Monday, November 21, 2011

A subtle but powerful spice

For me, music has always been closely connected to my moods. I grew up solidly on country music, and used to fall asleep to old-school country music. George Jones, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom T Hall, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash. Songs not just about love and love lost, but about death. He Stopped Loving Her Today. Nothing like getting tucked into bed while you listen to a song about a guy's funeral and the love he lost.

A Boy Named Sue, or Folsom Prison Blues.

I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

I was a somber kid. A deep thinker. I was also an insomniac as a child, and I attribute it, at least in part, to listening to songs about people dying in car crashes (Carroll County Accident) and ghosts haunting the living and depressing endings.

As a writer, I think that the easiest illustration of tone is through music. Most people can understand how the music and lyrics work together to create an atmosphere and a feeling. Does anyone listen to Amarillo By Morning and feel cheerful? I doubt it.

When the music and lyrics blend perfectly, they elicit the desired response. Music alone can do this as well. TV shows and movies rely on the shortcut of music to indicate whether something good or bad will happen next, and viewers rely on the music to prepare them emotionally.

I actually think that tone is one of the things we don't talk about as much as writers, despite the fact that it can get us into a lot of trouble. Tone is what sets the reader up with expectations of what's to come. If a book is nothing but sweetness and light, with teddy bears and cupcakes and happy family moments and fifty pages in people start swearing like sailors and carving people up with machetes, there needs to be a solid set-up to prepare the reader for that kind of transition.

Just like with music. There are songs that start off somber, and the entire piece is downbeat. Songs that always make me feel like tearing up.

Songs that just depress the hell out of me.

Other songs boost your spirits and make you feel positive. This one's been on my aerobic mixes for years, just because it always makes me feel like dancing.

Other songs just make me angry.

There are times when the music and lyrics are in sharp contrast, intended to be ironic. All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down by The Mavericks always springs to mind as an example of that.

Whatever the intent, the artist needs to sell the audience, and the same is true for an author with their work. I think a lot of writers get into trouble without giving careful consideration to how they prepare readers for what's coming. I've heard stories from authors, about how their editor had them rework the opening of a book so that there wouldn't be any swear words on the first page, so that they wouldn't deter readers who didn't like swearing in their books. From page 2 through the end was one expletive after another, which was fine by the editor, as long as they could still try to mislead readers into giving the book a shot.

Can we really be surprised when the author is inundated with mail from readers who were offended?

The overall tone should be consistent, and it should convey the underlying atmosphere and disposition of the work. Yes, there may be times parts of the book appeal to different sentiments, but there is an overall tone that comes through. When I'd read the Rebus books, even when he had a long-term girlfriend, I always knew it was just a matter of time before he screwed that up. With some characters, we know they won't find peace, love and happiness in the final pages. It would be inconsistent with their character.

It's something writers have to give serious consideration to as they develop their work. I think most of the time, when we find something doesn't work for us because we feel it's inconsistent, it has to do with the events somehow contradicting that tone.

I actually think that the show Terra Nova has a bit of a tone problem. Some scenes are scary and intense and the suspense is developed well. Most of the storylines deal with some major drama... and then it's time to go home to the happy family where we can all enjoy the wonder of the universe through the eyes of a child and never really talk about the guy who's flirting with your wife all the time or the years you spent in prison, or the sense of loss that would come with leaving behind friends and family who you'd never see again. It's hard to buy into all the happy family moments because it seems like, after all the obstacles and issues and things endured, the family was fixed with the snap of their fingers. They've at least made the son be a bit of an ass with an attitude problem, but they have to lighten up on the sugary moments because it doesn't fit with the realities of the show, and when the tone doesn't work, it makes the characters come off as two dimensional, because their experiences aren't fully reflected in their emotions.

In the same way that a single spice can make or break an entire dish, tone plays an important part in the creation of a story, a part more writers should pay close attention to.


It took me 50 long years just to work out
That because I was angry didn't mean I was right...

I've been drinking deep from a jar of pain
- Jackie Leven

There was sad news last week, that Jackie Leven had passed away. The Scottish musician, a former member of Doll by Doll, had first come on my radar courtesy of Ian Rankin and his books featuring DI Rebus. I picked up a lot of great musical recommendations from the books over the years, and have several of Jackie's CDs. A great musician, a great poet, a great loss.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

I'm still trying to figure out how he ended up in a California prison for shooting a man just to watch him die in Nevada.