Spoilers for The Shape of Water.

(And highly unrelated pictures, because I’m hazy on copyright law for movie stills.)

Last night, I saw The Shape of Water, which recently won an Oscar and (more importantly in my world) has been talked up by The Mary Sue.

I walked into the movie saying to Chris, “I have no idea why a movie about fish sex just won Best Picture.”

I walked out saying the same thing. I still don’t get it.

The Shape of Water is a fantastic movie. No doubt about that. So I watched a brilliantly written and acted speculative fiction movie and… the more I think about it, the less I like it.

I certainly do appreciate that this is a movie for and about freaks: a fishman, a mute orphan, a black woman (possibly an atheist), an older gay man, and a Russian scientist. (The villain is an oh so heterosexual white man.) It’s also really cool that the film doesn’t suffer from the “male gaze” problem that so many films do (there’s a “normal” sex scene which made the audience audibly horrified, and sexy scenes with Eliza and the fish man focus on her pleasure via her delighted smile). Guillermo del Toro was very careful to give the fish man a lean, muscular body (and especially butt) for female audience members to appreciate (seriously; he consulted regularly with his wife and others) but there aren’t any lingering shots of the fish man either. It is, in short, not a film that’s all about being sexy to the audience.

However, the movie makes it abundantly clear that yes, Eliza (the main character) and the fish man definitely have sex. In her extremely interesting video on Monster Boyfriends, Linday Ellis says The Shape of Water finally took the monster movie “where scores have women  had wanted it to go for decades”.

I am just not one of those women. I’m a little disappointed in myself, to be honest. Surely my imagination and empathy aren’t letting me down right here in my favourite genre?



I really like Lindsay Ellis’s take that “Beauty and the Beast” stories are a way for women to talk about their anxiety—and hope—when facing the daunting spectre of arranged marriage. I’ve spoken to quite a few Indonesian people who are in happy arranged marriages and it’s a topic that has fascinated me for years (and that I’m not necessarily opposed to… except of course that it gives men even more power than they already have, with the inevitable awful results in way too many cases).

Elliss’s video has changed my view of the entire “Beauty and the Beast” concept, except of course that (a) Most of the audience is NOT facing arranged marriage, so there’s clearly something else at play (b) The idea of a super-virtuous female changing a bad man into a good man is so awful. First because that’s a classic inverse of famous abuser lines (“I love you, but sometimes you just make me so angry I can’t help it.”), secondly because it relies on fundamental personality change for a relationship to work, which is both patronising (don’t ever go into a relationship thinking you can mould someone to your specifications) and dangerous (false hope and false reality, both of which aren’t healthy).

I DO think that a healthy relationship improves people, but in a mutual and mutually beneficial way. I like a romance where people are partners, and I hate a relationship where someone (pretty much always the woman in a hetero pairing) is the parental figure—either disrespecting their partner, doing more than their fair share of the work, or constantly nurturing someone who doesn’t nurture them back. (This is a topic very close to home as my husband has inattentive ADD, which causes a lot of behaviour that appears childish in a grown man. Luckily-?-my own anxiety and bad health causes a lot of childish-like behaviour in me, too.)

The adjacent idea of “Men will do anything for a pretty woman” is also super problematic. It’s linked to rape culture as well as the infantilising of men (which then links to men not doing their share of household chores, which isn’t good for anyone). I do understand the appeal of that idea. I like the idea of women being powerful, even if only because they own a pair of boobs.



Ellis’s video also talks about King Kong and other movies, and the shift from hatred of monsters to sympathy. She says that, overall, monsters tend to represent the anxieties of whatever time they’re written in.

Which brings us to King Kong. Unfortunately, any kind of primate tends to represent (unconsciously or otherwise) black people, and it’s no coincidence that the darkest/hairiest monsters tend to be paired with the whitest possible females (Sally Hawkins is incredibly white, and her fish man is dark—another problematic element of The Shape of Water). King Kong isn’t a romance (or is it?) but a story of how a white woman is more powerful than a black man (and/or monster). Which is appealing, even to me, but also deeply messed up as I explained above.

