On Storytelling: Overwriting

Words: 1862 Approximate Reading Time: 12-17 minutes

In looking at how narratives in general are constructed, I wanted to tackle a pair of issues related to the amount of content involved. If – theoretically – every story had its own individual ideal point of how much writing it warranted, then there would be both points where there is “too much” and “too little.”

To take the first problem, I want to use this essay to talk about the issue of “overwriting.” To overwrite in this context means to construct a part of the story – whether an individual piece of dialogue or the story as a whole – in such a way that it feels contrived. There is a sense of unnaturalness about the writing that does not get its spark from the game’s theming (as, for example, a horror game’s writing leaving you with a feeling that there’s something wrong). Rather, the writing is attempting to be so beautiful that it warps around to being ugly.

Overwriting isn’t necessarily a common problem, but it is more likely to happen with story-rich games, particularly those that use descriptive language to help paint the scene for the player. When games have strong visuals that can help sell the story in subtle ways, overwriting is usually avoided. But there is still value to games that rely on this non-visual storytelling, and so it’s important to be aware of the problem of overwriting.

I’ll begin this essay with a basic principle. The principle we’ll use is what’s called “logographic necessity.” This idea – borrowed particularly from scholarship on Platonic philosophy – is that in a work of writing every word should have a place of importance; there should be no empty phrasing. Ultimately, the writer should be looking at any particular sentence in a story and asking themselves “have I used the absolute minimum number of words that is needed to convey everything that I want?”

Actually achieving this in practice is incredibly difficult, and so our goal here is not to attack a writer for every word that may be out of place. Instead, we’re looking for broader problems where a particular piece of dialogue – or the story as a whole – is written in a way that it feels wasted.

As we move forward, keep this principle of logographic necessity in mind. It will be hovering over what comes next, even when it is not explicitly re-raised. In what follows, I’ll look at two forms of overwriting, and explain how they create problems for a game’s story.

When Little Words Will Do

The two forms of overwriting that we can experience are what I’ll call “small-scale” and “large-scale” overwriting. Small-scale overwriting refers to when a specific piece of dialogue is poorly constructed because it uses literary techniques in a way that ruins that piece of dialogue.

Small-scale overwriting occurs when the writer commits a sort of basic error when it comes to constructing complex sentences. I don’t mean typographical errors, such as spelling mistakes or a misplaced comma. I mean things like mixed or confused metaphors; using complex or archaic words inappropriately; describing things so much that they feel almost comical.

The common element of these problems is that they are attempts to make the writing appear beautiful or elegant. We often attribute a special power to things which are complex or even confusing. Big words make us seem smarter. Convoluted sentences sound prettier. The more inaccessible it is – so long as we still have a grasp of what’s going on (or think we do) – the better it must be.

But crafting these complex and flowery sentences is an art form of its own, one that is quite easy to mess up.

I don’t want to bring forth a specific example, so instead I offer the following sentence that is intentionally overwritten, to give some sense of what these problems can look like:

“He pulled the sword from its sheath like a butterfly from a chrysalis, and the sunlight dancing across its blade was like a thousand tiny fires.”

This sentence is, on its own, valid. It might even sound kind of nice. But as soon as you dig into its meaning, the sentence falls apart.

The first simile on its own is baffling. Simply put, that’s not how butterflies work. You don’t pull them out in general, and you definitely don’t pull them out like you do swords. The comparison makes no actual sense, and the only actual commonality is that one thing is being removed from another thing. Which is actually a rather dull comparison to make. The imagery invoked may sound nice, but it only works by demanding that you not actually pay attention to it.

The second simile has a similar problem. Sunlight on most things doesn’t really look like tiny fires, or at least not a thousand of them. On the blade of a sword you certainly couldn’t make out so many tiny fires, and in fact, if you saw sunlight on it at all, then the sunlight would likely be covering the entire blade – meaning there would be no shadow or other contrast to see the individual fires. Once again, the sentence screams out to not be examined.

Moreover, though, do we even need that description of the sunlight on the blade? Why is it important? We don’t actually know, because this sentence exists in isolation. Maybe there is a good reason to describe what the sunlight looks like on the blade. But that reason would come from what the surrounding text looks like. What is the purpose of pulling out the sword? What is about to be done with it? Is the blade special in some way?

