Tag Archives: storytelling

Elements of Critique: Adverbs, Why?

Never Gonna Give You Up.

Nickelback, or Creed.

Amy’s Baking Company. (It’s from an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares that created a viral outlash on the Internet.)

Some things are universally reviled. (Seriously, the baking company episode is amazing and horrible. My wife is watching it now and like a train wreck, I cannot avert my eyes.)

While compiling my list for the A to Z, I saw ‘y’ and the first thing that came to mind was the much-hated ‘-ly’ of adverbs.

Soon after joining a critique group, I discovered that “-ly” words have a huge target painted on them. They were one of several problems highlighted with comments and lengthy explanations from our hostess. At first, I thought, “Surely they’re not so bad. I can occasionally use them, right? Sometimes they help clearly and fully communicate the meaning of the sentence.”

I was wrong, or at least too optimistic.

It’s so bad that I find submission guidelines for magazines with statements like the following:

We do not use adverbs in our magazine. If a sentence is written with an adverb, rewrite the sentence with a stronger verb.

The general rule is that adverbs are a form of telling instead of showing. I feel I’m breaking my ‘R’ post of repetition since I talked about showing versus telling already. But adverbs show up so often, and receive so much negative feedback, I wanted to devote an entire post to this subject.

The problem is, using an adverb tries but fails to tell the reader how a thing is done, which makes for weak writing and less interesting reading.

If a character is walking slowly, writing “walking slowly” doesn’t give the reader a picture. It tells the reader how a thing was done, and does a poor job of it. What does that even mean? How slow is “slow” in this case? Is it a careful kind of slow, a stumbling gait, or a casual stroll?

“Snow fell quickly” is… something, I suppose. My mind pictures more snowflakes fluttering down to the ground with the adverb present, sure. But is it a blizzard? Is it blinding? Is it building up or melting away, weighing down branches and covering rooftops? Who knows?

“The wind blew strongly in Lyllithe’s face” tells nothing. Is she uncomfortable or is she hypothermic? Does she struggle to make headway? Are her clothes flapping with each gust?

On the other hand, “Lyllithe stumbled through knee-deep snow, shivering and rubbing her arms in the driving wind” is showing the reader a picture through action.

The difference is obvious. So I look for adverbs when I critique, and point out these problems where applicable. On my better days, I’ll provide a suggested verb or two.

The magazine’s standard is a good rule of thumb: When an adverb feels necessary, consider if there’s any other stronger verb instead. There are exceptions, and we’ll see adverbs in published material. (I even used an ‘-ly’ adverb in my fourth line.)

These don’t have to be forbidden, but they should at least be rare. After all, even “Never Gonna Give You Up” is good sometimes for a laugh or a rick-roll.

Elements of Critique: Unclear

Imagine trying to get anywhere if directions on Google Maps had a “shuffle” setting like an iPod.

“Turn down 10th street then drive 5 miles on Highway 20? How do I get to 10th? I’m still on Washington, I have to get on Highway 20 to even reach 10th.”

Writing is like a road map for the mind. This is particularly true of non-fiction pieces with an academic style. The writer is giving the reader directions to follow the story or topic.

If the reader hits a giant Detour sign and wonders how they arrived at this point, something has become unclear. Good critique looks for lack of clarity in a submission.

Sadly, this is one area where “no news is good news.” It’s more difficult to search for good transitions and sufficient descriptions than to note their absence. I don’t think of all the times I’ve driven home with no delays, but every time road construction blocks my path, I remember it.

I’ll give some examples of what I look for, to ensure my point is clear.

For fiction, this may mean when we encounter whatever weird creative stuff is in the story, the writer needs to provide some additional description or information. The writer knows the world and can picture all the details of setting. Significant thought has gone into the backstory of each character, giving them real motivations and reasonable goals. The writer understands the rules of the society or culture and how those impact the scene.

The reader knows none of that until it’s put onto the page in a way the reader can understand.

Any time the writing slams the brakes on my reading and makes me ask what’s happening, I note that reaction in critique. That’s not what we want for our eventual readers, so it deserves the writer’s attention.

