Being a Better Writer: Traditions and Games

Hello readers! Welcome back to another installment of Being a Better Writer, coming to you all on the first day of November, just ahead of the Mariah Carey storm.

You know the one I’m talking about. It nears, even now. Some have already fallen prey to it.

But let us speak of things other than earworms. This weekend I started getting pictures on social media sites and services from folks. Pictures of what you might ask? Why, massive two-pound tomes that had arrived for them in the mail! That’s right, paperback copies of Shadow of an Empire have started ending up in folks’ hands! And they look nice! Here, take a look at one picture I had in my inbox this morning:

That looks great, doesn’t it? Overall, the response to Shadow of an Empire finally being in paperback (you can get your copy here, hint hint) seems pretty positive!

Which is good, as book sales last month were, short of a brief spike in Japan, in a bit of a slump. Not just for me either: It says something when sales slip by over 80% but the sales ranking stays the same. October was flat-out a rough month across the board for booksellers in general, it would seem. Fall, pre-holidays, does seem to get hit like this, so perhaps it’s just tracking as normal but with a bit of a boost from the supply chain issues as well as general economic issues plaguing us from decades of bad decisions (and you can read more about that here).

Either way, Shadow of an Empire‘s paperback release was the second bright spot in a month that was otherwise very dull sales-wise, and not just for me. With luck, now that we’re out of October and into November and the upcoming holiday season is nearing (that Shadow of an Empire paperback makes a great Christmas gift, by the way) book sales will trend back upwards.

As far as other news before we dip into today’s topic, last week saw another short story preview go up on Patreon for supporters, so if you’re a Patreon Supporter (Thank you!) go check out The Last Light! It’s … interesting. I don’t want to say much more on that.

Also, what’s happening now that Shadow of an Empire is available in dead-tree? What’s the plan now? Well, I’ve got a little bit more writing to do on that Stranded project, and maybe one or two more short stories, but nothing that’s probably going to take more than the first week or two of November. After that? It’s time to start the pre-Alpha for Starforge.

So yes, Starforge work is coming soon. Who’s ready to see how the UNSEC Space trilogy ends?

With that rhetorical question dangling overhead and filling your minds, let us turn our attention at last to today’s BaBW topic. Which is, I realize, possibly a bit of a curious one, and some of you certainly might have glanced at the title and wondered “Now what does that have to do with writing?”

Quite a bit as it turns out. Hit the jump, and let’s talk traditions and games.

So I want to run something by you. A scene, shall we say, to establish the gist of today’s topic. Picture a couple going through a holiday fair. It can be a Halloween carnival, a harvest festival of some kind, whatever. As they’re moving through it, checking out booths selling products and themed food and whatnot, they come across a game of some kind, a fair-style affair where you can win prizes (but most places will be very unlikely to do so) and decide to give it a go. One member of the duo takes up the challenge, almost pulls it off, and then the hawker running the game utters these familiar words:

“Close … but no cigar!”

This phrase is likely one that all of you immediately recognized and rolled your eyes to. Perhaps you heard it a lot growing up at various fun-fair events. Or you saw it in movies. Or you know the history behind it and how it came to be.

But the point is, it’s a saying that I would venture near every single reader, save a few internationally, recognized. It’s a a ubiquitous saying that has permeated almost the entirety of human culture.

How though? And what does this have to do with writing?

Well, I’ll get to that. First, I want you to read the following list and ask yourself how many of these sayings you know, recognize the meaning of, or even use on a daily basis?

  • “New deal.”
  • “Thumbs up!”
  • “Knocked it out of the park.”
  • “Deal me out!”
  • “The ball is in their court.”
  • “Slam dunk.”
  • “Pass the baton.”
  • “Hail mary.”
  • “Par for the course.”
  • “In your corner.”
  • “Dropped the ball.”
  • “Full house.”
  • “All in.”
  • “AFK.”

I could go on (and almost did) but I’m almost certain by now you get the point. All of these sayings are highly recognizable and commonly used in day to day culture all around the world, from workplaces to casual conversation. But there’s something very specific about each one of these sayings, something that can be vital in our writing. Have you figured out what it is yet?

