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Tone In Writing; The How, Why, And When

Tone In Writing; The How, Why, And When

The use of the right type of tone in writing can be transformational for a reader. 

It can mean the difference between them connecting with a novel and wanting to read until the very last page or giving up and starting something else, which is undoubtedly every author’s worst nightmare! 

To avoid the latter, try to write with the end-user in mind – your readers. Think about the different tones in writing and what type of tone is suitable for your novel. Think about how you want a reader to feel when they are turning the pages of your novel.  

In this guide, I’m going to explain the meaning of tone in literary terms and its importance, give you examples of how tone has been used successfully in literature and provide some pointers to help you develop the type of tone that is right for your novel.  

What Is Tone In Writing? 

First, let’s consider tone during in-person communication, and how we use verbal, audial and visual cues to convey how we feel about what we are saying. Our words are only part of our communication. We can change our facial expressions and pitch, and we can use hand gestures and body language to give the people we are speaking to more information about our attitude towards our conversation.  

Well, if you think about it, how we use tone in writing is not really that different to how we use tone in speech. Yes, we may not have the same tools at our disposal but there are other ways that an author can achieve similar goals of implying an attitude/mood and evoking an emotion.  

Tone in fiction novels is essentially the attitude which the author/narrator (or POV character) has towards story events and other characters. A writer has the power to manipulate the tone of the novel by choosing what a narrator/character focuses on throughout a specific scene, detailing the character’s changing reactions/responses and the choice of words used in dialogue, and including their internal thoughts and actions. The ways in which a character acts towards the reader when a first-person POV is used also sets the tone. 

Tone can be set in a combination of ways: word choice (diction), sentence construction, imagery, word order and what viewpoint the character focuses on (i.e. their attitude towards the issues in the story, the events, and the other characters in the story). It is often confused with an author’s voice but is in fact very different. The voice is an author’s unique voice that ideally shouldn’t change from novel to novel, whereas the tone will be different depending on your story and your main characters.  

The are many different types of tones – way too many to list them all!  

But here are some common types of tone that you are likely to see in fiction and non-fiction:  

  • Formal. 
  • Informal. 
  • Friendly.  
  • Humorous.  
  • Optimistic.  
  • Assertive.  
  • Concerned. 
  • Encouraging.  
  • Surprised.  
  • Co-operative.  

Now let’s move to exploring types of tone in more detail.  

Types Of Tone In Writing 

As mentioned above, tone in writing is used by the author to convey both a character’s attitude/mood and evoke a feeling in the reader.  

There are many ways that this can be achieved.  

Let’s explore some of the more common different types of tone below!  

Light-hearted or cheerful. Using a light-hearted or cheerful tone immediately puts the reader at ease that they are sailing calmer waters in your novel and that there are unlikely to be any unexpected obstacles or challenges on the horizon.  

Hopeful. A hopeful tone of voice can be used in different ways, depending on what genre you are writing in. For example, in a romantic comedy, it can be used to show an un-lucky in love protagonist being charmed by a dashing stranger. Whereas in a crime or thriller novel, it can used in a dark point of a protagonist’s journey to show that their bad fortune might finally be changing.  

Uneasy or fearful. Using an uneasy or fearful tone of voice is the literary equivalent of the doom music in a horror movie. It will show the reader that they are creeping towards a potentially devastating or terrifying moment in the protagonist’s journey.  

Nostalgic. Conveying a nostalgic tone can be used to evoke in the reader warm fuzzy memories of their childhood. It can often involve home and family but also a longing for long-gone moments.  

There are many, many other descriptions of tone that you can play with, depending on what genre you are writing in and what is happening in your story.  

While the type of tone used can vary with every character and scene, the overall tone of your story must remain consistent to keep from confusing your reader and hindering your message. A reader has certain expectations from a novel, depending on its genre, the synopsis and how it is marketed. Therefore, writers must try not to deviate from this consistent message in the tone of their novels. For example, a novel about tragedy should rarely break into a light-hearted or cheerful tone, whereas a romantic comedy should stay clear of fearful or serious tones.  

Vocabulary is key in setting tone, so you need to ensure that you select the right words for a specific scene or setting in your novel, or even the overall theme. For example, a scene about falling in love would convey an entirely different emotion if written using words like ‘dark shadow of death’ and ‘veins popping out of his neck’! 

tone-in-writing

Examples Of Tone In Literature 

Pick up any book on your bookshelf. Turn to any page. And start reading. Straight way, you should be able to pick up on the overall tone of the novel and in that specific scene.  

Here are some examples in well-known literature that demonstrate some of the common types of tone.  

Open Water By Caleb Azumah Nelson

’The barbershop was strangely quiet. Only the dull buzz of clippers shearing soft scalps. That was before the barber caught you watching her reflection in the mirror as he cut her hair, and saw something in her eyes too. He paused and turned towards you, his dreads like thick beautiful roots dancing with excitement as he spoke.’’ 

It is clear that Nelson has chosen his vocabularly with purpose – ‘’dancing’’, ‘’shearing soft scalps’’, ‘thick beautiful roots’’ to convey the underlying romantic tone of his novel.  

A Little Life By Hanya Yanagihara  

’But as much as he fears sex, he also wants to be touched, he wants to feel someone else’s hands on him, although the thought of that too terrifies him. Sometimes he looks at his arms and is filled with a self-hatred so fiery that he can barely breathe…’’ 

Even in such a short extract of a 700-page novel, we as the reader can gauge the tragic, pessimistic and fearful tone that Yanagihara has conveyed through her beautiful prose.  

The Stranding By Kate Sawyer 

‘’They have a hut. A place to sleep. It is waterproof and windproof but the elements are still around them: they can hear the sea from their bed, see the light of the moon and the sun shining through the tarpaulin, little though it is through the constant cloud. It is not warm unless they are under their piles of blankets, but is somewhere they can rest after the toil of the day’’ 

In this short extract of Sawyer’s captivating novel, you can immediately get a feel of the narrator’s worried and anxious tone, and the strong current of hope within it.  

How To Develop Your Writing Tone 

Now, let’s look at the key ways that you can set the tone of your novel.  

1. Keep Your Tone Consistent Throughout  

Think of the tone of your novel as the soul of a person. Yes, you can dress your body differently, depending on your mood and preference, just like you can layer tones for different characters and scenes. But the underlying tone of your novel must never change, from beginning to end.  

Read through your manuscript and look for places where the tone fades or shifts. Focus your attention there. 

2. Write With Your Reader/Target Audience In Mind

Most readers are loyal to genres and want to know that they are in safe hands every time they pick up a book. For example, a reader seeking escapism from dire world conflict will be fully thrown by a romantic comedy novel if it suddenly creeps into suspense and fear.  

3. Play With Detail And Description 

Think about the characters and plot of your novel, and weave in appropriate detail and descriptions to set the tone. For instance, a depressed or lonely character may notice cracks forming on wall and mouldy tiles, whereas a love-struck, hopeful character will see vibrant wallpaper and intricate covings.  

Make every word you use earn its place in your novel. Choose wisely and don’t be afraid to cut words if they are not serving their purpose.  

Hone Your Use Of Tone

I hope you’ve found this article useful and that you can see how significant tone is in determining how a reader will perceive your novel.  

Now all that’s left for you to do is switch on your laptop, open up your Word document and let your creative juices flow!  


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