The real difference between game prep and a lack of game prep, in a lot of ways, can be summarized as felicity of style: better-presented maps and illustrations, better thought-out plans, better characterization of NPCs, better depiction of that characterization, and more stylish Narrative. This article is part 2 of a masterclass in the last of these.
More stylish narrative, when describing people, places, and events means creating concise, communicative, and flavorful words to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts while being more easily assimilated as a result of their brevity. They enable the narrative to flow naturally instead of being disjointed and fragmented.
The process of creating top-notch narrative is not quick, and the process that I am describing assumes that you have unlimited time on tap for polishing. This article is not about efficiency of prep, it’s about effective use of prep in one particular field within the skillset of preparing adventures. It assumes that you can spend as much time as it takes, however unrealistic that assumption may be. However, efficiency is always a consideration and the technique eliminates as much wasted time as possible.
Even if the process is not carried through to completion, or some of the more time-consuming steps are skipped or short-cutted, it’s possible to get 90% of the quality for about 10% of the time investment. The secret is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing the entire process and where those strengths and weaknesses impact on the process, so that you can target the areas for effort that will give you the most bang for your temporal buck. And it’s always great to have an awareness of the whole process on tap to be called upon when the result matters – when it’s intended for publication, for example, and not just friends talking amongst themselves or tutoring each other.
Okay, three parts are not going to be enough. I’m only half-way through the process. As a sidebar to part 1, I listed the planned breakdown of the series with all its alternatives. Because I think it important for reference and usage purposes that the whole be available in one piece, I will be editing the parts – however many of them there end up being – into a free PDF. I also intend to produce a checklist for people to follow when employing the full process, in a PDF. So let’s get to it!
I refer a number of times to the example offered last time. I’m not going to quote the whole thing again, but here for reference is the “stylish” example once again:
“The elevator dings as the doors open to reveal the offices of Brash, Livercoat, Woodley, and Howe. Interns with arm-loads of law-books and harried expressions walk past with measured strides, deep in quiet conversation. Eighteenth century opulence masks modern convenience. The cream-colored soft carpets become mushroom-brown at the walls and are clearly custom-made for this office space, The walls are polished teak, oak, and maple panels decorated with portraits of partners past and present in identical gold frames. Alabaster-white molded ceilings are almost lost in the shadows above tasteful but modern cylindrical brass chandeliers, and the scent of new leather fills the air. Directly in front of you is a central reception area with the company logo in Gold set against splashes of red, white, and blue on a pane of frosted glass. The receptionist says ‘Good afternoon’ with a smile as she looks up.”
This process is intended for writing of a novel or other piece of fiction, or part thereof, and is a compilation of many smaller processes derived from many sources that come together for that purpose. As pointed out in part 1, there are a lot of parallels between narrative for fiction-writing and narrative for use in a roleplaying adventure, so this process is directly importable; it’s then a case of determining where to compromise and by how much. Since every individual is different, those decisions will also be different in every case.
The exact technique that I have distilled from a great many contributing sources in combination with my own experiences consists of 56 (!) steps & processes that group naturally into eight stages. Today’s article will deal with the first three of these:
Stage 1: Preliminaries:
- Organization & Planning
- Use a scratch document
- Index by placeholder
- The retention of progress
- Breakpoint 1
Stage 2: Bullet-pointing:
- Multitasking: Personality
- Polish: Sensory Cues
- Bullet Points
- Breakpoint 2
Stage 3: Narrative Organization:
- Mistake #1: A sentence to each bullet point
- Mistake #2: The Six Surfaces
- Mistake #3: Over-adjectivizing
- Mistake #4: Drowning in detail
- Multitasking: Tone
- Multitasking: Mood
- Multitasking: Interaction
- Multitasking: Oddities & Anomalies
- Mistake #5: Textual Chunks
- Narrative Flow: The ubiquitous elements
- Polish: Synonym Weeding
- Polish: Reasonable Assumptions
- Polish: Deferred Narrative
- Narrative Flow: The endpoint
- Narrative Flow: The In-between
- Breakpoint 3
Part 3 will complete the description of the process:
Stage 4: Narrative Construction
Stage 5: Narrative First Review
Stage 6: Second Review
Stage 7: Final Polish
Stage 8: Completion
The whole is so large that I’m only going to be able to touch on each step or process fairly briefly. The goal here is to present an overview – and a whole bunch of tips along the way. Many of these deserve expansion into a full article in their own right, and in some cases, that has already been done. Where that’s the case, I’ll link to those articles.
