Today's topic is the intersection of two major themes: "tone as presentation" and "tone as storytelling". The former refers to the sense-based qualities of the work - its artistic style, its costuming, its use of sights and sounds, and so on. The latter refers to the nature of the setting, and the way people act and react to it. Both are important in creating a tone, and the closer together they can get, the less dissonance the audience will feel - although the matching of presentation and storytelling can certainly be useful in more ways than that. But what constitutes "tone", and more importantly what sort of concepts lead to it being "sensible" or not?
Storytelling and Tone
Storytelling, as mentioned, refers to events within the setting, and also how characters respond to those events. For example, the concepts of fear and risk are a major part of setting tone - it's hard to take a setting seriously as being "dangerous" or "unpleasant" when the characters don't act like it is and when the story doesn't support it. Likewise, a series that claims to be lighthearted and simple would find its assumption quickly challenged if characters started dying off and the darker aspects of the psyche were explored. Generally, if these things don't match up, the series begins to feel fake and unnatural (if it was meant to be natural) or twisted and misinterpreted (if it wasn't).
The value of a "realistic" tone is that it can strike very close to home in ways that escapist fantasy cannot, and it can create doubt and fear within the audience that leads to a greater sense of trepidation and tension. This is what many gritty writers attempt to go for. However, if that concept is marginalized or weakened by contradiction, the effect ought to be undermined. A good writer can mask this, at least for a time, but eventually the contradictions will be noticed - hopefully long after the work is completed.
The value of an "escapist" or "fantastic" tone, on the other hand, is that it doesn't worry the audience. Things end up well for the heroes, good wins in the end, and so on. It's not meant to be an important life lesson - it's just a fun little romp. It's meant to make the audience feel good, or powerful, or any number of positive emotions. It may not breed the same kind of sympathetic pain and loss, but it produces other emotions that are reasonably valid.
What bothers me, though, is when a dark or serious concept (a realistic tone) doesn't apply to the protagonists (an escapist tone). To me, this undermines the main goal of the concept by taking the people the audience is meant to care about and separating them from a source of tension and sympathy. Obviously there's some leeway for the whole concept of "you can't tell a story unless you survived it", but in general if protagonists and non-protagonists are being judged by different meta-rules, but are acting like they're being treated the same, it's going to feel fake. This is a concept of fairness and equality: sympathy should be doled out according to the potential for danger, and if that danger doesn't exist, the sympathy should go with it.
What happens a lot with storytelling, I feel, is that the need to assume traditional structures - an epic quest of monumental importance, with powerful protagonists who are much stronger, or at least less in danger, than any "normal" person - is making things, by default, unfair. This is a concept that results when some people are just intrinsically better than others. Certainly there can be justifications for it - a veteran soldier who has been through countless wars should be considered at least marginally better than the average goblin - but it's still basically an unfair setup. Ask yourself this: if the story was about anyone else, would you still accept it? Would you accept the protagonists running into another group of "heroes" and being effortlessly slaughtered, not because of logical reasons but because of contextual reasons you had no reason to know existed?
Not every story wants to be realistic or dark. There's always room for Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, which exist in a somewhat realistic, but primarily "heroic" work. However, thinking of the characters logically, there should be an explanation for why they're more powerful. I'm sure that the brave soldiers of Rohan and Gondor are eager to know why they can die from an arrow or a sword wound when untrained hobbits like Merry and Pippin have managed to survive much worse, and in the same way I'm sure all the veteran Rebel soldiers would like to know how Luke survived his trip through the Death Star despite being a farmboy with no combat skills.
This is the "logical setup" of a realistic work: to make victories feel earned, rather than given. Again, this can be ignored for the sake of the narrative and tone, but in essence I feel that making those characters feel real or developed is going to call attention to that imbalance. I specifically chose those two examples because both were based on "being real people", and the difference between the protagonists as "real people" and non-protagonists as "real people" comes down to a system that does not exist in-universe.
