The Dulcet Tones of Genre Convention


I’ve been squirreling away blogpost seeds for ages, and it occurred to me that there’s no point in hoarding them if I never use them.

So! Today was prompted by an io9 article from, oh, July 15th, 2013. Ahem.

In this io9 article entitled ‘What does it mean when people say your story’s “tone” is wrong?’, there’s a fairly good breakdown of what tone even is. The definition it settles on is something along the lines of the mix of emotion, atmosphere, genre convention, authorial voice and style that creates the experiential landscape of the prose. More or less. The author, Anders, relates the idea of tone to music (logically enough), and how the whole of a musical piece and the resultant emotional impact is dependent on the sum of its mechanical parts. That’s a fairly good definition of tone, as far as trying to define something so subjective as to how a particular piece of art might feel to an audience.

To put it even more simply: Tone is the gestalt of how a writer conveys events and experiences.

Tone is also a tool, which is what I think the io9 article touches on but doesn’t necessarily drive home. It’s not something that just sort of happens as a result of style/voice/etc. and it’s something you can manipulate. In conveying ideas while aiming for a specific tone, a writer can influence a reader towards emotion, towards expectation, and play with different kinds of tension, among other things. Most writer’s tools are also fractal-like, where each component part is made up of different, other tools, which are made up of others, which are made up of others and so on from deciding who your main character has to be to tell the story you want all the way down to the actual, physical arrangement of words on a page. Even just coloring text or blacking out a page can have an effect on the tone, like in House of Leaves or the Series of Unfortunate events, respectively. Tone is no exception, and I consider it one of the more abstract tools a writer can utilize, which means there’s an infinite fractal contained inside.

So. If tone is a megatool and each subtool consists of a set of choices in how to present ideas, then ultimately tone becomes a matter of tiny choices. And following the idea of choice, even a short list off possible choices reads like the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch, where every iteration has a new item to consider. For example, amongst our weaponry (with respect to tone), there’s the choice of diction and the choice of structure and the choice what to describe (out of all the possibilities) and the choice of whose opinion the narrative is reinforcing and the choice of when to reveal twists and the choice of when to increase tension and the choice of how long or short sentences are and and and…

If ‘possible choices that impact the tone of a story’ were turtles, it’s turtles all the way down.

So, sometimes a writer just hasn’t considered enough turtles, simply through lack of practical experience, and the tone of a work will reflect that. The tone could be ‘wrong’, as in the io9 article above, or it could simply be bland. A just-the-facts-ma’am mechanical tone that is otherwise absolutely correct with respect to the basic choices of grammar, syntax, and idea conveyance can make an otherwise exciting story very boring. Boring is the kiss of death. It’s this complete lack of tone, rather than a work having the wrong tone, that I consider the reason why most people’s work ends up being passed over, be it fanfiction or a self-published work trying to stand out from the crowd or a manuscript angling to be traditionally published out on query.

And, even better, sometimes in trying to tackle a change in tone a writer (like me) will discover that there are way, way too many turtles. I actually consider ‘too many turtles’ a type of writer’s block that, when confronted with the sheer gonzo number of choices to be made when working with tone, where literally every word can be deliberately placed to provide a certain effect, a writer can get blocked by something between ‘analysis paralysis’, ‘choice overload’, and ‘tyranny of small decisions’, where there are simply too many decisions to make, too many options for each decision, and each of decision influences the whole on a chaos theory level where even a tiny change might propagate to fundamentally alter the entire final product. Yikes.

Insert genre.

The io9 article linked above points out that genres all have their own distinct tone, whether it’s dark or light or sexy or suspenseful or epic or something else entirely, and that reading in your preferred genre is the best way to absorb the tone. I agree, and in spades, because what a writer learns from absorbing the tone of a particular genre is all the myriad different genre conventions that form that genre. Genre convention makes certain choices in structure and how for you, which feeds into tone. With that, genre becomes a powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox, because its conventions break your turtles into manageable hordes.

For the most basic of basic examples, convention for a book in the romance genre is that the conflict with be romantic in nature. If the writer’s genre of choice is romance, this gives a boundary and a framework, limiting the number of turtles they have to wrangle to ‘how to write a specifically romantic conflict’. The terms are set, and it’s a narrow enough area that it gives somewhere to grip in the attempt to gain mastery over the form. The end goal is defined (these idiots fall in love), the conflict is defined (these idiots have hang-ups that prevent them from falling in love), and the rest is nuance and detail and complication that makes each romance unique. Tone, here, will end up having elements of suspense, angst, and interpersonal tension. It will feel like a romance novel.

In this particular example, genre defines tone. Tone, however, can also turn around define genre conventions. If you want something to encourage a lot of tension and have a very action-oriented sort of tone, you can put a time limit on it (race-the-clock conventions in spy thrillers), or have the story build up to a do-or-die event (sports and heist stories), or have the stakes be astronomical (superhero and most fantasy). You can make decisions about what genre you want to utilize by examining what sort of tone would be ideal for your story, reading within a genre that has that tone, and stealing the conventions–or, more precisely, the techniques that those conventions are made of. There’s nothing that says a writer can’t make use of other people’s turtles to help create something entirely their own.

Meandering aside, I just want reiterate that tone and genre (and genre’s ever-so-useful genre conventions) are all tools to tailor a reader’s experience. I know I’m repeating myself, but this cannot be stated strongly enough. I think, too often, that there can be a sense that tone (and to some extent genre) is something that simply arises from the process of bringing a bookbaby into the world. Tone is a tool! If someone tells you your tone is wrong, or it’s bland and your writing is mechanical, ask yourself: what tone am I aiming for? Hopefully that’s a question that will give you ideas of what sort of turtles you want to be looking for.

Good luck with your tones, and happy turtle hunting!

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