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Literary Devices Part 1 – Four ideas on How to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner and I bet you’ve got loads of ideas ready to go – you just need to start writing. But have you considered the literary devices you could use to add style and flare to your work?

Don’t worry if you haven’t, we’ve picked a few out for this week and we’re going to share them with you in a really easy way to understand. We’ll pick a few more as the days go by, so check back to learn more as you go.

It’s a great little break to read – and totally guilt free, since we’re all learning!

Let’s begin!

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Anthropomorphism (and personification)

This one is an odd concept, but straight forward. Anthropomorphism is when you give human qualities or traits to non-human creatures, objects or events.

Anthro comes from the study of humans and morphism means to change or develop.

Anthropomorphism is very similar to personification, which gives human characteristics to objects or creatures – except that anthropomorphism is used to make those things appear or seem to be human.

Here are some reading examples to help you identify anthropomorphism:

Animal Farm (Orwell) uses animals for political satire and statements in a way that seems friendly and safe. It conveys his messages without being threatening to the reader, in the way that a news article or science journal might.

This form of literary device gets a lot of use in children’s books, cartoons and animations. My favorite example of this is Redwall (Jacques) which uses animals as humans to create a story which is endearing to adults and children, and plays out the story in a safe medium for children to digest.

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Bildungsroman

Weird name, right? Bildung is old German for learning or experience, and roman means novel. Hope that clears it up! This form of literary device is more a style of writing. Usually the content of this form of writing is focused on a young protagonist growing or developing to adulthood, in which experiences may alter the outlook of the protagonist either morally, intellectually or physically. It does not have to be focused on the young however, and pretty much sums up every protagonist story ever written.

I’ve got two examples for you; A Christmas Carol (Dickens), where Scrooge goes from being a terrible old miser to realising that he can provide a positive impact on people’s lives – if he could just give up his old ways.

If you have time to watch it, the TV series A Game of Thrones is filled with bildungsroman themes; Jaime Lannister being a popular one; the guy is pretty much a rich, stuck up, entitled prick who is happy to kick a boy out a window, until he loses his hand – not great for the perfect swordsman! As time goes by, Jamie realises that his worth in the world is limited and goes through some drastic moral changes.

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No pain, no gain, huh, Ted?

Consonance

Another one people get confused with, mainly due to similar literary devices being very close in nature. Consonance uses the same consonant repeatedly, usually at the end of a word, in a series of words, for example; my luck sucks or no pain no gain. Consonance must not be confused with alliteration, which uses vowels in the same way, usually for the first letter of words. Consonance is also different in that it uses the sound of a letter rather than the actually letter, such as; no knocking now.

Why do we use consonance? It’s used a lot in poetry to create a hypnotic beat to the rhythm of a piece, apparently our brains enjoy this sort of thing!

Double Entendre

This is usually a figure of speech or phrase with a double meaning. The first meaning may be obvious whereas the second meaning is likely to be risque, overtly informal or generally inappropriate. They’re great devices for discrete insults or witty remarks or as humour in a manner much like innuendo.

A reading example follows my favourite story as a child; In The Odyssey (Homer) Odysseus, when capture by the cyclops, calls himself Nobody. When the cyclops is blinded by Odysseus and he escapes with his soldiers, the cyclops shouts out for help ‘Nobody has blinded me, Nobody is going to kill me!’ Of course, no allies for the cyclops came to help, since no one was there to hurt him!

That about sums up our writing advice for today, check back soon for more insights into creative writing techniques, or sign up to our newsletter for updates as we publish more articles. We hope we’ve been some help!

Good luck with NaNoWriMo!

J.D Ferris, CC

Literary Devices Part 2 – Four more ideas on how to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

Literary Devices Part 3 – How to avoid Exposition Pitfalls in your fiction, prose and poems

Literary Devices Part 4 – Dialogue techniques and capturing fictional realism

Literary devices part 5 – The Mood; setting, diction and bounce

Compelling Kennings – The must use old tongue for Fiction, Role-Play Games and Insults!

Have you used any of these recently?

Fender-bender, book-worm, rug-rat, pencil-pusher…

You’re using kennings, albeit modern ones.

To some readers a kenning will be a familiar concept. Here in the UK we use them daily, although most of us won’t realise that we’re using them. They have a definite taste of the old world and find their use mostly in poetry for effect, or the sort of language your grandma might use.

What is a kenning?

Wiki defines them as:

“… compound expression in Old English and Old Norse poetry with a metaphorical meaning.”

Not too helpful, thanks Wiki! A better definition by Dictionary.com:

“A conventional phrase used for or in addition to the usual name of a person or thing, especially in Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon verse, as ‘a wave traveller’ for ‘a boat.’”

So, we’re using two or more words to describe something, usually a noun. It seems an odd thing to do, but when you think about it, before radio and visual recordings we only had books (which most people couldn’t read) or we had spoken stories. Kennings, as far as I can tell, are stylistic choices much like a film director uses special effects to grab our attention. Kennings make you think pretty.

If you’ve ever used the phrase ‘as the crow flies’ you are describing a distance measured only in a straight line – it could be a mile directly, or it could be several miles if you follow roads and pathways. See? It sounds better, no? Apparently, we use kennings daily.

