Monday, January 30, 2012

Writing Advice: What Is Tone?

In last week's Writing Advice post, I began to point out that it is, in writing, just as important to pay attention to the words as the story. After all, words are what we're using to paint the picture - and we want to paint the clearest picture possible.

Tone, like sound, is an aspect of writing that can pull the reader out of the story if done poorly. It is on the same spectrum as sound, although at the opposite end. While sound deals mostly with sentence construction and repetition of words, tone has no such connection to technicalities (instead, it's more connected to writing as an art). Sound is objective, tone is subjective. Sound is about the perception of the reader, tone is about the intention of the writer.

Tone is the intention with which the narrator addresses the reader. In novels with third-person narrators, the tone is usually unnoticeable, because when the writer is the narrator, they only have one purpose: to tell the story. Little work on tone is needed. But when a character, rather than the writer, is the narrator, their task is not only to tell the story, but also the provide insight into their thoughts and opinions and nature.

For example, Killing Floor by Lee Child, narrated by tough-guy ex-military cop Jack Reacher, opens with this paragraph:
"I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in the heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town."
This narration, with clipped and fragmented sentences, may seem more to do with sound than tone at a surface glance. But, in actual fact, it is a technique used to develop the tone. In this case, we immediately learn that Jack Reacher does not waste words. He says what he has to - nothing more. This one insight into his character, right from the start.

A second insight from the tone comes from not how Reacher narrates (unlike the first), but what he narrates.   He tells us that he was arrested on sentence one. Then, while the natural thing to do would but explain how he got arrested, instead Reacher tells us what he was eating, when, and makes sure we know that it was a late breakfast, rather than lunch. It's as if the arrest wasn't even important - like it's just one of the things that happen every day. No big deal. No for Jack Reacher, anyway.

This is a great use of tone, because it provides insight. But sometimes, tone can get in the way of the story. An example from The Hunger Games (don't get me wrong - I love this book), that I find very borderline in this context is:
"The girl with the arrows, Glimmer I hear someone call her - ugh, the names the people in District 1 give their children are so ridiculous - anyway, Glimmer scales the tree until the branches begin to crack under her feet and then has the good sense to stop."
While this expresses Katniss's opinion (and opinionate nature) I felt that this sentence stopped the story dead for a few moments. At that point in time, I didn't want to hear Katniss's view on Glimmer's name, I just wanted her to tell me what happened next.

And there you go. That's tone. It gives insight into the mind of a character simply through the way they narrate the story (and sometimes what they narrate), but sometimes it detracts from the story. So, as the writer, it's your job to work out when to tone it up, and when to tone it down.


  1. So how would you describe authors voice, and what's the difference between that and tone? Just wondering.

  2. I think you're right, it does stop the story. But the natural and conversational feel of it is good.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  3. Sarah: That's next week's post! :) Hopefully. I think that tone belongs more to a character, while voice belongs more to the writer. I'll work it all out before next Monday :)

    Emily: Thank you!

    Sarah: It does. But it is nice to feel like there is a real person having a conversation with you in telling the story :)

  4. These are subtleties of writing that I've never paid much attention to. Maybe I should in the future.

  5. You're right the tone sets the pace of the whole story. These are great examples.

  6. I guess in first person stories, tone is like character voice. To tell the truth, I love writing first person stories. It's like the character is talking to you personally.

  7. What great points you make on the importance of tone in writing. I agree with you that when someone writes in first person, the tone is easier to convey. It takes a little more practice, a little more finesse to get it right in other points of view.

    It's funny that you picked that passage from Hunger Games. I recently reread the book and that paragraph stuck out for me, too. Love that book though!

    Great blog!

  8. Tone comes with experience, first-off. It really depends on how much you read and how much you write. If you go back say, hmm, two years ago and read something I wrote, my tone will have changed drastically. It's so different now.

    And I also think tone improves with maturity. As you grow older you become more knowledgeable and understand more things (duh!) and; therefore, your writing improves.

    Okay, well, I've used the word 'improves' twice and rambled on. So...


  9. Great insights as usual, Nick. The differences between tone and voice can be difficult to detect, but for a fantastic view on authorial voice check out this post

  10. Richard: I like paying attention to the subtleties of writing. Anything that makes me better!

    Melanie: Thank you! I personally love the tones in Killing and The Hunger Games (except for that one dodgy line of Katniss's).

    Imogen: Exactly. What I define as tone is synonymous with character voice. I'll probably mention that in Monday's post about voice (or authorial voice). Yep, it's just like having a chat with the main narrator :)

    Mary Ann: Yes, it's harder to do in other POVs because voice (or authorial voice) takes over so much. It's possible, just a lot harder. Mmmm, bit of a funny sentence, isn't it? Thank you!

    Jackson: I think you're thinking of voice (or authorial voice). What I'm talking about, tone, is like character voice. But you're right about the way voice alters - as you grow older and learn new things, the way you write will inevitably improve (or at least change!). My voice used to be really, really, REALLY cheesy. But it's starting to pick up now :)

    Dave: Thanks very much! I'm planning on trying to write a post on the differences on Monday, so thanks a million for the fantastic link :) That's a great post.


Your comments are awesome. I usually reply to each one individually, so please click the "Subscribe by Email" button or check back here in a few days to see my response. Thanks for commenting!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...