What is your design and writing process?

Do you map out the design on paper or do you jump right into coding? Do you separate writing the prose from writing the puzzles and mechanics or do you work on both in parallel?

I am in the middle of writing my first IF (Inform 7) and I’ve sort of run myself aground. It’s not a huge game by any means, 14 locations all in the PCs house. I have the puzzles mostly figured out (there is a little wiggle room in case something I write inspires a new puzzle or alternate solution). I’ve been writing the prose and and the mechanics/game world simultaneously. But this has lead to the tone/authorial voice felling inconsistent and game world being hacked together in a less than optimal way.

I know that I will get better at this with practice but I am hoping for some guidance/suggestions from more seasoned IF writers that mught speed me along that path.


Huh. I was thinking, hasn’t there been an iteration of this conversation recently? But most of the threads I’m turning up are older. Still probably worth looking through:

The Imitable Process of Ryan Veeder is probably linked in one of those threads but I didn’t immediately see it…


There’s lots of good information in the topics Josh linked.

Scope is always a conundrum. It sounds like you’re doing a good job - you know how many rooms and puzzles you have. It’s perilous to write a game without knowing exactly where you’re going and what you’re writing toward as “scope creep” is too delicious to resist when figuring it out as you go.

My friend is a huge proponent of Kan-Ban boards to manage projects.

I am not that. I resist outlining, but he convinced me to try a free version of I think either Jira or Trello to manage the thousand-moving-parts in Cursèd Pickle of Shireton. That helped me so I could see visually what I needed to do and what needed to be fixed and what was done. My usual test method was I would play-test and if I found a typo or a glitch I would immediately dive in and fix it, then start the play-test over. It was much more efficient if I saw a typo or wanted to change something to write a card for it and throw it into the “to-do” column of the board rather than stopping the play through. Or if I had an idea for a new thing, instead of stopping to do that, I made a card in the “new implementation” column where I could regard and plan it out before diving in. The board helped so much because I could go through the “TODO” and “bug” and “fix” columns and fix multiple problems at once before starting a new play through. When I made a fix, I’d move the card from the “To-Do” to the “verify fix” column so I could hit it on my next play-through instead of needing to start the game 20 times and play through to each fix to verify.

Don’t stress about the writing. Allow yourself to have a “first draft” of the prose and don’t worry about things like inconsistent tone or typos your first write-through. You’re allowed multiple drafts, and it’s easier and more fine-grained a polish each time. Even if you have to put your own placeholders like [TODO: Fix the description of this character] Get all of your text roughed into place, then you can step back and high-level identify where there are problems or the tone goes wonky. It will be easier to detect and fix those if you’re looking at a full draft rather than trying to correct as you go.

Editing and polishing is a lot more fun than writing, but don’t jump the gun. You can go down a rabbit hole polishing while writing the first draft which will eat up your time, and you’ll have a perfect chapter one while you’re still missing chapters 8-14. It will help to first get to the end because you may figure out those tonal shifts you’re worried about are actually correct as you’ve lived in the story and made the reflexive shift to make it better - so fixing them before you figure that out might be non-conducive. That’s what drafts are for - the first idea you had might not quite be the best one but writing the first idea is a process toward getting to the second better idea once you see how it works.

Don’t resist yes-and…ing yourself during writing the first draft. (With prose, not with mechanics, hopefully) You can always take it out later if it’s not quite right once you see the whole thing put together.

I’ve had stories where some major revelation or plot mechanic didn’t become apparent until I finished the story, and then I was like “oh, that’s what this character is actually here for. now I can go back and set this up earlier so it doesn’t feel grafted on…

TL;DR: Finish the story before you open the hood and tinker with it. Allow yourself the luxury of a first draft and a second draft where you don’t worry about typos and not writing it perfectly. Nobody needs to see the drafts that lead to the final product.


Thank you. I am really bad at allowing a first draft of anything be bad. I have a cluttered past of unfinished first drafts because I couldn’t get a sentence just right or some other foolishness. I needed the reminder of just get it done and fix it later. (With prose, not with mechanics, hopefully.)