Similarly, with non-fiction, if the topic is unfamiliar or the knowledge presented is obscure, more description or background may be necessary. That will depend on the purpose of the writing and the audience for whom it is written.

A pamphlet might cover a problem with a broad brush approach, touching on many things while not going into deep detail. This will differ from a self-help book with entire chapters devoted to each symptom of a problem. A persuasive speech will make its case and potentially overlook the reasonable counter-arguments that might weaken the writing.

The rule of tight writing is to include only what the story or piece needs. Unclear writing might happen with both too much and too little information. It’s hard to define boundaries here. When critiquing, I have to trust my inner reader a bit and go with how a piece feels to me. If nothing else, that might be small feedback that confirms what the writer has heard from others.

Beyond “too little” or “too much,” there’s a bigger issue: a lack of transition.

Whether it’s an action scene, a detective chasing down a lead, or an article giving advice on writing critique, there has to be a sense of following a trail, going down a path, getting to the point. Writing can’t bounce around like a super ball.

When writing jumps from one point to another, that’s a place to highlight for critique.

Try having a conversation with a teenager. Their minds race and their mouths jump from topic to topic without any seeming rhyme or reason.

“I went skating with my friend – no, not Amanda, it was Vickie – hey did you know that Vickie got first place in the band competition? I want to learn to play the flute. Did I tell you about the sleepover tonight? I didn’t? Oh. I need five bucks for a gift for Tiffany. Who’s Tiffany? She’s Johnny’s sister. Who’s Johnny? Ugh… I told you about him last week. Can I go skating tomorrow? I need five bucks for that too.”

There’s a thought process that takes the teen to each of those points. But we can’t see it, so we can’t follow it. The same is true of writers and readers. The reader can only follow what the writer gives them as road signs and directions.

A good transition touches on both what came before and what’s coming next. It connects where we were to where we are now. Crossing that bridge in writing tells the reader the previous point has been made, and it gives them an idea of what’s next.

The purpose of writing is to communicate thought–a multitude of individual thoughts, in fact, arranged neatly in a logical progression into either a story (fiction) or a presentation of facts or opinions (non-fiction).

In critique, when bad directions, detours, and orange cones block the flow of those thoughts, make it clear to the writer. That way, the bad news becomes good news. The error can be fixed, the path smoothed out, so that future readers can take that same road trip and simply enjoy a clear view of the scenery.

Elements of Critique: Show vs. Tell

“You never show me that you love me anymore!”

In some marriages (not mine of course, no, never) the couple sometimes discuss the status of their romance, and the above quote can (in rare cases) spill out into the open.

The man–assuming it’s the man being told this–will probably try to deflect the conversation with, “But I told you I loved you just the other month, and on our anniversary a couple years ago.”

We can safely doubt the success of that argument. Usually the complaint is coupled with examples of actions undone, such as “You don’t bring me flowers,” or “You haven’t done that thing I asked you to do every week for the last six months,” or perhaps “Will you stop typing on that stupid blog for a few minutes and stay awake long enough to have a conversation more than two grunts with me?”

(Note: No specific examples from my experience were utilized in the above paragraph.)

A similar complaint may sometimes arise: “You never tell me that you love me!”

The man being told this, in this case–although again it is wild speculation to assume it’s the man–may resort to defenses such as “But I did X, Y and Z.” In other words, “But I showed you how important you are to me by doing some action.”

Yet sometimes, a person likes to be simply told a thing they need to hear.

While I would never resort to critiquing such marital dysfunction–being far too humble and also unfamiliar with those frustrations common to less blissful pairings–I choose this eminently relatable example to demonstrate today’s topic of Showing vs. Telling.

There’s a simple truth in the above analogy: “Actions speak louder than words.” Most of what we need as readers (and what to look for when critiquing a piece) are the actions characters do which reveal their thoughts, motives, feelings, and goals. The default rule among writers is “Show, Don’t Tell.”

Here’s an example of hyper-telling to drive the point home:

The chill made Jo uncomfortable because it was so cold. Thankfully, she was so mad that she hardly noticed. She was so mad in fact that she was infuriated. There was lots of snow.

This should pain our inner editor to read.

