When writing, do you think about the tone of your work and the mood it might evoke in the reader? How do you decide what structure to use? Can you decide your style, or does it evolve on its own? I recommend reading the work of Taylor Jenkins Reid and Tara Isabella Burton if you’re stuck on any of these topics as they relate to your work in progress. While you may not choose the same style/structure or tone/mood as they did, you will see how expertly they employed their choices and how successful those choices were.
Even if you haven’t heard of Taylor Jenkins Reid, you’ve definitely heard of her work. Earlier this year, the Amazon Prime x Hello Sunshine tv adaptation of her bestselling novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, was inescapable in terms of marketing. The cast and author were on a promotional tour, the fictitious band released music onto Spotify and other streaming services, and most major entertainment websites had advertisements for the show in between paragraphs. Besides the huge amount of marketing money that went into the project, why was it everywhere? Why did Reese Witherspoon choose to produce the project in the first place? I think I know the answer.
A few years ago, Taylor Jenkins Reid was a moderately successful author with multiple books under her belt, which is more than many aspiring authors can ask for, but she was not widely known outside of romance and women’s fiction readers. And then, in 2017, she released the novel that would skyrocket her career into an entirely different universe. That book was her fifth book,The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and it originally debuted to modest success before growing into a bestseller, and the start of something new in her career. With The Seven Husbands, Jenkins Reid catapulted her career into a new atmosphere. How? I believe it’s because the style of her work caught readers’ attention. With Seven Husbands, Reid started to play with structure and style in a way she never had before.
The novel is a frame story with seven main sections throughout, each section representing one of the eponymous seven husbands. The premise of the novel is simple, and intriguing. Why would aging starlet Evelyn Hugo ask flailing journalist Monique Grant to help write her biography? This secondary, but equally important, mystery drives the story forward between the husbands, and ultimately connects the women to each other in a shocking manner. In addition to the structure of the seven parts, and the frame story, the style in which Reid conveys her story is more engaging than average, especially in the age of short attention spans and limited time. This is partly because she ends each chapter on a question, or a cliffhanger, encouraging the reader to read the next section. She plays with point of view as well, teasing us about Monique and her relevance to the story. We begin in Monique’s head, as she is first called to meet with Ms. Hugo, but before we know much about her, we are thrust into Evelyn’s point of view. Throughout, we get short glimpses at Monique, and the intrigue of her character, and how she connects to Hugo’s larger story builds until everything explodes. Each of the seven main pieces is divided into short chapters that start and end at crucial points, which makes the reader need to drive forward instead of putting the book down and tending to their responsibilities. Throughout, Reid uses epistolary elements such as news article clippings to show how the media viewed Evelyn in her heyday. Reid caters to her audience as a “women’s” fiction writer, and remarks on fashion, emotions, and power dynamics between her female characters. Finally, many secrets are revealed, both large and small, that create a web of drama. All together, this lends a cinematic air to her work, as it is both experimental and reliant on our collective storytelling memory.
After the major success of Evelyn Hugo’s less conventional style, Jenkins Reid delved even further into the experiment with structure in her next book, Daisy Jones and the Six.The novel, written as a documentary about the making and unraveling of a chart topping band with a lot of internal turmoil, is historical fiction told in a modern lens. There are those who love this style (it’s me, I’m ‘those’), and those who abhor it. It’s gimmicky, sure, but it’s also brilliant. The voices of the band and their loved ones overlap each other, and even though it is all dialogue, it’s not hard to imagine the clothes, the scene, or the drug-fueled nights. Reid also includes song lyrics, so the readers can “hear” the songs the band writes.
Similar to how the reader can fill in the blanks in Evelyn Hugo with their imaginings of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, many have pictured Fleetwood Mac while reading Daisy Jones, while some of us have pictured The Civil Wars. No matter which actress or band you keep in mind, it’s genius that Reid puts her reader to work in this way. Of the dialogue-heavy style, some have argued that it is all tell, no show, but I disagree. There are hidden layers to the book, such as the ‘twist’ at the end, that give new meaning to every spoken word. As it is mostly dialogue, the story is broken into small paragraphs that your eyes rapidly move over, and there is so much action and drama, you can’t help but read ahead, even if you should be asleep. Just like Evelyn, the way the book is broken into parts means the reader will want to read each part as a whole, flying through the novel.
Although the novels are told in specific styles, they still follow traditional story structure, which lends to ease of reading. With the reader and their unconscious doing much of the heavy lifting, Taylor’s easy, pretty prose, and feisty, feminine but never frail, characters take the reader on a ride that is entertaining, emotional, and unique. After these works, TJR published a novel that takes place through multiple perspectives in only one day, and a novel that reads like a Tennis memoir. While she’s moving on from this quartet, it will be interesting to see where she heads next, now that her work has proven itself to be a balance between safety and experiment, which is a place I don’t think hurts to land when trying to attract an audience. What new angle could you approach your current work-in-progress from if you were interested in a less traditional structure?