On reflection, I think the romantic “monster” of modern books/movies is all about the “bad boy” thing. (Or, in some cases, a case of “Us freaks have finally found each other” crossed with “OUR romance is special and unique”. Both of which I’m actually fine with.)

I have a really close friend who I respect deeply (and who is an adult, mother, and wife) who loves both Twilight and Beauty and the Beast. Both of us are married to very stable, reliable men. Her life is quite stable and responsible and adult-like because her husband has a stabilising influence (it’s not boring; they can do really cool things with their whole family because they actually do planning and budgeting and stuff); my life is risky and chaotic and exciting because I know my husband will be there when I fail. So I think that might be at the heart of things. The bad boy appeals because he is exciting; ditto monsters. To me the bad boy has no appeal because I am already wild and destructive and risky. I am the monster, so I don’t look for those qualities in a partner.

Yep, I think that’s it. Okay! I feel better about monster movies now.

So what about the movie?

First, let’s talk masturbation. The Mary Sue web site loved the fact that Eliza’s life was perfectly content—she didn’t need a man (amphibious or otherwise). She was sexually satisfied by pleasuring herself, and her daily routine was exactly what she wanted it to be. When I watched the movie I wasn’t sure what the purpose of showing Eliza’s masturbation was—why have a masturbation scene, when it clearly wasn’t to titillate the audience?

I think a lot of it was just to say, “Yes, this is set in the 60s, but people were sexually active then too”, so that it felt more natural for her to have a sexual relationship with someone (the fish man, in this case) that she hasn’t known very long.

And I think it was also to hint that Eliza wasn’t necessarily entirely human herself. She was a foundling discovered by a river, with what looked like knife slashes on her neck that later turn into/turn out to be gills. She masturbates in water because she’s part fish person herself. (The fish man is clearly very comfortable mating with a human, so it’s entirely possible fish people have been interbreeding with humans.)

So that’s fine. I found it slightly jarring that Eliza’s face is quite old for a romantic lead (why, she’s over forty! Which is lovely) but her body is VERY young. Not a wrinkle, freckle, sag, or blemish.

Eh, I’m probably just jealous.



I mentioned earlier that the film is all about freaks, which is lovely. (A mute woman, a gay man, etc.) But I hated hated hated that the gay man’s crush was on a twenty-something. The actors are about forty years different in age, and the crush was framed in the film as sweet and life-affirming and charming. I just found it creepy. I would have found it creepy in any much older person crushing on a much younger person, but so much homophobia is based on the idea that homophobia = pedophilia, and although that’s nonsense, having a huge age gap like that in a film is really unhelpful.

I was surprised and disappointed at how little time was spent developing the relationship between Eliza and the fish man. To me, you get to know someone and have a deep connection with them, then you have sex. In the movie, the fish man learns how to say “egg” and “music” and… that’s it. It’s clear that time is passing and there’s more to their growing friendship that we the audience don’t see, but they never actually have a conversation. Couldn’t we have a scene where Eliza and the fish man actually talk to each other? It doesn’t even need to be in words (or in sign language, or whatever). Although having said that, how about they learn one another’s names? Or invent names for each other?

It just didn’t seem to me as if there was much more to the relationship than a bit of sex and a rescue (which is noble and exciting, but doesn’t make a relationship). Clearly the movie portrays sex AS communication/connection.

Okay, fine. Sorta.

It also disturbed me very much that the fish man was child-like in some ways. That’s never not going to make me hate a romantic pairing. I’m fine with someone having fun and being silly, but I’m not okay with someone having the intelligence of a child and then having sex.

Much is made of the fish man’s intelligence, but he doesn’t behave like an intelligent adult. He behaves like an intelligent child.

Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew.

And I have one more big problem with the movie (an issue linked to the slightly-off choice of a speaking woman actress for a mute character—when it would be so much better to use a mute actress). I feel like the movie contradicts itself. Eliza appears content from the beginning of the movie (in her rather ordinary life), and she has two excellent friends who don’t see her as a mute woman but as a person.

But then she gives an impassioned speech about how the fish man is happy to see her, and doesn’t see her as incomplete.

Sure, that’s nice. But she already has at least two friends who don’t see her as incomplete either. She’s doing just fine. So what is that speech doing there? There are so many other things she could have spoken passionately about at that exact moment.

