This entry is part 4 in the series Breaking Through Writer's Block

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In part one of this series, I identified several primary types of writer’s block. All but two have been dealt with; this article examines solutions to those remaining primary types:

  • Dialogue Blocks, when you have a conversation to write but have no idea what the participants will say, or what they are saying seems wrong, somehow, or unnatural; and
  • Narrative Blocks, when you have information to convey to the players, or to the reader, but can’t seem to explain it clearly.

At the heart of both of these is the communication of information, making these a natural pairing.

The Purposes of Dialogue

Dialogue always has a dual purpose, and sometimes a triple purpose:

  • the author/GM always has a reason for the dialogue taking place that reaches beyond the immediate story needs, though they may not always recognize that reason, or even the need for such a reason.
  • the dialogue will always convey characterization information about the person speaking, though this may be deliberately false information if the character is attempting to disguise his personality.
  • the character will sometimes have ‘factual’ information to convey, or opinions that the author/GM wants to make sure that the other parties in the conversation have, or that they want to introduce to the readers/players. It is often better to convey such information in the form of dialogue rather than narration, because the interaction of personalities makes the information more interesting and more captivating, especially when (in an RPG) a PC is one of the parties engaged in the conversation.

It’s always important to recognize the purpose of the dialogue, because you need to make sure that it achieves that purpose, or – more correctly – all those purposes. If you don’t know what the purpose is, you can rewrite the dialogue as often as you want, it will never be “right”. This becomes even more important in an RPG, which is a “live” setting – while you can retcon a dialogue scene to fix a problem, it will never be as satisfactory as nailing it the first time out. GMs have to know what they want the dialogue to achieve before it starts if they are to get it right the first time.

I make it a practice after every revelation in an RPG plot to allow the players time to discuss the revelation unless they have to react immediately to that revelation. If I don’t, they will do so anyway – interrupting the flow of whatever I had planned. It’s far better to allow for such discussions and build them into the structure of the plot.

Metapurposes of dialogue

Dialogue’s metapurposes are any reasons for having the dialogue take place at the time and place at which it is occurring. These can be as simple as establishing a relationship between two characters meeting for the first time or justifying a character’s future choices of action or as complex as planting a particular philosophical seed in the mind of a character, a player, or the reader, which will bear fruit at a future point in the story. That fruit might take the form of a sudden insight, a new context, a deeper layer of meaning, or many other possibilities. Dialogue can be used to explain choices already made or choices that are yet to be made.

At it’s minimum, dialogue always either establishes, extends, or expands on the relationship between the participants. The fewer the participants, the more intimate the dialogue and the greater the role this metafunction has on the dialogue’s substance.

More importantly, metapurposes must be achieved seamlessly within the dialogue; otherwise you have changes of subject that seem unnatural or forced. This can be made more difficult because metapurposes can sometimes be at odds with other dialogue functions. This most frequently results when a single passage of dialogue has too many purposes to achieve – trying to be too efficient results in unnatural dialogue. You are often better off, when this occurs, breaking the dialogue into smaller conversations and putting something – anything – in between. Have the initial dialogue achieve its initial purposes, then have another character arrive, interrupting that dialogue, and then start a new dialogue with the same characters to achieve the rest of the objectives.

Characterization through dialogue

A second function that dialogue always has is revealing or reiterating the characterization of the participants. I was once told that “good” dialogue never merely recapitulated on characterization or relationships, that in order to justify its presence in a story it should always extend or expand or develop one or both aspects.

I don’t necessarily agree with that, and I know a lot of scriptwriters and TV viewers would disagree; the first time two characters in a serial situation interact within an episode of that serial situation, it can often be useful to reestablish where those two characters are at. That makes it easier for new viewers to pick up on who they are and what their relationship is.

At the same time, you need to avoid having such introductory dialogue having NO other purpose; it has to be interesting enough for those who have seen it before. It is for that reason that recapitulated introduction should always be a secondary function of the dialogue, while the primary reason remains the relevance to the scene, situation, or circumstances being discussed.

A sure sign that the metapurposes of the dialogue are getting in the way is when you have a character saying things that are in opposition to the characterization of the participant who is speaking. The street punk sneered at the cop, “Quantum theory implies that causality is a casualty of inverted temporal divergences.” – just to throw a completely over-the-top example out there. Though sometimes this can be exploited for comic effect – “Flash! I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”

If the dialogue is unnatural for the character, you have the participants of that particular conversation wrong. They may have been right for an earlier function of the dialogue, but they are wrong for this conversation.