Jo could shiver. Her teeth could chatter. The writer could describe her breath coming out in clouds around her face. Is snow still falling? Could it be?

Jo could clench her fists, or stomp around in the snow. She could mutter an imaginary argument with the object of her anger. Or maybe her thought might show us that she’s ignoring the cold because she’s seething and burning inside.

Any showing is better than the example provided.

Showing lets the reader play amateur psychologist and decipher characters’ personalities from their outward actions. Showing tells the reader what they need to know, without merely telling them a fact like a textbook.

Even my dripping sarcasm in the analogy at the beginning of this post tells the reader something without simply coming out and stating a fact. Humor and sarcasm can be a way of showing. (Warning: I do not recommend this method during arguments like those in the opening analogy.)

The default rule is correct. I look for writing that shows exceptionally well, and highlight that for praise. I also look for writing that merely tells when showing would better support the story and invest me in the characters. That I highlight for rewriting with a suggestion or example.

However, “Show, Don’t Tell” is only the default rule. There are always exceptions. First, some things aren’t important enough to the story or to establishing the scene to merit showing. Second, when dealing with anything supernatural or out of the ordinary expected experience of a reader, some telling is merited.

In fantasy and sci-fi, for example, a character may use technology or special powers unique to the story world and thus unfamiliar to the reader. A good way of doing this is to adjust the rule and play Show and Tell. The reader gets a description of what this mysterious thing looks like or what happens when it is used, and then they get a snippet of information about it.

Something similar applies to unfamiliar concepts in other writing. A religious piece might need to explain some of the theology or background information supporting the provided description. A non-fiction piece might relate the unknown new to something the average reader would understand.

Whle this is “telling” and thus arguably forbidden, it helps ground the reader in the reality of the setting. When I critique and find myself reading a showy description that leaves me clueless about what just happened, that’s something to note for the writer’s attention and revision. Likewise, when I find a useful tidbit of telling coupled with showing, I try to highlight that and praise the writer’s effort.

Because, as always, critiquing is about building up more skillful and confident writers. A thorough critique doesn’t just tell them “Good job.” It shows them what works, what doesn’t, and where to go from there.

Where are we going from here on the A to Z blog challenge? Well, I feel like a Time Lord writing this, but tomorrow in the future, we get to visit the present and the past. Grab your sonic screwdriver and charge up the flux capacitor. Get in your T.A.R.D.I.S. or deLorean, because things are going to get tense.

Elements of Critique: Repetition

While going through this A to Z challenge, I’ve had to check my list often to make sure I haven’t written about something too similar to each new day’s post. When I originally organized the list, I ran into a couple topics that were almost repeats of another day. No reader is going to want to read the same thing a week later. We pick up on overused words and subjects. We notice when the writer is saying something they’ve already said.

That’s why I look for repetition when critiquing a piece of writing.

Repetition and overuse draw attention to the writing instead of keeping it on the story. Our writing is like a camera lens by which the reader can see the world we set before them. Repetition (like many other mistakes) is a smudge on the lens itself. We fix our eyes on the dirt as we read, and the image of the story behind it is obscured.

Consider these fairly egregious examples, and note that rarely is this issue so obvious:

He faced her and she noted his long face with a nose that jutted out of his face.

Flaming arrows rained down like flaming shooting stars, blanketing the area with flames.

Any time the same word is used twice in the same sentence, I want to rewrite it. With certain nouns (names, terms related to the topic at hand), this might be unavoidable. But when a descriptor is given twice in a paragraph, it feels like too much to me.

Sometimes the repetition is a character’s action or response to a situation:

“She cocked her head” (after having done so twice in as many pages).
“He furrowed his brow” (again, for the fifth time this chapter).
“She bit her lip” (as she always does in literally every tense situation in the book).

Reading out loud helps me catch some of these in my own work. “She cocked her head… wait, I just read that a few lines ago…”

The thesaurus can help here, so long as the selected replacements fit.

There’s one more area to watch out for, especially for fiction: the start of paragraphs. When a section involves a lot of action on the part of a character, the proper name or appropriate pronoun may find its way to the beginning of several sentences and paragraphs without the writer’s notice.