Then, in a scene that a lot of people love, she is sitting across the table from the fish man knowing she soon has to let him go, and she sings to him and has an imagined dance sequence with him (much like the TV she loves to watch). So she longs to talk—and sing. Fair enough.

Except… she was so content until then. So it’s as if the fish man brings out her unhappiness, making her life and sense of self seem poor and shabby when they were fine before. No relationship should make you feel worse about yourself or your disabilities (a passing moment of wistfulness, sure—but not an iconic movie scene, weighted with meaning).

I would have been so much happier if her impassioned speech was about something—anything—else. The character is so much more than her disability, yet the movie treats her muteness as her most important character trait in the two most emotional scenes. I hate that.

Maybe the masturbation was all bout Eliza longing desperately for a romantic relationship—the one thing her life lacks most (other than a nicer apartment and job, two things that apparently never bother her). But a romance is so much more than sex. In my opinion.


And, finally, the body horror of the bad guy’s injured fingers is a total cliche, in my opinion, and something rather unworthy of a film that treats a fish man as beautiful and a mute woman as the hero. Yeah, I get that the bad guy is… well… bad. So does that mean everyone with a physical deformity is bad, too? So muteness is fine but physical disability = evil?

I really wanted to like this film, and there are so many wonderful and original things about it. But I don’t have a thing for monsters, I don’t think adult-child romances are ever cute, and I don’t think being mute is the most interesting (or the most tragic) thing about Eliza.

Dear Star Wars: Here is Your Script

I don’t often write fan fiction.

So this kind of happened as I wrote my thoughts after seeing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (I had so many feels it took me days to write and is 3000 words long.) It’s a VERY interesting  film for writers, and so of course I analysed it in that vein.

The full (very spoiler-y) article is here, on a shiny new forum I’ve set up for the “Murder in the Mail” series. You can read the article immediately, but you need to register to comment. (If you register, you’ll get about three emails a year about the “Murder in the Mail” series, unless you unsubscribe.)

The “Murder in the Mail” series is a set of cozy mystery stories (one story so far, to be released in August/September 2018) told entirely through letters, postcards, objects, and art posted to the reader over the course of eight weeks. The forum is for fun (discussing things like Star Wars, and so on), and also for readers to talk amongst themselves and try to figure out the identity of the murderer before the final letter arrives.

There is (arguably) a VERY mild general character-based Star Wars spoiler below.

Basically I figured out the One True Way to resolve all the possible romances of the current Star Wars trilogy. Because I am a genius.

Insert anti-spoiler kitty!




Rose: *Takes Rey to a storage area where they can talk privately* So you’re a big hero, just like Finn. I guess you guys are… you know…
Rey: Um. *blushes furiously* Well I might sort of kind of think of him a little tiny bit that way. Maybe.
Finn: *Emerges bleary-eyed and shirtless from under canvas, and clutches it around his hips so the girls don’t see EVERYTHING* Rose? Rey? What are you doing here?
Rose and Rey: *wide-eyed panic*
Rey: You. . . heard us talking?
Finn: Me? Nope. Nuh-uh. Didn’t hear a thing. *Accidentally-on-purpose jabs his elbow into the canvas*
Poe: *Emerges bleary-eyed and shirtless from under canvas, clutching canvas around his hips, and hastily donning That Jacket* Oh, hi Rose. Hi Rey.
Rose and Rey: Ohhhhh! Er, we’ll just be going now.
Rose and Rey: *become best friends*
Finn and Poe: *adopt half a dozen children and live on a porg farm forever*

What I earned this year

Full-time writers in Australia have an average income of around $12,000 (I know, yikes). In Canberra, which has a lot of good public service jobs, the average income is around $52,000.

I just did my taxes, and worked out that I earned just under $20,000 last financial year while working full-time. 100% of that came from writing (the vast majority from interactive fiction). So depending on one’s perspective, that’s either really impressively awesome, or shockingly awful.

If I was healthy and single and childless, I could probably survive on $20,000 a year. It wouldn’t be easy, but I’ve lived on the edge before. (I once spent $5/week on food for several months—but that was certainly not sustainable, even for a young and healthy person during friendly weather.) On the other hand, if I’d been babysitting for the same number of hours I spent writing, I’d have earned at least twice as much.

