How do you plan your stories?

Just what the title says. I’ve looked around the forum a bit and have read the blog posts about this, but I’m curious about how the writers of CoG go about it themselves. Everyone has slightly different approaches to all aspects of writing and the planning process is one of the most important parts of writing. If you don’t start with a good structure, you probably aren’t going to end up with anything worth reading.

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I’m a first time writer for CoG, but their required outline process has helped enormously. They require you to describe your characters, your chapters and what happens in them, and your skills, and to describe sample choices in each chapter, as well as what kind of main ending options the player will have.

I find this has helped enormously in pacing myself and in boosting my creativity. My writing still evolves quite a bit, so when I get to a new chapter the old ‘sample choice’ is usually not really appropriate any more, but it still gives me a starting point.

Inside each chapter, I try to think of how I can test whatever I’m focusing on testing in that chapter, as well as what’s going to happen in my relationships with friends and enemies.

With all these constraints in place at once, I find it easier to fill in around them, instead of trying to invent a story out of nothing all at once.

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Planning! Man, I knew I forgot to do something. Oh well, too late now.

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I’m not actually a published author yet, so take this for whatever you think it’s worth.

When I have the idea for a story I sit down and just spitball ideas to myself, scribbling down plot points and worldbuidling facts in an almost stream of consciousness fashion. Usually I’ll get anywhere from six to ten pages of the stuff before a coherent story starts to take shape.

After that I plot out the major events that I know have to happen for the story to flow, as well as how many endings I want (this being IF I feel multiple endings are an absolute must). Then I just…start writing.

I’m much more organic in my writing (read: I have only the barest of outlines) and thus find myself coloring outside the lines frequently. New characters sort of write themselves as I go, and branches surrounding those characters emerge.

Juggling all those balls that I invent for myself and then making them fit into the plot without the seams showing is part of the fun for me, but it’s not something I would urge anyone else to try to emulate. Experiment and find your own groove, and the writing will come so much easier than if you confine yourself to a set of rules that might not fit the way your unique mind works.

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With Community College Hero 1, I winged it. NOT recommended!

With Talon City, I’m using short chapters (about 35 of them) that are essentially scenes, so that helps keep thoughts like “Okay, in what chapter did xyx happen?” clear in my head. I have a rough summary of each chapter written down, so that pacing is pretty even, and I’ve written down the end states at trial, although those are subject to tweaking obviously.

I also have a stats chart spreadsheet (see attached) with lots of colors to keep things simple for me. It helps me space out things like stat bumps, stat check choices, automatic checks, and selectable_ifs. I’m limiting stats so that every single stat can be seen in one spreadsheet from left to right. I can easily scroll down one column and see how often I’ve included that variable.

I’m a lot more organized than I was back in 2013, let’s say that.

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Understanding and implementing story structure is what separates the pros from the amateurs and the stories from the situations. Just because we have choices at the bottom of our pages doesn’t change this. I also can’t stress enough how much easier and more comfortable it is to write within a structure, to always know where you’re going and why you’ve got to get there.

I’ve written about my experience with premise lines here. They’re essentially giant paragraphs consisting of the four major clauses that make up every story ever written:

Clause#1 = Character, Constriction
Clause#2 = Desire, Relationship
Clause#3 = Resistance, Adventure
Clause#4 = Adventure, Change

I’ve written about the beat sheet here. This is a screenwriting tool that elaborates on the “setup, confrontation and resolution” structure, giving names to each scene (or “beat”) and really helps give shape to your outline. It has helped me tremendously in plotting out Samurai of Hyuga Book 4’s emotional highs and lows as well as adding a ton of foreshadowing to tie everything together.

If you ever wanted each chapter to end with a cliffhanger or a “oh snap what’s next?” from your reader, this is how you do it.

The last step from this (which I haven’t written about yet!) is the detailed outline. How detailed it is will be up to you, but it’s only at this point that I even consider major choices, branches and so on. The point being that these branches are not going to fundamentally change the story’s structure. At most they may change actors around or shift scenes but in my experience, they’re better served on customizing the experience vs trying to hack one experience into several others.

Now if your story is more of an interactive game than an interactive novel, some of this advice changes. But I think a lot of authors fall into the trap of overthinking choices and underthinking the fundamentals of storytelling. From my years of writing these things, I’ve found that the choices your player doesn’t make are almost always more important than the ones they do.

