One thing that is hard to find as a new writer is a consistent narrative voice that both sounds like what you want it to, and comes across as easy to read. It is something that I am still struggling to find each time I sit down to write something. But one thing that I have found that helps this is running storytelling games.
Now obviously no one can just conjure up a gaming group out of thin air, but if you are in a position to try doing such an activity or want to seek one out, it could really be beneficial to you. World building, character development, detail organization are all part of running such games and you’ll find that your skills in those areas are going to grow as well. But let’s consider the act of narrating a gaming story itself and what it can do for your style and voice.
I’ve called out three main points that I think are particularly affected, so let’s take a look at each in turn.
Rhythm & Flow
The words that you choose and the arrangement of them in a sentence are what I mean by rhythm and flow. Speaking in front of people can build this skill in a general way, but I often think that the storytelling version of this is perhaps even more pronounced. It’s not just about getting your point across, but how you are going to build tension in any given scene. Is your character fighting for their life? If so you may want to rethink using those long complex sentences and go for a much more fast punchy style here. When you are in front of a group you can almost not help but do this. Is your character having a mental breakdown? Maybe you want to present them as if they can’t even complete a sentence without breaking it off and getting distracted. Storytelling games force you to act out each character and react to those around you.
“You will build that skill of putting yourself in the scene, and be able to act through it instead of it through you.”
By giving voices to your characters on the fly, often completely improvised, you are going to get a much better handle on adopting mannerisms and conveying the scene and dialogue to fit the moment that is occurring in the game. You will build that skill of putting yourself in the scene, and be able to act through it instead of it through you.
Delivery of Content
When to reveal information to your audience is just as important as how to deliver it. In a storytelling game, this is the whole point and one you definitely want to get right. The plot hook can lead people into the story, but constructing the reveal is what gets them to remain interested.
“let the characters have their journey”
Suppose your story involves investigating a crime scene. Old man Megee was found dead face down in his bowl of fruit loops, and your characters need to figure out what really happened here. Revealing to them the suspicious neighbor with the surprisingly violent tattoo of Tucan Sam should come after the characters try a few things out themselves first. Maybe they dust the milk carton for fingerprints, maybe they verify the prize is still on the bottom of the box. The point is that the journey isn’t a straight line, and playing a game that more readily relies on character input gets you in the habit of letting the characters have their journey.
Finally, let’s be honest whether it’s an oral story or a written one the whole thing is just an exercise in communication. If your audience doesn’t understand what you mean, then you have failed. It’s that simple. That’s not to say that you need to dumb things down or simplify your concepts. By all means, make esoteric references and complex allegories. But do your best to keep in the back of your mind that if you obscure your payoffs too much you are shooting yourself in the foot.
“give every cognative payoff two chances to be detected”
I like to give every cognitive payoff two chances to be detected in my stories. And this is a strategy that comes straight out of my experience running tabletop games. You first present your audience with your idea in your terms, as veiled and as clever as you think it deserves. If it gets picked up, great! If not you deploy a second chance on terms that you think will still give it some punch but on a more reasonable level. Two caveats with this, the first is that in written fiction you will always need to work in two because you will Not have the luxury of seeing whether or not your audience picked up on the first one. Secondly what is meant by “reasonable” is going to be completely up to you.
So the next time you consider stepping into the driver’s seat as game master consider what you are really learning. Because choosing to acknowledge what is working and what isn’t lets you experiment and learn from your mistakes. Try changing up your flow to see how the reactions of your group differ. Try withholding the delivery of your content to achieve a more potent result and for goodness sakes make things clear.
Storytelling games are fleeting creations. The stories you tell exist for a moment in the communal mind of the group that’s all. It’s the perfect chance to have a live audience for your creativity and develop your storytelling voice.
If you can, give it a try I promise you won’t regret it.