By Emily Short
For a long time I’ve wanted to create an interactive piece about the process of writing. That’s partly a reaction to the completely unrealistic way movies portray writing: the writer either “has writer’s block” and stares angstfully at a typewriter, or else she is touched by the muse and types all night, and the result is a manuscript of instant brilliance.
Presumably the writers of these screenplays know from experience that that’s not usually what happens, but the trope is powerful and persists anyway.
Perhaps the issue is that the real nature of writing – as a process of revising, weighing word choices, evolving a text gradually over a long period around changing expectations of what it should even be saying – is really very hard to narrate. It involves small, particular choices and a great deal of nuance.
I was also really interested in the way – though this is rarely discussed in fiction at all – the act of writing inevitably changes what you want to say; the way it can be a process, not just of setting down a concept already fully formed in the mind, but of discovering what it is you meant in the first place.
So when I considered mechanics for an interactive story about writing, the question immediately was what constraints I’d need to put on the writing in order to make it interesting. Writing is already active, but it wouldn’t be a good interactive story to hand the reader a blank sheet of paper and say “go for it.” Plainly it would need to be a story about some particular person writing something specific – that is, they’d need already to have some goals for what they were trying to communicate, and some reason why different choices might be better or worse.
More than that, the writing process would need to be cumulative, so that new possibilities opened up based on old choices – as the writer thought of new examples or arguments or issues.
Next I needed a strong emotional context for what was being written. It would be a real challenge to do a compelling interactive story about writing a term paper or designing the manual for a new product, however important those tasks might be. And an interactive story about writing a poem seemed too inward, too navel-gazing. So I settled on the idea of an interactive epistolary story, so that the contents could be as personal and high-stakes as possible.
When I thought of the plot for “First Draft,” the interactive epistolary mechanic seemed to fit for two reasons.
First, in “First Draft of the Revolution,” the act and experience of writing is tied to aristocratic identity. These characters belong to a world in which literacy rates are not high, and their ability to write and communicate quickly is part of the magic-based luxury they enjoy in their lives.
The textured, deluxe presentation of the text invites the reader into that privileged experience. It encourages her to identify and feel complicit with the aristocratic characters, and their natural desire to protect the advantages they have – both to establish a rapport, and to raise the tension later in the story when she discovers the poverty and limited options of the less privileged characters.
The second point is that interactively revising text involves multiple simultaneous choices which influence one another. Instead of asking the reader “then what did the character do?” or “what happened next?” – as choose your own adventure stories do – “First Draft of the Revolution” asks the reader to consider a number of simultaneous decisions, try them out, take some of them back, and finally settle on an acceptable version before moving on.
This pattern of choice-making is more contemplative and gentle-paced than one that stakes everything on single decisions. It also, I believe, engages the reader’s faculties in a more creative way, because the decisions she’s making are partly aesthetic. Does the letter read better this way or that way? How does it feel if the opening is antagonistic but the ending is endearing? What about vice versa?
Not all readers will necessarily focus on this aspect of the reading experience, and that’s fine, but I wanted that aesthetic pleasure to be available to those who would value it.
Originally I imagined “First Draft” as a story with several possible outcomes, in which Juliette had already had an affair with the friar and was now being pressured to side with him against her aristocratic husband, and had to choose carefully what to say in her letters to both friar and husband in order to avoid exposure.
This changed when, as period research, I read the first part of Delphine by Madame de Sta�l – a French epistolary novel set just after the period I was using. What leapt out at me was the characters’ concern with religion and religious institutions alongside traditional status and social jockeying.
I had made my villain a friar early in the process (in fact this was already determined by the other work I’m doing in the same story universe), but I felt that maybe I hadn’t given enough consideration to what that might mean for Juliette’s interactions with him. Besides, I was writing a story that was not only about the tension between Juliette and her husband, but about the moral dimension of the aristocracy and its magic-using.
As my intentions for the work became more about these issues, I backed off the initial concept, which would have been about the challenge of getting to a solution that didn’t kill Juliette or her husband. I decied that too much strategic thinking of that kind would distract the player from focusing on the thematic issues that I now wanted to explore; so I lightened up the use of consequences for Juliette’s actions.
By helping to revise their letters, the reader exposes who the characters are. She doesn’t define or change them. Juliette, Henri, and the others are meant to have consistent personalities, and there’s nothing the reader can do to alter this fact.
