Writing Interactive Fiction in 5000 Words (or Fewer!)

2018-07-31 · by Stewart C Baker
tagged Blog / Tutorials

One of the things we often hear submitters to sub-Q mention is how challenging it is to write a piece of interactive fiction that fits within our 5000-word limit.

And that makes sense. With the possibility for word-bloat that IF’s branching narratives and variables introduce, telling a story in such a small space can be a challenge. Happily, it can be overcome!

Here are six ideas to explore the next time you sit down to write short IF:

  • Delayed Branching – Branching, or letting the reader’s choices affect the progression of the narrative, can add a lot of words to a piece of IF. Beyond the need to write additional, alternative versions of scenes, branching adds a lot of complexity elsewhere as well. If you are telling a branching narrative, consider using delayed branching, where a reader’s choice affects a variable which does not come into play until later in the story. Dan Fabulich of Choice of Games has a great description of how delayed branching can make interactive storytelling more effective and enjoyable.

  • Non-narrative Storytelling – Although many pieces of IF follow what might be termed a traditional story structure, there’s no reason this has to be true. Break out of that beginning-middle-end! Try a circular narrative. Give the reader multiple entry points. Innovate! What do you really need to tell a story? What can you do without? Hannah Powell-Smith’s eerie “Nine Moments in Fairyland” is a perfect example.

  • Procedural Text GenerationEmily Short has a lengthy post on the various ways IF can or could use this technique.

  • Break Out the Parser – We love Twine as much as the next person, but its hypertext base means that authors often stick to more traditional styles of storytelling, describing every action characters take to move the plot along. With Inform or another parser-based language, you can have readers provide the actions themselves, freeing up words for you to use elsewhere. And parser-based doesn’t have to mean Adventure-style exploration, either — check out Caleb Wilson’s trippy, mind-blowing “Lime Ergot”.

  • Scale Back – Everyone loves an open world with epic scope and universe-shattering stakes, but that kind of story needs a lot of room. And there are other types of story that can be just as satisfying. In fact, the way IF relies on the reader’s agency to make decisions means that even small decisions can carry a lot of weight — both for the reader and for your story’s characters.

  • Constrain Your Readers Scope isn’t the only way you can keep your audience engaged in the story you’re telling. Interactive Fiction comes with any number of ways to keep your readers focused and ready to act. For example, a timer can compel them to move through scenes without dithering, or can force them to really examine choices they make by limiting the number.  JY Yang’s powerful “Before the Storm Hits” does this very well indeed.
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