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.