Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 2: Theme and Focus

Apologies for getting this one out so late; crazy week. Crazy enough that I’m writing this in a laundromat. Seriously. There’s a Marc Anthony video playing on the big TV they have here… Let’s do this!

So, I’m excited about this week. This is the first time where a stat that I made up actually gets a mention—Focus. So let’s not waste any time. First..

Theme: It’s the Uniting Concept of Your Story

I feel I don’t need to spend too much time on Theme because I’m sure you already know at least 10 of its 30 million definitions.

But Theme is the uniting idea behind what you’re writing. It can be direct and it can be abstract, but it acts as a foundation for what you’re writing. It can be the moral of your story, but it can also be vaguer than that. It can be something as simple as “Doubles,” or something as complex as “Who we are as opposed to who we want to be.”

The thing about your Theme is that it should permeate every aspect of your story. It doesn’t have to, but a good writer reflects their theme in their descriptions and their dialogue. It’s mirrored in the plot and the characters, making a singular, united experience. For a theme like “Doubles,” characters should be mirrors of each other. Descriptions should be used at least twice, or perhaps certain settings should be visited at least twice with a large time gap in between (or something). So, really, of all the Stats, Theme is probably most important because it’s a foundation for your story.

And as a foundation, Theme should be your first step towards perfectly composing all of the elements of your story and a focal point for all of your Stats (particularly because it should come naturally early on in the story-building process [somewhere between making up characters and starting your plot]). Is your Tone too light for your story? Are you unsure it has enough Spirit? Does your Focus make sense for your story? Well, how do all of those elements work with your Theme?

Anyway, enough of that. On to Focus.

Focus: It’s the Story Facet You Unintentionally Focus On

Wish me luck—they put on kids shows now and I can barely do this with Mickey Mouse soft-shouting about Mouseketools.

So, Focus (ha—ironic) is the part of your story for which you take preference. This doesn’t mean a story only focuses on one facet (because no stories do that), but the one facet will naturally be more important and garner more attention from the writer. It’s not something that they realize and not necessarily something that needs to change; ultimately, I’m not even sure that a writer can change what they generally Focus on, but hey, why not try?

So, what are these facets of Focus?

  • Characters
  • Settings
  • Plot

I’m sure there could be more, but seriously, Mouseketools, so let’s just focus on these three.

A Character-Driven story relies very heavily on its characters. A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantastic example of a character-driven story; there are a ton of characters and we’re expertly made to care about (even/especially the villains). The major incentive for reading the series is seeing what happens to the characters. Seriously, the chapter titles are the names of characters.

A Setting-Driven story focuses heavily on the area where the story takes place that place. In most cases, the setting is ultimately the most important element and winds up being a character itself, engaging the reader by making them wonder what they’ll see next. Alice in Wonderland is a fantastic example of a Setting-Driven story. For something a little more contemporary, any of the Silent Hill games or movies are Setting-Driven.

A Plot-Driven story is something more along the lines of a thriller. The Focus isn’t on what the characters will do next or what they’ll see next, but instead what will happen to them next. These are essentially Character-Driven stories where the characters don’t have control over what happens to them (for the most part) and don’t decide what they’re doing. Generally, horror stories are Plot-Driven; you watch a horror movie waiting to see how the next person dies (or, in simpler terms, how the next plot event happens).

Now, again, all of these distinctions are not exclusive; characters will always influence your stories, just as setting and plot will. However, the prominence of these elements in your writing is important to your stories and your style as a writer, and being aware of them is another solid step towards looking clearly at any piece you’re putting together and considering its composition honestly.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll add here that when I list a story’s stats, I list Focus on a ranking system (literally as “1-,2-,3-” to denote an order of Focus [which feels more accurate]).

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Thanks for reading, and again, 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

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 1: Genre and Subgenre

There’s not much I can tell you that you don’t already know about genre and subgenre. The former is a broader classification and the latter is more specific. Both are categories into which your book fits.

But is that really all that they are? Are they the serious afterthought they generally seem to be? Or a small facet of that initial spark when you realized, “I want to write Fantasy [Sci-Fi/Mystery/etc.]!”

Well, according to me, of course genre and subgenre are more than that. They’re your story’s character class.

Genre: It’s Like Choosing a Character Class

I promise I won’t spend the next few weeks relating each of my Fantasy Story Stats to D&D; I understand that not everyone has played it and that’s cool. But what I’m getting at here will make sense to anyone who’s played a video game—or any game—with character classes.

For the sake of this article being remotely interesting, I’m going to assume you understand what character classes are—that you’ve played something where you sat considering a collection of archetypes and abilities. You may consider all the different kinds of classes in the game you’re playing, weighing the Warrior’s abilities against the Rogue’s. Or, if you’re like me, you either read all of the Rogue’s abilities and select them without even looking at the other classes, or you skip the whole reading part. Either way, you look at what’s out there and you decide what suits you—what abilities you can work with. To a very simple degree, deciding what genre to write works the same way. The comparison isn’t perfect but that’s in part because, as writers, we usually make this decision very early on without much consideration—I’ve known I wanted to write fantasy instead of anything else since grade school.

Where this comparison gets more complicated and more interesting is not in how your chosen class relates to you but how it relates to everyone else. If you choose a warrior, everyone’s going to expect basic actions from you at the very least; you’re supposed to have high strength, for example. It’s not absolutely essential, but it’s a general facet of your chosen class and the people you’re playing with will expect it and make decisions based on your choice.