Lyllithe turned and faced her accuser… followed by a few sentences showing impending conflict.
Lyllithe ducked under his attack and sprang for the door… then some fight scene excitement for a couple lines.
Lyllithe slammed the crossbar down and felt the thump of his body when it hit… and this would make three in a row.

“She she she” can happen just as easily, and also occurs within individual paragraphs. For first person, the danger is compounded since there’s no real need for the POV character’s name. Thus we might see, “I this, I that, I some other thing.”

In writing clear, active sentences, we’ll see a lot of them start with a character’s name or a pronoun. That’s unavoidable.

The only cure for this I am aware of is rewriting to mix in description, dialogue, or POV character thoughts. Try anything to break up the monotony.

The one feeling we’re not trying to create in the reader is a sense of déjà vu.

Elements of Critique: Leads

I often joke about frustrating circumstances with my kids (or my fellow Airmen), claiming in a gruff Drill Instructor voice that their suffering “builds character.”

Oddly enough, that’s a truth about the relationship between plot and (at the very least) the Lead character in a piece of fiction. Stories are essentially about characters and how they change – or not – in response to events thrown their way.

What should one look for in a lead character? They usually have to be relatable and interesting. Relatable doesn’t mean that in order to read the tale of an assassin, I have to have killed someone in the past, of course. Relatable in this case means communicating to the reader a sense of who this main character is, whether through thoughts, powerful actions, or displays of emotion. I need something I can connect with, something from which to draw insight.

And I’m of the opinion that the lead must not only be relatable but interesting. I was going to say “likeable” except I think that’s not quite true and I always wonder whether the word has an ‘e’ before the ‘-able’ suffix. (Merriam-Webster shows it as a variant of ‘likable’ so I guess it’s OK either way.)

I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast the other day that discussed what readers look for in a lead character. They did such a good job that I’m simply going to summarize their point while providing the link.

When creating a lead character, a writer has three tools to utilize to secure reader interest: sympathy, competency, and proactivity.

Some of the writing books I’ve read claim we should go for sympathy. Paint the lead as an underdog, or show what a nice person they are, and readers will take the bait. Everyone roots for the little guy and the selfless hero or heroine. When Harry Potter gets treated like garbage at the start of the series, we immediately want to see him succeed. We’re invested.

But what if I want a lead who isn’t the nice guy? Let’s go back to that assassin earlier. Assassins are notoriously low on the sympathy totem pole. But they can be very interesting characters to read about, more likely than not because they’re competent.

Think of James Bond. He’s not particularly sympathetic. In a way, neither is he very proactive. Almost any Bond movie consists of him being called in to fix a problem and respond to whatever the villain is doing. It’s rarely Bond initiating the action. So why do we watch? Because his competency slider is turned up off the charts, and that makes it oh so fun to see how he handles all the twists and curves thrown at him.

The other option to consider is proactivity, and for this I’ll point to Heath Ledger’s rendition of the Joker in The Dark Knight. I know, the Joker wasn’t the lead. But he’s a good example to point out what this looks like.

Joker isn’t reliably competent as he carries out his schemes. In fact, many of them fall apart even if Batman doesn’t directly stop them. But the Joker does make a point of doing things (in fact, that’s one of his speeches explaining his motivation), and the things he does are so crazy and so unique that they hold the viewer’s interest. “What is that guy up to?” We just have to know. So we watch to see how things unfold, even though this guy isn’t super competent, and certainly gets no sympathy.

As they say in the podcast, the trick (and the part to consider in critique) is considering how to adjust the story to the lead character based on these qualities. A sympathetic but often-incompetent character might at least try really hard to do the right thing. Think Spider-Man trying to figure out how to be a super-hero. Or they might be the underdog carried along by the proactivity and competence of those around them, like early Harry Potter.

The more sliders get turned up, the more the story needs outside conflict to keep interest going. When we’re watching Superman, who is sympathetic, proactive, and competent all rolled into one, we need some serious external conflict thrown at him that a different type of lead character wouldn’t require.

So, to sum up, when I look at the Lead, I try to see how the writer has used those tools. Am I supposed to like this character? Should I be impressed by them? And then I consider whether the conflict appears tuned appropriately to the qualities of the lead. Keeping all this in mind helps me point out where something doesn’t seem to fit quite right, or where something works well.

