Tense atmosphere

Storm season again in Brisbane has put me back onto my storm chasing story. Reading back over my planning, I’m actually really excited about this story. I feel that it will work really well. It has a lot of great elements that will, with enough work, go together to create a great narrative.

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I’ve been caught in a couple of the big storms recently and for this story I want to capture the tension of the season–of always having the weather hanging over your head, no matter what you are doing and where you are. I want to capture the reluctance to drive anywhere in the afternoon in case your car gets wrecked by hail; the drama and excitement of a severe storm impacting the city and totally disrupting routine and timetables; the nagging fear that you may not have a house to go home to at the end of the day.

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It’s one thing to chase storms but quite another, I’ve discovered, to watch a rotating updraft base form right over your house. That’s probably the best place for it, all things considered, because that means it’s unlikely to cause damage before it moves on. But the ominous swirling clouds, the deadly stillness on the ground, the oppressive heat and the faint hail roar are enough to trigger a very primitive awe and fear. And that sort of tension is gold for a story.

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Steampunk Christmas Murder Mystery

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Lord Abraham Pennington-Smith has once again invited his family and friends to his annual Christmas party aboard the skyship Astral Ranger. Of course, this year might be a little…tense.

There’s a rumour that Lord Abraham is planning on revising his will. And there’s his recent acquisition–the most powerful focusing crystal in the world. And the fact that every one of his guests has a secret might also complicate things. But it’s sure to be a wonderfully festive event…

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My steampunk Christmas murder mystery party went better than I expected. We ended up with 9 players/characters–each with their own backgrounds, motivations, secrets and goals–aboard a drifting, sabotaged airship trying to solve the murder of a wealthy old man. Valuable game items were stolen and traded; secrets were uncovered; people were double-crossed and betrayed; the murderer accidentally fell to her death trying to escape at the end.*

What really surprised and pleased me (aside from everyone having a great time, obviously) was that the twist I tried to put in at the end even worked.

In case you’re wondering, the reason why I’m being so cagey with the details is that, at the end of the night, one of my friends suggested that I should publish the game. That was something that hadn’t occurred to me, despite the amount of work that I put into it. I was just doing it because it was fun.

Now, though, it seems like a great idea and I’ve added it to my list of projects. In some ways I think a game might be easier to finish than a full novel. A lot of the work is already done–I wrote almost 5,000 words just to make it playable. Now I just have to explain the mechanics so that anyone could pick it up and play, set up all the material that needs to be printed in a sensible format and commission an artist to make it look a bit more special.

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The game itself is designed to be very free-form. Players are given a character, some information about what’s happened, their relationship to several other characters and a list of personal goals. The host then reveals the situation and it’s basically up to the players to unroll the story from there. Not all of my characters were interested in finding the murderer; some were actively hindering the investigation and others were just out to create chaos for their own ends. It’s designed so that you could play it with different groups of people and get completely different experiences each time.

Once I’ve got a draft together, I’ll have to run it again (or get someone else to run it) to iron out any issues, sort of like a drafting process. By Christmas time next year, I plan to have a murder mystery game on the market. And that is a sentence I never imagined I would ever utter. It’s as exciting as it is unexpected.

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* In-game, of course. Only fictional characters died.

 

So many branches

It turns out that visual novels are insanely complicated, ridiculously difficult to track and an impossible amount of work. Who would have thought? After getting all excited I did some research and had a go at planning one. The problem was that every choice became a new branch and potentially a new story. The spreadsheet containing my first attempt quickly got completely out of control, branching and branching until I had more sticks than story.

So, after abandoning that attempt I discovered Twine – an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. Twine allows you to create a more compact branching spreadsheet by building in ‘if this, then that’ constructions. Not only that, it allows you to assign values to each choice. This means that you can manage the size of the spreadsheet much better. It also gives you much more interesting branches that are based on, for example, how much other characters like your reader character according to the cumulative effect of their decisions.

It’s still really difficult. I haven’t even started anything like actual writing yet. I’m just trying to carve out the major events and choices in each of my story paths. After the initial spreadsheet jungle, I’m limiting myself to 6 or 7 possible paths–which still seems like quite a lot. But, because this is me, I’m complicating things further by having each of the paths interact with the others.

On the positive side, my rational, control-freak self loves keeping track of everything and creating the logic expressions so that the reader’s choices progress sensibly. And my creative, artistic self loves coming up with new and exciting ways to complicate things.  Hopefully, between them, I’ll end up with an interesting visual novel that actually works. In the mean time, I’m having so much fun!

 

Also, did anyone else spot the connection between the ‘into the forest’ theme of this blog and suddenly having to deal with the branches of visual novels? It feels like some kind of sign. Spooky…

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It’s ALIVE!!

It’s always exhilarating when a story idea grabs you by the head and gallops off down a road you didn’t even see. Of course, you have to run as well as you can to keep up. And it’s a little scary not knowing if it will go somewhere or if it’s just going to smack into the wall at the end of a cul-de-sac and waste all your effort. And your neck can get a little sore.

My current writing project started as the story of a young man discovering the ability to influence weather in a world ravaged by climate change. I struggled with that for a long time, trying to get a decent plot happening. Eventually, I realised that the problem was that my ideas were clichéd and the story had been told in other forms too many times before.

Then, inspiration struck and I suddenly had a new main character – a grief-stricken woman, conscripted by a government agency to confront and overcome the weather systems that destroyed her life. I found this story much more fascinating and almost immediately a solid outline formed. Once I had the plan, I began fleshing out the supporting characters.

However, now that I’m getting to know the other characters, they’ve started getting more and more interesting. The story has changed again. I now have an ensemble of increasingly complex characters working with and competing against each other. The plot is now looking very different to both of the previous iterations. It’s a lot more complex and will need a lot more planning but I think it will (eventually) be a much better story. Of course, that wall at the end of the road is looming. I just have to hang on, stay with it and hope we either bust through or jump over.