Tone. It’s something I’ve struggled with, and even writing about it now reminds me of those difficult conversations, the phrase “Watch your tone, son/young man” and those miserable tone poems that so many of my English teachers thought were just the greatest things ever, if by greatest you meant thing-sure-to-make-me-think-twice-about-ever-studying-the-language-I-speak-everyday.
But let’s put all that to one side, let’s talk tone in terms of what it means for your NaNo work. Yesterday I said you’d need your first chapter handy, so if you don’t have that, now’s the time to go get it. And while you’re up, get me a glass of water. And maybe a cookie. Or some grapes. Or an orange.
So, tone. We have to start with clarifying the definition for tone. Tone is not mood. Mood is the atmosphere or the feelings that get evoked from the piece based on word choice, beats, and dialogue. Mood is how the writing makes the reader feel. Tone is how the piece feels about the audience. A lot of manuscripts and writers confuse the two, thinking they’re synonymous. They aren’t. Tone does factor into mood, but not the other way around.
Tone is one of those elements that comes across pretty quickly, often before mood is solidified in a reader’s mind. Things like first-person, or a particularly snarky narrator help convey tone. Word choice combined with sentence structure is your primary delivery system for tone.
Example: “So there I was, looking down at the body of the person I never thought I’d see again. And it turns out I never will.”
I just made those sentences up, but can you look at the words and the way they’re arranged to get any sense of the tone?
Okay, let’s give you some more details:
1. Let’s say these sentences are the first sentences on page 1, chapter 1. This is how the book starts.
2. Let’s say the back blurb on the book mentions that I’m writing crime fiction.
Now tell me about the tone. You can’t dismiss a sentence’s location as a contributor to tone. Get in the habit of questioning why a sentence is in the place it is. The order of information is important to consider when we’re trying to establish a consistent tone in the story. Suppose we’re on the side of a road, and we’re changing a flat tire. In what order would you tell me the steps? When do I pull over? When do I pop the lug nuts off? When do I jack the car up? Put any step in the wrong order, and while yes, I will still get the tire changed eventually, I may also infer that you want the car to fall on me, or you want to cause a traffic jam. And because you can shuffle the information around, you’re giving the receiver (the audience) a sense that you either want to be helpful (a kind tone) or you want to see them turned into road goulash (a darker tone).
Genre is another clue for tone, since we all have unavoidable expectations when we think about genre. Murder mysteries need murders, and the tone will reflect a range of things from suspicion to doubt to tension. Fantasy and science fiction often have either a professorial tone, because the world is foreign to the reader and needs explanation, or it irreverence, softening the world’s foreignness through humor. These genre conventions make tone easier, and it’s okay to play it safe if the tone isn’t going to be as critical to you as plot or characters or other story elements.
You don’t need to make it your mission to aggressively subvert tone as much as you do the cliches and overtread ground within the genre. It’s a big target, and staying within its bounds is far easier than trying to innovate and defy expectations in such a progressive and positive way that you don’t lose the readers just by trying to be edgy or new.
We’re going to talk genre tomorrow, but we can work tonight from the idea that genre comes with a certain set of templates that aren’t all so bad you need to do something dramatic in order to make yourself stand out.
So let’s get into this. Tone is how you’re conveying your story to the reader, and whether you’re in first- or third- or even second-person perspective, you need to understand HOW the story comes across. If you’ve got a narrator, and you want sound like … a teenage girl …you’ve got to nail the girl.
The trick of it shows up when you learn to balance how the story comes across to the reader while still respecting the reader and not treating them like they’re stupid children or like you’re the greatest writer since the invention of tone poems.
Look at your own work. What do you think the tone is? Now go find a friend. Ideally, a friend who hasn’t seen this first chapter. Let them read it, and no, you can’t disturb them while they do it. Go do something else and then come back. Really.
Did they pick up the tone the way you meant it? If yes, great, I’ll see you tomorrow for our chat about genre.
If not, read on, good writer. Let’s talk about three things you can do to make your tone clear and consistent.
Stop trying to be the audience’s friend, even in character. The audience has already come to the story, you don’t need to keep upselling them on why they need to stay. Trust them to stay invested because you’re not walking on eggshells or trying too hard to make sure they’re amused. Get pushy, and you’ll push them right away from your story and onto something else. Yes, this is true even when you have a narrator. The narrator’s job is to convey the story, NOT spend time trying to make us read the story.
Stop breaking the fourth wall. This is amusing in TV, when the character looks at the screen and reacts to whatever is going on, as if the character sees the audience and asks, “Do you believe this shit?” The answer is no, no we don’t believe this shit. And if you keep doing it, we’re not going to stick with this shit. Rare is the time you need to break the fourth wall.
Pick a perspective and stick to it. There’s a temptation, when you’re trying demonstrate how big the story is, how vast your created universe is, to jump from first to third or back and forth, so that you can have characters say, “Wow the universe is really big” after you just said in exposition: “The universe is enormous.” Jumping back and forth through perspective (and its relative, changing POV characters at every opportunity) is jarring. It’s distraction rather than reinforcement. It’s bad stage magic. When you try so hard to be sly about something, all you do is make it more obvious that something is getting manipulated.
Consistency is what will keep tone focused. Even if you vary sentences. Fragments. Lengthy sentences with clauses that snake and warble through metaphors and similes alike. Play with the language, but always do it so that your point comes across, rather than just doing it so the reader sees that yes, you know how to use an em dash.
Tomorrow, we talk genre. See you then.