So, again, whether it’s awesomely good or awesomely bad is a matter of perspective.

It should be noted that I’m not healthy, or single, or childless. I keep a complicated house running fairly smoothly, and I look after two little people (and, in some respects, Chris—he is my carer in many ways, and I am his in some ways too). I am overwhelmingly not a healthy person, and some days I barely function at all.

So. $20,000. It’s both a huge and a tiny amount, and it’s $20,000 more than I earned for most of my writing career. Plus I can say “writing career” without sarcastic quotes these days.

It’s in my nature to always push myself for more. I’m sure that if I earned $100,000 last financial year I’d be looking for ways to earn more, or work less, or something. A lot of creative people look at others and think, “Wow. If my career was where theirs is, I’d be so satisfied!” I definitely remember specifically aiming for the impossible amount of $20,000/year at some point—a point at which $20,000 was as laughable as $100,000 is now.

I also have a book published—two, in fact, and at least four more on the way. I’m so famous that people seek me out at conferences, waiting for my latest book. I get fan mail quite often. I get people—quite a few people—saying “This is the best story I’ve ever read”. I even get actual reputable game companies emailing me to offer me work (I have two REALLY COOL projects on the go at the moment that I can’t talk about). My income doesn’t even cover our mortgage (or the medical expenses of this year), but why should it? I’m the closest thing to a stay at home parent our household has, so I’m doing a bunch of important and often difficult work before I earn a cent.

Have I convinced you that I’m not just messing around with this writing thing (after more than twenty years of devoting myself to the craft)? More importantly, have I convinced myself? Maybe a little bit. Certainly it’s time to pause and celebrate how far I’ve come, and to shift some of my pile of insecurities into the “irrational” pile.

So, yay. Much yay. And I suspect this financial year will be even better!


Artist’s impression of a life of leisure.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

One of the gifts my parents gave me was the belief that writing is not a job, but a hobby. I didn’t write full-time until I was unable to do any other work (and I’m still not making minimum wage, even though I’m well above the average Australian full-time writer’s income of $12,000/year)

I am giving Louisette the same gift, assuring her that her stories are excellent and at the same time teaching her that if she’s a writer she’ll be something else as well.

It happens that she really is a good storyteller, with an epic imagination. At one stage she had had about thirty imaginary friends, puppies, horses, and relatives (including imaginary parents), as well as a range of vehicles to bring them all along with us.

She also has a great mind for science and engineering, which I loudly and unconditionally encourage. Last Christmas we bought her ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER, which she loves, and which led to her winning a school prize for a House-Car-Plane device this year.

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 7.57.02 PM

This year one of her gifts is this building kit, which includes its own motor! How cool is that, for $25ish!

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 8.00.14 PM

But I digress.

Today, for the first time, she pointed out a plot hole in a TV show (specifically, “Why doesn’t the yellow dog go with the blue dog to make the fence? They’re both builders.”) That warmed my writerly heart.

But then I read her the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE, bracing myself for my harshest review ever. Not only did she like the story and immediately care about the outcome (phew!) but she understood and extrapolated the universe of the story.

Rahana is a fairly low-tech world (although their ships are more advanced than the rest of their tech due to the fact that the world is made up of thousands of islands), and in the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE an isolated and defenceless island wakes in terror at the news that a pirate ship is approaching.

I asked Louisette what she was worried about in the story. She said she was worried about the pirates coming, because Dance and her family, “don’t have swords or shields or anything”.

Here’s the thing: I never mentioned any kind of weapon in the story. She figured out the technology level because of her knowledge of history and/or the conventions of fantasy fiction!

I’m misty-eyed just thinking about it.

THEN she blew my mind a second time by suggesting, “Maybe they’ll invent electricity and that will help them fight the pirates.”

She’s five years old, and she’s a master of military tactics. That’s my girl.



Pictures worth thousands of words

I’m not a visual artist, and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of influence I was allowed to have on my books covers (Odyssey Books has a top-notch cover game).

It’s a good thing they go through a few drafts, too.

Can you see what’s wrong with the first draft of SILVER AND STONE?

