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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Do You Tell Stories?

Well, I was going to write about Pandemic, but then came a late-night conversation and some things smacking me upside the head, regarding storytelling and writing and such. It led me not only to re-evaluate my own writing work, but also to look at the RPG phenomena, and how to storytell in RPGs, in a new light. Hopefully it helps all of you, as well.

Confidence and Crashing
My friend asked me to tell her a story. So I improvised on the spot, doing an iconic survey of the parts that a tree played in the life of a central character--and she stopped me. "You're not telling me a story," she said, correcting me. She was right. All I was doing was jumping from brief scene to brief scene. She called me out on my lack of detail, but that wasn't just it.

What was really wrong? I wasn't trying to tell a story. I wasn't trying to watch the story in my mind. I was just putting out emblematic images, interesting strains of plot...and for sure plenty of things that would entertain. Things that people could enjoy in a story. But not necessarily anything that was going to last. There wasn't a permanency to it.

Tell a Story!
What came clearer into focus as things went on was this: to write well, you have to tell a story. I might equally say, to GM well, you have to tell a story. What is a story? It's not exactly definable. But it's something that you see in reality, which you then want to communicate with others. It's something that you have to connect with, before you can connect with others. It's not enough to follow mythic archetypes and have drastic character motivations and a convoluted plot.

It's somewhat the thing that I refer to when I speak of a story having a "soul". Because, in a way, that story has you in it. That's the only way you can give a story any solidity. You have to tell a story. When you tell it, you bring yourself to the story, and you sit, and watch. You don't rush on to speed up the plot. You move to tell the story. You move to show your audience the story.

The Perils of Structure
Structure is not a bad thing. At the same time, as I learned to write, I forgot how to tell stories. That was my biggest mistake. Being able to structure and plot should not erase the ability to tell a story; it should supplement it. It's very possible to think so much about the elaborate plot structure, about the deep and struggling character motivations, about the tragic plot arcs which emulate ancient classics, that we forget something. None of those are really what storytelling is about. They're just the vehicle of storytelling, a way to make it more sophisticated and educated.

Something that my friend advocated was simplicity. She learns and thinks best through sound, instead of visual media, and this influenced her writing. She had always been around the phenomenon of bedtime stories, of read-aloud books (even long, high-level reading), and this is probably the biggest influence on her storytelling. Something she talked about was the loss of storytelling culture, how the tradition of passing down stories from parent to child is dying out. When adding in the complexities of structure study, writers arrive at something which, while engaging and entertaining, doesn't last.

Cultivating a Culture
RPGs are in a unique spot, in relation to all of this. They provide a far easier bridge to storytelling. They're somewhat like a "recreational" form of storytelling, where you don't quite know where the story will go, where you can't predict always what the other players will do, and where there is some element of a game in it. It leads me to wonder if, perhaps, RPGs can't develop a storytelling culture of their own, above and beyond what they already do.

An exercise that might help would be a simple "purge". Tell a story without rulebooks. I don't mean freeform roleplaying. I mean storytelling. Freeform roleplaying is concerned with how characters act, interact, and react. It's a great exercise, but it won't necessarily produce storytelling. Simply start with characters, but forget about motivations. Forget about quantifying temperaments. Forget about analyzing their personality. Forget about their "party role". Get to know the character as they are. Set aside some time, forget about shorthand, and just...get to know them. As if you were meeting a stranger. What they look like, what their quirks are, what their interests are, what their story is...and eventually, it'll come together well.

Know the characters, and then you can tell a story that you (and the audience) care about.

DISCLAIMER: This is a very abstract post. I can't quite figure out how to spell out everything here in concrete detail, and to an extent it isn't possible to do so. I may come back and flesh out some of these points in future posts, though.

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