A friend, who recently found out that I was getting into fantasy writing, approached me with some material he too had written and wanted some advice. As if I, as an unpublished author struggling with my own work, am someone to be giving advice, right? Anyway, after about one hundred pages it became clear to me what was keeping me from actually reading his story through to the end; it read like a RPG game not a novel.
I will use the example of Skyrim, since that is the game I am currently playing and it is a constructed like a fairly typical RPG video game. In games like Skyrim you have the overall story arc but it is constantly interrupted by a myriad of tedious, although often compelling, but also at times repetitive side arcs, tasks, and quests. You are trudging through the icy wilderness of Skyrim headed towards the next point of the major story arc when BLAM you stumble on some caves or ruins. Sure, you COULD just ignore them, but you also know how quickly you can gain some much needed levels by clearing out this little distraction, mining out all the corpses for every last bit of loot to sell in town, and then use the gold you get in return to hammer out hundreds upon hundreds of steel daggers which will increase your smithing skill (and hence further increasing your levels). So you ignore the main quest and spend the next hour killing frost spiders, draugrs, and what not. Then you spend the next hour after that crafting in town before heading back out and stumbling upon yet another distraction (ie. another dungeon location) where you wash, rinse and repeat. This is the way RPG games work. It is tried and true.
But it is not the way a novel should work. Your main character should not be stumbling along down endless side quests that constantly branch off into yet more objectives in order to come to the much anticipated ending of your story. That was the way my friend’s story read. His main character started off a lonely apothecary who was chosen to save the world (details unimportant to protect his intellectual property). But 100 pages into the novel his journey was a series of ten page excursions, none of which were ever resolved, but just kept leading into yet more side quests. Every time his character would talk to someone, who he was told to talk to by someone else, that person would insist that he needed to see yet another person, perhaps even taking a specific item to said person to show that the previous person had sent him. Sound familiar?
To me it sounded exactly like typical life in the very first MMORPG I ever played (Everquest). It was boring after 25 pages, but downright impossible to read after 100. The story was just not going anywhere even though there were another 200 pages in what I had been given to read. All that there was were characters strewn about who I as the reader was not even sure why they were in the story except to keep taunting the main character with not having the information he wanted.
It just seemed like with every page the main character was getting further and further away from what he wanted and for no good reason. All those characters he was talking to were never heard from again once he moved on and why they were cogs in this arduous wheel that was being turned was never explored. Instead their glaring randomness was apparent.
Look, a good novel does not have to be perfectly linear. There can be distractions that take the main characters off course. But those distractions have to have a purpose. It has to move the story forward towards resolution. You cannot have hundreds of loose ends, although you can have some, when the main story gets resolved.
But the last thing most readers are going to want is to read is a story about a main character who is essentially nothing but a glorified messenger boy, and who is just talking to assorted characters who have no depth (another problem my friend’s novel had). Every character his main character interacted with was wooden and had some variant on three basic dialogues. First, “I don’t have what you need, but I know who does,” but SURPRISE he or she really doesn’t. Second, “I have no idea what you are talking about …, ” then after some shallow dialogue says,” OH WAIT! Now I remember!” And finally, “I will tell you but first you have to take this to [insert character here].” By page 70 I was playing a game of guessing which one the next encounter of the main character would be. The only real “action” so to speak was in one chapter the main character actually had to pull out a knife and lightly threaten someone in an effort to get information about who to speak to next and to not get the information that he was supposed to get. Oooooo!
Let’s look at an example of how a story should work to stay on target. At the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean, Will Turner is a humble blacksmith who is toiling menially and never given the respect he deserves. He is then thrust into the main story when he chooses to rescue Elizabeth Swann from the pirates who kidnapped her, thinking she was the child of Bootstrap Bill Turner. At this point all the little side nonsense stops and the real story begins and there are no real deviations from it. Will doesn’t decide shortly after freeing Jack Sparrow to take a sail to England and have a spot of tea at some unimportant place with unimportant people. He doesn’t meet some guy there that tells him to go to France and talk to another man who might be able to help him find the pirates he is looking for. But if this movie were a role-playing game, that is what he might very well have had to do because the designers wanted to draw out the game a little. But it’s not though. It’s a movie.
No. He and Captain Jack set off right away to finding Captain Barbossa and the Black Pearl. Together Will and Jack have enough knowledge between the two of them (and with the help of a few side characters) to progress the story forward. The humdrum stuff has its place in World of Warcraft or Everquest. Sitting in a zone and camping a spot on the wall and picking off endless hordes of ever spawning mammoths or running from town to town delivering parcels and gathering often useless information for experience points and levels is fine for that sort of environment where a player sees the point of it by the movement of progress bars, etc. But not for a story meant to be read. People in general just do not want to read stories that mimic these sorts of games.
Thankfully when I told my friend these impressions of his work he agreed with everything I said, stating that he had felt the same thing all along but just wanted a second opinion. Well, that was a relief.