A sidebar on Style
Everyone has their own writing style, but the targets of style remain the same: clear, effective, and interesting communication of whatever the writer is trying to communicate. However, differences in style can make a big difference to the amount of effort required.
I aim for a natural style that flows in much the same way as it would if I were having a conversation. This has the advantage of requiring less polishing and refinement; other people and purposes demand or desire a more formal style. The downside is that it tends to come off sounding more authoritative than is necessarily intended. It’s never my intent to suggest “this is THE way, the ONLY way, to do [X]” – just that this is the way that works for me, or that I think will work for me.
For RPG purposes, my usual style has big advantages because it treats any narrative text as something to be communicated to the players. I get similar advantages employing it to write blog posts. It means that I can simply get on with the writing and not worry about the niceties too much.
Always keep the intended delivery method in mind, and write to that intended application of your words.
A second side-bar on style
The other important consideration in terms of style is the intended audience. If you are writing to a relatively specific target group, such as your players, there is always a certain amount of explanation that can be taken as read; you will have many frames of reference in common. The more you expand the target, the more assumed knowledge and context you have to explain. This trips me up all the time when expanding something written for one of my RPGs into a blog post.
If I’m writing for my player’s benefit, I only have to name a prominent NPC and a flood of backstory becomes accessible to them that provides immediate context to whatever I have to say. If I’m writing for my readers here at Campaign Mastery, I have to fill in at least part of that context without hindering the flow of the main narrative, but I can still assume a certain degree of familiarity with common gaming terms and usages. If I write for the general public, I not only can’t assume any of that inherent background knowledge, but I have to explain things that we gamers take for granted – and do so in such a way as not to bore the pants off anyone who already knows it, just to make the process harder.
Always remember who you are writing for; anything you can reasonably assume they already know is something you don’t have to explain, letting you get on with the meaningful content.
Stage 1: Preliminaries:
The first stage is concerned with preparing to write. These preliminaries deal with the mechanics of writing, and are something that changes with the technology available. The process that I employ now is very different to the process that I would have had to employ back in the days of manual typewriters and no internet.
1. Organization & Planning
The first step is always to know what you are trying to write about. What’s the point of your communication, what are you trying to achieve? Do you have everything that you need in order to write without interruption? This step ensures that you have all the tools you need, from printer paper to internet access. It also covers when you are going to write and how your time is going to be organized.
As I explained in One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post, I break an article down into discrete components – sections and subsections – before I start writing. I employ the same technique when writing an RPG adventure with only minor differences. I employed a similar strategy to generate the bullet list used in the example in part 1 of this series – floor, walls, ceiling, what’s in front and what’s behind. In the more compressed, more stylish form of the example, the same pattern can be observed, though I’ve inserted a general impression at the top of the list.
Each of these sections and subsections is a placeholder. When it comes to a blog post, they usually become headings and subheadings. When writing for an RPG, sections become paragraphs and subsections become specific content to be incorporated into that paragraph.
Quite often, if there is a substantial gap between planning and execution, the shorthand labels that you use to summarize your intent – the headings and subheadings – can become obscure, the meaning forgotten. Whenever I think there is any risk whatsoever of that happening, I will incorporate a “sub-subheading” that synopsizes what is meant. That leaves me free to be highly compact when the meaning is more obvious.
3. Use a scratch document
I always write in a scratch document. The simpler the word processor you use, the better, at least for your first drafts; if you have few or no formatting options, you have no distractions from the process of actually putting one word after another. In fact, when writing an e-book, I try to work on each article or chapter in a separate document – so that if there is a catastrophic failure of some kind, or I chase my tail down a blind alley, I can lose that part without losing the whole.
It’s called modular thinking, the notion that you break whatever you have to write down into discrete chunks and work on them individually, then assemble the whole; if you find that one “plug-in module” isn’t right, you can pull it out and rework it without affecting the whole.
In terms of RPGs, I tend to break an adventure down into acts, then into scenes within the act, as though I were working on a play or on a TV/movie script. Each Act will usually then become a separate sub-document, as self-contained as possible. When it’s finished, copy-and-paste inserts the draft into the main document.
The big advantage of this approach is that I can keep both the main document and the current chapter open in separate windows at the same time. I will often use plain-text for the draft and a richer file format for the compilation (which opens with different software) so that this approach is naturally implemented for me by the computer software.
It goes further. I can use placeholders in my draft to indicate the need to insert an illustration or a table, then generate those separately, again using copy-and-paste when compiling the main document. This enables me to choose the best tool for whatever the job is at the moment.
