I am currently reading Eleanor and Park, a YA romance; one of the interesting things about this story is the author’s choice to create a sensual tone. It’s not sexy or intellectual. The choice of tone is interesting because often a romance can devolve into physical stuff of sex.
Instead, Rowell walks a fine line between the two extremes. It’s sensual because there are physical details. For example, Eleanor notices Park’s hands:
Park’s hands were perfectly still in his lap. And perfectly perfect. Honey colored with clean, pink fingernails. Everything about him was strong and slender. Every time he moved, he had a reason.
Or Park, describing holding Eleanor’s hand:
Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.
Creating the Right Tone
The question is, of course, what tone do I want for my story?
That’s what a writer does as they read great stories from other writers: you think about what they are doing that is working so well, and how to translate that into your own stories.
Do I want a romance that is intellectual, sensual, sexy, titillating, mysterious, or something else? How do I achieve that?
First, I pay attention to the tone of my drafts. While I’m writing, I work hard to characterize, to plot, to evoke a setting. But I’m also paying attention to the word selection and how that affects tone. Sentence structure can affect tone, as can the rhythm patterns created by a combination of words and sentences.
First drafts are about approximating: you want to get close to the target of a great story. As I revise, I am refining so many things, but one of those is the right tone.
It may also mean that I do a couple trial drafts. How does a sexy tone fit with the rest of the story? How does an intellectual romance mesh with the action plot? Experimenting with different tones is sometimes essential. I know that my story should have a lot of action, and I’m comfortable with the tone I’ve created for that part of the story. But integrating that with the romance subplot is trickier this time. The goal is an integrated story, a whole story.
Tools to Create Tone
Writers have only a few tools: words, sentences, paragraphs. That’s it.
Words. Think about the connotations of each word/phrase you choose.
Sentences. While short sentences can speed up an action, long sentences can languish and slow down a story.
Paragraphs. And overarching is how the words, sentences, meaning, and connotations blend to create the right rhythms.
Most of all, don’t leave tone to chance. Decide what tone works for your story, and then work to make it happen.