes and add layers and flavours to the narrative. Then of course there are the ultimate user choice narratives, role-playing games themselves.
These aren't the only options if choices made solely by the author are considered as well. There are alternate history novels as one example. Time travel stories are another branch of this type of story. Multiple character choices and decisions are examined and the outcomes are all laid out often over large temporal stretches to really get at how things have been changed by a particular event's outcomes.
Time travel isn't the only way to do this. The TV show Sliders is a fine example of examining how small changes may have large impacts on characters and the larger world at hand. It lacked a certain level of interaction between different universe's versions of the same character, though it did dabble in it a bit.
When I first set out to talk about this I imagined more ambitious uses of this idea. An example might be a series of books with an ensemble cast--the same basic characters playing different roles--where each book exists in a different world, but they begin to mingle and interact at some level. The first problem to tackle in plotting something of this sort is to not to tell stories that are too similar, yet have the commonality to really compare and contrast the character of these characters as well as the events portrayed in each story. Of course it also requires deciding what the interaction of these characters and worlds is all about and how to pull it off. As I said, an ambitious idea, and fraught with as many difficulties as it may have detractors. There are of course less ambitious takes and simpler approaches, but why not think big first then work down to feasible.
Music: Homecoming by Green Day and Saints of Los Angeles by Motley Crue.
There is something to be taken away and used from just about any form of artistic entertainment when you are a writer. That of course is because just about every one of those forms of entertainment requires writing. Though they don't use words even sculptors and painters are telling some kind of story. It should come as no surprise then when a video game prompts a writing idea. I have been reading articles about the game Mass Effect 3. One particular article caught my attention more than the others. This one mentions decisions from all 3 games impacting the finale of the final game in the trilogy. Taking this article at its word or extending the metaphor so that it would be true then the first game would result in 3 different endings. The second game holding with 3 variables too would result in 9 endings. Keeping with this, by the end of the third game you would have 27 possible endings. That would be a lot of endings. The variation between them at the individual level could be very subtle. They could be broken into larger groupings where there is a larger difference between each group.
What causes these changes--or would in other multi-end narratives? One factor is the death of characters. Those deaths cause ripples of influence as well as more concretely may leave some events with entirely different results. Many are the stories of a character in the right place at the right time with the right skill to pull victory from the jaw of defeat. What if such a person dies? As much as games, and often narratives in general, rely on these people living and being the focus. There are some situations that a secondary character pulls the hero's fat from the fire directly or indirectly. These other goals, that now break rather than build the situations leading to the protagonist's success, only add tension if used correctly. There is also the added drama of dealing with the death of a close and important ally.
Come back next week for where I'm going with this.
Music: Back to Madness by Stratovarius and Helter Skelter by Motley Crue.