By Meagan Jones
The “Writer’s Workshop” blog posts are meant to be a collage of writer’s tips, tricks, and strategies, including the first steps to publishing, writing prompts, strategies for writer’s block, and a general jumble of ideas to help you in your quest to create and publish.
Tone. Tone, tone, tone. When I began writing this, I tried to think of tips my writing professors had given me to help establish tone. Of course, I came up with nothing. Brains work like that, I guess. Though I’m not completely sure I remember a time we really went over it in class in detail – it was just something everyone seemed to struggle with, yet no one seemed to have any solutions.
According to Merriam-Webster, tone is defined as
“vocal or musical sound of a specific quality,”
“accent or inflection expressive of a mood or emotion,”
“style or manner of expression in speaking or writing,”
“general character, quality, or trend,”
…and those are just a few (seriously – Merriam-Webster has like, ten separate definitions in there). What I’m going to be focusing on most, though, is the last one. Specifically, the last word: trend.
It’s the trend that you want.
In my experience, it is easy to establish a tone in a couple sentences, but keeping the tone is another story. Personally, I can come up with the first lines of many different types of stories, each with their own tone. The first couple sentences are often the ones I feel the most confident in, because for me at least, it’s the most accurate example of the tone I wanted to convey throughout the whole piece. It’s often the rest of the story where I become unsure.
Here is an example of a first paragraph:
I’d said no. I’d been the one to decide. I’d rejected her, and that was that. It wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t the right place. It wasn’t the right me. I’d looked into the future and seen it. Seen myself. I couldn’t put her through that. I couldn’t put her through the same thing Mom had to do with Dad. So I’d let go. Or tried to. And I hated myself for it.
What is the tone there? If I’m analyzing my own work, I’d have to point out the short sentences. As this paragraph is written, it feels short. Choppy. Quick. See? I’m doing it again.
Establishing a trend is good for tone (though I wouldn’t recommend using such short sentences all the time in the long term). The tone itself is what gives the most information about the story to the reader.
To get down to it, the tone is what the author brings to the table. It is the author’s perspective and the author’s style. Another example: if you look at all my blog posts up until this point, what type of tone do you think that I’ve established? I’d like to think that my tone for these posts has remained fairly consistent, if anything (I’ve established a trend). Pick out parts of my writing that you think make my posts, well, my posts. Chances are, those things you find might be very important to the tone I’ve established.
While researching for this post, I came across a lot of articles that provide suggestions on how to “fix” one’s tone. A couple of the top ones I’ve seen seem to confuse the reader’s perspective with the writer’s perspective. They cite a sign of a story flopping in terms of tone as when a reader’s attention span wanes, which, in my opinion, is far off from the truth.
DON’T THINK ABOUT THE READER WHEN ESTABLISHING TONE.
It’s not a good business strategy. Readers are all different. It’s sometimes possible to figure out if a story’s tone flops if the reader is getting bored, but it’s not necessarily the author’s fault. Incidentally, the reader’s perspective should be more commonly referred to as the “mood.” The tone is what the writer creates. The mood is what the reader gets from it.
Thus, we can conclude that we shouldn’t worry about the reader when worrying about our tone. But then, what should we do?
I’ll admit that I struggled a lot with this question. It’s hard to directly manipulate tone. In truth, when I write these posts, I try not to think about tone (though I think about it a lot in revision). Sometimes, you’ve just got to let it happen. Listen to that little voice in your head that tells you how to write. The best solution, I think, is to really get into the mindset of your narrator, and just let the words flow.
But here’s some smaller, more basic strategies to manipulate tone, especially in revision:
- Write your sentences in different ways. Make them shorter, or longer, or switch up how you describe things. You can write “It was windy” in many different ways.
- Think about how the characters are supposed to be feeling in the piece. If the narrator is one of those characters, how are they feeling during an event? Try to show that without using the word “feel.”
- Think about the events taking place. Are they good? Bad? What images do you think of when you think of good or bad, or just plain indifferent?
- Think about the setting. Does it matter where the characters are? Is it a very specific place, or just a place anyone could be? Setting contributes a lot to tone (example: “It was a dark, stormy night”).
- Read through your work. Does your story have a trend? Do you use humor, fast pacing, slow pacing, long sentences, short sentences, or Shakespearic phrasing? Is there a way you can add to that trend? Can you make that trend stronger?
- Most importantly, think about you. How do you react to what’s happening? It might be different than the characters, or it might not. But you, the writer, are the most important to figuring out tone.
Before you go, here’s an article I found helpful in figuring out tone, “In Writing, Tone is About the Author’s Attitude,” by Mark Nichol, on Daily Writing Tips – it provides a nice definition of literary tone in general.