There’s an old joke about a teacher berating a pupil: “Boy, don’t look at me in that tone of voice.” And it’s funny because it’s true, of course. My parents used to make a point of getting me to say sorry, for all kinds of things I didn’t feel sorry about. I would eventually say it – ‘Sorry’ – but in a tone as if firing it out of my sphincter. It didn’t matter, though, because for them it was just the word that counted.
But for an author tone is everything. And yet it’s not an easy quality to dissect. You know when it’s right and you know when it’s wrong or muddled or absent. I don’t think it necessarily has to be smooth and suave, by the way – the correct tone can be choppy, long-winded or even boring, as long as it’s serving the job the reader expects it to do, or at least is surprised by in the right way.
When I was at art college, they got us to do an exercise to improve our ability to differentiate tones. Most of us are not so good at this because we’re subjected constantly to such a huge range of different colours which are already clearly differentiated. So, at college we used to paint a picture but only using one colour. This automatically made us focus more strongly on tone. I believe the key to establishing effective tone in writing is similar: not to restrict your writing to say one word but more to become adept at expressing a multitude of emotions and characteristics through a single approach to the story.
So, I’m going to try to break tone down into five constituents that hopefully will make it easier to get hold of:
Consistent and genuine theme
Theme is the mother of tone. It gives birth to it, basically. But it doesn’t necessarily know what the kid is going to turn out like.
Let’s look at an example from so-called real life. You’ve finally got a date with the woman you’re convinced is the one. Although you’re not doing it consciously, as you prepare to go out, you’ll be establishing the tone you’re going to set. You’ll look through your wardrobe and, hopefully, decide against the ‘I’m with Stupid’ T-shirt, or the England football shirt. You’ll consider whether you need to look smart, casual, casual-smart, formal, cool – yeah, right – confident, sensitive, etc. And you’ll do this because you know that she will immediately get whatever tone you’re projecting when you meet, and if it’s not right then the date won’t work.
You’ll also worry about how you’re going to sound; how you should come across. Should you learn a few jokes (probably not). Should you work out where you stand on the UK going over to the Euro? Again, football’s almost certainly out. Is she religious; hell, you don’t know. Should you say you’re agnostic to be on the safe side; are you agnostic, or atheist? You don’t really know? What are you going to do if she’s a Scientologist, apart from run?
All of which of course leads to panic, sweaty thighs and mental convulsions. So, if you’re wise, you’ll sit down and ask yourself what is the theme of the evening. Is it to get smashed together and have meaningless sex? Well . . . no, not really. In which case you can put away the chest wig and the little blue pills. Is it to establish a friendship based on a mutual love of pub quizzes? It better not be.
But if it’s to put yourself totally on the line for the chance to begin a relationship that will be deeper and stronger and more committed than any other you’ve ever had, well, once you’ve admitted that to yourself, you shouldn’t have too much trouble picking out a shirt.
Of course, the difference between real life and being an author, is that in real life the success of your theme is dependent on her having the same theme in mind. Whereas authors can always cheat because they’re in control of both sides of the argument, or romance.
The consistent holding of tone relies, I believe, on the second ingredient which I’m calling:
The author instinct
Normal instinct mostly works to get us out of the way of lorries, angry wasps and the boss. It’s well trained to sense when something’s wrong, then to avoid it.
But the author instinct doesn’t have to avoid danger, because the only dangers in a story are the ones the author introduces himself, deliberately or otherwise. Therefore, the author instinct is free to work positively, which it does by sitting squarely in the middle of the theme and expertly controlling the reins of tone.
Which is a lot better than being on that potentially real life-changing date I mentioned earlier. There, one’s safety-first instinct can easily be at war with one’s creative instinct. So, instead of spontaneously telling her (because it’s what you feel right at that moment) that there’s so much depth in her eyes you know you’ll spend the rest of your life just getting to know what she’s really like, you spend the evening going through your bank statements to show her that you’re a good, solvent bet for the future.
So, if your novel’s theme is, say, the ultimate destructiveness of revenge, you can use it to shape the tone in every scene. And if one of those scenes is a fictional version of the first date, the tone will have a consistent shade of slightly dark foreboding about it, which you could show, say, in the way the guy doesn’t leave a tip because the waiter spilled a bit of wine while pouring it.
The right balance of funny/serious
I went to a fairly formal grammar school where the teachers all wore big black capes but the only weapons they kept in their utility belts were cane extensions for the better beating of the students with. Corporal punishment was second only to major torture (sorry).
Anway, one day we were having a serious discussion about religion in our history class. Or at least our history teacher was having a serious discussion with himself about it. Tony Jones, the class existential joker, kept asking facetious questions like, “If the wafer and the wine actually change into the blood and flesh of Jesus, doesn’t that mean all Catholics are cannibals, Sir?”
Eventually, Sir had had enough. He stormed over to Tony’s desk, clearly ready to inflict severe pain upon the boy, very red in the face and close to boiling point, and said, “Jones, I can’t stand any more.”
Tony said, “Well, you’d better sit down then, Sir.”
Which given the tone of the situation, was not really the best response he could have made. It was very funny, though; but here’s the thing: none of us laughed at the time, because we didn’t dare to.
By contrast, the balance between funny and serious in a story should be immediate and appropriate. The best sitcoms do this very well, by allowing just enough serious to highlight the funny. The worst sitcoms, unsure of their funny in the first place, over-compensate with sentimentality.