Nate Graves — October 14, 2012
>>> The Preramble
Sometimes people ask me about my writing process, what I do, where my ideas come from, etc. It isn’t often, thankfully, as I’m not a big fan of the topic. I think the writing process rates a couple notches below watching paint dry in terms of interesting activities to observe, but I suppose it deserves an answer and hell, it doesn’t hurt anything to yammer semi-coherently about what goes on before you get the finished product. So I’ll cover a few bits and pieces as I work.
I’ll tell you first and foremost that I really don’t have a consistent process. Most of what I do involves staring at a blank document until I can find a way to start putting down words. Then I delete most of it and start over. Almost anything you ever might have read by me starts like that, it’s a bit like stretching before a run.
>>> The Meat (Potatoes Optional)
Pure dialogue, as in Aeternum’s case, is a bit different. It’s honestly a lot more difficult than scripting in the traditional sense (let alone full narrative) because nearly everything has to be conveyed through text. There are no movement or placement cues, no storyboarding. At some point, all of the art will be implemented, along with changeable facial expressions and that’ll be fun to play around with, but for now, there’s only ideas and sprites.
Now, just because those things aren’t there for you (the gaming audience) to see doesn’t mean they aren’t important. The first step for me in putting dialogue out there is knowing who I’m writing it for. That means an age, a background, class, personality, race, motivation, passions, etc. The surest way to write dialogue with no soul is forgetting to create one first. Every area, character and enemy sprite in the game, no matter how momentary or transient they are, has a story behind it, a reason for their presence.
Granted, Brooks and I have different reasons for their inceptions and we have to feed off each other to this end. He makes up a sprite or an incident and I have to explain it, or I make up a character and he sprites it and does the art. Which isn’t to imply I do all the explaining: Brooks came up with the concept and most of the characters. He just happened to let me play with them. His side of the equation involves way more work than mine does too, but I’m utterly bereft of artistic talent and have no idea how to make sprites. It makes for some truly fun collaborative effort though. I’ve almost always found that working with other people results in more interesting characters, situations and errata than sitting alone in a room and wracking your brain to produce something in a vacuum.
Back to the characters though – there isn’t a set category to start when it comes to their creation or fleshing out. Sometimes it’s just a simple archetype or as basic as “Demon Hall Monitor” and then other ideas come from there. Once I have a good idea what the base that makes up the personality is, it’s not a huge leap to start developing how they speak.
The fun part about this versus regular narrative is that if I want to make some fairly substantial changes to the way a character’s dialogue comes across, it’s fairly easy to edit. Archibald (Aeternum’s resident squid groundskeeper and wrangler of cats) went through several different iterations, from a mute that people mysteriously understand, to unintelligible nonsense coupled with overly formal and polite mannerisms. Maybe if we’d given him a top hat and a monocle…
In my mind, developing a good speech pattern is twice as important when it comes to reading dialogue. It gives you a mental rhythm for the voice, associations based on how you hear it in your mind (which I can only try to predict), all of which are important in conveying the way a character “feels.” Yes, you create characters, but in a sense you also have to learn who they are. If you’re able to nail all those things down, congratulations: you’ve done most of the hard work. After that, it’s just a matter of figuring out how the conversation starts and where it eventually needs to go. Everything in-between is, as crazy as it might sounds, just a matter of letting the characters talk to each other. I get in the mind-set of each participant and just let myself hear their responses.
That’s the bulk of the work done. After that it’s editing/pruning and rewrites which is so contextual, I’m not sure what else to say about it other than I love agonizing over comma usage.
It’s impossible to cover everything that goes into putting things together (for reasons mentioned above), but I hope it’s worth reading a bit of what goes into the process for now. I’ll deal with more of the technical aspects next time around.