When we Marauders came together (virtually) to elect this week’s craft topic, it was an easy, almost obvious selection.
Were someone to ask you to write a fairytale, commonly you’d begin “Once upon a time…” end “And they lived happily ever after (or not)” and carry on in the middle sounding… well, fairytaley.
So, what is it that makes a fairytale sound fairytaley?
To break it down, I, Alex-of-limited-knowledge-but-moderate-intellect, would say it draws its fairytaleishness from the choice of (1) technical point of view (POV) (I’ll come back to that), (2) tone (that, too), and (3) content.
Three, content, most simply, traditionally tends toward the moralistic by way of grotesque.
That leaves us to examine, with greater interest in terms of craft, points one and two.
I write “technical POV” (See? I told you I’d come back to it) rather than simply “POV” because I’m in the midst of a provoking writerly book called Story Genius (How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel) by Lisa Cron.
Cron, quite usefully I think, distinguishes worldview and [technical] point of view, claiming that we tend to talk and learn at length of the latter as if we are conflating it with the former—without really talking about the former at all.
(And you’re all like, Huh?)
Technical POV is the stylistic choice of the writer to use first, second, or third person point of view (I’m confused; you’re confused; she’s confused, respectively).
Worldview, on the other hand, Cron tells us belongs strictly to the main character, the protagonist. It is “the lens through which your protagonist will see and evaluate everything in your novel. It’s her story-specific point of view … The good news is that her point of view—her worldview—is exactly the same whether you’re writing in the first, second, or third person” (emphasis added).
So, even if, in the technical terms of writing, you’ve got sizable psychic distance between reader/narrator and protagonist (by way of a distant, omniscient third person point of view), the psychic distance between you (the writer) and your protagonist must shrink to pretty much nil. (Psychic distance simply meaning how closely the reader/narrator/writer is experiencing a character’s mental processes.) Understand your protagonist’s interpretive lens and you will understand and be able to write the logic with which she moves through the world.
Perhaps it seems I’ve departed significantly from the topic of fairytaleness, but hang in there, because it’s all going to glom together in a tasty treat of brain-candy (or something).
So, one, your protagonist will always have a subjective worldview.
Two, it will be expressed differently based on the author’s stylistic choice of POV—first, second or third person.
And, three, this stylistic choice will also affect the tone of the story.
Tone, succinctly defined by Wonderbook’s Jeff Vandermeer, is “the atmosphere created and mood evoked” by a piece—be it gothic, wry, playful, serious, creepy… you get the picture. It finds itself in the choice of words and their rhythms on the page, and this can cause tone to fluctuate greatly in any given piece.
So, is “fairytale” an overall tone achieved with the right fluctuations in the right places?
(One part grotesque + two parts creepy, serious and foreboding + a dash of magic + a pinch of wry humor + a distant 3rd person POV)
Is it something else?
It was a fun thing to play with while attacking last week’s “something fairytale” prompt, but I also found myself playing with reader expectations surrounding the traditional third person POV.
(If you haven’t read it, give it a gander or this last part won’t make any sense.)
I wanted to end on the wry revelation that the narrator is not your typical omniscient fairytale third, but is located, in fact, in a barely mentioned character of the story, a character with a very subjective worldview. A character, whose revelation, begs the reader reexamine whose story it is they are truly reading.
(It was purely an experiment, but did it work? I would love to hear in the comments. Whose story do you think it is?)
Now let’s turn to Megan, who has some excellent insight into making sense of tone…
FRIEND OR FOE, WHO THE HELL WOULD KNOW?
Let’s talk about the murky recesses of tone. First of all, what the heck is it?
The easiest way to understand tone is to view it as an author’s attitude toward his or her story. Is it humorous? Grave? Wistful?
Bingo. You have tone.
Tone in fairy tales is especially intriguing because it is accompanied with a POV that is oftentimes very detached, and yet we are drawn in. Why is this? How can this possibly work? Well, anyone who has read the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen can tell you it does. And it works because of one tiny trick: tone.
Usually, tone is established immediately in fairy tales, cuing the audience members in as to what, exactly, they should expect from the story. In essence it acts like a contract, whispering promises and suggesting interesting times ahead. Take “Hansel and Gretel,” which opens with these words: “Next to a great forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children. The boy’s name was Hansel and the girl’s name was Gretel” (Grimm and Grimm). From this opening, we immediately understand that the family’s poverty will create obstacles for little Hansel and Gretel; thus, tension is born. We step willfully into the contract with Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, expecting strife for the poor siblings within the forest’s setting—and, really, what better place for a child-eating witch to live?
Establishing tone can be a tricky business, especially if you are beginning a story without a definite idea of where it will be headed. After all, nothing is more annoying that when a story’s tone dramatically and inexplicably switches. Word choice is the easiest way to establish this writing tool and to keep it consistent, mostly due to readers’ connotations. Likewise, choosing your descriptions carefully can augment or detract from tone. Setting also plays a huge part:
Imagine you are in a white room. There is no furniture, no portraits or tapestries on the walls. It is sparkling clean, not a single paint chip out of place.
Personally, this makes me think of a room in an insane asylum. But to a “neat freak” or a decorator it would be an opportunity for a haven. As you can see, setting—and, more decidedly, atmosphere—can hugely impact tone.
The attitude with which a writer reflects upon her writing has the ability to seep through the pages and into the minds of readers. Tone may be one of your greatest allies in writing, but she can be one hell of a bitch if you misuse her.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. “Hansel and Gretel.” University of Pittsburgh, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm015.html. Accessed 16 Sept. 2016.