f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of Tone: Summarizing a Book in a Single Phrase

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

Friday, May 28, 2004

Day 4 of Tone: Summarizing a Book in a Single Phrase

In the end, I think the books I remember the most are the one that evoke in me a strong and inescapable feeling. That feeling can be one of many—mirth, longing, contentedness, sadness, etc—but it adds up to something that transcends the page and forces a response from me. These aren’t necessarily the books I love (there was a book called Violence by Richard Bausch that I swear made me feel like I’d been beaten with a tire iron) but books that stay with me.

A good deal of that comes back to the other definition of TONE that we were going to discuss this week. At the end of a book, when you’re trying to gather all your thoughts about a novel and put it into words, often what you first put into words is the TONE of the book.

It’s not true for all titles. Some demand more of a response to theme or imagery. In others, one character’s voice holds your attention. Some, like Lord of the Rings (for me) you’re simply glad to have flipped the last page. But for many books, as you try to tell others what you liked about it, you speak in the code of TONE. (And if you read book or movie pages, it often where reviewers spend all of their 50 cent words.)

For a good chick-lit title, one might use words like: frothy, light, saucy, effervescent

For a thriller: harrowing, claustrophobic

One novel is stark; another is lush.

All these words are trying to capture the overarching feeling of a book when you add up its component parts of narrative, language, style, characters, setting, plot, and theme.

Look at it in terms of cooking—your final dish becomes more than just the sum of your ingredients. They interact and influence each other usually evoking one dominant taste with other “notes” below.

Let’s stay with cooking as our metaphor for a moment.

Sometimes when you’re cooking you have an ingredient you want to work with, say mushrooms. That’s like starting a book based on a character or a setting. Other times you need a certain type of food, say, salad. That’s similar to sitting down and trying to write in a genre. Other times, you a have a craving for a particular taste. I think that’s similar to writing toward tone. You want to tell a frothy story. Or a menacing one. Any of that make sense?

It was asked how writers know that the POV or tone of their work is right or not.

I think that’s a fascinating question. For me, and this is about the least helpful answer ever, I knew my POV and tone were right because I could finish my novels.

In the case of my first novel I started it and slowly shifted by tone and point-of-view until I was on the right track. Then I went back and rewrote what turned out to be 150 pages until it all was the same track.

My second novel was completely different. I had been putzing with different POVs and voices for, literally, years. When I finally found the right voice, the writing took off.

My guess is that the different solutions occurred because the books were written with different “centers.” The first novel was far more centered on theme—dealing with the hauntings of your past—while the second novel was a first-person tale that needed voice down cold. And as for their overall tones. I don’t know. I’m not sure if I’m even the right person to say.

I can talk about others’ books. And you all were kind enough to send in some examples as well. I’ve simply made a list below. These are the feelings brought forth by a book after a singular reader finished. Actual results may vary.

Straight Man by Richard Russo — Sly poignancy
Couples by John Updike — Tragicomic hedonism
A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch — Dark humor
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee — Innocence lost
From Dust and Ashes by Tricia Goyer — Careful emotional restraint
The English Assassin by Daniel Silva — Methodical, meticulous, and matter of fact.
Shadowmancer by G.P. Taylor — Crapola
Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code by Eoin Colfer — Good fun
Godric by Frederick Beuchner — Blunt, self-effacing tone
From A Buick 8 by Stephen King — Dry, matter of fact tone
Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett — Hard cynicism
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell — Bleak, desperate tone
The Covenant by Beverly Lewis — Poignant
Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst — Awakening grief
Thorn in My Heart by Liz Curtis Higgs — Engaging
Operation Wandering Soul — Dazzling release
Here Comes the Bride by Pamela Morsi — Down-home charm

That’s just a handful of novels. Try to name the tones of some of your favorites. And think if there’s one that you want to try writing. That’s it for Friday. Have a great long weekend. I may or may not post on Monday depending on life. Definitely Tuesday though.