Improving Tone: How to Use Tone Effectively in Fiction Writing

What’s your understanding of writing tone? How do you go about improving tone in your writing? No, we’re not talking about how you spoke to your mom when she said “Don’t take that tone with me” but the style you use when writing your novel.

In this blog post, we’ll look into what tone is, types of tone, the elements of tone and also common problems and 10 tips to improve tone.

Attitude and point of view can influence how readers interpret an author’s message, and that’s called tone. Tone’s a big part of writing, but it’s easy to overlook. 

What is the Difference Between Tone and Style?

Many people confuse tone and style and while they are both important when writing, but they aren’t the same.

The way the author feels about the topic comes across in the tone. It is the mood that the author creates through their choice of words, sentence structure, and overall writing style. As mentioned before, the tone determines the emotional reaction of the reader. It can be formal or informal, humorous or serious, sarcastic or sincere, and can vary depending on the author’s intended audience, but more about that later.

Style speaks to the writer’s unique voice. It includes a wide range of things, such as syntax, literary techniques, and the whole narrative format. Style is how an author puts the story across to the reader, and can show their individuality, culture, and artistry.

In short, Tone refers to the emotional impact created by the author’s use of language, while style refers to the writer’s distinctive way of using language to create a unique and recognizable voice.

Types of Tones?

Different tones can illustrate your outlook and attitude towards the audience and subject. Tone can range from serious to lighthearted, sarcastic to polite, informal to whatever.

For example, a horror novel and a children’s book will have completely distinct tones. These are some of the typical tones.

Formal Tone

When writing for work or school, you usually have to have a serious and objective tone because formal writing is packed with complicated sentences, big words, and no shortcuts.

♦ The grandeur of the palace was awe-inspiring, with its towering pillars and glistening chandeliers that cast a warm glow on the marble floors. Dressed in their finest robes, the king and queen sat on their thrones as the courtiers bowed and curtsied in reverence.

The air was thick with the aroma of incense, and the sounds of a harp echoed through the hall. It was a sight to behold, a world far removed from the drudgery of daily life.

In this example, the language is formal and descriptive, using adjectives and adverbs to create a sense of grandeur and majesty. The sentences are longer and more complex, creating a more formal and sophisticated tone that matches the setting of a royal palace.

Informal Tone

An informal tone is more conversational and relaxed, mostly used in personal or creative writing. It may include contractions, slang, and colloquial expressions, and it may have a more personal or emotional tone.

♦ The party was lit! The music was blasting, and people were dancing like there was no tomorrow. I spotted my crush across the room and made my way over to him.

‘Hey, what’s up?’ I yelled over the noise.

He smiled and pulled me in for a hug. ‘Not much, just enjoying the vibe,’ he said.

We talked for a while, then grabbed some pizza and head outside to sit on the grass. It was the perfect night.

In this example, the language is casual and conversational, with contractions and slang used throughout. By shortening and simplifying the sentences, the tone becomes more relaxed, which is suitable for a party atmosphere.

Neutral Tone

A neutral tone’s impartial, doesn’t show any feelings or opinions, and just gives the facts. It’s common in newspapers, scientific papers, or other kinds of writing that need to stay impartial.

♦ The sun was setting over the city as Jane walked home from work. She passed by the park, where children were playing on the swings and couples were strolling hand in hand.

A light breeze rustled the leaves on the trees, and it filled the air with the sounds of birds chirping. As she approached her apartment building, Jane noticed a new restaurant had opened up across the street. She made a mental note to check it out sometime.

The language in this example is simple and descriptive, with no extra emotional or stylistic touches. The length and complexity of the sentences creates a neutral tone that just reports what is happening with no emotional undertones..

Serious Tone

A serious tone is used to convey a sense of gravity or importance, and it’s often used in persuasive or argumentative writing. It may feature logical arguments, authoritative language, and a sense of urgency.

♦ As John walked into the hospital room, he could feel his heart racing. His mother lay in the bed, hooked up to machines and monitors, her breathing shallow and labored. He took a deep breath and approached her, taking her hand in his. ‘Mom, I’m here,’ he whispered.

She opened her eyes and looked up at him, a weak smile crossing her face. ‘John, my dear boy,’ she whispered. ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’ They talked for a while, reminiscing about old times and sharing their love for one another.

As the hours passed, John sat by his mother’s side, holding her hand and watching as her breathing grew slower and more irregular. When she finally passed away, he felt a profound sadness wash over him, but also a sense of peace, knowing that he had been there for her in her last moments.