Screen Shot 2017-09-19 at 9.06.24 AM

Thank goodness for Chris, and for my fellow ‘Oddies’ (we Odyssey authors are constantly talking book stuff together), who noticed what I didn’t.

So that was changed.

I was SO PROUD to finally have the finished cover, and to be able to put the two covers side by side on facebook. Only to realise (due to facebook’s arbitrary cropping) that half my followers were wondering why I’d called my first book “Fart of Bras”.

Does one’s underwear usually fart? If so, why? And how?

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 3.49.37 PM

In unrelated (but still vaguely visual) news, I was amused by the juxtaposition of these two reviews on the “Choices That Matter” Google Play app. The first made me laugh out loud, and the second was just icing on the cake.

Screen Shot 2017-10-02 at 7.40.32 AM

That’s an excellent screenshot summary of the review-reading experience.

There’s reviews on iOS too, but barely any (and they get deleted every time there’s an update). I gather it’s a lot easier to leave a Google Play review, since there are several new ones every day.

Conflux 13: Day 3 (& ChoiceScript)

Today, Sunday, was my Big Day. Not only did I have a Book Launch at 2pm…

Silver and Stone cover

…but I also ran a three-hour interactive fiction workshop in the morning.

Which was seriously awesome. (So was the Book Launch. If you haven’t seen the trailer, it’s here.)

The workshop was very biased, naturally, since it is all about my own notions regarding interactive fiction. This article, which I wrote last year, is an excellent summary of the IF scene (as I see it, having stumbled across it very recently).

This article focuses on the different elements of writing interactive novels as opposed to regular novels.

Today’s workshop was brimming with people who’d already written novels, which was quite different to last year. Last year we focused on Twine, the free tool that makes a useful map as you write and is the most user-friendly tool ever. This year we focused on ChoiceScript, which is a lovely elegant engine, also designed for non-programmers, made by Choice of Games. It’s easier to write longer works with ChoiceScript, because it’s set up for that (you can write longer pieces on Twine, but it’s trickier to do anything clever). More on that in a bit. FYI I’m not associated or affiliated with Choice of Games in any way.

I believe I promised a pic of yesterday’s outfit. Here it is (next to an ad for the excellent “Sentinels of Eden” series which I also mentioned yesterday).


I’ve spent the rest of the day in Conflux mode… that is, hanging around talking to interesting people. My love for the venue is only growing with greater familiarity. Apart from anything else, they DO have special free conference wifi. And SO many power points, just everywhere *swoon*. The staff continue to be absolutely excellent. The food is pretty good but expensive and the menu is fairly limited. Huge portions.

A lot of local people are unhappy Conflux is at the airport, which isn’t great for most Canberrans (especially those who rely on buses—the special shuttle to or from Civic has been helpful). Next year’s venue is TBA. Parking underneath the hotel costs $6 for up to two hours but over $20 for a full day. For people that validated their ticket at reception, a whole day costs $14. There was plenty of space.

People like me (ie with a disability card) can park in a funny little 2-hour carpark that’s on the right as you drive around the hotel on your way to the front door. There are no designated disabled spots but with a card you can use public 2-hour parking for a full day for free. So the key to Conflux parking is to have a disability card but still be able to drive. For me, it was a breeze, and much much nicer than anywhere in civic.

And it’s pretty.

There’s a moment at sunset when everyone in the foyer suddenly has a golden halo. When the moment passes, the brass lamps all come on (not these ones; other ones). It’s quite lovely.


The banquet was suitably glorious, and a very fine evening. Each item on the menu was linked to fairy tales. I ate a Goose’s Golden Egg for dessert (filled with panna cotta).



There’s a Trivia Night tonight, but I shall be going home to sleep.

Thus endeth today’s Conflux Report.

I promised to write out a few very useful bits of code for those who are learning ChoiceScript. This is reinventing the wheel to a large extent, since the official ChoiceScript guides, including a free link to download it, are excellent.

So is the wiki, which has had many years to be refined and expanded. The Twine documents are improving, but they’re newer and trickier, and there are significant changes from Twine1 to Twine2.

When you download ChoiceScript, it has some very basic intro scenes, choices, and statistics set up for you. When you want to start writing, you can just delete a bit and begin.


