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Points of light, pools of shadow (part II)

By Alexis Kennedy, June 30, 2011 · Tagged with

[Continuing the discussion of writing style in Echo Bazaar. Part I is here.]

Rule four is a familiar one: use simple vocabulary. Says rather than utters. Shouts, not vociferises. Argues instead of expostulates. These will give you prose that doesn’t obscure what it’s supposed to convey. A transparent medium for storytelling. This is an interesting one for us, because of our setting. We use simple English, but we want to create a strong sense of the Victorian. And if you look at how Victorians wrote – well, they didn’t really go for simple. The general perception of Victorian prose:  baroque sentence structures containing arcanely nested Latinate clauses larded with insanely formal subjunctives and elaborately ornate vocabulary – is pretty accurate. But if Echo Bazaar were written that way, it would be unplayable. Even if it were written like the most readable of Victorian novelists, the Brontës or Dickens, say, it wouldn’t work as an interactive narrative. The style would be too opaque.

So we pastiche. And in fact, what we’re pastiching isn’t Victorian writing – rather, it’s a modern-ish style that evokes a Victorian aesthetic that we all understand because we’re complicit in constructing the modern idea of ‘the Victorian’. Think Charles Palliser, Michel Faber or Michael Cox writing their literary reactions to and reinterpretations of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It’s these guys that we’re pastiching. Another layer of intertext, if you like to partake of that kind of thing.

So we use simple English – and we add a few twists. We use spellings like ‘eery’ – sparingly. We scatter the stage with Victorian whatnots – hansom cabs, cruet sets, tallboys and so forth. There’s lots of coal and gaslight. Simple structures with just enough interesting words are generically consistent with the texts we’re most closely related to – and thus the texts they’re most closely related to. These words make up a shorthand that creates atmosphere, whether it’s through a specific reference (like the word mezzotint, which has Victorian connotations in itself and is also evocative of MR James’s famous story***) or a detail like a ticking grandfather clock or a dusty velvet curtain that raises a squadron of ghosts from both literature and TV drama. Everyone’s memories of sombre clocks and heavy velvet curtains will be different, but they’re all in the same ballpark, similar enough at any rate for the words to work in context, like the brandy glass example above. They can carry a whole atmosphere by themselves.

Rule five is well-known: show, don’t tell. There are places for exposition, but not many. Knowing where they are is an art in itself. Fair enough. Everyone knows that. But the particular aspect that affects us the most is dialogue. Sooner or later, some non-player character is going to have to tell the player a bit of backstory, especially in the Ambitions. And we’re wary of dialogue. We (almost) never put words directly into the player’s mouth. It feels like a gross wresting away of control, especially as so many people wish to role-play in Fallen London. On the very rare occasion we have done, it’s been deliberate, to produce an extraordinary effect.

NPC dialogue, on the other hand, is a vauable part of the game. A bit of backstory is often much more interesting and natural if it comes directly from an NPC. We can make them unreliable, we can make them drunk, we can suggest that they might have hidden motives. Most importantly, we can be ambivalent about what’s going on. Sure, these effects can be conveyed by reported speech too, but there’s a lot more we can do with direct speech to suggest ambiguities rather than spell them out. We want you to interpret characters’ motivations rather than offer you possible explanations.

Keeping continuity fluid and ambiguous is central to rule five. A character can say something like ‘Whatever happened between us in the past, business is business’ or ‘Perhaps you have already met so-and-so? Even if you have, I must remind you…’ This allows continuity within storylines in which the player may have chosen between betraying or saving someone, for example, and it safeguards the non-linearity of the narrative. It respects the different choices that each player has made to reach this point.

Planning choices within common themes serves Echo Bazaar’s peculiar continuity as well. For example, all ships are steam-powered. This means we can write stories that work for more than one type of ship. Which means more stories for everyone, no matter which ship you have. Some are still going to be ship-specific, but these can then serve another narrative purpose.  Of course, all ships have to be steam-powered because the Unterzee is an underground lake, and the only winds are unpredictable and possibly not real. So in this case, keeping continuity intact with aspects of the world that were decided ages ago also serves to facilitate the writing of future content. Which is pleasing.

NPCs’ names are also worth mentioning here. We give a lot of characters ‘generic’ names – the Scarred Naturalist, the Implacable Detective – for the same reasons. Characters without individual names are more universal, less specific, less prone to continuity problems. It’s more believable and immersive to have each player encounter their ‘own’ Keen-eyed Lapidary.We have a scale by which some are more generic than others, of course – some don’t even get definite articles. A Swivel-Eyed Patriot you encounter could be one of many similar characters; it’s just your bad luck that all of them happen to be engaged in ranting against the Empress. The Implacable Detective is less mutable – there’s a strong sense that there’s only one of her, but she has a tangential, facilitative function. She brings stories to you, rather than takes part in them. Characters like the Quiet Deviless have become strongly defined individuals in their own right, but it’s still possible that each player could be seducing a different individual. At the far end of the scale, we do name characters who are a definite and individual part of the world – Mrs Plenty, Sinning Jenny, Dr Schlomo. There’s a special grey area just before them for peripheral individuals who form part of the world, but haven’t – as yet – played major roles, and these are characters like the Captivating Princess, the Traitor Empress and His Amused Lordship. Sometimes, we wish we had given them names when their roles grow. Sometimes, we’re very glad we didn’t. It’s not an exact science. So why, I hear you cry,  do all the members of the Glass and Shroud have individual names, then? Two reasons. There are so many of them crammed into Mahogany Hall, it’s much easier to relate to Jonesion or Philonous than it would be to an array of Cynical Mesmerists and Top-hatted Illusionists. And secondly, they’re magicians. The rules don’t apply to them.

Everyone’s final rule is ours too: know when to break the rules. Throw simple vocabulary into relief sometimes when an obscure, gorgeous, sesquipedalian word is the right one for the scene. Spend an extra sentence or two on description when the scene gains something meaningful from it. Give Mrs Plenty a speech just because she’s funny. And if you spot a passive verb in the text – it’s there because someone felt it was important enough to argue for. Well, usually.

***Crucially, the evocation works even if you don’t really know what a mezzotint is. Context will tell you it’s a type of art and you don’t need to know the details of Victorian printmaking techniques. But if you do know, that’s an extra layer on the word. Similarly, if you’ve never heard of MR James, it doesn’t matter in the least; but if you have, and you recognise the word mezzotint as a marker of the kind of ghost story that layers unreliable narrator over unreliable narrator, it may bring something extra to the text for you – a hint about the gentleman offering to sell you said engraving, maybe. Again, this is a process that happens in all writing – but we try to ensure we use it to enhance the interactivity of our content.

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~autolycus Jul 2, 9:27pm

You continue to be fascinating. And probably, delicious.