In this example, the language is somber and emotional, with longer and more complex sentences that convey a sense of seriousness and gravity. The events and emotions are depicted with a straightforward style, but with a certain weight that creates a serious and respectful tone appropriate to the subject.

Humorous Tone

A serious tone is used to convey a sense of gravity or importance, and it’s often used in persuasive or argumentative writing. It may feature logical arguments, authoritative language, and a sense of urgency.

♦ As soon as Jake walked into the office, he knew it was going to be a long day. His boss, Mr. Jenkins, perched at his desk like a vulture waiting to swoop down on his prey.

‘Ah, Jake, my boy!’ Mr. Jenkins said, grinning like a maniac. ‘Just the man I wanted to see!’

Jake felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. This was never a good sign. ‘What can I do for you, sir?’ he asked, trying to sound upbeat. ‘

Well, I’ll tell you what,’ Mr. Jenkins said, leaning back in his chair. ‘I’ve got a special project for you. You’re going to be working with the new guy, Bob. He’s a bit of a character, but I think you two will hit it off.’

Jake had heard about Bob. He was the guy who brought his pet ferret to work and talked to it like it was his boss. This was going to be a disaster.

In this example, the language is lighthearted, with short and snappy sentences that create a sense of humor and levity. We exaggerate the characters and situations for comedic effect, and the tone is one of amusement and irony. The author uses word choice and sentence structure to create a tone that is light and humorous, while still conveying the information and advancing the plot.

Sarcastic Tone

Sarcasm is a way of expressing irony or scorn by saying the opposite of what you actually mean. It may feature cutting remarks, biting humour, or exaggerated language.

♦ John couldn’t help but roll his eyes as his boss droned on and on about the importance of punctuality. ‘Because, you know,’ his boss said with a smug smile, ‘time is money.’

John resisted the urge to say, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard that before,’ and instead nodded along with a fake grin plastered on his face. He couldn’t wait to get out of this meeting and back to his desk, where he could waste time in peace.

In this example, the tone is sarcastic and mocking, with the author using John’s internal monologue to convey his true feelings about his boss’s statement. The arrangement of words and choice of words are direct and to the point, illustrating the gap between John’s genuine feelings and the polite front he is showing his boss. Adding a sarcastic tone increases the humor and irony of the scene, while illustrating the character’s dissatisfaction and irritation.

Optimistic Tone

An upbeat tone conveys hope, positivity, or confidence. It may feature uplifting language, positive imagery, or a sense of enthusiasm.

♦  Sarah stood at the top of the mountain, taking in the sweeping views of the valley below. The sun was just rising, casting a warm golden glow over everything in sight. She felt a rush of exhilaration and gratitude wash over her – this was exactly what she needed after a long year of hard work and stress. As she started her descent down the mountain, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of optimism about the future. Whatever challenges lay ahead, she was ready to face them with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

This author has crafted a tone of optimism and hope in this example, using Sarah’s experiences and thoughts to give off a sense of positivity and enthusiasm. The word choice and sentence structure are both upbeat and energetic, emphasizing the sense of adventure and possibility that Sarah is feeling.

These are just a few examples of tones that you can use in your writing. The type of tone you choose will depend on the purpose of your writing, the audience you’re writing for, and the message you want to convey.

What are the Elements of Tone in Fiction Writing?

Fiction writing needs tone to show the author’s attitude and point of view on the story and characters. Audience, purpose, topic, attitude, and words/phrasing can all affect the tone of your writing.

Here are some of the key elements of tone in fiction writing:

Word Choice

An upbeat tone conveys hope, positivity, or confidence. It may feature uplifting language, positive imagery, or a sense of enthusiasm.

♦ Example from The Road by Cormac McCarthy:
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”

In this sentence, McCarthy uses specific words to create a sense of coldness and isolation. The words “woods,” “dark,” and “cold” all contribute to a bleak and foreboding atmosphere, which sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Figurative Language

Using metaphors, similes and personification in your writing can give it some flavour. Poetry and imagination can come to life, while personification can trigger feelings or comprehension.

♦ Example from The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

In this poem, Frost uses a metaphor to compare the speaker’s life choices to a road that diverges in a wood. By describing the two choices as divergent paths, Frost creates a vivid image of a fork in the road that the reader can visualize.

Sentence Structure

How you arrange your sentences can change the tone of your writing. Short, simple sentences can create a more direct and urgent tone, while longer, more complex sentences can create a more intellectual or reflective tone.

♦ Example from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.”

In this paragraph, Morrison uses short, declarative sentences to create a sense of tension and unease.

