January 14, 2011

story development

It’s Friday! Yay for the weekend!

Looking forward to Sunday, when I get to do a bit of epic D&D time. I’ve been working on building a story for my first campaign, and it’s coming along splendidly.

It got me thinking of how different writers approach their work.

Usually, I’m a pantser. When I first start a story, I just sit down and write it. I work out the plot kinks after the first draft. When it comes to D&D however, I plot more. I have to. I need to have at least a rough idea of what the players are going to face, where they might go, and who they’ll meet. With D&D, it’s more about the world-building at first. When I started working on this campaign, I thought of the characters first, the ones that the players will meet. I thought of the locations and brainstormed who the big baddie might be. For some reason, it felt flat. I didn’t understand why, because that’s how I work on stories. I create the characters and then the locations. It wasn’t working for me this time.

Then, I sat down and started drawing a map – not even a map of the nation they’ll be campaigning in. I drew a map of a ruined castle. As I drew, I thought of what happened to this castle. Why is it ruined? Who defended the castle? What were the odds in the battle? Why did the enemy attack, and who were they? The questions kept coming and coming as I drew makeshift defenses and a broken drawbridge. And, surprisingly, I had an answer for every question. The world within my story evolved from drawing a picture. The world of Toringad was born.

This is the world my players will be spending the next thirty levels in. I’ll work to guide them on the right course, but I won’t force them to play out the AMAZING plot I thought of from drawing this map. The story is ultimately up to them; they decide what to do. I can hint at where I want them to go, narrow their options so that they are likely to follow the path I’ve chosen for them. But I won’t. I’ll think of other plot lines, other castles, other dungeons, other quests that they can pursue if they so choose. I feel like it is less organic to force players in a direction because it’s the only direction you’ve thought of.

This is where my pantsing comes in handy… if the players make a decision or take a path I hadn’t intended, I have the capacity to make it up on the spot. It isn’t nearly as in depth as what I molded beforehand, but it still provides a rich experience, one that the players feel that they can control. It’s frustrating when you play with a DM who forces you to take a certain path. You feel limited. I love it when players change the course of a story through their actions. It brings the challenge of storytelling to life for me, and sometimes, it enables me to create an ever better story than I had originally planned. The campaign becomes an organic experience, as if the world and the characters really do exist, and they have the capacity to shape one another.

I try to apply this to my writing. In my head, the world in my work in progress is real. The characters are real. I try to imagine that when I am writing, I’m merely recording what I see happen. When I go back with revisions on a second, third, or fourth draft, I take those experiences, tweak them, and mold them into something more coherent and consistent.

Ultimately, different methods work better for different stories. For my D&D campaign, it just so happened that a map spawned the story. For my work in progress, a character spawned the story. Next time you start a story, try a new method and see how it pans out. Instead of plotting and outlining, start with a character and just write what happens. If you usually just sit down with no effing clue where you want to start, draw up a map or a character sketch, brainstorm up a plot and a baddie. You might be surprised at the results.

What methods have you tried? What works best? 

 [Terms: D&D - Dungeons & Dragons; DM - Dungeon Master]


  1. I know absolutely nothing about D&D. I must say it sounds intriguing. Is your involvement with D&D closely related to your writing? It sounds like it...but I may be wrong

  2. Actually, it isn't. I know some people that take their D&D campaigns and transcribe them to novels, but I don't do that. I can learn writing techniques from D&D, and DMing techniques from writing, but I've never hit the same subject with them both. I have done world building that links between D&D and writing. It helps to see if the world really does come alive and how people interact with it.

  3. You know, I never actually played D&D, but my friend loves it. It always happened that I worked on the nights they would get together. It sounds like, again, something I would like, but now I live away from her. Go figure.

    I am definitely a panster kind of writer. Or, to be more precise, a mix of 70/30 panster/planner. It works for the most part, but I know that I need to bring that ratio down to a more manageable level in order for me to actually COMPLETE a story. Workin' on it.

    I also want to let you know that I gave you my first award over at my blog - a Stylish Blogger Award. Cheers!