How to Write a Story Hour
by el-remmen

First of all, I am not trying to say that I somehow hold secret sacred knowledge of the process for creating a story hour and that I know “the one true way”. There are a myriad of approaches that have worked for different story hour authors, but I also wanted to give folks the benefit of my experience having written one of these buggers for nearly six years, and having observed the story hour forum since it was first created back in the early days when these boards belonged to Eric Noah.

One other note before I begin, these guidelines are meant for those writing an account of an actual campaign. Game-based fiction is all well and good, but that is not what I come to this forum for and not what I wrote, so I really have no advice for how to keep up and accomplish one of those.

So without further ado…

0. Read Other Story Hours
Before anything else, sample and follow other story hours. Nothing is going to give you a sense of what writing a story hour is like than reading one regularly, and you will be learning from the best, even if the lesson simply is learning what you don’t want to do.

1. Know What You Are Getting Into
I don’t want to be discouraging right out of the box, but any story hour author will tell you keeping up with a story hour is a hell of a whole lot of work. A hell of a lot of writing that requires a special kind of love and diligence. The history of this forum is strewn with the carcasses of abandoned story hours – people who started writing one up on a whim and were quickly overwhelmed, or people who got a good start but were discouraged by lack of feedback, those who thought they were like gods, but still got rocked – and look, there is nothing wrong with that – what you write is what you write and it is its own reward – but if you really need to worry about the uses of your time, think long and hard before you begin. However much effort you think it will be? Well, it is actually ten times more than that… Which leads us to #2…

2. Don’t Start a Thread Until You Have An Installment or Two Ready to Go…
This might be a re-iteration of #1, but until you have a sense for how much work this is going to be by actually writing up one or two installments, I suggest holding off starting a thread promising a new story hour to come soon. Heck, I know how much work it is and I am not going to start a thread for my next story hour until I have the first couple of installments written up. I want to make sure I still have it in me to keep one of these things going again.

3. Get Your Players’ Help Whenever Possible
See if you can get one or more players in your group to help with note-taking – both jotting down quotes and the actual events of the game. Some people prefer a messageboard forum or Yahoo group to do a group recap, but whatever it is, I cannot emphasize enough how much that will help when you sit down to do the actual writing. It essentially sets up an outline to follow as you write, or at the very least something to check your work against after each burst of writing.

If you can’t get players to help in that way, then I would suggest at least polling your players about important and memorable scenes and see what was important to them. Having an alternative point of view on scenes from the game will help flesh them out, and also help to keep your players involved, as they can read about the things that were particularly cool for them.

Some authors swear by recording their sessions, and I am sure it works for them, but I think it adds a whole lot of work to the actual writing and can bog the story down with unessential details – The occasional unessential detail can help set or reinforce the flavor for the game, but too much of it is a bad thing, I think.

4.Avoid A Ton of Background at the Beginning
Get right to the introduction of player characters and the premise of their adventures/campaign. Too much dry campaign background, or even player character background, before you get to the actual game is discouraging to readers. Try to capture the sense of the game and the setting in the actual telling of the story, and you can always go back and fill in background info with exposition later. Have the characters be the window on the world.

Personally, I used a system of footnotes, so readers could read background info if they liked, but could just as easily avoid it. Some authors like to interject a parenthetical asides, others (like Spyscribe/Fajitas) have whole special “sidebar” installments – that works too – it depends on your preference.

5. Consider Your P.O.V.
While my style of writing and my descriptions changed and developed while I wrote “Out of the Frying Pan”, there were a few choices I made early on that I stuck with. One was the inclusion of footnotes (which I mentioned before), but more importantly I decided that everything would be told from the player characters’ point of view (so no scenes of the villain discussing his plan in his secret lair, for example). If the characters were not there, then it did not get told in the story hour unless it was being retold to them within the context of the story. Also, I made a conscious choice to avoid using any meta-game language in the actual narrative. There was no reference to levels, alignment, armor class, attacks of opportunity, skill checks, etc… This was the kind of thing I used the footnotes for.

Now, I am not saying you have to make the same stylistic choices as I did. Certainly not, but rather I think you should consider how you want to approach this kind of thing and remain consistent with it, as a sudden change can be jarring to the reader, and it can help gather and maintain readers – as they will gravitate to a style they like. However, if you do need to change it for your own convenience or preference, then do so. Remember, the overarching guideline is: Whatever works best for you in the long run…

6. The Importance of Layout
Reading large blocks of text on screen can be a headache waiting to happen. Remember to leave a line break between each paragraph and between lines of dialogue. This makes it much easier to read and keeps the eye from getting lost in the clusters of lines.

