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How to Use Tone, Style and Pacing to Write Effectively for Focus and Readability

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Ann loves to offer advice on writing, to experiment with words and to encourage others to do so, occasionally issuing challenges of her own.

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A Question of Wording

A fellow writer asked me to pen an in-depth article about using different words at the beginning of each sentence and about the impact of tone and writing style. I had mentioned that words at the beginning of each paragraph needed to be checked for repetition and varied as much as possible for the flow of reading. A new paragraph should reflect a change of subject or a different angle.

Your choice of words builds the fabric of your story.

Tone and Style

If you look at any established author and analyse just one page of their work, you will see variation and realise what a difference it makes to the presentation, flow and impact of the text.

Repetition will make a text flat and boring. Changing the initial word of each sentence and of each paragraph, as well as varying the length of sentences and phrases, will change the overall effect.

Throw in some rhetorical questions as though the narrator is asking them even though there might be no dialogue. Think about the tone of the piece, and ask yourself if the style suits that tone and the setting of the story.

Let's look at the definitions of 'tone' and 'style' before considering some examples:

  • Tone is the way the author expresses attitude through writing. Tone can change very quickly or may remain the same throughout a story. Tone is expressed by use of syntax, point of view, diction and the level of formality in a given piece of writing.
  • Style is the literary element that describes the ways that the author uses words—word choice, sentence structure, figurative language and sentence arrangement all work together to establish mood, images and meaning in the text.

Interspersed below are quotations from famous writers offering their own observations on the art.

Wise Words from Ernest Hemingway

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.

— Ernest Hemingway

Example 1: Excerpt From 'Beggars Banquet' by Ian Rankin

Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin is best known for creating the stories about Rebus, later made into a popular television series called "Inspector Rebus". He is a writer of other novels and short stories, sometimes under the pen name of Jack Harvey.

'Beggars Banquet' is a collection of short stories by Rankin and the following excerpt comes from one of those, ‘Castle Dangerous’. Rebus is on the top of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.

We’re going to examine each paragraph. I’ve used inverted commas (“…”) for speech and quote marks (‘…’) for the excerpt, analysis of which follows this section.

‘The parapet on which he stood was incredibly narrow; again, there was hardly room enough to squeeze past someone. ('How crowded did it get in the summer? Dangerously crowded?') It seemed dangerously crowded just now, with only four people up here. He looked over the edge upon the sheer drop to the gardens below, where a massing of tourists, growing restless at being barred from the monument, stared up at him. Rebus shivered.

Not that it was cold. It was early June. Spring was finally late-blooming into summer, but that cold wind never left the city, that wind which never seemed to be warmed by the sun. It bit into Rebus now, reminding him that he lived in a northern climate. He looked down and saw Sir Walter’s slumped body, reminding him why he was here.

“I thought we were going to have another corpse on our hands there for a minute.” The speaker was Detective Sergeant Brian Holmes. He had been in conversation with the police doctor, who himself was crouching over the corpse.

“Just getting my breath back,” Rebus explained.

“You should take up squash.”

“It’s squashed enough up here.” The wind was nipping Rebus’s ears. He began to wish he hadn’t had that haircut at the weekend. “What have we got?”’

Scott Monument, Edinburgh (ref. Sir Walter Scott) has a series of viewing platforms, reached by a succession of narrow spiral staircases with views over Edinburgh & beyond.

Scott Monument, Edinburgh (ref. Sir Walter Scott) has a series of viewing platforms, reached by a succession of narrow spiral staircases with views over Edinburgh & beyond.

Analysis of the Excerpt

Look at the first word of each paragraph. The general rule that we should have a different word for successive paragraphs is followed. It’s permissible to use the same word perhaps two paragraphs later but it’s even better if they’re all different. Sometimes, however, repetition can be used for emphasis—there’s always an exception! Rankin’s use of ‘dangerously crowded’ is one such. He’s making the reader think by focusing on the phrase. Is the parapet dangerous or are there suspicious circumstances?

