Designing Branching Narrative

In the past I have talked about technologies such as Inkle, Undum, Twine, and there are others I haven’t really mentioned: ChoiceScript, StoryNexus, and Varytale, which all use branching narrative with some world state variables as their form of interactive storytelling. Now, if you’ve read Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, you know what he thinks of branching narrative (AKA Choose-Your-Own-Adventure); and he’s right. Branching narrative is a bit too simplistic to be the holy grail of interactive storytelling, but it is the most common form of interactive storytelling today because of its accessibility. In this post, I will attempt to break down the process of designing and writing a branching narrative, and point out some ways to write more complex branching structures. I will also link to other blog posts or articles that I have found useful when researching this topic.

The Branching Narrative

The simplest nonlinear stories use a branching structure; you start at the beginning, are given several options, and those options lead to new choices, which each lead to new choices…this can go on forever, but there is a point where all of these branches become too expensive. If you are writing a branching narrative, similar to one of the old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, your story structure might look something like this:

Branching_Tree

This is called a branching tree, and as you might imagine, with each choice, the amount you have to write increases exponentially. If you were going to write a story with ten choices, two options at each choice, you would have to write 2^10 (which is 1024) branches. That’s a lot of writing. Add one more choice to the game, and you have to write double that: 2048.

To combat this complexity, you can create a foldback structure, where the player has choices, but these branches eventually all lead to the same place. This keeps the number of branches you have to write to a manageable number, but it cheats the player out of making meaningful decisions. What is the point of choosing one path over another, if they both eventually lead to the same conclusion?

Branching_Tree_Foldback

So, how do we get the expressiveness of a fully branching narrative and the compactness of a foldback structure? One method that many systems use today is World State.

World State

Tracking a world state allows the writer to create more advanced branching narratives, without writing thousands of nodes. A choice can set a variable (such as true/false, or increase by a factor of 1, etc.). Then, later on, when text is being printed by the computer, it can check that variable and print different text based on the value of that variable. This can limit the choices available to a player, or simply change whether the player character is described as a “he” or “she.”

For example, let’s say you have a story where a certain character can either die or be rescued in one scene near the beginning. This can be set as a variable: Bob_Dead = true. Later on down the road, you write a scene where some of the main characters are sitting around a campfire talking about their tough times. If Bob_Dead is true, then one character might say, “I really miss Bob.” If Bob_Dead is false, then Bob might say something, and nobody will lament his death, because he’s not dead.

You can imagine it like this:

Branching_Tree_WorldState

As you can see, earlier decisions affect later decisions because of variables. If the variable is a number that can be increased and decreased, then output can be varied even further. For some interesting results, you can use a number as a chance variable; the higher the variable, the higher your chance of succeeding. Be careful with using random chance, however; you can get some unintended and frustrating results.

Most branching narrative systems today allow variable tracking and conditionals, such as Undum, InkleWriter, ChoiceScript, and Twine.

See:

Choosing Variables

Choosing the proper world state variables is a large part of creating a state-based branching narrative. If you use too many variables, they will get jumbled up into a big mathy mess that is confusing and difficult to work with. It is best to choose a small amount of variables where each variable has a known and defined use inside the branching narrative.

Some variable types:

  • Skills
  • Personality
  • Morality
  • Status
  • Resources
  • World state
  • NPC variables

There are many other types of variables that can be used, but before you blindly start coding variables into your branching narrative, make sure that you know what they are going to be used for and how they are going to be used. Some variables can be simple boolean values, but some should be numbers or strings.

It is very easy to write too many variables into your story on the first draft, especially if you are making it up as you go. However, the more variables you write, the more you will have to remember, and if you have variables that are similar to each other, then they may conflict at some points in the story. For example, if you have a Strength variable, and a Number_of_times_pumped_iron variable, you can probably imagine how these variables overlap. A simpler solution would be to just replace Number_of_times_pumped_iron with Strength, and increase that variable each time the character pumps iron. Otherwise you might run into a situation where there is a strength check, and although the character has a high Number_of_times_pumped_iron score, if their Strength score is low, they will fail the test.

A good resource to read on this topic would be the chapter on Personality Models in Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, especially the second edition. He talks about creating variables with little overlap, while retaining the highest amount of utility. This is called orthogonality, so remember that when you’re googling.

