Musing about Great Stories

First, a brief linkage: yesterday, I wrote a post on It was supposed to be about what it’s like to live with a literary agent, but it really ended up being about what an agent’s job is like, from the point of view of a writer. People seem to like it a lot, which is kind of a happy surprise. Check it out.

A couple days ago, I blogged/reposted a comment I made about Games and Stories and Could One Be the Other and Other Big Questions Like That.

Today, not so much.


  • Chuck is already talking about that, and
    • I chimed in there (a number of times) and really can’t bear to repeat it all here (twice in the same week)
    • That “can games, which inherently have more than the author creating the end product/story, really produce Something of Meaning, if the creators didn’t really have final say in the end product?” question, while worthy and interesting, wearies me, because I’ve been having that discussion for about (checks game blog)… huh. Almost exactly six years ago, to the day. Interesting.  ANYWAY, it’s all good discussion that I’ll follow avidly, but after thinking about it this morning, I really can’t bear to get into all of that again personally.
  • While the “are games breaking into that high-level of story product” question is interesting, there’s something else I find more interesting. Here’s the quote that got me thinking about it.

Chuck: ME2 is […] a dumb story in a rich storyworld — a generic adventure amidst great characters, fascinating situations, and troubling moral quandaries.

Which got me thinking. (Obviously. I mean, here I am, thinking.) When Chuck talks about ME2’s dumb story, what he’s referring to is “the plot”. I infer this because he then mentions great character, situations, and quandries, so “plot” is about the only other story element left.

I want to make this clear: this post isn’t about/attacking/defending ME2 or Dragon Age or anything. I have a post I want to write for the game blog about those games, but I’m waiting until Kate’s done with ME2, and it’s much more about the games as games, hence the eventual location of the blog post. That’s not what this is about. Suffice it to say I enjoy games and move on.

I like some games more than others.
I like some games more than others.

It’s also not about taking apart Chuck’s statement. I feel like I’ve been picking at his stuff for the last couple days, and that makes me hate myself a little.

In this case, I’m quoting Chuck because he got me thinking about what stories are — what elements they must contain in order to be called a story, and how “concentrated” those elements have to be to be called a good story.

So. I just posed two questions.

One: what elements must a story contain in order to be called a story? I go back to that quote, above, and extract this list:

  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Situation/Setting
  • Quandaries

I’m sure I could google up some kind of official list of story elements that hundreds of literary experts agree on, but frankly I don’t care to; this list works for me. If you have a list you like better, use that one.

Two: How “concentrated” do those elements have to be to be called a good story?

Okay, in order to judge levels of ‘concentration’, we need some kind of rating system.

Hmm. I see where I’m going here. No. No, I don’t think I’m going to use the FUDGE rpg’s “ladder” to rate literature. The end result is going to sound like that horrible essay the kid reads near the beginning of Dead Poets Society. No.

(Even though it would totally work.)

So anyway, let’s just focus on the descriptive words.

“Man, the plot is piss-poor, but the characters, the quandries, and setting/situation? All great.”

Okay… so, looking at that, that’s three elements where the story is ‘great’, and the one where it’s ‘poor’.

Is it a great story at that point? Over all?

I think it is.


Okay, well, what if I told you that that quote above wasn’t Chuck talking about Mass Effect 2, but me talking about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Road?

Because it totally is.

Great characters. Gut-punch quandaries. Very compelling setting/situation. Plot?


A guy and his kid walk from Point A to Point Z. They almost starve and almost freeze to death… about a half dozen times. I mean, I don’t mean to spoil the book for you, but… that’s the plot. The Road is (in my opinion) ALL in the characters and quandaries.

Or I can make it a little more personal: I’ve got a book out with an agent right now where, so far as the plot is concerned, nothing changes. The situation in terms of plot as it exists on page 3 remains completely unchanged at the end. The characters travel from point A to point Z. That’s it. I’m willing to mention this ‘weakness’ because, judged objectively, that doesn’t seem to fucking matter to anyone.

I’ve done seven full revisions on the story at this point, as requested by my agent, a publisher, and others, and not once did anyone say ‘this lack of plot kills it for me.’

