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I'm currently working on a project where I write events for a story driven video game. The limitation is that I have to get through a discovery, the consequence and the character's response to that in a very short time, otherwise the players may lose interest from having to read too much. Are there any techniques I can employ which will make my writing more gripping, memorable and personal to the players experiencing these events in a way that doesn't feel rushed? These pieces of texts are at most two paragraphs long.

There is no pre-defined back story in these cases, but the characters explore many different locations (deserts, jungles, tundra) and potentially discover new types of flora, fauna, or may encounter hazards or have accidents, taking place in a sci-fi setting.

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Sometimes with writing, what matters is getting the story down. If it is too long, or too slow, it is easier to find ways to cut it back when it already exists. If you worry too much about getting it right on the first try, not only will you fail to do much writing but you will still not have a perfect version of the little writing you did do.

Instead, allow yourself to suck on the first draft. Give yourself permission to write junk. You may be surprised at the quality of what you have written but even if it is embarrassingly poor, you can still edit the suck out of it.

That's what I do with short stories.

Short story techniques

A short story, at least when I write them, follows a simple pattern.

  1. The setup
  2. The attempt
  3. The punchline

This is a microcosm of the three-act structure. Something happens, someone reacts, there is a result. To get there, I work backwards. What is the kicker - aka the punchline - that I will end with. Now, what is the minimum I need to make that a real kick in the shins? Right, okay, now how do I set the stage for a (mostly) innocent character to run slap bang into that?

Everything that does not answer those three questions is cruft and I can (and often, will) cut it out in service of word count or pacing.

Here are some things that help me get word counts down and pacing up

Least words needed

Adverbs, extra description, even some adjectives - they can all be cut. Anything that is not absolutely vital to the effect of the story can go.

Pull in the scope

When I plan a short story, I aim for a single scene or moment that encapsulates the essence of the narrative. Ideally, I try to imply details as I am telling this one scene. That means very selective descriptions of only the most important details.

Having the story happen in a tight time space gives it urgency and keeps people reading. Even if that is for several pages, if the engagement level of the story is demanding enough, people feel compelled to keep reading.

I do not always get it right, which is why I use beta-readers. If they look bored or confused I know I need to make changes.

Cutting excess characters

Many of my shortest stories have exactly two characters. That's just enough for my "victim" to have someone to speak to as well as providing a voice with a different opinion.

Cut all sub-plots

Every short story that I had sub-plots for either needed to be a novella or needed to be cut further.

I like to take the shortest route from setup to payoff.

Show rather than tell

If at all possible, I try to show or imply every detail through what the character does and says. That way, I do not have to stop the action to explain anything and can move the plot forward even as the reader learns stuff about the setting and characters.

I must admit that I do not always do this as well as I would like but when I get it right, I find I have packed a lot of story into very few words.

Edit: For further reading, I highly recommend several answers to this question (including my own).

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I've not seen many short story-based video games; but among those I have, by far my favourite is What Remains of Edith Finch. You explore an abandoned home to learn the tragic causes of early deaths attributed to a family curse. I'd say the total amount of writing in the game is comparable to a film or novella, but it's mostly read aloud or revealed through flashback, so the player doesn't feel like they have to read much. The main thing I'd learn from watching a playthrough of it, if I were you, is to be creative with how part of the story is told; each character in the game has their background revealed in a very different way. There's a lot of experimenting with media; for example, one story is a narrated comic book, while another plays out to classical music, while yet another is juxtaposed with an apt dream sequence (oh wait, I could be describing two very different deaths with that).

On the other hand, there are games that involve lots of reading. Pokémon is the biggest franchise of all time, so the formula can work (probably even more so if your story is short). Then there are stories where the writing is either aural or textual, depending on the version you play. I first met the Broken Sword franchise on the GBA, which didn't have room for the PC version's audio versions of speech, so the dialogue became subtitles.

But for all those reservations, What Remains is a great example of how you can tell a sad moving story in a brief but quite wordy video game. I suppose the other lesson from that game is to make something just a little more interactive than a film, with some scenes optional and all unlocked by the player solving a puzzle. (And make sure you don't watch a speedrun; you'll want to get ideas from every part of their plot.)

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