Sometimes it feels like we’re up to our ears in dark and gritty reboots, but what about lighter stories? It turns out they’re not just for kids, and we’ve invited Ariel back to talk about them. We discuss why light stories can attract a wider audience than darker stories, how to make a story light while keeping it engaging, and the times when even light stories can get too dark. Plus, a conversation about the hilarity of reanimated corpses.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[opening song]
Oren: This episode was made possible by the support of our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek.
Chris: Welcome to the Mythcreants podcast, I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: And also, special guest…
Chris: And for those of you who aren’t familiar with Ariel, Ariel is on our copyediting team; so, she may be behind the scenes most of the time, but she’s very much involved with our blog production and everything else. Thank you for joining us, Ariel.
Ariel: Thanks for having me.
Oren: Many words have fallen to Ariel’s pen. You should see the difference between the posts that just- there’s so much missing after it goes through copyediting. So much gone. [Chris and Oren laugh]
Chris: So, this time we’re going to talk about light stories. And of course, that means stories where there are lots of lamps, right?
Oren: Oh, I thought we were talking about the Japanese light novel subgenre, in which short paragraphs are used to make them easier to read. Is that not what we’re talking about? Cause that’s like, all my notes. [Chris laughs]
Ariel: I thought that we were only talking about the stories that are- opposed to- the struggle between dark and light, where light always wins.
Oren: That’s good, let’s just go with that, just talk about Star Wars for half an hour. [laughter] Okay, Chris, what is a light story? Explain this to me.
Chris: I will, but I guess- it sounds like the term light story’s, not as common as I thought it was. I assumed that everybody knew what that was. It basically comes from being the opposite of dark stories, I think the word ‘dark’ in storytelling is used more often, and this is really just the other end of the spectrum.
It generally means that the stories invoke pleasant emotions, right? It’s for people who just want a kind of fun read that’s entertaining and makes them feel good, generally without evoking a lot of tension or suspense or fear or sadness, and those kind of things.
Oren: Yeah, just like, a story that is less likely to make you unhappy while you’re reading it.
Chris: For the most part; and I will say that there is a difference, I think, between a story that is light and a story that doesn’t have- has humor. For instance, Ariel, I think you found something that- somebody was stating that light stories are always humorous?
Oren: Wait, who said that? Why would they say this thing?
Ariel: That was… I don’t remember the site, exactly, we can put it in the show notes, but it was an editor who was defining the different types of speculative fiction that they work on, and they defined light sci-fi as humorous, or even satirizing other spec-fic genres.
Oren: Well, I guess I could see why they would think that. I, certainly- I’d say light stories are, perhaps, more likely to have comedy in them. And certainly, there are a lot of light, comedic stories. But the two obviously don’t necessarily go together.
Chris: I think there’s a difference between the absence of those darker elements, which tends to make a work very light, and being funny. However, generally what happens is, if you remove all the darker elements, and don’t replace them, you end up with a boring story. [laughter] So, that’s, I think, why so many light stories are funny.
I think the other thing that they can be, besides funny, which is very common, is to be cute.
Ariel: Or goofy.
Chris: Yeah. Or, you know, I think the lower levels of funny, which I would call like, being amusing, for instance? Or goofy, or- not everything that is in the funny category has to be laugh out loud type jokes, it can just be, ‘that feels kind of ironically amusing,’ for instance.
Oren: Right, and often there’s a combination of all of- all three. You get a show like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, for example, which is a very light story, most of the time, but has- uses a combination of humor, and then just like, cute, adorable wish-fulfillment stuff to sort of fill in where those dark elements have been either taken out or just not added in the first place.
Chris: So, in my experience, why we need to talk about light stories, is that there are a lot of people who just strongly prefer them. To the point where, I think, light stories have a bigger audience, and are- potentially can be much more successful. I’m guessing, I’m not sure, but I think that the preference for light stories is more common than a preference for dark stories.
I’ve definitely met people with a preference for dark stories, but I feel like they tolerate light stories better than people with a preference for light stories will tolerate dark stories.