Also, while some people swear by it, I say avoid using different color fonts for the text. I think this is too jarring. Again, there are exceptions: I used this effect for the voice of a weird creature in my “Out of the Frying Pan” story hour (putting all its dialogue in yellow font), but it was near the end and for a limited time to delineate a distinction between it and the “normal” people. It is not something I would do regularly.

7. Proofread. Proofread. Proofread.
I was not always the best at this myself, as I went through a long lazy phase where I just posted whatever I wrote and went back and fixed it later, but as time went on I stopped doing that and made sure I gave each installment a good read over before I posted it.

Nothing is going to turn off a would-be regular reader like a multitude of frequent typos and grammatical errors. Look, everyone is going to have a handful in any installment even with a read over. The human brain has a tendency to self-correct when we look at something we wrote ourselves, and sometimes the clunkiness of language is not clear until after you’ve had a time to sit on the installment and take a look again later. In fact, I would recommend waiting a day or two between the writing of an installment and doing the proofing, just to clear the head.

If possible get someone else to give it a read and a clean up, and some other authors, like Pirate Cat and Spyscribe swear by reading it aloud to yourself. This is something I do when I get to the afore-mentioned clunky language to help myself work it out, but I never got into the habit of reading the whole thing aloud, even though it seems like a really good idea.

8. Start Short, Get Longer
Your first few updates should only be a page or two long. If you want to grab readers, it is better to give them smaller more easily digestible pieces of story that leave them hungering for more, than pasting up a huge chunk of text they have to wade through all at once. I think you are more likely to grab and keep readers with this method. As time goes on you can lengthen updates as the readers will be more invested in the story and will appreciate an extra long installment every now and again.

9. Cliffhangers
I think this is self-explanatory, but I always liked ending installments on the verge of a big battle, or with the revelation of some key piece of info to the larger plot. This fosters discussion and speculation, and makes people eager to read the next post.

10. Update Regularly
Try your hardest to get a schedule. Even if you miss it sometimes (we’re only human), it is good to have people have a general sense of how often you might be posting.

This is also important from the point of view of keeping up with the events of the campaign itself. The more recent the events you are writing about the easier it will be to recall and write about them.

Finally, don’t promise updates unless they are actually done or mostly done. Nothing is more disappointing to readers than to have to wait weeks or months for something you said you were going to post “soon”. In addition, it is a drag to have to go into your story hour thread and apologize and/or make excuses.

11. Pimp Your Story Hour
I am not saying to go into every thread and extol its virtues, but put a link to it in your sig. Make a banner for it. When you get to a point where you have multiple threads for the same story try creating a portal thread where a new reader can easily figure out where to start and what’s what.

12. Make it Available for Download
Whether it is a PDF or a word doc., some people don’t like reading a lot of text on a screen. Some people want to easily print it out and read it on the couch, or on their train commute. Trust me, people who take the effort to download it and print it out, will come back to the thread once they are caught up and become loyal readers. Again, it is about how much they have invested in keeping up with the tale.

13. Have Fun and Don’t Whine!
When it comes down to it, most people are not going to care about the story of your D&D (or whatever) game. And those that do enjoy it are still not as likely to care as much as you do about it, so make sure that if you are doing this you are doing it because you want to and because you enjoy it. I know several of these guidelines have touched on drawing and maintaining a readership, but as far as I’m concerned that is more about making things easier for those who are already reading and helping to keep them around. If I knew how to make people read and comment on story hours, I would be charging for this advice. Reader feedback is nice, but not all of us are going to get the kind of long-term response of a Sagiro or a Piratecat – Appreciate what you get, but don’t write for it.

And that being said, if you are not getting the kind or amount of feed you want, for pete’s sake, don’t whine about it! Talk about a counter-productive reaction! I mean, it is one thing if you already have some regular readers and they suddenly disappear so you post asking where everyone is… It is another thing to start a story hour and feel like everyone should automatically fall in love with it and fall over themselves to compliment you or ask questions.

And that there we are. . .

I hope you find these guidelines useful and if folks have other suggestions please mention them here. I have started many “meta” story hour threads over the years, and I am still very intrigued by the process of it.