Two definitions of “dramatic”

If to be dramatic is to show characters dramatically engaged with each other, motive clashing with motive, the outcome depending upon the resolution of motives, then this scene [the stagecoach scene from Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding] is dramatic. But if it is to give the impression that the story is taking place by itself, with the characters existing in a dramatic relationship vis-à-vis the spectator, unmediated by a narrator and decipherable only through inferential matching of word to word and word to deed, then this is a relatively undramatic scene.

Wayne C. Booth, What Every Novelist Needs to Know about Narrators

An opportunity here for the writer to borrow from the critic. Feeling a lack of drama? Here are two places to look: at the relationships among the characters, and at the relationship between the characters and the reader. Motivations and stakes on the one hand; inevitability of the plot and prominence of the narrator on the other.

Branching stories and inevitability

Over the last few days I’ve come across anecdotes about writers having trouble writing branching stories.

Here’s the BBC describing writers’ experiences creating parser-based interactive fiction:

A good tool interface is only the first step in writing a good interactive story. We needed to find ways to help our writers learn to think about conversation as a graph, as well as a competition you can win or lose. Tracking variables and calibrating how much agency to give a player were both new concepts, as were ‘unwriterly’ tasks like dividing graphs to optimise memory usage.

And here’s Robin Sloan, who is at work on a game:

So here I am, reading Hero Legends, reading Pullman’s Grimm, rereading my own plodding Ink, trying again, producing nothing better, getting frustrated, and, honestly, despairing a bit, which is almost always a sign that you need to take a step back.

That’s what I did. I closed the Ink editor and, instead, just… Wrote Something The Normal Way. And, almost immediately, it worked. The whole scene tumbled out, in almost exactly the right voice, casually informing the reader that a year had passed, and another, and another. It moved up and down the ladder of abstraction. It became unstuck.

I wonder, is it harder to write branching stories because of the unfamiliarity, the fact that it requires forcing new circuits in the brain to light up? Sloan lands here, with his specific issue being that it’s difficult to travel up and down the “ladder of abstraction” while writing in a programming language.

And I don’t doubt it. But I wonder: Is this difficulty simply a matter of having more balls to juggle? Or does writing a story with branches also make you tie one hand behind your back by removing certain tenets that you can rely on when writing straight prose?

I’m thinking specifically of inevitability. From Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel“:

Roughly, the action of a character should be unpredictable before it has been shown, inevitable when it has been shown. In the first half of a novel, the unpredictability should be the more striking. In the second half, the inevitability should be the more striking.

Inevitability is always hard to get right. But it stands to reason that it would be even harder to make several endings feel inevitable, or several ways to get to the same ending.

Or maybe inevitability is more a shackle than a crutch in the context of interactive fiction. What would be lost and what would be gained if branching stories rejected the tenet of inevitability? Would readers reject it as unsatisfying? Or, with no place to go, no reason to get frustrated at getting stuck in a loop or arriving at the “wrong” place, would the pleasures of ambient media rise to the surface?

Against worldbuilding

M. John Harrison writes:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

Via Robin Sloan.

Previously:

Video game as Gesamtkunstwerk

Robin Sloan, in the first issue of his newsletter about making a video game:

Some days—not all, but some—I think video games must cerainly be the 21st-century version of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that draws upon and integrates all other forms. For Wagner, ca. 1849, opera was the Gesamtkunstwerk.

There’s a lot in this whole formulation that’s questionable, but here I will just plainly confess that, for me, its allure is not. In video games, you get to deploy story and prose and graphic design and moving images and music—you get to “play all the keys on the keyboard.”

This is interesting to me because, without knowing the word Gesamtkunstwerk until today, it has long seemed to me that film has been vying for this label—even to the point of incorporating the technology of games. It’s theater + photography + music + etc. But Wikipedia’s entry for Gesamtkunstwerk doesn’t even mention film, only opera, architecture, and visual art.

Meanwhile, video games arguable go further even than film, adding software to the list of incorporated crafts/practices/affordances/arts. Maybe Sloan is right. (Even when he’s not 100% right, you might have noticed that I consistently find him interesting. The “Robin Sloan” tag overfloweth.)

One last blockquote to share from this same newsletter, this one about why it matters that he’s calling his video game a video game:

As you might know, I produce a lot of odd-shaped digital projects; this thread from a fictional social network (?!) is a good example. I truly love making these things, but/and I am often frustrated that the only “critical response” available is what I’ve come to think of as the “nod of approval.” I like nods, and I like approval—but I like real engagement even more. When you’re producing work in a genre that consists of… only that work… it’s a tall order to expect people to like, invent a whole new way of talking about things… just to talk about your thing.

Just by calling something a game, you give people the framework—the permission—to evaluate it. To compare it with other things. To recommend it!

You’ll see, as this project progresses, that it would have been perfectly reasonable to call it “an extremely enhanced e-book” or a “super-duper interactive digital story.” I struggled with this for a long time; I am now over it. This is a video game.

As someone interested in making odd-shaped digital objects, I find this is a compelling argument.

