by Russell Lutz

an essay by Silverthought Associate Editor Russell Lutz

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



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 four—theme—can 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 requirement—tone. 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.

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 uneven—or worse, contradictory—tone 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 perfect.

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 liked—and didn't like—about their work.


I'll start with the first thing anyone ever sees in a story—the 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:

Sergei Marisovich

Pork Rind McCall






Right away, you know something's up with two of these stories. Sergei Marisovich—along with Zhenya, Tolya, Marya Svetliyevna and Vladya—give 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 McCall—along with Low Ball and Este Fuego—tells 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 distracted me.

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 Guys".

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… but something 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 is… 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, and more."

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 Christian spirituality.

"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 humor.

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 farmer."

"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 tale—which 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 point.

In "Tiffany and the Giant", there's this:

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 statement—and worse, calling Bush by name—turns 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 them—articles and prepositions—are 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 facts.

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 Scouts now.

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 opening paragraph:

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. Obviously—unless you're J. D. Salinger—you'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.




Copyright © 2008 Russell Lutz

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Russell Lutz lives, works, and writes in Seattle.

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