Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Watch Your Tone

Did you ever start a book, expect one thing, but get another? Well, that author's tone may have been off.

An author needs to make a conscious decision about the tone or mood of a story, and project that decision through word choices. That may not happen in the first draft when the aim is to get the story out of the mind and onto the manuscript, but it better happen before publication. Otherwise, there'll be some mighty confused readers out there. A confused reader is not a happy reader.

It would take up too much space to delve into every genre and every mood. For the sake of brevity, I'm offering an example from the romantic comedy, A Perfect Angel, which is my current work in progress.

Whatever dire happenings occur to a hero or heroine in a romantic comedy, the story's overall impression should be of humor. Here's my heroine, who was dumped by her guy. She decides to cope with her situation by going to a nightclub on what would have been her wedding night.



Lastly, instead of her usual controlled hairdo, she spiked out her chestnut hair and sprayed it generously.

Who was that person in the mirror? It couldn’t be the prim and proper Angelina, could it?

Smiling with satisfaction at the transformation, she grabbed her shoulder bag, and dashed out the door.
Let the adventure begin.

As Angelina stepped into Ginty’s, the music assaulting her eardrums lent excitement to the charged atmosphere. Alternating flashing lights illuminated outrageously contorting couples performing strange motions.
Toward the front, a spotlight shone on a woman gyrating even more suggestively on a small stage.
Taking in the spectacle, Angelina felt her exposed belly do a flip flop. Goose bumps broke on her arms and legs. Was she ready for the singles scene? 

In the above excerpt, I depict a woman terrified at her change of status, yet valiantly carrying on. Though there are other ways to convey humor, in this passage I chose action verbs and exaggerated adjectives to set the mood.

There are many other methods. The main idea is to match how you write with your book's genre.

Can you offer another example from either one of your books or another's? Or, maybe you'd just like to offer advice on how to set the tone in a certain genre.


Experience the diversity & versatility of Morgan Mandel. For romantic comedy: Her Handyman & Girl of My DreamsThriller: Forever Young: Blessing or CurseShort Stories Sequel: the Blessing or Curse CollectionRomantic suspense: Killer Career. Mystery: Two WrongsTwitter:@MorganMandel Websites: Morgan Mandel.Com Chick Lit Faves. Coming Soon: A Perfect Angel. 

18 comments :

  1. deborah turner harrisMay 6, 2014 at 5:04 AM

    As demonstrated in your text sample, the use of lavish diction contributes to the comic effect of the narrative situation. The line "outrageously contorting couples performing strange motions" is particularly choice!

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    1. Thanks, Deborah. I'm glad you like it!

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  2. Tone is very subtle but when it is off, it truly ruins the whole story. Tone should reflect the genre: is the story problem scary and dreadful, hilarious with an undertone of seriousness, etc. I'm not a fan of comedy-mysteries. When the protagonist is too flippant throughout, I lose interest. That's not to say you can't occasionally lighten the mood with banter or a lighthearted encounter resting beat, just that the overall tone is not dismissive of the seriousness of the situation. I'd almost consider tone a definition of sub-subgenre.

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    1. Yes, there are many books and movies where you can cut the tension with a knife, and then a small bit of comic relief is inserted. Sometimes, that momentary relief makes the tension even more unbearable when it's again applied.

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  3. Wow ... and I thought tone was just a setting on my amplifier.

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    1. My DH knows more about amplifiers than I do. They're kind of a mystery to me.

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  4. By all means, the tone of the book has to reflect its genre as well as the story. The author's voice is also going to come through, so no matter how dire the situation, I like to add a little levity--I can't write humor by any means, but my characters do have a sense of humor. And, especially when I'm writing cops, they deflect the horror of many situations with flippant humor that only other cops would understand. But if it's only them in the scene, there's going to be "humor."

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    1. Yes, inserting humor in strategic places is a good ploy, but when an author doesn't know how to do it right, chaos ensues in the reader's mind.

