Roll a D20 for Inspiration

d20 by Janetgalore, c/o Flikr

Last week, I talked about how I like to draw on roleplaying games for inspiration in creating characters, so I thought it would be fun to follow up this week with the other end of things–the Game Master.

For those of you who haven’t played an RPG, the Game Master (or Dungeon Master in D&D parlance) is the one who runs the adventure for the players. Their job is to build encounters with enemies to fight, scatter treasure for the players to find, and develop a plot for them to follow. You can see where this is going: the GM is, essentially, a storyteller weaving a compelling story for the players to play through. You can see why this is appealing for a writer.

This past weekend, I had the chance to sit down with a group I used to play D&D with. I haven’t had a lot of time to play with them lately, but had a free evening on Saturday, so I dropped in. The GM whipped up a One Shot so I could play without disrupting the overall arc of their story, came up with a nice plot hook for my character to be thrown into the action, and we were off.

The story was quite clever: my character Arranis was frantically wandering through the forest trying to collect herbs for a potion that would help heal a young boy. I ran into the other adventurers, who came back with me to the village, where we discovered that the boy–Timothy–was ill because their family couldn’t afford proper medical care. The town they were living in was controlled by a tyranical man who was taxing them to death, and cared for nothing but himself. When we tried to confront him, we were intercepted by a ghost in heavy chains who told us our villain–Abanezer–would be visited by three spirits hoping to convince him to change his ways; our job was to make sure the good spirits could do their job without interference, and we spent the evening fighting off foes who wanted Abanezer to stay as evil as he was.

Sound familiar?

This is what I enjoy so much about role playing. Even a well known story can provide a fun backdrop for adventure. Some of you may have seen the recent episode of The Big Bang Theory or read the Penny Arcade comics of the past weeks, and it’s the same idea. Take a story, spin it into an adventure, and hack/slash away. Our GM was able to lead us through a compelling plot, and we, as players, were able to affect the story through our actions.

Game Mastering is a particular skill, but it’s closely related to writing. You want to have Plot Hooks for your characters, motivations for them to want to move the plot forward, tension and action to keep them interested, and–most importantly–a backup plan in case your characters go widely off the path you’ve set out. Most of you know all too well what happens when a character or plot gets out of control and you need to write yourself out of a corner. Usually, it leads the plot into wonderful territory you never considered, and (for me anyway) that’s part of the magic of writing.

I once ran a solo game for someone who wanted to learn the World of Darkness system. It’s a game that focuses on horror and supernatural elements in a “real world” setting, so it has a much more tangible feel to it. We had a great time playing what amounted to a short piece of fiction–effectively, we were living out the story, I as the narrator, and he as the protagonist. This specific game is actually part of what got me back into writing after a (too) long hiatus, and (with the player’s permission) I’ve started work on it as a novella called The Road to Hell. Look for it to be released sometime in 2013.

I can’t say that I’m an experienced Game Master–I’ve really only dipped my toe–but the games I ran did make me a better writer. And, I like to think, vice versa. It’s all about weaving a story, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that a lot of writers would be good at running an RPG–or that GMs or players would find they’re good at writing. The people I played with last weekend are a great example–one of the players (who was actually the first DM I played with) had a successful turn at NaNoWriMo this year, in fact.

RPGs certainly aren’t for everyone. For some people they seem downright silly. But if you’re a writer, I’d urge you to at least give it a shot–you might be surprised with what you find. And if you’re a DM who stumbled upon this post and have never written a word–try it. You never know.

I could talk at length about RPGs…and might do more posts on the topic as related to writing. In the meantime, I’ll let others speak for me. Here’s a few links for you:

  • Critical Hit: A terrific podcast by the folks at Major Spoilers. It’s an ongoing game that started as a great tutorial for one player, and got even more awesome from there. Really, go listen–you can find them on iTunes.
  • Dragon’s Temple: Julio Nicolini is a writer and fellow player from Myth Weavers who has his own blog. He talks about RPGs and writing, and often posts excerpts of his work.
  • Penny Arcade: These guys talk about video games, comics, RPGs and all things GeekTheir comic often deals with Dungeons and Dragons, and the crew gets together with Wizards of the Coast once a year to play a game with the indomitable Wil Wheton–which you can also find on iTunes.
  • Myth Weavers: This is a “Play by Post” site where you can play a variety of RPGs online. It’s a great community, and very friendly to newcomers.
  • Wizards of the Coast:Makers of Dungeons and Dragons and other games.
  • White Wolf Publishing: Makers of the World of Darkness game, and others–including Vampire, Werewolf and Mage.

