April 16, 2017
Save that Darling! The Beauty of Writing Interactive Fiction
Editor: You know this four page soliloquy where the main character tells how she got lost in the Ozarks when she was nine and how that is the source of her love of exploration?
Author: Yeah? It’s really great, right? A similar thing once happened to me-
Editor: Remove it.
If you’ve ever gotten notes on your writing, this may be a familiar experience. The very passage, character, setting, or theme that is most precious to an author may, in fact, be the thing holding the rest of the story back. Successful writers will implore you to kill your darlings. Cut out what just isn’t working and shouldn’t be in the story but is there because you can’t bear to part with it.
Darlings are tough to spot on your own, and even when they are pointed out, it can be hard to accept that they need to go. Maybe the darling inspired the story, maybe you’ve shared something deeply personal, or maybe you’ve just decided to crank your prose up to eleven for a passage. Often they’re something you put considerable extra effort into, so how could it be a problem? But when you’re writing a story, everything has to carry its own weight, and it all has to mesh together. Your readers know when they’re trudging through a swamp of self-indulgence at the expense of the narrative—and they hate it. That’s as true for interactive fiction as for traditional linear fiction. Fortunately, interactive fiction has a bit of a workaround built right in.
One thing I’m learning as I work on Harrowing Adventures is that some typical writerly problems get flipped on their heads. Giving a reader a choice in what develops the story prevents me from delivering a perfectly-crafted series of events, and demands I find several satisfying ways for each scene to evolve. I can’t afford to go killing off too many darlings. On the contrary, my darlings need friends, and their friends need friends!
Lately, I’ve been working on a scene that takes place at a party where the character has a choice of goals, and loads of options for how to go about achieving those goals. But this is also a party. How can I provide experiences that are interesting enough that a reader might happily take a detour from their mission? How can I make mingling as enticing as espionage? Whenever I successfully come up with a single answer, I write it up, drop it in my scene, and then fill it with interesting choices. When I finish, proud of myself, I realize I still have two-and-a-half alternate versions of the scene to figure out, and they have to be just as good. How can I discard writing, when I’m still struggling to fill the story?
You still may need to take some of your darlings out behind the shed, but maybe not as many as you fear. Darlings of interest to only a few readers can be packed into Easter eggs, and I’m not just saying that because it’s Easter today. An interactive novel is a maze. I can always hide a precious passage down an obscure loop and ensure that she’s only found by the right kind of players: those whose choices indicate that this kind of darling would be interesting to them as well. I could slap my own Tom Bombadil behind a series of story decisions that only a goofball would make. If you’re a goofball, a few pages spent with a singing man in yellow boots is time well-spent. However, The Fellowship of the Ring is linear. The goofball like me gets a Bombadil, but so does the guy who just wants to get to the epic battles. Harrowing Adventures and other interactive novels aren’t constrained in that way.
There is some bad news here at the end of this post, though. Some darlings must inevitably die. Mark was very much looking forward to writing and playing a member of a mafia family who was trying to become a made man. He was set up to be a great character who didn’t work in the adventures we had planned no matter how we tried to fit him in. Fortunately, he may not be totally dead. While the arc for the main thread of Harrowing Adventures has been determined, we hope to write some side stories in this universe eventually. We’ve already got plans for single-player prequel stories relating to each of the major characters that we’re considering for Kickstarter stretch goals. But that’s the kind of hope you reserve for any darling. You never completely give up, you just put them on ice. Like Ted Williams’ head frozen onto a tuna can, there is still hope for resurrection.