See:

Storylets

Storylets are basically little snippets of narrative that the player can see, depending on a world-state. For example, if each storylet were a chapter, chapter one would always be visible, and choices inside chapter one would set some qualities that cause other chapters to be visible. Then, when the player returns to the contents, they can choose from the available chapters. So each storylet is a separate narrative, but it influences which other storylets are available and what happens inside them.

A good example of a story using storylets is Bee, by Emily Short. I would definitely recommend reading/playing through it, then reading the two articles linked to at the end of this section.

Two main systems that use storylets are Varytale and StoryNexus. You can probably simulate storylets in InkleWriter, Undum, and Twine, but they aren’t set up explicitly for that.

See:

Choices

What choices you make available to the player will largely define how they percieve your story. The choices have to be broad and interesting, but they also have to be manageable from the writer’s perspective. I have played a lot of branching narratives that have pathetic choices; if you’re only giving the player one choice at the end of each story node, then you should ask yourself if you really need a choice there at all.

Choices need to have some effect on the story, otherwise there’s no point for them. They could change some relationship variables, start a new branch of the story, or give your character some advantage that will come in handy later in the story.

The player should also have some idea of how the choice will affect the story. If the player clicks an option, and something completely random happens and changes the story, the player will get frustrated. This is a very common problem; even many high-budget games struggle with this issue. Mass Effect is notorious for this; you may choose an option that seems like a simple question, but then Shepard goes crazy and starts violently interrogating someone. After several playthroughs, I have a pretty good idea of what the writers were thinking, but my experience doesn’t help any first-time players.

See:

Planning with Graphs

Before you open up your branching narrative editor of choice, you should do a little planning. Hopefully you already know about your world, your characters, and some of the possibilities that can happen to them, (if you don’t, read this earlier post) but now you need to start designing the actual branches of your narrative.

The idea behind this is similar to that of The Snowflake Method for writing a novel; you start with the broad strokes, and you add detail later.

Step one: create a high-level storyline that connects all of your main scenes (or storylets, if you’re going that route). Overall, this high-level storyline should be fairly linear; it doesn’t have to be, of course, but adding a lot of branches at this point will mean that you will be writing a lot of content that must be connected to nodes inside of other scenes, and this adds more variables to keep track of…in short, if you want to confuse yourself, go right on ahead. Branching narratives are not easy to create; however, if you plan carefully before you start writing, you may save some headaches later on down the road.

The purpose behind this step is to come up with the overall plot of your story. Yes, branching narratives have a plot, but it branches. Figure out how your story will begin, what things can happen in the middle, and how it ends.

Branching_Narrative_Step1

Step two: zoom into each node of the previous graph, and start adding some branches within that node. These nodes can have as many branches as you want, but they should all end up at the same place. Don’t worry; since you have world and character state variables, you can change the text depending on their values. This means two players who end up in the same place may have very different experiences when they get there.

This is where you can really start to add some complexity to your story; figure out the main choices the player can make, and how they affect the world state and future decisions. Write down a list of variables you think you might need, and cross off any that you find you don’t.

Branching_Narrative_Step2

As you can see, to get from one main storyline to the next, there are a lot of little options that can branch amongst themselves, but they have to all come back together to one or two main locations.

After this, you can sit down and start writing. You may need to rethink your outlines as you write, if you find problems or decide to add more detail, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as you have a roadmap and know where you’re (generally) going.

See:

Conclusion

Whew, that’s been a long one. I hope this brief (yeah, right) overview has helped you somewhat. My intent was not to cover the topic exhaustively, because there is a lot involved in not only planning a branching narrative, but writing prose in general. That is why I added so many links; if there are any subjects you would like more information on, they should help.

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Blood and Laurels Review

Blood & Laurels

Blood and Laruels is an interactive story created with Versu, and written by Emily Short.

Note: I have tried to keep this review relatively spoiler-free, but if you would prefer to play through it first without any previous knowledge, then the TL;DR version of this post is to go buy the app. However, please come back after you have played it, because in my unbiased opinion, you should read my review anyway.

I mentioned Versu a while ago in one of my posts, but it had sort of gone away because of some issues with Linden Labs. I don’t know the full story, but apparently Versu is back, in the form of a new interactive story called Blood and Laurels written by Emily Short.

When I learned of the app, I immediately downloaded it and played through both parts in one evening. I was very impressed with it for many reasons, and I would like to share some of my thoughts here. If you are interested in interactive storytelling and own an iPad, I recommend you download Blood and Laurels.

