This blog is meant to be about game design and story-telling: this post is about how reading my shiny new IF Theory book made me realise something about how I write static, non-interactive fiction.
I think a lot of writers would agree that one of the hardest parts of any project is starting. I’ve been thinking recently about how to come up with the germs of stories. In the past, I’ve relied on moments of inspiration, usually driven by reading, seeing or playing things I either loved, and wanted to imitate, or things I hated, and wanted to do properly.
More recently, I’ve been trying to develop a method. I wouldn’t call it a formula; it’s more of a process. But it’s closer in spirit to design than art. I’m not sure if that’s selling out, or just growing up.
Just over a year ago, I started writing short stories again. Specifically, I wrote one, had the good fortune to have it published (in the rather excellent British magazine Interzone), and then, like a gambler on a good day, wrote another to see if my luck would hold. Since then, I’ve written five or six; which is more than I’ve written in the same number of years.
Short stories are satisfying things to write because they’re quick projects: you have an idea, you make a draft, you rewrite it, you tear that draft apart and write the story you meant to write, then you finish it and move on. And most of those stages are good fun (the only bit I don’t like is the week I spend trying to save a draft that, deep down, I know I’m going to throw away).
But writing five or six stories a year means coming up with fix or six ideas that are good enough to fly. The first, The History of Poly-V, was fairly easy: I had a few things I wanted to talk about (memory, responsibility, the amazing way that practice makes you better) and a scifi trope (time travel), and the story fell out in a tumble. The second, Over Water, was much harder – I opened up an encyclopaedia and flicked through looking for things that stood out, but then glued what I found (an article about dying languages, another about boats) with some images I’d liked for a while (flooded landscapes, stars) and a genre choice (pastoralism in a sort-of post-sci-fi setting).
The third story didn’t work at all, and that was when I decided to try and come up with some kind of method.
The planning for Poly-V and Over Water had a couple of things in common: for both, I had a sense of a cool, genre device I wanted to use; an idea of a motif or image that I thought could intrigue and draw a reader in. I also had a sense of who the character was and what they were discovering.
I began to start making lists. In one column, I wrote down scifi and genre elements that were interesting – time loops? telepathy? the limits of genetic engineering? In the other column, I wrote down what the story should be about. And at this point my method got confused, as I was listing settings and meanings in the same place. Is the story about underwater cities, or taking responsibility for unknown consequences? Will the reader be hooked by planets made of light, or the way freedom is always a subjective concept?
Then I was reading the IF Theory Reader book, just arrived in glorious paperback, and in particular, Paul O’Brian’s article on Landscape and Character in text-games. And I was struck by the following (page 261):
If we reduce interactive fiction to its essence, we can view it as a triangular relationship between three basic elements: landscape, character and actions… As soon as that first room description appears, it introduces a landscape, just as the first prompt ushers in the concept of an action. I would further argue that the interaction between these two elements inevitably creates some concept of character.
A triangular relationship, with landscape and action combing to create a character? Just as in a story, where the genre-hook provides the core action (time-travel, discovery of a lost past) and the setting – or rather, the frame – provides the landscape, and together they evoke the meaning of the story. Not the character of the protagonist, now, but the character of the tale itself.
When I called this blog “three-edged sword”, it was partly in reference to the Babylon 5 quote (“Understanding is a …”), but partly because of the key idea in game design of thinking three ways: as a designer, as a player, and as a player-character. (As a designer, what scenario should I present? As a player, what do I understand about what’s going on? As the game-character, or game-world itself, what mechanics are operational?)
What I’m left with is a strong sense that writing stories and making games involve the same three-way process as each other. And in coming up with stories, what I’m doing is really asking myself with three hats on:
- Designer – What kind of story do I want to tell? What is my genre, and what are my twists?
- Player/Reader – What do I understand about the world to start with, and what will I learn?
- Character – What can I do? Who am I, and what am I capable of?
When all are present, and their answers join up, then, text-game or story, something interesting results. And when one’s missing – great setting, but no character; great twist but the world’s generic – maybe that’s when the story can’t start.