So right now, I’m having huge problems balancing the tone in a scene – which means I’ve been thinking a lot about tone lately. It’s one of those things that I usually don’t have problems with, so I usually don’t think much about how I approach it. Of course, I make choices about which words I use, how my characters react both internally and externally, and so on, but generally once I’ve got my characters firmly in mind, consistency of tone just happens by itself. It’s like going into a situation with people you know through and through – if you and your uber-neurotic, self-conscious pal are going to a meeting with the boss today, you KNOW it’s going to be a nerve-wracking experience, no matter how well things go. If, on the other hand, you’re going in with your light-hearted, easy-going pal who doesn’t take anything too seriously, you’re figuring on a much more laid-back day, even if the meeting doesn’t go well.
So characters contribute to tone a great deal just by themselves, and that’s generally what gets me through the troublesome nebulousness that is atmosphere / mood / tone.
One thing I’m very intentional about with my writing environment (and which has everything to do with maintaining the right tone for whatever I’m working on) is what music I listen to. There are times (especially while editing) when I can’t listen to anything while I work, other times when I can’t concentrate if there are any lyrics, and other times when I’m so in the zone or the music is so spot-on when it doesn’t even occur to me that the music isn’t part of what I’m putting on the page.
The book I’m working on has its sad times and its dark elements, but on the whole I wanted a sense of light-heartedness, fun even in the face of danger, and a pinch of irreverence for even the most serious situations. So when I picked my music, I chose, primarily, jazz. The playlist has evolved as the book has evolved, as I got to know characters better, and as new elements filtered into the story. Now, it’s a mix of big band swing, instrumental surf tunes, and the occasional offbeat, funky song that just fit too well to be ignored. Some of it is just great background music for working on the book, and some of it is so attached in my mind to specific scenes in the storyline that the music pops into my head anytime I work on the scene I associate it with.
For this book, it’s the perfect playlist to keep the tone consistent. The music says, “Heartbreak is natural – everybody’s got troubles. Now come on, let’s have our gin & tonics and enjoy ourselves anyway!” And that’s so in line with my narrator. If I’d listened to heavy metal while I wrote this book, or The Cure, or Mozart, or Disney songs, it would probably have been a very different book, even if I’d had the same original ideas about the characters and the story.
And a lot of the ideas I’ve had as I went along came directly from the influence of the music I listened to – it really helped me picture some of the events in a new way.
So here’s to you, Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke, Benny Goodman and the Squirrel Nut Zippers!
There’s a writing exercise for you: Make a new playlist! See what happens.