Thanks everyone for reading along these past few months. With the holiday season fast upon us, I won’t be posting here again until January–next week will be a bit busy. So Happy Holidays and New Year!

Characters and Gaming

copyright Wizards of the CoastOne of the most important things about writing a decent story, of course, is finding compelling characters. There’s tons of information on the internet about how to write good characters, create interesting arcs, how to use characters to drive conflict, and so on. We’ll get into those some day–I’d like to do a series on characters eventually–but today, we’re going to step back and do something fun.

I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons a couple years ago, when I was invited to play in a weekly game. I had no idea how it worked, and I’d never played a pen and paper RPG before, but I loved it instantly. The thing that struck me most about the game is the way it encouraged creativity. In my first session, our group was being chased by a bunch of enemies we didn’t want to fight; our Dungeon Master (the person leading the game for the players) clearly wanted to set us up for a battle, but we weren’t hearing of it. We tried to hide in a cave while they passed us by–the DM countered by telling us it contained a monster of a higher level than us, hinting that the foes behind would be the easier fight. Instead, we lured our pursuers into the cave, blocked the entrance, and let the monsters take care of themselves. Problem solved.

This is what I enjoy so much about roleplaying games: they’re designed to be open ended, and the only limits are your imagination. Being a rather imaginative person, it’s a natural fit for me. As a storyteller, the draw is even more evident; even while you’re in an encounter and rolling dice to see if you hit and how much damage you dole out, you have the opportunity to flesh out the narrative. A miss turns into an unexpected parry by your enemy, who then dodges out of your way and thumbs his nose at you. An attack that just barely hits turns into a harrowing tension filled moment where both of you lock swords and stare each other down–while you slowly draw a dagger to thrust into their side.

You can see why this is fun for a writer. What does it have to do with characters?

In Dungeons and Dragons (I’m talking about 4th edition if anyone’s interested), you first choose the kind of character you want to play by selecting a class. This is what you do. Then you choose a race, which gives you some characteristics and determines how well you do your thing. Finally, you flesh out the character with specific attacks, weapons and items, feats (special abilities), and so on. It’s simple, and the publishers of the game (Wizards of the Coast) have lots of flavourful options for you to choose from.

But the most fun way to build a character is to start with a concept, and try to make it work mechanically. This is where you get some great ideas for characterization, which you can then bring into your writing. For example, DnD has a race called Warforged, which is basically a magic robot. Couple that with a class called Swordmage, which likes to use magic through their blade, and multiclass into Psion, which has various telekinetic powers. You end up with a character that’s part mechanical, uses a sword, and can move things around with their mind.

Like Darth Vader.

DnD gives you a great place to start by providing flavour and information on the classes, races and so on. And that’s just it: a start. This information can serve as a springboard to help create colourful and fun characters. Of course, all of it is copyrighted by WotC–and aggressively protected. So I wouldn’t go about creating a character with their sources and publishing it in your novel–but it helps get the creative juices flowing. I’ll often build character after character with no intention of using them in a game–I do it just because it’s fun, and it’s interesting to try odd combinations, then trying to explain them with a story. Like a dwarf who desecrates nature and is punished by the spirits of the forest by being locked into the form of a bear (Shaman class with a power called Beast Form). Or a monk who practices lucid dreaming, accidentally bringing into existence a manifestation of his “dream self,” which then breaks free in an effort to explore its own identity (a race called Kalashtar with the Psion class). Or an escaped gladiatorial slave who has developed a unique fighting style, using her long braided hair to ensnare her foes (arena fighter with the whip training feat).

You get the idea.

At any rate, if you’ve never tried roleplaying, I’d suggest you give it a go. DnD 4th edition uses a character builder which is completely online, and you have to subscribe to them in order to use it; they used to have a downloadable program (which is what I use) but I don’t know that it’s widely available.
There’s a website online called Myth Weavers, where you can play by posting in a forum. You can find me there occasionally, and they cater to all sorts of different games. Or visit the Dungeons and Dragons website to get more information about their games. Also check out another of my favourite games, World of Darkness–a sort of supernatural noir “storytelling system” that relies heavily on story and not so much on dice.

And have fun with it!

ROW80Update: Movin’ Right Along

This is going to be a short one today–not much to talk about really, but I wanted to make a check-in.