You know what they ask for? Over and over? More stuff with the characters. More psyche delving.

So I have to wonder: if some of the elements are strong enough, does it matter if one of the others is weak? Or absent?

Or… dare I say it… unimportant?

Another example: I love reading Greg Rucka’s stories, in part because he writes really good yarns that I could never write myself, not in a thousand attempts. Densely packed international intrigue, these things, with double- and triple-crosses and international political ramifications you need the CIA Factbook to comprehend, let alone create.

I wouldn’t say moral quandaries are very important to the story, though. They’re there, but the characters don’t sit there and agonize over them. They might drink themselves into a coma about what they did later, but at the point of decision, they just pushed the button/flipped the switch/pulled the trigger and walked away.

Does that matter? Nnnnoo… actually, it’s a spy story; that’s sort of the point.

Slightly different example: Neal Stephenson and Dan Brown don’t hinge their (quite amazing) stories on great, deep characters. In my opinion.

Hell, neither does Tolkien. Compelling archetypes and “great characters” aren’t the same thing.

I’m not saying you couldn’t have a wonderful, amazing, mind-blowing story that really gets all these four elements up in the “great” range. Certainly you can.

But… certainly you must?

I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it. But I don’t think so.

What I’ve learned about Bowling

Tonight marks the conclusion of the fall season of the bowling league in which I, my wife, and several of my game-geek friends participate.

It’s fun. Shut up.

In a way, it’s a weird return to my childhood. While bowling continues to grow in popularity in the U.S., bowling league participation dwindles, but such was not the case when I was a little kid. Both my parents bowl (and bowled), and I can remember many Saturday nights when my folks couldn’t get a sitter and my sister and I spent the evening running around the alley, screwing up someone’s game of pool, or mastering a sliding tile game that I only got to mess with during league play.

So about a year ago, one of our gamer friends asked if we’d be interested, and my wife thought it’d be a good way to meet people in her new home town, and I thought “sure, I’m a pretty decent bowler, why not?” (Funny thing: being around bowling doesn’t actually make you a good bowler. Who knew?)

This is what I remembered about the fine points of bowling.
This is what I remember about the bowling alley when I was a kid.

So we dove in. We got shoes. (Those of you who know my wife know she needs very little provocation or encouragement to buy shoes.) I bought her a bowling ball for Christmas. We didn’t do that great that season, but we had a pretty good time.

The next season started up, and we decided to keep playing.

And the next…

And the next…

And now it’s eighteen months later. Tonight is the last week of play for the fall league. The team that Kate and I are on (Crazy Bowling Monkeys) is in first place. Kate’s the #1 Most Improved women’s bowler. I’m #1 Most Improved men’s. Between us and the other gamer-geek team (White and Nerdy, with Ninja Pin Action), there is not a “leader” category we don’t pretty much dominate. It’s kind of awesome.

Obviously, with the big showdown tonight, it’s on my mind, so I thought I’d write down some stuff I’ve learned about Bowling in the last year and a half.

blue_bowling_pin1. You gotta show up.

It’s a hassle. Sometimes you have to bring your kids along and keep them distracted (and in turn be distracted by them). But the only way to enjoy the game is to play the game, and (if you’re me) try to get better.

2. Getting better takes time. And lots of repetition.

I was never a horrible bowler. Sure, I’ve had horrible games, but I don’t know that I was ever really super-bad (and the nice thing about bowling is that you can still help your team out even if you kinda suck).

But I’ve always wanted to do well. I may not have learned a ton about the technical bits of bowling as a kid, but I did learn what good bowling looked like. I saw a lot of it. Hell, I heard a lot of it. I wanted my ball to do this, and the pins to do that, and the noise they all make to go cracka-boom.

So I keep working at it, and what used to be a 120 average is now a 160 average, and for all that that’s pretty respectable, not a game goes by that I can’t name a dozen things I did wrong, even on the strikes.

3. Don’t aim at the pins.

It seems counter-intuitive, but aiming at the pins you want to knock down is a pretty good way to ensure you’ll hit fuck-all when you throw the ball. There are these great little arrows on the lane that are about a third to half-way down, and you aim at those. They’re close enough to hit with some accuracy, for one thing, so you use them as your front-sight (shooting reference). Basically, it’s not the end result you think about, it’s the beginning and the middle that you work to get right, and the cracka-boom will follow.