I recently had a couple chapters reviewed by a professional editor, and one comment spoke to this: “The lead character is sympathetic. I like her, I’m rooting for her.”

The idea of someone waving a little “Lyllithe” flag pleases me greatly. It’s what we all want for our leads when terrible burdens and crushing trials beat them down in our stories. And we know that’s going to happen.

It has to. That’s what builds character.

Elements of Critique: Intensity

Yesterday’s post on critiquing hooks talked about looking for a device that creates reader interest and pressing questions at the beginning and end of a piece.

Today, I’m considering what to look for in the middle. Hooks might get me started, but something has to keep me going. There has to be some level of intensity in the piece.

Elmore Leonard put it this way: “Try to leave out the parts readers skip.”

When critiquing a fiction piece or personal account, I’ll look for the conflict between characters and their circumstances. (I could have used that as my ‘c’ post, but constructive criticism is so essential to get right, it trumped conflict for that position.)

A character may struggle with internal conflict due to mutually exclusive values. “I know what I should do… but I know what I want to do to that conniving, rotten scoundrel…”

Interpersonal conflict should be present especially in dialogue. Otherwise, why pit those two characters against each other in a scene? If Bob and Jim are chatting and agreeing about everything, who wants to read that? They should have differing viewpoints on the subject in question, leading to a verbal clash, which keeps intensity high. If they don’t disagree, I suggest using different characters who do.

There’s also environmental conflict, where some circumstance or outside force is creating trouble for the characters in a piece. Maybe that’s an army invading their nation; maybe it’s an impending natural disaster. Something needs to create a constant pressure in order to sustain that intensity. If the reader is breathing easy for a batch of characters, then something should change fast to put them back into peril.

Finally, there might be thematic conflict where the characters and events serve to compare and contrast two ideas or positions. “Justice versus mercy” might be such an example, and for that I’ll point to Les Miserables. Societal ideals or even competing societies might clash to create that intense conflict the reader needs to keep interested.

Truthfully, in a long-length work, all of these can coexist. In a shorter piece, perhaps only one or two, done well, will fit.

The key with intense conflict is ensuring stakes are high. The character’s internal decision must have a profound impact on her life. The arguments between characters should have consequences beyond just a potential loss of friendship. The outside forces creating environmental conflict must matter. There must be a true threat to life as these characters know it.

That’s what I look for in a fiction piece.

In non-fiction writing, it’s more difficult to maintain intensity. Melodrama should be avoided, so everything can’t be the end of the world. “If I didn’t overcome my fear of public speaking, the bomb would explode, destroying the United Nations headquarters and plunging the world into war!”

No, not so much.

In order to consider the intensity of a non-fiction piece, I look for the above conflicts where applicable. Some writing might include true stories where those conflicts can shine and maintain interest.

But more often, I look for the “So what?” to the subject. What is the reader going to get out of this? Does this piece convince me as a hypothetical reader that it has something to say to me, something I need to hear?

If it’s a personal account of overcoming adversity, was the obstacle challenging enough that I can relate my struggles to the writer’s? If it’s an article about health or lifestyle, am I compelled by what the writer says on the subject? Would I even consider changing my ways?

Conflict comes into play here too, but it’s not quite like anything previously mentioned. The conflict for non-fiction is between a writer’s passion and a reader’s apathy. The writing has to make whatever points are necessary to persuade someone to care. It’s like a dialogue in a way, where the writer may have to assume and counter some of the arguments the disinterested reader might make.

No writing is going to be all things to all people, of course. Hoping so would be foolish.

But the biggest facet to intensity in writing is that the piece must mean a lot to the writer, so their passion shines through. Without that, to paraphrase Leonard, we might as well leave out the whole thing.

We’re a third of the way through the A to Z challenge. Thanks for joining me on what started for me as a spontaneous journey. Once I considered how passionate I am about critique group, it became easy to write the series – further proof of the point I’m trying to make in this post.

I’ve hit on several potential problems thus far. So the next two posts will take a turn toward the positive, starting with consideration of the journey we’re all on as writers.

