Possible start of a story writing guide

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Anableps
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Possible start of a story writing guide

Post by Anableps » Sat Jan 31, 2009 2:05 am

I have had an idea for quite some time. I have been thinking about writing some guidelines specific to collaborative fiction.

I am assuming that the reader has read Strunk and White, and know how to use a spell checker. I am also assuming that he has read Sir Toby’s guidelines for what is acceptable and not acceptable on the sir-toby.com site.

I was going to start with the topic of writing the options to a story. Let me know what you all think:


The options at the end of the episode are as important as the body of the episode itself. They are the last thing that I read in an episode, and if they are interesting enough, they make me think and want to continue the story. Here are some ways I have seen them written.

a. The new room/new direction options. When I first started writing episodes for the NEQ, I had thought of the cave system as being similar to the cave system in Zork or the Scott Adams adventure games. The defaults were East, West, North, South, up, or down. That is fine – it gives someone a chance to open up a new area, and use his or her imagination. Episode 2, where the story begins, does just that, where Fred has to pick the left or right entrance to the cave. A variation on this is a “choice of artifact” where the main character has to choose between similar items. Episode 15 is one example of this, where Fred has a choice between opening one of four chests, and the only difference is in the color. Now, red, gold, blue and green suggest different things to me, but they do not place any restrictions on the action. I can write an episode placing a snake in any of these four chests, and it would be perfectly reasonable.
b. The choice of event. The physical location does not change, but there are two different things that can happen to the character. A good example is episode 3, where Fred has a choice of encountering a bear, or a tiny dog. I would think that a meeting with a bear would suggest that Fred is more at risk, and would be more likely to be fighting for his life. When the episode is written this way, the main character does not have any control over his fate. I find that a “choice of event” tends to put me more in a “third person omniscient” mindset, and distances me from the main character.
c. The choice of action – This is a set of options where the main character takes an action. If it is well-written, it also tells me something about the character. Episode 8 is a good example. In this episode, Fred approaches a strange man, who may or may not be helpful. Does he try to evade him and take on the dragon alone, or does he trust him to possibly help? Fred’s choice tells me whether he is cautious or bold. I find that a “choice of action” episode tends put me in more of a “first person” mindset and bring me closer to the main character.
d. And then there is the “I have an idea for an episode, but could not think of an option” option. I have written a number of episodes this way. It is not as good as presenting the reader with interesting choices, but it at least keeps the story moving, and allows future authors the freedom to extend if they wish. Episode 49940 is an example. I wanted to continue the previous story, where the main character, a dragon, has lost her treasure and is sick, and the men on the ship were trying to scrape up enough weath to keep her going. I had some ideas, but couldn’t think of a way to end it. So I wrote just one option. What I try to do when that happens, though is to check the “Add New Option” feature, and then give the next author a little time to extend the story. Sometimes he or she might want to take the story in a direction that I have not thought about, and the “new option” allows for that.

One way of writing the options, so that they are more interesting, is to introduce a contrast where you have to give up something to get something else, or where neither of the two choices is perfect. An example is episode 63917. In this episode, a mariner named Captain Shirk wrecks his ship in the land of the Amazons and tries to woo the leader of the Amazons. Here is the action, and the Captain's two options.

He had appealed to her sense of humour, and not to her romantic instincts. The Amazons graciously accepted Captain Shirk's ship, the Available, as tribute from Allaria, and sailed it and its crew past the Queen's Barrier into Port Ambrosia, the nearest city on the Aqualarian mainland.
The Aqualarians gave Captain Shirk two choices. Captain Shirk chose
1. perpetual servitude for he and his men on the coffee plantations of the Sweltering Jungles of the South.
2. single combat between he and a champion of Aqualaria. If he won, he and his men were free, If he lost, he and his men would die.

In this case, neither choice is ideal, but they do lead to different results, and the choice will tell a lot about Captain Shirk. This first is a safe but degrading choice, and the second is risky but noble.

I don’t think any of these four ways of writing these options are “bad” choices. The important thing is, to give other authors a chance to extend your episode.