Even when writing an email, I will frequently employ the same approach – drafting the content in a scratch document and then copy-and-pasting into the email itself. I find that preferable because if I try writing the email in the actual email web-page or client, I will often find that I’ve been logged off by the time I’m ready to hit ‘send’.
4. Index by placeholder
When writing an adventure, placeholders usually include the names of NPCs and location references. At the top of the scratch document, I’ll keep a master list of these placeholders and the acts/scenes in which they participate. These are accumulated in the main document when compiling it, and then sorted by act/scene. That mandates using a consistent format throughout the adventure, but it makes it much easier to refer back to their last appearance within the adventure.
This has so many advantages its hard to know where to start. I can write all of an NPCs canned dialogue for the whole adventure at once, so that they always have a consistent speech pattern. I can evolve a description over the course of its appearances within the adventure, so that Lessons From The West Wing III: Time Happens In The Background. I can describe a setting or location and add further details as they become relevant, i.e. noticeable by, or significant to, the players.
It’s also convenient for the generation of ToCs (Tables of Contents) such as the list earlier in this article, which in turn enables me to see “the whole plan” at once.
In terms of narrative, it means that I can put the bullet points into a logical sequence and get an overall flow to the narrative that makes sense, simply by reordering the individual snippets of text being indexed with copy and paste.
Let me expound a little more on this point. The order in which I write passages of text can be whatever is most efficient and need not have any resemblance to the order in which they will appear in the finished adventure. When the time comes to compile the material in the scratch document into a coherent whole, I can (1) copy-&-paste a duplicate of the final order; (2) select-and-cut the text snippets that combine to make up that scene or act one at a time, then (3) paste it immediately after the appropriate index entry in the duplicate list. The placeholder then becomes a heading or subheading with the content immediately following it.
At a campaign level, there are even more advantages to be extracted from this approach. You can keep a separate document for each NPC and compile, as you go, a copy of every appearance that NPC makes. Such an NPC “contact dossier”, when preceded by any game mechanics like stats, becomes incredibly useful when the same NPC makes a return appearance weeks or months later. What’s more, by reviewing the “contact dossier” before you start writing, you can immediately assess the last-established status quo of the character (so that you can evolve their circumstances), and can facilitate consistency of personality across both appearances.
Finally, by keeping all your “contact dossiers” in a single folder dedicated to that purpose, you can avoid the mistake of using the same name for two different characters – which can otherwise happen at the most inconvenient and confusing times.
5. The retention of progress
Save your work. Do it often. I do it at the end of each section or subsection, and before starting any sort of major revision. Another big advantage of the modular approach is that you can save your progress without updating the master document, so that you are not committed to anything permanently – with most word processors, loading an existing version of the document doesn’t permit you to backtrack through past changes, each session starts off with a clean “undo” list.
Whenever I start a major update, for example formatting the final document, I will always work on a copy – and then overwrite the master version only when I’m sure that what has just been saved is correct. This lets me always fall back to the last point at which everything was right – something that has saved my bacon any number of times.
When one will be useful, I prepare a checklist of things to do, and prioritize them according to their degree of necessity. I’ve offered several ways of such prioritization in past articles – Fire Fighting, Systems Analysis, and RPG Problem Solving Part 2 of 3: Prioritization for example.
When you have unlimited time, you want to tick off every last item on that checklist. When you’re up against a deadline, with limited time between now and then, that may not be practical, which is where the article linked to above becomes more useful.
It’s helpful to have a general master checklist that you can use time and time again. Don’t rely on memory if you don’t have to – the one time you forget to spell-check will inevitably be the time you make a horrendous spelling mistake. Why? Because you will have also forgotten on other occasions, and without that terrible blunder to point it out to you, you will not have noticed. Hence, items seem to get missed only at the worst possible times – when you’re in a hurry, and you’ve made a colossal blunder, and are already stressed and under pressure. It’s a confluence of circumstances that inevitably bites you on the tail.
7. Breakpoint 1
When you have ensured that everything is ready to go, the first thing to do is STOP. At the end of each of the major stages of writing, take a break and clear your mind. This is infinitely preferable to interrupting a major stage because you need to take a break. Believe me, it will actually be more efficient to take a break now (even if you don’t think you need one, or are eager to get going) than it will be to accommodate unscheduled pauses that break your chain of thought when neck-deep in the act of being creative.
