Sunday, April 18, 2010

Call Me Mario: What Video Games Teach Us About Writing Novels

Imagine Mario Brothers with no bombs, no carnivorous plants, no death pits, no deadly turtles. Imagine Donkey Kong with no giant monkey at the top of the ladder, throwing down barrels to kill you. Picture a version of Tomb Raider where Lara Croft just walks around picking things up and saying "Ah, nice, another priceless artifact. Better put it in my pack. My, I'm getting hungry." Sounds stultifyingly boring, and yet people write books on this model all the time.

In my work as a book doctor, I frequently run into pretty manuscripts with likeable characters and believable settings but no discernable plot. These books describe one average day after another, or a reasonable sequence of events which unfold without a hitch. The authors weave elaborate emotional landscapes and carefully illustrate relationships, but there's no problem, no conflict, no obstacle. There's no villain.

In trying to explain this issue to my clients, I realized that a book without a problem is like a video game where you can't die. Not very interesting, and why? Because nothing is at stake. If there are no problems, you're just running your character from left to right, enjoying the backgrounds and the soundtrack. And nobody is going to want to do that, without the aid of chemical stimulants.

What else can video games teach us about writing novels? Here are four important lessons:

RISK: Ever since Mario the plumber jumped on and smashed his first magic mushroom, video games have followed a very predictable formula. It's not about emotions or ideas, either. It's not about illuminating a slice of life. Game after game follows the the same exact framework: Character solves a problem by overcoming obstacles. That's it. The character saves the princess, liberates itself from a dungeon, defeats an evil ruler, or finds the missing gem by destroying enemies, avoiding obstacles, and solving puzzles. And the penalty for failure is death. Here's the truth: If you can't die, there's no point. And if there's no villain in a novel, no threat of destruction from some source, whether internal or external, there's no point either.

From Sonic Hedgehog to God of War, there are a million ways to die in a video game. What would Pacman be without ghosts? Just a way to move a yellow disc around a screen in the four cardinal directions? Now, does the character in your literary novel need to be hovering on the brink of extinction every living second? No. But there must always be something at risk, something at stake, some goal that is being pursued and something valuable that can be lost if the goal is not reached. Put a ghost in the maze. Put a wolf in the cave. Otherwise it's just more geometry, more scenery, more background. And nobody's going to pay money to read that.

SCENE: Not only are there big obstacles in video games, big villains like Dr. Neo Cortex, or Eggman, but there are minor obstacles in every scene. Every single scene has a pit with spikes, or an attacking wolf, or a zombie horde, or something. What does this teach us about writing novels? Not only do we need obstacles, we need obstacles all the time. Never write a scene without tension -- real, tangible, physical tension, whether or not it's connected to the overarching plot. Does jumping on penguins relate directly to Crash Bandicoot's overarching plot to collect crystals and save the world? No. Neither does your conflict in every scene have to relate directly to your main plot arc. But it must be there.

Somebody's cold. There's a storm coming. Characters fight over where to sit at the movies. A lightbulb is burnt out. It's hard, rowing the boat. Time is running out. The soup is too salty. I challenge you to go through your novel right now, and look at every scene you've written, and think, "How could I improve this with a piranha plant? Or a pit of spikes? Or a rogue sniper?" It doesn't have to be Dahlia Gillespie in every scene. But it should be at least a storm trooper or two. There is never a scene in a video game where a character takes a walk in the woods and nothing memorable happens. There shouldn't be one in your novel either.

CHARACTER MOTIVATION: A character in a video game never wakes up in the morning wondering what to do. Characters in novels I have recently read indulge in peaceful reveries over morning coffees, wondering exactly what they should do, where they should go, what projects they should take on. This is not interesting to read. A character in a video game knows exactly what he has to do both long term and short term, including staying out of the way of that fire-breathing minotaur, unlocking that gate, and of course saving the world. Some games actually have a "Quest Log" or a blinking X on a map, or some other kind of visual/verbal reminder of exactly what the character is supposed to be accomplishing. Every one of these guys on the right has a numbered to-do list and none of the entries on the list are "Think about myself" or "Go about my usual activities." Accounts of people's usual activities are boring as dirt, my friend. Unless I am your grandmother or you are paying me to read it, I won't.

PACING: Most video games still follow the same plot structure the earliest ones did. You play a few levels fighting your way through minor bad guys, and then you play a boss (a major monster/bad guy). You play a few more levels fighting through bad guys who are a little bigger, and then you fight a bigger boss. Repeat until you get to the boss at the end of the game, who is the Mother Brain, or Diablo, or Sarah Kerrigan Hive Brain, or whatever. This same structure works in novels, and if you look at any "how to write" book you'll see something like this:

What video games teach us about this plot structure is that as the bosses get bigger the sword gets bigger, the spells get better, the armor gets more effective. As your character ascends the "rising action" toward the climax, he or she is changing shape, redefined by the course he has taken, affected by the scenes he has been through, the obstacles he has overcome. In many games (and novels), while the action intensifies, the situation seems to get worse and worse and worse as you approach that epicenter of awfulness, where the ultimate battle takes place between you and the ultimate bad guy. What video games show us overtly that novels also have to achieve is the transformation of the character that allows the climax to make sense, the fight to be won by that same character that was so feeble and feckless in scene one. The character has to change, from start to finish. in a video game, you can see it happening -- a +20 sword of smiting, a thousand power-ups, a flame thrower. In novels, it has to happen on the inside, but it's just as important.

Of course there are ways in which novels transcend the formulaic machinations of video games. But if you are looking for basics, they're all there, even in the very first Mario Brothers: an initiating incident, a problem, the fights, the obstacles, the villains, the rising action, the climax, and the denouement. Try it out: stand your novel up for comparison with your favorite video game, and see if your character needs a princess to rescue, a gorilla to fight, or maybe if more magic mushrooms are in order.


  1. This is great. I love the video game to novel analogy. It's basic and easy to understand. And so true! I like the "How could I improve this with a piranha plant? question. You should get T-shirts made and sell them online.

    I've been blogging for just over a year about being an expat American city boy living on an olive grove rural New Zealand. For me every blog post is a short story where I try to include conflict, rising tension and resolution.

    I've just started trying to turn the blog posts into a novel-length piece of creative nonficiton, and it's a completely different ball of wax. I need a main story arc for the book as a whole, so it won't feel like a bunch of episodic ramblings. The good thing is that I've already got a bunch of scenes with little mini-conflicts, so I'm on my way. Now I just need one giant piranha plant to rule them all!

    Fortunately for me, life provided all sorts of main conflict around getting our olive grove up and running. It's a 'man vs nature' plot and the Big Boss is a Giant Olive Monster who shoots deadly olive pits at the enemy and spits boiling olive oil. Who needs a flame thrower?

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