4. Be consistent.

Generally speaking, if you start from the same spot every time, and you hit the right arrow, the end result is assured considerably more likely. That’s why you do the repetition — you figure out what works and what doesn’t, then you do the ‘what works’ thing over and over again until it’s hard not to.

5. Don’t be consistent when it’s not working…

Lanes dry out and suddenly the ball hooks too much. Or the lane-monkeys greased the damn thing up and nothing hooks at all. Or your pants are too tight. Or you shouldn’t have had a beer. Or you should have had a beer. Or you’re distracted from work, or family, or your kid with the tile-sliding game. Whatever the reason, The Thing You Do to Make the Pins Go Boom ain’t working: not by a little, but by a lot.

See when that’s happening, and try something else. If that doesn’t work either, sometimes you just have to laugh a little at the whole stupid game and have a good time while you rack up a terrible, terrible score.

6. … but don’t freak out when it’s almost working.

The hardest thing to deal with in bowling is a split — when you leave a couple pins behind, and they’re physically separated from one another by a great and terrible distance. And here’s a hard fact: the difference between a strike and a split is fractions of an inch. Or the exact same throw, but at a different speed. A spare is usually a strike that just didn’t quite strike.

So what do you do if you’re throwing a bunch of splits?

Nothing. The errors are small. Sometimes they aren’t even visible, and you’re left looking at the lane saying “are you kidding me?” In those situations, you just suck it up, go get your ball, and try to clean the mess up as best as you can with the second roll. You’re not doing anything wrong, it’s just not quite working, so keep throwing the ball the same way you have been, and eventually – probably – the kinks will work out.

7. Have fun. Don’t look at the scoreboard.

Is it a sport or is it a game? Could you go pro if you get good enough? Are we going to place this season?

These are all silly questions.

It’s something you enjoy, so do it. If you get really really good at it, maybe you’ll get back a little prize money when the season’s over. Maybe you’ll get a patch for your shirt, or a fridge magnet.

But seriously, who cares? If you can’t remember that it’s supposed to be something you like doing — maybe even love doing — why waste the time?

Yeah, you gotta show up, and you have to play a lot (a LOT) to get better (and take some other player’s advice, and maybe a few lessons, and, again, lots of practice). All good play is also good work, I think, and vice-versa.

But the fact is this: You will never be good if you forget how to enjoy it. Never ever.

There. I’m all done talking about bowling now. Too bad none of this applies to any other activity. Ahh well.

Maybe tomorrow.

... totally buying this if we win tonight.
... totally buying this if we win tonight.

More on the Descriptions: the When and Why

befaftSo after De asked for it, and I thought about it, and I read her post, I figured I knew what she was asking about with regard to descriptions. Then I wrote a post about that thing I thought she was asking about.

I was, of course, wrong.

But that’s okay! The post itself came out all right, and people had some good feedback and thoughts on it, so let’s call it a win and move on.

De clarified her interest in comments:

The kind of thing I’m looking more at is – when do you describe a building? When do you not describe a building? Why? When you do describe a building, how elaborate should you get? What is it that you’re trying to accomplish when you’re describing the building? What is it that you lose when you describe the building, other than the ability of the reader to fill in the details for you?

Ooh. I like that. That’s interesting. Let’s talk about it.

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
Tao te Ching, verse 11

I am a big fan of not describing anything that I don’t absolutely have to. In Adrift, here’s the stuff that I’ve described:

  • Deirdre’s pale skin.
  • The Drift (Gallimaufry), multiple times.
  • Bilabil the alien.
  • Bin the bear-cat.
  • The Manifold Bazaar
  • Mak (the man, not the talking squirrel), and Five Finger Freight.