Sidebar: Efficiency from OH&S
I don’t know about other countries, but here in Australia, the Public Service Union is one of the strongest and best organized in terms of protecting the workforce and maximizing efficiency. You can generally take their OH&S guidelines as a solid representation of ‘best practice’ for ensuring productivity and long-term occupational health.
There have been studies that show that taking a 10-minute break or more every 2 hours actually results in higher productivity than not doing so. So the Australian Public Service recommends taking scheduled 10-minute breaks every hour so that you can miss one when you have to and still hit the real target. Get up, stretch, walk around, get a beverage, relax. Read a book, play cards, whatever. The mental relief is as important as being away from a computer screen. While individual needs may vary, it’s still a good foundation that enables you to focus on working hard and efficiently the rest of the time. You will get more done.
I employ a cheat: A put a CD on when I start work, and take a ten-minute break when it finishes playing. These are usually between 45 and 75 minutes long, so this technique takes all the clock-watching and stress out of the situation.
Sidebar: Enough sleep
I am going to do a separate article on this subject at a later point. For now, suffice it to say that people need a lot less sleep than you think – if you manage it properly.
Sleep can be broken into two parts: a 30-minute part and a 60-minute part. These two form a repeating cycle while you sleep, from the moment you fall asleep. You want to wake up during that 30-minute window. Naps should be less than 30 minutes long. Allow time to actually fall asleep. Plan your wakeup time accordingly.
There’s a lot more to say on the subject, but I’ll save that for that separate article I mentioned. For now, suffice it to say: You will be more creative, more productive, more healthy, and more happy if you get enough sleep.
Stage 2: Bullet-pointing:
So you know what you’re going to write about, and you have your workspace and tools all organized; you’re fresh and ready to go. The place to start is bullet-pointing, as explained earlier.
Bullet-pointing captures the maximum number of thoughts in the shortest space of time per thought. It forces brevity. If you have to, you can even run an adventure that’s been bullet-pointed with no additional prep.
An example of bullet-pointing Scenes to appear within an Act from an RPG might be:
- Back-door call to PCs
- Lab Location, description
- Meet Research Director
- Meet Lab Assistant
- Lab Purpose
- Consultation by Museum
- Strange Discovery
- Report to Authority
- Disappearance of Researcher
- Decision to involve PCs
I’ve actually been a little more explicit in the above list than I might be when actually writing the scene. Instead of “Lab Location, description”, I would probably just write “Lab”; instead of “Meet Research Director” I would simply say “Research Director”.
8. Multitasking: Personality
Characters are the heart and soul of RPGs. When compiling a bullet-point list, I always try and capture the personalities of the NPCs and institutions involved. If I am describing a scene, as I did in the earlier example, I will decide what personality I want the location to have and use that as my starting point. It is so much easier to proceed in this way than to try and tack a personality in afterwards, because it means that I can be actively looking for ways in which to display that personality, and because it means that the personality of the subject can influence the content instead of being superficially tacked on.
The easiest approach is to actually append a superficial personality profile, just a word or two long, after their introduction in the scene. “Research Director – Stuffy, Worried” is a lot more useful than just “Research Director”.
Point-of-view is always something to bear in mind as a subtext within the Personality consideration. If I’m describing the scene where something happened, I always bear in mind the personality of whoever was responsible even if they are not an active presence in the scene. I will usually include such a presence as a bullet-point item, but put it in brackets as a reminder. Of course, if I have a contact dossier, all I need to do is reference that dossier.
It’s a lot easier for you to visualize a scene in your imagination and then describe what you “see” than it is to describe it without doing so. It’s also a lot more effective – after all, if you can’t visualize the scene, how can you expect your players to do so? Throughout the bullet-point example above, I was picturing the Research Director constantly wringing his hands with worry. I have no idea why he’s worried – perhaps it’s just that he’s going outside the usual routine, perhaps he’s taking a risk that makes him uncomfortable, or perhaps he’s a concerned boss – or perhaps he’s guilty of something and worried he will be discovered.
The bullet point notation, “worried,” not only serves as a reminder as to the behavior to keep in mind while writing the scene, it reminds that there needs to be an explanation for this behavior. What’s more, the rest of the personality should intimate this reason – insisting that the PCs sign in and wear passes at all times suggests the first reason for the worry, eyes darting back and forth while he asks if this can be kept off-the-record suggests the second, exhibiting concern for the lab assistant suggests the third, and a statement that “getting you involved was not my idea” leaves room for the fourth while suggesting a fifth, some form of prejudice against the PCs, or against their presence if it can be viewed as a rebuke of his management of the facility.
