Where's the Writing Lessons? Isnt IF an Interacactive Story?

Let’s say you don’t have a static fiction story to mold into an Interactive Fiction Game but still want that IF experience - how do you get That? Trial and error is what most people tell me. “Just practice and find what works for you!” That doesn’t cut it. Thus they are learning to be writers by the seat of their pants with no writing instruction.

I look around at this forum called : “Getting Started and General Game Design” and I am shocked that most discussion is about the dynamics of various IF writing tools and very little or nothing about the art of writing the story itself. After all, an IF game is still a story although set in a wrapper that lets you interact with it.

I believe this is a Major flaw in the IF community and is what is keeping IF from a broader audience.

Half the focus should be on the writing while the other half on game dynamics - you must have both equally to write an IF game.

This forum should be filled with people discussing the art of writing and I just don’t see it.

The story must be considered First before you plug that story into an IF tool like Inform or Adrift. If the authors of Inform,TADS, Adrift and the rest, give equal attention to the writing, people would be more apt to try their hand out at making a game. You need Both information about the tool, how it works AND information about story writing accessible in the Literature/Manuals/Forums…

Unless… you only invite established writers to use the tools. That will work, they already know the craft of writing so they can easily plug a story into the tools - but that isn’t done - Ever. These tools are encouraged for use by the masses. Therefore the IF community needs to get it’s act together and encourage/discuss/teach the art of writing way more than it does now if they want this genre to survive.

I would like to see more of that in these and other forums.

People say, “Well writing for IF is different…” Hog wash I say. The stories may not progress in a linear fashion like a static story, but you still need all the elements, a beginning, middle and end filled in between with dialog between characters, plots, plot twists, subplots etc. That’s the difference between a dull dungeon crawler you play just for the sake of going from beginning to end looking for treasure and a griping adventure that makes you identify with the character’s plight, leading them on a roller coaster ride of perils and plot twists to the riveting end.

If you don’t know how to be a good writer in the first place, you can never hope to write a good IF game.

That’s my take. What do you folks think?

Who wants to see more information on becoming a better writer?

If you are or think you are a good writer, how did you acquire your writing skills?

I think it’s a valid observation. But maybe it’s like complaining about the traffic in LA. What people will respond to is examples and ideas. Even if it’s just “stone soup” maybe you can share some tips and examples that you think are important in IF story-telling. No doubt others can chime in. (And there have been some excellent posts on related topics

I’m just working on my first IF game and I figure my lack of programming prowess is my biggest weakness. So I am consciously trying to think about how to ensure that the story is interesting. To help with this, I spent several weeks (ok, months) fleshing out the characters, the backstory and the plot of my story before I wrote any code. My story is a mystery set in the 1950s where the player is an insurance detective. So I also defined some “discoveries” that the player could uncover about the characters that would provide more of the backstory and motivations of the characters. I figured that would help give the story more depth and make it more interesting as the player tries to solve the crime. And while there are reasons that several of the characters might appear to be suspects, I’ve defined clues that will help the player draw the correct conclusions.

One idea I picked up somewhere to help with pacing in the early part of the game is to have an NPC character shepherd the player along to a couple of locations so that scenes don’t run too long. It gives the game a sense of urgency which is very helpful. My early alpha testers liked this approach. I think I got this technique from a blog post by Emily Short, though perhaps my memory is foggy.

Would love to hear other ideas people have…

Out of all the IF experiences, which IF experience is “That” one?

I do think writing for IF is different. It involves a whole set of practicalities that exist specifically for IF - how to guide player attention to things they can interact with without destroying the effect of your writing per se with labored exposition. Anticipating what effect various strings of words will have when encountered in every possible order the player might hit them, and trying to cover your arse for the orders you haven’t anticipated. And making sure people know where the exits are!

A negative way to look at is is that you’re lumbered with all these extra obligations when you make a text game. A positive way to look at is it’s an art to pull it off successfully.

Just because I think writing for IF is a particular branch of writing with particular requirements doesn’t mean people shouldn’t talk about how to do it better. But writing per se is already such an enormous topic. With teaching or guiding writing, I feel like there’s only a few broad things you can tell people, then you have to start looking very specifically at their writing. I think to help someone be a better writer using only online forums takes acres more work and time than to help them with coding. Writing is the more universal part of making a text game. Learning Inform is the specific part.

