Perspective: in real life and in story

How we look at things is important. As storytellers (and there’s room for storytelling even in non-fiction…) the perspective we speak/write from impacts the story we tell. It affects the information available to the narrator, the reader’s ability to associate with the characters in our story, and the nuts and bolts of how we structure and write our story. As writers, or just people trying to get along in a world full of people who ain’t us, understanding the perspectives of people around us is valuable in marketing, persuasion, and making things happen.

Perspective in story (the kind that helps us tell the story)

There’s lots of discussion about perspective (aka point of view) in story. Holy wars have been (and are being) fought over whether first or third person is best (and that’s ignoring the second person rebels!).

There are those who will tell you the hero/heroine must be the one to tell the story, and other people who’ll insist writing from the perspective of a side character gets the job done.

Things get really scary when polyphonic stories come up. Suddenly there’s more than one perspective operating in the same story!

I tend toward the polyphonic style myself. But I won’t tell you that’s the ‘one correct way’ to tell your story. Nope, I don’t think it’s true. I definitely don’t think it’s the best advice. The best advice (as I see it) is to experiment and find the best point of view for your story and use that.

Of course, taking my advice requires thinking about things from more than one point of view. You know what… that’s an excellent skill to use in real life too.

Perspective in life (the kind that helps get the story read)

In real life, everyone has their own perspective. Even identical twins don’t see things perfectly the same. Understanding that other people have their own perspectives, and maybe even understanding those perspectives (as best we can), makes a real difference in getting things done.

Sure, some people try the Karen path (even people not named Karen…); they demand to talk to your manager; they expect us to make exceptions for them; they try to make their way through hardheadedness and screaming. But it’s not an effective path. Refusing to see other perspectives isn’t all that successful on a long-term basis.

This is not saying that you have to give in to those other perspectives. If your reason’s good enough and right enough, and the aim is worthy enough, stay the course and move ahead. But if you take the time to look at the other person’s perspective, at least you understand why the @$@#@!!! others are insisting on the things they are.

There is great power in understanding other people’s perspectives. If you understand other people’s perspectives (and your own goals), you can do a little thinking beforehand. You can package and present things in ways that look and feel better to the other person. That makes getting what you want easier.

Beyond the pre-packaging, you might find commonalities between what you want and what the other person wants. You can use those commonalities to build a shared foundation. And then, you can use your understanding of what the other person wants to negotiate a solution that works for everyone involved…

Perspective is useful. Understanding different perspectives allows you to see new angles and new things. It doesn’t mean you have to change your perspective, but it gives you more information and allows you to make better decisions in story and in life.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. What’s your perspective on perspective? Leave a comment. And, I’ll see you next post.

Not all readers are the same!

I’ve been reading a book about writing short stories; one of those books with lots of articles and contributions by different authors and publishing people who’ve ‘really been there’ and know what they’re talking about. It’s fascinating how much conflicting advice exists in the same text. Why does that happen? Shouldn’t the people who’ve ‘been there’ agree on what’s there?

No, they shouldn’t. Not necessarily. Each professional is talking about personal experience and their own personal specialty. They don’t all agree because their there isn’t the same there… The advice is different because the focus and audience are different.

Different people, different expectations

It used to be that there were only a few real publishing companies, and relatively few books were published (even in fiction). Tastes would change but the process remained the same, “like what’s being served up or go make something better yourself!” (Which the publishers might not publish because it was too different…)

In the modern market, there are more publishing options, many more books being produced, and better ways to track the preferences of your audience. More than ever before, personal taste and niche audiences matter. That means we can’t make sweeping generalizations about genres and audiences the way we used to.

Yes, there is still a fantasy audience out there that want’s the “paint me a picture” approach (a couple of them if what I’m reading about mid-grade audiences is to be believed), but that’s not what everybody’s after.

Sure, there are folks out there looking for buzz cuts, whizz jets, and bodice ripping action. But they don’t speak for everybody.

And, there are audiences that are all about the feelings (YA anyone? How about romance…). But that’s not everybody, and it’s definitely the wrong way to go if you’re writing an accounting book or an engineering textbook.

