Table of Contents
AN INTRODUCTION TO INTERACTIVE FICTION
The Storyboard of Ataniel is a serialized, cooperative experiment in
interactive storytelling. It owes much to the roleplaying storyboards of
the eighties, little though those explored the possibilities of the medium;
much to roleplaying campaigns, particularly those heavy on character
development; and much, though we may not all be aware of it, to the
serialized novels of the 1800's and their later detective and
It also just really kicks butt, of course. I don't care if you think of
it in part as a literary evolution of form and function or not. I have a
degree in this, and it's my job to be pedantic. But we all want Storyboard
to be as rich, complex, and interesting as possible, and we all want our
own contributions to make other writers go "Ooooh!" So here, with many
thanks to Douglass Barre, Jonah Cohen, and Kristin Andersen for their
additions, is a list of tips and ideas for making the most of the medium
Storyboard is an ongoing experiment. Please send further insight,
comments, and kibbitzing on this subject to us via email.
Interactive Fiction Writing Tips
1. FOLLOW THE RULES
There aren't many of them, and you can find them here. In a nutshell, don't
use restricted or proscribed characters, don't make decisions for other people's PCs, and don't get
possessive of the plot. You control your own PCs; you don't control what happens to them. That's the
name of the game.
2. KNOW THE WORLD
The most important suggestion that can be made to new storyboarders is,
of course, to familiarize yourself with the world in which the
storyboard is set--Ataniel--and the existing canon thereof. Most important are the
archives of the Storyboard to date and the synopses
of current character and plot information. Other recommended
reading includes the chronicles of the first Storyboard round, which
consitute a partial history of the last three years on Ataniel and can also give you a good idea
of the kind of things Storyboard can do; and the Chronicles of the Sunfighter,
which constitute a partial history of the previous eight years on Ataniel from the point of view of one of
the major characters from the original campaign. There are other writings of interest on the
fiction page, and some additional world information (including maps) on
the History page. Finally, we have an online Encyclopedia
of Ataniel... when in doubt, look it up. Or ask one of us. Even at 3 AM. Like we have lives anyway.
3. STICKING TO BASICS
If you're a new storyboarder, new to Ataniel, have stage fright, have
no idea where a plotline is headed, or for any other reason feel
nervous about contributing, start by providing one character's reaction
to what's going on around her. The easiest kind of post to write
consists of summarizing the actions of a previous post or posts
from your character's point of view, writing your character's reaction
to this, and ending with an open-ended action on your character's part
or a continuation of the actions of the previous post. As you get more
comfortable with Storyboard, hopefully your posts will deviate from this
formula most of the time--these posts aren't generally the most
interesting ones--but you can always come back to it if you're stuck
4. IF YOU DON'T HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY...
Both action-based and character-based posts are very interesting
(though different readers have different preferences). However, posts
in which nothing much actually happens aren't really interesting for
anyone. If nothing has changed by the end of the post and nothing
about your character has been revealed to the readers, consider bagging
it. Your character saying "Good morning" doesn't really merit a post,
on its own.
Similarly, having a character, for example, learn some big secret and
not say what it is, in and of itself, is not enough to really build
suspense. (The readers start out knowing nothing, and end knowing
nothing - except that someone else knows...) Sometimes that'll work,
but the gist of this whole format is people contributing stuff
(together, usually) by bits and pieces. Every post should advance
some element of the plot or character development at least a little,
unless it is meant purely as comic relief.
5. FIGHTING WRITER'S BLOCK
If you have a post you really want to write but can't seem to squeeze
out, or it's moving more slowly than Tila in the Hall of Time, any of
the standard remedies for writer's block can help you. You may be
approaching the writing in an overly perfectionist way, anguishing over
each sentence too long. Try writing the entire passage all the way
through without concern for details such as word choice, then editing
that first draft to get the details right. Often those two drafts
together will take less time than one draft where you allow yourself
to get stuck on sentences. You may be letting yourself become
distracted. Try putting anything you're multi-tasking on aside,
turning off the TV or music, and hiding the AIM windows behind your
word processor screen. You may be having confidence problems. Try
talking your ideas over with another writer to get some reassurance
that they're neat, or doing something else that you feel confident
about for a while and then switching to your writing while you're on
an upswing. Finally, you may be getting bogged down in psychodrama,
especially if the post you're getting stuck on involves a lot of heavy
internalization. We recommend the song "Waterloo" by ABBA, as many
times as necessary.
