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Why Dungeons are Good: Constrain Your Situation

Conventional wisdom suggests the best writing happens outside of the box, but is that true?

Why should you constrain your narrative? In particular, why does constraining or narrowing your situation create opportunity in your story? Isn't it always better to have unlimited space to work in? I would suggest it is not. It could be argued that people do this on an unconscious level, but what I am suggesting here is that you do it on purpose. Even if you are a pantser, which I tend to be, you can decide to narrow the situation at the outset, which will help focus the story.


But what are we talking about when we say situation. The situation is what is going on right now, here, in front of the characters. It is not just plot, but includes place and time. If situation is too vast or wide, it can lead to a narrative that submerges the characters in space and detail. A story is not a tour of your world; it is the story of what is happening in a given place and time. Modern epic fantasy is often guilty of details surplus to requirement, but the same can be said of a great many genres and idioms.

The Lesson of Dungeons

Why is a dungeon a good situation in either a role-playing game or as the setting for a story? The dungeon provides literal constraints, making it hard for the characters to just wander off. It narrows the characters' vision, makes it more difficult to move, and creates encounters that can come out of nowhere. Tension flows from the constraints. But not all dungeons have to be old world stone structures built beneath (or swallowed up by) the terrain. A dungeon can be a space ship, think Alien, or a train, think Murder on the Orient Express. In fact a dungeon can be almost anything; I think some relationships are dungeons keeping everyone involved trapped by the walls of its passions. Mental illness can create constraints on a character and their relationships with others.

But I Do That Already

Perhaps you do, but do you do it on purpose? Do you put constraints on yourself and your story to create more tension? Narrowing the field you are playing in can help with writer's block and wondering "where the characters are going". The characters are living in this constrained space, forcing them to be clever in how they interact with the situation. You as a writer are living in the same constrained space. Every temptation to leap outside the "dungeon" bumps against those walls. Combine this with Laying Down Your Keel and you might find yourself writing your story between well established ribs and structure.

Like everything, this is just advice. It may not work for you or it might. I have been applying it to some of my recent stories of varying lengths. Let me know if adding purposeful constraints works for you.


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