Audience is important. The intended purpose and audience of your work need to be in your mind from the beginning. And that attention continues until you’ve delivered the work into the audience’s hands. That means you need to understand your audience. And I mean your audience, the group of people you’re trying to reach. It doesn’t matter what the systems analytics and information security audiences think about your work if you’re writing YA fantasy.

Within the fantasy audience, you’d better have a handle on whether you mean high fantasy, low fantasy, fantastic realism, mid-grade fantasy, fantasy horror, or… And the same thing goes for other genres too.

If you’re writing a language textbook, you need to know whether it’s an introductory, mid-level, advanced, or special topics book. And this goes for any other nonfiction too.

It helps to understand our specific audience as early in the process as possible. It really does.

But what if we have multiple audiences?

Different audiences for the same book

It happens. Some books cross boundaries and attract more than one audience. The Harry Potter books did it. It happens, and it’s hard to predict who’s going to be next. But here’s the catch. The ones that succeed start with a particular audience in mind and other audiences are drawn in along the way.

Here’s the double catch… If you plan to publish via a conventional or hybrid publisher, even if you’re focusing on one particular audience, you have two audiences to worry about.

If you’re publishing mid-grade or YA stuff, you have at least two audiences to worry about. I can count at least four. Even though I just told you, you need to focus on one audience.

Think about it. For a mid-grade book, you have your primary audience (who are somewhere between 8 and 12 to 14), you have your publisher (if you’re going through a publisher), you have the parents or guardians of your primary audience (you know, the people who are actually going to buy the book), and you have librarians (the other people who are going to buy the book and provide it to your main audience). You may also have school teachers and administrators to deal with…

Even with books for adults, you often have at least two audiences, the people who will read the book, and the people involved in selecting the book (for publication and/or use). Fortunately, those secondary audiences may have a feel for what the primary audience wants. Unfortunately, they have their own opinions, and are wrong from time to time…

There’s much more to say. How do we navigate all these audiences? What are they looking for?

Those are valid questions. But, answering them is a book, not a blog post.

For now, dear reader, consider who your primary audience is. Consider who your other audiences are, but really work on that main one. They’re the biggest concern.

We’ll come back to all of this later, dear reader. I’ll see you next post.

Volunteer?

Someone asked an interesting question this month. “We’re a culture that supports volunteering, but what do we get out of it?” For some of us, the answer was obvious. For others, not so much. So, I thought we’d look at it today.

It takes giving

When we volunteer, we’re giving. It might be information. It might be muscle power. It usually involves time and giving up something else we could be doing.

We are freely giving. We’re not talking about people taking from us, or being paid a wage for our work. We’re helping, and other people and organizations are benefiting. Sometimes it feels good.

But there’s also drudgery and grunt work involved… Why do we do that to ourselves?

But we also receive

We do it because we get something out of giving. We might not get a salary or hourly wage, but when we volunteer, we get something out of it. Or at least we should…

What we get can be highly personal, and to see it, you need to think wider than money or ‘swag’.

Some give (volunteer) to give back. They’ve received a benefit and now they’re paying back.

Others ‘pay it forward’, giving with the confidence that they will receive help when they need it.

But those aren’t the only things we gain either…

Volunteering is an opportunity to get experience. It’s an opportunity to learn. We expose ourselves to experiences and people more knowledgeable than ourselves. We see, hear, and discover things we wouldn’t have otherwise. We might not know a lot about what we’ll be doing, but there’s an opportunity to learn the language of what we’re doing. We get a comparatively low-cost touch on things that otherwise require a lot more time, effort, and possibly money to get involved with.

Volunteering is an opportunity to meet people. Since I’ve started volunteering with my writers’ conference, (link) I’ve met publishers, editors, marketers, musicians, graphic artists, and influencers that I might not have met otherwise. Volunteering with my church, I’ve met lawyers, college professors, general contractors, mechanics…

Sometimes knowing the right people really matters. And if you met those people through a volunteer activity, you’ve got more than a name, you’ve got a connection. You might not have been paid for your labor, but you got a benefit out of doing it.

Volunteering is an opportunity to find other opportunities. Opportunities pop up when something changes around us. Well, if we’re out doing things, creating change, and being a positive force in the universe, those opportunities are more likely to pop up than if we’re sitting around the house.

