Posts Tagged narrative tone
Is the tone of your prose in tune with your novel? A simple exercise with Pharrell Williams and Yellow Magic Orchestra
Your prose does more than simply describe what happens. It creates the experience in the reader’s mind – the atmosphere, the themes, the lighting, the mood. Imagine the book has a soundtrack, like a movie. In fact it does, because the ‘music’ is created by the shape of the words and the images they conjure. A writer’s distinctive style is often called their ‘voice’, and that voice speaks the book inside the reader’s mind. So we have to be very deliberate with every word.
But quite often, writers don’t realise they’re actually sabotaging their narrative by inappropriate word choices.
To hone your awareness, try this exercise
Pick a simple scenario. Let’s have a character waking up in the morning, climbing out of bed, putting on a dressing gown (or, if you prefer, a suit of armour). Write it in your normal voice. Don’t put on a character. Just imagine it’s you, being natural, explaining to a friend.
Now write it again – as a character with a skippy song in their heart. Infuse the text with vigour, optimism and joie de vivre. Smile at your screen. Don your headphones, dial up Pharrell … okay, that might be too much for some of you.
Now go to the dark side. Describe exactly the same sequence, but make it tense. Foreboding. This is someone who wakes up and doesn’t know where they are. Or has been startled out of sleep by a sudden sound. For this I recommend Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Loom, which appropriately for our setting has a picture of the morning tooth routine.
Do you see how different they all are? Notice particularly where your natural voice falls on the spectrum of mood. Is that the tone you use in the narrative parts of your novel? Does it fit the material?
Of course, the examples I’ve made you write are extremes, but they demonstrate what a difference your narration makes to the atmosphere – and how you can change it.
Here’s the rub. Writers often use their ‘normal’ voice in the narrative parts of their novel, as though they were explaining to a friend, perhaps over coffee or wine. Without realising it, they’re being flippant, raconteurish or breezy. Their main character is being interrogated by the police? He’s ‘squirming’ in his chair. A cherished ornament is knocked off mantelpiece? It ‘topples and bounces’ to the floor. A character is in intensive care? They’re ‘encumbered’ with tubes. A character’s lover is shot by the police? Their blood ‘splatters everywhere’. It’s all rather jolly. They’ve got Pharrell in their hearts when they might be better with a gulp of YMO.
If you find it tricky to establish an appropriate tone for a serious scene, try drafting it in first person to get the mindset. Then switch back to general narration once you’ve established the mood and perspective.
But what about humour?
Of course, even the darkest stories need humour. Humour is part of life. But it’s better done through the characters – their thoughts, actions, quips, the ironies of their behaviour. It shouldn’t look as though the neutral narrative is telling the reader to find the situation humorous. If you describe a cop as ‘huffing and puffing’ as he chases a suspect, you’ve introduced levity. Is that appropriate to the action or would you be better to say his lungs were raw but he wouldn’t give up?
Let’s stay with ‘huffing and puffing’. If a humorous remark is made through the filter of a character, it’s entirely different.
Indeed, the humour can add an interesting layer. John le Carre uses this in The Night Manager. In one scene, the agent handler, Burr, has tapped the phone of his agent, Jonathan Pine. As Burr eavesdrops, he hears Pine get a call from the villain’s girlfriend.
Jonathan at first furious … but then less furious. And finally, if Burr read the music right, not furious at all. So that finally… it’s nothing but Jonathan … Jonathan … Jonathan … and a lot of huffing and puffing…’
Yes, this description is humorous, embarrassed, dismissive – but it’s in the mind of Burr. It doesn’t defuse the tension or make the incident trivial because it’s coloured by Burr’s feelings. Indeed, it shows his exasperation, his horror and disbelief that his agent is putting everything in jeopardy by having a liaison with the villain’s woman. (More here about the prose of The Night Manager.)
Your prose makes the environment
The prose is like a soundtrack for a movie, the lighting, the mood. Your natural outlook, your raconteur voice, may not be right for your fiction.
Main pic courtesy BBC
Is there a writer whose narrative voice you particularly admire for evoking atmosphere? Have you had to consciously modify your writing voice to suit your material? Even, have you altered your chosen genre because you discovered your voice suits it better? Let’s discuss!
Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)
Today: Doctor Who Christmas special – The Runaway Bride
In some ways I liked this as Russell T Davies is a slick, economical storyteller. I admire the way he takes a few intriguing ingredients and builds a script. In this case they are the rock that seeded planet Earth when the solar system was being formed, and ancient particles that have been deleted from the universe. I can imagine Davies daydreaming in school physics lessons and thinking ‘can’t we do something more interesting with the boring old atom?’. He mixes in a bit of showmanship and mayhem at London landmarks (and some soap opera, which I’m a little more doubtful about).
However, although he’s good at the big picture, he’s slipshod with details – and these undermine the whole story.
