A Writing Entry – Railroading

Sorry for skipping Wednesday with no warning.  Real life is not conducive to hopefully entertaining and always ranty blog entries (today’s is about railroading).  Anyway, on with the show!

Railroading” is normally a term associated with role-playing games.  It refers to a gamemaster who controls the game so closely that the players have no ability to do anything but what the GM wants.  This is quite common in particular in modules and in many ways unavoidable.  There’s just not a lot of room to improvise in an adventure that’s already been written (one I played was so badly written we the players stopped trying to investigate anything on our own and just waited around for the next clue to come to us, which it did).  This is a bigger issue when the GM is creating the world and still doesn’t allow the players any freedom.  Granted, having watched an adventure or two go off the rails, as it were, I understand why GMs may do that, but it ruins a lot of the fun of the game.  And besides, a good GM can improvise, usually.

So how does this relate to writing?  Obviously as the writer, I am in complete control of my world, my characters, and my plot.  Usually.  When I use the term “railroading” to refer to writing, I’m referring to stories in which the actions of the characters seem to have no bearing on the plot; that is, it seems like the plot is dragging the characters around, not that the characters are driving the story.

I mentioned I’m having this problem right now with “Sailor Moon Crystal.”  For those of you not familiar with this series right now, or don’t want spoilers, I’ll try to provide an example of what I mean.   I’m trying to think of more examples in various media, but I guess I’m lucky in that I’m having trouble thinking of many off-hand.  Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a decent example in that despite all of Alice’s protests about being in control of her own destiny, she still had a prophecy to fulfill, and when it came down to that, the sword she carried was more important than anything she did.  But that’s all I’ve got in mainstream media, so I’ll use a real-life example.

Before Writer G and I went our separate ways, I read a draft of one of his novels.  The particulars of the story aren’t terribly important, so I’ll sum up this way: a teenage boy and a teenage girl are chosen by separate gods to fulfill an ancient prophecy or else a bunch of people will die.  I don’t care for prophecy myself in fiction because I think many times prophecy serves more as a deus ex machina than a real driver for the story.  Writer G, by the way, did just this.  Anyway, if the boy and girl in this story succeed, everyone is saved.  If they don’t, everyone is screwed.  So as the boy and girl go along to find the actual prophecy, they save a couple of villages, are granted miracles by their gods, find the prophecy, have a final battle with their gods, and save everyone.

So why do I use this story as an example of railroading?  As I read it, I felt the characters had no choice and their actions didn’t matter.  Now, in the best types of stories with prophecies, the characters must go through hardships to get them to the point they can fulfill the prophecy either physically (as in they have to get to the right place) or mentally (as in the character needs to learn something/grow in some way).  But this story was not the best type.  Specific examples from the story:

a) The main characters did save some villages.  However, this had no bearing on the plot or their characters.  And if they had failed in fulfilling the prophecy, everyone would have died.  But because they succeeded, everyone would have been saved anyway.  And no, the characters did not grow through those experiences.

b) When the characters got into trouble, their gods provided exactly the miracle they needed to get out of trouble.  Their actions had no bearing on the situation.

c) When the characters needed to get into the main temple to find the prophecy, the main temple was of course guarded by many powerful clerics with powerful magic and they were obviously outmatched.  The spirit of the prophecy itself possessed the girl and not only guided her directly to the safe where the prophecy was held, the spirit hid her and the boy from any kind of detection.

d) And when the characters need to get to the place to fulfill the prophecy, which is a long way away from the main temple, the spirit of the prophecy just teleports them to where they need to be.

I could cite some more examples, but I hope that’s enough to illustrate my point. I know that from a meta-perspective all characters are railroaded.  The plot goes in one direction and they go in that direction.  I just don’t like it when a piece of media feels like the characters are being railroaded.  If the characters don’t really have a choice or even the illusion of choice, then it’s hard for me to root for them one way or the other.  And this is why “Sailor Moon Crystal” is currently befuddling me.  I’ll finish the series, of course, and maybe think differently, and maybe have some more thoughts on railroading (or at least more examples) and how to avoid the appearance of it in writing.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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