JH
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Post by JH » Sat Jan 31, 2009 10:37 am

Good luck with the project.

"The choice of event. The physical location does not change, but there are two different things that can happen to the character." That should say "two or more".

A few other things that might be worth saying:

There is no "right" number of options. Between two and four are normally sufficient, but if you have good ideas for more then by all means make use of them. However try to avoid the "shopping list" syndrome, where there are a large number of not very interesting or well distinguished options.

Options should normally not be over-specific. Give the person writing off them a reasonable degree of freedom to develop the story rather than attempting to map out the future in great detail in your option. On the other hand, very vague options, where the next writer is given a completely free hand, can be hard to write off.

If you enable "Add New Option", then there is no need to include an explicit option saying "Something else."

Whether Add New Option should be enabled is a matter of personal choice. However enabling it has two advantages: (1) If someone is writing a continuation of a particular option, but someone else takes it first, then they can add a second instance of the option. (2) Someone may have a brilliant idea for a continuation of the story that does not fit well with any of the options originally provided.

Some writers have a tendency, even where the story is being written in third person (as is generally the case), to put the options in the second person (ie "you do such-and-such"). This is not a good idea, as it may lead the writer of a continuation episode to write that in the second person as well. Such shifts from third person to second person point of view should not occur without a good reason, and when they happen the offending episodes will normally be edited by the story moderator to restore the third person point of view.

There is currently a limit of 256 characters on the length of each option, anything longer being truncated. If you want to write more than this, then consider whether you can include some of it in the body of your episode, without creating a mismatch with your other options. Alternatively, you could shorten the option and then write a continuation episode yourself containing the extra material.
JH

Anableps
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Post by Anableps » Sun Feb 01, 2009 4:40 am

Thank you, JH. These are good ideas.

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Post by Anableps » Thu Apr 02, 2009 3:01 am

Here is a try at the second part of the guide.

Extending options

When you extend an option, try to stay within the spirit of what the author wrote. I remember something that Lots42 wrote in the old forum, to the effect that if Fred passes by a rock, and option one is "pick up the rock", and option two is "ignore it," then the extension to option two should not be, "Fred turns back and picks up the rock."

Tactics that can make the story difficult to extend or read:

1. Splitting up characters

Fred, Astra, and Velus the Dog arrive at corridor that crosses the hall that they have been walking through. There is a path going left, right, and straight ahead. They split up.

If you are writing a story alone, it is easier to control where the story is going. And so Astra finds herself in a room with a table with three jewelled chests, one of which contains a prize, Fred is ambushed by a goblin, and Velus discovers a dinosaur bone. Each character faces an adventure that is appropriate to his or her personality, and if the author is clever, he or she can reweave the threads together later.

When you are writing with others, a lot of the bookkeeping that a solo author does in his head has to be coordinated with other authors, some who may be unknown at the start but wish to jump in and add their own unique slant on the action. With three separate branches of the episode, there are two challenges - keeping the time between the branches coordinated and making sure that action that happens in one branch is recorded in another.

In the above example, let us say that author number two decides that Astra finds a poem engraved on the lids of the three chests, and writes an option off each one. A third author decides that Astra opens the silver chest, and finds the Iron Crown of Jaxinarta, a lost relic of Aqualaria. She puts it on and falls asleep. She wakes up and finds herself chained to a wall. Meanwhile, another author finds the Velus story, and Velus picks up the dinosaur bone with his mouth, and becomes a small dinosaur himself. He races out of his passage to try to find the others.

So at this point, time has advanced to the next morning for Astra, probably no more than an hour for Velus, and not at all for Fred.

So the authors of any extensions have to both keep track of time, and make sure that what Velus finds in the other passages does not contradict the action that has gone on before. Velus cannot interact with Astra until the next morning, as this would contradict the fact that she has not seen Velus in her branch of the story. And if Velus goes down Fred's passage, then the author will have to account for what happened with Fred and the goblin, to make up for the hour's worth of action.

It is not impossible, but carrying off a story of this without leaving one or two characters as a loose end definitely requires coordination with other authors.
Last edited by Anableps on Thu Apr 02, 2009 3:58 am, edited 1 time in total.

