Young writers; Tattoo this on the backs of your eyelids and look at it every night before you sleep:
A NOVEL IS NOT A VIDEO GAME.
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:
- Make sure that your readers see your characters as real people that they care about.
- Make sure that the conflict develops constantly.
- Make sure that the suspense rises to a climax, then falls, then rises further in a series of ever-more-exciting crises.
- 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.
- 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 –
A NOVEL IS NOT A VIDEO GAME!