Sunday, March 28, 2010

Manage the Shifting Tone in Your Writing

In fiction and poetry, we often discuss this idea of "shifting tone," sometimes as if it's some kind of leprous creature to be avoided at all costs.  "The tone shifts here - it really bothered me" is a common refrain in workshops.  But this isn't to say the tone of your story should remain constant throughout - quite the contrary...

In a supernatural romance, for example, we want to feel that nervousness as the man pulls out the ring to ask his ghost bride to marry him. And there should be the sudden silence as the ring falls through her ghostly finger. And then switch to happy joy as the ghostly girlfriend laughs:
"Of course I'll marry you, silly!"  And then she pulls out a ghostly circle of gold no bigger around than her pinky.  She gestures, and the man holds out his left hand.  She slips the golden circlet onto his ring finger with a mischievous grin.  He can't feel it at all, it's so light and clear.  He is so overawed that he reaches for the champagne, chokes on the bubbly, and dies.

"See," she says, as his spirit rises up from the body. "Now we can be together in eternity."
Note that the tone here is unsteady - and yet it works.  This is an unsteady story.  We have a mortal man asking a ghost to marry him - something, here, must be a bit off-kilter.  And so it's all right that in one line we can go from "reaching for the champagne" to "choking on the bubbly" and then to "he dies."  One reason this works is because the events follow each other in a logical progression, and with each progression the tone gets darker and darker.  He wants to marry a ghost?  And then he dies?  Man...now that's irony.

The goal with tone is not to provide a solid and unwavering base for the story - your evolving character should do that.  Your setting should be giving the reader a sense of place.  Where tone fits in is helping your reader feel the same things that your characters are feeling.  For example, let's try tragedy:
Billy had a test tomorrow.  And his girlfriend had just dumped him.  And now, in the dorm cafeteria, he stared at the lumps of macaroni slowly congealing into a solid mass of yellow coils.

"I hate my life," he said.

The tone here is sad and a bit depressing - it reflects Billy's inner thoughts.  If we kept this tone throughout the entire piece, the story wouldn't move forward - Billy would remain sad and depressed throughout the entire story.  We wouldn't feel that anything should change - or that anything can change - because Billy doesn't feel that here.  So to carry this story, we need to shift the tone a bit.  For this, I would bring in a second character - someone who can give the story a tone which transcends the hopeless ennui of our protagonist:
Mari took the seat across from him.  She brushed back a knot of hair behind her ear, jabbing a pencil practically through her forehead trying to keep it all in place.  And then she sighed as the pencil slipped out through the curls and onto the floor.

"There goes another one," she said, reaching down for the pencil.  It was then that Billy noticed her dinner - the only item on her tray was a Styrofoam coffee cup packed with four scoops of strawberry ice cream.

Mari straightened.  She cradled the pencil in her hand like a wounded animal.  "Oh, you poor thing," she said, placing it gently on the edge of her tray, "how are you going to help me ace the math final if you're all broken again?"
Here, we see that not all hope is lost - math finals can be aced, pencils can be healed.  And yet, in doing this, we've maintained a careful balance between "life is great" and "life has challenges."  Yes, Mari seems happy and well-adjusted - but she's also got knots in her hair and pencils dropping out all over the place.  And what's with the ice cream?  Is that her dinner?  Is this girl nuts?  And that's exactly what Billy asks her:
"You know that stuff's bad for you, right?"

Mari smiled.  "Everything's bad for you," she said, scooping a spoonful of strawberry creaminess and bringing it to her lips.  "Ah, heaven," she said.

"Not everything's bad for you," Billy said.  He jabbed at the macaroni - he didn't have the heart to eat any.  "They've got healthy food here, too, you know."

"No they don't," Mari said, licking her spoon.  "Take your macaroni, for example - just look what it's doing to your face.  The last time my brother frowned like that, it stuck.  It wasn't pretty."
Here, it isn't so much a matter of consistent tone as a matter of competing tone.  Is this a happy story?  Is it a sad story?  Honestly, it's neither.  It's a story - parts of it will be happy, and parts of it will be sad, and every part will have elements of both.  The trick is to capture the tones together, mixing them in a way which keeps us interested.  And then, as you do this, you can carry the story in tough directions, addressing the kind of topics that give everyone pause:
Billy felt a chill.  He had met Mari's brother once.  It had been at the Indians Game, that time they beat the White Sox in the tenth inning.  "You...you shouldn't joke about your brother like that," he said.

"And how would you know?" she asked, setting down her spoon.  "He's not your brother."

