Writing Interactive Horror -- Tips From Fallen London Creators

For the past three years I have been resisting all things Fallen London. With the 10th year anniversary of this online browser game’s success, there all a sudden is a flood of articles and discussions about their particular brand of horror and interactive writing.

One of the most helpful discussions that have begun in earnest is the following:

These tips on writing interactive horror are very good – so good that I broke my multiple year long effort to avoid all things Fallen London.

As a community of interactive fiction, I believe a discussion here that dovetails with this one would be of everyone’s benefit.

With that in mind, I’ll list each major point of emphasis they provide and then comment my own take on it, hopefully to open up comments from everyone else.

With all that said, let’s start:

My Take: Be Certain should read: Be Specific.

Devil is in the details when it comes to writing interactive fiction – the more generic you write, the less you have a unique IP and the more you fall into the various writing traps. Tropes, stereotypes and assumptions all thrive under the generic label of writing. The more you can get specific with in your writing the more original you’ll be.

My Take: Show, Don’t Tell

Distilling something abstract into something immediate makes your writing “real” to your audience. It becomes an experience and not just a story to them. This bit, here, is my writing emphasis … this is what I work on the most right now.

Distillation (as they call it) is a multi-part process, one that my impatience often does not follow through with as much as I should.

“A few different manifestations” is a lot of work and it is bruising to your ego. In one of my recent scenes, I rewrote a particular part four times before the copy was acceptable to the standards I set for myself. 5,000 words turned into 15,000 words by the time I was done but I must have written and thrown out another 10,000 between all the copy. My ego was bruised to the bone, but at the end I had writing that set the new bar of success … now I have to work that much harder achieving this level of writing.

It is scary, frustrating and frankly migraine inducing at times.

The feedback I got from my alpha copy readers was well worth it. I hope to repeat this as I work on my writing this year.

My Take: Who, What, Where, When and How

“Situate yourself in the Character’s sense and situation” can be accomplished by answering a set of questions while you are writing. I like their set as much as my original set of questions and feel if you use both while writing, your copy will be better for it in the long run.

My Take: Nothing to Add Here

These things to avoid are more specific to interactive horror writing, so I imagine each of you experienced writers can come up with your own list of “Things to Avoid.” I am still developing my writing and have yet to achieve the mastery that I can point out a list of things to avoid…

Perhaps other, more experienced writers can add their lists to the discussion?

I had planned to do this type of discussion “later” when one of my “secret” projects I am working on is further along in its developmental process … however, I feel we have not had a good discussion of this nature in a while, and I have no clue when my project will achieve the milestones I need it to, in order to have this.

I would also be interested in knowing if the members of this community would be willing to have a series of these types of discussions, once I do get to the appropriate milestones in my development process? (assuming my collaborators are fully onboard as well).

We need more of this type of thread and fewer lists and ranking types of threads.

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This is so good, and is eminently applicable beyond horror too. “Be certain/specific” is excellent for any writing situation. I’m especially thinking about romantic scenes with the advice about being firm, visceral and vivid - it’s easy to fall back on descriptions like “it feels incredible” that lack specificity. In those situations (in horror or romance!) it works much better to focus on the physical specifics of how the character is feeling.

I haven’t read the whole article yet but something I truly admire and have learned - imperfectly - from Failbetter’s work is the economy of language. Word count is so restricted that every word has to pull its weight and more, there’s no room for generic sentences or description that isn’t doing several things at once (like the cavernous, gargantuan examples above). Thinking a ton about precision can be a really useful exercise, and elevates writing by a mile.

Things to avoid on a small scale…

-If I was writing Blood Money again I would get more specific with weirdness. I do lean on whispers/shadows/weird eyes in that one!

-When writing a formal or old fashioned register, cut “quite” or 'rather" or “particularly”. It sounds fun and fancy when you say it out loud but it’s not actually doing anything, and formality can be established in more precise ways.

On a larger scale…
-I’m still learning how to deal with the uncovering of secrets, and seeding clues through a story. I never want to make it so the player is sitting there going “why doesn’t my character see what’s going on, it’s so obvious!” but can end up going too far in the other direction so secrets may feel they come out of nowhere. Not sure what thing to avoid that correlates to! Maybe “seed lots of clues so players are less likely to miss something”? It’s an ongoing process.

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Never! :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes: Why, I’d rather cut off my own arm! Very much rather indeed! Quite so!