Presentation

Versu Interface

Blood and Laruels is an app for the iPad, but it is almost completely text-based, save a few illustrations that show the characters and a few locations. Each new sequence of the story is printed at the end of the previous sequences, which persists throughout the story. This way you can go back and read through your entire story at the end, or to just refresh your memory. The style is similar to other Interactive Fiction; present-tense, third-person perspective. The choice of third-person rather than second-person may seem strange to IF fans, but I think it was the right choice for this story. The room descriptions are short and focus on what is important to the story. Like IF, some objects can be observed in greater detail, and these descriptions go into a little more depth.

Dialogue is printed similar to a play script, rather than a book, for example:

Marcus (Showing Annoyance): Why would you do that to me?

Below the main text of the story are the portraits of any characters in the current scene. This area is at least occupied by the player’s character, but could include several characters if need be. If the portraits are tapped, a short description of the character’s mood appears above their head. This is useful when the player want’s a character to like them, or perhaps dislike them; they can figure out their status with the character and then try to affect their mood.

At the very bottom of the screen are two buttons: Act Now and More. I will describe these more in the next section.

Interaction

Versu Choices

The Act Now button allows the player to choose an action for their character to perform. The button is not always available, for example during long sequences of description, but most of the time it is. When pressed a menu appears with possible actions for the player.

The actions are organized into several sections, for example:

  • Conversation
  • Your Mood
  • Your Observations
  • Relationships
  • Have a Snack
  • Artus has paid you a complement

All or one of these sections could be available at any one time. Conversation, for example, is available when you are talking to another character. Your Mood allows you to change your character’s mood by smelling flowers, drinking wine, etc. Relationships allow you to be rude or friendly to other characters in an attempt to make them dislike or like you.

The last section, though, “Artus has paid you a complement,” is more interesting. At certain points in the story, a character may do something towards you that you can react to. For example, a character could threaten you. A section stating that the character has threatened you will become available, with the options to “Act fearless” or “Cower.” The characters will respond to how you react to them; every little choice makes a difference in the story.

Certain options are more generic; for example, at almost any time, your character can “shrug.” This is a simple way to move through a conversation without really doing anything, but it does affect the other characters.

The More button simply allows you to continue on with the story, without actually doing anything. The other characters will act and talk, while your character sits and watches. Occasionally, action will be demanded of your character, for example if a character asks you a question.

Story

During my first playthrough of any game or interactive fiction, I try to role-play as the character, but also consider what I would do as that character. My character is generally a nice character, who doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal, unless the circumstances are extreme. Sometimes my characters will lose their tempers and punch someone in the face one too many times, but I feel these outbursts make the character more real.

Playing as Marcus for the first time, I made him a slightly cowardly poet, who doesn’t want to lie, but also doesn’t want anyone to hurt him. Playing Blood and Laurels this way maybe wasn’t the most interesting path, but it felt the most natural, and my character survived the entire story with a fairly ideal ending where most of the characters liked him, and he was engaged to be married.

The writing itself was fantastic; I would expect nothing less from Emily Short. The story isn’t exactly what I had imagined, but that’s what I love about Emily Short: she manages to find something new to write about in a world full of cliches. Even when writing about Ancient Rome, she focuses on the less-known aspects to create a world that is familiar but also fresh and new.

Technology

I don’t really care for the fact that Blood and Laurels is only available on the iPad. Yes, the iPad is a great device, but limiting Blood and Laurels to one device doesn’t do much to make interactive storytelling more accessible to the masses. Hopefully someday the Versu technology will be available for the web, or a downloadable desktop version, and if so, I will retract this critique.

Now speaking to the iPad’s strengths, I do think it’s an ideal platform for Versu. Most of my time spent on the iPad is reading, and there is a lot of that going on in Blood and Laurels.

When I first opened up the app, it took several minutes to apparently do some AI preprocessing. It was a one-time deal, though, so loading up the app now is much faster. However, I did notice that whenever I made a choice, there was a slight pause before the text appeared. I’m sure this is because the app was calculating all the AI, and I should mention that I was running it on the iPad 2.

I noticed a few small glitches in the text of the story, probably caused by forgetting to add a variable instead of static text, but these were few and didn’t detract from the story at all.

