Growing the Language of a Story

My day job is in software development, and in pre-Covid times, when a solid majority of our teams used to still work in the office every day, I would host occasional “lunch and learn” meetings where we’d have our lunch in a conference room and watch a programming-related video.

Of these videos, one of my favorites is called Growing a Language, by Guy Steele. While it’s made for an audience of programmers, I think it’s fairly palatable to the layman. It is fascinating to me because it has a bit of a literary bent, where the form of the talk is, itself, a comment on the subject.

(I don’t blame you if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, but it’s worth watching to the 9-minute mark—the “now you see” moment.)


Steele starts his talk with a long string of definitions, ranging from nouns like “man” and “woman,” to the names of particular people, to grammatical constructs and mathematical concepts. His speech is oddly stilted to the ear, and some of his definitions cover complicated ideas with surprising conciseness. He perseveres for nine minutes in the face of the awkward, confused giggling from his audience.

At last, he gets to the point.

“A primitive is a word for which we can take it for granted that we all know what it means[…]. For this talk, I chose to take as my primitives all the words of one syllable and no more[…]. My firm rule for this talk is that if I need to use a word of two or more syllables, I must first define it.”

Steele starts with a somewhat arbitrary limitation: words of a single syllable. This is the reason for his stilted cadence. And despite his clever use of this artificially limited language, it’s apparent that he cannot get across everything he wants to say without expanding it. So he begins with simple definitions, then uses those to build more complex definitions.

The first several minutes of the talk are almost entirely devoted to building the language he needs. Then he begins to make his arguments. But he continues to sprinkle in more definitions as he goes, expanding the language so that it is ready to tackle each subsequent concept.

The Language of Stories

Steele is trying to make a point about the construction of computer programming languages, but his ideas are just as applicable to fiction. Each story has its own language, and as authors, we must construct that language as the story unfolds. We are just like Steele, defining concepts and grammar between making points. We are the train conductors laying track in front of our own speeding train.

In science-fiction and fantasy, this is especially obvious. We often need to build a secondary world that feels real, or a magic system, or the rules of some future technology. But even in more “mundane” genres, there are rules that must be defined. Who is the story about? What is the time period and setting, and how do the circumstances of the world affect the characters? What perspectives will be used?

Writing a story is a balancing act—the act of providing exactly enough information for the reader to understand what’s going on, at exactly the moment when it is needed. Too much, too early, and the whole story becomes bogged down in dull definitions. Too little, and the language becomes muddled and confusing; the story, difficult to follow.

Assumptions and Audience

Steele’s other key insight is that the starting point is extremely important. He chooses words of a single syllable. The starting point for a story is more complicated. It’s what you as the author assume about and expect from your audience.

For example, I might be writing about a dystopian future. I might focus on the technologies that enable the authoritarian regime to keep the people down. I might focus on the social constructs that make it difficult for the characters to fight back. I might focus more on the language and structure of the story, or the internal depths of the characters, or an intricate plot. The version of the story that highlights tech might appeal to a reader of hard sci-fi, while a focus on the society itself may appeal to a reader of “softer” sociological science-fiction. The version that uses challenging language and structure might appeal to a reader of literary fiction.

Whether we recognize it or not, every author must make assumptions about what their reader will bring to a story. A story that expects the reader to bring less will necessarily have to start with a simpler “language” and do more defining up-front. A story that expects more from the reader might start with a more complex “language,” but this runs the risk of confusing or driving off part of the potential audience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Better to write a great book for a particular audience than a mediocre book that tries to cater to every reader.

Breaking Expectations

Most of the time, it’s good to cater to your chosen audience, starting with a language they can understand and building it as the story progresses. But it can also be a powerful tool to break those well-defined rules.

It can be a story-defining twist to reveal something new about a setting or character that the reader wasn’t prepared for. It can be shocking and exciting to suddenly change up the structure or the way the story is told. The best authors can even carefully lure an audience into a story that they would have thrown away, were it revealed at the outset, and make them enjoy it. Maybe the main POV character dies at the end of act II, and the book shifts to the villain’s perspective?

Of course, it’s a hard trick to pull off. When done poorly, betraying the reader’s expectations can ruin the story for them. It can feel dull, like deus ex machina that impacts the story without earning it, or even like a mean prank played by the author at the reader’s expense. This is where beta readers and editors prove invaluable, helping to ensure that the trick actually works.