Fortunately, this week has been more productive than last–I wrote 3000+ words! They came very easily, too; it says a lot about the direction your writing is going if it flows so nicely.

And here’s the most important thing I learned this week: if writing that scene if like pulling hen’s teeth, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing–it’s your muse telling you you’re going in the wrong direction. Pick a new one, and it’s amazing how much easier things become. Last week I had a crisis of faith with where my story was going, but I found a solution by taking it in a direction I hadn’t thought to go. It worked, and now I have a firm direction, my character arc is established (rather than just being ‘set up,’) and I’ve got a cliffhanger. Sometimes you have to force yourself to think outside the box.

The other great accomplishment I had this week was finishing the first draft of Court of Rain. This puts me at 50% of my first draft of phase one, and about 1600 words in total. Court of Sand unfortunately needs a lot of work yet, but that’s okay; it’ll be easier to edit that now that I have a clearer direction with Court of Rain. And the next instalment, Court of Sylphs, is being set up nicely.

 

Tom’s Diner, Evocative Writing, and an Update

Have you even heard the term “earworm?” If not, you’ve experienced it: a song that wriggles its way into your head and makes a home there, unwilling to leave. Like Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega:

It’s one of those songs that just won’t let go. It’s catchy, pithy, and expressive. But what does it have to do with writing?

I was listening to this song the other day, and it struck me that it’s the perfect example of evocative description. I won’t reprint the lyrics here, but you can find them online. I can’t even think of a worthy sample to give here, because anything taken out of the context of the whole is meaningless. Take a look, I’ll wait.

The song seems nonsensical: just a person narrating their (rather dull) day. Until you get to the end of the song, and you realize that she’s sitting in a diner alone because she’s no longer with her significant other. There’s no indication why they broke up, who left who, if infidelity or death  was involved–just that she’s lonely, and misses him. Then the rest of the song makes sense: she hasn’t been narrating her boring day as much as setting the scene for how she’s feeling. Despite not being very long or eventful, the song is enormously effective.

This works because Vega gives you no indication of the plot until the last verses–and even then, there are so many open questions. The whole song is made up of little details that seem so inconsequential it’s easy to gloss over them. But in looking back on them, they set the tone beautifully, and in a better way than simply telling the listener what’s happening.

When writing fiction, evocative description is the way to go. It’s so much more effective than telling the reader point blank that your character is feeling sad or happy or hungry. It’s economical too: Vega’s character has a complex emotional state that’s expressed in just over 200 words. Even better, she does this without having the character speak, or even really do anything beyond putting cream into her coffee. As a writer, you want to make sure you pull the reader into your story, to make them sympathize with your characters. You can do this by handing it to the reader on a silver platter–but that’s boring, and it’s not respectful to a reader who’s able to figure things out for themselves.

Instead, by placing little details in seemingly innocuous places, you create an emotional tapestry that pulls the reader in without them even realizing it. The continuous rain, the woman who doesn’t know she’s being watched as she hikes her skirt, the man behind the counter who doesn’t pay attention to his customer–these are all external indications of how Vega’s character is feeling. They’re metaphors, and very effective ones. And all without the character so much as lifting a finger.

The added benefit here is that you get to create your world in relation to the characters. Vega’s world seems damp, murky, and unfriendly–a perfect compliment to her character’s emotional state. But the same world, as described, can be used to reflect other characters. Maybe the woman hitching her skirt is meeting a lover for a romantic kiss in the rain. Maybe the man behind the counter is inattentive because he’s secretly in love with the woman with the umbrella. When other characters react differently to the world you’re creating, you’re telling the reader even more about them. Again, without those characters doing much of anything.

Here’s an example from the opening of my upcoming release, Court of Sand:

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click; Alkut stopped for a moment, listening. Content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmel, General  of the Court, watching him.

I think the passage needs some tightening up, but you see what I’ve done here. I could have written bluntly that Alkut was sneaking out of the Empress’ chambers while Ohmel looked on, perhaps even having Ohmel whispering his intent to punish Alkut for the transgression. I could have gone into great detail about how Alkut is having an affair with the newly widowed Empress, that there’s already an underlying tension between him and Ohmel, and that the Empress is an unwitting pawn in a larger plan. But all of that boils down to exposition, and it’s dull. The few lines above tell much the same story, with (I think) a bit more flare. Evocative writing gives a whole new dimension to your work and your characters.

And, frankly, it’s more fun for the writer too.

