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?