Don’t Start at the Beginning!
Posted by: Adam Strong-Morse | Comments (13)
When writing a ChoiceScript game, it’s tempting to think that you should write the game the way that it will be played: start with the first vignette (maybe with some character-generation questions), then write the second vignette, then the middle vignettes, and finish with the concluding vignettes and epilogues (if any). That can work, of course, but I don’t think it’s the most effective way to approach a ChoiceScript game. In this post, I explain why and give my suggestions for how to pick a vignette to start with.
I’m assuming that by the time you start writing a vignette, you’ve already done some planning. In a previous post, I described how we plan a ChoiceScript game and the materials we produce before we start writing: a one-sentence capsule summary; an outline of all the vignettes; a dramatis personae of all the important characters; a draft list of global variables; a couple of vivid scene concepts; and any worldbuilding materials we need to get started. All of those (except maybe the capsule summary) are still subject to change as we write–maybe a character who seemed important is turning out flat and uninteresting and should be cut, or maybe we should combine scenes 4 and 5 or add a comic relief scene between 7 and 8.
When I start writing the first vignette of a ChoiceScript game, I’m not trying to produce a finished product right then. Rather, I’m trying to get the process going that will end with a really good, fun, interesting game. I don’t want to ever write a vignette that then gets tossed entirely, but it’s happened, and if that led to the production of a better game, it was still a worthwhile process. So that means I have to accomplish several things in writing my first vignette.
First, I have to get writing. It’s all well and good to have the perfect outline or the ideal list of characters or whatever. If we can’t turn that into actual, playable vignettes, it’s not a game. As with any writing process, simply cranking out the text is an important part of the process. Some of the text will be great; some will be terrible and get edited out or redone; and some will be okay and ideally get tuned up or made more punchy, but all of it matters. And for most of us, momentum matters. It’s a lot easier to write another chunk of your vignette, because you always write another chunk of your vignette each day than it is to sit down at a computer with a blank text editor scene and start writing from scratch. So getting the ball rolling matters, because it’s easier to keep the ball rolling.
Second, I have to get a feel for the game I’m writing. That means a couple of things. It means figuring out the tone of the writing, the diction, the sorts of phrasings that fit the project. Is the tone serious and epic? Informal and snarky? Melodramatic and flowery? Any of those might be the right choices for different games. Also, how much detail do we include? Is it a sparse game, or a carefully descriptive game? Is violence or sex alluded to but not shown, described in bloodless and circumscribed terms, described in evocative yet vague terms, or meticulously detailed? But beyond the level of writing, it means getting a sense for the world I’m writing in. What sorts of choices are reasonable? How do people behave? What do various settings look like, feel like, function as? I find that a lot of issues regarding feel are best developed through writing. I’ll have ideas going in, but I’ll need to actually start writing them to turn those ideas into concrete approaches.
Third, I need to have a sense of what’s next. Usually, as you conclude a vignette, that will produce obvious links to the next vignette. Conversely, you’ll know where the protagonist came from, and it becomes easy to fill in backstory. And you’ll have an interest in revisiting the characters in that vignette when they recur later (or earlier) in the storyline. Either way, having one completed vignette gives you room to right more and leads on how to do that effectively.
Fourth, I want to bring together all three of those points to talk some more about momentum. In addition to the momentum of a routine, of physically writing more stuff every day (preferably, although sometimes that’s every other day or every Saturday or whatever your schedule can fit in), there’s another sense of momentum. ChoiceScript games are labors of love, things we write not because it’s our job but because it’s our passion–we write the games because we really want to. That’s true even for those of us for whom writing these games is part of our (sideline) job. We could all get better paying work elsewhere, but it wouldn’t motivate us in the same way. So that means that throughout any ChoiceScript project, remaining excited and determined is important. There are slogs along the way sometimes–I don’t think anybody really likes getting a bunch of playtest commentary and going through and making small but important tweaks to make the game awesome, but it has to be done or the game will be only so-so. But the key is to keep motivation high. Start with a task that’s fun and exciting. Finish it with more enthusiasm for the project, with a desire to do the next cool thing. Sure, there’s going to be that vignette that the game needs but that nobody wants to write– but it’s a lot easier to write that when “hey, as soon as we have that vignette done we’ll have a playable draft game!” or “and when we’re done with that, the whole game will be in place.” Similarly, the thing that gets us through the debugging/editing slog at the end is that we already have this neat game that we like, and when we’re done with that process we can actually release the game! So a first vignette needs to be part of the chain reaction, driving the project along and making it easier to be excited, not sucking the energy out of the project. In many ways, maintaining our drive and energy and excitement is the most important part of everything we do on a ChoiceScript game, or any other labor of love.
So those are my goals for writing a first vignette. Notice that none of those goals, except maybe the third, are helped by starting with the first vignette. The first vignette has its own set of constraints and requirements (that I’ll talk about at more length in a later blog post)–it needs to communicate the setting, sometimes provide an info dump of what the player needs to know, introduce and define the protagonist, get the feel of the game across, hook the player in so they actually play the game instead of fiddling with it for a minute or two and moving on (perhaps the most important aspect), often generate the starting scores for a set of variables and explain those variables to the player… That’s a lot of stuff, and most of it is at best unrelated to the goals of building energy and getting the game writing process going full speed. Some of it appears related, but really isn’t: you want to convey the feel of the setting to the player quickly… that’s kinda like getting a feel for writing the setting, but they’re actually quite different. Often, when you start writing the setting will be hazy, and as you write you will, over time, become comfortable and get a good feel. If you do that while writing the first vignette, you’ll have an ineffective vignette for immersing the player in the feel. Far better to write that introduction when you’re already comfortable. If you start with the first vignette, you may well need to totally redo it later.
Also, because there are special constraints on a starting vignette, it’s harder to write than most vignettes. It has to be grabby AND it has to explain mechanics AND it has to handle any character generation AND it has to present the setting without being a wall of text with no choices. That means that it can be hard to get started, hard to develop much sense of momentum. And that makes it a bad first choice.
Instead, I urge you to start with a really vivid, grabby, early-middle vignette. Not one that’s crucial to the plot or the climax–for reasons similar to the first vignette problems, you want to write those when you’re comfortable, immersed, and in the flow. But write a vignette that’s easy to write, that you can picture in your mind, that you know how it should feel, and that can get the ball rolling. That will get you going, will get the game in place, and will position you well to, after writing two or three vignettes, tackle the first vignette now that you have some momentum and want to be able to play through the four vignette set that you’ve gotten going.
So that’s my advice: don’t start at the beginning. Start with a really grabby idea, a vignette you’re excited by and can easily picture and really want to write, somewhere in the early middle. Get the process going, and get a feel for it organically, while you build up habits and narrative momentum that will help carry you over the humps in the project. And then get writing.
(I should probably note at this point that this is probably the single piece of advice that we give that we’ve most frequently broken. Choice of the Dragon: I pretty much started with the first vignette, although it got completely rebuilt by the time we released. Choice of Broadsides: I started with the first vignette, although without the character generation material that we added in later. Our current project: I started with an early-mid vignette, but Heather (I believe) started with the first vignette for her writing. But I still fundamentally believe that it’s good advice and that we’ve made trouble for ourselves in the past by not following it, and I’ll try to follow it in the future. 🙂 )
Let us know what you think of this advice. How have you started your ChoiceScript writing? Has it worked well or poorly?