What is Tone? Unpacking the Secret to Your Story’s Vibe
You know how your language arts teachers used to love asking you to define the tone of a literary work?
Well, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but as a writer, you’re not done thinking about narrative tone. In fact, it’s a key element in any successful story.
If you plan on writing a novel that hooks readers and leaves them thinking about your novel for years, then you have to deliberately craft the right tone for your book.
The good news is, you only have to worry about writing tone, not defining it in a 500-word essay containing a thesis statement and three supporting paragraphs. And when you’re the architect of tone, the whole subject gets a lot more interesting.
So stick with me and we’ll explore:
- What tone is
- The different types of tone you can use in your own writing
- How to identify tone
- Why any of this even matters
- How tone fits into the writing process
- How it’s different from mood
- Examples of tone in literature
- How to apply all this to your own writing
Proceed if you dare…
…she said in a foreboding tone.
What is Tone?
Tone is the speaker or writer’s attitude about the subject.
Let’s say a friend tells you a story about getting dumped. If they thought the person dumping them was the love of their life, they’d likely recount the event in a devastated tone.
But if they were already planning to end the relationship themselves, they might talk about the experience in a relieved or amused tone.
Same events. Completely different attitude.
Types of Tone
We can’t go over every type of tone that has ever existed, because you and I both have places to be. But that’s okay—you’ll probably just need a few examples of tone to get the idea.
Here are some common tones you’re likely to encounter in literature:
Playful tone - The author finds this story delightful and is having a great time telling it.
For example: “Elizabeth Anne Archer sat down at her too-cluttered desk with her too-full coffee cup to write a too-long blog post about the conjoined peanuts she discovered in her trail mix.”
Ironic tone - The narrator is mildly irritated and likes to soothe themselves with ironic snark.
For example: “One can only assume Elizabeth’s readers had been desperately waiting for a follow-up since the last post detailing her first impressions of the new Daisyface Ultra-Quilted High Absorbency Paper Towels.”
Melancholy tone - This story is making the narrator sad.
For example: “Another Sunday morning, another 2,000 words wasted on a MySpace blog. She told herself Tom was reading. But she knew he wasn’t.”
Inspirational tone - The narrator feels empowered by this story and wants you to feel it, too.
For example: “Fingers trembling, Elizabeth opened her laptop, keyed in her password, and finally—finally—spoke her truth.”
More Types of a Tone
Just for good measure, here are several more types of tone you might see while reading or use while writing:
It helps to keep a list of words like this on hand as you work to get better at identifying and applying tone.
Identifying Tone as a Reader
You’re my very dear faceless internet friend, so I’m going to be real with you.
Third-person narrators are usually nameless entities. We don’t know who they are, so we don’t immediately think of them as having a personality, let alone an attitude about the novel’s events.
But even unnamed storytellers have a tone and a voice. It’s what makes reading feel like a human-to-human experience.
So how do we see the tone when we don’t even know anything about the narrator? Here’s where to look:
Pay Attention to Diction
Diction refers to word choice. You can learn more about diction here, but the short version is that our words communicate quite a bit about our attitude.
If an author describes a character as “composed and confident,” you might say the author’s tone is admiring. If they referred to that character as “certainly sure of himself,” you’d be more likely to describe their tone as bitter.
Notice Literary Devices
Literary devices like symbolism, foreshadowing, irony, and metaphor can all help clarify a narrator or author’s attitude. After all, a writer uses literary devices to evoke emotions and reveal deeper truth.
Does an open door resemble “the gaping mouth of a cave” or “the waiting portal to a new world”?
Syntax refers to the way words are ordered within a sentence. This seemingly simple choice can instantly convey attitude.
Take the famous opening line of Peter and Wendy:
“All children, except one, grow up.”
By placing the exception in the middle of the sentence, the narrator creates a playful rhythm, sets up a surprise, and establishes a whimsical tone.
Look at the Context
If you already know the POV character is sure they’re going to humiliate themselves in the show, odds are good that the scene where they show up at the theater has a foreboding tone.
Check Your Gut
The whole point of setting a tone is that it engages the reader’s emotions. So, as a reader, ask yourself what you feel.