Next you’ll try to tell me that “a great many” is redundant, like that pesky grammar corrector does every time. :face_with_hand_over_mouth:

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There has been no follow-up on this concept in their discussion yet, but if we take what is said in bullet # 2, this should happen organically:

And then:

You should organically be able to determine at what point the protagonist would be able to figure “the bigger picture out.”

Like you, this seems as much of an art as a science in the end. I, personally, would also add factors like the game mechanics into the mix … if you have an “intuition” stat, for example, wouldn’t this effect the ability to suss out what was going on?

Re Romance: I haven’t even began to address my underdeveloped ability to write romantically. If writing specific applies to this, then does that mean you need experience in romance itself to be able to write it successfully? Perhaps a vivid imagination could help, but without carnal knowledge, can a writer really get very far writing romance?

As a writer, what do you do when you are out of ideas on how to be specific, in an original, non-repeating way?

I think this is something all of us will struggle with from time to time.

My solution is to use my self-notation (xxxx) to indicate I have unfinished business in this part and to move forward in my writing. Sometimes moving on will let your mind figure it out in the background while the majority of your attention is focused on another part of your writing.

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I don’t see inexperience as necessarily being a significant obstacle when writing romance.

You don’t need to be a combat veteran or a black belt martial artist to write a fight scene. I have no issues writing female characters even though I have zero experience being a woman. (At least I think my female characters are pretty okay, mostly I try to remember that they’re ultimately just another person.)

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I already love this thread. I can’t tell you how many articles I read when I decided to write a horror COG. The one that stood out the most to me was this piece by Chuck Wendig. One of the things that stood out it most to me was his take on stab the gut, spear the heart, sever the head. Essentially it’s about creating emotion in the reader, our mind reels trying to dissect horror (good horror asks troubling questions), our heart feels a surge of emotion: terror/fear/suspense, our gut feels all the leftover emotions (stomach churning). Good stuff!

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First of all, great article, thanks for sharing. Second…

Re Romance: I haven’t even began to address my underdeveloped ability to write romantically. If writing specific applies to this, then does that mean you need experience in romance itself to be able to write it successfully? Perhaps a vivid imagination could help, but without carnal knowledge, can a writer really get very far writing romance?

You can. Honestly, don’t focus on the romance part. Focus on writing an interesting person, and a good friendship. If you get that, then the step to romance is something that happens in the reader’s head as much as yours. You don’t need to know anything, you need to make a character that the reader can take and then build their own fantasies about. Don’t overthink it. A lot of people do, and that’s when you end up with people being described in detail as unreasonably hot while me the reader don’t think that what is being described is hot.

Think friendship. Think intimacy, Think trust. Not romance.

EDIT: Also, right now I miss writing horror SO badly…

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I do agree to a degree (I usually find characters designed purely to be a RO and nothing more to end up being too flat for my taste). As someone who is really not great at writing romance (and rarely reads books in the romance genre which doesn’t help), I tend to go for the friendship/trust angle and leave more to the readers imagination, but one of the most frequent comments I get is there’s not enough romance in my games. (Although that could just be limitations on my writing coming out.)

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These tips are so good! I remember playing Fallen London and Sunless Sea (I’ve died 2375981 times in that game, haha) when they first came out. Fallen London and the podcast Welcome to Night Vale deeply influenced how I write creepy things.

Hopefully this is not too off topic, but I agree with @HannahPS that these tips help a lot with romance too. The more I read romance and consume horror the more in common the genres seem to have, from a writer’s perspective. Both benefit from describing specific symptoms in concrete, visceral ways. “I looked at her and fell in love” is less powerful than “I looked at her, and it was like a layer had peeled off the world and I have fresh, lighter eyes.” It might not be a mystery to the reader in the same way that figuring out Queen Victoria controls time is, but romance is still a freefall into the unknown where you hope to God someone catches you, or you figure out something to catch.

Re: not having experienced romance, but wanting to write romance: Totally agree that friendship is the way to go. Marriage is just friendship recognized by the police. Queer relationships used to be called “a romantic friendship,” or friendship with “a romance of feeling.” Romance is intimacy, and intimacy is not just the physical stuff. In fact, if readers can only tell two characters are in love by the fact that they kiss, that’s badly written romance.

If you’re worried about sex scenes specifically, approach it the same way you’d approach writing anything you don’t know: research the heck out of it. Read books, scroll blogs, attend a seminar, hire a beta reader/diversity reader, interview etc etc. Or write an ace-centric romance that has zero sex. Or fade-to-black. I can write explicit scenes, but in Moonrise I chose to fade-to-black because I didn’t want a hot-and-heavy debut game.

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