Sunday, November 24, 2013

Essentials of Writing: Tone

Before I begin, I wanted to say that I'm sorry for the long distances between posts, lately. I've taken an active and energy depleting "real life" set up for myself, so I have less time and capability to research and gather together a thoroughly thoughtful post as frequently as I did before. I'm still here, just busy. Having made the apology, let's begin the beguine.

In this series I hope to examine different aspects of writing well. Like I'm doing with genre, I hope to isolate a particular aspect of writing thoroughly examine it and give suggestions for how to best develop and utilize that skill. To do this I'll give an example of how that element works in a good example and how it fails to work in a bad example, contrasting the good from the bad I'll then be able to give advice on how to avoid problems and help you the reader to develop your own writing.

I want to start off with the aspect of writing that is "tone". It is one of the "harder" aspects of writing to tackle as it comes closer to a writer and artist's sense of "intuition" than it does something you can tangibly develop, though you can develop it. A good writer knows how to write a story so that it tonally all agrees with itself. The best way I can describe it is that tone is part of the "aesthetics" of writing well. For the fashionistas reading this, it falls into the same category as "color coordinating" your outfit; for the cooks out there, that all the tastes are "stimulating" where they need to be, and for the homeboy auto mechanics out there, it falls into the same category as "pimping" your ride. Any piece of writing has an agreed upon sense of aesthetics that make sense for it, and what colors makes sense for some people's "skin tones", that specific spices are appropriate for what you're making, or what "pimping additions" fits with your automobiles' design, will vary. The simplest way to explain tone to you thus is by saying tone is how well all the smaller more individual elements that make up your writing agree with one another. Tone is about whether individual characters fit with the kind of plot or setting they're in. Tone is about there being a consistency in how different elements are treated--like if something is made a laughing stock for the entirety of the film that it's kept that way. Tone is about making sure that your plot twists fit with the world of your story by having established before that such a thing is credible. Tone is about making sure your writing style fits with the genre you're writing in. Tone is about everything, which is why I'm starting with it and from everything we can then later explore smaller smaller and more minute parts in later posts.

Generally we can divide tone into two major groups: There's "comic", which in this sense of the word I'm using to be about stories that are about the coming together of a group of characters as a community. There's "tragic", which in this sense of the word I'm using to be about stories that are about the isolation of an individual character from his community.

And from there you can divide those tones into five main minor "flavors" so to speak, though there's obviously more than five possible. There's "mythic" which is presenting the current community values of time in a sincere and straightforward manner but on a cosmic scale that affects us all. There's "romantic", which is about looking at an idealized view of the community's values. There's the "nostalgic" which exists between the "romantic" and "realistic", in examining an idealized past that actually did exist within living memory, but is "cleaned up" a bit and slightly exaggerated for effect. There's the "realistic", which is about representing what communities are actually here and now with exacting detail--presenting them with high definition starkness. And then there's the "ironic", which is about looking at past, present, or future and seeing how worthless, futile, or absurd communities, values, and people can be.

Northrop Frye talked about these ideas in his essay on "Modes" which I'm partially attributing to and partially riffing off and doing my own thing with. In that essay he went further to analyze all of Western Literary history into "five eras" of tone based on the relation we the reader had with the characters in the story and the characters in the story had with their world. I've covered them in a general sense for you above, but I'd like to point out the relationship he makes note of with the ironic mode as it's here he really drives home what separates the ironic from the non-ironic, and in so doing making us aware of how different ages might view a piece of art, which is the second quotation from much later in the essay:

"5. If inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation as the situation is being judged by the norms of a greater freedom.


The tonality of Antony and Cleopatra is high mimetic, the story of the fall of a great leader. But it is easy to look at Mark Antony ironically, as a man enslaved by passion; it is easy to recognize his common humanity with ourselves; it is easy to see in him a romantic adventurer of prodigious courage and endurance betrayed by a witch; there are even hints of a superhuman being whose legs bestride the ocean and whose downfall is a conspiracy of fate, explicable only to a soothsayer. To leave out any of these would oversimplify and belittle the play. Through such an analysis we may come to realize two essential facts about a work of art, and that it is contemporary with its own time and that it is contemporary with ours, and they are not opposed but complementary facts." (Northrop Frye)

Frye's larger point being that we can't just analyze how a work of art is viewed with relation to the time it was written, but we should also look for how that work of art relates to people today, as they'll be two very fundamentally different things as society has changed. And they will continue to change for as long as people continue to die, are replaced with new generations, and those change the accepted values within the fabric of society.

