Next week: The advantages of using suspense and atmosphere
Saturday, 28 November 2015
How often do writers think about tone? Not that often. That’s probably because writers rarely think about what it is or know how to use it.
So what exactly is tone? And how can it be used in fiction writing?
When we talk about tone, it means the overall manner or attitude that the writer has toward the subject of the novel and the way it is approached. It can also cover the themes in a novel. Writers like to set the tone from the outset, and if you read your favourite authors, you will notice tone in their work.
Tone can take on many forms – it can be subtle, overt, serious, sad, amusing, chilling, atmospheric, or anything you want it to be, and very often such tones also reflect the themes that run through the novel and in fact tone is not that different to tone of voice – it’s the pitch or resonance of how we say things, rather than what we actually say. Tone in writing is no different – it’s how you write, and the words you choose, rather than what you actually say that helps you express the tone of writing.
But isn’t tone the same as mood?
Tone and mood are often confused by writers, but they are quite different. They tend to be referenced together as one aspect in writing, rather than two different literary devices, simply because one supports the other within the narrative. Mood, however, covers the feeling or sentiment the unfolding story creates for the reader; mood effects how the reader feels with the story and the characters.
Tone, however, is set by the author.
The thing to note about tone is that it is not always a constant. It can change as the story evolves and different themes and moods come into play within the story. That also means it can alter in pitch as the story develops.
Also, writers should be aware that tone should not become intrusive to the point that it becomes an author’s soapbox – tone is subjective, but it should not drown the narrative. It’s about how the writer broadly feels about a subject, and his or her attitude about related themes, but it does not cover personal opinions. Never let personal opinions appear in your writing.
Conveying tone is about emphasising the right words, whether those words are abstract, formal or just general. The use of imagery helps show tone, so the more imagery used, the greater the effect, for example, this snippet from A Tale of Two Cities, by Dickens:-
There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.
There are certain words that Dickens has used here, such as ‘steaming mist’, ‘forlornness’, ‘clammy’ and ‘unwholesome sea’ that show there is a darkened tone and a hint of foreboding. It’s atmospheric and creates a sense of mystery. It shows just how choosing the right words can set the tone for the story.
If, for instance, you are telling a story about the cruelty suffered by the Jewish prisoners in the Nazi labour camps, it’s likely that you feel passionate about the subject and want to inform readers about it, and therefore the tone of the story will be serious and powerful and sad. If you are writing an adventure novel about a boy and his faithful dog, then the tone might be one of excitement, fun, and being carefree. If you are writing a horror story, then the tone may be dark, serious or grim by comparison.
Romance writers lean towards softer words for their narrative, while horror writers will use and accentuate darker, stronger words. Thriller writers might use tight, concise exposition to create a fast paced narrative that sets the tone.
All these types of story will have tone.
The one thing to remember is to be consistent with tone throughout the novel, but not to overdo it that you end up hitting your readers over the head with it by turning into an obnoxious bore, or that the tone turns into the writer’s personal crusade against something he or she doesn’t like or agree with.
Next week: The advantages of using suspense and atmosphere
Saturday, 21 November 2015
In part 1, we looked at the kinds of details that make description effective – the sensory, visual and emotional details, however, good description is also about the words you choose and the way they fit into a scene. It’s about the way they sound, the sibilance they create, which produces the overall effect you want to achieve. It’s all about detail.
The words you choose and the way you construct the sentences are what really makes description work. The right choice of words makes the entire scene feel very different. That’s because the right amount of description coupled with the right selection of words make a big difference when trying to transport the reader to the fictional world you’ve created, to get them to imagine the details being described.
Not all scenes are the same, of course, so your description should reflect this. Think about the scene you are writing – is it tense or atmospheric, is it gentle or romantic, or is it action-packed? The words you choose should reflect the feel of the scene you’re trying to create, so when we think of action scenes, we think of short, staccato words to give the illusion of a faster pace. In emotional or romantic scenes, the words should be more descriptive, more alluring or prosaic. In atmospheric or tense scenes, writers tend to use darker or moody word choices to reflect the tone.