Anableps
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Post by Anableps » Thu Apr 02, 2009 3:56 am

2. Going against established conventions

There is a firm rule that action in any episode should not contradict what has gone on before. If Fred has lost his sword in one episode, then he must not have the sword in his scabbard when he is threatened by the dragon eight episodes later.

However, there are some places or characters that are have been used a number of times, and there will be a tendency to associate a history with them.

Some examples:

Astra will have red hair, be buxom, and is likely to hail from Aqualaria, an Amazon-like monarchy that is somewhere to the south of the caves of the dragon. She is defined early, in episode 38, but even episodes that do not have episode 38 in the back story tend to accept this as part of the informal history.

Fred hails from the Kingdom of Allaria, and his father is the Duke of Suffex.

Hespan is a kingdom that is often loosely based on the world of the Arabian Nights. The Hespaniards are explorers and colonizers. The Hespaniards are often rivals of Allaria, and bitter enemies of Aqualaria.

An author can vary the conventions in some places and write an episode that is enjoyable. For example, an episode where Aqualaria and Hespan are allied against some mutual threat would be an interesting change of pace. However, if you name a character Astra and describe her as a mousy, thin brunette, do not be surprised if her hair turns red and she puts on some muscle within a few episodes.

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Post by JH » Thu Apr 02, 2009 9:33 am

That's all good stuff. Your section 1 ties in with the more general use of Link Enabling to allow the joining of branches of the story. You've pointed out the problem with the amount of time that has passed in different branches. Joining branches can introduce other continuity problems. For example, consider Fred encountering Astra. It is possible that in Fred's back-story he has never met Astra before, but in Astra's back-story she has previously met Fred. (There is at least one actual example of this within the story.) One way of resolving the apparent paradox is to assume that one of the characters has somehow passed into an alternate reality.

Another point that might be worth making is that if you want to kill off a major character, it is usually better to do it in an option rather than in the body of the episode. That allows other authors an "out", if they want to continue the thread but aren't happy with the character being killed off.
JH

Anableps
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Post by Anableps » Mon Apr 06, 2009 5:19 am

To continue the guide:

3. Do not become too attached to one of your characters, or try to dictate the action. Give the other authors some freedom of action.

When I am writing for myself, when I flesh out a compelling character, that character is based on experience. The character may not be based on me exactly. Sometimes it is based on somebody that I have known. It does not matter. I have an idea of how they "should" behave in certain situations, and may even have eight or nine episode's worth of action for them.

In collaborative writing, I have to be prepared to be surprised. Somebody will write off an episode, and the character that I created does something totally unexpected. My first reaction is often "the is no way that he or she would do that." If the change takes the episode in direction that I do not care for, I always have the option of not following it up. But if the other author has put some thought into his or her episode, I find, after thinking about it a little, that I can often come up with reasons why the reaction might make sense, and use that to write an episode that satisfies me.

As an example, there was one recent set of episodes that had an interesting character - Adele, the daughter of a character that is usually considered "bad" or at least "shady," Belboz the necromancer. Although I did not write the episodes where she was introduced, I had a conception that she was essentially good, but immature, and was intending to write in that vein. Then one of the authors had her commit a murder.

This created some tension. The author gave convincing enough reasons for the apparent change - her loyalty to her father and a sense of obsession with continuing his work. Would I want to contribute after such a turn of events? Should the powerful force that tempted her into the murder essentially turn her into a stock evil character? I decided that the questions posed by this turn of events were interesting, and I continued the episode. How would I react if I did something totally contrary my image of myself? In answering that question, I was able to continue the story in a way that made sense to me, and still keep this consistent with the action that had gone on before. The episodes that I wrote to follow on the story were a challenge to write, and even a bit of an emotional drain, but in the end they were well worth doing.

Another thing that I have had to learn is that the characters should not be stand-ins for myself. Other authors may find flaws, and may write the action where conflict occurs that I do not expect. That is part of the fun. The first time that someone killed one of my characters off, I was a little surprised. I thought, "Did I do something wrong?" But I learned that usually is not the case. Sometimes the logic of the events leads to a character getting killed off. And the one good thing about a collaborative story is - there are always options! Scott may die in option one, but he go on and annoy Josh for a hundred episodes in option two. (If you are to kill someone else's character off, though, as JH mentioned earlier, try not close off the entire branch by killing him or her off in the main story.)