The term Ken is still used in certain parts of the British Isles, mainly in the northern regions, such as Scotland where its term is used to describe an understanding or mental perception. It’s use in English is less common, but in archaic dialects it means to acknowledge or confess.

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The best source of kennings?

Beowulf is a prime example of a collection of expressive kennings. It can be quite hard to follow without context, meaning kennings need to be backed up with a story. Here we have feed the eagle, which in old Norse terms equates to kill you enemies – the understanding would be that birds of prey are not shy of feeding on carrion, those fallen in battle. The whale road simply meaning the sea is a nice mental picture that pops into our mind even though we know what the sea looks like. To the ancient Norse or Saxons, the relevance was much stronger on account of their reliance on sea travel and whaling.

What can we use them for?

I’m suggesting you have a look at kennings when you write. If you’re writing something unusual, or in a fantasy genre, kennings can add a bit of vocal flavour, form part of a riddle or puzzle. The same can apply to role-playing games.

Kennings arise from the poetry of the old world, dialects and stories from skalds (Norse story tellers) and become commonplace between people who are isolated from the rest of the world (a bit like Iceland or Greenland). It adds a lot of immersion if people in your setting or game session refer to simple things with their own words. This works for titles, places of taboo, legendary figures or important tools to a culture.

It also means you don’t have to create languages up!

Things I will be using Kennings for in the future:

  • Names of magical items
  • Titles and names of great beasts or creatures, like Dragons!
  • Fancy slurs for rough and ready fictional characters
  • ‘Old-tongue’ for archaic dialects (see what I did there?)

Here’s a few more examples of modern terms we use today, which you may not understand if you’re in a different dialect bubble to mine – you can see how kennings influence our daily lives still:

  • Hot-potato – when there’s something no one wants to go near or touch!
  • First-Lady – the president of the US’s wife or the president of the US if she was a lady?
  • Tramp-stamp – tattoo, usually on the lower back of a woman.
  • Granny-chaser – I won’t explain this one.

So, as you can tell, they are not always glorious or quaint metaphors, some being quite distasteful! But the use of kennings has not gone away in thousands of years. What started as an oral story telling tradition has thankfully found its way onto paper and into books and is now digital too. Kennings have survived where cultures and societies didn’t.

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Iceland – no wonder they needed creative kenning

It seems the Kennings are still a huge part of our language and will probably remain to be so until we stop language altogether.

Have a go yourself, see what you can come up with!

J.D Ferris, CC

The Awkward, the Bad and the Great – Dealing with the Players

It is often all down to the DM to run the game and make it a good one. There’s always the expectation that this game is going to be as good as the last one or better. It’s capitalism of the RPG world – they want more and more each session. But the game isn’t purely the responsibility of the DM; players are there too and the expectations of all involved should be considered.

The expectations of the players are more varied than we might think; some are there for the story, others for the thrill of the dice and fewer, thankfully, are there to roll dice and crunch the numbers like Scrooge on Tax Day. Unfortunately for you, as the DM, you have to balance all of these aspects, but you shouldn’t pander to them all – it’s your game too.

I’m going to assume that you play with people you know, that they are reasonable people. I expect there are unreasonable players out there – the internet is full of those stories, so I’ll touch on those style of players too.

This article is about the bad players, the awkward players, but also the good players – and we’ll cover how to deal with the bad ones, and encourage the good ones. But first, let’s talk about the ones that aren’t bad players, they’re just… awkward.

This is all my opinion, and you’re welcome to discuss them, share some stories of your own – we can only learn more.

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The Awkward Ones

The awkward ones, like the Deep Ones, are often hidden at first. We may think that their first character is just a bit of a buffoon and that soon they’ll get into the story. Sadly however this will not always be the case; sometimes we see an Awkward One develop and we need to make sure they don’t derail the story accidentally, or otherwise.

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Comedic or one-dimensional characters may seem like a little light relief the first time have a tendency to become habit for some players. The first time it’s all fun and there’s no problems, but often these players will see it as scoring social points for themselves; it will feel good for them and so the habitual pathology sets in, the player now thinking that funny = best game ever! Eventually this will ruin the flavour and immersion of the game.

How do you deal with this sort of situation? In my experience the best solution is tact. Quite often a player like this needs attention, which in itself is not a bad things; we all need attention sometimes, but for the comedic player, it feels new and good and they probably don’t realise.

Give them a bit of space to enjoy being comedic, but encourage wit and humour rather than outlandish and excessive. A quiet chat after the first session to explain to them that actually, yes it can be amusing, but the harmony of the game is broken by the ever increasing hair brained ideas. People will laugh, then chuckle, then get tired real quick of it. There’s no need to kick them out of the group, if they’re willing to keep their exaggerated theatrics in check. Promise to reassess the situation if they seem amenable to the idea.

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The DM who Hijacked your game thinks they know better or perhaps don’t realise they are not the focus of attention anymore. This is normally purely accidental; as DMs we can grow accustomed to the idea of being the focus of attention, since we run the game and very little interaction or action occurs without our help. This one is fairly simple, you call the shots for this game, don’t be bullied into changing your mind, unless of course the idea they put forward is sound.

