Collaborative writing is a wonderful thing. It allows us to create an interactive world of fiction where the only limitations are our own. We create settings and characters or adopt ones from other writers in fan fiction, but while we could easily do this on our own we instead gain the element of surprise, the wonderful enjoyment of both reading a story and writing it.
Several things can influence just how enjoyable this process is. A lot of those things are pretty universal. The following is a list of what contributes to a smoothly running game as well as some common (and hopefully less common) pitfalls that might ruin the experience. It is obviously my own take on the matter and I welcome any comments and conversations about any of these points. I might even edit in notes later on if good points are brought to my attention that I feel should be added, so don't hesitate to share your opinion!1. Game Guidelines:
- Groups: If you are joining a group game, abide by the rules and guidelines set by the GM if there are any. You are joining this game, the game was not created to fit your preferences, so don't go in and then expect rules to be changed or bent for you. This is common courtesy you wouldn't think needed to be said, but maybe sometimes people don't think about this and do it accidentally. Therefore it is a good rule of thumb to check for guidelines and/or rules when you join a group game.
- Solo stories: If you are starting a story with a single partner or starting a small group, be sure to check if your partners have specific preferences for the basic construction of a game. Tense, person, pace, etc. These things should not come as a surprise later on, since it could very well be a deal breaker. (For instance if you are only comfortable with first person past tense writing, but your partner is only comfortable with third person present tense. Or perhaps more commonly: different pace requirements.) Also remember to respect your partner's listed offs, and be respectful in all approaches for elements that are listed under "maybe", "can be negotiated" or the like.
3. Some Very Important Glossary:
- Talk to your partner/s. Let them know if you had a fun idea, thought randomly of the characters, were thinking about the plot on the subway, whatever really. Sharing a story means both of you have it brewing in your heads and odds are it will blossom even more if you can share the enthusiasm over it. Some might not prefer this, but in my experience people appreciate it. If your partner does not particularly like it though, by all means don't haha. But what goes for all stories and all partners is the vital communication about what you want from the story, developing the plotline if that's what you do, your expectations about posting pace and whether or not you mind how long or short the posts are, if you prefer images in posts or don't like them, if you want to write up character sheets or improvise as you go, etc. Get on the same page, essentially, and stay on the same page.
- Ask you partners/s. If there is anything you're unsure about, ask. It's so much better than finding out it was a step out of line afterwards.
- Explain to your partners. If there is anything you don't like, are uncomfortable with, or any change of plans in whatever habit you've established with pace or otherwise (because RL happens), send a PM or an IM message to let them know.
- Respect your partners. They are people with feelings, lives, dreams and jobs, families and interests. They deserve to be spoken to politely, and they should not have to worry about being subjected to prejudice, inappropriate commentary or demeaning words, and you should expect the same respect in return.
4. Tense and person:
- God Modding: Controlling another writer's character directly or indirectly without permission. This can be anything from stating your character picked up another and carried him away, to something more subtle like writing a full paragraph of dialogue and continuing interaction after it, thereby assuming the other character simply stood/sat and listened while yours did his monologue. Remember that generally when you write actions or narrative that predisposes the other character/s to certain actions, reactions or state you are god modding. Simple as that.
- Powerplaying: Creating characters that are over powered compared to other characters in the game or the setting, typically unbeatable because there are too many traits and aids that counter whatever flaws they are given and they always seem to be super awesome at many things or incredibly super awesome at one important thing. Balance is important. Strive to create characters that fit the setting and aren't automatically above every other character in the game in skill.
- Note about God Modding vs Power Playing: Some reverse the definitions. As in, define God Modding as what I have here for Power Playing, and vice versa. It doesn't matter all that much, to be honest, as long as people avoid both in general in their writing.
- Meta Gaming: Using OOC knowledge IC. There are a hundred things you know about the setting, the plot, the other characters, etc, that your character does not. Meta Gaming is giving your character this information or having them act based on this information. Even if you don't spell it out IC, it's usually obvious when characters have ideas or make decisions based on ooc knowledge. Don't do it.