Writing sin 1: inconsistency in the pseudoscience We’re going to get technical here, so pay attention. Remember the deleted particles? They are attracted to the TARDIS. So one minute the bride, who has been secretly dosed with the particles, is walking down the aisle to get married. The next, she finds herself teleported to the TARDIS – which kicks off the whole story.
But later we meet other characters riddled with the particles who aren’t teleported anywhere.
The Doctor makes a flimsy attempt to explain this by saying the bride’s stress hormones and endorphins activated the particles in some way, but that’s a fudge. It’s obvious as a Dalek in your living room what the real reason is – if the other characters teleported too it would cause story chaos (and inconveniently get them out of a tight spot they weren’t supposed to escape from).
If you invent science, it has to be robust and stick to its own rules. If you find the rules are inconvenient, you can’t add exception clauses in small print. It’s particularly bad to bend them with a dose of exposition from a character who miraculously knows everything (and is therefore a get-out-of-gaol card whenever you like). If your pseudoscience rules don’t work the way you want, you have to rewrite them at a fundamental level or find another solution.
Writing sin 2: absurdity The big baddie is an alien spider creature who is millennia old. Despite this, it inexplicably knows the vows in the modern Church of England wedding service – and makes gags about them. This is clearly Russell T with his pantomime boots on, and it’s irritating. Yes, I do realise a Christmas special needs gags, but they need to make internal sense. Otherwise they smack you out of the world of the story. Oh yes they do.
Tomorrow, or next year: Salt
Until then, Bonne Annee x
Today I’m guesting over at Daisy Hickman’s SunnyRoomStudio.
Daisy is a poet and the author of Where the Heart Resides:
Timeless Wisdom of the American Prairie and a tireless explorer
of what it means to be creative – as indeed you will know from the
searching comments she often leaves here. Daisy asked me to write
a piece about names in fiction, so here we go…
The three chambers of fluid, lacrimal caruncle, fornix conjunctiva, canal of Schlemm, choroid, ora serrata. Where are these places? Somewhere under the sea? No, they’re right where you are. They are parts of the human eye.
I sense an artistic sensibility in the world of ophthalmology, as though its members are preserving a sense of wonder about what these organs do for us…
And drop back here tomorrow for a more regular post.
Some writers hate redrafting. Analysing, dissecting and rewriting their work? A sure way to make themselves hate it.
But if you’re hoping to amuse a buying public, your first draft will probably not be good enough. I’ve written about this before in I had no idea novel-writing was such hard work. Only the superhuman can get everything right on the first go. (I’m talking here about self-directed rewrites, before you show the novel to anyone else. Rewrites instigated by beta-readers, agents and editors are a different kettle of fish.)
So redrafting is a fact of life for writers. If you do it with gritted teeth, that’s a problem.
It so happens I love this phase. But I didn’t realise why until this week.
The penny dropped when I heard Michael Caine on the radio answering a question about giving natural performances.
He told the interviewer: I use one of the basic principles of Stanislavski. It’s called the method. That’s not looking at the floor and mumbling and scratching your bum. With the method, the rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation. By the time they say ‘action’, I’ve been through those lines 500 times.
This is exactly how I see my writing process.
The rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation
When I am drafting, I am in a continual state of rehearsal. Dissecting, questioning. Inventing new ways to test my story. Taking the characters for little rides outside the story. Digging for fundamental truth. I keep the writing rough while I chop the order of events around, concoct new scenes and drop them in. I always use mybeat sheet. My current WIP, Life Form 3, got so darn difficult it needed its own tool, and so I rewrote it as a fairy tale.
Certainly this can be frustrating, particularly when the story is flagging, there are too many unknowns. There’s always a stage where I’m convinced I’ve ruined an exciting idea. That’s why it’s called work.
But what comes out of it is intensely creative.
Ready to roll
There comes a day when I feel I understand, with a big U, fanfares and fireworks. I know what the characters want in each scene, what they show other people, what they’re hiding. I know the character of the book – its world, its struggles, what voice it has. I am confident the reader’s heart rate will soar in the right places.
That’s when I’m ready to relax and tell the story properly – with the final, in-depth rewrite.
Final draft is the performance
Performance. You know what I mean. If you’re a writer you have an urge to perform in prose. You can’t just dash off an email to a friend, a comment on someone else’s blog, a report for work. Even a note to the milkman will always be a bit of a song and dance. Words are never just words, they are indelible. That’s what we really enjoy, right?
My final pass is the performance – the language, style, voice. With all the work I’ve done, I’m ready to grab hold of the reader and show them something special.
Part of the problem with revising is that you get stale. But if with each pass you are building something richer and better, it gets more exciting, not less. Crucial to this is to keep the text rough until everything is place. Then you can give yourself something to look forward to – telling the story. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Are you a method writer? How do you motivate yourself through redrafts?
You can read more about my beat sheet and other revision tools in Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available from Amazon.com or outside the US from Lulu
Thank you, Tea, Two Sugars, for the picture