Telling Stories: Smothering words
The key to communication is brevity. The shortest form of a sentence that conveys all needed information is the best one.
Anyone who has read my words over the majority of my life will know that I am not exactly shy about using plenty of words, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that more words are automatically better. Your choice of words and how many you use contribute to how a piece of text is meant to be read. Something that gets lost very frequently in roleplaying, where players type out lengthy and ornate descriptions of something as simple as picking up a glass.
I don’t care how interesting you’re sure that single act of glass-lifting was, it’s not worth that much time or effort. It’s a glass. You lift it and drink from it. And if you spend too much time typing out how your character does every little thing, you waste a lot of time not being concerned over what your character is actually doing.
Let’s just acknowledge that no matter how quickly you type – and for the record, I type quickly – it does still take time. You have to take the time to figure out what your character is doing first, then type it out, then probably delete chunks of it when you realize that it reads like hell. And far too often, the way that it’s written isn’t terribly elegant either, forcing everyone to slow down and read it until the meaning is clear, thus taking even more time to read something that is, again, a description of your character picking up a glass.
Maybe it’s not a glass, maybe it’s something equally inconsequential. The point stands. If your character turns a page in her book while looking away from the person she’s ostensibly talking to, you don’t need to type out that she’s being cold or dismissive. The actions she is taking make that clear. More words just makes your description longer, not more illustrative.
The impulse is understandable; I had it myself in my younger days, because we all know that there are subtle variations on every action that can give the same thing different meanings. “I like that dress on you,” depending on inflection and tone, can be read as earnest and friendly, sarcastic and cold, or smooth and seductive. As a roleplayer, you want to make sure that your intentions are entirely clear, so it’s tempting to type out in detail how your character says those words, making it clear that her arms are folded, her eyes are narrowed, her mouth curls downward…
Very good. You understand to show and not tell. Now stop understanding it and just tell.
The whole point behind “show, don’t tell” in stories isn’t that you must carefully lay out every step a character takes, it’s about making things evident through the story instead of just as informed attributes. If you’re told at the start of a story that Kylie doesn’t like Sharon, but they spend the rest of the story working together without a hitch, that’s a problem. Telling is fine in places, and doubly so in roleplaying, where you are continually rushing against the clock.
“I like that dress on you,” she sneered. There! Done, and it takes much less time than carefully describing her every action so that there could be no possible misunderstanding. Which there still would be anyway, because no matter how ornate your descriptions are, people will always have different pictures in their heads.
Unless you give someone a picture, they will always see things slightly differently from you. I can describe my desk, and unless you’ve seen it, you’ll imagine something different than I see. Heck, even if you’ve seen it, there are parts you don’t know, like what I’ll see if I nudge some papers around or what I have sitting close at hand or whatever. But you don’t need all of those details; knowing that I have a messy desk and a piece of paper hastily repurposed as a coaster is probably information enough.
We call descriptions painting a picture, but we’re really never painting anything. Painting is slow and painstaking, but what we’re doing is sketching out some broad details and letting the reader fill in the other details. Roleplaying has the advantage that some of the physical details are already defined in an online game. You can see the desk, you don’t need to be told how it looks.
There’s also the important fact that details only matter when they, well, matter. Let’s say your character is picking up that glass, and as it turns out that glass is really ornate. It was blown by an expert glass sculptor and has careful ridged work around the base. You have a picture of just how nice the glass is. You can see it down to the smallest detail.
How much of that is actually relevant to the scene at hand? Is the glass the focus of the discussion? Because if the answer is “no,” and it almost certainly is, then the only thing anyone needs to know about the glass is that it holds liquids. It doesn’t even matter whether or not it looks nice, unless that has some sort of relevance to the scene. So long as it affects nothing else, it doesn’t matter if the glass is plain or complex, pretty or ugly, clean or messy.
Filling out a description with useless details is a very ornate way of ensuring that no one is paying attention to what is actually going on, because you’ve buried it so far down in your scenery porn that it’s unreachable. Chekov’s Gun is based on the simple premise that if something is important enough to mention, it’s going to be relevant later. So if it’s not relevant later? Save yourself time. Don’t mention it.
Your roleplaying descriptions should not be judged based on how lengthy they are but how well they convey a message and a feeling. Let your emotes be quick, concise, and to the point. Sure, you lose out on a bit of ornamentation there, but you’ll find that you get a lot more actual roleplaying done by contrast. Things happening and moving forward is a lot more interesting than a really nice wine glass, after all.
Next week, let’s examine the reasons that the people around you might not be getting into roleplaying like you want. The week after that, let’s talk about other in-character efforts online, what you have to do to make them work, and whether or not it’s worthwhile.
About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
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