Author Topic: The Problem of Focus  (Read 560 times)


  • Megadux
    Executive Officer
  • Posts: 27251
  • Karma: 118
  • Awards Awarded for oustanding services to Exilian!
    • View Profile
    • Awards
The Problem of Focus
« on: February 10, 2019, 09:07:39 PM »
The Problem of Focus
By Jubal

What is focus?

A functional world, or are things in the lap of the gods?
Much ink has been spilt (at least proverbially) on the differences between “High” and “Low” fantasy and the characteristics of these two subgenres. It’s clear that there are a wide range of characteristics that tend to define where a particular book might be categorised – and so of course the high/low fantasy distinction is really far more of a spectrum. In fact, more than that, what we really have is a multidimensional space made up of a load of different axes and dichotomies that we can move between.

Let’s look at a few examples to see what I mean. Firstly, there’s how ‘realistic’ a world is, with low fantasy tending to have less, and less obvious, magical elements. There’s also how ‘pathetic’ or ‘heroic’ the aesthetic is - a pathetic-aesthetic protagonist could be a scoundrel who ends up fighting giant rats in a sewer, while a heroic protagonist actually stands against whatever in their world counts as fearsome odds with a brave heart. Another factor is the ‘grit level’ – that is, grimmer and darker settings that involve painful human failings and unpleasantness are often considered ‘lower’ fantasy as a result. And there’s the issue of how clear and functional the events and fantastical elements are – do they just fit in as additional technology or species that can be used predictably by characters and other agents, or do they signal a world where the rules are decidedly more like guidelines, to be discarded when the plot demands?

It’s this last idea I want to look at today: how much focus does your world have? This is an idea that can bridge high and low fantasy; whilst a crisper focus may tend towards low fantasy, there’s no hard and fast rule. In science fiction, the equivalent concept is a much more key divider. “Hard” sci-fi which exists within the bounds of physics is very much in-focus and functional, whilst “soft”sci-fi of space opera and space fantasy kinds is very low-focus, preferring to wave away the technical elements with a few science sounding words at most. This concept is very useful when applied to fantasy too, though. A setting with more mythical elements, that’s happy to say “it just is” or “it was called into being by power beyond ken”, is a low focus setting; a high focus one, conversely, stipulates that things operate in predictable ways under the same circumstances, and that whilst the rules and boundaries of this world may be different to the ones we're used to, they exist nonetheless. When just applied to magic this is sometimes referred to as the difference between a functional magic system (where magic has reliable set ways to invoke it, with set effects and set rules) and a mystic one (which is less tightly defined and more mysterious). The idea of high and low focus can apply to the rest of the setting too though. Is the setting’s history built in known tomes or shrouded in confused oral tradition? Are mythical beasts just another species that mates and has babies and so on, or are they singular miraculous creations from the very earth or gods themselves?

Some examples might help at this point. The world of Harry Potter is very high focus; there are some clear bounding rules on what magic can do, spells have a predictable, reliable (if you fulfil the requirements correctly) effect, and so on. D&D settings are generally high focus – you shout “fireball”, cast a fireball, and a fireball probably happens. Even for clerics, divine intervention comes in the form of clearly defined slots into which you can prepare defined abilities. Tolkien and Lewis on the other hand both write low-focus works. Gandalf’s powers are never explained, bounded, or made consistent, and it’s important for the book that they aren’t; they are revelatory and miraculous, not a tool in the hands of just another character. In Lewis, the religious elements of his work import the low focus of religion with them. Aslan’s rebirth on the Stone Table is a miracle, and its miraculous nature and the numinous sense that invokes, the realisation of Aslan's divinity, are what's important, not the unanswerable question of "so how did he do that".

The Use of Focus

Are your heroes problem solvers or virtue paragons?
So why use high or low focus? There are certainly uses to both. High focus gives reality clear bounds within which both protagonists and antagonists must operate, and those bounds can be helpful to a storyteller and satisfying to readers who want to work out a plot ahead, reassured that there will be no deus ex machinas to spoil their fun. In a high focus setting, the reader may know that, for example, the dead cannot be brought back, or if it’s a more high fantasy setting they’ll know that bringing the dead back has certain requirements and can look for the characters to fulfil them. High focus, in other world, implies a world where mysteries can be solved. Games especially tend to be high focus, because it's important foe a player that they know what they're capable of doing in order to plan what they should do.

