Lately I’ve been writing pieces on the nature of storytelling. This should be the last piece in the mini-series, for I am running out of ideas and readers are perhaps charging me with beating a dead horse. So, I figure it appropriate to close with some practical remarks on writing stories. As storytellers, we should write and read stories well. What follows is some advice to both readers and writers on how to do that. Though I write, I’m hardly a writer; so take my advice as you would your french fries—with plenty of salt and maybe some ketchup. For more in-depth tricks of the trade, I refer my reader to Stephen King’s On Writing or Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Let’s begin with the writers.
Writers, know what kind of story you wish to write before you write it. Is it an adventure story, a mystery, a drama, a romance? All of the above? Take some time to sketch out a basic plot of your story. Work out the particulars later. Get a general idea of the story before you write it, for writing bridges events together. Just as Farmer Chip must plot his garden before planting his seeds, so writers should plot out their stories before writing them.
Also, writers, be clear. Favor concrete details over vague terms. To be sure, mystery and vagueness have their place in storytelling. But that is a skill tough to deploy well. In the meantime, default to clarifying what kind of city, buildings, people group, or era you’re working in. 1973 Baton Rouge, Louisiana is distinct from 1934 Wichita, Kansas. Pick a setting and set up camp for a while. Get to know everyone: how they talk, how they walk, whether they’re happy or sad, what relationships take priority, and so on.
Lastly, writers, peer review. Do it. Run your story by others. Let them critique it. Do not trust your own eyes; trust fresh eyes who haven’t seen your work yet. You could pour hours into a script during a writing session, think you’ve got some good stuff, show it to someone you trust, and they have no idea what’s going on. Because of this, let others read your material before you call it a final draft. Writers should take criticism well. It is unbecoming of a writer to write off all their critics. Be courageous and open to others editing your work.
So much for writers. What of readers? Most folks don’t think of video game stories as something to “read.” For video games are visual media, not written. But most reading techniques and literary devices apply to video games as well. Notwithstanding, we’ve gotten some bad reading habits. These habits inhibit us from truly experiencing a story. I’ll share one habit and offer one remedy for it.
Readers, sometimes we distance ourselves from stories. Two factors might contribute to this: an emphasis on Event over Event Significance and personal agenda. Space prohibits me from addressing the former, so I’ll tackle the latter. Personal agenda inhibits us from understanding and appreciating a story. Agendas could range from some life lesson we anticipate to simply wishing to veg out. As a remedy, I suggest submission. Submit to the story. Oxford scholar C. S. Lewis once said, “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” Let the story work on you, as it invites you in.
Thus ends my brief detour on storytelling. Writing, I should add, is an aspect of game development. Balance it with the other aspects. The story is not the project, and the project is not the story. I hope these scraps of advice help you, dear reader or writer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return to my initial project: how games are made.