Table to Page 3: Perspective

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.

*enigmatic smile*

Table to Page 2: Blow Up Your Scope

Being a GM isn’t EXACTLY like being a writer, but I keep finding lessons from the one that help me with the other. I wrote a piece previously about how a solid GMing practice led me astray in my writing, but this time I want to share with you how a GMing problem revealed a useful tool I’ve used to blow through some kinds of writer’s block.

I ran a game where part of the plot turned on having the heroes win over the old sushi chef so that he would lend his super ninja powers to their cause. Things ground to a halt when the player trying to accomplish this gave up when their first effort didn’t seem to succeed. Player and GM locked horns and the story started to flail.

Narrative Scope

Of course, both the player and I wanted the same thing: for the sushi chef to join up. Where we differed was in our understanding of the scope of that story beat. In the player’s head, this was just one scene, one objective among many in the course of the story. In my head it was a big shift in the nature of the tale, a slow transition as the heroes rose to a new epic level. To them, the scope was small. To me, it was big. That disconnect in scope made for frustration.

This happens in my writing, too. That heavy, dragging feeling as I push one word after another out onto the screen, typing with agonizing sludgeriness. I like the story. I think the scene should work. And yet, I find myself grinding, struggling to push through, losing faith and thrillsiness with every line.

Sometimes I’m wrong and the scene is just no good and my story needs a major rethink. But often I find I’ve misunderstood the appropriate scope for the scene — and changing that can blow the scene right up.

Insufficient Scope: Not Enough

I’m working on a pulp adventure serial, and in planning out a recent episode, I detailed three scenes as:

  • bunch of dudes show up to fight, bring demon
  • hero punches demon to death, dudes reconsider
  • dudes figure ROI isn’t there, bail

When I got into writing that sequence, I realized what you probably already noticed: that’s ONE scene. Writing ground to a halt as I struggled to keep the fight going without descending into pointless detail, just to pad it out to a length suitable for three scenes. But in terms of the story outside of the fight, only one thing happens: the hero causes the dudes to run away. Not enough scope for three scenes.

At first I didn’t realize what had happened. All I knew was that I was struggling, that I wasn’t even ENJOYING the process (which is strange for me — normally I really enjoy the actual writing, when I can manage to make myself sit down and do it). I grumbled and groused and did everything except write. I told myself what a terrible, terrible writer I am and why do I even bother and nobody’s reading this anyways and hey here’s a glass of whiskey how did that happen.

But I recalled the episode with the sushi chef, and took another look at my outline, and realised I didn’t have enough story here. Instead of finding a way to grind out more words and try to fit my pre-conceived word count expectations, I realized the thing to do was to adjust the SCOPE of the scenes.

This fight was really one scene. Reducing its scope, while retaining the basic structure of the fight, worked great, and the resulting scene was once again fun to write. And the change in structure opened up another plot possibility, and I made up my word count with much better material. The new tale moves better, and has a more satisfying structure.

All because of scope.

Excessive Scope: Too Much

My example of the sushi chef above was a case where I had put too much scope into the scene. I was imagining this chef becoming a major character, and the relationship he formed with the hero would become an ongoing thing. But honestly, the game at that point was about tracking down a gangster and stopping his plot, and adding all this stuff with the hard-to-impress sushi chef only bogged us down.

Fortunately, sitting at a table makes for easy rejigging. We realised what had happened, agreed to move the scene along and reduced the scope. Play went on, and we had a memorable game session.

Using Scope To Clear The Path

Comparing writing with GMing has proven a fruitful way to get some perspective on issues in story-telling. If we hadn’t had that moment with the sushi chef, I might not have been able to solve the problem with the demon-punching. Thinking on these experiences lately, I realized how often I can find solutions to difficult story issues by stepping back and changing the scope of a moment. Even if it doesn’t lead directly to a solution, I find the exercise shows me where I’ve blinded myself in the story, and points to how I might get out of the grinding struggle.

I’ve spent a lot of my life at the game table, running games. It’s good to know that experience can pay off as a writer, too.

(if you liked this article, check out Table to Page 1: My Secret Technique is Killing Me)