Sunday, May 20, 2012

Setting the tone of a book one font at a time.

by: Joelle Charbonneau

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  Which I suppose as a writer I should take exception to.  I mean, it takes me less than a second to snap a photograph.  Depending on the day, a thousand words can take anywhere from one to twelve hours to write.  Hearing that phrase can totally make a writer feel pissy.  Especially since I think we can all agree with the sentiment.  I mean, in writing, it is up to the author to create in words all the things than an image captures in seconds.  A sense of place.  Tone.  Mood.  Emotion.  Unless you are writing children’s picture books, these things take thousands of words to create.

Writers embrace the challenge of immersing the reader in the world they have created from the first words on the page.  Opening the story with a strong opening line can make or break setting the correct tone and mood.  So can putting the book in the correct font.

You think I’m kidding.  Ha!  I do not joke about fonts.  (Unless we’re talking about windings because those are just fun!)  Well, okay…I am not a font aficionado.  When I write manuscripts, I tend to favor Courier New for my funny books and Times New Roman for my young adults.  When it comes to fonts, I am totally not cutting edge.

However, this week, I got a glimpse of the typeset pages for THE TESTING.  This is not the first set of type-set pages I’ve seen, but it was the first that really drove home the fact that while adult fiction authors don’t have pictures helping them set the tone, we have type-setting that aids us in doing the job.  And while a font is just a…well…font…when combined with a story the font can pull an emotional reaction from the reader.

In my Skating series, the opening sentence of every chapter starts with a script font.  So when you see the words Falling on my ass really hurts  you get the sense the book is going to be playful.  Fun.  Something that is lighthearted. 

Murder For Choir starts every chapter with a staff of music surrounding the chapter heading.  From that opening page you understand that not only is the book going to be lighthearted, but music is going to feature prominently in the story.

Perhaps it is because I am used to having lighthearted books that type-setting choices for THE TESTING struck me so strongly.  The font chosen for THE TESTING is stark.  Cold.  The first sentence of every chapter is in small caps lending power to the opening phrases. 

After seeing the pages, I went to my bookshelf and started pulling out some of my favorite hardcovers to look at how the typesetting set the tone.  In HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS the P of Potter is set to look like a lightning bolt and the title page has a pattern of gray and white diamonds that automatically set the tone of the story.  The all caps title setting of Janet Evanovich’s LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN is made to feel quirky and fun because the publisher chose a funky, almost comic strip style font.  Carl Hiaasen’s NATURE GIRL has a small, gray crab on the title page to help set the tone and almost all the thrillers I paged through have at least part of the first sentence set in all caps.


Is this the first time I noticed that the typesetting of ever book was different.  No.  But it is the first time I really sat and thought about what the typesetting said about the story contained between the covers. 

 Now, I want you to play the typesetting game with me.  Grab the book you are reading and look at the title page treatment and the first page of chapter 1.  Tell me what the book is and what tone the font and the treatment of the title set for you.


Thomas Pluck said...

I'm reading Killing Floor by Lee Child, which I am enjoying... but the fonts are boring and it does leach some of the action out of it, every time I pick up the book.

I write in Bookman Old Style. When it comes to submitting, I change it to whatever the publisher wants. The Denny stories get written in Courier New, it feels like a typewriter and his thoughts are all stream of consciousness like I gave my angry inner child the typewriter from my grandma's basement and let him go wild.

Nigel Bird said...

Really interesting. I'll pay more attention from now on. In school we use Sassoon Primary and Comic Sans for children with literacy difficulties, so I should be more aware.