The language of fiction and tone

La Punta de los Lobos. The sea unfurls at the Point of the Wolves. On a spit of land further south a lighthouse rises four hundred feet into fog; in the lantern room hawks and seagulls and pelicans ghost by at eye-level and grazing cattle on velvety-green fields float magically through air.

Keeping the reader in the fictional world demands you use language that doesn’t call attention to itself and detracts from the story, but language will establish the tone of your story and more. It will become the story you write. The wolves of Pt. Lobos on the Big Sur coast of California are sea wolves, sea lions, so said the Spanish. So what do you think sounds more intriguing? Sea lions or wolves?

If you use slangy language, you set the tone for your story, and if you use more formal language, this, too, sets tone. As for the language of beauty, look at the second sentence of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient:  “There is a gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air.” Buckle. Who ever described wind that way?

If you want to write a beautiful story, use beautiful language, but only if it doesn’t take the reader out of the fictional world. Language should fit the story you want to tell and will show readers who your characters are. It means describing something in a unique or evocative way, without using cliches. Above all, language should be clear and direct. You want the reader to understand. Direct language means using an active voice and grammar that makes sense, whether it’s correct grammar or not. Don’t question the grammar of D.M. Thomas’s hypnotic The White Hotel.

As vision is to film, language is to written story. Language should be employed to its greatest effect, to serve story and character, and the tools of language are many. A few examples: repetition to build cumulative power; short sentences to convey suspense; long, dream-like sentenaces to convey the surreal, a period here instead of a comma (stronger); hyphenated adjectives (“wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn,”) or, no language at all. Silence can often convey something better than words. When language is wedded to the reader’s imagination, you’ve taken a step in bringing the reader into the story so that the language itself becomes seamless. More on this later.

Use language to set tone

Category: Art & Craft | Tag: | Bookmark.

Comments are closed.