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Planning has been pretty limited for me, but with CoG games I’ve found them to be both necessary and incredibly helpful. For Voltaic, I followed this process to help me draft up ideas. I didn’t assign any vignettes to chapters, which actually caused a bit of a hiccup for me because I realize I may have added an extra chapter (I figured out a way to resolve that). But having a general idea of what I want to happen is making writing easier, because I know what big events are going to happen and when

With my unannounced (until now, I guess) reality T.V. show game, I actually drafted up the elimination table for all the contestants. I started with just their names and where they ended up placing. After that, I wrote out what the challenges for each episode were, and wrote out the various outcomes based on the player’s performance. This allowed me to pick out which characters need more attention because they leave early, and it also allows me to plan out story arcs for characters based on when they’re no longer going to be a part of the competition. This have helped me created a pretty varied cast of characters at various stages in their development.

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I’m not expecting y’all to reply to these but I wanted to let you know what I thought about some of these more insightful ones.

@Eric_Moser
I was really excited to see your response because what prompted me to ask this question was actually one of your posts about CCH 3 from about a year ago. You mentioned using spreadsheets in it and I’d never heard that before. It was really interesting to hear what you had to say in particular!

Also, I don’t think anyone noticed that about CCH 1 since it was so well done anyway

@MultipleChoice
I never thought about splitting up the whole process and doing the actual story outline dead last. This is some good stuff thanks!

@trevers17
Sounds like you really know what you’re doing. Good luck with that new story, I’d love to read it when you’re done!

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Thank you for the kind words! When I wrote CCH1, I had NEVER written anything that “went out into the universe” (other than legal briefs), so my whole approach to that project was very amateurish. I brainstormed characters, a setting, a basic plot, and off I went. As a result, stats were VERY unbalanced, especially the relationships (I should have used fairmath), and it was a huge PITA to test.

I know some people are more “pantsers” by their nature, and obviously all approaches are valid, but I’ll never “pants” one of these things ever again.

I’m more of a coder than a writer, though I’m trying to improve my writing as well! If there’s one bit of advice I think is worth passing on is that it’s essential to keep track of your variables.

Unless your game is extremely simple with only half a dozen variables, you really should use some method of documenting what variable does what otherwise it’s very easy to waste a lot of time looking over old code to see what’s going on and you can easily end up duplicating variables.

Personally, I use Trello to keep track of them now. I create a board for each project then create lists on that board, one list for each type of variable (i.e. character vars, gameplay vars, etc.) and add a card to the lists for each variable. On the card I make a note explaining what the variable is for and a range of possible values, etc.

You can use a spreadsheet for this, or just a stack of post-it notes or even just add a comment in the startup file for each variable. But definitely do it - it’ll save you a lot of time and messing about when your story becomes huge and you’ve forgotten what half of the variables do.

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Short answer : I don’t

Long answer : I ddoonntt

Eeesh tough crowd

To mimic what @lunawisp said, using an online notepad and writing down ideas that spring into your head is great, so when a half decent quality idea finally chooses to reveal itself at the most inappropriate time you could imagine, you can hold it in your head as it kicks and thrashes and jot down some notes before it escapes. If you’re anything like me it’ll be at 11:45 PM and you can silently turn it over in your mind instead of going to sleep, until it’s suddenly 2:00 AM and you have trouble reading the words you’re texting into a forum the next day.

I personally find it much more easier to create characters and other more trivial things than the huge plot line. Eventually though I can connect the dots and find a way to advance the story and hopefully keeping the readers attention. It just requires a good :thinking:. Taking it chapter by chapter is a good methodical approach, (which is of course why I should have done that earlier) and you can step back and look at the overarching plot behind each one. Gradually leading up to the big climax by stepping from event to event is also a good idea, instead of leaping up and down like a mountain goat with three legs.

Finally I also have about 15 unfinished skeletons in my online cupboard, so it’s not too difficult to lean in and rifle through them for an occasional decent idea that I can take. That’s almost always a reliable tactic, and if you’re somehow perfect and don’t have those half baked shames, then you could always look at a product by a professional author or film maker and take some plot ideas from there. Those insufferable geniuses seem to actually know what they’re doing.

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