I’m going to talk about video games. If you’re Roger Ebert undead, or you’re of a similar mindset, you can tune out now. Video games as an art form are undergoing a renaissance of design and storytelling (iPhone Fart Simulator aside). For the fiction writer, there’s ample opportunity to deconstruct story into its most basic elements and study what’s working, all while battling dragons in a frozen Nordic landscape. Just as you read and critique a novel to understand how the story was shaped, there are some excellent video games that portray a narrative arc in its most essential elements.
It’s easy to argue that the video game as an interactive story has limited potential. With most games, your interaction primarily consists of listed pre-programmed options, or in the case of the first-person shooter, your interaction with the world is limited by the caliber of gun you’re aiming. The modern media consumer has transitioned, and the single greatest impact of our hyper-driven always on society is the shortened attention spa- Oh hey, cupcake wars marathon! It’s painfully apparent that fiction is competing with a number of storytelling methods, from movies and television to video games. As a writer, we should play to the strengths of creative fiction – the ability to weave a mental picture that pulls the reader further into the story. Video games tell stories through user-driven interaction, but still manage to convey compelling characterizations when done well. I’ll be examining the story components of three specific games: Gone Home, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Spec Ops: The Line. Spoiler alert – I’ll be ruining all three if you have any interest in playing them, and playing isn’t required for understanding. This first post will focus on Gone Home.
Gone Home tells the story of a young woman who returns home from a semester in Paris only to find the new house her parents and little sister have occupied is eerily empty. The story plays out like a first-person puzzle game with few puzzles to solve. You begin on the front porch of a mansion your parents have inherited from your uncle – your crazy cultist uncle who died under strange circumstances. The player navigates through the empty house while a storm rages outside. Story is conveyed through answering machine messages, diary entries, mixed tapes from the younger sister, and newspaper clippings sprinkled around the house. Though the gaming elements of Gone Home could be argued, at two to three hours of content it’s not a terribly long game and there aren’t any enemies to shoot or monsters to fight. The entire game consists of the player navigating a huge empty mansion searching for clues to where her parents and her sister have gone. Examining the storytelling elements reveals an underlying brilliance to Gone Home; having the player (the narrator) stumble on diary-entries of the younger sister proves an excellent method to reveal back story while still pulling the player (or reader) into the experience. The younger sister is in high school, experiencing all the troubles and tribulations of senior year and latent sexuality, eventually latching on to a girl in her class who’s chastised for being a lesbian. The sub-plot devolves quickly into an emotional struggle between conformity and self-discovery as the narrator’s sister finds herself facing a difficult choice: side with the popular kids and make friends, or follow the heart and chase a same-sex relationship. The sister chooses to follow her heart only to have it bruised when the girl she’s interested in joins the army and suppresses her emotional desire. Gone Home proves to be a compelling and engrossing coming-of-age tale set around a vaguely horror-themed haunted mansion, complete with newspaper clippings hinting at a darker history in the old house.
Gone Home achieves something most popular TV shows aim for: making the reader/viewer believe they’re smarter than the storyteller. If you can accomplish this in your fiction, it comes off as brilliant. Case in point: consider your favorite TV show. I’ll use the new modernized Sherlock as an example. Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant detective who solves crimes through observation. In nearly every story, the observations are presented to the viewer with carefully scripted close-up scenes, often with an overlay of text as Sherlock examines the scene. The astute observer is often one step ahead of Sherlock, and it’s not by accident. The best television shows, particularly the mystery and suspense shows like Sherlock, hinge on the viewer being manipulated into believing they’re more intelligent than the protagonist. With Sherlock, the viewer is often shown hints – visual and textual – of clues. Sometimes it takes Sherlock and Watson a few minutes to absorb and digest these clues and take the viewer to the next scene. And more often than not, a careful viewer has derived the outcome and determined the course of action, often before the protagonist has a chance to voice the answer. The next crime is at location x! As a result, the viewer believes they’re more intelligent than Sherlock, and they’re instantly drawn into the story. It’s brilliant storytelling when it works.
When it doesn’t, you have CSI Miami.
