Tone of voice… you have probably heard this phrase used frequently, such as in “I don’t like your tone of voice.” As a child I often assumed that phrase was the adults’ way of reprimanding someone whose statement was not malicious or false, but brought up an inconvenient truth. In speaking, tone is typically associated with a certain timbre, pitch or intensity that expresses an attitude, such as amusement or disdain. However those cues disappear if the words are written.
How are we to betray underlying emotions in writing? That is one of the keys to creating a distinctive writer’s voice. Authors often use imagery to create the tone through their descriptive passages. It does make a difference if the setting sun is “red as a ruby” or” red as blood.” A skillful writer uses imagery, full of connotative words with emotional undercurrents, to draw their characters and set the stage for events.
Diction–use of vernacular and level of formality–is another key way to create tone. A seeming disparity between the diction and the content is especially effective. Although most formal writing seems to be serious, it does not have to be. Consider the very pompous tone of Daniel Defoe’s A Modest Proposal. Most readers are smart enough to realize that Defoe was not serious about cannibalism. He was using the absurdity of a farce to make his point. One should also not assume that informal, folksy diction that is full of colloquialisms means a lighthearted tale, either. Mark Twain expressed serious concerns about slavery through the voice of Huckleberry Finn. The ability to use a diction that is unexpected for the theme contributes to a unique voice in writing.
This brings us to another characteristic of tone–the use of themes. Themes are abstract and if you try to imagine the concept of love, hate, folly or bravery you would probably picture it as a relationship between humans, or anthropomorphized creatures, such as the rabbits in Watership Down. Now, try to conjure up a similar scene depicting love without any characters. Difficult? Close to impossible. We see the intangibles revealed in the response of characters.
Creating tone, through imagery, diction, and characterization are useful techniques. But, in the end the voice of the writer expresses their inner thoughts and convictions. Techniques are useful, but you must be willing to bare your soul.
Art work by S.L.Listman
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Creating tone–second in the series on the writer’s voice.