The Anatomy of Story (John Truby)

Screen Shot 2018-09-02 at 12.02.08 PM.pngThe Anatomy of Story is another book about writing for cinema, and it more or less begins by arguing against everything taught by Save the Cat. The three act structure is wrong. Thinking in terms of inciting incident and rising action will get you nowhere because these ideas are generic. Relying on genre is the way to produce a predictable and formulaic result. The truth comes from within.

Truby encourages the writer to start by identifying topics that matter to them. “Write a story that will change your life,” he says, and then suggests some ways you might identify what topics and themes are particularly important to you. In this respect, it feels like a less dogmatic and more personal approach to some of Egri’s advice.

Once the writer has identified what sort of story she finds most compelling, Truby suggests looking (among other things) for the main character’s “basic action,” the thing that character does most consistently or most importantly in the story — Michael Corleone’s act of revenge, Luke Skywalker’s hand-to-hand combat against evil — as well as a design principle that will help structure the story, and important end-of-story choices that will be finely balanced between two almost-equally-desirable (or undesirable) outcomes.

All of this thinking could equally well be the preparation to find a good mechanic for your narrative design. Elizabeth Smyth’s Bogeyman is a horror story about abuse in which every choice the player makes is about obeying or defying the abuser. Papers, Please is about whether to comply or quietly disobey orders, in a host of ambiguous circumstances.

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The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox (ed. Tobias Heussner)

advancedgamenarrativeThe Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is a brand-new followup to The Game Narrative Toolbox, which I covered previously. The “advanced” bit means that the book doesn’t re-cover all the same ground already found in game writing books. The authors suggest that if you are entirely new to game literacy and writing advice, you should go to the first book in the series, to Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling, and/or to McKee’s Story.

Where the first book walked the reader through steps for building a basic portfolio of game design documents and related materials, The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is more topic-driven, each chapter written by a different author (with just a couple of repeats).

The topics cover a range of craft, commercial, and cultural considerations. Many (but not all) of the chapters end with a suggested exercise for the reader, as they did in the first book; but the feel here is less of a core syllabus and more of a set of electives you might pick to round out your understanding.

Many of the chapters approach their subject by defining process: what are the steps that you would take to go about a given task, what considerations should you apply, who else needs to be involved, what could go wrong, and how will you know when you’re done? So, for instance, a chapter is more likely to say (I paraphrase) “next, make a map that shows where each step of the quest will occur in the game world,” and less likely to dive into deep analysis of different possible map designs and how they will affect player experience. Typically, that process guidance is really useful, especially as it comes paired with lists of references if you need more technique training, but you should be aware which you’re getting.

The book is expensive. I bought it as soon as I heard of it, and I’m glad I did, but I flinched at checkout. Price is not typically something the authors can control, but it means I talk later in the review about how to tell whether you’re likely to get enough value from it to justify the price. That’s not meant to reflect on the book’s quality: it’s good, no question. If you get a chance to pick up a used copy for $15, just buy it.

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Story (Robert McKee) and the Expectation Gap in Interactive Story

McKeeStory is one of a handful of screenwriting books that turn up constantly in the bibliography of game writing books. McKee himself gives courses — I’ve never been, but I hear they’re very good shows, whether or not they’re good advice. It’s advised at least as often as Save the Cat, and possibly more so.

It is also, I think, more applicable to non-cinema writing than Save the Cat: McKee is interested in structure, and he has a lot of formulaic rules to suggest, but he cares about content as well. At one point he has a speech about the need for emotional truth, and how this can only come from within the author.

There are aspects of the book that aren’t entirely to my taste. In support of his points, McKee often spends quite a while reprinting classic screenplays — he’s particularly enamored of Chinatown — with his own commentary interspersed. I did not generally find his comments to be that much more instructive than the original dialogue, undisturbed. And even when he’s not giving verbatim chunks of screenplay, he spends an awful lot of time summarizing the events of various movies you’ve probably seen. He’s also a bit grandiose with his rhetoric about the great imaginative work of writing.

Then, too, quite a lot of his advice belongs to the “add an appropriate amount of salt” school of recipe writing — warning that too little or too much of something will be bad, but offering no heuristics.

All the same, there is a lot of basic vocabulary about how plots are assembled and how scenes are designed, which this book introduces as well as or better than many another. Personally, I’d be inclined to go for e.g. Wonderbook instead, if you want an introduction to basic structure vocabulary, and you’re not specifically writing screenplays. For most purposes, Wonderbook is more varied and goes deeper than Story.

