Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Art of Storytelling Part 1: Dynamic Description and Active Voice

Some of my fans (I have fans!) have prodded me because, after my initial burst of posting, I haven't said anything, so perhaps its time to take some of the thoughts floating around in my head and put them to paper.  So to speak.

Different people run games differently, and I won't complain about that fact.  Role-playing is a craft, not a science, and so multiple approaches can certainly lead to success.  However, I do think role-playing does contain within it certain, immutable gospels, certain approaches that are inherently superior to others, and proper storytelling is one of them.  When I use the term "storytelling," I'm not using it in some pretentious manner that suggests such noxious memes as "role-play, not roll-play."  Nor am I discussing the art of storycraft, though the art of putting together a proper plot is certainly a worthy topic. No, I mean the actual art of exposition, the art of telling the tale, communicating the scene and the world to your players.  Role-playing games lie at the nexus of social activity, wargame, and storytelling, and you need all three to succeed... but I want to note that while a good system can cover your weaknesses as a referee and wargamer, no system will cover a lack of skill in communication, in painting a picture.  So, that's what I'd like to talk about today.

(I'm a Raven at the Knights of the Kitchen Table, one of the "mentor" gamemasters who guides other novice gamemasters and improves them.  This blog post will likely turn into a future Tea@Knight topic, so don't be surprised if you these words later).

I know some people treat RPGs as an extension of a board-game.  They focus exclusively on mechanics in the abstract, and they roleplay by outlining basic scenarios and then stating their response.  I cannot countenance this approach.  I can understand it as a way of understanding how the mechanics work or when playtesting, but for actually playing a game, I believe a certain level of immersion is necessary.  As proof, I point to the enormous success of multi-media games over their text-based counterparts, or the success of movies and comic books over literature (and the success of vividly written literature over beige prose).  People are sensual creatures, and we can only enjoy abstract discussions so deeply before they lose their power to compel our hearts and minds.  If you disagree, then the rest of his post will do nothing for you.

I find that, in fact, most people agree with me.  When a GM lacks vivid description, it is typically not a question of philosophy, but a question of skill.  How does one go about describing things?  How does one translate the visions in one's head into poetic words at the tabletop?

First, one must have a vision to translate.  Your output can only be as good as your input.  You must feed your creativity.  Step outside of your role-playing books for a moment and feast on the world around you.  Have you ever walked in a forest, felt the mossy texture of the ground beneath you or spelled that earthy scent, or scene the way the shadows of the canopy shifts on the forest floor?  Do you know that smell that comes in autumn, that chilly, sharp scent of coming snow?  Have you ever listened to the click of a woman's heels, or the murmur of conversation in a bar?  Many authors spend time just sitting in public places, scribbling notes on the people they see in passing, on the sights and smells around them.  I personally recommend watching movies, anime, TV shows, and hunting for art on the internet.  I include pictures in my NPC gallery precisely to inspire people with different looks than they might normally consider.  By absorbing all this detail, all this sensual beauty, when it comes time to conjure a scene, your well-fed imagination will be up to the task.  And you'll need to repeat this again and again.  Most writers say that if you want to write, you must read a great deal. I say that the same applies, in principle, to GMs.

So, you have an image in your mind.  You can see the character or the scene that you want to describe, but how do you translate that into something you can explain to the players in a way that will fascinate them, bring them on board with your inner fantasy world?  Let's break a scene down, a serving girl at a tavern (a common sight in most fantasy games).

The strongest human sense is sight.  We think in color and images, and even when we tell others to imagine a scene, we say things like "Can you picture it?"  So, what sights do we see?  What colors might a tavern girl have?  Perhaps a spray of red hair, or her soft green dress, or her equally green eyes, the tan of her skin with a hint of freckles, the blush of her cheeks and the cherry-red of her lips.  What about shapes?  Perhaps she is tall, rounded in the right places, with her long skirt obscuring the outline of her legs, but her corset bring her rounded cleavage into view, and her hair curls and bounces.  What about light and shadow?  Perhaps her eyes sparkle, her lips gleam, and the perspiration on her brow glistens.  Does she cast a shadow over the players, or does her skin glow?  Remember, by the way, that light comes from someplace.  Perhaps her eyes glint in the light of the fireplaces.  Perhaps her eyes reflect the candlelight of the room.

So we have sight, but humans have four other senses, often neglected by novice game masters.  What about sound?  What does her voice sound like?  Perhaps she laughs like the tinkling of bells.  Maybe her skirt swishes around her long legs and a small set of bells jangle around her bare feet as they whisper across the sawdust floor.  What about touch?  Touch is a highly erotic sense, so most people neglect it out of fear of sounding a little dirty, but texture and temperature matter and can be dealt with delicately.  Perhaps her dress is coarse but her skin soft.  Perhaps she is warm when she brushes past a player.  Finally, we have smell and taste, which I bundle together for simplicity.  Everyone forgets these, but they matter a great deal, for smell strongly affects our sense of memory.  If you can remind someone of a scent, you bring them there more strongly than any other sense.  Thus, how might she smell?  Perhaps she has the scent of clean, feminine sweat from a hard-days work, with a hint of the kitchen's scents clinging to her clothes, and her hair smells of soap and flowers.

Finally, importantly, we must remember that this girl is alive.  She moves, she interacts with people, and we must present the illusion of her existence convincingly.  Perhaps she wrinkles her nose as she laughs, or steps lightly and delicately as she flits across the floor, carrying a too-wide tray of drinks and dodging the grasp of lonely, drunk men.  We already know her skirts swish and that her hair bounces, but what expression might she have, or how might she cock her hips as she stands there, waiting for your order?

