Book Done Yet? Thinking About Tone

One of the things a discovery draft discovers is tone (“the general character or attitude of a place, piece of writing”), which is very close to but not the same as mood (“a distinctive emotional quality or character”). So think of them as attitude and emotion, it you will. The tone of Fast Women is fairly dark, the tone of Bet Me is much lighter and snappier, but I think Bet Me is the more emotional book, and I think Faking It is deeper emotionally than either of them, even though the tone is lighter than both of them. The thing is, I can’t plan tone and mood, they just show up and I have to hope they’re in a good relationship with each other even if they’re very different.

Sometimes the tone is right there from the beginning; the “Cold Hearts” WiP has a screwball tone to it and that’s not gonna change. But sometimes it’s not there, and part of the discovery is finding out what the hell kind of book this is. I think that’s one of the problems with You Again: it’s all over the damn place, plotted as dark but veering into a much lighter tone about 50% of the time. It doesn’t know what it wants to be yet, so it’s resting. I thought the Paradise Park/Monday Street stories were going to be light but they veered dark. That’s fine with me, I just have to cope with how to conceptualize them now.

Which brings us to Nita, which I’ve been struggling with, trying to find that tone. The parts I like best are fast and sharp and angry, not a light tone but not Fast Women dark, either. It’s not screwball (I love screwball, it’s just not turning out to be that), but it’s something else.

Kiss Kiss Bang BangAnd then I realized: It’s a smart-ass buddy cop story, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as romcom (which Kiss Kiss Bang Bang actually was since Harry and Perry should definitely have ended up as a couple). The lovely thing that about that approach is you can do anything, no high is too high, no low is too low, and still deliver an emotional story. (In case you can’t tell, huge Shane Black fan here; see also Lethal Weapon 1 and Iron Man 3 and one of my favorite movies of all time, the aforementioned Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, plus the upcoming The Nice Guys which looks wonderful.)

So the tone in the beginning is off because Nita’s sick and depressed and I was going for realism. The tone in the bar with Vinnie is better because Nick is not depressed and while he’s too focused to be a smart-ass, it’s there underneath. So Nita is going to have to carry the smart-ass weight until Nick gets up to speed later. I think that’s why I like the middle stuff I posted last week: that’s the tone of the book. There’s a huge blow-up scene with her mother in the bar that’s like that, too, and I’ve been putting off rewriting it because even though it’s hopeless in its current state, it just moves so well; the content is off but the tone is dead on.

The big relief in realizing it’s the tone I’m missing is that now I know I can swing wide in this early draft and pull it back later if I go too far. It’s definitely better to go too far than not far enough, which is the problem with the first scene now.

More cogitation is needed of course, but I’m happy with this. Step Three: PROGRESS.

39 thoughts on “Book Done Yet? Thinking About Tone

  1. Ha! I was JUST listening to the Writers Panel podcast last night where they talk to Shane Black. he talks about a lot of his movies, including “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which he said he began writing as an homage to James L. Brooks. It was intended to be a rom-com from the beginning, he said, but Brooks, while praising the writing, told him it was all over the place. Black went home, agonized over it, worried he couldn’t really write, and then said “Aw, **** it, I guess I have to put in a murder.”

    If you’re a Shane Black fan this is well worth listening to. Also, funny.

  2. OMG! She’s a cop. He’s the Devil. Together They Fight Crime!

    ::ducks and runs away::

  3. Before today, I didn’t know the name Shane Black, but it turns out I’m a big fan of his work as well. I LOVE Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Must rewatch it soon. Funnily, my husband and I saw a commercial for Nice Guys last night and thought it might be something we’d go see. Now that I know it’s from the same writer/director as KKBB, it’s on the must-see list.

    Such interesting food for thought on tone. I mix and match it (so basically get it all wrong) pretty much every first draft. Especially when writing romance, like the current WIP, I have a tendency to write the hero in one tone, the heroine in another. While I wouldn’t have called it that before reading this post, that’s definitely one of the issues I’ve been addressing in the revision.

    Ugh! It’s a process. By why is it always such a LONG process?

