As an academic assignment, writing is very much a railroaded process. Younger students are taught techniques like the “story mountain”; older ones are taught more complex strategies such as “show-not-tell”, but content-wise little will change. Most students – and I emphasise “most” because some are truly skilled enough to incorporate multiple plot devices – are wont to devise a rough outline of the plot from the get-go, then spend the remaining time developing expressions and vocabulary to produce an essay in whole.
There’s nothing wrong with this approach if one’s objective is to simply do well academically. This does, however, stymie lateral thinking. Consider an essay with the following topic:
I Saved The Day
It’s simple enough. You’ve a wealth of ideas derived from “saving the day”. It can be about a fire or a bank robbery. An adventurous student may even opt to write about innocent civilians being caught in the middle between two warring groups. It doesn’t matter. The structure of the story typically goes like this:
a) What John the protagonist was doing before breakfast
b) What John did after breakfast
c) A situation broke out
d) Describe stuff happening around John
e) John rushes in like a boss and saves the day
f) Saves the day some more
g) Day is completely saved by John. Everyone’s happy
An eloquent writer could totally kill it by nailing the mood with powerful metaphors, by driving home the various details that could happen in the midst of chaos.
So what’s the problem?
It’s railroaded. There’s little thinking out of the box. The writing could be fulfilling the marking criteria, scoring based on the eloquence behind those words. For all that, however, it’s still a story put through a funnel that’s being used by every other student.
Thinking of less-than-optimal outcomes (failure states)
One reason why writers get stuck in this circuit is due to their reluctance to accept the trappings and failures of their protagonists. John may be just a regular guy, but if his destiny is to save the day, then by golly we can’t even let him trip for once… right?
One thing I tell my students is that it’s okay to let their characters fail (or, if the story is about failure, then to let their characters succeed before pulling the rug out from under them again). It sets the writer up for further opportunities to flesh out the scene; there becomes a larger baseline for developing overall content. This by extension leads to a greater word count and a more intriguing plot.
Fail states aren’t always bad if sufficient slack is given to the characters. Many tabletop RPGs have contingencies to prevent complete fail states (and TPKs, aka Total Party Kills, aka “Ooh there’s a button here that says ‘WARNING: WYVERN-RELEASE MECHANISM’ which my GM had warned me against pressing I wonder what pressing it does OH SHHHHH–!!!”). In Fantasy Craft, for example, players who keep finding themselves in unfortunate situations can Cheat Death if they can explain away how their characters will survive a situation of impending doom.
Likewise, in writing, it’s possible to bring a character back from a fail state. Oops, it looks like that heavy pillar’s going to fall on John. Luckily, with the reflexes of a desperate wolf, John narrowly manages to avoid the full brunt of the pillar’s weight, suffering only a badly bruised arm that was momentarily caught by the edge of the toppling structure.
X-COM Operatives Killed: 3 (of 5)
One shining example of a game that demonstrates fail states complementing a successful outcome is X-COM: UFO Defense. It’s an amazing tactical game in which players control a small squad of troopers (called X-COM operatives) to fight aliens. Since the operatives can be outnumbered and outgunned by the aliens, one has to play very cautiously. Released in 1994, it models via an abstract system called Time Units. It also has subsystems that model after troops’ energy levels, morale levels, damage, environmental destruction, bullet trajectories, etc. It was indeed way ahead of its time.
Screenshot of OpenXcom
In one of my classes conducted, we played X-COM: UFO Defense (or rather, a fan-modified version called OpenXcom). The operatives took the names of myself and my students. The idea was to illustrate unexpected plot twists that could arise from wild scenarios.
The difficulty was set at Genius (the 2nd toughest). It is not uncommon for newcomers to the game to have a squad wiped out by the 5th turn on this difficulty.
Of course, X-COM being X-COM, it wasn’t going to go according to plan even when I expected to fail outright.
Before the battle began, we outfitted ourselves. Most went with rifles, but a few of us had decided that a couple would need heavy weapons for destroying sniper nests.
Outfitting done, the battle began. The front-most operatives emerged from the Skyranger (the dropship) and cleared out a few distant aliens who, very much fortunately, were not looking in our direction. Several shots were fired and about three aliens had died within 3 rounds. The soldiers were proud of themselves, especially those who had landed most of the killing shots.
We then began the hunt for the crash-landed UFO. Wary of sniper nests, we moved slowly at first, then dropped our guard and started using up all our Time Units to walk longer distances. It did seem pretty peaceful with no patrolling aliens.
Finally the UFO came into sight. We stacked up at the doorway to catch our breaths. A breaching plan was formulated. One of us would open the door; the others would rush in head-on. We were gonna clear the UFO and save the day, baby!
Actually I knew that wasn’t going to happen, but I couldn’t tell the students that. I wanted them to see what could happen to a plan that’s too optimal.
We rushed in, ignoring blind spots. The aliens, hiding in a corner, ambushed us. One man went down instantly. We returned fire, but for some reason we were missing most shots. One of the men dashed into a room to take cover, but hadn’t known that there was an alien hiding inside. It dashed out, trying to catch us unawares, but we shot it at first sight.
To our advantage, three aliens had been subdued in the chaos, leaving just one more against three X-COM operatives. This one was barely 3 metres away from us. Here’s how things went down:
- We fired and missed every shot. One of the soldiers hid behind his team mate, using him as a meat shield.
- The alien fired, killing the meat shield.
- One of us tried to circle around the alien. Both X-COM operatives fired. 8 out of 9 shots missed. The shot that did hit only wounded the alien.
- Alien fired at the X-COM operative facing him. The operative died instantly.
- The alien finally went down after the operative behind him fired six shots.
Summary: killed 6 aliens, lost 3 good men
Fail states can be fun
Again, the alien was no more than 3m away from us, and we were experiencing one fail state after another. Shots that should have hit, missed. Yet, for all the swingy shots and character deaths, we were enjoying ourselves; there was much laughter to be had.
X-COM is a classic because it tells many good, even unique, stories, in no small part due to the interspersing of successes and failures along the way. How one perceives the events of each battle will create a narrative in the mind’s eye. Going back to the example above, everyone had a slightly different take on the story that the game was trying to tell. What was just an oscillating series of failures and successes resulting from random number rolls had dynamically woven a memorable narrative for everybody.
And this is something budding writers need to recognise – that it’s okay to have fail states because they can be turned around. A lot of times, it’s about incorporating the unexpected into our stories, and spinning a positive outcome out of them. The narrative becomes more enriched when it trenches and peaks, and positive qualities such as humour (dark or otherwise) may inevitably find themselves surfacing.
In a later post, I will examine how some RPG systems have a variety of mechanics to bring fail states around to successes. If you have any thoughts or similar experiences, please feel free to share them below! Until then, happy gaming 🙂