Oren: Which is ironic, because I feel like, at least in Hollywood film advertisement, dark is seen as a synonym for good. And maybe they’re past this, maybe they’re over this phase, it’s been a while since I’ve routinely watched movie advertisements, but I know there was a period where it felt like every movie was being advertised on how dark it was. Like, ‘this movie’s so dark!’
And I remember that being a really big selling point of Revenge of the Sith, when it first came out, was like, ‘it’s so much darker than all the other Star Wars films!’ And I was like, ‘I guess that’s true.’ [Chris laughs] It is dark. Accurate, I guess, but I don’t think that’s what you meant.
Chris: Well, it does seem like lighter stories have a harder problem getting critically acclaimed and getting credit for being works of art, for instance. A good example is the Discworld series, which is really light, and it seems really likely that Terry Pratchett has not gotten the recognition he deserves for his Discworld novels, because they are so light.
Oren: Oh, I have thoughts about that.
Chris: Let’s hear it.
Oren: Okay, this was- I’m positive that the author of this piece did not mean for this to happen, but there was a Guardian article that came out right before Terry Pratchett died, that was by… some literary critic, who was like, ‘Discworld is bad. It has no value. I haven’t read it.’ [Chris and Ariel laugh]
And- like, I’m positive that the person who did this did not release it intentionally to coincide with Terry Pratchett’s death, but it happened at nearly the same time, and so, that article was really upsetting when I read it. I was like, ‘okay, you need to-’ I had to stop, I was like, ‘okay, I’ll come back to this later, after I’m not mad- sad and upset.’
And I went back to it, and I was like, ‘okay, it’s just very strange to condemn a whole series that you then proudly claim you have not read.’ Very unusual. But I agree, I think that a lot of why Discworld is not as- not wider recognized is because it is light, and sometimes that just doesn’t get you the recognition you deserve.
Chris: Unfortunately, it might have to do with something- with who likes lighter stories. I don’t have any statistics on this, but in my personal experience, most of the people I know who strongly prefer light stories are women. And, as we’ve seen before, things that women like tend to be looked down on, and things that men like tend to be praised. And-
Oren: Sorry, I was just writing a post about why pumpkin-spice lattes are bad. [Chris laughs] And why bacon is amazing. I’m sorry, I think I missed your point. [Oren laughs]
Chris: And that might be one of the reasons why light stories are often thought of as just for children, and not for adults. Probably- there’s probably no better example than the field of young-adult fiction. Which, it’s somewhat for young-adults, but it is- first of all, it is huge. I think it sells better than adult fiction in the speculative fiction category.
They separate it out, so it’s almost hard to tell, but I think it actually has bigger sales numbers.
Oren: Certainly, a lot of the really famous spec-fic works I can think of are in the YA genre.
Chris: And many of these books are written by women and are read by adult women. [laughs] And there doesn’t almost seem to be a recognition that is happening. And, I mean, certainly the category and the genre could have been framed in a new way with the purpose of being for a young-adult audience, but-
I’m not sure there’s a recognition of the way that adults, particularly women, consume light stories, but women definitely have a very huge market preference; I believe the majority of people who buy books are women. So, that might be contributing to this whole thing- I think there’s also a stereotype that if the work is light, it means it’s not meaningful?
Oren: Okay, so here’s a question, though; is- maybe I have just read a select group of YA stories, but I would certainly not describe YA as light, as a genre. Like, if anything, YA, at least in my experience, tends to be darker. Not like- I think that a lot of the stories that we think about as being dark are the ones that maybe take it too far, and then justify what they’ve done in the name of being dark.
Like, Game of Thrones comes to mind; a lot of the bad decisions of Game of Thrones are justified by fans because it’s a dark story. But when I think of the YA novels that I’ve read, like Hunger Games and the Legend series, and a number of YA romances, certainly, light is not how I would describe them.