In terms of tone, the issue is one of risk and fear: is death scary, and is it plausible? If a work is meant to have a serious tone, the answer to both questions should be yes. If it's only "yes" for non-protagonists, that's a double standard - especially when the serious parts of the setting are meant to apply to both groups. The greater the difference, the more disconcerting it's going to be. I'd say that original Star Wars got away with the difference because for the most part it felt like the protagonists were in danger, even though they weren't in a meta-contextual sense. In the prequels, there is neither fear nor risk, which separates the protagonists from the much more humanized (and yet not enough) clone troopers.
So to sum this part up, basically it's fine to have things be lighthearted, and it's fine to have things be realistic, but once you start mixing them together it's probably going to result in an unequal situation that attempts to judge both "vulnerable" and "invulnerable" characters by the same standards, or more commonly being severely upset by the death of a major character and, at worst, slightly irritated by the death of a minor one.
Design and Tone
So now you've got your concept of storytelling tone. You know if you want to make things silly or serious, and you know if you want to make situations dangerous or tame. If you want to make things lighthearted, then you don't really have to worry about whether your design is believable or not - anything will do, because you're already expressing a disinterest in consequential logic. Sure, you can use any of the things I've talked about, such as armor design or clothing utility, to make the setting more immersive, but it's not a particularly huge deal.
On the other hand, in a serious work, believability is key. Here's why: believability represents logic working at its most optimal level. It is the ultimate expression of things making sense, and without it you get questions like:
- "Why didn't he just ____?"
- "Really? Did he just get away with ____?"
- "Do you really expect me to believe that he ____?"
- "Are you kidding me? He just ____! He can't ____ after he ____ and his skull comes clean off!"
Believability is about setting things up in such a way that they make sense. This brings it into conflict with setting things up in a way that they look genre-standard but don't make any sense. For example, when I talk about armor, I'm talking about optimization as well as senses. If you have giant holes in your armor, you should expect to be stabbed there. This is based on a two-part logic: First, the logic of the stabber, which is "there is a hole there, I should stab it because this is the obvious thing to do", and second, the logic of the stabbed, which is "I don't want to be stabbed there, perhaps I should put something between my flesh and an offending object".
This is what I mean by logic. Light-hearted or escapist fantasy doesn't care - it doesn't matter what parts of my body I armor, because I'm not going to get hit in a non-armored part anyways. But it also makes less danger. In contrast, having more sensible armor establishes that there is a level of danger, and it's such that the character is doing something to avoid exposing themselves to that danger. If you're going into battle in sensible armor, then it at least shows you cared enough to do something to reduce the amount of danger you're going to be in. If you're going into battle in non-sensible armor, not only should you expect to have that weakness exploited, but in addition, if it's NOT exploited, then you've pretty much established your foes as being completely incompetent.
The same thing applies to something like a lightsaber. Is it the best choice for fighting in that situation? If not, why are you using it? Sometimes these things can be explained as a matter of honor or necessity, but essentially using a ridiculous weapon or wearing ridiculous armor creates a gap. We are meant to believe that this person is invested in their success and their continued health, and yet they are using something that is not leading them to victory for the sake of "looking good". Would this be acceptable in real life? Would you say to a firefighter, "You know, you could wear all your protective gear and rescue me easily, but on the other hand you could take it off and go in anyways and endanger both our lives so that you don't have to look all clunky and weird"?
When it comes down to it, this is how logic works: are the characters doing everything they can to win? If yes, then it establishes that the characters fear loss and death. If not, it makes them seem like they don't care. "Why didn't they just ____" is not only a question of sensible storywriting, but it's also a question of a character's role in the series. In "Huckleberry Finn", there is a part where Tom Sawyer specifically undermines Huck's efforts to free Jim because "it's more exciting". I cannot think of a more perfect metaphor for what I am talking about, and it's telling that Twain used this moment to express his developed dislike for Tom's sense of adventure and need for conflict.
