Writing Corner: Tone

Tone

The feeling that the writing produces and the style it is written in

Last week, I talked about genres, which are categories that we can put stories into, such as fantasy, romance, suspense, etc.

The tone of a story is more the feeling of the writing. Think of it like a tone of voice.

For example:

          “What are you doing?”

This sentence has one meaning from the definitions of the words, but there could be many meanings based on how we say it. Think about how this one question would change if someone said it with an angry tone or a confused tone. It is the same with writing.

How do you show tone?

Since we cannot hear the writer’s voice, we need to show the tone in different ways.

  • Word choice (using big or small words, the types of description we use)
  • Length of sentences (long sentences are more relaxed feeling; many shorter sentences together have a fast, urgent feel)
  • Subject matter or topics

Normally for Writing Corner subjects, I will give examples from famous books. However, with tone I have decided to write a simple scene in different ways to show how the tone could be different. It is about a man waking up and getting ready for a big job interview.

How many tones are there?

There are as many tones of writing as there are of speaking, so we could never list them all. However, here are a few examples.

Serious

This is the sort of tone you would find in a crime drama or a thriller. It presents facts and there is usually no overstatement. There are usually almost no funny parts.

For example:

It was 4:00am, but the butterflies in Kevin’s stomach would not let him sleep any longer. He got up and showered, welcoming the sting of hot water on his skin. He needed to be sharp. It was hard to imagine that the rest of his life could be decided in the next few hours. After drying off, he stood at the window and pushed the buttons of his dress shirt into place one by one as he watched the city come alive below him.

This kind of tone has a lot of statements of fact, either for description or action.

Light/Funny

This is the type of tone used in comedies. It is mostly shown in the action but also by describing things in a funny or quirky way.

For example:

Kevin woke up to his alarm blaring: not the you’ve-got-plenty-of-time soothing alarm but the final get-up-you-lazy-bum screamy one. Oh no! His interview was starting in 15 minutes. He jumped up, crusty-eyed and scanned for his clothes. Why had he stayed up watching Netflix all night? Dear God in heaven, where were his pants?

With this kind of writing, it is okay to break grammatical rules in order to say things in a different way. For serious writing it is best to follow all the rules, but with light writing, it is less important. For instance, using a word like “screamy”, which is not really a word but is a quirky way to say “loud.”

Dark

Just like with real darkness, a dark tone is mostly about creating an atmosphere. It is usually used for horror or suspense stories (see my post on Genres). Because of this, it is usually created through the topics or action, but also through description.

For example:

The dawn light through the curtains hit Kevin’s eye like a drop of blood. He felt for the knife on the bedside table, gripped the cold reassuring steel and cord handle. Time for the “job interview” while everyone was still groggy. As he brushed his teeth in the harsh light of the bathroom’s naked bulb, the toneless murmuring of the maniac in the next room became the soundtrack for the day.

As you can see, it is not a pleasant atmosphere. It seems dirty and dangerous as suggested by the knife, the naked bulb in the bathroom, and the maniac living next door.

Absurd

An absurd tone is sort of a cross between serious and funny. It is saying funny or crazy things but in a serious way in order to make them funnier. An absurd story is one where things don’t work the way they do in real life.

For example:

Kevin dreamed the board of directors was sitting in his bedroom, grilling him with questions. Then he woke up to find it was true. Mrs. Gillies, the CEO was perched at the foot of his bed on his pile of unfolded laundry.

“Good morning, Mr. Heath,” she said. “Welcome to your interview. We wanted to get a sense of who you were outside of the office.”

“Can I at least get dressed?” Kevin asked. The board discussed for a moment. “You are allowed one sock,” Mrs. Gillies said. She opened his sock drawer. “White or black?”

An absurd tone is mostly created by the situation (like holding an interview in the person’s bedroom) but also by little details, like the CEO sitting on his laundry pile. This helps us to picture it better and see how crazy it is. The nice thing about this type of tone is you can break a lot of rules. Just make sure there is point to what you say. If a giant pigeon was parading around the bedroom as well, it would be crazy but would not add anything to the story unless you can tie it to the interview in some way. Remember, it doesn’t have to make sense in our world, but it does have to make sense in the world of the story.

Literary

This is a higher style of writing. It often uses harder words and longer sentences and is concerned with creating an atmosphere and writing about the feelings of the characters more than writing action.

For example:

Kevin felt like his whole life had been leading to this, the culmination of all his efforts stretching back to that first time he had spelled cat (C-A-T) in kindergarten. A good school led to a good university and that led to a good job, which meant a good life. That was the mantra, but no one mentioned what happened if the chain broke: if the good university only led to years of working minimum wage jobs, while student loans and might-have-beens crowded around him to the point of suffocation.          

He sat up in bed. It was too early to get ready, but there was nothing else to do. In a few hours, he would know if it had all been worth it. He got ready mechanically, repeating the ritual he had done countless times before. But his mind was somewhere far above, watching this final stretch with the mild interest of a dispassionate observer.

The real point of this writing is to get a feeling about Kevin’s thoughts and how he feels like his whole life has led to that one interview. It is often slow-paced, using long sentences and descriptions to create a specific feeling.

Conversational

This is just how it sounds: it is writing just like you were having a conversation with a friend. This is often used for lighter subjects or funny writing, but it can be either funny or serious. It is fine to break grammatical rules more with a conversational tone since people do that all the time when they’re talking. It is also often used with the first-person (saying “I”) to give the feeling that the character is talking to the reader.

For example:

I slept in, of course. God forbid that I’m actually on time for anything, even the biggest interview of my life. I was brushing my teeth when my phone rang. It was Chuck.

You know that one friend who is terrible for you but for some reason you keep hanging out with them? That was Chuck.

“Hey, wanna go dirtbiking?”

“It’s 7:00am,” I said. “On a Tuesday. And I have that interview. You know, that thing that will make or break my career?”

“Come on!” he said. “You can squeeze in a few minutes. It’ll loosen you up for the questions.” You know that one friend who will agreed to any stupid idea you suggest? Yep, that was me.

You might notice that I use a pretty conversational tone when I write the Writing Corner posts. I don’t use hard words and I use contractions like “I’m”. I do this because it is an easy style to understand and also to try to make a connection, like we are just talking in a coffee shop.

Which tone should I use?

This really depends on two things: what would work best for the story you want to tell and what you are most comfortable with. I tend to write with a light/funny or absurd tone in my stories since that is my personality, but I like to experiment with different kinds of tones too. I would suggest you try different tones to see how it can change the story and see which works best for you.

The final thing that I will say about tone is that you should keep the same tone for the whole story. If you start serious and then suddenly go light, it can be very confusing to the reader. So once you pick a tone, don’t change it halfway through a story. That doesn’t mean you can’t have funny parts in a serious story or vice versa, but just like when you’re driving a car, don’t make the turn too fast.

Now it’s your turn

  1. Think about the tone of the next story you read. How would it be a different story if the writer had changed the tone?
  2. Movies and TV shows will often show tone by the colors and lighting that they use. The next time you watch something, try to decide what the tone is. How would you show that if you were writing a story about it?
  3. Look at the tone in a story that you have written. Is the feeling that you want the reader to have clear? Is the tone consistent through the whole story?

If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at greenwalledtreehouse@gmail.com.

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