The point is that we can’t focus our efforts on a single sentence and make it look pretty while ignoring everything around it. The result is not a beautiful sentence among so many normal ones, but a contrast that makes the normal sentences look dull, and the beautiful sentence look absurd.

Which is why it’s important to keep in mind that there is an elegance to writing that is clear and simple. What is so bad about just describing a basic action: “He pulled the sword from its sheath”? It may seem like more complex writing, filled with descriptive language and metaphors and big words, will make the story feel more alive. But it often does the opposite. It serves to remove the audience in some way. The easier the story is the follow, the more invested the audience will end up being. Messing up in crafting a pretty sentence can produce something that sticks out and looks ugly. But sticking with a more simplified prose can still produce a powerful story that reads well.

There is, of course, an important exception to this general rule. It is perfectly viable to intentionally construct such sentences in a story. Perhaps, for example, you have a character who specifically attempts to sound high-minded, but continually makes these kinds of errors. There is no shortage of examples of such characters across all sorts of media. These characters work precisely because we are calling attention to their mistakes and making it the butt of a joke. We are supposed to notice that the dialogue is “bad.” But it is that “supposed,” the intention behind it, that creates the exception. In the course of writing normally, we are certainly not supposed to think that the writing is bad. If the audience comes away with this feeling, then clearly something has gone wrong.

Maybe a Bit Much…

Large-scale overwriting works a bit differently, though it can involve numerous cases of small-scale overwriting. Small-scale overwriting deals with a single sentence. That sentence might be out of place in the larger work, or might run into one of the problems described earlier.

By contrast, large-scale overwriting is when the entire work feels like it is the product of…let us call it “trying too hard.”

The thing about this form of overwriting is that it doesn’t actually need to involve errors. The metaphors could all fit. The descriptions all sound reasonable. The big words are all used appropriately. No individual piece of the puzzle is actually messed up in any way.

And yet, the end result can still feel awkward or stilted. Every piece of narration and dialogue might give the sense that the writer – although talented – began by asking “How can I make this as complex as possible?”

The cause of this problem can be roughly the same as with small-scale overwriting. People develop styles for using metaphors or descriptions or big words when they aren’t really necessary. These writers may be knowledgeable enough to know what they’re doing, and thus don’t make mistakes, and yet when taken all together there ends up being too much. Too much description. Too much metaphor. Too many big words.

Large-scale overwriting is also harder to notice. It’s harder to notice as a writer, because it will generally feel natural. It’s tough to maintain a style that isn’t “normal” for an extended period, and so if an entire work veers into this kind of overwriting, it is the product of training, likely over years. It can also be harder for the audience to notice, because it doesn’t stick out quite as well. Whereas the contrast of an attempted pretty sentence among dull ones makes the attempt easy to spot, an attempted pretty sentence among so many others will just fade into the scenery.

And the issue here is that the complexity is still “attempted.” While it is almost certainly an ingrained style, it is a style built out of continual attempts – and probably missteps – to construct a beautiful sentence. It is still trying hard to sound nice, even though at that point the “trying” feels just like everyday work.

It is arguably a lesser problem, as well. So long as there aren’t any actual errors, the writing can get away with being a bit over the top. It’s not bad in the same way that small-scale overwriting is bad.

But it still demands the same solution. We still stand in need of simplicity. To look at sentences and wonder to ourselves what they are really adding. In writing and examining stories in all contexts – including video games in this discussion – we need to really pick at each piece of narration and each line of dialogue and ask ourselves “Was this really needed?”

Concluding Remarks

As a form of bad writing, overwriting isn’t necessarily the most common problem. We tend to run into it more with games that rely on text for telling their stories, which have become less and less common over the years. But there are still plenty of games with lots of written narration and dialogue, and plenty more that will be released in the future. So the problem will certainly persist for a good long time.

So it’s important for us to be on the lookout for overwriting. It is a subtle problem, but an important one. Good writing is something we should always demand of ourselves (as writers) and of our games (as members of an audience). Any form of bad writing is worth calling out so that we may improve.

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