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Jul 16, 2010

Capturing Tone And Assaulting It With Your Mighty Fists

A day or two ago, Scott Bailey, over at The Literary Lab, had a post on tone, which I found very helpful, and I've been meaning to discuss it.

The book I'm working on now is a stand-alone fantasy, but since I had also planned a series for this world, the world-building is already quite rich. I have a bible filled with maps, histories, magics and legends. I know how they dress and what they eat. This is one reason I decided it was worth the effort to re-write rather than walk away from this series.

But how does this relate to tone?

From the start, and I mean the from teeniest, earliest spark of an idea I ever had for this story, I started knowing what kind of world I wanted and the tone I wanted to write the books in. In fact, my idea about the tone may even have been the FIRST thing I decided upon. Even though I had no idea to call it "tone."

Huh? A story idea can start with a character, or a plot, or a setting. Even a theme. But a tone?

Here's why. My original inspiration, and what has guided me since in writing this particular series, was Tibetan and Indian mythology, particularly epics such as the Mahabharata or the Blue Annals. As Scott says, "A lot of mythological writing is hyperbole. Ain't that a surprise? Hyperbole is also commonly used nowadays for comic effect."

The epics employ hyperbole at every level, and I thought it would be interesting to write a fantasy in the same manner. It would be easy to do so if I were writing straight comedy. But I wasn't interested in writing pure satire or farce. I do have humorous scenes and droll characters, even a bit of slapstick, and I hope they come across as amusing to the reader as to me when I was writing them. I wanted the humor to be like that in an Indiana Jones flick: there to balance the scenes with icky bugs or hearts being ripped out or people jumping out of airplanes.

The danger in using hyperbole is that it can slide toward the comic even when the author doesn't want it too. Melodrama is difficult for modern readers to take seriously. Because I'm writing in the fantasy genre, where magic is real and readers expect to find the outrageous conflated with the ordinary, I hope it will be possible to strike the right balance.

As an example, I have two passages. The first is from the Mahabharata, in which our bold hereos, the Pandava brothers, fight a rakshasa (ogre) named Kirmira. I've condensed it, because they tend to go on and on in places. The fight scene is pretty awesome, though, and I wish I could quote it in full.

"It is my good fortune," said Kirmira, "that the Gods after such a long time have fulfilled my desire here today! For I have been roaming the entire earth with my weapons ready to kill Bhimasena, but I did not find him. And now by good fortune I have come across him, the killer of my brother... the fool has come to my own dense wood! Today I shall wreak upon him the grudge I have harbored for so long... this very day I shall devour him, before your own eyes... and after I have killed the Wolf-Belly [the hero's nickname] with all his brimming vigor, I shall eat and digest him, as Agastya once did with the great Asura!"

"You shall not!" The strong-armed Bhima quickly uprooted a tree ten armspans tall and stripped it of its leaves. [The other brothers ready their weapons, but Bhima commands them to stay out of the fight.] Armed with his tree, Bhima ran to him nimbly. Another Indra, he lowered his club like the staff of Yama with swift force on the other's head, but the rakshasa appeared unconcerned. He hurled at Bhima his lighted firebrand like flaming lightning, but that greatest of fighters kicked the cast-up torch back to the rakshasa with his left foot. ....

There began a tree fight that spared no tree, as of yore between the brothers Vali and Surgiva, when the both wanted the fortune. The trees that fell on their heads splintered in many pieces, as lotuses that are hurled at the heads of rutting elephants. Withered like reeds, the many trees of the great forest looked like discarded tatters.

[After they run out of trees, they start throwing rocks. Finally, they grapple one another mano-a-mano.]

The Wolf-Belly [aka, our hero] planted his knee on the rakshasa's hips and pressed down with his hands on his throat: then, when all the demon's body had gone limp and his wide-open eyes became filmed, he cast him to the ground and said, "You will no more rinse your eyes with tears over your brother, miscreant! You are gone now to Yama's domain!"

And having thus spoken, that hero of men, eyes widened by rage, to that rakshasa, he let go of the quivering, lifeless corpse, bared of clothes and adornment, empty of mind.

Great stuff, isn't it?

I can hardly compete with prose penned by the deity Ganesh, whose brain is as big as an elephant's, but anyway, here's my take on rakshasas. This is not a fight scene (maybe I'll post one latter), but this is the scene that introduces rakshasas to the reader.

