Sorry I've been absent for a few days, both from here and from my normal games on Facebook, as well as from my writing of the Elf Queen.
I've been playing Empire. It's a classic game of conquest from back in the IBM 286 days. I played it way back when while I was at West Point, and I recall spend most of the last half of the first semester of my junior year playing the game right up to a few minutes before the term end exam for a course was to start, then running away (it doesn't need pausing, being turn-based) and then returning to continue the game.
Yes, I passed all my classes. I might perhaps have done better had I not become an Empire playing fiend, but you could say that about many of my habits (such as not doing any homework that wasn't immediately necessary).
Now, I've been looking at what it is that gets people really totally engaged in something. When someone, for example, says "I couldn't put the book down," sometimes they're telling a little white fib to make the author feel better, but occasionally the book really does have that kind of hold on them.
This, then, was an experiment (that's my story, and I'm stickin' to it). What is it about engaging the person that can be replicated?
Is it technology? If so, then Empire should not have grabbed me again. Back in 1987-1988, it was indeed high tech. Now, though, it's really completely not. The screen only comes in one size, for example. The map is in two colors: green, and blue. My playing pieces are red pictures of what the unit is, and the enemy's pieces are all the same pictures in green. When I tell a piece to move a certain direction, it literally just flips from one spot to the next, to the next. The most high-tech thing about it is the white flashing of the pieces when combat happens.
And yet, it held me once again, over a quarter century later.
Part of it is the "fog of war" aspect. As you're moving pieces, you're also discovering the world (that was, prior to your piece being there, entirely black). It's also a steady action game, where pieces are always moving or ready to move or needing to be moved.
Those two lessons, then, play directly into the process of writing. It is possible, through careful plotting and writing and planning the reveals, to keep just the right amount of "fog of war" in a story to maintain tension. I'm not talking about a complete surprise, by the way, not because it's not good, but rather because it's near impossible to pull off. It's very rare that a book surprises me at the end, after all, and I still enjoy them regardless. What I'm talking about is a narrative style that times reveals to plot points in a way that keeps the reader sitting there with his or her eyes in the book.
The other lesson has been covered in a great many of the books and articles on writing that I've read. Keep the action going, they say--build the stakes for the protagonist and company higher with every page. Granted, that's hard to do when you have to tell other parts of the story sometimes, but eye those parts skeptically and don't be afraid to scrap 'em if you need.
And now, all of that said, I'm headed back to finish this dang game.