From Twee to Grime: Tone Gone Bad

Tone is the psychological setting of your story. It establishes the ethos of your world, that is to say the prevailing philosophy. It is one of the key elements in giving weight and gravity to your story. It’s also very easy to get wrong.

Wild tone shifts are a problem, of course, though if handled skillfully they can be useful: they get the reader’s attention, for good or ill. What I really want to talk about today, however, is the danger of unmodulated tone. Of tone which is so thoroughly consistent from scene to scene that it becomes oppressive.

Into every life a little rain must fall, but it also can’t rain all the time. There need to be moments of tension in your story, but also moments of relief. It must fell as if the characters have some chance–no matter how slim–of changing their world. They have to be encouraged sometimes, and discouraged at others. An iron-clad consistent tone removes this possibility. Consider the grimdark story, which has become popular of late, where human life is often futile and its activities meaningless. Such stories rarely have satisfying endings–because the tone has already set the reader up to believe that there can be no satisfaction in such a crapsack world. If every signpost along the road reads DEAD END, a happy ending will feel forced and unrealistic. At the very least you need to show a time, perhaps in flashback, when the character was happy. A pleasant interlude, that makes the grittiness that much more unbearable. Absent any kind of hope or redemption, your world isn’t gritty, it’s grimy. A story that makes readers feel like they need a bath afterward. Was that what you wanted? If not, indulging too much in a dark tonal palette puts you at risk of ruining the emotional payoff of your story.

The converse, of course, is just as bad. Twee stories take place in a world without consequences, where the characters can screw up as badly as they like but the author will pick them up afterward, dust them off and bandage their boo-boos, and everyone is home in time for dinner. Such stories feel saccharine and unenjoyable. Not because they’re so unrealistic but because they’re weightless. There are no stakes, so there’s nothing to earn.

There is one kind of story where I think unrelenting tone works well, which is the naturalistic story, where the intent is to create a world so absolutely authentic and believable that it feels perfectly realized. Such stories tend not to have anything like a traditional plot, and often revolve around following a character through their daily routine. They are extremely difficult to make satisfying, however, because they eschew all the normal strategies of fiction. Not to say it can’t be done, and done well, but it may be one of the greatest challenges in writing.

Overly-consistent tone, as with any element of writing, draws too much attention to itself. It becomes the point of the story. Which is not always a bad thing–think of the witty froth of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, or the airless horror of The Road, for examples from either end of the spectrum. Books I love dearly, but which make no attempt to deliver a satisfying beginning/middle/end structure.

Think about what kind of story you want to write, and how you want readers to feel about it. If all you want is to convey a mood or emotion, absolutely run wild with tone. But if you’re more interested in having readers relate to your characters, or to put them through a roller coaster of a plot, step back a little from your tone, now and again. In what will become a refrain in these musings, my advice is to give your story room to breathe. On the eve of the climactic battle, let your characters have a friendly game of cards to soothe their nerves. In the midst of your story about the best birthday party ever, don’t be afraid to let a mouse run through the kitchen, scaring the birthday boy, for comic effect.

Tone is a tool. It is one of many in the writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it effectively and it can add enormous color and life to your story. Let it run away from you, and your story will suffer. It is well worth sitting down, before you even start plotting, and think about how you plan on using tone.

Setting: Don’t Get Lost

Creating a rich and fascinating setting for your story is fun. It’s so much fun. And it can be rewarding, too. The more work you put into your setting, the more detail and depth, the more your book will come alive–if the backdrop seethes and breathes, your characters will feel more real, more anchored, and it’s also like you’re giving them another actor to play to. More business for them to do (“he picked an orange from the vendor’s cart and pressed it to his nose, inhaling the scent of far-off Valyria, while he ignored the viscount’s leading question”), more set-pieces to escape from, more, more, more.

And that’s the trap: too much setting. Setting requires a lot of research (or at least a lot of pondering) and when you learn something while writing a book, the temptation to tell your readers all about it can be overwhelming. You can spend whole chapters talking about the average humidity and rainfall that your Antarctic research station sees. Sometimes readers love this stuff, and eat it up with a spoon. Other times it takes them right out of the narrative. Your plot disappears and your book becomes about polar meteorology. Did you intend to write a book about polar meteorology? If not, well… now you are.

The other way too much setting can get in your way is with the tone of your piece. If your protagonist just lost their spouse, if their kids don’t love them, if they’re dying of some horrible disease… but they live in a land of sun and palm trees and scantily clad beach kids, well… the reader’s going to think maybe everything isn’t so bad, after all.

There is one great solution to both of these problems. Own them. If, during your research you discover a secret love for isobars and thermoclines and rain shadows, for the sake of all that’s holy: go ahead and write a book about polar meteorology! It’s probably a niche book, but who knows? If you can make it compelling, go forth and prosper. If your setting is at odds with your tone–make a point of that! Use it. Use the crash of the sundappled waves to let your character meditate on deep time, on the size of life. Or make them even more miserable because everyone around them is so happy.

There’s a big secret here, one you should have learned in Creative Writing 101, but probably didn’t. Stories change as we write them. The stories we want to tell change. But you should always stay in control. Know what kind of story you want to write, know what it says. Know that you want it to say that. Be ready to change everything on a moment’s notice–but always make changes you want to make.

What’s most important in your story? The plot? The characters (99% of the time, it’s one of these two)? Then setting should exist only and entirely in service to your plot or your characters. There’s an easy rule for this. Ask yourself, before you start to write, whether your story could take place somewhere else. Whether it would work just as well in Kansas. Or the third planet of Altair. Or under the sea. If so, then your setting isn’t necessary. It’s just there for color and flavor. Those are important things, but they’re not super important, and so your setting can be chopped up, mutilated, or safely ignored as you choose.

Was your answer no? Can your story only take place in one particular setting? Would it seem impossible someplace else? Is this literally the only place in the universe this story could happen? Then suddenly setting is super important. Still–you want to work with it. Not in it. Never, ever let it become more important than the people who inhabit it.

Setting is seductive. It’s incredibly dangerous. Don’t let it take over your story–instead, make it work for you.

Writing: Little, Big

The emotional impact of a story is almost always inversely proportional to the size of the story.

It might seem counter-intuitive. Big books, with lots of characters, settings and set pieces engage the reader on a more intellectual level. Worldbuilding becomes predominant–the reader’s enjoyment of the story is more about being immersed in a place and a time. But this always comes at a remove: the reader is constantly reminded of the activity of reading, of the experience of hearing a story. The characters become functions and parts of that world, and the reader is distanced from them, less likely to identify directly with them, for better or worse.

A small story, though, that holds to the Aristotelian unities–one character, events that take place over one day in one setting–forces the reader out of this objective mindset. They have no choice but to relate and identify with the singular voice and viewpoint. Events become enlarged in significance and charge: we know that, since we are alone with the character, everything that happens to them is important, is meaningful in a way we feel more intensely. Our experience becomes more subjective, more immediate. More emotionally resonant.

There are, of course, ways to problematize the difference. Books like Game of Thrones work great at playing with the intersection of these two levels–while there is a huge world out there, with a story rich in incident, each character is given a deep interiority. As a result readers can choose which character they want to identify with the most–who they “root” for. It’s one of the things that makes the book so powerful.