"When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed."
That's the first line Richard Stark's THE OUTFIT, a serious, no nonsense, masterpiece of crime fiction.
Now, let's go with the normal idea that "tone" in writing is about attitude. In a Parker novel, you're going to get some fisticuffs and some heist plans and guys with broken noses as dames with backstories.
So the writing that follows the woman screaming in bed and the guy waking up and falling to the floor would be different than they would in many other novels.
Tone, as I mentioned, is all about attitude -- the writer's attitude to the book and to the audience. Heck, it's also about the audience's attitude to the story.
The first novel I wrote, LOST AND FOUND, had some tone trouble in an early draft. I pulled this out as an example of how things can go horribly wrong.
Ryan, Amy, and the narrator are on the run. There's been some violence. Some deaths at a distance. The narrator and Amy just finished talking to John David Curtis and found out that stuff you find out just before the TV show goes to commercial. That twisty thing. This Twisty Thing let them know they should probably hop in the van and proceed with the hauling of the ass toot frackin sweet.
Now we join our story, already in progress:
Ryan turned on the radio, then found a local station.
“Look,” he said. “It’s noon. We calm down. Chill out. Listen to some tunes and relax.”
Whatever crappy music was finishing up. Strings. A violin or something. Applause. Then the bum-de-dum of station identification. Top of the hour. Whup-dee-doo.
I wasn’t paying attention until Amy said, “Turn it up. Listen.”
Something about their top story. Repeating the top story, which I thought was odd because it had just turned noon, so how they be repeating it. Anyway, the woman on the radio was talking about a brazen Sunday morning robbery at a convenience store. The clerk was shot and killed. The shooter is on the loose. Good, I thought. Look for him, not us. A customer at the store had been killed too, apparently trying to prevent the burglary, she said. I hated it when they got that wrong. Burglary is when someone breaks into your house and steals stuff. Robbery is when someone takes money from you. Idiots. “Breaking news,” the radio woman said, as if the robbery weren’t already breaking news. Though the family had not been notified and police were not releasing the identities of the dead clerk and the dead customer, she said, “the customer has been identified as former LSU football star and convicted felon John David Curtis.”
The three of us stopped breathing.
“Ryan, you got a phone in your bag?” Amy asked.
“Yeah, take a grey one,” he said, reaching into his duffle and tossing her a cell phone.
She dialed a seven-digit number, then hung up after the first ring. She waited a few seconds and did the same thing again.
“Where can we go?” Ryan asked.
“I don’t know. You guys live here,” I said.
“You can’t go home, again,” Amy said.
“Look homeward, angel. The hills beyond,” I said.
“Novels of Thomas Wolfe,” Ryan said, both of us falling back into our schtick of that pyramid game that was on television when we were kids.
Amy tightened her eyeballs our way. “Let’s focus on this. It’s serious.”
Well, it is serious, but I was letting my "look at how funny I am" nonsense get in the way. I was screwing up the tone something awful. I was going to the laugh instead of playing out the story. I was just reaching for whatever tool was the closest. (Haha. He said 'tool.')
Tone is also the attitude of the characters. Are they taking this seriously. Should the reader take it seriously? Tone is like mortar -- you don't pay that much attention to it when it's done well, but it's the thingy that holds the important thingies together.
When done well, of course, a change in tone can be instrumental in a successful scene. I wasn't doing it well. There's that line attributed to George Lucas about how easy it is to make the audience cry: First you show them a puppy. Then you kill the puppy.
Stephen King said something like that, too. First he makes you care about the characters. Then he sets loose the monsters.
That's the way tone can work.
I could have done something like that in the scene I mentioned. I could have had the group doing their game show schtick and everyone laughing and having a good time and then they get the news of their dead friend. The old "first you're laughing/then you're crying" idea.
Tone is so important, so instrumental, that just by varying it at the right places, you can provide an entire layer to your book, your story.
See, tone doesn't have to be consistent. It just has to be perfect.
And speaking of tone, here's a song about clowns to cheer you up (thanks @laurabenedict):