There’s a very real phenomenon I’ve fallen victim to and witnessed in other new writers - you don’t want to polish an unfinished work to make it perfect before it’s complete. As I said, editing and polishing is fun - more fun than writing. So much so that new writers finish the first chapter and instead of proceeding to chapter 2, they want to edit the first chapter to make it perfect and since their is no “perfect” and it’s easier to twiddle comma placement than finish a draft it’s an inward-death spiral.

Look forward to editing as delayed gratification - the carrot on a stick to get you to the end.

Even if you manage to get chapter one perfect, moving to chapter two will likely cause anxiety because it can’t immediately live up to and stand next to your polished chapter. This frustrates new writers and can make it emotionally difficult to complete a project. It’s like washing and detailing a car that doesn’t have wheels or an engine - it’s a good thing to do, but once you get it assembled you’ll have to do it again so polishing too early becomes a time-sink of wasted effort.

I remember once when helping relatives move house, my aunt kept feeling compelled to dust furniture she noticed was dirty while we were carrying it to the (also dusty) truck and my uncle finally had to have a talk with her: “I know you think you’re helping, but this isn’t the right kind of help at this phase in the process…” :joy:


I’m not familiar with that term in writing. How do you yes-and yourself?


Sorry about that…

“Yes, and…” is a term used in improvisational theater and comedy. When you’re making stuff up on the fly and someone has an idea, you don’t want to break the improv by refusing their idea: “Wait, you said you were a plumber before, not an exotic dancer, that’s not right…”

Instead of saying no to a flash of improv or inspiration, you “yes, and…” the idea and build on it: “You’re a plumber and also an exotic dancer? I didn’t order two plumbers who are also exotic dancers! When I said I needed my pipes cleaned I meant…[hilarity ensues]”

I suggested this because @Jason noticed a tonal shift in his writing that wasn’t consistent. instead of quashing that, I present that maybe after writing the story for a while, the reflexive tonal shift might be a natural subconscious instinct he’s having that feels more correct and I’d advise continuing to see if it sustainable. It can always be fixed later after seeing how it plays out. It might be productive to continue the instinctive writing choice to see if it works better - “yes, and…” rather than “no, that’s wrong…” At least during early drafts and brainstorm-writing.


I used to really despise writing with drafts, and always demanded of myself to write everything correctly the first time.

Here’s the thing I learned, though:

You cannot simultaneously contain the full plan of your story, the flow of the current scene, and be focused on the editing process. Unless you’re some kind of superhuman, your brain is going to explode and burn out well before you ever finish your story.

The reason why you write a terrible first draft is so your brain no longer needs to contain the story beats and basic pacing. You can then note what information you made up on the fly (using Hanon’s yes-and process), and mark where that information needs to be set up or introduced, even if you don’t immediately write the setups in the moment.

Now that your first draft is done, you’ve freed up room in your brain, which you can now use for tone, basic editing, and fine-tuning your pacing, as well as writing setups.

Once that’s done, you’ve freed up room again, which can be used for really focused, high-level editing and flow management.

And you might be surprised that you’ve spent less time doing it this way, instead of attempting to write it all in one go, because you are using your brain more efficiently.


I’ve begun embracing placeholder text that has the idea of what I want tagged with a reminder to edit later.

The Dee Dee virtual assistant is on the counter. The description is "[\\edit]An always on, always listening virtual assistant. Although it seems to talk just as much as it listens."

The [\edit] tag expands to THIS TEXT NEEDS TO BE EDITED when the game is run as a giant flag. It is also easily searchable in the source text.


Exactly. You want to think of your work as a cohesive whole rather than disparate parts. Editing is easier and more fun than writing from scratch, which is why new authors tend to want to rewrite the first section they complete immediately, but your brain hates that because the slight sense of completion you get from high-polishing the first chapter is flummoxed when you have to start from the beginning again writing the second chapter from zero. Your editing brain works differently from your creative brain and shifting gears is frustrating and less efficient.

If you decide a room in your house needs repainted, you should first walk the whole house to see what rooms you can also repaint at the same time instead of buying paint, setting up, painting your target room, cleaning up, putting everything away, and then discovering this other room also needs to be painted…and doesn’t even have drywall yet so it’s silly to be painting in the first place!


