Author’s Tone: The Sneaky Li’l Secret to Roping Them In

Abi Wurdeman
April 20, 2023

An author’s tone matters way more than even readers realize.

No one says, “I couldn’t put it down! The tone was a non-stop thrill ride!”

Yet tone and voice are what draw us in. These are the elements that gave us:

“It was a pleasure to burn.” (Fahrenheit 451)

“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” (Waiting)

“...for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum…” (Anne of Green Gables)

Combined with voice, the author’s tone is probably the reason you kept flipping pages in that one book where not much happens. It’s what you’re talking about when you say the writing is really good.

Tone is what’s going on when you fall in love with a book but you can’t put your finger on why.

Best of all, this mighty tool is already within you. You’re already flinging tone around left and right just by being a person in possession of an opinion and a language. Once you notice it and learn how to use it in your writing, you’ll basically be unstoppable.

I can help with that. Stick with me and we’ll define the concept of author’s tone, explore the relationship between tone and voice, and lay out some writing exercises to help you master this skill.

Let’s get to it.

What is an Author’s Tone?

A person with a beard and wearing earbuds holds a leather journal and rests a pen against their cheek as they stare off into the distance.

An author’s tone is their attitude toward the story they’re telling.

And even though you didn’t ask for it, I feel compelled to give you this definition as well:

An author’s voice is the style in which they communicate. If tone is attitude, voice is personality. 

I mention voice because tone and voice are easy to confuse. It may help to think of tone (attitude) as something changeable, whereas voice (personality) is permanent.

Today, you might tell your closest friend about the first time you fell in love. Tomorrow, you might call them to vent about the enraging thing Gladys the passive-aggressive-email-forwarder did at work. You’ll sound like you in both conversations, but your tone will be very different.

How Does Tone Affect Your Story?

A person with long hair sits in a window at dusk reading a book.

The author’s tone is a fundamental part of storytelling. It’s a key element of prose that engages the reader and makes them feel like a tale is being shared rather than dictated.

Tone accomplishes this in a few ways.

First, the tone of your novel immediately establishes a perspective. By perspective, I don’t mean a first-person or third-person point of view. I mean that your tone indicates your narrator’s position on the story they’re telling.

For example, consider this passage from Anne of Green Gables:

Anne’s beauty-loving eyes lingered on it all, taking everything greedily in. She had looked on so many unlovely places in her life, poor child; but this was as lovely as anything she had ever dreamed.

For context, Anne is a chronically unloved orphan who came to beautiful Green Gables believing she has finally been adopted. She has since learned that they actually wanted a boy and she is to be sent back. 

The tone here could easily be tragic, cynical, or bitter. The author could say, “Ever the masochist, Anne couldn’t stop staring at the beauty surrounding her. She should have known no one like her could ever belong here.” 

Instead, the author’s tone is loving. It embraces Anne’s irrepressible sense of wonder and possibility. The narrator is on board, so we’re on board, and now 125,000 people from all over the world visit the real Green Gables every year. (Five stars, would recommend.)

The other important role of tone is that it affirms the genre. A romance might be gentle, playful, or sentimental. A cozy mystery might take on a wry or amused tone. When you match tone and genre, you plunge your reader into the exact fantasy they’re chasing.

How to Mix Tone and Voice

A concrete wall with many cartoonish faces carved into it.

Back to this complex matter of tone and voice. How do these two elements work together?

Let’s take this step by step.

Who’s Talking?

First, clarify the narrative point of view for your story. Maybe you’re going with a first-person account from a character in your story. Or maybe your storyteller is a third-person narrator representing your literary alter-ego. 

It doesn’t matter if your narrator has no name, identity, or social security number. They need a voice. Which brings us to:

What Do They Sound Like?

How does your narrator speak? Short, matter-of-fact sentences? Long, lyrical paragraphs? Do they use colloquialisms or keep things formal? 

Whatever the answer is, that’s their voice. Now ask yourself:

What Do They Think About the Story They’re Telling?

Would your narrator call this a tragic tale or a predictable comedy of human ignorance? Are they charmed and wanting to share their delight with the reader? 

