Zebulon revisited

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Magnus Olsson

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Oct 18, 1995, 3:00:00 AM10/18/95
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First of all, I must apologize to everybody for my inecusable reply to
Garth Rees' comments to "Uncle Zebulon's Will". Whining like that in
response to entirely just criticism may possibly be acceptable from a
five-year-old child, but not from someone who likes to think of
himself as a responsible adult. I can only hope that the current ebb
in postings isn't directly related to this - it would be horrible if
I scared people away from posting any more reviews...

I'm still not quite sure what got into me; I was shocked, however, not
because Gareth didn't like my writing (which of course is his right,
and, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I usually can take
criticism: my previous game "Dunjin" got very mixed reviews and I
survivied those), but because good writing is very important to me.

I'm quite sensitive to bad writing in other people's works (though
perhaps not in my own), and I often feel that an otherwise good
adventure game is spoiled by bad writing. Therefore I was very sad and
disappointed - with myself, not with Gareth - that I could have
produced so bad writing without noticing it. I may be too harsh on
myself, but I can only consider "Zebulon" a partial success if people
are put off by the bad quality of the writing, however much they may
like other aspects of it.


My current IF projects have a much heavier emphasis on the "F" aspect
of IF than "Zebulon", and I'm also considering trying to write some
non-interactive fiction (if only to see if I'm actually able to do it,
or if it's just another of those unrealizable ambitions we're all
burdened with). And good writing is of course very important in a lot
of more practical contexts.

So, obviously, I must re-consider my own writing very carefully and see in
what ways it can be improved. So, I'm asking you all for advice: in
what ways can the writing in "Zebulon", or my writing in general (as
exemplified by my Usenet postings and my SPAG reviews), be improved?
Gareth mentioned lengthiness. I'm aware that I'm verbose, but
verbosity by itself is not bad, but a matter of style; what's bad is
_excessive_ verbosity, and long-windedness which is a different thing
(you can limit yourself to two-word sentences and still be too
lengthy).


I would of course also appreciate if you could tell me what's good
abotu the game. OK, it won the TADS class, and people (including
Gareth) have written a lot of nice things about it, but so far I
haven't seen any explanation of what makes it superior to the other
entries (some of which are extremely good). Could it be that while you
can find individual entries that are better than "Zebulon" in any
inidividual aspects ("Toonesia" is funnier, "Undertow" has much more
technically advanced NPC's, "The One That Got Away" has far superior
writing), "Zebulon" is more well-rounded? Sometimes, being moderately
good at everything is better than being excellent at one thing...


Magnus

Damien Neil

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Oct 18, 1995, 3:00:00 AM10/18/95
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In article <463sg8$g...@nic.lth.se>, Magnus Olsson <m...@marvin.df.lth.se> wrote:
>So, obviously, I must re-consider my own writing very carefully and see in
>what ways it can be improved. So, I'm asking you all for advice: in
>what ways can the writing in "Zebulon", or my writing in general (as
>exemplified by my Usenet postings and my SPAG reviews), be improved?

Disclaimer: All that follows is highly subjective.


Avoid contractions. Contractions should be written only when
representing spoken language. In my experience, deliberately
eliminating contractions from prose results in a more aesthetically
pleasing structure.

Especially avoid ``You're in...''; this is a terrible way to set the
stage for a description.


Keep an eye on what you want to say, and how you say it. Take this
passage:

This shed was used by uncle Zebulon for his goldmaking experiments.
Your mother never allowed you to watch the actual experiments -
uncle Zeb wasn't much of an alchemist and his experiments were
quite likely to explode - and you never heard of any results, but
your relatives assumed that goldmaking was the source of his
(supposed) wealth.

The first sentance establishes the shed in the context of the game
world; I might dispute your choice to describe the shed by its
purpose rather than its physical attributes, but I will grant that
this is a valid stylistic decision.

