As I mentioned before, I seem to have started a trend. Not specifically in retelling our RPG adventures; that seems to have gone on for as long as the genre has been around. No, more specifically, writing up RPG adventures based on audio transcripts, interweaving them with out-of-game commentary, and reworking the whole thing specifically to have the pace of a story. I already mentioned the “Shadow-world-Dungeon-run” game Jim and I are in, and if you didn’t notice there in the sidebar, friend-of-the-game MorienneMontenegro has started writing up their Vampire game set in Brussels (also, incidentally, realtalk shoutout to Brussels, hope everything is going alright! ) Finally, friend-of-the-game Mike has been working on writing his Mage campaign, and though I’ve read some drafts of it so far, he’s yet to get it onto a blog (and perhaps calling him out like this will help encourage 😉 )
As people have embarked on their own narrative journeys in this, the first comment I seem to get back from them is, “Oh my god, this is a lot of work.” My response to all of them has been some flavor of, “I know, right?” followed immediately by sobbing. But once the tears stop and I stand back and take a look at the thing, I realize that in three years of throwing myself at this, I have, amazingly, learned some things about how it can be done, things both relating to game-play transcription and writing in general. I shared some of this advice privately with Eric when he started City by the Brink, but I realize now that perhaps I should share it here as well, to help others who may want to follow along in my madness.
1) Backup, backup, backup. Fortunately, this isn’t something I’ve had to learn directly yet, but I have learned from the mistakes of other writers who have had work lost to disaster (and in grad school our lab often shared in hushed tones the story of the girl who had her entire thesis on one thumb drive and somehow misplaced it). In this case, I recommend making sure to backup your recordings and your writing. Our full recordings are saved in triple-redundancy across my computer, an external drive, and a private FTP site. For the actual writing, I made PDF backups a while back, and I also never delete the original drafts in GoogleDocs. Now, the writing-backup can be a little trickier, since I do make small adjustments/corrections days and sometimes weeks after I make a post (and the occasional minor retcon deep in old posts) but I figure at least I have sometime to go from in case I need to rebuild.
2) Collaborative storytelling is your friend. Speaking of GoogleDocs, a little history: So when I first started doing these on the blog (versus the Facebook posts) I was writing them in a separate word processing program then uploading them to the blog. This meant that the first time everyone else in the game saw them was after they went live, and often I would get comments and concerns from people on how things went and had to go back and change things. This actually lead to a lot of hurt within the group when I didn’t portray other people’s characters the way they were trying to convey. Over time, I did eventually get better with the characters (Georgia, I think, made the greatest transition, since it took me a long time to figure her out) but what has been really helpful is sharing the beta drafts of each writeup privately with the group for edits and comments before making the live post, and for that GoogleDocs has been invaluable. Sometimes, I share a post with Jason first for him to make GM-fiat suggestions. A couple times that he’s told me to change things for reasons I don’t understand, and I just have to accept on faith, but that’s the nature of writing this game when I’m not myself the GM.
3) Transcribe quickly, edit later. When I first started doing these from the recordings, I would write everything out the first as if it was a final product, frequently pausing the recording while I fleshed things out and added details. This took forever, and often resulted in a disjointed product, since by the end I just wanted to post it and move on rather than editing. Over time, I started developing a system of shorthand notes as I did the transcription, which I would then go back to flesh out once I had finished. This is easier on me since I don’t have to switch mental gears between transcribing and writing constantly, and paradoxically, it ends up taking less time. Most importantly, though, it lets me look over a whole scene, see the overall flow of it, and start editing things out and moving them around, which is what’s improved the most recent writeups so significantly.
Here’s how it works. So as I listen through, I write down the dialogue exactly and take notes on general action/scene/etc, sometimes based on what Jason says, sometimes based entirely on my own ideas as I go. So, for example, in the current writeup I’m working on, my alpha-notes look like this:
<Georgia finishes the circle, Jawahar appears
G: “Good, you’re here! Can you cast some light? We need more light, like in the corners and such, we need to be able to see everything so we’re going to need light–”
<J casts his glowy ball, levitates it high into the air, eyes her. “Are you feeling alright?
