Us interactive fiction writers have a unique enemy. A foe capable of tearing apart our stories at the seams, like a vampire that drains all of our carefully-crafted tension and drama. What’s worse, that emotion-sucking monster is inside you and me. The desire to avoid conflict is very human, and when given the choice—even in fiction—we have a tendency to avoid clashing with others.
Talk about boring! This article is going to detail what drama is, why every scene needs to have it, and why us readers crave it—all while trying to avoid it at the same time. But before we continue, your input for the following question will be very useful:
What is drama?
Drama is conflict, and occurs whenever our main character rubs up against opposition—be it in the form of a samurai, bad weather or himself/herself. This rubbing can take a thousand forms, and is required for both tragedies and comedies, and everything in between. Drama needs opposition and an uncertain outcome.
This is at the heart of what causes your readers to turn the page. Creating characters who are naturally at odds with eachother is a fantastic idea. It’s why writing scenes with the pragmatic MC and the idealistic Masami/Masashi are so easy and fun for me to do.
Every scene needs conflict (drama)
‘Conflict’ has a stigma of being something negative, but it’s not. It gives your actions meaning and gives value to the outcome. And this doesn’t just apply to fictional characters. Look at the obituaries to see just how much we value the result of our struggles. Be it raising a family or raising up the ranks to vice chairman—it’s worth writing down!
“Every scene needs conflict” is a very useful mantra to have. It forces you to think beyond what happens in your scene, prompting you to ask yourself “Why does it happen?” and “What meaning does it have?” Here is where character motivations should spring up, and when they don’t come easily you know you need to rework the scene.
[Spoilers for Samurai of Hyuga Book 2 ahead]
Look for this feedback
“I wish I was given the option to not [insert something that causes drama here].”
It’s a valid critique but be careful—the worst fix is to write an additional choice that subverts the drama and intensity of your scene. Choices should raise the stakes and add energy into the room. The solution I’ve found is to make every choice feel reasonable, even if none of them are. You want a protagonist who is aware, and no fool. Even when he/she acts foolish!
A great way of making every choice feel reasonable is by having MC explain his/her reasoning to the reader. By doing this at the start of each choice branch, we can’t help but agree and get carried along with his/her thought process:
“I’m sorry, but this isn’t a vacation. Stay alert.”
I couldn’t look at Masami without seeing a blade against her throat. The fear of losing her was etched into my mind as permanently as a cow’s branding. The truth was that Junko was still out there. Still hunting me. As long as both of Sensei’s pupils still drew breath, my shugenja was in danger.
“Don’t let me stop you. Go ahead and have some fun.”
Masami deserved a break more than any of us did. Anything to help her forget what had happened in Jijinto. Though I didn’t think any amount of festivities could erase the terror Junko inflicted. I could only hope the kid’s spirit recovered cleaner than my body did—with less scars to show.
Impulsive vs Calculated
I’m going to feel silly if I’m wrong, but my guess is that a decent majority of players opted to play a Calculated ronin in their first playthrough. This ties in with risk and conflict aversion, which often means being driven by thoughts over emotions. It’s very natural to want to “not make mistakes”, but that sort of thinking doesn’t lead to much drama.
The solution is that being logical shouldn’t kill the tension. You should think of it as a different approach to setting up and escalating conflict. In this example, Hatch has just blown the team’s ryō on a set of smelly armor for MC:
Toshio obliged. “Hachirobei-san has fallen victim to a forgery. In exchange for Kiso-chan, our horse, he was offered a black suit of obsidian armor said to have been used by the Emperor himself.” The ninja let out a sigh before adding, “Satsuma-sama has never adorned armor, especially not a suit covered in soy sauce.”
I took a deep breath to calm my nerves. After taking in a noxious whiff of the sour smell coming from Hatch’s rucksack, I spoke.
#(CALCULATED) “Obsidian is brittle, sharp and heavy. About the opposite of what you look for in protection.”
#(IMPULSIVE) “Mind explaining why you felt we needed a suit of smelly armor in the first place?”
#“I’m just surprised how someone born in Jijinto can be so trusting.”
This tiny conflict hardly ends up in a fistfight, but it does enter into a climax when Hatch reveals his intentions were good: “Just didn’t want you gettin’ hurt again.” The resolution is that MC can’t hold a grudge and can’t believe someone else is worried for his/her well-being.