The second sentance is a horror. It is far too long. It meanders
through four separate elements. You begin with a fairly solid
description of the character's relation to the shed; this is well
done, and gives the player a connection to the game world. The
sentance then takes a sharp turn, talking about the success of
Zebulon's experiments, and riccochets off a comma to fill in some
information on how Zebulon's relatives felt about him. Taken
individually, no part of this sentance is bad. Taken together,
they form a mess.


You mention verbosity; your current amount of text, and detail
contained within the text, is quite reasonable. Some people might
prefer a more terse narritive, but (as you point out) this is a
very personal decision. You may wish to keep an eye on your sentance
length; you may have a minor problem with run-on sentances. A case
in point: ``The workbench has been cleared of the usual odds and
ends, and all even remotely useful tools or utensils have been
removed, but large heaps of junk and broken glass remain in the
corners.'' This is on the borderline between descriptive and
labourous.


Go easy on the dashes - tossing in a few is not going to do any
damage, but it is possible to overdo it.


The second person may be the de facto tense to use in an IF game,
but try to keep a handle on the number of times you use the word
`you'. Take this paragraph:

You're in what uncle Zebulon used to call his study, but which also
doubled as his bedroom. You remember this room as being full of
books: not only the bookshelves, but the desk was overflowing with
books and pieces of paper, and there were always stacks of books
on the floor as well.

I would write this as:

Uncle Zebulon used to call this room his study, but it also doubled
as his bedroom. It was always full of books: stacked in the
shelves, covering the desk, and piled on the floor.

This eliminates the overuse of `you', the reuse of `book', and the
spurious reference to papers in the middle of a description of books.


Specificity can bring life to an otherwise dull description.

After your relatives have gone over it, uncle Zebulon's sitting
room looks curiously empty. Most of the furniture has been removed,
as well as almost all the little things that used to give the room
its atmosphere.

What little things? Give a few examples.

- Damien

Magnus Olsson

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Oct 19, 1995, 3:00:00 AM10/19/95
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In article <463vuj$2...@lugnut.stu.rpi.edu>,
Damien Neil <dam...@lugnut.stu.rpi.edu> wrote:

Thanks a lot for the comments! I think I can agree with pretty much
everything you write. I'll reply to a few of your comments, not to defend
myself or to try to disprove you, but just because I think that they do
deserve discussion. Hopefully, other people can learn from this as well...


>Disclaimer: All that follows is highly subjective.

As is, of course, all my comments to your comments. :-)

>Avoid contractions. Contractions should be written only when
>representing spoken language. In my experience, deliberately
>eliminating contractions from prose results in a more aesthetically
>pleasing structure.

Interesting point. Those innocent-looking little contractions do have
a rather strong effect on the style of text, don't they? I've noticed
that when I'm writing technical prose (such as user manuals and
specifications), I *never* use contractions; this surprised me a bit
when I first noticed it, because it was totally unconscious.

>Especially avoid ``You're in...''; this is a terrible way to set the
>stage for a description.

Agreed. I t seems to be something I "learned" from the very first
adventure games that I played: "all prose in an adventure game should
be written as direct descriptive statements in the second person,
preferably starting with 'You <verb>'"

Pretty horrible, isn't it? But somehow it's so deeply rooted
inside me that I positively have to fight myself *not* to start my room
descriptions with "you're". A fight that I seem to lose rather too
often. :-) Maybe other readers of this newsgroup can help: how do you
avoid starting every room description with "you're"?

> This shed was used by uncle Zebulon for his goldmaking experiments.
> Your mother never allowed you to watch the actual experiments -
> uncle Zeb wasn't much of an alchemist and his experiments were
> quite likely to explode - and you never heard of any results, but
> your relatives assumed that goldmaking was the source of his
> (supposed) wealth.


(...)