All of these things called for descriptions for different reasons. D’s pale skin is relevant in a larger context as a creche-child, which is historical background and plot-significant, and it will contrast her with almost every other human around. The Drift is a weird setting and some ground rules needed to be established: both what it is and what it is not, and it also starts to hint at the weird ‘paradise lost’ history of humanity in the story. Bilabil’s an alien; I needed people seeing a six-legged sloth, not (say) a big bug, and to see the parental nature of its existence, which echoes Finn. Bin’s a magical creature, and I wanted people seeing the same kind of magical creature, or at least the same specific elements. The Bazaar is a weird location, unlike any ‘space market’ I’ve read about — an inward-facing globe, thick with vegetation, and a marked contrast from the rest of the Drift — it’s a core of life inside a dead thing, and it parallels some other stuff that’s important. I also had a clear picture of Five Finger Freight and wanted that to be conveyed, because it tells us something about Mak before we meet him.

Stuff that I didn’t describe:

  • Finn, the main character.
  • Jon
  • The Binturong, Finn’s ship.
  • Any of the many dead ship’s interiors Finn crawls through.

Why did I leave those things out? I firmly believe that in any situation where the description of a thing only does one thing (tells you what something looks like), it can probably be left to the reader for the most part. Certain things can be implied in order to inform the reader’s impression, but you don’t need to spell stuff out.  In fact, you’re better off not to, because what the reader comes up with out of their head will be (subjectively) better (read: more effective) than anything you write down.

  • Finn is a loving father who screwed some things up in the past (like most dads). Most folks can relate to that and build a good image of Finn.
  • The Binturong is a squat little indie ship. Cool, right? But everyone has an image of that cool ship that’s cooler to them than my description would be. Why not use that?
  • Ditto all those dead ship’s interiors. When I say the characters are crawling along the hull of a massive battle cruiser, I’ll let the reader see that for themselves.
  • I realize now that despite describing her somewhat, I never say what color Bin’s fur is, and I’m curious what colors people see when they read it.

Which isn’t to say I don’t imply things about their appearance, which is where I was going with the little quote from the Tao. I give the readers the shape and dimensions of the the jar, but they fill it up with whatever they’re bringing to the party.

There’s a funny and useful story about this. In Hidden Things (the book I’ve got representation for), there’s a dragon. The Dragon is probably one of my favorite Things in the whole book. I love it. I wrote the Dragon in a very particular way because it is a very powerful Hidden Thing and is very hard to perceive directly. This left a LOT up to the reader’s imagination, but I had no idea how much until one day when I referred to the Dragon as “he” in a conversation with someone who’d read the book.

They didn’t know who I was talking about. The Dragon was female. Clearly. Duh.

I stared. Possibly, I blinked.

Then I called a couple other readers and asked them what gender the Dragon was.

About half said male. About half said female. One guy didn’t think it really mattered, because Dragon’s transcend gender. Hippie.

Anyway, I was able to go back into that version of the story and point at specific instances where I’d referred to the Dragon as “he”.  This point did not convince anyone. I eventually embraced the weirdness and removed the gender-specific pronouns.

That incident is why I believe so strongly that you really should leave as much as you can of the ‘unimportant’ stuff to the reader.

So when is it important? When you need the description for something else as well. When the description is both a description and foreshadowing, or when it’s a clue, or when it matters to the larger plot. When (again, to reference Chuck’s post) it’s doing more than one thing.

In the Adrift episode I am going to record tonight posted Thursday, Finn makes a specific point of narrator-commenting on the politeness of one of the people he meets; how unusual it is — like crawling through a rotten old space hulk and emerging in a cathedral. I wasted time making a note of that and making that analogy because (spoiler!) much later in the story, the flipside of that unlikely analogy actually happens.

Back to De’s comment, broken out:

1. When do you describe a [thing]?

When you need it to exist in the reader’s mind in a specific way, or including specific elements, because of some bigger thing going on in the story. (If you’re feeling decadent, you can also include ‘when you have this awesome imagery that you really want to include’, but be aware that you really should make that awesome thing more broadly relevant in order to justify keeping it around during revisions.)

2. When do you not describe a [thing]?

When #1 is not true.

3. When you do describe a [thing], how elaborate should you get?

You know what I’m going to say. Initially, three key facts. No one will remember more than three anyway, so they’ll cherrypick from a longer list, and might not focus on the Important Thing. You can introduce additional facts later. (Note: I totally break this rule in Adrift — Bilabil has fur, six legs, asymmetrical rows of nipples, a marsupial pouch, and big teeth. We hang out out with it for a long time, though, so maybe it’s okay.)

