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Writing Confessions: Clarity

· Advice,Writing

Confession time: clarity is something I've always wrestled with as a writer. Not how to write clearly, but when. When is it necessary to be painstakingly explicit about something, and when can I instead employ the myriad literary devices at my disposal to evoke and create resonance through character action, implication, and the repeating themes of metaphor layered through the text.

The kinds of books I like to read are dense. The reader must put in effort, but the effort is rewarded richly. I think that's also why I was drawn to narrative design. Much game writing is very surface-level: here's a bad guy and a motivation for killing him. But great narrative design transforms the entire game into a text, ready for interpretation.

I know I'm not alone in this struggle. I'm even bold enough to say, I'm far from the worst offender. Especially in games writing, I've played games that veer so far into subtext, they make the meme "I know writers who use subtext; they're all cowards" seem less laughable than at first blush. 

I am talking about games where all or nearly all of the writing is abstract and metaphorical. Metaphor's job is to help us better convey and understand specific, concrete experiences, by comparing those specific experiences, both like and unlike, taking the intangible (like a specific kind of love) and making it concrete (like a forest) or even sometimes the reverse. But when the entire tale is metaphor, it's like having a symbol, but not having a meaning to attach to it. It's just a scribble. The metaphor is not elucidating anything. Such writing may appear dense to the reader, but they find no reward for digging into it. It's a signpost that points to nowhere. I think this kind of writing is often the product of a writer who is afraid to truly speak to an experience, or who believes they lack experiences worth speaking to. So they hide behind metaphor and let the reader take responsibility for what the text says.

Naturally, the answer to how much clarity is enough clarity lies somewhere between the blandly prosaic and the obfuscated, but where? (This is where the thinking of the well-meaning centrist falls short, in always thinking that the right spot must be the one equidistant between two extremes.)

Lately I've started thinking about clarity through a game design lens. If a text is an experience for the reader, just as a game is an experience for the player, what kind of experience am I trying to craft? In game design, there's the concept of "friction," which is, roughly, any time the player has to consciously think about what they're doing in a game. There's good friction and bad friction, and there's also a wide range of players, with different tolerances for friction. An example of bad friction might be a player getting lost in a confusing level, where all of the rooms look the same; the player is frustrated, and the frustration never resolves into any kind of satisfaction. An example of good friction might be mastering the moves of a challenging boss: the moves are clearly telegraphed and so the player knows they have all of the information at their disposal they need to win, but it still requires effort on their part to succeed. They might fail a few times and even start to get frustrated, but the moment they master the fight, they feel elated.

Or, to use another example: the card game War is virtually frictionless. Each player plays the top card on their deck. Whoever plays the highest value card collects both cards. The only real moment of "play" in the game is if there's a tie, which goes to the player to tap the cards fastest. That friction--will it be a tie, am I ready to move faster than my opponent--is the only thing that makes the game at all interesting, and for the most part, it's not a very interesting game. There are no decisions to make. You play cards until one of you has the whole deck, or you grow bored--usually the latter.

The point is, friction can be a very good thing. In fact, a game without any friction is probably not very engaging. But different players tolerate different amounts of friction and in different places, as do different readers. And friction is almost always something that places demands on the player's attention and focus, which are finite resources. 

Clarity in writing is about deciding where you want your reader to experience friction. Each question you leave in your reader's mind takes mental energy from them. What do you want them to be focusing on? That's where the friction should be. Everything else should tend toward clarity. You are clearing the path for them to engage with the deeper questions you want them engaging with. 

To return to the metaphor of the boss battle, if the control scheme for the game is overly complex, the player must devote their energy and concentration to mastering it, and will have less energy and concentration to give to mastering the boss's attack pattern. This *might* work, if the boss's attack pattern is relatively simple, but is the control scheme really where you want your player's attention focused?

Likewise, in writing: don't leave them wrestling with basic plot points, locations, or character motivations, or they'll never have the mental space or attention to dig deep into your themes or the mystery or any of the meaty stuff you want them to enjoy. All of those basic elements are how your reader orients themselves in an unfamiliar world and story; they won't even reach the boss fight if they get lost in the level leading up to it and ragequit.


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