There’s a question that sometimes comes up when I’m talking with other writers and which leaves me at a bit of a loss when it’s turned on me, do you think about tone when writing? I have trouble answering this question for my own writing because I do, but then I don’t.
When I think about tone is when I’m mulling over whether an action fits the character its been ascribed to, whether my narrator would actually say something that I’m having him or her say. When I don’t think about tone is pretty much the rest of the time. I don’t think, “I want to write a really dark story,” or, “this is getting too dark, I need to put something funny in to lighten it up a bit.” I just think, “does this fit with the character or the plot?”
I write a lot of stories that have dark themes or elements to them, but they’re usually not all darkness. Likewise, I’ve written a few really light, funny stories, but those aren’t non-stop laughs. I try to balance my stories, even though I’m not often conscious of this balancing as I’m writing.
It should be obvious that when I say balance, I don’t necessarily mean total parity. It’s not a laugh for a moment of darkness and vice-versa. If I’m telling a dark story, I’ll have the odd humorous turn of phrase or snatch of dialog, but the darkness will still be the dominant theme, and, if I’m doing my job right, it’s those major bits which will stick in your mind more than the joke that found its way in somewhere on page four.
When it comes to humor, balance is just as important. I get bored by stories or comics where it’s clear to me that the author was trying to squeeze in a laugh everywhere that light showed through the cracks. I don’t want to be laughing every second, and the places that I’m not laughing are often as important as the laughs themselves. Sir Terry Pratchett is the master of balancing humor with content. No, they’re not all laughs, and some of them, especially his more recent works, have been quite dark, but he knows how to sneak a laugh in right where it will surprise and satisfy me most.
Swinging back to the darker end of the spectrum, H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe exemplify the horror genre, which urban fantasy takes some cues from. Though neither of them has written anything that I would call particularly humorous, they both knew how to lighten up their stories to keep them from becoming overly oppressive and dark. Yes, they did often try to make readers uncomfortable, but they could back off, too, so that readers aren’t driven away completely.
The lesson to be learned from these authors is to stay true to your stories. A good story should know how to balance itself and should be able to tell you when you’re straying from the natural progression of things. Likewise, your characters should know who they are, and they should keep you from putting words which are untrue to them in their mouths. This all might take a few drafts, but that’s all part of the process. Just don’t let your characters get away from you and start taking control; that’s another matter for another entry, though.