Not Enough Hours and a late update

Time by Alan Cleaver, c/o Flikr

You’ll notice, of course, that I missed my Wednesday post. Well, maybe missed is a bit harsh–I’m writing it a bit late, that’s all. I wanted to talk about characters this week in my Writing Wednesday, but my lateness has inspired me to write about something else: the issue of finding the time to write.

My update for ROW80 today is, sadly, not very exciting. I haven’t gotten much accomplished this week beyond daydreaming about my plot and characters, and one could hardly call that progress. I didn’t even come to any epiphanies that will affect the story; really the only decision I made was that one of my main characters loves licorice root. No word count.

Since I signed up for ROW80, I’ve tried to keep myself accountable, and get frustrated with myself when I don’t have much to report. But then I sat back and thought about why I didn’t have much to report. I haven’t been exactly idle; I’ve been very busy with work the past month, and worked several evenings in the past two weeks. More evenings are on the horizon. Who has the time to write?

And there’s the rub: there aren’t enough hours in the day. I still have to sleep, eat, and walk the dogs, not to mention spending quality time with my wife and family. People have this image of a writer as someone who holes themselves up at a desk and pours over the keys for hours on end. Anyone reading this blog knows that’s not how it works. Sometimes, you’re lucky to get 250 words down.

Which all got me to thinking about two main points I want to address today:

Excuses

They’re so easy. I couldn’t write today because I slept in. I’m just not inspired today. It’s Thanksgiving or (for our Canadian readers) Grey Cup. See my excuse above: I’m working at my real job.

Except those excuses and others like it don’t accomplish anything. They just point a finger at the problem, and attempt to absolve you of your own guilt. I do this all the time, so I’m not exempt: making excuses makes me feel better when I fall behind. The problem is that excuses are intangible. They’re just words, and they won’t help you get back in the saddle, or any further ahead. They’re completely arbitrary, and often don’t have anything to do with why you actually didn’t write.

Of course, that’s not to say excuses aren’t occasionally valid. A family emergency certainly applies. Work is a good one too: if you’re not making a living off your writing, you have to pay the bills somehow. That, and family, need to come first. The trick is to know the difference between these valid excuses and ones that just give you a pass–the ones that don’t do anything for your half finished book. Which leads into point two…

Finding the Time

This is probably the most common excuse; for me, anyway. I just didn’t have time to write this week. This is what I’ve been telling myself since mid-November. It’s a potent excuse, and very easy to justify. The problem is, it’s complete bunk.

I used to work a job that was mostly evenings and weekends. I’ve also wanted to take Tai Chi classes for a long time. Once, I lamented to my wife that I’d really love to take a class–you just don’t learn the same from a book or DVD–but that I didn’t have any time to commit to it. She told me flat out that finding the time wasn’t the issue at all. I wasn’t making the time. Wise woman.

Finding the time is a ridiculous notion in the first place. There’s time everywhere. It’s not like you get more or less allotted you in a day: it’s always 24 hours. What matters is how you manage that time. It’s all about priorities. You have a given amount of time each day for recreation or personal use; it may be more or less depending on what’s going on, but you’ll have it. You just need to use it wisely. Instead of lamenting that I didn’t have the time to take Tai Chi because I worked evenings, I could have been looking for daytime classes, finding a private tutor, or finding a class close enough to work that I could pop in on my dinner hour.

It’s the same with writing. You don’t need to find the time to write, you need to make the time to write. If you have a busy week, that’s fine, but make sure you set aside some of your off time to pound out a few words. Every bit helps, and if you’re consistent with this demand on your own time, you’ll get where you need to go. Just don’t let excuses get in your way.

Now, let’s see if I can follow my own advice… 🙂

Three Pillars of Fiction, and ROW80 Update

image by troismarteaux c/o Flikr

This has been a wonderfully productive week. This time last week, I was stumbling around trying to figure out why my characters were misbehaving–now I’ve got a clear(er) vision of what they’re up to, and I’ve set aside the scaffolding behind the book to settle on the actual writing. I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed 2242 words in total since Sunday’s update. This means I’ve finished the re-write of my Knight of Sand scene (with a new character!) and have half finished Queen of Rain, the first scene in the second story. With luck, I’ll have that finished by tomorrow and will be well on the way toward finishing Court of Rain by the end of next week.

All this work last week on the structure of my book got me to thinking about how fiction is, well, structured. So I thought I’d share something today that I’ve long thought at the core of a good novel or story: the Three Pillars of Fiction.