To “play” the example game, follow this path (it works on PC or Mac):

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 4.36.15 PM


It works best with Firefox, but most browsers are fine (other than, oddly, Google Chrome).

It’s fairly ordinary-looking visually, but it is immediately obvious how to progress the story (Click on a choice, then click on ‘Next’). Your text will be different to this image, because I’ve long since replaced the example with my own.

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 5.15.10 PM

To see the code behind the story, follow this path (using a text editing program—I recommend Notepad++ for PC and Sublime for Macs):

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 4.36.53 PM


The right-hand column above shows the startup file for the story I’m currently writing (so nobody look, okay?)

Don’t panic when you see a bunch of words and symbols. It will be okay.

NB: Each chapter of your book will be in a separate text file. You can name them whatever you like.

You can switch between the browser and the text file to see how the text file alters the story that you’re reading in the browser. The best thing to do is to just put your own words in, and you’ll be able to see them immediately fit the playable ChoiceScript format.

So if you write exactly this (at the END of the startup file, replacing the kingdom bit):

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 5.11.42 PM

Then you go back to the index.html file, it will look like:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 5.15.10 PM

The * and # symbols are vital, and so is the spacing at the beginning of your lines. You can use either tab or spacebar to indent what needs indenting, but you have to pick one and stick to it or the game will break. Those three keys are the heart of your writing from now on.

If the reader picks “I choose option one” above, the line of text will appear, saying, “You chose option one.” Your story works—but so far you haven’t told the program what to do next (thus, the game will break immediately after that line).

Some structural info:

Many stories have a “branch and bottleneck” structure. Choices (often a whole series of nested choices) branch off in different directions, then different directions again… and then there’a a point at which they all come together, and then the choices branch out again from there. Here’s a diagram example using twine:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 5.26.58 PM

As a writer, the hard part isn’t branching your story; it’s bringing things back to bottlenecks (so you don’t end up with literally millions of utterly different stories). One handy way is with time, eg:

“The sun is setting. Enough mucking around. It’s time to…”

“Mucking around” is non-specific enough to cover all the possible adventures the character might just have experienced. Or you can leave out that sentence altogether.

Back to your basic ChoiceScript thing:

A lot of choices within a story bottleneck immediately, which is written as:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 6.23.42 PM

You can name your label whatever you like. Use lower case, avoid special characters, and remember each label must be different.

This is a simple choice structure that works. You don’t actually require the “goto” and “label” stuff unless you’re nesting choices, so a lot of the time it’s even simpler.

Whatever you write after “*label bottleneck” will be seen by all the readers, no matter what choice they made beforehand.

Anything that’s on a line marked with an * will not be seen by the reader.

If you want, you can write an entire story like this. The lines of unique text above (“You chose option one/two/three.”) are only seen by the readers that chose that option. Those lines can be expanded into literally any length, and can have other nested choices inside. ChoiceScript authors don’t have a wall diagram with string going everywhere; they have a ludicrous number of indentations as they write choices within choices within choices.

But you can also just bottleneck after each choice. That’s what smart authors do (for most of the choices, but not all of them—after all, you want your reader to have a unique experience). That’s how authors stay sane.

But how to make the choices matter in a deeper way?

[Tired? Breandead? Stop here and write some scenes. Come back later. This is where I stopped for a day when I was learning ChoiceScript.]

Choices have long-term consequences because of stats. Stats don’t create work; they are a brilliant and cumulative way of making hundreds of choices matter without writing a million-page book.

The two main types of statistics are personality based and skill based. So as your player makes their choices and has their adventures, you’re also noting what kind of character they are creating (think of them as a co-writer who’s in charge of the main character’s personality), as well as building their skill set (for later challenges that can be won or lost).

In ChoiceScript, you make your own unique statistics. The more unique the better!

One of the most distinctive & fun things about the ChoiceScript tool is that it often uses opposed statistics—so for example, you might have ‘Tactfulness’ versus ‘Straight Talker’. If a player chooses to be tactful, their tactfulness stat will go up and their ‘straight talker’ stat will go down.


First, go into the startup file. After the *scene_list but before the story begins, write this:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 6.54.04 PM

You can set any number of (single, lowercase) words as beginning stats.

