Incredibly Cool Site for Writers…

Here we have fictional characters from various famous novels rendered pictorally by police artists.

Published in: on February 17, 2012 at 9:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Freytag’s Technique of the Drama (and AutoBlurb, live)

This is such a great book I’ll squeeze it in here, sideways.

Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama is a long, older book that’s available online. A very useful, insightful, and overlooked book.

Freytag says that the dramatic is not emotion and not action, but it is emotion conjoined with action; it is action that is undertaken for emotional reasons. (Shades of Foster-Harris, but with a different palette.) He says drama is composed of play and counter-play: the play is what the hero does and the counter-play is what is done that has an effect on his psyche. He argues that the tragic should be an essentially ethical force which the hero must fulfill (again the resonance with F-H).

He breaks drama into five parts, with three crises joining them. The five parts are the introduction, the rise, the climax, the fall, and the catastrophe. (He only deals in the tragic; no happy endings here.) The three crises are the exciting moment (or exciting force), the tragic moment (or force), and the moment (or force) of last suspense.

He goes through Romeo and Juliette to show how to use minor characters like chess pieces to push around the major characters and make things happen. Indeed, he steps through the process of making a germ of an idea into an entire work — not formulaically, but nevertheless with an eye to the practical and useful.

There’s a slightly typoed pdf of his book here. You can get image-only scans online quite easily.

(That link broke somehow.  It’s fixed now.  I guess I can’t link directly to the pdf.  But the pdf is available for free download on the newly-linked page.)

Meanwhile, AutoBlurb is live and online! You can get completely fresh, random plots generated by clicking these links: Here for classic Polti plots, or here for Polti plots souped up with sci-fi contexts taken from S. John Ross’s Big List of RPG Plots.

Note:  AutoBlurb online does all kinds of weird things with punctuation.  I don’t know why; I don’t have ready access to the online version to streamline the generator file.  These formatting troubles don’t show up if you use the desktop program.

Published in: on November 17, 2009 at 8:34 am  Comments (1)  
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Why not modals? – Toward Ron Newcomb

Ron Newcomb advocates using modals in his recent blog post.  And I agree, we should use modals in IF.  And I thing we would use them if we could easily.

So I think we should ask, what would be needed for us to use modals?

Ron uses the analogy of strategy games like chess to motivate his arguement.  Just as players in chess have plans and intentions, so NPC intentions could be queried in-game by the use of modal sentences.

My reply to Ron is that, I think that’s great, but it’s really not about modals.

In order for this kind of thing to even be an option, you *first* need to have a strategy game with well-defined rules.  That means the game must have a logical space which the NPCs can make moves in.  They must be able to sort for contingencies, in much the same way a chess program sorts for contingencies.

Really, that’s the challenge:  making that happen in a way that’s still story-like.  We will return to the “story-like” question in a moment.

As I currently see it, the programming end would require:

  • A sufficiently deeply-implemented simulator, to act as the “board” of the board game.
  • NPCs must be able to evaluate the board for value.  (This would be tied in to the NPCs goals.)
  • NPCs must have a menu of options which will change the board status.

–Now, I’ve said in the past that it would be fascinating to implement a minimal dungeon with a few locked doors and thorough attention to NPC verbs, that allows the NPCs to “play” the game ahead, in simulation, a few moves.  In other words, in this simple proof-0f-concept game, the NPCs would use the game engine itself to look into the future.

In other words, they would be omniscient and, for a move or two, prescient.

A year or so ago, Emily Short burst my bubble by pointing out that, to *really* get this to work, with every NPC having its own understanding of the game-board, you’d have to model the entire game once per NPC.  And, you’d have to model each NPC once for every other NPC…

However, I don’t see that as the real problem in creating deeper NPCs.  The real problem is simpler:

In general, we don’t understand human emotionality well enough to create NPCs that react to the simulator in emotionally salient ways.  So creating believable NPCs isn’t something we know how to tackle; and believable NPCs is a prerequisite to narrative.

But, we can probably fake it.  The Sims [TM] is a game that does not offer believable NPCs, but they are, apparently, “believable.” — People get sucked in.  In general, it seems a little bit of emotional salience goes a long way.  The lesson of the Sims ought to be that we don’t need to get a perfect portrayal of the human animal to make a good game.

(The reason the Sims is not a text game is that the graphics go a long way to sell the “humanity” of the NPCs:  another, less welcomed, lesson.)

I’m currently working on developing (in TADS 3) some interactive creatures.  Currently, I’m only to the point where they can find paths through an arbitrary map — provided the map has no one-way connectors.  Soon they’ll be able to wander on an invisible tether, respond to hunger, and chase and flee each other.

