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Struggles with tone

October 9, 2010

Done with chapter four, I think. I spent more time on the last two paragraphs than the preceding ten pages, mostly wrestling with hitting just the right emotional notes. Achieving the precise tone you want in fiction requires a grab-bag of tools, not all of which fall into the category of technique. You need a decent vocabulary to be able to shade meaning via word choice, a grasp of rhetoric to know how to build (or relieve) tension, a sense of rhythm to pace passages appropriately…that’s all technical stuff.

The two aspects of controlling tone I believe are hardest aren’t technical, but emotional. You have to have empathy for your characters, which means you have to know how non-existent people would act and react in non-existent situations. Of course characters aren’t people, and the situations are at some level familiar (fear of being eaten by a dragon would be processed by the same parts of the human brain and body as fear of being eaten by a leopard, after all). Still, you have to know enough about people and how they act to make a scene’s emotional tone ring true, no matter what’s happening on the page. Being able to fake it will do in a pinch.

The thing you can’t fake is trust. Good writing means trusting the putative reader, or rather, the putative reader one wants. If you get it, they’ll get it. When an author explains emotional states at length, either they didn’t show the reader enough to get the emotional tone across, or they did, but they don’t trust the reader to get it without help. If 8 out of 10 people in my writers’ group understand how the characters feel, I call it a success and move on. Fewer than that, I get nervous, and generally return to the scene.

Edit to add: hey, I thought I published this back on the 29th! Grr.

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