3 Writing Lesson from Martial Arts Training

One of the several activities that has kept me busy over the last few months is the kung fu and tai chi classes I’ve been taking. Martial arts is currently my only form of exercise; I train hard and feel physically healthier than I have been my whole life.

I had many reasons for deciding to study martial arts, but one of the subtler ones was to improve my writing. Fight scenes and training montages are some of my weak points. I’d get to these sections in my stories and simply not have the language to describe the action I saw in my head nor the experience to write how my characters felt during these encounters. Although I’m still a beginning student, here are three writing lessons I’ve taken away from my training so far.

1. A character with little to no athletic background, training, or prowess will likely not have the endurance or technique to last through a long fight.

This one’s pretty obvious, but I really came to appreciate it and experience it for myself during my first couple months of training when merely doing our warm-up exercises left me exhausted and heaving for air. Adrenaline may give your completely untrained character a temporary boost of power, but that doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly know where to aim on their opponent’s body.

I’m in much better shape now than I was when I first started training and even though my endurance has improved, sparring is the one thing that zaps me of all my energy and leaves me just as winded as warm-ups used to. If your character goes on a journey from untrained everywoman to awesome warrior, do understand that they will probably pass out or come close to it if they train super hard and it really would take constant, daily training for them to get in shape and be proficient with their fists or weapons in a plot with a time crunch.

2. A character going from novice to expert fighter in a relatively short amount of time is pretty unrealistic.

Yeah, it’s a common plot device: such and such magic/fighting technique takes years to master, but there are only six months until The Bad Guy Does Things™. So, the unlikely hero spends their free time training between other plot problems as the big confrontation gets closer and by the time the battle comes, they’re a total badass. Sure, it sounds cool, but it’s pretty hard to believe.

The easiest solution, aside from some insane in-world magic that gives your characters quick power-ups, is to have your characters partially or fully trained from the start. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang only has about a year (maybe less) before Sozin’s comet arrives and the Fire Nation completes their conquest. In that time, he has to learn waterbending, earthbending, and firebending, plus master his other Avatar abilities. What makes Aang’s journey believable, and what makes him able to gain enough proficiency with the other three elements to face Fire Lord Ozai is that he’s already a master airbender. That gives him enough basic fitness, agility, and stances to work with as he learns the nuances of each style.

3. Just because a character can spin a staff doesn’t mean they understand how to apply techniques against a live opponent.

At my kung fu school, we learn empty-handed and weapon forms as well as sparring. As a beginning student, there’s a huge disconnect for me between what I learn in form and what I have to do in sparring. Part of that is because forms might exaggerate a few things to look nice, but another part is that it’s not yet second nature to get the practical application of the techniques I practice in form. The practical applications are there; they’re just not as apparent to me as a beginner (and that’s totally okay).

So if a lot of your character’s training involves them practicing forms or techniques solo, consider that a potential hangup for them would be this disconnect between form and practical application.

Studying martial arts is not only fun, but it’s also given me a lot of personal experience with how my characters might feel as they go through training. I can now think about what my body goes through on a typical day of training and recall details that I don’t think I would’ve considered otherwise like how the outside of my hand feels sore after spinning my wooden short staff a bunch of times or the 900 little things I need to pay attention to as I’m doing tai chi.

Just because we’re writers doesn’t mean we have to do everything our characters do or master everything they’re interested in, but I think gaining some personal experience can certainly help us improve.

Fanfiction As a Writing Tool

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Most of you know by now that I’m generally a fan of fandom. I do all sort of analyses and I discussed some of the positive things that fandom (specifically fanart and fanfiction) can provide for people in this panel I was on last year.

Fanfiction and fanart allow for exploration of narratives that the cannon stories might not necessarily cover (for good or for ill). A portion of this involves non-cis, non-het, and non-white narratives.

