Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 3: Tone and Spirit

Welcome to Week 3 of my Fantasy Story Stats. This is another exciting Week as it’s another where I get to go on about one of my own Stats. And really, it’s the statiest of the Stats so far—Spirit. Spirit, which was actually the first of them and the reason these posts exist at all.

But anyway, enough pre-rant. Let’s get to it.

First…

Tone: The Overall Mood of your Work

As per usual with my posts, let’s start off with something familiar that you really don’t need to hear much about—Tone. The weird thing about Tone is that I’ve always heard people mention it, but… always just mention in; I’ve been taught about characterization and narration, plot and settings, but never tone. It was always just the word—Tone.

In part, it’s because it’s obvious. Question: what’s the tone of a story? Answer: it’s the tone of a story. Light, heavy, dark, gritty, tone is obvious within the first few pages of a book and the first few moments of a movie. The very first exchange between Waymar Royce and Gared of the Night’s Watch makes it clear that George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is going to be serious; Will’s observations of Waymar’s armor make it clear that it’s going to be a realistic approach to a genre that often celebrates impractical armor and weapons. To polarize a bit, the intro to Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings boldly embraces the fantastic, establishing a much lighter, less realistic Tone. Each story defines their Tone early on and carries it for the whole book, assigning it an emotional weight that’s consistent throughout the entire story.

And, right there, that’s how I classify Tone: the consistent, emotional weight of a story (from Light to Heavy [but with an added, second classification of Fantastic to Realistic that usually coincides directly with Light to Heavy]). Light would be anything emotionally simple or literally light-hearted; something like a fun superhero comic, a more jovial or cool horror movie like The Cabin in the Woods, or a Terry Pratchett Discworld fantasy novel. On the other end of the spectrum, Heavy would be Watchmen, The Walking Dead, or Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

I believe the added classification of Fantastic to Realistic explains itself, but to quickly provide examples, a Light/Fantastic story would be Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, a Medium/Semi story would be Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and a Heavy/Realistic story would be Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (by fantasy standards… at the beginning, anyway).

Finally, because I feel I have to say it, consistency is an incredibly important part of my definition for Tone. Because I’ve seen a story drastically shift from Medium to super, crazy Light in Tone and it was incredibly jarring. And I don’t usually do this, but (with a quick disclaimer that Stephen King is an established and skilled writer and I totally respect him) I will say that it was the Dreamcatcher movie. If you want a fantastic example of what not to do to your tone, you should watch Dreamcatcher. I don’t want to explain how, but it goes from emotional and personal to “Really!?” in the span of seconds.

Spirit: The Completely Subtle or Absolutely Obvious Playfulness of Your Work

Spirit is my concept and the fast way of describing it is to admit that I thought of it as “Camp” for a while. I felt I needed to change the name because camp has a pretty intensely bad connotation, but the idea persists; Spirit is the degree to which the author engages the reader. And that makes it sound incredibly unwieldy and obvious, doesn’t it? But no—it absolutely isn’t; Spirit can be subtle and silent or it can be ham-fisted and campy.

But to clarify, Spirit is a classification of playfulness. A story with High Spirit actively engages its readers through its elements, its dialogue, and its events.

A fantasy story with High Spirit Elements will feature a Millenial Fair where a kid gets special powers that only he/she can use to banish whatever evil is approaching from the north. In other words, there are elements that the reader knows and can trust that lead to moments a reader expects and welcomes subliminally. An old wizard/mentor will show up to guide the hero into the wild and teach him/ her about their powers, the hero will meet a special someone along the way, etc. And all of this is extremely comfortable for the reader because it’s so familiar.

A story with High Spirit Dialogue would be something written by Joss Whedon; obviously not exclusively, but if you’re a big fan of the Marvel Universe of movies, almost every other line of dialogue on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far has been a reference to previous movies or characters, often with those characters having no knowledge of those characters or their dialogue (“With great power comes a ton of weird crap,” spoken by Skye in the first episode is a fantastic example). This approach is inclusive—you’re in on the joke and you like it (or hate if you want to be like that). In other cases, the dialogue might simply be familiar with fantasy characters using one-liners or variants on Earth-Modern or Fantasy-fandom centric insults (“By Grog’s hairy balls!” or something like that, for example). At its most basic and simple, the ferocious dragon you expect only to breathe fire might instead turn out to be a female dragon who starts talking about how lonely she is, playing with the reader’s expectations and likely getting a laugh from them.

A story with High Spirit Events will follow a comforting plot structure. To put it simply, all sports underdog stories are High Spirit; you go in absolutely knowing that the Mighty Ducks (or whoever) are going to win. More relevantly, you always know that the young hero or heroine with the super rare and exclusive magical powers is absolutely going to kill that evil from the north in the end.

In contrast, stories with Low Spirit aren’t comforting. That’s the difference I want to make here; High Spirit isn’t “campy.” A story with High Spirit is not a bad thing, which I’ve tried to reflect in the examples I provided above. High Spirit stories are friendly. And engaging. And comforting. You enjoy them and they’re an easy choice when you don’t want to experience a completely unpredictable and often Heavy story.

Not to say that Low Spirit is bad either. By my definition, Jonathan Stranger & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark would be Low Spirit. So would Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard, and I enjoyed both of those books. They just had very non-standard, unpredictable elements and plots that were more challenging than comforting. The very fiber of those examples was doing something completely different to great effect.

~~~

That said, I don’t think I can keep going here without running into next week’s stats, Novelty and Concept. If this is your first time reading and you’ve enjoyed, I’d appreciate a Like, Comment, or a Subscription. If you haven’t checked out my other Stats, you can find an introduction here, Week 1 here, and Week 2 here.

And, as always, here’s where I stand on my list of Stats:

War of Exiles

Genre… Fantasy

Subgenre… Dark Fantasy

Theme… Living with loss.

Focus… 1-Character, 2-Plot, 3-Setting

Tone… Medium/Semi

Spirit… Medium

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