Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Subtext and the Art of Painting Without Words

Let me begin with two stories.

Recently, I turned my Arts of Rhetoric posts into actual lessons at recent Tea@Knights, which turned out to be quite popular.  Marco, in particular, enjoyed it.  He told me that he'd long had a dissatisfaction with how flat some scenes felt, and had begun (without knowing it) practicing elements I discussed, like "Show, don't tell," and "Active Voice," only he called it "Painting with Words."  Like me, he felt that showing people the world on a visceral level was a vital element of running a good game, that you had to let people see what the dungeon looked like, and that it wasn't enough to tell them about it.

Further back, back at the Summer Weekend, returning to Desiree's Steampunk Gypsies, I had another interesting experience, though it had little to do with Desiree herself.  I played this conservative, rugged gypsy with a horse, who (obviously) fell in love with a dancer gypsy.  Of course, he never claimed to be in love.  He worried too much about his kin to take the time to romance this beautiful girl. Instead, he taught her to ride horses, revealed his dream of rebuilding a whole herd of gypsy steeds, and worked on getting his brothers married while ignoring his own needs.  Every player could see that my character and she were madly in love, but neither of them admitted it, neither of them actually said those words.

In contrast, we had another player, and I'm not condemning his approach, merely highlighting the difference, who played a suave, sexy gypsy dancer-boy, who tried to sweep this innocent and younger girl off her feet.  After a dance, he said (and I quote), "I tell her, without sounding like some middle school kid, that I like her."

Both of these stories touch on the truth that a story is about showing people what's going on, rather than telling them.  In the first romance, we showed the audience everything they would see: awkward moments between two passionate people, the way a proud man refused to admit his need but still cast longing glances at the beautiful girl, or the way she tried to dance for him even while dancing with another man, or the way watching her dance with another man made him lose his concentration while playing his guitar.  In the second romance, the storyteller informs the audience "Hey, these two people are in love."  Personally, I agree with Marco, and I prefer the former approach to the latter.  I feel it's better to show, rather than tell.

While discussing description, Jozef touched on this very thing when he said "How to do you make something scary without saying that it's scary?"  One of the key elements of Marco's "Painting with Words" is that you don't come out and say what things are.  Instead, you let the player draw his own conclusion.  When you describe a man as "Looming," and "Dark eyed," with a "sinister smile," you don't need to say "And he's scary."  The player is capable of deciding that for himself, and his scariness is rather obvious, if you paint the right picture.

But this applies to broader concepts as well.  When you begin to discuss situations, you can do so without saying "And this is going on."  You can simply outline events: A boy brings a girl flowers, a bright smile on his face.  A girl laughs, covering her mouth.  The flowers end up on the ground, petals broken and drifting on the wind as the boy walks away.  The girl's laughter fades as she watches him walk away, tears glistening in her eyes.  We don't know what happened.  We can guess.  We might want to know more, but it's more interesting than saying "A boy thought a girl loved him, and she did, but she feels they cannot be together and so broke his heart to chase him away."

People like games.  People are clever.  You don't explain the punchline of a joke to them, you let them ferret out the implications of your words.  Likewise, you don't start the murder mystery by explaining whodunnit.  You don't even point out the clues.  You let the reader realize what's important and what isn't and then put together the truth.  People don't want to be told that two people are in love.  They want to see it, they want to guess, they want to gossip based on events.  People want to exercise their brains.  In many ways, the whole point of role-playing games is the art of turning abstract situations ("Three medieval warriors face ten ravening monsters under the ground.  What happens?") into an immersive scenario where players lose themselves in what's going on.

And that requires less, not more.  Sometimes, what you don't say is more important than what you do.  Sometimes, you must paint without words.  Leave things unsaid, unspoken, and merely imply them with your silence.  Rather than show people something, refuse to talk about it and create powerful implications by describing everything around it.  Just as a tough, lone-wolf guy might never admit he's in love, you might never actually describe the feelings involved and let the players guess (Oh, in WotG, we had one of those great, unspoken romances and the player in question was so angry when our Secret-Art-wielding Scholar tried to force them to talk about it...).  Leave gaps, and let the players fill it in with their own imagination and speculation while smiling and listening.

Real life doesn't hand you answers.  It merely has events you witness, often without proper context.  The closer a role-playing game is to real life, the more immersive it is.  The next time you want to run a romance, I encourage you to not describe the feelings of those involved and merely imply them based on their actions.  The next time you run a horror, consider refusing the describe the monster beyond the evidence he leaves behind (the gashes in the victims, the sickly sweet smell that foreshadows his attacks).  Remember to show, rather than tell, and remember that some things you neither show nor tell, that you leave unsaid, that you merely imply with everything else.

Subtext.  Painting without words.


  1. http://gatherer.wizards.com/Pages/Card/Details.aspx?multiverseid=15355


  2. "Painting with Words."

    Seems like Marco and I came up with the same concept (either that or you are mixing things up) since I already 'developed' this about five/six years ago mostly because I couldn't get the pictures I had in my head out by painting but I could describe them.

    Anyway an example (written I think late 2006)

    "Rolling hills burning red in the setting sun, a lone wolf looks to the north where dark clouds are rising. His grey fur shining red in the fading light, his yellow eyes piercing the horizon. As the wolf closes his eyes and lifts his muzzle in the air, only the wind can be heard touching the grass as the storm approaches, then a sound is heard both frightening and lonely, anger and love.
    As the sun sets and day turns to night, thunder can be heard as the clouds roll over the hills, only a print in the dirt remains."


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