This final post sharing the Failbetter writers’ guide discusses writing prose for Fallen London. This guidance helps establish a consistent tone and quality, and discusses particular techniques we’ve learned to favour or avoid.
Previous posts on this theme are here: Writer Guidelines (internal process for pitching and creating content) and Designing for Fallen London.
Writing for Fallen London
- Root descriptions should not go longer than 30 words.
- Branch descriptions should not go longer than 20 words.
- Result descriptions should not go longer than 100 words
There are exceptional circumstances in exceptional storylets, but we're talking a couple of cases per content commission.
Show, don’t tell
This is incredibly vague advice, but a fundamental element of FL writing is evocative images and incident. Be wary of putting words in the player’s mouth, thoughts in their head, or feelings in their heart. Focus on the character’s senses and what is observable to them. Don’t tell them they’re scared; scare them.
“All across London…”
- “...people curse your name,”
- “...people are reading the Auditor’s report,”
- “...citizens toast the Empress.”
We’ve overused “all across London”. It’s often a warning sign that you’re telling, not showing. If you find yourself writing it, try focusing instead on specific examples of whatever’s happening. Who is doing it? Where? How?
Dialogue is a great way to convey information, but it’s easy to get wrong. We follow the blessed teachings of Saint Harrison of Ford: “You can write this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.” Direct speech must pass the say-this-shit test, and is better than reported speech. If you find yourself sliding into exposition, try putting the NPC in a state of distress, desperation, or vulnerability. It’ll encourage them to get to the point and make the dialogue more characterful.
Be judicious with Victorian style
A little goes a long way. Treat it as seasoning, not an ingredient.
We can’t assume the player is male, female, wears skirts, wears trousers, etc. Which is a problem because trousers are funny. Write around it. “Sleeves” or “hems” are probably safe. Similarly, don’t refer to the character’s skin colour.
A branch should almost always be a clear in-character action. It’s great to put colour and jokes in there, but make sure the title, the description or - at the bare minimum - the button text makes clear what the character will be doing if you click this option.
Don’t let results run away with you
A result should describe one action (or a couple of closely-related ones) and their results. If a result has the character doing a string of things (make a disguise, infiltrate a gang, work out which of them stole your cheese, chase him down, hand him to the constables), it’s time to simplify, or break the actions out into multiple branches.
FL uses British English, not American English. Dust off those ‘u’s, and set your browser’s spell-checker to UK English.
Don’t show on-stage harm to children
We never go further than “a clip round the ear”.
It never more than drizzles in Fallen London. There’s no wind unless Storm is up to shenanigans. The temperature doesn’t change much.
It’s always dark. You can’t wake with the crack of dawn, or indicate the day is over by saying twilight is spreading over the city. Use social events to express time instead - the knockers-up rousing workers from their beds, factory bells signalling knocking off time, revellers stumbling home in the small hours.
Be careful with the passive voice
It has its uses (‘London was stolen by bats’), but all else being equal, it can drain energy from prose. Often, you’ll find yourself retreating into the passive voice when you’re distant from the text. Perhaps you’re uncertain of your grasp of it; perhaps you aren’t connecting with the material. Treat it as a reminder to get down there and evoke.
Single Sentence Paragraphs
Be careful, here. Don’t make a single sentence a separate paragraph if the only reason is trying to control the reader’s pace. It comes across as precious.
You are condemning your sentence to be swallowed without chewing. Sometimes that is what you want - if you've got a lot of information to pack into a small space, it's a useful shortcut. But generally, we want to find arresting ways to give readers another angle of experience on our world.
Particular ones to avoid:
- diaphanous gowns
- brief lives burning brightly
- black as pitch
- it was quiet. Too quiet.
Pop Culture References