Nobody’s stopping folks making writing topics here, so more power to anyone who does. But writing feedback topics are hard work, and they’re already served in a lot of other places online, or in writing groups offline. That’s just my punt on why this forum isn’t overrun with them.

This thread is a branch from another where Two-star writes, " I also think that static fiction set in the universe of an IF game could be a good way to get people without prior IF experience engaged enough to want to climb the IF learning curve. "

We were talking about using an existing story and adapting it to IF, so in this case IF Experience means the craft of writing a good IF story.

Then, to answer your question directly, the Internet is chock full of “writing lessons.” Since it is your contention that the differences between static prose and “interacactive” prose is “hog wash,” the existing static-prose resources should satisfy your needs.

If you have any specific questions on how to write, just post them. The more specific your questions, the better the answers you’ll get.

That’s a very good starting point - you want to achieve, with IF, the same thing you’d achieve with SF. You know exactly where you want to go. It’s like an game designer going “I want to make a game that achieves the things that a film achieves”.

But you’ve still got to narrow it down. Are you talking about a story with a strong emotional grip, like a Hemmingway? A story with the clinical detachment of Brecht? A story that’s composed of letters and diary entries like Dracula? A book that presents you with a different format every other chapter, like Moby Dick? These are all “SF experiences”, and there’s as many of them as there are “IF experiences”. It’s like saying “Cruise for a Corpse”, “Fahrenheit” and “Another World” are cinematic experiences. They are - but they’re still wildly different. So what you have to start with is - exactly WHAT sort of IF/SF experience do you mean?

I’m pretty sure that’s how writers begin. :slight_smile: At least before they start learning some rules… which are really more like quidelines most of the time. Singers start by singing in the bath, and then they go learn the technique. Composers start by writing stuff they like, and then they learn how music was written in the middle ages, in the Ars Nova periosn, the renaissance… and etc etc. Writers start by writing short stories, poem, things they like about stuff they know BEFORE they take writing courses.

Anyway, you have to remember that IF is still very much a young artform. We’ve come a long way, and we’re able to crystallize some fundaments about gameplay mechanics, and how to achieve what you want to achieve, but as far as writing goes… it’s the richest part of IF. I’m talking about wordcraft here, mind you. “Pacing” and “foreshadowing” and the like are probably best left to the “gameplay” and “mechanics” part of IF. Strange but true. Because they’re the parts of the game that the PLAYER will control, and not the author.

Careful with that statement. An IF game CAN be that. It can also be a Zork. You might be interested in reading Nelson’s “The Art and Craft of Adventure”, where he describes IF, memorably, as “a crosswords at war with a narrative”.

Again, careful with your statements. That’s certainly one way to do it, but it’s not the only way. I agree that a good IF game requires good writing and good game design. But if one half of the game drags slightly, like the wordsmithing in “Beyond”, only to be rescued by a strong storyline and good design… that’s very common, and reflective of every author’s quest for realising the vision they had when they started making the game.

But it is. Except that writing in IF is more that wordcrafting, which you can get in other places. Writing in IF means blending authorial devices with game design. Quite a tricky business.

Not hogwash. You do need all those elements, but they’re used differently; they play differenty. Anyway, by listing characters, plot twists and whatnot, you’re merely scratching the surface, because you’re listing things which are common to SF and IF. It would be much more interesting to ask - what about internal monologues? What about exposition? What about foreshadowing? What about that one move that the protagonist in the SF made which was the key to the whole business… and which the PC may or may not do? In fact, what about that crucial bit of evidence the protagonist may remember at a critical time in order to solve the mystery? How do we force the PC to make that connection?

Harsh words. Not to mention untrue.

Mind you, if one misspells every other word, then yeah, I grant you - it won’t be enjoyable.

Most stuff in the programming realm is provably true or false, or at least quantitative enough to quell argument, so consensus on good and bad ways of going about things is fairly easy to reach. Writing… not so much. So I think writers are much more cautious about giving advice or saying, “this is how you do this” because someone will call them wrong, and provide counter-examples, and then it’s a cat-fight. Critiquing someone’s writing or even methods is very much like critiquing them as a person. Engineers, by contrast, have more distance from their work.

There was once a writer on here awhile ago who lamented the same as you, John, but when asked if he could start some threads in that vein (being that he was qualified and all), got huffy and left for awhile.

What writing advice I have seen almost always appears on writers’ blogs, not public forums. There’s something in that, I think.

