Writer’s Corner: Starting a Novel

Hello and welcome to Writer’s Corner, a series where I try to figure out how to write a novel (hopefully a good one). This series will focus on the brainstorming and writing that goes into making a novel. This is me figuring things out as I go and writing it down, both for the sake of the you, dear reader, and myself. So without further ado, let’s dive into this!

The Idea

Starting a novel is a difficult process. Before you can get anything onto a page, you have to have an idea. This can be a snippet of dialogue, a setting, a character; anything will do. In my case, I have a love of Science Fiction, and one thing that always grabbed my attention was the idea of a Colony Ship. I think that Colony Ships are a very underutilized setting in Science Fiction, and have a lot of different story possibilities. There’s a bunch of different ideas regarding colony ships, from generational ships with entire generations living aboard the ship to sleeper ships with cryogenically frozen people flung into the future. Colony Ships also act as a kind of “ship in a bottle”: it’s very easy to justify the ship being cut off from the rest humanity, so there’s rich possibilities for all sorts of different cultures and people springing up aboard a ship traveling in the depths of space. So let’s have our story be set aboard a colony ship sent to a distant planet.

Now that the setting is chosen, what sort of story should I tell? Any number of different stories could be told, so it’s just a matter of choosing. Romance and Science Fiction are uncommonly paired up, but there’s a lot of possibilities. I’m a fan of romances, but I’ve never been a fan of the way a lot of stories do their romances. Mostly it boils down to the fact that a lot of romances are really bad at setting up obstacles for the romance that don’t involve the characters acting like idiots. There’s a tension in writing romance: a strong story needs conflict to drive it forward, but a sign of a good relationship is a lack of conflict.

So I want to write a romance (or love story, kissy novel, whatever you want to call it) but I want avoid the classic pitfalls of “someone acts like an idiot for no good reason” and “why aren’t these two people together already?” so I have a few things I need to do:

  1. Establish a conflict that doesn’t rely on characters acting like idiots
  2. Have a romance that flows naturally, but also has enough conflict to make it interesting (without breaking #1)
  3. Have most of it be grounded in reality: establish logical (if not rational) motivations and actions for each character while also giving them character growth and development.
  4. Have this all happen within the confines of a Colony Ship
  5. Have characters who have a logical reason for being on the colony ship in the first place AND who also have enough chemistry to make the romance believable.

It’s going to be tricky, but I think I can manage it. This might seem constraining, but part of the fun is figuring out ways of doing what you want within the limits set by yourself.

The Setting

At the end of this brainstorming session I have a story idea: a science fiction romance set aboard a colony ship traveling to a distant world. The logical next set would be to hammer out the major details of the setting, as that will drastically affect what my story is going to be like. Because colony ships are an established trope within Sci-Fi, let’s look at some of the common ways in which they are done, along with some possible ways we can do a romance in each:

  1. The Generation Ship: A ship designed to be lived in for multiple generations. Depending on how far into the journey it is, it could be filled with people traveling to a planet they will never reach, or a people who have never known anything other than the ship itself. Possible romantic conflicts are: social (society doesn’t approve of their romance. A unique society forms around the ship.) External (the ship is falling apart! People are tired of traveling! Aliens!) Or personal (how does daily life work on a spaceship and how does that affect life and love?)
  2. The Sleeper Ship: People in suspended animation (via cryogenic freezing, advanced technology, etc) travel to a distant planet. In addition to whatever romantic conlfict there is, a required inciting incident involves our protagonists waking up too early. Otherwise, what’s the point of being set on a sleeper ship in the first place? Romantic conflicts include loneliness, isolation, external conflicts (see #1), “trapped in a box with you” problems, possible insanity, and a myriad of social disorders that can happen when isolated for long periods. Desperation can also be a conflict, as well as questioning social rules. There’s a lot of flexibility in this one, and I like it a lot.
  3. The Cruise Liner: The colony ship is fast enough that it can reach it’s destination within a human lifetime. The inciting incident can involve external conflicts like a rebellion, arriving at the wrong planet (or no planet at all), or other unexpected happenings. The romantic conflict is wide open; a little too wide open for my tastes. There’s a lot of stories to be had with this kind of ship, but there’s something about it that makes me think it’s a little too “standard Sci-Fi.” There’s nothing that grabs me about this kind of ship because there’s nothing that I can use to really focus on the relationship.