I’m being a bit nit-picky in this section, so I must be clear that I was very impressed with the AI. The story seemed to adapt almost perfectly to every choice I made, and I think you could read through the entire transcript of a playthrough and think it was a linear short story. There are a few hickups every once in a while, such as a character reacting twice to one of your actions. I think this has to do with the way Versu organizes your options; for example, sometimes you will have two choices that are pretty much the same, but they have been displayed for different reasons. One option could be under the “Gila looks scared” banner, and one could be under the “Moods and relationships” banner. Generally I picked the option that was under the banner I was trying to follow, but I’m not sure if that made any difference.

Conclusion

Overall, I think that Versu and Blood and Laurels is a very large step in the right direction for interactive storytelling. Emily Short is a fantastic writer and storyteller, both of which are very important when writing for a platform such as Versu. I would recommend Blood and Laruels for both the impressive technology, and the writing. You will not be disappointed.

More Interactive Storytelling Today

A while back I wrote about InkleWriter, which is a web-based editor for Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories. Since then I have tried out some other software such as Undum, Twine, and some IF languages such as Inform 7. I would like to just give a brief overview of the different options for writers interested in interactive storytelling, taking into account the ease-of-use and feature set.

Undum

Undum is like the big brother of InkleWriter. It is a JavaScript library that helps the user write CYOAs that are similar to Inkle, but also more advanced since you have the power of JavaScript and any JS libraries you would like to use. I encourage you to visit the website and play through at least some of the tutorial game. It explains what exactly Undum is and some of what it can do.

My main dislike of Undum is the fact that it uses JavaScript. I understand that this allows Undum to run fully in the browser, and JavaScript was probably a great language back in 1995, but I’ve done enough programming to know that JavaScript has a terribly painful syntax. All those braces, parenthesis, and semicolons everywhere just cause suffering for the average programmer. I suppose you could use something like CoffeeScript, which I would highly recommend, but because of this I would have to say that Undum is not for the writer who wants to make interactive stories easily. For that, use InkleWriter; it has most of the useful features, and it’s a million times easier.

Now that I’ve scared off all the script kiddies, if you’re some tough-as-perl programmer who eats regexes for breakfast, then you’ll probably love Undum. It does give the user a lot of control over how their story is formatted and printed, and you can use JavaScript to customize anything you desire. The documentation isn’t great, and there aren’t any beginner tutorials, but the source code is out there for you to peruse.

A good example of what’s possible with Undum, a little creativity, and some JavaScript know-how, is The Matter of the Monster by Andrew Plotkin. Take a look at the source code, and I guarantee you’ll learn something about Undum and JavaScript in the process.

Twine

Now, for those of you who were offended by the rampant use of JavaScript in Undum, you’ll probably love Twine. It’s a great little program that allows you to graphically create CYOAs similar to Undum, but without all the coding. The final product is compiled into a single HTML file that can be uploaded to the web and played by anyone. It doesn’t give as much control as Undum, and by default it doesn’t look quite as good, but the editor is simple (and dare I say fun?) to use, and can be learned in less than 5 minutes. Don’t believe me? Skim this tutorial and tell me you don’t know everything about Twine. Besides using over 50 exclamation points, that tutorial covers most of the basic and advanced features of Twine.

There are quite a few games that have been made with Twine, so I encourage you to check them out.

Inform 7

Inform 7 is a programming language specifically for writing Interactive Fiction (IF, aka text adventures). But it isn’t like your daddy’s programming languages; Inform 7 uses natural language to define how your game works. It is almost ludicrous how easy it is to get started with Inform 7; however, mastering it is another matter. Inform 7 may be easy to start with, but using it for something even remotely complicated takes some willpower.

I have to say, in the time I’ve spent using Inform 7, most of it was spent just writing. Whenever you want Inform to do something, most of the time you can just write what you want it to do, and it works! Magic! But when it doesn’t work, it can be…frustrating to figure out why. The IDE that comes with Inform is pretty nice, but debugging is a thing of the past. If there’s an error in your source, Inform will inform you of where it is, but you still have to figure out how to fix it.

Despite the (few) downsides of Inform 7, it is currently the most popular IF programming language, and has been used by many authors to write many games. The documentation is very detailed, and there is no shortage of tutorials for getting started. There are also forums where you can ask any n00b questions.

