This one was inspired by books that make me feel like I’m taking an acid bath in one kind of emotion—specifically, Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson and any number of Piers Anthony’s pun-driven novels—and by others that seem to fear allowing any kind of emotion other than ANGST ANGST ANGST or SLAPSTICK HUMOR HA HA into them will ruin them. So this is a discussion of ways to vary a book’s emotional tone, both to give it more “color” on the palette and to avoid burying your reader in too much of one feeling.
1) Use your characters’ perceptions and physical needs.
Got one character who’s perceptive and self-aware? It doesn’t have to be the protagonist. If yours is one of those people who just blindly goes about not realizing they’re in love/actually the savior/whatever, it can be someone traveling with them, or a lover, or a friend, or, hell, their captor. (There is a way to achieve this even with monofocused characters, though. See point 2).
The point is that a perceptive person can often recognize when herself, or someone else, just can’t take any more, and will need to slow down, rest, think about something else, eat, or shift into a different frame of mind. Sometimes it’s sheer practical necessity, as when exhaustion forces a collapse. (Not that some fantasy authors pay attention to how long it’s been since their characters slept or ate or got wounded, but let’s assume you’re engaging in body-centered writing and will do so). And you can use that little pause to put a small island of calm, or gallows humor, or banter, or just focus on something else, in the story’s tossing sea.
Is this valuable? Oh, yes. Other than attending to a level of physical and psychological verisimilitude that I think goes neglected too often—I often wondered how in the world Thomas Covenant could bear what was happening to him, when his consistent emotional responses were anger and self-pity—it givers the readers a breather. It can be used to worldbuild, if you talk about the meal your character’s eating now and how different it is from the ones he ate at home. It can relax an overtaxed body by focusing on the mind, or vice versa. It can provide good reminder of motivations; if your protagonist is a prisoner and his captor has to get her to the distant city alive, he won’t want her dying of exhaustion on the way. It can heighten suspense, in certain instances. If they’re being chased, they’ll still need to rest, but they better hope their enemies don’t find them in the meantime.
These scenes don’t have to last long. But they can add so much to the story. I’m frankly puzzled why they’re not used more often, why even an attempt by the characters to horseplay and release tension is interrupted by a reminder of the danger they’re in. I suppose some authors fear they’ll damage the story’s tone. But the thing is, I think a story needs a dominant tone, not a constant one. Sure, turning a tense murder story into farce in the middle makes no sense. But making the tense murder story only a tense murder story across three hundred pages is damn near impossible, prone to becoming tired and strained and prey to artificial tricks to keep the “tension” up. There have to be little breaks in it. Make them small enough, and they won’t disrupt the dominant tone.
2) Have a character’s monofocus cost her.
Let’s say that you see no way to get the character to stop or slow down because she’s driven, obsessed, and wants to get to the end of her quest or take vengeance or track down the murderer as soon as possible. She does pause to eat and rest, so you can’t use that, and she travels alone, so you can’t use another character, either. Also, she often broods on her dark past, and it’s drowning the story in angst. What to do?
Simple. Have those same tendencies bite her on the butt.
A perceptive, focused character still cannot notice everything. I am baffled as to why people think they should do so. In fact, a character who focuses this way is more likely not to notice small details than someone who’s relaxed.
She knows the villain inside and out and can anticipate every nuance of his plans? I bet you she has not made the same in-depth study of the villain’s clever lieutenant. She researched the murder intently and is almost sure she knows who the killer is already? Are you really certain she’s not ignoring some evidence that contradicts her interpretation, and shoehorning other pieces in to fit? People who start off determined to see a certain conclusion can reach it regardless of what reality is telling them.
Bring your monofocused character up against a brick wall, and then she’ll need to take a few deep gasping breaths, sit back, and think about what she’s doing. It forces a breather, and it can lead to character change and epiphanies, too. And it gets rid of that irritating tendency that haunts stories with obsessive protagonists: to make them 100%, always, absolutely right. That’s boring. While she’s narrowly studying her small section of life, the rest of it is being gloriously messy. Have it surprise her. Surprise is a good emotion to vary the story’s dominant tone with.
3) Mix the smaller emotions with the dominant tone.
Pretty simple, really. Afraid that humor will disrupt a tense story? Make it black humor, gallows humor. Afraid that your humorous story will get too serious? Have the characters attain philosophical insights throughtheir jokes. Don’t want a romance to be drowned by the heroine’s sexual anxiety, even though that’s mounting higher and higher as she considers a sexual relationship? Introduce other issues that will split her attention and give the hero some stage time, too, so he’s not a perfect caricature or a nobody for the heroine to spill her problems onto.