In any piece of great art, a work can work on multiple levels of tonality, resonating long after its creation and enduring as an example of great art. That's how developing good tonality in your work can help you in your writing, and is one way of ensuring that your work lives on after you've ceased to be a memory in those living, and often how it can resonate with more people on different levels. In Frye's example of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra he goes through and shows how we can see Antony as a "great man, who's fallen" (what I call nostalgic), or a man, just like us, "who falls for all too human reasons" (what I call realistic), or a man beneath us, "who was enslaved by his passion" (what I call ironic), an idealized "adventurer, betrayed by a witch" (what I call romantic), or as a great god-like, Colossus, who fell only because Fate, said it must be so (what I call mythic). Each of these is a different way of looking at the same story which is unified enough in its tone that people with different viewpoints can approach the work of art and still get the story, though their relationship with the art will be different than their great-grandparents' relationship with that same work of art would have been.

Okay, now that I might've lost you in all that definition, where can we find some examples? Let's stick with the ironic tone, as that's the tone most people living today are probably the most familiar with--Frye does call our modern era the "Ironic Era", so to speak.

Let's compare two "musical films"--though one was adapted from a musical play and the other from a novel, that were released within a year of each other. One of which you're likely to have heard, and the other probably not, but both are relatively comparable in terms of what they're attempting to do and one succeeds and the other fails largely on their use of tone. The two films I'll be comparing are Meredith Wilson's The Music Man (1962), and Walt Disney's Summer Magic (1963).

Looking at The Music Man, the story is automatically a "comic" story about how a community "comes together". A smart "city slicker" salesman named Harold Hill, comes to "small town America" to bamboozle them into buying an "all-boy's marching band". While doing so, being the ever consummate salesman he has to avoid difficulties and complications that appear as he makes his pitch. And in order to sell his wares he has to inadvertently get all the people of the discordant society to come together to "sing the same tune". He gets the parents in line by stirring up fear of unruly youth. He gets the unruly youth in line by giving them something to do, if not play in the band then as a leader of the band. He distracts the quarreling school board by teaching them to be a barbershop quartet--and they're so in awe of their ability to not be discordant, they are distracted long enough for himself to "slip away" each time. And after the fear evaporates from the mothers of the town, he tries to keep them distracted with a dance committee, as well as find a way to get enough information out of the women to know how to do battle with the only person in the small town capable of exposing him, Marian. Because his plan is most visible to the outsiders of the community (as they're the ones isolated or withdrawn enough in order to view him and how his spell affects the rest of the community correctly) Marian is able to see right through Harold. Largely the story is set up with two modes at work in our over all comic tone. There's the ironic which is plaintively obvious as we, like Harold, are supposed to on some level look down and relish as he bamboozles these "hicks from River City, Ioway", in that way we're looking down on these people, viewing them as "inferior" to Harold and us. There comes a borderline level of sadistic enjoyment in seeing the town "fooled" by this slick promoter. This is also helped by the fact that in 1962 we're looking to a past that's fifty years distant after which much change has occurred. What the town WAS is laughed at and made much fun of. However, this is a comic tone overall, and the ultimate irony is being pulled on Harold by the author of the story--his bamboozling is ultimately "just what the town needed" and is over all more "helpful" and "bringing people together". Marian recognizes this and ultimately is why she doesn't stop Harold but begins to help him. So in that way, the irony of the ironic tone used is that it isn't really too ironic (it can't be too ironic, or else the comic tone would collapse). But at the same time this starts employing another tone that comes in: the nostalgic tone. This is best represented by the ending more than the beginning. While we can laugh at what those people were, what we the 1962 viewer slowly come to realize over the course of the film is that Harold's bamboozling is actually working towards creating the foundations of the values of what we base our community on today. And in that way we can be ironic towards what they were, but nostalgic towards what they'll later become: inspirations for today. And what holds these two rather conflicting tones together is the fact that Harold's actions "help" and not "harm", as well as the ending of the film when the parents start taking pride in the badly tuned band--which is a way of maintaining the ironic tone even in a nostalgic sense. Thus the final ending of the film of the credits with the picture perfect marching band marching down the street that the badly-tuned band transforms into, thus allows us to have the realization that: yes, what we were was laughable, but what we became is worth valuing and helped create something worth valuing and preserving. This transformation doesn't seem "out of place" either, because we're witnessed to the same transformation throughout the film, but most especially as embodied by the character of Marian--who goes from the laughable bookish Librarian spinster archetype, to a blooming angenou of beauty slowly over the course of the film. She is aware of the transformation and welcomes it as it brings a life to her that she had only dreamed of, and it is because of her that she is able to convert the town to HER way of thinking. Ultimately the story can be seen as being about Marion's reconciliation with her own town and inclusion within her own community where before she had been isolated as an outsider, and how Harold helped inspire her and the rest of the town to "come together" without realizing how beneficial he was in the first place. It also keeps with the comic tone in that we have a person manipulating all these people so that they can come together, which is a big part of most comedies. Think of Harold as the equivalent of a Rosalinde figure from Shakespeare's As You Like It; he's the person who's pulling all the strings to bring everyone together. However in the ultimate irony he's doing so without realizing he's going to be pulled in himself. So in that way the transformation of the band in the final credits becomes not just acceptable but inevitable as it fits with the tone of the rest of the film. And ultimately it's what the town would become, not what it was that is given the nostalgic treatment, with the "what it was" being portrayed as ironically laughable. And in that way both the irony and the nostalgia are given equal weight and help propel the story to continue resonating with us to this day, and subtract any part of that mixture and you "mess up" the story. I'm thinking of a 2003 TV adaptation which starred Mathew Broderick as produced by Disney which was far too sincere and nostalgic, with very little irony, and thus fell flat.