In this case, I think I’m going with The Sleeper Ship. There’s a lot of possibilities with this one, and by it’s very nature it focuses on the “ship in a bottle” nature of a colony ship. Nothing says “I’m alone in the middle of space” like having almost nobody around. The intimate setting will allow for intimacy with the characters, and there’s rich opportunities for twists and turns that spring up logically from the setting itself. I’m going to use the standard “the protagonists wake up too early” inciting incident, but think of a few twists.

The Results

With all that being said, let’s take stock of what I’ve got so far. It’s a Science Fiction Romance set aboard a Sleeper Ship, where our protagonists wake up too early for some reason. They are light years from home, with seemingly no chance of going back to sleep. They are stuck there, alone, aboard a ghost ship. So now I’m left with a few questions:

  1. The characters. The most important part of a romance.
  2. How am I going to get them from being alone to being together? How the heck does one even write a romance to begin with?
  3. What’s the ship like? What is daily life like aboard a colony ship? What’s the important details?
  4. What’s the romantic conflict?

And how am I going to answer these questions? By looking at how other stories answered them, of course! Come back next time for my examination of how other stories used these same ideas, and what ideas I can steal from them.

Doom: an Ultraviolent Lighthearted Comedy

I’ve been playing a lot of Doom (2016), and something stuck out at me: it is a very lighthearted game. This might seem like a strange thing to say, considering it’s packed full of violence, gore, dismemberment, heavy metal, and oceans of blood. But Doom fits nicely into the ‘absurd ultraviolence’ niche that settings like Warhammer and Darksiders fall into. Stories that present such absurd violence in a matter-of-fact way that what would ordinarily be incredibly dark and serious becomes funny.

Blood and violence are so frequent and so over-the-top in Doom that it becomes a form of physical comedy. The Doomguy (yes, that’s his official name) doesn’t just kill a load of demons with a shotgun, he tears into them in a variety of absurd ways; from punch a demon in the face so hard it’s head explodes, to curbstomping a demon with it’s own severed leg. The sheer variety of ways in which such executions are performed, coupled with how brief they are, invoke Loony Toons-style physical comedy. This, coupled with how deserving the victims are (being literal demons from hell), creates a delightful atmosphere of absurd ultraviolence, where a demon getting blown into tiny chunks becomes a note in the symphony of violence as the Doomguy slaughters his way through the demonic hordes.

This lightheartedness also extends to the collectables found across Doom‘s levels. The most common are tiny bobbleheads that look like the Doomguy, who’s adorable tiny forms stand in sharp contrast to the drab environments. The Doomguy even has a special interaction with one in particular: he picks it up, carefully adjusts the hand, and then gives it a little fist bump. In addition to the bobbleheads, there are also tiny segments of the orginal Doom hidden on each level, complete with blocky, pixelated textures.

The sillyness doesn’t stop at the collectables or the animations. The environment and background details also provide a big source of comedy. The UAC Facility that the game takes place in would be a grim place, if it weren’t for the speaker system constantly providing details about the facility that are a mix between corporate hell hole and cult. Slogans like “The UAC: Weaponizing demons for a brighter tomorrow” and “Unlike everything else you do in life, your work here matters” play in the halls, while office documents recommend in cheery language not to anger any demons you might encounter so your body won’t be too mangled for study. The sheer absurdity of a corporation writing recommendations on what to do when facing a demon, along with the disregard for human life, create an absurdist black comedy where there’s no tears shed for the destroyed facility and the loss of life.

