Thursday, May 29, 2014

Slushpile Musings: The Importance of Tone

Not too long ago on Operation Awesome, I talked about voice and how it’s a difficult, undefinable aspect of writing. The super glue that holds all the other parts together. Well, this is true, but I think that superglue is a mixture. Voice is one of the ingredients but another ingredient is TONE.

Tone, to me, is even harder to define than voice. Tone is basically the feel of your book. The mood it creates for the reader while the pour through your story. Its not something they necessarily notice, at least when its done well. Effective tone blends into the story. Readers only really notice tone when it makes a mistake. That is, when things are tonally dissonant.

Let’s go to Disney for the best example for this. Anyone remember this movie?

Yeah, its dark for a Disney movie, isn’t it? In the first few minutes alone, a woman is murdered on the steps of a cathedral and the villain Frollo almost drops her baby down a well. And the rest of the movie is pretty dark as well. The villain song is about unquenchable lust driving Frollo into madness. He burns down half of Paris looking for this one woman. In one scene, he tries to trap and innocent family in their home and burn them alive. It’s a lot of heavy stuff for Disney.

But then there’s these guys.

I hate these guys. Because they don’t fit with the serious tone of the situation. They crack jokes but they don’t feel right. Its jut a little awkward that their big musical number takes place while PARIS IS BURNING. 
This is what tonal dissonance is. When something feels out of place, people notice. Whenever something is in place, people don’t. They aren’t distracted and its as it should be. Tone is kind of like the tech crew of a big musical. They do a lot of important work back stage and keep the show running smoothly. But if you notice them, it takes you out of the experience.

Ask yourself, “What is the tone of my work and progress? Am I going for a serious or frightening tone? Or do I want a light-hearted, quirky tone?” Then make sure you stick to that. You can have more than one tone in your novel (in fact you probably should) but there has to be a transistion in order for us to buy it. I mean just look at the first Harry Potter book compared to the last one. That’s a big shift. But J.K. Rowling was masterful in the way she handled it. We barely even noticed the shift. We just went right along with it. That’s good tone.

This is not

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