Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Writing Tone

A friend of mine e-mailed today asking about how to teach tone to her students.  And this is a very important question for any writer.  In your stories, physical descriptions, actions, and character details will carry the reader only so far.  Besides understanding and "seeing" the story, the reader needs to feel the story.  This is where tone comes in.

I usually explain tone as being a product of setting and diction.  It really boils down to the feel of the piece - do the lines feel happy?  Sad?  Do they provide the feeling of tension as opposed to just the intellectual knowledge that something bad is about to happen?

One way to illustrate this is to take a sentence that says one thing and then change the words so that the tone doesn't match.  For example:

"The yippy-yappy dog ran up to me with his tongue lolling out and then jumped up and nibbled a hole through my rib cage.  My heart rate was quite elevated until he took a healthy bite out of my left ventricle, and then I was lying down the ground.  I felt really light-headed as I passed away in a soft puddle of red wetness."

Naturally, for a description like this we need words like "growling" and "sharp tongue" and "tore through my chest with half-inch canines."  (and I'm sorry it's a bit gory - the more extreme the difference between tone and action, the easier it is to show).  Also, sentence length is a critical component of tone and pace.  Longer sentences tend to be more relaxed, languid, and intellectual - shorter sentences convey more urgency and tension.

On revision:
"The doberman charged me, teeth bared.  He lunged for my chest and dug into my rib cage.  My pulse raced.  I had to get him off.  Then he took a chunk out of my heart.  I staggered back.  The world spun.  Then I was on the ground.  I felt the blood pooling under my back as I died."

Note that the revised lines here still don't convey the real urgency of having one's still-beating heart ripped out by a doberman.  It's clear the narrator has somehow gotten over this moment, and is maybe telling this story from the afterlife.  That, too, can be a subtle trick of tone.  But here it was largely an accident.  I couldn't find a way to tell the narrator's "moment of death" with that kind of urgency.  So I cheated and detached the voice a bit.  But that's all right - you can't do much with a story after the narrator is really (and completely) dead.

And with that cheerful thought...Happy Writing!
Ryan

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