Fanfiction particularly has been a part of my life ever since I started writing when I was somewhere between 5-7 years old (yes, I’m one of those), only I didn’t know it was called fanfiction. All I knew was that I liked The Magic School Bus and The Land Before Time, so I decided to write a story about both. Actually, they work pretty well in a crossover. Later on, I wrote about ThunderCats and then started dipping into original stories, most of which was “friend fiction” (no, not the kind that Tina Belcher writes). I also made up my own Sailor Moon OC and gave her a background story and everything.

Fanfiction is an excellent example of reader-response criticism–filling in the gaps that the author leaves, but it’s also productive in that the person writing a fanfic is creating something in response to consuming rather than merely consuming. About a decade or so ago, writing fanfiction was sort of a dirty little secret and those who write professionally/for a living rarely mentioned it. Today, many authors still place healthy boundaries between themselves and fanfiction, whether it’s fanfiction of their own work or fanfiction that they write. Others are more open about it and even use their real names (or the same pen name) for both fanfiction and their published work.

There are lots of good reasons for setting boundaries with fanfiction, some of them are legal and some of them are personal. However, I think it’s just a reality that more and more writers of my generation and generations to come will get their start in fanfiction. As time passes, it won’t seem like such a weird thing to do.

So what I want to talk about today is understanding fanfiction as a writing tool that helps us develop and tone our craft. Embracing fanfiction as a means of practice might help change the perception of fanfiction among folks in the more professional spheres of writing.

For the record, I do not in any way advocate selling fanfiction unless the work being fic’d is in the public domain OR all of the proper rights have been acquired (this is why we get novel adaptations and spin-offs of movie franchises after all). Additionally, some authors and other creators have clearly expressed that they don’t want people writing fanfiction of their work. A bummer (and frankly an outdated viewpoint to me), but that should be respected. There are literally thousands of other fictional universes to choose from anyway.

Fanfiction Gives You a Template

When you write fanfics, you’re playing in someone else’s world, a world with previously-established characters and rules. Thing like the magic system, the government, and the environment are already figured out. If you post your fanfic online, most of the people reading it will already know those details, so you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of time explaining them.

For example, if I’m writing a Harry Potter fanfic, I don’t need to include a long paragraph describing what Hogwarts is and how to get there unless it makes sense for the POV I’m using (like if it’s Harry during his first year and he’s still getting used to the magical world). This allows me to focus more on plot and how these established characters react to this new story I’m telling.

Depending on which universe you choose, fanfiction can give you a wide range of character types and personalities to work with, which is excellent practice for any types you have trouble with. If you’re not good at writing original mean characters, writing a fanfic about a mean character that you know can help you get a feel for it. If you’re not good at writing fight scenes with the magic and mechanics of your original world, writing one in a previously-established world can help you with flow and pace.

To be clear, writing fanfiction isn’t laziness. Just because someone writes fanfiction doesn’t mean they’re not creative enough to write original stories or that they should just take their fanfiction and make it original instead because that’s more worthwhile. Though some authors have found some success with scrubbing the bar codes and publishing an original book, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about using fanfiction as an exercise in the same way that you might respond to a writing prompt or spend five minutes describing a setting or any other craft exercises you might do.

I started doing Screenshot Sundays on my Tumblr. It’s a simple exercise where you take a screenshot of any movie, TV show, anime, cartoon, or game and write what’s happening in that exact moment. This can include describing the setting and/or getting inside a character’s head.

You can make them short like mine or extend them into longer pieces if you want. The point is to just practice writing and that practice can be more fun with fictional characters that you already like.

If we’re going to spend time consuming stories, we can make it worthwhile by doing something creative in response. It’s a more active way of tying our leisure hobbies with developing our craft.

NaNoWriMo 2015 Wrap-Up

Well, NaNoWriMo came and went quickly, but I’m proud to say that this was my first win since I started working a full-time job. I feel like I gained several hundred experience points that specifically upped my discipline stats, and the coolest part is that I actually took it relatively easy this month.

