Throwback Thursday – The Rifter

Back in the day, I was pretty heavily into tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. I played regularly in high school and college and post-college, basically until I had a family of my own and different priorities for my free time. I dabbled in running games, but really only had one long-term campaign to my credit, which took place in my own modified version of the Nightbane setting from Palladium Books.

I ran that game for years, and during that time it occupied a lot of mental real estate. The thing about self-sustaining campaigns, with high levels of player investment all around, is that they take on a life of their own, and create their own internal rules and consistencies. So from time to time my mind would wander down paths for game ideas that didn’t fit terribly well into the collaborative story my friends and I were telling. Eventually, though, those ideas had to go somewhere.

Fortunately for me, Palladium Books had an open submission policy for their magazine The Rifter, which gave me an outlet for more of my Nightbane ideas. I wrote up an article of supplemental game material for Nightbane and sent it off to the editors who, lo and behold, liked it enough to publish it. Thus my first ever really-real byline credit in a commercial publication with an ISBN and everything was the article “The Warlords of Boston” in The Rifter #42, cover date April, 2008.  (And incidentally still available at Palladium’s online store.)

THE RIFTER 42

Writing new source material for an established property is an interesting proposition, having surprisingly little in common with the fiction writing I occupy myself with these days. RPG guides require familiarity with mathematical game mechanics, a straightforward writing style for background that reads more like a textbook than anything, and staying within the confines of the company’s product branding. Still, it was fun and interesting to try my hand at it, and I learned a lot just by going through the process of putting together and submitting something professional enough to stand out from the rest of the slush pile. Not to mention that the final product was the first time I had ever seen my fantasy character ideas rendered by a complete stranger’s illustrations, which I admit even now is a hoot:

Nightbane - Toro

Nightbane - Zigzag

Everybody has to start somewhere, and this article is what I would point to as … well, if not my secret origin, at least a fairly significant early milestone. It would be a long while between my byline in The Rifter and the next time I got something original published out in the world, but that’s a story for another Thursday.

Second-hand Advice (1): Show and tell

I don’t consider myself any kind of expert fiction writer, with my bare handful of published short stories to my name, but I am a longtime student of the endeavor. I consider the learning process to be an ongoing thing, and I have had my fair share of “a ha” moments over the years (and years and years). In some of those cases, I’d like to think that I’ve processed the lessons learned to the extent that I could make a fair attempt at passing them along myself. So, starting with this post and continuing on an irregular basis whenever I’m reminded of an example, I’d like to offer my own takes and insights on some of the things I’ve been taught about writing which I believe bear repeating.

Someone asked recently if it ever got tiring hearing the same old advice over and over again to “show, don’t tell”. It was not so much an indictment of the frequency, or a request for some new advice since the old has been repeated so often that everyone has internalized it and gains nothing from hearing it ad nauseum; it was a genuine questioning of the validity of the advice itself. The asker’s attitude more or less boiled down to “shut up and let me tell my story my way, or if you want a show go to the movies!”

Personally, I don’t ever get tired of being urged to “show, don’t tell”. It’s something I struggle with on the regular, and I consider each and every reminder helpful. I think it goes without saying that it’s good advice for storytelling, but apparently it’s not self-evident, since at least one person is capable of doubting its utility.

Part of the problem, I think, arises from confusion over what exactly is meant by the word “show”. It’s not intended to mean a hyper-focus on visual imagery and descriptive details. It simply means to demonstrate, as in the old math teacher’s insistence to “show your work”.

So, assuming a writer composing a scene in which a protagonist escapes from a prison, the text might read as follows:

Roy slipped through the unlocked door and quickly padded to the end of the corridor, where he bumped into two guards on patrol. He fought his way past the guards, leaving them unconscious in his wake, and continued toward the main gate.

Not the most scintillating prose in the world, I readily admit, but I think it’s perfectly serviceable and, more to the point, it doesn’t violate the spirit of “show, don’t tell”. Yes, it includes a reference to a fight without actually conjuring up a clear blow-by-blow of attacks and injuries. It tells us the fight happened rather than showing it to the audience in detail, but that’s basically a stylistic choice.

Consider, on the other hand, a passage like this:

Roy was normally a pacifist, but he was out for blood now. The evil warden had spent months torturing Roy for no apparent reason, and Roy burned for revenge. Within a few paces of the main gate, he stopped and changed direction, intent on finding the warden and leaving him a permanent reminder of their time together.

This is the kind of writing I would call out for ignoring the “show, don’t tell” rule. This prose isn’t just condensing action down to a summary level to get the same idea across quickly, it’s asserting value judgments and drawing conclusions, all of which is best left to the readers. The text is telling that Roy is a pacifist, that the warden is evil, that the torture was without cause or explanation, and that Roy has a plan to settle the score. These are the kinds of things that could be shown in less presumptive ways. No need to tell the reader that Roy is a pacifist if he can be observed living that philosophy, or to label the warden as evil if his violations of order and goodness can be narrated.

Not that any of the above is absolutely inviolable. Sometimes “show, don’t tell” feels like beating around the bush. Sometimes a writer might be working in first person and want to state explicit conclusions and value judgments because that’s the way the narrating character thinks about the world. Above all, sometimes breaking a rule is a really effective attention-getting move. But to break a rule in a memorable way, it helps to know why the rule is there in the first place, and the above is how it finally made sense to me.