Something I don’t think is much remarked on is how much the practice of writing IF differs from the practice of writing SF. You cannot get an idea, sit down, and dash off a draft in the course of an afternoon, get three people’s advice on that draft over the weekend (confident that they have seen all that’s in there), revise and edit over the next week, and hand off a polished version within a few weeks or months, confident that this is the perfected version of your vision.

Not only are you writing within a context of programming (usually), but you are doing so in small drips, over a course of months, with constant revision to fix problems. I’ve found this makes the experience of writing IF very different than a short story. (I’ve never gotten beyond the first chapter on my novel attempts, so I’m not sure I can compare there.)

I don’t mean to imply that writing SF is easy, or even easier than writing IF, but it is qualitatively different. I think even a great SF author would need to practice writing IF, because the practice of writing differs, and the results vary as well.

There is no “that” IF experience; there is only “this” IF experience. That is: what do you want a specific player of your work to experience?

John, I find it bewildering that you talk about plugging the story in to IF, as though IF were only the difference between reading a book on paper or on Kindle. It is entirely different - stories must be adapted, built, shaped, tested. Some stories are best suited for SF. Some may be best suited for film, or a full-on graphic game, or IF, or audio, or the stage. You cannot just jam the same work into each set of tools and expect it to work the same, because the tools are the experience.

I’ve read quite a few books by writers about the craft of writing, and my theory is that even good writers often can’t transfer that skill over. That is, you can talk about the tools, but the very basic premise - “how do you make your audience experience what you want them to” - is achieved best by massive amounts of trying, combined with some feedback and editing, and then massive amounts of trying more. Like being a musician - we can talk about pitch and chord structures and vibrato and how the maestros sound, but 99% of becoming a musician is practicing your ass off.

Which is not to say that discussions of writing aren’t useful, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. If you want some hands-on advice/dissection, what about writing up a portion of a transcript that you think will convey what you want, and post it, with request for editing? I think a specific focus, combined with a request from the author for specific criticism, may help you more than vague prescriptions/discussions. Writing transcripts would give you a quicker turn-around than writing the game, and leave out some of the programming bits, but would keep the rhythm of IF, which I suspect you will find is very different from static.

You’re right that most of the how-to discussion in this forum and on r.a.i-f is about the programming, not the writing. There’s some very good prose being written in IF, and there’s also some prose that could be improved.

If you want to learn about how to write fiction, an Internet forum may not be the right place to start. I have two shelves packed with books on fiction-writing techniques. The demise of the local bookstore makes it harder to find this type of material than it was 20 years ago, when you could browse. But there are some good books around.

The question of how to adapt conventional fiction techniques to IF is … well, IF is an art form. Art forms transcend hard-and-fast rules. So it really does come down to “whatever works for you.”

That said, to my mind perhaps the biggest failing of IF, considered as an art form, is not in the area of prose style but the extent to which authors fall back on badly shopworn story ideas – 75-year-old mystery and sci-fi plots that would be rejected out of hand by an editor at any publishing house that produced conventional fiction. It’s possible to use shopworn story ideas for comic effect, of course; that’s a different thing entirely.

Coming up with a fresh premise for a story, a premise that will be emotionally compelling on its own terms, is not easy at all. I’ve written half a dozen games, and only one of them has a story premise that I’ll stand behind. The rest of my games are all very silly, and would not be taken seriously by a publisher.

That word ‘conventional’ is important. I don’t have any interest in dictating subject matter to people wanting to make IF. I don’t care if someone thinks something’s been done before or is ‘suitable’ or whatever, all I care about is whether they end up making a good game in its own right. Fresher ideas may lend to a better game being produced, but they don’t guarantee it. A game with a highly novel premise can nosedive as hard as the 1000th dungeoncrawl. An awesomely executed dungeoncrawl can be as great as some other game which conspicuously set out to change the whole world.

Well said. To riff:

Ideas are like hydrogen: absolutely essential, but also the most readily-available shit in the universe. Only execution separates the awesome from the humdrum, and the most threadbare cliches are, in the end, just colors in the paintbox. Most of the greatest works of this or any other century are made of 100% post-consumer recycled ideas and imagery. Writers should avoid shopworn ideas exactly to the extent that painters should avoid using blue. It’s all how you lay it down on canvas, and what you’re using those colors to say.

Shakespeare recycled old story ideas. But the “100%” in the sentence above is patently misleading. The new spin Shakespeare contributed in a creative fashion was clearly far more than 50% of the finished work.