Each one of these sayings is from a game.

Poker. Basketball. Football. Relay. Boxing. MMOs. All of these are sources for the list above. Some of the sayings are, as a consequence of the decline of their associated source, starting to be a little less common while still hanging around. Others, like “AFK” are relatively new but becoming more common every day.

All of which is interesting, sure. But it’s not the whole core of what I wanted to get at either. I want you to think about each of the games we just listed out. Poker. Basketball. MMOs, etc. What sort of impact do they have on the day to day life of the world in which we live?

Well, for starters, there are whole networks dedicated to watching sports. Baseball sees an average of seven million viewers per pro game. League of Legends something like forty-six million. Schools have basketball hoops, as do most parks. Or ice rinks for hockey, or tracks for track and field.

Sands, there’s a whole swath of sayings and cultural day-to-day sayings we never even touched on where the Olympics are concerned. The phrase “Olympian” or “Gold Medal” have clear connotations, and it’d be hard to argue that the Olympics wasn’t some sort of cultural touchstone.

All of which is interesting yes. And I’d bet that by now, some of you are starting to guess where this is going. For the rest? Well, we’re headed there next. What does this all have to do with writing?

Well, today’s topic? Worldbuilding. All of the above has been fascinating, yes, but also to demonstrate the power in our societies of tradition and games. If you look at modern culture, you find that games, and the traditions that come with them, are deeply rooted and influential. Sayings, popular knowledge … all of it stems from the games we play. Well, or in many cases, don’t play, but have ingrained the terminology so deep that we still use it. No one is filling a Roman coliseum with modern gladiator games in the style of ancient Rome, but the thumbs-up/down still is in common usage, though we don’t know what the up or down really meant in Rome.

In other words, there are two things that today’s post is pushing towards. The first is the realization of how steeped our culture is in sayings, traditions, and activities by these games we all share and enjoy. How many sayings we use that were spawned by said games. How much of what we interact with in the average week is tied back to elements of these games, either in workplace traditions or our language.

With that realization then, comes the inevitable addition that if we are writing a setting without those games, none of those traditions or sayings make any sense.

This goes back to something I’ve seen before, where I’ve found books that are a second-world setting, without Christianity, but still use Christian-based curses. It’s the exact same problem, actually, just deriving from a different aspect of culture. But again, it’s an issue I see crop up from time to a time. I’ve seen settings that had zero context for a “Hail Mary pass” use the phrase. Oops.

The first takeaway from all this, then, is that when we’re sitting down to build our setting (and setting out to write it) we need to draw a partition in our own mind separating out common sayings and traditions that exist in our world but cannot exist in the world we’ve created. There’s nothing wrong with these sayings … in our world. But if we don’t have baseball in our new setting and yet someone says “They knocked it out of the park!” in the same way one would use it in our world, well … that’s a problem! One that can only be answered by either an exposition dump, or some quick changes to bring the saying in line with the setting.

Easier then, to not let modern colloquialisms and traditions seep into our setting where they have no place. To set up that mental recognition first so that we’re not using those sayings in a setting where they have no place.

But that’s only half of what this post is getting at. Because the second part is equally vital, just as big … and a lot of fun.

You need to create some traditions and games the setting your building.

Okay, that sounds more daunting than I meant it to be. Also, this is easier than it sounds.

So look, we can’t have real-world sports in our fantasy setting. At least, not one-to-one and not without some sort of explanation (there are settings, after all, that handwave an identical sport existing for the purposes of a joke or another funny setup, like Early Man being a giant play on Manchester United or the Discworld using sports analogues to make a point about people).

But what we can do is look at where sports and competition come from, and then build light analogues for our own setting. For example, caber tossing supposedly comes from the practice of ancient militaries throwing a beam, or caber, across ice-cold streams and doing so quickly and accurately, or from loggers tossing logs into rivers for transport. Regardless, both were activities that people could quickly gamify for the fun of it, and well … people did!