6. TRUST THE FORCE
It's fine to make cultural allusions to things that obviously don't
exist on Ataniel, like Star Wars or Ernest Hemingway, just as it's fine
to make puns in English. Assume the universal translator is handling
it. It's much easier to evoke a response to a song or piece of
literature or something if we use one the audience is familiar with.
The original storyboard, which is of course in Dalen, has the names of
the actual Atanielite epics and novelists in the appropriate places.
7. BE RELEVANT
Some readers just ignore anything whose relevance they don't understand.
Vignettes of people nobody knows are the least interesting posts, unless
they are tied into a main plot quickly.
8. BE INTERACTIVE
Posts that interact with and build on previous posts are the most
interesting ones. Try to advance the plot elements from the last few
posts, rather than just introducing new ones every time. Otherwise the
board gets a choppy feel. Similarly, if your character is in a group,
have him respond to what the rest of that group is doing, rather than
only posting for him when he initiates a quest or strikes off on
Finally, leave space for other people to interact! Long posts which
include many actions with no chance for any of the other writers to
add anything between them are frustrating. Break up your posts,
particularly between actions that affect other people's characters or
especially interesting developments, to keep the other writers
9. TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Some writers become frustrated because their posts are ignored by the
characters or authors at whom they were aimed. Sometimes this
happens just because real life has intervened; be patient, and the target
of your post may get back to it in time.
In general, though, a point at which many things are already happening,
tensions are high, people's reactions are still pending, and resolutions are
still up in the air is the point at which new plot elements and quests thrust
upon that group are least appreciated. Either wait for more of a lull or
make an attempt to interlace your posts with the currently existing
drama, rather than simply interrupting it. An ill-timed post is the most
likely to go ignored, even if it is well-written and interesting.
Also, plot elements that are very similar to plot elements that are already
in play are the least likely to garner interest. If your idea is similar in
nature to one that the other authors are already working on, it can be
better to save it until the earlier plot element is finished, to avoid yours
being lost in the shuffle.
10. COMBAT TIPS
Fight scenes come off much more clearly if they're written from the
point of view of a single narrator. Write action sequences as
specifically as you can. "Omeria cast a spell" or "Knighthawke hit
Edyric" don't read very interestingly; more problematically for
Storyboard in particular, vagueness makes it hard to envision what's
going on, so it's harder to add to the combat.
11. USE ELABORATED CODE
Try not to allude obliquely to things the readers don't know, even in
characters' thoughts. It's very confusing. If you want to withhold
information from the readers, you should still make the context clear:
"Wyvern smiled internally, a plan already forming in his mind, and
hailed a cab for Talaria," not "Wyvern smiled internally. Korasti.
Well, this was unexpected. Had it really been so long ago...
His eyes flew open wide as he suddenly realized what this meant. No.
The three stone circles. Why didn't I think of this before? Wyvern
hailed a cab for Talaria, his mind whirling, and tried not to think of
Macaster." In general, people, things, and events that haven't figured
on the board or in the campaign before should be referred to in
expository fashion, as if the readers don't know what they are--"and
tried not to think of Macaster, his psychology professor back on
Ditherios Prime"--unless you intend for them to be open skeeves.
Adding context rarely hurts your writing, and often helps.
"Skeeve", by the way, is technical storyboard jargon for a plot element
whose consequence is undetermined by the person who introduced it.
Skeeving is not only acceptable but encouraged. When in doubt, assume
that anything directly related to someone else's character is NOT a
skeeve, and that anything else IS. Storyboard is more exciting when
multiple writers are snatching the ball from each other.
Avoid, however, introducing too much skeeving all at once. Posts with
a high skeeve-to-substance ratio are the least favorite of at least one
reader. If your post has too much undefined and ambiguous stuff in it,
other writers can become too frustrated, daunted, or plain old
uninterested to pick up where you left off, thus defeating the point
of skeeving in the first place. If you don't know what direction a
plot is going in, you shouldn't add MORE confusing details.
13. DON'T MESS WITH FORCES BEYOND YOUR COMPREHENSION
Avoid coopting or building on someone else's plot element if you don't
understand all of it. This is the easiest way to get ugly
contradictions into the story. If you're not sure you understand, ask
14. AVOID GRANDIOSITY
Melodrama is better when it's used sparingly. Not every battle or
plotline needs to climax with the earth shaking, things raining down
from the sky, or the face of Ataniel being forever changed. There's
usually plenty to destroy in the immediate vicinity. (Psychodrama,
of course, is an entirely different story. This is Ataniel, pile it
on! (: )
15. ON THE STORYBOARD, WE HAVE PLENTY OF PSYCHODRAMAS
"Psychodrama", by the way, is a treant word for internal conflict
and/or conflict among friends and allies. Though the seeds of
psychodrama can be sown by others (DOUG!), psychodrama is by its
nature something that is wholly determined by the player of the
character in question. The general consensus, baffling though it may
seem, is that psychodrama is way interesting, especially if it is
well-written. The best psychodramas consist of an unusual and
unexpected stressor coming from one writer and an understandable
but non-stereotypical stress reaction coming from another, in the
process revealing something interesting about the stressed character.
