So, I've talked about this before a little bit, but a conversation with a friend of mine last night has it fresh in my mind and so I wanted to go over it a bit more in depth and specifically today. When it comes to telling a story, where you focus your attention has a huge impact on the feel of the story, and changing the focus of things changes the feel a particular scene has. Its not something you really get an appreciation for before you, while looking for it, see it in action and the impact it can have.
The conversation in question that brought this up was a discussion between the difference between "Epic" and "Epic - Gritty". As this is where I'm going to focus, it is important to understand how we, in the conversation, defined these terms as it will help show how the focus actually can make the change of something from being Epic to being Epic Gritty.
Epic: Epic is any story where the scale is huge, battles are large and generally with numerous people. The heroes/main characters sometimes (if not regularly) pull off amazing feats. The stories are grandiose with themes of heroism and commitment generally running through them. For the conversation, the example of an Epic type story was the Star Wars original trilogy (ANH, ESB, RotJ).
Epic-Gritty: At first this was defined as epic, only the actions the main characters are pulling off they shouldn't be able to. As this was a game conversation, it basically boiled down to a gritty game where the PCs kept rolling criticals and other lucky rolls. After talking it out more, we defined it more as an Epic story where death is always just around the corner, and while the epic themes are still there people do and are going to die. For the example of an Epic-Gritty we used Saving Private Ryan.
So now, discounting the basic story lets look at the core place where the "Epic" comes into both, which would be the fight scenes. Do you see where I'm going already?
In Star Wars the focus of the story is on three specific characters (Luke, Leia, and Han). When we have fight sequences we are given shots that show them, and show them doing fairly well. The opponents are for the most part faceless, not developed, or humanized in any way. With the exception of Vader, the only people who show any emotion in any of the fight sequences in the original trilogy are the good guys. So essentially we have a line of people, and a line of not people and the people are winning. Also, while we DO have deaths happening, they rarely are the focus, nor do we really see anyone die. Deaths are done via an explosion, or a red beam hitting a person, some sparks, and them just falling to the floor and lying there. At no point, again except for with Vader in the very end (and arguably Ben in ANH), does the camera actually focus on someone dying. People die on screen yes, but the story just goes "people are dying, move along to the heroes".
Contrarily in Saving Private Ryan we are given equally large battles involving all numbers of things. However, people the story is focused on a larger group of people they can die without dooming the story. Oh, and die they do, and when they do die we get focus on it, long shots of people bleeding out as friends rush to try and fix the wound. Tearful goodbyes given to friends as life escapes people. Letters written home in case of their death. The amount of time focused on death and dying in SPR is significant, and because of that focus we're constantly wondering "who is next?". That is, by and large where the grit comes from.
Now in both of these stories other things are done to help make them gritty or not. For instance, in Star Wars everything is very clean, defined lines, smooth. In SPR everything is dirty, the sky is almost constantly overcast, we are treated to numerous shots of destroyed buildings. These elements of the setting also give SPR that feeling of grit, while simultaneously protecting Star Wars from it. Keeping it less serious, more fun.
So how does this apply to your own story? How you focus your story will determine the feel. This can be done for the story as a whole, or a more scene by scene thing. Using the focus to direct where people are looking also controls the emotions. If your players (for a game) or characters in a story need something to sober them to the realities of war, kill someone important and make it slow and lingering. Have the character die in someone's arms saying good bye, asking for a letter to be sent for them. On the other hand, if you need to lighten them up about it, then take the focus off of the death in the next big fight. In a game make it larger, but easier. In a story, have less people die, the plan go off without a hitch.
Change the focus, and you change the feel for everything around it. Play around with it next time you get a chance, you might be amazed by the impact you can get.