Monday, September 29, 2014

Emergent Narratives: Why I Wait So Long To Edit, -or- My Toast Looks Like Jesus

Years ago, Matt, a friend of mine, and I would play lots of games, and in them we'd have adventures far beyond what was actually present in the rules. One game that stands out in my memory was The Arkham Horror, a game based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. In this game, the players became investigators in the small fictional town of Arkham, which was the focus for an transdimensional invasion by forces beyond human comprehension.

Still, being intrepid truth-seekers, we'd load up on shotguns and amulets and kick multi-dimensional ass across Arkham and various alternate realities. Matt and I would weave all sorts of imaginary elements into the gameplay, occasionally making less-than-ideal play decisions because we were more interested in narrative coherence.

Sooner or later, we'd reach a sort of nexus, and either forge on to victory, or enter a state of play we came to call Escape From Arkham. The wheels had truly come off, and, battered and half-crazed with what we'd seen, our characters would attempt to reach the train station and take the last train out as reality crumbled behind them.

The lesson, for me, was that it doesn't take very much for a story to emerge. The game was not structured in any narrative way. The phases of the tale were strictly in our heads, including the moment when we looked around, shrugged our imaginary shoulders, and grabbed our train tickets.

For me, this happens for almost every game I play. My daughter also sees things this way. When we play board games, she's always narrating the details of the story. She does this is more situation-driven games (like Survive!), but also for abstracts like checkers and chess. The elements of story are all there: character (the pieces), setting (the board), and conflict. Given these simple ingredients, story spontaneously arises.

As writers, we need to keep in mind how little a story actually takes to exist. Story, and narrative, are hardwired into us like all other pattern-finding capabilities of the brain. Perhaps the greatest impact is created by a story that holds back, allowing the readers to fill in the missing pieces. The readers become invested, literally stuck into the story, their mind a fundamental component of the tale.

But this cuts both ways, as writers are also enmeshed in the pattern, and can imagine they see things that simply are not present in the writing. That's why I wait a year to reread my novel manuscripts. Any sooner, and I see what I saw when I wrote the book, not what is there on the page. I want to see what a new reader sees, not simply review what I remember. Does this slow my output? Not really, since I just write more during this time. But even if it did, it's the only way I know of to escape the fabric of the narrative, and see it as cloth.

Because stories don't have an escape hatch, no matter how damaged their reality becomes.  Writers need to grab their amulets and get off that train.  But not too soon.  Never too soon.

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