If you're a writer, you've probably
heard, just like me, that there are four basic components
of fiction: setting, character, plot and theme. You pretty
much can't have a story without these, in some form or fashion.
And the most intangible of the fourthemecan be
either methodically added to a tale, or simply get carried
along for the ride, borne of the writer's subconscious beliefs
about the world. (That's usually what happens with me, anyway.)
But one of the facets of fiction that
helps turn a good story into a great story is something that
is, in some sense, not a requirementtone. To quote the
great repository of knowledge in this Twenty-First Century,
Wikipedia, "Tone is a literary technique, that is a part
of composition, that encompasses the attitudes toward the
subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work.
Tone may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful,
serious ironic, condescending, or many other possible attitudes."
The rest of the article encompasses about seventy-five words.
Not a lot to say, do the many editors of Wikipedia have, about
Tone fascinates me, both as a reader
and a writer. Well modulated tone puts me in the right headspace
to really enjoy a story, maybe even a story that I wouldn't
have been predisposed to enjoy just for the subject matter.
And unevenor worse, contradictorytone can kill
the best of tales.
With this in mind, I sponsored a contest
here on Silverthought, "Tone Challenge", asking
for short stories in any speculative genre, but with one main
goal in mind: consistency of tone. I judged these stories
for their overall merits, but the deciding factor was always
going to be this ineffable quality that is so very hard to
I read the stories, and judged the
contest, and declared a winner
but I still felt like
I had more to say on the topic. I've asked all the contestants
for their permission to use their stories in this essay, to
talk about the mechanics of what I saw and likedand
didn't likeabout their work.
I'll start with the first thing anyone
ever sees in a storythe title. Most of the stories had
titles that put you in mind immediately of what kind of story
you were about to read.
Dagstine's "Being Michael"
sounds personal and contemplative, which it was. Crandall's
"I'll Always Love You Guys" is clearly something
nostalgic. Clark's "The Raven Fortress" and Haller's
"Tiffany and the Giant" sound like they'll be fanciful
works with some grand scope to them. Oldham's "Twilight
2014" can't be anything but melancholic.
Ironically, the contest winner had
the least evocative title of them all. The title of Chaney's
"Simoom in the Window" doesn't really tell me anything
about what to feel, largely because I had to look up the definition
of simoom. (I didn't know that it's an Arabic term
for "poison wind".)
The next, very basic thing that tells
a reader about a story is the choice of character names. Here
are the names that first appear in each of the stories:
Pork Rind McCall
Right away, you know something's up
with two of these stories. Sergei Marisovichalong with
Zhenya, Tolya, Marya Svetliyevna and Vladyagive this
story a very specific Russian feel. To a run of the mill American
like me, these names sound exotic and filled with danger and
intrigue. (I really am a child of the Cold War, I guess.)
That's certainly going to help set the scene for the action
sequence that dominates "The Raven Fortress".
On the flip side, Pork Rind McCallalong
with Low Ball and Este Fuegotells me that "Full
Count" is not going to be very serious. I should check
my logic at the door and just enjoy the ride.
In "Tiffany and the Giant",
we're introduced to Tiffany, Frenchy, Black Mac, Shiv, Chuckles,
and Willow. Really, at this point I don't know what
to expect. I've just met a valley girl, a supporting character
from a WWII film, a comic book character, a prison inmate,
a clown, and one of the characters from "Buffy the Vampire
Slayer". It's all over the map. Frankly, the names here
Anne and Michael both tell me that
"Twilight 2014" and "Being Michael" are
not going to be flashy tales, that they're about regular people
in regular situations. Melly, obviously a nickname, nicely
sets up the intimate nature of "I'll Always Love You
Mariah is an interesting choice for
"Simoom in the Window", because it's a "real
name". Any one of us might know of someone with that
name. But it's also just a little unusual, a tiny bit exotic.
The character is someone we can identify with
strange might be happening soon. Mysterious events don't happen
to people named "Michael". But they might to a "Mariah".
When we think about "tone",
we probably first think about "tone of voice". When
you speak to someone and they speak to you, there's plenty
of subtext written into how we say what we say. That's
harder to put on the page, unless you simply write, "he
said sarcastically". Telling the reader what the tone
that kind of kills it.
