The Tone Is the Thing

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What is tone, anyway? It’s a short word with big connotations, and it’s a critical tool in the writer’s kit. Here are a few tips on recognizing it, understanding it, and wielding it.

What Is Tone?

“Don’t take that tone with me!”

What your mother meant and what your writing coach means when they talk about tone are different things, but they have the same heart. Your mother and your coach may not mind what you’re saying, but they take issue with how you say it.

A story’s tone appears in the color of the drapes, the verbs the author chooses, and the weather characters find them in. A great example are the billowing white drapes in The Great Gatsby as Nick enters the mansion. They transport Nick – and by extension the reader – into a world flirting with the edge of fantasy. It’s light, airy, transcendentally beautiful. Only the heat of the day grounds the scene in reality. This pairs with Nick’s feelings for Daisy and Jordan – too beautiful to be real, untouchable, like goddesses in a Renaissance painting. This is tone.

Try creating tone with verbs. Saying a butterfly flitted into the cloudless blue sky creates a cheery, hopeful tone. Saying a butterfly beat the air as it left with stuttering jerks creates a very different feeling. The butterfly flies away in each but with a very different tone.

Tone Shifts

Tone is linked to the POV character’s feelings and mood. It also connects to foreshadowing. Although a book has a general mood, each scene features shifts, and the tone should follow as story progresses. A book with a comical tone may have a scene with a sad tone when someone’s ice cream falls on the floor. Satirical tones involve lots of contradictions, pairing the serious with the ridiculous, or by taking a serious thing far too serious, or treating a funny moment with gravity.

If a boy goes to kiss a girl, but he accidentally squishes her ice cream cone between them, the tone may shift several ways, depend on what the author means to convey. Does that squish feel weirdly sexy and funny? Maybe the boy goes from absolute elation to horror. He may see his hopes dashed, and then feel hope as the girl laughs and gives him the cone’s remains. How you tell the scene – the tone – tells the audience what to feel.

Build Tension

Conflict makes the plot go zoom, and al great writing techniques somehow ramp up the tension in their own unique ways. Tone does this by creating juxtapositions that foreshadow doom. A happy, laughing couple standing in a spot of sun with a thunder cloud rolling up behind them and weeds catching the lady’s shoes probably have problems inbound.

Try writing what should be a happy wedding with a sad tone, or write a graduation with a fearful tone. This actually makes a fun writer’s block breaking tool. Feeling stuck? Completely change the tone of your next scene. Then let the characters tell you why.

What does your tone tell your readers? Give them a shiver, make them question a character’s dependability, and set the mood. Play with your tone, and remember, when in doubt, make a change.

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