How To Establish Tone When Writing
FIRST A DEFINITION
If I wanted a synonym for “tone” I could choose from mood, style, voice, cadence and even inflection. They are all lovely little words and worthy of applause in their own right, but they are terribly lacking for the purpose of this article. No, I think “tone” deserves so much more.
Tone refers to a writer’s attitude about his subject. Is the writer in a light mood? Is he serious or reflective or annoyed? Is he giddy or bored, in love or ready for a break up with the topic?
Since our moods can be affected by seemingly everything we experience during a day, we as writers need to be careful that the mood of our writing is the mood we want to convey. If your husband annoyed the hell out of you this morning, and then ten minutes later you sat down to the computer to write, you have to make sure that your piece is not affected by your reaction to that lazy good for nothing husband of yours.
Conversely, if you just won a $5000 giveaway at your local supermarket and then you sit down to write about the death of a loved, one, it might take a bit of work to match tone to the writing.
Writers are only armed with their words to create tone or mood. We do not have lighting or music to build tone, but we do have the ability to create conflict and surprise, imagery and suspense. We can create a lighthearted atmosphere or we can create somber, and the creation of the proper tone can make the difference between a successful piece of writing and one more for the trash heap.
So, how do we improve our tone while writing? Well these suggestions just might help you.
AVOID BEING PREDICTABLE
I wrote a short story once about poverty, but I never once mentioned the subject. The story was called “My New Friend” and it was about a six year old playing with her new pet…..and as the story unfolds we find that the new pet is a rat that visits the child every day in her tenement home in the poor side of the city. The tone early on was very playful and conveyed a little kid having so much fun with this new playmate….and I think the contrast between that idyllic setting and the reality of her life was very effective.
I remember a scene from Stephen King’s book “Carrie” where Carrie is at the big dance with flowers in her arms and a crown on her head, and this beautiful music is playing and she has finally achieved her dreams of being accepted and loved….and then someone dumps a bucket of blood on her head, and then things get very scary from then on. The contrast was magnificent and perfectly set the tone for the death and destruction that was about to happen.
Write your piece once and then consider what an unpredictable approach might do for you.
LOOK FOR CONSISTENCY
The unpredictable approach might work for a random scene or a part of a chapter, but try to remain consistent throughout your entire piece. Otherwise your readers will be in need of a valium by the time they are done.
If you are writing a thriller then the mood needs to be thrilling. Romance novels have very few dark moments of horror; they are, after all, romance novels and as such their main focus….their main tone…is romance.
Of course you may have a shift in tone momentarily, but just don’t let it happen over the entire life of your work.
EDIT WITH A SURGEON’S SCALPEL
If your goal is to lose tone and thus lose the reader’s interest, then by all means go off on some tangent that has nothing to do with the story or the tone. The child brushes her teeth and flosses meticulously….the little dog rolls around in the grass trying to rid herself of fleas….the sales clerk counts inventory……WHO CARES????
All writers write a certain amount of garbage. Be honest and admit it. Your goal when editing or proofreading is to find the garbage that detracts from the tone and delete it quickly and without remorse.
CREATE AND MAINTAIN TENSION
Tension gives life to a piece of writing, and readers love tension. We have the protagonist and the antagonist, and the conflict keeps readers turning pages for hours.
No, I’m not talking just about novels. Think of some of your favorite columnists….many constantly mention their “clueless husband” or “ditsy wife” and the column is built around their conflict.
Interesting thoughts on tone
Great article on tone
RE-READ WITH 20/20 VISION
What tone did you want in your piece? When you are done writing, go back over it with that question in mind. If there is a section that does not have that tone then re-write it.
Better yet, find a paragraph that perfectly portrays the tone you wanted and then figure out why it does….and then emulate it in the rest of your piece.
USE INTRODUCTION TO SET THE TONE
I have talked so much about this and yet seemingly nobody is listening. Your introduction sets the tone for the entire piece of writing, and you have ten seconds to set a tone the average reader will be interested in. Ten seconds!
Even a recipe can be interesting if you do your job in the introduction. Let me repeat that: even a recipe can be interesting, and yet how many recipes have I read that are so boring they are like watching paint dry? Countless, and I’m sure this week I’ll read more of them.
Do you want to write an interesting article or a boring one? The introduction will set the tone that will stay with the article through to its conclusion.
DON’T FORGET THAT CONCLUSION
I have been teaching creative writing to high school and middle school students for quite a few years, and one lesson to them never changes…..the conclusion must refer to the introduction so that you tie up the article in a nice neat package.
Use your conclusion to reinforce the tone you seek. The last paragraph or two can be a powerful tool, or it can be a dull ending to a dull piece. It is your choice which it will be.
USE DESCRIPTIONS TO SET TONE
You can write that it was a hot day, or you can describe the sweat dripping from the brow and the heat waves shimmering off of the asphalt. One way is a statement; the other is a physical experience.
Details make all the difference. If I am writing an article about sex trafficking, I can give you statistics, or I can describe the feelings of helplessness and invasion when a child is snatched off of the streets and trained to be a sex toy. Which do you think conveys a more powerful tone?
WRAPPING IT UP
Writing is not just about words. If it were then anyone with a computer and a dictionary could be a writer. No, writing is about feelings and settings and yes, tone. It is our job as writers to engage the reader, and we do that using the plethora of tricks that we have at our disposal. It would be a shame to leave some of those tricks in our bag the next time we write a piece, leaving the reader wanting more but sadly out of luck because we didn’t deliver the goods.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”
Questions & Answers
What does it mean to EDIT WITH A SURGEON’S SCALPEL? I am really confused so if you can help me that would be amazing thanks. By the way, I am sorry I did not want to write that comment my brother took and found another person's comment and put it there.
Pretty colorful phrase, don't you think? I was trying to drive home the point that fluff is unnecessary and can actually hurt a novel. Cut out the harmful stuff (fluff) and make sure everything in the novel is necessary for the novel.