Once we have those details, it's not enough to simply stitch them together into a paragraph.  You'd get something like this:

There is a tavern wench.  She has curly red hair, a green dress, green eyes, dusky skin,freckles, and she's barefoot.  She has a corset that emphasizes her cleavage.  Her skirts make this swishing sound when she walks, and there's this ringing sound from the bells on her ankle.  She looks warm and soft, except for her clothes, which are coarse.She move delicately, and her hair bounces and she wrinkles she nose as she laughs, which sounds like the tinkling of bells.  She's graceful, which you can see from
how she carries the tray of drinks and avoids the unwanted touch of the drunk men.  She's come to your table and she's waiting for your order.

This works, and no doubt, you can picture her, but we've used what us Writer-types call passive voice.  She HAS red hair.  She HAS a corset, which EMPHASIZES her cleavage.  Her skirts MAKE a sound.  She LOOKS warm and soft.  She IS graceful.  While accurate, it sounds like a list, and doesn't engage us.  This is because passive voice tells us what things ARE, not what they DO.

To grab your players, you must use active voice.  You must replace those verbs above with verbs that do something, verbs that leap off the page, grab the reader and say "Look at what's going on."  Remember how I said that we need to remember that the girl is alive, that she moves and lives and breathes?  Active voice does that.  It tells what she DOES, not what she IS.  Her hair BOUNCES.  Her skirts SWISH.  Her nose WRINKLES.  Her soft skin GLOWS in the firelight.

I understand: Most people don't think this way.  Normal people do not speak this way.  Nevertheless, this lesson is vital.  Active voice separates the novice from the master.  Mastery of active voice for a storyteller is akin to mastery of salt for a chef or timing for a musician: Under appreciated, but vital.  Practice it.  Write it.  Speak it.  Excise "is" from your vocabulary as much as you can.  When you do, you get paragraphs like this:

The tavern wench sweeps into the room carrying a large tray of drinks.  Her long, green skirts swish around her bare feet as she deftly dodges the unwatched touch of drunk men, all without spilling a drop of precious beer.  Her bright green eyes sparkle in the firelight, and her curling red hair bounces around her dusky, freckled face.  She pauses for a moment by your table, her warm hip accidentally brushing your shoulder, her rounded, soft cleavage rising and falling in the confines of her corset.  With a flash of a smile, she stops and asks if anyone would like anything.

Can you see the difference?  Do you see how the latter grips the reader far better than the former?  Active voice: Live it.

But we're still not done.  You'll notice I left out many of the details we came up with before (How many you include in a given description is up to you.  I suggest you base it on how important the character is and the pacing of your story).  I did this on purpose.  You see, a role-playing game isn't like a book or a movie, where you simply present details to your audience.  No, in a role-playing game, people respond to you, interact with you, and interact with the scene.  They don't want to wait forever just to hear about this girl, however pretty she is, but more importantly, they need to be reminded constantly of who she is, what she looks like.  Books, incidentally, do this all the time.  Read any book and you'll note that you get an info dump the first time you meet a character, but that the author also dribbles details throughout the text, constantly reminding you about the color of a girl's hair, or the dark glower of a hero's eyes.  We have to do that in an RPG as well, constantly reminding our players of the scene and the characters within it.

We must do this in a dynamic manner.  I have seen too many GMs simply read off a paragraph of text.  Perhaps you like my tavern wench and find yourself tempted to simply read off the paragraph above.  Don't.  While a skilled reader might still bring it to life, the paragraph above is static and won't address ongoing interaction with her.  Nowhere does it mention that she wrinkles her nose when she laughs, or what that laugh sounds like, or how she smells.  We might need to sprinkle these into our session, depending on what players do, or to remind them of the character.

Nowadays, I can simply hold these details in my head, but when I was younger, I wrote lists that included luscious adjectives and notes sorted by sense-type.  Our tavern wench might look like this:
  • Sights: Red, curly hair; Sparkling green eyes; Green dress; Rounded cleavage; Gleaming, cherry-red lips; Dusky, freckled skin; Glistening persiperation on her brow.
  • Sounds: Bright, tinkling laughter (Wrinkled nose); The swish of her skirt; The jangle of the bells at her ankle; The whisper of her bare feet on the floor.
  • Touch: Warm, soft skin; Coarse dress;
  • Smells/Taste: Hair smells like flowers and soap; Clothes smell like the food in the kitchen; She smells clean and feminine;
When you have a detailed list like this (which might be too much for every NPC, of course, but is certainly worth your time for a setting, such as the bar itself: Remembers, places "live" too.  Give them plenty of details), and we need to describe the character, we only need to glance at it to come up with some elements:  Her nose wrinkles as she laughs -- bright, tinkling laughter -- at your suggestion, or Her sparkling green eyes widen as you draw her close, her clean, feminine scent wrapping around her, mixing with the flowery scent of the curling, red hair that brushes your shoulder as she shakes her head.  At a moment's notice, we can draw up some vivid, descriptive one-liner at the drop of  hat.  This matters.  We must create a living, constant world, with a continuous sense of sensory input, just like the real world has.  A computer game doesn't show you a graphic of the enemy you fight once, and then turns the screen to vector depictions of spatial positioning.  Now, it constantly feeds you sound and sights.  You must do the same for your players.

I know this lesson is a great deal to take in.  It may seem simple on the outset, but, believe me, it took me some years to master.  Consider it a goal to achieve, an ideal to pursue, or a path to walk.  Hopefully, at least, I've given you some food for thought.  Try to make your session more vivid, try to make your world come alive.  Just remember that you're playing with people, not telling a story AT them, and use your descriptions like spices: Enough to make things interesting, but not so much that you dominate the dish.
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