The right word choice makes the difference between flat, boring description and vibrant, poetic or visceral description, it’s about what the writer wants to express. In the example below, the description is about the lynching of a black man:
The hazy light shone through the trees as the fire grew bigger. A burning smell wafted underneath their noses while the rope became tight with his weight…
The choice of words in this example doesn’t really do the context of the scene any justice. Important scenes need the right attention; they need the correct description to bring the scene to life and to create effect. For example:
Amber slices projected through the trees and the haze of the fire began to swell. The hint of burnt sienna wafted close and scorched a path beneath their noses. The rope fibres moaned as they became taut, to temper his weight…
Clearly the right words make the description much different, it allows the reader to imagine much more, to almost feel that scene.
Give the Right Detail
Details – the ones we sometimes overlook – always make the writing better. This is where observation plays an important part of the writing process. What we observe in everyday life can add to the descriptions we use in our writing, for instance, the pattern that rain makes on the windows, or the sound it makes, or the colour and shape of storm clouds. What about the eerie quiet of an empty house? Is it truly silent?
These are the things we notice, but they’re also the kind of details that add to the effect of any scene, especially if it needs to be atmospheric or tense. Give the reader the right detail rather than the wrong detail, for example:
She had green eyes and pale skin and her hair was a coppery mane that rounded around her shoulders.
She looked beautiful to him, like a doll, and he stared at her intently…
This example shows how the wrong choice of words doesn’t give the effect required by the scene. It lacks any punch or atmosphere. Compare it with this second example, however, and you can see how the right choice of words makes all the difference to the description:
Her leaf-green eyes accentuated her skin; pale and without blemish, and her hair - dark copper - shimmered beneath the light like strands of silk…
A beautiful vision in his eyes, a snapshot - a moment of her life caught in wonderful, delicate colour - swirled like the fine filaments of a sunbeam as he gazed at her with ruthless detail.
With the right details, any scene can be layered with more detail for the reader. The more you give them, the better they imagine.
Why sibilance? Because this literary device gives the narrative an extra dimension, it creates sound in the reader’s mind, because often there is an ‘sss’ sound of certain consonants that are stressed when used in narrative. This can provide softness to the narrative and it can also be melodic to the reader’s ears. This example shows soft ‘hissing’ sibilance:
The bristle of leaves sounded like a soft soliloquy against her ears.
The words in bold are sibilant and the effect is that it is soft and melodic, with the stress on the ‘sss’ sound – just by using the right words. The narrative almost sings.
Sibilance also comes from using ‘ch’ or ‘sh’, for example: ‘Shadows drifted and shades dawned’ or ‘chasing her was a chore akin to chewing cud.’ Writers use sibilance to add emotion and imagery and a hint of sound to their descriptions.
Be Punchy or Protracted
Description also depends on pace for detail. If there is an action scene, then short, punchy descriptions push the pace along, it gives the effect that things are moving quickly. Words such as kick, run, punch, ram, yank and zip are all succinct and effective and straight to the point. These word choices help to increase pace.
If you have a love scene, however, then the description will be slower, and the pace may linger with words like sensual, sweet, seductive or sexy, as well as adding some sibilance to the feel of the scene as well.
Detail matters where description is concerned. It relies on so many elements to make it effective, to make it lift from the page and almost be real, so remember:-
- Know what it is you want to express.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Observation – it’s all in the detail. Readers love those little nuances.
- Add layers of colour and texture.
- Sensory details – explore the five senses.
- Choose the right descriptive words for the scene – action scenes, love scenes, emotional scenes, atmospheric scenes etc
- Create sibilance
- Let description create pace.
Again, it’s all down to the right choice of words and all the examples above bring the scenes alive with various effects on the narrative. That’s how you make description sparkle. That’s how you make it effective.
Next week: Creating Tone in Your Writing
Sunday, 15 November 2015
It’s one of those questions writers think about all the time. How do you actually make description effective? And how do you know that it’s effective? Can it be defined?
Firstly, description is the thing that brings any story to life, so without it, or enough of it, the structure of the story will fail. Every story needs description. It’s a fundamental element that allows the reader to share the story, and therefore it’s incredibly important. It should convey more to the reader than just the setting or a bit of action; description also conveys emotion, hidden nuances and colourful embellishments.
Imagine one of your favourite books without description. How dramatically would it affect the story? Would it still allow you to immerse yourself in that fictional world? Does it stimulate your imagination? The answer is no, it wouldn’t. It would simply be a book devoid of anything but dialogue and narrative.
