11 Apr GMing Lessons #10: Show Don’t Tell in Gming
There’s an old saying in writing: “Show Don’t Tell.”
Essentially, this means that you should show what something is, or who a person is, by their actions, by examples, etc., rather than just talking about them.
For example, you could say, “Joe is an angry man,” or you could say, “Joe stormed into the room with a scowl. He kicked the dog, which whimpered and fled as though it was well used to the treatment.”
The second example doesn’t have to say Joe is angry. You can see it. And it actually gives you more nuance and flavour than just saying it.
The same applies to GMs. When you’re describing an area, a person, a battle, it is far more powerful for you to show rather than tell. You will also get way, way more flavour out of it.
Some ways to do this:
Give an Example
Think about the thing you are wanting to describe, and then give an example of it in terms of how it looks, how the person acts, etc. For example, when introducing a mean, shifty merchant, you could describe his face, how he frowns, how he bites every coin to check it, how he haggles for every last copper piece, and then complains bitterly, even after getting a good deal. Your players will come to despise him for his actions, will know him for his mannerisms and sayings. He becomes far more than “just a merchant,” instead he becomes a living, breathing part of the world.
Another example could be for a battle.
Say How it Happens
If you just say, “The battle is brutal, you break their shield wall and kill several of them,” clearly that doesn’t tell you much about the battle. Even if you’re wanting to get through the battle quickly, you can still describe it as it actually happens.
So, you could say, “You crash into their shield wall with a thump, smashing through them and pushing them back. Some of them stumble, fall – and then they start to crumble. You chop a thin man in the face as he tries to rise and there’s a scream. You lunge over him and take another man beneath his shield, meeting resistance, then none as your blade pierces deep into his guts. He falls onto your shield and you smash him off with a roar.”
I’m being a little poetic with the second example, and really bland in the first one, but I’m sure you get the point. Find something to characterise their actions, even if they’re quick and not all that important.
I hope this helps with your games!
-Oliver R. Shead