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So You Want To / Make a Visual Novel

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Okay, so you want to make a Visual Novel. Great! You are about to add a new work into the newest medium of art! Oh, and before you ask, Dating Sim =/= Visual Novel. Romance-focused Visual Novels and Dating Sims do have similar plots, but the former is more akin to a novel while the latter is more akin to a RPG. While those works have their own section at SoYouWantTo.Write A Dating Sim, this section will cover visual novels in general regardless of the genre. Yes, there are Visual Novels of every genre. Regardless of what you plan to make the Visual Novel in, this guide's goal is to assist you. So here we go!


The Engine

The first place to start is the engine for the Visual Novel itself. While it's certainly possible to handle all this stuff yourself from scratch, there is a wonderful open source Visual Novel engine known as Ren'Py. It's easily accessible even to someone with almost no coding experience, and comes with numerous helpful tutorials to get you started. You can also use Episode if you have a mobile device and want an easily understood coding system and/or pre-made character models that are customize-able with and include many animations.

A Very Unusual Medium

So visual novels are just electronic books with fancy anime pictures and music, right? Not exactly. While many can undeniably be described as that, others like Muv-Luv Alternative have Visual Effects of Awesome so prominent the action scenes are akin to movies. Alternatively, there are those that are like interactive manga such as Quartett. Text and dialogue are undeniably the most important aspects of a Visual Novel, but you cannot neglect the visual or even audio aspects of them. Presentation is important, after all.

Another aspect you need to consider is how game-y you want your VN to be. Visual novels walk the border between a game and a story, from kinetic novels with no interactivity to ones with complex branching plots or detailed minigames.

The Visual Aspects of a Visual Novel

  • Backgrounds: While most people won't care if you just take real pictures and use a watercolor filter to save money on backgrounds, they are still important. It's a lot of work, but hand drawn sprites just look better on hand drawn backgrounds. Furthermore, with self-created backgrounds, you can create your own unique atmosphere. Just look at Sekien no Inganock with its fancy and artsy backgrounds which complement the text and the characters.
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  • Character Sprites: Each major character in your theoretical VN will probably need at least half a dozen sprites. While it's recommended for beginners of any kind of story to avoid using Loads and Loads of Characters, this is especially important for a medium like visual novels. The When They Cry series can get away with its art because the facial expressions of the characters in the Umineko: When They Cry series are considered awesome. (Faces are what people focus on the most.)
  • Computer Graphics, CGs for short: These are still images made to appear when certain scenes occur. These images are best used to convey events that cannot be shown accurately simply by moving the character sprites such as a First Kiss, a Dying Moment of Awesome, a Transformation Sequence, baking cookies, and of course, sex.
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  • Special Effects: Sure, they may not seem important, but a few well-placed special effects can go a long way. Visual effects cannot be used by physical books but can be used by visual novels. A flash here or falling snow there, can easily enhance the amount of emotion of any given scene. Even something as simple as moving a sprite left or right or the way the text is shown on the screen is important! Quartett is a great example of sublime visual presentation of the story text itself and use of visual effects to evoke emotion, and Umineko: When They Cry is a great example of using these effects to Paint The Medium even using them as a plot point.
  • How to present the text: There are multiple ways, but the two major ones are ADV (short for Adventure) or NVL (short for Novel). There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
    • ADV: The most common style. The text is put into a defined dialog box at the bottom of the screen. While this forces the writer to focus on a script-like format with little space to describe the setting or character actions, the background images or CGs can do that for you since a picture is worth a thousand words. This type of style leads to a large emphasis on the visual aspect of the Visual Novel, so it is a terrible style to use if you suck at drawing and are more used to writing in pure prose. A common pitfall is for an amateur prose writer to attempt this style, simply because it is the most common one and likely the default style of their engine.
    • NVL: The best format if you want less of a focus on the visual aspects and more on the actual writing, as text covers the whole background and forces the reader to actually read rather than look at the background images. Part of the reason why Umineko: When They Cry can get away with its relatively lame art is because it uses this particular style. It is also the best style to use if you tend to be very descriptive in your writing or enjoy stream of consciousness internal monologues like Kinoko Nasu. Some visual novels that normally use the ADV style like Sharin no Kuni or even Katawa Shoujo switch to NVL to highlight important moments and to describe them in detail.
    • Others: An interactive comic book style like Quartett, a minimalistic letter box style like Narcissu, a Diegetic Interface like Digital: A Love Story, or even one with vertically oriented text.

The Audio Aspects of a Visual Novel

Video Game Aspect of a Visual Novel

  • Do you want to add game mechanics to your VN? If not, skip to the next major bullet point. If, for whatever reason, you do, then read on.
  • Forced Reading: You can hijack the player's control of the reading speed and force him to read at your own pace such as in Deardrops or certain Moment of Awesome concert scenes or certain Muv-Luv Alternative fight scenes. It gives the creator more control over how the player will experience a scene. Just don't use them too much because it can break the immersion of some players.

