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We have (hopefully) learned that it’s not always what we say that’s important, but our tone of voice when we say it. As kids we knew there was a way of saying “I’m sorry I took your toy” that clearly implied that we were not in fact all that sorry and that given the opportunity we would do the exact same thing again.

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Compare these sentences:

  • What does that mean?
  • What does that mean?
  • What does that mean?
  • What the hell does that mean?

Which one is the least innocuous? Which one is probably the introduction to a fight?

But what do we mean when we talk about tone in a story? It’s the author’s attitude (as the narrator) toward the subject of a story. Tone helps the reader discover the writer’s feelings about a particular topic and this in turn influences the reader’s understanding of the story. A story’s tone can be many things:  serious, critical, witty, wry, sarcastic, unstable, to name a few. And of course tone can change as a story progresses.

Here are some things we can look at, both as readers and writers, to better understand tone.

Diction

Is word choice formal or informal (slang, contractions, etc.)? Diction can reveal a lot about a character: where he lives, his level of education, possibly his socioeconomic status. It can also reveal a character’s mental state. All these things can also help establish a tone.

  • Example from “Fiesta 1980” by Junot Díaz

Mami’s younger sister – my tía Yrma – finally made it to the United States that year. She and tío Miguel got themselves an apartment in the Bronx, off the Grand Concourse, and everybody decided that we should have a party. Actually, my pops decided, but everybody – meaning Mami, tía Yrma, tío Miguel, and their neighbors – thought it a dope idea. On the afternoon of the party Papi came back from work around six. Right on time. We were all dressed by then, which was a smart move on our part. If Papi had walked in and caught us lounging around in our underwear, he would have kicked our asses something serious.

The informal language and slang helps set a tone and aids in characterization. The reader has a sense of the family: where they live, how they talk to each other, how they interact with each other. Think of how different the tone of the piece would be if you changed a few words. What if the sentence read, “…he would have given us quite a spanking” as opposed to “… he would have kicked our asses something serious.”

Imagery and Details

Obviously an author can’t include everything a character sees or notices, whether it’s in regard to his surroundings or another character. What the author chooses to have one character notice about another can influence the tone of a story.

  • Example from “Child’s Play” by Alice Munro

She was a good deal taller than I was and I don’t know how much older – two years, three years? She was skinny, indeed so narrowly built and with such a small head that she made me think of a snake. Fine black hair lay flat on this head, and fell over her forehead. The skin of her face seemed dull to me as the flap of our old canvas tent, and her cheeks puffed out the way the flap of that tent puffed in a wind. Her eyes were always squinting.

This is the description of Verna, the childhood neighbor of the narrator Marlene. Marlene instantly disliked Verna (there was something wrong with Verna, some sort of mental issue that was never named) and this hatred for Verna carried over and resulted in Marlene committing a very disturbing act against Verna when they are teens. Think about what it says about Marlene that this is how she chooses to describe another little girl. She describes Verna as skinny (would the tone change with the word thin, do you think?), compares her face to an old canvas tent, and says her hair “lay flat on this head,” not “flat on her head.” All these details set a disturbing tone and also set the stage for what will happen when the girls are older.

Sentence structure

Look for patterns, word order, length of sentences, whether the author is “breaking” grammar rules and if so, for what reason? Long sentences might set one tone, shorter sentences another.

Example from “Work” by Denis Johnson

I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.

But there was a fight.

There’s a rhythm to the sentences, a rambling from the long sentences, which captures the drugged-out mind of the narrator. There’s a string of verb + prepositional phrases (made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john) followed by single verbs (puked, cried) followed by verbs + one another (accused one another, begged of one another, carried one another to heaven).

But there was a fight jumps out at the reader, almost like a slap to the face, and a different tone is suddenly established.

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I’m currently reading Tobias Wolff’s short story collection The Night in Question, and he is a master at setting one tone in a piece, lulling a reader into submission, and then quickly changing course. In Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain” the main character Anders, a jaded and angry book critic, is standing in line at the bank when two masked gunmen suddenly enter. Everyone in the bank is terrified, except Anders, who treats the bank robbery as if it is a disappointing book he is reviewing. His disdain for the bank robbers isn’t for the fact that they are robbers, but that they are wildly unoriginal robbers. The robbery therefore seems funny, and the reader is (uncomfortably, maybe) laughing along with Anders right up until this scene.

“Fuck with me again, you’re history. Capiche?”

Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, “Capicheoh, God, capiche,” and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.

It’s generally the tone of a piece that a reader is reacting to if he’s amused by a story or rattled by it. Tone is one way for the writer to reveal, through his characters, what he wants the reader to take away from the story. It also helps the reader understand how to interpret the events and characters in a story.

Further resources: http://literary-devices.com/content/tone