A Matter of Tone

I read Mary Balogh’s A Matter of Class last night. And as soon as I got to the end, I re-read the chapters set in the “present” of the story (rather than the past interludes). Why? Because the tone of the story reads completely differently once you have reached the end and understand what is really going on.

I am still sitting here this afternoon in awe of the masterful job she did at both controlling the tone and diverting reader’s sense of what was going on by virtue of the context. She presented a scenario that, if taken at face value (which in the opening chapter of a story the reader will do, lacking any cue not to), creates one reading of everything that follows, and the double entendre of tone supports that reading. But if you reread knowing the real story, then the opening has quite a different effect.

I am just in awe. I recommend it to anyone playing with either unreliable narrators or twists that are fully supported textually but would read differently when the reader has incomplete information. It is very short and moves fast. Excellent book and going on my learning shelf in a positive way (most of the fiction on that shelf is things not to do).

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “A Matter of Tone

  1. ABE

    I hope to have accomplished the same thing in a slightly different way.

    After a lot of thought about why someone would read my particular story, I added a very short prologue, set in the style of a magazine commentary column, which tells part of the story (and gets a lot of it wrong). The prologue is set in the time AFTER the story – and I’m hoping the reader will read it, be drawn into the story to find out how it happened, and then FORGET the prologue, except as a niggling thought deep in the subconscious which keeps resetting the tone as it goes “But…”.

    Same effect: if you go back and read that prologue after you’ve finished the story, it will make a LOT more sense. I hope the reader likes it – you obviously like the effect on you of something the writer did on purpose for that effect.

    • I absolutely love a good twist when it is executed well. I wouldn’t want it to be every story (but of course that is a dumb caveat to make, no one wants all the stories they read to all be the same), and when twists of perspective are done poorly I dislike them intensely. But some of my favorite films rely on twists – Lucky Number Slevin is one that comes immediately to mind. Memento is another. I think the key with books (or films) is knowing the right moment to let it go, and also how to build the duality of meaning into the story so that both the false impression and the reality are supported, until that moment of divergence when the real story is revealed. Getting it right just pushes my buttons.

      I am intrigued by your prologue idea. It sounds a helluva lot more interesting than the prologue that’s basically a “flash forward to mortal danger and then go back to show how things got to this point,” even if it functions the same way narratively speaking (to create an immediate curiosity and sense of stakes/danger). Obviously by the end it has a second function, and is to frame the story and to prompt a revaluation of the story and the frame after the whole has been read.

      • ABE

        Exactly – I love frame stories. Well done, they transport you into an alternate reality – and then back. From the Shire – and back to the Shire. At least for Samwise.

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