Think about how you can achieve this in fiction, regardless of your genre. Good literary fiction leads the reader to a conclusion without beating them over the head, showing them an answer without outright spelling the conclusion. Genre fiction that works best does this very well. Nearly all mystery fiction relies on this element to achieve synchronicity with the reader – start a mystery, lead the reader to the answer, and have the protagonist arrive there half a second later. Regardless of the medium – TV, video game, or literary fiction, you achieve the same result: you make the reader feel as if they’re smarter than your protagonist, and as a result, more involved in your story.
Gone Home is dirt cheap and should appeal to even those who hate video games. It’s an exploration-based simulation that strives to achieve storytelling elements through atmospheric visualization and sound. It achieves this brilliantly by making the player think they’re smarter than the protagonist. At the core, that’s what good storytelling is about.
Don’t insult your readers – show them how smart they are. Trust them to understand. You won’t get it right the first time – that’s what your reading group is for. But when you achieve it, your story will succeed.
The Prenda trials are like the Honey Boo Boo of law. It’s a train wreck you just can’t look away from. Sex, money, and slapstick keystone-caper lawyering all in one. The Firm began a few years back saving the world from digital scum who steal movies; they are protectors of fine and upstanding films such as Sexual Obsession and Church of Bootyism 2 (both of which have been snubbed by the motion picture academy, most likely because the principal dialogue consisted of long strings of vowels spoken in frantic guttural). The trick was to find people who downloaded said movies, send them a letter, and get paid. And by “find people” I mean “make a wild-ass guess based on bad logic.” They filed a few thousand “John Doe” lawsuits forcing service providers to cough up details on which freakishly perverted user had said IP address. Then they sent out the kind of carefully worded threatening letter no one wants to get: “You’re the perv who stole Church of Bootyism 2, pay $4,000 or we tell your boss, your mother, your grandmother, and that girl at Starbucks you keep flirting with.” I never received one of those letters, so I guessed at the wording.
Some of those people couldn’t possibly have downloaded Church of Bootyism 2 because they were busy watching Honey Boo Boo or they were dead. But most people, it seemed, copped to it because nobody wants to be caught explaining to their neighbor and their kids kindergarten teacher that Church of Bootyism 2 was just for research, and they didn’t enjoy it. Then US District Judge Otis Wright (who may look like the Incredible Hulk) said “This case doth reek of Church of Bootyism 2 lies” and started poking around. Turns out Prenda had been pulling off one of the ballsiest digital copyright maneuvers in years. The Prenda lawyers may have uploaded and shared Church of Bootyism 2 to begin with, only to track every download. They may not have been acting on behalf of the true copyright holder of Church of Bootyism 2. Oh, and one of the lawyers forged his neighbors signature on a filing for one of their shell companies. Seriously, folks, free entertainment doesn’t get much better than this.
While Prenda is a hilariously extreme example, the case has some bearing on writers and content creators. What fueled Prenda in the first place was the DMCA. Copyright law is tricky, and DMCA doesn’t make it any easier. Someone just needs to point a finger and cry foul without any real evidence, and content is usually taken down by the service provider. YouTube has a standing policy of killing content, and so do most hosting services. Big media has a standing policy of whining to the authorities like an overworked actor in Church of Bootyism 2 even when said content doesn’t belong to them, isn’t related, or isn’t infringing.
There are two points to this: you may one day find yourself targeted wrongfully in a DMCA violation (or maybe rightfully, if you were such a fan of Church of Bootyism that you had to download the sequel), or you’re a content creator with something to steal. The law sides with the content creators. When you write a story (or make a video of your dog bringing you a beer) and post it online, it’s still yours even if you give it away. The internet is the oddest place the universe has ever known, like going to a store where they sell high-end bath towels next to 50-Shades Lego sets. It’s the wild west. It also means protecting your work is that much harder should someone like Prenda try to steal it and sue everybody who’s infringing, justified or not. This leaves service providers up the well known fecal tributary without proper means of locomotion. Hosting companies and service providers are required by law to take DMCA takedown notices seriously, but aren’t required to investigate because it’s not their job. Though it looks like the Prenda lawyers may end up in federal Pound-Me-In-The-Ass prison, there still aren’t any laws in place to stop the next Prenda wannabe. Until copyright law is fixed, we’re stuck in this mess.
