Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Meticulously Planned Chaos

I was playing Burnout Paradise the other day, and weirdly enough I started to think about novel writing. A huge part of the game is smashing your car up in new and interesting ways. You'll be tooling along, another car will cross an intersection at exactly the wrong time, and bang. The physics engine takes over and you are treated to a slow motion spectacle of your car disintegrating into a million little pieces. The crashes happen often enough that you start to wonder whether the game is making your life difficult on purpose.

I recently added some characters into the narrative. I won't call them secondary, because there are major subplots that revolve around them. There are basically 4 different sets of characters, whose stories are all happening concurrently. As the novel progresses, their individual plots will converge, until at the end, everything gets thrown together in a spectacular orgy of violence, action, and bedlam (that's the plan, anyway). It's a pretty standard structure for novels like this, because it works well, and flipping around between the plots moves the story along and keeps readers interested.

So, car crashes. It occurred to me that in order to have a truly spectacular car crash, a lot of things need to go right (or wrong, depending on your perspective). All the cars involved have to be moving at such and such speed, hit each other at a certain angle, etc. Just think of how much effort it must take to plan a car crash for a movie, if you want it to be just so. Everything from the road condition, to the weather is a factor, but once you know what you're going for, all you can do is set the cars up at their starting points, let them go, and hope for the best.

It's kind of what plotting a novel out this way is like. I know where I want the characters to be, I know where I want them to start. A lot of the work plot-wise is figuring out how they get from point A to point B, so they can collide at the proper moment to give appropriately spectacular results.

The trick with with video games or movies, is making sure that its "realistic". If the crashes don't obey the laws of physics, they are just cartoons. In Burnout, the crashes look like real car crashes, because they use an amazing physics engine. In a novel, its not so much about realism as it is internal consistency. Not only do they have to get from point A to point B, it has to make perfect sense why they're at point B... why it was utterly inevitable that they arrive there, given what we know about them and the situation they're in.

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