Things writers can learn from Skyrim

Video games aren’t known for their high quality storytelling. They tend to be derivative and clichéd and trope-embracing. You want to give people something familiar to work with as they jump in to play, and while you’ve got to have both story and backstory, you don’t want any of it to be particularly hard to figure out. Nobody wants to spend more of their gaming time trying to work out who Jon Snow’s mother is than actually killing stuff. Or, in the case of me and Skyrim, decorating their house, because I really only kill stuff in support of my search for a really good vase to put between the shelves in my library. Stop judging me!

But plot and characters aside, setting is where video games like Skyrim shine. Forget that it’s a story about killing dragons by scolding them really loud. That world feels real. And yeah, because graphics. But also because a lot of effort has been put into making you feel like your story isn’t even most of what’s going on in that world, let alone all there is to it.

Very few of the NPC’s in that game are nameless. They have more specific and personal things to say than “Death to all who oppose us!” when you click them. (Not that I object to “Death to all who oppose us!” I always answer my door with either that or “The reckoning is at hand!”) They have histories and petty arguments with their neighbors and quests of their own to deal with.

Same goes for every town and city. They’re not just sets you’re passing through so you can sell all the junk you’ve picked up. (Or, you know, stolen. From corpses.) They’ve got politics and threats and complicated histories. Okay, and sometimes also vampires, which annoy me as a story element, but I’m not saying the game is perfect either.

The point is, Skyrim always feels like a place that was living before you came along, is continuing to live all around you as you go through your storyline, and will keep right on living after you leave. And I wish I saw this done more often, and better, in novels. I don’t mean high fantasy – people who write high fantasy pretty much know they’ve got to create a whole world – I mean everything. Horror. Romance. Thrillers. I wish the authors of stories about accountants drinking coffee set them in meticulously constructed worlds.

Not that it’s easy. It can be very hard to toe the line between providing enough detail to make the reader feel like they’re there, and boring the stuffing out of them by spending two paragraphs describing a chair. And every reader has a different threshold. But I love reading about what they ate at the Hogwarts Halloween feast and Joffrey’s wedding feast. I love all the bits of history Tolkien scatters around. I love Derry and Castle Rock and the way Stephen King takes the time to flesh out even the most minor character, and I love everything Jasper Fforde does, ever. I love Tom Bombadil. There, I said it.

The common thread there is that I don’t want to read your book, I want to fall in. And nothing kills immersion like shrinking your world down to the size of your story.

8 words on the street

  1. I guess what you’re saying has always been true–everyone knows you’re supposed to have three-dimensional characters, but I never thought about it the way you said it. This is cool. I absolutely get it now. But how do they do it? Is it enough to hold the thought in my mind as I write, that the world my characters are navigating is moving along on its own, at its own pace, with or without them? Who does it best?
    Is it like science fiction, where the high-tech futuristic stuff is mentioned only in passing, with just enough detail to inform you that we’re not in Kansas anymore.?

  2. Who does it best is an interesting question. Tolkien of course is great. But for a “real world” example I’d say Stephen King is the master. He’s great at making everything from buildings to characters come alive in half a sentence. Even if he’s going to kill a guy in two pages, he makes sure you know him first. Check out one of his Derry novels – IT being the best IMO. That city is so real it’s actually a character. The protagonists have a gigantic impact on their setting, but at the same time that setting is way way bigger than them.

    I’m no expert but as a reader, I think the best way to get it across to me is just through detail. I think a lot of people become so concerned with tight writing that they never veer away from their main storyline at all, but that ends up giving the impression that it’s all somehow happening in a vacuum. In a real world there will be work and friends and pain-in-the-ass phone calls, and even if you’re fighting Great Evil, you still need breakfast and clean underwear. And having to deal with all that stuff will affect how a character can deal with the main stuff.

    You don’t need bloated writing to do it either. It’s not always easy, but all that stuff can be conveyed without spending a lot of words on it.

  3. Yeah yeah. Agree. King has said he sees his stories as movies in his head, which might explain his pace. He’s OK with stopping for a moment to “notice” a vignette unfolding on stage left, in the form of a brief sentence or two regarding some unrelated thing that none the less interweaves nicely into everything else.
    I often find myself lost and free-floating in some books by authors who seem to race through descriptions, but that never happens in a King novel. I think James Lee Burke is very good that way, too. Tolkien . . . OK, he can get side-tracked, just a little, I think. Not that I don’t think Tom Bombadill got cheated out of a movie appearance.

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