Your Tactfulness versus Straight Talker opposed statistic will all be expressed (code-wise) as + or – tactfulness.

Your name stat will be a one-off choice (and the players can enter their own; instructions here).

Your strength starts at 0. It will grow with strength-based choices, and it will be tested at later choices.

The “show stats” button on the browser version of the story (that the players see) appears automatically.

To make the stats page look good, go into the choicescript_stats file (which you already have in the same “scenes” folder as the “startup” file), and write this:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 6.52.22 PM

It will look like this to the player:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 6.56.12 PM

The numerical values will change as the player makes choices.

The ! makes sure that a word is capitalised (it’s also useful for pronouns—which we’ll talk about next—when they’re at the beginning of a sentence).

Here’s your first-choice example, with stats added:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 7.01.27 PM

Now players who choose Option One have Tactfulness 60% (and Straight Talking 40%).

Players who choose Option Two have Straight Talking 60% (and Tactfulness 40%).

Behind the scenes, opposed stats are really just recording one stat going up or down, but they’re displayed with a red/blue bar for the player.

If the player chose Option Three, then “Bob” will appear after “Name:” in the player’s stat screen, AND their strength will be 5.

In the line “*set strength %+5” the % symbol is the key to avoiding maths. I have your attention now, don’t I? Long story short, if you use “%+” and “%-” for your stats, you will never get under 0% or over 100%. Is good.

Congratulations! You’ve written a functional choice that doesn’t break the game and that makes a difference to your statistics.


In your startup file, write:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 8.03.39 PM

Then have a choice (early on) like this:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 8.09.44 PM

As you may have noticed above, you can put the stats and the text in any order. Since the player doesn’t see the stats (until they click on the button to see the stat page), it doesn’t make a difference. But consistency is a good idea.

Once you’ve done that, you can use pronouns, like so:

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 8.09.54 PM

This text will appear normal to the player, but will have the right pronouns, eg:


You hear two people talking about you.

“What do you think of them, really?”

“They’s okay I suppose.”

“Really? I hate their dog.”


There are two important things to note here. (Okay, three.)

-You can write an entire novel without player-character (PC) pronouns if you’re determined (as I’ve done for “Choices That Matter” stories on iOS and Google Play via Tin Man Games).

-‘They’ is grammatically distinct. You probably noticed the painfully incorrect “They’s okay” above. If you include they/them pronouns, you will need to be very careful to avoid a similar grammar fail. But it’s worth it. The IF (Interactive Fiction) community works hard to be inclusive, especially with gender and sexuality.

-Using he/his/him as your “base stat” in the startup file works well because the three forms are distinct (unlike for she/her/her).

Erm, it’s just occurring to me that it might work better to use they/their/them as your base. I’m not smart enough to check the idea is sound without writing a novel to check, but I THINK it’ll help a bunch with both Point #3 and the Point #2.


WELL that was a long blog entry. Are you still here, dear reader? I’m off to eat dinner and have a lie down.

PS Guess what! It’s October! Who knew?

More Conflux tomorrow!

PS Two more super-useful sites for when you’ve finished that brilliant interactive fiction game.

Dashingdon hosts ChoiceScript games, and hosts Twine games. Both are free, and both allow you to show your game to a select few (editors) before uploading/publishing a finished version.

Novels Versus Interactive Novels

This is a post written for Games Versus Play.

I write both novels and interactive novels, and I’m fascinated by the style differences between the two.


(This is how fascinated I am.)

When I write novels, I often write in first person (“I don’t deliberately make things explode”), and sometimes third person (“She doesn’t deliberately make things explode”). It is extremely rare to find a published novel written in second person (“You don’t deliberately make things explode”). Most people find second person very jarring. The famous exception is “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, and I’ve seen a couple of modern children’s books written in second person.

The great thing about first person is that it’s easy to use a quirky writing style, and to see inside the main character’s head. In my opinion, it’s particularly good for young adult or crossover writing, when internal thoughts are often an important part of the plot. On the down side, you can’t see the thought processes of other characters, or any information the main character doesn’t know (such as, there is a bushfire coming).

Second person is favoured by a lot of interactive fiction, because it emphasises the reader’s involvement in the story.