Doom is about as video-gamey as a video game can get, yet it manages to create an enjoyable lighthearted comedic atmosphere. It’s not a comedy game by any stretch, but it is consistently amusing in a way which helps make exploring it’s environments enjoyable and rewarding. Violence can be funny, and Doom knows it. Despite being filled to the brim with gore and violence, Doom never feels heavy or serious. So when the heavy metal guitars kick in and the demons of hell come charging in, what better way of dealing with that other than absurd ultraviolence?

Nier: Automata – Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Note: I will spoil the entirety of Nier: Automata in this post. You have been warned.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Nier: Automata. I think it’s safe to say that it’s rather popular, both among critics and players. It currently sits at an 8.8 on Metacritic for both users and critics. Many have praised it for its characterization, soundtrack, and unique approach to endings. A lot of people go so far as to claim it is a work of art; something that could only exist as a video game, and at least one of the greatest games of the year. Not a lot of video games get called that, so one would think that it at least is a solid story

And, honestly? All of this baffles me. Nier: Automata (hereafter referred to as Automata for the sake of my sanity) has all the appearances of an amazing story, but is severely lacking in the supporting details. Automata is a game which relies far too much on novelty and “twists” at the expense of its plot and characterization. It’s the video game equivalent of an M. Night Shyamalan movie; it’s so focused on trying to wow the player that it fails to do stuff like basic characterization. I’m going to go through the game piece by piece and examine the contrast between what Automata is trying to do, versus what it actually achieves.

The Plot

Automata follows the exploits of the stoic, but kindhearted combat android 2B and her assistant: the awkward and kinda angsty scout/intelligence agent, 9S. The two are a part of Android military group (YoRHa) that is currently fighting off an alien invasion that forced Humanity to hide on the moon. The aliens use robots as proxies in the invasion, so the protagonists are ordered to do what what they do best: lots and lots of robot stabbing.

But it quickly becomes apparent that the robots aren’t exactly malevolent: most don’t attack on sight and many can speak. and some have even formed societies of their own based off of what information they can find on humanity. There is even a village of pacifist machines who cooperate and even help the Androids. And even the hostile machines seem to have goals other than conquering Earth…

Sounds like a pretty solid plot, right? What I just described was the plot for Endings A and B. See, Automata claims to have 5 endings. A follows the plot summary I just wrote from the perspective of 2B, while B is the exact same story from 9S’s perspective, and each will take about 12 hours of game time, give or take a few hours depending on how many side quest you do. Both are structured like actual video game endings: They have a final boss, credits, and kick you back to the title screen afterwards.

The problem is that none of what I just summarized said matters for the plot as a whole. If we look at the game as a whole, endings A and B aren’t really endings at all, but just the build up to the actual plot, which happens directly after the end of ending B. And while A and B might technically be complete stories, they leave a bunch of things unanswered, so they are unsatisfying endings. So, in reality, Automata doesn’t have 5 distinct endings, it really only as 2. The fifth one, Ending E, is… special. I’ll get to that later. There’s also a bunch of joke “endings” that happen if you perform specific, often suicidal actions, like eating a fish which will kill any Android that eats it, or self-destructing while on YoRHa’s satellite base. These are more rewards for doing unusual actions, rather than actual endings, so I’ll ignore these.

So we have two endings that aren’t really endings to the plot. They don’t do anything special, aside from making unaware players think that the game was over quickly. Indeed, the entirety of ending B (both the ending itself and everything leading up to it) is a direct copy of ending A. Aside from a radically different play style and different perspective on events (due to 9S’s habit of getting blown up, lost, and/or captured), the plot is exactly the same. We don’t get to learn much more about 9S, except from the fact that he has a crush on 2B. This might seem important (and it is… kinda, I’ll get to that soon), but given that the game forces the player to play through the exact same combat encounters and the exact same plot beats, you would think there would be more to it to justify such an extreme case of repetition.  What’s worse is that nearly everything that happens in endings A and B doesn’t matter. The events seem important, but have no bearing on the events that unfold afterward. Even 2B, the supposed protagonist, doesn’t do anything to affect the plot. This leads me to another point:

