Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011
Recently, someone asked what I considered the best way to set tone. I had no idea. So I stopped to think about it, and will share my discovery.
The short answer that first comes to mind is in remembering this: “When the soul weeps, there is nothing so vulgar as laughter.”
As fiction writers, our goal is to entertain, to facilitate a connection between the reader and character so that the reader feels empathy for that character, cares what happens to him/her, becomes emotionally involved and attached. The sooner in the novel we establish and begin to maintain this connection, the better.
Now, if the story is one that carries the overall tone of being “serious,” then we want to establish that right up front. Because to do otherwise gives the readers false expectations and if we fail to meet those expectations, then the reader is doomed to be disappointed.
We establish the tone as serious through word choice, sentence structure, and in our choice of details. We avoid being frivolous, exploring fancy or the whimsical, using words that contradict serious intent. We structure our novel in a no-nonsense manner. Clear, concise, to the point. And we deliberately include details that depict the point of view character’s serious approach to the topic and/or event being portrayed.
In my humble opinion, one of the important things the writer must remember is that the tone of the scene should reflect the emotional position of the point of view character at the moment in which the scene occurs.
We all know that we establish tone by incorporating carefully selected, concrete (and vivid) details that anchor the character in the scene. (This allows the reader to be transported from reading words on a page to living the event said to be occurring in the novel.) What we sometimes forget is that a character’s notice of details is highly dependent upon that character’s emotional state at that given moment.
If a character is grieving, then swirling dark clouds (external detail) mirror the character’s emotional status. Inside, they’re feeling dark and swirling thoughts, or emotions, too. So what they’re feeling internally is mirrored externally, and the tone is properly conveyed.
Now, a writer can very effectively use contrast in such a situation, too. Let’s say a character is grieving graveside at a funeral for someone beloved. The sun is shining. Rather than noting the sparkle of the sunlight on the dew on the ground, the character is going to see the glare. The sunshine, which at times can be warm and welcome, will be perceived as arrogant–daring to shine in this time of tragedy as if all were well in the world.
Nothing has changed with the sun. The change from sparkle to arrogant occurred in the character’s perception. How the writer depicted the sun harmonized with the character’s emotional reaction.
Within the first three pages of a novel, the writer makes a contract with the reader about what kind of book will follow. The tone of the novel is established. A good book is one that covers a range of emotions, just as a human being experiences a range of emotions. But the first scene in the first chapter should convey the overall sense of the novel’s tone. Because you are establishing that contract and the reader has a right to know what to expect.
Has that rule been broken? Sure. Do you ignore it? Not without considerable thought and solid purpose.
If your story line is serious, your characters are serious people or they wouldn’t be the best characters to depict this story. It’s important to respect both the story and characters and align their internal emotions with their external events and/or scene roles.
And doing so, I would say, is the best way to set the novel’s tone.*