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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

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 science-fiction brethren.

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 of Storyboard.

Storyboard is an ongoing experiment. Please send further insight, comments, and kibbitzing on this subject to us via email.

Feather Divider

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 or confused.

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 his own.

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 maximally involved.

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.

12. SKEEVES

"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 the author.

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 talking.

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 unnecessarily.

19. FLASHBACKS

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, that's good.

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 interesting.

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 interesting effects.

30. ROMANCE

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 friends.

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 that.)

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 contributions meaningless.

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.

Happy Storyboarding!

--Sunfighter

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