Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Help for the Tonedeaf

When I write stories, I try to serve up a range of emotions. From beginning to end, I want to include happy scenes, funny scenes, alongside the angry and sad scenes. Lately, however, I've come to realize that there are two layers of emotions at play in our stories.

First, there's what I described above. We can write about things that create different emotions. But, underneath that, there's a second level, a foundation emotion, if you will. I think this is what writers are talking about when they use the term "tone." Say we are describing a birthday party, for example. And, suppose that everything is going right in this party. The weather is nice. The cake is beautiful. The balloons are fully inflated. We could say that this is a happy occasion. But, as a writer, I could choose to write about this happy occasion in a sad way. This cake would be the last delicious thing they would ever eat again, for example.

Among the writers I most admire, there's a huge range in tone. Here are some first lines as examples:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. --One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it's a kitchen, if it's a place where they make food, it's fine with me. --Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. --Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. --Anna Karenina by Loe Tolstoy

Notice how we get different amounts of humor? difference amounts of seriousness? different amounts of magic?

For me, tone is a glimpse into the psyche of the writer. For a depressed writer, everything might have a dark tone. For a blissful writer, something as tragic as death might come out sounding not at all unpleasant. In my personal experience, the tone seems to be an uncontrollable side effect of how I'm feeling when I'm writing. And, maybe that's why I've been fixated on this concept lately.

As some of you know, I've been working on a story about a cannibal. I started a couple of years ago, but I tend to drop it and move onto something else whenever I start getting nightmares. Because of the subject matter, the tone of this book has been dark and depressing. But, recently, I've been feeling particularly good about my writing. I've been reading a novella called Hadji Murad, and I've managed to pick up some new techniques from it. I've also started to write my cannibal story from a different person's point of view, someone who isn't so in the middle of things. And, I wonder if both factors, my happiness at learning something new, and the fact that I'm not in the head of a murderer has changed the tone of my book.

Earlier in the book, I have: The air smelled of fresh paint. He could not make out any noise on the other side of the doors that lined the hallway. He moved carefully so as not to brush up against the walls or the paint-speckled tarp that lay against one side. He walked toward the elevator as the door to his mother's condominium closed and locked behind him.

Later on, I have: Only later did Victoria realize that the others had not spoken for several minutes, that they were exchanging glances with one another behind their magazines. She realized that her turn as the center of attention was over, and, blinking her false eyelashes, she leaned over toward Cynthia and complimented her on her new handbag.

I've had different internal emotions as I wrote these two sections, but I can't tell if the outward tone of the writing has changed. And, I wonder--if the tone has changed, is this within my control?

What do you all think? Do you get different tones from the two paragraphs I copied here? Do you think tone is something we can control, or is it just the consequence of how we are feeling?


  1. Davin,

    This is a great post. I am still attempting to figure out how I can seperate my different tones. Often it happens unconsciously, but I don't know how to do it consciously.

    As for your two paragraphs:
    I found the first one has a dark tone, while the second one has more perhaps manipulative, annoyed tone. I don't know anything about where those paragraphs fit in, so mind is conjuring up scenarios, and no doubt someone else might find a different feeling from those scenes.

  2. The first paragraph gave me a feeling of isolation. Activities were going on around him but not when he was there. (Evidence of painting being done in the hallway but no workers)The first time I read it I thought the door locked behind him accidentally. Maybe it’s my own mood that assumed the solitude is forced on him and not by choice.

    The second paragraph had an entirely different feel to it. I felt exposed. (Discovered? Embarrassed?) If I read the preceding passage, I’d have a better understanding whether her moment of attention was an accident of some sort or did she get even with someone else by revealing something.

    To answer your question, I don’t know if the tones have changed, but I get two different feelings from them.

  3. I think they were similar in that they both dealt with a type of isolation.

  4. To me there is a similar tone in the two passages. Both have a sense of silence- the quiet hallway, the exchange of glances. Beyond that it is difficult to judge with such short selections.

    This is a timely post for me. In the middle of FATE'S GUARDIAN I have a section called "Falling In and out of Love" in which my protagonist meets his wife and falls in love, and my antagonist meets the woman he desires but cannot have. I tell the stories in tandem, switching back and forth and having similar circumstances but very different outcomes, one plot line ending happily and the other ending in mayhem.

