Oct 26, 2009

Tackling Tone

Narrative Tone:
A style mistake that can seriously undermine your story.

Most well-written stories have consistent narrative tone. The world of the story is predominantly frothy, ironic, comic, tragic, horrific. And, whatever the ups and downs of the plot, the narrator will have a distinct way to tell them

Why am I stating the obvious?

According to professional ghost writer Roz Morris, the most common problem agents/editors come across in novice manuscripts is an inconsistent and uneven narrative tone. When that happens, the experience of the story is off balance. 

Readers NEED to connect with the narrative tone and the kinds of things the narrator says. Once the trust between reader/author is built, you have to remain consistent. Any sudden change in tone could put your reader off if its not welcome and doesn't make any sense whatsoever. 

There are three main reasons why novice writers do this:
1. To provide comic relief or moments of humour
2. To show contrasting world views
3. To make sure the reader has the correct opinion of the character

So, what should you do in each of these cases?

1. Comic Relief- Some writers design characters whose main contribution is to add humor, which is not a bad thing. But they then feel they have to signal that these characters will be the clowns of the novel. So they switch to a slapstick narrative tone, and the depth of characterization goes out the window.

Here's the thing. . .There's no need to switch! 


Let's take Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which had comedy throughout without abandoning its mainly tragic mood. Imagine if Buffy had a laugh track every time something amusing happened and what it would do to the story.

Luckily, there's a way to spot and fix this. Reread your comedy moments and ask yourself if you've added a laugh track. If it doesn't fit with the rest of the novel, rewrite it. Remember: If you're putting comic moments into a story, don't put on a different narrative voice for it.  If your emphasis is on character depth, get your comedy from this - put the characters in a situation that will bring out amusing reactions and behavior. The reader will get it, honestly.

2. World Views- Another reason writers break their narrative tone is to contrast different worlds or world-views. (Wow, spelling world make me look at the word funny. Seriously, isn't it a weird spelling?) For instance, a high-schooler's lonely home life is contrasted with the joy and frolics at the local college's fraternity party, waking her up to all the cute boys she's been missing. Clever idea, but what people often see is the boring home life scenes narrated with sensitivity and insight, and the frat party as though it was bitchy chick-lit because it's meant to be wild and frothy.

Ahhhh, no.

The effect isn't fun, its jarring. People who read sensitive, insightful novels may not be the same people who'd enjoy bitchy-ness. Vice versa. Like before, your narrator needs to stay 'in character' while conveying the contrast.

3. Correct Opinion of Character- You might decide to write a novel where you tell us what to think of each and every character. Or your novel might present the characters and let us make up our own minds. . .Got it?

The problem here is when the author will let us make up our own mind about a bunch of characters, but with others they tell us what to think. The change from subtlety to spoonfeeding is like being booted into a different book. Downright irritating. Readers who enjoy subtle characterization are usually different from readers who want to be told.

You can fix this by narrating all the characters, not matter how despicable, with the same degree of perception and depth.


Anonymous said...

Great post!