Chatter boxes, or social annoyances, who talk about non game stuff and don’t know when to stop, potentially ruining the immersion and tension in the game. I tend to get this out of the system of players before the game starts by having a catch up chat, getting all the news out in the open and discussed before sitting everyone down. I also ask that all media that isn’t relevant to the game is taken away or turned off, or at least not in sight.

If it’s persistent, you can ask that player, politely and aside from the others at a later time, if they want to be there to play the game or just because their friends are there. It’s cool to hang out, but don’t detract from the fun of the game that we enjoy.

Showboaters just love the attention and want to get in on the action whenever they can. This isn’t bad for a game that needs a bit of life injected into it (especially if it has been a hard day at the office). What isn’t cool is overriding other players or butting in on their turns to act.

This is a hard juggle, but as DM you are justified to point out whose turn it is, and that if a player needs the showboaters help or advice, they can ask for it. Remember, we don’t want to cut off their enthusiasm, we just want to let them know that other players are entitled to the limelight too.

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The Bad Ones

Before I get into the stereotypes of bad players, I’m going to talk about the nature of the conversation around your gaming table (or wherever). It is best to openly discuss with your players before you start playing what sort of behaviour you all find acceptable during the game and on the sidelines; I’m talking about racism and sexism, amongst others.

It is perfectly acceptable to have these as elements in the game, it is after all usually set in a backward or less liberal society than our own. For this reason, you should let people have a say in what they find comfortable. If it’s a no from them, it should be a no from you, and vice-versa. D&D is an inclusive and cooperative game, and relaxed participants make far better adventuring buddies!

If it does crop up during play, as the DM you should be able to tone it down and talk to the offenders after the game session to suggest they tighten up – it’s ok to hate another race of people in character, but it shouldn’t spill into the real world, the same applies for sexism. If it happens that either of these topics comes out into play and is directed player to player, rather than character to character, you must stop it right away. Call it out, quash it dead. You are the DM, and you run this game.

So, the Stereotypes…

Player stereotypes have come to be identified from the internet – the internet has given us names for the power gamers, the min/max’er, rules lawyer, and the metagamers. Before the internet (I know, was there ever such a time?) we just thought they were annoying players who happened to enjoy the same hobby, so we were delighted at having the new player along for the ride. How wrong we were!

I’ve run a good number of gaming groups beyond my primary group over the years, this is how I dealt with the unhelpful ones.

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Not to be confused with the player who creates an efficient or optimised character, the power-gamer and the Min/Max player are those who either have to have it all at the cost of nothing, or throw everything out of the window to maximise a single attribute, ability or power – and use it at every possible moment. Normally a maturity issue, or the feeling of helplessness in their real lives leads them to want to show the world that they can do the thing, and force it on every situation.

Dealing with these players can be tackled in two ways in my experience: critically evaluate any character sheet prior to your game, with time to allow for changes, or subject your players to constrained resources, for example, only character material from the core Player’s Handbook may be used. As much as I love unearthed arcana and supplemental material, they tend to promote niche ideas into the game which can feel over balanced. These players will then latch onto these cool ideas, and completely overplay them.

Rules Lawyers: Players who spend most of their game in the source material, or spend all their free time reading the books and remembering every single bit of detail are fine, even helpful, like little biological libraries you can call on just by asking. However, it is the ones who keeping calling you out as the DM for your mistakes or lax enforcement of the rules who are the problem. Nothing ruins a cool cinematic moment when the party are about to hit the jackpoint with an amazing idea when the Rules Lawyer calls a stop to the game with the immortal opening line “I think you’ll find…”

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There are very simple ways to explain this or overcome the problem.

First, all the source books ever made for games like Dungeons & Dragons, every single one, are purely guidelines given the misnomer of rules. You, as the DM, are capable of overriding some of those rules now and again if you think it works or if you think for this occasion they can be fudged – heck, most of being a DM is fudging the rules to get the most out of player interactions.

Secondly, if you’re more diplomatic and want to avoid arguments in game, call upon your powers as a DM to completely override their opinion, but only with the promise to review the rules stated after the session and come to a compromise. Or, for this session only you can maintain your DM ruling, and endeavour to assess the rule for next time. Rules lawyers can be compromised with – if they don’t want that, then they are free to evaluate their expectations of your game. You’ll welcome them back with open arms if they wish to return.

Metagamers are those players who use information or knowledge beyond the scope of their character. Weirdly, if you’ve been playing D&D for decades, it is almost impossible to not metagame on some level. There are always repeat or extreme offenders though. It may seem like they’re just being lucky in their assumptions about that monster at first, but eventually you’ll realise that the metagamer is using his or her outside knowledge to influence their actions and maybe even the actions of others.

I deal with this foible in a few different ways: I can ‘reskin’ my monsters in their appearance or stats to keep the metagamer on their toes by describing monsters differently or altering their behaviour style and resistance qualities and combat abilities (which can get exhausting without proper planning). But what if the player is metagaming the plot or story?