>The second sentance is a horror. It is far too long. It meanders
>through four separate elements. You begin with a fairly solid
>description of the character's relation to the shed; this is well
>done, and gives the player a connection to the game world. The
>sentance then takes a sharp turn, talking about the success of
>Zebulon's experiments, and riccochets off a comma to fill in some
>information on how Zebulon's relatives felt about him. Taken
>individually, no part of this sentance is bad. Taken together,
>they form a mess.

On re-reading the sentence, I can but agree. The four parts aren't quite
disconnected, though.

What I wanted to say was

1. Uncle Zebulon used the shed for his alchemical experiments.
2. Your relatives assumed that he gained a lot of wealth by making gold.
3. You don't know whether this is true or not.
4. The reason for 3. is that you weren't allowed to watch the experiments.
5. The reason for 4. was that they were quite likely to blow up.

My mistake was perhaps not so much trying to string four (or even five)
disparate thoughts in one sentence, but putting them in the wrong order.
IMHO the sentence is bad, not because it's long, but because it jumps back and
forth between the five points I've listed above, leaving the reader far
behind.

But, of course, there really is no reason not to break this particular
sentence up into smaller, more manageable, fragments.

>You may wish to keep an eye on your sentance
>length; you may have a minor problem with run-on sentances.

I think one reason for the run-on sentences is that I've written down the
thoughts in the order they've presented themselves to me, rather than in
the order they ought to be told. Then, seeing that it looked rather long,
I've tried to break the sentence up into smaller ones, but without making
it any clearer. And then I've reverted to the long sentence, because too
many short sentences tend to become unrhythmical.

Perhaps the key to the problem of run-on sentences is that it's not enough
merely to break them up into smaller pieces, but that these pieces must be
re-ordered as well? After such a reordering, one might perhaps even consider
re-assembling them into a long sentence again...

> After your relatives have gone over it, uncle Zebulon's sitting
> room looks curiously empty. Most of the furniture has been removed,
> as well as almost all the little things that used to give the room
> its atmosphere.
>
>What little things? Give a few examples.

Would you believe me if I told you that I originally did, but
removed those references to keep down the amount of text? [Not for
stylistic reasons, but to avoid presenting the player with too many false
leads - a case of the crossword winning over the narrative, perhaps? :-)]


To my relief, it seems as if most of the defects you've pointed out above are
of the kind that I would have caught, had I had more time to polish the
writing. Due to the deadline, I didn't have the time to put it all aside
for a few days and then re-read it with fresh eyes. So hopefully I can
catch most of these unfortunate things next time...

Magnus
-----
Magnus Olsson
IV Image Systems, Linkoping, Sweden


Robert A. DeLisle

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Oct 19, 1995, 3:00:00 AM10/19/95
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Magnus Olsson (m...@marvin.df.lth.se) wrote:

: In article <463vuj$2...@lugnut.stu.rpi.edu>,
: Damien Neil <dam...@lugnut.stu.rpi.edu> wrote:

: >Avoid contractions. Contractions should be written only when


: >representing spoken language. In my experience, deliberately
: >eliminating contractions from prose results in a more aesthetically
: >pleasing structure.

I went to school before contractions were common in written dialog. It
was a great relief when characters were allowed to use slang.
I prefer writing out to contracting or abbreviating. Some of the
younger writers in a .creative group use & instead of 'and'. Awful!

: >Especially avoid ``You're in...''; this is a terrible way to set the
: >stage for a description.

Almost all the text adventures I played in the beginning used
YOU ARE IN ......
the other approach is
THIS IS A ........
Perhaps just starting right out would be more pleasing
A lovely house sits here. Perhaps you can enter or maybe not.
Of course the YOU ARE IN was a permanent string with the noun
inserted and a description tacked on. Typical room description
YOU ARE IN .....
YOU SEE ....., ......, ......
YOU CAN GO .., .., ..,
Not very literate, but explicit.