Dread? Delight? Suspense? Look at the way the writer has written the scene—the words, structure, and literary devices they’ve used—and see if you can figure out how they used the tools at their disposal to create that experience for you.
Tone and the Reader Experience
As long as you’re playing the reader, see if you notice these other benefits of a well-written tone.
Demonstrates the purpose of the story - Whether we’re talking about an entire novel or a single scene, tone gives the reader a hint about why they should care.
Creates a relationship between reader and narrator - The narrator may be a nameless being, but they’re still the human voice the reader connects to. That relationship deepens when the audience knows the narrator’s opinion about the tale they tell.
Gives the reader hints about how to interpret the narration - Tone can clue the reader in to any bias the storyteller might have. This is especially important when it comes to unreliable narrators.
Tone in the Creative Writing Process
Okay, now that we’ve romped through the world of the reader, let’s step back into our writer shoes. How do you add these concepts into your writing process?
Honestly, there really are no rules on this. I often have a vague sense of what I want my tone to be when I start brainstorming, but I don’t really solidify the tone until I start writing. Your process might look different.
If you’re stuck, try asking yourself:
- Who’s telling the story? If you’re writing from a specific character’s point of view, ask yourself how they’d feel about the subject. That’s your tone.
- What’s the appropriate overall tone for the genre? For example, you can have a foreboding tone in a few scenes of your romance novel, but you probably don’t want it to be the entire vibe.
- How do you want your reader to feel while reading your novel? If the answer is “inspired,” a cynical tone is probably not your best bet.
When in doubt, just start writing! Write one scene. Then look back over it with your reader goggles on. What tone is emerging? How do your language choices reflect attitude? What mood are you creating?
The Difference Between Tone and Mood
Let’s talk about two writing elements that regularly get tangled up with one another: tone and mood.
What’s the difference?
Tone reflects the narrator’s attitude about what’s happening in the scene. You know that.
Mood is the atmosphere—the feeling of a scene.
Tone and mood are old chums, particularly because the author’s tone helps create the mood.
Think of it like a family dinner. If one person has had a really rotten day and everything they say comes out all snarky, the overall mood of the meal becomes tense for everybody.
One person’s state of mind affects everybody else’s experience.
Examples of Tone in Literature
If you could use a little inspiration as you incorporate these ideas into your writing process, here are some solid examples of tone in literature:
Their Eyes Were Watching God
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others, they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.”
Individual scenes in this novel range from joyful to somber, but the overall tone is sympathetic, and Zora Neale Hurston establishes that narrative attitude from this very first line.
“She cursed me at such length and with such inventiveness I had to check both my watch and my dictionary.”
This nameless narrator takes on a dark and dry tone. Throughout the novel, you see this kind of detached humor side-by-side with sobering observations about human nature.
“Check this out. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons… with his nose.”
The content, casual language, and rhythm set up a humorous and informal tone. These details also suggest that the story is going to be told through the voice of a kid, but that’s a matter for another article (this one).
What all two of these examples have in common—aside from being pulled from literature—is that they’re first lines. In one sentence, the authors draw the reader in, demonstrating how the story is going to make them feel.
Writing Tone in Your Own Novel
We’ve spent a lot of time discussing what tone is. We’ve spent considerably less time talking about writing tone. That’s because we have a whole article dedicated to that subject, complete with practice exercises. Click this link to check it out.
The short version is that you convey tone in your writing by laying the same clues you’d look for as a reader.
Ask yourself which words best represent your narrator’s attitude. Look at your language, rhythm, and sentence structure. Read your writing out loud. Is it too clipped to fit your dreamy tone? Just swift enough to fit your urgent tone? How are you using devices like metaphors and symbolism to support your narrative tone?
Keep writing and reading with an eye for attitude. You’ll pick up new skills. In time, you’ll pick up new readers, too.
Find the Right Tone With Dabble
One of the most effective tricks for nailing your narrative tone is to read your writing out loud.
An even better move is to have your writing read to you while you close your eyes and listen. If you’re a Dabbler, you can do that with Dabble’s Read to Me feature.
And if you’re not a Dabbler?
No problem. You can check out Read to Me plus all the other incredible features included in this all-in-one writing tool for free. Click this link and start your free 14-day trial, no credit card necessary.
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