These aren’t by any means the be-all and end-all of writing fiction, but I think they’re a pretty well distilled group. I don’t think you can write a story without them–and if anyone knows of an example, I’d love to read it! I think all three are necessary, too–you can’t have one without the other. They’re like a tripod holding a brazier: knock one leg down and the others will topple, spilling embers and setting fire to the whole temple.

Anyway, in no particular order:

Description

This is the meat of your story, and has always been my favourite part to write. One of the most quoted adages of writing is “show, don’t tell,” and that’s what description is all about. This can be done well, or very poorly, and how it’s handled will give the reader a very strong image of the book as a whole either way. If you have some great descriptions, it can bring a reader into the World of your book like no other way can–but if your descriptions are tepid, cliched, or dull, they’ll just want to put it down.

This, I think, is where the book really comes alive. In a way, description is where you as an author get to whisper in your reader’s ear. You set up the tone and the feel of the story for them, lead them through it. When I’m writing description, I often think of my background in the theatre–it’s like directing a play. You have a particular image you want to portray, and it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to show it to your reader. The best part is that, done right, this pillar isn’t all that difficult–the secret is in allowing the reader some leeway with their own imagination. They’ll fill in more detail than you could ever conceivably put down into words, and make your descriptions stand out with as much vibrancy as they like.

Exposition

Anyone can have a character tell the backstory, but doing so in a compelling and informative way is not easy at all. The trap here is falling into a lecture. The last thing a reader wants is a five page history lesson about the background of your main character–even if it’s crucial to the plot. Exposition should be used like salt: a little dash here and there.

There’s an excellent article about this here. Roz Morris says it as succinctly as anyone could: “The only sin of exposition is that it is unnatural.” Exposition–as required as it is in some form–just seems jarring when it’s not done well. Would you enjoy a movie where the main character took ten minutes of screen time speaking directly to the audience trying to explain the story? No. In fact, having a character take the time to explicitly explain the story is a tell-tale sign that you’re not trusting your reader. You don’t have to beat them over the head with it, they’ll figure it out. And if they don’t, maybe your writing is too obscure in the first place.

On the other hand, exposition is very important for any story. Any reader is going to ask “why should I care?” when they first pick up a book. What drives them to want to read it? What’s it’s about? You have to get that across somehow. The trick is doing it subtly enough that your reader doesn’t realize it’s happening. Morris shows a great example from Orwell’s 1984 in the link above. To use another theatre analogy, one of the best ways to inexpensively build a set is to use Indicative Props: items you put on stage to hint that you’re in a particular place. A couple trees shows you’re in a forest, a scarecrow and sheaf of corn shows you’re in a field–you don’t need a whole painted backdrop. Writing is the same: sprinkle hints here and there, and you’ll get some nice “Indicative Exposition” to coin a phrase.

Another of my favourite techniques (though I’m not too good at it myself) is The Watson. This is a character who exists to ask the same questions the readers need to ask to get involved in the story. The Watson might be a major character or a narrator, and have other reasons for being there–but part of their purpose is to get the reader to identify with them. Effectively, the reader experiences the exposition vicariously through the Watson’s eyes.

Dialogue

This, for many people, is the big one. Honestly, I hate dialogue–I don’t think I’m very good at it, which is precisely the reason I don’t write stage plays. Dialogue has a lot of small factors you need to get right before it sounds real: accent, colloquialisms, tone, phrasing. And so on. It’s like maintaining a large machine without knowing how all the individual parts fit together.

For me, the hard part about dialogue is getting characters to sound different from one another. I’m not expert, but I think the trick in this case is to do character sketches. The way a character talks should reflect their character as a person. Someone who’s been brought up with a silver spoon in their mouth probably won’t swear as much as the dock worker who needs to bust his hump ten hours a day to feed his family. If you have a well fleshed out character, dialogue is a bit easier to write.

I think the most important thing to consider about dialogue is how it reads. That might sound redundant, so let’s rephrase it: you should hear how it sounds out loud. Read your dialogue as if you were reading a script. Have a friend read the other part, and have an actual conversation. If it sounds stilted or forced, re-do it. If it doesn’t sound like people talking, it’s not good enough. Dialogue that sounds unnatural sticks out on the page like a sore thumb, and it’s another easy turn off for a reader. On the other hand, if it reads like people talk, it’s easy for the reader to follow along–and more importantly, to connect with the characters.

 

Well, there we have it. Three Pillars of Fiction–do you have more to suggest? I’d love to hear your comments below!