Tone Books

Reading is a crucial part of writing.  Actually writing is even more crucial, but reading is still a big part.  I like to stress how important reading is, but do you understand?  Do you?  Do you really?


Well... okay, then.  But today I'm going to take reading into a different place.  It's not just reading to recharge, or reading for inspiration, or reading for the sake of reading.  It's reading for tone.

Voice is one thing, which happens to be unique to each writer and very hard to find.  The tone is something different.  It's not as unique, but can be shared and borrowed by many different writers without any of them appearing derivative or boring.  Think about it.  Everyone you meet has a different voice, but through that voice they can speak in many different tones.  Those tones are the same tones you might use yourself.  The same goes for writing.  You have a voice that marks the story as yours, but the tone can change and resemble that of other books.

So what's the tone of your story?  Is it sad?  Is it happy?  Those are the obvious too, but there are many others.  You could write a social commentary either angrily or jokingly.  An epic fantasy could be grand and elevated, or it could be told simply and to-the-point.  The voice never changes, but although some writers have certain tones they like to employ a lot, the tone will often change from book to book.

But you know this.  You don't need me to tell it to you.  And I'm not really interested in explaining that right now— I want to get to the point.  The point is this: reading books affects your tone.

About a month ago, I was reading some Thomas Wolfe, because I wanted to catch up with what my generation had written.  (It was written before I got frozen, but I was more interested in joining the army than reading back then.)  At the same time, I was trying to write a fun novel about a young girl solving magical crimes.  No offense to Mr. Wolfe, but fun and magical does not mix with Southern American coming-of-age.  Not only were the stories different, but the tone I wanted was drastically different from the tone Wolfe used.


Was that a problem?  Well, yes.  I started unwittingly copying Wolfe's writing.  It wasn't a very good copy, because I'm certainly not Thomas Wolfe, but it was enough that my story didn't sound like the fun romp it was meant to be.  Funny thing, then: the moment I put down Wolfe and started reading the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer, stuff started working again.  My tone changed to become much more fun.  Based on the book I was reading, my tone changed.

Perhaps this is because I'm not experienced enough as a writer.  Perhaps Neil Gaiman can read comic books all day and still knock out beautiful prose.  But for me, whatever I'm reading affects the tone of what I'm writing.  I don't copy the author's style, nor do I copy the story itself, but the tone certainly affects it.

Since I realized that, I've changed the type of stories I experience.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is both Joss Whedon and the style that I want, so despite not being a book, it works well.  (Joss Whedon is amazing.  I'd love to be in a movie of his.)  Ally Carter, Maggie Stiefvater, and definitely Nancy Springer have all helped in the past month to give my story the tone I want.  For the most part, it's worked.  I haven't had a Thomas Wolfe day since.

So try it out.  Find the tone you want, and before you start writing, read a little from a book of similar tone.  Mary Robinette Kowal does this with Jane Austen to put the regency style into her magical romances.  Judging from those books, I'd say she's been successful.

Take it for a spin.  Read epic fantasy as you write epic fantasy.  Read contemporary as you write contemporary.  And if you, like me, are trying to write in the head of a teenage girl from the standpoint of a guy born in the '20s, you might want to read a little in that area.

On the other hand, there are those that can't read similar books to their works in progress or they'll start copying plot points and characters.  Don't do that, please, but knowing how this affects you is always difficult.  Try this out, but if it doesn't work, don't push it.  Everyone has a unique system.

Have fun!  Write words.  See you later.

~Captain America

1 comment:

  1. Oh. My. Goodness.
    Tone. What a subject. We could write whole tomes (with an "m") about tone (with an "n.") My short story class defined it as the author's attitude toward the subject matter, but even that isn't very precise either.
    I've noticed that too... sometimes I use music for tone-setting as well. But mostly, I just read... anything, really. (I've been reading about fencing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--fascinating stuff. Sadly, most of my fantasy takes place in a world where no one really carries rapiers, as they're sort of impractical for any kind of actual combat, apart from a one-on-one duel. Even on the offensive, if you're quick on your feet, a rapier isn't going to stand up against a broadsword blade. But the sheer craftsmanship involved in making one is incredible--they are beautiful weapons. I think that's the same reason why both rapiers and katana are so popular--the sheer quality of the weapons can be stunning.)
    Where did you find that last gif, by the way? It's so cute and hilarious!

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