Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Fine Whine

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Ha! Okay, I technically don’t mean that kind of whine, but since I am the cleanup hitter on the tone discussion, the tone of this post might very well sound like I am whining. I mean you’ve already heard 6 incredibly articulate writers discuss their thoughts on tone. They’ve talked about attitude and about not being tone deaf. (Heck, Russell’s post even had footnotes!) How is a girl supposed to compete with that kind of brilliance? (See, I’m whining!)

I’ve only been writing for a short number of years, but in that time I’ve found that a lot of writers confuse voice and tone. Voice is the writing style unique to the author. Tone is the color and attitude of those words. (Yeah, I’m stealing Steve’s word. Sue me!) Think of it this way – tone is like wine. (The drinking stuff, not the petulant stomping around that I might have to do if this post doesn’t work out the way I intended.) You can pick up five different bottles of Pino Grigio at the store. They are all made with the same types of grapes. Kind of like noir mysteries are all part of the same genre. They have all been fermented in a similar manner just as all stories in the same genre have a formula that works best for the story telling. And yet they are have subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) differences. The tone is unique to each vintage just as the tone to each story is unique and appropriate for that story.

One wine might have a slightly more oak flavor. Another might have a tinge of sweetness. Another might have undertones of apple or pear. The tone changes the flavor of the wine. It changes the way the person drinking the wine enjoys it. Just as the tone of a story changes the way the reader feels about the characters and the story.

Here is an example of similar scenarios (discovering a dead body) that have two different tones even though they are written in the exact same voice–mine.

Everything was quiet as I walked through the door that led to the back of the theater. The houselights were dark, but the work lights illuminated the grand piano on the stage. The lid was up on the piano, making it hard to tell if someone was seated behind it.

I walked down the steps toward the stage. Sure enough. I could see feet. Someone was sitting at the piano. I climbed up the escape stairs, walked around the piano, and felt the world tilt on its axis.

A backstage door slammed and echoed in the theater. On a normal day, the sound might have made me jump. Only, my feet were rooted to the floor. Slouched over the piano, head resting on the keys, was North Shore High’s choir director, Greg Lucas. A microphone sat on the piano keys a few inches from Greg’s mouth. I doubted he’d be speaking into the microphone any time soon seeing as how the microphone’s cord was wrapped tightly around his throat. (From MURDER FOR CHOIR to be released July 3rd from Berkley Prime Crime)

And now for something completely different….

Michelle led Ricco down the hall to the stairway. There was a small elevator next to the stairwell, but Michelle started climbing steps instead of pushing the call button. Emily had no problem with it, but Michelle hated using the thing. It creaked and moaned as it inched along at an incredibly slow pace. Thank God Emily lived on the third floor. Three flights of stairs she could handle.

She saw Ricco eye the elevator, but he didn’t complain as he silently climbed the flights of stairs next to her. When they reached the third floor, she hurried down the dingy maroon carpeted hallway to Emily’s apartment, the last one on the left.
Five steps from the door, she gasped and her heart kicked hard against her chest. Years of working in the ER had honed her senses to recognize certain sounds and smells. This smell was the most familiar of all of them.


“Emily’s hurt.” Michelle raced to the door and turned the handle again and again. Locked. Every time but still she kept turning it. The smell of blood was stronger here. Tears burned the back of her eyes and her throat. She had to get to Emily. “Can you get us inside?”

Ricco shook his head. “Mrs. O’Donnell said she was getting her keys. We gotta wait for her. The cops wouldn’t want us to screw with the door or the lock. They’ll be evidence.”

She wanted to scream. He was so calm, so cool and unfeeling behind his sunglasses. He should know that evidence and pissing off the police were the last things she cared about. She was about to tell him that when she heard a ding down at the end of the hall. The elevator had arrived and with it a limping Mrs. O’Donnell and her keys.

“Sorry it took me a couple of minutes to get up here. Chester darted under my feet and I stubbed my toe on the end table. Hurts like hell, but I don’t think I broke anything. Emily isn’t answering the door?”

The last was more of a statement than a question, but Michelle shook her head anyway. “Something’s wrong inside. I...” How to explain that she could smell the blood before she saw it? That she knew there had to be a lot of it. She couldn’t and she prayed to God she was wrong. “Can you open the door so I can make sure she isn’t hurt? If she’s not home I can leave a note telling her to call me.”
Mrs. O’Donnell hurried over to the door while fumbling for her keys. “Make sure you tell her to stop by my place and so I can see her for myself. After what Mark did...” The door swung open and Mrs. O’Donnell gave a shriek before sagging against the doorframe.

The smell of blood hit Michelle square in the face as she ran through the doorway, through the tiny foyer, and into the living room where Emily lay sprawled on the floor. “Call 911,” she yelled as she knelt down on the sticky wet floor. Somewhere she must have registered seeing the streaks on the light blue walls, the beige Berber carpet and the white couches, but none of that seemed as important as helping Emily – although deep in her heart she knew there would be no help. There were knife wounds on her arms and chest along with dozens of abrasions and contusions. Her left leg was bent at an unnatural angle and her face… Michelle swallowed hard. Emily’s face was almost unrecognizable. Someone had beat her – badly. Nurses see the signs of death all the time, but sometimes there was a miracle. Not often, but sometimes. Michelle was desperate that this be one of those times. (From Inadvertent Witness which is waiting to be read by my fabulous agent who has received way too many books from me in the last year.)

The tone of the first is lighter. Kind of a sweet, almost bubbly flavor. The other is darker. Perhaps has more woodsy vibe. Both are the same type of grape. The same wine. And yet…because of the tone there is a world of difference.

1 comment:

Russel said...

To be fair, Joelle, all my footnotes were basically excuses to make bad jokes... mind you, almost everything I do is an excuse to make bad jokes...