I just invented a new term in fiction! Unity of Tone.
(Okay, I invented it until I Googled it. Turns out other people invented it too. Darn other people. Although, everyone is using it in different ways. Well, I’m right, in case you’re wondering. After all, I should know because I did invent it.)
What is it?
Unity of Tone is the essential tone evoked across all craft-of-writing elements and native to them (part of their creation), including character, plot, “how the story’s told”, language, dialogue, and so forth.
(“So forth” makes me sound so grand, don’t cha think?”)
How does it work?
I read a wonderful mystery (which I mentioned before!) by the brilliant Steve Thayer. The novel’s called Wolf Pass, and it’s set in 1962 with flashbacks to WWII, because the two stories are linked.
The plot is summed up on the back cover:
A railroad engineer is shot at long range by an unseen marksman–and soon afterward, his sexy young wife meets a similar fate.
Deputy Sheriff P. A. Pennington–a former Army Ranger sniper–falls under immediate suspicion. But he has a suspect of his own.
Though he hasn’t seen the man since World War II, Pennington is convinced that an old wartime nemesis–Nazi colonel Christian Wolfgang Strangl–is to blame. Back then, it was Pennington’s sharpshooting that disrupted the operations of a crucial Bavarian railroad pass commanded by the colonel.
Now it’s 1962–and the Wolf is at the door….”
The Charleston Post calls it a “wild ride” and USA calls it “quirky and refreshing,” but it is NONE of these. These don’t describe the tone at all.
The NYT has it right when it says,: “A graceful stylist,” but that leaves you thinking it might be graceful in the way of the Old South.
What I remember is the tone of bleakness, the lyrical language reflecting the mood of being “shell shocked” and kind of “broken.” Everything and everyone is tenuous, as if life and death might accidentally collide and death would easily win.
Both the past and the present are frozen in time, just waiting for the violence to shatter the present moments that existed then and still exist now.
I remember how the main character seemed to hold all of humanity, all the loss and preciousness of life, in his heart and yet at a distance, as if that’s how you survive it better. And that’s how the town had survived. In fact, it’s how the world had survived the war.
This story could’ve been told using many different tones. The main character would’ve had any temperament. The dialogue could’ve flowed along using any number of rhythms, sensibilities, or lines of discussion. And the setting could’ve been anywhere in the whole world.
So how does what I remember as his Unity of Tone line up with his choices?
Let’s look at some specifics.
1) Unity of Tone in Setting
Thayer chose Wisconsin for it’s distance from much of the US population and for the history that ties the story together.
Back during WWII, the town, Kickapoo Falls, had a Nazi detention camp, Camp McCoy.
This history, this distance, this isolation from progress are important to every aspect of this story, as is the tenuousness of the people found here and disappearing rural life you fight hardest for.
Thayer describes the setting like this:
In all my life the hills never changed. They were born of glaciers, mountains of ice that reached two miles high. <snip> But too often over the years, unmitigated evil found its way into those beautiful hills. Then violence would shatter this hushed and peaceful world, and spill down into the villages nestled in the valleys. Like my hometown.
2) Unity of Tone in Inciting Incident
Here’s the scene of the crime that sets off the chain of events:
I found Frank Prager hanging out of the cab of his steam locomotive, like a sodden rag doll. A swath of blood, dark and red, stained the entire side of the cab, blacking out the white of the locomotive’s four digit numbers. A semicircle of railroad workers stood before the train station in Kickapoo Falls, like statues in the midmorning sun. Shocked. Silent. Grieving.
Our protagonist is acting almost like an undertaker witnessing the inevitable existence of horrible death.
The author could’ve taken this same event, same approach to the body and had it play out with him complaining of the smell or talking to one of the men there.
Instead, it’s a grim, silent task. It’s horrible because he knows it’s horrible and is essentially saying it’s wrong for this man to be hanging out a window. It’s wrong for him to look like a sodden rag doll.
3) Unity of Tone in Character Description
Here’s how the character describes himself:
John Donne said no man is an island. Still, I came damn close. I spent my life alone, surrounded by turbulent waters. Breaking waves. Too often over my long and storied career I went knocking at death’s door, only by the grace of God to be turned away at the last second. I never married. Had no children. I was a witness to love, but never a participant.
He could’ve decided to describe himself as a good shot and someone who liked to eat oatmeal for breakfast. Instead, he describes the alienation of death and people.
4) Unity of Tone in Dialog
Here’s the dialog between our protagonist and the dead man’s wife, notifying her of the death.:
She was wearing a sky blue blouse with tight-fitting slacks. The blouse was untucked. Bare white feet stuck out of those black slacks. It was the outfit of a woman refusing to believe the summer season was nearly over. “You’re not going to quit on me, are you,” she asked, “now that you’re the favorite altar boy of the Pope and the President?”
“Lisa . . .”
“That’s what people around town are calling you, you know . . . Pope Pennington.”
“Lisa, I’m here on business.”
“Pope business?” She laughed. “Oh c’mon, now, I’m Catholic, too.” Lisa wanted to play. I wanted to cry. “Frank is a heathen,” she said, “but I’m still a good little . . .” She could see from the blank stare on my face that I wasn’t joking. “What kind of business?”
“Lisa, Frank is dead. Somebody shot him down at the train station. I couldn’t be more sorry.” It was an all-purpose cliché I’d picked up on the job. Not that I didn’t mean it; I did. But I found it froze people. Neutralized them. I used it on homicides. Traffic fatalities. I said it again, “Lisa, really I couldn’t be more sorry.”
Notice how humor is attempted and her initial description is used to generate the idea that evil is ripping away innocence. You can’t joke it away. You can only be sorry.
It’s a burden to know that things don’t last, that death happens and you can only be sorry. And it’s a bigger burden to know that you know this. It would make any of us feel broken.
All as One.
So in this way, Unity of Tone allows this whole book to carry a unified message, feeling, and sensibility. At each turn, the plot and actions feel secluded, meaningful, poignant, and chilling. The characters are the tone brought to life.
The combined effect reverberates as if listening to a single bell over a frozen landscape and not being able to tell the ring from the echoes it generates, because everything is important. Everything meaningful is being lost.
What do you think?