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So, it’s been a while since I’ve contributed anything to this forum, and I feel kinda bad for it. I’m still working on my own projects, and hope to have something submitted to the Showroom soon, but until then I feel like giving something back to the community. I’ve posted a number of replies before regarding writing and storytelling, and have even received some requests for help from a number of people, and wanted to put something together a tad more definitive. So without further ado, here is my personal advice on writing. Keep in mind that these are writing rules that I choose to follow, but this is by no means comprehensive or absolute. The exception proves the rule.

 

The Writing Process

A particular work of fiction may be inspired by any number of sources. Sometimes you get an idea of a world but no story. Sometimes you get only a single scene in your head with hardly any context. However it happens, it is important that your initial idea comes from some point of inspiration. Great fiction rarely starts out as something procedural or forced. The tiniest starting point can turn into something humongous, so long as that start is genuine. J.R.R. Tolkien famously started The Hobbit with a single sentence scribbled on the back of a piece of paper: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.â€

 

Once you’ve got a starting point, it’s important that you flesh it out before you start working on a game. Rough drafts come before final drafts, and the last thing you want is to be forced to re-Event and re-Script already-made scenes because it doesn’t fit the story you end up writing. I would suggest at least knowing the basic shape of your story, or at the bare minimum at least know how the story Begins and Ends. With these in mind, you’ll at least know what general direction to take the plot.

 

Characters

Writing interesting characters is simultaneously one of the most rewarding, difficult, and important tasks as the creator of a piece of fiction. Interesting or dynamic plots can be dragged down by boring characters and likewise bland stories can be made captivating with the right protagonist. While there is no set-in-stone formula for making characters interesting, there are a number of guidelines you can follow to prevent excess banality.

 

The surest way to make a character uninteresting is to make them unrelatable. Even the most outlandish and inhuman characters are frequently grounded by some defining feature with which we, as the audience, can relate. The real draw of characters like Superman or Dr. Manhattan isn’t their god-like powers, although that may be what initially draws us in. Instead, we fascinate ourselves imagining the loneliness such characters feel, their struggle to remain incorruptible despite their power, and the immense responsibilities they bear. With that in mind, try to develop characters who feel conflict. A Martyr may never sway from their path, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel alienated or weary at times.

 

Along a similar vein to making characters relatable is making characters flawed. While we often want to create characters who embody the best traits of humankind, characters who can seemingly “do no wrong†often makes them inherently less believable, and thus, less relatable. Even the most well-intentioned individuals make mistakes or miscalculations, they have moments of weakness or can manage to rationalize their own desires to a point of legitimacy. Brandon Sanderson’s Second Law states that “Limitations > Powers.†Simply put, a character’s inherent flaws will always prove more interesting than what they can do.

 

Lastly, I’d like to touch on the idea of writing “foreign†characters. Foreign characters could be anything as simple as a character of the opposite sex of the writer (and thus, host to certain experiences the author isn’t aware of) or as complex as a sexless alien prince from a far-off galaxy. In keeping with the “relatable = interesting†line of thinking, begin your exploration of the character from a point of similarity. I may never know what it is like to be a woman, but I do know what it is like to be a human. If you first consider that you may have more in common with characters that seem foreign than not, you’ll find writing them much simpler and more organic than otherwise.

 

Plot Structure

When considering plots, it’s usually best to begin at the beginning. All stories, whether they’re told in chronological order or not, have some Beginning, Middle, and End, and each portion of the plot can generally be further subdivided into smaller pieces. While it may seem somewhat formulaic or inorganic to do so, pre-establishing portions of your plot--making sure they contain all the necessary elements and parts--is essential for a story that is properly paced, especially in video games.

 

When plotting, I generally divide my stories into five acts. Not all stories follow this format, and there may be more or less than five acts, but good fiction usually follows a fairly predictable pattern of rising tension and eventual pay-off. When examining something like plot structure, I find it useful to include some kind of example, and to that end, here is the plot of a classic JRPG, Final Fantasy VII, broken down into the Five-Act Format.