In the first paragraph, Rankin is drawing attention to the lack of space. The ‘again’ is a reference to Rebus having already felt vulnerable high up on the monument. This serves to highlight Rebus’ fear rather than state a fact, as the word ‘seemed’ indicates. Short rhetorical questions in his head are further evidence of this, as is the impact of the final short sentence, ‘Rebus shivered.’ It contrasts with the longer preceding sentence describing the vertiginous view; that is the scene as it appears, whereas Rebus is feeling agitated and trying to work out what really happened.

‘Shivered’ leads on to the start of the second paragraph, ‘Not that it was cold.’ Again, a longer sentence describes the weather. His thoughts are caught up with the chill wind, so much so that he forgets why he’s there until he looks down to the body below which has fallen from the platform.

The subsequent words of the policeman echo the idea that Rebus is bothered, as he seems to suggest Rebus might go over the edge (though it’s possibly a joke). Various other references in the conversation remind us that it’s chilly up on the tower and that Rebus wants to leave. This creates an atmosphere without either man having to say they are cold or talk about the weather.

Use of Tone and Style in Writing

The conversation, along with the questions that Rebus asks himself (‘How crowded did it get in the summer? Dangerously crowded?’), conveys the briskness of an investigation and of detectives trying to work out a scenario. How did the man fall? Did someone push him or was he jostled and fell accidentally? The tone is matter-of-fact. Rebus’ attitude is brusque and chill, suggested by the weather and his unwillingness to be high above ground.

The reader is presented with a sense of confusion because of the variety of scenarios and therefore is left thinking for himself as to what the outcome might be. The tone of the piece is undecided, worried, uneasy and even fearful. Questions hang over that particular scene and therefore we question as we read. The style mirrors that with short questions, repeated statements as though Rebus is going over the facts and the information before him, the brief remarks in the dialogue between the two men and the three short sentences in a row.

“Rebus shivered. Not that it was cold. It was early June.”

Using a staccato style gives an edge to the scene and makes us question it all ourselves. The use of ‘the power of three’ with those short sentences is effective. It delivers a rhythm that is satisfactory to the reader.

'Beggars Banquet' is a collection of short stories with an edge.

'Beggars Banquet' is a collection of short stories with an edge.

Example of Developing Style!

Onker - an imaginary friend.  This shows a mind full of fun and frolics, a good choice of varied words and the use of the 'power of three' - flaps.., jumps..and on the trampoline. (dictated by my 6 year-old grandson)

Onker - an imaginary friend. This shows a mind full of fun and frolics, a good choice of varied words and the use of the 'power of three' - flaps.., jumps..and on the trampoline. (dictated by my 6 year-old grandson)

Example 2: Excerpt From 'Philomena' by Martin Sixsmith

'Philomena' was made into a powerful film starring Judi Dench. It is based on a true story of a young unmarried Irish mother having her child taken from her by nuns and given away. She spends much of her lifetime trying to trace her son.

Martin Sixsmith is a BBC presenter and journalist turned author. I’m using two consecutive excerpts from Chapter 9.

Mike (the lost son) is in a chemistry lesson at high school in the USA. He knows that he was born in Ireland and adopted. He wants to find out about his (and his adopted sister Mary’s) roots because he suffers from a feeling of being incomplete, calling it a ‘blight’ on his life. The experiment Mike and his fellow students are watching involves gases swirling around in a tube:

‘But Mike’s thoughts were wandering a path of their own. The swirling gases had crystallised a notion - it had long been on his mind - that powerful invisible forces were shaping his own existence: that chance collisions and impacts over which he had no control were deflecting his own trajectory, and that their effect was to a large extent a negative one.’

He thought of the fact that

‘there were 3.5 billion people in the world; now, watching at random, frenzied collisions inside the diffusion tube, he was haunted by the notion that he could have ended up in the hands of any one of them. It was not, he said to himself, that he resented [his adoptive parents]. What upset him was the lack of any reason why he should be there: nothing made it more natural for him and Mary to be in Rockford, Illinois than to be in Peking, China. He looked at his classmates, who had real mothers and fathers, and envied them because they were where they should be, anchored in the place life had reserved for them. He could never be in that place unless and until he found his mother. The image of his life as a particle in some cosmic Brownian motion preoccupied him now; the sense of his existence rootless and spinning out of control was always with him.’