I would strenuously disagree with the idea that shopworn ideas are as valid and useful as a primary color to a painter. It’s possible to give fresh meaning to an old, worn-out idea, but it’s not easy. Conversely, there is no negative attached to the use of blue pigment.

The history of art shows us repeatedly that old ideas get worn out. They fail to excite, because the reader/viewer/listener knows all too well what’s going to happen next. Art needs an element of unpredictability to stimulate audience members, and it is precisely the element of unpredictability that something like a '50s hard-boiled private-eye story lacks – unless the artist works hard to add something fresh.

What worries me is that defending tired old ideas gives license to aspiring authors to be lazy, to settle for second-rate.

Even International Klein Blue? :wink:

Where’s the Writing Lessons?

The writing lessons you’re describing operate on a different level than the programming lessons here do. Most of the questions on these forums span the writing equivalents of “Am this corectly how writer?” to “Is there a simpler way to say ‘the car was overly crowded’?” People are literally learning new languages, and are trying to absorb the specifics of their grammars and common usage.

People who have questions that basic about writing can find innumerable books or websites designed to make learning easy. Writing teachers are employed by almost every school on earth. Many of those sources and classes expand beyond such simple questions and offer specific discussion of narrative framework, description, dialogue, character, and established techniques applied individually to short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, or magazine serials. There are classes which pinpoint focus on specific genre and media: How to write historical mystery novels, for example.

You can count every book ever written about specific IF languages on two hands. The number of teachers paid to teach them would fit comfortably in a phone booth. This website is one of the few reliable forums in the known universe where programmers can ask fundamental questions about coding IF and expect prompt answers.

If they want to learn how to write, they can go anywhere.

Thank you for reiterating my point, but there’s no need to be modest on Shakespeare’s behalf. His creative contributions (oddball authorship controversies aside), are something approaching 100% of the finished work, I’d say. The difference is the difference between raw materials and actual artwork. A painting (once we’ve acquired some kind of surface to paint it on) consists of 100% paint. Yet the contribution of the painter is 100% of the work, a separate figure from the raw material.

New works of fiction - both great and mediocre ones - are frequently constructed, 100%, from existing ideas and imagery, just as most new sentences are made of existing words, most new words are made of existing phonemes, and so on.

To be sure, sometimes people also write works of conspicuous novelty (and make up entirely new phrases and entirely new words and even new sounds, now and then), but none of these things insure quality and none of these things are even relevant to quality. Sometimes, there comes along an artist who decides he can make his mark by painting with feces on oblong sheet metal instead of oil on rectangular canvas. You and I both know he’s probably attempting to cover for a lack of skill while at the same time bidding for attention.

Very frequently, there are those who slap a bunch of shopworn ideas together and contribute nothing in the process. But it’s valuable to recognize the difference between blaming the ideas (which are innocent, they can’t help if they’re being abused) and blaming the lazy-ass writers instead. My point is simply to assign blame where it belongs.

There are in fact painters (I’ve known some personally, I’m sorry to say) who have rebelled against paint of every color (and rectangular canvases and so on) as hokey old devices that limit their True Artistic Vision Which Deserves Title-Case Because It’s So True and Artistic. If you would dismiss these painters as beneath serious consideration, well, I’d heartily agree, but … well, let’s see if you can’t follow the metaphor to its conclusion :slight_smile:

The history of art shows us repeatedly that piss-poor work is piss-poor, but that some people are willing to blame the paint, and in the process throw the baby out with the bathwater, resulting in a particularly messy mix of metaphor.

Lazy, second-rate writers will always be the overwhelming norm. Sadly, it requires no license.

Thank you for all your opinions. I will consider each one as I attempt to learn this craft.

I have spent a few days doing some research and have come to the conclusion that no matter how well you know your IF tools you cannot write a good IF game if you first do not know how to craft a story.

Those IF writing tips from the IF Theory Reader and Craft of Adventure and the like, you can use to put together your IF game but if you try to write the game before the story, just piecing it together as you go along, is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what it’s supposed to look like.

So, I have acquired some fiction writing materials.


Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

The Writer’s Journey; Mythic Structure for Writers by Vogler, Christopher

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle

The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy: Alchemy with words by Tom Dullemond and Darin Park

The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus

Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer

The Comedy Bible From Stand-up to Sitcom–The Comedy Writer’s Ultimate How To Guide by Judy Carter

How to Beat Writers Block by Holly Lisle

How to write a book in 14 days by Steve Manning

I think that’s enough to get started with.

