I used to be a big Star Wars fan. When I discovered there were books about what happened after the second Death Star blew up, detailing the exciting adventures of Han, Leia, and other-characters-I-didn’t-like-as-much-as-Han-and-Leia-but-would-read-about-because-Star-Wars, I devoured them like only a ravenous teenager with free summers could do. But around the turn of the century, right when the series was getting a huge new push thanks to Phantom Menace, I drifted away. The new books had a darker tone, killing off beloved characters or turning favorites evil in the name of plot. It wasn’t my jam, and so my collection stagnated.
Cue The Force Awakens. Seen out of a general sense of obligation and curiosity, the fresh new characters (and return of Han Solo) reignited my dormant fandom. Anxious to learn more about Rey, Finn, and Poe, I turned towards the novelization to get my fix.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The Force Awakens novelization is surprisingly slow and ponderous where the movie was fast and exciting. It tells the same story, even adding new dialog, details, and scenes cut from the script, so why is there a such a big difference?
Sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster has written dozens and dozens of novels and short stories, including the Pip and Flinx series and movie adaptations for the likes of Star Trek, Alien, and the original Star Wars trilogy. He even wrote the very first Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. That book and its unfortunate Luke/Leia romance subplot aren’t talked about much anymore, but the man knows how to write. He has a good grasp of grammar, vocabulary, and story structure. He fully understands characterization, getting inside the heads of these very different new people to tell us how they’re feeling and why they’re reacting the way they are. What he lacks in The Force Awakens, however, is an engaging tone.
This is the beginning of Chapter 4, in which Finn and Poe are escaping from the Star Destroyer:
The interior of the TIE fighter was spotless. Droids and techs had done their work well, leaving it ready for pilot and gunner. It was a true pilot who now settled himself into the cockpit command seat. As to the other missing crew member, that remained to be seen.
Slipping free of his bloody, confining jacket, Poe examined the controls laid out before him. Some were familiar from his professional studies of First Order ships, others from perusing details of Old Imperial craft. What he didn’t recognize immediately, he felt sure he could work around. A modern fighter like this one would be naturally forgiving, its computational components engineered to compensate for pilot miscues and oversights. He was relying on the likelihood that the ship itself would automatically correct for any minor mistakes in judgment.
Minor mistakes. He still had to fly the damn thing.
Movement behind him caused him to glance back over his shoulder. Having shed his helmet, the trooper who had freed him was settling himself into the gunner’s seat and struggling to make sense of his surroundings. Poe tried to project reassurance as he punched instrumentation. A whine began to rise from the ship’s stern.
In the movie, this a very exciting scene! Finn and Poe have known each other for about five seconds, but they’re working together to try and escape a huge ship that’s going to fling everything it’s got at them in an attempt to shoot them down. Further against them are Poe’s exhaustion from torture and Finn bucking the training instilled in him from birth, yet they’re both thrilled to be free, forming an immediate bond as they fly and fight in an unfamiliar ship.
The novelization strips away this excitement by focusing on minutia. Yes, it’s interesting to know that it’s not just that Poe is an amazing pilot, he’s got computational tech on his side, but is that additional bit of plausibility important right now? No. It slows the narrative down without adding to the plot. It’s a detail better suited to the Star Wars Encyclopedia or Incredible Cross-Sections, where fans who want to know every bit about a TIE fighter’s inner workings can find that information nicely collated. And what does it matter that the cockpit interior has been cleaned by droids? Not a thing, so why is it the opening paragraph of the chapter? It’s not like there’s not going to be a scene later in the book where Poe is berated for spilling coffee on the seat; the ship is only important for the short duration of their escape.
Further bogging the pace down are extraneous adjectives. “Slipping free of his bloody, confining jacket” is simply too many syllables to spend on “Poe took off his jacket.” Innocuous on its own, when every sentence is extended like this it’s called purple prose. Not a compliment, the phrase means “text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.”
If the adjectives are truly important, why you’re using them needs to be given context. The easiest way to do this is to consider them from a character’s perspective. “His jacket was too confining for movement in the unfamiliar cockpit. Poe slipped it off as he looked over the controls, absentmindedly noting the blood that hadn’t been present before and wincing. Most of it, unfortunately, was his.” More words? Yes. Now in context of what Poe is thinking, giving the story a more intimate and engaging feel? Also yes.