Content Of Dialogue

Dialogue may have an explicit purpose to achieve in communication of information. The relevance and urgency of that information to the current situation dictates how dominant this function of the dialogue is in the conversation. If it is both directly relevant and urgent, there is no time for the conversation to meander around to the subject, and most other functions of the dialogue have to be subverted to the immediacy. If the conversation is to be relevant but non-urgent, there’s more scope for a natural dialogue flow.

It is almost always preferable to impart information in a dialogue structure rather than a narrative one. The latter is the author/GM delivering a lecture to the readers/players; the latter is one character interacting with another. This is even more strongly the case in an RPG.

The Complexity Of Dialogue

Dialogue can be simple, or complicated, or VERY complicated.

  • Simple dialogue is a conversation between two participants. Others may be present but some sort of protocol or voluntary choice precludes them from being a part of the conversation.
  • Monologues are conversations a character has with themselves. These are often trickier to write than simple dialogue because the interaction between two personalities is absent; the one character has to both respond to the preceding conversational stimulus and provide their own stimulus for the next passage of text. But we all have conversations with ourselves in our heads from time to time, especially when we have a difficult decision to make, so a monologue can be a great tool for taking the listener/reader into that character’s head. Be aware, though, that if you do it for one major character, you will probably need to do it at some point for all the other major characters.
  • Dialogue increases in difficulty and complexity as the square of the number of participants minus 1. Or maybe the cube. Or somewhere in between. Three-character dialogue is 4-8 times as complicated as simple dialogue. Four-character dialogue is 9-27 times as complicated as simple dialogue. Five character dialogue is 16-64 times as complicated as simple dialogue. I’ll talk about the reasons for that in a minute.
Simple Dialogue

Simple dialogue is easy to write – some of the time. At other times, it can be like pulling teeth. That’s because it’s easy for the dialogue to wander down a blind alley and stumble to a premature conclusion, in which everything that can be said on a subject by those participants and at this time has been said. Very little feels as false as a conversation that lingers after it reaches what seems a natural conclusion. With a third participant, when a conversation between two comes to an end, the third can stimulate the conversation down a new course, in effect starting a new conversation between the participants. I always approach a simple conversation with some wariness, simply because there is less room for mistakes.

Simple Dialogue has its place, though, because the fewer the participants, the more intimate the conversation – and intimacy is important for some dialogue functions.

Monologues

Stories written from a first-person perspective can be considered one long monologue, and this conversation type is an essential element of some literary forms, such as the plays of Shakespeare, and film noir. It might seem that they have very limited utility in RPGs and in more interaction-oriented forms.

Permit me to take a moment to expand your horizons, if that’s an opinion you happen to share. Star Trek’s log entries are essentially monologues – useful for synopsizing past events, putting them into new context, for getting inside the head of a character (a traditional purpose of monologues), for bridging periods of slow action – or for slowing events down, if it comes to that. Characters can muse or reflect aloud – those are monologues, too, and those musings and reflections can be overheard by someone if the author/GM wants.

In the course of writing the most recent chapter of the Orcs and Elves series, I exposed the thoughts of a couple of the participants at key moments – essentially mini-monologues – because I found the characterization potential too great to ignore. Strictly speaking, they should not have been there, since there was no way for that information to be conveyed and incorporated into the source material that the series supposedly reiterates and integrates to tell “the whole story”. Bah, humbug, say I. That information could have been expressed as a character muttering under his breath, assuming that he would not be overheard, or as a snatch of dialogue, or it might have been inferred as occurring by one participant based on the expression on the face of the monologuing character. It read better, communicated to the reader more effectively, as a snatch of monologue. But that’s a literary application, once again, for all that the Orcs and Elves series is background material for one of my RPG campaigns.

Most RPG adventures are written as relatively linear plotlines, told from the collective third-person point of view of the PCs. For variety, why not occasionally consider changing it up and exploring a different framework, when it is especially useful to the adventure? Start an adventure with a character monologuing, film noir style, with events in the past tense – and then let the temporal perspective shift to the PCs and their situation in the then “now” being described. My name is Phillip Baker. I live an ordinary, humdrum life, for the most part, but there was one occasion when I found myself at the centre of extraordinary events. It all started…

Or perhaps, in a superhero or secret agent game, using a similar framing device in the form of one PC or NPC dictating a mission log or preparing an after-action report.

