How to Write a Tomb Raider Tale: Professional Tips, Tricks, and Experiences

Hey guys! This Exclusive Tomb Raider Writing Guide is special because not only will you learn from me a few tips on how to get started writing a Tomb Raider adventure, but you'll also learn from the professionals. I got in contact with E.E.Knight, author of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Lost Cult and James Alan Gardner, author of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Man of Bronze, and they were so kind as to fill out a questionnaire I sent them regarding tips and experiences in writing their official and published Tomb Raider novels. So read further to begin learning a few things about writing your very own Lara Croft adventure.

Questionnaire with E.E.Knight

1)What was the first step towards writing a Tomb Raider adventure?

E.E.Knight: I suppose having the editor of the series contact me  to see if I wanted to write one. But even before that I played Lara in her adventures, so having my own ideas about who Lara is and what a good adventure for her would be based on my own experiences at the console gave me a foundation.
Hunter: So E.E.Knight used his experiences from Tomb Raider gameplay to aid him in writing his adventure. From the games, we already know who Lara is, her personality, the kind of people she associates herself with, the kind of people she shoots. If you need help getting started, stretch to your memory of your Tomb Raider experiences. What can you relay about Tomb Raider?

2) In regards to Lara, were there any rules you followed in how to keep her in character, or the one everybody knows and loves? What things would you say Lara can and can't do in a Tomb Raider adventure?
 E.E.Knight: The folks at the game were quite strict about sex, drugs, and alcohol.  Also, she couldn't have a boyfriend at the end of the story, she had to be free of entanglements that might mess up the Tomb Raider mythos.  I could depict her nude, but it had to be with a light touch.  In my story, after the tough opening mission, she is relaxing in a bath full of epsom salts -- something I used to do after falling off horses or in a judo match -- but I didn't spend time doing pornographic details about her body.    

Hunter: So to surmise, if you plan to write a more conventional Tomb Raider story, things like sex, drugs, and alcohol shouldn't be part of Lara's "adventures". Lara probably fancies a glass of champagne, and in The Lost Cult, she runs in with drug runners. So what we're saying is Lara cannot be involved with that stuff. Not to say you can't write a story about that, but in this article we are looking at a more conventional way of writing one of Lara's adventures.

 3) Was research an important factor in writing your adventure? About how much research did you undergo for the book?   

 E.E.Knight: Yes, research is one of the fun parts of this job. I did some National Geographic reading on the places she was going. The combination of travelogue and pictures makes fine inspiration for a novelist.

Hunter: So for a strong Tomb Raider adventure, research is imperative. The guys who work story at Crystal and Eidos don't just come up with those legends and locations. They research it all. I know I do a good bit of research when I write an adventure. Right now I am working on another Tomb Raider story that takes Lara to China. It dug up information about names, locations, battles, years, legends, culture, customs, geography and much more. So find a magazine, and the internet is always a great option as well!

4) When I write a story, I have a motivation that keeps me writing. Did you have a motivation while writing your Tomb Raider book?

E.E. Knight: They weren't going to pay me until it was completed.  That's a good motivator!

Hunter: Very true; money is the ultimate motivator! But although we may not be paid  for our works, there are always other motivators out there! In most cases, I am motivated by the fact that real people really read my stories! I don't want to give them something I'm not proud of. I want to give them the next BIG thing aside from the Tomb Raider games!

5) When writing one of your action scenes, how do you keep the reader on the edge of their seat?

E.E.Knight: Action scenes are all about sentence length and verb choice.  You need good, strong verbs, and the shorter your sentences, the better.  Just when it looks like she's done, you throw one more opponent into the fray, or do something that takes it up to the next level.  A sword duel is interesting, but if in the middle of the duel they set the castle on fire, it gets
more exciting.  Having the hero's best friend trapped in the fire, where she has to choose between saving the friend and stopping the enemy--thus saving many more lives-- cranks it up even more.  Simple, old tricks, but there's a reason they've been around forever.

Hunter: Action scenes are a mega-important part of Tomb Raider! The Centaur fight in TR1/Anniversary, the battle in Barkhang Monastery in Tomb Raider 2, the overturning ship in Underworld, and the fan-favorite battle in Tokamoto's office complex in Tomb Raider Legend were all big action scenes. Think about Underworld, first it was primarily a gunfight between Lara and Amanda's mercenaries on the ship, before the ship bursts into flames! In Tokamoto's offices, you fight gunmen, and then dogs, and then Tokamoto with a crazy green weapon of magic! All of your favorite Tomb Raider action scenes could not have been accomplished without kicking the action up to the next level at some point.