Low focus is the opposite, and low focus worlds can delight readers precisely because ultimately their mysteries cannot be solved; there are things that the reader, or their perspective character, and perhaps even the author, do not or cannot know. This sense of miracle is common, indeed the norm, in the folkloric, mythological and religious texts from which most modern fantasy ultimately derives a lot of its creatures and heroic narratives; it has a tendency to disappear in the hands of many more modern writers who want to drive a compelling plot where the readers will feel they fully understand the resolution. This is in some ways a pity, because the effects of low focus can be spectacular; by declaring an exception to the laws of nature as we know them, a writer declares that there are things more powerful than those laws.

Rather than the intellectual thrill of seeing a plot point resolved, then, the reader of a low focus fantasy can be given a more gut-punching emotional thrill; that of seeing in your fantasy something fundamentally and incomprehensibly larger than oneself, whether that’s a deity, a concept, or whether it’s left barely named. This is used in myth so much because mythic heroes often embody virtues; we’re not meant to consider how we could’ve copied or improved upon the hero’s exact actions, we’re rather meant to appreciate and emulate the virtues that in turn allowed them to make those calls on the underlying powers of their world. In the Odyssey, Hermes giving Odysseus the antidote to Circe’s magic isn’t a sign that Odysseus can’t solve the puzzle himself; it’s a signal that Odysseus is a great enough hero that the deities who represent the fundamental forces of human society and nature are willing to make a direct exception for him. In Tolkien, the continued enigma around the powers of the various magical beings is important in providing a sense of great depth to the whole setting.

Problems of focus

As a final part of this article (or at least this part – I had a whole discussion geared up on high and low focus in game contexts which is going to have to wait), let’s look at some of the pitfalls with how writers use high and low focus. One of the most common is breaking a high focus setting for a single emotional low-focus burst – when love, or a deity, or the power of friendship, suddenly save the day in a way that the reader wasn’t expecting. If you’ve generally made it the case that the reader could expect a cause and effect relationship for things throughout the work, this easily comes across as lazy deus ex machina writing. A lot of this comes in how you set your protagonists up - it feels right when a druid can call on mysterious powers of nature they never knew at a critical moment to save the world, but very very wrong if, say, a MacGyver type engineer character at a critical moment suddenly stops thrilling us with clever tools and tricks in order to suddenly be saved because love has granted him immortality.

If you want to use low focus, you ideally need to establish a consistent sense of mystery and knowledge beyond what is accessible to your characters. Low focus, conversely, can’t be used to fire constant deus ex machinas. Simply because there isn’t a functional logic to how your fantastical elements work doesn’t mean that they should come out of the blue; it needs to feel right to the reader on an emotional or numinous level for them to be able to maintain the sense of wonder involved. Low focus, in other words, requires drama and theatre in its workings in a way that high focus fantasy doesn’t; it requires not just a general suspension of disbelief for the whole secondary world, but a specific, case-by-case suspension of disbelief for every particular magical instantiation.

So, what have we learned? High and low focus can both be good ways to write fantasy, and give very different feels to a setting, though ones that don’t always mix well. A world dominated by high focus is good for puzzles and plots, where you’re pulling the reader along with the intellectual intrigue of what characters will do. A low focus world is one where you can’t always puzzle things out and there are bigger and more mysterious things out there, enabling a sense of mystery and miracle that focuses far more on what characters can experience or feel. I hope you found this article useful – let me know (or start a discussion on) where your worlds fit into this in the comments below, and do let me know if this was useful to you as well. Thanks for reading!

« Last Edit: February 14, 2019, 10:13:35 PM by Jubal »
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Eadgifu the Fair

  • Posts: 3
  • Karma: 0
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: The Problem of Focus
« Reply #1 on: February 11, 2019, 01:16:46 AM »
Fascinating article, and one that brings a lot of fantasy concepts/difficulties into sharp focus (ha)!