Throughout the law-firm example, I was able to visualize both the appearance and the layout quite clearly from the very beginning, and simply sketched in additional details as each element presented itself for further delineation within the bullet list. Nor was the version of the bullet list provided the same as the one I initially came up with – one idea suggested another, which suggested still another; they were subsequently placed in logical order to make the connections to the more “stylish” version clearer to readers. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
The other sort of notation that I will make on the bullet list is a connection to any reference material I have, or that I need to locate. This might be a map, it might be a photograph, it might be to an RPG supplement, it might be to a contact dossier, it might be to an earlier adventure in which one or more elements might be located. In particular, in the above list, “Strange Discovery” is a little vague and needs to be more explicitly described.
Not only will I list any research required, I will actively seek out the sources at this point. You want to collect your research before you start writing so that it can be incorporated into narrative consistently. If, for example, I’m thinking of something strange about the axes of atomic rotation in whatever was being tested, I will want to know how these things occur in nature, how they are detected, and what the machines used for such analysis look like. I may want to research “Magnetic Resonance”.
If I wanted whatever it was to have a different radiological signature, I will want to research radioactive decay and elements with unusual half-lives so that I know what the strangeness is. I will want to know about isotope identification. Since the chemical properties of different isotopes tend to be the same, I know that a spectrograph won’t do that job – so, while I might note that a mass spectrometer might be normal equipment for a lab handling such analyses, it won’t be especially prominent, and will get mentioned in passing if at all.
11. Polish: Sensory Cues
Once I have all my reference material, and have at least a preliminary idea of what it says, I will go back over my bullet list and add to it. The first of several steps that polish the material, I want to note any specific sensory cues other than the visual for incorporation. Sounds and Smells are the big two; taste and touch tend to be less frequent, though they may be present in specific items where they are relevant.
12. Bullet Points
Here’s a simple checklist: general impression, front, sides, back, top, bottom, the obvious. That’s the sort of checklist that I use when describing a room or location. Step 12 of the writing process is to go back over the bullet-point list making sure that nothing has been left out. For example, in the “laboratory” example, some notes on the missing researcher should be in place, and while I have described the Institution there is no description of the actual lab where the strangeness took place. There should be something about whether or not the Lab Assistant was present when whatever happened transpired, and if not, why not. And who were the authorities? And what raised suspicions of a cover-up, and why aren’t the lab personnel going along with it? There’s a lot more detail needed, and each of these needs a bullet point. In addition, I would add bullet points for the results of any research.
If the layout of the facility was going to be important, the time to at least roughly sketch out a map is before you start writing descriptions.
Another example, this time from the law-firm example, are the combined water features / drinking fountains. I can see these quite clearly in my mind’s eye, even now – but I gave minimal description in the bullet-point list. This is the point at which I might draw a quick sketch to help me make it clear – but, since this is a relatively unimportant piece of the description, I probably wouldn’t bother.
13. Breakpoint 2
Creating the bullet points involves a solid burst of creativity. When they are finished, it’s time to take another break. You need to clear your head of everything that’s irrelevant to the next step – and everything that’s relevant should now be in note form, ready for expansion.
Stage 3: Narrative Organization:
I made the point that by this time you have a collection of bullet points that aren’t necessarily in order. Stage three is about putting these points in the order that you want to use them in the final narrative, adding details and further notes as you go. Often, you will draft a small snippet of finished narrative as you go.
This is a stage that a lot of people seem to struggle with, or that people ignore only to find themselves in difficulty in subsequent stages. Your goal in this stage is to decide on the flow of the narrative, the order in which you want your bullet points to be presented to whoever your material is intended for – whether that’s players in an RPG or the readership of a blog, article, or e-book.
14. Mistake #1: A sentence to each bullet point
I want to start detailing this stage by making specific mention of common mistakes that people make. I consider the active avoidance of these mistakes to be something that is just as important as the more constructive steps in the process.
The first such mistake is usually putting each bullet point in a sentence by itself. To illustrate, let’s take the first three or four bullet points from the law firm list as I originally wrote them and translate them improperly:
- Central elevator – to reception. Corridors – H pattern, broad enough stations each side.
- Reception – company logo. Patriotic colors plus gold. Glass backing.
- Luxurious carpets, custom.
- Walls – wood panelings.
Compare that with the version presented last time, in which each of these has become one or more sentences:
- A central elevator opens to the main reception. Corridors are in a H pattern, but are broad enough for secretarial stations to line each side.
- Central reception area with company logo in Gold against splashes of red, white, and blue on frosted glass.