It’s a transactional thing…

Yes, volunteering takes work. We’re giving up something. But we’re also receiving something. Often what we receive depends on the quality of our efforts, the thought we’ve put into what we’re doing, and the choices we make, and being aware of what’s going on around us.

A week ago, I was thinking “I’d like to meet Orson Scott Card at a conference.” Because I volunteer and accepted a meeting invite, I know I’m two people away from being in direct contact with him.

My wife is about an eighth note away from publishing a song because of things she learned while volunteering.

It’s not a selfish thing. You can’t sit around asking what’s in it for me. But you can certainly know the possibilities and opportunities that come your way. And volunteering can help you in ways you might not expect.

Well, dear reader, that’s it for this one. I need to do the stuff I said I would in that meeting. Opportunities will come. Be wise about them. Take the good ones. And, I’ll see you next post.

More than fireworks!

Next Monday is the 4th of July. Some will call it a day of shame. Some will call it the birthday of our country. No matter what side you stand on, the 4th of July marks a historic change in the world. And it’s definitely more than an excuse to set off fireworks.

A revolution

In 1776, the United States of America hadn’t happened yet. We were a collection of English colonies under an English king and English law. On July 4th 1776, leaders from those colonies did something audacious, something truly stunning and brave. At risk to life, limb, and freedom, they brought forth the Declaration of Independence. They proclaimed that we as a people have inherent rights and freedoms which were being trampled by an oppressive government.

The risk was substantial. The war was bloody. We almost didn’t make it. But we did. The land we now call the United States of America became its own nation.

But that wasn’t an “and they lived happily ever after,” moment.

A responsibility

The thing is, we as a people had chosen, and mostly still choose, not to be governed by some far away king (or queen, or… Sorry, I’m not sure what the trans-gender equivalent to a king or queen is (If somebody figures that one out, please leave a comment… Inquiring minds want to know)).

If we choose not to be governed by others, that means we have to learn and govern ourselves. Sorry folks, we can’t all runaround doing whatever we want; eventually, that leads to people imposing their desires on others (it doesn’t matter what your politics are, it happens).

We have to learn to think and make choices. We have to understand the world and make excellent decisions. We have to be more than a bunch of whiny little two-year-olds screaming “Mine!” and grabbing at toys.

A world of opportunities

But see, that’s the good part. If we put forth the effort. If we learn to govern ourselves and work with others in constructive ways, the possibilities multiply. Instead of one ruler saying who does what and picking solutions. Every one, billions of people, are free to find solutions, solve problems, achieve great things, and become more than what we’ve been before.

When we govern ourselves responsibly, we can achieve our dreams. It takes effort. It means putting on our big person underwear and checking in for the day. But it’s possible.

That’s what the 4th of July means, dear reader, the beginning of opportunities. It’s scary out there, and getting scarier. But the freedom and opportunities are still out there. For many of us, there’s more freedom and opportunity than ever before.

Don’t let bad choices take your dreams and opportunities, dear reader. Do the thinking. Learn, and do the work. If we do, all good things are possible.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. Some of my work’s calling. See you next post.

Conference attendance virtual vs. in person

The last few years have been exceptional (you choose the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ tags for yourself…). The world’s changed a bit. One of those changes has been an increase in the acceptance of virtual conference. And yet, there’s value in being there too.

Virtual advantages

Virtual conferences are cheaper. You may get a direct discount on conference fees. You also don’t have hotels, gas/travel expenses, or meals to worry about (beyond your normal levels at least).

Virtual conferences don’t suck up as much time. For LDSPMA, (LINK) I’m going to spend half a day before the conference driving down and half a day after driving back. If I’d chosen virtual, I wouldn’t have to do that.

If you’ve got family and or social obligations, attending the conference virtually can reduce impact on those areas of your life.

They’re all valid arguments. They are. And for some people, the virtual option is the right fit. But it’s not the only option.

In person opportunities

At the last LDSPMA conference, there was a snack session with fresh raspberries and fancy chocolate. We also had catered lunches. At a virtual conference, you do that work yourself. There are advantages to being there live.

Sometimes people get lost in attending sessions. That’s one thing that virtual attendee ship is (relatively) good at. But when you’re attending at your desk or kitchen table, there can be a lot of distractions. You may focus better in the actual room, with the actual people. And there’s more to conference life than sessions.