Yes, that’s exactly what I do! You can also place it outside of text so it’s a comment (because text substitutions and comments use the same [bracket] syntax which makes it even easier.

A lot of people have been talking about writing, so I’m going to talk about coding. Personally, I have a rough idea of what I want (which you also have, it seems), then I pick something to implement and do my best to do so. I use (in Inform 7) [TODO] for stuff I want to add later (e.g. game mechanics, verbs) and [EDIT] for writing that needs to be added (e.g. descriptions and events). I usually fix bugs/errors immediately, but if I have to finish partway through coding/debugging I’ll tag it with [FIX].

With this system, I can switch pretty easily between coding and writing if I need to, stay in a “coding flow” without having to worry about how I’m going to word something, or knock out multiple descriptions at once if I’m in a writing mood.


Something from my process that may be useful to you is to set out a goal for the pass you are doing. This pass might be about establishing a framework for your story and main mechanics. This is a good time to quickly jot down what major things need doing (the last three should usually be Alpha Test - a major test you do yourself, Beta Test - when you get other people to test and Release, the rest are flexible to some extent).

Anything that is not framework-related? Put it in a comment at the relevant part of the code, perhaps with TODO at the beginning of the comment. If a bug is framework-related, fix it then and there. If not, note what the bug is and leave it (since at this point it’s possible you might remove something completely different that fixes it anyway - or decide the buggy part isn’t needed).

Once you have finished the pass, you can look through and see what themes emerge, using this and how you’re feeling to determine what the next pass should be.


Thanks, that makes sense. I found the improv meaning when I tried looking it up but I wasn’t sure how to apply it to writing.


For all my past games, I scribbled longhand notes in a notebook and then sat down and wrote the thing as I coded it, taking care with the writing for each section and just letting the story take me where it would, usually without very much idea of where it was going. I’ve never stuck to a draft and everything has always changed drastically once I actually sat down to do it.

For my WIP now, I decided to code the entire thing first, not worrying about quality of writing-- just to get the skeleton down. And guess what? Now that I’m going through through the skeleton to do the writing and narrative and cluing and all that, I’m changing it drastically and chucking big pieces of code that I spent a lot of time writing. The only thing better about doing it this way is that I know what the end is and I’m pretty sure I’ll stick to it. Although not absolutely positive about that.

All this is to say that I find drafts to be not all that useful.

That said:

I don’t have this problem. The truth is that no matter which way I go about it, the final draft will have some bad writing and bugs in it, so I’ll sweat it until testers say it’s OK and until I’m so sick of it I can’t look at it anymore, then ship it and quit worrying about it.


Yeah, this has been my experience when I’ve tried the spine-first, elaborate-later approach – it saps my enthusiasm at the beginning of the process, since I’m spending so much time on scaffolding and not on the fun stuff, and then when I go back to do my detail/elaboration pass, I get so many additional ideas that I wind up reworking things sufficiently that I doubt the skeletal framework actually sped up the process any. Getting each chunk up to reasonable quality in turn has tended to work much better for me – albeit my games tend to have pretty self-contained chunks rather than requiring me to make artificial divisions or do everything all at once.

This isn’t to say that I think the earlier advice about keeping yourself from over-polishing and over-editing so you never get to the end is bad, by any means – just that design is an art, so contradictory guidance is actually all valid (haste makes waste, but a stitch in time saves nine, after all) and different peoples’ creative processes are often quite different, even if they were all working on the same kind of games, which they patently aren’t.

The key thing, to my mind, is to be self-aware about your habits, try to figure out what kind of approach is likely to play to your strengths and hedge your weaknesses, and then assess whether what you’re doing is working or if it’s time to try another course.


One thing about writing a draft: writing drafts is like rehearsing, and the first version you write needn’t and probably shouldn’t be considered the final product.

