Plot and Meaningful Choice

I don’t talk much about how I’m submitting stories to magazines here, because I don’t find it very interesting as a reader.  I got a personal rejection letter this week which has rearranged how I am looking at the conventional arc plot, and plot in general, though, so I want to leave it here for further reflection.

The letter said, in part:

[The story] devoted much more time to explaining the worldbuilding than to constructing a conflict in which the characters had to make choices.

I had been thinking of plot in a sort of good-versus-evil, Hero’s Journey kind of context, which I don’t like, and feeling very bound by the idea that the character needs to change in some way.  Saying that “the character needs to change” phrases it in the character’s passive voice, though — the author changes the character by manipulating them like a puppet through the action of the narrative, which as a reader I always find very flat.

Saying “the character needs to make choices” phrases it actively for the character, and makes it the author’s job to use the narrative to construct an environment in which the character needs to make choices, which I like.  I think I know how to do that.

So that idea has reduced my anxiety about plotting, maybe enough that I know how one or two of these stories go.

It also idea lined up nicely with this bit, from Rules of Play (p. 33), a book of academic game design theory, which chapter I had just read a couple days before:

Playing a game means making choices and taking actions.  All of this activity occurs within a game-system designed to support meaningful kinds of choice-making.

That is an interesting symmetry, which I had not noticed before.

At first I thought John Brunner’s The Squares of the City might be an example of that symmetry breaking down — or at least I didn’t care much for the book, whose action is based on a famous chess game, and which I found to be much more a narrative where the characters were acted-upon.  But the Internet reminded me that Brunner’s main character explicitly represents a piece on the board, and it’s not the pieces whose choices are meaningful but the players’.  So my reaction supports the thesis after all.

Anyhow, I don’t know what it means.  But it will bear thinking on.

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