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This week: Escalate Like GamersEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about how to escalate the tension in your story.
“Good books don't give up all their secrets at once.”
~ Stephen King
"Usually, when people get to the end of a chapter, they close the book and go to sleep. I deliberately write a book so when the reader gets to the end of the chapter, he or she must turn one more page. When people tell me I've kept them up all night, I feel like I've succeeded."
~ Sidney Sheldon
"A writer's job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as memories."
~ John Irving
Escalate Like Gamers
Game designers understand how to hook players and keep them enthused. They find an interesting premise and an easy to understand goal. Then they increase the difficulty the player/character faces with each level, and as complications pile up, the temptation to keep playing—to see your player over the next hurdle—becomes hard to resist.
An important technique for keeping readers engaged in your story is to keep increasing the tension. As things become more dangerous and complicated, and it looks like there’s no solution for the characters, the reader will stay glued to the pages.
Let’s Play Escalation!
Here are examples of ways to escalate the story.
(I’m not a very experienced gamer, but I’m inventing fictional games to illustrate my points. )
Force the hero out of his comfort zone as the story progresses. For instance, maybe he has a phobia or flaw that becomes harder to deal with as time goes on.
Arachnophobia – The player/character hates spiders. Hates ‘em! He loses points every time a spider touches him. But with each level toward catching the villain, there are more arachnids to deal with and … are they getting bigger?
Private Eye – The player/character is the original tough guy who works alone and likes it that way. But in every successive level, he finds he needs the services of a safe-cracker, or a guide, or a pick-axe wielder. Not only does he have to spend gold to hire them, but they hang around, slowing his movement, and he has to protect them as well as himself. He doesn’t like them, but if one gets killed, he drops a level and has to start over. Argh! He better get over his standoffish character flaw and keep his group alive if he wants to win!
Make the setting progressively more dangerous.
Louisiana Bayou – First level: annoying insects and dangerous quicksand. Second level: snakes and smothering moss. Third level: Is that a crocodile? No! It’s an army of crocodiles!
The Blizzard – The player/character must catch a villain hiding somewhere in an old mansion. When a blizzard hits, the heating goes out. Next, ice knocks down the electric lines—no lights! Snow has now blocked all the exits, making escape impossible, and the wind is ripping off the roof! Minus ten points every time the character gets hit with a falling beam. And for the final level, there’s now a countdown clock because the character will freeze to death in fifteen minutes! Quick, find the villain or you lose!
Start with a subplot that leads to a more serious plot.
Puzzles of Death – At the beginning, the player/character solves puzzles to find a runaway teen. The next level starts with a note from a kidnapper: “Solve each puzzle in the time limit or the teen dies!” When the puzzles are solved, the kid is released. BUT he’s been infected with a deadly virus—and now so are you! Next level “Solve bigger puzzles in a time limit to find the antidote.” When the player locates the antidote , its side effect makes his skin sprout mushrooms that kill anyone within twenty feet. Now half the town is dying and the rest are trying to kill him! Every time the player wins a level, he finds a problem that’s worse than before.
Increase the number of villains, or the power of the villain, or change their identity.
Zombie Shoot – A shoot ‘em up where the player encounters more zombies on every level. (Yes, I played The House of the Dead a looong time ago and loved it! )
Monster Mayhem – Every time you level up, you get experience points, but the monster gets new and deadlier abilities that make it harder to defeat. Heh-heh-heh.
Trail of Blood – A serial killer is leaving a trail of dead bodies around the town. Every corpse comes with clues pointing the way to the killer. When the player solves the riddles and finds the villain at the end of the level, he discovers the person’s dead—murdered by the real killer. More difficult clues lead the player on a different trail, but at the end of that level, only the killer’s clothes, latex mask, and sunglasses are found , meaning it was only a disguise—the real killer could be anyone. Next level, the clues lead to a hired hitman. Hired by who? A gang boss … who turns out to be working for a powerful corrupt politician ... Every time the mystery is "solved," a twist sends the player on a path toward a deadlier villain.
So if you’re stuck for ways to escalate the problems for your characters, imagine you’re a game designer and create each new level to be harder than the last.
Do you have a favorite computer game?
What difficulties make it harder for the player as you go along?
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some spooky stories for your reading pleasure!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "The Rule of Three" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Ink is Baaaaack! (Sort of) writes:
Great newsletter -- particularly the info on the "Rule of Three." My wife has a somewhat similar rule. Fortunately, I've always been able to stop at "two" or I never would have survived to be able to write this.
You crack me up, Jeff!
Taniuska writes: Great post... I love using the rule of three... Always works
Isn’t it funny that “three” is so attractive to people? Yes, it always works.
9 years whew! writes: WOW WOW WOW! While I know this rule to be true, I still don't know why. Why three, not two or four? When designing a floower arrangement one needs to use ODD numbers. Do we have something against even? Yet when we line things up there must be equal parts on each side. A room must be symmetrical. Even How odd is that? While we accept the rule of 3 there are times when odd is odd and even is good. We are such a strange species. What is there someone who was exact opposite of what we are comfortable with?
Some things do seem counter-intuitive – even though they work. Thanks for replying to the newsletter!
Osirantinous writes: Thanks again for mentioning one of my stories! I'd never really heard of the Rule of Three, though I realise I have used it! Especially if I'm doing a list: "item, item, and item" is almost always my format. I like repeating certain phrases too but I've also had reviewers say 'don't repeat' so sometimes one's writing endeavours don't always appeal.
Repeats are a slippery slope. You have to have a powerful idea in mind to make them work. You’re welcome for the shout-out. You’re an excellent writer!
Arakun the twisted raccoon writes: Thank you for featuring my little story in your newsletter. I also love the number three, although I don't know why. Anything with three parts just seems complete!
It is weird how three parts work so well and make people feel “closure.” Thanks so much for replying to the newsletter!
billwilcox writes: You so smart! I've been using this rule of three stuff for...dare I say it...EVER, and never knew it was an actual rule.
I don't like rules, rules are restrictive, repelling, and ripe to be broken.
You’re right, rules are meant to be broken—unless they’re the magical Rule of Three!
Joto-Kai writes: Love your rule-of-three examples, great technique! I'd heard it in plotting a story: three attempts, with the last one being somehow final.
I’m not sure the rule applies to plotting. I’ve been known to change plot lines a LOT. Thanks for writing to the newsletter!
BIG BAD WOLF submits "Vampires and Werewolves" and writes: Life can be crazy.
And sometimes, crazy works!
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