f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 of Tone: Listening to the Written Word

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, May 24, 2004

Day 1 of Tone: Listening to the Written Word

In putting together this little entry on tone, I’ve discovered that I mean two different things when I talk about it and I think they’re both completely relevant.

The first side of it is the more literal definition of tone as commonly used in speaking. This “tone” is simply how the way something is said can add layers of meaning that go beyond the mere words that are spoken. We all know this very well. Teenagers live and die on tone. For instance, the words:

“Sure, Mom.”

Think of your most annoying, bratty teenager, and then say those words with a roll of your eyes, as though you couldn’t be more annoyed your mother birthed you, and you’ll get your sense of tone. And that plays out in novels, too. You have a “narrator” or “point-of-view” and however your story emerges from them is your tone.

But tone is something more, too. Tone is the cumulative weight of a book that allows us to describe it another person. Rather than sound, it becomes a tactile word. That book is heavy. Her newest comedy is really light. Perhaps I’m missing an obvious word that should be substituted for one of these terms, but for the moment we’ll call them both tone and begin our look. And we’ll start with the aural aspect.

Let’s go through the steps of creating a novel.

First, you come up with an idea: what story is being told.

Next, you choose a POINT-OF-VIEW: who is telling the story?

And finally you hone in further and pick a TONE: what does that story “sound” like?

TONE, in this sense, regresses to the mean. Most authors don’t choose to tell their novels with grand flamboyance, nor do they aim for dull recitation. Instead, they try to reach the happy medium of novel-land where subtle shadings and slight adjustments help do their work.

From a technical standpoint, TONE is actually a figment of our imagination. It’s a bit of writers voodoo that’s concocted from a recipe of diction (the words chosen) and syntax (how those words are arranged.) Control of those elements helps a writer create the tone she wants.

We’ll get to those elements later this week. Or perhaps in their own sessions. Today we’ll continue forward with this gossamer TONE and show how it becomes a key element in a readers’ connection to your story.
Just as (Diction + Syntax = TONE) so, t o my way of thinking, do (P.O.V + TONE = VOICE). And if you’ve never seen English reduced to mathematics before, well, them I’m glad to be here. Anyway, tone should never be separable from point-of-view, so we lump them together and find ourselves faced with VOICE.

Strong and pure VOICE is one of the key distinguishers between good and great fiction. (And when I use these terms I’m talking about construction and writing. I may not “like” a book but I can see the merit and wonder in its writing.) In good fiction, voice is compromised somehow whether it’s inconsistent, muddy, indistinct or a thousand other problems. In great fiction, it’s clear and crystalline and lasts the entire book long. You always “hear” the book in the narrative voice rather than your own reading voice.

Whether it’s the sound of Scout reminiscing about her father, Kerouac’s authorial bebop riffing, Melville’s stentorian madness, or Chandler’s hardboiled patter, we are immersed in VOICE. The book becomes like a sounding bell and often, even years later, when we pick up the book we’re amazed to find that the VOICE has not changed very much.

So, for the rest of the week we’ll look at the part TONE will play in our grand equation. And then we’ll look at the bigger picture and see how to make our book’s overall TONE play like a melody, ebbing and flowing, through the book until it becomes almost a physical thing that we can touch and hold.

(Another resource on Tone.)