Being a Better Writer: Tabletop Conversations

Hello readers, and welcome back once again! If you’re here on this Monday afternoon by some prior plan, then you know what’s up. If not, then welcome to the site and our weekly Monday post of Being a Better Writer! This week we’re going with a bit of a more classic topic, though not without a bit of wordplay within the title.

But first, we’ve got news to talk about. Con news, to be specific! Life, The Univere, and Everything is coming February 17-19, 2022!

Those of you that know what LTUE is can rejoice now. Those who do not, or haven’t been on this site before and heard about the con, LTUE is a writing con. That means that the panelists are all authors and experts on specific topics, there to talk about writing in all its various aspects and forms. I’ve attended it for almost two decades now, first as a young student, now as a panelist, and it remains the best con I’ve been to for being all about writing. With hundreds of authors and panels talking about all sorts of writing topics, from the basic to the specific (there’s always a panel on how to write action scenes, for example, chaired by some of the better action writers in the business, but there are also panels like ‘garbage dumps through the ages’ taught by historians and authors who’d need to know that stuff) LTUE is a smorgasbord of expert writing advice.

It’s also cheap. Students, be they K-12 or collegiate, get in for $5. For the whole three days. That’s right. Five bucks. Non-students pay a bit more (usually around $75 for all three days), but that’s still an incredibly low price for three whole days of writing content. The panelists are all volunteer as well. This isn’t one of those “writing camps” taught by a few people with one book to their name who make the majority of their living telling others how they wrote that one book by being at that camp. These panelists are people taking time away from their normal day job of writing, editing, or being an expert on something in order to talk about the craft because they love it and want to help others.

If you’re somewhat versed in Fantasy and Sci-Fi you’ll recognize a few of these names too. This year’s Writing Guest of Honor is non other than Jody Lynne Nye, and if you check the “featured guests” page over on LTUE’s website, you’ll see quite a few other names you’ve likely heard of (or read). Checking the full schedule page will let you search all the attending panelists, and you may see a few more names on there you recognize!

Now, I’m going to link that schedule page once more, because that’s also how you can look at a full list of upcoming panels, and it’s time to start figuring out what panels you’d like to hit.

Even if you can’t come in person. Last year the entire LTUE experience was uploaded to Youtube as well as available to attend online. I’m not sure of the exact details around online attendance this year myself, since I’m going in person, but there are whole archives on YouTube of prior years’ panels. They usually end up online about six months later, but that’s better than nothing if you can’t make it.

UPDATE: I have been informed that there will not be as many recorded sessions this year due to some of the principle recording staff being unable to attend. The staff hope to record and post some sessions, but they will likely be few in number and take more time than usual if they’re uploaded.

Now, one more item of news before we dive into today’s topic. As in prior years, I will once again be attending LTUE this year as a panelist (most of you probably guessed that). It’s an absolute delight, and once again I’ve got a bevvy of fun panels to look forward to, including—

  • A Space Opera Starter Kit
  • Fanfiction: Having Fun
  • My Genre Wishlist
  • Science Fiction Faux Pas
  • No Mirrors: Character Description in First Person

I’d love to see you there! In addition, I’ll also be at the big book signing and moving around the con conversing and attending other panels.

But there’s one more little tidbit that I want to share that definitely belongs in the news section. Not only will I be at the book signing, but the LTUE book vendors will be carrying copies of Axtara – Banking and Finance and Shadow of an Empire!

That’s right! In prior years this hasn’t been a thing, because I’ve been solely a digital purveyor of products (despite attending the book signing anyway). But with a few of my titles now available in dead tree format, you’ll now be able to purchase them at the LTUE bookstore. I’ll be bringing a few extra copies as well to have on hand, but if you’ve been thinking of snagging a paperback for either of those two titles at last, LTUE will be your chance not only to do so, but to get it signed while you’re at it!

You know, unless they run out. They’ll have a decent stock of both, but the way they sell …

All right, that’s it for this Monday’s news. I know that was a lot, but hey, LTUE is a big deal, and only happens once a year. We’ll talk about it more in the future, but for now, let’s talk about “Tabletop Conversations.”