4. What is it that you’re trying to accomplish when you’re describing the [thing]?

That varies, but it’s never ‘describe the thing’, or at least it’s never only ‘describe the thing’.

5. What is it that you lose when you describe the [thing], other than the ability of the reader to fill in the details for you?

I’m not sure that you lose anything else, but I would shift the wording a bit: you lose the ability of the reader to fill in the details for themselves. The most awesome [thing] in my head that I then describe will not be as awesome as a similar awesome [thing] you think up in your own head…

Unless I can add depth to the [thing] by tying it into the rest of the story in some important way — that extra dimension hidden within my description is the thing I can do as the writer that the reader cannot, which makes it possible for me to cheat come up with cooler things than the reader would have thought of.


On Descriptions and Breathing

First of all, I’m not entirely convinced I should be writing about this, but De asked:

@ChuckWendig @doycet I want one of you to write a couple of blog entries on DESCRIPTION, when how and why. I suck at it.

So… Okay. Fine. I’ll say something.

Now, to be clear, she asked about this awhile back, during nanowrimo, so I didn’t write about it then — the posts had mostly to do with that, and advice on description writing doesn’t (necessarily) apply in that context (actually, I can see how it might, now, but whatever). Chuck did write about it, though, and his advice is good, so I suggest reading it.

When De first asked about descriptions, I didn’t actually understood what she was talking about. (This particular failing of mine is depressingly common when it comes to My Brain and Things De Says.)

I thought I did. I thought she was talking about the @desc command.

Did I just lose you? Did the Nerdilus dive too deeply, too fast? I’ll back up.

Back in the Ancient Days, I played multiuser online games with no pictures. (I don’t have the heart to include a picture of the game interface in the post. Look here.) These games had many collective acronyms, all of which were far easier to pronounce than MMORPG.

Obviously, with no graphics, everything within the game exists only insofar as it can be represented by the written word. People. Things. Buildings. Rooms. Combat. Everything is description. When you ‘look’ed at something, you saw a block of text describing a thing.

‘look book’
> It’s a book.

I played on a lot of these games, and I ran a couple others, and I wrote a lot of descriptions of a lot of stuff: all those things I just mentioned, multiplied by some number that ends with ‘illion’.  The command to write an object’s description is “@desc thing=whatever you want”. I think, at one point, I made “@desc ” a hotkeyed macro on my keyboard.

So you will forgive me this failing: when De asked me to talk about writing descriptions, that’s pretty much what I thought of. I didn’t think of any examples of descriptions from the stories I write because quite frankly, I don’t really write them. Seriously. I went back and looked at a bunch of existing work and there are damn few examples of a moment when the narrator or the main POV protagonist takes a moment to stop the action and describe someone or something in any kind of detail. (You know the passages I’m talking about, and if you don’t just pick up any of the Anita Blake books and look for a bit where some hot new guy is introduced. His description will get a page of text, at least.)

Having started with that assumption, I kind of waved my hands around, muttered something about Zelazny’s Rule of Three, and said I’d try to think of something more to say later.

I then waited so damn long that De wrote about it. (You got that? I took so flipping long that the person asking for thoughts started writing down her own. I suck.) In reading her post, I realized that I’d failed to understand her full meaning. I think I get it now. I was thinking too small.

I probably can’t explain it any better, but at least I’m facing the right direction.

Based on De’s post, I now read her use of the word description to mean “pretty much everything in the story that isn’t dialog.” That’s oversimplifying, probably, but I’m a simple guy. (Here, let me rephrase it so I don’t offend anyone: “Description, in the way I understand De to mean it, is ‘everything in one of my stories that isn’t dialog’.”)

De wrote:

I suspect the people who are good at it don’t have to think about it.

Maybe? I don’t know if I count as being good at it, but it’s definitely not something I think about very much. Honestly, this is probably the first time I’ve ever really thought about it.

Here’s my thought: to me, description is the story, breathing.

That’s going to sound over-precious, so let me break it down as much as I can.

