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Game Time

In Two Different Classes of Story, I identified the second problem of translating a roleplaying story into a novel as "fluff-induced pacing problems." Really, that's a subset of the larger problem of structuring the story properly, so this week I'm going to talk about that. And I'm going to begin by comparing a DnD campaign to an open world video game.

I used to love open world games. Sinking into the huge, immersive settings; feeling free to do anything I want (that the game engine allows); spending hours exploring all the nooks and crannies, searching for nuggets of goodness left by the developers. I was a completionist – every side quest was finished, every collectible became mine. These days, with a job, a relationship, and a time-consuming hobby, I find it hard to spend even a tenth the time I used to spend playing games. In what little time I do spend gaming, I don't want to spend the whole time scouring for collectibles and completing side quests. I want to be lost in an incredible story. Open world games, sad to say, don't often have those.

There are exceptions. The Witcher 3, for example, had a great story while still packed with tons of side quests. That game's saving grace was that each side quest was written like a short story. Then again, several of The Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski are collections of short stories – no surprise it works so well. Still, just like every other open world game, having so many side quests took away from the impact of the main story.

To some extent, the fault is my own. I don't know how many open world games I've played where I get so lost in side quests I don't even remember what's happening in the main story. That may not be the developers' intentions, but that's a side effect of adding tons of side content to pad the length of the game and tasking my brain with ignoring them. That's a losing battle.

The Dungeons & Dragons campaign on which An Ocean of Others is based wasn't exactly like that, but there's a parallel here. Our DM did have a main story he was trying to tell, but without us knowing what it was – and with him trying not to completely railroad us – we were bound to get off track. Our path toward the end of the story became very twisted indeed. We even had a mission board and a quest list I put together to keep track of all the side quests we accidentally kicked off. Like open world games, this is totally fine. The primary goal is to have fun and spend time with your friends; the story is secondary.

Books are different. No matter how immersive the setting is and how much time you'd want to spend there, the story must come first.

Trimming the Fat

Because I started the first draft of this book while still mid-story in our DnD campaign, I had no idea what was going to happen at the end. We didn't know who the antagonist was until (and I just checked my notes) the tenth session. In the background, the antagonist's plans unfolded almost without us noticing. I'm not sure how much our DM knew about how the story was going to end either; to some extent, it was out of his control. He does a good job keeping us on track, but I'm sure we've made decisions that have scuttled his plans many times.

All this is to say, by the time the first draft was complete, there was a lot in there that needed to be removed. Early scenes where I was still finding my footing (I had never written a book before, after all). Conversations that would have set up promises to the reader, but which had no payoff. Plot threads that didn't get tied up by the final, climactic confrontation. Seeds I planted hoping that they would bloom into beautiful foreshadowing trees, but which only sprouted into a single blade of red herring grass. And, I'm sure, things I didn't properly understand that got lost in my notetaking.

As I created my revision guide and outline for the second draft, I went item-by-item and decided if each should stay and be strengthened, or if it should be removed so as not to weigh down the book. Doing this after deciding what each's character's story was about made this much easier. It makes sense to me to prioritize story components in that order – character, plot, setting. First, determine character arcs. Next, create a plot that reinforces that arc. Finally, include worldbuilding to craft a setting in which that plot makes sense (and ideally reinforces the themes of the character arcs).

Of course, these things are all in contact with one another. As one changes, it sends feedback further up the line, but I think that priority works if a decision ever causes conflict between multiple components. If a really cool idea for the setting would weaken a character, save it for another story.

Pushing the story to the front and center was primarily an exercise in trimming content, but not entirely. It also required the creation of several brand new scenes. The trick was to make sure those scenes were lean content, not just more bloat that would be cut in later drafts.

I recently listened to an episode of the podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing called 'The Biggest Mistake Writers Make'. Author Lisa Cron says that mistake is thinking your story is about the plot. That's wrong, she says, and I agree. The story is about the "evolving internal meaning that your protagonist is reading into what's happening".

Unfortunately, when translating a DnD story into a novel, most of what you've got is the plot. Even after reinforcing the scenes that moved the plot forward with the point-of-view character's internal thoughts, they often didn't flow properly into one another. I had a bunch of disconnected scenes that changed how my protagonist thought about the world; I still needed to glue to hold it all together. How much glue did I need?

A Book by Numbers

I feel like I've been speaking very abstractly, so I want to put some firm numbers to these ideas. To do this, I went through my '2nd Draft Revised Outline', which is the one I talked about in the last post modified to reflect the revision guide. In that post I wrote specifically about characters, but I also followed the same process for any plot points and worldbuilding that was in the first draft. While working on the outline in Scrivener, I added a metadata field called 'Add/Remove/Revise' so I knew how to handle each outlined point when working on the revision.

