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Have You Chosen the Wrong Tone for Your Story?


The tone you choose for your story can make or break your book. It will affect every single page you write. Tone guides readers in figuring how theyre supposed to view a story. Funny? Serious? Edgy? Sarcastic? Wielded with understanding, tone will help you create a more cohesive story and will pull readers that much deeper into the emotional web youre weaving. But used wrong? Well, lets just say tone also has the ability to fragment your story and, as result, to distance and confuse readers. Sound scary? It should! All by its bitty lonesome, tone has the ability to either destroy your storyor raise it even higher. Lets take a look at how to do the latter and never the former. Tone vs. Voice Before we dig any deeper into the nitty-gritty of how to choose the right tone for any given passage in your book, lets first take a sec to differentiate between tone and voice. Are they same thing? They both affect how your book sounds. Tone is an integral component in voice. And voice always influences tone. But, in spite of all that, no, they are not the same thing. Voice describes your authorial presence on the page. This is, in part, something that just flows naturally out of you, and, in another part, is something you will be evolving throughout your life. Your voice is the result of the unique way in which you parse together words and guide sentences on the page. Tone is always going to be a part of that. But tone is also much more specific to each book. You might write a tragedy today and a comedy tomorrowand, although your authorial voice will remain much the same in both, you can bet your bootshine the tone will be different in each. Tone is even more specific to each passage within that book. Your tragedy might contain moments of comedy, in which the tone will necessarily differ from the tragic bits. Got it?

Intense Scene? Tone It Down So now that weve got that little clarification out of the way, how do we know what tone is right for what scene? This will always be an authorial decision. But, generally speaking, we can grab ourselves a handy rule to follow: The higher the emotional pitch in any scene, the flatter the prose should be. In Creative Nonfiction, Philip Gerard reminds us, The tension between the high-octane material and the understated telling will usually cause the strength of the material to work on the reader. The more complex the idea or technology you are trying to explain, the simpler, more straightforward the writing ought to be. High-pitched emotion plus high-pitched prose equals melodrama. Whenever youre writing a hugely dramatic or complicated scene, resist pouring on the lush prose. Instead, use shorter sentences and smaller, punchier words. Doing so will allow you to retain the emotional integrity of the piece without dunking it in melodrama. Straightforward Scene? Turn Up the Tone Gerard adds: Conversely, sometimes the simplest, most obvious phenomena give you an opportunity for an exquisitely intricate, lyrical metaphor. Beauty always arouses emotion. The very fact that simplicity is familiar and understandable gives us more room to expound. Write sunset and every reader in the world will instantly get what youre talking about. Theyre already on the same page as you, which gives you the elbow room to deepen your prose and help readers see that plain ol familiar sunset in a new and interesting way. Same goes for most scenes of low-key emotion. Your heavy tone might detract from a funeral scene, but it might be just the ticket for that quiet scene in which your heroine is out walking her dog on a beautiful morning. Remember that the flatter the tone, the safer your prose. As we discussed a few weeks ago, never launch into complexity without scrutinizing what it brings to your story. Still, at the end of the day, youre the sheriff in this town, so you ultimately get to make the rules. If you feel any particular passage in your story would benefit from a more dramatic or lyrical tone, go for it!

About the Author: K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writers Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

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