The Characters

One thing that constantly nagged at me while I was playing Automata was a single thought: “these characters don’t do anything.” And after 40 hours of plot, side quests, lots of melodrama, and five endings… they still didn’t do anything. Sure, they do stuff that seems important, but when looking at the plot as a whole I was struck by how little the characters actually matter to the story itself. For as character-focused as Automata is, and given how much time the game wants us to care about these characters (to the point where Ending E asks the player directly if they want to save 2B and 9S), these characters don’t do anything to affect the plot. None of their actions affects the plot in any way, which is really weird because the dialogue keeps acting as if the plot is being driven by the characters when it isn’t.

The characters spend the entire game unknowingly at the mercy of the Terminals, the leaders of the alien robots, who go out of their way to torment the main characters for no reason. In fact, the only plot important character are the Terminals. They infect YoRHa with the virus, causing 2B to die. They torment 9S into insanity by forcing him to fight copies of 2B and other people he cares about, and try to hack his mind. They cause the plot of the game (what with being the primary antagonists and all), and the resolution of the plot involves them either presumably dying after the collapse of the Tower in ending C, or leaving Earth on an Ark in ending D. And even though those endings are dependent on which character the player chooses for the last fight, the main characters STILL don’t directly cause it. If A2 is chosen, she just blows up the Tower because she thinks it will stop the robots, but she doesn’t know for certain. If 9S is chosen, he just kills A2 and lets the Tower do its thing, which happens to solve the plot.

What’s more, I struggle to say much about the characters in Automata because they are severely lacking in anything resembling characterization. There are hints of personality, to be sure 9S is kinda sulky and tries to reach out to the two characters he talks to and might have a thing for 2B. 2B is icy and professional, but also seemingly emotional on the inside. A2 is angry and likes to stab robots (she’s really more of a replacement 2B once 2B dies; she even looks like 2B.) The thing is, all of this is established within the tutorial mission, and then the game does nothing to characterize them any further. We don’t learn their motivations or their personalities. What I just described is the extent of their character. Which wouldn’t be a problem, video games have many bare-bones characters, except that the story of Automata acts as though these are fleshed out characters. There are moments which are obviously meant to inspire emotion and drama that just fall flat because the game has done nothing to flesh these characters out. And because they don’t do anything to affect the plot, the vast majority of Automata’s big moments just doesn’t make sense.

For example, the story acts as though 9S is completely in love with 2B, and that 2B has feelings for him as well, but that is never shown. The closes thing to feelings being shown is 9S insisting that 2B call him “Nines,” which is something his friends call him. 2B refuses. 9S also attempts to make awkward conversation with 2B, but 2B’s general iciness tends to put a damper on his attempts at socializing. He never expresses anything more than an awkward sort of affection, yet the game acts as though he’s in love with her. All of the big scenes (the “You want to **** 2B, right?” line, the scene of him fighting for his memories of her, him being forced to fight the copies of 2B, etc) rely on the knowledge that 9S is in love with 2B, but the dialogue itself doesn’t support it. The two probably consider each other friends, but it’s a big leap to go from “call me a nickname because all my friends call me that” to “I’m in love with you and will go crazy without you.” It’s almost as if the game just assumes that any friendly interaction between opposite sexes (even among Androids who presumably don’t have the requisite equipment) is inherently romantic. There just simply isn’t enough dialogue between them to support such a viewpoint.

This telling, rather than showing, is the entirety of Automata’s story. The player is told that 9S loves 2B, that the Androids are actually based off of the robots, that YoRHa was created to cover up the fact that humanity is actually dead and gone; but none of these are supported by dialogue and worldbuilding. In fact, some of these are directly contradicted by details within the world. It’s as if the writers behind Automata were so worried about people guessing the twists that they forgot to include details to support the twists in the first place. There isn’t even enough detail for there to be subtext. Subtext would require actual text to analyze, but there just isn’t enough text to begin with.