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Post by JH » Mon Apr 06, 2009 9:13 am

I'm afraid that I fail on point 3, being too attached to Astra. :)
In collaborative writing, I have to be prepared to be surprised
For me, the surprises are one of the main attractions of collaborative writing. It's great when someone takes the story in a totally unexpected - but in retrospect completely logical - direction.
JH

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Post by Won-Tolla » Tue Apr 07, 2009 12:26 am

Many good points.I have experienced some of the less good things mentioned too. To be deliberately vague:

- I introduce a character, do some relevant exposition and put in an option offering more exposition. The next writer just puts out some random information and gets back to the main plot.

- A character notices something and asks a question about it. The next chapter picks up the action an hour or two later, suggesting that the character received an answer and acted upon it, but he details of what happened remain the writer's secret.

- A character is in an awkward situation, so I write an option where he tries to create a diversion. In the next chapter the other character shoots down the diversion attempt and returns to the matter at hand as if one of the other options was chosen.


As for established conventions, a character I kind of created or at least defined somewhat has gone through an interesting development. Her story started branching, and in one of the branches she told Fred her name. Shortly after she started getting referred to by the same name on branches where she hadn't been introduced (I even made a little joke about it), and now she has reached a point where she keeps turning up in all kinds of different places and get introduced by name as if everyone knews her. Funny old world.

Anableps
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Post by Anableps » Wed Apr 08, 2009 2:14 am

Thanks for the comments.

JH, you are right about the unexpected turns that result being a strong point of the Extend-A-Story. I did not make that clear enough. A good suggestion at the right time will bring a story in to being that no one author would have thought about on his or her own.

You might be attacted to Astra, but if somebody decided to write an extension where she turns into a villian, or does something very silly, I doubt that you would be personally offended. If I remember correctly, there is a story where Astra is a villian somewhere.

Won-Tolla, in the case where it appears that action is simply missing, could it be that the other author was spell-checking on a word processor, and missed copying a paragraph? I would try to send the author an e-mail, or if he or she does not have an address, post in the forums and ask what the intention was. (And while I am writing about word processors, I will digress for a second and point out that certain word processors will try to substitute "smart quotes" for the standard ASCII quote. When these are pasted into the Extend-A-Story engine, the text looks weird.)

I would take the fact that other authors want to use a character that you created, and remember enough of the history to wish to re-use it, as a compliment. :) I do agree that an author should work in the details that have not been mentioned before in new storylines. I will also have to admit that I have had those lapses. For example, in one episode that I was writing, a character separated from the action learned the name of something, and the fact appeared to be relayed to others in the party that were isolated from her, without explanation. I discovered the mistake on re-reading and edited the episode.

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Post by JH » Wed Apr 08, 2009 9:09 am

Anableps wrote:Thanks for the comments.

JH, you are right about the unexpected turns that result being a strong point of the Extend-A-Story. I did not make that clear enough. A good suggestion at the right time will bring a story in to being that no one author would have thought about on his or her own.

You might be attacted to Astra, but if somebody decided to write an extension where she turns into a villian, or does something very silly, I doubt that you would be personally offended. If I remember correctly, there is a story where Astra is a villian somewhere...
She's certainly done some silly things from time to time, and I'm happy to write from such episodes. I doubt that I would write from an episode where she was a villain, as that's not how I see her, but you're right that I wouldn't be offended.

As far as the question of continuity is concerned, if I spot an absolutely glaring eroor that can be corrected without too much effort (eg a character suddenly changes name for no reason), then wearing my Moderator's hat I will put it right. But trying to fix every little thing would take too much effort, especially when the continuity glitch has been continued in subsequent episodes. But if anyone spots a bad continuity error in one of their old episodes, then if they let me know I will usually be happy to correct it for them. I've done that once or twice in the past.
JH

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