By describing a scene, an event, a character, you are bringing the story to life.
Every writer wants to be able to create effective description, the kind that lifts the reader from reality and transports them to the fictional world, where sounds and colours and textures breathe life into a scene.
But how do you make it effective?
To make description effective, it needs to have an effect on the reader, it needs to make an impact, and so if it is flat or boring and uninspiring, then reading can be a laborious affair. Boring description is indicative of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, which is one of the most common mistakes writers make.
Description is about visualising the story for the reader – without it, the reader won’t be able to use their imagination and enter the fictional universe. They need you, the writer, to paint them a picture so that they virtually see the colours, hear the sounds and imagine being the hero.
Every writer will convey description quite differently, but it is how visual and rich that description is that will help to transport the reader right into the heart of the story. This is why main description should show, rather than ‘tell’. By main description, I mean the important scenes – dramatic, action or emotional scenes – rather than less important narrative, which doesn’t need much exposition.
With key scenes in a novel, it’s vital to show the reader, to allow them to share the story and the emotions and reactions, to stimulate them.
Effective description needs the following:
- Sensory details
- Visual details
- Emotional detail
Sensory details play a major part in description. The senses offer a distinctive insight for the reader. They may not be able to physically smell something, or actually be part of the action, they can’t physically touch or taste or hear anything, but by giving them richly layered details, they will use their imagination quite effectively in order to see, touch, hear, taste and feel.
Description relies on the writer to evoke the senses, for example, the following paragraph contains some narrative, but little by way of description:
Distorted reflections shimmered from corners. Bare concrete sucked the light from the corridor as Danny moved forward, each footstep an empty echo. He turned a corner and focused on the thin shaft of light at the end of the darkened hallway. A shadow moved…
There is nothing wrong with the narrative, but it lacks any depth and has no atmosphere. It is telling the reader, not showing. Now compare the same paragraph with the sensory details:
Distorted reflections shimmered from corners, as though mocked by the breeze. A line of dangling light bulbs flickered in tandem. Bare concrete, cold like ice sheets, sucked the dim light from the narrow corridor as Danny parted the darkness and hunched forward, each footstep an empty echo that reverberated long after his presence had drifted into the shifting umbra. He turned a corner and focused on the thin shaft of light at the end of the darkened hallway. The light wavered momentarily; a shadow moved...
You can see how these details lift the narrative and transform it into description, the kind that fires the imagination of your reader and helps them build a mental picture in their mind. It provides some atmosphere and tone and it gives the narrative depth.
It’s not just the senses that help form effective description, it is the visual details that you present to the reader that helps them imagine, it helps them perceive the setting and place and objects and other characters. It helps provide depth and layers to the story.
Writers don’t always understand the importance of making description visual, which is why many self published books by first time authors lack even the most fundamental detail.
A good novel needs description.
Emotion and the ability to move your reader, is a driving force within fiction. A book without emotion isn’t much of a book. If you describe emotions, or you layer the narrative with subtle emotional references, then you create a richer reading experience, for example:
A thousand hollow, alabaster faces stared out from beyond the wire. Sunken eyes and lost expressions filled the heavy atmosphere. The sullen patter of rain spiralled from a slate laden sky.
Ribs pushed through taut, parched skin. Fingers clung to the fence like broken claws. Desperation bled from grey cadaver skin; men, woman and children, stripped of clothes and dignity, stood crushed together, holding each other up. The air stank of misery. Fear stalked the muddy fields and stifled the birds. In just under an hour, they would all be dead; life stolen by poisonous gas.
And the ovens burned, ready.
This example not only uses visual and sensory stimulus, but it also makes use of metaphor, it makes the reader think because it focuses on the emotional impact.
It contains many of the elements needed to make description come alive.
As with all elements of writing, there is a balance. Description isn’t all about making sure every paragraph is jammed with wonderful descriptive passages, because it’s easy to overdo it and turn it into “purple prose”. On the whole, a writer should instinctively know when to add those extra elements and when to leave it fairly simple. That comes with experience, so the more you write, the more you become capable of writing intuitively.
In Part 2 we’ll look at how choice of words and the right details make description effective.
