Hi everyone. Just a short(ish) post for you today, a pro tip for writers of fiction (or anything) or Dungeon Masters running roleplay games.
In any creative writing class, course or blog you will eventually run across the instruction, “Show, Don’t tell.”
This is an instruction to use more specific language describing what is happening in the situation, rather than just telling the reader what is going on. Here is an example of the difference.
He stomped into the room, slamming the door behind him. His face was red and his fists were balled. “You and I need to talk!”
He walked into the room angrily. “You and I need to talk!”
Example 1 shows us the mannerisms, shows us the man and we figure out that he is angry. We are pulled in to the description. Example 2 simply tells us that he is angry. However, we don’t know how that manifests and we really only have a cold report of the anger, rather than a descriptive example.
The description is more effective because it draws on our own recollections. Everyone in their life will have seen someone lose their temper and will have the memories of the emotional response to that, so as a writer (or a Dungeon Master – which is just another kind of writer…) it is our job to use language to describe that evokes the desired response.
How do we do that?
It sounds simple and complex at the same time, doesn’t it? The fact of the matter is it boils down to knowing your readership. What is the frame of reference of your readership? How do they respond (in general terms) to certain stimuli? Once you know the answer to that question, you can seed your fiction with language and ideas that will create the desired response.
Here is an example of something I used recently. I was writing a roleplay scenario. This scenario was occurring in a coastal town, and was entitled “The Ghost of Breaker Point”. (The players didn’t know the title). Their job was to investigate a mystery in the fictional town of Breaker Point, and I wanted them to be a bit on edge as it was supposed to be spooky. Incidentally, this would work for writing a short story as well, with the same sort of readers.
My players like the horror genre of movie. I was aware that they had both seen and liked the John Carpenter movie The Fog. I was also aware that one of the players has read more HP Lovecraft than I have.
I described a town by the sea blanketed in fog. My description included dark shapes in the distance, which when you get closer are simply buildings but are ominous when far away. I described the shapes of people moving through the fog. No details because fog obscures vision, and people moving without details brings the description into uncanny territory (According to Freud – as you are verging on Automata). The players immediately started thinking of the movie, The Fog and were suddenly uneasy as they suspected ghosts around every corner (Which is as close to nervous as I could make them). When they spoke to locals, they got a description of the town and I specifically referred to one of the public services in the town. The Historical Society. I could have called it the Town Museum, but Historical Society is a description used in some of Lovecraft’s work (and the Arkham Horror Game) and I knew that at least one of the players knew that. He immediately cursed me and assumed that they were in my version of Shadow over Innsmouth (possibly my favourite Lovecraft Work). Both players drew upon their own experiences and it helped build the mood.
This is virtually the same as how you might go about including descriptive language in a story. You may not know your readers as closely as a Dungeon Master knows their players, but you probably have a target demographic and you probably have some knowledge about them.
That is an example of using language for mood (I will come back to this in a future post about language and genre). To use language to convey the emotions of people, think, how do people act when they are feeling a certain way? For instance, how does an angry person enter a public space compared to a shy person? What about someone who has an agenda for being in this specific place where the reader is encountering them? Put yourself in that person’s shoes and figure out how they would act. And then describe that. Your reader might not get it immediately, but there should be enough clues for it to sink in over time. Plus, if you have hit the nail on the head, some of your readers are going to have “Eureka!” moment when they realise they have seen people act this way. They then draw on that experience and they are drawn into the scene. They then know that person A is angry, Person B is shy and Person C might be up to no good.
So, what do you think? Is this something you can use in your writing or gaming?
Let me know in the comments