Posts Tagged tone

Is the tone of your prose in tune with your novel? A simple exercise with Pharrell Williams and Yellow Magic Orchestra

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson drunk and playing 20 questions in BBC Sherlock Season 3 Episode 2 The Sign of Three

A moment of uncharacteristic levity in the lives of J Watson and S Holmes

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.

pharrell-nail-your-novel

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.

yellow-magic-orchestra-nail-your-novel

Many voices

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.

A tip

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!  

nyn3 2ndNYN2 2ndPsst… Lots of info on fine-tuning your story in my books on plot and character

 

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Clashing tones: a peril when we spend a long time writing a book

frankensteinI see a lot of manuscripts by writers who tell me they’ve been honing their book for years, sometimes even decades. Often these are first novels, slowly maturing as the writer feels their way – not just with that story’s material but with all the controls of their writing craft, and the influences they’re absorbing from other fiction they read. Even their idea of what kind of writer they are might change.

And quite often, I can see these phases in the novel itself, like a Frankenstein monster. In some paragraphs the narrator sprouts a personality, and starts to present a humorous view of proceedings that wasn’t in the narrative before. Sometimes the plot events or dialogue abruptly switch to the conventions of a different genre, or the writer’s vision for the characters seems to change from tragic to dreamy.

When I flag them in my report, the writer usually says that the line or section came from an earlier version, or they were unsure whether to include it or not.

Mood to mood

It’s inevitable that we’ll write or edit in different moods from one day to the next. That’s fine; we’re not machines, after all. And we often get our best revelations from messing and experimenting. But we don’t want to develop a patchwork of tones.

One of the many things we must do as we edit is to create an even tone to give the reader a consistent experience – or at least make sure we don’t change it unintentionally. That doesn’t mean we can’t create characters who are contradictory or multifaceted. Or narrative styles that are flexible and supple. But we must watch out for the moments when our narrative veers too far from variety and we have slipped into a different version of the book.

This is difficult to spot. If we’ve been working on a book for a long time, we’ll have got used to assembling it piecemeal from bits we like. As we read through, we know what it all means and we don’t realise when we’re giving the reader an unwanted mental gear change. We become tone deaf to our book.

We need to edit with an awareness of this moment. If at any point we catch ourselves making a mental hop to process a sentence, this could be because its tone doesn’t quite belong.

This kind of editing is usually only possible in the late stages of the novel, when we’re happy and have stopped experimenting. It isn’t until then that we have the coherent vision of our work, the deep knowledge of what we are trying to do, and therefore the certainty to feel when something fits and something doesn’t. Or, indeed, the strength to let go of the parts that don’t fit – the evergoing purge of darlings.

But if you learn to recognise the shadows of former versions of your novel, you’ll give the reader a smoother ride.

Thanks for the pic petsadviser.com

guarmasterNEWS If anyone’s in or near London, I’m teaching in the one-day Guardian self-publishing seminar, along with Joanna Penn, Orna Ross, Ben Galley and Polly Courtney. Funnily enough, most of them have been or will be guests on The Undercover Soundtrack – except for Joanna, who writes to the sound of rain. I’m working on her to write me an Underwater Soundtrack. I’m teaching the module on print books, and other modules include marketing, formatting and using social media.

Back to tone! Do you have problems with your novels shifting tone? How have you solved them? Let’s discuss

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Never begin your story with weather – a writing taboo examined

Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.

So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:

That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’

It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?

1 It’s interesting

Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’

But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

2 It’s about people

We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?

In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)

3 A storyteller is luring us in

Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.

The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.

Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson

What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos

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