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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

 

So sharp you'll cut yourself

There is a problem that besets nervous and clever young writers, which tends to be more observable by their readers or audiences than by themselves: to wit, undermining themselves.

By 'undermining', I don't mean things like getting drunk when they should be writing, or insulting the person who offered to help read their first draft. Some people do that, no doubt, but there's another issue: writing into the structure of your play or novel the suggestion that you're just kidding, that even the characters don't take the situation seriously, and that it's all a game anyway. So, by implication, if the writing isn't any good, don't judge the author: they were only kidding.

Part of this is cultural hangover. The twentieth century having been full of clever literary bods, irony has been the name of the game. When I was an undergraduate I was the artistic end of a theatre committee, and me and my committee friends vetted applications to fund about a dozen different plays every term - of which we could afford to back about two or three. Approxmimately half of these plays promised to 'challenge the audience's preconceptions'; possibly more than half. A statistical survey would suggest that the audience's preconceptions were likely to be pretty battered things, and probably quite hard to shock, but that was what most hopeful directors considered the thing to do. They couldn't seem to keep their hands off the audience's preconceptions; tickling their funny bones or touching their hearts, or just putting on a play that they'd actually enjoy, somehow featured lower on the priority list. (Any director who promised to do that immediately doubled their chances of getting our money.) But the desire to challenge the audience was even greater when the play submitted was written by one of the students; it was there I noticed something that I've seen subsequently in novel-writing.

You want to write something; well and good. This is a nerve-wracking position to be in. You're going to try your best, but, well, it's possible people won't like what you write. Maybe you're not clever enough. So what a lot of inexperienced writers do is try to dazzle with as much cleverness as possible. Look, here are literary references! Look, here's a nod to the audience's presence! Look, I'm subverting your expectations of what literature should be!

Now, cleverness is all very well, but there comes a point where almost all the writer's intelligence is being directed into evasive action. When a piece of work involves a lot of flash and dazzle, but no sincere moments, little feeling for the characters, no willingness to commit to a storyline and see it through rather than playfully overturning every situation you set up and then taking a bow, what you're looking at is a frightened author. Trying to write a proper story, sustained with nothing but characters and situations that you've thought up for yourself, is an unnerving process. Particularly for young writers who've been educated in the tricks and tropes of the modern classics, little games to direct attention away from the story feel a lot easier: the hope is that the audience will come away filled with admiration for the writer's cleverness and making no judgements on the actual meat of the story, which was, after all, just a joke.

This isn't just a twentieth-century fashion, though. Attempts at dazzle are a fairly universal technique; most of Jane Austen's juvenilia, for instance, was parody of one kind or another. But they are, in essence, the diversionary tactics of an anxious author who's afraid that you'll laugh at their work if they don't laugh first.

Anyone feeling tempted to do this, take a deep breath. Writing is always scary, but you're going to have to stand to your work some time. If you mock your own scenario to pieces, there'll be nothing left; if you undermine your whole work, it'll collapse and you'll be ankle-deep in rubble. Better to keep early drafts private until you feel more confident. Endless quips at the expense of your own work is simply firing the first shot at yourself. Writing is always an attempt to seduce an audience, and for that, you need some kind of pitch, rather than undercutting your every previous remark until they have no idea what you're trying to say. Be brave!

Comments:
I've long given up writing (coming from RPGs as I do, it appears I am all plot and no characterization). Your advice really helps--that's sort of the way I've lived my entire life, with wink-and-a-nod literary and cultural references peppering my small talk with a sort of blase attitude where I claim to take nothing seriously.
 
I was never a role-player - I played for a couple of weeks once when I was eleven, and then my friend's mother took the game away because it was too heavy for her satchel and that was the end of that - but it seems to me that the two forms wouldn't translate easily. Handling real people puts in all sorts of conditions that don't exist with fictional ones, and the methods you use to negotiate the problems of real players don't necessarily make for the best fiction.

For instance, as you say, a role-play allows you to go easy on characterisation; other players can take up the slack. A player who is interested in creating a character doesn't have to create lots of characters and work out how they'd interact; they only need to work out what they'd like to play themselves, which would be a problem in fiction. A writer who's only concerned with one character can fall easily into Mary Sue, or just flat interaction, which the presence of other real people would necessarily prevent.

