Monday, June 30, 2008
Last night I joined some friends at the stage show, Mamma Mia, and learned something interesting about context in our writing.
For anyone who isn't familiar with Mamma Mia, it premiered nearly a decade ago on the London stage and has been an international smash ever since. While the plot has nothing to do with the 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA, the group's music fuels the energy in the story about a young woman's search for her real father. The movie version releases in a few weeks, and it looks fantastic in the trailers.
Now about that context thing. I was never a big fan of ABBA's music when they were a hot pop group, but the other night I was completely thrilled with the harmonies and vitality in the songs. Of course, I was a teen in the 70s and way too cool and deep to embrace giddy, hooky songs like "Waterloo" and "Dancing Queen." But I think the music's positive effect on me last night had less to do with my no longer being the slightest bit cool and more to do with the context of the music.
In a recent interview Judy Craymer, Mamma Mia's producer, said she thought ABBA's music was "very theatrical." She thus got the idea to create a musical around the songs.
Yes. That's why the show hooked me while the albums had not. When presented in the context of a Broadway musical, the songs rang true. They might not have suited the rock 'n' roll era (in my know-it-all teenaged opinion), but they were perfect for the anticipated tone of the theatrical stage.
And so it must be in our writing. When we decide to write in a particular genre, or about a particular era, or to a particular reading audience, we need to consider the tone of our writing. If we fail to match our tone with the setting, something's going to ring false for the reader. I recently read a blog post by author Camy Tang in which she described her need to switch from the "chick-lit mindset" of her first three novels to a more suspense-riddled tone for her new romantic suspense manuscript.
How can we be sure our tone hits the mark? We immerse ourselves in "the mark." We read books in the genre we're targeting. We watch films set in the timeframe and atmosphere to which we aspire. We plunge into examples of tone done well until its nuances rub off on us. Until it feels natural to write in a particular way for a particular effect. We rush to our computers and pour it all out until we need further immersion. Then we share our work with critique partners and ask them to tune a keen ear for proper tone.
This may sound like common sense. But sometimes we simply don't understand why something sounds wrong until we hear it done right.
And the flip side of this context thing? Maybe you write best in a particular tone and should change genres to match your best writing voice. The tone of the ABBA songs wasn't changed; the genre was, from Rock to Broadway. If you simply write best in a particular tone or voice, you might want to consider changing your genre. But that's a song for another day.
What about you? What's your current genre, and what are the nuances of your writing that fit your genre? Your comments could help others.