One oddity of live conferences (two, if you count what they give you) is that people want to give you stuff. Conference Bags (usually with logos), pens, pencils, books, coupons, flyers with special deals for attendees, and who knows what else. People at conferences are marketing their products and services and they’re giving stuff away to do it (and that’s ignoring the drinks and snacks…).

Conferences give you an opportunity to get involved and meet people. Yeah, you might notice a witty comment in a virtual session, but at a live conference, you actually get to meet people. Some of those people can make things happen (I watched a movie deal go down at lunch at last year’s LDSPMA… And it wasn’t the only one).

Yes, you could find a name or even send someone a chat in a virtual session. But live conferences improve your opportunities for networking. They give you access to that ‘in the moment’ experience that can lead to the person you need.

The value of ‘being there’

Ultimately, it comes down to where you need to be. There’s a lot you can get from a virtual conference. There are real advantages to live conferences. The question comes down to what’s right for you and your circumstances.

If you can’t get away; if the kids, the job, and the life stuff won’t let you go, take the virtual conference and work toward the live one in the future.

If you need to get away for a while. Or if you’re looking for that one precious contact. Well, the live conference may be for you. You’ll get to immerse yourself in the conference world, get away from the day do day, and find the people and opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Honestly, the final decision of what’s best is up to you. The choices are cheap and easy or a richer experience.

Consider your options, dear reader, then make the best choice for you. Either way, I’ll see you next post.

A world of your own (Part 1)

As writers, we’re told “Write what you know.” That can be interpreted several ways. Does it mean write based on your experience? Yes. Does it mean you can only write characters exactly like you? I hope not… (Talk about a ‘send in the clones’ situation…)

Does it mean we have to write things in the current year’s real time? We can, but we don’t have to. There are successful historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy genres after all.

It doesn’t mean we have to limit ourselves to extant worlds either.

There’s more than one world in fiction…

If we want to write about a detective in a superhero universe, the character doesn’t have to be Batman (or Batgirl…). If we want to write science fiction; Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battle Star Galactica aren’t the only options. There are fantasy worlds other than Middle Earth.

Actually, with the exceptions of Thieves World, which was initially created by a group of authors as a shared world, and the world of Conan the Barbarian, and please don’t ask me why that one works (I don’t know!), I’m fairly hard pressed to find a world that holds together with multiple writers working across time.

Movies, television, and internet series can work with multiple writers, but there’s (usually) a central core that keeps things together. And we can see what happens when that core is altered.

Borrowed worlds can be problematic

The worst offenders seem to be those who try to shoehorn their personal beliefs and ideas into the worlds of others. This results in ‘kinda-sorta’ writing. Words are written, but the authors haven’t put work into world building, and have often ignored or misunderstood the rules of the world they were writing in.

We all have to start somewhere and world building is an art. But if you’re writing in someone else’s world, you’re playing with their creation. If you won’t respect the world they’ve built, you’re also disrespecting the creator (creators) of that world.

If we’re respectful of the rules, we might learn something from writing in another author’s world. We might develop our skills for working within a defined system and finding creative answers within that system.

But if we’re rewriting the system, why are we doing it?

If we’re doing it because we ‘sort of know’ the system, that’s lazy (and usually sloppy…).

When writers disagree with a world’s rules and mess with them just to ‘stick it’ to the author (or the fans), that’s not writing in a world that’s pushing an agenda. If that’s your goal, why not just say so straight out? (Being a @$@#@!!! Isn’t persuasive, no matter who you are)

If we’re willing to take time to meddle with the rules of a world properly, why not use that time to create our own?

Consider that question, dear reader. Why not build a world of your own? Or, if you’ve built one, what was the experience like?

What are your thoughts about world building and world borrowing? Leave a comment if you like. I’ll be returning to the topic myself soon. See you next post.

Why the thinky stuff matters…

This week over on Words Mean Stuff I have a post on taking time to ponder. Over here at Forever Mountain, I’m presenting an example of why you should stop to ponder.

Back in the bad old days (Ok, last week…), I had the idea to put a role-playing encounter up for this week’s post. Well, obviously I didn’t do that because you’re reading this post instead.

