Tandi and Viv from Legends and Latte's cover art.

A while back, I looked at The Black Company as a case study in dark storytelling, so it’s only fair to give light stories the same treatment. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the perfect novel to use as an example… until now! Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes (L&L) is a coffee shop fantasy story where the tagline is literally “High Fantasy and Low Stakes.” Oh yeah, that’ll do nicely. 

Spoiler Notice: Legends and Lattes 

Attachment and Novelty Are Critical 

The whole point of light stories is having low tension. Usually, the low tension stems from less important stakes, which L&L certainly delivers. Protagonist Viv is trying to start a coffee shop rather than save the world. The stakes are whether or not her coffee shop will succeed. She won’t starve if it fails, and her life is rarely in danger. 

This is exactly what fans of light stories want, but tension is also one of our ANTS, the four critical elements that make stories popular. It’s the main thing that keeps audiences glued to the screen or page. If that weren’t enough of a problem, resolving tension is how you get satisfaction,* so low tension stories also tend to be less satisfying. 

To compensate, you need to maximize the remaining two ANTS: attachment and novelty. Legends and Lattes is quite good at both. For novelty, there’s the entire concept of an orc adventurer retiring to start a coffee shop. That might be old hat in the fanfiction world, but to us crusty fantasy readers, it’s new and fresh! 

To support the premise, Baldree adds a number of high novelty characters as well. There’s Tandri, the succubus assistant manager (who does NOT seduce people); Thimble, the genius Rattkin baker; and, last but not least, Amity the dire-cat. Amity guards the shop. Sort of. When she feels like it. The only main character who isn’t high on novelty is Cal. He’s technically a “hob,” but in the description, he’s basically a short human, with only god-like crafting skills to help him stand out.* 

Some of these characters also build attachment by being sympathetic and relatable. Viv is at an age where her body no longer immediately bounces back from hard exertion, and the many aches of her past adventures make themselves known. She’s tired of her violent life and wants to build something up for a change. Meanwhile, Tandri has the unfortunately realistic problem of a persistent suitor who insists there’s a connection between them no matter how many times she tells him to get lost. 

But more than any of the characters, the main attachment is to the coffee shop itself. It’s the platonic ideal of a coffee shop: warm and cozy, with the perfect acoustics for chatting with your friends and several nooks to disappear in if you want privacy. The drinks are cheap but tasty, and the baked snacks are hot from the oven. It’s the kind of establishment most of us would kill to have in our neighborhoods, and we’re quickly clamoring for it to succeed. 

Wish Fulfillment Is Easier

Any story can feature wish fulfillment, but light stories are at a big advantage. They don’t have a bunch of gritty seriousness getting in the way. It’s super satisfying for the hero to win the day by a hair’s breadth and walk away with scars to both body and soul, but it’s not exactly something most of us are wishing for ourselves. 

As you may have guessed, Viv’s coffee shop is prime real estate for wish fulfillment. To get the business started, Viv’s got a magic stone that gathers NPCs to her. They’re all super good at their jobs and devoted to seeing their shared dream succeed. It’s a group project where everyone actually does their part instead of leaving you to cram the entire thing a night before it’s due. Talk about optimistic fiction, am I right? 

Viv also gets to run her coffee shop with few – if any – of the difficulties that come with being a small business owner in real life. If her city collects taxes, they aren’t mentioned. Instead of rent, she has the cash to buy the shop outright. Her entire supply chain consists of sending Thimble out on errands, and there’s always enough money coming in to pay her employees a living wage. 

Then, there’s the food. Frankly, the way Baldree describes a chocolate croissant is probably only appropriate for readers 18 and older. The heavenly experience of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls is also on display, and L&L even makes biscotti sound like a treat worth trading your kidney for. 

The odd man out is, ironically, the coffee. There’s some decent description of it early, but despite the copious amounts of food porn, the drinks quickly fade into the background. Viv’s shop starts with black coffee and lattes, and the menu never grows beyond that except for adding ice. I expected the story to explore different roasts and types of beans, to say nothing of all the different things you can put in the coffee. They have chocolate; why isn’t someone making a gods-damned mocha??? 

That stumbling block aside, L&L uses its light atmosphere to great effect, letting us live vicariously through Viv and her caffeinated business venture. 

Mood Must Be Maintained 

This lesson is more about what Legends and Lattes doesn’t do: it never randomly veers into grimdark territory. That might not sound like a common problem in light stories, but I see it all the time in both published and unpublished manuscripts. The Wandering Inn is the most recent example I’ve seen, where the protagonist’s lighthearted attempts to get her establishment running are occasionally interrupted by attacks of vicious murder-goblins.* 

Violating expectations for mood and atmosphere is always a problem, but the consequences are much higher for light stories. If a dark story suddenly transitions into a fluffy field of bunnies and cotton candy, audiences may be confused or disappointed, but they probably won’t be upset. 