Plot metagamers use their vast knowledge of fantasy and sci-fi to guess where your adventure story is going by relying on troupes, or popular fiction to base their predictions on. When this happens, it can be frustrating; the story is often the most creative part of the DM process. How did I deal with this? Well if you can’t avoid current popular stories from movies and fiction, I suggest you plan your adventures with an open ending – whatever the plan was, whoever is the bad guy, make them the second to last badguy, and put someone else who they’ve met previously as the badder bad guy.

Or tell them to get out. 😉

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Good Players and Encouraging New Players

This is the nice, positive part to being the DM.

I’ll make this brief, but you get the idea:

Good players…

  • Role-play and encourage role-play from new and old players.
  • They go with the flow regarding your narrative choices and instead of sulking justify the response of their character to keep things going without selling out on their character.
  • They don’t argue with your choices but if they get really narked, they’ll talk to you about it after the session, like a grown-up.
  • They ask pertinent questions, sometimes thinking aloud and usually on their own turn.
  • They play balanced characters, even after 20 years of gaming and realise there’s more to the game than crunching the numbers.
  • Characters they create have flaws, and if they didnt at creation time, they relish the flaws that develop organically from the game – they don’t whine and resist when things go bad – its part of the game.
  • They don’t expect special treatment, but they enjoy their share of the stage lights.

Thoughts and opinions? I’m all ears!

J.D Ferris, CC

 

The Name’s Fiction, Pulp Fiction – why we owe cheap fiction of the past a debt for the glorious genres we love today

Say ‘Pulp Fiction’ and most people think of Tarantino’s 1994 cult movie – the violence, the disgust, the horror of it all. Little will they know however of it’s working title; Black Mask, or what that even means. I’ll tell you what it means, but first let’s look more at what the true pulp fiction was.

According to dictionary.com the definition of pulp fiction is:

“Fiction dealing with lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp.”

Pretty simple really, no set genre, not set style just cheaper printing and sensational content. But there is a history here and it’s quite cool – younger generations will have no idea what it was all about. Until now.

The pulps as they were also known as were counter to the slicks, glossy well made magazines for richer audiences. Despite the Americanisms, pulp fictions claim descendants from earlier styles and formats of literature; the penny dreadfuls of Britain and dime novels of the US. From these simple fiction papers came some powerful genres; those of us who love horror, fantasy and science fiction owe a lot to the pulp literature of the past – before the rise of those genres we only had pulps. And what a legacy to share.

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Despite their massive popularity of the time, it was never easy for early authors to become accepted writers; some famous authors of fantasy, such as Robert E. Howard never truly made it big in their lifetime, posthumous success becoming more common. Even Lovecraft, who spawned an entire sub-genre of cosmic horror by himself only managed to gather a few dollars for much of his extensive work, which are now more popular than ever across all forms of media from literature, film and game platforms of all kinds.

Indeed, many famous authors began or boosted their careers with pulp fiction stories: Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain even H.G Wells, the father of science fiction.

Pulp fiction covered everything from gritty westerns, dark crime thrillers, exotic fantasy and exceptional science fiction; all of which fell under weird fiction or some sort or other. But these weird tales grew into genres of their own, providing us with film noir and sword & sorcery, among others.

It wasn’t all great though. Often pulp magazines portrayed highly sexualised women in peril, a dashing hero nearby to risk his life in an attempt to rescue such a damsel – I’m not sure that sort of cover art would stand up in modern times, with good reason given the rise of equality since the 1950’s and the sexual liberation of women in the 60’s.

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Yesterday’s Sunrise

The rise of pulp fiction and its earlier descendants came primarily from financial reasons: the price. Quite simply, it was affordable fiction in a time before the internet, computers and films. It was your only escape that wasn’t the theatre, alcohol or underage pregnancy. You may be forgiven for wondering why the appeal seems to be lost in modern times.

Yet, at the height of pulp fiction there were millions of copies printed monthly, with some publishers boasting more than 300 pulp titles at a time, some from as early as the 1920s. The market truly was booming. The sensation didn’t stop in the US; the UK had its own share of pulp fiction, appealing to the young and the poor. You didn’t talk about which celebrity was fumbling their way through a dance-off, you talked about the characters and the situations of the latest pulp fiction. You probably had more in depth conversations about it too.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, IF Worlds of Science Fiction, and Unknown were all leading the market in Britain, spanning decades (with artwork a little less sexualised, although still present).

Inevitable Fall

It was not to last however. In Britain and most of Europe, the succession of two world wars left a shortage of paper material, forcing publishers to reduce the size of their prints and limit their publications to several times a year. What was monthly was now quarterly and this had a knock-on effect for the industry, which we are still suffering from now: it is hard for new writers to be read.

Not being noticed forced some authors into writing novels instead and a reduction in sales meant that publishing houses had to be picky about who they took on and what they published. Prime content became everything. It all started to feel very ‘safe’ and perhaps stale.

The effect is still felt somewhat today in that it is still incredibly hard to become a published author and make a living from it. Sure, as a consumer the content we have is better but the ideas are not as fresh, daring or fringe-worthy. And lets only mention briefly that now everything comes in the form of a trilogy of trilogies. Finding a single story novella is pretty hard in the bookshops of today!