On the surface, the idea seemed simple. I’m working on games and books, so I’ll throw up a little encounter that helps readers and players get the flavor of my world. It was a good idea. It still is a good idea. But, when you dig deeper, it’s a bigger project than it seemed. At least it is if I want a quality product.

Sure, I could have just dove in, cranked out an encounter and threw it up here. But the result would be crap. Don’t get me wrong, I can create a good encounter. But I want to present an encounter that represents my world and motivates people to read and (gasp!) buy my stuff.

My world isn’t crap. I don’t want my readers buying crap. So, I worked out a plan and I’ll be putting out something better; something that I’m actually pleased with and that will get the results I want. And that ain’t crap…

So, let’s get on with it and look at the reasons you’re reading this post instead of an encounter this week…

Understanding the scope

Creating the encounter would be relatively quick and easy. As a GM, I create encounters on the fly all the time. But this will not be an on the fly, scrap together encounter. It’s a planned encounter that represents my world. Not just that, it’s going to be a published encounter too.

For a published encounter, I want a decent-looking map. I’m not just drawing something on a terrain grid and dragging out a few minis here. I need a drawn-out map to communicate the idea of the encounter to other game masters. And, since this is supposed to be a professional blog, it might be a good idea to have a decent-looking map, not just a scanned copy of a first draft hand-sketch.

I also have to consider what happens if somebody likes the encounter. I’d be thrilled to get feedback from people who’ve played the encounter.

Playing the encounter from the blog post could get unwieldy. And, I’d like to hear good things about the encounter and genuine issues people ran into; not that playing it from a blog post is unwieldy (I already guessed that). So, I should have it available in a downloadable and readable/printable format.

It’s easy enough to do a PDF. That’s readable and printable. But where do I store it? Where can the reader/player download it? 

Well, I could set it up on my website (I still might). But it might be better to set it up at Drivethrurpg. If I set it up there, I can send the people from my blog over to download it (either free or pay what you want!) and I can get exposure to people who don’t read my blog. That sounds like a good idea.

By the way… If I’m doing a downloadable PDF, that means copies of this thing may float around even if I pull the blog post down. That means it’s a good idea to make sure my spelling/punctuation/grammar/formatting/‘quality assurance stuff’ is up to par, in addition to making sure that the map looks fantastic.

Oy… Back to the map. Now I need to make it really look good and make sure that I have copyright to the image for commercial purposes. It’s time to learn to draw, pay somebody, or make sure I’m using a software package that allows me to use the image commercially.

And of course, I have to make sure my copyright, the DnD 5th edition OGL copyright, and all those other legal bits are done correctly. (Not to mention any other art and that sort of thing).

So, thinking all of this over. Yeah, I’m still doing it. But it’s a lot more than just ‘whipping up an encounter’. And doing it all right might take more than a week!

Ensuring the quality

The encounter is definitely more than just a throw together for my campaign. I should treat it as a real publication.

It’s going to be more than a make up on the fly.

It’s going to be more than something in my notes.

It’s going to be more than just a blog post.

That means applying a higher editing and production standard.

I’ll do all the spelling and language check stuff I’d do on a blog post. But I’ll also do multi-draft editing. I’ll be following the revision process I would for a book or print article.

And that means I need some test readers (and in this case, test players). Who should I get to do that? Playing it with my group is like reading through my own story. I need other eyes. So, I’m thinking about other GMs I know and who I can ask to read/play through it without me actually being there.

I should also ask a couple artist/GMs I know about the maps and what they think of them.

Even if I don’t have the names before the maps and text are finished, knowing up front that they’re going through the process can be helpful.

Getting the results you want

Initially, the encounter was going to be a blog post. I’ll get that, eventually.

I also intended the encounter to represent my world. That makes it more than just a blog post. It’s marketing material for other work (Some characters are already slated to appear in another product…).

Sure, I could just throw something together and have a post. But that’s not what I want. I want more than just a post.

This encounter will be a lasting artifact, a teaser/marketing item, a chance to get feedback on the constructs in my world, a chance to work with a new outlet/vender, and even a chance to make a little money (hey it’s a publicity thing, but if I put it up as ‘pay what you want’ (and why not…?) I could see a little cash come in). What I really want from the encounter is for people to be interested in, even intrigued with, my world. I want them to want more.

