Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time Out: the Story Generator

While the Gentle Reader considers the mountain problem, I'll take a post to explain why truth is stranger than fiction.  In the process, I shall also explain why a sports event is vastly more popular than a theatre showing.

When creating a story, a writer will have some idea of the narrative's direction and sense.  However, the creation process itself is informative, and occurs over time ... and therefore, while pursuing the original idea, the writer will have moments of inspiration, will recognize problems in the narrative as conceived and will therefore cull and rewrite portions of the story into something else.  The final product is uncertain.

This uncertainty is an encouragement to the creators.  Artists will often speak of wanting to know how a project will come out, recognizing that they can't actually know.  In a sense, writing is like reading very, very slowly, and deeply, with the story taking much longer than a few sittings to resolve itself.

Once the story is presented to the audience, in whatever form, they, too, have no definite certainty of how the narrative will end.  They may guess, based on experience with reading and clues left by the creator, but there remains a pleasant uncertainty that compels the reader to complete the work.

Obviously, some readers won't finish.  The story does not appeal to them, or they are not sufficiently experienced to read the context of the work, so they quit and move onto another activity.  For the purpose of this post, acknowledging this, the fact of it is unnecessary to the point being made.

Once we have read a book, the uncertainty is much reduced.  Some books retain enough uncertainty, after they've been read, to encourage us to read them again, and thus learn things from the narrative that we had missed, or which are now informed by having read the whole story.  We do know, however, that the end result is a finite uncertainty.  No matter how much we might wish for it, further readings will never equal our first experience.

The strongest benefit of a written story is that it is a shared experience.  Not only with others who hear the story with us, but even with the dead, who described the story as they enjoyed it ... and with those yet unborn, who will one day learn of the story and become part of the club.  As I liked stories as a child, I shared them with my child, and will one day share them with my grandchildren ~ and they, in turn, may do the same.

But the story itself doesn't change.  It can't change.  It can be written into a new story, like a zombie version, or it can be added upon, but these are really just desperate attempts to revivify the original.  The original is what it is; it will never be different.  And because of that, at some point, it can no longer change what we are; it can't make us different.

Real life is nothing like a story, because no matter how many times we may view the experience, it is never the same.  We draw samenesses between events because we're human and we need to protect ourselves; if we break a bone that we broke once before, in the same way, we tell ourselves that it's the same; but it isn't.  The bone we've broken isn't fictional; no one wrote that experience; it just happened, in a completely uncertain way that is, the more we think about it, more and more frightening.  By pretending that the world is the same every day, we comfort our fear.

When we leave our house, we can never be certain we will return.  Today, we may not.  Or we may return changed forever, perhaps in ways that we would rather not consider.  Ever.  Today may be very, very, very different.  That is uncertainty.

This is the uncertainty the story-maker experiences when writing the story; through no fault of the writer, the story may change, because events around the writer changes the writer's perception.  Story-making is a game, not a narrative.  It is a game because it hasn't happened yet.  Because it is uncertain.

When we watch a sports event, there are many things about the event that will be similar ~ but no one, not the players, not the referees, not the audience, no one ~ knows what may happen.  Because this is real.  The experience is not limited to what happens on the field, or the scope of the stadium.  This may be the day the game ends with everyone dying in an earthquake.  We can't know.

We are more compelled by what we don't know than what we do.  Uncertainty, however frightening, makes the best experience.  A story may give this to us, to some degree, the first time; but it will never give it to us in the sense that real life can.

This is why a rule set, the kind that enables endless uncertainty, is better than a "story."  Because a rule set is a story generator.

Write a man a story and he will enjoy himself for a day.  Teach a man how to write stories and he will enjoy himself for a lifetime.


Samuel Kernan said...

Well said!

Samuel Kernan said...

I think this gets at why I find your approach to world-building so much more useful than the "draw a map and put your ideas on it" approach. When there are rules involved in how the world is built, I get surprised so much more often. It has been a lot of work to get some of your world-systems going, but I am starting to see results and it is so very exciting. And makes the game easier to run.

Alexis Smolensk said...

That is the key, Samuel. If you have solid answers made ready for you, you're less pressured to make up stuff in session ~ and that creative necessity is one of the most exhausting parts of DMing. If you're freed from having to be creative regarding the world's structure, it gives more energy to your inventiveness where it comes to actually running the adventure.