Three Mistakes in Tone

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Three Mistakes in Tone

David Farland’s Kick in the Pants—Three Mistakes in Tone

One of the most common problems I see with new writers is a “mistake in tone.” You know what I mean if you’ve ever played in a band. A new kid comes in, you’re trying to play a song, and he blats out a sour note on a trumpet. The same thing happens in writing.

It usually happens because the writer wants so badly to impress the reader that he tries too hard, thus calling attention to himself and sounding a sour note.

Over-exaggeration is one form that this takes. For example, the writer might want to put a character in gripping danger, so he might say, “The crocodile opened a mouth as wide as the Nile.”

Well, that’s exaggeration.

Usually the writer will continue exaggerating, telling us that the crocodile is a “perfect predator,” “honed by a three hundred million years of evolution,” “with bullet-proof armor” and so on. But really it’s just an oversized lizard.

The writer doesn’t understand that truth can be terrifying in fiction. If you give us the right details of sight, sound, smell and texture, creating the perfect descriptions, you can bring the crocodile to life and you don’t have to exaggerate. They’re scary enough.

In fact, by over-exaggerating a description, the reader is silently thinking, “Yeah, right.” And because they know that you’re stretching the truth, instead of creating greater danger, you may be undercutting your work, actually reducing the sense of fear that you’re trying to engender.

Maudlin Prose. You can also ruin your tone when you’re trying to arouse strong sympathy for a character. Perhaps your heroine Penelope starts out in a story doing just fine, and then her boyfriend dumps her, her kitten dies, her evil stepmother tries to sell her as a whore, and she discovers that the pimple on her face is filled with flesh-eating bacteria.

Somehow it seems that when an author tries to overemphasize a character’s problems, they just start piling them up until they sound absurd.

Now, in real life, a person can indeed have problems stack up until they are overwhelming. I was just reading about albinos in Tanzania who are hunted and killed because the locals believe that they’re reincarnated ghosts. A young albino girl with skin cancer was attacked by her father and a bunch of machete-wielding men. It turns out that witchdoctors like to make potions out of the albinos’ body parts, which can sell for up to $75,000 on the black market. I can imagine that if I tried to write a story about that 14-year-old girl, it might sound maudlin even if I didn’t exaggerate her problems at all.

But that’s the point: sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. A true story written as fiction can feel contrived. Just because something happened in real life, doesn’t mean that it should happen in ficiton.

Experimentation. When you were a kid and were first asked to paint a picture, there’s a good chance that you took a big brush and smeared it across the canvas, just to see what it would look like. Very often, writers will do the same thing.

For example, a writer might be composing a scene where a young man is visiting a girlfriend in the hospital. As the boys gets there, the writer might imagine an off-color joke that the boy could tell—perhaps something about her backless hospital gown—and so the writer puts the joke into the story. Heck, maybe this leads to a few morbid jokes about dying.

The question is, does that jive with the tone that the artist might originally have been striving to create? Is it a viable diversion? Probably not. The lines were written on a whim.

So the writer probably needs to take them out.

There are other ways that an author can mess up the tone of his work, and I’m sure that some of you will mention them. The point is, you need to take control of the tone of your piece. Before I ever begin writing a scene, I sit and think about what type of emotions I would like to evoke, and I think about what images and sounds and thoughts and actions will blend well to create that emotional effect. Only when I have a plan to reach my objective do I begin to write.

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I will be at Comic Con FanX in Salt Lake City this week. If you will be there, stop by and say "hi."

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