On Making Novels a Game that You Play

Why do people love to write? (Or, well, perhaps–why do people who read and write like I do like to read and write? This may be the more fair, better question, and this post an incipient intro into writing as a form of game theory, which I think applies to more writers than one might expect, even if they’ve never thought of their own writing as a game that they play.)

It is as basic as this: What is every scene in a novel, if not one part of an equation? What is every chapter in a novel, if not one part of an equation?

The genius part is: It’s the way that you write a scene, to create an experience, that makes possible the pure transcending of the mathematization of writing, and the genius of the poetry you bring into writing elevates this mathematical beauty into sheer literary art; into a sort of unbounded, open-ended spontaneity for which only few mathematical equations allow.

scene a + scene b + scene c = chapter a


+ scene a ≠ scene b ≠ scene c;

+ scene a < scene b < scene c; and

+ each < sign refers to the degree to which there is a contingency or dependency upon the content of the scene that precedes it (layers).

chapter a + chapter b + chapter c + chapter d + chapter xyz = novel


+ chapter a ≠ chapter b ≠ chapter c, etc.;

+ chapter a < chapter b < chapter c, etc.; and

+ each < sign refers to the degree to which there is a contingency or dependency upon the content of the chapter that precedes it (layers).

So: What are you doing as a writer? You are “design thinking” your way into every scene, and with every scene, into every chapter, and with every scene-scene and scene–>scene and scene–>chapter and chapter-chapter and chapter–>chapter and chapters–>full novel combination, you are growing out a matrix for the plot arc which informs the evolution and growth of content.

Think as simple as this: Your novel revolves around the story of a young boy who is traumatized sexually by his mother, who “schmoozed” at him as a young boy and turned him into a sexual caricature for herself. What is the “design think” work that can–and, I would say, needs to–go into the design of the novel that you are writing, during the preparatory, writing, and editorial phases? What is the game that you need to play with all of the military pieces that you are laying out, from piece one to two to three to one hundred, in order to elevate the compactness and tightness and–far beyond these other pieces–the intentionality of every scene?

To do the brainstorming and structural work in advance, to know the shape of the whole scene before you write and re-write, changes the entire writing and reading process.

This boy, as an example:

Scene A: moment of trauma of sexual abuse [content of actual scene; to show what is reality]; to demonstrate the reality of trauma, of family life, of the character, of his coping mechanisms [purpose of the actual scene; the explanation/telling/interpretation of what we see of reality, not actually broken on the page but clear in what is shown and how it is shown]

Scene B: moment of secondary trauma of sexual abuse–the lack of belief from teacher at school the next morning [content of actual scene]; to increase the tension of sexual abuse, given that it requires immediate healing and intervention, but this boy cannot find it, because his female teacher is the same as his mother [purpose of the actual scene]

Scene X, scenes later: moment of generational trauma, when this boy-turned-father sexually traumatizes his own child in front of a stranger, half-mindlessly [content of actual scene]; to show the generational effects of trauma, to cast the boy in a redemptive light in the unfolding of some severe intervention on behalf of a stranger on the street who stands in witness of the unfolding trauma [purpose of the actual scene]

Learn to model out your scenes. Spend some time with the distinctions–learn your purpose, and then choose the scene that attains to it in the best way, grasping that the way in which you begin, move through, and end your scene is going to have huge repercussions on the way in which your plot actually unfolds, and the way in which your pacing determines its strength, beginning to end.

Literary agent Donald Maass talks about scene internal and external turning points: those concrete ‘points of movement’ around which every scene turns, and the point for which that scene is written. Internal turning points hinge around a character’s motivations or intents, while external turning points hinge around an event that happens or some other exteriorizing in the content of the novel.

Have you thought through every single scene in your novel with this purpose and intent in mind, and stripped every scene that misses a turning point, or that provides it roughly, imperfectly, or not at all? This is the work that requires manifesting the essentiality of what and how and why you are writing the scene in the first place.

His books, The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel especially, are essential conduits to really genius fiction writing–that fiction that reads like a scene is breathlessly picked up out of nowhere and compiled so efficiently and brilliantly that it hurts to read it, and it is such because the author thought a lot about the individual scene before s/he wrote it. You can tell this kind of intentionality in an instance, and I would say that, in the years that I’ve represented fiction, 90% of my authors has excelled beyond belief in an intentionality that is really capturing and distinct.

My favorite examples of published giant novels, in terms of easy-to-parse beginning pages, are Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Laini Taylor’s Printz Prize-winning Strange the Dreamer, and Sara J. Henry’s Agatha Award for Best First Novel-winning Learning to Swim.

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