- Luxurious soft carpets, custom-designed & fitted.
- The walls are polished wood panels.
Now imagine yourself reading these aloud, exactly as they stand. Is this narrative that sings? Not by a long shot!
Always look for ways to bundle related items together. Don’t start describing one thing, break off to describe another, then return to describing the first thing – and treat these categories of information as broadly in definition as possible. Don’t, for example, describe one wall, and then the paintings on that wall, and then the next wall, and the paintings on that wall, and then…. well, you get the idea. Put all the walls together into one bundle.
15. Mistake #2: The Six Surfaces
At the same time, don’t repeat yourself. Collect like together with like, and make sure that you have every surface covered (floor, walls, ceiling for a room). The number of times I’ve seen people describe walls, furniture, and decorations in loving detail while failing to even mention the floor or ceiling is astonishing.
If you’re describing an outdoors scene, treat it as though it were being projected onto the walls of an imaginary room. Use this to make sure that you’re leaving nothing important out.
16. Mistake #3: Over-adjectivizing
Contemplate the following: “The small shimmering scales were opalescent beads of gold, with rainbow-like speckles of intense red, earthy brown, and pure white, joined by brightly-gleaming yellow golden scales of minuscule size, visible only upon close inspection.” Or, “the high-backed chair of soft velvet was well-padded and adorned with brightly-colored purple cushions filled with the softest down, matching in intensity the ruby-red velvet backing and rich, well-polished, deeply stained hardwood.”
Some writers seem to think that every detail that is described needs an adjective or three. Most of the time, one is too many – prune back to one for the entire object. You aren’t making the object more real in the readers’/players’ minds by overloading them with adjectives.
Even more to the point, use an adjective only to modify or contrast expectations raised by the general impression. A “richly-appointed chair” gives sufficient impression for most purposes. Adding “velvet” to that description is just about permissible because it tells you something about the construction. Don’t bother mentioning the wood, or the wood-stain; these are implied. Don’t describe them as soft until someone sits in one. Unless there is something notable or important about the cushions, they can pretty much be taken as read. Ditto any carving of the back or legs.
Be minimalist in your adjectives.
17. Mistake #4: Drowning in detail
This is a very easy mistake to make; it’s necessary to be constantly vigilant. In general, too much detail leads to too many adjectives, and too many adjectives tends to imply too much detail. What do your targets need to know? What do you need to specifically mention beyond what’s in the general impression?
Is there a more general, more inclusive term that can be used to refer collectively to the things that you are describing? Do you have to specifically detail both chairs and tables, or can you substitute “Dining Room furniture” – or simply “furniture”? – which can then be described all in one statement.
At the same time, don’t bother describing the settee when it’s the stuffing spilling out of the cut in the chair that’s of interest – unless the material of the chair makes the cut more significant. A chair of dragonscale is worth mentioning in this context, for example, because of the implied resistance to being cut.
Every detail that you explicitly mention should be relevant to the function or role of the object of the description.
18. Multitasking: Tone
There are a few things to keep actively in mind in a positive way while compiling your bullet points. The first is the tone that you want the object of your description to have.
Tone defines the emotionality of the circumstances that you want to convey, through a restriction on the vocabulary that you employ. If the tone you want is “Gothic Horror”, terms like “frilly” should be nowhere to be seen. On the other hand, if soft and romantic is the objective, then it might be entirely appropriate. It can be thought of as an emotional context.
Now is the time to decide on the tone that you want and actively cut or rephrase to achieve that tone.
19. Multitasking: Mood
Mood and tone work hand-in-hand. Mood defines the specific emotional direction or pattern that is to exist within the Tone. Is the mood to be oppressive, ominous, threatening, sad, up-beat? Mood relates more to events within the narrative, but can be manipulated to a certain extent simply by the sequence of details. The use of color, the use of language, the phrasing of descriptions, and the choice of which details to focus on, all manipulate the mood. The emotional state of characters (NPCs, in the case of a game) is also a driver of Mood more than Tone. Events and their sequence project mood, and more specifically, function to transition whatever the mood is prior to the scene and alter it in some respect.
Some moods simply don’t work very well in some tonal choices, and may need careful treatment. Others come naturally.
Mood has three roles to play at this point: first, one of the valid reasons for inclusion of details is to generate or isolate the desired mood; second, assessing the mood of the existing events; and third, supplementing the events with others of specific tonal value in order to alter the mood within the overall scene or act.
For more on mood I refer you to my article on emotional pacing in RPGs: Part One and Part Two. You might also find People, Places, and Narratives: Matching Locations to plot needs relevant at this point.
