Fate Aspects – Stealing Story-Telling Tools from an RPG

Fate-Core-CoverEvoking place isn’t always easy in fiction. You can get hung up on the details at the expense of the overall image, or not show enough to make the place distinctive. Based on the recommendation of another writer, I’ve been thinking about how to use tools from the Fate roleplaying game to do this better.

Fate is a tabletop role-playing game, like Dungeons and Dragons or GURPS, except that it’s very different from those two. It turns the game into an act of collaborative storytelling, with more description and cooperation in place of the turn-taking adventures and numbers-based mechanics of many RPGs.

Fate is built around aspects – words and phrases that describe characters, places, objects, and events. A character might have aspects such as “Owes Jo his life” or “Master swordsman”, and if they can show how these are relevant to the story they gain an advantage. Similarly, places can have aspects, things like “noisy”, “dilapidated”, or “owned by the Triad”, just two or three aspects that get to the essence of the place.

I’m starting to use this as a way of thinking about places in stories. If when I’m first defining a place I decide that its aspects are “made of ancient oak” and “full of tribbles”, that tells me a lot without a great deal of planning. I can then use descriptive details to evoke those aspects, and as long as I don’t contradict myself in the details, I’m likely to create a place that is evocative but not bogged down in minutiae. The aspects also give me something to go back to whenever I need to add a new detail. Doors are made of more ancient wood, and the nails holding them together must be equally old, rust spreading from them to stain the wood. When a character opens a previously unexplored cupboard, tribbles will probably fall out. Maybe dead tribbles that have been left in that ancient space too long. If there are insects here, maybe they’re oak-boring worms or fleas living on tribbles.

I’m not saying that this is the ultimate solution to getting setting right, but for now it’s helping me.

Aspects: luxurious, deserted, secret naughty stains - it's all connected.
Aspects: luxurious, deserted, secret naughty stains – it’s all connected.

The Importance of Making Writing Specific

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real
The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing the early drafts of Guns and Guano was being vague. When I started out I wasn’t confident in getting an American protagonist right, so I fudged his accent and was vague about his background. But such evasion is not getting it right, as became clear the minute I got the book near beta readers. Specificity is what makes characters real, because real people and places are specific and detailed.

You can write something in a vague way from the start and then fix it later. But if you’re doing that then why not write something specific, which you might stick to later? You’ll be no worse off. Pick a name for that random bodyguard, decide which town the action happens in, know which side of the war your character fought on (yes I tried to fudge that, no it did not work). Even with accents, pick one, do a few minutes’ research and then go with it. You’ll still be doing better than my original cowboy-impressionist generic American.

Better to take a risk on a detail and maybe get it right than to be vague and be sure of going wrong.

Writing Excuses 10.20 Exercise – Not Writing an Encyclopedia

This week’s Writing Excuses was about conveying world-building information without resorting to infodumps. Intrusive explanations are one of my pet writing hates, so it was good to hear these professional writers’ tips on how to get it right.

The exercise of course fits the subject:

Take a spec gee-whiz, and have something go wrong with it. Write a scene in which the main character must deal with the problem. Communicate each of the following:

  1. How it works
  2. What it looks like
  3. The main character’s relationship to it

I’m going to try out a piece of sci-fi tech. It’s not exactly a new idea, but it’s one I’m planning on using in a story soon, so it’ll make a good warmup.

Casey’s Face

A twinge ran through Casey’s cheek, putting her immediately on edge. There were only two things that could have caused it. Discounting nervous ticks, to which she had never been prone, there was only one.

Another twinge, and then another. A woman passing her on the pavement gave her a curious look but kept on walking.

Putting her hand to her face, Casey felt the fake flesh of the mask sagging beneath her fingers. Trying to remain calm, to avoid drawing attention and blowing her cover, she ducked into a café, hand still pressed to her face, and hurried to the bathroom at the back. Bolting the door behind her, she stared into the mirror above the sink.

The left side of her face was still fine, showing the features of the anonymous government clerk she had been imitating for the past month. But on the right side, vat-grown muscles were sliding away, revealing their wire frame and, worse yet, parts of her own face.

