Friday, April 13, 2007

Style, Part One: Tone

For this session, I'll be shifting gears from our previous articles and going into the nebulous territory of style. While there may be no “perfect strategy” for stylistic concerns, we would be remiss if we didn't consider the elements of style within our creative writing enterprises.

So, to begin, we talk about tone. The tone of a story in an undercurrent to everything we attempt to convey. It often dictates the way the reader feels about events in the story. If the story itself is the lyrics, the tone is how they're sung. For any story, you can pick out a handful of adjectives to describe its tone. Words like “dark”, “uplifting”, and “gritty” fit the bill for a tonal classification. The issue with these adjectives is that they mean different things to different people. Also, they must be taken in context with the subject matter and intended audience. For instance, a dark children's story isn't going to be the same as a dark adult horror novel. While some of the tactics for evoking the tone may be the same, some tactics aren't applicable to every story.


Children's “Dark” tone: The house at the end of Boxwood Lane had stood empty for years. At night, you could see shining eyes from inside the broken windows. Mickey Westerberg said his brother had gone in there once, right before he got sick and had to be rushed to the hospital in Cleveland. Mickey said the place was cursed. After what she saw inside, Evelyn believed him.

Adult “Dark” tone: If you took all the pain of being beat up day in and day out for years and pressed it into one giant lump, it wouldn't come close to what Tony felt. Nothing close. He thought he'd felt pain before, more than most guys. He thought he could take it. Broken ribs? Nothing. Open fracture of both leg bones? A walk down Easy Street. This was real pain. If he was lucky, Tony would bleed to death before dawn. He couldn't live with what they'd done to him. He didn't even want to try.

So, what makes up tone, anyway? Tone is a complicated amalgam of elements, so even tonal shadings that are fairly obvious to the reader can be difficult to pin down. A big part of tone is certainly word choice. Emotionally tinged words will certainly have their effect on the tone of a story. Subject matter, to some degree, will also dictate tone. The events of the story, of course, will weigh in heavily with regard to the tone.

Still, a story with horrific events may be told in a matter-of-fact manner. In the same way, a story about fairly mundane events can be rendered dark and spooky with the right mix of tone-carrying elements. If you arrive at a tonal choice, you can help yourself to realize that tone by keeping your original idea in mind as you go through the drafting process. If you want your story to be grim, make sure that the feelings of powerlessness, doom, and defeat are played up. Have the story unfold in a way the encourages the reader to think that all the characters' actions are likely to fail or be meaningless. Don't provide a silver lining. For an uplifting story, things will be portrayed differently. Even when bad things happen, you'll want to point up the fact that things are bound to get better eventually. Tone, like most stylistic concerns, is something you'll have to keep your eye on all the time.

Shifts In Tone:

All successful stories feature multiple tonal shadings. A story that used unending grimness or unleavened hopefulness would be a bore. For most stories, you'll want to employ several tonal “colors” along the way. A story may take the reader from optimism to disillusionment and back. It may begin with hope, then plunge into grim darkness, only to emerge with heroic triumph. Stories shouldn't be like horns that play only a single note. The trick, as we alter the tone of a story, is to do so in a believable, natural, and understandable way. If we're to be laughing one minute and crying the next, it'll take finesse on your part to pull that transition off.

One of the ways you can help the reader to roll with these changing tones is to set up your actions in advance. With foreshadowing, you hint at things that might happen in the future. “They say that only the chosen one may enter the caves of time. All others who attempt such deeds, perish,” or something like that. If you're springing from one tone to the next in every scene, the issue may run deeper than simple plotting, however...

The tone of a story, in most cases, has a consistent and predictable set of shadings. In general, the tone will be dictated by the events, the narrator, and the intent of the scene. If it's a difficult scene where one of the protagonists is suffering, it'll probably have a fairly dark and grim tone. This is not the time for a humorous turn of events or a light hearted tone. These rules, however, are made to stand on their ear when a story is told in an ironic fashion. In ironic writing (or parody, or satire), the tone of the piece is often at odds with the subject matter, such that an awful scene may be portrayed in a playful or sprightly manner. For this sort of writing, a writer faces a whole different set of challenges. She must find a way to use the dissonance between subject and portrayal to make her point. If you're writing about the futility of war, it's permissible to transmute a scene that could be grim or brutal into one that points up the folly behind some outwardly-glorious achievement. Writing satire is no easy task, but the great satires have gone down amongst the most influential writings in human history.

Ideas to help with tone:

1)Pick your palette of tonal shadings in advance: Just as you plan out the events of your story, consider your options for tone before you begin. If you can, think of a story that fits the general shape and scope of your tale. If you can pick out a representative story, book, or movie and use it as a guideline, you'll have an easier time keeping your tone on target. As you read through one of your scenes, ask yourself if it could be dropped into that model story or movie and seem to fit, tonally. If it works, you're still on target, if it would seem out of place, maybe you'll need to work on your tone a little more.

2)Give your characters a theme: Think of the music in a movie—Star Wars, for instance. The good guys and the bad guys had their own themes. When you saw the big Imperial Destroyers, you heard menacing music, and it immediately made you aware that these weren't the nice guys. If you can look at your list of characters and pick a few “tonal themes” for each one, you'll be able to use tone to your advantage. It'll also help you with some story arc issues, because it'll push you into thinking about tonal progressions through the story. Maybe the antagonist characters start with a smile and end with a frown. Maybe your doomed hero starts out grim, becomes hopeful, and finally finds triumphal redemption when he gives himself up for the cause.

3)Don't let tone trump content: Don't radically alter your content, just to stress a tonal shading. Sure, tone is important, but it's okay to let the story find its own level sometimes. In the same vein, make sure you don't use tones that work against you in your chosen format. Writing your children's book with the tonal shadings of “Hellraiser” probably isn't such a good idea.

4)Act natural: Characters do a lot to determine content. If they're feeling the way people would feel, if they're acting in a way people would act, that'll help your tone be believable. What's worse than a story where a character is cracking wise five seconds after all his comrades have been killed? It destroys the illusion of reality that keeps a reader hanging on. Let your characters react the way their personalities and experiences dictate. If your character is an angry, vindictive killing machine, she can react to a bad turn of events by looking for bloody revenge. If she's an existential wanderer, maybe she hits the road and does a lot of drugs. This goes far beyond tone, of course, but if the scene “sounds wrong”, chances are it is wrong.

Next Time: Tense


Paul Genesse said...


Great post. Very spot on and full of things to keep in mind when writing fiction. Thanks for making my neurons fire a little brighter.

Patrick M. Tracy said...


Always nice to see you over here, bro! I'm glad you liked the article. I'm going to come out with another one on Monday or Tuesday. Just started on it on Friday, so I'll need to give it full due process before it goes up.

Take it easy.