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Building Mood Through Preconceptions

This guide is (lengthy) promotion of concise and functional writing.

I find the majority of writers dichotomized into two groups, neither of which produces ideal works, in my subjective opinion. I generally class myself to the second group, but am aiming for the idyllic middle ground. The first group are the minimalists: not only do they not avoid adverbs but they also cut adjectives, simplify actions, reduce nouns, and produce very skeletal projects. The finished works are functional, yes, but very dry. An entire book in this style is horribly boring to read through, and roleplay posts, while shorter, are often too short, lacking, and interesting. To escape this minimalism, many other writers go too far, and fall into the second group: fluffers. Nouns are padded with strings of adjectives, adjectives and verbs are modified by adverbs, active sentences are cushioned by passive ones, and the result is so fat that is has lost all semblance to a dog and looks more like the inside of a pillow. The second group also over-extends metaphors ;]

One problem with finding the middle ground is determining what is “bad” from the second group. The minimalists pretty much set the lower bound, but how fluffy is too fluffy? A generally accepted rule, according to such books as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is functionality. Every action, every adjective, every description, all need to either serve some purpose now, or in the case of roleplaying need to be usable for some purpose later. Of course, noticing that there are mountains behind the lake might have little significance to your character in a roleplay, but another player might make use of them and direct the action right up their slopes. However, taking the time to describe the particular colors of the rising peaks, the contours of the snow coverage, or even the random orientation of caves is a step into the fluff: the other players who plan to make use of those elements can just as easily describe them on their time. In solo works, if those details aren’t on the agenda, don’t toss them in. Another good rule for minimizing local fluff is to reduce the quantity of “ly” adverbs within any piece. any “ly” adverb modified verb can be replaced by a more applicable and descriptive verb. “Gently touching” can be replaced with “caressing”, “lightly laughing” can be replaced with “giggling”, “jumping forcefully” is easily swapped out for “leaping” or even “lunging”, depending on direction.

I have found that the best way to convey information while giving a good image of the scene is by writing out the mood associated with the actions, while allowing for each reader to see the scene with their own details. Any details left out will be filled in by the readers’ imaginations, each one differently, based on their general preconceptions of the detail at hand and the scene surrounding that detail. This allows for the reader to do much of the work describing static elements, giving the author the freedom to describe only the necessary and relevant dynamic ones.

Over the course of some of my attempts at teaching the arts of roleplaying I’ve developed a bare-bones process to take bare-bones actions and get them to a healthier “fleshed out” middle ground. I’ve since modified the process, but it is important to realize that I am working from the bottom up (rather than cutting from the top down). This can be applied to any piece of creative writing, but I will be describing it for a single roleplaying post. Most pieces of writing can be broken up into scenes or even parts of scenes.

  1. Set a goal. Some writers write first, and their goal comes to them, while others brainstorm to get to the goal. The brainstormers will have an easy task: simply come up with the end result for this particular snippet of writing. Stream of consciousness writers, at least those who decide to make use of this process, might need to write a draft (which will then be tossed out, unfortunately), and will use that draft to develop their goal.
  2. Take several steps from start to finish. The previous post or the previous scene set the starting point for this scene, and you have just determined a goal, which is the end to this post or scene. Now write out several actions, in the “bare-bones” manner, which will bring the situation from the starting state to the ending state. Play around with the actions, develop and order, determine the actors (your played character, any non-played characters, or even the environment).
  3. Get some context to smooth those actions out. Your actions are steps, but writing should flow. So, those actions need to get modified and where appropriate, those jumps need to become lunges. To do this, imagine the scene (Durr, right? Bear with me.). Imagine what is happening, and imagine it first from the point of view of the omniscient author. You know all, you see all, you know what is playing out and how. Now imagine it from the point of view of the actors: what do they see and how do they feel about the actions, and how do their perspectives differ from yours? Now imagine yourself an audience member, watching the action unfold. You don’t yet know the goal, so how is the action making you feel at each checkpoint? Imagine yourself another player’s character, seeing it all happen. Most likely, that is who you are writing for.
  4. Smooth and refine the surface. The imagination exercise gave you more than just one perspective on your own scene, and it is up to you to determine whose perspective you adapt it to. If the scene is meant to change the mind of another player’s character, include those details which might, based on that character’s personality, influence him or her. If the scene is meant to instill awe or inspiration, or to simply give some background on your character, describe from the point of view of an audience member (or omniscient author), focusing on those facets that you want associated with your character’s personality.

Example: The dragon rose above the water-line and hovered on an aerial within arrow-shot or the pirate ship, bearing her upon its back. Her wet skin glistened in the sunlight as she knocked an arrow. When the pirates did the same, she could not help but tense up. Still, she furrowed her brow and warned them. “You will lose much more than your cargo if you let your arrows fly our way!”

