Like books, all games have an agenda. Sometimes they're subtle things that lie in the gaps of things. Lines of power that run from rule to rule to player to GM. Sometimes it's in the worldbuilding. What is an orc anyhow? What is the agenda of your game if all your others are monstrous?
My favorite games wear their agendas on their sleeves. They give an agenda to the GM to be read at the start of every session and increasingly I'm just making ones up if the game doesn't provide them. Monsterhearts, a game by Avery Alder, has an agenda that's so good it makes my heart hurt to think on it. There are lessons to be learned here beyond how to tell a story but they were made to tell a story so that's how I want to talk about them.
Make each character's life interesting
This one is deceptively difficult. I think of it in two ways. One you need to keep your protagonist’s life interesting and dynamic. This isn't about action. This is about tension and tension is about stakes. What does your MC want? Why don't they have it? What will they have to sacrifice to get it? Why isn't it what they actually needed.
Tension is between two characters (or the character divided against the self). So this applies in a second way. Everyone's life is interesting. Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel has an agenda item that every NPC have a name. This is similar. Your villain, your MC’s little sister, their high school best friend— what do they want? Why are their lives interesting not just to us, the reader, but to the characters.
Make all their lives interesting and we'll be interested too.
Say what the rules demand
Storytelling has rules. It has patterns and structures and violating those will feel wrong to your reader. People understand story in their guts. They may not be able to articulate it but if you break rules without careful planning and intention it will just feel wrong to readers.
Mostly when people say writing is “bad” what they mean is: you violated my expectations. Which doesn't mean you have to only do the expected, you just have to understand what the rules are so you can speak to their demands when the time comes.
Authority in the prose comes from understanding and communicating your deep awareness of the rules and patterns of storytelling.
Say what honesty demands
What does honesty demand in fiction? I think of this as speaking to what the character would do in a moment, your outline, your plot be damned.
Be honest in how your represent your characters. Be honest to how they feel in the scene.
But also speak what honesty demands is a command for you, the storyteller. Speak your truth. Write something that matters to you and pull no punches. Speak honestly and wait for the world to flinch because you have the full firm footing of your truth. Write what you feel needs to be said and damn the rules, the market, and the critics.
Keep the story feral
I think the best stories have a wildness to them. I’d much rather see a flawed, ambitious swing than the careful execution of a safe concept. Push the boundaries of what’s expected of you. Don’t restrict your concept of POV of tense of structure of character. Lean in to the savagery of fiction. Don’t be afraid of writing difficult things — both technically and emotionally.
Feral is different from the demands of honesty. Feral is being open to chance, to listening to a sneaky instinct in your gut that says your plans are too rigid, that says your outline is limiting. Feral is being ambitious and reaching for something too big to fit in the boundaries of convention.
This can lead you into danger, of course. Take a big swing and sometimes you’ll miss even harder. But I don’t think you achieve greatness without at least striving for the hard ambitious thing.
Make space for the unexpected. Cultivate a wildness in the heart of your book. Let things grow and hunt and thrive in the scary, dark corners of your story.
Whether or not you agree with these points, the larger thing is to have an agenda at all. Have guiding principles in your art. Know why you write and what you want to achieve. If you’ve been reading these newsletters at all, you know I believe in intention first and foremost. I would rather see someone deliberately reach and fail than take a blind swing and succeed.
Decide what you want to do in the world. Then do that thing. And do it well.