I also wonder, though, if they require opposite things in plotting. A role-play needs a story with some fixed parameters that can be gotten through no matter how unpredictably the players behave. In a way - you'll know more about this than me, I'm sure - I suspect it's kind necessary for a role-play game to be predictable, at least in some areas: if the person organising it can't be pretty sure they can get the other players to the end, no matter what directions they spin off in, they're likely to get a mess and a lot of cross players. What you want is a story that, to some extent, will work no matter what the players do.

In fiction, that's problematic. You have complete control over the characters; a story that will work no matter what they do renders the whole thing pointless. The characters have to create the events entirely, and be able to ruin a predicted outcome.

Am I right in this theory? - that role play demands a plot that's only affected a limited amount by character interaction? Because if so, that's a problem right there: character interaction has to be able to take the story anywhere in fiction. From the little I know of it, I have the sense that there's a lot of plot coupons and quest stories in role-play, which are considered crude and cliched if over-used in fiction. Fixed points the players can mill around become forced devices when you have fictional characters.

Different media require different skills, I guess; lyricism is a virtue in a novelist and a vice in a screenwriter, for instance. Of course, some people can do different media (some prose writers can also write lovely poetry, for instance, while I can only produce the most goshawful jingles), but it sounds to me like it's a different skill set. Am I right?

Glad it helped, by the way! Generally, I assume in both life and art that a claim to take nothing seriously covers an anxiety or concern so serious the claimer is scared to acknowledge it for fear of getting hurt...
 
Erg. Yer blog, it ated my comment.

Right, trying again: I think your theory is wrong.

In my experience, the main storytelling difference between writing and roleplaying (tabletop roleplaying, at least) is that rpgs have a division of labor. For a book or script, the author is responsible for plot, characterization, setting, pacing... everything. In a rpg, by contrast, one person is usually responsible for plot, setting, antagonists, and minor characters; the protagonists are created and played (their thoughts and actions presented) by everyone else. The usual ratio is one gamemaster to approximately a half-dozen players, and one protagonist per player; but that varies considerably from game to game.

(One other difference is that, particularly in dice- and rules-intensive game, the whole concept of pacing pretty much falls by the wayside, but I'll gripe about that some other time.)

So, you know how it feels when you're typing along, and all of a sudden one of your characters takes off in her own direction, tearing your carefully-arranged plot to shreds in the process? Running a roleplaying game is like that all the time. I would argue that it requires at least as much flexibility in plotting as writing does, and possibly more.

Quick (I hope) example: I once ran a game in which all the characters were monsters trying to survive in the modern world (based on Clive Barker's Cabal). One of the characters had a magic weapon, and his player had been using his reward points to improve the weapon as the game progressed. I allowed this because (a) wish-fulfillment was a big part of playing monsters anyway, and (b) I didn't have a lot of experience at the time.

Eventually, of course, this got to be a problem. The weapon was too powerful. A lot of potential problems got solved with brute force, which was boring; this one character was getting rather more than his share of the limelight; and the whole thing was starting to strain my ability to suspend disbelief.

So, I decided to have an antagonist come looking for the weapon. I figured that he would steal it, the characters could hunt him down in time to witness Ominous Events, and by the time they got the weapon back it would be radically less powerful.

So I set up the scene. The protagonist reacted predictably, and had his weapon hand cut off. The antagonist claimed the weapon and made his escape; another beastie, who had been helping keep the rest of the group distracted, ran off with the severed hand.

And that was where the whole thing went off the rails. The protagonist was a zombie, who'd been raised by Voodoo and brought back to consciousness by accidentally being fed some salt. The player felt that he would be much more concerned about his missing hand than he was about his weapon. This was because of the Voodoo origin; if you can hurt someone with a bit of hair or fingernail clippings, what could you do with an entire hand?

So, I was forced to create an entirely new plot on the fly, as the group detoured to pursue the Useless Severed Limb while completely ignoring the loss of the Powerful Magic Weapon. I still remember sitting there, gaping at the player in question: "You want to do What? Why?" Even after he explained, it took me half an hour to wrap my brain around it.

