One of the most difficult things to write is tone. The OED defines tone as:
d. transf. A particular style in discourse or writing, which expresses the person’s sentiment or reveals his character; also spec. in literary criticism, an author’s attitude to his subject matter or audience; the distinctive mood created by this. (Cf. 9.)
And as the definition explains, tone is about conveying sentiments that reveal character. How exactly do you convey the right sentiment through words?
- First you can describe the sentiment to them:
John felt sad and lonely after his break up.
In this sentence I ‘tell’ you how John is feeling.
- However, to show is stronger than to tell. Here is an example of showing:
John slumped in his chair, warm tears dripped onto the letter he had just received, she was breaking up with him.
Here I’m describing what John looks like, his physical appearance.
- This can be taken up a notch by explaining it more poetically, use your metaphors and similes:
John felt like the African Monsoon had swept through his soul.
But, it’s not quite enough. I still have no clear idea of who John is.
- Combining both physical description and metaphoric state of mind gives a fuller and more vivid picture, setting the right tone, as follows:
John slumped in his chair, tears dripped onto the letter he had just received, he felt like an African Monsoon had swept through his heart chilling him to the core. His tears made tiny footprints on the neat handwriting. He crumpled the letter, stood up and punched the wall.
Here, I imagined what kind of character John is, how he would react to the letter, what he would feel and, as a consequence, act out.
I see tone not just as explaining the character’s feelings or sentiments, but also making a character physical, as readers we don’t only want to know how a character is feeling but what he or she looks like, we want all our senses to be triggered and by triggering senses in the reader we can convey a character’s personality. If we can feel the character’s emotions and visualize their physical reactions, we are more likely to connect with the character.