Podcast

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 7: Misconceptions About Tone

See, I didn’t forget about it!
Tone is the most misunderstood aspect of writing...

What I Used to Think: A writer should write to please him or herself. 
  • What I Now Realize: A writer should write to please an audience.  (Hopefully, this will make the writer happy, too!) 
What I Used to Think: The audience wants to be shocked.
  • What I Now Realize: The audience wants to be astonished.
What I Used to Think: First and foremost, the audience wants the writer to defy expectations
  • What I Now Realize: The opposite is true: First and foremost, the audience wants the writer to create expectations.  Once those expectations have been created, the audience wants to the writer fulfill most of them and then upset a few of them. 
What I Used to Think: An audience will recommend your story to their friends based on what they think of the plot, the characters, the structure, the dialogue, the scenework, or the theme.
  • What I Now Realize: The audience recommends the story based on what urges it satisfies.
What I Used to Think: “Genre” refers primarily to a setting, or a subject matter, or the feeling of the story. 
What I Used to Think: A genre story should be primarily concerned with the details of that genre.
  • What I Now Realize: Great genre stories are metaphors for universal emotional experiences. A great vampire story isn’t about fangs and blood, it’s about our internal struggle between lust and self-control.  Great Westerns aren’t about horses, they’re about the struggle between our craving for individualism and our need for community. Even the most unrealistic genre stories should be metaphors for how things really feel. 
What I Used to Think: A genre-switch in the middle of the story makes for an exciting twist.
  • What I Now Realize: A genre-switch almost always alienates the audience. You’ve created expectations and now you need to fulfill them (or at least most of them).  TV shows like “Lost”  that switch genres abruptly infuriate fans. 
What I Used to Think: Once you’ve chosen a genre, you can freely mix and match every sub-genre within that genre.
  • What I Now Realize: Within a genre, some sub-genres can be combined, but others cannot.  Mixed-sub-genres often result in mixed metaphors.  Genre is a form of abstraction, and mixing genres or sub-genres can often leave you with an abstraction of an abstraction in which genre elements become disconnected from the real life emotions that they once represented.   
What I Used to Think: The audience is tired of genre clichés. 
  • What I Now Realize: Most clichés exist for good reasons, and audiences don’t mind them as long as they’re executed in a somewhat fresh way.  Every time you shed one, you must do so carefully, and accept that the audience is likely to complain that it’s missing.  Don’t just assume that they’re going to say, “Finally, a movie without that old cliché!”
What I Used to Think: Each genre implies a certain mood. 
  • What I Now Realize: The mood, such as light or dark, emotional or intellectual, funny or serious, is established independently of the genre such as in the title card of Star Wars (which subtly implies a “fairy tale” mood).
What I Used to Think: Each audience member will bring a unique and unpredictable set of expectation and assumptions to your story.  You can’t help it if it turns out that they wanted your story to be something that it wasn’t.
  • What I Now Realize: It’s possible to manage your audience’s expectations and reset their assumptions.  When re-writing your story, it’s very important to find out from your early readers about any assumptions they brought to your story, and which false expectations they formed as they read it, then re-write the beginning of your story accordingly.  
What I Used to Think: Foreshadowing is the author’s way of teasing the audience. 
  • What I Now Realize: Foreshadowing teases the audience, yes, but its primary purpose is to subtly reset the audience’s expectations.  It consciously prepares them for what might happen, and subconsciously steers them away from what won’t happen.

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