In a fantasy game, does the princess keep a diary?

Modern-world or future-world, perhaps a little girl preparing a class report?

Superhero again – why not frame an adventure from the point of view of the villain? Not all the time, but every now and then, when there are some particular insights to be offered to the players?

Rule one of an RPG is always to make it entertaining, make it fun. Monologues have a lot more to offer RPGs than it might initially appear.

Heck, I’m tempted to use just such a framing device for one of the upcoming Orcs and Elves, told from the point of view of an Orcish Keeper Of Memory. Why? because the limits of understanding of the narrator restrict how much of the context and events have to be made clear to the reader. If there’s something I’m having trouble explaining, or don’t want to explain at the time, I can just have understanding of the why elude the narrator and leave it unexplained or misunderstood at the time. But that’s getting off-track for this article.

Complex Dialogues

Why are complex dialogues complicated?

It’s a question of interactions and combinations. If there are three participants, one participant can speak to himself, can speak to either of the two other participants, or can speak to both at the same time. Either or both or neither can react. So, for every line of dialogue, there are three x three, or nine, possible contexts and developments in the conversation. Each of the participants has a personality that can influence the delivery, the content, the reactions. Each pair of participants has a relationship that is inherently entwined in that line of dialogue. Each may have an agenda that shapes that line of dialogue or the reactions to it. That’s 9+3+3+3, or 18 possibilities for that one line of dialogue. If the conversation consists of more than one line of dialogue, the number of possible combinations increases exponentially.

These factors only increase more quickly with each increase in the number of participants.

Authors, and GMs, manage by cherry-picking the conversational paths that seem more likely to achieve the purposes of the conversation, and ignoring as many of the others as possible. It’s easy for an author, because he has total control over all participants, subject only to the exigencies of consistency of characterization; it becomes much more difficult for the GM, because one party to the conversation is usually controlled by a third party, who is not privy to the hidden agenda that the GM is using to shape the conversation.

Add to all that the difficulty of ensuring that it is clear who is speaking at any given time. Writers can explicitly state ‘replied {X)’ after the line of dialogue, etc, but that can be easily overused. Finding new ways of stating the identity of the speaker is a continual challenge that only grows more onerous the longer a conversation continues. GMs can attempt to use props or accents or can resort to a blunt “(X) says,” – it lacks finesse, but it gets the job done.

Given all these complications, and the fact that any line of dialogue can be “wrong” if it doesn’t match ALL these contexts – something the character would not say for reasons of his personality, or for reasons of his relationship with the character he’s speaking to, or because it gets in the way of his agenda, or because the mode of expression is wrong, or because his emotional state is wrong for the content, or…. well, the point is made – it’s a wonder that any line of complex dialogue is EVER satisfactory.

And on top of all that, you have the meta-problems of having the conversation flow naturally, and of delivering any content that has to be delivered, and of steering the conversation to achieve the metapurposes of having the conversation take place.

Coming to the rescue is the fact that there ARE so many possibilities. There are many paths from first word to last in such a conversation, and far more than just one are “right” – defined as meaning that the objectives for the conversation are achieved. This factor is so powerful that three-cornered conversations can be easier to write than two-person conversations, as noted earlier.

For me, the keys to success are always, at each step of the conversation:

  • Does any participant have something their personalities would require them to contribute at this point?
  • Is the mode of expression ‘right’ for the character? How can I rephrase? Is there any extra nuance of personality that I can convey as a side-benefit?
  • Does any participant have a personality, agenda, etc, that require them to react even if they don’t have something to contribute?
  • What is the next point that I want to emerge as part of the conversation, and who is the logical character to make it, and how can I steer the conversation so that it will be natural for them to make that contribution?
  • If there are more than one points remaining, is it possible to construct a dialogue ‘flow’ or ‘map’ that generates a sequence for them to be logically made?
  • There is always a rhythm, an ebb-and-flow, in any conversation of any length. Am I ‘going with the flow’ or am I swimming upstream – and is that what I want to be doing at this point?
  • How do I want the conversation to end? Make sure to avoid getting to that point too early, but make sure to get there AT the end.

