The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat

Posted on May 14, 2012 by

I’ll tell you up front: this essay is really just a big pitch for putting some variety of tone in your fiction.
Imagine a smooth downward line, the kind of thing you’d see on an easy ski hill or a kiddie slide. If your main character starts out a little discontented on page one and their situation eases ever so slowly downhill as things get worse–and I do see novels like this–a book can get fairly tiresome to read. No matter how interesting the slide is, four hundred pages of prose can be wearing if they are mostly all the same flavor, if the story moves at the same speed.
(If the kiddie slide analogy doesn’t work for you, put on a favorite movie, close your eyes, and just focus on the soundtrack for a few minutes. Listen to the way the music changes from scene to scene and, when you’re thinking about the tone and pace of your work, imagine imbuing your writing with the same variation. Some writers even listen to soundtracks, or make up soundtracks for their books, just to ensure this.)
As with much writing advice, it’s sometimes easy to make a big proclamation: “Put variety in your writing style!” and harder to bring it off. But whether you have an outline or a finished manuscript in front of you, here are some concrete elements of the story you can examine to see if you’ve got a good mix of events, moods, and tones:
Mood: You can think about this, if you wish, in a very mechanical fashion. Look at each scene and jot down the main character’s primary emotional state. Use simple words: angry, happy, content, anxious, tired, confused, heartbroken, afraid, sad, surprised, delighted, blissful, etc.
Once you’ve got this list, go through again and just attach a number from 1-10, indicating the intensity of the emotion. How content are they? How angry? Ten sad? Two blissful?
Once you have this information, whether you’ve got a finished draft or are in the outline stage, it’s easier to assess what kind of balance you’ve achieved. If all the moods are upbeat, maybe there aren’t any big character lows. If the emotional intensity of every proposed scene is 9-10, you may be risking reader burnout.
A chart like this can also be handy for later reference. If something’s not working, you can go back and see: is the scene as intense as you meant for it to be? Are the emotions appropriate for what’s going on in the plot?
Over time, you should develop a sense of your project that will make this kind of charting unnecessary, but if you are inexperienced, overwhelmed or trying to get your book off to a great start, give it a try.
Action: The same principle that applies to character moods–change it up, in other words–can be applied to the ‘what happens?’ of the plot. And you can make a similar chart. This time, instead of mood, use simple verbs to describe what the characters are doing: walking, talking, driving, arguing, fighting, making love, giving birth, mourning, dying etc. Then use the numbers to describe how fast they’re moving, to assess the intensity of the action.
Lots of novels play out on a sort of contained level of intensity: they’re examinations of the human condition or relationships between a small group characters. Not every book has a car chase or a bank heist in every other chapter. But if you find yourself writing “Talking – 2” for every scene, consider how many books of this type you’d be willing to read. By the same token, if your action-adventure scene list boils down to “Fistfight – 10!” “Bomb blast – 10!” “Rescuing Kitty from the Train Tracks – 11.2!” … well, you know you’ve got something on your hands that may overstimulate us all.
Physical setting and sensory detail: Does every scene in your book take place in the same heavily curtained, dimly lit, cobweb-infested room? Give a little thought to how the mood and action of a given scene can be enhanced by the details: time of day, the quality (or lack) of light, interior versus exterior settings, the number of people around as the scene plays out, the degree of physical comfort offered by furnishings or terrain, and even tiny things like temperature.
Voice: do you have more than one point of view or point of view character? Can the sound of their narrative voices vary? Even if the overall narrative voice is consistent, a little nuance here and there within POV can add a lot of texture to a novel. The uneducated intern at your fictional hospital might perceive and relate things just a wee bit differently from the hospital director, the ten-year-old patient in room 3D and the nurse who immigrated to the big city from the West Indies three years ago.
By now you can probably see how all of these elements tie together. The ultimate goal isn’t just to collage a bunch of moods and tones together: it’s to unify your story elements to produce a specific emotional effect in each scene.
Think of all the times you’ve been reading so fast you’re almost breathless, because you have to know what’s going to happen to a given character next. You might have been scared for them, or excited, or hopeful, or upset–the point is, you felt really invested–there was a lot of suspense.
Then whatever immediate conflict you were reading about would have peaked. Ahhhh! I bet the next scene considerably calmer.
We’re in this to give the reader a bit of a ride. Some of us want to take them on a pleasant, thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging sail through the undusted corners of the human heart. Some of us want the full-on upside-down rollercoaster ride of emotion. Whatever effect you’re trying to achieve, give us some ups and downs. The result will be a book that’s not only fun to read.
Because, I promise, it’ll be more fun to write too.

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