Even self publishing is hard, at least to make your goal financially viable.

Gone is the golden age of the pulp writer.

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Dost the Embers Stir?

Let’s be clear and honest though; reading a short story is fun! It doesn’t take an age, it is valuable time with oneself and is usually cheap – no huge investment. You can buy a small novella for less than £5 and that’s all you need – no TV or monitor, no subscription to Netflix or Amazon, nothing electrical at all (unless you’re reading at night).

But perhaps the best news of all is that there’s still hope. Hope that with the rise of online pulp houses like ThePulp.net and New Pulp Press who sell e-fiction for as little as $3-$6, there’s still a place to hide away from the world and live the life of your favourite (anti) heroes.

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So back to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; the working title, Black Mask was a US pulp magazine in the 1920s covering dark, gritty and corrupt crime stories. There was plenty of gore, violence and sex to fuel the 1994 movie, summing up the Tarantino’s tastes nicely.

So we’re going to have a go at bringing you some pulp fiction of our own, with a blog to run alongside it with our notes, plans and sketches to give you an idea of how much shit we put ourselves through! (I may have had a drink or two of Port).

Opening Lines from stories of the last century – why you should master them!

“Frank; what can be more self-inspiring than the opening lines of your own novel?” – I’m not sure I cracked this first time, but here’s how your opening lines can be great if you’re willing to learn from the some of the classical heroes of literature.

All the best first lines in literature are vivid, granting us a clear image which kicks starts the story in a tone that carries us forward.

But how do they do it? What sort of ideas can you use to inject a fist full of Bruce Lee punchiness to your opening lines? Well I’ve got some ideas for you, with examples from my favourite fiction authors in horror, fantasy and adventure fiction, proving that one hundred year old ideas can still be used across genres and in modern writing.

What is a perfect opening line?

The perfect opening lines need to grab us, they need to open their broad arms and tell us that we’re to expect something more, warm arms that wrap around us and make us cosy up to the fact that we’re going on a journey. They may not need to set the tone of the whole story, but they need to grab us and either draw us in with succulent words or punch us in the face and toss us into the inferno.

Your ABCs

Some simple tips for your opening lines:

The most basic step is to name a character. Naming someone makes aspects of the content real for us from the moment we start reading. Got that Frank?

Now that we have named that fellow, it helps to see what they’re doing. Creating an action provides us with the sense of motion of going forward, even if it’s the most mundane action in the world like breathing. Frank, put that coffee down and come over here.

Next, we’re going to dabble in a bit of emotion, ideally something we can all relate to. Since we’re all humans (I guess you may not be?) we all feel, and we want to be sympathetic with the character. Sit down Frank and wipe that stupid grin from your face.

Combining these elements may not give the best or most exciting opening, but many great authors use the same ideas and ramp them up to a magnitude of thousand. We’re going to take a look at how writers tackle their opening lines, some modern and some from nearly a hundred years ago!

Howard's Conan

Here’s a classic example from The Pool of the Black One by Robert Howard, original author of the Conan tales circa 1920s:

“Sancha, once of Kordova, yawned daintily, stretched her supple limbs luxuriously, and composed herself more comfortably on the ermine fringed silk spread on the carrack’s poop-deck.”

In this grandiose opening line, we get a name, a title of sorts then an action followed by a second action and so on. I love this opening line because we get so much in one sentence that there’s no question who we are looking at; a woman with a mysterious background who is at ease and likely familiar with the finer things in life, probably a pirate!

But what if you want to set the tone in more depth?

To really highlight a sense of foreboding some authors use a hindsight perspective. This hindsight gives the reader a sense of time passed and already conjures notions in our mind that we’re to expect more. This perspective makes us ask questions without really giving us enough details. We simply want more. I draw your attention to Herbert West – Reanimator by Lovecraft, from the same era as Robert Howard:

“Of Herbert West, who was my friend in collage and in other life, I can speak only with extreme terror.”

This is a classic opening from Lovecraft which crunches familiar ideas together in a great juxtaposition; ‘friend in collage and other life’ and ‘extreme terror’ are not usual bedfellows. When I first read this line I was a little stunned – what happened to these two friends to invoke such terror?

Lovecraft’s voice here is very formal, we’re probably reading a journal or a confession, but also remarkably relaxed, as if the author has come to terms with whatever happened and reflects on past deeds.

Lovecraft also states these things as facts.

Simple facts, or even complex ones can hammer home the nature of your story. One of the strangest factual opening lines I’ve read, for its mundanity, comes from Dennis Wheatley’s The Forbidden Territory:

“The Duke de Reichleau and Mr Simon Aron had gone in to dinner at eight o’clock, but coffee was not served till after ten.”

Wheatley’s opening line gives us the very simplest of tips mentioned earlier; names and actions. What strikes interest here, other than the mundanity is the fact that there’s a gap in the timescale. Most of us wouldn’t question a two-hour gap for eating, but in this post-war era the inference is that something went on; a long discussion perhaps, or an unexpected guest. It makes us question what happened and is the simplest pull into a story.