This lack of connection with the characters is felt throughout the book as adjectives and minutia keep the reader at a distance. It makes the dialog jarring, particularly when the dialog is thought. “Minor mistakes. He still had to fly the damn thing,” is an entertaining line that also gives us insight into how Poe thinks. He’s reviewing what he knows and his confidence in his flying skills, but still spares a moment to think sardonically to himself that he’s not exactly home-free yet. The sentences immediately before and after, however, do not feel like they take place in Poe’s mind, and the reader must pause for a moment to put the sentence in context. Every pause where the reader must figure out what they’ve just read takes them out of the story and is a pause to remember they could be doing something other than reading your work.
So what’s the lesson?
It’s not enough just to have good grammar, good characters, and a good plot. (I know, I know – “just”!) Good presentation via tone is utterly crucial when it comes to engaging your reader. If you’re writing or editing a story, how can you spot “bad” tone and what can you do about it?
First, trust your own judgment. Are you having trouble focusing on what you’re reading? Do you find yourself constantly distracted or anxious to skip ahead? Don’t assume that’s because the story “isn’t for you.” Don’t convince yourself that while you’re not interested, the fans certainly will be. Take dull writing at face value and assume it needs to be changed. You’ll almost always be right.
Make sure every sentence contributes to the story. If it doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t be there. This is not to advocate paring your words down to bare bones, of course! There are many ways sentences contribute. They might be funny, meant to make the reader laugh. They might be part of the plot, meant to move things along from point A to point B. They might describe the characters or surrounding environs, giving the reader a sense of the space the story takes place in. But if your sentences just pad out the word count and tell the reader nothing about the characters and the plot they couldn’t have surmised themselves, cut them without mercy.
As an aside, if you find yourself too sentimental to ruthlessly leave scenes on the cutting room floor, paste them into a separate document. They’ll be there if you want them later, and you can console yourself that when you’re famous they can go in the special uncut edition. Odds are, however, that you’ll never actually need that uncut edition because once removed, you’ll realize you really didn’t need those scenes after all.
Watch the adjectives. PBS has assured me that one of the great things about books is using your imagination to picture the story. It’s a good idea to describe the desert world of Jakku when it’s first introduced, of course, but thereafter it’s okay if you don’t stop to talk about the specific kind of sand BB-8 is rolling over at any given moment. Your job is to give the reader’s imagination direction and fuel, not suffocate it in an overly defined box. A key test: would the character interacting with the described noun care that it’s [adjective here]? If not, strip it out.
Match your tone to your characters and plot. Are your characters and plot somber and serious? Then your tone should be too. Is your plot full of action? You want a tone that reads quickly. Writing a comedy? Don’t bog it down with an extended description of trees better suited to Lord of the Rings. You don’t want to give your reader mood whiplash – unless you do, in which case you still need to be cognizant of matching so you can construct your contrasts appropriately.
Keep it consistent. If you’re writing in first person, don’t suddenly switch to third. If you’re writing subjectively (telling your story through characters’ feelings and thoughts) don’t switch to objective (describing action without characters’ feelings and thoughts). Pick between omniscient or limited point of view and stick to it. If you must break from your established point of view for literary effect, clearly delineate the break from the rest of the text through a format change (italics are popular) or putting the break in its own chapter.
Tone can be one of the most difficult things to capture properly in a piece of writing, but it’s well worth the effort. If you succeed, no one will notice, and that’s exactly what you want. Good tone is invisible, keeping the story moving along without interruption and your readers hooked, unable to put your book down until they reach the end. Fixing inconsistent tone is one of the key things people are looking for when they hire an editor, even if they can’t articulate what it is they want.
In fact, you might say tone is what gives a writer their power. It’s an energy field created by all word choices. It surrounds the sentences and penetrates them; it binds the story together. Whether you prefer your tone light or dark, embrace it and let the power of engaging your reader flow through you. Only then can you consider yourself a writing master.