Thursday, June 14, 2012

On Details and Dreams

I am of the opinion that a key -- possibly the key -- to good storytelling is knowing which details to include and which to omit.

One of the many recurring problems revealed by the analysis of Twilight by Reasoning With Vampires is that Stephenie Meyer doesn't know what details are relevant and what details are not. Many pages become slogs through a endless mundanities.

Similarly: why do you hate when people tell you about their dreams? Don't lie, everybody hates when people tell them about their dreams. I posit that you hate it because of the endless stream of irrelevant, time-wasting details.

Here's the thing about dreams: They don't (generally) have (coherent) plots. That makes it extremely difficult to judge what details are relevant and what details are not, so people just default to sharing every detail, which is obnoxious and nobody cares. "...and Lorne from Angel was there, except I kept calling him 'The Host' like it said in the credits, instead of 'Lorne' like he was always referred to, and also I think I briefly was Lorne, but then he got killed..."


Here's how to tell people about your dreams and have a remote chance of your victim not wanting to set you on fire: decide in advance what the point of your story is, then omit every detail that is not relevant to this point. If you can come up with no point, then limit your story to one or two sentences, at most. Actually, limit your story to one or two sentences even if it does have a point.

Example: I recently had a dream which combined several unrelated canons into one dream. My description of this dream was simply a list of the relevant participants and the canons from which they derived. End of story. Probably nobody cared anyway, but at least I didn't waste more than a couple sentences worth of anybody's time.

Another example: I had a dream which had the potential to provide the core of a brief joke, or thing that had the structure of a joke, in a "the secret to humor is surprise" sort of way. That joke structure was the point. (Though it wasn't necessarily actually a very good joke.) To wit:

"Dreamed that I dressed up in stormtrooper armor to inspire people to fight fascism. Everybody ran away when a cop started shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. The rubber bullets didn't hurt me, because a.) I was wearing stormtrooper armor and b.) they were actually marshmallows."

I left out (well, until people started saying "your dreams are weird", at which point the narrative shifted to "that's weird" and I provided additional details to support the "that's weird" conclusion) such details as: some friends of mine building Batman's computer, except we were calling it AIVAS; the fascism was apparently us not being permitted to fly a flag; and that I was hiding behind some innocent civilian until I realized the marshmallows weren't hurting me, at which point I went to punch the cop, which woke me up when I punched the wall.

Or, when I mention that my dreams are usually action-movie dreams: I once dreamed I was a cyborg fighting ninjas on a subway train. End of story.

Or, when the point is that I've been watching a lot of movies: occasionally my dreams will cut away from my POV altogether and show me things I'm not present for, like you might see in a movie. (Shining example: Once, while I was rescuing a princess, my dream cut away to show Darth Vader sending bounty hunters after me, then it cut back to me and bounty hunters were suddenly after me.)

These are not good dream stories, exactly, because there's no such thing as a good dream story. But, by virtue of each being short and omitting irrelevant details, I posit that they are as close to not bad as dream stories can get.


How is this relevant to D&D?

Well: When describing a scene as DM, try to omit details that are irrelevant. The lamp doesn't matter unless it's relevant to the mood (being e.g. too dim or too bright) or relevant to combat (e.g. leaving areas of darkness or shadowy illumination in portions of the room) or expensive (in which case the players will want to steal it). The inn's menu isn't relevant unless you want to emphasize the nature of the inn (maybe it's super-fancy, in which case mention foie gras and caviar (which are not necessarily historically luxury foods, but what usually matters is the reaction of the players, not historical accuracy), or maybe it's particularly rustic, in which case the menu consists entirely of the single word "grits").

That said: never ever hesitate to mention details that aren't sight. Mention how a thing smells or feels or tastes or sounds. Most DMs omit these things so often that just using them at all can serve to improve player immersion.

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