Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Craft Choice: Tone

Made in MS Paint

Something in craft that can often escape the writer's train of thought is, tone. What is tone? To put it simply it is the voice your writing takes on, the mood it exudes. How do you want to make the reader feel? Do you want to grip their heart with an emotional roller coaster, or do you want to make them laugh out loud at witty humor? What feeling are you trying to portray? That is tone; but why is it important?

Tone is what draws a reader in, what makes them sympathize with characters and settings and what makes them cry, what makes them laugh. Tone to put it simply, is the backbone of your writing, and it is what helps get the meaning of the story across. So what can a writer do to get the tone across? Is it all emotion? Or is there an  rubric towards immaculately writing a story with good voice? That's not so easily answered, and every writer's opinion will differ on the topic. Below are some suggestions of my own that I've picked up during my time as a writer, as well as the advice from my professors and other great writers.

One method, that I spoke about earlier on in Detangled Writers, is verb consistency. Everything in your story is going to work to create your tone, including the tense you use, so yes, in a way there is a rubric. How does your character relate to time and place? How does he/she respond to the reactions around them. Another hint towards tone is internal dialog. A characters thoughts and feelings can set the tone for the entire story. Another thing about tone to consider is your own feeling as the author when you're writing and how your own emotions can influence the story. It is sometimes a real challenge to actively influence while at the same time trying to proactively keep yourself from influencing your story. However the real challenge is knowing when to consciously and subconsciously pull in the reigns.

Sounds like a breeze doesn't it?

Try thinking of writing as a labyrinth. There is a beginning, there is an end, and then there are a million and a half wrong turns and challenges you will have to face between the two. However, with enough diligence and a good dose of  humor, you can make it past the hurdles and you will find the end. That's where the real work begins.

Many an acclaimed writer would tell you for your rough draft, just write! And this is good advice, great advice in fact. Just write, get it out, don't care how horrible you think it is, or how wonderful you think it is. Your second draft will be nothing like your first draft, and this is because that's when the real work begins. That is when you as the writer will have to make the tough decisions, and tone is one of those decisions. It will be your job to make sure the tone is consistent and flows, and moves the story. It will be your job to make sure that you're saying everything in a way that is tangible to the reader, while keeping the story true to its roots. It is during this phase that you will really have to make choices about your craft, and this is where you'll have to pay particular attention to tone.

Questions you can ask yourself during your revision/rewriting phase in regards to tone:

  • What is my message? Is there a message?
    • Do you have an agenda in your story? If you do, be it personal, political, etc, your prose will take on a tone to match that agenda.
  • What is my genre? 
    • For example, Mystery writing tends to have a very different tone than romance.
  • What kind of characters am I employing for my story? 
    • How do the characters interact with the world, interact with each other? Do they look at the world with optimism, pessimism, indifference? How do their interactions affect the world around them?
  • What is the setting? 
    • Setting can play a HUGE role in tone. For example, are you in a fast paced city where it just feels like you never get a moment to breathe? Well then your tone will probably be quick, with twists and turns that leave the reader's head spinning. This is okay as long as you don't lose the reader in the processes. On the contrary, if you're writing a story that takes place on a smooth, languid lakefront, your tone will probably be slower, perhaps more philosophical. 
There are many other questions you can ask yourself too, but not to overwhelm you, I'll leave it there. The point of these questions are simple: What are you trying to say? And really, that is the purpose of tone. Writing is an art form, and just like a painter will paint and expressive piece of work to invoke feeling into the viewer, that is what you're doing in your writing. Tone is how you do that. So next time you write, ask yourself the tough questions, and when you finish a draft, read through it. How is the story moving? Is it consistent? Does it feel right for the story? If not, well you might have to rewrite it, but understanding the role tone plays can certainly help. 

Finally, consider the elements of your story piece by piece. Consider the symbolism, the atmosphere, the setting. Consider how your world works on it's own, and then how the world works integrated with the characters. Lastly, consider the senses, how do the senses work to influence tone? How does your character see? Hear? Feel? Is your character deaf or blind? Are they emotionally detached? Does the world exude a feeling all its own? Is the setting its own character? These are all things to consider during your revision phase. You might be surprised by how your story changes.

So here is my question to you: How often do you think of tone in your writing? Does it play a role in your writing? Is it conscious or subconscious? Has this helped you re-evaluate the role of tone/voice in your own writing?


  1. I was just thinking about this last night for two of my stories. Sometimes I think we all get so caught up in this or that, that we sometimes forget to add the little stuff to make things so much richer. Thank you for posting this.

  2. I've always had problems with consistency in tone. I can start out with an idea, start writing it and feel really jazzed about it. It's usually my current mood that starts the ball rolling but when I set the writing aside for awhile and then come back with a different mood, it's a lot more difficult to get back into the groove. Especially when it's a story and not a role play. With a role play-or at least one that's somewhat established-it's easier to pick up where you left off because you slip into the skin of your character and it's their feelings, thoughts and moods that set the tone. When I can't recapture the feeling that inspired the story to begin with I find myself digressing a lot, explaining the story rather than just writing it.

    And sometimes I let too much time pass before I pick up a project again and I just lose it. Like the World Without End story and the fallen angels. I didn't roll with the initial momentum and it came to a grinding halt so bad that I can smell the burning brakes. xD I hate when that happens. xD