    1. Because novels are long. That’s 100,000 words you’re trying to wrestle to the ground there, lady.

  4. Now I need to go back and re-watch Lethal Weapon, cause all I could focus on the first time around was that he had no shoes.

    1. You guys are just the nicest bunch. All day and no one points out I’m talking about Die Hard and not Lethal Weapon. Doh.

      1. It has been so long since I saw Leathal Weapon 1 (or any of the others), I was willing to accept that Mel Gibson’s character went without shoes in it. However, not Danny Glover’s. That said, yes, Bruce Willis goes without shoes in Die Hard. I remember the walking on glass scene. So, that makes more sense, but I wasn’t in a place to correct you.

  5. So much to catch up on here (back from a few weeks in Australia where I went off grid and have rejuvenated myself ha ha.)
    Tone. Where does it come from? Is it the characters that set the tone, or is it story subject matter? The setting? A combination of all three?
    Off to do some reading of past posts.

    1. Good question.
      I actually think it’s the author, the tone she takes as she writes it.
      And I think that depends on the subtext, the reason she writes it.
      But since every book is different, I don’t worry about that too much, just getting an even tone throughout.

  6. As a high-school English teacher, getting a workable, simple definition of mood and tone (that differentiates between them) took me several years, actually. I always tell the students,

    “The TONE is the speaker’s attitude toward the subject. The tone is them. The MOOD is how it makes the audience feel. The mood is me.” (The–admittedly weak–alliteration of tone/them and mood/me is often pretty helpful to them in terms of remembering.)

    Then I tell them that they are related to each other and often — but not always — match, and give silly examples like when I talk about how much I hate onions (it’s a LOT), my tone is hateful/disgusted but the mood is amused, because I seem to take onions so seriously and it makes them laugh. (I used to try to use The Colbert Report or Lewis Black’s segments on The Daily Show as examples of times when a mismatch in tone and mood are deliberately created, but most of my students didn’t/don’t watch those shows, so…)

    Anyway, back ON topic–I am also currently struggling with tone in a WiP, which sometimes wants to be rom-com and sometimes wants to be suspenseful and dark. Sigh. At least I’m not alone? (Tone: Plaintive; Mood: comforted!)

    1. Not close at all.
      I have about 40,000 words, and I’ll probably hit 120,000 all told. But those 40,000 are cut and rewritten and moved around as I add more to them, so there’s no way of telling. I might do five thousand words in one night and then nothing for three days while I try to get things straight in my head. I don’t even know what this book IS yet.

  7. I’m almost at the end of the first draft of the current WIP (at 80K of what will be around 90K) and it is clear that the main revision issue will be fixing the damned tone. It’s a paranormal romance, with plenty of adventure and hardly any romantic feeling underlying it. Sigh.

  8. Curious. What about Fast Women do you feel categorizes it as fairly dark?

    I ask because I wouldn’t have pegged it that way. Enjoyable read, engaging plot, & good sense of community come to mind for me & felt tone served that & had more lively feel. Or maybe that was just what I read into it–I do think reading is an interactive thing…

    1. It’s a romance novel about divorce, about the way marriages die and what happens to people after them.
      Divorce is so common that I don’t think people in general realize how devastating it is, even when it’s a good thing. So this is a book about three friends who are at different stages of divorce: Nina’s Nell’s in the numb after-stage, Suz is the early realization stage, and Margie’s in the denial stage. So it’s a book about the death of three marriages, and it ends with Nina Nell accepting a marriage proposal even though she thinks, “Marriage is a trap.” For Nina Nell it’s about hope over experience, for Suz it’s about surviving pain, and for Margie it’s about shoving all of that behind her to make cookies. None of them end in perfect happiness, and there’s still a lot of pain there. I think it’s a difficult book to read because it’s not as much about falling in love as it is about pain and love, about accepting the reality that love is never perfect and there are no HEAs, but if you’re careful you can try it again.

      Whereas the pain in the other books doesn’t come from past betrayal of love. Even Getting Rid of Bradley isn’t about that. So I think the whole love-is-pain theme in Fast Women is dark, for me at least.

      1. You made me go all the way upstairs to find out what her name really was, although I remembered before I got to the book: it’s Nell, not Nina. I agree about the darkness, though. It’s one that grows on me each time I reread it.

