I’m running another role-playing game right now, and several times of late I’ve found myself saying the same thing:
It happens because I’ll be planning some kind of plot, and chasing my own tail trying to figure out how to introduce a new element without making the player-characters suspicious. This is difficult when the PCs are being run by players — people very familiar with narrative conventions. When I told one of them the prospective fiancée for his nobleman was a meek, sheltered girl, his reply was “Gamer brain calls bullshit. I expect she has twenty-five skeletons and four fresh corpses in her closet.”
In a novel, you can get away with a higher degree of subtlety, because you control your characters’ thoughts. They don’t know they’re in a story (not unless you’re writing something very metafictional), so they won’t reflect on things the same way a player will. And while the same thing is theoretically true of a PC, any time you ask the player to ignore something that’s obvious to them out-of-character, you create a disjunct. Sometimes this can be fun, but other times it’s frustrating, because they have to role-play their character being blind to an idea they can see. Looping back around to novels, again, the same thing can be true of a reader — but since the reader isn’t actively participating in the story, the frustration is usually less severe. If you write your characters well, the reader will go along for the ride, blind spots and all.
So this is why I keep saying “screw subtlety.” Rather than bending over backwards attempting to make something not suspicious, embrace the suspicion! Why yes, this is weird; you have every reason to give it the side-eye. Knowing that up front doesn’t tell you what’s really going on. You’ll have to work to get the rest.
Doing that is surprisingly liberating. I think it’s a cousin to the notion of “burning plot” — making the cool stuff happen now, and letting it generate more cool stuff later, rather than trying to save it and have the lead-up be flat and boring as a result. Instead of making plot out of the characters figuring out there’s something weird with X, let them know that from the start, and move on from there. It doesn’t work in all situations or for all kinds of stories, but where it does, the result can be a lot of energy and momentum.
Which is why this is something I try to keep in mind for novels as well as games. Am I better off trying to come up with a plausible cover story for a given narrative element, or should I just let it show its face to the world?
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