Style and tone are elements of fiction. The writer uses a certain style and tone to craft the story. Style refers to the writer’s choice of diction, sentence structure, literary techniques, and use of rhythm. For example, Hemingway wrote very short sentences and he used simple words. George Orwell, on the other hand, used long sentences, including periodic and cumulative sentence types, and more complex diction. Cormac McCarthy, in The Road, used many sentence fragments and everyday language. He also referred to the main characters as “the boy” and “the man”. They were never addressed by name.
In fiction writing, the writer’s style is also created by the choice of literary devices that are used to create the story, such as imagery, symbolism, allegory, personification, and other figurative language.
Tone, on the other hand, refers to the writer’s attitude toward his/her story and to the reader. The writer’s tone assists in creating a mood or atmosphere for the story. Philip Roth uses a humorous tone in Portnoy’s Complaint.
This article discusses the following:
- Narrative Voice
- The writer’s voice
Every fiction writer has a unique style. The writer’s style is based on many choices about diction, syntax/sentence structure, detail, dialogue, literary devices, and rhythm.
The writer’s style comes from the diction or word choice he/she uses. Does the writer use simple language or complex language? Is the language concrete or abstract? What does a word connote? What does the word denote?
The writer’s style comes from the types of sentence structure/syntax he/she uses. Does the writer use short or long sentences? Sentence fragments? Periodic or cumulative sentences? Simple or complex sentences? For instance, Cormac McCarthy, in The Road, uses many sentence fragments to tell his story.
Another way that the writer reveals his/her style is by the amount of detail presented to the reader. Does the writer go into great depth? Or does the writer use summary narrative or sparse prose?
And the fiction writer’s style is revealed by the content of dialogue. The dialogue a writer uses reveals a lot about each character, including the background and education of the character, his or her motivations, and what each character ultimately believes about the world. Much of what the writer says is based on personal experience, values, biases, and prejudices.
When reading passages of dialogue, the reader needs to consider how the characters’ remarks reflect or accentuate the writer’s voice. What do the characters say? How do the characters say it?
The writer’s style is also expressed by the choice of literary techniques the writer uses to construct the story, such as imagery, symbolism, personification, irony, metaphor, and symbolism. Many certain literary techniques over others.
The writer can reveal his/her style by the use of rhythm, which is the pattern of flow and movement created by the writer’s choice of words and the arrangement of sentences. What types of repetition does the writer use? Does the writer use alliteration? Rhyme? How does the writer use parallel structure? Single words? Fragments?
What is tone? It refers to the fiction writer’s attitude toward his/her subject and toward the readers. The writer’s tone creates an atmosphere or mood for the story. A writer’s tone can be humorous, satirical, passionate, zealous, sarcastic, condescending, and so on. The tone can be anything the writer chooses. For instance, humour is an important tone in children’s literature. Types of humour used by writers include surprise, exaggeration, incongruity, absurdity, and parody.
The writer’s choice of diction often reveals his/her tone. Tone is often expressed by the connotation of words. For instance, a certain expression might be interpreted as sarcasm. Another expression can be interpreted as vulgar.
Tone is also about the effect the writing has on the reader. What mood does the writer create in the mind of the reader?
The Narrative Voice
What is the narrative voice? It is the quality of the narrative, whether the story is told in the first-person or the third-person. It is how the writer chooses to tell the story–casually, seriously, humorously, and so forth. The Narrative voice will belong to a character within the story, such as the protagonist. Or when the story is told in the third-person, the narrative voice will belong to an unknown character, someone who is not a participant in the story.
Before writing the story, the fiction writer needs to decide what narrative voice to use: Serious? Comic? Detached? Or entertaining? Once the narrative voice is selected, the writer can determine what sort of diction and sentence structure to use.
The Writer’s Voice
The narrative voice is an extension of the writer’s voice. The writer’s voice consists of many elements, including style and tone. But the writer’s is created by many other factors, such as socioeconomic background, education, belief system, values, writing experience, and so forth.
Frequently, a writer’s voice is expressed through the following elements:
- Diction. The word choice of the writer.
- Syntax. The sentence patterns chosen by the writer.
- Subject matter. What the writer chooses to write about and his/her views on that subject matter.
- Tone. The attitude that the writer intends to convey about the subject to the reader.