6) Lara Croft is all about puzzles and exploration. This means much detail is required for each scene to make sure the reader can visually imagine what is happening to Lara. In regards to detail, how did you plan out different scenes? Did you by chance draw a map of the surrounding area? What tips can you give us about detail?

E.E. Knight: Puzzles are pretty tough to translate into a novel without the use of graphics (Michael Crichton's novels often had such graphics).  Also, tricky path-finding is fun in a game, but it'll get stale very, very fast in a piece of writing.  The closest I could come without going crazy with graphics was using the old platinum plates with the Mene Cult's inscriptions.  Yes, detail work is necessary as a writer, but few readers will follow you through pages of description of a chair.  You want to keep it to a minimum when bullets are flying, of course.

Hunter: I agree to the above. Details are vital in good writing. But come time for some action. Nobody will really follow that he was a tall and stocky man with a mustache that curled across his face, had on black suede pants with a stain from the ravioli he dropped on it at lunch, and that he was standing over in the corner of the room where the oak desk complete with lamp and computer had been hot into oblivion. No. During an action scene they want to hear that he got shot. (I never much fancied those curly mustaches) So make sure you use details, but never overwhelm the reader! Give them just enough to picture their surroundings in Normal Quality. Also mentioned was graphics. I have begun to use them in my writing because I think it makes for some cool puzzles. I read an Alex Rider book one time with a picture of a slip of paper Alex found, and the paper had little lines and whatnot. It was nice to see that because later, Alex figured out that the lines represented a path he needed to take. It was cool to have a graphic. So, depending on your preference, graphics can be a good tool for you to use in a Tomb Raider adventure.

7) Overall, what can you tell us about writing a Tomb Raider adventure?

E.E.Knight: I enjoyed it.  I'm proud to have played a small part in the legend of Lara Croft.

8) As a side would you care to share any memories of writing your Tomb Raider book? Your favorite part? A scene that got cut? Favorite line?

E.E.Knight: Probably my favorite part was when she was hanging off the tree with her rappelling lines, exchanging shots with the Cult.  Struck me as very cinematic.  I'd be thrilled if they took that and worked it into a game -- those are some of my favorite gaming moves, having Lara swing and jump and so on when dealing with some enemies.

Questionnaire with James Alan Gardner

1) What was the first step towards writing a Tomb Raider adventure?

James Alan Gardner: I made a list of cool places it would be fun to write about: Tunguska (the site of the explosion), the Sargasso Sea, etc.  I also tried to get good coverage of sites around the world (hitting Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America, as well as the high seas) because I thought it was important to give the "Lara goes everywhere" vibe of the games. Variation in terrain was also important (the snows of Siberia, swamps in Australia, the coffee plantation in Brazil).  Finally, I went through all the existing games to make sure I wasn't reusing any settings that had already been done.

      Next step: Tomb Raider adventures typically involve Lara chasing some artifact or a collection of artifacts.  What could I use?  The games had already done famous artifacts like the Holy Grail and stuff from Atlantis.  I wracked my memory and came up with the talking head of Roger Bacon.  A little research revealed that talking metal heads had cropped up several times in history—even Faust was supposed to have had one.  To me, this suggested an immortal head that was passed from one person to another...and also suggested there might be other parts of the head's metal body hidden in the world. I imagined a robot (from the future? from another planet or dimension?) who'd been torn into pieces for some reason. The pieces were strewn around the world, which explained why Lara would have to travel all over the place to get them back.

      Why would she want to reassemble the robot?  Because it was needed against some threat.  What kind of threat?  The robot was some kind of cop/hunter sent to Earth to capture a bad guy.  Many centuries ago, the bad guy had managed to tear the robot apart; the bad guy was now threatening people in Lara's life, so she decided to reassemble the robot as a means of putting the bad guy down.

      Once I had that set-up, it was just a matter of choreographing all the things I wanted to put into the story.  For example, there's EIDOS's running joke of Lara gunning down endangered species.  How could I work that into the book?  Well, when I looked at the list of settings, it occurred to me there might be one wooly mammoth left in Siberia, so I made sure to have Lara kill it.

