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SEPTEMBER 15, 2010
Find more At Leisure with Joyce Saricks
When I was updating Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library (ALA Editions, 2005) in 2004, I was beginning to recognize the importance of tone and mood in the appeal framework. However, I wasn’t ready to write about them then. That’s the problem with writing books: they remain static, even though the author’s thinking moves forward. Now, after presenting dozens of workshops and classes and reading hundreds of books, I’m ready to give this element the credit it deserves.
Appeal factors—pacing, characterization, story line, setting/frame, tone/mood, and style/language—allow us to deconstruct a reader’s experience of a book. Appeal helps us understand what makes a book popular, allows us to suggest books more easily, and encourages us to cross genres and subjects as we connect books with the right readers. For example, if a reader loves elaborate frames—everything from details of Indian culture to Regency England—we might suggest a variety of books in several genres that include extras in general or details specific to a reader’s interests. That’s how appeal works.
Tone/Mood really isn’t a new element to anyone who has shared books. In their seminal exploration of the role of mood in reading (“Readers’ Advisory: Matching Mood and Material,” Library Journal, February 15, 2001), Mary K. Chelton and Catherine Sheldrick Ross acknowledged the importance of a reader’s mood in selecting books. Asking “What are you in the mood to read?” should be automatic in all readers’-advisory conversations.
Certainly, we need to be aware of and ask about what our readers are in the mood to read. However, mood and tone also work in another way: books frequently project a tone that resonates with readers. Or doesn’t.
Mood is vital, and in terms of appeal, it ranks with pacing as one of the most important factors. More often than not, pacing and mood determine whether a reader takes a book we suggest. These elements are tricky, as they’re not something readers automatically think about when they’re looking for something to read. Mood is the feeling we get when we read a book; it’s the tone the author projects. A comfortable tone conveyed in the first few pages can often tell us that the book we’ve just begun will be a heartwarming tale. Or we might feel uneasy from the very first sentences, confident that something bad will happen, and this sense of foreboding builds as we read.
How do we identify the tone of books? Generally, as we read, we recognize clues and can see how the author creates his or her tone: with humor or tension, with familiar or exotic details that may add to our sense of unease or to the edginess in the story, with nightmare visions or familiar, homespun images. In the second edition of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (ALA Editions, 2009), I had an opportunity to apply what I had learned and to write in detail about the role tone and mood play in 15 different genres.
In some genres, tone is the most important source of appeal. That’s certainly true in genres that speak specifically to the emotions: romance, horror, gentle reads, and books about women’s lives and relationships. In horror, tone dominates; the point of the story is to create an emotional response in the reader, and that is done by setting up an inescapable sense of foreboding and menace. In contrast, gentle reads are books that touch the heart. Nothing bad happens here, and that sense of security attracts fans. Both romance and titles about women’s lives and relationships offer a comfortable, satisfying feel, even if they deal with difficult situations. These are books that speak to the heart, and the tone reflects that.
Other genres depend on tone as well. The last suspense novel you read probably started with a prologue that left you hanging while the story circled back and built to that climax again. That’s tone. In fact, adventure, romantic suspense, and thrillers also generally project a dangerous tone; readers are kept on the edge of their chairs waiting to see how protagonists extricate themselves from deadly peril. We see the role of tone across the genres, from the mental nightmares generated by psychological suspense (remember Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island?) to the elegiac tone of some fantasy novels (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) and many westerns (Elmore Leonard’s Hombre). Once we start looking, we see it everywhere.
While tone and mood may be more easily identified in fiction, they appear in nonfiction as well. Take Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. We know from the first pages that the fishing boat never returns, that it’s caught by a deadly storm, and that none of the crew survives. That knowledge sets the tone from the very beginning, adding a haunting layer of melancholy that suffuses the book—and our reading experience.
We encounter mood and tone when we read (and listen to) books, read reviews, or hear readers describe the books they’ve enjoyed. We see it reflected on book jackets—compare Stephen King’s The Cell, with its striking image of a bloody cell phone, to Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, with its image of an exotic yet comfortable setting. As we do with all other aspects of appeal, we collect these images and share them with readers when we describe books. We talk about the menacing atmosphere that builds suspense, the feeling of uncertainty that drives horror, the sweetness of the heartfelt relationships in romance.
Keep an eye out when you read and an ear alert when you listen to readers describe the books they love. Think about your reaction to television series and movies and why you like them. I had trouble watching The Hurt Locker because the mood was so intense, edgy, and dangerous that it simply took my breath away. That’s mood, and that’s why it’s such an important factor for so many readers, as well as viewers. What kind of mood are you in the mood to read?
Joyce Saricks is the author of Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, second edition, from ALA Editions.