The reverse is far worse. People seek out light stories specifically because they don’t want potentially upsetting material. If a character’s spleen is suddenly ejected from their body, the audience will not only be unhappy but also probably drop the book and give it a bad review to boot. 

From what I can tell by talking to authors, the main reason they add dark material out of nowhere is that they aren’t confident their light content can carry the story. That’s a reasonable concern, but yanking the mood up and down like a seismograph isn’t the answer. Either commit to the light story like Baldree does, or give it a darker mood to begin with. 

And, of course, there are ways to less jarringly shift tone and atmosphere, usually in stories that start out on the lighter end and get darker as the tension rises. But if that’s the kind of story you want to tell, you can’t just jump back to a light mood whenever you feel like it, and you certainly can’t truthfully advertise it as “low stakes.”    

You Need Some Tension 

Even the lightest, fluffiest story will be boring if there’s no tension at all. If that slider is set all the way to zero, even maxed out attachment and novelty won’t be enough to keep the audience coming back. Fortunately, Baldree knows this. 

We start with small business problems like getting customers, expanding the menu, improving the kitchen, etc. These are child arcs for Viv’s larger conflict of trying to found a coffee shop. They’re enough to keep readers interested in the early chapters, and most of them are eventually solved by Tandri’s business acumen, Thimble’s delicious food, Cal’s carpentry skills, etc. 

But most of L&L’s tension comes from two individuals: Fennus and the Madrigal. Fennus is a former adventuring colleague of Viv’s, and he wants that magic friend-finding stone of hers.* He skulks around the shop and occasionally stops in for some verbal sparring, but for most of the book, he’s not likely to engage in violence. 

The Madrigal is the local crime boss, and she runs a protection racket that Viv is determined not to pay. This is pretty dangerous, as the Madrigal’s minions could easily go after Tandri, Thimble, or Cal. Unlike Viv, they’re not certified badasses, and they can’t easily defend themselves. 

However, the Madrigal only collects fees at the end of the month, meaning that while this is a serious problem, it’s not super urgent. The story has time to savor all the coffee wish fulfillment while the Madrigal’s threat waits in the background. This is especially clever because it gives Baldree the option of shortening the deadline to add tension. He doesn’t actually do that, but it’s always good to have tools! 

Conflicts Should Still Be Resolved 

This is where Legends and Lattes really stumbles. Even the lightest story still has to properly resolve any conflicts it brings up, or the end will be unsatisfying. This is worse than having no conflict at all. Rather than being bored, your audience feels lied to. 

Each of Viv’s business problems is immediately solved, usually because her friends all have nearly supernatural talent. Any repairs or alterations can be fixed by Cal’s Omni-Craft skills, and Thimble’s orgasmic treats make it seem like this is really more of a bakery that serves coffee on the side. Even the initial issue of getting customers is solved by Tandri’s offering a few free samples. 

This is already a little annoying, as none of these solutions requires special effort on anyone’s part, but it gets worse. When Fennus burns down the shop later in the book, it briefly seems like Viv will have to do something clever to get back up and running. Instead, the whole neighborhood pitches in to rebuild her business, free of charge! 

This might fit as a prior achievement turning point if Viv had been running a school, library, or some other project for the public good. But she wasn’t: she was running a for-profit business, and by all indications she was doing super well. Now it feels like Viv is taking advantage of her neighbors! 

But worst of all is how Baldree resolves the Madrigal conflict. First, Viv calls up her adventurer friends to help, but has no idea what she wants them to do. They eventually prompt her into asking for advice, but it doesn’t matter because by an amazing coincidence, one of them knows the Madrigal from way back and can set up a meeting. 

There’s no indication of what Viv could possibly say to the Madrigal that would make any difference, but the meeting is scheduled anyway. Viv arrives, and the Madrigal turns out to be a sweet old granny (who runs protection rackets). Out of nowhere, the Madrigal offers a deal that readers aren’t told about but that Viv immediately accepts. 

Conflict over! Because Viv just happened to know someone with a connection to the Madrigal, and then the Madrigal herself offered a solution. Eventually, the solution is revealed to be that Viv will pay her protection fees in drinks and food instead of coin. Wait, how is that better? I thought this was about principle! Are we supposed to think the Madrigal is a good guy now because she has the mannerisms of a kind grandmother? She’s still running a protection racket! 

This is perhaps the most important lesson when writing light stories: you still need to keep your promises to the audience. If you introduce an important conflict to keep the story interesting, you can’t just shuffle it under the rug when it’s time for resolution. No amount of light storytelling will make that okay. And it’s not like such conflicts need to be resolved in fire and blood either! Baldree could have written a turning point where Viv convinces the Madrigal to leave her alone because the whole neighborhood loves Viv’s coffee, so fighting her is more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, L&L skips past its most important resolution, something no storyteller can afford to do.  

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