Understanding Tone: Your Audience Deserves Context

Posted on Jun 25, 2021

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Written by Gloria Russell

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Why is understanding tone so difficult?

Did you know that between 70-93% of all our communication is nonverbal? Think about it.

That means that the overwhelming majority has nothing to do with the actual, literal words we use–it has to do with what’s inferred. This is why understanding tone is valuable. The way that we say them and our body language. In other words, it has to do less with the technical meaning of the phrase, and more to do with our tone. Understanding tone and it’s nuances opens new opportunities for skilled authors to explore. Find out some useful ways to know when, how, and where to offer your readers a three dimensional insight through your pen.

Tone plays a huge role in conveying meaning in our daily lives, and it’s also hugely important in writing good fiction.

When writers master tone in their piece, they control the emotional flow of a story, they convey the appropriate meaning to their readers, and they get their overall intent across.

We’re here to break down what tone is, how you can understand tone in the books you read, and how you can manipulate tone in your own writing. 

What is Tone in writing? 

Plainly put, tone is the way writers get their emotional meaning across to the reader. It has to do with the way they describe scenes and the words they’re choosing to show them. 

But wait: isn’t that voice? 

Not quite. Voice is the way a writer writes, honed and developed over time. A writer’s voice isn’t meant to convey information about the scene, characters, or attitude to the reader–it’s only meant to serve as a storytelling vessel.

Tone, on the other hand, is meant to convey information. Tone and voice together make writing style

Understanding Tone in Writing

How do you know whether a writer is using tone in a story you’re reading? Easy–tone is constantly present in anything you’re reading, no matter what. 

Tone conveys meaning to the reader using words. No matter what, you’ve got to use words when you’re writing anything, including fiction. The words you pick will invariably produce some sort of tone, even if that tone is clinical or technical and devoid of much description. 

Tone is everywhere, all the time. Here’s a quick guide for picking up on what sort of tone an author is using: 

Check Your Surroundings

Look at the context. If you’re reading a kid’s book from the baby book section at the library, the synopsis tells you it’s about a princess’s best day ever, and the whole thing is decked out in glitter, you can guess the happy descriptions and oodles of exclamation points all get at a happy, carefree tone. 

What’s going on in the scene? Is it a funeral for a beloved family member? Then we’re probably feeling sad. Learning to play in this space is why understanding tone is valuable.

Is it a wedding, but the bride doesn’t want to get married? We’re probably going to see a lot of anxious language and a scared or nervous tone. 

You also want to look at the descriptors. If a wedding is described as light and joyful, with an organ that sounds like church bells, then the tone is peaceful, and that’s how the reader will feel. But if the wedding is described as stuffy, and the organ (in the immortal words of Taylor Swift) sounds like a death march, we get a different vibe. Something’s wrong–it’s creepy, it’s weird. 

Consider the Meaning 

Have you ever heard a film critic say that the tone of a movie is all wrong, or that it’s inconsistent? 

In movies, or in books, it’s important to use tone correctly, or at least intentionally. If you’re watching a movie and it’s a feel-good romp except for one needlessly frightening scene, that’s going to be a problem for your viewer. It takes them out of the experience and makes them confused. Why was that scene there? Why was it so scary? What was the point of that? 

It’s okay to play with tone–we’ll talk about intentionality later. But when you’re looking for tone in the media you consume, consider why the descriptors are the way they are. 

For example: say you have a paragraph, and you’re not sure what tone the author is going for. Go through your descriptors. Say you’ve got ‘happy,’ ‘delighted,’ ‘carefree,’ and ‘airy.’ These are all positive, happy adjectives, so we can say we have a happy or positive tone. Maybe it doesn’t make you feel that way, but at least now you know what the writer was going for based on context clues. 

Tips for Using Tone 

Now that you know how to identify tone in the media you consume, let’s take a closer look at using tone in our own writing. 

When readers pick up your story, they might not interpret it the way you meant it completely. And that’s okay! But you want them to get something pretty close. You don’t want them to read a scene as comical if you meant it as tragic–this can alter their perception of the book as a whole, and it can mean they take away a radically different meaning than anything you intended. 