    The "happily" part is a major shift in tone from the first section of the book. I think I have it balanced out with the antagonist story line, though. I struggled with this for a while, and I'm not quite sure the struggle is over...

  5. I kept wondering when you were going to put this post up, Davin! It's excellent and timely for me, as it is for Rick.

    First of all, I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I wrote an experimental paper you might like based on One Hundred Years of Solitude and some other books you might have read.

    As for your two paragraphs, I think there are different tones. They both deal with isolation, but I like how Charlie lays it out with the first one feeling like the character is being forced with the isolation, and in the second it feels more accidental, but controlled in a way.

    From what I've discovered from my writing, tone changes with the characters I'm writing about. Tone comes from THEM, not me. I mean, it comes from me, the writer, but I am absolutely influenced by the personality of each character.

    In Monarch, I have three POVs. I think the tone in each scene changes for each character, but they are all overshadowed by my main character, Nick. His tone flavors the story, and I want it to. I love his tone - serious, but a bit sarcastic and beautifully sad at the same time.

    On that note, I like to think that TONE is what readers fall in love with. It's not the characters, it's their tone. I've fallen in love with some pretty nasty characters who do horrible things. It's their tone I love, not what they do. I never realized this before now. So thanks!

    I have so many thoughts on this, but I'll stop now. :)

  6. Both of these paragraphs make me think of secrets and silence, but the second one also creates a heavy feeling of hate and superficiality.

    I love Leo Tolstoy, especially that line. Such a great way to start a book.

  7. Your first paragraph is definitely sinister, while the second is lighter (but still excellent characterisation!)

    I suggest that tone is a reflection of our inner self at the time of writing - perhaps even part of our personality as much as voice is - but it should also be something that we, as writers, learn to master. Once we've harnessed our tone, as much as we need to harness our voice, it then becomes a tool to use in conveying a multitude of meanings to our text.

  8. Lost Wanderer, are you trying to separate tones into different stories? I also wonder about that: if two different tones can exist together or if it ends up feeling too much like too different writers in the same book. Thanks for your notes on the paragraphs!

    Charlie, you seem like a very emotional reader. Thanks for describing your reads. My sense, as I understand tone, is that if they are giving you different feelings, then they probably have different tones.

    Aimee States, thanks. That similarity may be revealing my own attitudes of these characters...or of myself.

    Rick, thanks! And, thanks for talking about Fate's Guardian. So, for you, it seems to be about balance. That makes sense. If two different tones are spread out throughout the story, then the piece can still feel united as a whole. Good point.

    Michelle, that's a really good point. Yes, these tones have changed due to the changes in character. I felt that when I wrote Rooster as well. Maybe my issue with this latest story is that the tones might be TOO different. I wonder if I am missing that overall feeling, the way you describe Nick's overall tone, that lies underneath the others.

    Mariah, wow, you got a lot out of these paragraphs! The first paragraph is dealing directly with the cannibal, so there are definitely a lot of secrets there! The second paragraph is dealing with a woman who doesn't know what's going on. So, her life is more focused on the superficial, just like you said.

    Ann, very well said. Sometimes I feel like meditation is necessary before I can write. I feel like I have to have a consistent mindset so that I don't get these huge fluctuations in tone.

  9. Interesting thoughts here, Davin.

    I once abandoned a ghost story WIP because it was giving me nightmares. I hadn't considered changing the POV. I wonder if it would have made a difference...

    And, I believe the two paragraphs do have different tone - for the reasons Charlie pointed out so well.

    My emotions often influence my writing. My husband has even accused me of picking arguments just to enhance the tension in my work. I deny it, but....

    the poor man, stuck with me and my insanity ;)

  10. Davin: I like both the excerpts here. The first one, as Charlie first pointed out, has a feeling of isolation. The second one as well, though it's more the isolation of social dynamics in a sort of Fitzgerald sense.

    This post is very timely for me. Last night I looked at my new first chapter and realized that it was wrong somehow, and it's been bothering me. Now I realize that the problem I have with it is the tone, but that's something I can fix.

  11. The paragraphs feel totally different to me.

    I think our emotions play a big part in our writing . . . to a certain extent. Does it affect the overall tone of the manuscript? Probably not. Does it affect one section? Yes.