Other IF Languages

If you’re interested in interactive fiction, but don’t fancy the natural language syntax of Inform 7, there are other options. Inform 6, for example, is an entirely different beast than Inform 7. 6 has syntax similar (or so they say) to C/C++, with all the fun brackets and semicolons. It gives you more control than I7, which can make debugging easier. Since it is older, you’ll have to do a little digging to find all the software you might need to develop in Inform 6. Start with the old Inform 6 website, then use Google if you need anything else.

TADS 3 and Hugo are other options. I’ve used Hugo a little bit, and from what I’ve seen, it’s incredibly easy to learn and it also has a pretty nice syntax. I haven’t used TADS 3 at all, so I will hold any comments, but I have heard that it’s nice too.

The Choice

To me, the advantage interactive fiction has over CYOAs is the simulation aspect. Interactive fiction games create a whole world model, which includes not only the location of objects, but how they interact with each other, and how the player can interact with the world. CYOAs have basically no world model; they are simply text. In this scenario, print this text; in this other scenario, print this different text. There are no characters, no rooms, no objects; just text and links between text. The advantage of CYOAs is that they are usually easier to write, and easier to play/read. The user just clicks on a link and the next part of the story appears, whereas with IF the player has to actually use their brain and type something. I think a lot of the decision between IF and CYOAs is the intended audience. If you want your story to be accessible to pretty much everyone, then a CYOA tech such as InkleWriter is probably a better choice than an IF system.

In the end, the decision is up to you. I wrote this in the hopes of exposing some systems that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. If you are really interested in creating some type of interactive story, then check out each of the programs I talked about and see which one strikes your fancy. You can always start with something simple like Twine, and move on to more complicated things later.

Writing for Interactive Worlds

Writing for an interactive medium requires all the same skills as writing in a static medium, but there are different focuses. Whereas plot is important in writing a novel or script, it is not important in writing for an interactive world. The three areas that are most important are character, world, and situation.

Plot isn’t important because in an interactive medium, we give the player choices, and they make the decision and drive the story in whatever direction they wish. If we develop an intricate storyline, we will end up giving the player meaningless choices which all lead to the same place.

Storytelling is the same no matter what medium we are using. Before you even begin writing about your characters, world, or situation, consider these questions:

  • What do you want the player to feel?
  • What does the player care about?

As the writer, you want to impart a specific feeling to the player, and you want the player to care about something so they don’t put down your game and do something else. You are creating a mood, and teaching the player something. Think about that while you create your characters, setting, and backstory. It will influence some of the decisions you make, and the story will benefit.

Gameplay should also enhance the emotion and writing of an interactive world. I am getting off topic, but the way the choices are presented to the player will enhance or detract from the experience. Consider that as you design the gameplay, and consider the gameplay as you write the story. They both can and should complement each other.

Character

Think back to a movie or book you watched or read several years ago. Unless you have an excellent memory, you’ve forgotten the storyline and how it ended. You may have forgotten the character’s names. But did you forget the characters? Think about what was most memorable about the story. Was it the cool storyline filled with twists and turns, or the characters that won your heart?

If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I would bet that you remember the characters more than you remember the storyline. This doesn’t mean the storyline isn’t important. Us humans just have a way of connecting with other humans that’s more powerful than with storylines.

All that to say, characters are important. Characters are memorable. Characters can teach us things about ourselves that we can’t learn any other way.

What does a character need, then, to become real? Characters are only interesting if they want something so much they are willing to do anything to get it. They need believable goals, which drive them forward. They need a backstory so we know where they came from and why they are the way they are. And of course they need a personality; one that is influenced by their backstory and goals.

There are many aspects that go into creating realistic characters, and many others have written on the topic. Here are some links to get you started:

Of course I have to recommend The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, which has some excellent wisdom on writing characters. His second book, The Art of Creative Writing, is completely about character creation. If you can only read one, I recommend The Art of Dramatic Writing, but if you can, read both. They are excellent books.

After designing the characters, you will need to write a lot of dialog. I mean a ton. The characters will need something to say in every possible situation. For now, I would recommend limiting the situations, rather than omitting dialog. Writing dialog for three characters in one room is a lot easier than writing for 50 characters in an entire city. I could say a lot about writing good dialog, but I will keep it brief. Dialog must do more than just give the player information. It must also show the speaker’s personality, and their relationships with other characters. As all good writers know, nothing is there to just pass the time; it must have a purpose, it must drive the story forward.