Great! Never better! We need to start inventory this place, I need to look through the different machines and compare them to what Max wrote down–
How would you like to get started?
Immediately. <walks off>
So I write down the dialogue, but everything else either isn’t there yet or simply sketched out. I like to use < marks for some reason to indicate notes. That way, I can scan through quickly to see what I need to flesh out still (Note, though, when I go back to edit this exchange in particular I probably won’t add too much extra stuff, since the fast clipped-ness of it is what makes the humor, but you get the idea). I sometimes indicate dialogue with nothing more than the first letter of the person speaking, or sometimes not at all, if I know from the rhythm or context who it was. Basically, all these things have been developed to pause the transcription as little as possible. This is how I save time and still get more editing done. Even more importantly, I try to rewind the audio recording as little as possible. Many times, I’ll be going through and will kinda hear what people say, but even if I don’t get it exactly, I will know generally what they said and, most importantly, how their character would have said it, so I’ll just write it new and keep moving.
4) Writing at a lag is also, believe it or not, your friend. So as you can see in the Table of Contents, I am very behind. But believe it or not, this has made for a better writeup because I know A) what plot elements are coming up in the near future that I should emphasize in the previous writeups, and 2) know what plot things elements ended up going no where so I can de-emphascize them, or cut them out completely. Those of you writing no more than one game a month may not be in a similar position, but it is something to keep in mind to help console yourself if you find yourself an episode or two behind.
5) Be wary of load-bearing plot elements. “Load-bearing” plot elements in games is a term I recently picked up from fantasy author and accomplished GM Marie Brennan who has been writing a fascinating blog series on the intersection between RPGs and storytelling. I love it because its the perfect term to describe something I’ve discovered organically as I’ve been working on this: be wary of changing things in the plot that will affect down-stream elements. Sometimes these things are obvious (“Was so-and-so at such a location when ‘X’ happened? Even if they didn’t say anything while they were there, I probably should include a mention of them since they saw X and might mention it later.”). Sometimes, though, these things are surprisingly subtle (“So, so-and-so said this thing during this conversation, but if I change it to this other thing that’s funnier, that seems to change how the overall flow of the conversation would have happened, which changes out the scene plays out, which changes how these characters think about each other thats disparate from the gameplay….”) etc. Now, I am not saying you should never change things (see #4), but you need to be very mindful of what you’re doing. Think of it more as massaging the pace and tone for better readability, not reworking the plot. And make sure to clear it with the other players (see #2).
6) Think in scenes. I keep talking about editing things for better pace and readability, but what does that mean? Well, this is where this project becomes very different from normal writing. See, if you were writing a story from scratch, you would be thinking critically about the arc of your character and how to construct plot elements to show certain things which evolve that arc. But when you’re playing a game, you don’t have control over all of that, and when you’re writing it up, you’re not entirely sure of where the story is going to go. But, what I have discovered is to make it enjoyable, focusing on the here-and-now. Make each scene it’s own concise mini-arc showing development of a certain character, or advancement of a major plot element, or setting the scene, or ideally at least two of the three simultaneously. Cut or summarize the elements of the gameplay that do not directly add to one of these elements.
For example, take this scene from the start of the next post:
Choking darkness drops over the cave. Anstis pops his Eyes of the Beast to peer as best as he can through the gloom. Muffled noises echo distantly, like gunfire from many miles away, felt more than heard.
Suddenly a shape with glowing green eyes rears up in front of him. Nitocris. She sneers and shouts, but her voice comes through barely a whisper, “You would ally with the Despoiler?”
Anstis grins and spreads his hands. “These are my caves.”
“Dead men possess nothing.” She pulls a dagger at the same moment claws slide from his fingertip. Snarling, she lunges at him, he dodges to the side and slices back.