All right, I’ll admit to a bit of worldplay with this post title. After all, it does sound like we’re going to be talking about a DnD campaign or something similar, doesn’t it. But no, it’s actually something far more straightforward. Today, I wanted to talk a little bit about character building and the work we put into making sure our characters exist as actors in the world—ie those acting on the world—rather than simply actors filling a role—or existing just to fill a slot so the plot can move forward.

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t partially inspired by my recent reading material. In addition to editing Starforge I’ve been slowly reading (and finishing) other books as well, one of which was Sci-Fi, and I noted a strong contrast between the way the characters were being presented in my works and this other title I was reading.

Specifically, there are scenes in Starforge which, without offering spoilers, are sort of what I’d call “tabletop conversations.” Situations where the characters are just “turned loose” for lack of a better term to be themselves and talk while working, carrying out menial acts, eating, etc etc. And these scenes are a lot of fun to read and write because they usually, if the characters are willing, become snippets of who those characters are.

This other title I was reading almost never did that. To its credit, I can recall two occurrences where I saw snippets of it on display. However, in both instances they were quickly brushed aside in favor of either internal monologue or the narration info-dumping little character tidbits like “This character was dating this character” which did add flavor to make the characters seem more real, but was also a bit jarring because rather than letting that come up organically even when there was a conversation on, instead the conversation got sidelined in order for the narration to info-dump a little.

Now, whether or not you’re fine with either approach is likely a case of “Your Mileage May Vary,” but it did make me think of the two approaches, and treating characters like their own actors in a story versus a tool to move the story forward. Which approach do you go for, and what are you giving up or gaining along the way?

Or, to put my train of thought another way: What would happen if you stuck two of your characters in a diner, with a lunch or a dinner, and just let them be?

This is what I mean by “Tabletop Conversation.” What happens when you stick two of your characters around a table and just let them talk? What will they say? What will they do? What sort of body language exhibit? Why?

That last question, the “Why?” is the most important one, and I think why I fixed on this topic in the first place. Because I’ve read books where I’m pretty sure if you stuck two of the characters around a table and told the creator “Okay, now just have them be them” said creator would panic and the two characters would either stare at one another in mute shock … or immediately move to solve the plot.

Now look, obviously if you stick two people whose aim is, for example, to kill one another or further the plot in the same scene, they’re going to try and do just that. But what if they couldn’t? What if, for example, you stuck Inigo Montoya and the Six-Fingered Man across from one another at a Wendy’s booth and told each that they weren’t allowed to kill one another? Can you imagine what sort of conversation might spring up?

Oh, you’d probably have a bit of protest from Inigo at first, and then silent, sullen anger. The Six-Fingered Man would probably start to eat a meal, taunting him … and then Inigo would start verbally sparring with him, and you’d have an awesome scene. One most of you can probably picture if you’ve seen the film or read the book.

And why can you picture it? Because each of those characters is not only distinct, but shows their personality so much in what they do and say that we can imagine how they would act when put in this situation. We can imagine the barbs both of them would sling at one another, the smug smile on the face of The Six-Fingered Man and the quiet anger and rage on that of Montoya’s. Because these characters are actors in their own story, rather than just plot devices that move the story forward. They act and have their own will.

To most of you, this likely doesn’t come as any surprise. “Well of course,” some of you are likely saying right now, at least in your heads. “Characters that are their own character are always going to feel more real than characters that just exist to move things forward. You’ve discussed this before.”

This is true. I have. But I did want to take a different tack with it today. In two ways.

The first is to issue a reminder that while yes, we do want our characters to be actors in their own story, we as authors also need to grant them the freedom to do so. Like the story I was reading in my spare time that helped prompt this. It wasn’t that the author couldn’t do this. As I noted, they did a few times. But more often than not such moments were veered away from to info dump, as if the author had decided “Well, you don’t want to see these characters interact, so let me tell you about them while they do that.”

