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Thursday, 22 March 2012

How to write an adventure gamebook - Part 3

"Coming soon: Part 3 - Writing the Adventure"

That's how my last proper blog post on the subject of writing adventure gamebooks ended. Well I'm guessing that 'almost two years' won't be most people's definition of 'Coming Soon', but then again, in the world of plate tectonics, two years is probably the equivalent of two nanoseconds. Anyway, enough delaying already. This blog post has been almost 24 months in the making so time to get on with it.

Writing the Adventure

I'm actually about to embark on writing a new gamebook next week, so it makes sense to lead you through the process of how I go about actually writing an interactive novel (as some people like to call it). I should point out before I begin, however, that this is the procedure that works for me. I know that Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson write gamebooks in a different way from me and each other, and I know other people who use spreadsheets. I do not, but that doesn't mean that they're not an effective tool. So, caveat out of the way, here we go...

People ask me, when I sit down to write a gamebook, do I write the 'one true path' (i.e. the correct route through the adventure) first and then add in all the wild goose chases and extra encounters later, or do I write all the alternating routes at the same time. The truth is, the first thing I write is the first thing you will read. This varies slightly from series to series, but generally it means I'll write the introduction, any additional rules and then the background to the adventure. So, when I start writing the branching paths of the adventure, I've got the setting and peculiarities of the book locked down in my mind and I'm already fully immersed in the particular world I'm creating for that book.

When I read Fighting Fantasy gamebooks as a child, the ones I really enjoyed were those that told you a little about your character from the very start, rather than just launching into the 'Here are the rules' bit. (A good example of the former would be FF#40 Dead of Night, by Jim Bambra and Stephen Hand.)

To take an example from my own work, the second paragraph of the introduction to Herald of Oblivion (coming this summer from Black Library) reads as follows*:

In Herald of Oblivion you take on the role of Brother Nabor, a Space Marine of the Imperial Fists Chapter. Space Marines are the ultimate human fighting machines; genetically modified superhuman warriors, standing over seven feet tall and absolutely lethal due to decades of combat training. They were created by the immortal Emperor of Mankind to first re-conquer the galaxy in His name and then continue to defend the human race from the predations of all manner of enemies; heretics, traitors, aliens, daemons and even their own corrupted brethren.

So, having set the scene for myself and the reader, I set about writing paragraph 1.

At this point I would just like to say that a personal bugbear of mine in gamebooks is when the reader isn't actually given a choice. Either this is because the choice they're presented with is a trick (the route through the forest and the one over the plain both lead to the town with no extra elements added to the journey along the way, no matter which route they choose) or the reader is presented with a series of paragraphs that end, 'Now turn to...' and only give one option. In my opinion this is lazy plotting and isn't what a 'Choose Your Own Adventure'-style book should be. If you want to write a novel, write a novel. If you want to write a gamebook, make sure you give the reader plenty of opportunities to choose what happens next.**

When I plan a gamebook I work out a number of scenes or encounters (roughly 20 in a 400 paragraph adventure) so that when I come to write it, I write it scene by scene as well. These days I'm a lot more thorough in flow-charting these scenes as I come to write them. During the planning stage I will have assigned a rough number of paragraphs to each scene but now I draw a rough flow-chart, making sure that if it's meant to unfold over 20 paragraphs that I get as close to that 20 paragraphs as possible. Again, this might change during writing - I'll realise an extra paragraph is needed to make a particular mechanic work, or I'll realise that with a little re-writing I can lose a paragraph altogether, making the structure tighter - but on the whole what's planned at this stage is what ends up in the book.

On the whole I'll write all the concurrent scenes together. So, if one route takes you to a tavern before heading into the mountains and the other takes you through a forest first, I'll write the tavern encounter and the forest encounter, and only once both are done will I move on to the mountains. This helps me keep a track of how far through the book I am and how many paragraphs I've got left. On the whole...

That said, if a book has to fit into a certain number of paragraphs (which doesn't apply to the Gamebook Adventures apps so much) I'll leave a few minor scenes - such as a wrong route - to write right at the very end. I find it much easier to tailor the length of such scenes (particularly if there aren't many paragraphs left) than to have to bring the final, climatic battle with the Big Bad to an abrupt end just because I suddenly find myself on paragraph 399 of 400.

What else can I tell you about the process of writing a gamebook? Well, as I've learnt to my cost, you need to make the adventure fair and not worry about trying to out-fox the cheaters (if that's not too many mammals for one metaphor). Cheaters will cheat, no matter what. You need to write the adventure for the person who intends to play it fairly which means you, as the writer, need to be fair to them. After all, you're in the business of entertainment, not getting peoples' backs up!

Even though gamebooks (and their individual component paragraphs, or sections) have a lower word count than say novels (and their chapters), if you can imbue NPCs in the book with a bit of character it will go a long way to improving the story side of the gamebook. Speech is a good way of doing this quickly, and I think it was Russell T Davies who said that if you describe someone with only three adjectives, it's enough to plant a clear image of that character in somebody else's head. And try to do the same for the world you're building through your book, its landscapes, buildings, particular dungeon chambers or cultural elements that appear - rituals, games, and the like.

But most of all, keep things interesting. You have to keep the reader wanting to keep turning the pages, so you need to go from one set-piece, to a growing element of intrigue, to a cool monster or fiendish trap, to another set-piece... Anyway, you get the idea.

So, once you've written the words 'Turn to 400' and completed that final, triumphant passage, what happens then? Well that's what I'm going to cover in my next post...

Coming soon: Part 4 - Re-structuring the Adventure***



* At least it does if they've not been edited out.

** Sometimes structure will inevitably lead to a series of single 'Turn to's, but if they're just there to pad out the paragraph quotient the gamebook writer's not done their job properly.

*** And by 'Coming soon' here I mean 'In the next day or so, perhaps even the next few hours'. Honest.

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