Kiel's Guide to The Creative Process
Hello again, and welcome to my 'back to the basics' guide for the creative process.
I've been asked multiple times if I have any tips for how to write a good story and, as a matter of fact, I certainly do. This will be the second article I've filled with them, in fact. Now, I can't actually promise you that reading them will definitely make you a better writer, but putting these basics into practice has helped me greatly, so I will say it's worth a shot, especially if you're about to write your first story game.
Let's start at the very beginning:
First, naturally, you need an idea, but not just any idea. It's best to begin with a subject or genre that you really like. Creating a good game takes both time and effort, and if it's not about something you enjoy, you'll be prone to give up. Motivation is one of the most important factors in creating a good game because even the best of us can't write anything if we just don't feel up to it.
It's also good to write about stuff you know well (and that occasionally means doing research,) but in the case of fantasy, science-fiction, so on, you are often making everything up as you go along ... so the idea is often to at least sound like you know what you're talking about and make your world feel as plausible as you can.
However fantastic and strange your world is, giving it at least a little of a solid basis in reality and familiarity helps connect it to the reader. J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, used Celtic culture and some widely known European legends as part of his basis for The Lord of the Rings.
The complaints I hear most often about beginner stories are that they have poor spelling, they're too short, they're too linear, and they are not detailed enough. I've covered the first complaint in an entirely different article, since I had a lot to say on the subject.
Let's talk about linearity:
I trust you understand, at this point, that you are attempting to make a 'Choose Your Own Story' game, but let's really talk about what that means. The reason that a CYS game is more than a simple story is that it's interactive and the reader has an active role in what happens in the story. That means that your story, regardless of what it's about, must reach a specific sets of goals in order to actually qualify as a real CYS game. Those goals are:
1. You need to give your readers choices.
2. The reader needs to feel like their choice matters.
The choices don't all have to be big or important, but they have to make a difference in the story as a whole. Also, the difference doesn't have to be big ... but proportions also matter. For example, let's say your game is about something simple, like baking a cake. The choices could be 'what ingredients will you use' or 'what kind of cake will you make' and 'how will you decorate it' and 'who will you share it with?'
The difference made by those choices could be that: Sharing the cake with your boss gets you a promotion and you make more money from now on. Sharing the cake with your friend encourages them, so they try their luck at the lottery, win big, and take you on a world tour vacation! Your boss is allergic to nuts and if you decorate the cake with nuts, he's put in the hospital for anaphylactic shock and you're fired. Using liquor in the cake gets your friend tipsy and they confess their love for you! Decorating the cake blue causes a random hobo who believes blue is the color of evil to come and destroy your cake.
... See? There's a lot you can do with a very simple concept. These choices aren't very big and the consequences are hardly world changing, but in the context of a simple story, they matter. A simple premise, unfortunately, tends to work well only as a short story.
Mind you, there is nothing wrong with a short story so long as the length of the story suits the potential of the idea. You see, we as readers tend to complain about length when we feel that you could've gone further with a plot or idea and you just ... didn't. Baking a cake doesn't require a novel's worth of pages.
On the other hand, if you're going to write an epic filled with war, gods, royalty, "two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona," and so on, then you should give us bigger choices, dramatic consequences, and longer pathways. Speaking of story length...
Let's talk about length:
To make your game long enough, you need to know where you're going with it and that's where creating a story outline comes in. Not everyone does this, of course. Everyone is different in their creative processes and you do need to find a "groove" (so to speak) that suits you personally, but it's still best to try to plan out your story to some extent, even if it's very informal. Take your time, daydream, keep something to write on / with handy during your day in case you get inspiration. Once you know what you want to do, well...
Let's deal with the details:
You have to have a good imagination, as I'm sure you already know. You're building an entire world here. The clearer you see it, the clearer you can explain it to your readers. You also need to take the time to put some passion into it. Get poetic if you feel like it, dive into that purple prose head first, but whatever you do, show you actually care about what you're writing. To be honest, I take that little rule more seriously than any other when it comes to writing. After all, if you don't care, why should anyone else?
I'll give you an example now: "You're tired, so you sit by a tree."
That's a complete sentence. It gets the picture across, so the reader knows what's happening. There's nothing really wrong with it, but it's also incredibly boring.
Now, read this: "Exhausted almost to the point of fainting, you spy a towering oak tree in the distance. A bare patch of dry, shaded earth by its roots beckons to you softly. You trudge over and lean into the bark of the rough trunk, then slowly slide down to the ground. There, you sit with your knees pressed up against your chest, your head cradled in your hands, a picture of defeat."
... It's the same scene, almost the exact same action, right? However, the second one is more memorable. It has emotion. It's like a stick figure vs. a full and colored drawing. They're both an image of a person, but the second just feels more real, more human, and thus, it gets more of a reaction out of us as humans because we can identify with it.
Do you need to be that flowery or spout sonnets about the scenery? No, not really, but you do need to put effort and detail into your writing. Keep in mind, you are attempting to invoke an emotional response and regardless of what kind of response you want, you have to take the time to earn it from your players.
I cannot stress that enough. So many stories jump right in to two characters falling in love before even showing the audience why they should be together. So many, many stories off-handedly throw in powerful concepts like age-old rivalries, bitter feuds, and deep-seated hatred without ever even explaining why they exist in the first place. Why should I take a villain seriously if I don't even know why I'm not supposed to like them in the first place? Why make me choose between two people to love if I've only known about them for one or two scenes? I don't care about them because I don't know them.
Speaking of long-winded writing - If you do not want to end up tearing your hair out due to lost progress on your story:
Do. NOT. Write. In the editor for prolonged periods of time. If you know the scene you are putting up will be short, it's no problem, but the editor will time out if you write for too long. If that happens, it will not tell you right away, but once you hit save, it'll display an error and destroy everything you wrote. I found out the hard way.
My solution is to write in a document program first (Wordpad, Microsoft word, so on...) then copy and paste into the editor. Even if your browser crashes or your net connection screws up, you'll have a back-up. You can just refresh or restart the browser and paste it in again. I'd also recommend, if at all possible, choosing something with a built in spell-checker. It's much easier to miss your mistakes when just copying, pasting, and giving it a quick once-over as you save and exit.
My last piece of advice for now: Have fun. If you like what you're doing, it's always worth it, whether anyone else does or not. Chances are, though, if you take pride in your game and enjoy writing it ... other people will enjoy reading it.
Good luck. :)