5 Tips on Writing: With Jacob Long

5 Tips on Writing: With Jacob Long

Hi, my name is Jacob. I’m a game writer and narrative designer who loves science fiction and fantasy. I also love cooking, history, and running D&D games, and will often try to bring all three of those things together!

Interesting characters and fantastical worlds have always enamored me. Since I was young, I have been immersed in countless types of stories from classical literature like Beowulf and the Odyssey to captivating movies and shows like Star Wars and Star Trek. 

Video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and have brought me so much joy and inspiration. It is my hope and goal as a game developer to inspire that same joy and inspiration in others.

Hooking Your Audience

5 Tips on Writing: With Jacob Long

Hooking your audience as soon as possible is an important part of any story. You could have written the most incredible story in the world but if the audience loses interest at the beginning, they’ll never get to experience it.

I believe one of the best ways to avoid this is to make your audience a promise. A lot of storytelling is about setup and payoff. So, show the audience your overarching setup and promise them a payoff. Give them an example of what to expect from the story. 

If your story is about a young mage learning to hone their skills of magic, show a master of magic at work early on to show what the protagonist could potentially accomplish, surpass, or maybe even fall short of.

Mastering Plot Development

It’s frustrating but there’s no one sure way to develop a great plot. It depends a lot on the project you’re working on and what you or your team are trying to accomplish. My best advice is to be flexible and adaptable. Build your plot in tandem with your characters. Be willing to make changes to either one at any stage in the project’s development. In other words: iterate, and try to get as many people on your team as possible involved.

However, I would suggest giving characters priority over plot every time. A plot can’t exist without characters. Keep this in mind and frame your plot development around your characters. What kind of situations will challenge your characters? 

What sort of things will force characters to act or react? Keep your genre and theme in mind too. What would be a comical situation for a character to end up in? What would it take to bring a character to a tragic breaking point?

Effective World-Building Strategies

My number one tip for worldbuilding is to ask yourself questions. Come up with a concept or idea and ask yourself why. Why are the things in your world the way they are? How would these things affect daily life, belief systems, economics, governments, politics, and war? 

You may not need an answer to everything but if the question piques your interest as a writer, definitely follow that lead. Those details could become an important feature for your plot or characters and it ensures you’ll be interested in what you’re writing.

Have other people look at your world too. A lot of the time other people will ask questions you would have never considered. You don’t need to answer all the questions they ask but it is always beneficial to get a fresh perspective on your writing.

Techniques for Character Development

5 Tips on Writing: With Jacob Long

Giving a character a goal is a common piece of advice I hear. It’s great advice, but I suggest taking it further. The core of a character should be an impulse or compulsion, an unconscious drive to protect themselves and/or feel fulfilled. It could be anything from a need for an authority figure, a zealous sense of justice, or an obsessive sense of control. How they developed these compulsions is not as important as what their compulsions are. However, it’s probably worth exploring the backstory of how that core was formed for more important characters.

With this core, we can now decide (or rather discover) how it could affect other areas of their life and their personality, such as goals or opinions on their favorite sports team, etc. If you already have your worldbuilding in order, this is a great practice for placing this character in the world. What factions would they join? Who would their friends and enemies be? How would they feel about certain historical events?

Crafting Meaningful Decisions

For a long time when I heard “player choice,” I would imagine a Telltale or BioWare-esque set of options. These kinds of choices are a developer very clearly saying, “Hey, this is a choice you need to make.” But at some point, I realized that video games are FULL of choices. What armor to wear, taking the high ground over the low ground, which abilities to unlock. These are all incredible opportunities to recognize player agency within a game world through narrative. It could be as simple as an NPC noting which weapon the player has equipped, or as grand as an antagonist adapting their strategy based on how a player engages with the gameplay mechanics. 

An excellent example of this is SIGNALIS by rose-engine. The game has four total endings but not once does it present a dialogue wheel or list of actions to take. Rather, each ending is determined by how the player engages with the gameplay. Did they stealth past enemies or blast past them? How many NPCs did they speak to and for how long? These “invisible” choices feel organic but still impact the narrative in a meaningful way.

All that to say, overt BioWare-esque decisions are not a bad thing. Almost all of my favorite games employ them and I’d much rather work on projects with the scope to support them. Just know they aren’t as necessary as one might think to achieve meaningful decisions in games.

What are your strengths in writing and narrative design?

5 Tips on Writing: With Jacob Long

Teamwork! Games are a coalescence; this was a lesson I first learned during my time in Drexel University’s game design and production program. Once I realized this, I was able to adopt a mindset of collaboration. 

My end goal isn’t my ideas, but how my ideas can contribute to the project and the team. This mindset really helped me find the right balance between being a team player but also advocating for my work (I often struggled to do the latter in my early years).

Which games or stories have you worked on?

I’ve worked on a wide array of games from academic projects, freelance work, internships, game jams, and mods. Some genres include PvP fighting games, sci-fi RTS, business simulation, cyber-fantasy rogue-like, RPG mods (Witcher 3, Skyrim), and puzzle games!

Exploring Favorites

I don’t think I could pick my favorite at the end of the day. But a piece of media that’s always on my favorites list is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

It is a prime example of a perfect blend of plot, character, and worldbuilding. It takes the ideals of the Star Trek universe like unity, diversity, and compromise, and filters them through a slightly darker lens. It introduces themes of war, oppression, and genocide and challenges characters’ perspectives, oftentimes evoking darker sides of their personalities or pasts. All the while, it maintains that Star Trek charm with lovable characters and the occasional whimsical turn. If you’re looking for a space opera with a strong human (or alien) element, I’d highly suggest giving it a watch.

A Wish for Interactive Audio Stories

5 Tips on Writing: With Jacob Long

Definitely Stellaris. The game has some seriously underrated role-playing potential that I think could be explored on a more microscopic and personal level (as opposed to the macroscopic, often utilitarian 4X perspective).

It could be about any number of topics, but I think I would want to see through the eyes of an everyday citizen in a galaxy of trillions navigating clashing political ideologies and personal relationships. 

Throw in some political uneasiness due to a recent regime change and a growing dissident movement and I’m on board!

Register for our Free Writing Workshop now!

If you are interested in creating your own interactive audio story, you can apply for our free webinar! It will introduce you to our interactive story game engine, TWIST, and teach you how to use it to create interactive audio stories.

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About the Author
Chris Mahnke
Chris Mahnke

Christian Mahnke is the author of the most successful interactive audiobooks “Iron Falcon” and “The Magic Forrest”. He has also written branded interactive fiction stories for companies such as Disney and Audible. Currently he is stuck in the tutorial of The Witcher 2.

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