I was interested to see you describe Harry Potter as high focus - of course it is in comparison with Gandalf's magic: magic is (in theory) replicable if you use the correct words or ingredients in the prescribed way, hence the importance of cauldron bottoms... But so many Harry Potter fans, as far as I can tell, actually felt it was too low focus, or at least you would think so based on the fic and headcanons I have seen. A lot of fans seem to have wanted more information about the source of wizards' magic, what exactly is powering spells, why wands work, and so on, and if they felt that a plot point was overly low-focus, they would substitute their own high-focus plot explanation instead! I suppose it is the nature of intense fandom to attract people who really do want to know everything about how magic works in a given setting. Whereas I always liked the fact that while Rowling was willing to delineate the boundaries of her world to some extent, she was going to stick with the original wizards-and-witches conceit enough not to bother explaining or justifying the existence/power source of magic. It would be interesting to map the times she goes into low focus - as you say later, some high focus franchises do save their low focus moments for times of great emotional weight, and I think Rowling does that quite well. (Although that said, I did once map out the mechanics of Harry's "resurrection" in book 7 in a flowchart, just to see if it could be done.) On the other hand, a LOT of fans on in particular seem to have hated the moments where she went low focus - I have heard so many disparaging remarks about "the power of love" - and that's where you see massively AU fic series taking off in which something, ANYTHING else is the explanation.

That said, I really like what you say about Tolkien and Lewis writing in low focus, and why they do that! It would be really interesting to think about Gandalf's powers in particular, because I think the reasons why his powers are Like That probably shift a bit between Hobbit and LotR, and point to larger themes in Tolkien's thinking as he wrote each book.

Great points about the advantages of high focus and low focus, too! I don't think I'd ever heard the advantages of high focus - satisfying plot resolution, mystery structures - articulated quite so clearly. It made me think about shounen manga, of all things, since the examples I've read often have a high focus/low focus problem: they start out with fairly basic, low focus stuff, then develop more detailed explanations/hierarchies/worldbuilding as they go along, but then as the stakes rise, they begin breaking their own rules almost cavalierly, which is very frustrating for the reader. (Naruto and Bleach spring to mind.) On the other hand, Psyren, which I really enjoyed, managed to be high focus and use all the advantages of that to create a really tight, compelling plot (if I am remembering it right). But one of the reasons it managed to do that was because it kept its 'high focus' relatively limited and simple - it didn't create too many rules to break.

And low focus can work so fantastically well for atmosphere (COUGH Patricia A. McKillip COUGH). I'm going to break out of the brackets and say that Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master trilogy is one of the best examples of low focus I've read. It uses low focus to its full extent to create atmosphere, especially because the story actually takes place in a fairly post-apocalyptic setting, so the reader is very aware that not only do we not know that much about how this world works, the characters don't either. McKillip takes care to make sure that while her low-focus magic doesn't necessarily make intellectual sense, it always makes a kind of emotional sense - it resonates. And she's still able to include forms of magic which the main characters are unfamiliar with or didn't believe were possible, and to include mystery by creating a kind of historical mystery (centred around the whole post-apocalyptic thing), rather than a mystery of magical mechanism.

Have you ever read any C.J. Cherryh? I think her work is really interesting in light of this discussion, because in terms of worldbuilding and plot, she comes off as - very high-focus, but in fact so much so that the EFFECT is low-focus. It may be my inveterate habit of skim-reading, but I always find when I read her books that I don't have much of an idea what the hell is going on or how anything in her world works, but it DOES create a very strong atmosphere which I enjoy. And the bones of high-focus are there enough that I can really enjoy the plot resolution - partly because she backs it up with emotional weight every time, so in addition to it all adding up, it also feels right.

I could go on and on, including touching on Nine Fox Gambit, which is REALLY high-focus and low-focus at the same time, but I think this is probably long enough already...!


  • Posts: 57
  • Karma: 0
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: The Problem of Focus
« Reply #2 on: February 17, 2019, 04:19:35 PM »
I found your arguments for the strengths of Low Focus interesting - I'm usually keen for fantasy to be self consistent, but Gandalf in LOTR is important as you describe. I suppose it depends on the context and the amount of the world in question the author chooses to reveal to the reader: does Gandalf count as High Focus if you look at him from the perspective of the wider Middle Earth creation, which is not all revealed within LOTR itself?

I'm not sure I agree with Harry Potter being High Focus - specifically some of the powerful objects/concepts which only appear briefly in the overall plot. If we take such over-powered objects as the Time Turner and Marauder's Map to their logical extremes, don't certain plot elements cease to make sense? For example: couldn't Filch, the caretaker, use Marauder's Map style magic (surely not unique to the schoolboys who first made the object) to keep tabs on who was out of bed after dark, thus making many of the early adventures impossible?