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The Art of Spellbinding

For the most part, it's expected that readers know that fiction stories are fiction. Readers might take meaning from fiction, and hopefully they would.

Fiction can help people to understand different cultures, traditions, and times. It can help people to respond to personal challenges in unique ways.

Writing asks a lot of a person. Neil Gaiman, in his essay, "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?" relays the most common answer that he gives to the question ("I make them up.") and the subsequent negative reaction, as the answer isn't deep or technical. Click the hyperlink to read his complete essay as the story he tells is very impactful.

For the purpose of this post, I'd like to focus on this part: "You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.

You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if...?" (1997).

Ideas are highly organic and constant, but executing them requires that a person is keeping tabs on themselves and that ongoing flow of ideas. Sometimes, the most important and significant ideas are those initially discarded because they were thought of in unlikely settings. While playing a video game, while on the phone to a friend, while doing something mundane, "What if...?" Do you stop and do you allow that "What if...?" to take form? It's a common experience not to, and there's no shame in taking part in a common experience.

However, people who write often might take instant advantage of any "What if...?" They probably engage in specific activities in order to coax that question to the surface because they need those new ideas and, essentially, they need whoever is going to take part in those ideas (future readers) to believe in them as much as they do if not more so.

I like Evan Skolnick's presentation of the problem of the storyteller in creating a suspension of disbelief, an essential element in any kind of storytelling.

"A storyteller's success or failure with believability hinges on their ability to present:

An artificial incomplete world...

featuring custom-designed characters ...

who experience carefully crafted events, actions, and reactions ...

but that nevertheless appears to the audience to be:

a real complete world ...

featuring genuine people ...

who experience spontaneously unfolding events, actions, and reactions" (2014).

In this case, Skolnick is talking about a video game, but he also outlines the experience of a reader. A reader also delves into world's of the writer's choosing. They see the characters from their own perspective, sometimes inhabiting the protagonist in their own minds, and all of that can feel real because they attach themselves to it. They believe in what's going on because the writer could make the story elements work together in a functioning world.

An amazing case study in believability is the game, "What Remains of Edith Finch". In this story, you play as a younger Edith, exploring her family's home in Washington state. You live out stories her grandmother told her, her distinct memories of other family members, and uncover their mysteries and secrets.

While the game takes a dark tone, the believability begins early. Washington state is a real place. Wanting to connect with and better understand one's family, even wanting to uncover secrets and mysteries isn't unusual.

Often, the game will take the player on flashbacks in which you play as another family member. These scenes seem the most "unrealistic". However, first, they are beautifully drawn and animated. Second, it's not unusual to feel so connected to a person that you begin to understand or want to understand what it's like to walk in their shoes. The scenes are further removed from reality, but they're supposed to be.

The player can, upon entering the house, explore at their will. Different scenes, dialogue, reactions, will take place depending on what the player chooses to pick up. The order that information comes is solely based on how the player chooses to explore.

If the player enters Edith's grandmother's (Edie's) room and looks through the slides on the ViewMaster, they will eventually get this narration: "For 500 hundred years the Finches have been famous through-out Norway for their fortune... and misfortune. Odin Finch buries the latest victims of the Family Curse: his wife Ingeborg and their newborn son Johann. On January 7th, 1937, he sets sail with his family -- and his house -- hoping to leave the curse behind. But 40-foot waves off the coast of Washington, send the house and Odin to the bottom of the sea. Odin's daughter Edie, with husband Sven and baby Molly, step ashore on their new home, Orcas Island. Odin Finch is the first to be buried in the new family cemetery. His daughter Edie is already dreaming of a new Finch house" (Dallas, 2017).

The "family curse" and understanding its history and nature is what brings Edith to her old family home in the first place. Her family home was built above a house that sank to the bottom of the sea. While incredibly unusual, it's believable for many reasons:

  • The curse was a story told to Edith many times throughout her life and, as a result, stories of her family have been colored by it. So, of course, the story will be narrated with the curse and effects thereof as central to the plot.

  • Details include exact dates and specific numbers that somehow emphasize the significance of each part of the story.

  • Washington and Norway are real places.

  • There is a certain coincidence tied to the nature of this curse and the stories that correspond to each of the family members. There are common threads.

  • The tone of this story is consistent with the tone that much of the rest of the game takes.

  • There are elements of surprise as a 40-foot wave [or anything] tragically sinks an entire house.

  • The story relies on just enough spectacle to hold attention and keep player motivation to learn more about what the curse is, whether it's real, and how Edith fits in.

I've emphasized "coincidence", "consistent", "surprise", and "spectacle" as Evan Skolnick prioritizes these and crafts his chapter on believability based on those terms, and understandably so. While a lot of storytellers anchor their believability on integrating the familiar, which is important, they should ideally not do so at the expense of the unusual.

From the origin of storytelling, many have concluded that audiences have a need for the unusual and fantastical in order to come to terms with what can become a familiar part of life.

The fantastical and unusual as a method for constructing the believable is a quality that story-based video games will often prioritize. It's expected, and I find that this is often neglected by storytellers in different mediums.

Storytellers have always been spellbinders, and should be able to lean into those qualities without fear of being unrealistic in a fiction story.


Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!

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If you want to join the discussion on this specific book, you can also get a copy of Video Game Storytelling through this link!

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Gaiman, N. (1997). Where do you get your ideas?. NeilGaiman. com.

Giant Sparrow. (2017). What Remains of Edith Finch (Steam Version) [Video Game]. Annapurna Interactive

Skolnick, E. (2014). Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques (Illustrated ed.). Watson-Guptill.

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