Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Keeping a Consistent Tone Can Make or Break Your Book

Have you ever watched an 80's action movie? If you have (or if you've seen The Expendables, which is a callback to all those old action movies), then you're probably familiar with all the tropes. Our hero will be a hard-as-nails tough guy, he'll go up against insurmountable odds, and in the end he'll come out on top. He'll win the prize, defeat the bad guy, and if there is a female character in the movie, he'll get the girl.

You've got a 1 in 4 chance this guy's in the movie, too.
Die Hard, Rocky, Commando, Under Siege, and a dozen other movies I could name all fit squarely into this genre. And when you pop one of these movies in, you know what you're signing up for. You want explosions, gun fights, busted teeth, macho one-liners, and a body count that's up there with a minor war by the time the credits roll. But how would you feel if, about halfway through one of these good, old-fashioned shoot-em-ups, the hero broke down in tears and started talking about how every man he'd just killed had a life that was gone? Wives who'd never see them again, children who'd never talk to their father, or friends who'd just lost a companion?

You'd probably get mental whiplash, because that's a jarring shift in tone. Sort of like what would happen if you spliced single frames of pornography into family films, as the infamous Tyler Durden was known for. While that works as a joke/device in a Chuck Palahniuk novel, it wouldn't make for a very good movie.

Because tonal dissonance can ruin even the best art.

Keeping a Consistent Tone Takes Practice

It's not enough to know what genre your book is; you have to know what tone you're going for. Just like your setting, your tone is a major ingredient of the final product. So you need to know if your book is gritty, ridiculous, subversive, tense, or slapstick. And once you know what you want it to be, you have to make sure it maintains that tone throughout.

Whatever tone that happens to be.
It's also important to remember that, just like genre, a tone can be a blend of whatever you want. Horror-comedy exists, after all. So if you want to write a story that's a spoof of detective novels, you are faced with the challenge of keeping the tone of a procedural investigation, or a gritty private eye story, while still making it funny. If you want to write a fantasy story that focuses on the pain and suffering of those attempting to undertake a quest, and about the shades of gray both the heroes and villains have beneath their simple exteriors, you can do that, too.

Consistency is what's key.

Now, does that mean you can't have moments of hilarity in a high-octane thriller? Of course not. Does that mean your story about four friends going through a coming-of-age drama can't have moments of visceral horror where something goes awry? Hey, it's your book, you do you. But ask yourself this; if you were eating a bunch of creme-filled chocolates, and then you bit into one that had a ghost pepper in it, would you consider that a unique and clever twist on a routine dessert? Probably not. Especially if you didn't know there was a pepper in there when you signed up to eat chocolates.

Learn The Rules Before You Break Them

We all know there are technically no rules to good writing. Truly masterful authors can subvert all the traditional constraints, and create books that break all the rules without sacrificing quality.

It should be noted, though, that most of us are not masters of the art.

I don't have an entire section of the bookstore dedicated to my work, more's the pity.
As with anything else, before you decry a writing tradition, or piece of advice, as being too limiting, or stifling your creativity, take a step back. Ask what purpose this rule fills, and what end you achieve by breaking it.

Because it's not enough to know you can break the rules. You need to know why you're doing it before you swing that hammer.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. If you like what you see, and you want to support me and my blog, then why not take a trip over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes to keep the lights on is a $1 per month pledge, and in addition to my gratitude I'll be happy to send you some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

1 comment:

  1. Great article. I plan to borrow a quote from you to share with players that tell me I am too limiting when I tell them they cannot play a half drow bugbear ninja space wizard. I seem to attract players that want to make the most ridiculous character builds. I tell them no, pick a core race and we can go from there. Sometimes they just decline the game/campign right there because I am too limiting. Here is the quote from your article I intend to modify for my pick a sane character concept rule, just replace writing rules with race/class/3pp/other selection:

    "As with anything else, before you decry a writing tradition, or piece of advice, as being too limiting, or stifling your creativity, take a step back. Ask what purpose this rule fills, and what end you achieve by breaking it."