How LRP Can Help You Learn to Show, Not Tell

In my first year of university, I made some friends who invited me to play a tabletop game called Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I had only a very vague idea what this meant; I had just about heard of D&D, but until then my roleplaying credentials consisted of Harry Potter games on Livejournal and forums – which was in many ways a halfway house between roleplaying and a form of collaborative roleplay.

But I had been taking part in theatre since I was little, so I was keen to combine all of these things into a more in-person experience – and with good reason. It was amazing. From the moment I was handed my character – a halfling thief named Jemima – I loved every second. It was storytelling in a way I had never experienced before.

Some time after that, my friends introduced myself to a next step onwards – live action roleplaying (or LRP/LARP as it is more often known). Now I had costumes. I had acting that was more than just doing voices. It was one of the bright points in an otherwise tumultuous few years of my life – and it is the thing that has stuck with me since then.

So why are we talking about LRP? Because I want to talk about how taking part in any form of storytelling enhances your abilities in other forms. I truly believe that participating in and running LRP games has made me a better writer – and vice versa – and today I want to talk about how.

In writing, you can fall into the trap of thinking you’ve only got one way of delivering information: telling it to people. After all, you’re writing it down. Surely to get the plot across you have to…you know…write it down? That’s the essence of why we fall back on ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’. It’s easier. It’s the obvious method.

And with LRP? It’s exactly the same. Every tool that you have accessible to you in fiction writing is there in preparing and running an LRP event. You generally fall back on delivering your information and your plot in one of these ways:

  • Having it happen in front of people.
  • Having a character tell people about it.
  • Including props like written documents that show people what’s happened.

A lot of this isn’t showing – it’s telling. One of the things I find myself struggling with the most when writing LRP events is that instinct to tell rather than show. To work out how to change that, let’s think about an example rather than just talking theoretically. Let’s say I want to get my players to learn the following:

Many centuries ago, the land of Exampleford was invaded by owlbears. No one really talks about the owlbear massacre, partly because they don’t remember it and partly because it was too horrific to discuss. In the massacre, Exampleford’s leader was slain, and now that leader has come back as a vampire to haunt the land.

It’s imperative to the story that they learn the vampire’s history so they can defeat her. So important that my instinct is just to set a historian who can tell the party the story of the owlbear massacre – that way I’ll make sure that they definitely find out about it. I won’t have to worry that they’ll miss it.

Now, that would obviously work. But what if I did it a different way? Rather than just having them find about the massacre in a single conversation, I could do this:

  • Place a statue of an owlbear in a location within Exampleford, with a worn away plaque that can’t be read.
  • Set a graveyard full of zombies who have risen from the mass grave created after the massacre.
  • Make an owlbear part of the vampire’s heraldry, and display it on other props or costume related to her.

I still have the option of having someone confirm this verbally if everyone’s missing the clues – but this way people should hopefully find out about it by their own investigation and connection-making rather than by just being told.

Now, this isn’t always possible. Sometimes you do just need to have someone tell them things. But trying to do things in this sort of different way can not only make things feel more real, but also give you even more content for those taking part.

In turning this back on writing, it becomes a lot simpler – but still just as important, and just as effective. It turns a sentence like this:

Bob sighed. He had read about the Owlbear Massacre of 726 – a terrible battle that had left most of the inhabitants of Exampleford dead. Perhaps, he thought to himself, that included Jenny.

Into this:

Bob frowned as he knelt down next to the strange monument. The plaque at its base had long since worn away, leaving only the sculpture itself. It was a rounded figure, with a gruesome beaked face and bulging eyes. He could see scratches along its side that were too neat to be wear and tear; the engraving of wings that were beginning to rise from its back.

That’s a chunky paragraph and I haven’t even gotten onto him putting together the clues about Jenny the vampire.

What was previously a single sentence could now be a whole chapter as Bob finds the monument, fights through the graveyard, and eventually comes to see the banners flying above Jenny’s castle – causing him to make the final link between her and the massacre. Perhaps he then goes into the archives of Exampleford and finds that Jenny was, in fact, the leader of Exampleford three centuries ago.

When we start thinking about our written stories as if they were a roleplaying game, this is the difference it can make. It makes our writing better and it even gives us more plot.

And the best thing is – I don’t think you can only apply this to LRP and fiction writing. I think you can apply it across a whole host of storytelling mediums. Maybe you’re an amateur actor – use that experience to think about the many ways in which you articulate feeling to an audience, and then turn that to your prose.

What other forms of storytelling help inform and improve your writing?

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