Whatever the answer is, that’s your tone.

That’s not to say that you open your book with a line like, “Let me tell you about some highly offensive crap that happened. I am indignant.”

I mean, you can. But tone is typically communicated in more subtle ways, such as:

  • Pacing - An anxious tone might call for short, clipped sentences. A formal tone might be more inclined to take its glorious time. 
  • Description - Is the sky brushed with the pastel strokes of a sunset? Or is there an angry, orange line screaming across the horizon? 
  • Word choice - Is it an open road or an abandoned road? A partner or a lover? 
  • Specificity - Details do wonders. “She sat on the porch, sipping a drink.” Doesn’t tell us much, right? How about: “She sat on the veranda, enjoying the vanilla notes of a malbec.” Or: “She sat on the porch steps, sucking the last of a Capri Sun through a child-sized straw.” Similar sentences, very different tones.

Once you establish your narrator’s attitude about the story, remember:

Tone Doesn’t Change

I know I just said the difference between voice and tone is that tone changes. And that’s true. Think of the stories you tell when you get together with friends. You sound like yourself no matter what you’re talking about, right? 

But your tone probably changes depending on whether you’re reliving a wild story from your high school days or discussing a recent heartbreak. 

Now, let’s zero in on one story. Say you’re talking about a lost relationship. Your tone might be devastated. Even if the story includes anecdotes from a happier time, those anecdotes do not stand alone for you. They are part of this tale of devastation. That affects the way you recount them.

In your novel, your narrator is sitting down with the reader to tell one story. Within that story, there may be moments that are romantic, scary, suspenseful, whatever. But your narrator is always looking at the big picture. They see each of those moments as part of a larger whole.

Their attitude toward the whole is the author’s tone, and it should remain consistent from beginning to end.

How to Practice Tone

A person sitting outside on a rock writing in a notebook.

Tone is a slippery concept compared to character development and story structure. Many of us learn tone best by practicing it. 

So let’s do that. Here are a few exercises to help you find a clear sense of tone in your work.

Write your favorite scene first

Is there a scene you’ve been excited to write from the moment you first imagined your story? Skip ahead to it! Fully indulge in whatever excites you about this scene. Then read over it and notice if there’s a clear tone. If there is, try applying that same tone to a different scene—one you’re less passionate about. What changes?

Write as if you were…

Tell the same story using different tones. Any story. Maybe something that happened to you today. How would you write about that Zoom meeting if your attitude towards it was uneasy? Reverent? Mocking? Amused?

If that exercise doesn’t speak to you:

Write a scene from another character’s point of view

Return to a scene you’ve already written and write it through the eyes of a different character. What would their attitude be towards this particular moment? How can you reflect that tone in your writing?

Or if you’re still planning your novel, you can try step five of the Snowflake Method. This step involves writing a one-page story synopsis from the perspective of each main and secondary character.

Write an email to a friend

Having trouble conceptualizing tone? Forget for a moment that you’re working on your craft. Think of a story you love to tell and write an email to a specific friend—someone with whom you are 100% yourself. Send it or don’t, it’s up to you. But definitely read it over several times. 

How is your attitude towards the story reflected in your word choice, pacing, details, etc.? 

Explore the contradictions

Here’s an exercise to help you find consistency in your tone while still allowing the story to take emotional twists and turns. Choose one tone from the left-hand column below and try writing different scenes from the right-hand column, all in that one tone.

An image with words describing author's tone and scene words in two separate columns. The tone words are: Amused, Bitter, Defiant, Pensive, Satirical, Sentimental, Blissful. The scenes are: Breakup, Job Interview, Train Robbery, First Kiss, Alien Invasion, Funeral, Family Reunion.

You Can Take That Tone With Us

Hopefully you’re starting to feel like you’ve got a better grasp of what tone is and how to use it to write a novel that rocks

If you could use a great tool for practicing this skill, consider taking Dabble for a free test drive. Try all our premium features—Plot Grid, Story Notes, Stickies, Comments, Co-Authoring, and more—at no cost for fourteen days. Just click this link.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.