The Importance of Consistent Tone: A Brief Tangent

While I was working on my latest fanfic review, I found myself going off on a massive tangent about one of the most common ways I see fanfiction authors ruining stories: Realizing “late” that the main character “has it too easy” and destroying key aspects of the story’s appeal in an attempt to “fix” things.

This typically happens when an author has let their character one-up the villain too consistently and handily for that to be the driving source of interest in the story, so they suddenly give the villain a free boost without warning.

The problem is that by the time you finish Act 1 (or the 20,000 to 30,000 words that an Act 1 would take in a typical three-act novel at the 80,000 to 120,000 word length that professional editors require of first-time authors), the readers’ expectations have solidified. (And, if you’re writing a series, book 1 sets a marker which all future books in the series must not stray too far from.)

If your readers got that far and didn’t wander away, then something about the story works. Typically, it’s one (or both) of the following:

Possibility A: You’ve built an expectation sort of like a Saturday morning cartoon, where we all know the hero will win (and, for most stories that do this, that no “good guys” will suffer permanent harm).

In this case, it’s not about the outcome, but in how creative you are in letting the hero outplay the villain. (Personally, I’m especially partial to stories where a chessmaster villain’s plans are diverging wildly, and they can’t figure out why because they made one tiny-but-wrong assumption early on and it’s causing all of the logical reasoning they’ve been doing since then to take them further away from reality despite the influx of new data.)

This is also a common vehicle for humorous stories, where the villain having any significant success would run counter to the purpose of the story. (Also, think about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. It’s basically a sequence of jokes glued together with a token plot and with characters added to give a frame of reference… and it’s a classic.)

Possibility B: An alternative purpose for the story snuck up on you, such as bildungsroman or some kind of person vs. self conflict.

In this case, it’s pretty obvious why “fixing” it by helping the villain become more relevant would wreck things.

Either way, no matter how “easy a character had it”, you mustn’t betray the expectations cemented by what has come before. (You’ll make the story feel inconsistent and dissatisfy the readers who did read what has come before in an effort to please hypothetical people who are willing to either wade through chapters they don’t like or skip straight into the middle of the story.)

Another big problem of doing this is that making this mistake is part of the reason it’s as difficult as it is to get experienced readers to trust your writing enough to emotionally engage with a story with high stakes for the main character. If you get on an emotional rollercoaster and it sends you crashing into the ground, you’re going to be wary about getting onto the next one you see.

In fact, even professionally published authors can make this mistake.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire gave me a massive emotional shock when it betrayed the sense of “childhood innocence/things will always be OK in the end” and “Voldemort is No Heart from Care Bears” (ie. a Saturday morning cartoon villain) that the first three books had allowed me to develop… and that, combined with badly-written fanfiction is why, today, I don’t often emotionally engage with what I’m reading. I’ve been burned too many times to trust easily.

(And, honestly, I honestly suspect that Rowling’s year of writer’s block after Goblet of Fire is because it shattered her mental models too.)

…plus, at least when I’ve seen it happen in fanfiction, it also tends to make the story feel like “hardship porn”… where it feels as if you’re not doing it for any artistic merit, but merely because you get off on making your character suffer for no good reason.

That said, one excellent example of doing it so properly that I did ride the emotional roller coaster is a gripping sci-fi story named Days of Wasp and Spider which is technically a distant-past prequel to My Little Pony, but was intentionally written so that you only need to change the cover art to publish it for money. (Trivia: Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fanfiction)

In short, if you’re not the type of author to plan ahead in sufficient detail or revise already-written chapters, accept that you may have to update your plans in response to characters who take on minds of their own. Your readers won’t know to thank you if you get it right, but they’re likely to curse you if you get it wrong.

CC BY-SA 4.0 The Importance of Consistent Tone: A Brief Tangent by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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