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How to Write a Story Hour (by el-remmen)

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
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.
 
Hey el-remmen! I thank you for the advice. Writing my story out was & is a learning process. I think your advice here is both sound as well as helpful. Thanks not only for this advice but for such an entertaining story hour. Maester Luwin
 
I know that you have the secret and sacred knowledge of how to write a Story Hour, and I demand that you give it up!

err... What I mean is, thanks, this is cool and helpful. I am totally subscribing to it, in the case that I get the Story hour insanity, myself.

Later
silver
 

spyscribe

Villager
Great post el-remmen. I think you've articulated some very good points about the nature of this particular beast. Especially:

el-remmen said:
However much effort you think it will be? Well, it is actually ten times more than that…
I know that when I was reguarly updating two or three times a week, it meant that I was literally working on the story hour every single day. And those updates were all pretty much written already.

Can I also second the importance of getting help and input from other members of the group? Having someone you see regularly invested in the project who can give feedback, find typos, and share the excitement--and it is exciting--is invaluable, especially during the early days when readers are few.

(And by early days, I mean the first year of regular updates. Seriously.)
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Very good points. The one that I would add is one that I've seen in a lot of books with advice for writers:

Write something every day. Even if it's just fifteen minutes, or a paragraph of "pure crap" that you think you'll just toss out tomorrow. This a) keeps the story from getting cold (and cold stretches, otherwise known as "writer's block", have a way of getting longer and tougher to overcome), b) it gets you used to writing on a regular schedule, and c) often the fifteen minutes or the crap-paragraph turns into an unexpected gold mine. I know I've often sat down to write for five minutes, with almost no idea of what I was going to do, and two hours later have written something that ends up being a major new plot point or direction for the story.
 
Excellent post, el-remmen. Mind if I add a few comments?

el-remmen said:
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.
As an aside ... I found that in my Story Hour I had readers who loved it and readers who hated it. So, I came up with a solution. I personally liked it, so colored speech became the default of my thread. However, for those who don't like the colored speech I created a "Color-free Speech Section" Sblock. Anyone not desiring to read the colored text is welcome to open the Sblock and the whole post is done again in a color-free environment. Here's how you do it. It takes about 15 seconds and I hope some of my readers enjoyed it (Namely Piratecat ... who was the only one to voice their opinion but I am sure there were others).

1. Type the post to include colored speech.

2. Hit the PREVIEW button so that your post somes up.

3. Highlight the text on the screen in the previewed section and do a Control-C

4. Go to the bottom of your actual posts and type the following (substituting "[]" in for the "{}": {Sblock=Color-Free Speech Section}

5. Hit Control-V to paste your post that you copied a second ago. Your entire post should appear exactly as above just without the color tags.

6. Type (Again, substituting "[]" for the "{}"): {/Sblock}

7. Hit the PREVIEW button once more, just to make sure you got all the tags correct.

If you want to see an example, check out my story hour in my sig. Every update has one of these things. You can even hit the "Quote button" to see the actual post itself if you need a more concrete example than my description provides.

el-remmen said:
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.
AMEN! I have to admit that my story hour was poorly edited at first. Part of it was that my posts were ~ 3,000 words in the beginning. So by the time I got done typing I didn't feel like proofreading. Then (Again, thanks, Piratecat!) I decided to shorten up my post length and I edited before posting. I confess, my earlier posts were much worse than my later posts. Sure, there will always be mistakes. Nobody is perfect. But proofreading is the key!

And, if anyone is curious, I am currently going back and proofreading my entire story hour now that it is complete. I'm still finding mistakes, but it is getting better. I'm hoping now that this is my second, third, fourth, etc time through the various parts of the story hour that it is getting much better.

el-remmen said:
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.
Please add me to the list of people who swear by reading it aloud! I do it all the time and more than anything it helps me control sentence length in addition to story thematics. By reading it aloud my ears can tune in to simple things like when I use a word to often (for example: he/she/it). I find reading aloud to be an excellent stategy. Plus, it helps retain the story. {Ever see that chart on how much you learn by seeing or hearing versus how much you learn by seeing and hearing?}

el-remmen said:
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.
Hey, let me do it here!

You can check out my story hour in the link to my sig. And as for pimping the story ... you can read it and know that it actually finishes! :D This is one story hour that you can start and actually know you will come to a conclusion! {There are others, too.}

For anyone looking for a good story hour to read, please note that at I said earlier I am about 70% done with a re-edit, so there is plenty of good stuff to read before you catch up to my editing. I hope to be done by January 1, anyway. If you are wondering about how long the Story Hour is ... as I edit it currently sits at about 182,000 words. So, it is about the length of a longer Wies/Hickman novel.

el-remmen said:
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.
Bingo. Don't write because you want a big audience. To be honest, I think my Story Hour had somewhere near 30 dedicated readers. I figured this out because I would update every other day and the number of views would go up about that much between posts. Perhaps there were more people who only read weekly, because that'd be cool too! But the honest truth is that when you start out you aren't going to have many readers. When I began I think I had 3-5. When the Story Hour grew in length and some people realized it wasn't going to simply be abandoned I think more people started to read. Now that I have it noted as completed I think there have been some more people to give it a read.

Through it all I cherished every piece of reader feedback. But I would go weeks (if not months!) between reader feedback. If I was writing for the pats on the back, I'd have quite long before it was finished ... especially since the whole thread vanished in the crash of '06! However, I put it back up and kept on going because I wanted to see it through. I got to the point were I craved that hour and a half of writing every other day. I wrote because the story lived inside me and I needed to express it. I wrote for the story's sake. I hope that is a good thing!



Anyway, excellent advice, el-remmen. I hope this post only adds to the excellent foundation already laid down.
 
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Tsillanabor

Villager
What would you (plural you-anyone can answer) consider an ideal post length? I have had comments from my players reading my Story Hour (Pimpage-it is in the sig) that some of my posts are simply too intimidatingly long.
 

Celtavian

Dragon Lord
re

Good advice. A story hour does take up a huge amount of time to do well. It is basically the same as writing a serialized novel.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Tsillanabor said:
What would you (plural you-anyone can answer) consider an ideal post length? I have had comments from my players reading my Story Hour (Pimpage-it is in the sig) that some of my posts are simply too intimidatingly long.
Well, my installments tended towards the long side - but like I said in my guide above - it is best to start short and then get longer.

So for beginning posts I would say no more than 750 to 1000 words. Maybe that is too long for some people, but for my own tastes I would not want shorter.

My installments were generally around 3000 words.
 

Morrus

Administrator
Staff member
Excellent post! As one of the aforementioned people who started, didn't realise how much work is was and got quickly burned out, I can attest that you better really be sure you want to do it! :)
 

Animus

Villager
Great article.

As a DM and (sometimes) aspiring story hour writer, it's good to know what to consider before sitting down and writing one. This article has given me much to chew on.
 

Gold Roger

Villager
This is great advice.

Let me add the few lessons I've learned from my one month of storyhour writing last year.

Here are the things that broke my back:


-Proofreading

I'm a sloppy writer. My spelling is bad, wether in german (native) or english (nonative). I'm also lazy. Back then I was also impatatient. Given the choice between extended proofreading and just posting the storyhour when it's ready, I chose the second. I bet many readers where turned of by my lack of editing.


-Lack of feedback

By views between updates, I had about 5 faithfull readers. That's actually enough for me to see a sense writing a storyhour. But none ever commented, except for one of my players. That player was also the only player to care.


-Commitment

I found, without proofreading, I could spit out a decently written update in about an hour. One session was between two and three updates. The amount of writing I could easily handle in the effort it took. The same goes for proofreading. However, what I needed was the actual willingness to commit to the SH writing. I've found SH writing doesn't really take work, but a great deal of time commitment.


-The game folded

Not much more to say. At some point there was a massive shift in the PC groups alignment and style that, combined with the dark tone of the setting, took the game into a direction I wasn't fond enough of to continue DMing it.


-Lack of documentation

I'm terrible at notekeeping and further, as DM my attention was far to spend on actual gaming to keep notes. My players didn't keep any notes either. When writing, there where many times I wished we had players that kept quote and battle logs. I know the one battlelog a player did for a battle helped me immensely.


-I got behind

Once the session I was writing was not the last one played anymore, the downsides quickly begann sloping upwards.


The lessons it see in that are:

Only start up if willing to commit to the writing. By my observation, if a game is played weekly, it takes at least 30 minutes per day to keep it up to date. Believe me, you want to keep as up to date as possible. Not being destroys your motivation.

Secure support in your group. If you have player (or a DM) interested in a SH and willing to help, this will propably wastly improve your chances to have a successful SH. Your players can keep logs for you, proofread for you, motivate you and pimp your SH.



I myself am pretty sure that I'm not going to write a traditional SH (ongoing, steady acount of a game), though I might pursue an alternate model once I have a regular group again.
 

spyscribe

Villager
Tsillanabor said:
What would you (plural you-anyone can answer) consider an ideal post length? I have had comments from my players reading my Story Hour (Pimpage-it is in the sig) that some of my posts are simply too intimidatingly long.
el-remmen and I think similarly on this one. When I first started working on the story hour, I went to Piratecat's thread, found I post that I thought was just on the long side, copied it into Word and ran wordcount.

It was about 1,100 words.

So I decided my posts should be between 900 and 1000 words. Much shorter than that and you run the risk of putting up updates that don't actually advance the story. A lot longer, and I think it becomes easy to alienate the reader who just wants to pop in for a quick read.
 

sniffles

Villager
I'd add one item to el-remmen's list:

Find a voice.
By that I mean find a particular narrative style that works for you and stick with it. It doesn't have to be a character's viewpoint, just a consistent way of describing the action. Don't jump from present-tense to past-tense in the same paragraph. Don't write one entry in an archaic formal style and the next in modern colloquialisms. If you don't use metagame descriptions (spell and feat names, for example), then avoid them all the time, not just some of the time.

I agree that regular updates are essential. Any time I don't do an update within two days of the session I start finding it more and more difficult to get started. Once you fall behind it's really difficult to get caught up again.

I'd also recommend something I started doing after I'd been writing (and reading) story hours for a while: keep each paragraph short. You don't want readers to lose the narrative by getting bogged down in a long paragraph. It's like taking a breath to pause between sentences. Keep that in mind when choosing when to start a new paragraph.

I find it interesting that many folks here describe doing daily updates of their story hours. I suppose in part that's due to the fact that so many story hours are done in a third-person narrative form and are trying to include everything that happened in the session. Since I'm not trying to do that with my story hours, I can do an update immediately after the latest session. We also don't play weekly in most of our campaigns, which gives me more time between sessions to tweak my posts. I haven't received much feedback on my story hours, though, so I don't know if my longer posts are agreeable to most readers.
 

JollyDoc

Villager
Here's my two bits. When writing battle scenes (and I say this from experience), try not to write as if it's happening round-by-round. Make it flow. So what if some detail, like Joe the Cleric casts Shield of Faith, gets omitted? Does that factoid contribute significantly to the story? Also, use descriptive speech rather than game-speak, ie...I think "The balor grabbed his skull and screamed in fear and pain as he was bombarded by visions of the holy warrior before him driving a searing blade through his heart, imparting upon him a death he had not yet experienced," sounds a whole-lot better than, "then the psion manifested Recall Death on the balor." I may be branded a heretic here, but my one beef about Salvatore's writing is the seemingly endless battle scenes. They should be part of the story, not THE story. If the fight was relatively easy during your game session, don't detail it. A simple, "The kobolds were shocked when the cadre of heavily armed adventurers burst into the room. In a matter of moments, their surprise turned to blind terror as they fell before the whirling blades of the heroes," will do nicely.

Peace
 

BLACKDIRGE

Villager
Great post, El.

If I might add a bit of my own wisdom, humble though it may be.

Pick a Snazzy Title

I know this may not seem like a big deal, but it is what will draw folks in to begin with. After that its up to the material. I mean, who hasn't clicked at least once to see what Barsoomcore's Wild Stewardess Action! is all about? I know I have.

So think about that when your starting a new storyhour, and instead of going with "Age of Worms" (of which there are at least a dozen) go with "Teen Anime Porn Stars vs. The Slimy Serpents of Doom!" or something like that. :D I guarnatee people will check you out for the title alone.

BD
 

Tsillanabor

Villager
spyscribe said:
el-remmen and I think similarly on this one. When I first started working on the story hour, I went to Piratecat's thread, found I post that I thought was just on the long side, copied it into Word and ran wordcount.

It was about 1,100 words.

So I decided my posts should be between 900 and 1000 words. Much shorter than that and you run the risk of putting up updates that don't actually advance the story. A lot longer, and I think it becomes easy to alienate the reader who just wants to pop in for a quick read.
Just did the same thing with my Story Hour. First post was over 1700, another was over 2300!

Maybe I should do some reshuffling of posts. :heh:
 
Tsillanabor said:
What would you (plural you-anyone can answer) consider an ideal post length? I have had comments from my players reading my Story Hour (Pimpage-it is in the sig) that some of my posts are simply too intimidatingly long.
I typically like to write in the 1,000 - 2,000 word length. In my Story Hour that is the vast majority of what you'll find (except at the beginning ... I was trying to do too much. Grrrrr.) Even at the beginning I tried to keep it around 3,000 words. But that was too long. By post 11 the posts are much shorter and much more manageable.

I like posts in the 1,000 - 2,000 range for two reasons:

1. I can crank that out in under an hour. That means it doesn't kill an entire afternoon/evening. So I feel like doing it more often and thus allows regular updating.

2. I can proofread it in about 20 - 30 minutes. Thus, when it is posted the product is simply much better. The proofreading doesn't take as long, so I feel like proofreading more often, too.

For me, 1,000 - 2,000 words is the sweet spot. Everyone else is different. I think what is most important is that you find a length that you enjoy typing. Because at the beginning the readership is going to be few. Do what you feel natural and you'll stick with it. If you stick with it, you'll get readers who stick with you.

Writing here is much more about the writer than the audience. It's not-for-profit. It's for pleasure. With thousands of members and even more lurkers that come here ... you'll find your few who like what feel natural for you. You'll be happy, and they'll be happy. And that's what SH writing is all about!
 

megamania

Community Supporter
The advice given is fine and dandy but its not for everyone.

I used to get REALLY upset about the popularity of some people here and their SH. I put in a lot of work into mine and the campaign it is based on but I have no fan base. Why? Because the reasons I am writing are different from theirs. I am sharing ideas as much as my story.

I am not perfect and I don't pretend to be. The storyhours I do I do for myself. This thread is ....irking me. I have said it. Now everyone can smash and trash me.


Reading this, it appears the only WORTHY storyhours are ones that fit a specific style. Not true. Not true at all.
 

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