How often do writers think about tone? Not that often. That’s probably because writers rarely think about what it is or know how to use it.
So what exactly is tone? And how can it be used in fiction writing?
When we talk about tone, it means the overall manner or attitude that the writer has toward the subject of the novel and the way it is approached. It can also cover the themes in a novel. Writers like to set the tone from the outset, and if you read your favourite authors, you will notice tone in their work.
Tone can take on many forms – it can be subtle, overt, serious, sad, amusing, chilling, atmospheric, or anything you want it to be, and very often such tones also reflect the themes that run through the novel and in fact tone is not that different to tone of voice – it’s the pitch or resonance of how we say things, rather than what we actually say. Tone in writing is no different – it’s how you write, and the words you choose, rather than what you actually say that helps you express the tone of writing.
But isn’t tone the same as mood?
Tone and mood are often confused by writers, but they are quite different. They tend to be referenced together as one aspect in writing, rather than two different literary devices, simply because one supports the other within the narrative. Mood, however, covers the feeling or sentiment the unfolding story creates for the reader; mood effects how the reader feels with the story and the characters.
Tone, however, is set by the author.
The thing to note about tone is that it is not always a constant. It can change as the story evolves and different themes and moods come into play within the story. That also means it can alter in pitch as the story develops.
Also, writers should be aware that tone should not become intrusive to the point that it becomes an author’s soapbox – tone is subjective, but it should not drown the narrative. It’s about how the writer broadly feels about a subject, and his or her attitude about related themes, but it does not cover personal opinions. Never let personal opinions appear in your writing.
Conveying tone is about emphasising the right words, whether those words are abstract, formal or just general. The use of imagery helps show tone, so the more imagery used, the greater the effect, for example, this snippet from A Tale of Two Cities, by Dickens:-
There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.
There are certain words that Dickens has used here, such as ‘steaming mist’, ‘forlornness’, ‘clammy’ and ‘unwholesome sea’ that show there is a darkened tone and a hint of foreboding. It’s atmospheric and creates a sense of mystery. It shows just how choosing the right words can set the tone for the story.
If, for instance, you are telling a story about the cruelty suffered by the Jewish prisoners in the Nazi labour camps, it’s likely that you feel passionate about the subject and want to inform readers about it, and therefore the tone of the story will be serious and powerful and sad. If you are writing an adventure novel about a boy and his faithful dog, then the tone might be one of excitement, fun, and being carefree. If you are writing a horror story, then the tone may be dark, serious or grim by comparison.
Romance writers lean towards softer words for their narrative, while horror writers will use and accentuate darker, stronger words. Thriller writers might use tight, concise exposition to create a fast paced narrative that sets the tone.
All these types of story will have tone.
The one thing to remember is to be consistent with tone throughout the novel, but not to overdo it that you end up hitting your readers over the head with it by turning into an obnoxious bore, or that the tone turns into the writer’s personal crusade against something he or she doesn’t like or agree with.
Next week: The advantages of using suspense and atmosphere