The Novel Aspect of a Visual Novel

(Also check out the more general story guides in the index)

Plot Structure

In other words, how your story is broken up into the various routes you may have. However, the first question that must be asked is "Do you even want your Visual Novel to have multiple routes?"

  • No: You could always make a Kinetic Novel or Linear Visual Novel. There's nothing wrong with focusing all of your effort onto one plotline, as long as it's good. Muv-Luv Alternative is one of the most highly rated visual novels despite being totally linear.
  • Yes: How will the routes tie together? Will you use a Jigsaw Puzzle Plot like Remember 11? Have them all lead up to a climactic final route with the True Ending like in Little Busters!? Share the same fundamental Aesop like in Katawa Shoujo? Of course, you could make them have no relation to each other whatsoever like in Kira-Kira, but they all better be individually good. Just please don't tack on the routes just for the sake of making every possible character date-able like in The Devil on G-String.
    • Common Route: It goes without saying that you'll need one to contain the choices that will decide which of the multiple routes a player will go on, but what type of length do you want to make it?
      • Long: The upside is that you will have plenty of time to develop all of the characters at once through their interactions and establish the setting. The downside is that a few of the individual character routes may suffer because you don't get enough time to focus and develop on a single character and make up a good plot related to that person. Hoshizora no Memoria in particular suffers from this problem.
      • Short: The upside is that you have plenty of time to make up unique conflicts for each route by giving yourself enough time to add build-up within the diverging routes themselves and only leaving small tiny hints within the common route itself. The downside is that it gives you less time for Worldbuilding or you have to copy/paste text between the routes. Tsukihime has this problem to some degree even though it has a recommended route playing order. Fate/stay night removes the problem by having a forced playing order, but the first route's quality is sacrificed for the need to establish the setting.
    • Diverging Routes: A common way to split them is by centering the individual plotlines around a specific Love Interest. That being said, don't be afraid to have a Heterosexual Life-Partner route like CLANNAD.
      • Choices: You should have some, but not too many. Furthermore, make them intuitive or at least solvable with some thinking. Kara no Shoujo is known for Guide Dang It! for having too many unintuitive choices.
      • Bad Ends: You could just add a short event where the protagonist dies or falls into despair before showing a Game Over screen, but you know that you're better than that. Why don't you try punishing the player by forcing him to read a emotional Tear Jerker or some scarring Nightmare Fuel. School Days has such potent bad endings that it is generally believed that while School Days is decent on its own, the bad endings are what make the game a classic.
    • Final Route: If you decided to have one of these, that means you stored Up to Eleven amounts of pure build up.

Writing Style

You know the writing techniques for prose and poetry some people use like Gratuitous Iambic Pentameter, Repetition, Added Alliterative Appeal, Allegories, Symbolism, and so on? Use them! Just because Visual Novel readers are more lenient on wordsmithing because of Background Music doesn't mean that you can just give up on wordsmithing. Incidentally, the Japanese version of Sekien no Inganock uses very poetic writing, but its fan translator had to use prose for the Fan Translation.


  • The Protagonist: Let's break down some of the more popular archetypes, from the sliding scale of morality. Pick one that fits the story best.
  • Other Characters: If you have multiple routes and they are centered around specific characters, be sure those characters are interesting. Since individual routes have less characters, if the character the route is centered around is uninteresting, then there's a significant chance the player may utter the Eight Deadly Words. Even if you are doing a Linear Visual Novel, it should have interesting secondary characters like any other story.


  • Don't bite off more than you can chew. Katawa Shoujo (a Medium length Visual Novel) took five years for a reason. A Visual Novel requires an organized team of artists, musicians, programmers, writers, and editors. Don't forget about the potential infighting an amateur group may have when a project is too big. Start small.
  • Substance over Style: Nothing can save a Visual Novel if the story it tells is So Bad, It's Horrible. Bad art can be counteracted with good music, bad music can just be muted or be counteracted by good art, but no good visuals or audio will save a bad story.
  • List of Cliches that are extremely common in visual novels: "Groundhog Day" Loop, Ill Girl, Rape as Drama
  • Vaporware: Creating Freeware Games of any kind, including visual novels, is a long and often frustrating process. If you can not (or choose not to) charge money for your final game, then it can be difficult to keep writing and coding until it's finished. Some people who aspire to create freeware visual novels give up, leaving nothing more than a few paragraphs of description and perhaps some concept art. Other people finish a demo, and the final version ends up in Development Hell. If a group decides to collaborate on a freeware VN, then it may be more likely to remain unfinished. Either way, if months go by with no substantial news, then the VN has likely become vaporware.

The Greats

  • Dies Irae for both showing the strength of good voice acting, sound-effects and a strong soundtrack with the proper kind of tunes, used when appropriate to sell emotion or grandeur. Its prequel, Interview with Kaziklu Bey, continues this trend on top of displaying the strength of good prose even in more verbose works.
  • Doki Doki Literature Club!, both for its masterful handling of depression and for its metafictional storyline.