That's from a gamemaster's perspective, of course; and I have a long history of running diceless games, because I hate getting distracted by the rules and I like having some ability to control the pacing of the story. Experience with rpgs probably won't help someone who spends all their time as a player, because they're basically only exercising their skill at characterization. But the basic skills required to run a successful rpg are, I think, very similar to those required to write a good book; it's basically a matter of telling a good story.
 
Michael, spot on about flexibility--and it's not just the players, sometimes it's sheer dumb dice rolls that can derail things.
I DMed for a very tough party once that almost got wiped out to a man by a flock of trolls because all the rolls went wrong (and believe me, the group was normally more than a match for some trolls!).
Which leads to another difference from writing fiction: In an RPG, you don't get to rewrite. If I'm writing a story and the villain is too powerful or weak or stupid, I can fix that on the next go-round, but once combat starts in an RPG,you can't tell your players "Did I say 12 trolls? I meant three! You've killed them all, hooray!"

As for your general point, Kit, I think it applies to a lot more than just the kind of self-mocking works you're thinking of. There's a lot of fiction (and movies) I see that I describe as "something I admired but didn't enjoy" and it's because I see some of the same hollowness in them.
-Fraser
 
Hey Michael: actually, I think you're wrong about GMing a game needing the same kind of skills as writing a book, and actually, I think you're wrong precisely because of that example you just gave. Coping with that situation needed skills that a writer just doesn't require.

Okay, characters do in some sense "come to life", they feel and react the way living characters would; if they didn't, you end up with wooden characterisation; but they are, in the final analysis, in your head, and you can control them in a way that you just can't do with real people.

And like Fraser says, you can retcon things in a book that you can't in a role-playing game. You can go back and put things in earlier to make everything come out a different way, if the alternative is just rewriting everything.

I take my hat off to good GMs, I really do. I particularly take my hat off to you if you're in the habit of running diceless games, I often find that what gets in my way of enjoying things as a player is the endless freakin' add-this-to-your-that-total-and-roll-the-other stuff, and the best games I've been in were the ones that kept their mechanics mostly out of sight.

Myself I think that running a good game is much, much more of a roll-with-it skill than writing a good book. Which isn't to say that they don't have some things in common - yeah, it's all storytelling - but such different stories.

Sorry, Kit, I'm getting seriously off topic here.
 
I think your theory is wrong.

Very possibly; it's not a subject I know anything much about, and all my instincts are to fiction, so my speculation is very likely to be wrong. :-)
 
Well, as Anonymous pointed out, it's also something of an apples and oranges comparison. I mean, does carving a good sculpture require the same basic skills as producing a good painting?

Anyway, sorry for the very long digression.

Back on-topic: While I don't tend to undermine myself in that particular fashion (...I use other methods...), your point was well taken. Also, I love the phrase "cultural hangover."
 
I come at this from another slightly different angle: not RPGs, but improvisational theatre, where there *is* no DM although there may or may not be a designated "plot" or "endpoint."

In this situation, frightened actors, or those not confident enough to plunge in. do, indeed, spend a lot of their time doing silly takeoffs on the situation rather than actually participating in it along with everyone else. The reward they get is attention (if somewhat annoyed attention) from everyone else, whereas they are risking very little -- they can always claim they were "only joking." But it can sure take the zing out of the game for everyone else.

This is where I coined the saying, "Hell is trying to make announcements in a room full of actors." Because unless they have really bought into their situation (i.e. they are actors, there is an overall purpose) they will *all* try to upstage the person making the announcements.
 
I zig-zag on my plots, sometimes writing things out in publishable format, other times running completely off the seat of my pants, barely two steps ahead of my player-characters.

I find that I'm able to adapt and predict quite well, but from a characterization standpoint my minor characters and antagonists always seem more fleshed out than my players do.
 
does carving a good sculpture require the same basic skills as producing a good painting?

At the most basic level, I'd say yes. You need a good eye and a steady hand. Same with writing: you need a facility for language, good observation and a willingness to be honest.
 
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