Employing these seven principles enabled me to get through the long conversations in the Orcish Council Chambers in the Orcs and Elves series, where – at times – I had as many as seven or eight participants, in what I hope was reasonable clarity. There were a couple of secondary personalizations and reactions that I would have liked to include, but by making sure each conversational passage achieved what it HAD to achieve, and only including those extras that fit naturally, I ensured that the conversations worked.

There were a couple of occasions where I was driving towards a particular contribution only to have the conversation temporarily derailed by one of those “necessary” reactions, but I was always able to find another path from where the conversation went to that contribution – even if it came later in the dialogue than I originally intended.

Planning a Conversation

I want to briefly look at the structure of a typical conversation, because violating that structure can be the source of unexpected problems – and opportunities.

Participants

The first step is to make sure that I have the participants right. That means looking at the key revelations/insights that are to be emerge, and who is the logical character to make these contributions. What factual information has to be conveyed, and who is most appropriate to know it? If every contribution doesn’t have an appropriate ‘planned source’, can I have one of the participants quote an appropriate source, or must I introduce another participant? Is there anyone whose reactions will be particularly relevant or interesting to the outcome? Is there anyone whose reactions or knowledge will get in the way? How can I get them out of the way, if they would logically be part of the conversation?

I always try to start planning a conversation by assembling a “cast list”, all of whom are involved in the conversation for a reason.

Starting Dialogue

How do I want the conversation to start? This is almost always dictated by the circumstances that have led to the conversation taking place ‘here and now’, and always has more to do with pre-existing opinions and relationships than with the purpose of the conversation. It lays the foundation for the effect of the conversation on the plotline by relating to conditions prior to the conversation, and focuses on the personalities and relationships of the participants.

Sustaining Dialogue

The middle is where content is generally provided that does not provoke immediate action that would end the conversation. Quite often, it prepares the ground for a change in personality or relationship if that is one of the metaobjectives.

Ending Dialogue

When something has to be done immediately, because the personalities or circumstances mandate someone actually doing something, or because everything that needs to be said has been said, its time to end the conversation. Conversations should always end in either an emotional state, a stunning revelation that stifles further discussion until it is digested, or in a need for action, because that propels the story forwards into whatever happens next.

The sources of Dialogue Problems

Any of the attributes or aspects of conversation that have been discussed can be the causes of Writer’s Block when creating Dialogue. This is particularly the case when two or more are at cross-purposes within the dialogue. What’s more, in addition to the specific functions that the dialogue is to serve, there are the general requirements of all writing that have to be satisfied – consistency, clarity, and connection with the audience – whether that’s readers or players. If they aren’t engaged in what is going on, the conversation will fall flat, no matter how witty, insightful or erudite the writing might be.

Which brings us to the subject at hand: You have a situation in which you know that two or more characters are going to have a conversation, but you either can’t seem to get started, or the dialogue ends in a train wreck, or just doesn’t seem right, and you don’t know how to fix it.

Solutions to Dialogue Blocks

In addition to the general advice offered above, I have ten solutions to offer to get through Dialogue writer’s block, plus a couple of variations.

Solution Zero: Revise the functions of the dialogue

Are you trying to have one conversation do too much? Have you forgotten one or more key purposes of the conversation? What are you actually trying to achieve? Make sure you have these answers clear within your mind, or the results will inevitably be muddled. It’s also worth double-checking the participants list for contradictions and conflicts with these purposes at this point. Only once you have these ducks in a row can you apply the specific solutions I am offering below. Most are designed to get you past the initial writer’s block, but a few also apply to the content-inappropriate-to-the-speaker problem. If that is your difficulty, though, and you haven’t been able to put your finger on the specific cause in the process of performing this step, I suggest reviewing the general advice offered above.

Solution 1: Have them say something else

Very few conversations in real life get right to the point. If the situation is such that your conversation has to do so, you may be better off not using a conversation to achieve your purposes at all – look for a way to monologue it, or to describe it through narrative. Perhaps a third party’s point of view can get past the sticky point? I occasionally use the press for this purpose in my superhero campaign; a news report of an emergency or crisis or whatever permits the reporter to monologue a description of events without giving the PCs the chance to ask “inconvenient” questions, as they might do if they received a direct call for help from the authorities. I’ve never had to do so, but I’m always prepared to impart essential information third-hand in my fantasy campaigns through a Bard’s song. Or a bird-song.