So Easy, You’re Already Doing It

Building a language for each story may seem daunting at first, but the good news is that every author does it, either deliberately or intuitively. By actively thinking about growing the language of the story, we have the opportunity to build it well—providing exactly what’s needed, when it’s needed, and not a sentence too early or too late.

Narrative in Games — Revisited

Games are uniquely positioned as the newest narrative art form, the baby of a family that contains novels, stories, movies and television. Narrative games are an even newer invention—after all, there is no story to speak of in Pong, Space Invaders or Pac Man, and even many modern games still treat any sort of narrative as an afterthought. We’re still feeling our way through the possibilities opened up by this young new media.

Last time I talked about narrative in games, I discussed the two techniques games use to immerse the audience in the story: experience and participation. Recently, I’ve been thinking about these concepts, their limitations, and how they work together.

Inhabitive Experience

The first thing I want to do is redefine the idea of experiential narrative that I introduced in the original post. This is the idea that games immerse the audience by allowing them to directly experience being in the story.

Other kinds of media can provide this to a lesser degree. Many modern stories use close perspectives, where the audience sees the world of the story filtered by the character they are close to. The most extreme close perspective is first-person limited, where the audience seems to float somewhere in the back of the main character’s head, or reads their telling of the story after the fact.

Interestingly, one of the least-frequently-used perspectives in modern media is second-person. While third-person dictates the story from outside the characters and first-person provides the internal view from within a character, second-person provides the odd perspective of having the story directly addressed at “you,” the audience. (90s kids will remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series.)

Many games make the player see through the eyes of a character, and this is typically referred to as a “first-person” in terms like FPS: first-person shooter. However, there’s an argument to be made that the experience games provide is actually second-person in nature.

In a game, the player can inhabit a character, in the same way that a person comfortable with driving a car acts as though the car were an extension of themselves. When someone talks with the character, they also talk directly to the player. When something happens to the character, it happens to the player.

This inhabitive experience is the core of what allows games to be emotionally impactful.

How to Inhabit a Character

Counter-intuitively, detailed characters are easier to inhabit than generic ones. The history of video game writing is littered with generic protagonists, created with the mistaken belief that an empty vessel makes it easier for the player to step into the game.

A generic character doesn’t give the audience any place to root themselves in the story. There are no attributes to embody, no desires or aspirations to connect with. The player is dropped out of the sky into a foreign world, but the character they inhabit should not be. That character is the audience’s gateway into the world, and when the character has connections in the world, the player can learn about the world through them.

Participation is Secondary

In addition to inhabitive experience, there is a second trick that games use to immerse the player in the story: participation. Instead of merely experiencing the story, the audience can actively participate in it.

Participation can vary quite a bit. While some games allow the player’s actions to influence the narrative, in many cases the plot points are set in stone. In other cases, the player might decide what order a series of events happens, even if all those events must happen to progress the narrative. This may sound meaningless, but when done well, this small amount of choice can provide the player with a sense of agency.

Even simple participation, like freely exploring a confined area, gives the player a certain sense of involvement. The truth is that participation in the story does not necessarily mean control over the story. The player can be complicit even if they’re not in charge.

It is also important to note that participation, by itself, is not enough to create a narrative experience. The player is a very active participant in a game of Tetris. Even more complex games like city-builders and real-time strategy give the player complete control over the game pieces, but that control has little bearing on the story, if a story is even present.

The Key Narrative Combo

Participation must be paired with an inhabitive experience to create an effective narrative. The game places the player into a character that they can empathize with, then gives the player some degree of control over that character. Now, when the character encounters a series of story events, the player inhabiting that character experiences the events personally, and feels responsibility for the choices they make on behalf of that character.

Unfortunately, simply having these elements in the correct configuration doesn’t automatically make for a compelling story. The setting, characters and other typical story elements still have to be well-crafted to draw in the audience. These are only the prerequisites.

I can look at any of my favorite narrative games and find exactly these elements: a detailed and interesting character, rooted in an interesting world and given problems to overcome. The player is then given control of that character. Beyond that, the story is still a playground for the writer to choose what story they want to tell.

Maybe that’s a young, misunderstood psychic boy trying to save the world and also fit in at summer camp, in Psychonauts. Maybe it’s an emotionally vulnerable man spending a summer as a park ranger, trying to figure out how to mourn his dying, comatose wife, in Firewatch.

