Critical Mass

I’ve never been much good at short form fiction.  This is partly because I don’t come up with many ideas that fit into a short form, but that’s a symptom of a larger issue, I think.  The thing is, I just don’t get much of a buzz out of shorter stories.  Whatever it is that makes people get all giddy from short fiction is something I apparently lack.

Beyond it being a really good time, one of the things I love about running role playing games (you know, like Dungeons and Dragons and all that other nerdy tabletop stuff) is that it’s this great, abstracted storytelling style that works as a mirror to my more serious writing.  You don’t have to worry about language or grammar.  The subtleties of plot development are less important.  Nothing that happens is recorded verbatim, so minor missteps are easy to wash away or simply forget.  What you’re left with is the broad narrative structure, some character development and a lot of big emotions.  It’s a great way of learning about yourself as a storyteller.

I’m coming to the end of a major section of a campaign we’ve been running for a while, and over the past few weeks I’ve felt this really significant shift in it.  Things were kind of working, but I was struggling to build and sustain momentum.  It had been a long time since we’d played these characters and while nothing I was doing was wrong, it wasn’t taking on a life of its own.  Then, about four weeks ago, it went from feeling like pushing a boulder uphill to trying desperately to keep up with it as it barreled down the other side.

That feeling of frustration, of things technically, intellectually working without the spark of life is basically what I feel, in some form or another, when I do anything short form.  Things work, I like the ideas, and maybe I even really like the story.  But it never has its own momentum.  It’s always me turning the gears and stepping on the pedal.  In a shorter story, there’s never time for all that potential energy to turn suddenly kinetic.

What changed in my campaign? Nothing, exactly.  I just reached critical mass with everything we’d built to that point.  At some point in a long story, if you’re doing things right, you cross this threshold.  To that point, you’re running around, establishing the setting, introducing characters, building subplots and moving pieces into place.  It’s a lot of work, and even when things work, there’s still this sense of things moving only where they’re pushed.  Then you hit a point where everything is connected in just the right way, where any change in the web causes vibrations throughout the rest.  If something happens in this plot, the things it does to this character over here, on the other side of the map, forces them into action.  That cascades out to three other things, and before you know it the whole damn structure is shaking.

At that point, you’re not pushing things anymore.  They’re pushing you.  Whereas before you needed to get things carefully in place, orchestrating the whole situation, now all you need to do is pick up a rock and throw it.  You aim for the place where it’ll do the most damage, and then hold on tight.

If you’ve ever watched Babylon 5, you can see what I mean.  Up through the end of season 2 it’s good.  At times, it’s really good.  But somewhere in the middle of season 3, things go insane.  No one in the story can move without knocking ten other things over.  Every single story impacts on the rest. That’s what you get with a carefully planned, long form story.  You get to reach critical mass, and the whole way you tell the story changes.  You’re still writing the thing, but it starts feeling more like aiming a fire hose than pumping water out of a well.  It’s pretty incredible.

Do I need to roll a 20 sided die to realize that?  Nah, not really.  But seeing the whole campaign take on a fatalistic life of its own is a nice, clear distillation of where my interests and instincts lead me as a writer.  The rush I feel when all the guns are in place and I can start pulling triggers has a lot to do with why I feel so compelled to write.  It’s something I notice when I write, but separated from struggling over word choice it’s easier to see that, yeah, what I really want to work on is stuff where I have enough room to build a story that takes on a life of its own.

I didn’t go to college for anything writing related, but with all the drinking and swearing and unruly behavior that comes with gaming, it’s kind of the same thing

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3 Responses to Critical Mass

  1. Steven Till says:

    I used to love writing short fiction, but I’ve never felt I had enough time to develop the characters and plot. After my senior year creative writing class in college, I decided to take those short forms I had been working on and try writing a novel. I actually think writing a novel is easier because you’re not as limited; you have much more space to develop everything. A lot of my short stories end up sounding like smaller chunks of a larger work any way. I suppose I don’t write in the traditional short story form. My personal style is to create a scene that is usually open ended with the potential to become a longer narrative. The examples I have on my site are written this way.

  2. saalon says:

    That’s much the same way I feel. As bad as I am with stand alone short form works, I’ve always had a knack for episodic writing. I’m fine with the form, I just can’t conceptualize a story that fits entirely within it. In fact, in many ways, episodic or serial storytelling is my favorite kind. The alternation of different forms through the course of that kind of story is intoxicating to me as writer, and I’ve built some of my best work up as a series of shorter pieces.

    But a short story that stands on its own like the old, awesome masters like Bradbury could do? I just have never been able to think that way.

    It’s something I hope I can get through at some point. It’s a weakness I don’t really like.

  3. Steven Till says:

    Bradbury was good at it, for sure. Hemingway also wrote some good short fiction pieces.

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