Setting the Tone of Your Story in Creative Fiction Writing Help (page 2)
Setting the Tone of Your Story in Creative Fiction Writing
What is tone? It can seem a hard element to isolate, but we definitely know it when we read it. Compare these two descriptions of the same event:
The protest erupted into violence today as police attempted to keep the entrance to the building secure.
When they reached the building, the police unleashed their forces and the peaceful demonstration gave way to confusion and chaos.
In the first sentence, readers are told violence erupted against police who were doing their job. In the second one, readers are told that the police rushed the demonstrators, an action that created the violence that occurred. As readers, we are given two very different attitudes toward the demonstration and what happened.
Wikepedia popularizes this idea:
[Tone] encompasses the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work. Tone may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful, serious, ironic, condescending, or many other possible attitudes.
In his list of writing devices (http://www.scribd.com/doc/24864456/Literary-Devices), teacher and writer Jay Braiman describes tone this way:
[Tone is an] apparent emotional state, or "attitude," of the speaker/narrator/narrative voice, as conveyed through the language of the piece. Tone refers only to the narrative voice…
The poem has a bitter and sardonic tone, revealing the speaker's anger and resentment.
The tone of Gulliver's narration is unusually matter-of-fact, as he seems to regard these bizarre and absurd occurrences as ordinary or commonplace.
Sometimes a story's tone indicates each word is to be taken seriously and sometimes a story's tone is sarcastic or humorous or uses subtleties or understatement to relate an attitude the story takes: In the last line of "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin ( www.pbs.org/katechopin/library/storyofanhour.html), for example, we learn that "the doctors said she died of heart disease, of joy that kills."
Let's compare the attitude towards life in "Are You Drinking?" (www.poemhunter.com/poem/are-you-drinking/), a poem by Charles Bukowski, with the tone of the opening lines from the novel The Portrait of a Lady (http://books.google.com/books?id=5haFQgAACAAJ&dq=Portrait+of+a+Lady&cd=2) by Henry James. Here are some of Bukowsi's lines when he writes from bed and imagines a conversation with his doctor:
- "yes, doctor, weak legs, vertigo,
- head-aches and my back hurts."
The doctor, he believes, will ask him if he is drinking and taking his vitamins, and he will answer:
- I think that I am just ill
- with life, the same stale yet
- fluctuating factors.
Henry James writes:
Under certain circumstances there are a few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an Old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours...
In Bukowski's poem, the speaker seems to drink because life is stale. James's storyteller, on the other hand, sets up an attitude of innocent pleasure.
It is easy to see tone differences among diverse authors. We must tune our ears to also notice them in our own writing when they creep in unintentionally. Therefore, it is important to examine tone in the reading we do and to get enough distance from our own work to be able to see where our tone is in support of our story and where it needs help, so the storytelling can continue to create the attitude we want readers to feel toward the story.
Novelist David Reich says of his redrafting process:
As Wordsworth points out, poetry (or to my mind, any non-critical literary writing) "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." As I put together draft 1, I had plenty of emotion but not yet the needed tranquility. The emotion in draft 1 was too raw, and thus the draft was not as entertaining or edifying as it I'd hoped it would be.
Here's how David Reich worked through a revision for tone purposes over the years of writing his novel, The Antiracism Trainings. Reich says:
I was angry with my treatment by a former employer and, by way of making lemonade out of lemons, decided to tap the experience in a satirical novel. (Most good fiction comes from bad experiences, I think.) I began an early draft a short time after I left my job with this outfit, but as I went to revise it, a few years later, I saw I had to calm the prose down a lot to make the writing work. That's easier to do several years after the fact, of course. An agent who read an early draft said she could see I was a decent professional writer but "couldn't relate to" my narrator. I thought about this comment when I looked at the book after it had sat in the drawer for a while.
When Reich was ready to address the narrator's tone, he took a lesson from Norman Mailer in Advertisements for Myself, where he discusses his revision of the first-person narration of his novel The Deer Park, placing early and revised versions of particular passages side by side. Reich notes that he learned how "fairly small changes in word-choice, syntax, and selection of detail can effect larger changes in the way a reader views the narrator."
In revising his book, Reich changed his narrator's personality:
[Mickey Kronenberg changed] from a blunt-spoken skeptic into someone who views the world more favorably and bends over backwards to find the good intentions behind other people's actions. That way, the reader often gets to see what's going on before Mickey does and to have a little joke on him. And it's certainly more fun than being told the obvious, as happened in too much of the original draft.
Here are some passages to illustrate how Reich worked on tone.
Passage 1: Mickey's office described
Old: It was the size of one of those musty closets where they keep a mop and pail, and it could have used a thorough dusting, but it was seven stories up and had a million dollar view of the Boston Common, where at that moment little children of all races and creeds were splashing in the Frog Pond.
Revised: I got up and paced my office floor: two steps forward, then turn, then wo steps back. I stopped to look out the window, with its million-dollar view of he Boston Common, where children of every race and creed were splashing in he frog pond. That supplied a needed lift—not the view itself so much as the act that I had the view, that I'd arrived at a point in my checkered career where rated such a view, however small the office from which I viewed it.