Hunter: So James's first step was to write a list of locations he wanted Lara to visit. The next step he took was to figure out what Lara was tracking down. His third step was motives and the ultimate goal for both protagonists and antagonists. Once you have those down, you can do what he did and work in things, like the woolly mammoth, that you want to put in to really make it your story. Remember, you are writing this for yourself. If you don't like it, how will other people?

2) In regards to Lara, were there any rules you followed in how to keep her in character, or the one everybody knows and loves? What things would you say Lara can and can't do in a Tomb Raider adventure?

James Alan Gardner: The editor laid down the rule that Lara couldn't smoke, drink or swear.  That left an obvious vice she could indulge in, but I decided against that too; the games had never given Lara a significant romantic relationship, and I wasn't all that interested in setting one up.  I wanted the book to be chockfull of action, and taking time out for romance might slow things down.  (I don't think it's bad for Lara to have some romance in a Tomb Raider adventure, but it wasn't what I was going for.)

      In general, I think Lara must always be classy and must always care about people.  In the games, she usually operates as a lone wolf, but has friends in the background.  That's a function of how games work, especially back in the old days when computers didn't have enough processing power to give Lara participating sidekicks.  Since there's no such limitation in books, I made sure that Lara had friends everywhere she went, even if she ended up going it alone when things got really bad.

      I also think it's important to deal seriously with the issue of killing.  In the games, Lara kills a lot of people...but it's usually set up with them trying to kill her first, or with them killing someone "nice" when they first appear, so that Lara is justified in taking them out.  The same principle applies in books.  You have to be careful when and who Lara kills, or else she's a monster.

3) Was research an important factor in writing your adventure? About how much research did you undergo for the book?

James Alan Gardner: I did an hour or two of research on each of the various locations.  (Three cheers for the Internet; when I wanted photos of Tunguska, I got them in under a minute.  I shudder to think of how hard it would have been if I'd tried this when I first started writing.)

      I've already mentioned doing research on the Roger Bacon's talking head.  But I didn't bother going too deep.  For one thing, I was going to play fast and loose with reality; I wanted Easter Island heads somewhere, so I just put them in northeast Australia, even though that would horrify a historian.  For another, it's usually best to leave details to the reader's imagination.  I might have researched a lot about, say, Carthaginian triremes, but in an action-adventure novel, it's better to let readers picture their own version of an ancient boat rather than trotting out a bunch of historical minutiae.

      That said, I should point out I chose settings and things that I was already familiar with.  I knew what Queensland crocodile country looks like, thanks to watching Crocodile Hunter.  I knew a lot of Roman history from five years of high school Latin.  I'd known about Bacon's talking head, and Tunguska, and the Sargasso Sea for decades before I used them in this book.  I didn't need a lot of research because I already knew most of what I was writing about.

      By the way, this shows why writers should fill their heads with every possible kind of facts and images, even when you have no immediate for them.  Load your brain with cool stuff so you'll be able to call on it as needed.  Read voraciously and at random. Whatever you learn won't go to waste.

Hunter: So, again, research everything. Learn everything. Like Mr. Gardner says, you never know when you will need it!

4)When I write a story, I have a motivation that keeps me writing. Did you have a motivation while writing your Tomb Raider book?

James Alan Gardner: Well of course, they were paying me to do it...

      But hey, I welcomed the chance to contribute to Lara's mythos, and to do a lot of all-out action.  When I write science fiction, it has its own modest share of action, but not nearly as much as the Tomb Raider book.  With Lara, I could have gun battles, fights with monsters, chases, explosions, and all that good stuff.  In serious science fiction, you have to use such things sparingly.

Hunter: Another motivation: You are adding to the legend of Tomb Raider! Every fanfiction story has added to Lara's story. Especially the more contemporary adventures like that of the official Tomb Raider novels. Your motivation is that you are contributing to Lara Croft's legacy!

5) When writing one of your action scenes, how do you keep the reader on the edge of their seat?

James Alan Gardner: First, high stakes.  If Lara fails, something very very bad must be expected to happen—not just that she gets hurt or killed, but that others will be in serious trouble too.  She has to be fighting for something, not just against something.