But, if you really need a conversation, try starting it off with some appropriate small talk. Even in the military, something like “Sir, do you have a moment?” or “Sir, if I may be permitted a personal observation?” are not inappropriate.

This has five benefits, and any one of them can get you past the blockage: First, it gets you (and the reader/audience/players) into the personalities of the participants instead of trying to leap right into the meat of the conversation “blind”. Second, it gets everyone into the relationship between them, giving a starting point that is independent of the purpose for which you’re having the conversation take place at all. Fourth, it humanizes the participants, and the conversation feels natural as a result. Finally, it gets you started with no pressure.

If you’re word-count limited for some reason – often the case – you can still write the small talk beginning of the conversation and then cut it out of the finished draft, joining the conversation midway through. That always feels more natural than having the conversation start abruptly.

Look on this choice as an opportunity, not a problem.

Solution 2: Talk around the situation

Consider having the participants deliberately avoid the subject until they can no longer do so. This is especially appropriate when it’s a conversation that one or more of them don’t want to have. Only when it becomes obvious that they are stalling can one of them get to the point, and force the conversation onto the track that the author always wanted it to follow.

Or you could have one participant talk about a metaphor or analogy to the current situation, rather than talking about the situation directly.

This has most of the benefits of the first solution, and can be viewed as a variant of it. But there are times when small talk is inappropriate, and this can be a way of exploiting that.

Solution 3: Reflections of personality

Still another variation is to make the initial conversation reflective of the personalities, deliberately showing these off through a discussion about a minor, unrelated, incident – either contemporary or in the past. Careful choice of incident/subject can provide a vehicle for explaining why and how a character feels the way he does about the main subject in advance of broaching it – achieving some of the objectives for the conversation before actually starting the part that (technically) matters.
   “Have you ever played baseball?”
   “No, basketball was more my speed.”
   “One man at the plate, an entire team intent on making sure that he fails, but most of them can only react to what he does. It still comes down to one pitcher and one batter and dealing with one pitch at a time.”

Solution 4: Through a mirror, Darkly

Sometimes you can solve your conversational problem by having one participant deliberately speak out of character. “I would never normally say this, but…”

A variation on this has one participant expounding the worst-case situation as an inevitability, challenging the other to show that the situation (whatever it is) is not so hopeless.

Solution 5: React, don’t act

Have one participant talk about his or her emotional reaction to the current situation instead of talking about the situation itself. The other participant (or ANother if there are more than two participants) then react to this emotional state as is appropriate for his or her personality. This especially works well when the initial reaction is unexpected, and can be quite enlightening as to the personalities as a result.

   “It feels good to be back in a good, old-fashioned hopeless situation again, with the odds stacked against us and every hand raised in opposition to us, the few against the hordes.”
   “You’re joking!”
   “I hate the pressure of expectation when it looks like everything is going our way. I keep wondering if I’m going to be the one to blow it and lets the side down. No, make me the underdog any day of the week. I’m at my best when the chips are down.”
   “Well, that’s definitely the situation this time…”

An entirely natural transition to the actual discussion of what can be done about the situation.

Solution 6: The Directly Indirect Approach

Another solution is to have one of the participants get right to the point – but advocating an obviously-flawed approach to the situation. This carries a subtext of the character feeling out of their depth, but trying gamely anyway. It works especially well if infused with a touch of humor.

   “Hey, boss, I had an idea about that alien fleet hovering overhead.”
   “Oh?”
   “Yeah, why don’t we take all the Captains down to the pub and get them drunk?”

Or perhaps, “Yeah, why don’t we all go down to the pub and get drunk?”

Another pair of entirely natural transitions to the actual discussion of what can practically be done about the situation.

Solution 7: Add Color

Well, I’m certainly motoring through my list of solutions this time around. This solution has one participant talking about someone else’s reaction to whatever is going on, often in a humorous or light-hearted way.