Having mentioned Disney now it's time to come to the Disney film, Summer Magic. Like The Music Man it's set in a period of time roughly analogous with it, give or take a few years. The Disney film is a lesser known and less popular Hayley Mills film. It is about a city family which due to the father's death loses most of their money and has to move to the country where it's cheaper to live. And because of that they have to adapt to country life and become part of their new community. This is to be expected as most comedy is about entering a "green world" and leaving the "corrupt" world of the city. As You Like It being the classic example. The film is also very reminiscent of Edith Nesbit's children's book The Railway Children from the same time period which has much the same premise of a family of three children and their mother moving to the country to live more cheaply than in the city, which was a common plot device of many children's stories of the time (which makes me wonder why all these fatherless families kept appearing circa the turn of the last century). And the rest of Summer Magic is largely consumed with "slice of life" issues of the city folk learning to adapt to the country with a bunch of contrived minor plot points that barely drive small scenes forward, but not the overall story, so a detailed summary of all those sub-plots would be far too much of a waste of time.

The problem comes when the city folk adapt too quickly and so an even more extreme city cousin comes to stay with them, and that's where the film really begins to have problems tonally. Up until the extreme city cousin comes to visit, one sees the family slowly adapting to country life. The little boy who's dressed how his mother would've liked him to look in a "Buster Brown" suit, gets called a "sissy" by the rougher country boys, and so gets his hair cut, finds a dog, trades his suit in for overalls, barefeet, and a plaid shirt. In other words he completely converts to country living. Likewise the eldest sibling, as played by Hayley Mills, proves to be something of a tomboy to begin with and starts going around the home fixing it up, wearing trousers, and generally being "active". She completely converts to the values of the country as well. Well, I should say she is more "set free" by the values of the country rather than adopts them, as it's clear from the beginning of the film that she's been a secret admirer of the country and it is her idea to move there, arranging the entire family to move there. So from the beginning of the film, we're set up to expect that she'll be our "Rosalinde" figure helping everyone to change. Instead we're switched out with the old postman played by Burl Ives playing a Prospero-like version of the figure pulling all the strings--being threatened to be exposed by his nagging wife stereotype. The middle child, the musically talented son, gripes about not being able to be a "composer" in the new house, but quickly adapts to country living by taking a job driving a truck (he's supposed to be about 13 or 14 too, keep in mind) for the local postman whose son decides to go to the city to try living there for a change. Generally throughout the entirety of the film city values are derided and made fun of and abandoned, with the only person not changing so much as "adapting" being the mother, who maintains a level of city refinement and lady-like behavior in her own person, though at a reduced manner. The kids throw themselves entirely into the country is the problem, so that they become so much a part of the country that any and all sense of the story sputter out about halfway into the film. Enter in the extreme city cousin at this point to keep the film going for the rest of it. And it's here that we get the plot we should've expected from the beginning of city mouse and country mouse playing off of one another, only we're seeing it done by characters who began this film as "city mice" not too long ago. Some drama pops up with the two cousins competing for the attentions of the young newly college graduated schoolmaster (they're about 16 or 17 keep in mind--yeah that's a little creepy), and ultimately we come to the most tonally out of place scene in the film, the song: Femininity.