Author Blog Hop

At the start of April, Angela D. Meyer posted my bio and picture on her blog as part of a “blog hop” where writers trade info to increase exposure.

Angela has been a core part of Omaha WordSowers since I joined two years ago. She’s part of the fantastic critique group (where I’m getting the ideas I’m using for this year’s A to Z blog challenge on Elements of Critique). My wife and I attended her book release party, when Where Hope Starts first went on sale. And I had the privilege of being one of her readers for her exciting second book’s manuscript. Though publishing her first book and working on the second have forced her to reduce involvement in the writer’s group, Angela still helps run some of the WordSowers social media.

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Here’s her information, in her own words.

Angela D. Meyer lives in Omaha, NE with her husband of more than 22 years. She homeschools their daughter and recently graduated their son who is now a Marine. She has taught Bible class for over 35 years and served for almost three years on the leadership team of her local Christian writers group. She loves God, her family, the ocean, good stories, connecting with friends, taking pictures, quiet evenings and a good laugh. Someday she wants to ride in a hot air balloon and vacation by the sea. Her first novel, Where Hope Starts, shares the story of God’s redemption in the middle of a crumbling marriage.

The blog hop also came with four questions. These are my answers, not Angela’s.

1. What am I working on?
A fantasy novel called Refraction. You can see chapter 1 here.

Lyllithe Aulistane is the adopted daughter of her town’s senior religious leader, the Eldest of the Abbey. She’s also a Ghostskin – a pale half-breed of human and air elemental. Her Gracemark and training with the Abbey call her toward a pacifistic life of ministry and healing as a Devoted. Her heritage and passion drive her toward adventure, using the power of the elements to prevent harm instead of mending the wounded. And her curiosity leads her toward an unknown source of power that beckons even as it repulses her.
While she struggles to choose her path, she meets resistance at every turn. The Abbey rejects those deemed impure, and the Arcanists demand intense discipline. Though Lyllithe finds allies along the way, there are many more who seek her life. From the lowest highwayman to the highest political levels in the capital city of Aulivar, Lyllithe and her friends become valuable pawns in a game they cannot see.
But when the stakes rise to include the lives of an entire city, Lyllithe can’t afford to make a wrong move.
“From daybreak ’til the sun goes down, Devoted shall I be.”
Devoted, yes… but to what?

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m writing for the mainstream audience, not the Christian market. However, I am employing Christian concepts behind the magic systems, political/cultural/religious organizations, and overall world theme. Essentially I’m aiming to write a fantasy novel that fits a Christian worldview without preaching to its audience.

3. Why do I write what I do?
I love communication. It’s my job in the Air Force, but it’s also a hobby. The idea that a writer can create a scene and somehow transfer that thought near-directly into the mind of a reader is powerful stuff. Being a Christian, I of course hope to communicate some measure of biblical truth in what I write. But saying that carries so much baggage in today’s Western society, where all sorts of cultural and political issues are too polarized for any meaningful dialogue. I have good friends “on both sides of the aisle” between Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, heterosexuals and homosexuals, rationalists and idealists. I don’t want to add to that strife we see all around us. I’d rather explore some of the struggles and common experiences we can all relate to, with a heaping spoonful of grace mixed in.

4. How does my writing process work?
For a book, I need to outline. I have to map out the start, some milestones on the way, and a destination. I’ll plot out the various conflicts I see at the start, and jot down ideas for how to build on those. I write journals or practice scenes with characters until I get a good voice for them in my head.
Then I go chapter by chapter, scene by scene, until the work is done (or more likely until I see large-scale problems with the whole project, and start over, making corrections along the way).
This question is better for a writer known for finishing their projects, I think.

And now’s the part where I should have authors with whom I coordinated further hops. But I’m in the process of moving overseas, so I have not done my due diligence in getting other bloggers signed up. So unfortunately, my post is a blog flop, and this particular bit of hopping stops here.

Even so, I still wanted to give Angela’s work the attention it’s due.

Say Something

From the first time I heard A Great Big World’s song, Say Something on the radio (yes… I still listen to the radio), I had a driving question: What happened?

