Alternative Cold War History 1994

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Story to Book, Part II: How does a scenario become a scene in the book?

21 May, 2018 | General News

(Writing, the timeless pastime of soldiers.)

Last week Bart wrote about how we tell the Northern Fury story through scenarios in Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations. In this post I (Joel) will talk about how we take the scenarios and turn them into the narrative fiction that forms the core of our novels.

Playing the scenario

It all begins with playing the Northern Fury scenarios.

In fact, that’s how this all really did begin for me. After buying Command a few years ago and learning how to play, I opened up Bart’s “H-Hour” scenario (I immediately got intimidated by its size and complexity and closed out of it, before giving it another go a few days later) and pushed the start button. Very quickly the action taking place on the map started to draw me in. Other games and scenarios had done this before; I think I’ve almost always got a running narrative going in my head when I’m playing a game, whether it’s Command or Monopoly, feeding me a backstory for the twists and turns of the game (I suspect I’m not alone in this, and I think that our desire for a good story says something deeper about us a people, but that thought is for another post). But in H-Hour, when I started to get messages during the scenario telling me about how my fight was part of a larger war that was unfolding, I knew that whoever had designed this scenario had put a lot more thought into the backstory than I ever could. After one particularly dramatic message that arrived late in the scenario (I won’t spoil it for you), I felt compelled to write down and share the story of my play-through. This was the genesis of my first “after-action-review” (AAR) on the Grogheads forum (which you can read here).

After one or two more AARs, Bart asked me if I wanted to collaborate to write a novel, and the rest is history.

The scenarios are the heart of the action that takes place in Northern Fury. Basically, Bart has already outlined the engagements for me in scenario form. I get to play through these engagement and experience them, then write down my experience from the perspective of our characters. When I play I imagine myself as several people, depending on what’s going on. When I’m reading the briefing or maneuvering a task force, I’m the commander. When I’m maneuvering an individual ship, I’m the captain, and when I’m micromanaging an aerial dogfight, I’m one of the pilots. I’m always imagining what it’s like to be the person who’s behind the weapons of war that Command models.

So, as I watch the imaginary people engage in modern combat on the map interface, I begin to see little “moments of drama” unfold; a fighter pilot who barely escapes a radar-homing missile by diving into a valley; a battle group commander who sees his escort ship shoot down all the incoming anti-ship missiles save the last one; a submarine captain maneuvering into the baffles of an enemy ship. These moments become the high points for my AARs, and also for much of the action that you’ll read in the Northern Fury books. While I’m playing Bart’s scenarios I’m also jotting down notes so that later I can remember what these moments were, and also notes about how the characters from the book would experience these events.

(Moments of drama!)

As an aside, like anyone else I have my gaming quirks. One of mine is that once I’ve created the imaginary people in the game in my head, I don’t like it when they die. My gaming style in Command is full-bore micromanagement. I want to be sure that I lose as few of my “people” as possible during the battle. This can make for some pretty unrealistic outcomes, and also goes a long way to explain why my AARs are completely different from the forthcoming novels.

Collaborating on the story

After I’ve played a scenario, the writing process begins. Writing a scene for the book is a very fun and collaborative exercise. It starts with an email from me to Bart that usually begins with something like, “Hey, I just played through scenario X and here are some of the cool things that happened…” We’ll discuss how the battle is suppose to turn out in the story versus how it did in my play through, with both offering ideas about where our characters would be and what they should do during this particular scene. Bart will usually provide a list of details that should be present for realism and to flesh things out. These details really add texture and depth to the story, keep us true the the constraints of time, space, and realism, and even give us more ideas about events that should be in the scene.

(If you look closely you can see the 1917 version of document sharing)

This is truly one of the most enjoyable parts of co-authoring a novel. I think I speak for both of us when I say that the story that unfolds in Northern Fury is much richer for having two minds working on the narrative rather than one. Our back-and-forth emails on a particular scene for the book will sometimes number in the dozens, with the word count in the thousands of words (I have a problem with being concise sometimes). At the end of it all, we are ready to start putting words to Google doc. Though collaboration really continues throughout the process, at some point you just need to start writing.

Writing the scene

When I write, whether it’s a scene for the novels or an AAR or an academic paper, I always start with an outline. For my fiction writing, this outline consists of a list of events or dramatic moments that need to occur to advance the story, things I want the characters to say or ways they should change during the scene, and details or snippets of pictures that I have in my mind that I want to work in. The main purpose of the outline, though, is to make sure that the scene conforms to a structure: exposition, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action—the classic story arc. While the whole novel follows one big arc, each scene should usually follow its own, smaller arc as well. Once I’ve got all this jotted down, I start writing.

I like to start each scene using the technique of in media res, or jumping into the middle of the story. I don’t use this technique in every scene, but I do in a lot of them. It gets people wondering about the background and allows some exposition that’s not just a laundry list of details that the reader has to wade through so they can get to the action. I also write each scene from the perspective of one of our characters, and this last fact is one of the things that makes writing fiction so much fun.

Stephen King said in his memoir, On Writing, that writing fiction is like an archaeological dig where you uncover the story as you go along. I’ve found this to be true as we write Northern Fury. It’s really an amazing feeling, when you sit down to write something with an idea in mind of where things are going, and next thing you know your characters are taking you in a completely different direction! This divergence has happened over and over again as we write the book, and I think it’s one of the things that most separates the AARs from the novel. While the AARs are about events, the novel is about people who have to deal with a world unraveling around them.


And that brings us to the characters themselves. The first thing Bart and I did together after he shared the roughed out campaign story with me was to decide who our main characters would be. We wanted to include people who would be at the important events of the war we are writing about, and we wanted them to be a diverse cast drawn from both sides of the conflict. After some discussion we came up with a list that has continued to evolve (and grow!) as the first book has taken shape.

We wanted to create characters that were complex and sympathetic, both on the NATO side and the Soviet side. When you read the book (and we hope you do) you won’t find any outright villains, or outright heroes for that matter. Paraphrasing George R. R. Martin of Game of Thrones, in real life evil doesn’t announce itself by dressing in black (or wearing red stars) and monologueing a plan to blow up the moon or something.

(Unless you're North Korea, in which case building weapons to blow up the moon is what you do)

In real life the battle between good and evil takes place in the hearts of human beings, and we’ve tried to apply that principle to the characters we’ve created in our story. They’re more than just a set of eyeballs through which to watch the fireworks of World War III.

So now that we’ve created real characters, what remains is to put them into our scene and see how they react. And the exciting thing for me as I write is that I don’t really know how a particular character is going to react until I put them into a situation through writing. That can get us into some interesting dilemmas if the character doesn’t end up doing what we need them to to move the story along, but so far we’ve managed pretty well.


After I’ve written the first draft of a scene I’ll share it with Bart for comment over Google docs. He gives it a good read-through to make sure I haven’t gone too far off the deep end in terms of realism or how things are supposed to unfold (“you can’t sink that ship yet, we need it later”) and a new discussion begins that more often than not ends up transforming the scene until a final draft ends up being much different from the first one I wrote. Again, this is one of the more fun parts of process; having someone to read and discuss the story right away makes the whole writing process very rewarding.

(You can't sink that ship. We need it for later.)

And that, in a nutshell, is how we turn Bart’s scenarios into the pieces of the novel. In Part III of this blog post we’ll discuss how these scenes come together to form chapters and eventually a whole book series. Thanks for reading!