Chris: That can be true. I’ve heard different things about whether YA- to what degree the content is actually censored, as opposed to the defining thing about YA simply being that you have a young-adult protagonist and usually a single viewpoint, and usually shorter. But you could be right, it could be that they’re not lighter.
It is almost a little strange that they’re still called young-adult, at this point, though. [laughter]
Oren: Yeah, that’s fair. I guess, now that I think about it, a lot of the areas that I would consider to be darker in some of these stories- not all of them, but some of them, have to do with romance. And, we have so much baggage around romance in stories, that maybe- to me, a story about a stalker boyfriend is kind of dark. But maybe, regular people don’t consider that dark. I don’t know. So, that might be where the confusion is taking place.
Chris: It could be. So yeah, it’s an interesting- the way people perceive light stories is interesting. And again, there are some people who don’t like them, I’m- you know, I still like stories, but I trend a little bit more to that direction, and I will say, the reason why I trend to that direction is that I generally just don’t find things as funny as other people do.
Like, the things that are used to replace suspense and tension in lighter stories don’t seem to make as big of an impact on me. So, I generally tend to find stories to be more boring if they are light. And I’m not sure-
Oren: Right. I would even say that, for lighter stories, if you’re going to take out the darker elements, I would say that it probably takes more skill as an author to make the story work when you do that. Because- I’m thinking of a number of stories that I feel, like, really tried to avoid serious conflict and dilemmas, and very often, the result is kind of boredom.
Because you- you’ve taken out a number of very important storytelling tools, and so- what you’re left with is- you have fewer options now. You can get benefits out of that, certainly; but I think that might be why we tend to- you and I tend to go towards darker stories, as a rule?
Chris: So, what about you guys? What is your preferences, light vs dark? Do you like one or the other better? And do you know the reason?
Ariel: It’s easier for me to get into a story if it’s a little bit light to begin with; something that’s whimsical, that has a lot of really good novelty in the worldbuilding, like The Chronicles of Narnia, right? So, they were exploring this really wonderous world, they were meeting new types of characters that they’d never even imagined before.
And then, the stakes start to play in. I think that you get a lot of love into your characters that way, if you can keep it light in the beginning. Otherwise, you have to sell your audience on these really complicated characters from the start.
Chris: I will say that, when it comes to building that tension, I’ve definitely found that if the audience does not care about the characters, then the tension doesn’t really mean much. So, because you have to have a problem with stakes and consequences that matter, and they matter because they matter to the characters, but then, if the character doesn’t matter to the audience, it doesn’t matter.
And you just don’t feel much tension, and so, certainly, having some warmup time- more warmup time to get attached to the characters before that tension appears, could certainly make tension easier to pull off, in that sense. I mean, the downside is that now you have to, again, really have that novelty in the beginning to tide people over.
Oren: It’s been my experience that you can start a story with light fare, as long as there’s still something- like, it still has a backbone holding it up, like some kind of tension- we were just talking about Narnia, let me use that as an example.
In Narnia, there- at least if I remember correctly- maybe this is wrong, it’s been a while since I’ve read the books, but if I recall correctly, the question of the wardrobe is brought up pretty early in the story. It starts off with the kids having to go out into the country because of the war, and then there’s this mystery of this wardrobe that’s kind of weird and mysterious.
Then they go through it, and it’s very strange and there’s that tension of like, ‘well, we’re in a new world, and the new world isn’t immediately filled with things that want to eat us, but it’s still potentially dangerous,’ so there’s that edge, that like, maybe something might happen, right?
And that keeps me going, as opposed to something like The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which is very light, but never feels- it never feels like anything that happens in it particularly matters. At least not to me, anyway, outside of individual scenes.
So, I would say that’s the- that’s maybe the key difference, I think, if you’re trying to go for a light story.
Chris: I think that might be worth talking about; what kind of problems or stakes work really well for a lighter story that provide some kind of unifying central thread to hold the plot together, but don’t really burden the audience with a lot of negative feelings.