Terry Pratchett does very well at mixing the humorous and the serious in his Discworld books. This is partially because he usually remembers that something which is funny to the audience can be deadly serious to the characters, and so he doesn’t make them stop and point out the joke. (Pointing-out of jokes is why I think 99% of humorous fantasy falls flat). The characters don’t just laugh. They have moments of comfort and contentment and fear and dread high seriousness. Discworld is there to parody and play around with Earth, but also to provide a home for the characters who live in it.
4) Keep it in-character.
Tired of me banging this drum yet? Oh, well. It needs to be banged.
So you have your trickster character, your joker, your comic relief. He laughs about everything. He pulls pranks on the other characters to cheer them up. He mocks their weaknesses to get them back on their feet. He demands that people relate to him as a jokester, because he’s most comfortable in that role.
Why have him stop playing jokes just because the story is getting tenser?
Sure, it could shut him up temporarily, or you could move him out of the way because you don’t want him spoiling a romantic or confrontational scene between two of the other characters. But it’s very noticeable when a character suddenly stops being who he is just so the author can maintain a certain tone.
Work with your characters. I would say, “Let them call the tone of your story,” but then, the characters aren’t the whole of the narrative, either. They’re partners with setting, plot, exposition, backstory, worldbuilding, language, style, and numerous other things to make the story a success. Their reactions should in part derive from the tone of the story and in part drive it. And they’re probably your best tool for varying it, as points 1 and 2 show.
If you have multiple viewpoints, this is easier than it will be with a single one. The same scene that reads as rich with romantic overtones to your heroine could seem like an evening with a lot of flirting and giggling and not-going-to-sleep to your tired historian who already stays awake late at night trying to compose the company’s records. Jump into someone else’s head, and it’s startling what that can do to events, pacing—and tone. In some cases, this can be just the exciting new shock that the story needs.
5) Work with your form.
If you have a novel divided into chapters, take a look at the emotional content of each. Is there a stretch of long, draggy chapters in the middle, where characters do nothing but talk in circles around each other? Can you break that up? Perhaps insert a chapter with some action, or at least one person coming to an epiphany so this doesn’t seem like an endless stretch of Big Misunderstandings?
I think this problem is most common to middles. A beginning may need to establish a consistent emotional stance to get a reader involved in the world—though I can think of a number of novels that did very well with a horrifying or shocking start and then a relatively normal second chapter—and an ending may need to tie up so many different strands, like a symphony organizing its music, that it has no time for little punctuating notes. But a middle has time. And since it seems to be the place where authors most often flounder and lose their way, it could use some looking-after.
What about recovery periods? If you have your characters going through a major arc of action that lasts five chapters, would it be so bad to give them time to stretch their legs and look around? It doesn’t have to be nearly as long as the arc of action. (I think this is where some fantasy books, in particular, tend to lose steam; the author gets involved in a world tour and forgets about the fact that there’s a quest or a romance or a burning question to be attended to). It could last just a chapter, and then you get galloping again.
What about a rocking-horse gait? Ursula K. LeGuin describes this as the rhythm of LOTR, “alternating periods of tension and relaxation.” She also notes that it will drive some adult readers nuts, so you might not want to use it for the whole book, but it could work well for a middle.
What about detail-layering? Rather than rushing everything into an epiphany at the end or front-loading your story with endless detail about your protagonists, give your readers the middle to discover them. This is where they can start noticing each other’s habitual gestures, or remembering their pasts in dreams, or piling up the pieces that will lead to the end. There are ways in which this is very bad advice—again, see the fantasy examples where the author tumbles into a morass of “characterization” or “worldbuilding” and never gets out—but one way to help avoid that is to keep new details coming, building on the old ones, instead of just repeating the same conversations over and over again, or tossing in dozens of new set pieces without ever returning to the older ones.
I don’t like books with rushed endings, in either the plot or the tone sense. Keep your eye sharply on the story in the middle, and there’s no reason that the ending has to be too fast or too slow.
6) Subplots! Subplots will do you good.
If they don’t get out of hand, of course. But I’m thinking here of subplots mainly as emotional aids to the main story, so, if the author thinks about them in relation to the overarching plot instead of as breeds apart, it should work.
Simplest example, off the top of my head: Main romance and secondary character romance. Perhaps the romance between the two leads is full of all the usual angst of the “I love him! He loves me not!” type, and spine-tingling bickering, and death-defying rescues (90% of the time, of the heroine by the hero). But the secondary character romance is quiet, or almost purely comedic, and complements the main one by showing a different way of falling in love. A reader who hates bickering couples could still be charmed by that secondary romance.
How subplots fit a book’s tone doesn’t seem to be considered that often. I think it should be.
I like books with varied emotional tones because they’re usually the ones where the characters feel most alive to me. They haven’t forgotten living while they go about this business of being in a story.