But there is some hope. Should you get one of those “Pay us or else” letters, bear in mind many judges are taking the stance that settlement is pretty much extortion. Do some homework on the legal letter. If it hasn’t been filed in your district, or if it was filed with dozens of other “John Doe’s”, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be thrown out. And on the opposite side, should you be in the same boat as the director and writer (was there a writer?) of Church of Bootyism 2, there are methods of responding to a DMCA claim.
And if you don’t fall in either of those categories, you get to sit back and enjoy the ride. The truth is, I just wanted to make you all read the words Church of Bootyism 2 a bunch of times.
You do not own your ideas. Your thoughts, once committed to bytes, become part of the endless ether staining the screens of everyone with a monitor, an internet connection, a cell phone, a tablet, or even one of those smart TV’s with the fancy remotes that make browsing the internet feel like navigating with a bar of soap. Welcome to the world of the digital. You’ve been here for quite some time, you just didn’t know it. For centuries (if you’re a house fly, years if you’re a human) the digital divide has been looming over wordsmiths like a constantly evolving artificial intelligence, listening to everything we write, every thought we spill. OK, yes, that was a stretch. I just wanted an excuse to use a SHODAN graphic.
Authors like J.K. Rawlings have resisted the trend to publish digitally while others like Stephen King have embraced it. Regardless of the fear behind the decision, the truth is that every author should have the right to decide for themselves. However, once you go digital, your choice is made. As irrevocable as picking peppers for a pizza topping. You can try to remove them, but some flavor lingers, forever tainting your slices.
The idealists like to believe the internet exists for the free exchange of ideas. Let’s not forget the system was designed by DARPA to let generals exchange digital porn in the event of a nuclear attack. In the aftermath of Snowden’s revelation, we are reminded that the internet does not forget. As long as disk arrays exist without suffering cascade drive failures, information will persist, even those insane twitter feeds from people who post things that look like hitler.
As more journals and publications go digital, it’s wise for any writer to think of the bigger picture. E-publishing is unavoidable, and doesn’t have to be an enemy if you’re aware. While I’ve gone on record to say the number of e-publishing self-publishing success stories are far fewer than Amazon wants us to believe, success is certainly possible. Everyone who creates content, writers and musicians and even that guy who make toothpick sculptures, walks a fine line between value and availability. The biggest mistake the recording industry made was a failure to embrace digital. Technology outpaced availability, and .MP3’s were born along with Napster Bad, Money Good! The motion picture industry is undergoing the same challenges, but is embracing digital a bit more readily, if not entirely correctly.
E-books are a natural transition. With hundreds of millions of smart phones and PC’s, the world already has a wealth of readers along with the Kindles and Nooks and Sony readers flooding the market. For the short-story writer, your digital rights revert back to you once your work has been published. Even if published online, you are free to do with that short prose what you will, unless of course you’ve signed a contract giving away certain rights. It’s typical for most e-journals to retain digital rights for a year, and even when not requested, it’s often understood. The point of publishing great work is in getting the public to the journal’s web site, not necessarily driving the public to your site – hold off on putting that story up on your own site until sufficient time has passed. A year is good, or you could wait for the next Mayan apocalypse.
I’ve been a reader for Carve magazine for a few months now, and I’ve read hundreds of stories in a short span. Some were truly great! Most weren’t. For the ones in between, it only takes a bit of editing and attention to detail. If you’ve spent the time to craft your short fiction, you really should be spending the time to edit. That means if you finish the story the night before the contest or submission deadline, you’re going to need a good outside editor who can work quickly. You cannot edit yourself in 24 hours.
After reading your story dozens of times, focusing on character and narration and powerful dialogue, you’re going to miss things. You’re no longer looking at your work with an editorial slant. You’re going to miss words that are spelled correctly, but are the incorrect words to use, or you’ll miss too many spaces, a comma where there shouldn’t be one, or even worse, you’ll transpose characters in dialogue. Reading over these elements after having just completed your story is like correcting your taxes. Everything looks great from a few feet away. You’ve read and reworked it so much you no longer notice the little things. It’s fine when, on page 3, John says, “My breasts are sagging” because you’ve read it so many times you automatically insert Jill. It takes an extremely rare and talented editor to switch from writing-mode to editing-mode.