We don’t want to take away from the story, of course, so we should be wary of letting, say, an entire chapter be sucked under by a character’s discussion of a topic they love that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the book. At the same time however, we can let that character talk about something they love and give it a little highlight without letting it swell to overwhelm the story, and still keep our readership going as they see the little bits of detail that make our characters alive.

In other words, we shouldn’t be afraid to let our characters be actors inside their own story. Don’t let them runaway with the plot unless it’s wise, but also don’t be afraid to let them be themselves. It might be an extra paragraph here and there that don’t quite serve the purpose of moving the plot forward. But instead, they’ll make the world the plot takes place in feel that much more real to the reader. A plot that goes from A to B to C as succinctly as possible isn’t bad, but it also won’t be as memorable to a reader as a plot that goes from A to B to C with characters that the reader cares about and enjoyed journeying with.

Now, onto the second bit: The tabletop conversation can be more than just a vague “goal” too keep in mind while building a world or a story. It can be a very useful exploratory tool to help you figure out your own characters. A bit of complex one, mind, a bit like building a prototype or a model of something before stepping on to the big project, but if you’re looking at the bare ideas for your characters—from protagonists to antagonists—and trying to figure out what to do with them (and maybe even with the story), try using a tabletop conversation as a writing exercise. Dump a few of them, or at least two, around a table in a setting where they can’t kill one another—though maybe they’ll try—and see what happens!

In other words, use the setting of a tabletop conversation as an exploratory tool to figure out your characters. To let them be them, or to develop that. Let them talk, make faces at one another. Sands, you might even get some plot ideas out of it if two characters start verbally sparring or even hit it off and start acting like a real duo.

It might seem like an extra bit of work—again, like a prototype—but like a prototype, letting our characters be themselves in such a setting can highlight both potential issues and let well-built areas really shine.

This can have extra affects as well. Not only can it do something like give us plot ideas, but if the characters themselves start calling out obvious solutions or finding ways around potential holes in the story, well then you’ve got more that’s been gained from the prototype. Letting the characters interact in a setting like this can drag out potential problems, fun story beats, or even twists!

Now, I will make a note that you don’t have to write this out. This can all be done as a thought exercise, and perhaps even should start as one. If you can’t imagine two of your characters participating in such an exercise, and can’t imagine what would happen or what they would say, then perhaps those characters need a bit more character before you turn them loose.

Another note I’ll make is that you don’t have to use a “tabletop” for the setting in your head to make this work. It could be a campfire with smores. A “script reading” of your book (though in that case, you may need to mentally note that the characters are the characters, and not actors … though looking at it like that might aid too, if be a bit more complicated).

But really the setting can be anything that would in the real world force some sort of conversation and interaction. Whatever gets the characters talking!

Use it as a tool. Explore who your characters are. How they act. What their mannerisms are. Their attitudes. Their approaches to others. What they will or won’t talk about.

With luck, you might even have a few conversational lines or even ideas that are so good, you’ll take them through to the actual story, letting the characters take the reins of their own destiny for a bit and come up with, as well as execute, their own ideas.

But even if not, you’ll still have explored a little of how your characters interact and act on their own, in a setting that isn’t directly tied to pushing your plot forward and just let’s them have the freedom to explore a little bit.

Again, as we recap here, a little bit of exploration in the story itself isn’t a bad thing. Not everything has to move the plot forward. I’ve heard teachers espouse this belief before, but they often forget that we can have scenes that show context or give meaning to that plot. Discovering who our characters are, and then allowing those discoveries to be shared with the reader as aspects of the character? Those make a story more than simply a journey from point A to point B. They make it an adventure with a friend.

So, to recap: We shouldn’t be afraid to let our characters “be themselves” in a story, even if that means the occasional bit of loosening the leash a little from the plot. And if you’re not sure what would happen in a scenario like that, or even if your characters could handle one, try making an exercise out of it. See what develops!

Good luck. Now get writing!

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Tabletop Conversations

  1. Joel Rosenberg does some of the best tabletop conversations in D’Shai and Hour of the Octopus. Multiple characters who loathe each other and would like nothing more than to chop pieces off in social settings where every word is measured, every gesture a message, and knives are the least dangerous things.

    Liked by 2 people

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