Violence is optional.
Consistently well-liked psychodrama-inducers often involve forcing
characters to make difficult decisions between choices that both (or
all) suck in some way, forcing them into morally ambiguous areas, or
putting them in situations where they must either overcome strong
emotional pressures or fail at something. However, not all
psychodramas have to be ungodly serious, either. Moments at which
someone's character shines through under stress in a funny, touching,
or unexpected way work just as well as moments at which they crack or
go out in a blaze of glory.
16. HE SAID SHE SAID
Be very careful about attributing dialogue, especially in a paragraph
where action is also happening. I've had people totally misinterpret
who I'd meant to be saying something. Storyboard posts get read pretty
quickly, and an extra "said Wyvern" really helps prevent confusion.
17. USE A GLOSSARY
If you have an expansive backstory for one of your characters that
includes a large cast and you want to refer to it with frequency,
consider making a glossary like Doug did for the Paris plotline. That
made it a lot easier to A) keep people straight and B) contribute.
It's easy to glaze over when a bunch of characters no one knows are
18. DREAM SEQUENCES
Dream sequences are most interesting when they really reveal something
about how the character sees the world--when the characters in the
dream behave noticeably different from real life, for example, in
accordance with the way the dreaming character sees them, or when the
plot of the dream betrays the dreaming character's hidden needs or
desires. Dream sequences are least interesting when they contain
internalization, since a dream sequence ITSELF should be an
internalization through imagery rather than thinking aloud. Avoid
excessive detail, rational analysis, or logical connectors in your
writing (unless it's a spell-induced lucid dream, which has been
happening a lot); disjointed events and a lack of cause and effect can
get across that "surreal" dream quality without confusing the readers
Flashbacks, on the other hand, should be written in the ordinary style
of the character having the flashback, unless s/he was a child at the
time, in which case simpler language with fewer internalizations is
usually a good idea. (By "flashbacks" here I mean the literary device
of narrating back to an earlier time in a character's life, not a
drug- or trauma-induced dissociative state, which has also been
happening a lot.)
Generally speaking, it is a very poor idea to flash back scenes to
which you want a reaction from other authors. A better tactic is to
find a way to rewrite that scene so that it takes place concurrently.
For example, if the team has just left a dungeon without your getting
the chance to drop a lurker above on Rhynwa's head, have one fall out
of a tree on her; don't flash the attack back, for that is awkward and
unlikely to get much of a response.
20. TRIM THE FAT
You don't need to include everything in a post. The great majority
of all action and conversation in real life is boring. Don't feel
obligated to realism in that respect. Everything in a passage should
have some sort of purpose other than filling space--plot development,
character development, revealing something (however minor) to the
readers, foreshadowing, setting a mood, humor, anything. With
dialogue, especially, it is easy to go off on irrelevant and empty
tangents, especially with a character you know well. Double-check
dialogues, especially long ones, for exchanges that could be combined,
condensed, or deleted without losing any of the feel of the post.
21. WHERE TO END YOUR POST
Ending a post with a mini-cliffhanger helps to keep the board moving.
It doesn't have to be action, but if you end your post at an unresolved
point, it draws the other participants in more than if you end with
things neatly wrapped up or at a convenient stopping place. Any time
people want to know what happens next, or write what happens next,
22. THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Surprise endings, too, work really well with the serial format. If
you set up a post so that readers are expecting one resolution and then
sock them with a different one at the end of the same post, you can
achieve drama without risking confusing everyone.
23. BE UNPREDICTABLE
In general, the unexpected is the most stimulating. Any time you can
twist a plot element to have different implications than were
originally intended, you should. As with any writing, avoid cliche
wherever possible (unless, of course, a lich lord is speaking).