Two rakshasas guarded the spiked iron gates of Hoxja’s mansion. Jivad had met them before, and he always found them intimidating. These creatures were towers of muscle, eight feet high. One had the head of a boar and skin the color of gushing blood, covered with coarse black hair. His appearance was especially striking because, in addition to his bright coloration and massive hairy thighs, he wore little besides a bone harness and codpiece, cleverly and gruesomely fashioned from a human skull. He also had four arms, with which he clutched an ax, a whip, a sword and a morning star. Jivad had seen him in action, and knew no weapon was superfluous.

The other rakshasa looked less imposing at first glance. No one with green skin and the head of a frog could look entirely serious, no matter how his bugging yellow eyes glared. Also, he had three arms, which made him look lopsided. Two of his arms brandished shuriken. The third hand he kept tucked behind him, to hide his latest book, nearly always a belle-lettre or volume of love poetry. His tastes in literature ran sentimental. It would have been a mistake to think him less than dangerous, however. His skin glistened with poison. Before he threw one of his shuriken, he would wipe the throwing star against his own chest, coating it with slime that caused the victim immense pain. His tongue was bathed in a second poison, even more potent, that dissolved flesh. Jivad had once seen him lick a man to death.

Rakshasas had a reputation for cannibalism, but this was unfair. They only dined habitually on humans, seldom on other rakshasas.

The rakshasas did not know Jivad was in disgrace, and greeted him with friendly salutes.

Okay, that's pretty dull compared to the Mahabharata. Maybe I should have posted a fight scene after all. Damn.

Excitement level aside, the main difference in tone between the passages, I believe, is that in the second case, the author could not refrain from making a few tongue-in-cheek observations absent from the first passage. I could be wrong, but I don't think the fight between Bhima and Kirmira was supposed to be humorous. In context, the monster-slaying is not frivolous at all; a sage tells the story to warn a king not to allow the ill-will between the Pandava brothers and their cousins to fester, because the Pandavas are mighty warriors and will kick their cousins' asses if it comes to a war, which, eventually, it does, and they do. And the whole kingdom is left in splinters, just like the great forest at the end of this fight. So here you thought this was another Bhima-kills-the-beast-of-the-week scene when in fact it foreshadows the Bhagavad-gita! Wow!

(I realize if you have no idea what the Bhagavad-gita is, you might wonder why this is wow-worthy. If I tried to explain the Bhagavad-gita, I would only damn it with faint praise. It's kind of the Sermon on the Mount of Hinduism. Deep, deep stuff.)

However, shallow n00b that I am, I tend to giggle whenever I read these monster-battles in the Mahabharata. They strike me as really funny. How much more ridiculous must my own versions be?

This is where humor comes in as a weapon. Anticipating the risk of derision on the part of the reader, the author inserts jokes and irony to ambush the reader's laughter. This stratagem should disarm the reader's cynicism, by allowing the reader to both laugh at the scene and still thrill at the conflict.


Michelle D. Argyle said...

Tara, I love you so much! I love your blog and all your posts, but I have to apologize that I haven't been over here much. I've been so swamped with other things lately. All that real-life stuff, you know. I just want you to know that I'm happy you're back in the blogosphere for awhile. It makes me smile. :) Please forgive me for not getting to every post. I do read them!

scott g.f.bailey said...

This is all very cool. I like the point at the end about using humor deliberately to defuse the reader's laughter. A lot of times, right before a very dramatic scene that I think might veer towards melodramatic, I have a joke. Hopefully it catches the reader off guard and makes what follows seem serious and less preposterous.

I was thinking about Homer today, and also John Milton and the idea of epic stories, tales that are much bigger than real life. These are important stories, culturally, and while we laugh at others' mythologies, we don't laugh at our own. I wonder why that is, and how you get someone to buy into a new ridiculous mythology (since all myths are ridiculous even while they inspire awe).

I attempted once to write a sort of supernatural mystery story, but the supernatural element was either too lame or too overwhelming unbelievable. I never got the right balance. I think it might have had to do with the tone of the whole work, though. Something to think about. Thanks for all these thoughtful posts you've been writing.

Tara Maya said...

@Michelle: Thanks! I have three little rakshasas at home. I completely understand. I realize a lot of people have vacations and whatnot during the summer. I'm trying to get in as many blog posts as I can now, since I will probably be on hiatus again beginning mid-August.

@Scott. I struggle with finding that balance.

Your question of how to get someone to buy into a new ridiculous mythology is an interesting one. In other people's works, one thing I notice is the authors themselves respect the mythos. Disrespect is especially obvious in movies, where the contempt of the writers/directors/someone for their material comes through in shoddy, illogical, inconsistent treatment of the mythos, setting or characters.

Contrast this with the level of detail and respect given to the world-building in Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, where the mythos has been embraced by readers/viewers.