"But you're turning him...his face...you're making a joke out of it."

Mari's eyes went suddenly hollow.  She picked up the spoon again and stabbed it into the middle of her ice cream.  "You know," she said, "he once told me he'd rather be a joke than what he really is."

"What do you mean?" Billy asked.  "He's...he's a nice kid.  I...I like him.  He's..."

"He's a creepy childhood burn victim with only three fingers on his left hand," Mari said.  She shoved another scoop of ice cream into her mouth.  For a moment it looked like she might cry.  But then she reached across the table, grabbed Billy's milk, and drank it down in three gulps.

She brought the empty glass back down to the table.  "Yeah, he's a nice kid," she said.  "A real nice kid."
Note what's happened - we've gone from teenage ennui to lighthearted stabs at humor to something truly worthy of tragedy - a younger brother has been horribly scarred.  The tone is shifting quickly, but note that it's not sudden.  Take a look a the delaying action above - "Billy felt a chill" is followed by five dialogue exchanges before we even hear why he feels that chill.  And this is important - the moment we lay down something as strong as "my brother's been burned to a crisp and, hey, guess what, he's missing a few fingers, too," the entire tone of the piece changes.

The readers will pause.  They will assimilate everything they've already read.  And they'll be too stunned to take in anything new.  This is why we build up to it, using a gradual shift in tone ("he felt a chill," "her eyes went suddenly hollow") before dropping this atom-bomb fact: little Sammy has been maimed for life.  And then, to give the readers space to breathe, we focus on Mari and the earlier description of Sammy: She sets down the glass, and she notes that "Yeah, he's a real nice kid...A real nice kid."

Now, of course you're wondering the main question: why should we do this?  Why would we introduce something as overwhelmingly sad in a story about Billy's day?  This is a story about Billy, right?  Wouldn't this tragedy with Mari's brother distract us?

Answer: yes, it could, if we're not careful.  But we are careful writers.  We know that the real conflict here has to do with Billy, and Mari will have to fit into that conflict somehow.  So, how will Billy find peace in his life?  Well, it won't be through cheering up Mari - we can tell already how much he sucks at that.  So instead:
"I'm sorry," Billy said, "I didn't mean to -"

"No, it's fine," Mari said.  She had completely lost the cheerful tone from early.  "You can make it up to me."

Billy blinked.  "Make it up to you?"

"Yeah," she said.  "Friday.  You can drive me home."

"Drive you home?"  Billy was confused.  "But you live over there," he said, pointing out the window to Clark Tower.  "You room's closer than my car is."

"I'm not talking about the dorms," she said, brushing something out of her eye.  "I'm talking about Akron.  You can drive me."

Billy swallowed.  Drive to Akron?  He didn't think he had enough gas to make it up to Coventry, let alone Akron.  And on Friday?  He didn't get paid until Monday.  And he was supposed to take his girlfriend out - except she dumped him, so he didn't know what he was supposed to call her.  His friend?  His partner in crime?  She said she still wanted to see that movie on Saturday, whether they were dating or no.

"I'll help you study for the Calc final," Mari said.  And then, when he didn't answer, she looked away.

"Christ," she said.  "How do I always manage to frak things up?"
Note here that the narrative tone is steady - it stays with Billy.  He notices that Mari has lost her cheerful tone, but then it goes into his worries: the money, the girlfriend, whether she might be girlfriend or a friend or what.  And yet Mari's tone is not steady.  Something else is going on in her life - something Billy isn't aware of.  But we can tell that she's aware of Billy's sadness.  She see's that he's worried and offers to help him - she just naturally assumes it the calculus final that's got him down.  But that doesn't do a thing for Billy - the math final is barely a blip on the radar at this point.  But for Mari, this drive to Akron is critical.  When she doesn't get immediate help, she pretty much caves.  "Christ," she said, "How do I always manage to frak things up?"  (oh, yes - and we learn here that she's a Battlestar Galactica fan.  And this means she is way cooler than Billy will ever be...)  This represents a shift in character tone, but not narrative tone - Billy is still stuck on the girlfriend who isn't.  And that's good.  Because later, when Billy does finally discover what's going on, he'll have room to grow and change as a person.

And that, of course, is what this story is really about - Billy's coming-of-age as a college kid who realizes that there are some things in life more important than finding a girlfriend or passing a calculus final.  (And, because this is a young adult story, he will of course find both, just not in the ways he expected...oh, poor Mari, getting stuck with some loser dweeb who isn't even dweeb enough to say "frak" every once in a while...sigh...)

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