When I first saw the song, I took it in an ironic manner, because I just couldn't believe that we were meant to take it seriously. First off it's sung by both cousins to the country gal in order to attempt a last minute makeover on the poor girl. This comes after the two cousins have worked out their differences, but it is performed in a way as to cause you to question its sincerity (Hayley Mills rolls her eyes while singing about the joys of femininity--there's a closeup of this--and sings while wearing trousers). In that way it reminded me of the ironic strip tease song from Bye Bye Birdie also released that year, "How Lovely to be a Woman". Then add to it that I have no one in my life left who has a memory of that time period which is being portrayed on the film, and it's portraying a time most people would view as "constraining", especially if one were a woman. So if you look at this song with a more modern "genders are equal" view, it's like looking down upon an absurdity from a position of more freedom--as Frye mentioned earlier in his ironic view. Regardless of the original intentions of the song, any hint that a woman needs to "hide the real you" in order to "catch a beaux" is going to be taken by a person with my value set as being a time before "freedom came" and if the scene isn't isolating the person from the society, I'm going to take it as ironic as the characters are constrained under values "less free" than my own.

It also doesn't help either that femininity is a refined city value. And as we all know the majority of the film has been spent making fun of city values. So now to take it seriously in this moment is completely out of place and incorrect tonally to the rest of the film. Femininity is part of that "refinement" that the film has been making fun of the entire time. I'm supposed to laugh myself silly at the little boy being dressed like a "sissy", at the cousin's valuing "hand-sewn Paris clothes" over machine sewn clothes, etc. However I'm supposed to take that nice ironic poking fun of refinement and then turn around and value uber-femininity out of almost nowhere? Heck even the scene that would theoretically set this up (the cousin's wooing of the school teacher) is more of a tug of war and it isn't until the cousin stops trying too hard and starts sharing a bit more "honest" googly-eyes with the school teacher, that she wins him over. And as we all know "honesty" is good country values, while "pretension" is false city values, that's something this film makes clear, but then has to abandon in order to hold up the ideal of female pretension.

I could completely believe it to be some ham-fisting on Disney's part to reflect the kind of values he wanted presented. But because of those tonal problems, the film falls rather flat. If it had stayed with those "ironic tones" throughout the rest of the film--like for instance The Music Man depends upon, then I think the film would stand up better and probably have done better in the box office too. Had Lolly the country gal been more like Zenita, constantly coming out with "inappropriate outbursts and being overly blunt", and our heroine less of a tomboy and more "citified" to begin with (but discovering that the country has set her free rather quickly due to the relationship with the country gal friend she makes), then this might've worked, as well as be more tonally appropriate.