    I think we invest so much of who we are in our books, there is an emotional link to every word we write. When I'm writing an 'angry' scene - emotions flowing, fists clenched, and all that jazz - I sometimes pull from my own life, and sometimes I just wing it. So, does the tone change depending on real life versus winging it? I have no clue.

    In fact, until today, I never gave 'tone' a moments notice. Perhaps I just immerse myself so fully in my writing, that all that exists for me are the emotions of the characters I have created, though driven by my subconscious that is pulling on memories from my past, and future if the timeline of past, present, and future is actually occurring simultaneously.

    Lastly, what if our personal emotions play little part in the writing of a scene? Hmmm . . .


  12. Davin, do you think the reader has something to do with tone as well? We certainly bring our own emotions and tone to a piece when we're reading, don't we? Just food for thought.

  13. Great post Davin. I agree with you that sometimes our own feelings can guide or alter the tone of a work. They may not completely alter it, but there is an effect.

    As for your two examples, my answer is yes...and no. There is a different tone I feel from both of them, but there are similarities too. The first seems hesitant, cautious, and quiet. The second example is also quiet, but for different reasons. There is more activity here, but there is also a hesitancy. So similar, but different. Good writing either way though IMHO.

  14. Tess, yeah, the nightmares weren't fun. A lot of chopping and blood! (I can laugh about it now.) I've gotten into the habit of writing my stories from multiple points of view, so I'll still end up in the cannibals head, but only for part of the time.

    Thanks, Scott. A few of you are mentioning the isolation in the second paragraph. That's interesting because it's something I never noticed. I didn't pick up a wrong tone-ness in your first chapter, but maybe if you change it, I'll see that it's even better.

    Scott, I think I experience much of this like you. It's almost like writing is the same as acting in that way that you have to get into your characters. But, sometimes it feels out of synch too. Even if a character is angry, if I'm in a good mood, that anger is depicted differently for me on the page.

    Michelle, thanks for saying that. I think that's definitely true, and it's sort of what inspired the direction of this post. As you know I started this post several weeks ago and didn't know exactly where I was going with it. Last night, as I was reading my story, I couldn't tell if these paragraphs had different tones, or if I was just reading them with different tones at the time. That was when I got confused.

    Eric, Yeah, I think it's difficult to separate tone from voice. So, maybe the voice is consistent and the tones are a little bit different, but the combo still makes them "match" somehow. I'm not sure. Thanks for thoughts!

  15. I definitely agree with Michelle. If I’m in a great mood, I may miss some underlying sadness the author might’ve included. The passages would seem lighter to me. I also read quicker when I’m happy. Alternately, If I’m in a sad mood, I’ll read to escape (more so) and read more carefully. Weird huh?

  16. What a wonderful post, Davin. In both paragraphs they both seem so alone to me. He because he seems to be cunning--dark. And Victoria because she is NOT the be all that ends all anymore--sad. So to me one is sad, one very dark.

    I love to read your writing though Davin. Wish you'd post more of it.:)

  17. Wow. Very deep. I think the tones in the passages are slightly different, but not too much. Sure what they are saying is different, but to me the underlying tone is not that different.

    In my own writing I'm not sure I have enough control as of yet to be able to manipulate the tone of what I'm saying. Then again I haven't really thought of it in those terms or tried doing it. I may have to do that now. Thanks for giving me more work. Haha.

  18. Dude, I feel smarter for having read your post!

    You are stretching my writing brain.

    Which, I think, can only be good.


  19. Some great food for thought here. I think part of what you're talking about is what I would call emotional texture. Apart from being psychologically plausible (very few of us are monotonic in our emotional life even for the duration of a single thought) it adds an extra layer of conflict/dynamism to a character.

    I would disagree with you that tone offers a glimpse into the psyche of the author, at least not in any straight-forward way. Depressives are very often quite adept at hiding their depression behind a range of behaviours including humour and false affect. A good writer is, of course, adept at writing behaviours that do not reflect their personal state of mind (you must have done so yourself). That's before we get into the effects of the interaction between the reader's own state of mind and the words on the page.

    Having disagreed with you on that, this was a great post. It is the first I've read at this site and it has made me determined to find time to read more of your posts.




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