Lovecraft Stories

Being Vague

Running the same theme of factual storytelling, Anne Rice, a vivid writer with a clean voice started Tales of the Body Thief with these very simple lines:

“The Vampire Lestat here. I have a story to tell you. It’s about something that happened to me.”

If the reader is familiar with Rice, Lestat is an old Vampire with several hundred years under his belt. Lestat’s informal voice comes from his adaptation to the modern world, like we’re supposed to know him. Indeed, this isn’t the first Lestat novel but it captures Lestat’s lazy and disregarding nature of mortals (which he desperately wants to recapture). So, Rice gives us a name but there’s no action! This is fine, because in a very blatant but well executed introduction, we know there’s a story to tell here. Again, the hindsight perspective works nicely to draw us in.

One last example of using unknown past circumstances comes from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World one of many Wheel of Time books:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what happened.”

Simple questions arise. More vague, check out the opening line to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte:

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

You can’t really get more vague – if this was Face Book I’d expect a lot of typical ‘U ok Hon’ type responses, but this is literature and we like vague; it makes us want to know; why?

What about real Action?

Hitting the reader with real, hardcore action works well in adventure style literature and can be as simple as the following, from Shadows in the Moonlight, another one of Howard’s classic sword & sorcery:

“A swift crashing of horses through tall reed; a heavy fall, a despairing cry.”

Here we are told very little, but the imagination is fired up; why are the horses crashing through a reed bed? I suspect there’s water so it’s hard work for horse and rider so must be important. Who or what fell heavily? Who cried out in desperation? Chances are this is the result of conflict, perhaps someone has escaped or is being chased? Less than fifteen words and we’re right into the action and already asking questions.

What about using the unusual?

Unusual openings are a great way to confuse and entice readers, but they must be concise so as to avoid convoluted circles which can lose your audience. I’ll draw from Lovecraft (Call of Cthulhu) and Howard (Shadows of Zamboula) for two examples.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

Here Lovecraft poses a statement with a hint of reflection. What contents of the human mind are we trying to correlate? The vague hints at something deep can start the mind turning! From Howard:

“Peril hides in the house of Aram Baksh!”

Here Howard makes it very clear that there’s an element of danger, whether we believe the statement or not. The fact that it is spoken word and not narrative drops us into a place of uncertainties; who do we trust, the opinion of the speaker or the fact of a statement? We also have a name and a location – the ABC’s at work. The undertone of emotion (peril, danger or horror) tempts us with the thrill of a something we should probably avoid but can’t help but read – we’re all insects buzzing closer to that blue light in a day dream. speaking of dreams, Lovecraft’s The Silver Key:

“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams.”

Here Lovecraft is suggesting there is a place that is a literal door to dreams. It implies more than the normal world without having to explain with exposition what on earth is going to happen. It is unusual but also includes elements of naming and action (in the loss of something) as well as giving us a snippet of description for Mr Carter. Added to this, we ask the question: how did the character get into this?

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Finally, formality

As mentioned before, Rice uses Lestat’s voice to bring us in close enough to get bitten by giving the vampire an informal tone. We’re expecting perhaps blood and violence right away, instead we’re given a friendly talking to, perhaps imagined on the TV screen or the phone.

The narrators voice can also be twisted to formality or otherwise to give us some perspective, allowing to see more story without literally writing it in. Another great example from Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model:

“You needn’t think I’m crazy, Eliot – plenty of others have queerer prejudices than this.”

Here we’re being pulled into why the narrator struggles with underground transport, but we don’t really know why, and in true Lovecraftian style we’re pulled slowly and inexorably to the climax of the horror – things lurk – which the narrator never wishes to comprehend again, but we’re going to read about it and understand why.

Not Quite the beginning

A second point of interest is that Lovecraft didn’t start right at the beginning of Pickman’s Model. Rather, he started just after the beginning of the conversation between the narrator and Eliot. Yet another great way to make your start interesting. Some of the previous examples do this too – we’re trying to draw our reader in. Ever heard the phrase ‘What’s in the box!?’ well that’s what we’re tapping into when we start not quite at the beginning.

Where does the learning come in?

We’ve pointed out some great opening lines and investigated what makes them good. To get into practice of creating great opening lines you should probably consider these last few bits of advice:

  • Write your opening lines last – no one wrote a great opening line first time. Much like any other aspect of writing, you’ll probably need to plan your writing rather than trying to create the best opening line right away.
  • Read lots of great opening lines, even if you don’t read all of the book. If you have access to books, jot down a few opening lines each day and dissect them like you’re a pathologist of words. You’ll soon start to see what makes great opening lines and not. Goosebumps are a good sign!
  • If in doubt, try, try again. You’ll not this get this right first time, maybe not even second or third time. Get advice from friends and fellow authors (this bit can be hard for closet writers!) Feedback is key, as you’ll not be buying your own book!

Now that you’ve got a better idea about what makes a great introduction or opening line, have another go yourself, even if you’re nowhere near finishing your novel or story. It can be self-inspiring and refreshing to have a go.

Go forth and kindle those flaming juices of imagination!

