Posts Tagged Details

Writing Advice from Games

Quick analogy that came to mind the other day.

As computer storage and processing have advanced, the maps for open-world video games have gotten larger and larger.  I’m thinking Fallout.  I’m thinking Skyrim.  I’m thinking…maybe there are games out there made by a company other than Bethesda, but does anyone play them?  Within these Bethesda games, the maps have set points of interest on them.  The first time the player visits each one, he has to either find it accidentally or be told where it is and set out to it.  The second time, the player has a quick travel option allowing them direct access to that location.

This means the first time the player goes to a location, he has to face the challenges on the way.  And has to see all the work that went into creating the landscape.  None of the Bethesda games would be the game they are if characters just jumped from place to place and didn’t see the world in between.

I try to keep this in mind when writing.

Setting descriptions should be front loaded.  This doesn’t mean infodump.  It does mean that a lot of description is necessarily front-loaded in a story.  That first time a character travels a particular city, street, countryside, trail, or any other setting the reader needs to understand where the character is.  Otherwise it’s the “white box” problem that has plagued my first drafts for years.  After that, the character can “quick travel” from point A to point B.  Now, this is going to be a little different from games.  That first time the reader need enough broad details to set the scene.  During the quick travel, either finer details or differences can come up, but the broader details aren’t as essential.

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Beginnings and Endings

I suppose this is part two of considering human psychology when creating descriptions.  It’s part of my attempt to think more about descriptions and use them better.  I will conquer my white box syndrome!

Does anyone remember the emails and websites that abounded a few years ago centered on a supposed Cambridge study stating that words are still legible if the first and last letters are in the correct place, even if the other letters are scrambled?  That was a hoax, it was phooey.  It was a conjuration based on keeping words short and giving the brain some sort of context.  Two and three letter words were unchanged, four letter words were barely scrambled it all, and from that simple extrapolation could fill in the holes.  Sentences made entirely of words six letters or longer were still nearly unreadable except by the most diehard Jumble fanatics.  I’m sorry to burst bubbles, especially since one form of the email suggested that only the most intelligent had this ability.

But beneath the bullshit, there’s a little grain of truth.  It’s likely why the story had such legs.

We focus on beginnings and endings, first bits and last bits.  Those are our anchors when we read, when we comprehend, and a lot of middle bits are combinations of what’s actually there and our basic pattern recognition instincts.  This is something the writer needs to be aware of, because it’s a potentially powerful tool.  It’s where the writer can hide stuff in plain sight.  Those little details that are essential to establish, but shouldn’t be spotlighted.  The clown with a machete.  The ones that the reader sees on a re-read and realizes that the answer was right there all along.  Those shouldn’t be sitting in the first or last sentences of a paragraph.  Those shouldn’t be the first or last items on a list.  They should be woven in and hidden away.

Not only is this a fantastic way to hide things in plain sight, it also meshes more realistically with how we encounter everyday life.  In most situations in life we don’t immediately notice what will ultimately be the most important detail.  Things aren’t magically sorted in ascending or descending order.  We remember details, we come back to them, and we realize that while the information about how to hide details is good information, the far more pertinent information to our survival is the clown with the machete.

Realize that this is a tool that can quickly become a cheat.  Some details do immediately stand out and wouldn’t be naturally lumped in with the rest of the information about a situation.  You’re not going to look around a room and just casually notice the gun toting maniac along with the sofa, pile of bodies, and grandfather clock running half an hour slow.  Assess the situation, how much the important detail would stand out at that moment, then hide it appropriately.  It’s a tool, and like any tool, it can be overused, or misused.  Moderation in all things.

And watch out for those clowns, man.  They’re scary.

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