I’m a planner. Ever since I wrote my first novel in 2010, I’ve usually had many different story ideas tucked away in their own Word documents. Each time a new idea comes to me that would apply to one of these stories, I open up the document and jot it down so I won’t forget about it. Even though I plan my writing projects out years in advance, there are usually plenty of ideas I never use in the finished manuscript. Either the flow of the story prevents their use, or I find they aren’t as strong as I initially thought they were. While I’m not nearly as fastidious about collecting ideas together before starting a project as I used to be (First Name Basis had 35 pages of notes), I do continue to plan and research well ahead of when I finally sit down and write the first draft.
There are plenty of ideas I never use.
Recently, I’ve re-discovered a free computer game that I used to play years ago. This game is Not Tetris. Strangely addicting in its simplicity, Not Tetris takes the well-known construct of the classic puzzle game, Tetris, and adds realistic physics. No longer can you merely press a button and have the piece under your control rotate a stiff 90° to its new position. No longer do pieces simply stay where you put them when you add a new piece. No longer is Tetris a simple puzzle game. But, then again, this is Not Tetris.
Part of what makes this game so addicting is both the amount of and lack of control the player now has over the outcome of a round. A carefully placed piece may be off by a few pixels and doesn’t fall in the place the player intended. A loose piece that might prevent further clearing of lines may be smacked back into place via the momentum of a falling piece. A small mistake may completely ruin minutes-worth of hard work, or it may lead to a series of cascading line clears later in the game. When it comes right down to it, the amount of skill needed to play this game adds to its intensity. If you require an example of how mind-bogglingly challenging this game can be, check out this record-setting video below:
So, with this game in mind, why do I say that it’s similar to my planning process for a writing project? For the sake of metaphor, let’s say each piece in Not Tetris is a piece of information. If the pieces fit together, they create a cohesive element of the story (i.e. character, setting, plot, etc.) and the whole set of information allows the story to flow smoothly. If the pieces fill up the game space (or “story” in this metaphor), then the game ends because there are too many disjointed ideas to make a coherent story.
To prepare for a story, I gather my pieces of information and start the game of piecing them together. Early on in the process, the pieces will fit comfortably together because they’re the main ideas of the story. Sometimes I need to nudge certain details about a character or setting so that they can fit together with another aspect of the story. One of the most exhilarating moments of writing a story comes when you have a cluster of pieces that don’t fit that well together, but then the addition of one piece of information suddenly ties them all together and creates a cascading effect that can make a mediocre story great. Often, these moments come when I’m writing, and I realize I could add in a piece of information I referenced early in the story to connect everything together. It’s these moments that encourage me to keep writing.
Connecting everything together makes writing rewarding.
In a sense, Not Tetris also applies to a good plot as well. When the plot begins, the main character usually has their life together. As things start to go awry, mistakes and conflicts begin to materialize almost out of nowhere. And yet, the character persists, and eventually can “defeat” their problems with a well-placed item, skill, talent, or piece of information, thus showing their growth as a character and overcoming their situation in the process. Sometimes the “game” doesn’t end there, and you end up with a trilogy or series that follows the same ebb and flow of disappearing lines, each book representing the character’s growth and conflicts.
Of course, I’m merely writing about Not Tetris so I have an excuse to play it and procrastinate. I should get back to editing those novel manuscripts . . . but one more round won’t hurt.