A Game Developer’s Advice on Genre Writing

[Edit: Link and tags removed due to the volume of spam this article generated. Why this one, I wonder?]

If you want twenty crisp, insightful lessons on writing genre fiction, I strongly recommend watching this video.

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It’s not what you think.

Mark Rosewater is a former television writer in the US who for the last twenty years has been a designer for the collectible card game Magic: the Gathering. In March this year Mark spoke at the 2016 Game Developers Convention in San Francisco, laying out twenty lessons he has learned from his two decades of game designing experience.

Although his advice is pitched at games development, so much is directly applicable to writing—and genre writing in particular. You will not find a better lesson on appealing to your target audience than this presentation.

Mark is a clear communicator and very aware of his craft, and this presentation is more than worth the sixty minute investment. But in case you don’t have that much time, here is my condensed summary (doctored to appeal to writers rather than game developers).

Lesson #1: Give the reader what they want

Audiences have pre-existing emotional responses the genre writer can exploit and build upon. But if you fail to provide the reader with what they expect they will feel ill at ease, and they will pay attention to what the novel isn’t rather than what it is. “Don’t try to change your readers to match your book, change your book to match your readers,” says Mark (though he said “players” and “games”, of course).

Lesson #2: Creativity can come from within genre rather than from trying to subvert it

In games as in genre fiction, Mark believes adding components creates complexity and muddies purpose. Originality is valuable, but be careful you don’t confuse or alienate your audience by taking them too far away from what they know and love.

He also says it is a myth that originality comes exclusively from diversity and possibility. Rather, his experience has been that “restrictions breed creativity”. To get to new places, start with what is already there, but look at it from an angle you’ve never considered before, or mix it with another familiar component. Explore and play. How little can be changed to create something new and exciting?

Lesson #3: Go for ‘fun’, not ‘interesting’

There are two primary sources of mental stimulation, says Mark: intellectual and emotional. Intellectual equates to ‘interesting’ (noteworthy, insightful, accurate), while emotional is ‘fun’ (visceral, immediate, surprising). Both are useful and have their place, but when you speak to your audience on an emotional level you are more likely to leave them feeling satisfied.

Lesson #4: Evoke something strong in people

One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is worrying too much about offending people. If you do, a book may not have anything people dislike, but also won’t have anything anybody really loves. It is almost impossible to make readers love something without having some readers hate it. The key is to maximise your work for your target audience. Don’t worry about everyone else.

Lesson #5: Be more afraid of boring your readers than of challenging them

If you try to do something grandiose and fail, your readers will forgive you. They will recognise you were trying to do something awesome, will respect the attempt, and will probably stick around to see what crazy crap you’ll try and pull next. But if you bore them they will resent you, like you wasted their time, like you took something from them. Still, be careful to heed the earlier lessons, and to remember who you are writing for—it isn’t your ego.

Lesson #6: Get your readers invested

“Leave room for your readers to explore,” says Mark. “Don’t always show them the things you want them to see, let them find them.” If a reader finds something for themselves—a clue, an emotion, a conclusion—they will be more interested in where the story goes from there. That said, don’t be afraid to be blunt. Artists tend to prefer subtlety, but readers can miss the obvious. Sometimes you just need a hammer, and if it helps readers reach a strong emotional place they would otherwise have missed, they will love you for it.

Lesson #7: Cut the excess

Know your audience, and understand what emotion your book is trying to evoke in them. When it comes to a line, or a scene, or a character, think what impact it has on their overall reading experience. If it doesn’t contribute, it has no place in your work.

Lesson #8: Don’t write to prove you can do something

You can’t let your ego drive your writing. At all times your aim should be to deliver “an optimal experience for your target audience”. Ask yourself: is what you are writing “being done to fulfill an inwardly-facing need for self-satisfaction?” If it is, ditch it.

Details are one thing that can help with getting a reader invested. Readers are searching for things to bond with, that make sense to them, and specific, personal details can be that hook. Be subtle and playful.

Bonus lesson: How to pitch your work

Mark includes a really useful pitching anecdote in his presentation. When trying to convince someone of the brilliance of your work, get them to ask you a question. Leave something hanging, unanswered, get your audience to bite back with an interrogatory. “Don’t talk at the audience, talk with them,” says Mark. “People are more invested in things they initiated.”

Conclusion

There is so much more to Mark’s presentation. His tips on audience engagement and participation are particularly valuable and come with specific, learned-the-hard-way examples. You’ve read this far; it’s definitely worth the full watch.