Story DNA

Posted by : E.v.R. | On : September 28, 2005


Novelists usually work by a process of drafting. They write straight through to a 1st draft. Then they change the things they don’t like in the 2nd draft, and iterate into a 3rd, etc. Drafting is a linear process.

Plotting, also sometimes called ‘blocking,’ is used by script writers to establish economical scene flow. Plotting can be a non-linear process. The writer doesn’t have to push straight through with a draft. The writer can work on any scene or plot point at any time.

Novelists lean towards rote drafting as The Way to write anything. In Stephen King’s On Writing, the implication is that drafting is the only way to go. The theory being, if you don’t commit to a furious blaze of drafting, you inevitably putz around, lose energy, momentum, and never really get anything done. Or so the theory goes.

I agree 100% if we’re talking about a novel. I couldn’t disagree more if we’re talking about writing something for any other medium, including film or games.


Because economical writing is far more important for a film or game script than it is for a novel. In a novel you tell, rather than show. In a film or game, you show rather than tell.

Logical consistency becomes much more important in a film or game script. The most important question to ask yourself in determining a process is this:

  • What do you intend to do with the story?
  • What medium do you want to publish it in?

If you want to write a novel that will also be a script, it might be beneficial to start with the economy of a script. Keep things simple. It’s easier to turn a script into a novel than it is to turn a novel into a script. That’s my firm belief anyway. Adaptation from one medium to another is easier if you write with adaptation in mind from the beginning, as opposed to say, hacking apart your novel after the fact and trying to bulldoze it into a script.

For many writers there’s also the issue of creative block. With drafting, if you run into a dead end there’s nowhere to go. You just stop writing. It’s hard to remaing productive when your wheels are spinning at a single point in the story and you can’t go forward or back. Wouldn’t it be nice if getting a creative block meant you could just shift your focus to another part of the story?

This is where agnosticism towards the medium comes in. And the much more “meta” concept of media franchise creation.

Story DNA

It’s much easier to write a story that is flexible for all mediums if you work within a nonlinear framework–that is, keeping everything at the higher level of plot points, characters, and the universe. Let’s pause here in case I just scared the pants off you; You can still do a draft. Drafting is still valid. Don’t worry!

In fact, it’s easier to draft using this method, because once you’ve filled in all the chunks, all you have to do is formalize it. Just write. Writing stops being a “think of something hurry as I type” activity and more of “let’s just render what I figured out before.”

Mind Mapping?Tools

There are several mind-mapping applications on the market, such as Mind Manager, Personal Brain, and free ones such as FreeMind. With most mind-mapping software you can arrange linear sequence points, such as scenes of a script or story while retaining the full flexibility of editing or changing any point at any time.

Your story is a living organism, like DNA, a blueprint for whatever medium you decide to publish it in. Being nonlinear as opposed to drafting, you can change any part of your story at any time. This makes editing and iteration an ongoing process while you write, instead of plowing straight through and then fixing everything afterwards.

But what about the intricacies and specialties of each medium?

I make notes regarding medium specifics right within the mind map. For example, if some portion of the story would someday work really well as gameplay, I’ll jot down a note how that might work. If something would play out better in a scene of a movie with some kind of specific visual detail or camera movement, etc. then I make a note of that as well. If there’s a thought process or internalized perception that I think could be elaborated upon in greater detail for a novel, I note that too.

What I have in the end as a blueprint is a story sans medium with specific notes on the execution for each particular medium.

But what about playing, and experimenting within the form of a medium? You can’t do that with this broad logical mapping process! Sure I can. It’s all just ideas, right? Sometimes I’ll spend a day working out how one part of the story might work in one of the mediums. There’s plenty of play.

If you believe there can be a principled and structured approach, then maybe this way is for you.

For me, Story DNA is the only way to go.

Comments (3)

  1. Jack Monahan said on 28-09-2005

    Excellent post all around. You introduced me to mind mapping software before, but I really wasn’t in a position to use it all that much–but now that I think about it, together with your classic brainstorming appraoches, what you talk about ‘story DNA’ is exceptionally useful way of approaching a lot to do with games (as well as other media of course).

    As a sophisticated single player level these days is expected to have a kind of flow and progession in evidence, I can’t help but think to map out the different possibilities of what to do with the player in a plot manner (and then of course, once those elements are in place, a more physical manner via sketches and such).

  2. Daniel said on 28-03-2006

    In a novel you tell, rather than show.

    In a film or game, you show rather than tell.

    Horrible advice. Don’t encourage them. (I’m talking about the novel side of this)

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