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Action, War & the Stories that lack them

July 12, 2010
Provost Zakharov makes a demand

Oh Zak, maybe if your name were Monty and I weren't a cruel dictator, I'd feel a bit more threatened

I love Sid Meier’s Civilization. I await Civilization V…and I’m still dreaming for Brian Reynolds to announce any day now that his team is working on Alpha Centauri 2.

But I must also confess.

I hate Sid Meier’s Civilization. I fear how Civilization V will “fix combat,” but even in all of the rest of the games, I fear combat. Except for in SMAC, which I’ve gotten more of a handle upon, I play most of the Civ games on the easiest difficulty levels because I despise AIs who catch me unaware and seize foolishly under-defended cities.

So, in the Civilization series, I have a huge problem: war. But this relates to a problem I have in writing as well: action.

Recently, Therese discussed the issue of novels in which nothing happens. Of course, this claim usually doesn’t mean that nothing happens, but that certain kinds of things don’t happen.

For example, thinking about ideas is “nothing.” Internal stuggle is “nothing.” Navel-gazing is “nothing.”

Action would be “something.” Death or sex would be “something” too.

I take it on the word of those who critique my (decidedly amateur) works that the fact that “nothing happens” is a grave judgment that must be corrected. And even I can understand that when I write, very often, “nothing happens.”

I first noticed this phenomenon in my journaling. I remarked to myself — I certainly hope I can remember the things that happened just based on the emotions I feel and the ideas I’m discussing…because my journal entries are almost devoid of action, characterization, or even a particular setting. At best, a sketch of these things provide a jumping point for going on and on several pages about what I think and what I feel. So, I fear that in so many years, I’ll have a crystal clear understanding of what I thought when about…but I won’t even be able to discern what it all was about.

This spills (unfortunately) into my writing. So rarely do I talk about something that happened…but instead, I talk about what I thought about it.

I view this somewhat like I view my playing of games like Civilization or Alpha Centauri.

I rarely want to pursue action and war. I rarely want to spend time outside of my borders. Rather, I want to develop my land and my cities, and I love to see it all blossom forth.

I am usually comfortable with a few cities, so as a result, I rarely expand outward after an initial expansion period. I don’t see the motivation in preemptively going to war with my AI opponent, or even in colonizing other continents. (My naval game in these kinds of games generally ends up being pathetic.)

Even when I do want to expand, I like to do so through influence rather than through combat. I liken this through a persuasion through ideas — that terrible telling, rather than showing. I love the idea of culture in Civilization III and Civilization IV, and I love the idea of cities “flipping” over to another culture (especially when it’s mine) without a single shot fired.

Of course, I quickly come to realize that everything can’t always be peaceful and speculative. Usually, Montezuma or Isabella or someone else will come knocking on my door with a stack of troops to seize a weakly defended city. I usually lack the ability even to shift into a war economy for several turns, so after such a terrible event, I generally quit in frustration.

I know that this has to change. I have to get better at war and defense…and perhaps even learn to appreciate the occasional preemptive strike.

In the same way, I know my writing must change. It must have more actions to characterize, dialog instead of monologue, and so on. And I have to learn to make that the natural way I write.


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  1. You have exactly the same Civilization and Alpha Centauri strategies (flaws) that I do. Even when I try pre-emptive strikes I do it so poorly that I regret it. I also hate it when the game tells me I have risen to the status of Dan Quayle.

  2. I’d like to read some of your stories one of these days!

  3. Syphax, let’s just call them strategies and leave out that nasty f word. I agree though, the end “ranking” against historical people can be depressing.

    Therese, maybe one of these days, I’ll just have to post one of them here!

  4. I just hate Sister Miriam Godwinson.

    I hate sending out my scout unit and finding her parked a few miles away – knowing that I might be able to trade a few techs with her at first, but eventually I’ll be better off ruthlessly crushing her like a bug. I hate how she hates absolutely everyone, without exception. I hate that ugly hairdo. And I hate that this is supposedly what “religious” people are supposed to be like.

    Why couldn’t she be like House Atraedies or something. Now those people did space religion right!

  5. Hmm, you’re right Seth, if Sid Meier knew more Mormons, a more obvious fit would obviously be the Hive.

  6. Seth, On the other hand, with the kinds of scientific atrocities that *do* happen in-game, I think that Miriam’s religious stereotype isn’t TOTALLY unfounded.

    To the extent that it is a narrow caricature (that doesn’t even capture all major religions, I guess), I can agree with you, but then again, each character is a caricature.

    Syphax, I can see how the Hive would seem a better analogy, but of course, I think it runs into ideological issues too. Life’s only purpose is life itself? no way!

  7. I don’t know. A lot of guys I knew at BYU reminded me of Brother Lal of the Peacekeepers.

    Friendly (at first), selling a noble cause, and full of self-assurance at being on the side of the good guys. But kind of a weenie after all – when all is said and done.

    Chairman Yang is just a bit too raw to pull of the proper Utah vibe.

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