She can, however, see what constraints and concerns affect each character. Juliette and Henri each have things they’re not willing to express to the other. The reader can also how far each one could be pushed (how assertive can Juliette be before her inner censor kicks in? how warm is Henri at his warmest?).
The sheer amount of correction each character does is significant as well. The story is partly about how Juliette comes to be able to assert herself against Henri’s authority and the threats she sees around her. That shows up in the interaction as a greater range in what she’s willing to put to paper.
By contrast, Henri’s style of revision is at first more confident and less repetitive than Juliette’s, in that he begins with a rigorously logical list of what he wants to accomplish: it’s almost as though he views the task of writing to his wife as a design problem to be solved. This sets up the contrast later in the story when he loses emotional control over himself.
The two interaction arcs contrast. Over the course of the story, Juliette’s thoughts about what to write become more focused on what she wants to achieve and less on what she fears will provoke Henri; Henri meanwhile becomes less purely instrumental in his approach.
All the same, Juliette and Henri are more alike than different. When we finally see a passage of text written by the mysterious friar, it’s meant to be strikingly unlike the other writing in the story. It is coarse in both what it says and the way it’s expressed: though he is in fact a skilled emotional manipulator, the friar does not belong to the same world as the protagonists, and his manner of writing is one of the most unmistakable signs of the fact.
The text drives this home by making the friar’s text the only one that the reader cannot influence or control at all; he’s a driving influence at the heart of the story but is not knowable in the same way as the other characters.
Presenting “First Draft” through interactive letter-writing allows me to focus on the interpersonal dynamics at a very granular level. I’m really interested in problems of how people communicate – how they manipulate one another, how they assert control or social dominance, how they allow themselves to be vulnerable – and I want to show those interactions rather than telling them. “Juliette agonized over whether to tell Henri she missed him” is a less immediate expression of the problem than actually showing what she’s considering writing and what she decides to write instead.
At the same time, it would be very challenging (at least for me) to write a non-interactive short story that dwelled on these questions of word choice, and self-torment about exactly what was and wasn’t appropriate to say, without it quickly becoming very tiresome for the reader.
Tangential note: This is not completely unique. Atlus’ Catherine uses a text message composition system where the protagonist can cycle through several different texting options for each sentence before sending the completed text, and the combination of tonal choices affects the response he receives. (Though I didn’t play Catherine until many months after “First Draft” was designed; it was not an influence on my work.) Even in that example, though, the degree of variation in output is more limited than in “First Draft”, and the focus is on making decisions rather than exploring a character’s personality.
“First Draft of the Revolution” tries to avoid wearing out the reader’s interest by indicating clearly when the reader can choose to expand the story and when she can choose to advance.
“Expand vs advance” is terminology I picked up from improv theater. The Expand/Advance dichotomy appears in some form or other in lots of interactive stories and games, and there’s a variety of terminology to talk about it, but I like Expand/Advance because it’s clear, not genre-specific, and doesn’t carry much judgment.
The idea is, essentially, that in developing a story interactively, you can either advance (tell the next thing that happens) or expand (provide more depth and explanation about the thing you’re currently focused on). Some people would consider “expansion” the same thing as exposition, but exposition tends to be associated with tedious passages of explanation. Expansion might instead be the choice to dramatize an issue, a character relationship, or an emotion that would otherwise remain opaque to the reader.
A story that is all advancement likely doesn’t provide enough information and emotional context to make the reader care very much. Traditional fables are often told in an all-advancement format, which makes them fast-paced, but doesn’t give the reader much of an opportunity to identify with the characters or develop a deep understanding of the world in which they occur.
On the other hand, a story that doesn’t advance fast enough for the reader’s taste will seem to drag, and this is an even more serious problem for interactive stories than for conventional ones. The act of interaction can make a story more imminent and compelling when things are going well – but when things go badly, it turns the story into work.
My aim in interactive stories, therefore, is
The form of “First Draft” is designed to support this structure. The “Send Letter” option at the bottom of the page always means that the story will advance: we’ll find out what comes next. A few changes on each page are required, and this is because these represent the most basic information the reader must have in order to understand the meaning of the story. Other changes – for instance, expanding out Juliette’s description of the bastard son to give more details or more thoughts about his abilities – are purely optional. They’re intended to reward the reader who is interested in those topics, but not to delay one who isn’t.