Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tone Deaf

By Jay Stringer

After the news cycle we've had in the writing community of the past few weeks, writing about tone seems to fit. Tone and voice are two of the hardest things to quantify. You know it when you see it, but getting it right? Therein lies the trick.

Tone isn't something that you can get from cobbling together other people's words. It also changes with the times, so it's not really something you're going to be able to lift out of a 1950's novel and pull off perfectly as a modern book.

Tone and voice go hand in hand in my mind. The way a book sounds, its rhythm and vibe as the reader turns the pages and reads each sentence. A great voice is smooth like jazz, pushing the reader ahead more than even the action.

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.

"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.
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. A woman screaming in bed? The guy asleep when she starts? You could go for the cheap, sexxxy slapstick pretty easily with that -- depending on the tone of your book.

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.

And, just like voice, just like attitude, it has to be your own. Sure when you first start writing, you're cribbing a lot of voice from your favourite writers. When you first start writings songs, really all you're doing is finding the simplest songs in the back catalogue of your idol, and reshuffling the deck a little.

I've written two full novels, and a couple of half finished ones, and I'm probably still trying to out walk the shadow that White Jazz cast on my impressionable little brain. It takes time.

But whereas voice is something that carries over from book to book, something that keeps drawing a reader to a particular writer, tone is specific to that story. One of the best examples of both tone and voice is When The Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block. I swear, every time I pick that book up to idly scan the first page, I then go ahead and read the first dozen chapters. There's something specific in those first two chapters that draws you in. Two things, actually. Tone and Voice.

Those first two chapters are filled with things that we're told not to do as received wisdom. It's a murder mystery that doesn't drop a body straight away. The first chapter is filled with some fairly unsympathetic characters, and the narrator himself is a drunk, which makes us question how reliable he is. The second chapter is one long example of info dump. It's page after page of back story, set up and context. And yet, because Block is in total control of his words, it all works.

The information we're being given isn't all needed for the plot. A lot of it may have been cut by an editor working on a first time author. But it's setting the tone. It's an album track. In this instance, it's filling us with a doomed form of nostalgia, one that knows the past wasn't a better place, but makes us yearn for it anyway. It talks of people and relationships long gone, and failures long buried. And, on it's way, it sets up the whole book.

Tone and voice are the things that can hold together a story. See in Elmore Leonard's rules of writing? See hoe he keeps pointing out that the rules can be broken? It's having control over those two elements that lets you break the rules.

Now I wouldn't necessarily agree that tone needs to be consistent throughout the book. I'd say what it needs to be is effective. It needs to hold you. A great writer, once again, can break the rules and mess around with tone. It can be consistent as long as it matches the story at each emotional beat, and those inconsistencies can be used to pack a real punch, like the flip your stomach does as you go over the tip of a roller-coaster.

But if, like me, you're still finding your voice, and still learning to control tone, I'd say it's safer to make it consistent. Learn what you're doing before you start showing off. I don't really have practical tips on this one as I had in previous weeks, because it's something I'm still working on. But maybe try creating a soundtrack album to your story, thinking which songs would play in each chapter if this were a film, and then write with that soundtrack in mind.

Bit above all, always make it your own.

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