When we played that out, Jim actually rolled and wandered for quite a bit before finding Nitocris in the Nocturne. Then, there was more bantering, and blood-buffing, then laborious initiative rolls and strikes and attacks. But to my editing eye, all that slowed things down and detracted from the point of the scene: Establish the place as gloomy and creepy, he meets Nitocris, and they fight. If I spent paragraph after paragraph on all that pedantic leadup, spending a lot of time on stuff which doesn’t change the outcome of the scene, the whole time the reader will be all,
(Also, since this is the very start of the session, and we ended on a cliffhanger in the previous one, good pacing says to get right to the action to draw the reader in.)
Now, that’s not to say there’s no call for suspense. If I wanted to add suspense, for sure I would drag out Anstis groping about in the dark. But we already know Nitocris is there, and I made the choice that I wanted the focus of the scene to be on their battle, so I got to it. Also, within the fight, I sometimes include more details to slow things down and add drama, very much like how action scenes in film often slow things down to add weight and drama at key moments. But again, I am consciously choosing how much to add when, and why, based on the flow I want the scene to have. The film analogy works for drama, too. The sorts of drama scenes in film that would have a lot of tight closeups of setting details and peoples’ reactions are the sorts of scenes you want to add more writing detail to.
“Now wait,” you might be thinking, “We’re talking about writing, and RPG games, but now suddenly you’re talking about film too?” Yes I am, and there’s a reason for that. Of all the resources I have read or watched about how to improve writing and storytelling, the things that have been the most useful for me are resources devoted to screenwriting. It’s why I’ve started thinking about things in scenes, and it’s really really working.
I think the terrible example that proves the rule is the show Lost. That show kept people glued as fuck to their screens with its drama and characters and twists and mysteries, even though by the end of it you realized the writers had no idea where they were going. But they used these screenwriting and storytelling rules to keep us engaged anyway. I think, as I’ve been working on this, I have been discovering the same things, although I PROMISE you Jason has an end-game in mind and there will be some sort of targetted conclusion to our meandering mess.
Now, I don’t have the time to consolidate everything I’ve learned about story and scene structuring right now, but I will point out some of the resources I’ve used which have been helpful, and why:
Story, by Robert McKee. At 400 pages, this book is a fucking tome, but it is the literal storytelling and screenwriting bible in Hollywood. I poured over it last summer, annotating and underlining every page, then going back and copying out my notes and adding extra ones into a separate journal. In other words, I fucking studied like I don’t think I’ve ever studied in my entire life.
But it worked. This book gave me a deeper appreciation for the core of storytelling than anything else I have ever encountered. There are other books on storytelling out there, but many of them are simply digested versions of this book, because I am not kidding when I say everyone in Hollywood reads this book, or goes to McKee’s seminars which he based the book on. But if one of those other, shorter books is more appealing to you, go for it. In fact, on that note, a nice short book I recommend is:
Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald. This is geared more toward overall plot construction across an entire piece rather than scenes, but it is short and pithy and worth a read. Probably the most important thing I got from it was the concept of, “Because of this…” when tying plot elements together. Basically, plot elements are most interesting when they spring directly as a result from other plot things, rather than simply being thrown out there. I mean sure, sometimes you introduce new characters and elements out of the blue, but I’ve found the flow of scenes–both action-based and dialogue-driven–reads so much better when the cause-and-effect knits together well.
For example, I want to point out one of my favorite scene bits I wrote years ago now that was very subtle but represented the very first time all of these sort of conscious editing decisions started coming together. In 5/15/14, Paul, Georgia, and (hurray!) Tom show up at the werewolf cairn on Strawberry Hill:
We reach the top. The cleared trees give us a commanding view over the park and the surrounding hillsides of the city, but the only thing we find here is more ash.
“This is the werewolf den?” I ask, kicking at a fallen branch. I pull out one of my swords and start poking at the ground.
Paul shrugs and turns to Georgia. “Do you know what you’re looking for?”
“Um…an etheric transducer….” Georgia says, peering at the ash.
“Do…you know what it looks like?”
“Yes. It is 18 to 36 inches long and can be made of bone. And is often puce.” She scans the hilltop. The ground is ragged with char and the footprints of firefighters, but she notices something. Holes are scattered around, dug through the ash and into the dirt, as if someone went around digging things up. Georgia stares at them and frowns. “I’m guessing werewolves don’t leave bones just lying around,” she says thoughtfully.
