Tone That Works Against You

Tone may create a sense of foreboding or hope, intellectual intrigue or down-to-earth homeboy common sense

As we established in “Tone It Down, Or Tone It Up?” the tone of a piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, refers to its quality — the sum of voice, mood, sentence structure, word choice, and more. These various components work together to create a sense of foreboding or hope, intellectual intrigue or down-to-earth homeboy common sense.

In many respects, tone is the answer to What did you think of the article (or chapter or story)? If a reader answers helpful or depressing or funny or scary, he has identified the tone of the piece.

We established in the previous article that determining tone is an appropriate first step for a writer wishing to make the best use of this device, but it comes with a necessary caution: some tones work against the author.

In his article “7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing ‘Tone’ “ Brian A. Klems illustrates this point with a hypothetical article about someone who has lost his job. Initially this subject might seem timely, considering the current state of the economy. However, the content can lose its appeal if the writer presents his material with an off-putting tone.

He might, for instance, use an oh-woe-is-me, why-don’t-things-ever-work-out-for-me tenor — the tone a victim of circumstances might use. Readers may care about an injustice, but they don’t often care for the I’m-a-victim tone.

Complaining, whining, self-righteousness, revenge, hubris, pushiness — these are some of the tones that readers tend to flee from, not gravitate to.

Is a writer, then, to present only the happy, hopeful side of every situation? Actually, no. A second important thing to remember about tone is that readers desire authenticity. Consequently, if circumstances have been unjust, pretending that they are not, kills interest in a story or article.

    My boss propositioned me, and when I turned him down, he fired me, but I’m sure we just had a simple misunderstanding. I’d be happy to work for him again and have no problem recommending my old company to all my friends.

That response to a wrong does not come across as genuine and therefore does not serve the story. Artificially cheerful or forgiving or hopeful creates an artificial tone that many readers won’t tolerate for long.

How, then, should a writer approach difficult subject matter? One way is with humor. Satire, irony, drollery, exaggeration — all can take the edge off criticism. Stand-up comedians have mastered the use of humor as a way to address difficult topics.

For those not inclined to use humor, Klems gives some helpful advice:

In these instances, to fix the tone, you have to fix the way you think about a given subject. You have to back off, calm down, see other points of view, maybe even take some responsibility for whatever happened. When writing about such delicate subjects, you must not let a negative tone take over by ascribing motives to people: You just tell what they did, and let the reader read motive into it.

Let’s look at these points a little closer. Back off. Sometimes an issue can be so important to a writer that he becomes pushy in his approach. Rather than voicing an opinion, he begins to lecture his readers.

    You have no right to destroy the environment, to strip the next generation of the elements of the world that you enjoyed. You have no right to put my children at risk by your selfish, wasteful ways.

Such an approach to an environmental issue might accomplish the opposite of what the writer desires because of his forceful, condemning tone. Better if he would back off and state facts rather than emotion-laced accusations.

Calm down. Someone might think it’s impossible to back off when you feel so passionate about a subject. Which is why a writer also needs to calm down. Passions run high in most controversial subjects, but passion rarely wins arguments because the other side is probably just as passionate.

See other points of view. Here’s the key to creating a winsome tone. When a writer presents more than one perspective — and this is true in fiction as well as non-fiction — the reader is then free to interact with the content rather than with the author’s forceful or emotional presentation of the content.

I’ve seen more than one online discussion, for example, turn away from the subject of the original article and to the way commenters are talking to one another. The negative tone becomes the new issue rather than the original content.

Take some responsibility for whatever happened. I have one friend who is a master at deflecting negative blog comments simply by starting her response with, You’re probably right to say that I’m … or I’m sorry that I offended you when I said …

The writer of the article about the unfair boss can also take responsibility without excusing inexcusable behavior. She might say, for example, something like, I overlooked the early warning signs and should have acted sooner.

In fiction the main character must take action rather than simply reacting to what happens to him or around him. He must be the agent, not the victim.

Finally, do not ascribe motives to people. In the paragraph above in which the writer is in lecture mode, the final shot implies motive: “You have no right to put my children at risk by your selfish, wasteful ways.” The key word is “selfish.” The author ascribed selfishness to everyone who approaches the environmental issue he’s addressing in a way that disagrees with his view. This statement leaves no room for intellectual or spiritual differences or even the lack of adequate education on the part of those who disagree. Instead, all those in opposition are simply selfish.

Novelists must avoid the same problem with their characters in a slightly different way. Characters must be motivated, but the novelist must create believable motives true to a particular character, not a general group. Otherwise the characters will be little more than stick figures masquerading as portraits of real people.

In summary, when a writer considers tone, he must avoid producing one that will turn readers off. At the same time, however, he must be authentic. An artificial tone is as damaging as a negative one. Both work against writers.


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