To cope, you need to plan your writing a bit better. If that writing contest is in thirty days, give yourself no more than twenty to finish your story, and eight to send it out for friends to read, comment, and edit. Realistically I don’t think anybody should be writing to target a given contest. I think it’s highly likely you’ll fail. It’s far better if you have something recently completed that you can just quick-edit and submit. And if you’re writing to hit a submission deadline, likewise give yourself time. Better to skip the contest or submission altogether and try next year. You’re less likely to make mistakes.
Someone once told me that stories need to simmer. You should write them, then put them away and work on something else. Come back to that first story after you’ve given yourself enough time apart so that it feels fresh. Read it like it’s the first time you’ve ever read it, and your edits may surprise you. As an author, you clearly know what you want when you’re writing, but as a reader it’s too often we have no idea what the writer was trying to say. Those are the kinds of things you catch in a good editing session.
Now that we’ve gotten the structure out of the way, let’s talk about the other things. The “given” recommendations that get re-printed everywhere, but nobody reads them. I’ll try to keep this entertaining:
- Stick to double-spaced, Times New Roman 12-pitch, 1″ margins. Everyone in the universe accepts this, and if a journal doesn’t, it’s probably because they want it in a different language like Swahili. Did you write it in Swahili? No? Then skip that submission. If you insist on using a different font, stick to the classics – things that tend to look decent at .12 on any monitor (because just about everybody is reading on a monitor/ipad/phone nowadays), things like Arial or verdana. DO NOT use a cursive font because you think it looks cool, or a gothic font because it gives your story depth. It doesn’t. It makes it hard to read.
- DO NOT change the color of your submission. If it’s a print submission, use white paper. If it’s electronic, do not add a watermark or adjust the page to a different color. The mauve background doesn’t help convey a mood to your story, it’s more likely to make someone stop reading it. And Mauve sends me into nerd rage.
- Center the title. THAT’S IT! Make it bold if you want. Maybe make it ALL CAPS. But DO NOT under any circumstances make your title FULL SCREEN 20-POINT FONT. It does not look awesome. It looks like that high school football player who’s now pudgy and balding and still thinks he can throw a ball. The guy who screams for attention at every party where there’s any outdoor activity. “DUDE! LOOK AT ME, BRO! CHECK THIS OUT!” Do not be that guy.
- Maintain standard paragraph indents. When your manuscript has a few double-indents, or no indents, it looks sloppy because it’s something mind-numbingly easy to see, and really you should’ve caught it on edit. I’m a computer engineer by day, and nothing makes me slip into RAGEMODE more than editing some script where the developer didn’t use the tab key. Try searching through thousands of lines for the one you want to edit when they’re all bunched up on the left side of the screen like a traffic accident.
- Some will argue for two-spaces after a sentence, or just one. I’ve gotten myself in the habit of just one, and most print journals stick to that format. However, if you’re old-school and prefer two spaces, you can probably get away with it. Just be consistent. Trust me, it’s noticeable when you slip up. Can’t tell yourself? Switch Word (assuming you’re using Word) to edit mode. On the Home tab, click the funky little paragraph icon next to the style block. You’ll see either one small dot between sentences, or two. You’ll also see a whole host of other marks. My wife calls this “Headache Mode”. Do not write in headache mode…
- You (should’ve) learned language, and your writing lexicon should include some clever phrasing and synonyms. There’s absolutely no reason to use the absolutely same word in the same sentence without absolutely finding an alternative. If you’re shift-F7’ing your way through your prose, you’re probably doing something wrong. Don’t rely on a thesaurus, rely on a rewrite. Split the sentence up, phrase it differently. Use words that are impactful but precise and are rarely repeated.
- OK, this is a nit-pick mustard comment, but I really hate stories that start in dialogue. They rarely work for me, even published ones, even famous published ones. Here’s my logic: you’ve started in the middle, and right away you have to yank the reader back so you can explain what the hell is going on. It’s like tuning in to a TV show already in progress. Opening with the line: “Somebody set up us the bomb!” may draw out a moment of dramatic tension, but when you have to devolve the entire first page into who these people are and why they’re getting set up the bomb, then you have a problem. Perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen bad dialogue from a poorly translated Nintendo game, but the point stands. When you start with dialogue, you’re robbing your reader from any dramatic tension that would’ve evolved naturally in the course of your story. If you set the scene first before anyone actually speaks, you give the reader a hook to hang the emotional weight of being set up the bomb. Or something like that.