      Second, escalation.  In my book, you'll notice that Lara usually makes jokes when things start going bad—she treats the threat as trivial.  This reflects how the reader will likely see things.  We're talking about Lara Croft, one of the world's most famous ass-kickers.  She's hardly going to be inconvenienced by a few poisonous snakes or guys in black ski masks.  But as things get worse, she turns more serious.  The stakes get higher, the opponents get tougher, and the easy strategies stop working.  Maybe she runs low on ammunition; maybe her weapons don't work against a particular enemy and she has to improvise.

      In games, players get more stuff as time goes on—better guns, for example.  In stories, characters typically have less stuff as time goes on.  The Harry Dresden books (by Jim Butcher) are a great example of this: at the beginning of each book, Harry is loaded with offensive and defensive magic; as the action unfolds, he's forced to use up everything he started with, so that by the time he faces the Big Bad at the end of the book, he's running on fumes.  For the toughest fight, he has the least to drawn on.  That's when things come down to sheer guts and brains.

      Third, the hero's first few strategies must fail.  For example, think of movie fight scenes between a smaller hero and a great big hulk of a man.  There's always a point where the hero gets some weapon (a big hammer, a sword, whatever) and he starts smiling because he thinks he can now beat the bad guy.  However, when he actually uses the weapon, it breaks or it bounces off the opponent without doing any damage.

      In Lara's case, it might be, "If only I can do X, I'll win."  Then she does X, and it only makes things worse.  You build up the reader's expectation that everything will be okay if X happens...then you dash the expectations with failure.  That increases the expense until finally, Lara comes up with something effective.

      And by the way, don't forget to throw in lots of damage, especially of expensive stuff.  One of my favorite scenes in my Lara book is where she and one of the bad guys shoot a Rolls-Royce to ribbons.

Hunter: Both Mr. Knight and Mr. Gardner believe in high stakes. High stakes brings the action up a few notches. But Mr. Gardner also introduces a new idea, Lara's plans should fail. If they fail, then the reader REALLY wants to know how she's going to fix the situation. Remember that.

6)Lara Croft is all about puzzles and exploration. This means much detail is required for each scene to make sure the reader can visually imagine what is happening to Lara. In regards to detail, how did you plan out different scenes? Did you by chance draw a map of the surrounding area? What tips can you give us about detail?

James Alan Gardner: There's a difference between prose and video games.  In games, readers can clearly see the setting; keeping track of twists and turns is part of the challenge.  In prose, readers can't see what's going on, and you can't rely on them being able to construct a picture, no matter how many details you supply.  In fact, too much detail will just swamp the reader.

      Also remember that the goal of a book is to satisfy the reader, not to give the reader playability.  A perfect example from my book is the part where the bad guys lock Lara in a cell.  In a video game, you'd have to give the player a way to escape by putting together things that Lara finds in the cell or already has in her pockets.  In my book, Lara escapes in what I hope is a satisfying manner, but not by solving a puzzle per se.

      The key to an engaging reading experience is an engaging character with an engaging viewpoint.  To figure out the appropriate level of detail, just tell what details the character would naturally notice.  I'm a huge believer in viewpoint dictating what does and doesn't get told...which is one reason I chose to tell the story in first-person rather than third.

7) Overall, what can you tell us about writing a Tomb Raider adventure?

James Alan Gardner: It was a lot of fun.  I'd love to do it again sometime; I haven't blown up nearly enough fancy buildings.

8) As a side would you care to share any memories of writing your Tomb Raider book? Your favorite part? A scene that got cut? Favorite line?

 James Alan Gardner: Favorite parts?  I've already mentioned totaling the Rolls-Royce.  I also liked my sneaky explanation of why Lara is so amazingly good at what she does.  (It ties her in with Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Simon Templar.)

      No scenes got cut.  However, there was one I wanted to write but couldn't find a way to work in.  I wanted a scene at Ascot, a yearly horse-racing event that's always attended by the crème-de-la-crème of English nobility.  I pictured Lara hopping onto one of the thoroughbreds in the middle of a race and having a gunfight on horseback while duchesses in poofy hats looked on.  But it just didn't fit with the other parts of the story, so I never developed the scene in detail.

      Favorite lines?  It's been a long time since I wrote the book so nothing immediately came to mind.  However, I had a quick glance at the manuscript and two lines stood out.  The first was a thought from Lara looking at a terrorist's weapons: "Do you truly know anything about guns, or did you just shop by brand name?"  And second from one of Lara's friends: "Lara likes the word 'tomb,' does she not?  Do you think she uses it because 'temple raider' doesn't sound nearly so respectable?"