I’m going to start on my opening line for this article…

J.D Ferris, CC

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

A few weeks ago, I talked about being the DM, with tips, hints and suggestions on how to approach being the DM (or GM). Today I’m going to be covering some more topics related to the atmosphere of your game; how to set it up physically and how to get the mood and tone right to really ensnare your players into your game.

Most of the advice found herein stems from developing attention and emotional investment by suspending a players belief to allow them to magically slip into the game world.

Let’s get started.

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Placement

It really depends on your situation as to where you can play your games. If you don’t have your own place it can be tricky to find somewhere quiet to set up and play. If you’re in school or college, try and get a room organised (heck, you could even start your own club if you need to!) Lunchtime adventures can be a great escape in the workplace too (it’s possible in some places).

Whether you have your own place or not, try to be somewhere quiet without the chance of interruption. Why? Well if it’s quiet and there’s no distractions your party of players will likely be focused and give the game, and you, their full attention, which helps keep the session flowing and doesn’t break the growing tension as the story develops.

Furniture & Props

When I talk about furniture I’m talking about where you sit and play. Ideally, a table and chairs are great to start a gaming session – everyone is facing into the same space, you can see the other players from the table and you can get eye contact, which is important in a game that relies on communication.

I’ve found that having benches instead of chairs really brings people together and can be more comfortable than sitting in a small chair for several hours. Give people a break now and again – stretching your legs and hooking up to reddit or Facebook should help refresh your players and the DM.

And as for Props: I’m not talking suits of armour and wizards’ hats, but they’re cool if you or a player can afford costume. Go for it, whatever helps you get into your character mindset. On a simpler scale though, I am suggesting candles to really set the atmosphere. If you’re in the part of the world where it gets dark early, candle light can really get the mood going. Candle light is not dissimilar to firelight, which our ancestors sat around and told tales as a source of entertainment. You could argue that natural light sources are kindling to our imaginations and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s in our blood.

A note on candles however – you’re dealing with fire and likely lots of paper and other flammable objects. Keep it simple if your table is small. Tealights are a simple way of creating candle light, but if you can afford pillar candles or votive style candles, then that’s helpful. Be careful!

Too dark? Small desk lamps aimed low and down can help those with poor night vision.

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Verbal Descriptions

As the DM, your descriptions are the vital source of information in the D&D, or any role-play game for that matter. Without your descriptions you are losing the element of the story and likely your game will feel flat. This isn’t a bad thing for some groups where the game is more about tactical dice rolling, but for any other style of play, it’s vital.

So where do you start?

Here’s a few simple things to consider. Mix them up a bit to keep them fresh.

  • Sight – this is the obvious one. You walk into any room with a light source and you take in your surroundings. Commonly overlooked in descriptions is the level of light in an area. For Dungeons & Dragons, some races can see in the dark much better than other races so you’ll need to describe the surroundings in a way that gives low-light and dark-vision some weight to the game. For characters who are effectively blind in the dark, give them snippets of information based on their sense of smell and hearing.
  • Sound – Sound is something you can experience before you enter an area or place. Often it can be as simple as silence, but even silence can be described in different ways: is the silence oppressive, does it instill a sense of danger? Could the silence be pregnant with anxiety or tension, perhaps it is not total silence and echoes or rumbles with sound from other areas, giving clues to future encounters.
  • Smell – Much like sound, our olfactive sense can give clues as to the nature of a contents of a room or place before we get close. Even on a subconscious level, our sense of smell is constantly working to warn us of dangers. Unlike the other senses however, smell can be overridden; a dairy farmer will quickly get used to the smell of cow manure to the point where they can no longer perceive it, allowing them to pick up smells that others would struggle to notice. Don’t overdo the sense of smell, it can give a lot away about the contents of a room or place… or it can mask the rotting undead waiting around the corner – there’s a reason wizards and necromancers use incense in their rituals.
  • Touch – Our sense of touch may never be from direct contact, but it can help build a sense of growing horror in dark places like a dungeon. The primary sense of touch your players will need to know regards the temperature of the room. Is it cold? Did the temperature suddenly change from one room to another? Our sense of ambient temperature can instill a sense of fear, or it can be overridden by wonder and curiosity.

So how do you verbalise this information and how can we describe the contents of the room?

My personal rule about describing a location is to avoid specific dimensions right away; you can say it’s a large room or a small room, but the moment you start describing in feet and inches you can lose some interest – the prize of specifics immediately comes at the cost of interest and immersion.

So, I find the best places to start is to hit the players with whatever is most noticeable first; the things that move. Our eyes are programmed to follow movement, especially in situations that we consider dangerous. Ecologists develop an unfortunate knack of focusing on movement because they can spend days grabbing small mammals and putting them in safe places (can confirm).

The exception to this rule is when you’re trying to create tension. Let’s say the characters fall into a room in their attempt to escape and you want them to see a creature holding a blade to an innocent person’s throat; which sounds better:

“As you fall into the room you see a large red skinned creature with horns holding a young farmer with a knife to his throat.”