Instead of the blunt and somewhat hackneyed comparison with a moldy broom loset, the revised version shows you the size of the office in an understated (and hope funnier) way, by showing the limits to how far the narrator can move in he space. ("Two steps forward," etc.) Also, the revised narration makes more of he "million dollar view," explaining why Mickey values it and hooking it into his ersonal story, which in turn makes him more real and more sympathetic. In the ld version, it's more of a throwaway detail.
Passage 2: Mickey and his boss Laura critique Don Pulliam's column for the upcoming issue
Old: Once off the phone, Laura looked up at me and said, "How convenient. I was just about to go find you." As far as I knew, she had never even breathed in secondhand smoke let alone smoked a cigarette, but she had somehow acquired one of those great smoky voices. It made a perfect fit with her overall aging sexpot persona. "I wanted to talk about Don's column for September."
"Funny you should say that. I also wanted to talk about Don's column for September." I entered her office and eased into a chair. From this angle I could see her a little better. A well-presented Euro-American person in her upper forties. Her best feature was her bright, amused-looking eyes, the approximate color of lager beer. Such things were left unsaid at the LRC [Liberal Religion Center, the name of Mickey's employer], but I sensed that the older men on staff found her maddeningly attractive.
"What do you think of his lead? A little shaky?"
"I guess I can see why he used it," I said, starting from a place of generosity, in accordance with the First Suggestion of Universal Love and Knowledge. (Yes, I even agreed with the Five Suggestions. G-d forgive me, I still do.) "The family angle makes heartwarming copy," I continued. "Brings him down to ground level. Instant connection to the person in the pews. But I guess I unfortunately see your point. That stuff about Harvard could be read as self-aggrandizing, and the rabbi motif—he's used it before, but what if a rabbi, I mean a bona fide rabbi, or some other Jewish person, saw the column? Would it look good for the church? Would it help promote interfaith cooperation?" I was speaking with more heat that I had intended.
Revised: Once off the phone, she took a moment to compose herself. [She's been on the phone with her divorce lawyer, hence the need to compose.] "Mickey. How convenient," she said at last. "We need to touch base on Don's new column." Though a lifelong nonsmoker, she had somehow acquired one of those great smoky voices.
"Funny you should say that." I eased myself into her leather wing chair. From this angle I could see her better. Her best feature was large, amused-looking eyes the rich, warm brown of English ale. The eyes and her fleshy, curvaceous build and the smoky, aging sexpot voice.… Such things were left unsaid at the LRC, but I sensed that for older men on staff she had a maddening allure. (I exclude myself here, having recently married the exquisite Patty. OK, that's not quite accurate. Laura had a maddening allure for me, too, but I took special pains not to let it show.)
"The column isn't bad, far from it," I said, starting from a place of generosity in conformance with the First Suggestion.
I ticked off a dozen reservations. Midway through the list, I found I was speaking with more force than was strictly necessary. I modulated down a notch.
By the time the reader gets to this episode, she'll have already read Pulliam's (half-insane) column and can judge its merits for herself. Further, Mickey is more likable when we don't have to see him alternately nitpicking and equivocating, as in the original of this scene.
Tone is typically defined as having two components. The first is the narrator's implied attitude toward the subject of the piece of writing, and the other is his attitude toward himself in relation to the subject. In the original version of Passage 2, Mickey notes that some of his older colleagues find themselves attracted, against their will, to the "aging sexpot" Laura. In this version the tone can be read as superior. In the revised version, Mickey places himself among Laura's many acolytes, and the tone can be read as self-effacing.
Passage 3: Shortly before this scene, Mickey and his co-worker Ann-Elise and the rest of the trainees have been pressured by the trainer-in-chief, Alfred Hit-tenmiller, to agree to a "covenant" to speak their minds fully during the antiracism training. Mickey and Ann-Elise discuss the covenant at the start of the antiracism training:
Old: A cart of late night snacks had been wheeled into the room, and I caught up with her there. "How did you like that covenant?" she said, dipping a piece of raw broccoli into a white substance in a bowl. Ann-Elise had strong opinions—you couldn't be a lesbian theorist without them—and more often than not she stated them bluntly, but she was careful about who she stated them to. She was smallish and thin, with a heart-shaped face and slouchy posture, and I gathered that most LRC staff saw her, incorrectly, as nonthreatening, somewhere on the spectrum between cute and mousy.
"Did you raise your hand?" [Raising one's hand, in this particular context, signifies acceptance of the covenant.]
"Yup," she said. "Did you?"
"Halfway." Both of us laughed unhappily.
Revised: A cart of late night snacks had been wheeled into the room. I caught up with Ann-Elise while she waited to get at the assortment of chips and cut-up salad vegetables. "So what did you think of that covenant?" Ann-Elise said when she noticed me. She fluffed her hair, a dark brown permanent. Ann-Elise had strong opinions—you couldn't be a lesbian theorist without them—and more often than not she stated them bluntly, but she was careful about who she stated them to. She was smallish and thin then, back before the start of her weight training program, with a heart-shaped face and slouchy posture and a tinny little voice, and I gathered that co-workers tended to view her, incorrectly, as non-threatening, somewhere on the spectrum between cute and mousy.
