Tone and Character: Why I Love ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’

WHOOP that is a mouthful of a title but, come on, the book is called Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. That’s nine words. It is a Young Adult queer love story by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

This post will not contain spoilers, but does have an analysis of the characters and contains excerpts from the novel.

Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

I loved this book. I just inhaled it. There are so many incredible themes in this story and they’re unpacked so carefully. One, of course, is queer identity. Another is the Mexican-American identity. And the concept of masculinity. And it’s all wrapped up so well in this cast of characters that none of it ever comes off as preachy. This is how real people grapple with their identities. The turmoil is subtle, woven into the mundanity of life.

As writers, one of our jobs is to unpick these turmoils and lay them bare. And Benjamin Alire Sáenz does that with expert sensitivity (which, I will argue some day, is a skill a writer must hone).

What struck me the most about this book is the tone. In this post, I wanted to examine how the tone influences the characters and how that enhances the reading experience.

What Is Tone?

Tone is the mood of the story. The overall word choice, phrasing, and attitude of the writer towards the subject matter of the story. My own novel, The Sunlight Plane, has a consciously dreamy, childlike tone, which is emotional and visual. As a writer, I’m generally more drawn towards metaphors and imagery, and I love airy prose.

The tone of the Lord of the Rings movies is epic. The battles and arguments are positioned as grand and final, so while it has lighthearted and funny moments, you see that in the context of this fight between good and evil that will forever change Middle Earth. Similarly, the tone of the original Star Wars movies is hopeful. This is a story about a group of scrappy rebels standing up against an evil galactic empire. Yes, it is fun, and adventurous, but what makes it work is that there is real darkness in the story, real dread, and a beam of hope that cuts through the heart of it, keeping the viewers invested.

Because it’s a YA novel, Aristotle and Dante has a lot of teenage angst. The protagonist, Ari, is angry and lonely and afraid, unable to articulate anything he feels, even though he has a lot of thoughts and feelings on virtually everything. Dante brings lightness to the story, though he’s definitely more sensitive of the two and a lot bolder with his own emotions. Without spoiling anything, I can say that there’s a lot of drama in the plot: injuries and hurt feelings and a lack of communication. But the book never feels dramatic.

This is because of the tone.

How Does Tone Enhance Character?

Let me show you a snapshot of the beginning:

One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke. In the morning, when I opened my eyes, the world was the same. I threw off the sheets and lay there as the heat poured through my open window.

My hand reached for the dial on the radio. “Alone” was playing. Crap. “Alone,” a song by a group called Heart. Not my favourite song. Not my favourite group. Not my favourite topic. “You didn’t know how long…”

I was fifteen.
I was bored.
I was miserable.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, chapter 1.

This is on the first page. There’s a lot of information here! It sets up the character and the problem right away! We know that our protagonist is a teenager, he’s lonely, he’s sad, and he wants his life to change.

Yet none of this is dramatic. Ari is bored; the prose encapsulates it. See those short sentences? “Not my favourite song. Not my favourite group.” Or “I was fifteen. I was bored. I was miserable.” It sounds practically disinterested. That’s how you talk when you’re bored and not motivated to do anything.

Tone tells you what you need to know about a character exactly how you need to know it. Consider the target audience for this book: teenagers. So right up front, we meet our character, who talks and sounds and feels exactly like an angsty teenager. That dry, matter-of-fact tone mimes a stereotypical adult conversation (especially from the point of view of someone who is not yet an adult, but also not quite a child). The very first line tells you he seeks another world–because who doesn’t seek another world when they’re fifteen and going through the trials of growing up?

Now consider how Dante is described as he teaches Ari to swim:

Dante was a very precise teacher. He was a real swimmer, understood everything about the movements of arms and legs and breathing, understood how a body functioned while it was in the water. Water was something he loved, something he respected. He understood its beauty and its dangers. He talked about swimming as it were a way of life. He was fifteen years old. Who was this guy? He looked a little fragile–but he wasn’t. He was disciplined and tough and knowledgable and he didn’t pretend to b stupid and ordinary. He was neither of those things.

He was funny and focused and fierce. I mean the guy could be fierce. And there wasn’t anything mean about him. I didn’t understand how you could live in a mean world and not have any of that meanness rub off on you. How could a guy live without some meanness?

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Chapter 4.

Here, not only do we see Dante positioned as the polar opposite of Ari (in that he’s passionate about things and vocal about it), but we also see Ari’s confusion about it. How can someone be like Dante? How could you live in a mean world and not be mean? This is a legitimate question. The tone allows us to see Dante from Ari’s point of view and instantly know everything we need to know about him. This kid doesn’t hide from himself the way Ari does. He doesn’t wallow the way Ari does.

Closing Thoughts

While yes, of course there are lots of ways to convey the same information without using the story’s tone to your advantage, it’s also true that the tone is an intrinsic part of the story’s DNA. I like to compare it to a Pinterest moodboard.

I typed the word “blue” into Pinterest and here’s essentially everything you need for a “Blue” moodboard.

In the above image, the blue colour scheme sets a mood. What words do you associate with the colour blue? I think of calm, cool, relaxed. Is that not similar to a tone in writing? Think about how certain colour schemes in movies can give them a certain effect. Like blue toned movies look gloomier (hint: Twilight, which is an angst-ridden love story set in a dreary town), or how bright, pop colours give off a sense of childlike wonder (The Florida Project, where the movie follows the perspectives of the children).

Setting the right tone gives your reader something to expect from your story. It guides you as you develop your characters and plot. And in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, it brings these two wonderful characters to life.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Tell me in the comments below!

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