Kill the Darlings

Over the weekend, I ran a one-shot Dungeons & Dragons game for my sister’s birthday, and I screwed it up. One-shots are games designed to be played in a single session, so they need to be self-contained stories that also allow the characters to take part in a good range of actions. I try to set them up so they include some fighting along with some meaty opportunities for roleplaying.

One-shots, in my circles, have always been famous for not going off as planned. In fact, I’ve been running a campaign for about a year that was intended to be a one-shot–I guess that’s a good failure.

In this case, I designed the story in three acts (you know, if you play D&D, that my mistake started here–no way were we getting through all that). My basic rule for one-shots is that I design them to take about three hours less than the time I have scheduled. I figure that it’s better to get through the whole story and end a little early (which has never happened) than to spend forever setting up and not really get into the story (which happens all the time).

I knew, when I looked over the game I had planned, that I was in trouble and was not going to get through the whole game. I knew that Act Two was unnecessary and that I should cut it. I was also in love with Act Two. There was this really cool plot twist that I just had to try.

That was my downfall. We got through that cool plot twist, but that was it. I kept people longer than I should have, and didn’t get to my cool finale at all. We spent most of our time going through unnecessary fights, avoiding the real story so that I could get my kicks with a neat trick. In the end, I was disappointed at how much of my story was left out. The players were disappointed because they didn’t get the payoff at the end.

As we left the game, I said to my husband, “I’m a writer. I should know better than to do that.”

It’s true. As a writer, I’ve learned, over and over again, the hard truth that I have to do what’s best for the story above all else. If neat details are in the way of that, they have to go. If I’ve made a joke at the story’s expense, it has to go. Samuel Johnson famously said, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Sure, I know this, and helpful editors have convinced me to do it in my writing many times. But experiencing what my ego did to my D&D game made the lesson sink in more than it has before. If neat tricks stop you from telling the story you want to tell, they’re clearly not worth it.

This isn’t the first time my experience as a dungeon master has taught me something about writing, and I hope it’s not last. I’d rather learn these things among friends than embarrass myself under my byline (sorry, friends).

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