Developing a Unique Voice
How does the aspiring writer acquire his/her own voice? It takes time to create a voice. It begins by developing an original style. From style, the writer needs to write and gain experience. Over time, the writer’s voice emerges. It is a process.
To help develop a unique voice, the aspiring writer can do the following:
- Learn to write well. Learn the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And then learn when to break these rules.
- Expand his/her vocabulary. The writer must use the dictionary to learn the meaning of unfamiliar words. The writer should also use a thesaurus to find similar words with different shades of meaning.
- Read widely and deeply. The writer ought to read fiction by the great writers. The writer also needs to read nonfiction, like biographies, and person essays. By doing this, the writer can learn how the masters constructed memorable fiction.
- Analyze the styles of great writers, such as Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and George Orwell. Analysis teaches the writer how to create setting, plot, characters, and use other literary devices.
- Experiment with different writing styles, such as word choice and syntax. Only through practice and experience will the aspiring writer develop a unique style.
- Learn the element of fiction and use them. (Plot, setting, character, conflict, and so forth.)
- Learn the literary techniques and use them. (Imagery, symbolism, allusion, and figures of speech, such as simile, metaphor, and personification.)
- Make writing a lifestyle choice. The aspiring writer must write every day. Only by writing on a regular basis will the writer develop his/her unique voice.
- Write in a way that comes naturally. The writer needs to use words and phrases that are his/her own. Imitation is acceptable.
- The writer also needs to place himself/herself in the background. To do this, the writer needs to write in a way that draws the reader to the sense and style of the writing, rather than to the tone and temper of the writer. (Strunk and White’s Elements of Style)
- Avoid using a breezy manner. The breezy style is a work of an egocentric, the writer who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of interest and ought to be written on the page. Instead, the writer needs to make every word count, each word should move the story forward, and each word needs to have a purpose. (Strunk and White’s Elements of Style)
To learn more on style, the aspiring fiction writer ought to read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
Over time, and with practise and experimentation, the aspiring writer will develop his/her unique voice.
The tone in a story can be joyful, serious, humorous, sad, threatening, formal, informal, pessimistic, and optimistic. Your tone in writing will be reflective of your mood as you are writing.
Tone in Writing
Tone in writing is not really any different than the tone of your voice. You know that sometimes it is not “what” you say, but “how” you say it.
It is the same with writing. Every adjective and adverb you use, your sentence structure, and the imagery you use will show your tone. The definition of “tone” is the way the author expresses his attitude through his writing.
The tone can change very quickly, or may remain the same throughout the story. Tone is expressed by your use of syntax, your point of view, your diction, and the level of formality in your writing.
Examples of tone in a story include just about any adjective you can imagine:
Conveying Tone in a Story
Tone in writing is conveyed by both the choices of words and the narrator of the story.
Consider the tone of The School by Donald Barthelme. Here, words like "death" and "depressing" set a negative or unhappy tone:
And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.
In contrast, in Charlotte's Web, although the book is sad, the tone is one of peace and acceptance:
But I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, and the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days…”
In A River Runs Through It, loss is also addressed with a kind of acceptance. The tone here is a bit wistful, yet peaceful and moving towards acceptance nonetheless.
This was the last fish we were ever to see Paul catch. My father and I talked about this moment several times later, and whatever our other feelings, we always felt it fitting that, when we saw him catch his last fish, we never saw the fish but only the artistry of the fisherman.
Choosing Words for Tone
In the following excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, notice the insane, nervous, and guilty tones.
It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK SOUND -- MUCH SUCH A SOUND AS A WATCH MAKES WHEN ENVELOPED IN COTTON. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! What COULD I do? I foamed -- I raved -- I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder -- louder -- louder!
In Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place the tone is calm and peaceful.
It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.
Finally, in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, the tone could be said to be mysterious, secretive, ominous, or evil.
There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.
Formal and Casual Tones
An example of a casual tone is:
The way I look at it, someone needs to start doing something about disease. What’s the big deal? People are dying. But the average person doesn’t think twice about it until it affects them. Or someone they know.
A formal tone is shown in this example:
There was a delay in the start of the project, attributable to circumstances beyond the control of all relevant parties. Progress came to a standstill, and no one was prepared to undertake the assessment of the problem and determination of the solution.
There are as many examples of tone in a story as there are stars in the sky. Any adjective you can think of can be the tone in a story.