A Novel Is Not a Video Game

A novel is not a video gameYoung writers; Tattoo this on the backs of your eyelids and look at it every night before you sleep:


Novels and video games are very different media, and they use very different techniques to create emotions in people. So if you use a plotline that works for a video game in your novel, no matter how exciting a video game it would make, you run the risk that it will leave readers flat.

The Problem With Video Game Structure

I have reviewed far too many books lately that start out like a normal novel, with empathetic characters and tense conflict and everything done exactly right. These are often novels of the “Young Person Discovers He’s An ET” sub-genre. Then we get into the crucial middle part of the story (you know, the part where it’s difficult to keep the reader’s interest?) and the whole thing completely flatlines. The main character reaches the Alice in Wonderland point, where he is whisked off to the new Fantasy or Science Fiction environment, and the novel breaks up into an episodic series of identically structured events (yes, just like the levels in a video game) with no sense of progress or increase in level of suspense. Creative as these wonderful worlds may be, they pall quickly.

Point-of-View Problems, As Usual

And it’s even worse when there are multiple POVs in the story. We have multiple characters running around in a maze going through multiple levels and scenes, and every time we switch to the next character we have to remember where he was in setting, emotional level and conflict the last time we saw him. And the worst offenders don’t even bother with that. They simply drop in on each character wherever he happens to be, with no regard for continuity.

Writing for Your Market

I know what you’re going to say. These people are writing for the YA market, and video games are what their readers are used to. Please refer to the beginning of this section. A NOVEL IS NOT A VIDEO GAME. Video games have all sorts of advantages (interactivity, physical challenge, visual effects) to keep the player occupied. A novel does not. When you are writing a book, all you have are those old tried-and-true techniques: empathy, rising action and suspense. If you don’t provide progress, your readers – whether they know why or not – will get bored about two-thirds of the way through and never finish the book. Remember, this is the generation with short attention spans as well.

And people get bored of video games, too, and put them down. Why? Because they’re not getting anywhere. It is the hope that they will develop the gaming skills to get somewhere that brings them back. If your novel has the same dulling effect on readers, there is no such motivation to pick it up again. Make sure your novel is going somewhere: physically, suspense-wise, and especially emotionally. It’s just good writing.

In fact, there is a trend that video games are soon going to become more like novels. Recently, I came across an article in The New Yorker in which Tom Bissell suggests that video games are improving the quality of their storylines, to the point where they will be better stories than the copycat novels I mention in this post. So we need to get cracking, folks. The competition is using our own tricks against us.

Writing for the Spinoffs Doesn’t Work

I know. You’re hoping your novel will get picked up as a video game. Well, you’re in a bit of a Catch-22 aren’t you? If it’s so boring as a novel that it doesn’t become popular, then it will never get noticed. If you’re writing a novel, forget the future prospects and write a good novel. The spinoffs will come later.

Effective Novel Structure

So, if you’re writing a novel, use the tools of the novelist:

  1. Make sure that your readers see your characters as real people that they care about.
  2. Make sure that the conflict develops constantly.
  3. Make sure that the suspense rises to a climax, then falls, then rises further in a series of ever-more-exciting crises.
  4. Remember that, no matter how much action there is, what people are really reading for is the emotional journey they and the main character take together.
  5. Make sure there is both inner and outer conflict.

There are all sorts of references available on this topic. Check out a few until you find one that suits you. The Elements of the Novel series appeals to me.

But even if you’re not the kind of person who follows rules like this, if you want to be a successful writer of novels, forget about how all those wonderful video games that you love are constructed, and remember that – all together, now –


Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

11 thoughts on “A Novel Is Not a Video Game”

  1. Excellent advice, Gordon. I think anyone who writes a novel for any reason other than to write a novel is misguided, and will most likely not be happy with the result. Good reminder.

    1. You mean people actually put themselves through all this, and don’t really want a novel at the end? What a strange thing to do! 🙂

    1. And neither are short stories, or poems, or newspapers for that matter. It’s not that we should put them in little boxes just for the sake of having boxes. It’s that humans have different emotional experiences with each one, and the creators of each need to sculpture their art to maximize the effect of that particular medium.
      Oh, yes, and since you mention it, songs too:-)

  2. lol – I believe you’re talking about the ‘grind’ in games, Gordon. 🙂 There is an element of carrot and stick involved when you have to grind in a video game, but there is none in a novel.

    That said, however, I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. How far must we go to appeal to such short attention spans?

    Modern novels are already a world away from the classics of the past, and although I’m not advocating a return to the style of Moby Dick, I do wonder whether we aren’t selling our readers short. In giving them what we thing they want, aren’t we in danger of dumbing down the novel to the point at which it becomes something else – like a comic, or a graphical novel?

    1. There’s always the question of whether we should be “teaching” our readers to be better readers. I put that fairly far down my list of priorities.
      It comes back to the old “write a great story and they will read it.” I have seen ten-year-olds who were poor readers ploughing through Harry Potter books 600 pages long.
      And some day when I’m really bored I’m going to finish Moby Dick.

  3. I never understood the appeal of video games. My mind doesn’t swing that low. Unfortunately, Gordon, the people who should read this sage piece of advice normally wouldn’t find themselves on this site. Then many wonder why the U.S. is lagging in reading and math skills. I’ve seen the future, and it looks like a mound of colorful corpses.

    1. We’re usually preaching to the choir on this site, but we do it anyway because it makes us feel good, especially when people comment and agree with us!
      I think the solution to the dumbing down of readers is to write good stories in fairly low vocab (which is not as easy as it sounds) and win them over to reading.

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