Today I want to look at three very specific things that games could teach us writers about the art of writing. Things we should know and yet, somehow, seem to forget on a fairly regular basis.
Each of these three things comes with a video by Extra Credits but when they say “games” or “your game” image they are saying “stories” or “your novel”. You’d be surprised how often the exact same points apply.
Bad writing (in games)
Bad writing makes bad story telling
Before we get to the video which is both short and informative while being entertaining and easy to watch, let us talk about Sci-fi.
Sci-fi is really two entire genres:
- Science Fiction – what might be possible
- Science Fantasy – just accept it and have fun
One is about reality and the other is a flight of fantasy with high-tech gear in it.
A stand in for including some sort of high-technology magic, without really understanding what we are talking about, is technobabble. And while a little can be fun, most of the time all you are doing is talking nonsense.
It’s okay to ask the reader to just accept that the doodad in the green box makes the thing happen if you are happy to be writing at little more science fantasy rather than hard science. If you actually have no idea how the science works and really don’t care, then don’t try to explain it to the reader. Instead, you might want to think about showing them the exciting adventure or whatever it is that made you want to tell this particular story.
The video goes into great detail about the difference in writing style and genre between Star Wars and Star Trek and there’s probably no reason for me to cover the same ground. You can watch the video for that. However, let me point out this – The Star Wars original trilogy never explained what The Force was and it did not spoil the series.
Sometimes, in a story, a thing just is. You don’t need to explain what was happening, you just need to let the audience enjoy it.
I see in a lot of writer’s groups in Thanet and online subscribe to a cargo-cult of writing which insists that every last thing must be fully explained and work within a scientific system. Even if that thing is magic.
Sometimes, “a wizard did it” is all the explanation needed. We are not narrating an RPG and there is no need to maintain detailed numeric tracking systems for every aspect of magic, or science, or whatever fantastic element you are talking about. So long as the audience can enjoy the fantastical element of your story and you are consistent about it, you have probably done enough.
Over explaining, especially badly done which only shows that you don’t understand the science yourself, is only going to spoil things.
Guns in games and stories
Guns (and weapons in general) say a lot about the culture of a story
This second video talks about “The American cult of the gun”. I don’t plan to say too much here but have you ever considered the cultural implications of certain choices you make with your story?
In the west, we often write about a protagonist on a quest for the betterment oft he self. To get the girl, to save the day, to be the hero. Likewise, we can tend to see the gun or the car as a tool to achieve personal freedom. On the other hand, other cultures might see the sword or the gun as an extension of the self.
I can imagine that I just lost you. Watch the video and lets talk in a moment.
So what do you think? Do you still see your story in the same way? Or have you perhaps just caught a glimpse of how our culture informs the way we build characters and plots?
When we put a gun in a character’s hand, is it just a gun or is it a representation of his own power in the service of others?
That might seem like a pointless abstraction but that “pointless abstraction” can have profound implications for the character development and even the way in which we will show the protagonist using the gun.
It might be a bit much to extract from this one example the whole concept of how our culture colours ever aspect of our story telling but if this video can help you to start thinking about it, then I have done my job here.
Hard-Boiled games and stories
Why Are There So Many Gritty Video Games (and stories)?
Another huge mistake I see touted in writers groups is that to make a story more mature all you need is to make it more hard-boiled with sex, bad language, and graphic violence. The reality is that this often just serves to make your story seriously lacking in the maturity stakes.
Over the last few years, I have encountered advice from Thanet based writers that insists that it is a good idea to just cut loose with swearing and blood to tell a better story. “The more hard-boiled, the better,” they say. This is categorically wrong.
Hard-boiled writing for its own sake is cargo cult writing. Just because a good story has blood and violence in it does not mean that putting blood and violence in yours will make it good. Your story will still be as good or as bad as it was before but it will now have more blood and violence and may have suffered as a result of this unneeded inclusion.
There is really only one reason to put blood, bad language, and violence into a story – if it completely makes sense to do so and the story would unavoidably suffer to avoid doing so.
Stories with violence that is completely unjustified are just splatter porn fan-fiction. Worse still adding more “hard-boiled” elements into a story without understanding what they are there for will almost certainly make your story less interesting to read. Boring stories do not sell and no one wants to read them.
That’s not to say that bad language, sex, nihilism, blood, gore, death, and all that should never be used. Like any thematic element to a story, if used well, they can be a vital part of the recipe. Used carelessly and all you have is a story no one will want to read.
Gritty does not equal better.
Over to you
Tell us what you took away from these videos
- Do you agree with these three lessons that games can teach us?
- Is there a vital point I missed?
- What did you take away from those videos?
Tell us your thoughts on these topics in the comments section below.