Presentation and Tone
This is a much less "realistic or unrealistic" aspect than the previous issues, because this is an issue of representation and style, not of design or characterization. I've touched on the importance of an artistic style before, but I'd like to also tie it into this current examination of tone. To sum up that article: the way a universe is represented can affect how people think about it and how they extrapolate new information or settings. If you make it so that cover art is bright and cheerful or grim and dreary, the rest of the book is probably going to be envisioned that way. This is why a bad cover can end up being so damaging, and good art can be supportive. Here's some examples of art influencing a work:
- A Series of Unfortunate Events. The art and story are both meant to be grim and dreary, but also evocative of a certain set of sensibilities, possibly connected to the words "creaky", "antique", and "Victorian". This art brilliantly helps frame the mood and tone of the story by reinforcing the same sort of things that are meant to be taking place. This mood worked so well that even the movies emulated it, creating a visible artistic style while still transferring the book's world to live actors.
- Bioshock. While there was certainly praise for the story and the gameplay, I would say that most of Bioshock's reception was due to its iconic art deco style and visually stunning environments. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the game would not be nearly as popular or well-thought-of without it, because presentation was used to mask the linear storyline and relatively constrained gameplay in such a way that most players didn't mind. If the game was released just with the nuts and bolts - with a very basic or simple visual style - I have no doubt in my mind that it would have been barely noticed.
- Tales of Symphonia. While at some points the art and story of ToS match up perfectly - a cartoonish, goofy game where characters crack bad jokes like it ain't no thang - the game occasionally tries to introduce more serious or "important" topics like oppression, murder, and genocide. This is kind of hard to do in a game where everyone looks like this. To be fair, ToS ends up being a lot less about "presentation dissonance" and a lot more about "story dissonance" (we're supposed to take it seriously when the lovable goofball who uses two swords because "that's double the attack power, right?" is trying to save the world) but I think the art also plays a pretty important role. It sets the standards as being somewhat goofy and unrealistic, which is fine, but then it tries to delve into serious things and treat them in a serious manner, which is at odds with the way things are presented.
- The Lord of the Rings movies used a lot of real props and designs (versus the more CGI-heavy bent of recent years) to create weapons and armor that seemed very tangible and believable. While I certainly appreciated this as a fan of such things, I also felt that it occasionally made the unrealistic or heroic aspects a bit harder to take. The armor certainly seems solid, so it makes me wonder why none of the protagonists ever choose to wear any (apart from Gimli, who is comedy relief in the film). Furthermore, the realistic nature of the armor is occasionally undermined by something like an arrow passing right through plate and mail without even slowing down. The design is there in spirit and I appreciate it for that, but the storytelling and events simply do not match up to it.
The recurring theme is that an artistic style affects the way people think about a world, whether it's hard and real or soft and fantastic. An artistic style can make or break a concept. It can reinforce realism and grittiness, or it can make things feel unrealistic and intangible. It can be visually stimulating even as a "side attraction", or it can be so dull and boring that people refuse to get involved. In essence, artistic choice and proper usage of a given artist's style is as important to establishing tone as decisions made about the setting and story itself.
Now we have three pieces. We have story, we have design, and we have presentation. To make a truly serious work, all three must be equally connected. Of them, "presentation" is the most subjective, and is hence given the most leeway, but also creates more of an abstract sense of design that makes a product unique. In this way those three things can be seen as sides of a scale. Story is the most concrete, because events are generally logical and based off of logical conclusions. Design is a bit less, because there's still room for personal expression while making something sensible or believable. Presentation is the most abstract, because what defines an artistic style as being "serious" or "fantastic" is less definable than what makes a story such.
So, To Sum Up:
1) "Tone" consists of an aggregate product of the logical and sense-related aspects of a setting or product.
2) One aspect of tone is based around how the story is fashioned and events are portrayed.
3) Another aspect of tone is based around the design of objects in-universe.
4) A third aspect of tone comes from artistic choices and decisions and how they reflect on the work.
5) If these aspects match up, a more seamless universe can be created.