  • Description conveys facts.
  • Done well, they convey more than one fact, some of which are delivered subtly, without the reader noticing.
  • They happen all the time, and the way they happen – the when and the how of them – also delivers information and affects the mood and tone of the story.

That’s still a little artsy-fartsy, so let’s just work with an example.

I’m going to start with something that isn’t description. Dialog. From the second line of this post:

“So… Okay. Fine. I’ll say something.”

A serviceable line. Over-punctuated. Choppy. Too many… ellipses. Much like this one. It’ll do.

(Damn, my mind is just all over the place with this post. Too much to say.)

Let’s start with ellipses.

Ellipses are not to be trusted. I have rules about ellipses:

  • Only allowed in dialog. The narrator should always know what he’s going to say.
  • Only allowed even in dialog IF the character is actually letting a word trail off in some audible fashion. It may not be used to denote a simple pause between one word and the next.
  • You get to use more ellipses if the character speaking is supposed to be extremely hesitant about everything they say. Maybe.
  • In all other cases, if you have an ellipsis, there should probably be words there, instead.

The example dialog, checked against these rules, passes. The ellipsis gets to stay.

However, lots of writers fill their dialog with ellipses to show pauses and rhythm in speech. I would like to suggest that there’s a better way, and that’s by breaking up the dialog with description. Consider:

“So…” He tipped his head, frowning at me. I didn’t reply, and he shook away his confused expression. “Okay.” He looked at me once more, sidelong, as though expecting some kind of trick. “Fine.” He dropped into the overstuffed chair and slapped the arms with both hands. “I’ll say something.”

That’s overdoing it a bit, but it clearly has a big effect on the the rhythm of the line. It’s slow. It’s halting. It’s not entirely comfortable. There are gaps which you might even guess the guy is speaking simply to fill.

“So…” He kissed her on the forehead, right at the part of her hair. “Okay. Fine.” He gave her another hug, which she returned, laying her head against his chest. “I’ll say something.”

Ugh. Schmultzy. Smoother, however. Kind of flow-y. It’s not just about the description, but what the description does to the dialog.

“So…” A sharp movement of his head, trying to shake the image free. “Okay. Fine. I’ll say something.” He didn’t look at me. I wasn’t surprised.

Pop. Pop. Pop. The dialog is choppy already, so let all the choppy bits stay together to increase the clipped feeling. The description is partly sentence fragments, also, because we want it to feel jagged.

Gloomy, all these examples.

“So…” He bent his head far enough to meet my eyes. I smirked at the question in his expression, unable to keep up the act, and his eyes went wide. He threw his arms in the air, spun in a circle and whooped, drawing the attention of several bundled up pedestrians stomping by. “Okay. Fine.” He grinned, breath steaming in the mid-February cold. “I’ll say something.”

I started to reply, but he’d already turned away to let out another whoop, echoing over the ice-gray Hudson.

I don’t know if any of this even helps. De?

The point of description, aside from the information it conveys, is the rhythm is creates in its delivery; the way it’s woven into the dialog. The breathing. Sometimes it’s short and sharp and panting, and sometimes it’s heavy and labored, and sometimes it’s smooth and contented.

I wish I could tell you how I know this, or why I think it. I can’t. I acknowledge that that probably makes the whole thing less valuable.

Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Quick Notes on the #FrankfurtTOC

The Frankfurt TOC (Tools of Change) conference took place today, as part of the Frankfurt Book Fair (going on this week).  Like the TOC Conference earlier this year, FrankfurtTOC had a lot of folks there twittering the coolest ideas, giving a kind of stop-motion summary of the talks taking place.

What follows are the posts I saw that intrigued me in one way or another.


  • Think digital first, print maybe.
  • Focus on your verticals – the reason why genre fiction works in digital.
  • Digital change is completely changing the publishing industry. Nobody has THE RIGHT to survive.
  • Publishers need to think like Games Developers


  • Publishers/Writers should create a life-long URL for each work “don’t be fooled into allowing others control of your metadata”


  • DRM: “Retailers want to own the customer.”
  • The use of “unprotected” to describe DRM-free is very objectionable. Why not “unrestricted?” @doctorow
  • Any time someone mentions “interoperability” and “DRM” in the same breath, they’re engaged in wishful thinking. @doctorow
  • If DRM is always broken, in what sense does it “protect”? Restricts use, restricts interop, doesn’t protect.