I marked plot points 'Add' to make sure it made it into the next draft of the story. I marked them 'Remove' to make sure I deleted them. These two are pretty self-explanatory, but in practice, the rewrite was so all-encompassing that 'Remove' effectively meant 'Don't Write This'; I expected to use a lot more of the first draft before I started.

'Revise' meant the plot point would remain in the story but with modification. I'd often leave myself a note so I knew what I was thinking in terms of how or why it should be changed. For example, here's a plot point from early in the book that needed to better tie in with later events in the story:

Again, because of how the second draft actually went, 'Revise' meant something closer to 'Write It This Way Instead'.

I've separated the data into the three story components I mentioned above – Character, Plot, and Setting – since that's how they're organized in this specific outline. I also have three observations with Three Takeaways (formatted like so), which serve as TL;DRs if you're numbers-averse and want to skim through for the lessons learned.

/* Side note: Before you see the numbers and cringe in horror at how many outlined items I had, know that I didn't count these by hand. Scrivener has a lovely export option that let me view and filter all the metadata fields in Excel. (Perhaps foolishly, I didn't verify that was the case before embarking upon this blog post...) */

So with all that in mind, here is the final breakdown of how I turned the first draft, a DnD story with a coat of paint, into the second draft, much closer to a proper novel:

Character Plot Setting
Added 124 13 56
Removed 117 13 10
Revised 302 56 49
Unchanged 264 57 88
Total 807 139 203

My first observation is the sheer difference in the quantity of items for each of these components – the majority of the outline (70%) is devoted to Character. This may partially be a result of prioritizing Character over the other two components, but I think it's mainly because the Character items were much more fine-grained than the Plot points. Here's an example of each story component's plot items:

Plot – covers a whole chapter

Character – covers roughly a paragraph

Setting – covers one sentence

The fact that there are so many more Character items than Setting items can be chalked up to priorities. But like I said in the last post, I started the first outline by working backwards and noting every time a character said or did anything. There may be 800+ items, but that doesn't mean their arcs are flip-flopping all throughout the book. This data was only used to inform decisions about the character arcs, and that in turn determined how many were added, removed, and modified to fit those arcs.

From the first observation, Takeaway Number One is this: overly minute details in a Character outline is a hindrance. If I had started with an outline at the beginning rather than reverse-engineering an outline, I would not have included so many. Instead, it would have been better to just note inflection points in the character's arc. Outlining individual actions or dialogue can be useful, but often it will make the character feel inorganic.

My second observation about the data is that for Character and Plot, I added about as much as I removed, and I left alone about as much as I changed. For Setting, I left a lot more unchanged, but also added much more than I removed. Let's reformat this data so we can examine the totals per draft.

Character Plot Setting Sum Pages
1st Draft 683 126 147 956 515
2nd Draft 690 126 193 1009 550

I included the sum of all items for each draft as well as a count of the manuscript pages. From the first to the second draft, I added about 5.5% more outline items, and the manuscript grew by 6.7%. None of these seems all that surprising; I included more content (mostly worldbuilding, apparently) and the page count went up. I suspect it would have gone up much more if the Plot items didn't add up to the same number for each draft.

Takeaway Number Two: you can trim the fat while keeping a book the same size. One caveat here – when I say "trim the fat" I'm specifically not talking about line-editing, where the goal is to take the novel down by, say, ten to twenty percent. I'm talking about trimming the story fat off a discovery-written story. Rather than removing unnecessary Character and Plot details, I've replaced them with different details that strengthen what I wanted to keep. At the same time, I got rid of a few Setting details, but added even more – details to make the world match the themes of the story and to foreshadow things in the sequels.

My last observation is of how many outlined items were either unchanged or 'Revise'. The majority of Character items (70%), Plot items (81%), and Setting items (67%) were one of those two categories. I think this speaks to how much of the original DnD story I tried to keep when turning this into a novel – in all cases the 'Removed' category was less than 15%. And like I noted earlier, I wrote a lot of small sections that served as the "glue" for the story; that likely accounts for most of the 'Add' category in Character and Plot.

So, Takeaway Number Three, while it may not be useful to most writers, is that it's possible to keep the spirit of a story told in a roleplaying campaign when turning it into a novel. I'm satisfied that I kept enough from the original that it still feels like the same story.

Then again, I have to remember that it isn't the same story. Our DM is currently reading the second draft and I'm sure it won't feel like the same story to him. It's a virtual certainty that some things in my 'Removed' category were integral to his plot. I know that where I'm going with the sequels and where he's going with the campaign have diverged to the point that they wouldn't recognize each other as siblings.

To my mind, that's alright. They might have many differences, but I don't hold either as superior to the other. I love both of the stories equally – mine for the work I put into it, and his for the memories I've shared with my friends.