(posted April 1, 2015)
Nothing else compares to what the arcade classic, Pac-Man, teaches us about writing fiction. First introduced to arcades in 1980, Pac-Man remains in our culture as both a beloved pass time for video-gamers, and a too often uncelebrated teacher for aspiring fiction writers. The creators/authors seem to have intended to include every basic building block of good fiction in the game. Those willing to simply look a little deeper can see that the game is a product of all the best storytelling of the past several millennia. Needless to say, Pac-Man has much advice to offer. For the sake of beginners, I’ll try to break it down in layman’s terms.
Plot: The game begins in the same location each and every time, just like a story always begins with an opening. The most interesting plots are often those where characters are forced to make decisions. Will Pac-Man first go left, or will he go right? Things get especially complex when he’s faced with the choice of going up or down, and sometimes the cross-shaped choice of up, down, left, or right. Before getting overwhelmed thinking about the many possibilities, remember that a plot can be like a line from start to the finish, and though complex, Pac-Man always starts at one pellet and ends at the last. Will he backtrack, will he chase ghosts, will he travel from one side of the screen to the next…these choices are all yours for any plot you wish to create. Just remember not to forget the fruit at the center of your story.
Setting: From the blackness, there is complexity. All worlds which we create begin in the ether of black screened nothing and take shape as we imagine borders, lines, and edges. We must create four powerful corners in our setting and, perhaps, even add tension by making it seem like all the ghosts of our character’s trouble emerge somewhere in the center of the world. No setting shines without vibrancy, so allow your reader to see the world as if glowing in neon.
Character: He is Pac-Man. He struggles, he hurts, he hungers. Attributes similar to Huck Finn, Atticus Finch, Clarissa Dalloway, Rabbit Angstrom, Holden Caulfield, and even Laura Ingalls can be seen in Pac-Man. Perhaps the best thing he can tell writers is to remember that if a character does not move, if they sit and do nothing, they will die.
Dialogue: This is so blatantly obvious that there is no need to examine it.
Exposition: For those unaware, exposition is necessary information in a story that the narrator supplies. With Pac-Man, we don’t even see the exposition. It unfolds at the same time action does. It almost doesn’t even seem to be there.
Psychic Distance: How do we get our readers to relate, to understand, and to care about our character? Perhaps the best way to do this is to force readers to become our characters. Force the reader to care, force them to fight alongside a character, and force them to have something at stake. A shiny coin is not enough. Neither are initials on a high score screen. No, what Pac-Man gives us is his life in the palm/joystick of our hands. That is no small gift, and Pac-Man is no small character (even if he actually is kind of small on screen.)
I hope some of the previous insights have helped any beginners as well as those considered advanced at writing/gaming. Just remember, there are always more levels. In fact, there seem to be a never-ending number of levels. Alas, I wish I could get deeper into relationships between characters, but I’ll end by pointing out the key to writing a killer romance story should you wish. All of your wildest dreams and more can be found in the game that revolutionized love as we know it: Ms. Pac-Man.