  • Let readers buy the book [as a bundle in all possible formats] & allow the reader to choose the format they want. (I just suggested that like… two weeks ago.)
  • …making “All books available to All”… one of the most ambitious ventures in the book industry.


  • The best way to predict the future is to invent it. @v_clayssen
  • Substantial increase in Android Market. Looking at graph suggests in 2 years will have caught up with Apple app store
  • “Books: the fastest growing category in iTunes AppStore.” @innOva

My impression:

Publishing, at the moment, is stuck. There’s lots of talk about how publishers need to get with it, and where publishing is now, and what they don’t want to do to solve their problems, but there’s no grand solution proposed.

At least they acknowledge the problem.

Pulling a dick move, and other things that make stories (and games) better.

Somewhere*, sometime**, D was talking about writing things and said something like:

The only scene in a story with no conflict in it should be the epilogue at the end of the story.

I know that isn’t it exactly, but that’s the gist of it; when you’re telling a story, scenes should have conflicts in them, or they shouldn’t… you know… be scenes.

De also pointed out*** that you can cheat this a little bit in a scene without any obvious conflict by then revealing “Yeah, while it looked like Mom and Daughter were have a nice happy cup of tea for six pages, Mom had ACTUALLY CALLED THE INSANE ASYLUM TO TURN IN HER DAUGHTER!” DUN Dun dunnnn.

A good trick (one which I’ve used), but it doesn’t change the basic idea, which is (put into my own words):

Never stop fucking with the main character.

Yeah, yeah, “show, don’t tell” works, because if you are legitimately trying to “show” as you write a scene you’ll instinctively put in some kind of thing worth showing. A conflict. There you go. You’ve done it.

(Tangential thought I just had: This may be be a legitimate means of separating “porn” from “erotica”. Erotic has sex scenes with conflict. Porn just has scenes with people fucking. Maybe? Hmm.)

Now, none of this is particular epic storytelling trickery; people get this. People mention this kind of thing all the time.

What people are only slowly starting to get is how it applies to roleplaying games.

Let me tell you about this guy I know. Plays in my Wednesday game. Like most of the people who come in and out of the Wednesday game, he’s also runs games. As a person-who-runs-games, he has a bit of a reputation. A Nom-de-GM, even: people call him Weeda the Evil.

He’s earned this title and the attendant rep via a pretty simple means and method – he rakes his player’s characters over the coals. I’m pretty sure he used to give out certificates to anyone who died in a game he was running. There may have even been t-shirts.


He is, without a doubt, one of the most popular GMs in the Denver area. Probably, if you’re a gamer (or a reader, or an author) I don’t need to explain why.


BUT JUST IN CASE I DO, it goes something like this: no one ever gets the feeling from this guy that he’s screwing with you just to screw with you — he’s screwing with you because you’re the Big Cheese, the Main Character, the Hero. He believes you can take it, and he’ll Test to Destruction to prove his point.

He has a similar rule to the one I blocked up above. It is (not surprisingly) more concise.

Heroes Suffer.

Sometimes, your heroes will not appreciate your exciting plot twists.
Sometimes, your heroes will not appreciate your exciting plot twists.


The thing with RPGs is that, for a really really long time, the only tool that GMs had at their disposal was their own sense of drama and their desire to make sure the Hero Suffers. Take another guy without that sense and you have a lot of dead, boring fights. Take a different guy who only gets that you’re screwing with the characters, and not where that motivation comes from, and you just have some dick GM that everyone hates playing with.

(Take a writer who misinterprets this sort of guideline, or misreads what it is about one of their successful stories that makes people happy, and you get someone who thinks “the key to a successful story is doing horrible shit to my main character”, which somewhat misses the difference between ‘introducing conflict’ and ‘torture’. I’m looking at you, Vorkosigan series!)

Sometimes you just have to punch your favorite character right in the junk.
Sometimes you just have to punch your favorite character right in the junk. That's fine. But it's way more interesting when you give a character a choice between junk-punching and something else, and they CHOOSE junk-punching.

