The enigmatic smile is one of my best GM tools. When my players start asking questions I don’t have answers for, I just lean back and smile.
Then they start tossing the question amongst themselves, and usually they come up with a pretty good answer that I can use. When they discover that their hypothesis is close to the truth, they feel clever. Everyone wins.
As a GM, I am forever beset by the need to answer the question “What next? What next for our heroes?” The players and their characters have to be the focus of every scene, every moment. My real job, my top priority, is to engineer thrilling confrontations for the players so that their heroes can do big exciting heroic things. Sorting out every answer to every question is much further down the list.
Because my heroes ARE my audience, I never have to reveal anything they can’t see for themselves. So when they ask, “How come this dead bad guy didn’t even use this magic fireball wand,” I don’t have to have an answer. They don’t ever have to find out. In fact, I have learned that if I just lean back with that enigmatic smile and say, “Yes, indeed, why DIDN’T he?” my players will run with that ball through the endzone and right on out of the stadium.
Heroes ≠ Audience
This is still kind of a hard lesson for me. In a story, I can’t leave big mysteries lying around for my audience to solve for me. I have to provide those solutions for them.
This happened to me recently. The aforementioned fireball-wand-wielding bad guy didn’t use his fireball wand until the last minute, aboard the heroes’ ship. In a game, this would play out great: they’d get him aboard, he’d unveil the wand and then it’s roll initiative, here we go. Big fight. Thrilling confrontation. Good times. And if somebody asks, “Hey why didn’t he pull that out earlier and just sink us before we got to him?” I could just lean back with my enigmatic smile and say, “Indeed, why DIDN’T he?”
The enigmatic smile. Works every time.
Works in a game, anyway. It didn’t even occur to me that it was a hole in the story, because in GM-head it sets up the requisite thrilling confrontation.
But of course in a story, the reader gets to that moment and asks the same question, and I can’t lean back. They can’t see my enigmatic smile, and if they do hear me ask “Why indeed?” they’re just going to throw the book against the wall.
I spent days agonizing over this after my early reader pointed it out (always have an early reader to catch this stuff for you). How could I fix this? Could I somehow explain that the fireball wand needed special circumstances? Could I come up with a different sort of weapon that wouldn’t work at long range (but also didn’t just pop out of nowhere)? Walking to work, I thought about it. Lying in bed trying to sleep, I thought about it. Nothing.
Whatever I came up with, however I tried to spin it, I couldn’t come up with any way to gracefully show it to my audience. Sure, I could decide the wand didn’t work at long range, but then I’d have to find a way to explain that to the reader, and that just felt stupid. Awkward and inelegant. I had no idea how to accomplish this.
Audience ≠ Heroes
I sat down in front of the blank screen and started typing (sometimes that works better than thinking for me). And suddenly I wasn’t typing stuff about my heroes, but rather about the villain. And I realised how WRONG the GM-based point of view had been. I realised that I’d allowed my GM brain to limit my approach to the problem, without my even recognizing it. I’d actually been worrying about how to explain things to my HEROES, not my audience.
In my GM brain, they’re the same thing, and I had totally overlooked this false equivalency when writing.
Writing from the villain’s point of view, it was easy to explain to the audience why the villain didn’t use his weapon until it was too late, because I could just SHOW them.
So I did, and it worked.