Emergent Narrative is a False Promise

A popular idea when discussing deep narrative games is the promise of “emergent narrative.” Modern games are made up of many complex systems, and the argument in support of emergent narrative is that the player can interact with sufficiently complex systems to generate interesting stories that even the creators of the game couldn’t predict.

On a certain level, this is true. My family has certainly told each other stories about the ways an attack on a bokoblin camp can go surprisingly right (and terribly wrong) in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. These stories can involve an inaccurately thrown bomb knocking things around chaotically, or a well-aimed arrow miraculously saving the day.

Likewise, notoriously buggy games like the Elder Scrolls or Fallout series generate endless stories of unexpectedly levitating horses, launching enemies into orbit with a strangely-angled strike, or even stealing the entire contents of a shop after blinding the shopkeeper with a bucket placed over his head.

These make for fun anecdotes, but not for deep, impactful stories. They typically have an element of the comedically absurd or completely chaotic, and that is because the interactions of the player with multiple complex systems will naturally contain a large element of randomization.

Chaos and randomization can be fun, but they do not lend themselves to deep and affecting narrative. Narrative requires structure, and while authors and creators may argue endlessly about what structures work best, emergent narrative is inherently structureless.

We might argue that the job of the game writer is to anticipate or corral the player’s actions, aligning them with the game systems in such a way that a narrative naturally emerges. To me, this sounds like mixing oil and water. Players will always think of options that the creator didn’t anticipate. And if the creator effectively corrals the player into a pre-planned story, it often becomes apparent to players that they are being offered the illusion of choice. The narrative isn’t emerging. It’s being forced. This is something The Stanley Parable explored to great comedic effect.

That’s not to say that a carefully authored story is a bad thing in a game. In fact, I think it’s the only effective way to craft a good game narrative. Emergent narrative can be fun, but it will never result in the same quality of story that purposeful authorship can achieve, just as the proverbial thousand monkeys with typewriters will never produce  Shakespeare.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 18

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

The Great Act II Chapter Consolidation

In my previous journal, I talked about consolidating two chapters (as defined in the outline) into one: what is now posted as Chapter 17. It made sense because they were consecutive chapters, contiguous in the narrative, and both were shorter than I expected when I finally wrote them out. Also, because of the way I had laid out the surrounding chapters, it was easy to shuffle them around and avoid having to change the structure too much.

With this fresh in my mind, I started working on Chapter 18 and quickly determined that I should do the same thing once again. In fact, several of the chapters from Christopher’s point of view in Act II are going to be short, even in the outline. I think I was trying a little too hard to keep the 2:1 ratio of Christopher and God-Speaker chapters when it really doesn’t serve the story so much as give me the satisfaction of a mathematically precise outline.

There’s nothing wrong with short chapters, but the chapter breaks need to serve a narrative purpose, and some of these just weren’t doing that.  After combining two more chapters to form the new Chapter 18, I decided to spend some time re-evaluating the rest of Act II for more consolidation. I had also trimmed enough that I could no longer keep my 2:1 ratio, so I needed to figure out how to correctly order the remaining chapters.


Reordering different narratives within a book can be a real pain, especially when you have multiple points of view or time periods to keep track of. As Lemony Snicket told us, stories are a series of unfortunate events, and you’ve got to make sure your causes and effects happen in the right order (unless you’re doing some really crazy time-travel shenanigans).

Luckily, Razor Mountain only has two points of view, each in a very different time. Different parts of those narratives fit together to reveal bits and pieces of the larger story together, but in many cases the ordering of the actual chapters is not that critical.

However, there is a single major “connection point” where the two timelines and points of view come together. This is where several major mysteries are resolved (although a reader who is paying attention will probably know what’s coming). This big moment in the narrative is situated neatly at the end of Act II, and the structure and point of view will change once again going into Act III. So my main concern with rearranging chapters is to ensure that the secrets aren’t given away before the end of the act, and that this section of the story still builds up to the final two or three impactful scenes.

I’ve now done my rearranging and I’m fairly happy with it. I’m still considering some changes right at the end, but I’ll look at that more seriously when I get to those chapters.

Next Time

Chapter 19 will finally get us back to God-Speaker. With the combined chapters, it feels like it has been even longer than usual since we last spent time with him. His narrative is still time-jumping, so it’s been an even longer wait for him. God-Speaker has already been through a lot, but in these next few chapters I’ll be working doubly hard to show how events come to shape God-Speaker’s personality and who he eventually becomes.