I broke several personal records this year, had one 10k weekend, and was on track to actually break 50k on 11/15, but work got a bit overwhelming and then the beginnings of a family emergency zapped my mental energies later on. Said emergency required me to stop writing and validate on 11/26. But I’m not complaining in the least. I have 51,902 “official” words of a story that I’m actually going to keep drafting until it’s finished.

One of the best parts about NaNoWrimo is passing word count milestones, some of which are hilarious.

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The impeccable Yang Xiao Long played an important role in my word counts.
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There might be 24,601 hairs in Jean Valjean’s beard.

This month, I further embraced the art of the skipped scene, complete with bracketed notes of what needs to be done in the revision stage, and the art of using an actual timer during sprints.

Still, I’ll be slowing down as I get back to prepping more posts for this blog.

Later!

Is Head Hopping Necessary?

         Much of the writing advice I’ve seen over the past few years has heavily discouraged the practice of head hopping–or jumping around between POV characters. There are many valid reasons why. For example, most information revealed via head hopping can be done via the main POV. The writer just has to figure out a way for said POV to plausibly encounter that information. Head hopping is also, so they say, a mark of an amateur writer because it can easily become a crutch to avoid addressing larger structural problems. If a writer uses head hopping, they should do so in a clear pattern such as switching POVs every chapter or using some kind of star or dash symbol to clarify to the reader that the POV is switching. Finally, first-time authors should not expect that they can get away with head hopping (if they are traditionally published) because they have not yet shown that they understand the rules well enough to break them. Established authors are given more leniency since the publisher is already confident that they can get their money’s worth.

That’s the gist of the advice about and arguments against head hopping. I agree with most of it, actually, and often stick to one POV in my own work; however, I don’t think head hopping is something we should avoid for all eternity. After all, A Song of Ice and Fire and many other novels and series switch POVs all the time.

Like first-person present tense, head hopping is a stylistic choice that, in my opinion, only works for very particular types of stories, yet so many writers want to use it in their own. This makes total sense because film and television use head hopping all the time, and many writers (myself included), take inspiration from these visual mediums. Head hopping is actually a very basic, conventional structure for TV shows. Each episode of something has an A story, a B story, and perhaps a C story. Obviously, not all TV shows do this, but in that world, it’s certainly a fundamental way to structure stories.

But the written word is a different medium. While I can easily follow along a TV show or play that follows around different characters, I get confused if I’m well into a book and the POV switches in the middle of a paragraph. I experienced this recently when I was reading the Seventh Tower series by Garth Nix. Don’t get me wrong–I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read of it so far, but there are some random POV switches in the middle of some chapters that I don’t think are necessary. In books two and three, he makes those switches clearer, but I still feel that what he reveals by venturing outside of Tal or Milla’s heads could have easily been done within the POV structure he had already established. Now, to be fair, he’s also writing for children and I can see how some children would read a chapter from the Codex’s point of view and then feel more engaged/excited later on knowing something that Tal doesn’t yet know and waiting for him to figure it out. I can see that Nix was maybe going for some dramatic irony there, although I still think Tal figuring out that the Codex is trying to talk to him would’ve been more exciting if we didn’t already know that the Codex could even do that. So, there are many instances of head hopping in Seventh Tower that I’m not sure are necessary.

A Song of Ice and Fire is different, in my opinion. While I’ve only read A Game of Thrones so far, it’s clear that each character’s own ambitions drive the story. Martin’s head hopping between different members of the Stark family reinforces the theme of familial loyalty. They also have their own separate storylines. In this case, the book’s structure has clear connections with a larger, conceptual point that the story is trying to make. Martin gives us a few non-Stark POVs, which one could easily say is setting a precedent not only for head hopping, but also house hopping. From what I gather, Martin chooses a different set of POV characters in each book and it seems to be largely designated by house. That’s understandably jarring and can certainly make the books difficult to follow, thus implying that maybe Martin’s head hopping isn’t necessary either. Even so, I think Martin’s use of head hopping is at least more clearly aligned with the themes he’s writing about and makes sense with the kind of story he’s trying to tell. In other books, this type of POV switching doesn’t seem to add anything or contribute to the theme. At the very least, Martin follows a consistent pattern in his head hopping. He changes POVs every chapter and never sooner. Furthermore, the POVs don’t repeat the same events or information, nor do they reveal major plot points in a way that erases tension.

