Writing Interactive Fiction - Code or Narrative first?

Hello all! I’m embarking on my first piece of IF writing, and I’m interested to know other writers’ preferences when starting a new work.

Do you write the narrative first, and then insert code later, or do you write it in code as you go?
Do you put stat increases/decreases in on the first pass, or do you add them at a later stage?
Do you like to start from the beginning and work through the narrative, or write different bits separately and fit them together later?
Do you prefer to type, or use pen and paper for initial drafts?

(Obviously all code/stats would get tweaked later - I’m just talking about the first draft, whether you like to give a bare-bones structure to the mechanics right away or not.)

At the moment I am writing the draft directly in ChoiceScript, putting in mechanics as I go, and have found it gratifyingly easy to learn. However it is still slow going, and sometimes I feel less inspired when using BBEdit than I do with pen and paper. I may just be unaccustomed to it though, it will probably feel more natural with time. What are all your experiences? Would be very interested to know. Cheers!


I don’t think it really matters, what ever works best for you. For myself:

[quote=“Optimist_Prime, post:1, topic:22584”]
Do you write the narrative first, and then insert code later, or do you write it in code as you go? [/quote]
I usually write and code at the same time. It helps me get a better feel of how the writing will turn out, means I can more easily test it and I think I’d find it hard to finish if I had to go back and code an entire story once it was done.

I put in approximate stat changes as I go. When I’m finished I often need to go back and tweak them to make sure everything fits together properly.

A bit of both. I usually work from start to finish. Occasionally if I’m having trouble with a scene I’ll come back and write it later. For branched sections of the work I’ll often work on each of the branches in turn rather than write the story from start to finish and then come back and write the separate story arcs.

Usually type but sometimes pen/paper especially if I’m out and about without a computer. If I’m doing flow charts, they’re pen and paper. I find them easier to follow.


Welcome! Glad you’re gelling with CS, I think it’s pretty intuitive to pick up, as well. Personally, I do a bit of everything (along with my cowriter). I think once you get going, you figure out pretty quick if a process feels helpful or not. Can’t speak for anyone else, but this method has worked well for us…

First draft, we try to have a general outline with a list of milestones or goals, so we can anticipate major branches and tone for the rest. Rough draft is usually done in narrative style, but we may throw in some code choices along the way if there is a set of very different responses/outcomes that we really want to emphasize (but more like in a 1-2-3 list format over any formal coding). We started off completely pen and paper with our first game, but have now almost entirely switched to using Google Docs so we can share files/write simultaneously without having to transcribe it later. Though inspiration can still strike randomly, like when you aren’t at a computer, so I have tons of Post Its and loose pages with paragraphs or descriptions on them all piled up before it’s done. :smile: Anything after the rough draft is ALWAYS coded. So much harder, for me at least, to take a polished draft and then go back and shove it into coding. Rather, I prefer sculpting the code and narrative together when they’re both still unrefined and malleable, if that makes sense.

As for stats, if there are certain number of stats or I want them to be altered very dramatically, I might put them in right away, even if I tweek them later. Less important ones I might wait to add or adjust them along the way, whatever works, but they are never set in stone until the final final edit. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to have every # figured out beforehand!

This is where I am grateful for a second author that I collaborate easily with, because Tony has to write chronologically, whereas I dib and dab here and there and then piece stuff together later. It works well, since I also have a good eye for continuity, on those instances where maybe I have to take some his contributions and shuffle the order around a bit so it all still flows. You may find forum beta testing or someone whose opinions you trust who can take a look at a pre-beta version might give you some helpful insight along the way.

TL:DR: trust your writers/coders intuition, whatever you are comfortable with, you will figure out with enough time, I don’t think there is a wrong way to go about it.

Don’t know if any of that helped, but happy to share any info I have and support another author! :grin:


Code or prose? That leaves out those of us who write solely in verse!

But seriously, I write a really, really detailed outline for myself on paper with a flowchart and arrows and boxes and marginal notes.

Then I just start writing, all the story and all the code and stats together. Then I notice that I’m completely off outline.

And that’s the story of my process.


Code first. Plain and simple I need to know where things are going before I know what to insert where. That and sometimes the code informs the prose for me.


The code is the skeleton where I build my meaty narrative.


Thanks for the responses everyone! Always interesting to hear what makes other writers tick. I’m getting more into the flow of ChoiceScript, so I think I will do most of my writing straight into code.

That sounds a lot like me too! I usually really enjoy the planning stage, but then sometimes find I am less inspired in the actual writing, like doing the plan has kind of drained my creativity and excitement for the full text.

So I’m currently trying keeping a vague plan in my head, but writing my ideas straight into the first draft form, rather than putting out a detailed outline first. It’s slower, but I’m enjoying the free form creativity of the process, and find I’m coming up with possibilities that I wouldn’t have considered if I had written a plan first.


Very helpful, thanks so much for the detailed response :smile: It’s great that you have found a writing partner who complements your style and way of working, I imagine that must be somewhat rare?

