Writing Adaptive Fiction

MCMThursday, June 18, 2009

Writing adaptive fiction like Fission Chips isn't just about the basic mechanics of users voting on plot developments. There's an interesting philosophy to writing adaptive fiction, which is a lot different than what you might expect. So for any of you that might be thinking of starting your own, here's a handy guide:

Concurrent Realities

Do you ever have the feeling that the world is kinda going on without you? That you're not making much of an impact? That you're not, in fact, the centre of the universe? Me neither, but I hear it happens to commoners. But the idea that you're missing out on the most interesting event of your life? It might very well be true. You could be missing something amazing right now, just because you're reading this.

Adaptive fiction works on the same theory. When you join your character in the first chapter, there are several distinct plots already at play, all initiated before your first sentence, and each with their own timeline. In your typical story, the author would weave the hero through these threads, trying to pull them together in a pleasing way. But in this case, the path chosen by the hero is the one chosen by the audience, so there's no guarantee you'll interact with all the storylines at all. That would be mind-blowing boring, so you need to plan to avoid it.

Structure For All Eventualities

You've given your hero a sandbox world to play in, and you have to give him enough conflict to keep him busy. Leave developing new plots too late, and you risk having threads dangling uselessly at the end of the story. Make the plots too complex, and your audience will never find their way through. Make them too simple or over-connected, and they'll figure it all in the first five chapters and leave you with nothing to do. You need to make sure to strike the right balance.

Define three or four main plots, each with a strong conflict that relates to your character (even if peripherally). In Fission Chips, we have the mob thread, the missing engineer thread, the murder thread, and apparently a bundt cake thread. In each one of those, you need someone to be actively trying to obscure the truth. You'll also want to ensure there is at least one sub-thread for each plot, where the hero could get confused into thinking they'd resolving things, without getting to the real meat. You want your audience to have a feeling of accomplishment when they crack a plot, but you don't want them to race through your story too fast. Let them leave with the job half-done, and make them double back later to finish it off.

Schedule Your Anarchy

Schedules are the only thing that will keep you sane. Let's take the mob thread from Fission Chips as our example: Jimmy Scaz visited Gare first thing in the morning, and we know he's coming back at noon to collect his money. But did you know that choosing to have Gare get drunk after his car explodes, the audience narrowly avoided a second run-in with the mob? If they hadn't been so intent on beer, the story would have taken a very different turn. And Jimmy Scaz might not have ended up being in such a bad mood, which will only get worse by the time he visits the office at noon.

Your plots need to move at their own speed, and definitely not wait for the hero to participate. If one of your plots involves ditching a body, it's unrealistic for the characters involved to wait until they can be discovered. They've got a window of opportunity, and they have to take it. If the audience directs the hero to miss the body-ditching entirely, they'll be playing catch-up later, but that's not your problem (and certainly not a concern for your characters). Write up a schedule. A detailed schedule, with places and times and characters, and stick to it. Your hero might accidentally catch sight of another plot while off on a tangent, or he might not... but you'll never know unless you can say what's going on around your story without relying on "wouldn't it be cool if...?"

Adapt to Changes

That said, you need to accept that your schedule is going to change. If your hero is hanging around the body-dumping site for three chapters, your characters are obviously going to avoid showing up. They'll have to figure out an alternative, which may complicate the rest of their plot. That's why it's probably best that your characters have other scheduled events out of their control that they have to meet... let's say that after dumping the body, your baddies need to get to a dentist appointment at two o'clock. If their plans are messed up, they need to have pressure to act rashly, or you could easily end up with a stalled plot.

At the same time, you should try and keep things a little unpredictable. For Fission Chips, I have Tim Sevenhuysen as my antagonizer. He's familiar with all the plots, and he knows what the characters are trying to achieve. If Gare gets too close solving a particular plot, Tim's job is to re-define what the characters will do to cover things up. It means your clues may end up useless, but at least you won't be left wondering why the bad guys were so two-dimensional. They react.

Of course, every time you have a major adaptation, you're going to want to adjust your schedule to reflect it. The more "pinned" events you have in a plot, the easier this will be. But eventually, you have to expect your entirely schedule will be distorted beyond recognition by the actions taken by the audience and the antagonists. This is called "life".

Make the Most of Every Decision

This is one thing I screwed up with the whole "get drunk" sequence in Fission Chips: never let your hero waste time, even if you were explicitly told to. If your hero is a reluctant hero, make sure the plot is ready to chase him down and drag him back. Especially in the early chapters, your audience wants to feel like they're making progress with whatever mysteries you've set up. A good way to work around this issue is to make one of the plots have a tag-along character that pulls your hero along whether he likes it or not. That way, if your audience says "go to the park and think for an hour", you have someone that can interrupt it and pull you back towards the action.

Have Fun

More than anything else, you need to enjoy what you've set up. The intense planning that starts a work of adaptive fiction can be daunting, and being chained to your outline can be exhausting. But if you look at it as a chore, it'll show in your writing. Think of it as a challenge! It's like improv in prose... you're given the elements of a scene, and you need to make it work somehow. It's not always easy, but it's never going to be boring.

If you want to see one in action, Fission Chips is still just getting started. And with this new appreciation of how it works, maybe you'll have your own crazy ideas of where to send Gare next! Mess up my schedule! I dare you!

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