So, I don’t think the question is “Should I use head hopping?” I think it’s better to consider if that type of structure is what the story needs or if that structure is somehow connected to the themes or characters in the story.

Lessons from The Hunger Games: The Limits of First-Person Present Tense

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By now, everyone has talked The Hunger Games to death. Though it largely deserves the hype, it seems that the conversation stops at praising what it does well. Certainly, The Hunger Games is a compelling book series that isn’t shy about its critique of contemporary society, but it falters enough to provide some valuable lessons to writers about what does and doesn’t work. One of those lessons is the limits of the first-person present perspective.

This is probably the most difficult POV to nail. In fact, I rarely see it and the only time I’ve seen it done extremely well was in Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson. First-person present is ideal for short, intense stories that retain tension from start to finish. It works for characters who experience everything in their heads and feel everything deeply.

In the first book of The Hunger Games series, Katniss Everdeen is this type of character and the plot of the novel is that kind of story. First-person present works brilliantly in the first installment because almost the entire book was The Hunger Games itself. That sort of situation lends itself perfectly to first-person present. The games are a fresh, horrifying experience for Katniss and she has to keep quiet most of the time anyway just to stay alive.

However, in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the use of first-person present is more awkward. Catching Fire is especially slow since it’s using a POV meant for intensity while most of the book is just Katniss waiting for the Quarter Quell. The problem is that without any intense, immediate action, the effects of first-person present fall flat.

First-person present seems edgy/cool/interesting, so I see a lot of people using it, but I feel that many of these attempts don’t harness the full potential of that POV because many writers treat it like the traditional third-person past tense. First-person present is especially good at capturing immediacy and intense reactions that come without a lot of prior thought. Using it for anything slower often comes across to me as surface-level attempt to craft something original.

In my experience, the type of story you have and your characters dictate the POV. My epic novel series began in first-person past, but is now so much better in third-person because I realized my protagonist didn’t make for a good first-person POV. My novella, on the other hand, is first-person present because the entire story centers on some jarring events and my main character is someone who has trouble getting out of her own thoughts and memories. With both of these stories, I ultimately let the characters and plot suggest the perfect POV instead of trying one for the sake of an experiment.

I think it’s more difficult for first-person present to excel in longer series like The Hunger Games because long stories will always have their slower moments. So, what I’m advocating is not for writers to avoid POVs like first-person present, but for writers to fully understand how those POVs can work well so they can make the most of perspective.

Writing God in Genre Fiction

If I had a fancy suit for every time I’ve heard about the struggle of writing God in fantasy and science fiction stories, I would have a walk-in closet full of fancy suits. I’ve read many a blog post and forum thread hashing out this subject because some young writer is desperate to figure it out. They want to write fantasy, but subscribe to a strict version of Christianity that gives them anxiety about including magic. I would know because I was one of them. I once believed that any story I wrote had to be overtly Christian in order for it to be “acceptable,” so sometimes I tried to “redeem” my stories by squeezing God in somewhere. I thought that Christian stories, especially if they were fantasy, had to be some sort of allegory to the gospel, which is actually a very limited way to bring Christianity into fiction. To me, “Godly fantasy” required a Christian protagonist, or whatever name I gave Christians in my fantasy world. This meant that my protagonists had to adhere to a certain moral code because they were supposed to be good examples. Sometimes, I became so concerned that my story ideas weren’t Christian enough that I prayed really hard for God to tell me that a certain ideas was okay to use.

Thankfully, college helped me relax and my classes gave me something I had never had before: an academic approach to Christianity. Between my required bible and theology classes and my school’s overall focus on social justice, I began to understand that being a “Christian writer” doesn’t mean writing copy-pasta salvation fantasy narratives or creating protagonists that are supposed to be good examples of Christians.