In case you haven’t heard it, here’s the video, and here are the lyrics:

Say something, I’m giving up on you
I’ll be the one, if you want me to
Anywhere, I would’ve followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you

And I am feeling so small
It was over my head
I know nothing at all

And I will stumble and fall
I’m still learning to love
Just starting to crawl

Say something, I’m giving up on you
I’m sorry that I couldn’t get to you
Anywhere, I would’ve followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you

And I will swallow my pride
You’re the one that I love
And I’m saying goodbye

Say something, I’m giving up on you
And I’m sorry that I couldn’t get to you
And anywhere, I would have followed you
Oh-oh-oh-oh say something, I’m giving up on you

Say something, I’m giving up on you
Say something

This song, these lyrics… This is storytelling. This is jumping into a life-changing moment in a character’s story, trying to figure out how we got there and where we’re headed.

Is it a toxic or abusive relationship? Is the singer the one person who still stood up for the person being addressed in the song, and now finally even “the one that I love” is just too far gone or too far over the line to hang onto?

Is this a case of “You can’t receive love if you don’t love yourself” and the person in question is locked in a spiral of self-destruction? Are we dealing with an alcoholic or drug addict who can’t stay away from their addiction? Or something less obvious but equally painful, like self-loathing or inability to cope with the demands of life?

Is this the last time the lover reaches out to try to help? What is the backstory to this?! I need to know, because my mind demands an answer, and every time I hear the song, it starts writing a story to figure this out.

Which may not be a bad thing. Creativity sometimes needs a spark of motivation. A song like this does that well.

The writers explain their motivations in this interview, and tell a touching story from a comment where someone had a brother in a coma, who they kept hoping would “say something.”

But hey, maybe you don’t want to know. Maybe it can just mean whatever you want.

And that’s the power of the song. Without any doubt, it says something.

Just Say "Yes"

It’s time for Tabletop Tuesday!

Roll for Imagination
Roll for initiative to see if you can keep up with your players’ insane ideas.

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to leapfrog over the rogue and flip through the air to land next to the goblin and smash his face with my hammer.”

“…”

“I want to grab hold of this powerful conduit of magical energy while casting a spell at the incoming ranks of undead, in the hopes that maybe it will, like, amp up my powers… or something?”

“…….”

What do you do when your players come up with unique plans and crazy ideas?

Just say “Yes!”

Tabletop Role-Playing is all about collaborative storytelling. It’s all about the characters, the heroes of the story. “Actions speak louder than words,” so when the players come up with unexpected methods to deal with conflict and trouble, that’s an important part of defining those characters for the story you’re all telling.

Sometimes this takes a little bit of stretching, a little imagination to figure out “How do we make this work?” It can be challenging to come up with a solution on the spot, but that gives the DM more practice being flexible.

Someone wants to jump on an enemy and bite at them, Mike Tyson style? Say yes.

Someone suggests setting the whole outpost on fire in order to gain a short-term advantage? Go for it.

Someone decides to activate a mysterious magic device in an attempt to stop a powerful foe? Why not!

Discrepancy
Page 183 of the Player’s Manual clearly defines Diplomacy, but you say in your post that you allowed your group to use it in a fight… so… can you clear up the obvious discrepancy?

Psst, to all the rules lawyers, you and I both know this is completely unacceptable. Stick with me for a bit. If nothing else, they just handed you a golden ticket as the DM.

Perhaps, “Oops, now the whole building is burning down, and you must race to rescue the innocent captives / recover the precious artifacts before it collapses on your heads.”

Or several sessions later, “Remember when you activated that device in order to destroy that elite monster? Yeah, you also set off a beacon that attracted the attention of an incomprehensible alien race that is now making their way to your realm. Better get ready!”

Or, “Hey, that sounds cool. Sure, you gnaw the guy’s face.” And everyone in that region now knows what this hero is willing to do in order to win.

I recall a story from a game designer recounting a session with his son. At the end of the fight, his son says, “My character goes to the statue near the altar and discovers a hidden treasure. He tries to open it, but it has a trap.” The kid starts alternate-DMing for a moment. And the game designer father had the good sense in the moment to just go with it.