Ariel: I’ve got a great example of- and this might explain why so many light stories are for children; one of the easy stakes is just getting a bad grade. Not passing a test, not getting your homework done, it’s stuff that everybody can relate to, but that ultimately, we as adults know don’t really matter that much.
Oren: I was gonna say, that’s basically Harry Potter. The first couple Harry Potter books are a lot like- especially in Sorcerer’s Stone, there’s some conflict of Harry being like ‘I don’t know how I fit in in this wizard world, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make friends, and now I’m in class and everything’s weird and different, am I going to get a good grade on my magic test?’
So yeah, we know exactly what Ariel is saying. And certainly, when I was a kid, that pulled me right in, and even as an adult, I still find that compelling.
Chris: Yeah, I find that for lighter stories, the things at stake are generally more personal goals, not life-or-death situations, usually not world-threatening situations. Where- I think the adult equivalent might be, how are you doing at work? Are you impressing your boss? You know? Whether you lose your job might- it’s a little more tense, but that might be just fine.
I think in a lot of these magical school genre works, the protagonist has this dream about doing magic, and being in school is required to accomplish that dream. And so, the stake is really whether or not the student is able to stay in school, or whether the student flunks out, ultimately. And that- those personal goals are something that the audience can empathize with, without getting it in too tense situations- without worrying about life-or-death scenarios.
I will say, though, that there are works that actually do, technically, include stakes that are much more intense, but they are told in a way that makes them feel- it reduces the emotional impact. And I think this is what Pratchett often does with his work. For instance, in Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, there is a dragon that is rampaging through the city, and I’m pretty sure it’s actually killing people.
But that doesn’t actually feel sad, because you don’t know anyone it’s killing. It’s just random people on the street, or if it does kill somebody, it might be like, an antagonist that you kind of think deserves it at the end. So- and it might also be destroying homes or businesses, but you would never know anything about the homes or businesses it’s destroying.
And so, all of that negative emotional impact from having this dangerous beast wrecking the city, you don’t feel it, so the story stays quite light despite that.
Oren: And Guards! Guards! specifically emphasizes the- sort of the absurdity of a dragon attacking a city. So, you’re right, it causes a lot of destruction- I honestly don’t remember if it singles out and kills anybody, but logically, it would. But the story is all about- it’s like, ‘it’s a dragon? It’s a giant, flying lizard? That’s weird, this is a normal city for normal people, why do we have giant, flying lizards?’
So, it just maintains the light mood that way. Golden Compass is another one that does that; in Golden Compass, the plot is about villains capturing children and taking them to be experimented on, but- basically, until they actually get to the evil experimentation lab and Lyra is at risk of losing her Daemon- (It’s Daemon, I don’t care what the author says. It’s Daemon.) [Chris laughs]
Until Lyra is actually personally in danger, it still feels very light. It feels like a fun adventure that we’re going on, to rescue these kids from super unethical, terrible experiments. I guess, actually, it becomes real when they find the first kid who was severed. That’s when it becomes- it’s not light anymore, now it’s like, ‘oh, gosh. Everything’s terrible.’
Ariel: And that was not my reading of The Golden Compass books at all.
Oren: Really? Do tell.
Ariel: So, I agree with what you’re saying, in that, they made the Gobblers- that threat of the General Oblation Board who was stealing the children, they made those sort of farcical, but I thought that the character of- the woman with the monkey-
Ariel: Yeah, Coulter, was completely evil. And the way that her monkey mistreated Lyra’s Daemon- oh, I was so uncomfortable with that.
Oren: Fair enough. That’s reasonable, I’ll cop to that.
Chris: I think- this might be a good time to also talk about Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the lightest movies of all time. [laughs] But it does have that section at the end, with the- the climax of Kiki’s Delivery Service has this boy who is at risk of falling to his death. It doesn’t feel like he’s actually going to fall to his death, but at the same time, I can imagine, for a kid, that might feel a lot tenser than it does for an adult.