There’s no correct way of writing God in genre fiction because a lot of that depends on your own faith and I’m not here to dictate any rules about that. What I would like to share, though, are some ways that Christians writing genre fiction can understand how to write a deeper Christianity into their narratives.

 

Embrace tradition

Like it or not, we Christians have 2,000 years of theology, hymns, iconography, and sacraments that, when understood well, can really add depth to a fantasy setting. We also have a history stained with colonialism, oppression, division and outcasting. As Christians, we’re already interested in learning about God, so it should be a natural instinct to do some level of research on our own tradition. After all, we do research for every other aspect of storytelling, right?

I’ve seen one too many mediocre stories that arbitrarily slap a very basic understanding of God and/or salvation onto them to fit the bill as “Christian.” Instead of being sewn into the seams, it’s super glued as a patch to make an otherwise “bad” story about magic be okay. The sense is that as long is something is overtly about Christianity, it’s acceptable and God is pleased. Honestly, this leaves out a lot.

I think a lot of Christians have an aversion to studying any part of their faith academically. When I’ve brought this up to more conservative folks, the response I usually get is “well, there’s such a thing as studying God too much, you know? Like you start to lose faith that way.” I guess the idea is that only studying the Bible is sufficient.

To me, a faith that’s threatened by gaining more knowledge of said faith isn’t really a faith, but a fear. I think many people intrinsically know that doing any amount of research can challenge everything they’ve come to believe is true about the world. This also goes for Christians that are hesitant about studying Christianity.

I mean, if you’re going to create some form of Christianity for your fantasy world, you, the author, need to understand how your fictional people understand their God. Do they believe in the trinity? Then you the author would do well in studying how the doctrine of the trinity came to be and what it actually says. How and when do your fictional people get baptized? You the author would only give yourself more creative options by researching how different denominations understand baptism. On that note, it wouldn’t hurt to look into what caused the divisions between different denominations in the first place (besides just Catholic and Protestant).

There’s a lot to learn, and I’ve found that learning about Christianity in an academic sense has only helped me weave it into my stories. They won’t ever be shelved in the Christian fiction section of the bookstore, but they will have benefitted from drawing from a rich tradition.

 

Drop the notion of a “Christian” protagonist

Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean your main character has to be. If that’s a natural part of how they come to life in your head, then that’s fine, but if you feel obligated to make your protagonist a Christian, you’ll end up with a flat character. I tried pulling this off a lot when I was younger, and I always ended up not writing certain things because I thought “well, a Christian isn’t supposed to say that or do that and my character has to be a good example.” So, I always ended up with these morally “perfect” characters that didn’t struggle with much.

I’ve found that determining what my main characters think of God early in the game has often prevented me from fleshing them out the way they should be. My main character in one of my WIPs is expressly non-Christian. Her life circumstances up to the point where the story begins pretty much don’t allow her to be one. However, she goes to a Christian college (in some vain hope of trying to understand something about her older sister) and will definitely grapple with some deep questions about what exactly she believes as the story progresses. This doesn’t mean that she’ll have some youth group-esque altar call salvation type of character arc—in fact, I find that to be a cliché and sort of a cheap way to tie up all the loose ends of your character. Also, the struggle of figuring out faith isn’t even the main plot of the story.

In another, smaller WIP, it’s not clear what my main character thinks of God, but she has a very road-to-Damascus-type encounter that she can never fully comprehend and it will never be fully explained. The story actually ends with this sense that even having more knowledge about these things doesn’t answer any questions, and it doesn’t change anything about her world at large. This story turned out the way it did because I just let it develop naturally and the connections to faith happened on their own.

If you force your character into Christianity because you feel obligated to do so, you may ultimately end up compromising a deep message in your story. You may also end up creating something that only presents Christianity as simplistic.

