Playing in the Sandbox

by Wholesome Rage | 7 June 2019

This could be considered a spiritual sequel to the Hazardous Materials, in a way.

If some ideas are unstable explosives to work with, others are like sand and water. Easy to work with to the point of not needing to pay them any mind at all.

Let’s talk about sandbox stories.

I have to explain what I mean by ‘sandbox’ first though. A ‘sandbox game’ is a genre where you’re generally unrestricted with a large world to play in. Your rules can be as strict or not-strict as you make them for yourself, and ultimately the goal is to just have fun in it.

Unless you specifically implement challenges to yourself, odds are you’re not really developing skill sets by playing them, though, because without restrictions, there’s no element of challenge.

This isn’t a problem when you’re playing a game, though, unless you’re trying to learn.

I propose the idea of sandbox stories, in this vein, as stories that might be a lot of fun to write and think about, but lack the challenge needed to actually develop a skillset. Examples are easy of think of; Zombie stories, any story where the centrepiece is a big war, post apocalypse survival. Some are more abstract, but just as concrete in archetype: “A character from a science fiction setting arrives in a fantasy setting”, being a major umbrella for a lot of manga, light novels and fanfiction.

The type I was thinking of when I first codified these ideas to myself was war stories. I know plenty of newer writers who have spent years writing their epic war stories, getting constant feedback, and they consistently fail to improve.

I used to think that part of it was just that the genre attracted that kind of writer. Now, though, I’m not so sure.

I think the big problem lies in the fact that most of the challenge of writing comes from having to discover interesting conflict, and resolving it. Sandbox stories seem to be defined by having that conflict always apparent and clearly defined without much effort required on the part of the author.

This means the author doesn’t actually have to think about what the conflict means from a storytelling perspective most of the time.

It makes writing and generating characters much easier. Every character is moved and affected by an all consuming broader conflict; Say, everyone’s just trying to survive, but all these zombies/nuclear wasteland/aliens keep getting in the way.

If character writing requires you to think; “Who would be affected by this conflict in an interesting way”, sandbox stories go a lot of the way to making that answer as easy as possible, down to knowing what their motivations are implicitly.

Sometimes these outlines even solves what their relationship to the main characters is going to be for you. If they are on the main character’s side, they’re helping. If they aren’t, they’re a hinderance. Those are the only two possibilities in most sandbox outlines.

This makes easy what, in other stories, is some of the hardest writing practice you can do: “How do I make interesting characters, who advance the story, that will interact meaningfully with the main characters?”

Another problem with writing is how you make a ‘story’, a narrative, instead of just a sequence of events. Just things that happen in order.

If there’s a war, the conclusion is obvious: Winning the war. To that end, anything that you do that logically leads to that conclusion - literally anything that affects the war effort - can be seen as following a narrative arc.

In other sandbox story types it’s even easier, because it can be reduced to, say, “Survive”. Do they survive until the end of the story, or not? Incidentally, there are now 9 seasons of The Walking Dead on television.

The simplicity of these endings means you don’t have to learn how to write a narrative instead of just a ‘series of events’ - any series of events you make in the sandbox falls into the correct shape for you.

Why’s a war being fought? You can have reasons, but you don’t have to think of how to convey them. War is a very generic conflict, the monologues and speeches your characters give about it are all that you need to provide a context. You don’t need to figure out how to weave themes into events, or plan events that demonstrate themes.

Other notable sandbox story fixtures - epic fantasy and zombie stories - are also great at removing the need to explain why there is an enemy, or why it needs to be fought. This means that you don’t have to justify many of your action scenes.

If you just write a good and evil story and make the ‘evil’ another race or species to clear up the ambiguity, that can be the take home message. Dr Michael Parenti talked about the prevalence of this in mainstream media last century in his lecture; “Rambo and the Swarthy Hordes”.

If you suspect you’re guilty of this, or that a story you’re thinking of is guilty of this, ask yourself: If the protagonist could say: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for our children”, and it contextually is the best summary of their personal struggle?

You’ve seriously messed up.

I’m not saying writing epic fantasy wars makes you a white supremacist. Of course not. I am saying that you don’t want be writing ideas that get interpreted that way, though.

Unfortunately, it happens a lot, and because authors don’t have to think of their themes when playing with these stories, they often don’t realize this. Even when mindful, this is part of why you see such a gulf of difference between the intended message of Fallout, Warhammer 40K and cyberpunk dystopia, and the aesthetic their fans internalize.

The underlying conflict being so immediately obvious and overt affects the writing process so much that you can think of the literal reasons the events happen and, so long as you have some internal consistency as a person, they’re going to make a theme for you. Which removes the need to intentionally work at that level.

Sandbox outlines often give you big spectacle, flashy ideas, and a bucketload of tropes and cliches to both play straight and subvert. They’re fun. But, noticing this, writers also often seem to be compelled to make their story have substance through this spectacle, through big scenes, instead of woven throughout in small details.

And that’s when new authors playing in the sandbox start looking at the locked cabinet with the Hazardous Materials logo on it. As inevitably as every SimCity player clicks the meteor button.

This isn’t to say there aren’t good war stories. Obviously not, just like Hazardous Materials wasn’t about saying that people shouldn’t tell those stories.

What I am saying is that sandbox settings are like the Hazardous Materials in that the appeal of their idea is immediately evident. You don’t need to put the work into finding out how to get emotional resonance out of it.

But because you don’t need to put the work in, it’s very hard to learn how to do the work well.

The issue I have, concluding this, is that I’ve mostly argued a case for why these stories are a kind of crutch, or bandaid, or training wheel. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad stories. In fact, the problem I have is that because they solve all of these problems, they often help weaker authors tell stories above their weight class in some way.

If what you want to write specifically is an epic war story, or a zombie story, then there isn’t advice I can offer at the end of this to you. I also can’t tell you to write a different story you don’t want to write.

This exists, then, only as a suggestion to authors who feel like they’re stuck, or aren’t improving after writing for a long period of time.

For practice in general, I recommend comedy. Comedy is good practice because it forces you to balance keeping stakes absurd and serious at the same time, which makes you concentrate on your story’s elements a lot more than just the literal events that happen. Comedy’s a lot more difficult to work with, but I suppose that’s the point.

“Bottle” stories - two characters, stuck in a single location - are good to practice conflict between two characters when the setting doesn’t provide it.

Writing shorter stories, as well, will help drastically. Anything that has to be resolved in under 20,000 words, will confront you with telling a complete story - and going over every part of a story arc - rapidly. Sandbox stories, by their nature, can get authors stuck on forever-projects, which is a big problem when you learn more from finishing projects than from doing them.

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