August 1 – 7: “Tone: does consistency counter the unexpected and suspense?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Some writing teachers suggest that tone is about attitude and that tone should be consistent throughout a book. But doesn’t consistency counter the unexpected and suspense? This week we hear from Elaine Viets and John F. Dobbyn discussing tone.




brain stormAward-winning mystery writer Elaine Viets has written 29 mysteries in three series. The Art of Murder is her fifteenth Dead-End Job mystery. Brain Storm, the first book in her Angela Richman, Death Investigator series, debuts August 2 as a trade paperback, e-book and MP3 CD.




fatal oddsFollowing graduation from Harvard College and service in the United States Air Force, John F. Dobbyn obtained a Juris Doctorate degree from Boston College Law School, and a Master of Laws degree from Harvard Law School. While teaching law as a professor at Villanova Law School, the author published 25 short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Four novels in the Michael Knight/Lex Devlin series have been published by Oceanview Publications – Neon Dragon, Frame Up, Black Diamond, and Deadly Diamonds, with the fifth, Fatal Odds, to be published on August 2, 2016.



  1. Tone is the author’s attitude toward her material. This attitude should remain consistent. A mean SOB should not nobly sacrifice himself when the novel ends – unless that same tough guy has always had a noble side, and the author has given readers glimpses of it. That keeps the tone consistent. Whether that’s a corny ending is another question.
    Characters need to be consistent. A suburban dad can’t suddenly turn into an AK-47-toting maniac when his baby is kidnapped if he’s never picked up anything more lethal than a WeedWacker. The author has to show us the suburban shlub has had some Special Forces training in the military. Then that novel can be consistent as well as suspenseful
    In BRAIN STORM, Angela Richman is a death investigator in wealthy Chouteau Forest, Mo., home of the one-percent and those who serve them. After a tragic death investigation of a teenager, Angela goes to the ER with migraines, where she is misdiagnosed by Dr. Porter Gravois, a Forest insider. Angela has six strokes and is saved by a brilliant outsider, brain surgeon Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt. While Angela is in the hospital, Gravois, the doctor who misdiagnosed her, is murdered and Tritt is arrested for his murder. Drug-addled, hallucinating Angela fights to save the man who saved her.
    The tone of this novel remains consistent: Angela Richman is a fighter and she is a death investigator. Brain surgery and various drugs have affected her thinking, but to recover – and regain her identity – she reacts the only way she knows how. She uses her death investigator training.

  2. Two facets of a thriller novel that should never be confused – and frequently are – are “tone” and “voice”. Depending on which is the subject of the posed question, the answers are complete opposites. In my view, “tone” is uniquely relevant to each individual scene. In Fatal Odds, I write some scenes that are strung with tension in which the life or death of the protagonist is clearly at stake. The “tone” deliberately stretches the sense of fear and danger as tightly as I can stretch it. To keep that “tone” at the breaking point throughout the novel would be not only exhausting for the reader – it would ultimately be monotonous and boring. Can’t have that. Therefore the “tone” is broken many times throughout the novel by scenes colored with humor, love, factual background, etc. while hopefully never losing the pace of the novel.

    “Voice”, on the other hand, is what is unique to every one of us who write. We may thoroughly admire Hemingway, Grisham, James Lee Burke, but if we “copy” their “voices” we lose the one reason for our writing our own novels – i.e., to give the readers that which is totally unique to our take on what is happening with our characters. “Voice” therefore should be completely faithful to the personal style of each of us throughout the novel.”

  3. Many times we have had these discussions on our radio show and in the magazine. I agree that you can’t suddenly turn a suburban dad into a Black Ops specialist, but I think that fans love seeing the ordinary guy or girl be put into extra ordinary situations and have to figure out exactly how to get out of it. That said also, if my child was kidnapped and I didn’t have the expertise in weapons training, that is probably something I wouldn’t go after, because it is not at my disposal. I would have to use the knowledge and skills I have, along with relationships with other characters to help me. Never, ever underestimate the power that a secondary character can have in the story. The biggest problem that characters have in stories is that of convenience. It seems that when they run into a problem it doesn’t take them long to solve it because everything is convenient. Solutions seem to appear out of thin air. If they need a key, Wham! there it is on the table. If you need a knife, Wham! they just so happen to find one under the couch. It’s things like that that kill the flow and consistency of the story. It’s a very fine line on how to bring a character along in a story with sub-par skills needed to finish the job. I think an author can be lazy by simply adding a depth to a character like military training, just so the author can complete the story. I find that way to convenient. You need to be true to your characters and not diminish them in a way that is cheating the reader.

  4. I agree, John, about those convenient finds, but I don’t think it’s lazy to give a character military training. That’s legitimate and says a lot about that person: his or her determination to serve the country, or to escape a life at home that offers few opportunities. It depends on how the writer creates the character. The good guy protagonist and his psycho sidekick who does the killing for his friend is a different kind of cliche, and one that should be avoided

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