   “Well, it’s official. (X) says that Air Traffic Control Pasadena just reported a flock of winged pigs flying south for the winter.”
   “I don’t believe it.”
   “Oh yes. Of course, the official report will read ‘Geese’ but (X) can read between the lines.”
   “Before we go any further down the rabbit-hole, let’s see what we can do to get some perspective around here.”
   “Sounds good to me. Where should we start?”

Or,

   “(X) has just finished field-stripping and cleaning the guns for the third time this morning. We’d better have something to tell the others soon, or he’ll start on the ammunition.”
“Got any ideas?”

Or,

   “FOX is running continuous coverage of the end-of-the-world parties. CNN has some talking heads rabbiting on about mass psychoses – could come in handy when we try to explain all this.”
   “Could be worse, then. Anyone got any rabbits in their hats they haven’t told us about, yet?”
   “Actually…”

Solution 8: Nonverbalize the communication

My almost-last-ditch solution is to do away with the dialogue completely, or at least up to a point. Winks, nods, facial expressions, strumming fingers, body language like shoulders slumping, shrugs… do as much you can non-verbally before one of the participants breaks the silence, either by reacting to the silence or to the bottom line from the non-verbal communication:

   “It’s hopeless, then?”

Or,

   “Say something, dammit.”

Solution 9: Have someone DO something.

This is a different form of non-verbal communication, and it really is my last-ditch go-to technique for fixing the dialogue problem. Have one of the characters do something that is both physical and expressive. Get up and pour themselves a drink from the scotch-bottle that was full only an hour earlier. Lean back and light a cigarette. Run their fingertip over a bookcase as though checking for dust. Remove a weapon from a scabbard or holster and place it on the desk in front of them, or start cleaning it. Smash a mirror in frustration. Play with the dog. Stoke the fireplace. Either they, or the other participant, can say something about the action performed, thereby breaking the ice on the conversation.

Heck, picking up a tennis racquet and practicing a few return-of-imaginary-serves might help the character think or take their mind off the situation for a moment, and definitely adds personality to the character. Just make sure the action is appropriate to the personality.

Solution 10: Solving Premature conclusion

Sometimes, the conversation stumbles to an end before everything has been achieved. When that happens, you have three choices: One participant can have an afterthought, restarting it; one participant can employ one of the 9 solutions listed above to restart the conversation; or you can have a subsequent conversation, involving a completely new choice of participants (who might happen to be the same ones) to achieve the remaining purposes of the conversation. Any of these can be preferable to taking a conversation that seems reasonably natural and achieves most of the purposes set for it and throwing it out the window.

Narrative & Flavor Text Blocks

Descriptive text is intended to impart information directly to the reader/players as a substitute for not really being there. It’s an ex-parte communication of what the characters would perceive if they were really present in the time and place being described, or of what they would know if they had really grown up in that environment.

It can be dull, lifeless, and/or irrelevant. It can also be vitally important, and its certainly ubiquitous.

So what can cause writer’s block when trying to craft narrative and flavor text?

The obvious causes are an inability to visualize what you are trying to describe, or getting swamped in details, or not being articulate in the subject you are trying to describe, or being vague. Using too many analogies or adjectives is, unfortunately, symptomatic. Well-crafted narrative text provides the maximum specificity, relevant detail, and atmosphere with the minimum verbiage that is readily digestible by the reader or person hearing it read.

It is often possible when describing places to employ verbal shorthand, because we all create a general idea of the setting in response to a simple label. “Police Station” conjures an image in the minds of almost everyone – those images might be different for each person, but so long as the important details are then described to be incorporated into that general vision, all will be fine. The same thing works for “Fire Station” and “Warehouse” and “Throne Room” and “Subway Platform” and many others. But there are other situations in which this doesn’t work, or where the general term is not specific enough, or where the situation is more complex.

Then there’s the problem of giving information about somewhere or something. It’s very easy for this to be too bland, or for there to be too much. A little bit of detail can work wonders – but can also offer clues that should be buried; if the only geology you talk about are shale deposits, it’s a fair bet that shale is going to be important. If you talk about the spin of quarks, and don’t mention any other characteristic of them, or the spins of other particles, it’s a fair bet that quark spin is going to be important, and so on. The only way to avoid giving the game away is to give more information. And more. And there’s a very real danger, when you do that, of crossing the line and going too far.