Re sentences:
When I write something (not a game) I find that putting it aside
until tomorrow, then re-reading and revising, maybe repeating again,
helps a lot. People get tired and a fresh look tomorrow often shows
up inconsistencies or redundancies. Then consider the order of
thoughts and try to be logical. I don't like a lot of prose. I want
to know some background and what I am supposed to do and why.

I can't criticize Zebulon unless I do it over. I liked the game best
of those entered. I had no trouble with the text. I did need a clue
about the crate -- 'look in' did not do it. Everything else worked
well. I like words to be spelled correctly and no glaring grammatical
errors. I want logical puzzles with subtle clues hidden around.

One exception to long prose is the article about the real theatre in
Theatre. There was warning that it was long, but it was interesting.
This brings up one more point--in some games the opening prose is
shown every time the game is started. Authors--learn to avoid this.
I was not forced to read the Theatre article. (applause)

Magnus Olsson

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Oct 22, 1995, 3:00:00 AM10/22/95
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In article <46ac1g$b...@life.ai.mit.edu>, David Baggett <d...@ai.mit.edu> wrote:
>[Damien Neil:]

>>>Avoid contractions. Contractions should be written only when
>>>representing spoken language. In my experience, deliberately
>>>eliminating contractions from prose results in a more aesthetically
>>>pleasing structure.
>
>Personally, I think this advice (along with "no sentence-final
>prepositions" and "thou shalt not split infinitives") is outdated.
>Steinbeck, Faulkner, Joyce, Salinger, Pynchon, and many other 20th century
>writers often use contractions in running text.

What we should keep in mind is perhaps not so much that one should or
shouldn't use contractions, but that the use (or non-use) of
contractions affects the style of our writing quite a lot.

Also, different contractions feel differently "contracted"; I can agree
that starting a room description with "you're" sounds pretty sloppy,
but on the other hand tag questions withou contractions do seem
awfully stilted, do they not? :-)

To complicate it further, a work of IF has several levels of
"colloquialness" (colloquiality?) built-in. The room descriptions may
be very literary and far removed from the spoken language, but the
actual interaction with the *program* (not with the story), like for
example your commands and the messages you get when trying to do
something impossible, are built on the metaphor of a spoken dialogue
between man and machine (or reader and storyteller, depnding on
whether you view it as a computer game or an itneractive short story),
and that dialogue is naturally conducted in something close to spoken
language.

It is of course possible to write this dialogue in more literary
language, and I'm sure it has been done, but the effect would be rather special
and not very natural:

| >drop candle
|
| At the moment, there are three candles in your possession, viz. a
| white candle, a green candle and one candle the colour of ripe tomatoes.
| Which one of these is it your desire to drop?
|
| > the white candle
|
| You cannot do that, since the wax, having melted from the heat of
| your hand, has become quite sticky, and the candle has attached
| itself firmly to yoru fingers.

(Of course, I'm not saying that this is *bad* - but no IF author would
write like that unless he had a purpose for it).

>My opinion is that the farther you get from what someone might say (i.e.,
>speak), the more opaque your prose becomes. Opacity is rarely a virtue.

I think you're overgeneralizing.

To start with, written language is *always* very much removed from the
actual spoken language. As any linguist who's studied spoken language...

Also, language that is far removed from the spoken language need not be
opaque. Law texts are about as far from spoken language as you can get,
and, even though there are many examples of bad law texts that are very
opaque indeed, the reason for removing the language so far from what
people might speak is actually _clarity_. And take classical Latin as an
example. That language (as exemplified, for example, by the speeches of
Cicero) is usually praised (among classicists, of course) for its beauty
and clarity; yet classical Latin was very far indeed from the spoken
vulgar Latin and probably not even Cicero himself talked as he wrote
(except when delivering his speeches, of course).

Opaque language is bad, unless one is consciously striving for opacity
(as when formulating a riddle). But writing in a literary "high" language
doesn't automatically imply opacity; indeed it may have the opposite
effect.


Magnus

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