It’s also common to have a different style for the text of the choices themselves. For example, Choice of Games uses second person for the main text, and first person for the choices (which is reversed in the Tin Man Games “Choices That Matter” serial story app).

Screen Shot 2017-09-11 at 11.03.27 AM

The overwhelming majority of novels use past tense (“Quit it!” said Bob), but quite a few interactive novels use present tense (“Quit it!” says Bob). When I’m writing a first draft, regardless of the form, I tend to switch back and forth between the two, which is always the most obvious thing I have to fix when I edit. It’s never okay to release a story like that.

This blog entry is in present tense. It feels more immediate to the reader—more like a face to face conversation. That’s useful for interactive fiction, which is a more conversational reading experience than novels. Quite a lot of writers fall into present tense in a first draft (whether they mean to or not) because they’re watching their own story as it happens in their head.

A story in its simplest form involves an interesting character with a serious problem who faces obstacles and then either succeeds or fails in solving their problem. The crucial structural elements are:

  1. How to make a character interesting. Flaws? Features? Quirks? Relate-ability? Pain (physical and/or emotional)? Unusual skills? Danger?
  2. What is the problem? It needs to be serious to the character, so it can be as simple as being thirsty or as complicated as saving the universe.
  3. What are the obstacles? They need to appear unsurmountable, and costly. The most difficult part is often having the character attempt to solve the problem in a way that should work (so the character doesn’t come across as an idiot) but instead backfires (raising the tension in the story). It’s a tricky balance.
  4. An ending must feel satisfying, even if the character fails or the problem has grown worse.

There are plenty of other elements to the story—worldbuilding, themes, scenery, subplots, etc etc—and of course other characters.

The greatest difference between a novel and an interactive novel is #1. The main character of a book is entirely under the writers’ control. They grow and change during the story. A crucial issue for any interactive fiction writer is how to make an interesting main character while also giving the reader control over the story. Often the solution is to make the main character a “Blank Slate”, an effect that works very much like a prototypical “Mary Sue”. That is, the reader can project their own personality onto the character.

Companies like Choice of Games work hard to allow the reader to fill in the blanks—choosing their own gender, sexuality, personality, and even the type of story. A single story with the same general ending can tell multiple stories eg a story ending with a prom can be a romance (the main character gets the girl/guy), horror (Carrie), action (Buffy), or tragedy (the main character doesn’t get the girl/guy) depending largely on the climactic scene. This means the writer needs to be able to think of their own main character and plot in several contradictory ways, and write their scenes accordingly.

A good interactive story writer also needs to think about the tangled fictional ethics of non-player characters. This is especially true in stories with a romance. Most interactive stories offer several romantic options, which immediately begs the question, “How are so many different people all attracted to one person? And is everybody bi?” NPCs really ARE just pieces on a board designed to make the player feel good, but good writing makes them feel like living, breathing individuals.

In the “Dream Daddy Dating Simulator” one of the potential romances is doomed no matter what the player does. This is frustrating to experience, but also makes the game more satisfying, because—as the creators point out—not all romances end well.

Some writers use statistics to block or allow romance, eg Kevin is only attracted to players who have shown high levels of empathy. Others have different sexuality for different NPCs, eg Kevin can only fall for male characters. That can be problematic, because far too much entertainment is pitched to a straight male setting. In my opinion, it’s better to have all bisexual NPCs than to give players less choices based on their gender.

The other tricky style element of interactive fiction is the dreaded “block of text”. In general, interactive fiction writers often aim for less than 300 words between choices. That means long passages of description or dialogue are a no-no. There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general readers want a LOT of choices, and will get bored with lengthy prose (no matter how beautiful or profound). IF can be beautiful and profound, but it needs to use less words to do so (or to use the same number of words, but break up paragraphs with choices).

The experience of reading an interactive novel is both more and less involving than reading a book. As an interactive fiction reader, you can have a huge amount of control over the story—who to love, who to kill, what to learn and how to use your skills—but you are also constantly breaking the fourth wall as you pause to consider your choices along the way. I tend to read non-interactive novels at night, because the decision-making process of reading IF is too stressful.

Whether you’re writing, reading, or playing… good luck!