Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Randomness

Status Update: almost done with the current bag of beans, about ready to pop open the next. Signs you're probably getting old: you're looking forward to the next bag of coffee more than, say, a six-pack of beer or even the weekend. Signs you're not getting old: you recognize that coffee is way better than beer or whatever lame things the weekend's going to beat you with. The story, while not precisely in a state which one would call "written" or even "outlined" or even "looked at", is still in the gestation phase. When writing happens, it will happen quickly, because I have a promising direction and an odd idea for a protagonist. Will have it posted tomorrow morning, because that's when the Wendig challenge pops.

Wendig's challenges are odd little things. I'm a big fan of randomness, something which goes back to my not-so-hidden life as a gamer. Randomness is my secret weapon to break out of ruts, reconfigure my imagination in new and strange ways. And nothing's more random than grabbing a fistful of platonic ideals and tossing them on a nearby convenient horizontal surface.*

* Unless you ask a mathematician but WHY IN THE WORLD WOULD YOU DO THAT? If one's nearby, back away slowly, avoiding eye contact. They are tricksy creatures.

Anyhow, everyone has touchstones, mental templates, other things they re-use when they reach into the well for ideas. Stephen King, for example, has any number of familiar tropes he pulls on when he creates a story. For example, having a dog die early on to make an emotional connection in his story, or the various parts of small-town life. There's nothing wrong with that at all. As you write, you build up an arsenal of these things and having a variety of good ones at hand is like a carpenter with a set of well-worn tools at their disposal.

The problem is that it all becomes familiar and there are points where you get so close to the creative process you miss the proverbial forest for the proverbial trees. You sit down to come up with an idea and your subconscious goes through its own sorting process, hems and haws for a bit and then spits something out. If you're not familiar with the pattern of your ruts, it's easy to just run with it and then later on you realize you've written twelve stories about magical pony firefighters. What? I'm not the only one here. Come on.

And why? Because your subconscious SUCKS at coming up with new things, that's why. Creation is a matter of habit, just like everything else you do. If you drive to the store the same damn way every afternoon, then why on earth is your brainstorming any different? It might superficially be the same, but if you pull things apart and look at them more closely, you're going to find patterns.

And that's what I like about random tables. A good one is just random enough to pull you out of your own brain, but directed enough to keep you in the right ballpark. For example, a few years back, I wrote a role-playing game based on the original Star Trek series. It's right here, as a matter of fact, assuming my other, flakier website is up (it usually is).

One of my favorite parts about writing it was the appendix, where I came up with a random plot generator. Now, the whole point of it was NOT to create a series of tables and charts which would spit out an entire Star Trek script. In fact, at the end of the process, you might wind up with a jumble of random crap which doesn't make any sense and doesn't even read coherently.

Instead, what I set out to do was to give you a story seed which was sufficiently Trek-like to get you on the right path and then give you a pile of details to support that seed, which you could draw on as you liked as you set up the week's game.

It's random, yes, but I stacked the deck to keep things in genre. When I wrote the main plot seeds, I tried to be fairly specific, not only drawing from actual episodes, but also coming up with more in the same vein and on the right level of gonzo.

I also gave it the capability to drill down a bit. If it wasn't entirely obvious, for example, why someone was involved with the adventure, you could roll for motivations. Some of the entries had their own tables in other parts of the book, as with the cloud monster.

It was fun to write. It's also one of the parts of the game I consistently get positive feedback about.

Anyway. Sometimes you need a nudge to get out of your own skull, try new things. There are worse ways to do it than the equivalent of flipping a coin. One of the things I love about these random story seeds is how you initially get that feeling of WTH, what am I supposed to do with that? And then you wake up a bit and you realize you're going to have to think sideways. That collision between what the dice tell you and the momentum of your subconscious is when magic happens. Will the result be good? Who knows, probably not, but you'll have learned something and tried something new.

Well, off to write my story about the adventures of my magical pony firefighters...

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