Decide on what the mood should be. Constantly monitor what the mood is, then insert or remove items to achieve that mood – but, if you remove anything essential, bear in mind that you will have to put it in somewhere.
20. Multitasking: Interaction
Another thing to keep in mind while working on this stage of the writing process is the interactions that you want your characters (fiction) or the PCs (RPG) to have with the circumstances and events around them. You want to be constantly aware of how events steer the characters, and how the characters steer events, and in particular for an RPG, how the players can steer events in directions other than those forecast in your outline.
Certain bullet points are calls to action, and these are high-risk points in terms of potential departures from plans. There are three possible reactions to such departures: you can try to force the players back on track, you can try to lead them back on track, or you can be prepared for them to off-track. The first is never recommended, as is the variation of never giving the players a choice of action. The second is possible but if manipulation is detected by players, it is generally resented. The best solution – and the most difficult – is the third one. Which is why there is so much GMing advice out there on how to do it.
Branch points – or points at which there is a higher than normal chance of divergence – should be noted by the author as they arise, and notes on how to handle them incorporated as you go.
The other piece of advice that should be noted in this context is direction. When moving from item to item, think about how the characters eyes are moving – if you start going left to right, don’t interrupt that by mentioning the ceiling unless there is something hanging from it within the character’s eye-line. Left to right, right to left, up to down, down to up, forward – these are all valid directions. Organize your descriptions appropriately.
21. Multitasking: Oddities & Anomalies
That’s already quite a lot to think about, but there’s one thing more to add to the stack: Oddities. As a general rule of thumb, less attention should be devoted to what fits within the boundaries of what has already been described or established within the narrative passage, and more attention given to things that don’t fit.
If you enter a clearing and it contained a charging dragon, how much attention would you pay to the color of the leaves on the trees? If you enter a room and some points a machine gun in your direction, don’t expect people to notice the wallpaper.
Have a good reason for any oddities that occur; if it doesn’t fit, and it isn’t necessary, think about cutting it. And if it is important, detail it – bearing in mind that an oddity of any sort is quite likely to provoke an action / reaction from the PCs.
22. Mistake #5: Textual Chunks
Sometimes, a writer will have small snippets of text already written. The best way of organizing these into a coherent narrative is to summarize these into bullet points, identifying each passage by means of paragraph numbering.
For example, “Quantum vibrations in the time stream are detectable, if the accumulated sum of such vibrations reach a certain threshold, and every event causes these vibrations. The more substantial the event, the greater the vibrations. Time traveling past such events is akin to jogging through an Earthquake, The Quantum Discriminator detects such significant events and measures their significance so that I know what to avoid.”
If this little piece of exposition were the fourth pre-generated by the author, it would be given the index entry E4 (E for “Exposition”) and a bullet point entry created which reads “E4 – Temporal Earthquakes”.
Now, the only reason why this particular piece of exposition would be important is because the character is about to experience such an event, or – more likely – has just done so. That means that there needs to be a separate item on the bullet list: Experience Temporal Earthquake.”
But that alone would still not be enough to justify the presence of this one-two piece of narrative. To be truly significant, there need to be two further bullet points – one that reads “establish location in space-time”, and a second that reads “There shouldn’t be a TQ at these coordinates.”
Personally, I would consider dividing this exposition up. This enables the description of the Quantum Discriminator to be separated from the event which triggers it, giving more flexibility in the ordering of the bullet points. The entire first sentence is pretty much redundant, for example. You don’t need it, and its inclusion might interfere with the smooth flow of the final narrative. Smaller chunks gives greater flexibility, so break them up.
Bearing all these things in mind, and having further populated your bullet points list as necessary, it’s almost time to start organizing your bullet points into the order they will appear in the finished narrative.
The starting point that I always employ is a synopsis. It’s usually preferable to put this in writing so that you can refer back to it. If you can get this down to a single sentence, so much the better. There will be times when I will create a synopsis before I start listing bullet points, and this is entirely acceptable.
24. Narrative Flow: The ubiquitous elements
Once you have an idea of what the narrative passage is intended to convey, it’s time to do a rough sorting of the bullet points. I start with the Ubiquitous elements – these are anything that can be wholly subsumed by the general impression, or that should form part of that general impression; in other words, anything that will be present throughout the narrative text block. If necessary, I create a new bullet point at the top of the list to contain it.