Thankfully, I’ve got a few tips compiled here to help you navigate tone in your own work! 

1. Keep it Consistent 

You definitely want to have some emotional variance in your work. It doesn’t do to have a book that’s nothing but sad or nothing but happy–a lack of emotional contrast means you probably don’t have a lot going on, which makes for a boring reading experience. Most great work of literature play on many emotions. This is all the more reason that understanding tone can come in handy.

When I say ‘keep it consistent,’ I don’t mean to stick to one tone. I mean that tone should be consistent on a scene-by-scene basis. If you want a funeral to be serious, then it should be serious–random jokes thrown in are going to spoil that mood (unless you’re adding a joke for contrast to emphasize the seriousness when others around them glare). Similarly, if you want a romantic scene to be super swoon-worthy, you probably don’t want a random gross bodily detail. 

Figure out what you want your scene to accomplish. What kind of scene is it, and how do you want the reader to feel about it? Write it accordingly, and choose your words with that in mind. 

You can definitely play with tone to unsettle your reader–maybe you want that random gross bodily detail because you want the romantic scene to feel unsettling. In that case, the tone you’re looking for is unsettling, not romantic, so that lines up. 

2. Context Matters for Tone

Consider the tone of your piece as a whole when you’re going through the tone of each scene. Remember that sparkly princess book from earlier? That sounds like a delightful time, and it would be super unnerving and freaky if there were a random page filled with horror stuck in the middle. 

Again, this isn’t to say you can’t play with tone for dramatic effect. Rather, you want your story to make internal sense. If you’re writing an adult romance novel, you probably don’t want a dry, technical tone. If you’re writing literary fiction, you probably don’t want to use tons of flowery, cutesy language.  

3. Choose Your Words Carefully

All of this comes down to choosing your words with intent. If you want a scene that seems happy and carefree, but has a horrifying snap at the end, that’s okay! And if you want a seemingly peaceful scene with an unnerving undercurrent, cool. 

The thing to remember is that whatever you’re doing with tone, you should be doing it on purpose.

Make sure you know what the adjectives you’re using mean, know what you want the scene to accomplish, and work toward that goal. 

Another part of this is being mindful of overkill. If you include too many descriptions and lay on the tone too heavy-handed, you’ve got a problem. For example: 

“The wonderful sun set majestically over the beautiful ocean. I happily sat next to my loving wife, cheerfully considering our delightful future together.” 

The first problem with this, obviously, is that we’ve loaded it down with too many adverbs. But let’s set that aside, just for now (even if it kills me) and look at the tone. We’ve used a whole bunch of really strong happy tone words, and it makes the scene read kind of sickly-sweet, right? I don’t feel happy, I feel a little nauseated. 

So let’s make it a little subtler and intentional. 

“The sun set deep pink over the peaceful ocean. I sat with my wife, smiling, and thought of our future.” 

It’s still kind of cliche, but you get the idea. This is using more showing than telling, which helps illustrate the tone instead of simply telling what the tone is. We still get a sense of peaceful happiness, but it’s not absolutely overloading our senses. 

4. Get Some Outside Help 

Tone can be really tricky to grasp, especially when you’re working with a really complex scene. Good fiction grapples with the nuances of the human experience, and people’s emotions are super duper weird. 

You might have a funeral scene that’s meant to be, on the whole somber, but people do tell jokes a few times. It’s not meant to take away from the overall tone, but it is meant to serve some storytelling purpose. This can be a problem, because you want to make sure you’re not sacrificing tone in the deviation. 

Similarly, you might have something sad or upsetting happen in a feel-good romp. In that scene, you want the tone to be sad, but you don’t want the audience to come away feeling bummed.

If you’re struggling to tell whether you’ve struck the perfect chord, it’s time to enlist the help of some beta readers. Get a few people to look over it, ask them what sorts of emotions they thought were being conveyed, and work from there. 

Got any tips for understanding tone? Any tips for using tone in your own writing? Let us know in the comments below! 

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