Or

“You spill into the room and find yourself in a richly decorated chamber of silks and cushions, lit with a roaring hearth. In the centre of the room, with the fire dancing in his eyes, a young farmer stands, stiff and pale. One arm is held tightly behind his back, the other is stretched out as if to keep you at bay. From over his shoulder a wicked slashed smile filled with glistening fangs taunts you. A demon has a knife to the young man’s throat…”

One is basic and to the point, and even though the other doesn’t give you all the information we’ve discussed previously, it builds the tension up. Your players know that there is something special in the room even as you start to describe it, and it sets the scene one piece at a time, culminating with the priority of the encounter.

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Opening Speeches

No one is expecting a theatrical overture all the time, but getting your opening descriptions perfect really brings the focus and attention of your players right up and into the game. I touched on this previously, so I’ll repeat it here:

Hit them with your first line like it means something. Start this bad boy up likes it’s a chromed Harley Davidson signed by Meatloaf, discovered by a post-apocalyptic tribe 200 years from now. Go full throttle on those natives and let them have it! But how do you do this?

I’ll tell you how!

Have your first or opening lines practiced. Get everyone settled in; all rules checked up with no more questions left to be asked. Depending on the type of story you’ve gone for, the players will determine your first line, to a degree. For me, I sometimes start my party in peril so they have to pay attention or they die.

But for first-time adventures you may want to set the tone like any good author would. There are tonnes of this information on the net, but I’ll give you my opinion.

Which sounds better?

“OK, so you’re sat in a busy tavern when someone walks up to your table and says they need to talk to you in private…”

Or…

“It is night time in autumnal Ostogar, the town of bones. The Black Boar tavern is in full swing and the patrons, a colourful plethora of cultures and races sing and drink together, enjoying the sanctuary of warmth from the bitter cold outside. In the midst of the crowd, two cloaked figures catch your eye. They seem to be trying to get your attention without raising their voice over the merry din. What do you do?”

OK so maybe I’ve embellished a little bit here and there. But the idea is pretty obvious. Even if you don’t maintain this level of detail all the way through your game session, you still got everyone drawn in from the very start. The players will already be thinking along the same lines and wondering what is going to happen.

My example is pretty vanilla here, but that’s OK for an example.

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Music & Soundscapes

This final portion of advice is more of a luxury but can seriously add some depth and immersion to your gaming session. It can also go horribly wrong, so fair warning.

Music in gaming sessions can be very hit or miss, with the tone of the music required to be just right for the moment of the story. Music can really bring things to life if the right tracks are played at the right time. I use a mixture of Spotify and YouTube to create playlists which cover most moods I am trying to portray in a game.

But it essentially comes down to taste.

Here are a few examples which may give you ideas:

I have created a playlist in YouTube for an adventure into some ancient elven ruins. For me, the ideal type of music is something haunting, which creates vistas of crumbling stone and a forlorn hope of regaining a golden age, whilst also feeling lonely. The music I use for this; Warhammer 2 Total War, the High Elf campaign tracks. It fits perfectly with the images I want to portray.

To build a gritty and expanding / progressive battle I collected music on Spotify from the Viking TV series but Trevor Morris. The combination of natural instruments with male and female vocalists brings a very personal note to a violent situation, and aren’t necessarily full of ‘epic’ music (which I personally find distracting and a little bit too good guys fight bad guys, black and white vanilla, ‘my first adventure’ kind of vibe – yeah it was a ramble).

Where can it go wrong?

Well if you bring music into your game it may give players the wrong impression, or it may be from a film or game which they didn’t like. This probably won’t be an issue to most gaming groups but it’s possible.

And what if you don’t want music?

Well there’s some interesting ‘soundscapes’ available on YouTube. Soundscapes are collections of sounds stitched together seamlessly to create ambient or atmospheric sounds. Need to hear a busy market place for an encounter; sure, there’s loads. Want something gothic and creepy for your Curse of Strahd campaign; there’s even specific tracks for that.

YouTube is a wealth of resources for this sort of thing. I can recommend Sword Coast Soundscapes for this, they have an extensive list of tracks to choose from.

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So how is the atmosphere made?

Drawing all of this together, I will give you an example of a recent gaming session I ran. I realise not everyone is as lucky to have a similar setup, but here goes…

The game was meant to be dark, wintery and take place mostly in a small town, Ostogar. The setup of the adventure was to take place in a tavern call the Black Boar – the only place open at this time of the month due to local superstition. The Black Boar inn is full of traders of all cultures and races, the only place they could all stay warm in the winter. For this tavern I played a rowdy tavern soundtrack, which I increased the volume of as they approached the building and then cranked up more as they entered.

I have a wooden table, with a slatted surface and a slightly rough texture, just like a tavern table. I set out some homemade candles (beeswax) and placed them around the gaming table. I made sure there was enough light and turned off all artificial light.

Before I knew what was happening, my players were whispering conspiratorially under the crowd of the soundscape, huddling in to listen to each other to plan and discuss the other patrons. I could hear them talk from the other side of the table, so I know it wasn’t too loud, it was the atmosphere made them drawn in together.

The game was a huge success as a single session adventure and some of the old-time players have asked to be invited back for more. My adventure was mediocre at best (I lie, I loved it), but the game really took off because of the immersion.

I hope this has given you some ideas, and I’d love to hear and discuss any suggestions you might have!

J.D Ferris, CC