Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Great Purge, Day 7: The Entire Tone Section!

So here are the facts, people: If we’re going to cut 20 questions, then we need to get drastic. And what could be more drastic than lopping off one of our seven skills?

On trial: The entire “Tone” section of the checklist!

Why it was added: Tone is one of the least-discussed aspects of writing, but it’s one of the most important. Tone is how you control your audience’s overall experience and enjoyment. In some ways, controlling your tone is even more important than having a compelling hero: If your audience loves your tone, you’ve got them where you want them, even if everything else about your story sucks.

Which questions were those again?
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
 Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
 Is the story limited to one sub-genre (or multiple sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors)?
 Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?

Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
 Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?

Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
 Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
 Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?

Deliberations: So each of these is vitally important, but are they actually useful questions to ask? As I’ve done my checklists, I’ve found these to be some of the most annoying questions to answer. Many of the questions have un-illuminating answers (identifying the genre and sub-genres). Some are phrased so oddly that few stories say yes. Some are phrased so vaguely that few stories can say no.

The verdict: So here’s where I admit something: I’ve already cut this chapter from the book. The book was just too damn long, and a whole chapter needed to go to get the page count down, so I finally just lopped this out in an impetuous moment. But now I have some remorse. For the rest of this project, let’s look for questions we may want to rescue from this section and move to other sections.

But first I’ll open it up to you. How useful is this section to you? If we lose the whole thing, which questions would you miss the most?


James Kennedy said...

Too bad that you're cutting this. My top questions I think you should keep are "satisfy basic human urges," "unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor," "open questions," "dramatic question," "characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero," and "reversible behaviors." ("Set-up and payoff" is so basic that if you're not doing it, no checklist will help you.)

Brian Malbon said...

This is hard, because while these questions aren't maybe needed to trek a good story, I think they're absolutely necessary to tell a great story. This is the section I tend to refer back to after I'm finished writing. If I look at the books/movies I love the most, they all answer most or all of these questions. Especially the questions about set-up and payoff, reversible behaviors and foreshadowing I think are essential.

Maybe a sequel?

Brian Malbon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian McLachlan said...

I think the questions about mood and genre were not super important as checklist items. Some stories jump around mood and genres and it works fine. Especially if you look to something like Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow films where you can jump between comedy, melodrama, action, moralizing messaging, serious crime, love story, etc. The American audiences may cringe or laugh at times about the un-evenness of the tone, but for some audiences it's expected that story will contain a variety of moods and genres. And sometimes you can get away with it in America too. It can be a fruitful way to break new ground.

If you keep one question from this section, I think it would be
"Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?"
I think of Robert J Sawyers point on Star Wars. If George Lucas had thought about his droids, (bought, sold, restrained like slaves), he might have had Ben Kenobi stand up for them when they were told their kind was not allowed in an establishment. Although the movie had no African Americans on screen, they had a very clear metaphorical stand-in, and the heroes ignored the issue, perhaps suggesting the audience not think too hard about it either.

Over all, I found all the framing questions to be really useful and smart. You cataloged a lot of ideas that I hadn't seen put into words before. Maybe they don't have to be there as questions, but as elements in a toolbox that are very useful but not essential to good story.

I especially like:
Are open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story
(which I think can be combined into one)

and then these specific points on foreshadowing:
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?

Steve said...

I agree with your decision to cut.

The most useful questions on that list for me were:

Consistent mood;
are the physics of the world established early and maintained;
the nature of the stakes;
framing devices (to some extent); and
set-up and pay-off.

MCP said...

I think everyone's opinion will be fairly personal when it comes to cutting or keeping things from the list. Because some things which seem basic to one writer might be very difficult for another. I have personally found this section maybe the most valuable, even something that sounds elementary like 'set-up and payoff' is framed in very helpful ways within the article itself. Obviously there is some sort of directive from the publisher to cut pages, but the entire checklist is a massive achievement and I hate to see you remove portions that might help someone in the future.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

For what it's worth, here's input from yet another Internet Rando:

The first two genre questions can go, absolutely. Items three, four, and five could be blended into one, or pulled out of the checklist entirely. They make a good point on the nature of genre, but don't have to be in a "great story" checklist. They're more focused on applying genre well, which is a subset of good storytelling.

The mood questions can all go. The first one feels inaccurate to me, as many great stories shift mood. The second and third are redundant in light of general guidance on good writing.

The framing questions are a mixed bag. The first two and the last one strike me as very important. (You could fuse the second and the last, too, making it one "dramatic question" item.) The rest, I believe, are not. They can be helpful, but you can get away without them, especially if you address those items elsewhere in the book. "Setup/payoff" is a vital technique, but it's not really a checklist-style element. Framing devices can be folded in under a setting question easily. Foreshadowing, prefiguring characters, and reversible behaviors are good skills to know but aren't necessary. (Also, they're among the most annoying when used badly. I'm of the opinion that a poorly executed "reversed behavior" is one of the most groan-inducing items one can find in a story.)

Out of the sixteen, my recommendation is to cut it to three: the genre question rollup basically saying "follow genre conventions, not totally, address genre's unrealities;" the open questions in the first half; and the dramatic question item, fusing the "is there a dramatic question" with "does it get answered."

The fusions are kind of a cheat, I know. Un-fused, the list would be six: three genre, three framing.

Matt Bird said...

Nothing wrong with fusions!

Thanks so much everybody for your thoughtful engagement with this stuff. The first candidate for re-inclusion goes up tonight.