 

Act I: The Introduction

While mostly self-explanatory, the quality of a story’s Introduction can make or break the piece overall. Is this the kind of book/show/game you intend to keep pursuing, or will you drop it in favor of something else? The most important elements of a good Introduction are the disbursal of information and its ability to hook the audience. This can be somewhat tricky as there is no quicker way to scare off players/viewers/readers than by frontloading them with exposition. Exposition should be done gradually, rather than all at once. This may lengthen your Introduction as a whole, but it’s worth it in the long run. Additionally, it is often best to begin your story in medias res, or “in the middle of it,†and usually means starting smack dab in the middle of some kind of dramatic scene. This helps to interest the audience early on and will hopefully keep them entertained while you begin feeding them crucial information. Keep in mind that you don’t need to include all relevant information in the Introduction, but it is important to introduce most of the major characters and background details.

 

Using Final Fantasy VII as an example, we begin the story in medias res as Cloud and the AVALANCHE crew bring down a Mako Reactor in Midgar City. The game immediately hooks us with its combat and we are steadily fed information about the world and characters: Mako is used as energy, Shinra controls the city, AVALANCHE is an eco-terrorist group, etc. The crew finishes its mission, and they head back to 7th Heaven for a little more exposition and some emotional attachment in the form of Cloud’s childhood friend, Tifa. Cloud gets roped into doing another job for AVALANCHE, and the plot moves forward. The mission goes off without a hitch until Cloud gets blasted off the roof and down into the Slums. There we meet Aerith, learn some more about how bad Shinra is, and are ultimately reunited with Tifa. The gang return to Sector 7 to find AVALANCHE under attack, and Aerith is captured before Sector 7 is destroyed in a plot by Shinra. The gang then infiltrate Shinra Headquarters in an effort to rescue Aerith, but are ultimately captured themselves. At last, the team escapes when the building is attacked by Sephiroth, the mysterious antagonist of the game, and we are given hints about the Cetra and the Jenova Project. After a chase with Shinra personnel, the party leaves Midgar behind and meets in Kalm, where the first Act comes to a close.

 

Act II: Upping the Ante

With a firm foundation built by the end of Act I, we can start building further detail with Act II. I call this Act “Upping the Ante†because it typically finishes laying the plot’s groundwork while further realizing the characters and the stakes. This is often the point where characters first leave their starting location with a definitive quest in mind, and this act will usually follow them as they search for answers and see the world open up around them. Assuming you have successfully hooked your audience with Act I, Act II is your opportunity to endear them to your characters and setting. If you want players seeing your game through to its conclusion, you need to make them care enough to stick around that long. Don’t be afraid to lay off the main plot here somewhat. Put characters in interesting situations and let your players see how they figure their way out. Delve into characters’ personalities and backstories, but be careful not to completely eclipse the central plot. At this point, the characters should be moving generally toward their overarching goal, and we should have plenty of opportunities to get to know them along the way.

 

In Final Fantasy VII, we see Act II open just as the game is opened up and the player is first allowed onto the overworld. The party first meets in Kalm to discuss Sephiroth and the implications of his return, and Cloud relates to them his time with Sephiroth and his time in SOLDIER. The remainder of AVALANCHE, Aerith, and Red XIII decide to accompany Cloud in pursuit of Sephiroth, and travel to the city of Junon. There, they stow away aboard a cargo ship and sail to Costa del Sol, a city on another continent. After traveling to the Gold Saucer and being thrown in Corel Prison, we gain some more intimate insight into Barrett Wallace’s backstory and why he fights Shinra as hard as he does. After escaping the prison, the gang travels to Cosmo Canyon, where we receive much of the same treatment for Red XIII and learn more about the Cetra and their importance in Gaia’s history. Finally, the crew travels to Nibelheim, where we see first-hand the threat Sephiroth poses and why he must be stopped at all costs.

 

Act III: The Game Changer

Act III sees a re-centering on the main plot and the remainder of general information made clear to the audience. Aside from perhaps a final bait-and-switch, Act III represents the primary turning point in the story: the villain’s master plan is revealed, a previous ally betrays the party, etc. This Act will likely serve as the story’s “mid-climax,†and will have major implications that effect the rest of the story. This is generally your last opportunity to introduce new information “entirely out of left field.†Any major developments introduced in the last half of the story will need to at least be subtly hinted at prior to their reveal, and many stories have effectively shot themselves in the foot with a poorly executed last-minute twist.