The same can be said of your audience. If you choose Fantasy as your genre, they’re going to expect Fantasy and at least a few of the genre’s standard elements. And the use of those elements will dictate how you interact with your audience—what your story does as part of the genre (what subgenre it fits into, to be oblique). Do you want to use fantasy races? The generic set or ones of your own making? Do you want to use a magic system? Do you want to use a very simple and vague one that will compliment the tone of your story, or do you want an incredibly original or complex one grounded in reality that readers can relate to? Of course, there are no demands that you use any of these elements, but very likely you are, because if you don’t use magic/special powers, dragons, fantastic monsters, fantasy races, or any other element of the genre at all, you’re may not be writing fantasy anymore. And to say it directly and in a useful way, if you expect to write Fantasy effectively (or any other genre) and use its elements to properly convey your story t expectant readers, it’s important to read up on the genre.

Because just as you won’t understand what you’re capable of in combat if you don’t read a character class’s description, you absolutely won’t know what you’re capable of in your own writing if you don’t spend a good amount of your time reading; it’s incredibly easy to just shrug and say, “I’ve got this,” without doing research, but there’s no way you can possibly know how good your story is if you’ve never read any other stories.

Particularly, you can’t fathom the impact of that one series you really love if you don’t read a different series by a different author. It’s like being a kid and having your introduction to Street Fighter being this match:

(Apologies if you hate eSports or Street Fighter).

The point is though, suppose you see that and you immediately try Street Fighter. Who are you going to pick? Well, Daigo used Ken and you admire the hell out of Daigo now, so chances are… you’re picking Ken. Even if you wind up using someone else all the time, you’re probably starting with Ken.

Consider then that picking up a single Fantasy series when you’re young (as we all have) and sticking with only that one is just like picking Ken in this hypothetical situation, only about a billion times worse. Because Street Fighter gets boring if you only choose the one guy. However, epic fantasy novels are generally a thousand pages long with multiple installments, equaling a ton of reading time. It’s incredibly easy to choose the one series and stick with it (out of love and a usually fierce loyalty). That’s fine for the common reader, but it’s terrible for writers.

Because, at worst, you’re doing everything the one writer does without realizing that it’s making you derivative; you’re using every fantasy element that author used to achieve the same goals because you literally don’t know anything else. At best, you’re trying to go with characters, themes and dialogue that are a direct opposite of those in your favorite series, thus still letting it dictate your writing.

Maybe this is common sense—maybe you already know all of this. But maybe you haven’t read enough of your genre to know every facet of it—to know everything you’re capable of, to know the ideas that already exist and might work well with your writing, or to see enough of it to know which ideas you want your story to subvert.

Subgenre: It’s Like Expressing Yourself

Everything I just said above winds up being more important when you decide on a subgenre. I don’t want to spend too much time on those points because I’d be repeating myself, but I will summarize; the elements that I mentioned above (dragons, races, magic, etc.) all play major roles in helping you decide your genre (Epic or High Fantasy, for example, is very likely going to have strong magic while Superhero fiction isn’t going to have any). As with genre, considering these elements is important and finding the subgenre that they fit with is essential to being the strongest Fantasy writer you can be.

So, instead of repeating myself, I’d rather make a distinction between the two. As this short list represents (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Fantasy_genres), Fantasy subgenre is a big place that’s open to expression. And that, right there, is the distinction. Categorically speaking, at least. If Fantasy is a huge wall displaying all of the possible elements you can use and stories you can tell, your fantasy subgenre should be a clear indication of those choices. Not just as an indication for browsing fantasy readers, but as a personal emblem (because, among Fantasy genres, it’s a given that we write Fantasy, so subgenre becomes the actual distinction that matters). You should be able to look back at your story, find the subgenre of your choice, and assign it with pride.

But in that order; if picking your genre came so naturally and involuntarily that it happened before you even knew you wanted to write, then deciding what subgenre you fit into should come after the entire process is over; after you’ve come up with a story, characters, and perhaps written something—then you should decide on your subgenre. Because, if you choose one first, it might put its own blinders on you, making you write for the subgenre, not for you or your story. And just as you don’t want to accidentally be derivative of that one author you admire, you don’t want to set boundaries for your plots before you’ve even begun. Remember, genre and subgenre, as classifications (particular on this list), are tools for you to use. The elements and concepts that come with them are fuel for your creative fire.

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Well, I think that’s a start. As a standard for these Story Stat articles, I’ll leave you with the stats for my novel so far.

War of Exiles

Genre…               Fantasy

Subgenre…         Dark Fantasy

RED Comics #2 – There and Back Again

Disclaimer: RED Comics are written and assembled by Louis Santiago using screen caps from DVD’s. All issues of RED are free; they are made as non-profit entertainment by a man who loves to distract himself from his writing. However, the RED name / logo and the Louis Santiago logo (aka my own face) are creative property of Louis Santiago. Enjoy!

RED Comics #1 – A Game of Checkers

Disclaimer: RED Comics are written and assembled by Louis Santiago using screen caps from DVD’s. All issues of RED are free; they are made as non-profit entertainment by a man who loves to distract himself from his writing. However, the RED name / logo and the Louis Santiago logo (aka my own face) are creative property of Louis Santiago. Enjoy!