To make the job easier for the writer, you should limit the cast of an interactive storyworld. Unless you have a team of writers, only a few characters should exist. Also, for an interactive storyworld, no characters are minor characters. In a traditional story, the writer could decide who got the large parts and who got the small parts. In an interactive environment, the player decides who is important. They may choose to pursue a path that involves one character more than all the others. That one character must be complete, or the player will think the world is underdeveloped.

In my humble opinion, games don’t do character well. Most of the time the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes meant to add some life to an otherwise dead setting. At least one exception would be the Mass Effect series. Mass Effect may not be as well written as some books or TV shows, but compared to other games, it is one of the best. Also, The Walking Dead from Telltale Games had excellent character development. But in no game are the characters interactive. They still have defined storylines, and the player can do little to change them. If you’re going to make your characters interactive, then you’ll have to know them.

World

When I talk about worldbuilding, I mean creating the setting. Where does the story take place, what are the politics, the religions, the history, the technology? A lot goes into worldbuilding–more than goes into any individual character. After all, a story isn’t only about who, it’s about where. The P.I. needs an office, the doctor needs a hospital, the family needs a house, and the King needs a castle.

Here are some things to think about when creating the world of your story:

  • Geography. The physical layout of the world.
  • Climate. Weather patterns, is it hot or cold?
  • Cultural groups. What are the different races of people, how are they organized, who are they fighting?
  • History. What has happened to the different cultural groups before your story begins? How have they changed?
  • Languages. How do people communicate?
  • Culture. How do people act, eat, live, dress, etc.?
  • Science and technology. What is the technological level of your cultures?
  • Religion, mythology, and magic. What do your cultures believe? If it is a fantasy world, is there magic? How does it work?

If you’re writing a science-fiction or fantasy world, then your work is cut out for you. Don’t think you can avoid research; even fantasy authors need to know how the real world works. Do you think J.R.R. Tolkien just sat down one day at his typewriter and hammered out The Lord of the Rings? Nope.

Of course your setting could be as simple as a single room, but there will still be some worldbuilding involved. A lot of time should go into worldbuilding; it is, after all, one of the main characters.

Worldbuilding is one of the stronger parts of most modern video games. The most memorable part of Fallout 3 isn’t the sardonic humor, or the crazy characters, or the gore-inducing weapons. It’s the Capital Wasteland. For Fallout 3, or a game like Skyrim, the setting is the main character. I’m not sure exactly why this is; perhaps because the designers put so much effort into level design. Setting is a large part of level design.

Situation

What has happened before the story begins? Was someone just murdered, and your character has to solve the case? Did a spaceship just crash-land on a planet stranding your character? What makes the player interested in the interactive storyworld to begin with? Nobody is going to pick up a game or book or movie because they heard it has interesting characters. They need a catch; a reason to pick it up in the first place. More than that, they need a place to start. Where they go from the start is their choice. They can choose to solve the murder and have the murderer arrested, or they can go and kill the murderer themselves. How the story ends is up to the player, but how the story begins is up to you.

I remember reading a blog post that said everyone started LOST because of the crazy storyline, but they stayed for the characters. I am watching Star Trek: Voyager for the third time. Even though I’ve forgotten most of the stories, I still remember and love the characters. If you put the time into making an interesting beginning, the player will start your game. If you make great characters, they’ll finish it.

Games usually do a pretty good job of starting with a bang, and putting the player into some crazy situation. Half-Life, Portal 2, Mass Effect 2, and Bioshock all had great intros that grabbed the player and tossed them into the thick of things.

Conclusion

Once you have decided on a mood for your interactive world, you will need to spend a lot of time creating the characters, setting, and situation. These are all important, especially in an interactive medium.

I haven’t spent much time on these three aspects of storytelling, so perhaps in the future I will dive into each topic a little further. For now, I will leave you with this introduction.

Why I Write

Writing with a fountain pen

Quite often I ask myself why I write. It wasn’t something that I thought about doing and then decided to do; it just sort of happened. It all started when my mom decided to teach me my spelling words by having me write a book using those spelling words. We started out pretty strong, but slowly I got all into the story and began using very few spelling words. I was five, so my mom would write the story while I told it to her. Eventually she told me that if I wanted to continue the story, I would have to write it myself. After that I wrote about two paragraphs, and it was too much for me. However, I continued to work on the book, and it helped me learn typing also. I would spend days typing one page, and eventually I was a very fluent typist. Mavis Beacon—puh! Anyway, that’s my story. Writing taught me spelling and typing; and a lot of other things, too.