Now, all of this could be intentional; I’m not denying the possibility. But this is where Ending E comes in. Ending E makes it clear that the game is all about its characters and its message. It asks the player directly if they care about 9S, 2B, and A2. It asks if the player thinks that video games are a meaningless pass time. It asks if the whole game was pointless. And then, after all those questions, it just gives its characters a happy ending. It brings all of them back to life, acting as if the plot was caused by them in the first place.

Automata is a game that wants to be about something. It wants to say things that matter, it wants to make you care, it wants to have moments which stick with the player. But in its attempts to create that meaning, it fails at support those ideas. It fails to create characters that have more than a hint of personality. For a game that’s supposed to be about the human condition, it doesn’t seem to understand people. It tries to create a meaningful message, but fails because a message must be told throughout the story, rather than being told at the end.

I know a lot of people like it’s story. They love its characters and its message. But it’s not a good story. It’s a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Modern Mythology: Dark Souls and Mythological Storytelling

The Dark Souls series is mostly known for two things: it’s extreme difficulty, to the point where dying is a core mechanic of the game, and a confusing story that doesn’t bother explaining itself. Dark Souls is notoriously laconic, with most characters only getting a few paragraphs of dialogue throughout the entire game. But it’s that laconic dialogue and vague storytelling that makes the story of Dark Souls so interesting, because it draws on a very old form of storytelling: the Classical Myth.

Dark Souls doesn’t have a confusing story. In fact, its story is very simple and direct. Its about the player fighting a bunch of monsters and people using weapons, armor, and trinkets steeped in history. This is both it’s story and its gameplay. It’s Heracles, Theseus and the Minotaur, or Beowulf played out in video game form. The story of Dark Souls is much like a Greek Myth or Epic, focusing on epic deeds, items of power, and larger-than-life characters, rather than having any sort of overarching plot.

Dark Souls can be confusing because it drops all pretense of having an overarching plot, instead focusing on the places, people, and items that these people use. To put it another way, it’s about killing powerful monsters, getting cool stuff, and killing even more powerful monsters with cool stuff, and the story is based around telling the player how powerful a monster is or the history of a particular ring or sword. It’s a story about deeds, rather than plot. Classical Mythology from around the world have a similar focus: Susano from Shinto myth kills the Yamata no Orochi with his ten-span sword and gets the Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (a bigger and more powerful sword) for killing the beast. I think it’s no coincidence that this story sounds very similar to the way a boss fight in Dark Souls plays out.

The similarities to Classical Mythologies also extends to the way Dark Souls handles characterization and perspective. Myths are almost always told from a 3rd Person limited perspective, meaning that they follow one character and only include details which the character experiences firsthand. Events that happened in the past are almost always told to main character in order to set the scene. This is just like how Dark Souls never switches to a perspective other than the player character.

Characterization in Myths is often done indirectly. Because of the focus on fighting and epic deeds, there is little character interaction. Instead, places associated with monsters serve to characterize them. The Minotaur’s labyrinth characterizes the creature as an intelligent and clever foe, similar to how the grim and gruesome Cathedral of the Deep serves to characterize Aldrich as an evil cannibal propped up by religion in Dark Souls 3. Both are examples of environmental storytelling, where the places themselves indirectly tell the story of the people or monsters who live in that place.

Dark Souls is a throw back to a very old kind of storytelling, which is why it’s story can seem confusing to people. It creates it’s own sort of Mythology, with larger-than-life characters, monsters, and demons to inhabit it. All of them are there to be to slain, of course, for the story of Dark Souls is about overthrowing those old heroes and villains. For the story is not about those myths and legends, it’s about overthrowing them and making a new myth, one created by the player.

The Turtle Moves!

Hello everyone, and welcome to The Turtle Moves! A blog about storytelling in video games and other media. If you’re curious about the kinds of stories games tell, or want a deeper analysis of storytelling, hopefully this blog will scratch that itch.

My plan is to have at least two blog posts per week, hopefully more as I get used to this whole “blog” thing. Any comments and critiques are welcome, feel free to post anything you want to say.