There are, however, a couple of points — the ideas of expectation gap and of internal subconscious conflict — where I think it’s interesting how those concepts carry over to interactive work.

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Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

Characters.jpgWrite Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget is actually the first in Stant Litore’s writing series, though I looked at the one on worldbuilding first. It is even slimmer — about a hundred pages in a relatively small-format paperback — and makes for a fast read.

Though very different in form, shape, and style, it reminded me a bit of Lajos Egri’s approach. Litore asks us first about our character’s core strength, a characteristic that will enable them to face down some difficult situation and overcome it. Everything else — both their problems and the solutions to those problems — flow from that strength; just as in Egri’s view of drama, every situation and characterization has to flow from demonstrating the narrative premise.

As in Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget, Litore provides a series of linked exercises for the reader, focused on brainstorming outward from these issues. After the initial task of looking at core strengths, he goes on to build up the reader’s skill in observation. There are exercises on noticing and recording physical sensations associated with emotion, and on developing dialogue style. Ultimately, Litore covers some of the same territory you might see in a more checklist-like approach to building a character bible, but the way he develops the priorities is important. It starts with the things that are likely to matter the most in creating a compelling story, and then allows the details to hang from those.

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Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)

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Save the Cat is one of those screenwriting books, like Robert McKee’s Story, that you can’t help running into if you’re looking at writing advice at all. The title refers to the idea that you must establish your protagonist in a movie with some sympathetic action. There are a lot of musts in this book. Snyder is telling you specifically how to write a three-act, 110-page movie script that fits a Hollywood formula of a few years back — down to which pages of the script should feature major events and reversals; how many beats should appear within each act; and how the hero should be feeling at the midpoint of the movie.

He explains that the heroes ought to be in their 20s at the latest because Men Under 25 are the most coveted viewing demographic. He does not overtly say they should be white, but that assumption is I think implicit. The book is a few years old; after Black Panther and Get Out and Crazy Rich Asians and so on, perhaps Snyder would now have something different to say about representation.

In any case, the book is largely about formula — and a formula much more genre-bound than my nemesis The Hero’s Journey. Snyder has very little to say about theme, other than to acknowledge that you probably should have one and mention it early in your screenplay. He has not much to say, either, about developing characters or about representing personal truths. He doesn’t very much care what the substance of your work might be. This book is about how to package it, how to make it accessible to audiences in a format that is familiar to them and that will help them quickly understand the emotional landscape.

So if this is mainly formula for a different medium and different market from games, does it have anything to offer?

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Writing for Video Games (Steve Ince)

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Writing for Video Games by Steve Ince came out in 2006. It’s primarily directed at a skilled writer from other media who is considering a move to video games, so it includes a bunch of introductory material about how games are different and what game genres exist (2006-inflected and a bit simplified). Elsewhere, he introduces concepts like story bibles and character profiles, and warns about the challenges of working with a large team. For people seeking these tips about how to work functionally in a game industry team, though, I’d recommend more recent resources like Evan Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling.

I’m not sure that, if I were a novelist encountering this book, I would be terribly encouraged by the prospect of moving into games writing. Ince warns the prospective writer that interactive narrative is always secondary to gameplay in all types of game, and also indicates that typical games aren’t very well written.

On narrative structure, he tends to be a bit absolutist — that branching narrative is “impossible to create” as “the resources needed to offer all these possibilities would be beyond the budget of even the largest game”. He does suggest some of the traditional alternatives, but the usual narrative structure resources (Ashwell on CYOA, Salience/QBN discussion) cover more territory.

The discussion of dialogue similarly focuses on the need to use variables and if-conditions, fairly basic concepts without a dive into the more systematic ways of handling this kind of information. This probably is helpful if the writer has never had to think about branching and dependencies before — and Ince does elsewhere talk about things like avoiding repeated dialogue, not reusing your punchlines in a comedy, etc. — but it’s not the place to look for guidance in new ways to design and organize interactive dialogue.

Ince also has a tendency to withdraw into general advice (meet your deadlines, make your story and gameplay line up, talk frequently to the development team, listen to the testers). This advice is typically correct but a bit basic.

Overall: not a terrible set of guidelines for its intended audience, but it’s brief, introductory, and now a bit dated (hardly its fault — I’m the one who decided to make as comprehensive a survey as I could).