24. VILLAINS ARE PEOPLE TOO
It's fun to see a wide range of villains and their agendas--something
that is very limited in role-playing campaigns, which are necessarily
hero-centered. The villains that have attracted the most interest have
been those with elements in common with the main characters: similar
goals but unscrupulous methods, unpleasant but politically intelligible
agendas, evil but trackable otherworld versions of the heroes,
susceptibility to psychodrama, tragic flaws, a sense of humor, and,
everyone's surprise favorite, horrendous luck. The least interesting
villains have been those with completely opaque mental processes, those
with no problems or conflict in their own pursuits, and those with
generic world conquest/destruction agendas. The line between 'hero'
and 'villain' can also be blurred interestingly on Storyboard, since
the perspective can so easily be shifted. Moral ambiguity is
25. I KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON'T KNOW
Some of us are anal enough to keep going back and reading old posts
to get recent ones in the proper context. Some of us are not. Even
those of us who are can't be counted upon to do it all the time.
Therefore, you will not achieve maximum interest levels if you make
mysterious references which you do not expect readers to understand,
especially involving characters or events they are unfamiliar with,
and fail to explicate them.
Intentionally confusing the other writers can a powerful tool, but it
is most effective when it is actually self-contained within one post
(both mysterious set-up AND unexpected resolution). The readers'
initial cluelessness about what is going on is maximally exploited
that way, since their puzzlement is still fresh in their minds when
you hit them with the answer. Equally important, if the readers
leave your post confused, they may accidentally mess up your cunning
plans, or they may become frustrated and ignore your plot element--
particularly if you string them along for too long.
If you wish to keep the other readers in the dark about something
for an extended period of time, some techniques that have succeeded
in the past have been 1) Stealth: keeping your clues so subtle that
the readers don't realize a mystery is going on until you're ready to
spring your revelation on them (this also gives those of us who do
read back a little thrill), 2) Meta-directness: making all of the
occurrences themselves straightforward and non-confusing to the
readers, with no references they could not be expected to understand,
and leaving them only to wonder how or why they occurred,
3) Ratcheting: revealing something more in every post about the
mystery, thus upping the stakes and keeping the readers involved
despite their confusion, 4) Foreshadowing: including only one
intentionally confusing post which sets up another that is coming soon.
(Foreshadowing REALLY works better if the characters affected by the
foreshadowing are both known and important to the readers.)
Other tips: Intentionally confusing posts are much more compelling
for the readers if they are from the POV of the characters. For
example, an incomplete conversation overheard by the characters is
much more likely to catch the other writers' attention than a
confusing glimpse of something mysterious the villain is doing which
none of the characters are privy to, or a confusing flashback or
internalization in someone's mind. Continually repeating the
existence of a personal secret without revealing it annoys some
readers; try, instead, revealing the secret (or at least the gist of
the secret) to the readers via the character's internal thought
processes even as you keep it hidden from the other characters, hiding
the fact that the secret exists until you are ready to reveal it, or
making the existence of the secret clear through the character's
actions rather than cryptic comments or thoughts. If your character
reveals a secret to another character, put that revelation on the
board if at all possible, or else don't refer to it.
26. RESTRICTED PLOTLINES
Solo and other restricted plotlines can be very positive contributions
to the board. The simultaneous existence of several plots is not
problematic to the medium, and such arias can be a chance for one
author to work on something different, particularly a mood piece or
a single story with a locked-in resolution (neither of which works
that well with full-board participation). Some restricted plotlines,
however, are much more successful than others.
For one thing, restricted plotlines that do not engage the readers from
the beginning run the risk of being skipped. Some ways to ensure that
your restricted plotline gets read are to involve a character or
characters that the readers already care about; to have a particularly
strong first few posts that suck them in, particularly asking a question
which they will want to follow the plot to learn the answer to; creating
a separate archive for your plotline so that people can skim old posts
without having to search for them; and not posting to your restricted
plot in the middle of a compelling interactive drama, which is when
readers are most likely to skim or skip. Being intentionally confusing
to create mystery (see #25) is an especially bad idea in a restricted
plotline, because readers have no special motivation not to tune out.
On the other end of the spectrum, involving other people's characters
in your restricted plotline is particularly frustrating. Though it involves
other authors, it also alienates them: their characters are being directly
affected by something they as writers are not allowed to contribute to.
27. DON'T KICK ASS ALL THE TIME
Straight-forward ass-kicking is okay, but not always necessary and
not necessarily the coolest thing to do. No matter who you're
playing, you're not the most powerful person on Ataniel, and you
shouldn't succeed all the time, and you shouldn't win every fight.
Go ahead. Get beat up. Try to use a skill and fail. And then find
another, more creative way to handle the situation, or let one of the
other characters bail you out. If your character is perfect at
things, you'll miss out on a lot of character development.