25. Polish: Synonym Weeding
Once I have the ubiquitous elements listed, the next step is to go through the bullet points and cut or rephrase anything that is synonymous with one or more of those elements. In particular, any adjectives that are implied by a ubiquitous element should be expunged from the remaining bullet points.
26. Polish: Reasonable Assumptions
The next thing that I look to eliminate from the bullet point list is anything that can reasonably be assumed to be present and of no further note. The Law-firm example didn’t list cleaning closets or rest rooms, for example. But, going beyond that, is there anything so mundane that it can be reasonably assumed to exist?
If I say Police Station, I don’t need to list the front desk unless there’s something unusual about it – in which case, I don’t want to write about the desk, I want to write about the unusual feature. If I say Fire Station, the presence of Fire Trucks doesn’t need to be mentioned; the existence of so many bays is enough to imply a truck in each bay. An electrical sub-station implies cables and transformers. Get rid of anything you can reasonably assume to be present. Heck, a Lasker Wave Detector implies that such a thing as Lasker Waves exist; you don’t necessarily need to define and describe them, what you care about is what causes them, and therefore, what the presence of such waves implies.
But don’t eliminate these entirely; move them to the bottom of the list and cross them off. If your word processor supports no other way of doing so, you can underline them. My preferred method is to use a different font color like red, which is fairly self-explanatory. The reason is that you may want to reinsert some of these at a later point for reasons of characterization.
Remember, what you are compiling is not a set decoration work-order! You don’t have to list everything. Don’t bother listing a telephone on every office desk unless that’s highly unusual for the setting.
27. Polish: Deferred Narrative
Next, I move to the end of the list anything that can be deferred. What don’t you need to describe or explain right now? This is one of the primary acts illustrated by the generation of the concise Law Office description – there was an awful lot of detail that didn’t have to be mentioned right away.
This is a little trickier when it comes to RPGs, as I pointed out in discussing Good Storytelling Technique Or Bad? – Chekhov’s Gun and RPGs.
In a nutshell, if the players are going to be looking for something, you need to mention it up front. If not, it can be deferred until such a time as it becomes relevant.
28. Narrative Flow: The endpoint
We have now excluded everything that doesn’t need to be part of this particular narrative passage. We also have the content that is to form the general introduction and eliminated any redundancy that results, in other words, the beginning; and we have all the things that we need to take into account identified, and – hopefully – documented. As I noted in the law-office example, anything to which the players should be expected to respond, or that will lead into a dialogue scene or a different narrative passage such as an action sequence, should be the last thing in the narrative flow. The next step is therefore to select the endpoint of the narrative passage, which must be one of those types of passage elements.
You always have to end your narrative block with either a transition to a different narrative block, to an action of some kind, to a passage of dialogue, or – in the case of an RPG – with something that demands interaction with one or more players of some sort. If you don’t have one of these, you need to create and insert one.
29. Narrative Flow: The In-between
With beginning and end-point identified, all that remains is to establish the order of the bits in the middle. Is there some logical flow between those established points? I mentioned some of the possibilities earlier, but there are more, too many to list, depending on the nature of the narrative passage. Here are a couple more to contemplate: Input to Output, Cause to Effect, Mundane to Unusual, Outside to Inside, Macro to Micro, even Wet to Dry or vice-versa.
Look at the start and the endpoints, and identify the differences between what is being initially described and what is being described at the end. There will always be some difference, and often there will be more than one. What you want is the one that forms a natural progression through the majority of the in-between elements.
In the case of the law-firm example, I went from down to up, then to what was immediately in front (up to specific center) which led logically to the receptionist. From there, I could either go directly to the dialogue, or to a description of the receptionist – either of which meets the requirements of the endpoint as listed in the previous section.
This approach works no matter what the narrative block is about. It could be describing the appearance of a deity within a temple or the precessing of the watchamaguffins; the appearance of a pirate ship to the disappearance of a magician. With practice, it becomes almost instinctive, and you no longer need to actually carry out many of the steps – though it is always a good idea to tick each off on a checklist to ensure that you have at least thought about whether or not a given step is necessary for this particular narrative passage.
30. Breakpoint 3
Once you have your bullet list boiled down and sequenced properly, it’s time to clear your head of all those things that were used in this stage. All those mistakes to avoid and things to bear in mind are now embedded and embodied in the sequence of bullet points that you have compiled, so you’re all set to begin the process of turning it into polished text – which carries with it a whole new set of things to bear in mind. So now is the right time to take another break and prepare yourself mentally for the fourth stage of the narrative writing process.
And that’s something that I’ll get into next time – because I’m clean out of time for doing so in this part of the series!