Luckily, there’s a lot of great games out there that are figuring this out and helping GMs find that sweet spot between “I want to be fair and impartial” and “I need to put you through the wringer or you’re going to be bored.” It started in the good old days with GURPS and Champions and their Dependent NPC (8), but that sort of thing never really worked they way it should. Sorcerer figured it out and introduced “bangs” that pretty much made all of the GMs prep a process of building a list of tough questions the players had to answer. That was good. Primetime Adventures actually breaks if you don’t throw tough conflicts at the main characters and get the Fan Mail flowing.

And it’s gotten better. Fate/Spirit of the Century has the whole Fate Point/Aspect compels that give you a great Devil’s Deal kind of thing to use, but for my money, the best stuff out there right now that does this is Mouse Guard and Danger Patrol. I won’t get into they “whys” of this right now, because this is not the gaming blog, but MG pretty much builds an entire game around “Heroes Suffer”, and Danger Patrol is built around the idea that the only way you can help your fellow players out is by making the situation they’re in more and more Dangerous (potentially creating new dangers everyone has to deal with).

GM: “Okay, Tim is going to jump from one flying car to the other. That’s super dangerous, and worth some extra dice, but what other dangers are out there he doesn’t know about?”
Kate: “There’s a school bus coming the other way, and he’s going to force it to swerve into oncoming traffic.”
GM: “Okay… bonus dice.”
Chris: “And it’s full of kids.”
GM: “Another bonus die.”
Tim: “Umm…”
Kate: “And puppies! It’s ‘bring your puppy to school day!”
GM: “Bonus dice!”
Tim: *Groans*

NOTE: This conversation actually happened in a Danger Patrol game, just not mine – it was Brennan! (Thank you Brennan for helping me find that lost bit of info.

The result of a escalating series of Dangers in Danger Patrol.
The result of a escalating series of Dangers in Danger patrol.

For the longest time, I had to remember to bring what I knew about conflicts from writing, and try to apply that to games I ran.

Now? I borrow tricks from the games I play and use them when I’m writing.

* – On her blog.
** – I couldn’t find the post.
*** – I couldn’t find this post, either.

Habituals Update

It’s been relatively quiet around Casa Testerman for the past week or so. There was a trip to Philadelphia, thick with unexciting wardrobe malfunctions, but otherwise I’m plugging along with writing, reading, and trying to get these damn habits locked in. Lemme sum up:

It’s been a very good month for me as far as new reading experiences go; first there was Terry Pratchett’s Nation, then Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Graveyard Book, and I had the pleasure of catching up with all the cool kids and read The Lies of Locke Lamora on the Philly trip. Great book. Just enough ‘new’ in the fantasy world, with great characterization and plotting. Capers are capered, swashes are buckled, and a great many skulls are duggeried. I came fairly close to sleeping on the couch a couple times, thanks to interrupting Kate’s own reading with chortling, out-of-context excerpts. Recommended (as are the others I mentioned – highly).

The “Adrift” story continues, in which Finnras seems to be engaging in some kind of Cunning Plan. We’ll see if he’s as good at such things as Locke Lamora. Odds are not good.

Habit the First – Tracking what I Eat
This went very well in the first week – I even dropped a few pounds. (Actually, according to the website on which I track such things, I dropped too much in one week, and now they want to me to eat more this week — as in… a lot more… “I can’t afford a whole cow!” more — it’s confusing.

I have regained control of my eating patterns by keep meticulous records.
I have regained control of my eating patterns by keeping meticulous records.

Habit the Second — Getting up an Hour Earlier

This one isn’t going as well. Yes, I’m getting up earlier, but I never have to use an alarm clock normally, and I for damn sure have to right now. Also, I’m dragging through large portions of the day, short on energy and long on nap-tropism.

I think part of the problem is that I haven’t set up any kind of reward for when I succeed at this each day (the other part of the problem is that I have no personal desire or investment in this – it’s wholly external) — so I need some help with that: what kind of reward should I be giving myself for getting up at the crack of dawn every day?

Suggestions need to be something concrete: that early in the morning I don’t think highly enough of my fellow humans for “a sense of moral superiority” to mean anything. Gimme some ideas in the comments.