I snap my head up. “Wait, we’re looking for werewolf bones? That cannot be a good idea.”
Paul looks at me then turns back to Georgia. “Maybe something of sentimental value would be good enough. He seemed to indicate that stainless steel would be good for the moment, so maybe there’s some error room.”
“I guess,” Georgia says, poking at a hole.
I narrow my eyes. “What are you guys talking about?”
They exchange a glance again. “Dr. vonNatsi…needed some help.” Paul says slowly.
I stab my sword into the ground and fold my arms. “Help with what? Cleaning his lab? Cause he should hire someone for that.”
They don’t respond. I roll my eyes. “Fine, well if you guys start collecting werewolf totems I’m peacing out.” I pull my sword out of the ground but something makes me pause. There’s a weird sense of…heaviness…to the sword as I pull it out. I look at the ground. The soil here is rocky but I don’t see anything else unusual about it. I stare at the sword, perplexed.
At that moment, a shadow flutters through the trees.
Yes, that sword was Glitch, and no, at that point in time I hadn’t figured out what it did yet, but the sword is what I want to draw your attention to. When we played this scene, Chris, Kara, and I had that conversation, and then we spread out looking for clues, and then Jason mentioned that when I poke at the soil, the sword gets heavier. Now, for playing the game that’s fine. Since there’s a lot of moving pieces, you kind of want to keep them compartmentalized for ease of understanding. But writing it down is different. It’s mildly interesting because it’s a mystery, but it reads kind of flat.
When I was writing it, I suddenly realized I could have the exact same plot elements but weave them together. What it turned into is that Paul, Georgia, and Tom have that conversation while looking for clues, and because of Paul and Georgia’s secrecy, Tom gets suspicious, and because he’s irritated, he shoves the sword into the soil to fold his arms dramatically, and because he shoved the sword into the soil, he notices something odd about it.
This difference is subtle, but is absolutely key to writing a good scene. Lots and lots of storytelling books retell the same advice in different ways, but it took until I wrote that very scene for it to click in my mind. I remember I sat back and read it over and over again, amazed at what I had done, and I have been struggling to replicate that flow in every scene since.
The last bit I want to mention about screenwriting/film studies is the YouTube channel, Every Frame a Painting. These are short little video essays that discuss key elements in different classic and mainstream movies. They are mostly geared toward the visual arts, but if you’re thoughtful, a lot of the lessons he talks about apply to plot construction, emotional weight, etc. Two of my favorites are How to Structure a Video Essay, which discusses the exact “because of this” vs “and then” I mentioned above, and The Art of Silence, which gets into emotional rhythm and contrast which I play around with in my scenes.
Finally, some sources more directly related to writing:
The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman. No oblique theory here, this is just a straight-up reference that really helps come up with new physical actions to help express certain emotions.
How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell. Honestly, most of the stuff in this book were things I had kind of already figured out organically through transcribing and editing hundreds of hours of our dialogue, but for those of you who haven’t done so, this is a nice short read.
Character, Emotion, and Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress. Nancy Kress has a few excellent books on writing craft out there, but this is probably my favorite. Books on how to write characters also help me play my characters better, I’ve found. This book also discusses viewpoint, something which I have been really struggling with lately, so I should probably re-read it.
Alright, I could go on, but really, anything else I could say boils down to playing around and simply finding the rhythm that works well for you and for your group. I think that’s one of the more amazing things about working on this project: the narrative voice that I’m developing is actually the combined result of five voices, all at once. Change any of those elements and the whole feel will likely change as a result. But that’s a good thing. Just as moving through different interpersonal relationships in life helps us grow and change as a person, moving through this has been one hell of a journey that continues to unfold in terrifying and hilarious wonder. I thank those of you who have come along with us for the ride and certainly hope some of you will stick around to see it through to the bitter end.
And I promise you, you’ll find out Scout’s secrets. It’s going to be awesome.