A blog about writing and all things story…
Imagine Toni Morrison’s vast library of work without the distinctive attitude of her characters, the mood and rhythm in her words and of her life that she brings to the art of story. Or imagine The Prince of Tides without Pat Conroy’s deeply personal and searing language so entrenched in the American south you feel, touch and smell its geography.
Tone and voice are the emotional dye or lyrical pitch of a story. It’s typically a mood or atmosphere established by a writer and then maintained through a piece of writing whether it’s a short story, novel or non-fiction. It isn’t what is being said, it’s how it’s being said or done – how the words on the page dance together to create diction, rhythm, grammar, sequence and sound. (This is why reading your work out loud is so critical.) Robert Ray and Jack Remick teach a technique called ‘chaining’ and ‘long sentence release’ that I find useful when trying to unearth the tone of whatever I’m writing.
Tone is different from style. Style (very simply put) is the way a writer strings words together in sentences and the way they link sentences to make paragraphs, short stories, and novels –style is a combination of literary devices that help create tone.
Tone is vital in literature because it suggests a mind-set toward the subject whether that tone is ceremonial, casual, intimate, sympathetic, playful, serious, satirical, patronizing, or many other potential attitudes. Tone creates a feeling and emotional reaction in the reader and advances the meaning of a short story or novel. Tone makes even a forgettable story unforgettable, emotive, and relatable. When utilized properly it can amplify the theme and emphasize the plot. Conversely, when over used, a story can get lost in a tsunami of the author’s attitude toward a subject. Stories with political themes or authors unaware of their hidden (often from themselves) agendas are frequently victims of this calamity.
For me, tone is a matter of hearing the voice in my head, very clearly, then concentrating on that character’s tone (attitude) and the environment where he/she was born, fed (body & mind) and raised. For example while writing a recent short story I had to first ask myself; how does the attitude of an aging 60-year-old widow transplanted from Tennessee to Portland Oregon in 1950, where she’s left alone, impact the way she sees her new world? Everything she sees and does, filters through her perceptions steeped in her severely religious Tennessee roots. My result was that she feared anything unknown(from a new brand of mayonnaise to the new neighbor), everything was a sin, wrong, evil everywhere, paranoid and self-righteous and that instead of being accountable for her own actions, she gave her power away to authority; God, the police, the neighbors, whoever she perceived had authority over her.
So from that brief character sketch, I was able to create a unique tone, attitude, world view for my character.
Next week I’ll write about a few techniques I’ve found that aid me, and hopefully you, in finding voice and tone in writing.
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