Actually, looking a bit further at Scottish highland games, almost all of them have some sort of context related to the culture they grew out of. Using a pitchfork to toss a bale of hay over a bar? Well, that’s very similar to using a pitchfork to toss a bale of hay up into a barn loft now isn’t it?

Other games and traditions are similar, even if nowadays we’ve forgotten a lot of where they came from. And so might your characters have forgotten! But in both cases, there will be traditions and games that are built around the culture that they originate from, elements of things like harvesting crops or taking care of animals that have been gamified for the enjoyment of those doing them.

To pick a classic, look at the American tradition of county fairs. Why are there county fairs? Originally to coincide with a harvest completion or the need to sell things like livestock. People show off bulls, which leads to people (probably drunk) daring one another to ride said bulls, and suddenly fifty years later people show up to watch a rodeo without thinking back that all those games, sayings, and experiences grew out of ranchers and livestock sales.

What I’m getting at is that you don’t need to invent quidditch down to the last rule in order (and from thin air). When it comes to our building worlds, we can have our traditions, sayings, and games grow out of the culture we’ve created. For example, some time ago in a Being a Better Writer post we world-built a culture that had grown out of tribes exiled to a rocky desert that had ended up very matriarchal because the men were the ones who had to go out and dig for water all the time. What sort of games might that society and culture produced? Digging competitions? Water-hauling competitions? What sort of sayings might have become part of their day-to-day vernacular as a result of that labor? What about other aspects of their society? What games might have occurred there?

Again, you don’t need to go incredibly deep into it and make the new quidditch. But at the same time, what you make doesn’t even have to make a lot of sense with some of the rules, just enough for people to have fun with it.

I want to focus on that aspect for a moment: Fun. Fun is, essentially, a core part of this concept. If you’re creating your own setting of fantasy, magic, or basically anything that isn’t Earth, fun is a good thing to keep in mind. People create games when they’re bored! What sort of games will your characters (or culture) create? Look at the world you’re building, and then look at “gamifying” parts of it. Does it create something that people can compete at or enjoy? Hold challenges with? Acquire sayings from?

Give it a try! Think of a setting you’ve built, and then think about what sort of games or competitions they might hold! What sort of traditions and sayings might have sprung up around it!

Now, two caveats before we close. The first is that I’m not saying you have to sit down and come up with a intricate series of games that underpin your empire and have led to common sayings across the setting. There’s a limited amount of background and exposition we can stick in a book, and you may not need to worry about it very much, if at all. Games and related traditions might not fit into the story you’re telling over, say, geopolitics or other elements more tied to the story.

But putting a little thought to it, and having a nod here or there, can make the world feel a bit more “alive.” In addition, for some characters or types of stories a little bit of “color” in the tapestry that is your story might be a perfect compliment to things.

The other caveat is that you shouldn’t feel the need to make these games and traditions as outlandish as possible. I’ve seem some settings where writers have done this, forgetting that if you looked over games all across Earth, a shockingly large number of them combine simplicity with a ball. A lot of games are straightforward, so that anyone can pick up and play them or watch them without requiring a massive rulebook (that’s for minutia). If you make a game needlessly complex, you’ll start running into people that point out weird logical errors or incongruities that were added for the sake being weird. Games like football or basketball are pretty simple at their core. So are things like the caber toss. Lift log, take steps, throw log end over end while keeping it as straight as possible.

Even when some sort of magic is added to the equation, games tend to be straightforward for the most part. Keep that in mind as you create your games, traditions, and sayings associated with them.

Now, with those two caveats given, I think we can safely call this installment of Being a Better Writer to a conclusion. While there are other elements we could expand on (such as figuring out what sayings to use) … all of that is stuff that can be extrapolated from what we’ve said so far.

So, to recap: Earth has a storied history of traditions and games, all of which are the product of various cultures and—most importantly—efforts to gamify elements of those cultures. When we’re writing our own worlds, we need to make sure that we’re not slipping in sayings, games, and the like from our own world, and instead that we’re considering the setting and culture of the world we’ve created, to craft games, traditions, and sayings that are unique to it. Doing so will add to the tapestry of our setting, and make it a more believable place.

Now good luck. And get writing.

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