Every new work kind of takes place in its own universe. Unless you’re writing very stock genre prose that you’re very experienced with, you will learn things about your own story as you write. Halfway through, you might decide the entire thing will work better in first person, or you’ll find characters redundant and decide to combine them or cut them entirely, or an entire chapter about the ups and downs of hot dog machine repair and maintenance you were in love with during the story’s conception really has no place and throws off the pacing and better serves as world building without overtly being featured in the prose.

I personally have experienced a unique phenomenon more than once - and this might be due to acting/theater/improv background and the whole “yes, and…” thing: I often get to know my characters as I write - it takes a while, and they kind of take up residence in my head where I can have imaginary conversations with them. Every once in a while I’ll be tooling along writing dialogue and a character will say or do something completely unexpected that I didn’t plan for or think about previously. They’ll throw out a unique concept or twist to the plot. To the point I’ve sat looking at the blinking cursor going *where did that come from?"

It’s a bit unnerving at first to have your own story surprise you, but it’s part of the creative process that your subconscious has been working on the story when you have not and will shockingly offer up an amazing way of phrasing something you didn’t predict, or a plot twist in the moment. It’s like self-improv.

This to me is the ideal situation. I want my characters to write their own dialogue and interact naturally with the situation I’ve thrown them. Of course my characters aren’t alive; they’re in my head and this is all my own brain, but this is how your subconscious brain can float you an idea you didn’t consider. It’s literally like theatrical improv: being very familiar with your situation and trusting ideas happen organically and you want that flexibility in the early writing phase. You don’t need to thumb-screw everything down in the first pass so those revelations can occur.

This is the importance of not being obsessed with writing everything perfectly the first time. Your first draft is a rehearsal where you’ll sometimes figure out things like the main character you intended isn’t the main character - or smaller less dramatic things. You have to give yourself that leeway and freedom to be wrong and discover things without browbeating yourself for doing it wrong. In fact, you’d rather discover what’s wrong first in an early draft so the reader won’t be the one to discover it.

Some of the best inventions are conceived from the aftermath of a mistake.

I’ve heard it said about sculpture: the most important parts of the statue are what the artist decides to cut away.


The common refrain of how do I know what I think til I hear what I say? :grin: (also this is a fun compilation of people saying similar things).

More seriously, I think people land all across the spectrum from pre-planned to exploratory and you have to find what works for you? If you plan it ahead, does that feel stifling because now you might have to throw away more work when you want to switch directions? Or does it feel… I don’t know, comforting, because you can stop worrying about the bigger structure and have fun riffing within the creative constraints of that shape? I had an interesting short conversation with Lauren O’Donoghue shortly after she wrote Ataraxia, where IIRC the four major characters (romance options/close friends) all have the exact same story beats and structure (even down to the passage level in Twine, maybe?).

I also wonder if it depends on what parts you think of as being costly or expensive? What feels cheapest for you to throw away; words, or code, or… your wanting the story to go a particular way? Or maybe even your attachment to a particular process? I’ve always thought Max Gladstone’s Interactive Fiction and How I Learned to Stop Grumbling and For God’s Sake Outline Once in a While was a fun article.


Thank you for all your responses. Reading what you all had to say helped me get re-energized and refocused on writing. At this point I am going to get a bare bones version put together, i.e. I am going to implement just enough to get from the beginning to the end of the story. After that I’ll go back and work on the prose. I’m sure my methods will develop as I create more and more IF but for now this feels like the best way to proceed.


I do plan things like dialogue ahead of time, I just also try to be open and keep the muse flowing while writing, and I can tell I’m on the right track when characters seem to take on a voice of their own and new dialogue suggests itself as we go.

Many writers hate being edited because every word feels like a “child” and precious destruction if it’s lost. One really good exercise is to take a good size chunk of something you’ve written, then put it away and try to rewrite the entire thing just from memory. Nine times out of ten, the stuff you remember is the good stuff and will be better since it’s higher-proof good stuff with the filler you didn’t remember stripped out.

National Geographic Principle: The reason the photographs in those magazines are always stunning is you’re seeing the 10 pictures they chose for that article and not the 5000 they didn’t choose.


I put things in and I take things out. The ones I cannot take out are the good things. When I run out of things to take out, I’m done.

What’s left is purity. What’s out are ideas for future projects. :grin: