Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Andrew Foley scared me when we first met.
One look at his scowling visage across the “land yacht” we took from Edmonton to San Diego, and I knew he was full of grumps. Thus I gave him a wide berth on the way south. But then there was a Comic-Con miracle! The show cheered him up so much that he was not only approachable but actually fun and interesting on the way back, and so we got to know him and his lovely bride.
Since then, Andrew and Tiina have become occasional guests at our movie nights and geek parties. Andrew always shows up looking grim and forbidding as Mr. Hyde, but the moment he starts talking to people, the good doctor returns.
When I had to make a choice between continuing to work on Baldur’s Gate or writing a novel or two every year, it was Andrew I introduced to the boss as a prospective replacement. Since he took over, he’s managed to shame my productivity by not only keeping up with the day job but also continuing to write screenplays on the side.
Along with SG Wong, Axel Howerton, and Margaret Curelas, Andrew joins me for the Writing 101 panels at the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo this weekend. Visit us if you’re there.
1. As a writer of prose fiction, screenplays, comics, and video games, what’s one thing that each of those media does better than the other? And can you think of a time you took a lesson from one medium and applied it to another?
Prose lets you explore characters in a way other media can’t, from the inside out. You can delve into their interior lives with a specificity you won’t get in primarily visual media, without the word count limitations you’d encounter in comics or most video games, at least the mainstream ones.
Comics are unique in the way they allow creators to juxtapose and integrate images and text. Lots of video games have image and text, but for the most part the text’s purpose as a visual element is primarily utilitarian, and the images are dynamic and directly affected by each player’s actions, so combining just the right phrase with just the right image is hard to manage without removing the interactive quality that makes games games. Even in those instances that allow game designers to match word and picture precisely, text is usually going to be constrained within the limits of the user interface, rather than an integrated part of a specific image’s design.
Movies and TV shows have a huge advantage in terms of focusing viewers’ attention where the creators want it—you can’t get a jump scare out of prose or comics.
Games allow the player to participate in and guide the narrative to a degree the other media mentioned don’t. It could be argued that every individual audience member has a unique experience interacting with a given work, but traditional narrative media generally tell stories to passive audiences rather than cooperatively creating a story with an active one.
As for lessons taken from one medium to another, off the top of my head I can’t think of a time I took something and applied it, at least not in a way that got the best result possible. There’s a basic skill set that’s applicable across the board, but I’ve found the requirements of each medium are so specific that applying techniques that work in one to another is a risky business.
For instance, when I write screenplays or comic scripts, characters’ dialogue is constantly getting cut off by other characters. That works fine in those media. When I started in video games, I wrote dialogue much the same way. But having someone read half a sentence, then read and choose from three options for what their character says that interrupts that sentence before it’s finished requires some mental gymnastics and more good will than I’m comfortable asking a player for. A writer can’t build up a rhythm of dialogue in video games the way they can in media where one line is automatically followed by another. Even when a non-player character interrupts another NPC, outside of cut-scenes, Baldur’s Gate players generally have to actively choose to receive the next line. No actor is going to come in and cut it off mid-sentence; it’s not even in the next word balloon, which visually ties the first line and the response/interruption together. It’s on a whole other screen, completely in the player’s control, completely out of mine.
Realizing that kind of back and forth wasn’t going to work in the context of the game I was writing was extremely jarring. So was realizing that including specific angles for every shot wasn’t going to fly in a commercial screenplay the way it could in a comic script, because it’s the director’s job to figure out how to shoot a scene, not the screenwriter’s. And that I couldn’t have a 300-word inner monologue delving into a character’s thought processes in a comic like I could in a novel, because the physical space on a comics page couldn’t accommodate that. And that a sight gag that would work on screen wasn’t going to be funny if the only thing I had to convey it with was text. The degree to which things don’t carry over from medium to medium is a lesson I’m constantly learning.
2. Also, as a writer of both original and tie-in work, how does the “blank page” of the former compare with the “giant story bible” of the latter? Are there ways in which tie-in work challenges you more or differently than your original work? And of course vice versa.
The challenge of giant story bible work is producing something you’re happy with that’s recognizably part of the franchise you’re working on. People come to the Baldur’s Gate games looking for all sorts of things, but “something written by Andrew Foley” isn’t one of them. The job is to create work that fits as seamlessly into the established material as possible, and that’s usually going to mean modifying your authorial voice to some extent.
On the upside, you have access to a lot of resources you wouldn’t if you were starting from scratch. If you’re generating stories, you’ve got a wealth of material to pull ideas from. You don’t need to work out who runs the thieves guild or who’s on the Council of Four, that stuff is already there. I find it much, much easier to write dialogue for characters whose voices I can actually hear. Every time I’m going to write material for Viconia or Edwin or whoever, the first thing I do is listen to the characters’ sound sets. That’s a huge asset.
At least it is when it’s not a huge pain in the ass. You don’t end up in hour-long arguments over whether a character would ever use the word “depravity” when you created the character. I’ve had that exact argument in regards to Minsc in Baldur’s Gate (I lost because I was arguing with my boss, but in my head I can literally hear Minsc’s voice actor Jim Cummings delivering that specific line.) And the same material that provides so many ideas can also strangle stories if you’re careless and do something like, say, build a plot around a dual-classed cleric-magic user dwarf, for instance. I’m still kicking myself over that one.
The other thing you usually have in a tie-in situation is other people. I’m not a great self-starter. I’ll always produce faster if someone else gives me a deadline. And if I’m drawing a complete blank, having someone there to get the ball rolling is invaluable. When I’m generating material on my own, there’s usually several hours to several days of me mashing my head into my monitor before I finally hook into something that gets me moving. The difference between having a blank page and having a page with “Giants” written on it can be immense, especially when I never in a million years would’ve come up with giants on my own.
One other thing that might be worth mentioning: for me, the blank page and story bible divide hasn’t fallen along the same line as original and tie-in work. I’ve probably done as much or more work on unestablished franchises, where I’m contributing elements to what will eventually become the story bible down the line, than I have on properties that already have an established canon and fan-base. Original and unestablished franchise work have more in common with each other than established tie-in stuff—the big difference between them is I own more of one and get paid way more up-front for the other.
3. Like many of our friends and colleagues, you’re no stranger to horror, humor, or mixing the two. For instance, I know you’re not keen to write the romance story lines for video-game characters. When have you had to write a kind of story—romance, historical, Western, or whatever—that you just didn’t want to, and how did that crush or strengthen you in the end?
Before the torch-wielding mobs show up at my door, it’s not that I don’t want to write romance story lines for video games. My concern is their comparative relevance to the story—I’ve got similar issues with Hollywood’s tendency to jam romance elements into films whether the films’ story requires or justifies them or not (I’m picking on films specifically because they’ve got a tighter time frame to work with than television, so pieces that don’t contribute to the narrative whole tend to be more obvious and problematic than they might be over the course of a 10+ hour television season.)
In traditional narrative media, you have a greater control over the story, so there are opportunities to make a romance integral to the story, tie it in thematically, and generally justify its inclusion. For adventure-oriented video-games (which are the only kind I’ve written so far), romances are optional elements. Players can choose romance story lines with a variety of different characters, or ignore them altogether. Making romances meaningful to the narrative under those conditions is very difficult.
Finally, most romance story lines end with someone saying “I love you” and meaning it. That’s a huge thing in my world. The story has to earn it; if I don’t think it does, it bothers me. I don’t want to present something to an audience that would bother me if I was a member of that audience.
Having said all that, it’s clear a substantial percentage of players like having romance options—they like it a lot. And, despite what a few people online seem to believe, I honestly would prefer people enjoy the games I work on. I can’t see multiple optional romance storylines not being a part of any game I’m likely to work on in the foreseeable future. They’re an element of game design (and frequently movie screenwriting) I’ll admit I struggle with, but if it improves player enjoyment, it’s worth the effort.
I should also point out that when it comes to my video game work, I’ve been fortunate to work with people who are very passionate about the romances, specifically Amber Scott and Liam Esler. Liam contributed greatly to the Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition romances and Amber’s done the majority of the heavy lifting on the romance front (and a multitude of others) in what I’m still only allowed to refer to as “Adventure Y.” They’ve both made me a better writer in general and a better video game writer in specific.