In addition to structure and style, when writing a later draft especially, it is important to think about the tone you’d like to write in, and the mood which you’d like the reader to feel. While tone and mood can feel elusive, it is possible to make sure that you work them into your writing effectively. For example, you could use an earnest tone to tell a story about a pair of convicts who reunite between stints in jail for a torrid, doomed love affair, but use the earnestness to heighten a comic effect. Or you could use a dark tone for the same story, and throw in dark skies and storms and blood in order to make the reader feel depressed and anxious. One writer who does well with tone and mood is Tara Isabella Burton. Tara Isabella Burton is the author of one nonfiction book, Strange Rites, and two novels: Social Creature and The World Cannot Give. For our purposes, we will examine her first novel, Social Creature.
Social Creature is about a struggling young woman (Louise)who makes a wealthy friend (Lavinia) , and soon their lives are intertwining uncontrollably. Eventually, as the narrator tells us early in the book, one of them ends up dead. How can the other go on without her twin flame? In terms of motifs, the book is concerned with high society, elite colleges, poets, classical music, the opera…so at first glance it can seem stuffy and proper. But underneath, Burton uses a tone of voice that is sarcastic, voyeuristic, and sometimes sinister. This does well to make the reader understand that there is something unpleasant afoot, despite the nods to happy pursuits. The narrator also talks to the reader in a matter-of-fact tone, contrasting the strange and deadly events, which makes things a bit comical and unsettling.
Another way that Burton expertly writes tone in thrilling scenes is by using run-on sentences when Louise is thinking fast, giving us a look into her chaotic and euphoric frame of mind as the events of the novel go down. One particularly brilliant passage details Louise’s thoughts as her friends count down to midnight. “…(seven) even though Lavinia is looking at her so raptly, Lavinia is a stranger and the most surefire way of fucking it up is to open up to another person and (six) she cannot afford to be stupid – stupidity, like happiness, is a luxury, but her heart is beating so fast, like it is a hummingbird that will beat out all its breaths (five) and die before midnight but for the first time in as long as she can remember, Louise is happy, and she will spend all her heartbeats if she has to, if it means feeling like this (four)…” (23). This is clever. It can all be read without taking a breath, but the reminder of the groundedness of the present is there even as Louise’s thoughts take her away with the fairies. This is a mix of tone and mood because the narrator is conveying it in such a way that makes the reader feel it – euphoria mixed with dread mixed with, what happens next?
The mood of this novel is dark, but whimsical. The characters are destructive, adventurous, and voyeuristic and engage in debauchery to an extreme. For the reader, there is a general sense of panic and dread. One thing that sets the mood is the vocabulary. The novel is peppered with dead things, dust, and ratty clothing. When Louise first meets Lavinia, she notes, “Lavinia has flowers in all her window boxes. All of them are dead” (7). After their first night together, Louise looks down at her borrowed dress and thinks. “[this dress] which represents beauty and truth and everything good in the world and maybe, even, the existence of God, is in shreds. There are wine stains. There are cigarette holes (25). Think about the juxtaposition of that sentence – the dress is representative of all good things, and it is destroyed.
Later in the novel, there is an unplanned murder (is it unplanned?) and the wry, matter-of-fact narration contrasts the eerie horrificness of the situation: “It turns out you can’t just make a person smaller by arranging them. You have to break their bones. You have to take a hammer or an axe, or if you’re in an apartment like [redacted], an antique nineteenth-century neo-Gothic mallet that’s lying over the plastered-up mantelpiece, and crush a person’s elbows and their kneecaps until they fit” (153-154). It’s sickening, it’s revolting, it’s horrendous, and it’s also funny.
I think the best thing I can say about Social Creature, and I mean this as a great compliment, is that Baz Luhrman would make an amazing film adaptation of this novel. It is all the layers of grime on top of glamor on top of grime. It’s perfume on shit. It’s layered, like a rotting piece of wedding cake. It’s a pretty pout with rotten teeth. I highly recommend checking out this novel as well as Burton’s second, The World Cannot Give, which explores many of the same themes and captures a melancholic mood of its own.
Just like with structure, I believe mood and tone are something you can start incorporating in early drafts, that will evolve as you continue to finetune your work-in-progress. Start to think about how you want to tell the story, and why it should be told that way. Start thinking about how you want the reader to feel while reading – nervous? Excited? Aroused? Repulsed? And how can the narrator meet or contrast that feeling with their tone?
I hope that this lexicon we’ve built together is beyond helpful on your writing journey. Who are your guiding lights for each element of fiction? Let us know if you are interested in hearing about a particular element that has not been covered. Happy Writing!