Once I’ve got a first draft done I will be bouncing ideas off some of my writing friends for sure, but co-authoring is a big step further - it must require an art of cooperation and compromise.


Definitely true! Pros and cons either way, I think. But, working with another creative person who goes about writing from a completely different angle has given me a lot of valuable insight and made me more aware of what works or doesn’t in my own personal process. It just helps when you can push each other to be better and not annoy the crap out of each other, too. :sweat_smile:


You know, Mary, I haven’t ever done it this way, but this sentence has been ringing in my mind all day, and so I figured I would sit down tonight and try building a skeleton. I’m trying to do a technically tricky (for me) thing, and I figured I would see what all the fuss was about.

I expected to hate it. But I sort of like it. Maybe I just like the metaphor, though. But either way, I think I like it.


I haven’t actually finished any of my WiPs yet, but I’m happy to share my system, such as it is.

I’ve discovered that, however good my writing may or may not be, my ability to write is much more advanced than my game design skills. I recently scrapped an incredible amount of words because I had been writing a game with a poor design, and I’m now rebuilding that game from scratch.

So, instead of using a loose plot outline as I’ve done for previous works of fiction, I’ve taken to running a really specific outline for the entire game, including major plot points, pivotal choices, end states, and a rough idea of how we get from the choices to the end states.

My two favourite resources currently for helping to figure this all out are the CoG full game design guidelines, which helped me figured out a lot of the flaws in my game design choices, and also this blog article, which talks about writing plots in general.

I like to use paper for charts and names and that sort of thing, but I like to plot where I’m typing because I can adjust and fix as I go along, or expand.

Once I’m actually coding, I follow this article’s advice (same blog, different article) about writing basically what you’re going to write. Then I do the actual narrative, stats, and coding all together. (For those who’ve asked me how I wrote 120,000 words in a month for my CS Comp entry earlier this year, that was a good part of how.)

And I don’t write scenes in order. One reason is some older advice in a CoG blog article. (I’d be curious to see if that approach is still recommended, too.) I also find my first chapter is more useful at presenting the rest of the game when some of that ‘rest of the game’ is already finished.

My first rule of thumb now, though, is worrying about game design before I think about narrative. With that CS Comp piece, I made the mistake of whirling through without a finished design for the game, hence the current dismantling. There were parts of the game design that weren’t working, no matter how much editing I put into fixing the problems. The current method seems to be a lot more effective thus far. We’ll see!


If you’re worrying about game design over narrative, write an outline using our outline guide. I cannot emphasize enough what an important document the outline is–it is where the beginning of the game design is generated. We don’t approve outlines that don’t show us both a well-designed game and a story that we’re invested in. It’s as much or more a game design document than it is a summary of each chapter or what happens in the game. What happens in the game is design. So. Write out your stats. Work on your end-states, tie those end-states to secondary stats. Then fill in the story chapter by chapter and plug in branches and so forth.


Always flattering to hear that my words are ringing in someone’s mind!

But at the risk of spoiling my aphoristic statement I will expand to say: My game is short and it’s been very hard to write. Poor @jasonstevanhill is almost at the end of his patience. Lucky for him I’m nearly done! But: I have a hard time writing narrative because…well, as much as I’m a writer I’ve always considered myself a poet and essayist, not a fiction writer. Making up a story is hard for me. Very hard. It’s not in my bones, it’s something I’ve had to develop and still am developing. And I want to and I hope to have a COG pitch approved in the next month or two. But, in terms of writing fiction, the only way I can get it done is when I have a skeleton to begin with. I need it in order to move forward. If I can build a skeleton, I can drape it with muscle, then skin, then dress it in fine clothes, etc.


I have begun my first IF game and was curious how do other prefer to write. I have been writing and coding at the same time, but at times I feel as if I bit off more than I can chew.

Do you guys prefer writing first then coding, or perhaps coding while writing?


I have to switch it up. Usually, I do a “soft draft” that’s more… sections of paraphrasing than legit writing like a thick outline, and then I put in the code that directs me from one section to the next, menus, big stuff like that, and then I go through that and actually write, saving stats and smaller variables for the end. That helps me stay organized, anyway.

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I have to do them together, or everything gets jumbled in my head.


That makes a lot of sense :slight_smile: I tried that with another game I was working on found myself overwhelmed haha exp when there were variables that I didn’t account for in the rough draft

Same, plus being able to see progress of what your doing helps keep motivation up

I’ve got a notebook I keep with me while I’m working and it’s just pages and pages of “go back to line 1305, add variable for X” and “redirect path A to path C.” It looks A Mess, but it helps me so much. And it’s very satisfying to be able to scratch things off that list lol

I tried doing it all at once, like just writing and coding straight down, and it. killed me.


I didn’t think about that! That’s a great idea :slight_smile: I have a note book as well but I never thought to use it in that way.

Coding kills me as well, but I feel as though I have come a long way since I first started. How ever due to still being a beginner I feel as if writing while coding actually hinders my writing.