Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones, Final Fantasy VII, and Orpheus (White Wolf table top game) all exist in this post.
I was playing Saint’s Row the Third when this idea struck me. I’ve thought it before, but never with such clarity.
Novels should be a point in time of incredible change. It’s that chapter in your history text book instead of a mere two paragraphs. It’s the story grandpa tells you about his grandpa, which you in turn will tell your grand kids. We still hear stories about how my four or five times great grandpa served under General Meade in the Civil War. Something incredible happened, and life would never be the same. While these moments are improbable, most people don’t read for the mundane. They read for the (believably) extraordinary.
I played a table top game called Orpheus. Or more so I read it and prepared a story and my group said it sounds boring. Neither here nor there. Anyway, the game was broken up into six books which were to make a movie set up. The movie set up, though shorter, works fairly well for any form of storytelling. I’m really only hitting the first and second step in this post.
Start your story with a norm. It doesn’t have to be a happy norm. In Orpheus you worked for an organization that fought ghosts. You started off as a human, a human who could do astral projection (naturally or with a drug), or a ghost. In Final Fantasy VII you start out as a mercenary with work to do. In Game of Thrones we get to see the Stark family in their natural habitat, along with a bit of a look at the natural order of the kingdom. Look at one of your favorite books, TV shows, video games, or any other story and try to find out what the norm is. There are obviously degrees of normal, whether it’s for the character or an entire nation, but you can get a pretty good sense of what is setting up the story.
Now change the world. Don’t love tap it. Don’t nudge it. Make us think you will do that. Convince the reader there is a plan and that we will ride that roller coaster. Set up plan after plan on how things should go and make us believe it will remain on those tracks. Then quietly place us in a car and side swipe us with a truck. Make sure we can see the truck out of the corner of our eye the entire time. Force us to realize in that moment that every single hint was there for us, but we were looking forward with such intensity we refused to look at the semi barreling at us ever so obviously.
In Orpheus, the company was destroyed by hired hands and you’re wanted by the feds. Prepared for another chapter of how I worked for this ghost hunter company, my jaw dropped when I read about how it all suddenly and violently changed. The hints were there, I should have seen it coming, but I just assumed nothing would interfere with my beautiful little path. In Final Fantasy VII you fall in love and wish to rescue a poor girl wrapped up with the corrupt government, a government you once worked for. The Starks are separated early on and their luck is never good. You watch a family get temporarily pulled apart to watch an honorable family get cleaved in twain over and over again.
Notice the theme of each of these; some form of exile. The world will never be the same either over all or for the main characters. Some decision has happened which completely alters the plans so carefully laid out. The village they lived in was destroyed (Jade Empire), the beloved family is kidnapped and used as blackmail (Red Dead Redemption), Enkidu is brought to fight Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh), Lancelot sleeps with Guinevere (King Arthur), and the list goes on. In a romance, the story might start with a divorce, a break up, a need to leave home for vacation, or some other push out of the nest. An action flick usually starts with a warrior, modern or ancient, realizing something is a lie and having to right that wrong. Obviously by blowing up everything.
The most important part of these alterations is they should bring real change to the world, not just something superficial. Using Saint’s Row to come full circle, this is what struck me about their world. When you start, it’s fairly benign. Sure you were just punched in the face by a rival, but it was local and small. You do lose your home and need to start over, but that change was small compared to how the world advanced. As time goes a paramilitary organization comes in and suddenly the fire power of law enforcement is significantly better. The story continues and martial law is brought down on one of the numerous islands so whenever you’re there, you start at a low wanted level. The bridges are brought up so you need to jump them to go anywhere. What truly kicked me in the teeth, though, was a green smoke which came from a small factory island. The island was suddenly zombie infested. It would always be that way. Each stage had irrevocably altered the landscape. I get in some genres this won’t work as drastically, but aren’t most of us sci-fi and fantasy writers? If we can’t completely alter our world, then what genre can?
Here is my challenge for you! Create a norm. Make up a character and some small setting, and come up with what a normal day is. It should still have some tension, though really all normal parts of life have it. Give them goals and desires. Once you have these goals, start coming up with how your character goes about obtaining it. Get him closer and closer to that end game, even if he only takes one of twenty steps. Now figure out how to make those goals nearly meaningless. Smash the character with some force that makes his goals nearly meaningless, or at least secondary. Remember, the world stops for no one. Keep it moving. Keep it interesting.