I started from a place of generosity, wanting to give the trainings a chance and not let myself be swayed by Laura's irrational dislike of Mal Bond. [Mal Bond, the LRC's "antiracism czar," oversees the training.] "The covenant," I mused. "On the surface, it felt a little coercive, but I think it serves a purpose by reminding us we need to participate. What good is a training, after all, if the people being trained are too scared to talk, or if they end up saying things they don't truly believe?"
"I did one of these trainings at the Gay Gazette, and another at the place where I worked before that. With everyone saying what they truly believe, these things can turn nasty before you know it."
"I doubt this one will," I said hopefully. "Not with Mal in charge. You may not have gotten to know the guy yet, but he has such a sweet nature. If someone at the training, even Al Hittenmiller, looks like he might get out of line, Mal will jump in and shut him right down, and he'll do it with a velvet glove, so you'll barely even notice."
In the revised version, Mickey is striving mightily to view the covenant (and training) as benign. He eventually realizes they're not that benign, but it takes him much longer to realize (or admit) this than it should take most readers—or than it takes Ann-Elise, who in the revised version of this scene assumes a bit of Mickey's former role as blunt-spoken skeptic.
Passage 4: Mickey and Ann-Elise discuss the vacant job of editor-in-chief.
Old: "So is Sykes the heir apparent?" I said to Ann-Elise then, sitting back down in my ergo-chair.
Ann-Elise was applying for the job herself but only out of stubbornness—that was how I saw it, anyway. John Rain had told us that Pulliam was insisting on a Uni, or Yoonie, as adherents of the faith liked to call themselves, which was pretty much the same as saying no Jews (or Christians) need apply. I knew enough to take the hint, but then I didn't really want the job. That is, I wanted the title and the salary but not the inside politics that went along with them—the squabbles with unhappy readers, the tension-filled powwows with Pulliam and his many vice presidents, the periodic run-ins with the Rev. Mal Bond and his committee.
Revised: "So is Sykes the heir apparent?" I said to Ann-Elise then, leisurely resuming my ergo-seat.
It was something I probably shouldn't have raised. Ann-Elise was applying for the job herself, even after John Rain had told us both "in confidence" that Pulliam was insisting on a Uni, or Yoonie, as adherents of the faith liked to call themselves. John Rain's news had been easy enough to believe. Pulliam never missed a chance to point out that the magazine had turned into a bastion of irreligion. Unlike Ann-Elise, I had taken the institutional hint, but then again, I didn't want the job. Or I wanted the title and the salary but not the internal politics that went along with them—he constant squabbles with readers, the tension-filled powwows with Pulliam and his many vice presidents, the periodic run-ins with the Rev. Mal Bond and COPA, Mal's committee for promoting antiracist thought, a rising new group at the LRC.
On at least three occasions in this short passage, the old version tells the reader something he/she can figure out without Mickey's help. The revision, which lets the reader draw the inference without help from Mickey, makes the narration, and Mickey, seem less overbearing. In addition, the new version provides some perspective (Mickey's belated realization that he should have avoided discussing the topic with Ann-Elise, given its sensitivity) that was missing in the original version, making Mickey a little more sympathetic.
On the matter of making Mickey more sympathetic to the reader, Reich has a caveat:
It's fine, and sometimes crucial, for a first person narrator to strike the reader as a fool, an ass, a boor, or even a dangerous criminal, but not in a piece of fiction like mine, where there clearly isn't that much space between the writer and the narrator.
Writing well is a continual process of 1) getting your words on the page, 2) stepping back and evaluating how they sound, 3) entrusting others to help because, as authors, we can be too close to the writing we have created to see how it impacts others differently than we intended, and 4) revising based on our opinion of others' responses and our feelings in rereading what we wrote.
Take a piece of writing you've come across, published or unpublished, that you don't like. See if you can make it into something you do like by changing the tone. You'll do this by making choices about changing wording, changing diction, deleting sentences, changing tense, changing point of view, and/or making scenes vivid where before they were abstract. All of this work is what will contribute to creating a tone that you admire and enjoy or allows you to become involved in what you are reading.
You might enjoy taking a letter to the editor that is written as a barb against another's opinion and/or action and changing it into an offer of friendly help; or try rewriting an objective news article as a love letter.
It's a little harder to practice these moves on your own writing, but with some time and distance (and the practice) it can be done. In fact, I think that most of the time when their tone is off, writers can hear and feel it somewhere inside, but they don't listen to the little voice or the body response that signals them something is off. It's pretty easy for the ego to take over when we are writing and tell us we sound good to protect us from having to get into unknown territory as we work to polish our writing. Always pay attention to what your ear is telling you, and use the tools Reich reviews to make good tone choices.
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