Here's what I know – the tone of a book is vital. It sets expectations from the very first page and answers some basic questions your reader is asking:
- What is this story about?
- How is it told?
- Will it be happy? Sad? Funny?
- Who is it for? (in the case of children's books, what is the age range?)
- What genre does it sit within?
- Will it end well?
If the author has set the tone appropriately, you should be able to answer all of those questions from the first page of a book. It sounds fantastical, but try it now – pick up a book you've never read and look at the first page. You'll find a huge amount of contextual information in and around the words themselves. You'll also probably know whether you want to read on.
There's a certain alchemy to setting tone, and I'm not sure I can help you much with achieving the right balance. When the tone of a book is right, we just accept it, suspend disbelief and sit back to enjoy the ride. But when the tone is wrong, it niggles. Tone is like a contract between the author and the reader, an agreement that the writer knows what they are doing and that the reader is happy to go along with them. To master tone, the standard advice for writers applies - you need to read as widely as you can, watch quality TV, seek out good (and sometimes bad) movies. Basically, see how other people approach that tricky balancing act.
So where's my problem in all this? Simple – I love screwing with tone. I love to have a scary scene that bleeds into funny, or a slapstick scene that suddenly becomes serious. I think these kind of tonal shifts are immensely effective for jarring and surprising your audience, indeed the entire oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino is based on this kind of tonal trickery. The problem is that audiences don't always want to be jarred and surprised. I loved the shift from noirish crime drama to goofy vampire splatter in From Dusk Till Dawn, but a lot of people hated that movie.
Another problem about playing with tone is that it is hard. You need an intuitive feel for how far you can bend the rules, and it's always easier to satisfy a mass audience by writing a straight-down-the-line narrative. Not as satisfying, but definitely easier.
An alternative to shifting tone is to try to build an overall tone that feels very personal to you, something fresh and new. William Goldman was a pro at this - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a groundbreaking take on the western and The Princess Bride (both in book and movie form) is sublime. A more recent film that has its own unique flavour is In Bruges, which mixes gangster drama and black comedy with a surreal, almost metaphysical tone. But it works brilliantly, and I think it does so because it gives the audience both what they want (chases and bloody shootouts) and what they don't know they want (oddball character comedy in a medieval walled city). On paper, it shouldn't work, but onscreen the blend comes off, and that is down to the skill of the writer-director and his cast.
There's a section at the end of William Goldman's book What Lie Did I Tell? where he writes a screenplay specifically to show us the process, then sends it to his Hollywood friends for their opinion. Tony Gilroy, the writer of the Bourne movies and director of Michael Clayton is especially scathing about the tone of the piece. He loves to break the rules of structure, he says, but
"Tone scares me."
I can empathise with that. But somehow, I'm just itching to mess with it some more...