How to Find the Right Tone

Many writers can tell a good story, can create wonderful and interesting characters, can show and not tell, but only good writers can create the proper tone for each scene.  Tone is the attitude a writer has toward a subject but also the attitude the writer has toward the audience or supposed readers.

When teaching students how to find the tone of a text, I tell them to look for the describing words in a text.  Look at this example from Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Ah, Poe.  You are truly a master of tone.  Look at the passage again.  This time, I have underlined the descriptive words:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Our descriptive words are: “dull”, “dark”, “soundless”, “autumn”, “oppressively”, “alone”, “singularly dreary”, “shades” and “melancholy”.  The question to be asked here is: “What is the connotative meaning of these words as a group?”  The connotative meaning is the emotional tag that the words produce within the reader.  Of course, these words have a gloomy or ominous tone.  The trick is for the writer to use this kind of thing when writing scenes in a novel or short story.  It makes things much better for our readers.  Often, however, this is what some writers produce:

In October, on a cloudy day, I passed along on horseback through the countryside, and found myself within view of the House of Usher.

You must ask yourself one question when creating tone: What kind of tone do you want? Think about the scene in question and ask yourself what emotion you want the reader to have when reading the scene.  Make a list of descriptive words that have the connotative meaning of the emotion in question, and then find a way to insert them in the text.

If more writers will do this, it will make for a much more meaningful and enjoyable reading experience for all.

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3 thoughts on “How to Find the Right Tone

  1. Pingback: NaNoWriMo Tip #28: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly « Writing Is Hard Work

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