If I’d just stayed where I started, if I hadn’t really thought it all over, I would have a crappy little blog post that I’ll take down in a few months because it’s embarrassing. Because I took the time to think about it, and because I’ll put the work in to get it, I’ll have a multi-platform marketing piece that expands my audience, interests people in my fictional world (where my games and books happen), and maybe even a little soda money on the side. What a deal!

Yes, it will take work. But because I took the time to think about that work, I can make the project bigger, better, and more successful than the initial idea. I can make it something really worth doing. And all because I took some time to think instead of just throwing something out there.

Well, dear reader, my office dragon is telling me there’s more work to do; my editor (ogre?) is telling me that 1300 words are too many for a 750-word post; and my wife really wants to be picked up from work. So, I’d better leave off for now.

Take the time to do the thinking and planning. Do the work to make your writing really great. And, I’ll see you next post.

Memorial Day

Well, dear reader, this weekend is Memorial Day weekend. For some of us, this means great sales. Others see it as a three-day weekend. It’s even referred to as the “unofficial beginning of summer”. But there’s more to it than that.

What is it?

Memorial Day is a U.S. federal holiday created to remember and celebrating those who gave their lives in the defense of this country. It’s a day for considering those who’ve given their all and what they’ve given us.

Why does it matter?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it… I can give you some answers. But, ultimately, it’s a question whose answer (s) are very personal to each of us. Would you be here reading this post if it weren’t for the soldiers of the American Revolution who fought for the freedom to form our government by the people and for the people?

What about those who fought in the U.S. Civil War?

What about those who fought in World War 2, the Korean War, or the other conflicts we’ve faced?

Consider the question, dear reader. Really consider the question. And then honor those who fought to make your life better in how you see fit.

I’ll be doing the same. And I’ll see you next post.

Send the Letters

This week I’m working on marketing the LDSPMA writers’ conference. No, dear reader, I won’t bug you about it (I linked it though…). This week I’m contacting faculty and student organizations at some universities. And that means calls, emails, and letters.

Now, I can’t say sending out emails and letters (or cold calling) is my favorite thing. Well, I could, but I’d lose several readers to sarcasm poisoning… I don’t enjoy doing it, but sometimes it has to be done.

Sometimes we have to contact people, even ones we don’t know, regarding our projects. It could be a conference invite. It could be querying a book or article. Or we could be requesting an interview. Even if we don’t enjoy it, it has to be done.

Somebody has to start things (and it’s probably you)

Maybe editors, publishers, and conference attendees are sitting and waiting for our query/offer/whatever… Even if they want it badly, do they know that we have it available?

There are plenty of demands and little time out there. Publishers receive more submissions than they can produce. As much as we want to see ourselves and our work as special, we can’t just sit back, do nothing. We can’t just sit and expect people to ask for it.

Someone has to start the process and make first contact. Since everyone is busy, and the people we need to contact are often both busy and unaware that we have what they’re looking for, it usually falls to us to take the first step.

There are actual risks…

What’s the worst thing that can happen? It’s a valid question.

Mistakes can be made. If you haven’t researched the people you’re contacting well enough, you can make some truly colossal blunders. Once, when I was an undergrad, I used the screen name “Theantifreud”. That was a mistake when sending a PHD application to a Freudian!

Basically, you’ve got two choices: stay safe and generic, or research well enough that you know what you’re saying and have a reasonable ability to predict what the response will be.

The actual best bet is somewhere in between. You don’t want to be so generic that there is no appeal. But you don’t want to act like the reader is your best buddy if they aren’t. Do your research, plan, and write carefully. And then, have someone read things over before you send them out.

But consider the rewards

Not everyone enjoys sending queries or contacting people. But it’s part of what we do and we benefit by doing it well. My next book isn’t getting published unless I query about it. My goal of getting Orson Scott Card to the conference won’t happen if no one brings the conference to his attention.

We do it because we need to. We do it because the benefits outweigh the risks. We do it because it’s part of success, whether that’s a new book published, a successful convention, or just getting somebody over to fix that wonky light switch.

We do it because it’s part of how we get things done.

It might not be right now, dear reader, but the time will come that the letters and emails need to go out. Put in the effort. Make them worthy. And I wish you all the best.