The biggest problem of Summer Magic is its lack of a substantial plot to drive the action of the film, with it relying on slice of life storytelling to carry it through. Slice of life storytelling is a realistic tone and the film can get by and be decent enough to watch without a plot by remaining in this tone if the story has a cohesive theme to tie all the "slice of life" moments together into a meaningful action by juxtaposing contrasting but similar situations as a kind of "variations on a theme" to use a music terminology. It's in these types of stories that the importance of tone is heightened to the extreme as there's less to "distract the viewer" so to speak, from noticing an "out of tune note" to keep up the music analogy.

So the theme of the film Summer Magic that it needs to use, if it's to get by without a plot is the entire "city versus country" idea if it's to succeed. But not only that, it needs to show in contrasting ways how this plays out with one or two country people adapting to city ideals, but mostly the city people adapting to country ideals and how they're converted you could say. You have three siblings the best way to have utilized this would've been one being completely open to the idea (Hayley Mills' character fits this well), and ultimately helps to convert the others and pull all the strings. Because she can't pull all the strings she's hampered and kept from developing in this film becoming a static character as it stands.

A second sibling converting but with a little trouble and needing guidance. You could better develop this by having the youngest be slightly reluctant to give up his nice clothes. Instead of having him in the absurd Buster Brown suit, have him in an adorable but active sailor suit which was also popular in the period and conveys a similar idea of being a "Momma's boy", but is more understandable to want to keep than say the laughably extreme Buster Brown suit. Also use this conversion as a bigger conflict between mother and son, which would naturally bring up Mom's conflict of questioning whether moving out to the country was such a great idea at all, and perhaps trying to find a way to move back, even on their limited means, to a smaller place in the city. This is how slice of life storytelling should work when there isn't a plot as one action should flow into the next as the latter being the consequences of the former, thus with the film being a string of "causes and effects".

Lastly have the third sibling, the middle one, be the stubborn one and refuse to give up city values for country values--but have him come around when he sees a country girl who his sister has "smoothed the rough edges" over to entice him into giving the country a try. Now I did little to change the story, merely shifted the focus of all the elements. All of them are already in the film, they're just employed in a different manner that just don't work together as well as they could. Get rid of the extreme city cousin and simply better develop the characters you already have.

As you can see Disney had a problem with Summer Magic more than tone, but tone was supposed to hold the story together if a sensible plot couldn't, and he fell flat on that. The Music Man by comparison is able to marry tones that might not always work too well together because it knows what rules to break and what rules not to break, thus allowing for it to be more complex than first meets the eye. Summer Magic just comes across as a mess that doesn't know what it wants to do and how to hold itself together.

Tone has importance, audiences and readers respond to it without knowing it. If something strikes them as being "wrong" or "off" they're likely to stop the story or be taken out of it. Sometimes this is the intension (especially in irony), but usually when it is, we know it is as the story and author are "winking at us" through the artwork. So tonal shifts work well for irony, but not so much for a straight up story one is trying to tell honestly and convince is really before your eyes.

Again, I say one can have an uninteresting or fairly bland plot, but in order to get a decent "grade" from an audience, one has to maintain a consistent tone. If you start out making fun of something, don't change for little to no reason at the end of the story to valuing what you've been throwing tomatoes at. Or if you are going to change like that don't throw tomatoes so much as "call the values into question" and simply test them.

The best way to know what's "acceptable" or palatable to readers and audiences? Try looking up classic stories that are similar to yours and breaking them down and seeing what makes them work. Do you have parts that a re similar or dissimilar. Do the dissimilar parts merely "diversify" your story or do they call into question themes that you generally don't find in a tone you're trying to create? Likewise, has your plot twist in your murder mystery cozy been subtly shown to be capable more than once by similar twists but not the same revealing smaller but similar variations on it?

Then after looking at good examples, then go and search out those stories that people generally discard as bad or "weird" and look through and examine them and try and figure out what made them bad. Was it a flimsy plot with no sense of unity? Was it a character misplaced? For example, one does not find Hamlet strolling through the fairy world of A Midsummer Night's Dream--Hamlet is completely out of place in that world.

Learn what's commonly held to be good and bad, and then go back and see if you approach your piece with a bit more insight than you did before. That's what everyone means when they say the best writers are good readers.