Words are a lens to focus one’s mind.

— Ayn Rand

Analogy and Analysis Within This Excerpt

Mike’s thoughts are shifting from one thing to another, as though he is sifting through his life, putting pieces together, trying to make some sense of it all.

Sixsmith uses the chemical analogy of swirling gases to convey Mike’s thoughts whirling around his head creating a chemical reaction of their own. Just as he has no control over those gases in the tube, his life up to that point has been totally out of his control. The result is also referred to in scientific terms; ‘powerful forces’, ‘chance collisions and impacts’, ‘trajectory’ and ‘negative’.

Mike connects these thoughts with the geographical fact that ‘he could have ended up in the hands of any one of [the 3.5 billion people in the world].’ He is looking at his situation from a logical, scientific, analytical point of view. That his classmates have, in his view, a reason to be in their particular families, through birth, because they are ‘anchored in the place life had reserved for them’, makes him feel as though he has no ‘anchor’, no roots, that he is merely ‘a particle in some cosmic Brownian motion’. The result is him feeling that his life is ‘spinning out of control’.

It gives us the idea that he is searching for a different universe which he cannot reach but with which he feels an affinity. It is cleverly constructed. The use of a chemical reaction that happens regardless of human intervention emphasises Mike’s feeling of having no control over his existence. We have a string of introverted reactions; Mike is alone, has no identity and is desperate to find one. This awareness of belonging somewhere else is echoed in the following excerpt.

Yeats

The subsequent scene is in an English class, where the teacher, a Catholic Sister, is reading poetry aloud to the class:

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning…”

Sister Brophy’s cracked, gentle intonation roused Mike from his sombre thoughts. He raised his head, suddenly alert. The English teacher sighed with pleasure.

“That’s one of my favourite poems by Yeats. Beautiful,” she mused. “William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and his Irish heritage features strongly in his poetry.”

Mike was dumbfounded. He had recognised something of himself in the poem Sister Brophy had read out: a smallness, a humility, a desire to escape from the life that was his prison and find the peace of elsewhere.

The bell sounded and the classroom emptied—except for Mike. Sister Trophy sat at her desk, rereading the poem with a smile on her face.

“Yes, Mike? Did you want something?”

Mike smiled eagerly.

“Do you have any other poems by … Yeats?” he ventured, slowly putting his books into his bag. Sister Brophy looked delighted.

“Why, Mike! I might have known you’d be interested…”

Mike had studied a little poetry before, but nothing like this. He spent the weekend lying on his bed, reading and rereading the Collected Poems Sister Brophy had given him. His brothers sneered and Doc [adoptive father] shook his head disapprovingly—he disliked and distrusted poetry—but Mary and Marge [adoptive mother] were enthralled by his dramatic recitations of the haunting, beautiful verse.

In the weeks that followed Sister Brophy introduced him to John Donne, Robert Frost, Baudelaire and countless others until his mind swam with gold-tinted images and his heart floated on a sea of words.’

Identity and Affinity

In this section, Mike shifts from being totally lost to finding something with which he can identify—a possibility of escape from his present situation. He begins to recognise ‘something of himself . . . a desire to escape from the life that was his prison and find the peace of elsewhere’, even before he is told the poet is Irish.

There is no successive repetition of initial words in the paragraphs but the frequent use of ‘Mike’ does occur. This reflects a shift in mood or tone from feeling lost and confused to focussing on himself, giving him a new sense of belonging, a feeling of identity and hope. His teacher devotes attention and time to him and empathises with his love of the poetry.

Dialogue breaks up the paragraphs. This in itself brings the scene to life; we are in the room. Mike is able to react to something tangible, something he can control, as in asking for more.