Next week: How to write effective description Part 2
Saturday, 7 November 2015
In Part 1 we looked at scene breaks, why they’re used and how to use them, so in this concluding part we’ll look chapters – when to use them and how effective to make them.
Guilt forged a path through peter’s senses and he quickly reached down, grabbed David’s collar, unable to let him die, despite his feelings. How else would David face justice?
While scene breaks literally allow a scene to break for a different POV or a flashback or to move forward through the story, a chapter signifies a completely new section of the story.
But when exactly do you begin a new chapter? How do you introduce one without completely interrupting the flow of the story?
Why start a new chapter?
We use chapters to represent a new segment of the story, yet they must be a continuation of that story, otherwise readers will not be able to follow the story cohesively. And just like scene breaks, they can show a change of character viewpoint, they can signify a passing of time and they can be used for flashbacks.
They are also useful for reducing the size of any given chapter, since if you are using chapters, you will want to vary the length of each chapter to keep things interesting for the reader.
Another reason for a new chapter is for dramatic effect – a way of taking advantage of a crucial moment by deliberately breaking the flow of the story and creating, in basic terms, a ‘cliffhanger’.
Lastly, we use chapters in order to provide readers with the chance to breath between the action, to let them rest, so they can put the book down and return to it again when they’re ready.
When to start a new chapter
If you are unsure when to start a new chapter, first ask the following questions:
1. Do I need to change the point of view to another character? Does the perspective need to change?
2. Is the current chapter a little too long and needs to be separated into a new chapter.
3. Do I want to create a dramatic pause – a ‘cliffhanger’?
4. Do I need to move ahead in time by hours or days?
5. Do I need to use a flashback?
Just as with scene breaks, if writing in third person multiple POV, you will need to change the character viewpoint at some point so that you give different perspectives to your story. This may mean starting a new chapter with a different character’s POV. This is used frequently in novels, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t detract the reader.
The other thing to watch is to ensure your current chapter doesn’t go on for too long. It’s easy to forget to start a new chapter and you simply keep writing until you have a chapter that is three times the length that it should reasonably be. Then you realise it’s too long and probably quite a lot for the reader to take in.
There are no rules on chapter lengths, but it’s about balance and variation. Keep chapter lengths varied so that readers remain interested and enthralled by the story and they don’t become bored.
Chapters are very useful for creating a dramatic pause, too, or what is commonly known as the cliffhanger. In other words, you end the chapter during a crucial moment – perhaps the hero is in imminent danger, perhaps a bomb has seconds to go off or maybe the hero is cornered with no escape…these kinds of things leave your reader hanging in the air for a very brief moment, desperate to find out what happens next, for example:
Peter raced to the edge, saw David clinging to the wall, his knuckles white, his face contorted with panic.
David’s voice pitched as his grip diminished. ‘Help me!’
Peter stared at David, the anger flooding back. He reached out, but then hesitated. He slowly withdrew.
This is a simple example that shows how a dramatic pause in the narrative helps to keep the reader guessing, to wonder what might happen next, too keep them turning the page.
Chapters are good for shifting forward in time by hours, days or even weeks, as long as the transition is seamless and is hinted in the previous chapter. We do this so that the reader is prepared and the narrative doesn’t appear jarring for them, for example:
Peter peered at the receipts he’d found in the drawer of David’s central London office. Like a trail of footprints in the snow, they pointed to the one place he knew David would flee, just like the coward he was.
Peter pushed his way through the throng milling around outside La Guardia Airport and flagged down the river of yellow taxi cabs passing the entrance…
This example shows how time has moved forward considerably by showing Peter already at his destination in New York, which means it does away with the need to provide boring description and exposition. Instead we’re transported right to where the story needs to continue, without jarring the reader.
The other reason for new chapters is the use of Flashbacks. Not only do they work well within scene breaks, but they also work as new chapters. This gives the reader a clear signal that the new chapter is taking place in the past and it clearly separates it from the present day narrative. The next chapter can then return to the present action.
In the end, chapters are only as effective as you want them to be.
Remember that chapters should occur each time there is a major shift in the story, whether that is a new character POV, a flashback, the need to move forward, to create a dramatic pause and a shift in the story or simply to avoid an overly long chapter.
Next week: How to write effective description.