4. What genres challenge you? What does trying them teach you?
Genre-wise, the most difficult things for me to write involve heavy research, especially of subjects I’m not interested in (which is most subjects—I’m a woefully underdeveloped person when it comes to almost anything that extends beyond writing or art.) Anything with a major historical element and hard science fiction are the ones that scare me the most. Whenever I find myself in those areas I feel like I’ve got a target on my back, I’m just waiting for someone to pop up and tell me how I got it all wrong. And once I do start researching, it’s way too easy to get lost in minutiae. From a strict cost/benefit perspective, working with worlds I either understand or invent is the smart play, at least until I run out of story ideas for those worlds or someone shows up offering a paycheck.
I’ve always maintained that it’s better to be writing anything than painting condos, which is the only other job I’ve ever been remotely qualified to do. Left to my own devices, there are subjects and genres I naturally gravitate toward, but there’s very little I’d say I actively don’t want to write. Even stuff that isn’t “me” I can enjoy as a challenge, if nothing else. The bigger considerations are what work will get the mortgage paid faster and how much time I can reasonably commit to something. I’m in a position where I’m not just able to say no to a project, but just plain can’t say yes to a lot of them. I’m incredibly fortunate, but I still feel bad having to turn stuff down. I want to write it all, but there’s only so many hours in the day.
So writing something I don’t want to, if that’s even possible, isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s writing something that ends up not working that hurts. I sincerely believe everyone involved in the Cowboys & Aliens comic wanted to make something good. Everyone did the best they could inside the specific set of circumstances under which it was created. The result was… less than satisfactory, I suspect for everyone involved, certainly for me. That was disappointing. C&A went on to sell more copies than my other comics, Parting Ways, Done to Death, and The Holiday Men put together. That was crushing. I spent a couple years living in terror that it’d be the thing for which I was best known for the rest of my life. That may still turn out to be the case, but at least I get the satisfaction of knowing more people have played Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition, even if they don’t know who I am or what I did on it. I’ll feel even better when they can finally play Adventure Y.
5. Working in predominantly dialogue-based media, you have a lot of practice in creating different voices for your characters. What are a few simple techniques for doing that?
I’ll usually approach dialogue in one of two ways. The first and easiest way to go is to just cast the characters. They’ll start off in my head with the voices of friends or specific actors and as the story tightens up, they usually develop into their own thing. When things are going well, writing dialogue is more like transcription than creation–I can literally hear the characters talking to each other.
Things don’t always go well, though. I try to get characters talking and all I “hear” is silence. When that happens, I have to do things the hard way. I’ll figure out the purpose of a scene (if I haven’t already–I’m big on outlining so that’s fairly rare) and write the lines without any attempt to convey character at all. There’s no subtext, everyone just says exactly what they mean, which almost never happens in reality unless the speaker’s really comfortable or really angry.
When that’s done, I go through and start figuring out how the specific characters would try to communicate each line. With each line, you start having to answer questions about the character saying them. How important is it to them that this idea be understood? Will they be direct or subtle in conveying it? Will they let it go if they don’t think they’re being understood or will they hammer away at it until the other person gets it? What a character isn’t willing to say gives the writer as much insight into their personality as what they do. Each line becomes a building block, and eventually they add up to a character.
One thing I don’t do so much these days is create extensive back stories for characters. That was something I picked up from pen and paper roleplaying games, and it does help develop distinctive voices. But it’s labor intensive and for me there’s a real danger of missing the forest for the trees. I eventually figured out that I was coming up with a lot of cool stuff nobody would ever get to see because it wasn’t relevant to the story I was telling. These days, unless circumstances demand the creation of a detailed bio (they often do in video games, and it’s pretty standard in TV too), I’m fairly comfortable starting off with not much more than an idea of who a character is right now. The specifics of how they got this way I prefer to discover through dialogue as much as possible. It keeps things fresh for me and keeps the focus on the story the audience is actually going to get to experience.
Observe Andrew from a safe distance at his Tumblr.