Most of these are available as a PDF or paperback either through their web sites or Amazon.com - or like I found, a good used book store.

I haven’t finished reading all those books yet… still working on it.

I have also subscribed to a number of free writing courses online. I will detail these and any freely downloadable writing Ebooks I have found in another post.


My idea is to learn how to put a story together First then adapt it to IF games. The structure would look as follows:

Write your story or story outline and then within the body of your work, interject what to say and where to go in the IF game. Example:


Preface or chapter or act or scene 1 ( however you like to do it but I think written in scenes is better)

Story Opening Scene 1:
bla bla bla bla bla bla <-- This gets written First (on paper) before this -->[IF Game Rooms & dialog] (In Inform, Adrift, Quest etc) all the way down the page till the story or outline is finished.

The [IF Game Rooms & dialog] sections are interjected into this body after your story is written.

This is the opening setup for your story. This introduces the setting, main character, and or main plot, anything you want in the opening to begin the story.

[IF Game Rooms & dialog] <- this is where the opening setup for your story above takes place in the context of the game world.

Now since you story and game will both progress in a liner fashion going down this page until the end of the story, you have to add in here side trips to rooms and other side quests that make up the game - all for adventure purposes until you find the path back that leads you to story and game area Scene 2.

These side trips to rooms for treasure or the like is where all those do's and don'ts of IF theory come in. This is where you craft the adventure part of the game until you get back on the main path to progress the game - to the next set of side trips in scene 2.

Scene 2:
bla bla bla bla bla bla (written first)

[IF Game Rooms & dialog] (added later)

and so on.

This is my thinking oh how beginners can best learn to write an IF game. It has structure that is easy to follow. You will always know what you have to do next to continue the story of the game since your story or outline is already written before you interject the extra [IF Game] parts that lead you away from the main story then back to it again and so on.

Of course you can always introduce subplots and puzzles into the [IF game] sections before you bring the player back to the main path to progress the story of the game.

I’m going to toss in one of my favorite quotes. In the introduction to Frankenstein, we read about how the book was inspired by an informal writing contest. After describing what the other contestants (her husband and his friends) set out to do, Mary Shelley says, “I busied myself to think of a story.”

The introduction was, I believe, actually penned by Percy Shelley, but she signed her name to it. She was only 19 years old at the time, and undoubtedly exhausted from writing the novel.

The point is this: A novel, a short story, or a text game starts with an IDEA. A creative spark that (to mix a metaphor) is pregnant with provocative implications.

Orson Scott Card is a fine storyteller. I haven’t read that book, but I’m sure it’s good. I would tend, personally, to be a bit leery of a Dummies book on writing, because writing is not for dummies! Also, is the co-author’s name really Economy? That smells a bit fishy. Look for how-to-write books by writers who have sold stacks of novels, like Card. Lawrence Block wrote a book called “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.” He’s a successful author, so his opinions carry some weight.

An alternate strategy would be: look for how-to-write books by writers who produce work that you personally enjoy and admire.

How very righty-lefty of us :slight_smile:

When a game has an obvious coding error, it crashes in obvious ways. Like spelling mistakes in writing, these are easy mistakes to correct. Bad research or awkward dialogue are like more complex bugs: harder to track down because they depend on a deeper understanding. At the very deepest level are authorial choices which mediate audience experience, making text and gameplay smoother and more enjoyable without calling overt attention to themselves at all. Their absence is not a bug so much as it’s a tangible difference between the extraordinary and the routine.

Conscious analysis of that final layer is not necessary to produce it. Sometimes luck or experience makes its exercise unconscious.

People with a lot of experience selling books will tend to write entertaining books on writing because that value, entertainment, is one they exercise well. Unfortunately, whether someone is a capable teacher – whether that person can analyze and express the nuts and bolts of technique in a meaningful way – is not consistently correlated to producing entertaining prose. Even if they also turn out to be capable teachers, their particular style of teaching may work spectacularly with one person while failing just as spectacularly with another.

Rather than depending on authors which the open market has favored (or even authors you personally enjoy), you might be best served to seek out educational books which are themselves widely regarded… and then, should you discover among them an author who teaches in a way you can absorb, seek out other books by that author. If that is her only book, find reviews by people who absorbed her book the way you did, and see what other books spoke to them that way.

More importantly, write a lot. Developing a critical eye for your own work, and exposing that work to as many editorial eyes as you can find, will teach you things unconsciously in a way that fixed texts are hard pressed to accomplish.