Stacking Stories To The Stars

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Lately, I’ve been playing Wildermyth, an RPG game about emergent storytelling. Playing a set of characters (and maybe guest stars) one adventures around, while choices, semi-random events, and so on come together. Characters become unique, complex individuals, small moments building to broad strokes – and may even become a “guest star” in later games.

I will probably write more on the game later, but I want to focus on how this game reflects good writing.

In Wildermyth, characters have a set of personality traits and abilities. As you play, these traits and other opportunities come together to give you narrative choices. These tiny moments create a grand epic – though there are “campaigns with plots,” you can also just play randomized games and let your own story emerge.

As I played the game, I realized this reminded me of good writing. Writing is about stacking stories atop stories to make a bigger story:

  • A book is a story.
  • The chapters of a book can (and should be) their own tiny tales.
  • A good scene is also a story, albeit one in context.
  • A single paragraph, done right, is a small story, leading from point A to point B.
  • I could even argue, in the right mood, a sentence is its own story. But I might not be sober.

It’s stories all the way down – and all the way up. I would say good authors realize most of this, and excellent authors understand this completely.

Think of how a truly delicious tale feels. Every part of it makes sense and is engaging, from a bit of backstory to a “just like them” piece of character quippery. Epic motions of the world make as much sense as the tiny pebble-starts-the-avalanche moments.

Less satisfying works lack this element, among others. Scenes exist without reason (and, “hey, cool backstory is a reason.”). Cause and effect have given up on a committed relationship. It’s a Frankenstory, without the spark of life.

The lesson I take from this is to remember the stack of stories that make up any one tale. Pay attention to the parts and the whole because you can’t separate them.

If you want a good example, well, I have a game to recommend . . .

Steven Savage