I honestly haven’t thought a lot about why other people write; I assume it comes from a need to communicate some sort of idea of some sort—a premise, if you will. For me, who is the only person I know about for sure, writing isn’t just fun, or important; it’s a necessity. I have to write. It’s one of the ways I make sense of the world. I’ll be honest; there are a lot of things about life I don’t understand. I’m pretty sure that’s natural for someone who’s twenty years old. But writing helps me express my confusion in a way that makes sense. I’ve gone for long periods without typing a single word of fiction, but I can’t stop the storytelling machine that is my brain. Sometimes I’ll wake up from a dream and my mind will start forming that fragmented dream into a story. Sometimes I’ll be really depressed about something and my mind will create a story about a person going through those same things I am, and then show possible resolutions. It’s kind of like my mind is creating simulations of how my life could go, and then I can pick the one that I like the most.

Writing is also a way I communicate my deepest feelings. Either I can’t put these feelings into words, or I don’t want to admit I have them. Writing a story is a way to get these feelings out. I hope that my books help people who know me to understand me better, because there’s a lot of me in my books. Every writer puts their worldview into their book, and I don’t just mean their religion. Whether the writer is an optimist or a pessimist is very obvious through the story. I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post, when I was talking about writing something you are currently struggling with. I’m guilty of this, and those stories never go anywhere, but they do help me personally. Then there are the stories in my head which I never write down, but they’re there, helping me work through life and my feelings.

Writing isn’t easy. There are months where I don’t even open up the word processor except to read school documents. Maybe I’m stuck on a current story, or busy, or just burned out. Writers get tired, too. Writing a novel isn’t easy, especially if you’ve written several drafts. However, if you’ve ever finished a novel, then you know how rewarding that feeling is. When I’ve spent months (or years) on a novel, and I finally type the words “THE END,” boy, does that feel good. I lean back with a sigh of relief and stare at the final word count. It may sound strange, but I take pride in my word counts. If I’ve made it over 50,000 words, that’s quite the accomplishment. Write a book. You’ll see what I mean.

Expressing oneself and making sense of the world aren’t the only reasons I write. Stories are the perfect way to communicate with other people, short of actually giving that person an experience, which isn’t possible with current technology. I think that people underestimate the persuasive power of storytelling. A story has a way of getting inside your head; it bypasses many of the usual barriers that people put up when they hear someone’s opinion through conversation or read it in a blog post. I’m sure you’ve read a book or seen a movie that really made you reconsider how you think about some topic; that’s one of the many powers of storytelling. We’re not writers, we’re mind-controllers. Muhahaha.

Then of course there are the more basic pleasures that come out of writing a story. I enjoy creating my own little world with my own rules, races, technology, and of course characters. I love creating characters. There’s something about breathing life into someone that exists only in your (and your reader’s) imagination. After writing a book for a long time, I become very attached to the characters. I once wrote a book that I had planned out pretty well; I knew all the characters that were going to die, how they were going to die, and when they were going to die. What I hadn’t planned on was how attached I would get to these characters before I killed them off. I remember one character I became so attached to that when it came time to kill him, I didn’t. I spared him.

There’s another reason I write, however. This is a reason everyone can give, even if they don’t admit it. People need to be recognized. They need to feel important–to feel needed. Because of this basic desire, people do all sorts of things. Some people write software, some people paint, some people post constantly to their Twitter accounts. I write. I’ll be brutally honest with you, as I’ve had to be with myself: I write because I want people to like me. Sometimes the only motivation I have for finishing a story is how I think it will make other people think of me. Maybe this is wrong, and most of the time it probably doesn’t make a difference, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a strong driving force. Maybe you know what I’m talking about, but from a different perspective. Maybe you’re a young teenager who thinks being in a relationship with someone else will make you important, or get you more attention. The truth is, a great story doesn’t make a great person. Feeling important shouldn’t be a motivation for anything we do. I’m saying this more to myself than anyone else, because there are some days where I just feel like if I don’t finish this story, well, that’s it. I’m done. Nobody cares unless I make them care through my words. That’s true in some cases, but not in the really important ones. The truly great stories I write aren’t for other people. They aren’t to make me look good. Sometimes they are the stories I’ll probably never show to anyone else. They’re the stories I wrote for me. Because I needed to say something, so I did.

That’s why I write. Why do you?