- Note about OOC vs IC: Please remember at all times that what occurs In Character does not reflect feelings, ideas or intentions Out Of Character, and avoid bleeding such things into your stories at all times. It is incredibly important to separate what is said and thought by a person's character, and what happens in communication with the writer itself.
- Retconning: In small or large amount, retconning is writing as if past events or established points are now suddenly different or didn't happen. If someone describes the weather as sunny and mild and you then describe freezing wind and rain in the same scene, you're retconning. If your character had a bad stomach flu at noon so he couldn't go to work and then suddenly was able to take some hottie on a wild date at 12.30, you're retconning. If your character went to a BBQ on a Sunday with half the neighbourhood but is then written later as if he stayed home that entire day, you're retconning. If your character exists in a void, this doesn't matter. If other characters interact with him and he lives in a setting created by you and others, it matters.
- Mary Sue/Gary Stu: That perfect, flawless character that always has the right answer, always knows what to do, always does the right thing, knows exactly what they need to so they can excel in whatever situation you put them in, somehow always has the connections to get the information they need, etc. Everybody has flaws, everybody makes mistakes, nobody is loved by everyone and wanted by everyone. But there is the flip of the coin too. Characters that never do the right thing, are always at odds with everything, always stick out like a sore thumb, have endless flaws and hindrances and never seem to catch a break... Those characters fall into this category as well.
Unless otherwise stated, it's safest to assume all posts within a group game should be written in the same tense and person. Be sure to find out whether your preferred tense and person is okay with your partner in solo games, as well as checking if theirs is okay with you. Some people are only comfortable writing a specific way and some are only comfortable replying to posts written a certain way. The most common is third person past or present tense, but it varies.5. Posting Order:
When writing with more than one person in a scene, always assume a basic posting order is in place, even if it isn't specifically stated. Every character should get a chance to react to any given situation, and their reactions might alter what you would have written otherwise. Even if the situation is a dialogue between two and one other is just standing somewhere near by, that character standing alone has thoughts and observations and reactions. Maybe he does something that interrupts the conversation, you never know.6. Advancing a scene:
Moving a scene forward is a fun dance between all characters involved. Make sure you actually allow every character the opportunity to contribute to it and react. It's a question of balance between proactivity and reactivity, internal and external dialogue, action and narrative. Sounds complicated, but it isn't as bad as it looks.
- Proactivity & Reactivity: A good rule of thumb is start with reacting to the post/s before yours, then write something for your partner/s to react to. Just make sure you don't forget either of those, and remember no one can react to internal dialogue.
- Internal & external dialogue: You can fit a lot more of narrative (internal) than dialogue (external) in each post. Remember you don't want to move the scene too far so you can only get a limited amount of dialogue in there without it becoming a monologue. On the other hand you need to give enough to continue a conversation for example, if that is what you're writing. It's a matter of balance and how much body language and action you add in as well. If you're only relying on dialogue you obviously need more of it. If you're relying on a combination of many factors, you need less.
- Action: Just as with dialogue, it's important to be aware of the time frame you're playing with. Every physical action takes time, and for the other writers to have a chance to react to what is happening you need to end your post before you move too far ahead or you'll start indirectly god modding them.
- Backtracking/fractured scene: Sometimes longer posts span more than one instance of dialogue or action since they move the scene too far ahead to only cover one. This forces the other writer/s to constantly backtrack, forces their hand in reactions, and thus essentially powerplays the entire scene up until the last bit of action/dialogue since the outcome of the first bits of dialogue/action have already been decided by one writer. In addition, every post from that first fractured one is going to be covering different points in the scene instead of the scene moving smoothly forward one post at a time. Long posts are of course absolutely fine (as are short or medium posts), but make sure you aren't hijacking the scene's timeline.
- Note about dialogue: By "instance of dialogue" I'm not talking about a single sentence, necessarily. I use this term for the bit of dialogue a character says before they expect a reply from the other character. In a natural flowing conversation it won't be too long and will likely be peppered with body language and internal thoughts.
- Calling it: Sometimes scenes slow down and start to drag on and there's no apparent conclusion. If you see this happening it's probably much more fun for everyone to end the scene and start a new one at the next plot-relative or character/story developing point.