- Learn how to use Submittable (formerly submishmash). You’re probably going to be using it quite a bit in the future. Submittable is available as a centralized service (which is nice, because you can see all of your submissions in one place on one screen, and line all your rejections up in a neat little column). Alternately, many journals and universities are running their own licensed submittable system (or are using something very similar). Submitting through an online service like this should tell you a few things: First, that your submission is very likely to be read on someone’s computer screen. And second, that (usually) the readers and editors are technically savvy and will spot your inconsistencies a mile away. Nearly all versions of submittable accept three formats for your prose or poetry: Microsoft .doc files, Microsoft .docx, or .txt – if you’re not using word, DO NOT save in PDF or Ami Pro or Wordperfect or whatever. Just about every word processing package today allows you to save in .doc format. If you can’t figure it out, google it. Save your stuff in .doc, upload in .doc. Make everyone’s life easier.
Third Person – Perspective where the narrator is an unknown entity and the characters are referred to as “He” or “She” or “they”.
Close Third – Third person narrative focused on the perspective of a single character
Omniscient Third – Third person where the narrator is god-like and provides exposition and viewpoints the characters couldn’t possibly know
Impotent Third – sexually frustrated narrative
Turd Person – Fecal-focused narration
Avatar had a bland (at best) story, but was packed with enough special effects and eye candy to keep you rooted to your seat. OK, I admit I was trying to find all the scenes with blue alien boobs. 3D films aren’t exactly new to Hollywood, and even though they’re catching on, I doubt anyone will intentionally make an award winning masterpiece in 3D unless it has elves, robots, and/or blue alien boobs. It’s a gimmick, and the jury is still debating whether an extra dimension truly improves a film. It didn’t help Prometheus from becoming a beautiful but vapid film. And yet I confess I’m a sucker for technology. You could put the Home Shopping network in 3D and I’d watch. I’d be bored, but that 16-piece knife set is sticking right out at me!
Fiction is now available complete with companion CD’s of music you should listen to with each chapter. Some e-books are stocked full of pictures and video clips. Online novels exploit all sorts of features to tell the story. You can find animated e-books that bleed words onto the page, books entirely in html, books written on twitter, the list goes on. If there’s a way to add technology to prose, it’s been done, or soon will be. In some circumstances, leveraging technology makes complete sense. I love some of the new digital magazines; tapping a page to animate a picture or visit a link with more info offers a fantastic user experience. Take that, Johann Gutenberg! A cookbook where I can see a short video could help my cooking, though I’m still likely to burn the soufflé. There are new media novels so complex they have an entire cast of producers aside from a traditional story author.
Examine the graphic novel as a natural comparison. Using visualization, the author and artist work to enrich a story by bringing us details that might be a bit unwieldy if conveyed solely in prose. It’s not as if Batman has an overly complex plot – villain comes, batman punches him, Gotham is saved. But examine some of the more intricate stories like Arkham Asylum that delve into the heroes psyche. The art enhances the story by bringing the reader further into the experience. Graphic novels, even newer digital variants, embrace the essential form of author and artist telling a story, and the story is paramount.
With new media prose, it seems as if we’re aiming for something more. There’s a fundamental need to create that underlies the foundation of everyone with an artistic nature, which is how artists can build a career out of trash. But isn’t it all just a gimmick? With fiction, in any format, story is essential. You can add a soundtrack, HTML-5 rich visual presentation with fluid animations to flesh out your story, but if you can’t include basic story elements, you’ve failed. At the end of the day, no matter what media you choose to work in, story is essential. Characters are paramount. Plot pulls in your audience.
Regardless of what you write, or what hooks you use to pull in your audience, if the story isn’t something that can be explained with an elevator pitch, if the characters aren’t identifiable and realistic, then you’ve failed as an author to create a living work of fiction. All the flash and glam in the world can’t save your work. Though you could try adding some blue alien boobs. It may not help, but it couldn’t hurt.
When Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press he gave birth to the publishing industry. Later that day, a used bookstore opened. Before Guttenberg, books were copied by hand and copyright lawyers had an incredibly difficult time finding clients. While tedious, manual copying produced some benefits. Transcribers could act as editors. A 12th century “Fifty Shades of Gray” could’ve been shaped into a coherent story.
Media industries (film, television, music, video games, and publishing) have long rallied against used media. With the sale of used media, the content creators – the artists, developers, publishers – receive nothing. Large media corporations are always looking for a way to keep consumers from re-selling content. Anybody remember Flexplay? Automatically expiring DVD’s that would last for a few days, but would cost the same as regular DVD’s. Luckily the idea died before it could take hold. Macrovision, the encryption used on most VHS cassettes to prevent copying, didn’t play well with some TV’s and stereo systems, displaying a black or off-color screen every few seconds. They’re still around – as Rovi – encrypting DVD’s and blu-ray disks. Thankfully, TV’s have gotten smarter so we don’t have the old display problems. Then again, a dark frame every few seconds might improve the Twilight movies.
As profit margins shrink and publishing becomes more expensive, it stands to reason that publishers will be looking for ways to keep the bottom line in the black. What better way than to curb sales of used books?
The video game industry serves as a barometer for used content out of control. An average new game is $60. Within a few weeks, the price drops by $10 or $20. Retail outlets like GameStop are almost entirely focused on used sales, to the point where sales staff are encouraged to offer cheaper “near new” alternatives while offering to buy back used games. The arrangement is good for the consumer, but costs the developers a sale. Game development for big titles runs between 20-100 million dollars, and profit losses for used sales add up quickly. Developers and console manufacturers are desperate to stop used games from impacting their business, and have turned to a combination of digital download sales and packaged registration codes. These registration codes unlock content such as online multiplayer or extra levels. Once the code is used, it’s deader than Courtney Love’s career. For those who buy used titles, this means shelling out additional money to buy a new code to use content that should’ve been packed in with the game.
The publishing industry isn’t all that different. A new hardcover title retails for around $28. Wait a few weeks and you’ll find the used copy for half that on Amazon or at your local used book store. Discount outlets have long threatened book sales, but used books have a far greater impact. Imagine if publishers withheld the last chapter in a book, forcing readers of used books to buy that chapter back from the publisher.
Americans have long held to the doctrine of first sale. You buy something, it’s yours to do with as you please. Should you choose to rub peanut-butter between the pages of For Whom The Bell Tolls, that’s your call. Nobody’s going to stop you. If you choose to sell your used books, go right ahead. Digital content, however, has complicated everything. Kindle and Nook titles are tied to your account, and while you can switch between devices, you can’t resell a used digital book.
Digital distribution isn’t the future, it’s the now. The true value in digital content rests in the doctrine of licensing. You’re not buying a copy of , you’re paying for the right to use it, read it, listen to it. Corporate control becomes far easier. Digital rights end up harming the customer. It’s not a complete loss; we have more outlets and faster delivery of content. I can start reading a new book seconds after the publishing date hits by downloading it to my Kindle or Nook or iPad. I just can’t re-sell it.
While the next Playstation and XBox consoles haven’t been officially announced, the rumor mill is churning with theories. Chief among them is content protection. The Playstation 4 is rumored to have RFID tags on disks that lock games to consoles. Used games simply won’t work. The next XBox is rumored to install all games and lock them to the console. You buy a game, install it, and the disk is dead. If these rumors are true, game publishers and console manufacturers stand to see a huge boost in long-term sales while the used game industry will collapse. Putting more money into developer hands isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what about the end user? Used game sales help drive down the price of new titles. What incentive do developers have to drop the price if there’s no used market to compete with?
If Sony and Microsoft move forward with their plans, other content industries could follow. Movies and TV are streaming more frequently and physical disks are becoming a rarity. With digital content, we’re trading flexibility for convenience. While Amazon is experimenting with shared content – library book rentals and trading between kindle readers, and the much rumored Used Kindle store may even come to life this year – the publishing industry may have a few things to say about that.
As a consumer, I want to be able to sell books that suck and movies I no longer watch. As an author, I’d like to get paid when my stories are enjoyed. We live in a capitalist world. If nobody pays the artist, nobody creates art. There has to be parity somewhere. I’m just not sure I want Redmond and Tokyo deciding for me.