I’m thinking this could be useful in two ways:  one, to create a social backdrop against which the gameplay could happen; and two, to make the map more easily dynamic.  On this second point, for example, perhaps you couldn’t rummage through Lord Winston’s closet when the servant is around, but if you use a sausage to lure the hounds into the house, she’s too preoccupied to worry about you.

This is currently doable, of course, but having a set of general tools I think would make designing these dynamic, social puzzles easier.  You would no longer program a series of flags and state changes, but a set of behaviors.

Creating NPCs that strategically pursue emotionally salient goals is a long way off, but creating instinctively driven NPCs, that can learn where the food is, behave territorially, and dynamically make friends and enemies seems a first step.

Published in: on November 7, 2009 at 10:25 am  Comments (7)  
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Free ebook – Emotional Logic, by Aristotle

We’ve been talking about emotions a great deal, but it’s all been about using emotion to write powerful stories.  We haven’t said much about how emotion works.  Let’s remedy that.

I have for you here a classic work on emotion, by Aristotle.  It’s part of a larger work, which you may have heard of, called The Rhetoric.

Aristotle was a greatly practical-minded guy, and human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the past 2,300 years.  Definitely worth a read.

Here’s Aristotle on Emotional Logic.

ps – Also, you’ll notice I’ve conveniently added an item, “resources,” to the sidebar, where you’ll find this and any other ebooks I may add.

Published in: on June 26, 2009 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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the battle of wills and interiority

This blog has given such an emphasis to pulp that I think it’s time to look at good writing.  Studying pulp is fine for examining the “minimal standards” of fiction, especially because it has clear rules.  But good writing doesn’t have a formula you can follow.

With no formula to examine, let’s take a look at a piece of good writing — in this case, a play-made-movie.

One of the things narrative can deliver, which really can’t be found in non-narrative art forms, is compelling representations of the battle of wills.  There are a lot of different kinds of moves that people resort to in interaction, and battles of wills are interesting because, as the stakes are raised, the characters push themselves to the limits of their resourcefulness. (more…)

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 6:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Deeper IF Characters with the F-H System

We’ve considered the F-H system of characterization, with one blog post on theory and strategies, and one on techniques and implementation.  The goal now will be to re-work these techniques for IF, making them suitable for the existing technology, and not reliant on tricky AI.  I’m all for tricky AI, but I can’t do it myself.

The broader purpose in doing this is to see how we can make NPCs that live up to at least the minimal standards set by pulp literature.  Since we know that much of pulp is pretty bad, and yet many people do consume it and, like fast-food, find it satisfying, we can infer there’s something in the pulp formula which over-rides the frequent overall badness of the writing.  By including this element in our games, along with good writing and game design, we can enrich our player’s game experience.

The F-H principles of characterization are:  create characters through emotional conflict; maximize that conflict by making the hero 49% evil, and the villian 49% good; portray characters with conflicting qualities, such as strength and weakness, or wisdom and folly; and write characters with physical and behavioral tags for those qualities, as a way of keeping on-message.  The overall idea is to foster inner emotional conflict about future events in the narrative.  Now let’s apply this to IF. (more…)

Conveying Character with the F-H System

In the previous post, we saw that to make characters with the F-H system, we need to show characters undergoing a conflict between two emotions; and that, to make the conflict a strong one, the hero should be 49% evil, and the villian 49% good.  The character will be evil or good in ways relevant to your particular plot, and the emotional problem it poses.

Characterize With Opposing Qualities

Now, this reflects the way Foster-Harris tells us to create characters generally:  in opposing qualities.  If we are talking about a character who is strong, it is necessary to mention ways he is weak.  If we are talking about the ways a character is wise, we must mention ways she is foolish.  And so also for nice-mean, smart-stupid, religious-sinful, charitable-thrifty, and so on. (more…)

Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 8:56 pm  Comments (2)  
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Creating Character with the F-H System

The F-H system, if you’re just tuning in, is a system for creating popular fiction.  It was made in the 40’s by a writing instructon named Foster-Harris.  Some of the instruction is geared to an older style of writing, but much of it is still valuable.  It’s overlooked and out of print, but I’ll be going through it thoroughly on this blog.  See that? — Free writing course.

The F-H  standard appears to be the minimum necessary requirement for a work to qualify as a story.  And it seems that, if you follow this system, you will reliably create a story.  Might not be a good one, but it won’t be something else masquerading as a story.  That’s what the F-H system is about — getting the minimum requirements.

Conflict Creates Character

We create character in the F-H system the same way we create plot:  through conflict.  The emotional conflict which generates the story must live in the central character, and make the big decision seemingly impossible.  The more conflicted the character is, the more real he seems to the audience.


Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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