The party ends up with a little extra gold, the kid’s character gets poisoned and needs to heal more than he did before, and everyone moves on with the rest of the session. But that moment told the child, “This is your game too. This is your world. Let’s explore it together.”

Just say “yes.” Your games will be better for it.

Okay… rules lawyers, it’s time for a very important caveat.

Are there limits to this suggestion? …Yes. (See what I did there?)

“Is there a way that I can use diplomacy to leap across the chasm and then maybe do an endurance check in order to disarm the trap?”

No. No, there’s absolutely not a way.

Every DM has probably had a player who gets one exceptional skill, and then tries to use it every round. “Can I use my Dungeoneering to fight the goblin? Can I use my Dungeoneering to forage for food in the sky temple? Can I use my Dungeoneering to understand complex magic and recall a historic religious ritual that will help us spot the hidden treasure? I do have a really high Dungeoneering score…”

But your players never want to hear “No.”  So what do you do?

You want your default inclination to be “Yes” so long as it makes sense.

Take advantage of that collaborative aspect of the tabletop game. Make them explain how exactly their favorite go-to skill is going to help in this particular situation. You give them the impression you’re willing to go along as long as they can come up with a convincing answer. You show them you’re willing to bend a bit for the sake of story without completely breaking the game or common sense. You put the ball back in their court and ask how it’s supposed to go from there.

Your average tabletop player is probably going to be reasonable and admit that their idea is beyond the scope of reason. If not, then once again go collaborative. Have a majority vote from your players or invite suggestions on how to make it work. And of course, as the DM you have the ultimate power to conclude that there’s no reasonable way to agree to the crazy plan. So, sometimes say, “No.”

But only if absolutely necessary.

Cooperative Storytelling

Cooperative Storytelling

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about tabletop role-playing, but it’s the first Tabletop Tuesday post. I hope to funnel all the related topics into this weekly category: reviews of various products, ideas for how to add to your game on the cheap, thoughts about how to run a group, or accounts of silly thing my players have done in game.

Now with 100% less capes!
Write your own story, with friends

Yet for many, the idea of tabletop role-playing is quite a mystery. Some of us have probably heard a lot about the evils of games like Dungeons and Dragons, and perhaps we’ve seen groups of young (or not so young) people dressing up and playing live action games in local parks. Even my wife was worried before her first time playing a tabletop RPG.

“I don’t have to wear a cape, do I?”

The extent of role-playing is defined by the group. No one has to quote Harry Potter terms or wave a stick around yelling “You shall not pass!” If the players are open to that, more power to them. But that’s not what the games are about.

Tabletop games are all about a group of people telling a story together.

It’s not much different from the lure of major sports. We watch men and women perform challenging but ultimately useless feats of athletic skill, and we get drawn into all the rivalries and back-story of our favorite teams and superstars. No one really cares if a guy can put a ball into a hoop suspended up in the air, or if someone can hit a little white ball with a stick.

No, we get into the stories.

Will so-and-so ever lead his team to victory? Maybe this is his year to shine. Can that player overcome his public indiscretions, or will his performance on the field suffer? Will Team A triumph over Team B this year, since Team B crushed them in the finals last season?

We even go so far as to imagine “what if” with sports. What if this great player from this team and that great player from that team were actually on the same team? What if I took these five players I really like, and put them on the same team? How would they compare against other people’s choices? And thus we have Fantasy sports, so-called D&D for Jocks.

We are drawn to the characters, the conflicts, the victories and the failures. That’s ultimately what tabletop RPGs are about. You’re not merely reading a book or watching a movie, waiting for the next twist, wondering when the mystery will be explained or the hidden villain revealed. You’re not trying to comprehend and relate to whatever main character you’ve been given.

You’re helping write the plotline for a character of your choosing.

Beyond that, tabletop gaming is a social activity with friends gathering (usually) in the same place. It’s a creative activity, allowing players the chance to think outside their daily norm and even act a part. It’s a strategic activity, with rules and tactics that players can use to their advantage, like a chess game with dice. When it works out, tabletop gaming can be a great diversion, just like any hobby.

And, no, you don’t have to wear a cape.