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Examples of Tone

Last week we talked about what tone is, and isn't. This week we'll try to define it with examples.

You are writing a Romance.

Let's say Dick, your narrator, is at a company picnic in a park. The sky is clear. The grill is smoking. His coworkers are drinking beer and it is mid afternoon. How does Dick feel about being there? If he is an extrovert and happy with his job, he is lightheartedly milling around, joking, laughing, and downing brews with the best of them. He has a great time, until he learns something that turns his happy place into a not so happy place. Like the fact that his rival, Ted, got the promotion instead of him. Dick worries that Ted’s promotion gives him a leg up with the girl of both men’s dreams. Dick leaves feeling determined. He rushes to call Sally before Ted can. The tone in this story should reflect Dick's upbeat point of view and competitive attitude toward the situation. If your romance is light and breezy, Dick views this obstacle as a fun challenge. He finds a way to woo Sally, no matter what comical lengths he must go to. There is tension, but it is a funny situation. If your romance is a tragedy, Dick views this scene as one more nail in his coffin. There is tension, but it is bleak, foreshadowing inevitable demise, and somber.

You are writing a Thriller.

Dick is at the company picnic in the park. The sky is overcast and threatening rain. The barbecue smoke makes his eyes water and nose run. He hates hotdogs. He hates his co-workers. He wishes he never had to see those drunken slobs ever again; but he grins and bears it until he can steal the research documents. So, he sips water. He smiles, nods, and bides his time. When he feels everyone is drunk enough, he goes back to the office and begins the search. In this example, Dick views the situation as dark and bleak. He focuses on the negative. The picnic is something to be endured to meet his goal. The overall tone of the story focuses on the tension, the hurry, the risk. There may be light moments, but there is no doubt that the situation is serious and the consequences are high.

You are writing a Literary novel.

Dick is at the company picnic in the park. He desperately needs the promotion. He has child support and outrageous alimony to pay. He can't afford to be unemployed. The sun burns. He sweats profusely. The smoke is suffocating and the stench of roasting steak makes his stomach churn. Dick circulates. He shakes hands and fake smiles at his coworkers until his jaws hurt. He finds out Ted got the promotion. In fact, Dick’s department is being cut. Dick is grateful when it starts raining so he can leave and drown his sorrows in a bottle of Scotch. In this example, the tone could be comic or tragic. The reader walks away, wryly acknowledging that bad things happen to good people, or walks away ruminating on the evils of cruel corporations. There is tension. It is either released by continual humor, or you emphasize the pathos of modern living along the way.

Revision Tips
As you read through your manuscript, consider the narrator's tone. Can you identify it? Do you want the story to be breezy, syrupy, gripping, horrifying, or funny?

What is your genre? Does the tone correlate?

Look at your descriptions and setting. How does the point of view character view the situation? Is it consistent with the tone you have adopted?

Do the details that your character focuses on and the words he uses to relate them support the tone?

Is your tone consistent? Do you find yourself handling the material as dramatic in one scene and slapstick in another?

For these and other tips on revision, pick up a copy of:

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