 

Avoid the “edgy atheist gets saved” character arc

I’ve seen a handful of Christian attempts at writing atheist protagonists who will eventually come around and become passionate Christians (e.g. that manga Serenity). These people are typically “edgy” with dyed hair and/or leather jackets, and they don’t have very compelling reasons for not believing in God, which then makes it easier for other characters/the author to convert them. They’re depicted as angry people, and their anger supposedly comes from the fact that they’re atheists and don’t have the peace of Christ within them. These stories are resolved when these characters finally come to believe and reject their old ways.

To me, this is neither good writing nor believable. I guess the idea is that a “Christian” story must always involve someone getting saved and what better narrative tension than a straw atheist who is easily converted? It’s a cheap ploy that usually doesn’t do the intended work of getting actual atheists to read the story.

 

 

Sometimes, Christians come at this whole fiction writing business with the primary purpose of evangelizing as opposed to telling a good story. I think that need to evangelize can stem from a place of anxiety. “If I don’t write a story that’s about salvation and is overtly Christian, then I’m failing God.” That’s not a healthy place to be. It’s never a good idea to compromise good storytelling for the sake of declaring your message, whatever that may be. If you truly believe in it, your message/worldview will weave its way into your story without any predetermined thinking on your part.

Don’t Travel Through Pants: How Dungeons and Dragons Helps Writers Solve World Problems

In the six months since I’ve started playing Dungeons and Dragons, I have learned to my delight how almost every aspect of the game fits perfectly into every weak point I have as a writer. As much as I can recommend playing the game for its own merits, I am continuously surprised by how each session can be a valuable writing lesson.

Of course, the nature of every campaign depends on the people playing. My campaign happens to have three writers (one of which knows almost nothing about fantasy), two psychologists, and one soldier who based his character on Solomon Grundy. Our current Dungeon Master is one of the psychologists who is adept at world building and figuring out all the rules and reasons for Things™. It’s a nice mix of people and it’s also an even split between men and women. When we first started, two of us were brand new to the game and one was still learning the changes of the newest edition. So we even have a mix of experience levels with the game.

All of these factors have really helped make D&D a learning tool for my craft. In fact, I’m surprised that it’s not touted as a writing exercise within the writing blogosphere. There are several aspects of the game that all writers can learn from, especially those writing fantasy.

Slow it down like ten notches.

D&D is a slow game. It requires you to react, in character, to other players’ thoughts and decisions in a way that not even video games can replicate. You can’t convince a character in a video game to change their mind about something, but in D&D, you essentially have the ability to pause the action and propose anything. You could theoretically make a long speech or argue with a non-player character until they finally relent. In a video game, you’re usually stuck with whatever your character is programmed to say or you’re made to choose from a few options.

This isn’t to say that video games aren’t awesome or full of realistic storytelling, but they are still pretty different from the face-to-face interaction that D&D provides. Many times, you’re basically selling an idea you have to another person. Players act and react as their characters, creating situations and conversations that aren’t always convenient for the plot or move things along. Characters in a novel are the same way. They don’t always agree on everything and two characters that know a lot about a particular situation might have completely different ideas, leading to conversations that can last for the majority of a chapter whether you narrate it or show it all in dialogue. D&D’s slow role-play can give writers a sense of how people really think and act because real people are playing the characters.

Ironically, encounters are even slower than the role-playing parts. We generally think of battles as these exciting, fast-paced scenes that last maybe a couple minutes on the screen. By contrast, a single D&D encounter can last for hours. While the extremely slow pace is due to the game’s rules and the huge focus on strategy, what it can really show us is how to take our time writing battles.

Sometimes in D&D, you have a really awesome attack plan. One of your character’s powers could set off another power that deals additional damage or helps an ally. One time, my party was facing a huge queen ant and her swarms of children in an abandoned tower. My character has psychic abilities, so what I planned on doing was binding her mind and continuously throwing her at the other ants for the rest of the battle. However, I missed and all I could do was shift her around a little. Disappointing.

But this is where storytelling tension comes from. It happens when your characters have plans to use their really awesome powers and then fail, giving the enemies an edge. Your characters need to miss. Horribly. The battles in your novel need to make readers question if your characters will be okay, just as battles in D&D make players wonder if they’ll be okay.