Oren: Gravity is a weird one, because gravity is- on the one hand, it’s a really efficient disposal of villains, but it’s also sort of like- I feel like it’s almost shorthand for ‘this person is going to be okay if they’re a good guy.’ Because they’re gonna fall, and no one ever actually gets seriously hurt from falls in fiction.
Ariel: Except for the bad guys.
Oren: Except for the bad guys, the bad guys get disposed of from falling. [laughs]
Chris: What about you, Ariel? What did you think of Kiki’s Delivery Service?
Ariel: I thought that there were definitely some dark moments in Kiki’s Delivery Service: she gets attacked by birds in the air; she gets really sick, and her business is put at stake; the boy at the end is in danger; and- I don’t know, it just- there’s a lot of wonder in it, again, with learning who Kiki is, and her grand adventure to be off in the world, but there’s also all of that sadness of having to miss her family, and not having customers right away, which, as a freelancer, I know the feeling. [Chris and Ariel laugh]
Chris: For sure.
Oren: Okay, I was going to say, this is interesting because it shows like, what different people consider light or dark, right? I certainly wasn’t thinking- when I was watching it, I was like, ‘oh, they’re birds, whatever.’ But other people might think, ‘oh man, those birds are scary. They’re scary, terrifying birds.’ And that’s something you need to consider as an author, when you’re looking at how dark or light your story is.
Chris: And I wonder if part of it is the meta-commentary? Like, if you’re watching Kiki’s Delivery Service as an adult, and you’ve watched a lot of these stories, and you know that Kiki’s Delivery Service is a story intended for young children, which I think it is. You know that, when the boy is hanging, that he’s not actually going to fall to his death, cause you have this kind of meta-knowledge of what type of story this is, and what is likely to happen.
But, for a kid especially, who has seen less stories, that interpretation, without that meta-commentary that somebody has developed, could be very different. And that might be, I think, part of the contributing factor for some of these works.
Oren: I mean, some stories- as you get older, characters being put in physical danger becomes, in general, less of a concern, less of a- something that will make a story dark. That changes if you’re dealing with a story that routinely kills characters. At that point, a lot of people legitimately don’t enjoy a story where they feel like a character could die at any moment. That’s just a really unpleasant feeling for them.
And I can kind of understand, I actually had to stop watching, of all things, Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix because it convinced me that characters were going to die, and I liked them and didn’t want them to die, so I was like, ‘I guess I’m not going to watch it anymore.’ [laughter] So, Unfortunate Events: dark, super dark, too dark for Oren.
Ariel: I was thinking of A Series of Unfortunate Events when we talked about doing this episode, because it is the lightest dark story ever.
Chris: Yeah, it is. I have another one for you, which is Pushing Daisies.
Ariel: Oh, but right out of the door, the dog dies.
Oren: But then he comes back, he’s fine.
Ariel: It’s so dark; but it can never be pet again! [Chris laughs]
Oren: Well, not by Ned. You can get Kristin Chenoweth to pet the dog. Frankly, I think that’s an upgrade.
Chris: I would say Series of Unfortunate Events and Pushing Daisies are both shows that deal with very dark subject matter in a very light way, and are very interesting for that reason. They still have some tension to them, obviously, since Series of Unfortunate Events was too dark for Oren, and Pushing Daisies also has that too, but they sort of make deaths more comical?
So, in Pushing Daisies, the premise is that the main character has this ability to bring people back from the dead. If he touches anything dead- actually, also plants, he can make rotten fruit ripe and delicious again.
Oren: It’s why he makes the best pies.
Chris: It’s why he makes the best pies; he’s called the Piemaker by the narrator in the show. So, he brings them back, but if he lets them stay alive for more than a minute, somebody else will die to compensate. And when that happens, he can’t bring that second person back to life again.
And, if he ever touches somebody he brought back to life after that one minute, they still die, and he can’t bring them back again. So, he uses it to solve crimes by interviewing people who died; you know, if someone’s murdered, you can just ask who killed them. But other than that, it has some serious consequences.