Hand-wavy science fiction is the best science fiction

Consider this, found on a pink sheet from Robin Sloan’s Risograph:

As part of the process, my mother had answered thousands of questions basic and surreal, and also submitted to a full-body scan at a university three hundred miles south, the results of which—petabytes worth—had been transmitted to the lab near Toronto. That data wasn’t uploaded into the tree, exactly; but it wasn’t NOT uploaded into the tree, either.

He could have come up with some Star Trek-style gobbledygook about how the tree fibers were reengineered to bend like neurons through the use of an experimental Organic-Structural Mirror Ray—but why? The best science fiction is focused on people, not (fake) science.

See also: “Something like a HELICOPTER”

The mimetic power of digital fiction

One of the opportunities of digital fiction is to mimic a format or context as a way of implicitly commenting on it. This is one of powers of using software to tell stories, apart from the more obvious affordances of branching plots, embedded video, etc.: it can imitate other software in a way that goes a step beyond a paper book’s ability to recreate a text message thread or PowerPoint deck. It’s the mimetic power of film, brought into the service of literature.

Un/tied (which is actually memoir rather than fiction) does this particularly well. Especially that initial choice on the homepage—an e-commerce sight so common that it’s easy to forget about, but that silently signals theme in the same way as the first shot of a well-made movie.

When camera movement means turning your head

I went to a VR/360° video installation the other day for my first experience outside of the relatively simple Google Cardboard. What struck me mainly was how low-res it was, to the point where I was never sure I had the headset focused properly, as well as the fact that I was nauseated when the camera dollied.

But I did have one moment, a kind of epiphany that I suppose must be old hat to people who get a chance to experience a lot of these: I was watching a 360° film when I happened to swivel my head away from the characters to check out the surrounding environment and was surprised to see a fire in the distance. It would have felt heavy-handed as a pan in a movie, and it wouldn’t have been important enough to the story to justify that anyway. But the fact that I just as easily could have missed it gave it extra weight, like I had discovered something. In a way analogous to how a movie feels like it’s rewarding you for your cleverness when it trusts you to put the pieces together on your own rather than spoon-feeding you, I felt rewarded for my curiosity.

It’s several days later and I’m still thinking about this not-a-pan. What happens to cinema when you take away camera movement? Is it still cinema? Or is it immersive theater? Or is it something else?

GPT-2 is “like a three-year-old prodigiously gifted with the illusion, at least, of college-level writing ability”

Every once in a while you find an article that seems just for you. John Seabrook writes in The New Yorker about the group OpenAI and their A.I. called GPT-2, which is so advanced that they are keeping it under lock and key. Not only is the whole thing about the bleeding edge of writing writers, it’s also a wonderful example of a digital article. It also appears in print, of course, but the online presentation is so subtle yet inventive, with its interactions to reveal AI-written text and a mini-game of “spot the AI” within a paragraph, that I cannot imagine the print version competing with the web one.

I do wish Seabrook had talked to Robin Sloan about his experiments in writing fiction using the same A.I. It might have encouraged him to explore the idea of A.I. as a potential partner or generator of raw material to be re-shaped.

Jake Elliott on game writing formats and tools

A really interesting set of posts on the mechanics of writing Kentucky Route Zero, the experience of rolling your own dialog format, and comparing Twine, Ink, and Yarn.

It’s behind a Patreon paywall, but c’mon—it’s for Cardboard Computer, the creators of Kentucky Route Zero, and their first tier is a dollar a month. Those four blog posts alone should cost more than that to access.

Notes on The Training Commission

The Training Commission” is “a serial fiction newsletter by Brendan Byrne and Ingrid Burrington.” A little over 18,000 words in total, plus interviews (about which more below).

The writing

Good writing, good concept. Concepts, really—there are phrases scattered within that could be their own novellas.

Science fiction often entails gesturing toward an event or idea without filling in every little detail, making the reader work a little bit to catch up. Byrne and Burrington do a lot of this, dropping evocative phrases, sometimes elaborating on them later, sometimes not.

They also treat the climax this way: There is a major yes/no decision that is elided, seen only in retrospect. I liked it.

The presentation

I received it in my email inbox, serialized over several weeks. Having it serialized over email is cool in theory but I found it frustrating in practice—mixing my fiction into my metastasizing list of requests and anxieties didn’t make for a focused experience. I suggest reading it on the website.

One danger of doing technically interesting things in the presentation of a story is that you’ll lose the reader. The authors state as much in an introductory email:

As “fun” as it would have been to turn this into an elaborate puzzle where you have to piece together narrative hints to open encrypted files, we know that many of you are busy people who probably have just enough time for a newsletter but not for like, an alternate reality game. (Also, we are not game designers.)

That being said: we are doing something kind of tricky with disseminating the files.

Even that small tricky thing was enough to interrupt me. It involved downloading a special browser that allows peer-to-peer browsing, which in itself is not difficult, but I could only run it on my laptop, so I lost the ability to read the story on my phone during my commute. I finished the story a couple weeks after the final email was sent because that’s how long it took for me to find an uninterrupted stretch of time to sit at my computer.

The interviews

Central to the plot are some documents that turn out to be interview transcripts, and those are real interviews conducted with real people by Ingrid Burrington. The fiction links to these documents, as well as to a real news article, in a way that plays with the concept of a piece of fiction as a bounded work. It is both a way of expanding the fictional universe and of citing one’s sources.