 

Act III of Final Fantasy VII begins with the introduction of Cid Highwind, our last party character, and some final information regarding Shinra’s history in the form of Rocket Town, which will become important later. After running off with the Little Bronco and being shot down, the gang heads back to the Gold Saucer to retrieve Dio’s Keystone before being double-crossed by Cait Sith and heading to the Temple of the Ancients. There they brave numerous threats and puzzles before meeting Sephiroth, where he reveals his plan to use the Black Materia and the Lifestream to become a god-like being. Upon leaving the Temple, Sephiroth manipulates Cloud into giving him the Black Materia, revealing some deeper connection between the two. Aerith leaves shortly after and travels north in an attempt to stop Sephiroth on her own. The crew follows only to arrive too late, and Sephiroth kills Aerith in one of gaming’s most iconic scenes. The party and audience mourn Aerith together as Act III closes.

 

Act IV: Raising the Stakes

As the plot moves into Act IV, the main characters are most often beginning their final journey toward their ultimate confrontation. In the same way that Act II is often a vehicle from Act I to Act III, Act IV can similarly be seen as something of a simple conveyance from the major developments of Act III to the climax in Act V. That being said, there is still a huge opportunity in this Act to further reinforce the significance of the conflict at large. As the villain grows closer to completing their goal, we may see a glimpse of what is to come should the main characters fail in stopping them. This is also an opportunity to place the characters in particularly difficult or trying circumstances and can lead to additional insights into their personalities as they are pushed toward the brink. Act IV should mostly emphasize the main plot, moving steadily toward the final confrontation in whatever form it is to take. That being said, don’t feel like you need to rush towards the end. Take your time while still maintaining a sense of urgency.

 

Final Fantasy VII’s fourth Act begins as the crew seeks out Sephiroth’s true location at the North Crater in an attempt to end things once and for all. Upon arriving, Cloud is once again manipulated by Sephiroth into giving him the Black Materia, despite countermeasures to this possibility. Sephiroth is awoken and the three (or five, for westerners) WEAPON are released. The party is forced to leave North Glacier and a shield is raised to protect Sephiroth as Meteor begins to approach Gaia. The gang is captured by Shinra, Cloud regains his memory, and all four Huge Materia are collected before the Sister Ray is finally fired, killing the last remaining WEAPON and destroying the shield at the Northern Crater. The only remaining task is to confront Sephiroth and Jenova as Act IV ends.

 

Act V: The Big Damn Finale

More than any other Act, Act V is the most self-explanatory. The entire story has built up to this point, and it’s time for the payoff. Make sure to tie up any loose ends you don’t intend on tying up here before the final showdown, as you won’t get another chance. Final conflicts, similar to the Game Changer in Act III, frequently have some kind of loss associated with them. Grand battles without any casualties don’t generally come across as all that grand, although it is possible that, if the stakes have been sufficiently made apparent by the events of Acts III and IV, that something like the death of a main character may prove unnecessary. Perhaps the most important factor in a good final act, aside from it being generally satisfying, is that the audience feels like something has changed as an outcome of the story’s events. It should also be noted that this act is usually much shorter than the previous acts, generally getting right to the final confrontation to prevent the tension from “falling off†after the intensifying Act IV.

 

The final battle and climax of Final Fantasy VII is certainly a memorable one. It begins almost immediately with the series of final boss fights after a short jaunt through the Northern Crater’s series of caves. The party confronts first Jenova, then Sephiroth in a last attempt to activate Holy and stop Meteor with the Lifestream. Cloud faces his inner demons and vanquishes them with the mighty Omnislash and the world, albeit somewhat singed, survives. We are treated to some satisfying cutscenes and are left with the final image of nature retaking the ruins of Midgar City.

 

Notes

Well, there it is. It's rough around the edges, but there it is. I'll likely be trimming, editing, and adding to this post for a while. If you have any questions or requests you'd like my take on, feel free to ask. I'm also not exactly sure if this is the place this thread belongs; feel free to move it if you think it belongs somewhere else instead.

 

Until next time, Happy Designing,

 

Jinumon

Edited by Jinumon

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Well, this was a nice (if a little daunting) read. You touched on some cool points and made me think hard on the events of my game through that lens.

