This is my only blog post about writing craft.
What is the tone of a book ?
After years of following agent blogs and then spidering out to writer’s blogs I kept wondering what is tone. Being a painter I should have understood. Tones are light and dark. They give contrast to your work and without tone a painting is flat.
I grew up in the time before digital photography. In my high school there was a dark room in the art department. We used to go there, lock the door and smoke while we projected black and white negatives on paper then put the paper in a bath of chemicals. It was magic to see the image appear. It took skill to know just when to remove the photograph and put it in the bath of fixer. To think we smoked when we did this! It was only when they had to replace a ceiling lamp did they catch us, because the ashtray was the drop ceiling. We put out the butts and shoved them up through one of the removable ceiling tiles. Like the place didn’t reek. That was also life before safety-hysteria. But that’s another story.
In photography there is a greyscale.
A guide for the tones. Typically twenty tones from black to white, but there are more. A black and white photograph with no tone is either white or black. Boring. A well developed black and white photograph has a wide range of distinct tones. Distinct is the key.
It didn’t hit me until yesterday what tone is in a book.
I have to experience things to understand them. Just reading it doesn’t help, listening to others advice, well, *cough* I’m still learning.
Tone, in crafting fiction, was one big elusive word. I’ve read the definition in many books on crafting fiction , but until yesterday didn’t understand.
David Hood says : "Tone is also about the effect the writing has on the reader." Yeah okay but what does it mean ?
What is tone?
Currently I’m rewriting my manuscript entitled White Sky of Paris. The rewrite was going well but there was something missing. The stakes were flat. Just a guy who needs to finish paintings. Finishing the paintings is the protagonist’s goal. So what? Right. We all have work to do, things to finish. The real story wasn’t making sense.
It hit me that I didn’t understand my villain’s motives, why he wants to destroy my hero. I sat my butt in my chair, brainstormed my villain, considered giving him more word count. When I finished blathering on the page, I reread. A dark feeling enveloped me. Like the whole manuscript shifted. The sensation was overwhelming, like a cloak was drawn over me. I was also overwhelmed because I thought I had to write a whole different book. I put my writing aside and painted all day, reflected and realized I didn’t have to give my villain more voice, subtext would do. This was a relief.
This shifting sensation happens when I am painting, when one brushstroke, even a tiny one, can change the entire painting. It’s like the painting flickers. Visually. And no, it is not a hallucination. If you don’t believe me try staring at a Rothko
or a Mondrian from his De Stijl period.
If you don’t stare, you won’t understand. It may take ten minutes of staring. Focusing on one of these paintings has to be done in person. Staring at a photograph of one of these artists’ works will not let you see what is there.
The first time one of my artworks flickered, it was when I sculpted portraits. The eyes would blink. But it took years of exercise to see the first time a brushstroke changed the entire painting.
Now that I understand what a book's tone is (though I may not have explained it well), it is clear that characters have tonal differences. The villain is blackest, the hero is lightest, but to be well rounded characters they should have nuances of grey. Then there are minor characters or appearances who should have less variation on the grey scale.