Every day I learn new things about this craft we call writing and this often lonesome and mildly insane journey we place ourselves on.
But first: Have you ever played the game Life is Strange?
You should. It’s available on several different platforms. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
At any rate, if you’re waiting to play it and want to avoid spoilers, well, you might as well keep reading because beyond the basic premise, I promise not to spoil anything major.
Ok, here goes.
The story of Life is Strange follows Maxine Caulfield, known as Max to her friends, whose life is turned upside down when she discovers that she can rewind time and change the course of events. Mostly, she can’t go back more than a few minutes at a time, but in rare circumstances she can jump back years and, changing one crucial event, alter the entire course of history in the present. The story experience for the player is one of the rawest I’ve ever felt. If I did something and I didn’t like or was surprised by the immediate consequences of my action, I had the liberty of going back and trying again. I could explore my options and proceed with the story the way I felt most comfortable, or rather, with the consequences I could live with as opposed to those I couldn’t. Except for a few critical moments, her power is always available.
Say the wrong thing and get your friend shot? No problem, just rewind and change your answers. Still nothing? Maybe you learned some new information in that second conversation. Go back again, use that new information in an interesting way, change the outcome of the whole scenario and save a life, maybe several.
It felt like cheating, it really did. Most games make you live with your choices, unless you want to turn off the game and manually reset to an earlier point, which really IS cheating.
But with Max’s power, I felt liberated.
Here’s a thing you have to understand about me. I get very into the characters in games (or books, or movies, etc.). You don’t want to know how long it took me to finish Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead because I simply couldn’t bring myself to make certain choices without feeling like a despicable human being. But when I play a game for the first time (especially nowadays, where gamer choices often actually matter), I do my first run-through as my canon run-through. That means no going back and changing decisions, no looking up the smartest or best options on the Internet, no tinkering with in-game mechanics. I play the game blind, as it were, and for better or worse, the way the story unfolds for me is the ONE TRUE WAY. Everything after that is just looking through a window into what could have been, but wasn’t.
You might think that’s dumb, but hey, that’s me. You don’t have to play (or read, or watch) like that, nor do I expect you to.
With Life is Strange, not only are you not bound to the decisions you make, hell, you’re required to experiment with the options at times. Sometimes that’s the only way forward.
And even then, there were times I had to put the controller down and walk away, because I was too afraid to find out what horrible consequences a particular choice might have. Before I eventually realized that my fear was dumb and this wasn’t actually life and death and really Laura, just get a grip and DO IT.
What does ANY OF THAT have to do with writing?
Well, I had a bit of an epiphany earlier. I realized I approach a lot of my writing the same way I approach games and books and movies. As though I were the consumer of the product. If something particularly heinous is happening or about to happen, I tend to close my eyes and look away. In other words, I either refuse to write that part or (which is worse), once I’ve written something, it feels like those words are set in stone and could not be changed anymore. This is how it happened, now I have to live with it.
Well, it took years, but I’m finally beginning to understand that I’m not the reader. I’m Maxine Caulfield. Friend gets shot? No sweat, just rewind, try again. Think a situation is too horrible and difficult and THEY’RE ALL GOING TO DIE, OH GOD? Fuck it. Go there anyway, see what happens. Don’t like it? Rewind.
You are not bound by the laws of time and space. In the world on my pages, among the voices in my head, I AM GOD.
I still have more work ahead of me before this knowledge will become instinctual, and to you it probably seems obvious.
But I know now why I always took the easy path, why I never really hurt my protagonists.
“Better not to probe too deep. After all, what if I couldn’t get them out of the scrape I put them in? What if they died? What if they turned out to be the bad guy? Or worse, someone they loved wasn’t who they thought?”
Be Maxine Caulfield.