Approve of using FFVII as a guide and fully endorse this work. Great job, man :)

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I never agreed with the idea of putting forth some sort of formula, structure, or rules for writing. And that is not to say that I think your writing guide isn't helpful! It is helpful to people to show them a way of thinking about it at least, and you did say yourself they aren't meant to be comprehensive or absolute. They can be helpful but also very limiting. And what does "the exception proves the rule" even mean? I am pretty sure the exception does the exact opposite in my mind, but I guess that's not the point. Also, Final Fantasy VII is a fantastic game, and examining it can teach tons about design and writing, but it's also a particular type of game with a particular type of story. I don't think people should necessarily apply it's techniques unilaterally across all games, and not all games should try to aspire to it's mold.

 

Here is the thing about writing I find. It just comes down to one thing: How well the writer can string words or concepts together in an interesting and understandable way. Plot structure and theories about characters doesn't really matter, it's just a handy scaffolding to build larger and more interesting piles of words or concepts. I have read technical manuals that were more beautifully written then some novels. I have read long rambling paragraphs about nothing that still managed to entertain me more then most structured stories. I have been drawn into games which have hardly any real "plot" at all that still make a profound artistic impact by their images and ideas.

 

Heck, most of the writing I do is forum posts or random RPs, and I think I maybe actually have gotten pretty good at it? It's hard to judge my own writing in this way. I do think the most basic skill of a writer is good communication, and I hope I manage to do that at least! Maybe I ramble from time to time... maybe I am doing it right now! But still, I think taking the time to write out my thoughts does me more good as a writer then anything else. Having a conversation, describing an idea, explaining your emotions, telling a joke, playing with words, that's all writing too, and I think most people have to learn those kinds of skill more then they do any others when writing.

 

Then again when writing a story you kinda need to also worry about the larger structure of your ideas as much as the details of how you communicate them. I am probably more lousy at telling stories, or maybe I am too lazy to try. I do think guides like these are helpful, but then again I also think there are more ways to do it then what these guides often talk about. For example, I often like to think of stories in terms of a simulation of a situation. Put these elements together and try and work out the most logical path for them to go. Sometimes the results are interesting, sometimes not, but I think they often feel more real that way.

 

I of course have also had my doubts if games are actually a good medium for storytelling in the first place, but that's kind of besides the point.

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@KilloZapit

This guide is more focused on the macro level of storytelling as opposed to the micro level of proper sentence structure, use of language, etc. "The Exception Proves the Rule," is a loose rhetorical argument that basically states that A: even the most concrete rules usually have some notable exceptions, and that B: it is often the rare exception to a rule that proves that said rule applies in a general sense. Basically a fancy saying for "mostly, but not always."

 

And as far as formulae or structure for writing goes, I think I'd just have to disagree with you on that one. The greatest experimental writers throughout history have nearly always had a masterful understanding of the "Rules" of writing, and it was their understanding of these rules that allowed them to innovate in particularly meaningful ways. Not only that, but most bad fiction can be taken apart for its lack of adherence to the tried-and-true literary guidelines.

 

I absolutely do not mean to imply that there is no room for experimentation or individual expression. But spontaneous brilliance is extremely uncommon, and not something to bank on. Better to start from a point of reference and travel outward in search of new discoveries, rather than drop feet first into the metaphorical wilderness and hope you strike gold.

 

Jinumon

Edited by Jinumon

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How does having a rare exception prove a general rule though? Just because of it's rarity? Seems more like your rule isn't general enough to me, but that's besides the point. It's hard to really say that a general statistical trend of common elements implies the rule is true or if it just implies that people think it's true. It might be interesting to see more hard data on this based on corpus text, but I am not even sure if such an experiment can really reliably be carried out. These type of definitions for structure can be vague and I am not sure how they can be detected, or if a algorithm for it can be found. Statistics always struck me as untrustworthy anyway.

 

That isn't to say you shouldn't understand and use a theory and see where it goes, I just disagree that any one particular set of rules are universally useful. In fact I would say their are overly predictable results that result in using such a theory. There are tons of psychological elements and reasons why this type of thing works of course. Here is another idea I have seen around: The engagement curve. Basically the same kind of idea with another formulation. It's interesting and can really help write stories, but I am just not sure how "true" it always is.

 

And as for "spontaneous brilliance"? I am almost convinced that not only is it rare, it's a myth. All genius really boils down to is probably just the guts to push the bounds of people's understanding, the effort to try and try again, and the ability to not let failure stop them. Not everyone can do it, but it's a lot more doable then you may think. It just means you are going to fail more then you will succeed at first.

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