31 October 2012

Balancing Your Story - 4 Elements

In my many years of playing RPGs, I can tell you a little about balance in your stories. Balance exists in the gaming world and it should exist in your novels as well. World building is my weakest point when it comes to fiction. There are four main things which I believe determine if a story experience is fulfilling for me in a way which makes me remember it for several years to come. This is what I refer to when discussing balance of these elements.

World Building – What you need in order to have a great setting.

Is the world fleshed out? It is tricky to get a reader to see your world like you see it in your head. You have to describe it. You cannot just explain that your story takes place in an old haunted house and expect to spook your reader. Provide enough detail so we get a better picture. Describe the cobwebs, the cracks in the wooden floor. Hell, mention a few spiders clambering up the wall. Maybe a large hairy one plops onto the floor, wriggles itself upright, and skitters away. Oh, hell no. Now I can't sleep! I hate spiders. I shouldn't have written that. Onward!

Is there balance in the number of characters you develop in your world? Are there enough characters? How boring would that be if the only character in your world had nothing with which to interact? Well, with the exception of those creepy spiders, it would be a bit boring. Likewise, are there too many characters in it? What happens when you introduce too many characters? You feel guilty when you don’t spend the time finding a fit for them in your story without making it an epic challenge. I break this down a little bit more in Matrix Revolutions, my critique. An obvious fan of this particular movie blasted me in the comments.

Is there enough interaction between world and characters? If you take the time to describe an area in your world, make sure at least one of your characters interacts with those details. Obviously, if there are spiders in this house and you take the time to describe to the extent I did, the reader is going to expect this to be foreshadowing something, so you cannot disappoint them. Maybe somewhere along the way someone is bitten, and therein lies a twist!

Quests – What you need to keep your story from flat lining.

Are there distractions? I liken this to twists and plots in fiction. The story can become flat and predictable if you do not introduce some form of deviation from the path of the known. If a reader suspects just another cookie cutter path, they will likely become bored and put your book down. However, if it's changed up a bit with something new and different, then you might keep their attention long enough to get them to the next plot point.

Just be careful in having too many distractions which may detract from the ultimate story line. It could inadvertently dilute your story and make it less important than the collective individual quests.

Intrigue – What you need to pull in an audience (readers).

Here is something I’d like to share with you about my favorite text based RPG. The first time I ever played Threshold, I struggled with navigating around and reading about roads and shops and different places, but it wasn't long before I discovered an intriguing room description. Here's what I read, simple yet very effective:

Academe Arcane

   This large powerful structure houses the Mage Guild of Threshold.
Within are numbers of potent mages, researching that which ordinary
folks cannot comprehend. The air is still, like that of the eye of
a hurricane.

A large sign is posted on the wall.

     Obvious exits are west and up.

          Mages Guild of Threshold
| inquire - tells you about the mage guild
| join    - joins this guild          

Let’s name a few things we all desire: power, a sense of belonging, purpose. See how effective this description is already? Look at the power words: powerful, potent, even hurricane…implying more of the same.

The first thing I did? Yes! I typed "inquire" and was immediately rewarded with a masterfully crafted synopsis of what to expect should I join this mysterious guild. The writing was even more powerful. I was not able to contain myself. I typed "join" right away. I was so anxious to join I immediately performed all required tasks which followed in order to be accepted. The writing seed planted, I was addicted.

A Journey – What you need before the final words “The End”.

A journey is comprised of several distinct relationships with systems around your protagonist/character. Does your character embark on a journey? Or as described by Christopher Vogler in A Hero's Journey, does your character answer the call to journey and then experience that full character arc?

Several of my RPG characters have joined guilds, clans, and churches. They've joined circles, they've opened lines of communications with other races, and they've established connections with other like-minded entities, good, evil, and neutral. However, none of my characters ever came full circle in their arcs.

I like to think I've come close though. What I ultimately failed at is giving my characters goals and objectives, never describing their inner desires in achieving their final destinations, the end of their stories. Maybe I’m not done playing! Er, journeying.

All of these relationships create friction and conflict for the character/protagonist, so if there isn't a journey, then there will be no conflict and your story will fall flat. Which means you will likely be rerolling your character to try it again. I did it several times and never got it right in the RPGs, but they were fun and taught me a little something about what I need to know before I can expect readers to love what I write. I'll find out one day when I finish writing my novel.

Keep writing! I’m still doing the balancing act and learning myself. Oh, and you can support my writing by checking out my one and only published short story - Lethal Injection, The Seed.


  1. I love RPGs and agree that a lot can be learned from gaming. I'm currently working on world building for a couple of my books. Boy, it's tough. Things seem to be coming together slowly but surely. Storytelling takes a lot of balance and I say that writer's only get better at it by studying and writing. So, I'm off to write. Thanks for the great post, Diane!

    1. It's been two years since I tried the world building myself. It is very hard, the hardest part for me. I experience what others have written, but for me to write a world, totally different, very difficult.

      Thanks for the feedback and I'm happy to have inspired! :)

  2. Great list, Diane. I can't imagine a book without any of these. The story just wouldn't be complete.

    1. Thank you, Kelly! Ever since I played the Myst series, world building has been my biggest peeve if it is non-existent. I agree, if any of these are missing I feel ripped off.

  3. When I was writing my book, it was important to give a sense of balance and contrast in my characters, both protagonists and antagonists, and to give them as much distinction as possible.

    It was also, given the subject matter, critical to make location almost like a character too.

    Great post, Diane!

    1. I like that, William. I've read so many books where location is simply over-looked as something you must breath life into. Glad you're all about balance, too!

  4. Being an RPG junky myself, I think this post is brilliant! The parallels you've provided here make perfect sense. Who wants to watch a character walk around with a white background, white tables and chairs and white kitchen appliances? That's what I see when a world isn't properly built...far too much white space.

    1. Hey, randi! In contrast, here's a challenge for you. In your text based RPG, change your background to black and your text to white. Then an empty world will have too much dark space. Makes you feel blinded and having to feel your way around. Glad someone can relate! :D

  5. I must not see things clearly. I just read the beginning of a new story/novel to hubs who said it was boring and needs action--but I think since my main character's husband left her after 20 yrs of marriage--the story is exciting, intriguing and impossible to put down. LOL

    1. Yeah, and think of all the action she's going to get now that she's free at last, free at last...thank God Almighty, she's free at last! :D

      What all kinds of trouble will she seek out now?


  6. Great reminders of what's important! Especially as I traverse the bumpy NaNoWriMo landscape. Thank you!


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