What Is Tone and How to Use It in Creative Writing
How often have you heard a reader say “I’m looking for funny science fiction” or “I’m looking for (feeling) (genre) ?” What that reader is looking for is a specific tone within their favorite genre. Tone is something you will naturally create in your writing and should enhance in revision, so you can let readers know you do write funny science fiction or whatever combination of tone and genre.
Tone is the way you as the author approach your story and readers. It is created through word choice, sentence structure, character actions, and descriptions and is very similar to tone of voice – it’s not what you write, it’s how you write it. Some example tone words are whimsical, urgent, nasty, pensive, flippant, earnest, bitter, concerned, awestruck, and sentimental.
Creating Tone Through Word Choice
Word choice matters. The word or phrase an author chooses can reveal anything from what state or country they are from to their current emotions. The word an author or character uses to convey their point says a lot about how they feel about that point. This feeling is tone. Here are two sentences conveying the same point with two very different tones:
Harsh afternoon sunlight cascaded from the window.
Warm afternoon sunlight trickled from the window.
In the first version, the use of violent words “harsh” and “cascaded” show the author doesn’t like the sunlight. The sunlight could be a threat, an annoyance, or a frustration. The use of pleasant, soft words “warm” and “trickled” show the second author does like sunlight. Maybe they find it comforting or helpful. Here word choice is conveying tone.
Other examples of words authors might choose between to convey tone are calling a female a woman or a derogatory term like slut, referring to a healing tea as medicine or witchcraft, or saying someone strode or ambled across a room. The words you choose to use convey how you feel about the subject, so make sure you choose words that match your intentions.
Use Syntax to Construct Tone
It isn’t just the words themselves that matter. Where the words fit into a sentence also conveys a person’s attitude toward the point of that sentence or the meaning of the whole sentence. For example, read this poem “Anorexia” that went viral on social media forward then backwards:
I hate the girl in the mirror
So you’ll never hear me say that
I’m good enough
I know in my heart that
The number on the scale defines my worth
Being thin will make me happy
I refuse to believe that
There is hope.
I’m ashamed of my body.
No longer can I say that
I am worth fighting for. (If anyone knows the author, please let me know, so I can site them properly.)
By rearranging the phrases, this poem goes from hopeless self-loathing to strong confidence and high self-esteem. In the forward version, the author hates their body. The tone is negative, pitying, and critical. The backwards version uses the exact same words, but shows the author loves their body with a tone of frank appreciation and joy. This is the power of syntax.
The order of phrases in a sentence or paragraph also shows what the author believes is important. Often writers who want to reveal something that will shock the character and reader will save that piece of the description for the end of the passage or scene. For example, if someone was murdered with a Pegasus statue, you wouldn’t want to bury it among a list of figurines cluttering all available surfaces in the room. Instead you might describe the room and its figurines then in say something like:
Nestled in between the two dragons was the Pegasus statue still bearing the red-brown stain of the victim’s blood.
You might even give this sentence its own paragraph to really make it stand out. It isn’t just the words you choose to use, it’s how you choose to use them that creates tone.
Description and Character Reaction Build Tone
Word choice and sentence structure are a part of description and character reactions. When it comes to characters and description it’s not just your mechanics that create tone, it’s what you choose to include and not include as well.
If I’m writing a nonfiction piece about how disrespectful modern students are in the classroom, I might summarize the funny prank a student executed in my classroom to focus on the consequences like how disruptive it was, how it forced me to cut out half my lesson plan, and how much detention she received. However, if I’m writing a story for a blog on ridiculous things that happen in the classroom, I might focus on how funny and harmless the prank was and summarize the unfortunate consequences. What I choose to describe and not describe tells readers how I feel about the prank, consequences, and student.
This goes for your characters as well. What your characters notice and how they react show what they care about and what their personality is. If a character has the police show up at their house because of a neighbor’s prejudice, they might roll their eyes to create a tone of indifference. Or they might send their dog to poop on the neighbor’s lawn to create a tone of humorous annoyance. Or they might seethe in their room and plot their neighbor’s murder to build a vindictive tone. Make sure your characters’ reactions build the tone you desire.
A Professional Editor’s Thoughts on Tone
You should make sure your tone doesn’t change too often or drastically over the course of your story. Some change is okay, but unlike mood, tone should remain consistent. This includes when switching points of view. It can be tempting to completely change the tone to differentiate character voices, but tone is more about the author’s approach and becomes jarring and confusing when it changes too much. You don’t want one character’s POV to read like a lighthearted comedy and the other a gritty horror story.
Your tone is a part of your personality. Because of this, it will be present in your writing to an extent without you having to think about it. However every piece is different and you might accidentally be conveying how you personally feel about a subject instead of how one of your characters feels about that subject. That’s why you should look at the tone of your whole piece and each individual scene in revision. When revising for tone, look at your diction, syntax, descriptions, and character reactions to Ignite Your Ink.
What is your favorite tone to write with? Share it in the comments below. I like to write with a lighthearted, wondrous one for my fantasy stories. To help you further understand and utilize word choice in your writing, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink and get a free Synonym Worksheet on building character voice.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.