Unlock the Power of Tone to Write an Immersive Story
If you're writing a book, screenplay, or short story, the tone you use can drastically impact how your story is perceived. A quality tone can draw your reader deep into the world of your story. In this article, I'll describe what the literary device of tone is, and give you some tips for telling your story in an effective way.
What is tone in writing?
Tone in writing is the attitude the writer takes toward the events in the story. Though certain characters may have quite different attitudes, tone, in this sense, refers only to the attitude of the writer. Some examples of tone are serious, sarcastic, and nostalgic.
How is tone in writing expressed?
In certain cases, the author's attitude will be very apparent. For example, let's say two characters, thieves, are struggling to break into a house. Here's how that may be written:
Donny tries to pick the lock. No luck. Ray tries next. Still, no luck. These idiots might be out here all night.
That last sentence is where the tone comes through - the writer refers to these characters as "idiots." Here, the writer is taking on a funny, mocking tone. If the word "guys" were used instead of "idiots," the tone would still be light, but it would lose the mocking feel.
The importance of tone in writing
Let's look at a hypothetical story event and see how differently it comes across to the reader based on tone. We're going to use the story event of someone falling down a flight of stairs.
Ian finishes off his fifth vodka. He stands, feeling a bit lightheaded. He walks to the hardwood staircase in his socks. A few steps down, he loses his footing. His back slams onto the flight. His leg snaps, the bone puncturing his skin. He's spit out at the bottom of the staircase in pain and a puddle of blood. His phone is still up on the second story. And the nearest neighbor's home out here in Boone Village is a mile away.
That lush Ian takes down his fifth vodka. When he stands, things are spinning. He walks to the hardwood staircase in his socks. A few steps down, the inevitable happens. Down he goes. Boom, bang, bing. This is going to hurt.
Notice the stark difference in tone? In Example B, the writer is making fun of Ian. No humor with Example A, though. The writer treats the fall very seriously, as a potential medical threat.
Tone and POV in writing
How the tone of your story is conveyed is strongly linked to the writing POV you choose. Key questions to consider:
If you're writing in first person, your subject character tells your story. In many instances, the attitude of this character becomes closely tied to the the attitude of the story. However, that is not always the case.
Let's say your subject character is emotionally unstable and contradicts himself a lot. The character may not be aware of these contradictions, however, the writer is.
By showing the reader a consistent stream of contradictions, the writer has taken on a tone outside of the subject character. The writer is asking the reader to see the subject character for his flaws.
If you're planning on using a very distinctive, opinionated tone that doesn't match that of a character, you should consider writing in a third-person distant POV. This will give you a lot of flexibility for injecting the voice of an outside narrator into the story.
Choose a tone for your genre
When choosing your tone, be mindful of the genre you're writing in. Certain genres call for a certain kind of tone. For example, a police-procedural mystery often features dead victims and grieving family members. The tone should be serious, respectful of the pain the characters endure.
The best way to understand the common tones in a genre is to read a lot of stories in that genre. Every story within the genre won't have the exact same tone. However, as you read, patterns will develop.
You'll come to see that certain types of words and phrases would be encouraged for the genre, while others would be "out of bounds."
The following genres would have commonalities in tone:
In addition, sub-genres within these categories would have even narrower commonalities in tone. Be sure to have a grasp on the types of tone used in both your genre and sub-genre.
Avoid shifts in tone
Once you establish the tone of your story, you should stick with it. Shifts in tone can pull readers out of the flow of events, and confuse them.
For example, if you've been telling a story in a very serious tone, then halfway through, you start peppering in sarcastic commentary, your reader is going to wonder why. He may think a reason exists, which he missed.
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