From the Writer's Desk: Tone can break your story
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 14, 2013 01:03
One of the things that I think really makes any piece of writing, but especially nonfiction, is tone. Tone is the style or manner in which the piece is written. Tone can be dark or lighthearted, florid or stark. Whatever it is, tone tells the reader a great deal about the text and its characters, and can hold the reader spellbound by various means. Humorous tone can keep a reader entertained, suspenseful tone can keep the reader guessing and a desperate tone can keep the reader turning pages feverishly to the end. Any way you look at it, tone is an integral tool in the writer’s arsenal.
So how does a writer craft tone? Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s really a set of criteria that you can use to ensure that what you’re writing is working. Tone is conveyed in part through the events of a narrative, but most of it comes from word choice, and the only way to improve on that is to read extensively in order to expand one’s vocabulary. When it comes to tone, nuance is integral, so don’t use a synonym for a word in the interest of variety when the desired meaning is clearer with the original word.
For essays about history or famous people, tone is a tool that can be used to stave away boredom in the reader. I don’t know about you, but to me, traditionally written historical accounts and biographies are mind-numbingly dull. Imagine my delight in discovering that these stories didn’t necessarily have to be boring. They can be written lightly, even amusingly, which adds a much-needed dose of humanity to the dryness I normally expect. To write lightly, simply write as you would speak to a friend about some happy, silly event. Keep it conversational, and keep it airy; don’t use large words “just because,” and don’t hesitate to tell jokes. I can guarantee it’ll hold attention better than anything more stylistically academic.
Mystery, horror, sci-fi/fantasy and thriller are genres that typically require a more serious tone, though some can and do benefit from lighter tone. With serious tone, again, the more impressive a vocabulary you have, the better off you’ll be. There’s nothing quite like reading something so gripping that everything else in the world takes a back seat to the action. Take, for example, the last few chapter of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” The culmination of all the different subplots within the larger narrative is done masterfully (as any reader of the novel can attest), and in my opinion, quite makes up for the glacial start.
Tone doesn’t make a story, but bad tone can definitely break one. Be aware of what you’re saying in between the lines, and your writing will be able to communicate ideas on a whole other level.