The goal here is to have an image in your mind: most often a beautiful, bright colored, well defined image. However, every reader’s imagination is different, so it is important to closely define only the most important features. These are the actions and their descriptions, more so than the nouns. You can tell from my example that the character is confident but realistic (and aware of her mortality) as she furrowed her brow but tensed anyway, respectively. The day is sunny due to the glistening of her skin, and the pirates are not standing idly, waiting for her to finish her actions or monologue. However, this scene lacks many fluffy details which every person can come up with themselves. While I envisioned the character as a blond with straight hair, someone else might envision her as a curly redhead: either way she is toned enough to wield a bow. The pirates have a ship, and while I imagined a single mast boat and the pirates in some generic tri-cornered hats, the important point is that they are on an open deck and also have bows. If you imagined The Black Pearl and its crew carrying bows, the important elements of the scene are unchanged.

I attempted to convey many particular elements without writing them out directly and without over-describing them. Say you want to describe a bright and sunny day, because those are great for heroics, but you don’t want to say “bright and sunny day”, because that is telling. Instead, you want to give an image of something that is often associated with a bright and sunny day, like droplets of the babbling brook shimmering under the sun. It is a happy image, set most likely in a forest, and anyone who knows what a babbling brook might be will try and imagine it, applying that setting to whatever else you write immediately afterward. This is showing: you are showing somewhat what a sunny day feels like, and they are imagining the rest of the sunny day. What your character looks like is up to you, but that she has knocked an arrow makes the reader think she is lithe. Replacing “furrowed her brow” with “pursed her lips” might her a more appealing and feminine image, intrinsically conveying a possible ponytail and an I-take-no-attitude expression in her eyes (without saying either of those!). Of course, the particular details someone imagines will be different, but even if her hair isn’t in a ponytail, the expression on her face and the perception of her personality are likely to be the same among most readers.

You want to do this for every scene. Swimming through the water, rising out of the waves, confronting the ship, avoiding the arrows, breaking the mast, etc. However, for repeated actions, like gliding beneath the water, the particular elements of the mood need only be described once: simply mentioning a repeat of the situation will bring the same image back into the readers’ minds.

Returning to the topic of bare bones vs. fluff: just as there are adverbs that produce excess fluff, there are dull nouns and verbs and adjectives which produce no mental image whatsoever, or the wrong mental image. In dialogue, “she said” and “she announced” and “she prepared” are very dull verbs (although, “saying” and “announcing” carry very different tones).

Things like “circular room” or “in the castle” or “examining each man” are very dull adjectives/nouns/verbs. Yes, they convey an action, a location, and they do so adequately. However, they have no color or mood and thus produce no (or the wrong) mental images. Adding something like “Her voice had been sultry, almost arousing, but now they could hear the poison behind it” would most certainly illustrate a Queens change in tone while doling out the “but should you fail me, your death will be slow and painful” portion of her speech. This sets the mood, makes the reader feel like one of the persons being addressed, and gives insight to the Queen’s character and agenda. So even if she speaks with very regal structure and vocabulary, adding color to her tones will make her speech more enticing to read. I know I didn’t give you much on that example, but try to imagine that scene anyway. How much could you fill in? (Let me know if it worked!)

One of the descriptors for this article is the word “functional”, and I should return to it. Every descriptive element should serve some purpose: the sultry almost arousing voice that carried poisonous tones does well to describe the queen’s personality. However, taking a paragraph to describe the Queens bosom and buttock along with her facial expressions along the same lines of sultry and arousing but somehow dangerous would be fluff, because the task at hand had already been accomplished, and more concisely to boot. So, with every detail, ask yourself if the detail accomplishes something new, or can be replaced with something both more condensed and more telling.


4 comments for “Building Mood Through Preconceptions”

  1. Oooh. Yet another good article, Yuriy. I like it.

    I think that it is something I will be trying out soon. So, I will let you know how it goes. I admit I do have occasional problems with ‘fluffing’ as you put it, in that I do it a little too much, perhaps.

    Anyway, another good job. Thank you.

    Posted by Effectual Immortality | December 17, 2008, 6:17 am
  2. [...] posts in their archive include: Building Mood Through Perception, Flexible Collaborative Writing, Turning a Simple Sentence into a Paragraph, and Roleplay Dynamics [...]

    Posted by Gaming Resources : Capturing Fantasy: Where Role Playing and Creative Writing Meet New World of Darkness | July 14, 2009, 5:45 pm
  3. I definitely enjoy this. I believe this is my biggest qualm with most roleplayers, and why I haven’t roleplayed on a messageboard until this year—-their posts are usually far too fluffed with unnecessary everything. It’s a bore to read. Minimalism is the same way. Thank god I found a middle ground years ago.

    Posted by Ava | February 6, 2010, 6:10 am
  4. [...] the perfect posting length. If you’ve had the chance to read my article on Building Mood through Preconceptions you will know my stance on both one-liners and fluff-hills: they make for crappy writing. When I [...]

    Posted by The Role Play Academy | Good GM Practices – in Play-by-Post RolePlays | June 21, 2010, 10:34 am

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