Monday, April 16, 2012

Forward Vs Lateral Movement

No, not football.

What I'm talking about today has both a writing/gaming component and a writing-lifestyle component. I'm not really sure where to start, so let's start with the broadest and work our way down. 

How's Your Life?
Lately, I've been doing two things differently -- I'm eating decadently (on a budget!) and paying for it afterward. I guess it's because I'm in my thirties now, so this shouldn't be a scientific breakthrough or great revelation for anyone, but I can't eat the same things or the same way I used to, say, ten years ago. 

I can eat pretty much anything I want, barring allergies, but not that doesn't mean, I'm discovering, that I should.  Big heavy meals weigh me down and put me in a fog. Meals that scream "Yeah I'm healthy, look how cruciferous I am!" often taste like lint and leave me ready to gnaw off someone's arm. I will even admit to getting way too freaked out that what I'm eating (which is seldom fried, seldom battered and seldom wrapped in other foodstuffs) is going to immediately kill me (thanks scare tactics of diets and nutrition, way to make me feel powerless). 

After one weekend where I ate far too much, I started taking stock of my food-life. Sure I'm getting the 8 glasses of water a day (sometimes more), and sure I'm avoiding too much junk food (because there just isn't any in the house), but I look over my life and see that I'm not in the best health. Forget the shape, forget muscles, I just want to be healthier. 

To that end, I'm making better food choices, eating regular portions, eating regularly and doing my best to stay hydrated. It's not a thorough diet plan, it's not a complete panic-inducing revamp of the food I eat. This is forward progress, I'm moving towards my goal.

Lateral progress was all that time I spent thinking about getting to the goal, but not taking any steps to get there - reading reviews, putting off going to the bookstore, listening to podcasts talk about the book, etc. 

This same question of lateral-vs-forward comes up every time I look at other things in my life.

My book -- GOAL: Finishing it
Forward Progress - Writing new pages
Lateral Progress - Buying/reading books about how to write those pages, watching movies and tv shows that demonstrate how scenes look, talking about writing pages.

The state of my office -- GOAL: Cleaning it
Forward Progress - Cleaning the desk off, filing papers away, throwing out/shredding what I don't need
Lateral Progress - Buying organizational racks, shelves and items to sort out things (while still leaving so many piles), thinking/feeling that I'll never make any headway

My income -- GOAL: Having more of it
Forward Progress - Being visible and helpful to others, finding clients, doing work, sending invoices
Lateral Progress - Bitching about how after I pay my bills I don't have much money left, scrounging up change out of laundry, swearing to never again buy stuff all week (see above)

See what I'm getting at? 

Sometimes, the lateral progress looks like forward progress, and for whatever reason, I guess because it's not difficult or changing the state of anything, it feels like I'm making progress to my goal. 

Forward progress isn't always fun. Forward progress on eating better means I have to amend my grocery lists, exercise some willpower and spend time actually cooking better things rather than settling. It takes work, but the goal is worth it, isn't it? So why not do it? That's the lesson I'm learning now. 

Forward and Lateral Around The Table And At The Desk
We revisit this idea of forward and lateral progress when we sit down to play a game. Board and card games aside, let's look at role-playing experiences. 

The Forward element is the plot of the campaign. Whether that's killing the dragon, solving the murder mystery, reaching level 10 or defeating the conspiracy against you, Forward comes in when the player(s) do things that bring them closer to resolving that goal. 

The Lateral element is a little trickier, since sometimes people will argue that the lateral movements are just as important as the Forward ones. For example, my brother and I spent WEEKS playing Final Fantasy X when it came out, maxing our characters' stats, acquiring all the items and weapons and basically lording over everything on the digital landscape. We didn't advance the plot too far while this was happening, because we were too busy in making it easier for that to happen.

You see, we had this idea in our heads that if we did all these side quests and branches off the main plot tree, the main plot would be easier. And while that's true (the items we got as rewards totally made the endgame simpler), it speaks to the underlying issue - we thought the endgame would be hard, and that we were too unprepared. 

As GMs we can offer players a lot of paths to follow, no matter the game system. We can give the paladin a sidequest to get a horse, we can tell the secret agents to spend some time protecting their family members from attack. Sometimes, the players jump at these actions because it's a break from the main story, or because it offers them a chance to be at the center of attention for a little while, but other times they take based on how it's sold to them.

If a side quest is sold with the same intensity as the main quest, you can't expect them to be able to make the distinction that one is superior to the other, and by extension, that they should or shouldn't throw their full weight of focus towards that new (and perceived important) goal. 

A lot of this has to do with how the hook is baited, and if the players are invested in their characters. A lot of this also has to do with the reward offered. Too great a reward, or if the reward is thought to be bigger, more immediate or more useful than the reward of the main plot, naturally the players are going to jump at it. How could they not?

Some games mechanize around this possibility by creating conditions that lead the hero(es) into side quests so that they gain material or knowledge they must apply to the main quest -- Link can't fight Ganon until he has all the pieces of the TriForce nor can Mario reach Bowser without first traversing the level(s) of the castle. 

Writers I didn't forget about you - many genres (detective in particular) hinge on the idea that the bigger case is related to the smaller case or its solution. Likewise, we can bog down protagonists with side quests that develop emotions or responsibilities or new character arcs outside of the change represented by the main plot. 

So What Can We Do?
Writers, it's time to face the possibility that you're going to finish your book. And that this book isn't going to be perfect, but it will be complete - with a plot and character development and all the trappings therein. Forget the idea that you have to X number of plots and subplots, that you have to have exactly this number of scenes that develop specifically this or that idea and that flashbacks all have to be a certain and specific length. Accept that you're going to finish the story, and it's going be a good thing, and it will get edited and become a better thing.

Gamers, take a good look at your players. (Designers, you take a look at your audience) There is a very good chance that they're not going to take the bait on many of the hooks you throw at them. The problem is that you don't know which hooks they'll take and which they won't, so you just have to keep putting them all out there. Sometimes they'll move laterally, sometimes they'll go forward. What you can do is offer them the best path forward (the most compelling, interesting, superlative story) and the most evocative path laterally (so that when they step off the plot, they're immersed in the flavor and the world(s) you've built).

Remember - this isn't a one-or-the-other, all-or-nothing prospect. You can do very well for yourself making steps forward while laying out side routes along the way. It's also not required that you sprint towards the finish line. We all want that end goal, we all want our work to be published, there's no reward for finishing ahead of other people, because the market(s) we're going into are wide enough to support all of us. Don't fall for that scarcity-trap. We can all "win" at this.

Happy writing