So, what kinds of dialogue choices
do we see in the contest entries?
I'll be honest. Dialogue that's supposed
to be funny is rarely funny. I like watching characters make
jokes on "Friends". I like it a lot less in print.
"My Daddy used to say you can
breed a racehorse with a coonhound, but it ain't gonna' make
Venetian blinds taste like strawberries," says one of
the characters in "Full Count". I didn't laugh.
What's worse, it's obvious I'm supposed to laugh, so
not only does the joke fail, it advertises its failure.
It's one thing to have witty banter
in a story that's playing for comedy. In "Tiffany and
the Giant", the goal seems to be to tell a tale of desperation
and adventure. In the midst of that, we get this exchange:
"You look like you could use
a good strong man with balls around here girl. How about
I stay and keep you warm at night."
"If you didn't have balls we
could talk. I would rather Willow stay to keep me warm."
Got any straight sisters?"
It's hard to worry too much about these
characters when they're engaged in flirting. I think when
your life is in danger in a strange land, flirting is probably
the first of the social graces to go.
The dialogue in "The Raven Fortress"
comes in two forms. There are the terse battle commands that
help tell the action. And there are the pronouncements of
duty and honor that tell the underlying story. Neither of
them detract, nor do they really add anything to the tone.
In "Being Michael", there's
precious little dialogue. Probably the most important exchange
is this one:
"Do you think Michael
Michael became an angel?"
"I think so. Michael would have
made a fitting angel, Miss Julie, so I don't see why not.
Elysian Fields, you see, is a place where the souls of the
heroic and virtuous go. Your brother was all these things,
This is sweet and nice, if sad, which
is what Dagstine seems to want us to feel about it. It's so
sincere, I found it possible to overlook the story problems
of humans becoming angels (they're different races) and the
use of a Greek mythological construction in a discussion of
"Simoom in the Window" had
no dialogue at all. That choice alone helps to set the tone
of desperation that Mariah has to experience, since she can
share it with no one around her.
The sparse dialogue in "I'll Always
Love You Guys" is the entirely believable nonsense that
kids say to each other all the time. It fills in the spaces
between the details of this the narrator's past with little
shards of memory. You can read lines like "Well, he took
me at the first curve, but I think I got a chance," and
think to yourself, "I knew a guy like that once."
Also, that was funny because it was funny. It didn't telegraph
The dialogue of "Twilight 2014"
is a little more expository in nature:
"It's really too bad there's
no such thing as auto insurance any more."
"Would you look at that? Ethanol
is the same price as gas! It must be so nice to be a corn
"It hasn't rained in Kansas
or Iowa for six months. Corn, wheat, and everything else
that needs water, has doubled in price. We'll be in for
much worse if the Mexicans stop exporting their corn."
And so on. Putting this kind of thing
in the mouths of the characters makes me feel like I'm reading
a morality talewhich I guess I am, come to think of
it. It seems a little too pointed, like I'm supposed to be
feeling bad about the situation, and about the impact on these
people, all at once. It's a little heavy-handed.
I want to spend a little time here
to mention the little details, the references or story choices,
or thematic statements that, tonewise, stick out like sore
thumbs and make me question everything I've read up to that
In "Tiffany and the Giant",
Two King Kong hands swept down
and corralled them before they could bolt
A reference to a movie can be fun,
but I'm only a paragraph into this story. The subsequent reference
to Sasquatch is more forgivable, since it's more of a legend,
rather than a mass media entertainment.
Another to come to mind is in "Being
Michael", which I have to say I seriously considered
for the prize. If not for this moment, I probably would have
given the award to Dagstine:
I could always tell him my problems,
and he'd always listen. Even when he was stationed in Baghdad.
Bush lied about the biological weapons, so now I'll never
hear him call my name again.
This is a story about a sister mourning
the death of her brother. Oblique mention of the war is okay.
Flatly making a political statementand worse, calling
Bush by nameturns this into a very different story,
at least for a paragraph or two. And this isn't because I'm
a fan of Bush or the war. I'm not. Even so, this moment I
found very jarring, whereas the rest of the story had a great
deal of restraint and heart.