And so, he has this dog that, when he was still learning about his gift, he brought back to life a long time ago, and it’s his pet and has been alive ever since; very old, but he can’t actually touch the dog directly, so he uses backscratchers and- [laughs] -other devices. And in one sense, this is inherently a sad premise; on the other hand, the show is designed to be such a feel-good show.
And it’s the same thing with his romance interest, his romance interest, he cannot touch, or she’ll die. And again, it’s inherently a really sad premise, but- and they show lots of dead bodies on the show, but they’re all- always comically depicted. You can see them, and it could be gross, but they make sure it’s just kind of funny. It’s like, ‘this person has glass sticking out of them, but it looks funny. It doesn’t look super gross.’
Oren: It’s very skilled makeup design. And it’s the same thing with when they bring back a person for Ned to question; the person is almost always kind of blustery or just like, flustered, doesn’t know what’s happening. And so, it’s kind of funny, right? They don’t bring back a person to have them scream for a minute about how they want to live. [Chris laughs] That- you’ll notice that doesn’t happen.
Ariel: You mean, there’s no gushing blood when they’re reanimated?
Oren: No, there’s not.
Chris: No, I don’t think there is, and if there was, it would be intended as funny. [Ariel laughs] In some way. [laughs] But yeah, as opposed to A Series of Unfortunate Events- which is very strange, and it’s like, ‘oh, this is terrible events, and you shouldn’t watch this.’ But it’s clearly designed to be, almost like, ironically comical in some way.
Oren: So, I think the lesson we’ve learned from this is that you can have a light story with serious subject matter, even traditionally dark subject matter, if you frame it correctly. But, if you don’t, you can end up with a story that’s kind of lackluster, cause it doesn’t have a lot of tension. I think that’s sort of the big takeaway that I would draw from our conversation.
Chris: It might be worth mentioning some of the different things that compliment lighter stories vs darker stories, just based on the fact that lighter stories, they need to lean more on novelty of some kind, because they don’t have as much tension. So, if you’re not going to engage people with tension, you got to compensate for that, and I think- I think Ariel had mentioned a short story?
Chris: That was for adults, and quite funny?
Ariel: Right. So, as the only example that I could think of, of a feel-good story that’s feel-good from beginning to end, and is for adults, was Terry Bisson’s They’re Made Out of Meat. It’s about aliens, who are talking about humans as meat. It’s a really good story, and it works because it’s short, it’s humorous, and it still provides this original perspective on the human condition that no one saw coming.
Chris: And it definitely- I think shorter stories do better with novelty than the longer ones, cause well, novelty wears off over time, so it’s almost like, the longer the story is, the more you need those darker elements to keep it going. But with a short story, a real short one, it can really just live off of novelty.
And that is much more complimentary to a real light story than it is- tension is than to a dark one. So, that does seem to be complimentary. The other thing that is very complementary for a light story is omniscient narration. Because omniscient is definitely distant. It has to be distant to work.
And omniscient, for any of you who are not familiar, omniscient is where the narrator knows all, and can- you’re not inside the head of a character, your narrator knows absolutely everything that’s happening, and can narrate thoughts of multiple characters in the same scene, and really just tell you anything that they want.
And it’s basically a narrator that’s looking down at the characters and watching them, kind of from afar, is what it feels like. And so, that distance means that there’s actually less emotional impact, but the omniscient narrator also has a lot more freedom to inject humor, to display a- what is a tense situation for the character in a humorous light to the reader.
And that means that it works really well for softening the blow and lowering that tension, but at the same time, also injecting that novelty. And it’s not like you couldn’t do omniscient narration with darker stories, but I think that it’s a lot more complementary if it’s a light story.
Oren: Yeah, I totally agree. And unfortunately, we are running out of time here. Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about with light stories, and a lot of things we could cover. Ariel, do you have any closing thoughts before we end the episode?
Ariel: Nope, that’s all I had.
Oren: Okay, very good. Well, then, thank you for joining us, Ariel; and to those of you at home, if anything you said piqued your interest, you can email us at [email protected], otherwise, we will talk to you next week.
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Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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