28. DON'T GET INVOLVED ALL THE TIME
Similarly, your character, no matter who she is, is not omniscient. There
are, and should be, things going on in any given adventure to which she is
not privy. Particularly, if another author reveals a clue to one other
character, don't retcon your character having seen or heard it too; if some
other characters are having a private conversation or confrontation, don't
butt yours in. Not every character belongs in every plotline, either.
Consider your character's agenda, his relationship with a story and with the
party before adding him to a group. 'Because he's my character and this is
the main plot' isn't a good enough reason. It's ok for characters to fade in
and out of the foreground, and there's no reason multiple plots can't run at
once. If you do want a character in a plot, give him a good justification
for being there--don't expect the other authors to do the work of accepting
him into the group.
29. USE THE NON-LINEAR MEDIUM TO BUILD RESONANCES
The storyboard medium lends itself very well to writing in
installments, even during a restricted plotline. This can be used to
build suspense, and also to interleave themes between plots and
characters. Some of my favorite moments have actually resulted from
the juxtaposition of different posts and threads and the common
elements it highlighted. Noticing and playing up on similarities
between characters and situations, either by causing them to interact
with each other within a post or by following one post with another
one that is unrelated plotwise but thematically linked, can have very
Some readers have expressed a particular enjoyment of the developing
romantic relations on the board, but let's try to keep things
"suggestive" rather than "explicit", please, so as not to make those
of us with modest sensibilities uncomfortable. Fadeouts are your
31. LANGUAGES ARE REGULAR
Please, please, don't just type a bunch of random letters when you
want a character to be speaking in a foreign language. No language
contains all possible phonemes (sounds). Look up previous words and
phrases from that language, and use the same set of sounds.
"Tlarxpit" just isn't a Shikinti word, or a Diari one, or an Elvish
one; it isn't linguistically compatible with those languages. (It
could be a demonic word--it IS linguistically compatible with
You can use Japanese and Chinese as a base for Shikinti, Icelandic
or Norwegian as a base for Riklandic, French or Italian as a base
for Tobrinese, and Irish Gaelic as an excellent base for the Gaelic
of Ataniel. Linguistically savvy people may notice that, though
most Elvish words do not share a vocabulary base of any sort with
French, much of the sound system is very similar. I'm going out on
a limb and guessing Kris took French in high school. (:
Anyway, before you invent a word in a language, have a character
say something in that language, or give a character a name from a
culture, take a few minutes to look up a few words in that language
and make yours linguistically similar--use the same approximate
consonant-vowel structure, and the same general set of sounds.
32. WHEN IN DOUBT...
Though it must be noted that it occasionally backfires, combat is a
very good way to get past a sticking point. (:
33. BE SUBTLE AT YOUR OWN RISK
Subtle personalities are the hardest to convey on Storyboard. They
are also the easiest ones for other writers to mess up and the most
difficult to steer back onto the path you'd envisioned for them if
they get off track. Characters with strong reactions, extroverted
personalities, and distinctive behavior patterns are much easier to
get across in an interactive and noisy medium such as Storyboard than
subtle, quiet characters are. They are also much easier for the other
writers to click with and use.
Similarly, giving a character a distinctive dialect or speech pattern
makes him much more accessible to the other writers, and lowers the
chance of his dialogue sounding wrong coming from them.
34. BE CAREFUL
Everyone's least favorite posts are those that contradict something
from a previous post, neglect pertinent information that has already
been established, or undercut the importance of somebody else's plot
element. No one is perfect, and we're all going to make mistakes from
time to time, but a careful rereading of the post immediately
preceding yours in the storyline is always a very good idea, and so is
asking yourself "Is this going to make another writer's character or
plot development irrelevant, or just more complicated and
annoying?" The former is very bad; the latter is the name of the game.
If, say, Scott is foreshadowing and building up to a final showdown
between Max and Malcar, don't have Spiffy Garbonzo suddenly kill
Malcar, because that would undercut Scott's writing. If you wanted to
have Malcar possess Savis, though, that would be cool. Messing up
plans is okay; messing up literary tensions is frustrating and unfair.
Throw another writer a monkey wrench, but don't make her previous
35. BE FLEXIBLE!
Because Storyboard is a cooperative medium, concrete plans for
future events are often impossible to stick to. As with
gamesmastering, it is much easier and more effective to plan a
dramatic hardpoint than the actual details of a plot element; you
cannot actually predict what the other writers, or characters, will
do. Rather than trying to force the resolution you'd been planning
into occurring regardless of how the other writers react, try using
their reactions to build a scene that has the effect you were
originally planning. Flexibility--is the key--to personal success.
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