        1. Well, hell, you’re right. I’ll go fix the comment.

          You know, I could swear I had a heroine named Nina. I know I’ve had three heroes named Nick for various reasons. Huh.

          Manhunting: Kate
          Getting Rid of Bradley: Lucy
          Strange Bedpersons: Tess
          What the Lady Wants: Maybelle
          Anyone But You: THAT’S THE ONE. Nina
          The Cinderella Deal: Daisy
          Trust Me On This: Dennie/Prudence
          Tell Me Lies: Maddie
          Crazy for You: Quinn
          Welcome to Temptatation: Sophie
          Fast Women: Nell/Eleanor
          Faking It: Tilda/Matilda
          Bet Me: Min/Minerva
          Don’t Look Down: Lucy (again)
          The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes: Mare
          Agnes and the Hitman: Agnes
          Hot Toy: Trudy/Gertrude
          Wild Ride: Mab/Mary Alice
          Dogs and Goddesses: Shar
          Maybe This Time: Andie/Andromeda

          I think the only hero name I’ve repeated is Nick:
          Manhunting: Jake
          Getting Rid of Bradley: Zack
          Strange Bedpersons: Nick (1)
          What the Lady Wants: Mitch
          Anyone But You: Alex
          The Cinderella Deal: Linc
          Trust Me On This: Alec
          Tell Me Lies: C.L. (I can’t remember his real name.)
          Crazy for You: Nick (2)
          Welcome to Tempatation: Phin/Phineas
          Fast Women: Gabe/Gabriel
          Faking It: Davy
          Bet Me: Cal/Calvin
          Don’t Look Down: J.T. (can’t remember what that stands for)
          The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes: Crash (can’t remember his real name)
          Agnes and the Hitman: Shane
          Hot Toy: Nolan
          Wild Ride: Oliver
          Dogs and Goddesses: Sam (can’t remember his Mesopotamian name)
          Maybe This Time: North

          And I only had to look up half a dozen of those. Argh. Thatsa lotta books.

          And then there’s Liz and Vince, Zo and Ecks, Petal and Wy, Cat and Harry, Courtney and Tenn (?), Alice and Ethan, Nadine and Carter, Zelda and James, and in no book at all Nita and Nick (3).

          I clearly have work to do.

          1. Right.
            I have no idea why I named him Wilson. Most of the time I have no idea where the names come from.
            Linc because it sounded like Nick.
            Quinn because it started as an ABC story.
            Sophie in homage to The Grand Sophy.
            Nick in the book I’m not writing because “Old Nick” was the only Devil name that was really useful.
            Amanita because all the people in her family have death names.
            After that, I got nothin’. The names just show up.

          2. “SAMU-LA-EL, Slayer of Demons, Greatest of Kings, Savior of Puppies.” Sounds like a pretty good guy to me.

            You know, I really wouldn’t mind if you smuggled him into The Book that isn’t being written if you find the need to slay a few demons. Or to “smite,” which is such a fabulous word.

          3. They’re down in Southern Ohio. The Etruscan demons are down there, too. These guys are in the wilds of New York State.

      2. Gotcha on the theme. Definitely get the loss, mourning, & putting back the pieces. For me, the different journeys gave the story more depth, but I guess because it still had hope it didn’t feel dark to me. Also just the tone of the characters’ voices. Maybe too because of my social work background–lot of my job is to help people in pain find their light again–whatever stage that is for them. So I like the different routes taken & not a hard read for me, just one with more layers that didn’t feel pat–which for me is a good thing.

        Thanks for explaining:)

      3. I recently had a fairly devastating though much needed breakup and my immediate response was to read Fast Women. And then follow it up with a proper Crusie binge while embroidering the Garden of Eden sampler from Faking It. Dark, but therapeutic.

  9. Ok, so I had to reread this post after seeing the first episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, to make sure I understand tone and mood right, because this show might be a good example? The tone is super light and quirky and screwball. But the emotion is super dark cause she’s really messed up and totally on the edge of a breakdown. Am I getting it?


Comments are closed.