There are too many kinds of information that has to be conveyed through narrative for any set of solutions to be universal. Some of the techniques that I am about to offer will work in one situation and not in another. So this is not necessarily a case of trying solution 1 and then solution 2 and so on; solution 1 might well be totally irrelevant to the writing task in front of you. And, yes, at least some of them may be contradictory to the general advice I’ve already offered.

Solution 1: Research the subject

Know what you’re talking about. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you want to use a shimmering heat-haze effect, look up heat-haze and refraction on the internet and get some understanding of why this effect takes place. Once you do that, you’ll be in a position to think up a magical heat-haze with no heat, or perhaps an ice-haze, or whatever. If you want to talk about the Swiss Alps (or model another location on the Swiss Alps), watch a documentary on the subject or skim a book or check out Wikipedia – the more information you have at your disposal, the more choices you have to cherry-pick the vital facts from.

Solution 2: Look for an analogy

Although I recommend against using analogies in your narrative and flavor text, except perhaps to encapsulate and sum up a description you have just detailed, having an analogy in mind for you to use as a guide when crafting the description can be simply magic. It can clarify and guide your thinking, define what details are most important to include in the actual description, and bind your notions together while you’re exploring all the elements that you might include. You can try one way of phrasing your description, and if it doesn’t work, avoid losing the grand vision by using the analogy as a touchstone to find your way back.

Solution 3: Modes of expression

When I was in high school, there was a creative writing exercise that was so invaluable that I remember it to this day. Each student was given a brief piece of text extracted from a book, about a quarter of a page long. Some of it was first person, some was in third person. We were then required to rewrite the original text in the other mode of expression. Naturally, some students were better at this than others, but most were good enough that the profound differences caused by the changes were made clear. The first-person text recast into the third person became far more impersonal and authoritative, but also colder, drier, and much more condensed. What was even more interesting were the cases that ran in the opposite direction, from third-person to first-person mode of expression; where the student recognized the source, they tended to incorporate the perspective and personality of one of the characters – to the point where the identity of the ‘speaker’ was recognizable to others who recognized the source material. Where the ‘translator’ did not recognize the source, they generally (and seemingly quite inadvertently) incorporated their own personality and perspectives, though a few invented generic ‘speakers’ whose voices were used as the point of view. Of course, the text inflated in size to contain this additional material.

The reason this lesson has stayed with me through these many years is that I have learned that when I get stuck while trying to write narrative, it can often be much easier to invent a generic citizen or knowledgeable person and then write the narrative as a monologue from their point of view. Once this is complete, I then have the choice of either introducing that character into the plotline to provide the description (and then depart the scene) or of taking the first-person monologue and redrafting it back into the third person. I have also found that when there are too many details coming too quickly, I can slow down the delivery to a manageable rate using this technique. Finally, by implying the personality traits and attitudes of ‘the typical citizen’, I can often cut whole paragraphs of descriptive text. Lots of advantages that make this technique worthy of serious consideration.

On the other hand, if the first-person narrative runs over a page, I’m in danger of making the mistake that I described in Information Overload in the Zenith-3 Campaign. That’s definitely the point at which I would – with the benefit of hindsight – look to compress the information by switching to the 3rd person. At most, I might keep a single short paragraph in first person at the start and end.

The upshot: if you’re having trouble, changing the mode of expression can sometimes get you to a solution, and can also have side-benefits.

Solution 4: Someone’s point of view

This can be tricky to pull off, but sometimes I have gotten results by putting the narrative into the context of what a particular individual perceives, whether that individual is a protagonist/PC or a minor character/NPC. Or even, on one occasion, an antagonist. This orders the information to be presented by applying the context of their perspective to the relative importance of each piece of information, and helps sequence everything.

Solution 5: Importance

There are other ways of ordering the information. That helps get through writer’s block because it breaks the problem into smaller, more easily-solved, sub-problems. The most obvious sequence is in order of likely importance to the party. That means describing the charging bull before the color of the window glass, or the height of the roofs.

But sometimes you can achieve even better results by starting from the least important and working up to the most important – then cutting small details off the top until a reasonable length is achieved. And, if you know it’s going to get cut anyway, you have the freedom to be a little clumsy starting off – which can be quite liberating. Finally, this means that instead of the most important thing (the ‘charging bull’) being a distraction from absorbing all the smaller, less-important (by definition) details, the narrative ends with a call to action of some sort – even if that action is to engage in dialogue.

