I’m writing a set of four Hero’s Quest books. Each includes crossing rivers and entering dark places — for the characters, the dark places are literal as well as metaphorical. While I enjoy a good dungeon crawl, there can be problems writing about them.
A dungeon can (and should) go beyond simple crashing around underground, and beyond metaphor, to a kind of allegorical story about someone’s personal darknesses. The list of potential things exposed by the fear, failure, mastery, and exit from a dungeon is huge. I think (really, it’s more of a hope) I’ve got a grip on that.
The problem is mechanics. How big is it? How far away are things? Which way to the next door or tunnel? What does depth represent other than the metaphorical move from surface problem to deeper personal issue? And how can I avoid polluting the story with the wrong kinds of details?
The dark place in a Hero’s Journey is about discovery. Information is revealed in discrete steps modeled by dungeon rooms and levels. Resources are removed to make the trip darker, riskier, and more consequential. The quest is about buying information: these transactions define the arc of the story.
Dungeons are framed by the entry and exit problems: the essence of the hero’s journey of departure from the world, initiation into some mystery, and return to the world. This can involve one-way gates, traps, and choices that are also monumental (or inconsequential) issues.
At this point, I’m 88,000 words into book II and I can — finally — enter the most serious part of the dungeon.
And yes, the implication here is that book I doesn’t have a serious dungeon. It has two dungeons, but they're relatively shallow.
Until now, I thought my sketchy outline notes about this dungeon would be good enough. Because I want to avoid dwelling on the dumb little mechanical points, I tried to keep the notes superficial. Details are essential for verisimilitude, but, the adventure travel aspect can devolve into counting meals consumed and water-skins filled. While I need to count meals, I need to avoid dwelling on it, because the story grinds to a halt.
I’ve found my original notes weren't nearly enough. I really do need a concrete map of locations, and problems, and choices. My initial outline didn't dictate the layout well enough for story-telling. As I fill in the details, I find the outline needs to be changed to match what’s going on underground. And there’s backstory to be tweaked, too, as the map evolves.
My original model for this part of the story was Tolkien’s description of the Elvish dungeons in The Hobbit. The dungeon was sketchy but sufficient for the story line of Bilbo’s learning to rely on himself to solve his own problems. A few locations are named. Similarly for Moria in The Lord of the Rings: a few locations are tied together with stairs and halls. The general distance through the mountain seems to be accounted for nicely, an important ancillary detail for me.
My first draft of the dungeon sketches lacked the important pits. Sigh. That’s when I knew I had to back to the drawing board. Literally.
I’ve got Grid Cartographer 4 Pro fired up. I’ve started laying things out more carefully.
With some clear landmarks, it’s a little easier for me to imagine how the obstacles are confronted.
Some things, like the cliffs to the east, don’t look quite right. The only available icon makes it look like a chain of mountains. I suppose I could try to make custom icons, but that seems like too much distraction from the essential job of telling the story.
I’m still waffling about dropping labels all over the place in the maps. Maybe I’ll print they maps and sketch on them with good old-fashioned pencils.