Why Every Writer Needs to Play Roller Coaster Tycoon

This might seem rather interesting as far as propositions go, but hear me out. 

If you write fiction, you need to, at some point, study roller coasters or play Roller Coaster Tycoon. I think the latter is more fun, but is also more prone to stealing your soul, so if you want to stay safe, perhaps the academic route is best. 

Either way, I think the actual building or designing of a roller coaster is fairly useful when designing or writing fiction. 

If you take your current plot and you create a roller coaster out of it, how fun would it be? 

This is, in my opinion, where the typical bell curve of a plot craps out. 

If you got on a roller coaster that only had one giant hill, the up side of which you’re creeping on, it would be fairly boring. On the other hand, if you’re spinning so much you can’t get your orientation, you might vomit and it would be a horrible experience – too much action. 

Similarly, if you don’t allow for build-up, you won’t have any suspense, and you won’t have anywhere to go. No roller coaster I’ve ever known dives right into the twisting and turning. If there’s no setup, there’s nowhere to go. If you don’t climb the hill, there won’t be enough momentum to drive the coaster. 

Writing fiction is no different. 

I think most writers fear boredom, so they want to jump right into the action. But that’s kind of like dumping someone onto the first downward hill of the coaster – a little much for an introduction. Readers will hang with you during the first hill of your story, the build up, because they know they’re in for a story later on. It’s expected. 

Case in point – and I hate to criticize him, but it’s true – I absolutely battled through the first 150-200 pages of Insomnia by Stephen King. I’m finally at about 250, and it’s just starting to take off. But it’s almost a 700-page book. Still, that’s quite a long buildup for me. But I know King. And I know I’m in for a treat if I hang in there. 

King front-loads his “coasters”, or novels. What I mean by that is that he gives you one big hill, and then you’re off. I’m right at the top in this novel, peering over the edge, gripping the bar, waiting to fall and hanging on for the coming ride. 

Another way to build a coaster is to have a relatively short and mild uphill climb to begin with, but then putting another one or two uphill climbs later on, as well, because physics demands it. 

Personally, I think the best coasters have a long and steep incline, and then a terrifying drop and tons of twists and turns, broken up strategically by moments of facing forward and being able to get your bearings – just barely – before twisting again, allowing you to get a line of sight on the ending, and easing you right in. Whoo! What a blast. 

However, I feel like many fiction writers think they need to evenly disperse all the elements of a story perfectly along the way so as not to jar, bore, or upset the reader. That’s crap. That, my friends, amounts to a kiddie ride. It’s a “Whee, a few little bumps, but I could drink my coffee on this thing without spilling it,” kind of ride. 

Yawn. 

Don’t be afraid of the buildup! Readers WILL hang with you, they DO expect it, and it IS necessary. It’s necessary in physics to give a coaster the height and momentum you need to power it through an omg-that-was-amazing coaster, and it’s necessary for books that leave readers going “holy ****, that was awesome!” 

Personally, I want my readers to get off my ride – or finish reading my stories or novels – a little scared, a lot pumped up, a bit confused, but with the resolution that just as soon as they calm down they’re getting back on. I don’t want them puking up their socks into the bushes and ruin the rest of their day at Courtneyland. (For real.) But I do want them to be a little shook up. I want them to have a “whoa” moment. I want them ripped out of normalcy, clenching the handles, wanting to shut their eyes but unable to look away, toss around their ideas and preconceived notions, and then bring them in for a “now that wasn’t so bad” landing. Because those are the people who will go on to the next ride (or read the next book) without leaving Courtneyland altogether. 

Maybe you have Maryland (not the state, but funny anyway), or Joyland (not the Stephen King book….I’m not making my point well), or Fredland, or whoeveryouareland. 

But as you write your novel, ask yourself what kind of coaster you’re building. 

If you need help figuring it out, figure how many words or pages you’re shooting for. Let’s say you want an 80,000 word novel. If you get past 8-16,000 words and you’re still building, maybe think again. Take out a little. But if you’re already in the action by 1,000 words, whoa Nelly, slow down. 

Take your estimated word count as your coaster. The history, buildup, introductory section you can plot out in things you need to tell. You’ll likely have a few ideas of main events and an ending. Think about how the story sits in your mind right now, and try to map it out as if it were a rollercoaster. Plot twists are loops. Diving into action scenes are hills. Any time you tell rather than show you’re giving the riders some down time. Climactic scenes in which several crazy unexpected things happen or a lot of emotion is involved – corkscrews. Get it? 

What does your coaster look like? Is there enough buildup? Enough twists? Enough hills? Do you come in for a landing mid-twist (how unpleasant)? 

Think about these things. 

If you’re like me and you rarely outline but start with a general idea and dive in (yeah, stick it to the man), you can use the roller coaster technique during your editing process. And in a sense you’re better off that way because you have exact figures to go by. Go through your scenes and dissect word count, and design your coaster from them. See if you like it. See if it’s fun. See if it’s too exciting. Notice if there’s enough transition time. (A dream within a dream was cool. A loop within a loop without ever finishing the first loop is not only seemingly impossible, but rather nauseating.) 

Hopefully this analogy helps you. It helps me, and I made the connection – and then the “technique” – to help me write. I’ll soon be publishing my first novel, so you’ll be able to judge how it worked out. (End of the year!) But once I started using this approach to story-telling, my writing changed, and it became easier to plan and edit. 

Let me know what you think of this idea! 

Until next time – happy writing!

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