Point of View

The perspective you pick can change the vibe of your writing. Choosing a first-person point of view can create a more personal and emotional tone, while using a third-person point of view can create a more objective and detached tone. 

♦ Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:
“I was born in the year 1900 – Sandwiched between my mother, who had been born in 1869, and my brother Jem, who was born in 1920.”

Lee wrote from the first-person point of view of the narrator, Scout. By using “I” and “my,” it allows the reader to experience the story from Scout’s perspective.

Dialogue

How your characters interact can also set the tone of your writing. Dialogue can give us a clue to the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and it can build a sense of friction or disagreement.

♦ Example from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger:
“‘You’re not going to, like, disappear or anything if you go to Hollywood, are you?'”

This line gives us a glimpse of Holden’s character and his worries for his friend. Holden’s manner of speaking and vibe come through in the slang he uses like “like” and the question that follows.

Setting

The location of your story can add to the feel of your writing. A dark settings make things feel more suspenseful, while bright ones make it more cheerful. Think of the difference between a horror movie or a rom com.

♦ Example from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte:
“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.”

This passage describes the setting of the novel, which is the remote and windswept moors of northern England.

Punctuation

Punctuation can also show your tone. A sentence that ends with an exclamation point may convey excitement or enthusiasm, whereas a question mark may suggest curiosity or uncertainty.

♦ Example from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Fitzgerald puts in a dash to show the narrator’s bitterness and contempt for Tom and Daisy.

These are a few of the key components of tone in fiction writing. Follow these examples to make your story more engaging and memorable.

Examples of Improving Tone

Check out how prominent authors use tone:

The Last Time We Met

This sentence from the Last Time We Met by Sarah Lee uses a peaceful and calming tone to describe a beautiful sunset.

♦ The sun was setting, casting a warm golden glow over the valley, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of peace wash over me.

Midnight Walk

In Midnight Walk by Alex Rodriguez, he uses a lonely and eerie tone to describe the narrator’s surroundings.

The night was silent except for the sound of my own footsteps echoing off the walls of the empty streets.

Rainy Day Blues

This sentence from Rainy Day Blues by Rachel Chan uses a disappointed and frustrated tone to describe the negative impact of rain on the narrator’s plans.

♦ The rain was coming down in sheets, and the only thing I could do was watch as my plans for the day were washed away with it.

Morning Brew

This sentence from Morning Brew by Emily Nguyen, uses a relaxed and comfortable tone to describe the atmosphere of a cafe.

♦ The aroma of fresh coffee filled the air, and I felt myself relax into the cozy atmosphere of the cafe.

Windy Nights

Julian Gomez in Windy Nights paints a peaceful picture of the narrator’s emotions in this sentence.

♦ The wind was howling, and I felt as though it was carrying away all of my troubles with it.

10 Tips to Improving Tone

There are lots of ways writers can improve tone for their fictional novels. My advice…

1. Understand your audience: Who are you writing for and what do they want to see in your writing? Get to know your audience and what they want, so you can adjust your tone to suit them.
2. Use Imagery: Paint a picture with your words to stir up emotions. Descriptive language can help you set the tone and create a vivid picture in your reader’s mind. For example, describing the smell of freshly baked cookies can create a warm and cozy tone.
3. Vary sentence structures: Mix it up with sentence length and structure to make it more interesting.

4. Avoid overusing exclamation points: Overusing exclamation points can make your writing seem overly enthusiastic or melodramatic, so use them sparingly.
5. Repetition: Use repetition to emphasize a particular emotion or mood. For example, repeating a phrase such as “everything was perfect” can create a dreamy and romantic tone.
6. Read your work out loud: Saying your work out loud can help you pick up on the tone of your writing and recognize where it needs fixing.
7. Specific language: Use the right words to get the vibe you want. For instance, words that are dark and spooky can create fear.

8. Pacing: Speed up or slow down your words to match the action or feeling. For example, making the pacing quick can make it seem hectic or disordered.
9. Metaphors and similes: Use metaphors and similes to create comparisons that evoke emotions. Describing a storm as a raging beast can create a tense and ominous tone.
10. Try Symbolism: Use symbolism to create a deeper meaning and tone. For example, using a red rose as a symbol of love can create a romantic tone.

Last Words on Improving Tone

In short, tone matters a lot in writing because it affects how readers view the message. Knowing what tone is, what it looks like, and how to use it can help your writing connect with readers and get your message across. Remember who you’re talking to, why you’re saying it, and what you’re talking about. Maintain the same style and use your emotions to get the reaction you want.

Keep writing,

Linda

Feature Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay.

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