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  5. This is an excerpt from Ch 1 of my novel Hell's Own. I like to use everything around to convey the tone of the book: the atmosphere, the characters, sounds and emotions.


    One beat.

    From deep within the bowels of earth, molten lava erupted into an orgasm of spewing embers that showered down upon heaving ground.

    Two beats.

    The cracked soil at Alexander’s feet sizzled. Power emanated from heat-darkened muscles that pulsed with energy. His shadow flickered in the glow of the flames. It sent an eerie image skipping across the magnificent peaks of stalagmite towers—an image of powerful wings and broad shoulders. It was a picture framed by hair that flowed like the great black veins of inky coal in the deepest of the earth’s layers. Coal crushed by the pressure of volatile shifts and heated by hell’s own furnace became diamonds—hard and glorious.

    Three beats.

    He didn’t flinch as sparks of fire lit on his skin like raindrops. With narrowed eyes and furrowed brow, he waited for the fourth.

    Patience was not his virtue.

    If he could, he’d choke the timekeeper. A wisp of smoke rose from where a spark made impact on his shoulder, and he snorted at the smell of burning skin, then gave an evil glance at the frumpy, bald-headed form above him.

    The short round figure hovering over an even more rotund kettle snarled back. A large rough-handled mallet held high in the air wavered as two beady eyes spied Alex and seemed to mock him.

    Dare him to provoke a faster beat.

    He considered it. Alex scowled when the little beast brought the mallet down with a bang on the taut skin stretched over the kettle—no faster, but with a twisted sneer on his lips as he returned Alex’s glare.

    The air vibrated with heat that was ever-present and all encompassing. The caverns around him swelled with the sound of a riotous clang. The flames that encompassed every surface flashed in response to the shattering peal. It always came on the fourth beat. A horde of winged creatures sped through the cavernous space and turned the heat-reddened landscape black.
    The beat of Alex’s heart matched the thundering of the wings. Sinewy shoulders twitched under his burning skin. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. The odor of decay, heat, passion, and anger fused in his mind. He wanted to fly with them.

    To fly was freedom in its purest form.

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  6. Sometimes a switch in tone drags you out of the story. But at other times, not so much for comic relief but more to add another string; under those circumstances I am intrigued rather than annoyed.

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    1. Depends on the skill of the writer whether or not I'm happy or aggravated when the tone changes.

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  7. Whoever thinks that sitting down and writing a book is a simple matter of applying words to paper (or hard drive) doesn't have a clue. This is a good discussion of tone, Morgan. All the puzzle pieces that go into creating a cohesive, compelling book can be mind-boggling.

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    1. I sure wish it were easy to just sit down and write a book, but the more I know, the more it seems I need to know.

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  8. Every genre, in my opinion, needs a touch of the opposite. There are things that just aren't funny, but no book is entirely that way. A combination of laughs in serious books and seriousness in lighter books make for an interesting product. Switching tone, even for a bit, makes a book more interesting, but it has to be done right to work. Excellent post, Morgan.

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    1. A little comic relief is helpful, but if a serious book turns completely comical, it can become very baffling to a reader.

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  9. That's true, I think, Polly. However, the 'tone' shouldn't change without warning or reason. You can have humor in a serious or ominous situation, but the feeling of the sitaution shouldn't change. For instance, in my above example, the tone while in 'hell' is always forboding, tense and somewhat angry, but there are areas where there is humor, the characters themselves have humor, but the tone and feeling of the space never changes.

    In the same book though, I do change tones--for a purpose. In 'hell' the tone that sets the feeling is ominous, when my main character (a demon) is on earth, the tone changes considerably. It's lighter, more confused, because he is, and there is a lot more humor. The tone change helps define two very different spaces.

    Tone doesn't dictate whether or not there is humor, it just creates the general feeling.

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    1. I'd say we need to apply a differening tone with caution!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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