Hastily, she took the slim control box from her pocket, almost dislodging the wire concealed along her neck. She hit the reset button and the left side of her face reverted to the mask’s blank-faced factory default. But the right remaining a lumpy, fallen mess.

So How Was That?

I didn’t feel like this exercise pushed me much. Because of what I write, and because I hate infodumps, I tend to write this sort of thing a lot. Of course that doesn’t mean I do it well, so let me know, how was that short scene? And if you’ve had a go at this exercise, how did you get on?

A Dresden Files example of ‘show don’t tell’

It had been my mother’s – my father had passed it down to me.

– Jim Butcher – Storm Front

That quote might seem like a pretty innocuous piece of writing, but it caught my attention as I was listening to the Storm Front audiobook. Why? Because I think it’s a good example of what we mean when we say ‘show don’t tell’.

Not such a new series any more.

As Victoria Grefer has pointed out, there isn’t really a clear divide between show and tell, and there’s some merit to both. But for me, the value of showing lies in replacing exposition with implication. I love fantasy literature, but sometimes when authors try to cram in the backstory of their world or characters it comes across like a thinly disguised exert from a text book. I don’t want that, I want story, and I want it smoothly and efficiently told. I want the world revealed through actions, dialogue and naturally occurring thought, not dumped out in paragraphs that break the flow.

Look at what Butcher’s done in that sentence. He’s shown us, in just thirteen words, that the item under discussion has sentimental value for Harry Dresden, his lead character. He’s shown us that Harry’s mother is dead, probably died too young to pass things down to Harry. That somewhere along the line Harry’s father has been his lone parent. He’s shown us that this is an item of personal value beyond its material or magical worth. And of course he’s told us how Harry got the item.

Any time you show you have to tell something. The showing comes in the other details that are revealed in the cracks between your words.

I’m not holding Storm Front up as some kind of master class for writers, though its popularity shows it’s doing something right. Heck, I haven’t even got to the end yet – my audiobook listening it regularly interrupted by fascinating podcasts. But sometimes you can learn a lot from examining one line.

Do you have a favourite line, one that you’ve written or that you’ve read, that you think carries a valuable lesson or demonstrates what ‘show don’t tell’ means to you? Why not share it below?

Beauty that aspires to endure: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lord of Emperors

She had asked him for something more permanent, the golden rose speaking to the fragility of beautiful things, a mosaic hinting at that which might last. A craft that aspired to endure.

Lord of Emperors, the second half of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic, is an extraordinary book. If you’ve read my comments on Sailing to Sarantium then you won’t be surprised to see me write that. But still, it’s worth saying, and indeed worth repeating. This is a deep, rich book which should endure just as surely as the fine art at the heart of its narrative. I’ll probably come back to that theme of art, and others explored in the book, in later blog posts. But first, lets have something approximating a review, in which I obsess over certain details…

Lord of Emperors

Setting and story

Lord of Emperors completes the of story Crispin, a mosaicist summoned east to the city of Sarantium to create a career-defining work of art, decorating the ceiling of a great religious sanctuary commissioned by the Emperor Valerius II. There he becomes entangled in a web of politics and passion, as ambition and long-held grievances play out in the royal court while the passions and frustrations of the common mob are channelled through support of two great chariot racing teams.

The world of this story is based on Constantinople and the surrounding region in the 6th century AD. As with several of his other novels, Kay has taken an existing setting, shaved off the proper nouns and added the lightest sprinkling of fantasy, rather than creating a whole setting from scratch. It’s a fascinating and unusual approach that lets him take more liberties with characters and events than he could in a straight historical novel, while still using the rich setting and tone available through delving into history. It’s an act very much in the historically-inspired spirit of Tolkien, whose works Kay helped edit, and also reflects Tolkien’s interest in creating total immersion in secondary worlds.

The world of Sarantium is vividly portrayed, a place of politics and power, ambition and uncertainty, in which events are determined both by careful, unspoken implication and by wild acts of courage on the race track.

It’s a wonderful place to explore.

