Category Archives: Theory and Technique

16.22: Scenes and Set Pieces

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, Cassandra Khaw, Dan Wells, James L. Sutter, and Howard Tayler

Let’s have a discussion about scenes and set pieces, and let’s lead with this: prose writers often create longer pieces using scenes as building blocks, and in this thing writing for game design is very, very similar.

Scenes and set pieces are some of the most critical components in game design, and each of them must deliver several different things to the players in order to work well.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

Play

Design an encounter for a game you’ve enjoyed, hitting each of the following factors: setting, challenge, adversaries, rewards, and story development.

16.21: Player Characters

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, James L. Sutter, Dan Wells, Cassandra Khaw, and Howard Tayler

So, you’re the hero of your own story, and the hero gets choices, and in many ways directs the story. In our discussion of interactive fiction and writing for games, the subject of “player characters” is essential. From the array of options given at character creation/selection, to the paths available for character development and the final chapters of that characters story, “player character” touches everything.

Credits: this episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

Play

Go through the character creation process in an RPG. Pay attention to which parts were fun, and what attracted you to the different classes, creature types, etc. Identify what makes each major character build unique and appealing.

16.20: Branching Narratives

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, James L. Sutter, Dan Wells, Cassandra Khaw, and Howard Tayler

How do you give players meaningful choices while still keeping the story within a reasonable set of boundaries? In this episode James and Cassandra lead us in a discussion of branching narratives, and the ways in which we as writers can create them.

Credits: this episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

Liner Notes: Dan mentioned this collection of “Choose your own adventure” plot maps.
Howard illustrated the concept of “narrative bumper pool” in Tracy Hickman’s X-TREME DUNGEON MASTERY

A branching path which begins at point A, and ends at either point X, Y, or Z.
Narrative Bumper Pool from X-TREME DUNGEON MASTERY, used with permission
Play

Write a short “choose-your-own-adventure” story.

The Planet Mercenary RPG, created by Alan Bahr, Howard Tayler, and Sandra Tayler.

16.19: Intro to Roleplaying Games

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, James L. Sutter, Dan Wells, Cassandra Khaw, and Howard Tayler

For the next eight episodes we’ll be talking about roleplaying games, and how that medium relates to writers, writing, career opportunities, and more. We’re led by James L. Sutter and Cassandra Khaw on this particular quest.

In this episode we lay some groundwork, define a few terms, and hopefully get you excited about looking at games in new and useful ways.

Credits: this episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

Play

Spend some time playing a roleplaying game, either video game or tabletop. Take note of what’s fun and what’s not.

16.18: Poetry and the Fantastic

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Dan, Amal, and Howard

For the last seven episodes we’ve explored language, meaning, and their overlap with that thing we mean when we use language to say “poetry.”

In this episode we step back to some origins, including, at a meta-level, the origins of this podcast as a writer-focused exploration of genre fiction—the speculative, the horrific, the science-y, and the fantastic.

Because there is an overlap between language and meaning, and there are myriad overlaps among the genres we love, and as we step back we see poetry striding these spaces, its path in part defining and in part defying the various borders.

Poetry, scouting the fraught borders between the kingdoms of Meaning and Language.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Play

Find a favorite line from a novel or short story, one that moves you deeply; use it as the epigraph for a poem.

Monster Portraits, by Sofia Samatar and Del Samatar

16.17: The Time To Rhyme

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Dan, Amal, and Howard

Rhyming is powerful. It can signal a form, or telegraph whimsy. It can be predictable, surprising, and sometimes both.

It may also be seen as childish.

When, then, is it time to rhyme?

Will rhyming “internally” fit?
As opposed to a line-ending bit.
For answers, just listen.
But rhymes will be missin’
Especially where they’d deliver a predictably naughty word at the end of, say, a limerick, because in this context, that would definitely be seen as childish.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Play

Look up the limericks of Edward Lear, and use them as a model; write a limerick, paying careful attention to how the rhyme needs to match a certain rhythm.

The Forever Sea, by Joshua Phillip Johnson

16.16: Poetic Structure: Part II

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Dan, Amal, and Howard

How does a poem happen?

Absent an external structure, what makes a thing a poem?

The key word in that question may be “external,” because ultimately the poem on the page will be the implicit definition of its own structure—even if it borrows a “non-poetic” structure from another form.

Structure is as structure does. “Unstructured” is just a way to say “I am unfamiliar with this structure,” or maybe “I don’t believe that this structure is fit for poetry.”

And that might be a thing you are currently saying.  After all, “blog post describing a podcast episode” is definitely a structure.

Does the embracing of that structure make this thing into a poem?

If this thing is a poem, how did that happen?

Liner Notes:

  • Girl Hours” by Sofia Samatar (via Stone Telling magazine),
  • The Hill We Climb,” by Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman (YouTube from the Biden/Harris Inauguration)

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Play

Write a poem inspired by the form with which you’ve chosen to structure it: take a numbered list of things, and use that numbered list to write a poem inspired by the list, and also organized according to that list.

The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson

16.15: Poetic Structure, Part I

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Dan, Amal, and Howard

Rigorous structure in poetic form
is commonly pointed at when we declare
Poems have meters and rhymes, as the norm.

Yet words without patterns can roar like a storm
So why pay attention, why study with care
Rigorous structure in poetic form?

Just set it aside, surrender the gorm
(means “alertness”, a quite-handy rhyme I put there)
Poems have meters and rhymes as the norm.

Let some of it go, perhaps. Let it transform
beyond all the rhyming. Deny, if you dare:
Rigorous structure in poetic form

Okay, you can maybe keep some of it warm
Those toasty iambics by which you might swear:
Poems have meters and rhymes as the norm.

This episode text I wrote: does it inform?
Will all be confused when this couplet doth air?
“Rigorous structure in poetic form:
Poems have meters and rhymes as the norm.”

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, and mastered by Alex Jackson. The villanelle above was the first—and hopefully last—ever composed by Howard Tayler. Yes, the Writing Excuses tagline is a haiku. No, Howard did not know that when he wrote it in 2008.

Play

Write either of these:
Just one villanelle (Howard!)
or three full haiku.

Pay close attention
To the demands of their forms.
Constraints can inspire!

(Fifteen minutes long
Because you’re in a hurry
and this is haiku.)

“Resident Alien,” available on SyFy or through Amazon.