Solution 6: The Most Obvious

Sometimes, the most important detail is not necessarily very obvious. So ordering information according to how obvious it is can be a better alternative. Think about that for a minute.

Solution 7: Essence of Abstraction

I have occasionally found it useful to abstract the information more strongly than would normally be the case. This emphasizes conceptual qualities over specificity, and there are times when that eliminates a lot of unnecessary detail and concentrates the attention on the conceptual.

Swirling ribbons of marshmallow tango and foxtrot over passionfruit marmalade, twisting and entwining like a gymnast’s ribbon. Soothing, restful, comforting thoughts surround you and cloud out all other details. Drowsiness blooms as your eyelids grow heavy and your heartbeat calms.

Try reading that when your PCs next open a door, or just imagine reading it. What actually lies beyond the door is insubstantial, ephemeral in comparison. Sure you could describe the room or area, and then the 12-foot-tall Ogre Magi casting the spell, and then have Spellcraft rolls made with virtually no chance of failure to identify the spell, and then naming the spell. If you then followed with the narrative as written, it would have all the impact of whet spaghetti. Far better, under those circumstances, to assume success and go straight to the abstract description. The very fact that the PCs are expecting all those dry details makes the impact all the greater.

Solution 8: Emotion and Allusion

Preceding those dry, factual details with a little poetic allusion or emotional context leaves that contextual information as an ‘aftertaste’ that colors and enriches those details. Compare:

The firehouse has red brick walls and white plaster ceilings. A brass pole lies bright and shiny in your field of view, as does a line of helmets and jackets hanging on a row of brass hooks on the wall. To one side is a freshly-washed and polished fire engine.

with

The frangipani tree fills the air with comforting but cloying scents. You can’t help but remember the sense of security you felt whenever you passed by the fire station in your respective home town as a child, and the thrill when the fire bells rang, the time old Macpherson’s barn burnt down. The walls are the same red brick that you would find in a hundred other municipal fire stations all over the state. Through the welcoming open doors you see a shiny brass pole and a line of yellow helmets and black jackets hanging from a row of brass hooks, and a brightly polished fire truck to one side.

Sure, the second one is about twice as long, and omits the white plaster ceiling; but it transports you to the location far more effectively. And, because it starts with an impression of the place rather than a specific – the scent of flowers in the air – it starts getting you into the creative mindset before you have to worry about specifics; from that point on, you are more concerned with not breaking the mood than you are with getting the details right. The specifics sort of come along for the ride.

Solution 9: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

I have found that when I need to describe a more complex scene or situation, I can often break through any writer’s block by finding a relevant image using Google image search or Wikipedia commons, creating a thumbnail impression of what I can see in that image, then focusing on the ways in which the image doesn’t match the scene to be described. If necessary, I might even go hunting for a second image that helps visualize the next missing element, and repeat the technique.

For example, that would give me a description of the forest, and then the mountains in the distance (which aren’t in the forest photo), with the moon rising behind them (which isn’t in the picture of the mountains), and then the castle (ditto), with the light spilling from its tower windows, and so on. Focusing on what is there in the photographic reference and describing it, then identifying something that isn’t there and looking for a way to describe that (using a new image if necessary) permits you to build and layer your description.

Since you only use ‘thumbnail descriptions’ and general impressions instead of a load of specific details to describe each part, what you are slowly building up is a visualization of the scene in your mind based apon the visual notations that you are making – once you have that, you can go back and flesh out the details that need to be included, and ignore the ones that don’t.

Solution 10: Adjectives in free-fall

My final technique for breaking down writer’s block in narrative is to list nothing but relevant adjectives. No nouns, no objects or subjects, no context – just the adjectives. When you have a satisfactory list containing everything relevant that you can think of without consulting a reference, link one element of the scene with that adjective – which restricts the number of specifics that you can incorporate to the number of descriptive terms that you came up with. Then you arrange those adjectives so that they have some sense of continuity and flow, giving you the order of description of each of the elements you’ve selected. I find this to be a great tool for sharpening my mental image of a scene that needs description. It can be challenging and a definite spur to the creativity, because you want to match the adjectives with the most significant elements of the scene.

In the next part: It’s time to start looking at Translation Writers Blocks. Don’t know what they are? Check out the first part of this series…

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