A sedate telling

I find the pacing of Kay’s books, and particularly this one, absolutely bizarre at times. This is a thumping great 600+ pages of fiction, in which most of the action plays out over a mere handful of days. And it’s not like 24, where a ridiculously jam-packed string of events makes a short timescale feel exciting. It just takes a lot of pages to get through these events.

Sounds like it should be dull and frustrating, right? Yet it isn’t. It’s an exquisite gem of a story, in which each new scene, each different perspective adds to its beauty and shines new light on what you’ve already seen. The reader feels the characters’ passions, their triumphs and tragedies, their tears and laughter. By the time events reached their climax I didn’t know how it would all end, but I yearned to find out.

Not the fancy word choices but the right ones

I’m still not sure how Kay manages to achieve what he does, but I think it might be in the details.

If a writer wants to add texture to a scene they’ve basically got two options – choice of words and choice of detail. Trying to cram in more through word choice can lead you down a slippery slope into obscure language and reaching for the thesaurus, assembling sentences that force readers to pause and think. Adding more detail, on the other hand, can add richness without breaking the flow of reading. It needs to be the right details so that readers will be interested rather than bored, details of thought and of action as much as of setting. But Kay is a master of this, filling page after page with small moments that build towards an entrancing whole.

For me, this is the big writing lesson of the book – complex details, simple language. You can achieve a lot that way.

Now go read!

This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not crammed full of fast-paced action. It takes a long time to do what it does. But it’s beautifully written, fascinating in its detail, and I really think you should give it a go. After reading Sailing to Sarantium that is, because they’re effectively two halves of a single story.

If you’ve read Lord of Emperors let me know what you thought of it. Were you as entranced as I was? Leave a comment, share your views.

Joss Whedon on choosing words

Joss Whedon recently gave a great speech on gender inequality and feminism:


If you’re interested in the issue of gender equality – and I hope that you are – or you enjoy the writing of a modern TV great – and I hope that you do – then you’ll probably enjoy the whole video. But what I want to mention here, what caught my writerly ear, is what he discusses in the first few minutes – how words sound.

Forgetting the obvious

It’s easy to forget, when writing prose, that the sound of words can be as important as their meaning in building atmosphere. Poets use this all the time – choosing light, babbling sounds to describe a brook or heavy, solid words to describe a rock. But then, poetry is often about the very precise application of a small number of words. As prose writers, we’re trying to lay down a lot more letters on the page. We’re aiming for precision of meaning, and the precision of sound can get lost in the mix.

Still, if I use ugly, clunky words to describe my delicate brook, that ugly clunkiness is going to undermine my aim. I should bear that in mind.

What to do about it?

For me, this goes on the long list of things I will try to bear in mind when writing – I picked up another today from Victoria Grefer, a golden rule of description. Something gets added to my list most days, which mean that a lot of stuff has fallen off the list too. But as long as a few thinks stick, or become instinctual, I should keep improving.

I might try some poetry exercises as well. Mrs K has the fabulous Stephen Fry’s Ode Less Travelled, and if I’m going to learn from two wordsmiths this week, then Whedon and Fry is about as awesome a combo as I could get.

Anybody else got any good tips or resources on this? I’d love to hear them.

Changing viewpoints

I’ve just had to rewrite a scene from a different point of view. It was really wrenching. The scene, set at a Roman arena, felt very evocative from the original point of view, that of a jaded ex-legionary seeing the games for the first time. I got to invest the experience with cynicism, to make it about of a connection not quite made, filled at once with nostalgia and alienation. And of course a warrior is well suited to notice and describe the details of a fight.

But ultimately, that wasn’t enough. The scene serves a function within the story, moving on plots, developing characters. And those parts of the scene are better evoked from the point of view of a young Roman aristocrat, showing her triumphs and frustrations, the things that are going on around the games.

My big lesson for this is that what best serves description isn’t necessarily what best serves character and plot. Or maybe that what feels most exciting for one scene won’t necessarily be the best choice for the whole story. Or… I don’t know, I’m just trying to retrieve meaning from my disappointment.

Have any of you had to change the viewpoint on a scene or a story? Why? How did you feel about it? Have you read a scene in someone else’s work that you thought had the wrong viewpoint? Offer me comfort or wisdom or both, people of the internet.