The bulk of most any story is the prose
that the writer uses to tell what's happening, where it's
happening, and who it's happening to. That amounts to several
thousand word choices. Many of themarticles and prepositionsare
going to be neutral to tone. But nouns and verbs, and particularly
modifiers like adjectives and adverbs, tell the reader more
than the bare facts. They tell us how to feel about those
I'm not going to dissect all of the
stories on this point, but I do want to look at two.
First, I'm afraid I have to pick on
one story and search for problems, so it's going to be "Tiffany
and the Giant". There were many word choices that defeated
the intended tone of "trepidation", as Haller indicated
in his entry. Here are some examples:
The band of nude humans dove for
cover under the root ball of a fallen tree.
Nude is what you are on a beach.
If you're running for your life, you're naked.
They rode in the hands of the
giant, like a furry circus ride for miles.
This sounds fun, not scary.
There on a stick shelf were several
kilts made of sectioned Purple Screamer feathers, shining
translucently in the dusk. Under them were full sized robes
made of a soft chamois.
Now we're in the realm of a luxury
spa. If I was afraid before for Black Mac and his comrades,
my fear is now gone.
The next morning found the troop
ready for the trail.
We appear to be reading about the Boy
I think this is a great example of
the story taking over from the writer. It's clear that Haller's
goal of making our heroes seem to be in danger mutated into
a story of playful discovery. This isn't a bad thing, necessarily,
unless it deflates the tension built up earlier in the series,
or contradicts future ominous events that will follow.
On the flip side, let's look at the
winning story, "Simoom in the Window". Here's the
The crack in the window pane should
have been repaired already. Had Mariah done what she should
have done, what she had been instructed to do, everything
would probably be okay now. Or at least her window would
be intact, instead of gaping where the wind had shattered
the pane into shards, exposing the interior of her tiny
hut to the elements.
How many word choices here tell me
that I need to be worried? Crack, gaping, shattered,
shards, tiny, elements. Each of these
tells me something bad is going to happen, and that my heroine
is in for a rough time.
Even when Chaney is telling us something
positive, it sounds negative:
Until the crack in her window,
Mariah had thought she could manage in this new, stark outpost.
Had thought means Mariah was
wrong, and she is in for trouble. Manage is so much
less safe a word than, say, thrive, or live. And stark
just plain sounds dangerous.
Or was madness a trait one of
their group had brought with them, cloaked behind a friendly
smile, concealed until the proper time arrived for its unleashing?
Okay, that's just plain creepy.
It seemed to Mariah that the crack
grew furtively, aware of when her attention was diverted.
It was monitoring her gaze, taking advantage of any distraction.
Furtively and monitoring.
We're getting the sense that this windstorm has mind and purpose,
even though Chaney hasn't explicitly told us so. She's ratcheting
up the tension nicely.
She had considered her view a
tactical advantage over her comrades should they attempt
to sneak up and victimize her as someone had surely done
to the three dead sentries.
I particularly like the use of victimize
here. It's possible for someone to attack you, and
you defend yourself. But if you've been victimized,
you obviously didn't. It's an inherently defeatist word.
it exposed her to the reality
of her own vulnerability from blindly trusting that the
glass couldn't shatter, that the supply ships were actually
coming, loaded with food and replacements, that help was
on its way because they would never abandon their sentries.
This is subtle. She could have said
the glass could hold and they would always support their sentries.
By framing it as a negative, Chaney is subconsciously making
the case that these bad things will happen.
She couldn't keep the sand out,
and she wasn't sure she could make it to another hut before
the devastating effects of the simoom left her in the yard
as a dehydrated corpse, a human raisin.
Here's a misstep. The phrase human
raisin is kind of funny. Bounces the tone a bit.
The rest of the story is the actual
attack of the storm and Mariah's fight for survival. At that
point, the subtlety is no longer needed
and I'll refrain
from further comment.
Tone is certainly a subjective thing.
My opinions aren't going to match anyone else's. But these
were the thoughts that went through my head as I read these
stories and judged this contest. Obviouslyunless you're
J. D. Salingeryou're writing stories for someone else
to read. You're at the mercy of their interpretation of everything
about your story, including, perhaps primarily, the tone.
It can't hurt to keep that in mind.
Hopefully this essay is at the very
least is food for thought as you continue writing.