Sunday, October 01, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Never Move the Story Backwards

Recently I’ve been reading my little girl my ratty old copies of four of my favorite books from my childhood, the Zork What-Do-I-Do-Now books by S. Eric Meretzky. They’re much better than the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and even better than the TSR “Endless Quest” books, which I also enjoyed.

What I always preferred about the Zork books as a kid is that there were actually right and wrong answers. You were supposed to pick up on clues and figure out which choices to make. With every choice, if you chose wrong, you would die gruesomely (This is our second time through the series, and this time around, my daughter has realized that it’s more fun to make the bad choice and die every time, because you get to enjoy the gruesomeness, then they send you back to make a better choice.)

Often you have some wizard’s prophesy to give you a hint as to which path to take, but sometimes you have to figure out the wrong choice simply based on your intuitive sense of what makes a better story. Pretty soon, you figure out that you’re always going to die if the choice is anything like, “Go back to the castle and search for a spell to help you defeat this bad guy.”

Stories must always move forward, never backwards. Whenever I’m reading a novel in which the hero encounters an obstacle and retraces his steps the story always loses its momentum.

Of course, if your heroes are telling you that they want to go back and get something from home, you have to listen to that, but your response should be to cut off that path and force them forward. Another thing that happens often in the Zork books is that they’ll enter a chamber and an iron door will slam shut behind them.

Of course, one thing to do is to literally blow up anyplace that the hero is done with, so that there’ll be no temptation to return there. Nothing propels your hero forward more effectively than an explosion. (This goes back to an old rule: Take away the safe spaces.)


James Kennedy said...

I can't think of any examples, so maybe this isn't actually true, but even if you're not writing something in the genre of explosions, maybe "going back" can work if the effect of the hero going back is that they're somehow emotionally punished (humiliated, terrified, made guilty) for returning.

Always good to see ZORK, but I can't help but remark that your choice of example kinda-sorta sits uneasily with your overall point: after all, re-reading these old books to your daughter is a species of "going back"!

Jim Ramsey said...

Does this only apply to safe spaces or to most locations?

It seems like the return to a previous location can be a good way to illustrate the change undergone by the hero.

A couple of examples off the top of my head:
Jimmy Stewart returns with Kim Novak to the bell tower at the end of Vertigo.
Luke returns to destroy the Death Star after having escaped earlier in the film.
Danny and his mother run into the maze at the end of the Shining (which they had visited earlier in the film).

Matt Bird said...

Certainly there are no shortage of examples where a story worked just fine after returning to a location, and those are all good examples. In each of those cases, the heroes returned to that location not because it was safe but because it was dangerous, and they wished to return there for a final violent confrontation. Perhaps I should say "Never Move the Story Backwards to a Safe Space" (but I'm sure there are counter-examples for that, too, of course!)