I used to write battles that would maybe last one chapter and then be over, mostly because I had no clue how to stretch them out. My only sources for battle scenes were from anime and movies, so the battles I studied were either wrapped up in 10 minutes or they stretched on for several episodes without having any real substance. So, I always opted for the shorter option since I hate filler content.

Now, however, I’m on my third full chapter about the same battle and none of it feels stale. D&D encounters have shown me that enemies can retreat without it seeming like a narrative cop-out and that sudden environmental changes can affect the tides of the battle. One character can take several huge blows all at once, which may change how another character uses their turn. All of these are factors that elongate the narrative of the battle and make it feel more realistic.

The main lesson here is slow down. Nine times out of ten, adding more details or events in a fantasy novel isn’t infodumping, but rather giving readers enough context for them to understand the world, the mechanics of your magic system, and who your characters are.

Paint the picture; or paint by numbers. Whatever floats your magically enhanced boat.

I’m a writer who tends to skirt the details, especially on first drafts. I try to avoid filler almost to a fault because I don’t want to write that book where nothing happens after 50 fifty pages. My settings suffer the most because sometimes, I have nothing more to say than “they were in the forest.”

But in D&D, the description of the setting is so integral to the experience that players often need details to help them figure out what they want to do. Players don’t have the description written out in front of them like in a book. They only have the DM’s oral description and their own imaginations to help them imagine the scene. The DM has to make sure that the players understand what the DM envisions, which results in descriptive, oral details.

Sometimes, I zone out a little when I’m reading and just don’t picture the words on the page, but when I’m in a D&D session listening to the description of a new place, I’m basically forced to pay attention to every word and constantly imagine the scene. My brain is more actively participating in the fictional dream because I don’t have the luxury to just reread a paragraph or sentence. This translates into my writing as specific details on the page.

Not only can the DM’s description of the scene help players imagine the world, but so do the players’ questions about what they might see around them or what their character might know about the vegetation in the area, the creatures that live there, or the area’s history. These different questions can give writers several angles to describe the settings in our own books. They are questions that your characters may have and questions that your readers would be interested in knowing the answers to.

You don’t need to describe the history of every stone, but if you imagine that someone else will be playing as a character in your world, anticipate the kinds of questions they would have no matter how ridiculous they seem.

DMs are masters of world building and they will find the loopholes in your world

I recently ended up at my DM’s house after not getting the memo about a cancelled session, so we hung out in his living room and got to talking about how I felt about the campaign. He’s new to DMing, so he always asks us for feedback after each session. I told him how the basic premise of our campaign is actually similar to what my book is about: characters traveling between different worlds. I was explaining to him one of the fundamental rules of my created universe: those few who can travel between dimensions can only do so through blue fabric (or the stuff that holds each world together).

“So, what’s stopping someone from just popping out of someone’s blue jeans?” he asked at last.

I laughed and whole-heartedly admitted that I hadn’t figured that out yet. That is, I hadn’t figured out how to limit this rule in a way that would make sense. Without some sort of limitation, people could travel to another world through anything blue no matter what it was. But I didn’t want that.

So then my DM shared his ideas. As someone who’s now built several worlds for our campaign, he’s used to running through the logical processes of making all of his ideas make sense to us. Therefore, he not only found a weak spot in my rules, but he also thought of several ways to make it all work. When I got home, I suddenly had a bunch of revelations that made the concept way cooler than I thought it would be.

For the fast-paced writer like me, talking to world builders like my DM reminds me just how much I have left to figure out. D&D itself reminds me to slow down, let characters delay the action, and fill in the details.

Dungeons and Dragons combines many elements of storytelling into one medium. Many times, it’s like sitting in a circle and just telling a group story. Sometimes, you’re convincing someone that an idea of yours works and other times you’re explaining an important place to your character to all the other players. The game follows the natural rhythm that the players set it to and copying that rhythm can show fast-paced writers how to let their stories breathe.