The Unfinished Swan is a little gem of a game from 2012 in which you play the role of a boy chasing after the fleeing, titular swan. That the swan came from one of the boy’s mother’s paintings, and is set on leading you through a series of magical locations is just a set up for one of the most compelling settings I’ve seen before.
The visual artistry in a game, as in a movie, goes a long way towards establishing the tone. It’s the equivalent to the verbs and adjectives used in a novel – if they’re all short and succinct, or long and flowery, we’re going to expect different things from the book. In The Unfinished Swan, you’re wandering through an environment that is often nothing except whiteness. At least, until you illustrate it by casting balls of paint around. In doing so, you give the world life, and, through careful painting, discover more about the boy’s story.
Accompanying all of this is a score and slow pace – there’s little running, shooting of guns, or penalties for ‘dying’ here – that beget wonder. Why is there an all-white labyrinth? Why are there giant, if mostly harmless, sharks swimming in the canals of this empty city? What happened to the king?
You consider these questions, and the game gives you time to mull them over. There’s never an absence of questions, but also never so many that you feel lost or confused. All of the questions, the unique things the boy discovers, all fit within the world created for the game. That cohesiveness keeps the enchantment going. There’s nothing that breaks the spell for you. Even the credits at the end are incorporated into the narrative, so that you’re left with a cozy narrative into which you can vanish for several hours and emerge happier for having experienced it.
A novel has a longer course to chart, and fewer tools (no direct video or audio components), but has the advantage of flexibility. The author can take the reader anywhere. Can start with the character playing basketball and end with a fight to the death with the murderous mole-people of planet Mordican Nine. The miracle is that your readers will go along with such leaps so long as you earn them. Make them fit your story, capture the magic of what you’re writing about, and suit the language to taste.
While I’m not perfect at this, it’s something I watch for on my edits. If the tone of a paragraph, or a setting, or a character’s dialogue doesn’t seem in keeping with the world of the story, it’s tweaked. Or cut. Even particularly clever witticisms, cocktail-party winners, get the ax if they don’t match the narrative.
So next time you’re looking at your work and starting another edit, keep the background in mind. What do you want your reader to feel, how do you want them to explore your world? Anything that detracts from that ideal should be changed, or if it’s necessary to keep, perhaps a revision of your atmosphere is in order. Pull the reader into your universe and don’t give them a reason to leave.