I’ve been writing screenplays for six years and just began getting into journalism and personal essays a little over a year ago. Almost the entirety of my writing has been met with zero boundaries or restrictions. I’ve always done what I wanted to do. The only boundaries I was confined to is the formatting of a screenplay or an editor’s recommendations of small changes.
I just finished a writing project fo a video game — a medium I have never attempted to write in before — and I’ve learned a lot about myself, the writing process and writing within strict boundaries throughout its development cycle. Here are my main takeaways:
1. Don’t romanticize the writing process
If you’re like me you probably have preconceived images in your head of what a writer is. You probably thought of yourself sitting in front of your laptop with a bottle of whiskey while in deep thought at 1:00 am. Next to you was a trash barrel overflowing with crumpled paper that you continuously added to until you finally hit that eureka moment where the floodgates open and you poured your heart into a masterpiece.
Except the writing process isn’t like that. If you romanticize it, you’re probably writing to serve your ego rather than writing for the craft of it and writing to achieve your goals. I found that when I romanticized the writing process, I was staring at a blank page until the conditions around me were perfect enough to start writing. The problem is those conditions will never come. The sun is always shining too bright, your room will be too hot or cold, you’ll be hungry or thirsty and the cars outside are too loud. You can’t prevent these things from letting you get work done.
The key to getting fingers on keys and pen on paper is to force yourself to write. In Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he claims “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 18,000 words over a three-month span…” He’s not writing 18,000 words in three months only under perfect conditions. Force yourself to write.
2. Forming a routine is incredibly important
My writing routine for the majority of those six years was contributing to screenplays whenever I couldn’t sleep or had a spark of inspiration. I would get frustrated with myself because I would be working on the same pilot for six months and wouldn’t be making the progress that I wanted. I had a fear of mediocrity with a bad case of paralysis by analysis. I would write extensive outlines and write down ideas that never came to fruition.
This was all solved when I made a regular writing schedule for myself. You have to schedule around writing. Once I stopped romanticizing the process and began scheduling around my writing time, I found not only can I get much more work done, my work was of higher quality.
I’ve been told time and time again that deadlines are a writer’s best friend. Give yourself mini-deadlines. Write down the things you want to accomplish for tomorrow. It makes getting started that much easier.
3. It’s a job — treat it like one
This was a multifaceted takeaway from the process. Make sure you get paid. If your position evolves, or are asked to do more than you agreed upon on hiring, get paid.
Friends of mine have been asked to write outlines or pitches for producers and studios only to find out the hard work they put in wasn’t paid. You don’t want to feel taken advantage of and don’t want to leave any writing behind. Make sure you get paid and hold yourself to a professional standard.
4. Don’t get attached to your work
Sometimes you have to kill your darlings. If you treat it like a job, you must be able to put emotions aside, act professionally and operate in a way that is mutually beneficial to your team and the product.
Writing for a video game is an extremely collaborative process that requires you to write around the work of others. A lot of my ideas didn’t work or didn’t match the capabilities of the game. Tonally, my initial proposals were way off the mark and I had to write within strict boundaries of the vision the team had for the game’s mechanics.
I had to balance not requiring anyone to alter the functionality of the game while simultaneously giving the players choice within extremely tight boundaries without putting the story on railroad tracks. It took some time, and about 80% of what I wrote didn’t make it into the final product but I think we accomplished the task. It wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t able to put my emotions aside and delete much of my work.
5. The finished product will never look how you want
This isn’t the same as being unhappy with the state of the story or unhappy with the final product. It also isn’t a way to absolve yourself of any blame or guilt. When you write within boundaries or write having to answer to someone, there are instances where things aren’t exactly how you want them.
I wanted the in-game story to be much more robust and intricate. I wanted to approach the story with very nuanced storylines surrounding the playable characters. However, throughout the development cycle, it didn’t make sense to have something expansive in a small-scale game. I’m happy and proud with the final product but there’s always going to be that part of me that wishes some of it could be different.
You have to learn to be okay with that. You have to do what is best for the product, not for yourself.
Lastly, my most crucial takeaway from writing a video game is to….
6. Never forget your fundamentals
One thing I struggled with when I first started contributing to the video game was that my mind was trying to compartmentalize my writing process. I was putting all the universal writing tools, tips and methods I used over the past years aside and trying to approach video games as if it was a completely different animal. I had convinced myself that my writing was limited to screenwriting and screenwriting only.
I had to take a step back and remind myself to revisit my fundamentals that I had built up over the years. I always go back to a quote by John Truby from his book ‘The Anatomy of Story.’
‘the beginning of the scene should frame what the whole scene is about. The scene should then funnel down to a single point with the most important word or line of dialogue stated last.’ — John Truby
I had to remind myself that my scenes needed to have points. They needed to be leading somewhere and I had to have that point in mind before the scenes began. I struggled with balancing confusion and mystery because my scenes lacked cohesion or a narrative thrust which results from a sum of the points.
Confusion annoys and angers the audience while mystery intrigues them. I just needed to tilt the pendulum toward mystery.
Once I reminded myself of the fundamentals and took a step back and approached the project with a clear head and vision of what I was attempting to accomplish, and wrote individual scenes with cohesive points, the puzzle pieces began to fall in place.
These six takeaways helped me grow as a writer. I think it was extremely important to branch out of my comfort zone and challenge myself by taking on a project that had a lot of new elements. I think if we’re able to extract these types of things from writing projects we can improve not only as individuals by adequately identifying our strengths and weaknesses, but we’ll also improve the quality of our writing.