As for me, I’ve got to get stuff sent out, and then start the “checking my email obsessively to see if Orson Scott Card has responded” process. I’ll see you next post.

Scenes and encounters

As a writer, I build scenes. As a game master, I build encounters. There are differences, but there are similarities too…

Encounters and scenes have different requirements and components. I usually introduce outside characters and creatures in an encounter, but not as often in a scene. Scenes might focus on the actions of a single character, alone, while encounters demand someone or something else.

At the same time, scenes and encounters share a purpose and function in the story.

Moving the story forward

“Something needs to happen…” We can’t let the story grind to a stop. So, we make something happen. But is that something doing us any good? Sure, words are said, stuff happens, a couple bodies hit the floor, but does the story actually go somewhere? Or are we back to “Something needs to happen?”

Whether it’s a tender scene between your hero and heroine (or your heroine and your other heroine I ain’t judging here) or a massive battle where your players take on the orc king and his whole army, our scenes and encounters need to move the story forward. There needs to be some point to the thing that helps the story, and the reader/player, move toward the resolution. Otherwise, it’s as Shakespeare said “As a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury that meaneth nothing.”

Our encounter/scene needs to advance the plot. It could give the characters information. It could be a confrontation with the bad guys. It could provide the magic widget that makes winning possible. If we can’t explain why the scene/encounter is there, it doesn’t need to be there. It’s also bogging down the story, or worse, occupying the space that belongs to something more important.

The scene needs to do something. Often, it’s best if the reader doesn’t immediately know what that something is. Often the character(s) might not know what that something is, or even think that it’s a different something.

And if all that isn’t hard enough, the scene/encounter shouldn’t be (or at least shouldn’t feel) forced. The reader/player should never be left to think “you just shoved that in there so X could happen,” or worse, “you just shoved that in there because you wanted it there.” The encounter/scene should flow naturally from what’s going on in the story (the parts the readers/players are aware of and the ones they aren’t).

Sometimes the hardest scenes to write, and the most gratifying when they’re finished, are the ones that are the character’s own #$@#$#!!! fault.

Resulting from character actions

Confronting characters with the results of their actions is a valid thing to do. At times, it’s the point of the story. The ‘natural consequences’ of a character’s actions can be the catalyst that pushes the hero back on course. They could also bring the villain’s world crashing down.

There are other kinds of encounters and scenes, but the ones resulting from a character’s own actions are the “most fair”. You can’t say the GM just dumped an encounter on you if your choices got you there.

Scenes resulting from character actions also result in the most teachable moments and psychological change, the internal stuff many players/readers are looking for.

Sure, something needs to happen. Sometimes we need to goose a player or character out of a rut, but it’s best if we can get them doing something rather than just having something happen to them. And it doesn’t have to be an immediate cause-and-effect situation.

Chekov’s law states that a gun shown in act one must be used in act three. Our story might not have a literal gun, but the characters in our stories can and should do things that come back to haunt them (or help them) later in the story. Sometimes the “get them out of the rut” trigger has to come from the outside. But if we know our characters and what they’ve been doing, they’ll give us the answer that gets them moving again.

Value matters

It’s a busy world. Nobody, not us, not our readers/players, nor our characters have loads of extra time to be sitting around “letting stuff happen.” In printed books, every page costs. Whether printed, electronic, or live, too much distance between important events can slow the story down, resulting in lost interest and lost reader/player interaction. Every scene or encounter needs to move the story forward. It needs to give our readers/players some form of value and a reason to stay with us a little longer.

It’s ok to cut scenes. It’s ok to rewrite scenes. It’s ok to create new scenes. Sometimes the scene or encounter we create on the fly is exactly what’s needed (sometimes the answers are in the back of our minds, whether the front of our minds know it or not…). No matter what our scene is, we need to make sure it has purpose in the story, that it has a reason to be there and value for the reader/player.

Virtually every thing we do in editing is a value building process, making the story better, clearer, more fulfilling, more interesting, and even more important for our readers and players. We definitely want it to feel more important than the other stuff our player/reader could spend time on.

Now, the question is… How do we do all that? And that depends on the stories we’re building. Good luck with yours, dear reader. I need to work on mine for a while.

Polish those scenes and encounters, make them really worthwhile. And, I’ll see you next post.